Books: Dusky maidens, tippling harpies and other lovers

DJ Taylor is seduced by the romantic aspirations of the 19th century; Victorian Love Stories: An Oxford Anthology edited by Kate Flint, Oxford University Press, pounds 17.99
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Confronted with the title of Kate Flint's attractively packaged Oxford anthology, a literary theorist would probably begin by asking: "What do we mean by 'Victorian love story'?" And for once that literary theorist would be right. Reckoning up the pageant of contributors - which ranges from Mrs Gaskell in the vanguard to Oscar Wilde trailing in the dusty and ironic rear - pondering the range of styles, treatments and dilemmas, it is not hard to conclude that this is simply a chronological convenience. If the late-20th century reader is sometimes hard put to define the vital ingredients of a love story, then separating out the Victorian variant can be a baffling exercise.

In fact Victorian Love Stories bears some odd chronological chalk-marks, if only in that the earliest selection dates from 1853. Surely they had Victorian love stories before that? What about Dickens? Thackeray ("The Ravenswing'' or "The Bedford Row Conspiracy'' are a shade long for anthology fodder, but what about the stories in Men's Wives?) Even minor early Victorians such as Bulwer Lytton or Mrs Gore? The answer is, perhaps, that there were early Victorian love stories, but that their mixture of comedy, sentiment and occasionally violent satire tends to detach them from the more stereotyped magazine stories of the second half of the century. Thackeray's story "Dennis Haggert's Wife'' is a good example of this kind of tale: the account of an impressionable army surgeon tricked into marrying a vulgar woman blinded by smallpox. Visiting the pair and their multi- tudinous brood in Ireland, the narrator finds his friend enamoured in shabby-genteel squalor, but still hopelessly fixated on the blind harpy tippling by the fire. Savagely written and brutal in its satiric effects, this is still a love story, if of a rather specialised and uncommercial sort.

The commercial connection is important, for the form of the mid-century love story was largely dictated by the medium in which it appeared: the monthly magazine. This not only constrained its length, but bound it to the predominantly middle-class sensibilities of its readers. Happy endings were encouraged, however uncomfortably they might sit on what had gone before, and Kate Flint quotes a letter sent by Dickens in his capacity as editor of Household Words to a tyro contributor ("You write to be read of course. The close of the story is unnecessarily painful - will throw off numbers of persons who would otherwise read it...".) Predictably these restrictions affected even the name writers of the period. Reading contributions by Mrs Gaskell and Wilkie Collins, you are struck by how ready these superior talents are to sacrifice themselves to the contemporary weakness for sensation - Gaskell's "Right At Last'' is an all-too- foreseeable twitching of the part's dead hand. Collins "The Captain's Lost Love'', a preposterous (though highly enjoyable) tale about dusky maidens on volcanic South Sea atolls.

In her intelligent introduction, Kate Flint suggests that "for the Victorians to write of love almost always meant offering some kind of reflection on the position of women in society." This seems at the same time questionable and yet somehow not true enough.

The point about any reflection on "love", surely, whether written by Catullus or Catherine Cookson, is that it will touch in some way or another on the position of women in society - heart-strings aside that is what love stories are about. Simultaneously, Flint's point seems compromised by the fact that many of the early stories here take place in a semi-sensationalised other world - Collins's desert island, the Cornish coast of Trollope's "Malachi's Cove'' - outside the society they are supposed to be reflecting. Undoubtedly, this is itself a comment on contemporary society arrangements (and no doubt Collins's sea captain pursues dusky charmers because his friends' sisters didn't provide the same kind of emotional outlet) but the social commentary exists at the bottom of a heap of more pressing narrative concerns.

Nonetheless, Flint is right to stress the magazine story's status as a kind of social litmus paper. Most of the late- Victorian preoccupation about social mobility and the observance or defiance of increasingly shaky conventions are here, represented in nearly every literary sub-genre of the period. Mrs Braddon contributes an example of the breathless sensationalism for which she was renowned ("Her Last Appearance'') in which an actress misused by a brutal husband (eventually murdered by her aristocratic admirer) dies of consumption. Kipling's "Georgie Porgie'' lays bare some Imperialist double standards, while A. St John Adcock's "Bob Harris's Deputy'' hails from the fashionable late-Victorian school of sentimental stories about slum life.

Moving through the first half of the book, one spends a large amount of time wondering when naturalism - that is, the notion of two people engaged in a relationship that isn't worked out by way of genre devices, but seems to depend on "natural" accidents of psychology - will arrive. Hardy's "The Son's Veto'' in which a widow is forbidden to marry beneath her, conspicuously fails to achieve this, settling instead for a wholly constricting symbolism. A much better attempt comes in Hubert Crackenthorpe's "A Conflict of Egotism''. Here a successful woman journalist becomes obsessed by a self-absorbed writer who inhabits a flat in her apartment block. Their marriage is a disaster, both parties being locked into irreversible patterns of thought and behaviour. In the end he throws himself off a bridge.

The woman journalist or authoress - the most common contemporary ideal of the successful professional female - turns up a lot here. Come the 1880s and 1890s, the magazine-story heroine is an increasingly resourceful and powerful figure, capable of travelling abroad with a man unchaperoned (Somerset Maugham's "De Amicitia'') or leading an independent life after a scandalous divorce (George Egerton's "A Little Grey Glove''). Yet the staples of the genre endure. Ellen T. Flower's "An Old Wife's Tale" (1897) in particular, contrives an archetypal combination of sentiment and ghastly implausibility. An old blind man has long been blissfully married, having lost his sight rescuing the object of his affections and her sister from a blazing house. Inevitably, he turns out to have chosen (or had chosen for him) the wrong girl.

Much as one regrets a few conspicuous absentees (Gissing, Mary Mann, Arthur Morrison, even a sentimentalist like George R Sims), Victorian Love Stories is an excellent collection. Customarily in exercises of this kind the reader is left wondering how much of the contents stands the test of time and how much is merely representative. Here about two-thirds falls into the former category, and it is a mark of Kate Flint's achievements that one would very much like to read a work of her literary criticism on the same subject.