The Victorian Bachelor in Adaptation

by Mark Wallace

Victorian novels, especially Dickens’s, tend to feature a benevolent / philanthropic bachelor-type character, who enters for the purpose of providing protection, prospects of social advancement and, often, large amounts of money to the protagonist. Someone like Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist or the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby. They may be an uncle or other relation to the protagonist, or be motivated to help simply by their overflowing niceness, and they ask nothing in return. They are singularly uncomplicated individuals, ones who tend to have no intimate personal relationships but to operate in the capacity of fairy godfathers to any deserving person who happens to come into their path. Recent adaptations suggest this character creates quite a headache, as such disinterested benevolence cannot be accepted as credible.

Andrew Davies was certainly conscious of this when he came to script Bleak House (BBC 2005). Bleak House has John Jarndyce as a central character, and Jarndyce is in the tradition of the benevolent bachelor, though with a complicating factor: he wants to get married to Esther, and traditionally this character is entirely happy with his bachelor state, and never countenances any other possibility. Dickens doesn’t really deal with Jarndyce’s reasons for marrying Esther, or the element of sexual desire that is, presumably, involved in his proposal. Rather, he has Esther (and also Ada) refer to Jarndyce as being “like a father” and other such terms. He also constantly stresses Jarndyce’s moral uprightness, and the respect all the other characters have for him, a sleight of hand obscuring Jarndyce’s real intention, as Davies sees them:

Dickens raises it, in a way, but shies away from it, as usual. Why did Jarndyce not get married before? Why does he settle on a child? Of course, she’s grown up by the time he actually pops the question, but by then she’s so obliged to him, isn’t she? […] Dickens is writing about a man who, for some reason, can’t deal with grown-up women, so what he’d like to do is groom this girl (Cartmell and Whelehan, 240).

Now whether Davies successfully redrafts Jarndyce’s character to get this across is another story. I don’t think he does. Though there are a few telling details added, they’re buried beneath the weight of Jarndyce’s overall niceness and at the serial’s pivotal points, it tends to follow the Dickens approach to Jarndyce. I don’t think anyone comes away from Davies’s Bleak House thinking of Jarndyce having groomed Esther. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point, and this ambivalence about benevolent bachelor characters recurs in other period dramas of recent vintage.

In North and South (BBC 2004), we have Mr Bell making an implicit offer of marriage to Margaret Hale. Mr Bell is Margaret’s godfather, and her father has entrusted her to him, little suspecting (one presumes) that by “looking after” Margaret, Mr Bell has matrimony in mind. And, of course, in Gaskell’s novel he doesn’t have that in mind. Gaskell’s Mr Bell is presented without any sexual colouring at all; he’s an Oxford don, he’s never been married and the idea of it never seems to have occurred to him. Again, though, for scriptwriter Sandy Welch, this attitude on Bell’s part is unthinkable, and the need is felt to uncover the sexuality lurking under his mild and disinterested exterior.

Mr Bell's proposal

Oliver Twist (BBC 2007) – written by Sarah Phelps, who also scripted the 2011 BBC Great Expectations – is one of the more radical classic serials of recent times: a black Nancy, a Fagin who is victim rather than villain (not without precedent in recent adaptations, but the anti-semitism is explicitly tackled here), and who is also of a rotund figure, thus breaking with the conventional vision of Fagin from Hogarth’s illustrations through Alec Guinness in Lean’s Oliver Twist, Ron Moody in Carol Reed’s Oliver! and beyond. It also rejects the Dickensian portrayal of Brownlow by painting him as a paranoid and somewhat controlling individual. In this version he lives with Rose Maylie – no, he doesn’t want to marry her, but he is a morose and taciturn individual and very over-protective of Rose, being generally opposed to letting her out of the house, because she is the last link with the woman he once loved (who was Rose’s sister and Oliver’s mother– i.e. Rose is O.’s aunt in this version). So this Brownlow, as well as lacking the good temper of Dickens’s character, is also given a romantic past, and perhaps a romantic present, if we see him as having transferred his love for Rose’s older sister onto Rose herself. Actually, it’s Monks, here Brownlow’s nephew (confused yet?) who bears a predatory lust for Rose, but given the close filial relationship between Brownlow and Monks for most of the serial (until Monks’s dastardly Rose-entrapping schemes are revealed), one might well see Monks as a manifestation of Mr B.’s dark urges. It’s all very confusing, but for the purposes of this post all that’s relevant is that Brownlow is not the happy bachelor of Dickens’s novel.

Of course, the greatest of all Victorian bachelors was Sherlock Holmes, albeit much later in the Victorian era. I haven’t seen the serial Sherlock yet (!), so I don’t know if they do try to explore the title character’s sexuality. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is depicted, I would say, as being “above” sexuality, a concept the Victorians wouldn’t have had a problem with, but that, in the context of recent adaptations, may not now be seen to be credible. Certainly not if the vid below is any indication.

*Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, “A practical understanding of literature on screen: two conversations with Andrew Davies”, in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 240.

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