Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Willing to Die, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

"I have bought my knowledge dear. But truth is a priceless jewel. Would you part with it, fellow-mourner, and return to the simplicities and illusions of early days?" -- Miss Ethel Ware, Willing to Die (p. 4)

I've been trying to purchase a copy of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's final novel, Willing to Die (1872), for years, but when the boom in fly-by-night publishing houses printing public domain works started up, I hesitated.  At first, the only copies were overpriced hardcovers, for god-knows-what kind of editing or lack thereof. Then some complete unknown-quantity paperbacks. But since, clearly, no Oxford edition is forthcoming, I finally gambled on a CreateSpace copy (ISBN 978-1479173334), and was surprised to find not so much as a misplaced comma -- although it's so bare bones that there isn't even a cursory title page. The text literally starts on page 2.

His heroine may baldly state "I hate suspense" (p. 39), but Le Fanu is a master of it. In the early part of the novel, things happen that raise suspicions in the characters, but when nothing comes of it, they forget about it and go on with their lives, as people do. Nonetheless, the foreshadowing remains ... so as I was reading along with the ups and downs of events, no overt threat to anyone, I began to feel the press of tension and anxiety, just from waiting for the ax to inevitably fall.

Ethel starts the novel in a reminiscing mood, establishing her wry and candid tone: "I am not an interesting person by any means," and "If I cared twopence how I looked, I should probably look worse than I do." (p. 2) She was a sheltered girl, tucked away at a country manor by her high-living and increasingly impoverished parents. In the background is an assortment of men, nearly all of whom seem vaguely sinister: the intimidating neighboring lord, who hates Ethel's father; a mysterious old man who accosts her kindly young governess on a walk; a coarse "friend of the family" who gives the young ladies the willies; a neighboring priest, who may be in love with someone or just trying to convert them; and a handsome but mysterious fellow who gets wounded in a dual.

Most important of these characters is another young man, who survives a shipwreck and, recuperating on the estate, promptly falls in love with Ethel, even as he tries to keep anyone from finding out his name. Everyone warns her that there's something unsavory in his past, but, quite realistically, "the more Laura Grey warned me against this man, the more I became interested in him." (p. 96) His air of potential villainy doesn't render him any less attractive, and probably makes him more so.

The suspense-novel quality, with various players being set in place, though, doesn't end up seeming like the point. Life is lived, with sprinklings of moral homily and some good old-fashioned Gothic scenery: Le Fanu writes a dramatic thunderstorm with a firmly eerie hand. But (spoilers, sweetie!) the real meat of the drama comes from an unexpected direction.

Although Willing to Die is a well-written novel, and obviously a page-turner, at the rate I was turning pages, it was striking me as slighter, painted on a smaller canvas, than Le Fanu masterpieces like Uncle Silas and Wylder's Hand. But then, not long after Ethel goes to London and enters society, her father dies, and she and her mother are plunged into poverty.

"Young ladies, you live in a vague and pleasant dream. Gaslight in your hall and lobbies, wax lights, fires, decorous servants, flowers, spirited horses, millinery, soups and wines, are products of nature, and come of themselves. There is, nevertheless, such a thing as poverty, as there is such a thing as death ... When either lays its cold hands on your shoulder, and you look it in the face, you are as much appalled as if you had never heard its name before." (p. 214)

Later, "I saw young ladies get from a house opposite into a carriage, and drive away, as I once used to do. I hated them -- I hated every one who was as fortunate as I once was. I hated the houses on the other side with their well-lighted halls." (p. 224)

The loss of all their friends, hard work, and unceasing anxiety over money take their toll on Ethel, leading to a stark meditation when suicide occurs to her as an option: "There is nothing so startling as the first real allurement to this tremendous step. There remains a sense of an actual communication, at which mind and soul tremble ... Its insidiousness and power are felt on starting from the dream, and finding oneself, as I did, alone, with silence and darkness and frightful thoughts ... The temptation breaks from you like a murmur changed to a laugh, and leaves you horrified. I hated life; my energies were dead already. Why should I drag on, with broken heart, in solitude and degradation?" (p. 217)

The language blossoms into such vividness here that I almost feel like it's the reason the story was being told. As if the machinations of the suspense plot aren't motivated by formula, but by the fact that if this is going to be described, the character has to get into a position of loss and despair.

Just after this, there's an audacious and, to me, legitimately shocking plot twist, which still manages to seem plausible and motivated by the circumstances. (Again, spoilers). With her mother near death, and ill, almost delirious herself, Ethel comes across the man who may have manipulated her wealthy aunt into giving all her money to the church, rather than her family -- and her reaction is to stab him in the chest, and run.

Before long, the crisis has passed, and Ethel ends up in another secluded country estate, the ward of one of those early sinister figures -- actually a good-hearted man who loved her mother. When handsome Mr. Shipwreck, Richard Marston, turns up again, still in love with her, and apparently trying to atone for his previous crimes, it isn't long before they're secretly engaged: "I had passed under a sweet and subtle mania, and was no longer myself ... Wayward, and even wicked he might have been, but that I might hope was past." (p. 290)

By this point, we're no longer dealing with a Gothic-esque villain and his innocent victim: the two have become obvious foils, both of whom have sinned, and have to fear the consequences of previous actions.

Even though she has committed a violent crime, the benefit of first-person narrative, and Ethel's condition -- exhausted, heart-sick, and dangerously ill -- work to show what can happen to a decent person under duress. It's hard to judge her too harshly for her moment of madness. Of course, Marston also believes that his past crimes had extenuating circumstances as well, and doesn't think he's really to blame. His position early in the novel -- turning up in a place where people know his history, and are poised to condemn him for  it -- is a mirror of the danger Ethel will later find herself in, when she could presumably be arrested at any moment.

As Marston tells the priest, one of the people warning Ethel against him: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive, et caea- eh? I suspect you sometimes pray your paternoster?" (p. 241) In the end, Ethel is right that Marston's past doesn't mean he's beyond redemption, but redemption still depends on the willingness to learn from mistakes and, crucially, not continue doing wrong.

Random thoughts:

An earlier novel, Tenants of Malory, was set in the same fictional vicinity as the early section of Willing to Die, so now I'll have to read that one too.

There's a nice shout-out to "Schalken the Painter" on page 20: "The delicate features of the pale ecclesiastic, and Miss Grey's pretty and anxious face, were lighted, like a fine portrait of Schalken's, by the candle only."

Speaking of Miss Grey, the whole subplot about her mysterious past seems as if it was supposed to be a more important parallel storyline, that ended up getting forgotten about and then quickly wrapped up.

Early on, the penniless Marston is visited by Lemuel Blount, his uncle's scrupulously honest man of business.  He says, "I have made one great slip -- a crime, if you like --", with this response:

" 'Quite so, sir,' acquiesced Mr. Blount, with melancholy politeness." (p. 88) It would not be possible for me to see Jim Carter, Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson, any more strongly in the role!

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