Sunday, 26 April 2009

30. William S. Gilbert - 'Angela: An Inverted Love Story' (1890)

'When I first occupied my room, about six years ago, my attention was
directed to the reflection of a little girl of thirteen or so (as nearly
as I could judge), who passed every day on a balcony just above the
upward range of my limited field of view.'

(Victorian Short Stories: Stories of Courtship,

This one engages me much more than the Trollope, perhaps because it is so of its time in a more radical sense. Gilbert, of course, admits to desire and the whole state of mind that that entails. Vestiges of propriety may be maintained but like in Wilde, there is a sense of conventional assumptions being overturned and confounded. It was published in September 1890 in the Century Magazine, as a new cultural era was taking root.

As with the Trollope, this presents a rather curious picture of 'Victorian Romance' - but this time with the emphasis on love in signs and interpretations of what love is. It takes a while for the 'poor paralysed fellow' who is the main focus and narrator of the story, to be revealed as definitively English - but it certainly makes sense that he is: 'she threw up her hands in a pretty affectation of despair, which I tried to imitate but in an English and unsuccessful fashion.'

There is a rather poetic conceit, suitably visual coming from this man of the theatre (noted for burlesques, melodramas and operas, of course): that the would-be suitor only sees his paramour in reflection in the canal water; a mirror image which one cannot rely on. Gilbert shows that his narrator's interpretation of her basic friendliness as love is down to his loneliness and wishful thinking - it could almost make an early Pulp song, this scenario!

It is all chaste in explicit terms; as this girl becomes mature, possibly sixteen or seventeen he ardour becomes manifest - though one is entirely unsure how she regards him. This brief vignette is so determinedly fixed from one vantage point that it resembles an unlikely precursor to Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), one of the greatest of films. Flowers seem to be a token of love, but are they? 'Tis a rather profound question raised by this story; our narrator interprets them as he will:

'But I soon took heart of grace, for as soon as he was out of sight, the little maid
threw two flowers growing on the same stem--an allegory of which I could make nothing, until it broke upon me that she meant to convey to me that he and she were brother and sister, and that I had no cause to be sad.'

It is rather 1890s in its revealing of the feelings and complexities beyond mere virtue and evil; in its small way, 'Angela: An Inverted Love Story' contributes to the Wilde-Shaw-Pinero destabilising of melodramatic conventions. What makes it all the more interesting is how Gilbert may be adding greater depth to the previous, rather roseate view of romance in some of his Operas (whilst slyly referencing The Gondoliers, which opened at the Savoy in the previous December); he is clearly coming to terms with stories like 'A Sphinx Without a Secret'. As in that story, male desire is satirised and the female character is unknowable, impossible to pin down in the standard ways their narrators demand.


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