NuSense: COMMUNITY Issue 4
Courtney Stuart, "Skin-Deep: Self-Control and the Superficial Narrative of Superiority in The Beetle"
The Victorian period is arguably where the characteristic ‘stiff upper lip’ of the British is most apparent. Self-mastery was perhaps so lauded then because so little seemed to be under Britain’s control. New sciences and inventions were undermining traditional social structures everywhere you turned. Women were beginning to trickle into the workforce and insist on rights. Empire was teetering on the verge of chaos. The only way for Victorian society to get through this period of uncertainty – and the only way the government could retain its control over the people – was to act like everything was just fine. A thin veneer of control was projected over issues of gender, science, and empire when no one really had any substantial control at all. Richard Marsh explodes this superficial control in The Beetle by repeatedly undermining the one thing every British person should still have control over: themselves.
Marsh’s focus on body language points the audience not only to the immediate lack of control over said body language, but also to the reason each character loses control. Body language is merely another method of communication, and controlling the social or imperial narratives was how the British government maintained its semblance of control over the issues themselves. When the characters lose control over this primal method of communication, it reflects the government’s gradual loss of control over the social narratives that insisted everything was all right. Watching Marjorie and her father’s physical communication and comparing it to the verbal narrative Lindon puts forth demonstrates concern over women’s changing roles in society, and men’s inability to control the situation. Lessingham’s interactions with the other men throughout depict uncertainty about the changing narrative of masculinity as well, while analysing Atherton’s body language and speech reveals some disturbing questions about science and its direction. Finally we have the Arab, or Beetle, itself, a narrative in which these fears about Victorian society are played out against a wider backdrop of the superficial control Britain has over its empire. Marsh uses the divide between what the body language is really saying and what the characters are verbally trying to put forth as truth to comment on the superficiality of the Victorian narrative of control, both on domestic and imperial grounds.
Let us begin with that most domestic relationship of father and daughter. According to his speeches, Lindon would have us believe that he is in control of the relationship, but his body language belies it. He has “warned her against the scoundrel [Lessingham] more than once; [he’s] told her to cut him dead” (Marsh 159). His tone is one of command and he is frustrated that Marjorie continues to disobey him. However there is little wonder she does, when you compare Lindon’s body language to her own. Throughout the novel, Lindon repeatedly works “himself into a state of heat in which his countenance presented a not too agreeable assortment of scarlets and purples” (159). He is always blustering and gesticulating, and has about as much control over his speech as he does over his body, evidenced by the pronounced stutter that gets worse when he confronts his daughter. Marjorie, by contrast, is always cool and calm in her physical reactions (169). When she possesses such self-mastery it is unsurprising to find her besting her father, so lacking in self-control. Marjorie is headstrong and insistent when it comes to doing as she pleases, and her father is comically unable to bend her will to his, when he cannot even master himself and his own body language. The narrative of filial dominance he insists upon verbally is unequivocally undermined by the body language of father and daughter during their arguments.
Marjorie can be described as anything but passive and submissive, except when she is with Lessingham at the beginning of the novel. Lessingham is renowned for his unflappable stability (75). In the face of such “unruffled coolness” Marjorie becomes a passive character, resuming the traditional role of subservience to masculinity, losing some of her own control over her body language in the process. She shivers, cries, and is struck dumb, requiring Lessingham to comfort her until her self-control returns (191-2). At this point in the chronology, Lessingham has yet to encounter the beetle in London and remains the unflappable politician. Lessingham’s narrative of control has not been wholly undermined yet, and indeed even readers do not yet know the secret of his past. Lessingham is still in control of the story of his life, in control of his body language, and therefore in the controlling position in his relationship with Marjorie.
Even Lessingham’s control is fragile and superficial however, as we have already witnessed by the time we reach Marjorie’s diary. While his superior position to Marjorie is not immediately questioned, his superior status in comparison to the other men is entirely uncertain from the get-go. According to the historian John Tosh, “manliness and gentlemanliness were sharply distinguished in the early to mid-Victorian period” (458). In Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England, Tosh discusses the notion that as the Victorian era wore on, gentlemanliness was increasingly associated with pleasant, but empty and superficial politeness (463). More and more it was considered appropriate to be thought of as “manly” rather than “gentlemanly,” since manliness denoted “energy, virility, strength…[and] the moral qualities which enabled men to attain their physical potential – decisiveness, courage and endurance” (460). The men in The Beetle are held up for comparison as though Marsh would determine which is truly more beneficial for society: the gentleman or the man. Lessingham is not quite the gentleman of the early nineteenth century, but he has built his career on his oratory skills rather than action. Part of Tosh’s superficiality of gentlemen comes out through their skill in conversation and social settings contrasted with their idle lifestyle – gentlemen did not work, they socialized. Though Lessingham is a great politician who will make history, we never see him take any action; all he ever does is talk.
Take the burglary scene, for example. Instead of making some move to take the revolver and apprehend Holt, he tries to talk him down (Marsh 76). This pattern is repeated throughout the narrative – it is Atherton who investigates the Arab and Lessingham’s past; Lessingham merely approaches Champnell and hires him to do the investigating. Though Lessingham accompanies the two men, he contributes nothing to the chase except his fears for Marjorie’s fate. As far as heroes go, Lessingham is decidedly lacking in vitality, courage, and strength. Marsh places Lessingham in the position of gentleman, as inferior to manly men, and he emphasises this through Lessingham’s body language. During his speech at parliament, Lessingham “was coolness itself. He had all his faculties under complete command” and Atherton compared his self-mastery then to earlier in the day when he had seen Lessingham “a nerveless, terror-stricken wretch, grovelling, like some craven cur, upon the floor, frightened, to the verge of imbecility, by a shadow” (126). In social situations where the power of speech is required, Lessingham is upright, cool, and in control of his body language. He is “unflappable.” When faced with a situation that calls for some kind of action, however, like the face-off with Holt, or his confrontation with Atherton, and any dealings with the Beetle, Lessingham loses complete control of himself and his body language, revealing his fear and panic and rendering him incapable of doing anything. Lessingham, comfortable in gentlemanly situations, is useless when any kind of action is required – when he needs to “play the man,” as Champnell says (294). Old notions of superiority and the controlling class need to be reassessed since gentlemen, traditionally the dominant class, prove themselves so woefully inadequate when any kind of decisive action is required. In this period of uncertainty and unravelling traditional social and political controls, decisive action is required all the time – gentlemen, the erstwhile dominant class, must either learn to act or step aside in favour of those who are prepared to. It is Champnell, the upper-working-class investigator, who is the real hero of The Beetle, in the sense that he is the one who actively works to find and rescue Marjorie and capture the Arab.
Atherton falls somewhere between the two men. Awkward and clumsy in social situations, he cannot stand in for a gentleman, and while he may take action, he fails to really achieve anything. Again, it is Champnell who brings order and direction to the chase at the end. Atherton may be a highly physical individual, and more a man than Lessingham, but his body language is anything but controlled. A scientist and inventor, Atherton’s lack of self-mastery is particularly unsettling, especially considering he is developing volatile and early forms of weapons of mass destruction. In the cab with Lessingham and Champnell, Atherton “sometimes sat on [Champnell’s] knees, sometimes on Lessingham’s, and frequently, when he unexpectedly stood up, and all but precipitated himself onto the horse’s back, on nobody’s. … Never, for one solitary instant, was he at rest, or either [Champnell or Lessingham] at ease” (255). Atherton has no control whatsoever over his body language, so much so that he actually endangers the two other men, putting his elbows into their eyes and knocking off their hats. At no point in the novel does Atherton really demonstrate any effort to control his impulses. The only show of self-mastery is when he succeeds against the hypnotising power of the Beetle (144). The scene is more an illustration of science triumphing over superstition and magic than Atherton demonstrating self-control however, as Atherton does not control himself for the rest of the novel.
In The Gothic Body, Kelly Hurley discusses how the gothic genre supernaturalizes “both the specific content of scientific theories and scientific activity in general” as a way of bringing the anxieties inherent in science to a more manageable level (6). In the Victorian era, science was rapidly undermining traditional understandings of the world. It blurred the lines between humans and animals, cataloguing and explaining miracles, and even trying to scientifically ascribe character traits to genders (Tosh 465). What the new sciences could not guarantee, however, was the provision of a new understanding of the world that was as complete as the traditional one. It produced more questions as quickly as it answered them, and this generated a lot of anxiety over our ability to control the direction of the new sciences. Atherton is a scientist developing toxic gas as a weapon of war, and while you arguably see the triumph of science and technology over the Beetle’s mysticism, Atherton’s lack of self-control is terrifying considering the power of life and death in his hands. By depicting Atherton as lacking that self-control, Marsh refuses to permit his readers to feel satisfied that modern developments would always save the day. After all, Woodville almost died because of Atherton’s invention, and was only saved by the Beetle. Marsh uses Atherton’s body language to explode the comfort people take in the new sciences – if they can so easily, accidentally be turned against us, then how can we claim to have them under our control?
Hurley points out that while on the one hand gothic seems to bring anxieties to a manageable level, on the other it also aggravated them (6). Atherton’s inability to completely control his invention (or himself) is just one example of an anxiety Marsh refuses to relieve with the death of the Beetle. Britain’s tenuous hold over its empire is another. Jamil Khader also discusses how gothic fiction manages trauma; while his essay Un/Speakability and Radical Otherness deals specifically with Dracula, many of his points apply equally to The Beetle. Trauma theories today focus primarily on the Holocaust but, according to Khader, “twentieth century violence…cannot be adequately understood without accounting for the five hundred years of European conquest, terrorism, and genocide committed against indigenous people around the world” (77). Empire received support from the British populace only because it was presented as a positive thing. Empire allowed cheap, exotic goods to flood the British market, but the narrative of empire went beyond consumerism: by colonising these inferior nations, Great Britain was making them better. Increasing revolts and wars, and growing anti-imperialist agitations was quickly giving lie to this narrative of superiority and civilization, bringing instead the horrors of imperialism to the forefront. British control was wavering. Marsh takes the trauma inherent in imperialism Khader speaks of and brings it sharply to light by turning it against the British people. Rather than Englishmen invading a colonial land and assuming control, the colonized are invading London and taking control of the citizens.
Again, the trauma of foreigners taking over is expressed most poignantly through body language and self-mastery of it. The Beetle hypnotises Holt, Lessingham, and Marjorie, and tries to hypnotise Atherton. While under the Beetle’s control, these Londoners are incapable of controlling their own bodies. Holt describes his “passivity [as] worse than undignified, it was galling. [He] knew that well. [He] resented it with secret rage” (52). The frustration and horror they experience when the Beetle controls their bodies is equivalent to the frustration and horror of imperial efforts to control colonized countries. Holt’s “secret rage” is the same rage the colonized feel as a result of their oppression by the British, gradually beginning to express itself in the revolutions of so many colonies. Khader argues that Dracula constructs a sense of community – the isolated narratives compiled into a single whole – that allows the trauma to be considered and managed on a level that supersedes the individual. He cautions, however, that the development of a community around a trauma could result in the “violent and xenophobic disavowal of the Other” (Khader 78). This concept is evident in The Beetle as well: Though the colonials are striking back against Britain through the Arab, the novel makes literal the anxiety that just as England has violently oppressed the colonies, so too might it be oppressed in its turn. Consequently the Beetle, and the colonies it represents, is not depicted with sympathy by Marsh, but rather with horror. The Beetle becomes even more violently disavowed as Other.
According to Hurley, the Beetle “represents a barbaric Other…a sexually perverse Other…and a magical, supernatural Other” (126). This excessive Othering serves primarily to distance the Beetle and all the anxieties it represents from the implied narrative that defines ‘Englishness.’ Lessingham, our unflappable protagonist, becomes flappable only when confronted with the Beetle. When Holt first says, “THE BEETLE”, he remarks that Lessingham, “so far from exhibiting the impassivity for which he was renowned, all the muscles in his face and all the limbs in his body seemed to be in motion at once; …his very fingers were twitching aimlessly, as they were stretched out on either side of him, as if seeking support from the shelves against which he leaned” (Marsh 76, 77). When Lessingham speaks to Atherton the following morning however, and even when he tells Champnell his past experiences with the cult of Isis, he remains completely in control. It is only when directly confronted with the Beetle that he loses control. While incapable of doing anything productive during the chase, and clearly consumed by fear for Marjorie, Lessingham remains in control of his body as long as a distance between himself and the Beetle is maintained. In the same way, as long as no one looks too closely at the colonies, or the state of the empire, then the British government can continue to seem in control.
This superficiality of control is also why it is so important that Marsh created the Beetle to represent so many Victorian anxieties. As Hurley explores in her book, the Beetle embodies anxieties regarding the fluidity of gender roles (it is neither clearly male nor female), anxieties about the efficacy of science and the creeping popular interest in old world science and mysticism (after all, in the technological race to capture the Beetle, it is not definitively destroyed), and, of course, the anxieties regarding empire that I have just outlined. If control can only be maintained at a distance from the Beetle – further suggested by the fact that it is capable of hypnotising the majority of characters who encounter it – then really, no control over it is had. Again, at the end the Beetle is killed in a train crash. None of the principal characters chasing it have anything to do with removing the threat, if the threat is even truly removed. Marjorie takes years to recover her sanity – her control over her conscious mind, never mind body – and even after her recovery, neither she nor Lessingham can bear to hear the word ‘beetle’ mentioned but must leave the room, presumably to prevent giving in to fear or panic and losing control (319, 320). Even with the threat’s removal, Lessingham and Marjorie remain on the edge of losing control, suggesting that the control they have managed to regain, is not really control at all – it is only skin deep.
Marsh creates a vivid commentary on the superficial nature of Britain’s control over all aspects of its society toward the end of the nineteenth century. Gender roles, both of women and men, science, and the empire are all sources of intense anxiety for Victorians, both alleviated and exacerbated by the gothic mode. Marsh alleviates them by allowing people to deal with them in a distanced manner – the events in The Beetle are fictional and therefore manageable. However, Marsh exacerbates them by exposing just how ineffectual that process of distancing the concern really is. Control is not regained by distancing the concern, just the illusion of it. And as happens to Lessingham, that illusion could shatter at any moment. While the end of the novel restores the illusion, the inconclusive destruction of the Beetle suggests that it could, once again, fall apart at any moment.
Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1996). Ebook.
Khader, Jamil. “Un/Speakability and Radical Otherness: The Ethics of Trauma in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” College Literature 39.2 (Spring 2012): 73-97. Web. 1 November 2012.
Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. Toronto: Broadview Press (2004). Print
Tosh, John. “Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6.12 (2002): 455-472. Web. 1 November 2012.
*Originally submitted on December 9, 2012, as a final paper in ENGL 4516 Honours Seminar (Dr. Robert Breton); revised for NuSense. The paper was awarded an English Studies Essay Prize. Congratulations, Courtney!
© NuSense 2011