Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Falkland's Trunk (Caleb Williams by William Godwin)

Who has not felt this at some point in their lives?

My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties, and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim. Every one, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name. I have not deserved this treatment.
(the opening of Caleb Williams by William Godwin)

I confess for my part that when greeted on opening a book with such a peroration I must read on to discover what has evoked such an impassioned plea for life to ‘leave off’ and let one at last be vindicated. Whether or not that shall happen I do not know for I have not reached the half way mark of the book and yet I am still impelled forwards by the force of the story. When I first began to read Godwin’s classic tale of revenge, madness, despair and squirearchy I was looking for a bit of fun or that unconscious humour that is achieved by a sustained, nay relentless elevation of diction matched by a moral tone punctilious in the description of its origins. But, what, in the name of all that is holy, is in Ferdinando Falkland’s trunk?

After reading for a bit you become used to his style and in the end find it suits the high moral theme of pride and evil and the corruption of false honour. Now I am off again to wonder why Caleb is tormenting Falkland with hints of a knowledge that is no knowledge but feverish conjecture. Falkland confronts him:

Two days subsequent to this conversation, Mr. Falkland ordered me to be called to him. [I shall continue to speak in my narrative of the silent, as well as the articulate part of the intercourse between us. His countenance was habitually animated and expressive, much beyond that of any other man I have seen. The curiosity which, as I have said, constituted my ruling passion, stimulated me to make it my perpetual study. It will also most probably happen, while I am thus employed in collecting the scattered incidents of my history, that I shall upon some occasions annex to appearances an explanation which I was far from possessing at the time, and was only suggested to me through the medium of subsequent events.]
When I entered the apartment, I remarked in Mr. Falkland's countenance an unwonted composure. This composure however did not seem to result from internal ease, but from an effort which, while he prepared himself for an interesting scene, was exerted to prevent his presence of mind, and power of voluntary action, from suffering any diminution.

Please note the triple withdrawal from the scene indicated by the square brackets. You have the general story, the commentary on the rule of its narration and so to speak an interlineal correction. Such layering increases psychological compaction and power.

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