Bare feet and a root of fennel

John Bayley

  • Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England by Alexander Welsh
    Johns Hopkins, 262 pp, £21.50, April 1992, ISBN 0 8018 4271 9

On a fine summer’s day in 1892 in Massachusetts Lizzie Borden’s mother and father were killed by blows from an axe. Lizzie was tried for the crime on purely circumstantial evidence and Professor Welsh quotes from the summing-up of the prosecuting attorney:

Robinson Crusoe walked out one day on the beach, and there he saw the fresh print of a naked foot on the sand. He had no law to tell him that was nothing but a circumstance. He knew when he saw that circumstance that a man had been there that was not himself ... It was nothing but circumstantial evidence. But it satisfied him.

Whether or not Lizzie Borden had given her parents forty thwacks, the jury found her not guilty. They were evidently less impressed by the nature of plain circumstantial evidence than Robinson Crusoe had been. Nor is it difficult to see why. The lawyer’s analogy was striking but hardly sound. Crusoe knew when he saw the footprint that someone other than himself was, or had been, on the island: but this did not indicate that no one other than Lizzie could have been in the Borden home that morning. Taking up the analogy, the defence might even have pointed out that Crusoe’s own inference was scarcely watertight: suppose he had taken off his shoes the previous day to paddle and forgotten all about it? It is certainly striking, as Alexander Welsh points out, that even if a jury had never read the novel, they could be expected to know about Crusoe and the footprint. Novels, like life, are full of evidence. It is evidence that suggests the nature of relations, and as Henry James observed ‘relations stop nowhere.’ An author, no less than a lawyer, must ‘draw the circle in which they shall happily appear to do so’.

From a literary point of view, Crusoe’s find was surely not so much evidence as atmosphere. What strikes the reader in Defoe’s description is the terror of a sudden fact and an instant implication. In The Ring and the Book Browning allows a Victorian luxuriousness and elaboration of relationship to run on unchecked, even down to the fact that the brilliant lawyer Arcangeli, who is defending the villain Guido, allows his thoughts to stray to the supper which he hopes to be eating that night.

May Gigia have remembered, nothing stings
Fried liver out of its monotony
Of richness like a root of fennel, chopped
Fine with the parsley.

Like Crusoe’s footprint, the lawyer’s liver is the kind of fact which enriches narrative and makes for the verisimilitude of a tale. But does it also have a function as evidence? Our author is inclined to think so.

Do authors give good evidence? The better they are the better their evidence is, at least in a sense. Welsh shows how the evidence against Tom Jones is seen and manipulated by Fielding as a man of the law, a man accustomed to hearing and weighing probabilities. To judge from the metaphors he uses, Shakespeare had great zest in legal ideology and practice, while there is a sense in which the whodunit in Hamlet is never solved, for lack of evidence. How much did Hamlet’s mother know? It is of great dramatic importance that Hamlet does not find out, because he does not want to find out. There is a bad quarto of the play, as Welsh might have pointed out, in which the whole resonance of the scene in the Queen’s closet is lost, because Gertrude is made to confess her guilty knowledge of Claudius’s deed, and in return for his forgiveness to promise her son her help in obtaining his revenge. Conceivably it was sometimes acted this way, but what a loss of tension and inner meaning! Circumstantial evidence is what the client of a good work of art required: not proof, nor confession. Lizzie Borden would never have been heard of if she had merely confessed; and how boring it would be if we knew for a certainty that the winning boyish or girlish look on the face of Rembrandt’s ‘Polish Rider’ had been added by the master on some busy afternoon, perhaps from some girl model, while the apprentice Drost stood by to gain immortality by his rendering of the young soldier’s clothes and pose, even though he made a horrible mess of the horse.

Henry James would no doubt have said, if he could have brought himself to be so straightforward, that the best authors do not merely manufacture the evidence but are themselves too involved in the plot to be sure what it signifies. Such an impression, at least, is what he seems to convey in the opening sentences of his preface to The Golden Bowl, when he speaks of doing anything to avoid ‘the mere muffled majesty of irresponsible “authorship”.’ That ‘irresponsible’ is puzzling in context – surely the novelist must in a sense be irresponsible in his manufacture and use of evidence? – but Welsh refers us to a very early review by James in which he suggested that Scott was the first ‘novelist irresponsible’, undertaking nothing more than the facts of his tale, whereas the 18th-century novel was didactic to the core. Tom Jones was ‘like a vast episode in a sermon preached by a grandly humorous divine.’ In his own curious way James wished to be like that divine, involved with his flock in the sermon, or like an attorney hotly engaged in the blow-by-blow struggle in court. He did not wish to stand aside from the sequence and consequence of his own stratagems. James, in fact – and this is where the nature of Welsh’s enquiry comes up with some highly interesting and unusual findings – in the end dissociated himself from the whole impartial, and thus in his sense ‘irresponsible’, tradition of Scott and Balzac and realism, and invoked ancient didacticism in order to create a new sort of author-involved novel.

And what of Shakespeare? In two absorbing chapters Welsh examines the ways in which Shakespearean evidence was once sifted by forensically-minded critics, like Maurice Morgann in 1777 with his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff. A cheerful legally-minded diplomatist and civil servant, Morgann did what I suppose no good judge or defence counsel should do: he first fell for the plaintiff – fell virtually in love with him indeed – and then undertook to defend him in court on the strict rule of evidence. The result is not only a masterpiece of special pleading, but a perception of how Shakespeare works so far-reaching in its implications that it has never ceased to haunt the consciousness of serious critics and scholars. According to his own lights, A.C. Bradley was not being extravagant in saying that ‘there is no better piece of Shakespeare criticism in the world.’ But then Bradley was just as apt as Morgann had been to let his head find reasons for what his heart had already decided, while being much less ready, in his sober, thorough Late Victorian way, to admit, as Morgann had done, that the close and careful marshalling of evidence in a Shakespearean context was itself a fantasy process.

Why so? Because, in the succinct words of Lily Campbell, writing in Studies in Philology in 1947 on ‘Bradley Revisited’, it ‘forces a 19th-century legalistic interpretation upon 16th-century material’. She was writing in the day of Wilson Knight and the L.C. Knights of ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’, and at a time when the Bradleyan method had fallen thoroughly out of fashion. But there is nothing wrong with Bradleyan fantasy, provided it is recognised as such, for it enormously increases our sense of the depth and complexity of the plays, and how, in the words of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘imagination amends’ and interprets them. The crucial point, however, must be that evidence-marshalling treats Shakespeare as if he were, in James’s sense, an ‘irresponsible’, a detached Victorian creator, like Balzac and George Eliot in the novel, and Browning in the dramatic monologue. This he clearly was not. His involvement by instant seizure in his own text is so rapid and so powerful that any attempt to follow in his traces, sifting the evidence and weighing one bit of it against another, is bound to be futile, though it may also in its own fashion be revelatory. Freud and his disciple Jones proved to their own satisfaction, and on the evidential method of psychoanalysis, that, in Freud’s words, ‘Hamlet is able to do anything – except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realised.’ In its own way, that makes things as tidy as the Quarto version, which has the Queen confessing her own guilt, and agreeing to help Hamlet in his revenge. Bradley, naturally enough, sounds like his near-contemporaries Freud and Jones, but the point he makes is a more subtle and less dogmatic one. Neither his father’s death nor the loss of the crown is responsible for Hamlet’s blank misery and depression: it is ‘the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother’s true nature’. His mother actually enjoys being in bed with his uncle.

There’s a common sense in that view of the matter, to which any bosom in any age returns an echo. Not the evidence, but the whole atmosphere of the play confirms it: it has what Morgann at one of his shrewdest moments called ‘a felt propriety and truth from causes unseen’. Bradley in his day was unexpectedly bold in pressing its implications; but from the point of view of Jamesian artistry ‘propriety’ here would be exactly the right word. Shakespearean seizure is such that there is no need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Bradley has a true Johnsonian insight, which he did not arrive at from counting up the evidence, any more than Dr Johnson did in his judgments on Shakespeare’s men and women. A pity that Johnson could not have read Freud and Bradley, for though he would have pooh-poohed their Victorian elaborations he would have recognised their sheer operational intelligence, seizing on the gestalt of a Shakespearean involvement, as he was wont to do himself. When Bradley remarks that Macbeth plans and contemplates murder ‘as if it were a terrible duty’ he goes to the heart of the matter as economically and as surely as Johnson does when he instantly penetrates the Othello situation, observing that quiet girls in all ages are prone to fall in love in this way: that Desdemona is both a silly girl and a dependable girl, who would certainly have remained faithful to what began as an infatuation. The fact is that both Morgann and Bradley are at their best when most Johnsonian, not when they are making a great show of weighing the evidence; and that Morgann’s true insight is into a Falstaff whose impulses are contradictions, like those of most people, but whose gift is instant life-giving animation, a wit whose secret is its lack of stupidity, prejudice, conditioned reflex. Such a man would be brave when it suits and a coward when it doesn’t: it has often been remarked that in any age the same soldiers will fight courageously one day and run away the next.

But of course Shakespeare never insists on contradiction – that was left to his more intelligent romantic followers in the drama and novel of the 19th century. In his story ‘Die Marquise von O’ Kleist has a Russian officer who chivalrously and gallantly rescues a lady at peril from the soldiery, and then rapes her secretly after she has fainted. Kleist makes a great parade of the human paradox involved: he is a good and gallant young man, but that is how things are. Stendhal, Conrad, Musil go on to make the same demonstration in their different ways. The evidence, as in the case of the Marquise’s inexplicable pregnancy, or Lord Jim’s leap, is incontrovertible: the facts are plain – it is the role of fiction to add all that seductiveness of query which has human appeal. Why does Hamlet delay? The reasons critics supply are always ingenious but usually well after the event, the rapid unerring impression the drama makes upon us. It is certain, in terms of that impression, that Hamlet is deceiving himself when he fails to kill Claudius, saying, ‘Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent’: but he flinches, anybody would, from doing a deed which a conventionally-patterned stage revenger would take in his stride. Adroitly making use of the dramatic need for delay, Shakespeare realises for us what it actually means to kill a man in cold blood. Hamlet, like anyone, just cannot do it – never mind about mothers and uncles and Oedipus complexes – and thus makes himself real for us by putting himself outside the stock stage part. Contradiction comes in effortlessly: Hamlet is not a dreamer incapable of action and he can do quick and ruthless things ‘in the heat’ – he might like the Russian officer have rescued and raped Ophelia if it comes to that – but all depends on the swift and certain impression, which the critic trained in ‘evidence’ is then all too apt to unravel into a tangle in the study.

James’s method in The Golden Bowl is Shakespearean, or at least pre-realist, his instinct being against the slow detached revelation of ‘character’ in which the 19th-century realists specialised. It is no use speculating about what the Prince and Charlotte and Maggie and her father are ‘really like’, because the display of them is done in terms of action and collusion and the impenetrability of the individual consciousness. The goal of life is not to feel excluded, as Charlotte eventually comes to be. The interest of James’s case is that while challenging the elaboration of the Victorian mystery – Welsh compares not only The Ring and the Book but Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone – he rejects it completely, and with it the whole process of ‘working out’ what a character is really like, and what he or she might have done. The shock tactic and the immediate impression are as important to him as to Shakespeare. From the reader’s point of view, the vital effect is to feel abruptly close to – almost to merge with – the immediate participant, and to have to abandon that relation quite unfeelingly when, as in the case of Charlotte, the participant’s consciousness is excluded, and so ceases to exist – as Crusoe’s footprint might do after the tide has come and gone.