The useful ‘Post on ‘G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Modern Literature of France (1839) points us to his only known attempt at writing for the stage. The Catacombs of Paris. A Melodrama in Two Acts exists as a manuscript in the theatrical collection of the late Arthur Williams (1844-1915).[i] Comparison with a contemporary letter by Reynolds confirms it is in his handwriting, and although there are some minor corrections and emendations, it appears to be a final version. The list of his publications on the title page ends with Grace Darling , which indicates it was written in 1840, a date born out by the style and content.
It tells of Angèle, a French country girl elevated to high society by marriage to an aging Marquis, of her seduction by a young aristocrat disguised as a monk and her act of revenge. The story had appeared in chapter fifty-three of Reynolds’s Pickwick Abroad, of the Tour of France (1837-8) discovered by Mr Pickwick as a ‘terrible narrative’ in a volume of tales he had recently purchased. Reynolds’s serial operated as as fictional episodes and a guide to the sights of Paris, and Angèle’s tale is illustrated both with a melodramatic tableau and a topographical engraving of the catacomb burial chambers.
Reynolds prose narrative takes the form of historical reportage, and be based on an actual event, although I have not found a source. The stage version pares down the plot down to focus the emotional impact, but it also significantly changes the moral perspective. In 1840 Reynolds had published The Modern Literature of France. He was also working on the little-noticed Master Timothy’s Book-Case, or a Lanthorn of the World (1841-2). Although the title suggests an imitation of Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-1840-1), the serial’s content is very different, and Reynolds’s claim that ‘the idea is so, perfectly original and the work so entirely novel’ is not just enthusiastic self-advertising.[ii] It is Reynolds’s own rebuttal, fuelled by his own early struggles and his reading of contemporary French fiction, of the complacent reliance on ‘facts’ in English statistical research and utilitarian thinking. Throughout Master Timothy’s Book-Case he uses an arcane Gothic subplot to link the episodic stories and turn them into parables illustrating the dangers of trusting simply to ‘universal knowledge.’ The ‘Preface’ declares that ‘we should never trust to appearances’: the meaning of events changes with the historical context, and human nature is more complex than it seems, with good and bad inseparably mingled.[iii]
Reynolds shifts the perspective on the story of Angèle and the Marquis. It is set in Paris in 1830, and In the Pickwick Abroad version, we learn that at that ‘French society at that period enjoyed the most unbridged licence.’[iv] But the historical ‘facts’ can give a very different expectation. in the play. France was enjoying the changes brought by Napoleon’s First Empire, and was auspicious to the marriage of a Marquis to a plebeian country girl. Class barriers were coming down, making such a union socially acceptable, indeed welcomes by the regime. Reynolds adds a scene showing the Empress Josephine herself visiting Angèle to offer support, and Angèle responding gratefully:
It is a consolation to know your majesty sympathises with in the sorrow of your subjects; and a blessed thing were it for the world, if other sovereigns only followed so great and brilliant an example.[v]
The Marquis and his wife have hardly moved to palatial quarters in Paris when he is called to England on diplomatic business. When an accident prevents a visit by Florville’s nephew Count Lagrace, a young monk the Abbé St Aubyn appears in his place, offering offers her spiritual consolation for her husband’s absence. Then, when he has won her confidence, he makes love to her. Angèle is renowned for her chastity and loves her husband like a father. But morally protected from childhood, now isolated and confused, she but has few defences against the wiles of an experienced seducer. Sexually awakened for the first time in her life, she surrenders. When the Marquis return unexpectedly, she is in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. For a moment she hopes to keep both husband and lover. But the Marquis discovers St Aubyn in her boudoir, and, confronted, the priest draws a dagger and strikes him dead.
The second act opens three months later. Angèle is installed in an apartment in the Tuilleries Palace. On the fatal day the Marquis had returned secretly by a back door in order to greet his wife before the formalities of his return, and after the murder St Aubyn had buried his body under the floor in quicklime. His disappearance therefore remains a mystery. Angèle is devasted by the horror of the murder: she asks herself ‘Must my lips be pressed by a murderer?’ But she also believes she herself shares responsibility for the crime. St Aubyn had committed murder out of love of her. She still loves him, and his fate now depends on her concealing her distress. Finding ‘a species of super-human firmness’ in herself, she keeps up appearance to protect him. On the disappearance of her the Empress offers her support. But the help comes too late.
When St Aubyn at length returns to see her, he is no longer wearing clerical dress. Thinking he has surrendered his vows in order to marry her, this sign of his love gives Angèle a moment of hope. But then comes the revelation. The ‘Abbé St Aubyn’ never existed. He was a disguise for her husband’s young nephew, the Count Lagrace. Being heir to his estates, he had watched his uncle’s marriage to a young bride with concern as a threat to his inheritance and become anxious to disrupt the union. As a sexual predator he was also challenged by accounts of Angèle’s beauty and moral purity, deciding to test her resistance under the guise of piety. Months later, the disappearance of the Marquis has remained unsolved, and he inherits his uncle’s property. He is still sexually attracted to her and tells Angèle he is willing to continue their sexual liaison, provided it is kept secret.
‘Ah, a light breaks in on me. I understand it all.’ cries Angèle. Her husband’s murder had destroyed the innocence of the country girl who married the Marquis. Knowledge of the full truth turns her into a steely instrument of revenge. Taking up his offer of a clandestine relationship, she lures him to meet her in a remote section of the Paris catacomb, and closes her secret entrance down into the catacombs. Around them the subterranean burial corridors stretch away in a black labyrinth and lost without light they are doomed to die of hunger and thirst. The earlier prose version ended the story as simple reportage. Angèle is discovered starved to death in the catacombs, while Lagrace is found wandering and insane, to tell the story in a moment of lucidity. In the play the climax comes like a thunderbolt. Realising the horror of his predicament, Lagrace screams ‘Oh horror! Horror!’ To this Angèle replies ‘Yes – this is our portion! You shared my joy and my pleasure: and now you shall be the partner in my atonement.’ Lagrace pleads ‘I cannot, dare not, meet Death!’. But she answers ‘Coward! Would you be outdone by a woman?’ With cold deliberation she extinguishes the lamp, crying, ‘I am now avenged!’ and the curtain ‘descends slowly’. [vi]
A reading from the manuscript at a London book launch in 2008 demonstrated the play’s dramatic power. But there is no record of any contemporary performance. Further, although Victorian popular fiction writers of all complexions, from the penny serialist Thomas Peckett Prest to the sensation novelist Mrs Braddon, were drawn to the conventions of melodrama and were associated with the theatre. But this is Reynolds’s only known venture for the stage. For all his ability to create dramatic effects he rejected contemporary English stage melodrama for the reasons, he rejected views of society based only on ‘facts’. It oversimplified the human condition. From its origins in René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s boulevard dramas in post-Revolutionary Paris, through Thomas Holcroft’s 1802 staging of Pixérécourt’s Coelins as A Tale of Mystery at London’s Covent Garden, melodrama in Victorian England was a stylised genre dramatizing the conflict of the forces of good against evil, and the eventual triumph of good. But despite its subtitle, Reynolds’s The Catacombs of Paris is anti-melodramatic. It embodies the contrary views we have noted in Master Timothy’s Book-Case, that ‘good and evil are … intimately blended in all creatures and affairs of this life’, that ‘man is the creature of circumstances’ and ‘we should never trust to appearances.’
Reynolds also believed that while human beings can be the victims of circumstance, they also have within themselves the power of change and regeneration. However terrible her end, her tragedy transforms Angèle from a naïve victim into the heroic mistress of her fate. In The Catacombs of Paris Reynolds explores the vision of both human suffering and resilience, and in particular the strength within the female character, that he would develop in his subsequent fiction. In 1844 The Mysteries of London would begin with another young woman, Eliza Sydney, emerging from the perilous world of subterraneous tunnels under the city. And she survives.
[i] Now in the Templeman Library, The University of Kent.
[ii] G.W. M, Reynolds, letter to William Emans, November 2, 1840.
[iii] Reynolds, Master Timothy’s Book-Case (1840-1); 2nd. Edition, (John Dicks: n.d.), ‘Preface’.
[iv] Ibid., 432.
[v] The Catacombs of Paris (ms.), p.19.
[vi] Ibid, p,26.
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Distinguished G W M Reynolds specialist, Prof. Louis James, talks about Reynolds’s only known play.