Sunday, 30 October 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

10. Abigail Wendover (Black Sheep)

On our first introduction to Miss Abigail Wendover we are forcibly reminded of the cloaked and cowled figure in Ingmar Bergman's Scandinavian cinematic masterpiece, Det Sjunde Inseglet. It is not just that, like Bengt Ekerot's character, her own appearance is totally subsumed within what she wears, but also that Abigail brings plague, pestilence and destruction wherever she goes.

The carnage within the Wendover family is shocking. Abigail has already accounted for both of her parents and four of her siblings, as well as the wife of the only one of them that survived into adulthood before our tale has even started. The sister with whom she lives is, unsurprisingly, a martyr to sickness. Indeed it is telling that she only recovers from consumption when Abigail leaves Bath on a tour of her surviving family, and comes down with a putrid sore throat, a fever, a headache and colic as soon as she returns. That tour was, of course, conducted amidst a miasma of measles and misfortunes. One family servant even went as far as breaking her own leg rather than be in the house when Abigail called.

In choosing to name his daughter so, Mr Wendover was clearly not mistaken. It was not father rejoiced that he had in mind, however, but his daughter's role as the handmaiden of Death.

While Miss Wendover and Miss Fanny Wendover still live, Miss Abigail Wendover's task cannot be considered complete, and it is clear that in encouraging her neice to favour the unhealthily thin and largely Bath-bound Oliver Grayshott rather than the more robustly constitutioned Stacy Calverleigh (among whose many accomplishments must surely include access to the sort of competent physicianship that is plainly absent entirely from the City of Healing Waters), Abigail is attempting to keep Fanny within range of her pernicious aura for as long as possible. By chapter 12 this plan appears to be working, as Fanny is struck down by influenza and about to fall into the hands of Abigail's partner in crime, Dr Rowton, a man who seems to believe that the Hippocratic Oath is more like guidelines. With Selina suffering a spasm or two, all seems set for Abigail to finish off in Bath and then to move back to Huntingdonshire and London where the last survivors still lurk.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, Miss Abigail Wendover's baleful influence seems to be fairly ineffectual beyond her family. It is only in chapter 18 that she finally strikes outside the Wendover clan, inflicting a toothache on Miss Butterbank. Given Miss Butterbank's role as spreader of gossip throughout Bath, it is likely that Abigail was aiming to inflict something a little more contagious for her victim to disperse alongside the latest on dits, but this perhaps proves, at this point at least beyond her power.

Until she grows stronger and more malevolent, he only way that Abigail appears able to harm those beyond her family is by having them marry into it. Whether this effect can then propagate beyond the immediate in-law is unclear, but it is without doubt a risk. It is clearly his concern over this prospect that motivates Miles Calverleigh to do all in his power to prevent his nephew marrying into the Wendovers, buying out his debts and throwing choicely endowed widows like Mrs Clapham into his path in an attempt to distract him from the poisoned chalice that is Fanny. This approach, however, can only ever win a few battles; it can never win the war against epidemic illness, and time, to judge by Miss Butterbank's fate, is running out.

Luckily Miles has a solution. It appears that whatever else he may have picked up during his sojourn in India, he has developed some sort of immunity to sickness such that he, and maybe he alone, can survive the rigours of marriage to Typhoid Abby. By marrying her he is in a position to tackle the sickness at its root. He has a plan, but for it to succeed, he must acquire not just Danescourt and the few unencumbered acres around it, but the extensive estates that close it off from the outside world.

Quarantined behind such an extensive cordon sanitaire, and under the military jurisdiction of the mysterious Colonel Ongar and his obedient henchmen, the Penns, Miss Abigail Wendover - now of course Mrs Miles Calverleigh - can be safely isolated from the rest of humanity, and Bath can once again be safe for its Misses, Quizzes, Olivers, Dowds and other assorted Janeites.

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