Sunday 9 March 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: O is for Openings

The twentieth- and twenty-first-century horror movie has a convention of showing you what is to come in a sequence prior to the opening credits. After this there may be gradual build up – an hour of creaking doors and establishing relationships between the central characters (read: victims) before the demons, ghosts, or chainsaw-wielding maniacs reappear to wreak havoc. But the opening sequence is important – both for letting us know what kind of filmic experience this will be and for, perversely, giving us a taste of the horrors to look forward to.

In this post I’m looking at the openings of the two most famous ‘sensation’ novels of the nineteenth-century – Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859-60) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-2) – to see if they do something analogous to the modern day horror movie with their first few pages. Designed to thrill and shock likewise, how do they set the tone for what is to come? 

‘I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road—idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like—when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me. 

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.’ 

Walter’s first sight of Anne in The Woman in White is a shocking opening event with all the hallmarks of the typical horror movie – secluded location, lonely protagonist, creepy woman in nightdress. But of course, despite the use of this passage for the opening of TV and film adaptations of the novel, this isn’t the opening at all.

The true opening, prior to the dramatic introduction of Anne and some pages dealing with the relatively minor characters of Walter’s mother and sister, and Pesca, is much less obviously affecting and draws attention to the novel’s textual nature rather than seeking to scare or thrill. 

‘This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.’ 

The first line is arresting and definitive, with the writer assuming a level of authority which the narrative – which will be voiced by multiple speakers – never returns to. The novel is set up as dry and unemotional, a legal document, with a clear moral, and then fails to deliver on all these fronts, while the opening sentence also sets up a dichotomy between the male and the female which the multiple instances of gender confusion in the novel belies.

Collins appeals to the model of criminal justice – ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness’ – but the truth is the sensational narrative will not give the reader (or ‘judge’) the opportunity to ask questions, or the ability to remain impartial. If you go into the cinema expecting to be ‘scared’, you won’t really be unnerved. The opening of The Woman in White sets a high standard of emotional disconnectedness, so that when your senses react, your response is more extreme.

Less textual and more obviously filmic is the opening to Lady Audley’s Secret, which follows a pattern typical of Braddon’s writing – description leading to a scene of dialogue with a dramatic end. The description of Audley Court and its grounds however is one of Braddon’s most extensive and the length of build up worthy of serious attention. The house is introduced simply as ‘it’: 

‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.’ 

In a novel named after a secret, whose first chapter is entitled ‘Lucy’, we may be expecting to begin with a mystery or a person, but Braddon makes it clear from the opening that the house is central – and not only important, but idyllic – surrounded not only by the kind of personified cattle suggesting pastoral, but by peace and history (‘when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand’).

The introduction of a beautiful and peaceful place here, as in a movie, suggests that something is about to come to disturb this harmony, but this opening isn’t only about setting up the kind of domestic bliss sensation fiction destroys. Audley Court is too perfect – and too desirable – and there are already notes of unease: 

‘A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.’ 

Anywhere which inspires viewers to ‘have done with life’ is potentially hazardous, while the idea of gazing into the pool suggests the story of Narcissus, with the corresponding dangerous of self-love and vanity. The place is:

 ‘A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenues—ay, even upon the stagnant well, which, cool and sheltered as all else in the old place, hid itself away in a shrubbery behind the gardens, with an idle handle that was never turned and a lazy rope so rotten that the pail had broken away from it, and had fallen into the water.’ 

The introduction of the well is something of a Chekhov’s gun and it is remarkable that this scene of crime is so firmly linked to the desirability of the rest of the estate. The chapter ends with Lucy accepting Sir Michael’s proposal of marriage and, offered such a paradise, can we blame her for accepting? The structure of Braddon’s story means we cannot be let into the moral choice at stake in Lucy’s decision, but this opening means we experience the same seduction.

We don’t learn we are reading a sensation novel in quite the same style as we find out we’re watching a horror movie – that would be giving the game away. In reading it’s more a question of hooks than early peeks – mysteries are set up (What has the woman mentioned here endured? Who is Lucy’s ring from?’), further action promised (multiple narrators, a well-positioned well) and scenes set.

Packed with incident, and designed to alarm, sensation novels are ripe for adaptation and share much with movie conventions but, looking at these openings, they also have effects which rely on their textuality for their success.

What should be ‘P’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist

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