torsdag 6 december 2012

And now for the Dark Side - Gashford and Sir John

"[T]his man, who has crawled and crept through life, wounding the hands he licked and biting those he fawned upon"...

Oooh. He licks hands. And then wounds them. Only methaphorically, but even so! What promising representative of the villain fraternity is this? Answer: Mr Gashford (we never learn his first name), the oily and entirely fictional secretary of Lord George Gordon in Barnaby Rudge. As the quote above suggests, he's a great fawner and manipulates his naive employer effortlessly: one of his  tricks is to be "caught out" praising Lord George to himself while supposedly under the impression that the lord was sleeping. He is a hypocrite, who affects mildness while egging the Gordon rioters on, especially his own little band of trusted helpers. Even Maypole Hugh, who is no fool, is taken in by such strategies as Gashford's "nothing" speech, containing gems such as "When one of them was struck down by a daring hand, and I saw confusion and dismay in all their faces, I would have had you do nothing - just what you did, in short". His manner is described by one of his minions as "so awful sly". He foreshadows other Dickensian villains of the same embittered, upwardly-mobile type. Like Carker, he "smiles as if for practice". Like Uriah, he is "angularly made, high-shouldered, bony, and ungraceful". According to his enemy Geoffrey Haredale's account (from which the quote about the hand-licking is taken), Gashford seduced his benefactor's daughter, married her, and then broke her heart "with cruelty and stripes". This is the kind of proceeding both Uriah and Carker would heartily approve of (except for the stripes bit, which is a bit unsubtle when there are more cunning ways of making a girl miserable).

Gashford should, in short, be close to being my ideal baddie. And yet, and yet... He doesn't really come alive. He's more a collection of admirably villainous characteristics than a real character. We never really learn what makes him tick. He's not quite as much of a join-the-dots-villain as Bitzer in Hard Times - once you've made up answers to all the open questions about Bitzer's motivation, chances are you'll have ended up with a completely new character - but all the same, there are mysteries about the way Gashford acts, and not because Dickens means him to be mysterious (like Tulkinghorn), but more, one feels, because Dickens didn't really care that much about him as a human being. Why does Gashford encourage the riots? What has he to gain from them? Why does he hate Haredale so much - is it merely because Haredale humiliates him publicly by denouncing him and striking him down, or has Haredale crossed him in his past (of which he knows so much) as well? Why would Gashford go so far as to try and abduct Haredale's niece Emma, a girl he's most likely never set eyes upon? The author's answer would perhaps be an irritated "Why? Why? Because he's a total bastard!" But that just isn't good enough.

And so, for once, the most enjoyable villain in a Dickens novel is the dandy rather than the social climber. Sir John Chester (Mr Chester until about half-way through the book, but the title suits him) is marvellous fun, and somehow completely different from other Dickensian dandy villains such as Steerforth, Henry Gowan and Harthouse. Yes, Sir John is of high birth, disdainful of those more plebeian than he is and physically lazy, but unlike the often listless gentlemen mentioned above, he keeps his mind active. He has two goals: his own comfort, to be brought about by pimping his son to an heiress, and revenge on Haredale, whom he dislikes (plausibly enough) because he, Sir John, has done Haredale wrong in the past. Sir John pursues these goals with a single-mindedness and cunning that would honour the most diligent bourgeois villain in the Carker mould. And he has great style. Because of the nature of the good characters in Barnaby Rudge and their weakness for moral platitudes, Sir Johns runs rings around them without breaking into a sweat. Haredale's boorishness, Edward Chester's honourable speeches, Gabriel Varden's uprightness - they are all made to look sligthly ridiculous by the worldly and sham-amiable Sir John. When Haredale thunders: "Mark me [...] If any man believes [...] that I , in word or deed, or in the wildest dream, ever entertained remotely the idea of Emma Haredale's favouring the suit of anyone who was akin to you [...] he lies", Sir John responds blithely: "it's extremely manly, and really very generous in you, to meet me in this unreserved and handsome way. Upon my word, those are exactly my sentiments, only expressed with much more force and power than I could use". Try beating the wits of a man who can dress an insult up as praise as well as that. It can't be done - Sir John has to be brought down with violence at the end.

I was going to dwell a little on the likeability of Maypole Hugh - the most sensible rioter you are ever likely to meet, and fond of Barnaby, too - but I see I've already gone on at some length about the Barnaby baddies. Time, I think, for a little lie-down Sir John-style, maybe with a mug of hot chocolate. Too bad I don't have Lord Chesterfield's letters in the house for perusal.