Friday, July 31, 2015

Victorian Dime Novels

One of the things I did to prepare for writing Rebel Mechanics was to read as much as possible of the literature of the period. That didn't just mean the classics. I wanted to find the "popular" fiction of the time. I wanted to read period fiction to get a sense of the use of language -- what words were in use and which ones hadn't yet made it into the vocabulary -- as well as the mindset of people living at the time.

I've often defended commercial fiction by pointing out that many of the books we now consider classics were the popular commercial fiction of their time. Dickens's books were the Victorian equivalent of soap operas, since they were published as serials. But after having read some of the less classic literature of the period, the "trashy romance novels" of the time, which mostly survive thanks to Project Gutenberg, I have to amend that. Dickens wrote books that were more the equivalent of the serialized quality dramas on TV, like the sort of thing that HBO does. Because I have now read the equivalent of the soap operas.

To give you an idea of what these books are like, I'll recap an example from 1891, Pretty Madcap Dorothy: How She Won a Lover by Laura Jean Libbey. Since you probably haven't read it, I'll warn that there are spoilers, but although you can get this book on Project Gutenberg, I really wouldn't recommend reading it, unless you want to punish yourself.

Our heroine (to use the term very loosely) is Dorothy, a teenaged girl working in a book bindery in New York. She's pretty, prone to stamping her tiny foot, has tiny white hands and, as we're often reminded, golden blond curls. She's been seeing Jack, who works at the same book bindery -- actually, she's engaged to him, since she's wearing his ring. At least, he thinks so. She has her eye on Harry, a handsome streetcar conductor who's been seeing Nadine, her co-worker and housemate. When Dorothy ditches Jack after work, he then sees her getting in a cab with Harry, and when he can't follow them, he heads to her place to confront them with a gun when they get back (believe it or not, this is our hero). Dorothy's friend Jessie gives an excuse for Dorothy and calms him down. Jessie counsels Dorothy to be careful, but Dorothy says Jack's poor, but Harry isn't just a streetcar conductor. He's actually rich and educated and is only working on a streetcar because he lost a bet, and this was the penalty. But then things get heated when she lies to Jack about her plans for Labor Day, since he'll be working. She says she's going out with friends but goes with Harry to a festival on Staten Island. Jack finishes work early and tries to catch up with Dorothy, only to learn where she really went. With his gun in his pocket (remember, good guy), Jack catches the last ferry to Staten Island and catches Dorothy with Harry when they get on the ferry to come home. Jack shoots and misses, but Harry cries out about being hit as a way of trying to get Jack in trouble, but no one notices because Dorothy faints (she does that a lot) and falls overboard. Harry runs off, but gallant (and violently jealous) Jack dives overboard and rescues her.

The doctor brought to tend her recognizes her as the daughter of a woman he once knew who vanished when her child was a baby (I'm not sure how he recognizes a teenager from an infant), and he instantly decides she has to come home with him and live in luxury on his palatial Westchester estate. Poor (violently jealous) Jack, who was also a bit out of it, has no idea what happened to her, and Dorothy neglects to inform her friends. Then guess who turns out to be the doctor's trainee, who'll be living at the palatial estate? Harry! He begs her not to tell the doctor about the streetcar thing or about him running off on her. She falls more in love with him than ever and acts it out by being wacky and madcap. He's more worried about the fact that his childless mentor now has someone else he could leave his huge fortune to. To test his concerns, he plans to ask his mentor for a loan, and he figures that if he's willing to lend money, that means he still plans to leave him something. But before he can finish asking, his mentor has to go off on a ride. Of course, he then has a tragic accident, is mortally injured, and with his dying breath, he makes Harry promise to ask Dorothy to marry him, but then they can't get married until his will is read six months later.

She's overjoyed with the proposal, while he's less happy, but he figures that if his mentor demanded he marry the girl, either he'll get the money so he can support her or she'll get the money, which he'll get by marrying her.  Then tragedy strikes again when they're at a bonfire festival, and a couple of cinders from the fire fly into Dorothy's eyes, blinding her. The housekeeper sends for her orphaned niece to serve as a companion. But the niece, Iris, is a game-playing, man-stealing bitch, the kind who doesn't so much want the men as she wants the thrill of taking them away from other women (I had a frenemy like that in college). She goes after Harry with guns blazing, and poor, blind Dorothy doesn't stand a chance. At a ball, she overhears everyone talking about how Harry seems to be so in love with Iris and flees outside, falls and hits her head. When she wakes up, her eyesight has been restored (yes, she went blind because her eyes were burned, but she gets her sight back from a bump on the head). She heads back inside, comes upon Harry and Iris in the conservatory, hears him declare his love for Iris, and faints. Meanwhile, Nadine (remember her -- Harry's ex he dumped for Dorothy) has tracked him down and has gone rather mad. She's planning to kill Dorothy, but she doesn't get a good look at Iris and tries to stab her, thinking she's Dorothy, and then runs off. Iris's screams wake Dorothy, who comes across the knife Nadine dropped just as Harry sees her, so of course he thinks Dorothy was the one who tried to stab Iris. He sends Dorothy off, then tells Iris it was a falling shard of glass from the conservatory roof that hit her. He then tells Dorothy their engagement is off. Dorothy refuses to end it, and he says either he leaves or she leaves. The next morning, he's surprised to find that both Iris and Dorothy are gone. Iris left a note saying that the doctor who tended to her wound was very wealthy, proposed to her, and insisted they be married right away. Dorothy's just gone. The next day is the reading of the mentor's will, and it turns out that Dorothy gets the whole estate -- but only if she marries Harry within two weeks.

Meanwhile, back in the city, poor (jealously violent) Jack has been in agony about Dorothy's absence. He quits going to work because he's spending all his time searching for her, worried about what might have become of her. He refuses to listen to the people who remind him that the last time he saw her, she was cheating on him, insisting it must have been a misunderstanding. She's his one true love, and he'll never love anyone else, and he says so in many speechy monologues. One day as he's walking along, a sign falls and hits him on the head, and Jessie -- Dorothy's friend -- is on the scene to tend to him, get him home, and nurse him back to health. As she does so, she falls in love with him, but he doesn't notice because he can think of no one but Dorothy. And then Jack suddenly inherits a vast fortune from a distant relative (which happens all the time).

Harry's frantically searching for Dorothy, so he can have his one, true love: the money. He resorts to seeing a psychic -- and would you believe, the psychic is Nadine! Not that he knows this, but she thinks the woman he's seeking is her and that he's looking for her because she killed Dorothy, so she runs away.

And what about Dorothy? She runs away in the night and is considering throwing herself off a cliff into the sea when she sees a man throw in a bundle. She goes down below to see what it is and finds a baby, and it's still alive. She does what anyone would do in that situation: she gets on a train to New York with the baby. Then she has a hard time finding jobs because having the baby around is a liability, until she sees an ad for a companion to an elderly woman, and she's okay with the baby coming along. One problem: she wants a middle-aged woman. Dorothy's landlady used to work in the theater and fixes her up with a wig, glasses and makeup to look older. Then, would you believe, the job is with Jack's mother, in Jack's house! Dorothy starts to realize that she really does love Jack, after all that's happened (I'm sure the vast fortune and Manhattan mansion have nothing to do with that). But Jack is engaged to Jessie. But Jessie is ill, and she refuses to have the doctor sent for. She confesses to Dorothy that she wants to die. She loves Jack, but she knows Jack doesn't really love her and that he's only marrying her because his mother made him promise to after all she's done for them, nursing him through injury and illness and then taking care of his mother through a near-fatal illness. Now that the wedding is approaching, Jessie isn't sure she can go through with it, knowing he doesn't really love her.

She's so ill that Dorothy insists on sending for the doctor. Their family doctor is ill, so his new assistant shows up. Guess who it is? Harry, of course. He says Jessie will need round-the-clock nursing, and his employer has just hired a nurse. Guess who that is? Nadine, naturally. Nadine sees the way Harry cares for Jessie and becomes convinced that he's in love with her, so she devises a plot to gradually poison Jessie. Jessie's near death when the regular doctor returns, gets suspicious, calls in an expert colleague, and the two of them figure out she's being poisoned. They start thinking of who the suspect might be, and the expert sees Dorothy and is like, "Dude, she's wearing a wig and stage makeup." They figure if she's disguising her identity, she's up to no good, and they watch the way she looks at Jack and figure she's eliminating her rival. They gather the household and announce that they've figured out who might want to kill Jessie, and Dorothy, thinking they're going to accuse Jack, confesses, and the doctors then yank her wig off and reveal her identity. She then runs away, completely forgetting the baby.

But outside, Harry catches her, throws her into a carriage, and rushes her off to marry her, since the deadline is coming up. He's driving so fast, he loses control of the carriage and it crashes. When Dorothy wakes up after the crash, a young woman approaches her. She takes Dorothy to her home, and she seems so sad that Dorothy asks what happened. A wicked servant who had been dismissed vowed revenge, kidnapped her baby and said he threw it off a cliff. Dorothy realizes this is the baby she found, and she knows where it is, but she can't go back there because she's suspected of murder. It turns out that this woman's husband is Jack's business partner, so he'll listen if she vouches for Dorothy. They go back to find that Nadine left a note of confession before disappearing, so Dorothy is cleared. Now Dorothy and Jack can marry, and it turns out Harry did fall in love with Jessie while he was tending her, so they marry. Funny, no one mentions what happens to the money since Dorothy didn't marry Harry. So now they all live happily ever after, violently jealous Jack with the girl who cheated on him, and sweet, caring Jessie with the fickle cad.

Now, aren't you glad that while I tried to play on the tone and structure of Victorian dime novels, I didn't draw too much from their plotting and characterization? I'm not even sure airships would have helped this story.

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