Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Oh, the melodrama!

As a long-time reader of Victorian fiction, I’ve read a lot of melodrama. At the time of writing I’m reading Mary Barton by Mrs. Gaskell, which contains melodrama in spades, especially the scene I’ve just read.

No, I’m not going to tell you.

Yes, I’m a tease - but it’s a huge spoiler if you ever want to read the book, which you should.

Let me give you an example from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Dickens LOVED melodrama. Give him a dying child or a Fallen Woman and he was in his element. Here are a couple of excerpts from my absolutely favorite scene, the one where Esther and Lady Dedlock meet for the last time.

I cannot tell in any words what the state of my mind was when I saw in her hand my handkerchief with which I had covered the dead baby.

I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself; when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, "Oh, my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! Oh, try to forgive me!"--when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness, as that nobody could ever now look at me and look at her and remotely think of any near tie between us.


"My child, my child!" she said. "For the last time! These kisses for the last time! These arms upon my neck for the last time! We shall meet no more. To hope to do what I seek to do, I must be what I have  been so long. Such is my reward and doom. If you hear of Lady Dedlock, brilliant, prosperous, and flattered, think of your wretched mother, conscience-stricken, underneath that mask! Think that the reality is in her suffering, in her useless remorse, in her murdering within her breast the only love and truth of which it is capable! And then forgive her if you can, and cry to heaven to forgive her, which it never can!"

(I did love Gillian Anderson in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House so here’s a pic, although nobody—NOBODY—could act that scene the way it plays in my head when I read it.)

When I was outlining the first draft of The House of Closed Doors I was for the most part in England. Here’s the post I wrote then and that vacation still lives in my memory as one of the best ever. But the point I’m getting to is that as well as walking up and down incredibly steep hills and writing (btw calories consumed definitely exceeded all the walking), I re-read three of my favorite Victorian novels:

Bleak House
Jane Eyre
Tess of the d’Urbervilles

All of which have hefty dollops of melodrama (although Jane Eyre manages to contain it in a fairly underplayed way for a Victorian author, one of the reasons, I think, why it’s still so popular.)

The House of Closed Doors started out as a bit of a pastiche on the Victorian novels I love so much. Fallen woman, nasty stepfather, death and madness—I wanted it all in there. Over time and successive drafts, though, I modernized things a bit. Which has annoyed a few readers but not all that many. Frankly, if I wrote a novel exactly like a Victorian author you’d get some attitudes toward women and race in particular that most twenty-first-century readers would find hard to stomach. As an example, in Mary Barton Mrs. Gaskell puts Mary squarely in the wrong for simply flirting—by which I mean talking to, there’s absolutely no indication of physical contact—with a man of a superior class. Her actions have Unforeseen And Disastrous Consequences, which all seems a bit harsh to my 2013 brain.

Waiting for the Verdict (1857) by Abraham Solomon - see it, and more in the same line, at the Tate Gallery

Of course the three novels I mentioned above were the sensationalist literature of their day. They weren’t read as literary fiction the way we tend to look at classics now. Knowing what I do about Victorian attitudes, I’m guessing that people probably viewed them (all of them, have you noticed? contain a Fallen or Nearly Fallen Woman) the way we view Fifty Shades of Grey: a bit naughty, a bit envelope-pushing, it’s not exactly scandalous to read it but you might not want Papa to see what you’re reading and certainly not if it happens to be Sunday.

To our eyes it all seems terribly tame; nobody who wanted their envelope pushed would cite The House of Closed Doors as an example, and I’d have to come up with something pretty hot to shock readers in an age where novels about k*nky s*x, manim*ls, r*pe and more asterisks than I can come up with* are openly sold and discussed.

But I want to pay tribute to the melodramatic Victorian writers who can still entertain us with their shrieking, fainting, white-faced women and stiff-upper-lipped men who inevitably either tremble or drop dead with the strain. They** laid the groundwork for the genre fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries so the next time you’re looking for an exciting read, go to and grab yourself a good hand-wringing Victorian tome. I have vowed to read Victorian literature all through the editing of Book 2 and the writing and editing of Book 3, so as to infuse my writing with this great tradition.

What’s your favorite Victorian book?

*Trying to keep my blog PG-13 rated so you’ll excuse the ***s. It’s amazing how quickly you get on a blacklist if you’re not careful.
**And I’m not forgetting the writers from all the centuries before who gave us roller-coaster rides; it’s just that in my opinion the Victorians got it down to a fine art and besides, the point about Victorian novel-writing is that it coincided with the emergence of popular literature as we know it (i.e. on a large scale.)