Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

25. Arabella Tallant (Arabella)

Faced with the sorry tale of the “little Tallant” the question we are forced to ask is simple: just who does she think she is? By this I do not mean “what business has she pretending to be an heiress when her clothes appear to have been knitted by a minor character from The Scarlet Pimpernel?” No indeed. There is a much deeper malaise here. Let me explain.

In our first encounter with Miss Tallant we find her, with two sisters, in the schoolroom of a Parsonage in the Yorkshire village of H_____. Who amongst us, of literary taste and refinement, cannot but be struck by this scene, yet struck more forcefully by its resemblance to a typical scene from one of the less Gothick products of the pen of Mrs Gaskell. The fact that one of the sisters, whom we shall refer to as E____, is clearly quite mad (as proven by the fact that she is seeking to insert a boiled onion in one ear) merely confirms that H_____ must indeed be H_____.

And yet. In a moment all our suppositions are overturned by the discovery of a fourth sister. We must revise our opinions. Perhaps the cromnyophilic sister is not mad E____, but poor sickly B___, and we are to imagine ourselves in Orchard House. But before the end of the chapter we discover there to be an equal number of brothers also. Arabella may well be the story of a lovely lady, but we were surely not expecting this.

The sad fact is that Miss Tallant, lacking, for whatever reason (and one possible line of argument is rehearsed in a post scriptum to this post), any literary identity of her own, seems desperate to insert herself into whatever classics of 19th Century fiction she can obtain from the lending libraries of Harrowgate (and when such fiction is unavailable, who knows how low she may stoop?) This is an affliction not without risk even in the remote fastnesses of God’s Broad Acres, but how could she be safe in London, from whose very bricks fiction and fantasy must constantly drift?

We cannot know what truly delayed Miss Tallant’s journey to London until mid-February, but I suspect that there might have been an intervention of some sort. Perhaps she had become convinced the she and Sophy were surrounded by wolves and Hanoverian plotters. Or she might have been found in a hidden garden by a young Yorkshire lad with a knack for talking to animals. Whatever the truth of the matter, her family must have worked through the issues with her during the grim winter nights and to have thought her cured. How quickly they were to be proven wrong.

Barely has she left Yorkshire when Miss Tallant diverts her journey to the implausibly named village of Arksey, where she claims to have cousins. And where these cousins have a mother, Emma, her aunt. It takes two days for these lesser Tallants to get rid of their unexpected guest, who seems to have developed a whirlwind passion for the place. Oh, Auntie Em, Auntie Em.

Our heyeroine destabilised by the discovery that she cannot stay in KansasArksey any more we cannot be surprised when Miss Tallant’s perch breaks, and her body slides forward into her box (I assume that Miss Heyer knows what she is talking about here, as I for one am completely foxed). The Marston Turnpike is, alas, almost without literary merit, let alone a lending library, so Miss Tallant has little control over her situation. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Heyeroine in the general vicinity of Grantham and in want of a plot, must be in possession of a good fortune.

And in good time Miss Tallant arrives at last in London, and it is everything that she might imagine – or more accurately, everything that she might have read. Her first impressions of the metropolis are of the noise of post bells, and of wheels on cobbled streets, and of the melodious cries of charming cockney street urchins selling fresh milk and sweet red roses coals, brick dust, door mats and rat-traps. We can be sure that she considered herself well in.

Once established in the bracing Bridlington Household, Miss Tallant can really go to town. While the Incident of the Maid with the Toothache, must be considered an alarming attempt at fiction (the Queen of Denmark, perhaps?), it is Miss Tallant’s adoption of the role of Ellie from that nice Mr Kingsley’s mawkish morality tale that shows the depths to which she has fallen, taking as she does the unprepossessing Jemmy from that archetypal Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, the breezy Lord Bridlington, and turning him over to her own Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, Robert Beaumaris.

This episode is soon followed by a yet more desperate attempt, as she seeks to convert the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Street from a throwaway line in a magazine serial into a wholly different story. That the centre cannot hold, and things are falling apart, is so clearly shown when Mr Beaumaris goes off to meet his grandmother, the infamous Dowager Duchess, and finds the good dog Ulysses trotting closely behind, clearly intending that he too should take the road to Wigan’s peer (Wenlock apologises for letting that one slip through his normally rigorous editorial process).

Simply imposing her fictions upon herself, and occasionally Mr Beaumaris, might be overlooked in the broad scheme of things, but this is no longer enough for Miss Tallant, and with the arrival in London of her brother Bertram, she has a new victim. Her options are many. She could have him run up debts that would lead only to the sponging house or worse (although whether the Marshalsea would in reality be worse than the abode of Leaky Peg is a moot point). She could have him caught up in a financial scandal. But it seems that frequent visits to Richmond Park have given her flights of fancy a less urban edge, and in the end she decides to go down a more historical, even Scottish, route and so, perhaps as a result of mishearing an introduction during some dreadful squeeze, she introduces Bertram to her friend Chuffy.

But for Miss Tallant, there clearly remains a literary pinnacle yet unscaled by her erratic behaviour. I refer, of course, to the one known only as She Who Must be Read. And now the time for that apotheosis approaches. In chapter 15 of Arabella, Miss Tallant reaches for chapter 46 of That Book.

By now, of course, Mr Beaumaris has visited Miss Tallant’s family and been made aware of her true condition. Whether to encourage literary delusions in such a severe case is entirely wise must remain a matter of dispute, but it is clearly Mr Beaumaris’s chosen approach, at least for the purpose of removing her to a more secure environment. This he does in his unparalleled way and we can be relieved to know that, with Mrs Watchet and her “warm milk” always to hand, Miss Tallant will be well looked after from now on.

Post Scriptum

In searching for a possible cause of Miss Tallant’s condition I became aware that she has an air of fragility and delicately moulded lips. At first I thought this no more than proper for a Dresden China Miss, and should not, of itself, be a cause of instability. However it is clear from the book that Miss Tallant is no such thing. Indeed she may be, I fear, something rather inferior. Could her lack of a genuine character of her own be because she is not a Dresden China Miss, but a Franklin Mint Figurine?

1 comment:

TonyC said...

Have you seen this?