Sunday 24 March 2024

A Dickensian Master Class in Epiphanies

Welcome back to my master class blog series, where I dissect passages by famous nineteenth-century authors to inspire writers today. 

This is the fifth time I’m taking cues from Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Previously, I used his novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) to talk about powerful openings, his novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) to talk about repetition, and his short stories ‘The Seven Poor Travelers’ (1854) and ‘Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings’ (1863) to talk about storytelling technique and first-person narration

Today, I’m diving into his 1843-1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit to discuss character epiphanies.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls for the writer who approaches a scene in which a character comes to a major realization. These chapters could be too internal and, therefore, lacking in action and interest. Alternatively, in a desire to maintain momentum, an author might make the mistake of not probing a character’s psyche enough at one of these pivotal moments, leaving readers with the impression of an under-reaction. If the revelation is also a revelation to readers, they may feel blindsided or tricked (for good or ill). If it is not, they may roll their eyes and find the character stupid. 

In an important scene in Martin Chuzzlewit, the character Tom Pinch realizes what readers have known from early in the book—that he has been entirely misguided in assessing the character of his mentor, employer, and erstwhile hero, the architect Mr. Pecksniff. 

The vehicle Dickens uses to bring about this epiphany is dialogue. Early in the scene, Tom shares the world view he has held up until now, telling the character Mary Graham, “[Pecksniff]’s the best of men. The more at ease you were, the happier he would be. Oh dear, you needn’t be afraid of Pecksniff. He is not a spy.”

It is up to Mary to deliver the blow, in dialogue that’s striking and unusual in a Dickens novel for its brevity: “You mistake him.” 

After some back and forth between Mary and Tom, Dickens then moves from dialogue to narrative summary, avoiding the sort of tired repetition that can come about in scenes where a character discovers information readers already have: When she was more composed, she impressed upon Tom that this man she had described, was Pecksniff in his real colors; and word by word and phrase by phrase, as well as she remembered it, related what had passed between them in the wood.

It’s only when he has played out these plot points and given Tom all the information he needs to know, that Dickens can get to work on the true heart of an epiphany scene—the emotional fallout. Mary exits and Dickens’s omniscient narrator becomes a close third point of view, bringing us directly into Tom’s thoughts and feelings.

And now the full agitation and misery of the disclosure came rushing upon Tom indeed. The star of his whole life from boyhood had become, in a moment, putrid vapor. It was not that Pecksniff, Tom’s Pecksniff, had ceased to exist, but that he never had existed. In his death Tom would have had the comfort of remembering what he used to be, but in this discovery, he had the anguish of recollecting what he never was. For, as Tom’s blindness in this matter had been total and not partial, so was his restored sight. His Pecksniff could never have worked the wickedness of which he had just now heard, but any other Pecksniff could; and the Pecksniff who could do that could do anything, and no doubt had been doing anything and everything except the right thing, all through his career. 

This is an interesting mixture of direct “telling,” as Dickens describes Tom’s “agitation” and “misery,” with “showing” via metaphor. Pecksniff was a “star” to Tom. Now he is “putrid vapor.” Grieving Pecksniff’s death would have provided Tom with moments of “comfort,” when he remembered the past. But now, every memory Tom has is colored by this revelation. Dickens also taps into the idea of sight vs. blindness, which has been part of the Western literary tradition surrounding epiphanies since the myth of Oedipus, giving us the sort of dramatic revelation that makes for compelling storytelling.

Earlier in the book, the character of Tom Pinch is used for comedic effect, and readers laugh at his ignorance about Pecksniff, but in this chapter, Dickens packs an emotional punch, layering on further metaphors and making it is hard not to feel for him: it was not [Pecksniff] who suffered; it was Tom. His compass was broken, his chart destroyed, his chronometer had stopped, his masts were gone by the board; his anchor was adrift, ten thousand leagues away.

Finally, he makes Tom’s internal epiphany external again via an unlikely, if dramatically satisfying, monologue, which adds to the feeling that we’re watching a scene play out on stage: “I wouldn’t have cared…I wouldn’t have cared for anything he might have done to Me, for I have tried his patience often, and have lived upon his sufferance and have never been the help to him that others could have been. I wouldn’t have minded, Pecksniff,…if you had done Me any wrong; I could have found plenty of excuses for that; and though you might have hurt me, could have still gone on respecting you. But why did you ever fall so low as this in my esteem! Oh Pecksniff, Pecksniff, there is nothing I would not have given, to have had you deserve my old opinion of you; nothing!”

For writers approaching their own epiphany scene, I think there are a few important lessons we can take from Dickens here: limit repetition for readers to maintain their interest; make the dramatic reveal as short as possible but give yourself space, and word count, to explore the emotional aftermath; and consider carefully what you make internal vs. external in your scene. 

What do you think of this important scene from one of Dickens’s less loved novels? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly updates from me sent straight to your inbox? Subscribe here

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Neo-Victorian Voices: Edith Holler, Edward Carey (2023)

Welcome back to the Secret Victorianist and my Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I write about books published in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Today, I’m breaking my own rules by reviewing a novel set in 1901, but, since that was the year of Queen Victoria’s death and this is mentioned in the opening pages of the book, I’m going to give myself an exception.

Our main character, Edith Holler, is a 12-year-old girl who lives in a theater in Norwich in the East of England. In fact, she has never left the Holler Theater due to a curse cast upon her as an infant. Carey’s love for the theatrical world is apparent on every page. I particularly enjoyed how he compares backstage to the different decks of a ship, the strong contrasts he draws between the front and back of the house, and the inclusion of actorly superstitions, such as referring to fire in the theater as “Mr. Jet.”

But as much as this is a book about the stage play world, it is also a book about Norwich. The character of Edith is an expert on the city she has only seen from the roof or through the windows of her theater, and Carey draws on a wealth of Norfolk history about and myth while embellishing upon it too with his vivid imagination.

I didn’t realize when I first picked up the book how much it would veer into the territory of historical fantasy, but I was delighted as the chapters became more and more unsettling and surreal. The Norwich of Edith Holler is overrun by deathwatch beetles, which locals make into an (apparently) appetizing paste. The problem? Edith suspects that murdered children are the secret ingredient in the city’s famous Beetle Spread, and her father is planning to marry into the family of (cannibal?) entrepreneurs behind the historic recipe. 

You’ll love this book, like I did, if you’re a fan of the bizarre and the macabre. I wrote before about Edward Carey’s 2018 Little. In both novels, Carey includes his own illustrations, bringing his creations to life. In Edith Holler, many of these illustrations are the pieces of a toy theater, which transported me back to the world of Pollock’s Toy Museum, a nineteenth-century gem I reviewed for the blog a decade ago. You can even download the pieces of the theater from Carey’s website if you fancy recreating the Gothic delights of the novel for yourself. I don’t know personally if I’d want to bring Edith and her dark world into my apartment, but I’ll undoubtedly be reading whatever Carey writes next.

Which novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want more blog posts like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter here.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

A Master Class in Character Introduction from Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It’s been a while since I published a writing “master class” on this blog, doing a close reading of a Victorian novel to discuss craft techniques that are still relevant to authors today. But this week, I’m turning to one of my favorite nineteenth-century reads—Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational 1862 novel, Lady Audley’s Secret—to explore how she introduces her title character.

If you’re pulling up the e-text of the novel or grabbing a dogeared copy, the passage I’m focusing on begins “But Miss Alicia's day was over…” and ends with “declaring that Lucy Graham was the sweetest girl that ever lived.”

The first thing to note about Braddon’s introduction is that anyone reading the novel for the first time is going to be waiting to find out about Lady Audley in the opening pages of the book. The character is, after all, mentioned in the title and the reference to a “secret” makes her an immediate source of intrigue. What Braddon chooses to do to build on this intrigue, and tease readers even further, is not start with Lady Audley at all. She is in fact the third character described, after her husband, Michael Audley, and stepdaughter, Alicia Audley, in a move that utilizes the writerly rule of three and creates a crescendo of anticipation before Lady Audley/Lucy’s dramatic reveal. Modern writers should consider the power a title character holds in readers’ imaginations and how starting with secondary characters before highlighting the primary can be an arresting technique when writing omniscient or multi-perspective prose.

What happens once Lady Audley is introduced? Braddon attaches multiple positive attributes to her, but in such a way that the author is constantly seeding doubt. Lucy is “amiable,” yet Alicia feels “prejudices and dislike” for her. She has made an “advantageous match,” yet this has turned her into an object of “hatred and envy” for other women. A reference from her former employer seems to have been glowing, yet “no one knew anything about her.” Her accomplishments are “brilliant and numerous,” but strangely she’s happy to accept low pay. At the core of Braddon’s technique here is employing telling vs. showing and overusing modifiers (adjectives and adverbs)—both techniques that strike a deliberately false note. If, as a writer, you want to establish a character as kind or talented, it’s best to show them doing kind or brilliant things. But here Braddon’s apparent encomium is also a clever takedown of Lady Audley/Lucy before she’s said a single line of dialogue, already setting her up for readers as someone who cannot be trusted. 

Lady Audley’s physical appearance isn’t mentioned until later in the introductory passage. Braddon describes Michael Audley as a “big man, tall and stout, with a deep, sonorous voice, handsome black eyes, and a white beard,” while the lines dedicated to Alicia paint her personality rather than her portrait. But, when it comes to Lady Audley, specific features matter less than the effect her face has on people. We’re told that “in the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam,” and that “Miss Lucy Graham was blessed with that magic power of fascination, by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile.” A few lines later we learn that “perhaps, it was the sight of her pretty face, looking over the surgeon's high pew every Sunday morning” that secured her a wealthy husband. The genius of this is that each reader can picture a face that we find personally attractive and imagine a woman who might have this sort of impact on us. What Braddon demonstrates so well is how describing a character can involve not describing them directly, and instead giving readers the chance to co-create with the author via their imaginations. 

What nineteenth-century novel would you like me to write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want Victoriana sent straight to your email once a month? Sign up here