The Feminist She-Fiend of Victorian Literature: George W. M. Reynolds’ The Parricide

George W. M. Reynolds’ The Parricide (1846) is a fascinating Victorian crime novel, and at its center is one of the most fascinating women in Victorian literature, Sophia Maxwell, who tries to thwart the title character and his accomplice in their schemes and revenge herself upon them. She is an early example of feminism in Victorian literature in how she advocates for women, making her far more interesting than even the dramatic plot twists that fill the novel’s pages.

The Parricide is actually a rewrite of Reynolds’ first novel The Youthful Impostor (1835). I discovered this after I ordered a copy of The Youthful Impostor and only received a reprint of Volume 1. In trying to find a copy of Volume 2 online (which I never did), I discovered with the help of a friend that Reynolds’ rewrote and retitled the novel. Although Reynolds refers to the main character, James Crawford, several times in The Parricide as an impostor, he probably felt the new title would be more attention-grabbing and consequently sell more books.

Always curious why someone would rewrite a book, I tried to follow along in both volumes as I read to see what changes Reynolds made. I discovered he primarily took extremely long chapters and divided them into two or three chapters. Not until Chapter 20 of The Parricide, which coincides with Chapters 12 and 13 in The Youthful Impostor, does the text seem to vary significantly. Unfortunately, the first volume ends soon after so I couldn’t see just how much divergence there is and to what extent Reynolds majorly rewrote, although Stephen Knight, in his wonderful book G. W. M. Reynolds and His Fiction, sheds some further light on the differences between The Youthful Impostor and The Parricide, which I will discuss below.

Interestingly, The Youthful Impostor was published in Philadelphia but not London. When it was translated into French, a French reviewer made several points that Reynolds listened to in revising the novel as The Parricide. The most obvious change besides the title is a new dramatic prologue that discusses how parricide (killing one’s father) is the worst crime imaginable and forever weighs on the murderer’s mind. While Reynolds does not reveal it until the end, it is obvious to the reader from the novel’s opening pages when the main characters are introduced that James Crawford is the parricide, though he himself doesn’t know it until the book is almost over. Spoiler alert: I will give away all the secrets below. Before discussing further the differences between the two versions of the novel and the character of Sophia, the “feminist fiend” who interests me most, a plot summary is in order.

The novel opens by introducing the reader to the Crawford family. Mrs. Crawford has three children, James, Catherine, and Emily. The late Mr. Crawford died under mysterious circumstances after he had gone to visit his cousin Sir George Mornay, a baronet. While Mr. Crawford was heir to the baronetcy, he and his cousin had experienced a falling out years before. Furthermore, Mrs. Crawford’s marriage to her husband, though legal, is not verified because someone tore out the page from the church register that recorded it, thus making James Crawford’s legitimacy questionable and giving Sir George reason to deny James is his heir.

James has a friend, Mr. Arnold, who poses as a caring friend to all the family, but he is actually a highwayman who has led James into a life of crime (unknown to James’ mother and sisters). Among those crimes is robbing coaches and even murder. Somehow James never realizes that he and Arnold were the highwaymen who killed his own father, something Arnold keeps a secret until the end of the novel.

Arnold has another great secret that the reader figures out before the novel ends—he is Sir George Mornay, whom none of the Crawfords have met save the late Mr. Crawford. Sir George is determined not to let James be his heir, resulting in the murder of James’ father and his stealing the Crawfords’ marriage record. In fact, Arnold is intent on destroying the whole family, leading James into a life of crime and pretending to be in love with Emily until he gets her pregnant and then abandons her while claiming he has talked to her mother about their marrying.

The novel is full of one twist after another and makes for exciting reading even if the plot is somewhat predictable. However, the biggest surprise is Sophia Maxwell. James Crawford manages to finagle his way into Sophia’s affections because her father thinks him a man of business and the favorite of a wealthy Mr. Fitzgerald, who is really just another of Arnold’s cronies posing as a rich man. Consequently, through these false connections, James manages to acquire large sums of money from Mr. Maxwell and begins to associate with his daughter. Between the money Maxwell gives James, thinking he’s investing it, and the possibility that James will marry his daughter, given that James is heir to a fortune, Mr. Maxwell considers himself very fortunate.

However, Sophia soon begins to fear James’ interest in her is waning, so she decides to do some snooping, resulting in her discovering he is a villain. Not wanting to hurt her father, Sophia blackmails James into giving her the money he took from her father. Meanwhile, Mr. Maxwell is also owed money by Sir George Mornay, so Sophia goes to see him and realizes that he is Arnold, James’ accomplice, although at this point, James still does not realize his friend Arnold is really his enemy Sir George.

Arnold now starts to plot against Sophia, calling her a “wanton slut” and “she-fiend” in Chapter 37. When she goes to visit Sir George and discovers he’s Arnold, Arnold tries to strangle her, but someone comes to her rescue.

Sophia now wishes to be rid of James, but she feels like her “life’s current” is now blended with his. She goes to find Dimmock, James and Arnold’s accomplice who has been masquerading as Fitzgerald. She learns James paid him off by giving him money to go to America, but she finds his son, also a criminal, in poverty. With a little work, she gets the younger Dimmock to share with her details of crimes he knows James and Arnold have committed. She offers to help him financially if he’ll turn from a life of crime, so he becomes her loyal follower, even going to James and Arnold to negotiate, pretending to let them bribe him and making them believe he will side with them, only to turn against them.

Matters come to a climax when James acts like he will make things right with Sophia and even go through with marrying her. He invites Sophia to meet his family, but he leads her to people pretending to be his relatives who drug her and then let James rape her in a scene obviously inspired by the rape of Clarissa in Richardson’s famous novel. James then celebrates her rape by getting drunk while Sophia wanders home in a stupor.

The rape becomes a turning point for Sophia. After being ill for several days, she decides not to die to prove her virtue like Clarissa, but to become vindictive. Her father tries to learn what is wrong, but she will only tell him she has done nothing wrong but been punished for looking into others’ affairs. He silently fears she is becoming mentally unstable because mental illness runs on her mother’s side of the family.

Sophia now makes arrangements to meet Arnold and James on a bridge with the idea that they will be arrested. Despite the danger, they go to the meeting, and when the fake police Sophia has hired try to arrest them, they jump over the bridge, but Dimmock retrieves them with a rope he has secretly hooked to them. Arnold, by this point, is repulsed by Sophia’s unlady-like actions. The narrator even seems to agree with Arnold, saying there is something about her “so ominous of mental perversion and female impropriety” that it has “removed the thing from the comic and brought it under the compass of the desperate and tragical” and that Sophia’s ‘diseased taste” from her crushed hopes now worked a “dread revolution in her nature” (Chapter 45). Up until the rape, there is almost a sense of good-natured rivalry in how Sophia and her adversaries try to best one another, but now the narrator clearly sees any such hint of humor or fun is removed by Sophia’s “mental perversion.”

James now tells Arnold that he should cheer up because Sophia is on the border of insanity, so she cannot be a serious threat to them. These two villains are truly appalling at this point because they are not the least horrified by how they have tortured Sophia to the point of near-madness.

Sophia next decides she wants to start a community for women who will not marry, and she will do this by extorting money from James and Arnold so their crimes will pay for it. She never becomes quite clear, however, on what this community will be, referring to it as a place for “abjuring women” and a type of convent or nunnery. She gets Dimmock to extort 500 pounds from her adversaries to start the community while she looks at possible locations in Pentonville for her women’s asylum. She says these women will be her “disciples in a new social religion.” She also begins to claim she has visions that provide her with knowledge from heaven and she has supernatural aid to assist her in creating this community of women. She is almost a precursor to Mary Baker Eddy in the sense that she is practically setting out to found her own religion guided by the supernatural.

Sophia enlists the aid of a man named Donald to help her find a location, but his response to her is very sexist. He tells her she is not clear on what she wants so it is difficult for him to help her, and he asks her ignorant questions such as whether it will be a home only for ugly women who can’t find husbands or for a broader group of women. Sophia replies that it will be a home for wronged women and those who have enough sense not to want to marry. Donald takes such responses as a further sign Sophia is a little crazy, and he hopes she’ll come to her senses and maybe marry him, a sign that he thinks women are only good for one thing—to please men.

Once Donald finds a location for Sophia’s “folly,” as the narrator calls it, he again asks if she wants him to look for women who are old and ugly or young and beautiful. She replies she wants the “pure in heart.” The narrator then refers to Sophia’s plan as a “most impracticable institution” and “crazy scheme” (Chapter 50).

Meanwhile, James and Arnold plot to murder Sophia and frame Dimmock for it. Before that can happen, however, Sophia tells a doctor she is being influenced by spirits from above who are giving her guidance to create her institution. The result is she and Dimmock are confined to a madhouse and we never learn more about them after Chapter 51. The narrator in a few paragraphs bids Sophia goodbye here and tells us the “obdurate door” has been shut upon us and other than for our imaginations, we will be denied access to her further wretchedness.

The novel now moves to its dramatic conclusion. Eventually all is revealed. James learns Arnold is really Sir George, and then Sir George reveals that James was responsible during the highway robbery of killing his own father. Arnold/Sir George and James duel, and James dies, but Hunter, who is in love with Emily, whom Arnold got pregnant, then fights Arnold/Sir George and kills him. However, as Hunter brings the news to Emily, he reveals he has also been shot and he dies. The End.

Not even the good are rewarded in The Parricide. James and Arnold get what they deserve, but Hunter does not deserve to die, and Sophia and Dimmock do not deserve to be locked up in an insane asylum. One wishes that Reynolds had provided an afterword sharing what became of them, but we can assume they are never released. Knight remarks that the text says they will die of starvation, but I have been unable to locate such a passage.

It is worth noting here a few differences between The Youthful Impostor and The Parricide now that I have given the full plot. Knight reveals that Reynolds, who is well known for borrowing/stealing other people’s plots or story ideas, was inspired by Dumas’ play Angèle, and borrowed the pregnancy plot and duel scenes from it. The jail scenes were likely inspired by scenes from Ainsworth’s novels. Minor changes include that Lord Mornay is renamed Sir George Mornay and that Arnold only implied James had stabbed his father in the first novel, but Reynolds has Arnold insist James committed the murder in this novel, a change in line with the new title. Of most interest is that in the original novel, Sophia does not take on a detective role or dress like a boy. She is not intent on revenge nor has reason for it. Instead, in The Youthful Impostor, she is a minor character. Knight writes of her “James also meets a satirically treated ‘Matrimonial Advocate’: the rich wife he is offered is Sophia Maxwell, whom he already knows and admires, but James’s mysterious death will end their possible happiness.” One has to wonder what led Reynolds to revisit Sophia and develop her into one of the most fascinating and mistreated women in literature when he revised the novel.

It amazes me that The Parricide is not one of the best known Victorian novels. Is it great writing? Yes, if one likes potboilers—few authors do a better job than Reynolds of keeping the reader intrigued with a fast-moving plot. Is it great literature? Perhaps not, but Sophia Maxwell deserves to be one of the best known women in Victorian literature. What is surprising is that Reynolds allows the reader to sympathize with her and cheer her on, yet then he makes her insane and even lets the narrator disparage her. Perhaps the sympathy I feel as a reader is a result of my twenty-first-century sensibilities while Reynolds’ readers would have seen her as solely a mental perversion like the narrator. Even though the argument that she is insane has a basis in her father’s fear she will become insane because insanity runs on her mother’s side of the family, it is questionable if Sophia really is insane. Her desire to help women is laudable. That she doesn’t die but fights back when she learns her lover is a louse and even after he rapes her makes her one of the strongest women in literature to this point. One might argue her belief that supernatural beings are aiding her makes her insane, but wouldn’t that make most of the founders of world religions equally insane?

Also notable is that Reynolds turns on its head the idea that virtue must result in death if you are raped. And yet, Reynolds then seems to turn against Sophia by letting the narrator call her scheme impracticable and not allowing her to be the ultimate form of vengeance upon the male perpetrators. Reynolds seems to be on her side by showing the stupidity of Donald who can’t understand her intentions to help women, thinking she can only help ugly women no man would want, but at the same time, the narrator appears to be agreeing with Donald. Reynolds, who is known to have been a champion of women and to have supported his own wife, Susannah Reynolds, in her own novel writing and even to have benefited from her editing, likely was trying to be as subversive as he felt his readers would allow without going too far.

Certainly more work needs to be done on Reynolds’ attitudes toward women. Most of his female characters in other works, notably The Mysteries of London and The Seamstress, receive sympathetic treatment, yet while Reynolds mourns Sophia being locked up in her asylum, he will not lift his pen to free her. But perhaps that was the strongest statement he could make—to leave her locked up, to provide an overwhelming dose of reality about how women were treated in his society.

Consequently, Sophia Maxwell is one of those Victorian characters who haunts the reader after the book is closed, a women ahead of her time whose own creator may have felt he needed to lock her up because she had gotten out of hand.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur historical fantasy series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at http://www.GothicWanderer.com, http://www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and http://www.MarquetteFiction.com.

4 Comments

Filed under Alexandre Dumas, Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds

4 responses to “The Feminist She-Fiend of Victorian Literature: George W. M. Reynolds’ The Parricide

  1. ellenandjim

    Tyler, this is very interesting. Sophia Maxwell reminds me of Wilkie Collins’s heroines who seek revenge: they are proud, ambitious (for goals women are allowed) and when betrayed, thwarted, derided, fight back and come near to getting their revenge. When we come to read No Name on Trollope&Peers you’ll recognize aspects of Sophia Maxwell in Magdalen Vanstone. I am told Lydia Gwilt is a similar very pro-active transgressive type. Both defy and show no remorse (at least they suppress it vehemently) when they violate sexual and other norms. The society has treated them badly by law and custom. At the end of No Name Collins similarly tones down and tames Magdalen, but not most of the book. Another parallel is the importance of wills, legitimacy and internecine sibling rivalry

    I’m reading The Eustace Diamonds and arguably Lizzie Eustace and Mrs Carbuncle are similar characters but Trollope presents them with irony, and removes all melodrama, and makes them at fault rather than the society Mrs Carbuncle especially has to work through lies and other norm-breaking to survive – whatever she does she is presented as wrong (including when she plays the norms to make as much out of them monetarily as she can). Lily’s problem could be seen (by us) as her obeying norms too much, truly destroying her self, denying herself everything in a perverse way of showing the society how much she has been hurt by what is allowed others, especially when it comes to money.

    Our contemporary ways of reading these books brings them alive again for us, so they speak to us as they did to contemporaries.

    Ellen

    • Thank you for the comment, Ellen. I figured it would interest you. I will look forward to reading No Name. One of the essays I recently read about Reynolds suggests that he likely influenced Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon in writing their sensational novels. It’s interesting that Collins also reins in Magdalen Vanstone. Dickens hated Reynolds and never would have admitted influence by him but some of his characters probably were inspired by Reynolds. I would not be surprised if the same was true with Collins who likely held the same opinion of Reynolds yet would have profited from borrowing some of his characterizations and techniques. Graham Law’s essay on Reynolds’ Memoir series discusses this in the book George WM Reynolds: Nineteenth Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press. The general idea is that authors like Reynolds who wrote serialized works aimed at the working class inspired the later sensational fiction of the mid-nineteenth century.

      Tyler

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