Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - The Sword of Damocles A Story of New York Life

A great deal of The Sword of Damocles.  A Story of New York Life (1881) is pure Victorian melodrama, with very Victorian sensibilities, and with a mystery tacked on the end of it.  It was interesting to see Green's progression as a novelist, comparing this early work to her later works, which are much tighter in composition and less flowery in language.

Green begins with a brief fable of "Damocles, one of the courtiers of Dionysius," citing "Rollin" as the source, whom I wasn't able to find in a brief internet search.

Damocles wants all the luxuries Dionysius appears to enjoy.  He is granted them, only to discover that he must enjoy them with a sword dangling by a horsehair over him.

Then the story opens up with a young man, Bertram Mandeville, telling his 40 year old uncle, Edward Sylvester, that he wants to quit his promising career as a concert pianist because he's fallen in love with a young lady whose father disapproves of musicians.  We get to hear all the details of how they met and how she is the epitome of the virtuous, innocent Victorian maiden.

He instead becomes a bank clerk at Sylvester's banking firm, hoping to make move up the ranks and make his fortune in a couple of years, when she comes of marriageable age, so he can claim her suit.

The narrative then shifts to Edward Sylvester, and his own story of the pursuit of money and luxury unfolds, the impetus of which has been a beautiful but materialistic woman,  Ona, whom he marries, and who is decidedly not the Victorian ideal, especially her unnatural lack of interest in having children (monstrous, isn't she?).  She's only interested in her social status.

Edward, meanwhile, is inspired by Bertram to seek out a different young lady he'd met ten years ago, Paula Fairchild.  She had been only ten then and had seemed to represent "something of the noble and the pure that lay beneath the crust of life."  At twenty, she is "simply one of nature's most exquisite and undeniable beauties... blah, blah, blah... at once unique and faultless, something that can be said of few women however beautiful or alluring."

Paula is basically everything Ona isn't.  Ona is described as having a "large but elegant figure that in its slow swaying reminded you of some heavy tropical flower, hanging inert, intoxicated with its own fragrance."

He'd discovered that Paula was a distant, poor relative of Ona, and uses this as a pretext for seeing her again.   It's his idea that she come stay with him and Ona.

The melodrama gushes forth from here, the contrast between Paula and Ona, and the unrequited, barely acknowledged feelings bubbling between Paula and Edward.  This is a respectable Victorian novel, so nothing truly improper happens, though Green walks an interesting tightrope.

Then a dark secret threatens to destroy Edward...

We get a little bit of a detective novel centering around this dark secret.

Since it remains a respectable Victorian novel, the tale ends with redemption and the triumph of true love and selfless devotion (sorry for the spoiler).

I'm not sure if most contemporary readers would stomach the heavy-handed Victorian moralizing.  It's probably obvious from my account of the book that I only did by laughing at portions of it.  But I'm rather a sucker for melodramatic romances and also detective fiction, enough, apparently, to put up with the moralizing and reach the solution of the mystery and the happy ending.

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