Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three by Ella D'arcy

Ella D'Arcy
Ella D'Arcy (1856?-1939) is little known today, which is a shame as her prose is well-penned and thought provoking.  Unlike the more popular writers of the Victorian era, D'Arcy wrote with an abundance of realism and very little melodrama.  Her descriptions are beautiful as well as realistic, her characters flawed and believable, and her plots fluid and interesting.  There is little or no sensationalism, spiritualism or  mystery in her stories, just human drama or character studies that rarely conclude with a "happy" ending.  That D'Arcy produced only three volumes of fiction is a shame; she was a highly talented writer.

originally published 1895
4/5 stars

Monochromes is a set of six stories, too lengthy to be called short but not quite long enough to be novellas (novellettes?), and is D'Arcy's first published volume.  It also contains her only two "happy ending" stories.  On the whole, this set is well written and excellent, but not quite as good as her second volume of short fiction (Modern Instances), as some of the stories are more emotional and typically Victorian than her style is when it matures.

1. "The Elegie"  4/5 stars
This is well told story, though a bit dramatic, and creates a very vivid image of a young, spoiled man intent on getting his own way regardless of the consequences.  His pride and vanity is both repugnant and yet so believable as to make the reader slightly sorry for him--for after all, it could be anyone slipping into such a mess.  "The Elegie" is a well done character study with a conclusion that is sad and unforeseen.

2. Irremediable 5/5 stars
I first read this one in the story collection, Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages and it was this story that caused me to want to read more by D'Arcy.

"Every affront or grievance, real or imaginary, since the day she and Willoughby had first met, she poured forth with a fluency due to frequent repetition, for, with the exception of today's added injuries, Willoughby had heard the whole litany many times before."

This is a well written story from beginning to end. D'Arcy describes her characters and their emotions effortlessly and intimately. The plot is gripping and emotional. The reader watches as Willoughby makes the mistake that will cost him his happiness, an inappropriate marriage, but D'Arcy's writing keeps the reader still hopeful til the last heart wrenching sentence.

3. Poor Cousin Louis 5/5 stars
This story is nearly a horror story, not because of any gore, violence or supernatural drama, but because the uncertainty of the outcome creates such tension.  D'Arcy creates such sympathy for the title character, Louis, and then leaves to it to the reader to imagine what will happen to him after the last sentence.  It was a truly terrible story, all the more so because it was so well written as to be a truly magnificent one.

4. The Pleasure Pilgrim 4/5 stars
This story might owe it's conception to James' novella Daisy Miller.  The plots are similar in that they both contain a flirtatious American girl on foreign soil, who finds that her attitude backfires for her.  With D'Arcy, the story is not so much a focus on social attitudes and manners (though it does contain that element) as it is about truth and deception and how does one know the truth.  D'Arcy writes a rather shocking tale (especially for the time) that ends tragically and with the reader, and the hero, still uncertain as to what was true and what was not.

5. White Magic 3/5 stars 
This short story is an odd tail about an Island girl (D'Arcy lived on the Channel Islands for some time) and how the English pharmacist was able to repair her romance through "magic".  At times D'Arcy seems to be deploring the modern girl with no superstitions and at other times she seems to be mocking those females who do have superstitions.  It was hard to see what point she was making in the story, but, as usual, the narrative and descriptions were wonderful.

6. The Expiation of David Scott 5/5 stars
This is a long story, told in several short chapters.  It deals with love, friendship and betrayal in some very unique (for the time) ways.  D'Arcy creates fantastically believable, flawed characters and a wonderfully tangled moral dilemma that keeps the reader worried and guessing until the very last sentence.

The Bishop's Dilemma
originally published 1898
5/5 stars

The Bishop's Dilemma   is D'Arcy's only full-length novel.  I do not know for a fact that she was a Roman Catholic, but can assume so from the sympathetic way she treats the religion in this novel.  As with many Victorian novels, religion is a matter of a fact in this novel, not something to add in or to be apologetic for, and readers should have that in mind when beginning this one. 

The Bishop in question is Bishop Wise, and he is not the main character of this novel, rather he is the initiator of the drama.  He is present in the first and last scenes, starting events that affect the physcial and mental well-being of our protagonist, Father Fayne.

Fayne is a young man born to middle class, but with the grace, looks and attitude of a nobleman.  This has made him unpopular in his two previous posting and the Bishop believes he has found just the perfect placement for him in the small town of Hattering, where Fayne would essentially be the private priest to Lady Welford and her household, and the two other Catholic families in the town.  Fayne's manners and ability make him popular and revered and the choice appears to have been a good one.

Sadly, no one can account for human nature, and painting the weaknesses of human nature is D'Arcy's strength.  It is not long before Fayne's private Paradise becomes Hell on earth and the reader must watch him spiral into depression and misery.  As is usual with D'Arcy, there is no happy ending, just one all too real.  While the conclusion is disappointing for the characters, it, and all of the Bishop's Dilema is an immensely satisfying experience for the reader.

Modern Instances
originally published 1898
5/5 stars

Sadly, as it is D'Arcy finest work, Modern Instances is no longer print and not even available in Public Domain eBooks.  I was able to order it through inter-library loan and borrow a copy from our local university.  This is a magnificent collection of seven novellettes (for lack of a better term) in which D'Arcy's considerable talent is visible in each story, each page, each paragraph.

1. At Twickenham 5/5 stars
This story tells of a man who is unknowingly controlled by his wife and sister-in-law, of the friendship he nearly looses as a result of their schemes.  The characterizations, emotions and reactions are fantastic, very real and believable.  The plot is solid and keeps the reader engaged and curious to the end.

2. A Marriage 5/5 stars
This is a though provoking and heart breaking story of a young man, Catterson, in a very difficult predicament, as seen through the eyes of his casual friend, West.  The story is in three parts, having West narrate three instances over the course of many years in which he saw Catterson and his wife.  D'Arcy tends to paint a glum view of marriage in general, and wives in particular, and this story is the apex of that view.  As depressing as it is, the story is incredibly well written and well worth reading.

3. An Engagement 5/5 stars
This story takes place on "the Islands", and D'Arcy describes the people and landscape excellently.  In contrast to the previous story, "An Engagement" shows the male half of a relationship in poor light.  Dr. Owen is not only vain, he is mercenary in his desire to make a name for himself in the Island society.  He becomes engaged to a young woman, who truly cares about him, thinking she will help his social climbing.  When he discovers she will not, he finds a way to have the engagement broken by her guardian.  The reader has little sympathy for Owen, as it is shown early on that he is having an affair with an Islander of the serving class even while toying with the young lady's affections.  This story has D'Arcy's signature unhappy ending, but despite it all, it is a story that one is glad to have read, because of her considerable writing talent.

4. The Web of Maya  5/5 stars
"The Web of Maya" is another of D'Arcy's Island tales, and in my opinion her finest story.  The emotions of the protagonist, Le Mesurier, his actions and reactions, and his final "intolerable regret" are so well penned.  The shock to Le Mesurier comes as  a shock to the reader as well, and the story is finished with a thought provoking mix of emotions.

5. The Death Mask 3/5 stars
This story is shows the difference that a perception can make, but is a bit lurid and not as well written as her other stories.

6. The Villa Lucienne 5/5 stars
This story is as close to "sensationalism" as D'Arcy got, a ghost story with no real paranormal elements, just human reactions to elements and fears.  It is, as usual, well written and interesting.

7. Sir Julian Garve 5/5 stars
Another study of human nature, how a person thinks and how an unscrupulous person can manipulate another.  It features a gentleman who is not a gentleman in his actions and has a rather shocking ending and quite caught me off guard.

As you can see, I have found Ella D'Arcy to be an excellent writer and highly recommend her short stories, or the novel, if they can be found.  My only disappointment is that she wrote so little.

~~Read for the Victorian Literature Challenge~~

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