Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Magic Merganser metafiction

While checking out one of the titles in the previous post, William Black's 1877 Madcap Violet (Internet Archive madcapviolet01blacgoog), I ran into a comment in William Lyon Phelps's litcrit collection Essays on Modern Novelists. Phelps describes various instances of novelists addressing the reader - what we'd now call "breaking the fourth wall" - and singles out Black as an egregious example, implying Black wasn't quite taking the novel seriously:
William Black once wrote a novel called Madcap Violet, which he intended for a tragedy, and in which, therefore, we have a right to expect some artistic dignity.
- page 14, Essays on Modern Novelists (1910, Internet Archive cu31924027206170).
Black's authorial excursion is worth quoting in full:

At this point, and in common courtesy to his readers, the writer of these pages considers himself bound to give fair warning, that the present chapter deals solely and wholly with the shooting of mergansers, curlews, herons, and such like fearful wild-fowl; therefore those who regard such graceless idling with aversion, and are anxious to get on with the story, should at once proceed to the next chapter. There is no just reason, one might urge, why fiction should speak only of those days in a man's life in which something supremely good or supremely bad happened to him — jumping over the far greater number of days in which nothing particular happened to him — and thereby recording the story of his life in a jerky, staccato, impossible manner. Destiny is not for ever marching on with majestic stride ; even the horrid Furies sometimes put away their whips. Give a man a gun, place him on a Highland loch on a still day in August, show him a few dark specks swimming round the distant promontories, and he will forget that there is even such a thing as to-morrow. To write out the whole story of his life in this fashion would, of course, be impossible ; for it would be twenty times as long as the longest Japanese drama in existence ; while the death rate among the readers — say twenty-four in a thousand per annum — would interfere with the continued attention demanded by the author. But occasionally, in the briefest story, one of these idle and unmemorable days ought to come in, just to show that the people are not always brooding over the plan of their existence. Anyhow — and this is the long and the short of it — three out of five of the passengers onboard the Sea-Pyot are going in pursuit of mergansers ; and the gentle reader is entreated to grant them this one holiday, which will be the last of its kind.
- pages 214-15, Madcap Violet.
I've only skimmed so far, but far from this aside being an aberration, it marks out Madcap Violet as having metafictional elements, which appear elsewhere in the book. At the beginning of Chapter IV, for instance, Black brings slightly dizzying multiple layers to the text by quoting from a highly autobiographical romance about a "Virginia Northbrook" written by the protagonist, Violet North - then noting that it might be plagiarised from some un-named original, which in turn may itself be unconsciously plagiarised.

A secret rumour ran through the school that Violet North had not only got a sweetheart, but was also engaged in the composition of a novel. As regards the novel, at least, rumour was right ; and there is now no longer any reason for suppressing the following pages, which will give an idea of the scope and style of Miss North's story. The original is written in a clear, bold hand, and the lines are wide apart — so wide apart, indeed, that the observant reader can, if he chooses, easily read between them.
"It was a beautiful morning in May, and the golden sunshine was flooding the emeraid meadows of D—, an ancient and picturesque village about two miles nearer London than the C—  P—. Little do the inhabitants of that great city, who lend themselves to the glittering follies or fashion — little do they reck of the verdant beauties and the pure air which are to be had almost within the four-mile radius. It was on such a morning that our two lovers met, far away from the haunts of men, and living for each other alone. In the distance was a highway leading up to that noble institution, the C—  P—., and carriages rolled along it ; and at the front of the stately mansions high-born dames vaulted upon their prancing barbs and caracoled away towards the horizon.*
* This sentence, or the latter half of it, may recall a passage in a famous novel which was published two or three years ago ; and I hasten to say that Miss North had really never read that work. The brilliant and distinguished author of the novel in .question has so frequently been accused of plagiarism which was almost certainly unconscious, that I am sure he will sympathize with this young aspirant, and acquit her of any intentional theft.
I shall give this a bit more attention.

- Ray

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