Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Silence of Dean Maitland: Volume 2

On with the reading of Maxwell Gray's 1886 novel The Silence of Dean Maitland.

Volume 1 had introduced us to the village of Malbourne, and left us with a cliffhanger. On the New Year's Day of 1863, the coachman's daughter Alma Lee has given birth to an illegitimate child, and Alma's father Ben has been found dead in a quarry. The former misfortune is known by the reader (though not Malbourne's inhabitants) to be down to the charismatic curate Cyril Maitland. The latter, circumstances are rapidly pinning on Maitland's best friend, the doctor Henry Everard.

As we get into Volume 2, things rapidly worsen for Everard. The police are called in, decide the death is foul play, and Everard is arrested. The case goes through the magistrates court in the nearest town, Oldport, then a few months later comes to trial in the Crown Court in the nearest city, Belminster. It doesn't go well for Everard: it's a tough judge; he creates a bad impression by being posh and confident; and his alibi witnesses are weak. And then Alma takes the stand as star witness, a poised and equally charismatic "ruined maid", and gives crucial evidence that a man in the woods offered her gold for the baby's upkeep, then got into an altercation with her father. But she won't say who, because "I promised that I would never betray him". On being pressed - reminded that it's a contempt of court issue - she perjures herself and falsely identifies Everard as the man. At this point Everard realises what's happened, and despairs.

Maitland, meanwhile, has spent the beginning of the year in a pious funk of denial, not helped by being required to baptise Alma's baby Benjamin, and worrying it'll look like him when it grows up. After wandering Belminster, he decides to do the decent thing and rushes to the court. "Stop !" he cries halfway through the pronouncement of sentence. "I have evidence — important evidence. The prisoner is innocent!" But it's too late. He's silenced, and Everard is sentenced to 20 years for manslaughter. Maitland faints as Everard is taken down. And he stays fainted, more or less, for some months, in a state of near-fatal mental and physical collapse.

The scene shifts to Malbourne in late summer, two years later, and life goes on. The now-recovered Maitland has returned from a continental Grand Tour with his new bride Marion (Everard's sister); he has not confessed to anything, having seemingly compartmentalised anything to do with Everard (though he gets distinctly jittery on seeing Alma). Alma is ostracised by the village for having been responsible for Everard's conviction, and gets engaged to a villager, George Judkins - they plan to start a new life in America. Lilian, Everard's fiancee, rejects an marriage proposal by the local aristocrat, Ingram Swaynstone: she intends to wait for Everard.

The scene shifts again to 1872 (as evidenced by Everard's comment "It is nine years since I touched any drink"), when Everard is working in Portsmouth as "No. 62" on a convict gang. In those nine years, he's built up a good steam of hatred toward "the traitor Maitland", and he comes to a particular low ebb when a chance encounter with a lady in the street brings news that his younger brother is dead. By coincidence, the lady is a distant relative, a Mrs Keppel Everard, who is intrigued by his interest and makes enquiries that lead to Lilian starting to write to him, greatly cheering him.

However, this mood improvement kicks him out of his mindset of dull acceptance. The further torment of family nearby - his father has been promoted to Port Admiral, and he has seen his sister Marion with Maitland visiting - proves the spur to action. On a labouring party, he uses the cover of a violent thunderstorm to jump a ditch and do a runner.

His escape is helped by a run of good fortune. He's halted by a sentry - who turns out to be an university acquaintance, Balfour, who has fallen on almost as hard times. Balfour gets him a change of clothes and helps him hide in a tree until he can get out of town over the bastions protecting it. He's horrified when a man recognises him - but it turns out to be a workman who he saved from drowning in the dock, who gives him money. And then he passes a house where a carriage is parked, and finds his sister Marian is one of the occupants: but she doesn't recognise him! She gets him an odd job mowing the lawn at the house, which he does before moving on, having picked up a religious tract that shows Maitland has now risen in ecclesiastical rank to Canon (well on the way to bishop). A lapse of three weeks finds him hiding, under the pseudonym "Stone", in the vicinity of a village called Hawkburne, where he writes to Lilian of his escape and to request money, and awaits a reply. It doesn't come, and eventually he's found collapsed under a tree and recaptured.

A fortnight later, Canon Maitland is in his drawing room with his wife Marion and sister Lilian. They're discussing Stone, the escaped convict from Portsmouth, when Lilian gets Everard's letter, which has been delayed. She faints!

Thoughts. This is a middling second volume. The psychology of Maitland's failure to confess on his recovery isn't much explored: I guess one interpretation is the that the tensions of the situation were so great that he has buried the memory as too traumatic to bring to the surface. The Portsmouth segment describing Everard's prison life is very good, both psychologically and in regional detail - until he escapes. Unless MG had Divine Providence in mind, the series of handy coincidences that provide him with aid out of the fortifications, clothing, money and food are outrageous, and the chance meeting with Marion even more so. This is lazy plotting. And not another fainter!

Belminster, out of interest, is Winchester. Although MG threw us a physical impossibility in Volume 1 - a direct train from there to Oldport (Newport, Isle of Wight) - the general description of its setting matches, and was noted by contemporary reviewers.
All who are fond of Winchester will enjoy the pretty descriptions of the old cathedral town of Belminster
- The Gentleman's Magazine, Part 2, Page 51, 1897

All lovers of modern English fiction will recall how, under the name of "Belminster," this cathedral is vividly and lovingly described in that powerful novel, The Silence of Dean Maitland.
- Our English cathedrals, James Sibree, 1911
If you're interested in Portsmouth's local history, there's a deal of interest in the descriptions of Portsmouth in this volume, which describes a period when convict labour was being used to demolish Portsmouth's city walls. As MG tells it:
Some few years since, the fiat went forth for the old familiar walls and heavy gates of Portsmouth town to be levelled to the ground, that the space which these now useless relics of the past occupied might be covered with buildings connected with the defences and adapted to the requirements of the present. Down went many a fine old elm beneath axe and rope, and bit by bit the ramparts disappeared, and the ditches were filled by the busy hands of sunburnt men, armed with barrow, pick-axe, and spade.
The Landport Gate page at Memorials & Monuments in Portsmouth has a small picture at its foot, circa 1870, showing the kind of fortification Everard would have had to escape over. The general extent of the walls and polygonal bastions being demolished can be seen in the final map (here) on the Portsmouth page of Fortified Places. The 1874 Ordnance Survey Map shows how, hitherto, the area of 'Old Portsmouth' had been isolated as a defensible citadel separate, and buffered by open space, from the general urbanisation of Portsea Island.

Low-resolution map for illustration. Historic map data is (© and
database right Crown copyright and Landmark Information
Group Ltd. (All rights reserved 2009).
Looking at the Times Digital Archive, a plausible date for Everard's escape is July 25th 1872. On that day, southern England, including Portsmouth, experienced an unusually fierce succession of thunderstorms with a record amount of rainfall.

The silence of Dean Maitland: a novel (1886) - Volume 2 (Internet Archive ID silenceofdeanmai02gray).

- Ray


No comments:

Post a comment