Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Doyle's Duet

On my Nook I've recently finished reading Doyle's 1899 book A Duet, with an occasional chorus, which is a non-Holmes novel about a young couple named Frank Crosse and Maude Selby. I got it as an ebook from Google. The story begins and ends with a frame by "The Author" claiming that he is a personal friend of the main characters and is using excerpts from their letters and journals as an inspiring example to show other young couples how to cope with the challenges of marriage. (But other than some love letters at the beginning, we don't get first-person journals, only third-person narration of events in their lives.) Besides, if the whole story were true, the Author would be a bad friend indeed, indiscreetly revealing painful secrets to Maude in public.

Anyway, Frank and Maude are already engaged at the start of the book, and they get married and have a baby during the course of the book. The tale is mostly sweet and humorous, with interesting glimpses into late Victorian domestic life. Poor Maude reads through Mrs. Beeton's book and cries that she can't master it all, so Frank comforts her. Doyle shows considerable knowledge of women's fashion as he describes Maude's clothes in detail. Interesting that even straight men back then had as much fashion sense as a gay man might have these days, and had no embarrassment about it. Also, it's fun that sometimes Doyle drops names already familiar from the canon, like Farintosh, and at the wedding, he still has the characters claiming that weddings aren't legal unless performed before noon. (Even though Sherlockian references claim that this law was gone by 1886.)

Many of the loving embraces and kisses between the couple are implied through their dialogue rather than described, which is an oddly understated style. Perhaps his restraint came from the fact that by now he had already fallen in love with Jean Leckie, but was remaining faithful to his dying wife Touie? (ACD met Jean in 1897, and Touie didn't die until 1906.) I don't know, but there's one scene where the couple ride in a hansom together, and Doyle claims that it's never comfortable to share a hansom unless one's arm is around the other. Hmm! And Holmes and Watson shared hansoms all the time... ;)

As charming as the book is, sometimes it gets boring and lecturing. There's a whole chapter of the engaged couple touring Westminster Abbey, with Frank acting as a overly patriotic tour guide, teaching her all about English history. He is just as enthusiastic about his favorite authors later, and I get the feeling that Doyle is writing of his own literary tastes. But all the while Maude is just acting like a culturally-ignorant child, deeply impressed by Frank's knowledge and being blindly led by his opinions. It's all very well to share each other's interests, but we never hear of her suggesting a book to him, and him being "Wow! You've opened my mind!" to her.

I guess that was the sad state of education for women back then. Later on when Maude tries to form a literary club with other married ladies, there's a ridiculous woman who claims they shouldn't read anything scandalous like Shakespeare and must read Browning because his poetry is incomprehensible, and they need to better themselves mentally. Their first meeting gets derailed by talk of costumes for a fancy-dress party, and when they do finally read a Browning poem, they can't get anywhere with it. After the ridiculous woman leaves, Maude and another lady discuss switching to Tennyson instead, whom they actually understand and enjoy, but then they decide not to meet at all, because if they understand Tennyson, there's no need to discuss him, is there? *Headpalm*. Frank understands his books, but he always wants to discuss them with you, doesn't he, Maude? It's called having opinions and communing intellectually. Aren't women allowed to do that independent of men?

It's little stuff like that which irks me as a feminist, though there are far more egregious offenses that I'll discuss below. Maude's not too passively annoying, though, and Doyle does show that she is clever in other ways (particularly when Frank gets them both into a legal problem after promising to honor another man's debts). Frank doesn't always act superior to her, and in fact often puts Maude on a pedestal and says he is unworthy of her.

I am well familiar with Victorian attitudes, from reading both the canon and Anne Perry mysteries, yet the blatant sexism bothered me. In one chapter, the newlyweds draw up a list of a dozen or so rules for their married life. It's incredibly earnest, and I think Doyle was actually trying to give marital advice through it. During the discussion, they start talking about past loves. Frank claims he was in love with (or at least "interested in") 40 or so women before he met Maude (he's 27), but does not specify if he had relationships with all, or how far those relationships went. But when Maude confesses that she's also been in love before, with an unspecified number of men, Franks gets jealous and upset enough to get a drink. So she teases him with a story about being kissed and held by another man, only to reveal that this all happened when she was just 3 years old. He's so relieved, because God forbid that she should have an adult past like him.

And boy do we learn about Frank's past! In chapter 18, one of Frank's exes writes a threatening letter to him and tries to win him back, despite his marriage. Her name is Violet Wright, and she has many lovers, which Frank knows about as well. So Doyle gives us another chestnut-haired Violet, but quite different from Violet Hunter the governess.

It was a face and figure worth looking at. Hazel eyes, dark chestnut hair, a warm flush of pink in her cheeks, the features and outlines of an old Grecian goddess, but with more of Juno than of Venus, for she might perhaps err a little upon the side of opulence. There was a challenge and defiance dancing in those dark devil-may-care eyes of hers which might have roused a more coldblooded man...

The frustrating thing is Frank's behavior once he gets Violet's letter. He nervously hides it from his wife and leaves for work. On the train he reads the letter and gets angry, especially about Violet's threat to visit his wife if he does not come to meet her for tea in London. So he decides he must go, but then he starts looking forward to it. "There was an audacity about his old flame, a spirit and devilment which appealed to his sporting instincts. Besides it was complimentary to him, and flattering to his masculine vanity that she should not give him up without a struggle. Merely as a friend it would not be disagreeable to see her again."

They meet at a restaurant that they used to frequent when they were lovers, and she calls him Frankie. Surprisingly, there are apparently restaurants in which people could get private rooms (not just a dining room, but a full sitting room with fireplace, chairs, sofa) to have tea alone, unchaperoned. It's incredibly naive of Frank to meet her there, and Violet even points this out, yet Frank foolishly goes on having tea instead of just telling her goodbye and leaving. He's really a condescending, pompous ass, telling her to be "a good girl" and "behave" (when we know from her talk that she is 34). All he has to say is, "I don't love you anymore" or "I love my wife, and will not cheat", but instead he just says Violet should be sensible and know that "the chances are that we shall never meet again." Meanwhile Violet is saying she might be in love with him and will give up her other lovers for him. He wants a platonic good-bye, though, and for her to shake his hand "like any other old pal" and wish him the best in his marriage. Violet understandably gets angry, so she threatens again to go meet his wife. He tells her not to and finally leaves the restaurant, but then he turns back to apologize for being too harsh with her, and he helps her into her cab. Uh, you're not strengthening your case that you're through with her, Frank.

Then in chapter 19, not just Frank, but the narrator turns out to be a jerk. Frank doesn't tell Maude what happened, or that Violet threatened to come see her. He could easily paint himself as a victim and say Violet is telling lies about him, but no, he decides not to confess anything while he hurries off to work again. It's one thing for Frank to have been vague about his past loves during their earlier conversation. Both men and women get jealous about exes, and some reticence is wise. But it's quite another thing if one of his exes actually shows up again and makes threats; he owes his wife the courtesy of a warning that somebody hostile and/or deranged with jealousy might come after her.

And yet Frank says nothing, and the narrator approves of his decision. "Do not ask too many questions, you young wife! Do not be too free with your reminiscences, you young husband! There are things which can be forgiven, but never, never can they be forgotten!" Thanks a lot, Narrator!

Inevitably, Violet shows up at the house while Frank's at work, and she claims to be a married woman, though I'm not sure if that's true. She doesn't mention a husband to Frank in their meeting, and he implied that she wasn't married currently when he said that he would wish her happiness if she got married. So I don't know if Violet is plain lying, or if she had a husband once who died, and now she has lovers instead. Whatever her marital status, she doesn't tell Maude that she's Frank's ex-lover, only an acquaintance of his. She doesn't make an angry, jealous scene, but she doesn't engage in normal conversation either. She's quietly hostile, sizing Maude up, while poor Maude flounders, neither thinking to throw the strange woman out or to ask her to explain her visit. (The narrator says that Maude frequently receives visitors from the neighborhood whom she doesn't know, but out of the polite rules of society, she struggles on vainly to talk to them anyway.)

Finally Violet points out a photo of Frank and makes a mild comment that it flatters him. Strangely Maude does not take this as a compliment, saying the picture doesn't do him justice. She actually gets very angry at Violet, as if she's insulted his character, rather than merely his looks. Really a non sequitor. Violet suddenly respects her, though, and thinks that she does deserve to have Frank. She asks about how much Maude loves him, and how happy they must be. Maude says that Frank was never really in love before her, and Violet seems to accept this as a painful truth (despite Frank never once saying "I love my wife" in their conversation at the restaurant).

Then Violet gets all emotional and sad, making a speech on how Maude should have pity on women who aren't as lucky as she, who "are starving, dying for want of love."

"Remember the plain women. Remember the lonely women. Above all, remember your unfortunate sisters, they the most womanly of all, who have been ruined by their own kindliness and trust and loving weakness"!

So is she saying that Frank seduced her when she was innocent? Seems unlikely. Maybe some other man did, and she afterward started taking many lovers now that she was "ruined" as far as respectability goes? Ugh, Victorian hypocrisy about sex. Never was any man "ruined" by committing adultery. He could always turn respectable and regain the high moral ground again, like Frank.

Anyway, Maude doesn't understand Violet's tears but comforts her. Violet also tells Maude to not take Frank for granted. "Don't let the freshness and poetry go out of love, for the love may soon follow it, even when duty keeps the man true." (Hmm, was it merely duty keeping Doyle true to his first wife, until she died?) Maude tries to make friends with Violet and suggest that they meet again. Violet knows better, though, and says good-bye for good.

She leaves the house, and Frank meets her while coming home from work. He gets mad, but Violet explains that his secret is still safe, and she won't cause any trouble. Somehow during their strange conversation, she was convinced that Maude is the one for Frank, but still warns Frank to treat Maude well and not cheat on her. Then she leaves, never to return. Really strange. I guess the lesson is "ignorance is bliss."

Anyway the story moves on to Frank and Maude reading about Thomas Carlyle (the famous writer whom Holmes mentions in STUD), and all's well again. Soon the couple are having a baby, and Maude is more worried for Frank's nervous suffering than for herself going through childbirth. Doyle has the audacity to claim that helplessly worrying for one's wife is worse than having to give birth. Moreover, Maude agrees, and she tries to send Frank away on a trip when she's due. He won't go, so when she feels that labor is imminent, she pretends she's only mildly ill and asks him to just send a doctor by on his way to work. He does so and doesn't realize how she's deceived him until he comes home from work that evening. The baby's been born already, but he doesn't know about it and obeys a note from her that she's just upstairs resting and that he should go plant bulbs in the garden. One of his friends is even there to help. Frank keeps hearing the baby cry but he thinks it's a cat, until finally the doctor comes downstairs to present his child to him. From then on, their "duet" becomes a "trio" and The Author congratulates them.

So overall A Duet is a weird blend of romance, earnest lecturing, and cringeworthy sexism.

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