The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: December, 2014

Structure in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Charles Augustus Milverton” (1903)

Charles Augustus Milverton” is among the Sherlock Holmes stories that have gained most attention from adapters, despite being a story almost without the elements of deduction for which the great detective is known. It does have a memorable villain – one who is recognizably and expressly the villain from the beginning of the story, which is relatively unusual in Holmes stories (even in ones like “The Speckled Band” where Dr Grimsby Roylott is pretty obviously the villain from the beginning, he’s not expressly so). But Milverton, before we meet him, we know we hate him, and that Holmes considers him “the worst man in London”. This explicit and direct association of evil with a human embodiment throughout the story is the best reason I can come up with for the prominence of this rather undistinguished narrative in Holmes adaptation history: a 100-minute feature in the Brett-Hardwicke series; the “His Last Vow” episode of Sherlock; “Dead Man’s Switch” in Elementary; to name a few (Wikipedia has more).

Milverton from the original illustrations. As Watson notes, he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

Milverton from the original illustrations. Watson notes that he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

In the cheap Wordsworth edition of The Best of Sherlock Holmes (comprising 20 short stories) which is one of the volumes I use for my general reading of the series, “Milverton” takes up 18 pages: 367-384. This is around the median length for the series. If one was to divide the story up into its cardinal functions, a la Barthes in “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”, it would go something like this:

Milverton secures some of Lady Eva Bracknell’s youthful love letters [implied]

M. threatens Lady E. with disclosure of the letters if she does not pay him two thousand pounds. [implied]

Lady E. approaches Holmes with the problem. [summarily recounted] (368)

Holmes invites M. to discuss the matter. [implied]

M. arrives at Holmes’ apartment for said discussion. [presented] (369)

M. and Holmes discuss the matter, but fail to reach agreement. [presented] (370-372)

Holmes attempts to forcibly take the letters from M., but fails. [presented] (372)

Holmes gains entry to M.’s household as a plumber. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes undertakes a romance with M.’s housemaid in order to get information on the layout of M’.s house. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes decides to raid M.’s study for the letters. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes convinces Watson to help him. [presented] (373-374)

Sequence: Holmes and W. go to M’s house, enter his study and steal the letters. [presented]. (375-378)

They hear someone approaching. [presented] (378)

They hide behind the curtain. [presented] (378)

Milverton enters the study. [presented] (379)

{Here follow various catalysers, all of which signal a waiting on M.’s part; consequently Holmes and W. must wait in hiding: suspense}

A woman enters the study. [presented] (379)

She raises her veil. [presented] (381)

{Catalysing talk between M. and woman. She is clearly a past victim of his blackmailing. She is successively recriminative and threatening. He is successively unrepentant and alarmed}

She takes out a revolver. [presented] (381)

She shoots M. several times. [presented] (381)

W. makes as if to stop her. [presented] (381)

Holmes grabs his arm to prevent him. [presented] (381)

Woman grinds her heels into M.’s upturned face. [presented] (381)

Woman leaves. [implied] (381)

Holmes and W. come out of concealment. [presented] (382)

Holmes locks the door from the inside. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear voices and hurried footsteps approaching. [presented] (382)

Holmes takes all of M.’s letters. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear a banging on the door. [presented] (382)

They exit swiftly. [presented] (382)

{Various catalysers which signal a chase between Holmes and W. and the inhabitants of M.’s house, ending in escape to safety for Holmes and W.}

{Here follows the first section break in the story. Signified is an ellipsis. The night of the story’s main action gives way to the morning after. Suspense mode gives way to epilogue.}

Lestrade of Scotland Yard is ushered into Holmes’ apartment. [presented] (383)

Asks for Holmes’ assistance in M.’s murder. [presented] (383)

{Catalysing dialogue in which one of the presumed murderers is described. Holmes notes that it sounds very like Watson. Mode: humorous]

Holmes refuses to help L.  [presented] (384)

{Another section break, after which a short summary of Holmes and W. going into Oxford St. and stopping outside a shop displaying portraits of celebrities and beauties. W. notes one with certain features; features which recall to the reader the woman of the night before. He notes the great and distinguished name of this person. Holmes and W.’s eyes meet, and Holmes puts his finger to his lips. Implied: they have identified M.’s murderer. Implied also: this is the end of the sequence. Justice is done. The story ends on that gesture of Holmes’}

As a set of cardinal functions, most of the material of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is concentrated between pages 378 and 383. This is the lesson of the structural analysis. What, then, is the purpose of all of this mysterious extraneous matter between 367 and 377? Is this mere padding, or is it, in fact, the real matter that makes the Holmes stories what they are. The rather humdrum and unremarkable nature of the plot suggests the latter.

The story is not that functional in the narrow sense – just a few simplte moves. What, then, makes up these tracts of unfunctional material. To which of the four Genettian narrative movements to they belong? Summary, Scene, ellipsis, descriptive pause? Or some quite other movement to be established? This will fall to be dealt with in a later post. For now, to return to the issue of the many adaptations this story has engendered. As I went into in a previous post, the Brett-Hardwicke series takes as one of its main points of departure a scene that is not even a scene: not presented by Watson as our homodiegetic narrator, but summarily recounted by Holmes to the narrator. It is a matter of small cues, almost immaterial functionally and in terms of volume of the narrative vanishingly small, but that nevertheless have that kernel of suggestiveness which adaptors can make use of.

But the other notable feature of the story is the working out of justice. Where this differs from other stories, is that justice is done through what is legally murder. Further, the absolute outlier as a scenario among Holmes stories is that Holmes and Watson could have tried to do something.

No interference upon our part could have saved the man from his fate; but as the woman poured bullet after bullet into Milverton’s shrinking body I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes’s cold, strong grasp upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip—that it was no affair of ours; that justice had overtaken a villain; that we had our own duties and our own objects which were not to be lost sight of. (381-382)

These lines are the hub of the story, suggesting a moral dilemma adaptors have been quick to seize on, certainly the makers of Sherlock and “His Last Vow”. Watson insists as post facto narrator that they could not have saved Milverton, but, I repeat, they could have tried, and that is where this story has its interest. Note, also, that the quoted passage is given after the murderess has left. The moment of Watson’s almost-intervention is actually just a flashback, a sentence or two later than strict diegetic chronology would dictate. If we had put it in its place, we would note that not only did he not intervene during the shooting, but he also didn’t intervene during the time after, when she ground her heel into M.’s face (and shouldn’t Lestrade have mentioned the detail of the woman’s shoe? Did it not suggest another actor on the scene?). The cathartic power of sadistic violence against a very bad person is fully harnessed here by the use of this deus ex machina of the woman who has been  victim to M at some past time. She does what Holmes would like to do, and what, the author implies, all right-thinking, justice-loving persons would also like. The connection between Holmes and justice is never more strained, more troubled, than in this story, so the scope for ethico-moral readings or for ideological shifts in adaptation is great. All of this is in the context of our cultural love for Sherlock Holmes. The power of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is not of this story alone, but is strongly intertextual: it is its place within the Holmesian canon that makes it of interest, and what it says about this great character. Otherwise, it would simply be a lazily plotted potboiler; which, in a sense, it still is, but once the character of Holmes, with all of his pre-established indices and connotations, is added, it becomes a lot more interesting.

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On Looking Into War and Peace

War and Peace, many say, is the greatest novel of all time. Until now I had been classing it among the novels I had technically read, but not really. In my teenage years, I went through a period of reading as many of the classics of world literature as I could lay my hands on. Some were memorable reading experiences, others less so. War and Peace was in the latter class: I read it, but so quickly and superficially that I could remember almost exactly zero about the plot and characters of the novel. At the time, I had an always-read-to-the-end policy, and it was that, more than anything, that made me persist with War and Peace. Now I am much more likely to read a book until I get a general sense of what it’s about and then put it aside (how many books end in ways that aren’t wholly predictable and generic, anyway?). This means that whether or not I have read a book is often a difficult question, as I mentioned in an earlier post. I look into books, reading the beginning or the relevant parts (using the index, in the case of non-fiction books) and then putting them aside. And rather than reading a book cold I usually am performing a reading that is in some way academically motivated – there is at least a possibility that the book could inform my research in some way. This means that what I do read, I engage with more seriously, which precludes the tokenistic reading that the always-read-to-the-end policy sometimes produced.

And so my return to War and Peace was really like reading a new novel. And this time reading it closely. I’m reading Rosemary Edmonds 1978 revision of her 1957 translation. It runs to a colossal 1444 pages in my Penguin Classics edition. At the beginning, it includes a list of Principal Characters, which is handy, although it only gives about  25 characters out of the huge cast of the novel. But still, that’s an important help, because a problem with reading Russian novels is the naming, and how hard it is to get a handle on the names. For example, there’s a character here called Princess Anna Mihalovna Drubetskoy. Sometimes the narrator will call her Anna Mihalovna, sometimes the Princess, sometimes Princess Drubetskoy. Similarly she will be addressed differently by different characters. Further, she’s not the only Princess in the book, so the character being called the Princess in one scene may be a different character from the Princess in the next scene. Still further, she’s not the only Anna – another prominent character in the early part of the book is Anna Pavlovna. There’s a lot of multiple uses of names: more than one Anna, more than one Nikolai, more than one Natalia. And that’s just in the opening chapters! It’s sobering to see that Edmonds includes a note in which she says she has simplified the naming by removing the Russian patronymic and dispensing with feminine terminations.

Russian conventions of naming and addressing  are so alien that reading a 19th-century Russian novel is complicated. Evidently, their use of the term of address “Princess” was different to other nations. It sometimes seems that half the population (the female half, to be precise) are princesses. That is partly why a quick reading of War and Peace won’t do. I have been noting the entry page of each character and writing it down by their entry in the character list, so if confused I can refer to it, and read Tolstoy’s description of them on their first appearance. Tolstoy is careful about physical apprearance, so once one gets the name straight, one quickly builds up an image of the character. He also uses appearance as information about character, as in this description of Maria, another Princess and daughter of Nikolai Andreyevich Bolkonsky (earlier in the passage, she has been described as having a “plain, sickly face”):

[T]he princess’s eyes – large, deep and luminous (it sometimes seemed as if whole shafts of light radiated from them) – were so lovely that very often in spite of the plainness of her face they gave her a charm that  was more attractive than beauty. But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes – the expression they had when she was not thinking of herself. Like most people’s, her face assumed an affected, unnatural expression as soon as she looked in a glass. (Bk. 1, Pt. 1, Ch. 22)

Though to the point I have read, Maria has featured little, this description will, I am sure, turn out to be indice of a nature that is beautiful, gentle and so forth. More uncharacteristically in the context of what I’ve read so far, the narrator also engages in some general theorizing on humanity, specifically on people’s faces when they are looking at themselves.

That last element is uncharacteristic because in the first 112 pages of the novel, Tolstoy’s approach is undoubtedly cinematic and objective. The narrator doesn’t editorialize (so far) and he rarely gets into characters’ heads. He always describes in great detail what is happening, and leaves the reader to interpret the characters from their behaviour. This is especially apparent in the scenes set in large gatherings of Russian high society (which is a large proportion of the scenes). If Tolstoy wants to convey what a character is thinking in these scenes he doesn’t get into their heads to do it – he doesn’t focalize through the characters, in narratological terms. His technique is quite different, as in this exchange:

“Vera”, she said to her elder and obviously not her favourite daughter, “how is it that you have no notion about anything? Can’t you see that you are not wanted? Go and join your sister, or…”

The handsome Vera smiled disdainfully, evidently not in the least mortified. (1, 1, 11)

Here we are being told how both characters feel, but not through internal focalization. Rather, because “evidently” or “obviously” they feel this way. This is very economical, as Tolstoy doesn’t have to interrupt the scene with backstory, a short clause gets it across nicely. A student of narratology might ask, evident to whom? Obvious to whom? In these scenes there is no centre of consciousness, but it is as if the heterodiegetic (i.e. doesn’t take part in the story) narrator is a sensitive observer who is reading the expressions and body language of the characters for clues to their natures. But he is not omniscient, as he is not able to get into the heads of his characters, being confined to what is readable, to what they seem (1, 1, 20) to be saying.

This approach makes for an interesting effect in an early climactic scene, the death of the old count, father of Pierre. Pierre is probably the most central character in the novel, but even his interior is not directly accessed by the narrator:

While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he in vain endeavoured to pull it after him. Perhaps he noticed the look of horror on Pierre’s face at the sight of that lifeless arm, or some other thought might have flitted across his dying brain at that moment, in any case he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s horror-stricken face and at the arm again, and on his lips a feeble piteous smile appeared, quite out of characters with his features, seeming to deride his own helplessness. Suddenly, at the sight of that smile, Pierre felt a lump in his own throat and a tickling in his nose, and tears dimmed his eyes. The sick man was turned on his side with his face to the wall. He gave a sigh.

“He is dozing”, said Anna Mihalovna, observing one of the nieces approaching to take her turn by the bedside. “Come…”

Pierre left the room. [End of Chapter] (1, 1, 20)

This is an intense scene. It comes during a portion of the novel that is focalized on Pierre, but even so Pierre’s reaction is only recorded in its physiological manifestations. He wears “a look of horror” and tears dim his eyes. The closest to an analysis of Pierre’s emotional state comes with the phrase “he felt a lump in his own throat and a tickling in his nose”, but these are strictly physiological phenomena, and even visual ones. The lump in the throat, at least, could in principle be seen by the careful observer that is Tolstoy’s narrator. As for the other main character in the scene, the dying count, the narrator – once again, not omniscient – can only speculate as to his thoughts and emotions: “Perhaps he noticed the look of horror on Pierre’s face…” The cinematicity of the scene makes it easy to see what is going on, but it also leaves a lot of ellipses. It is both unsatisfying and compelling. Ending a chapter in this way, one wants to know more. There is not only a plot in motion regarding the count’s will, but the silence around Pierre’s emotional life creates another source of interest. It remains to be seen how this is to be developed. Will the characters be filled out with greater internality as the book progresses? Is it desirable that they should, or does the surface objectivity of the style to this point present a more realized view of humanity

As of now, War and Peace is a book I can’t give up. I didn’t pick it up with the intention of reading it all, just to get a feel for Tolstoy’s style and his worldview, but the quality of his observation, and the promise of unexplored depths in all of the characters, as well as the feeling of  the author’s generalized affection for those same characters, means I will continue to read with attention. It still seems unlikely that I’ll read all 1444 pages in this reading, as I do have a life to lead (well, kind of) and other more important (research-wise) stuff to read, but already I’ve come away with a lot more than the first time I read this, and there’s so much more I could write about the novel, did not this post already exceed  my standard post lengths. There’s a great quote on the Wikipedia War and Peace page from Isaac Babel:

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

That’s one hell of a compliment, but not one I’d care to argue with at this point.

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