Would I be interested in reading Florence Marryat's The Dead Man's Message?
Well yes I most certainly would because this felt like an unusual way back via a writer and a book I'd never heard of and today being the 110th anniversary of Florence’s death seems like a good day to do my bit to resurrect her for some general perusal.
I’ve had a really pleasurable time looking Florence up in books various on my shelves here. Background research I find can often be as engrossing as the book itself, entries and mentions often slight but they have all helped me build up a picture for myself to go alongside Greta Depledge’s introduction to this book.
There is no doubt that Florence was definitely the daughter of Captain Frederick Marryat of The Children of the New Forest fame and with the Oxford DNB assertion that Florence wrote over seventy-five novels, well that's an awful lot of novels for me never to have heard of either author or titles, especially given that one of them was Miss Chester, as indeed was I until the age of twenty-two.
Florence Marryat was very much the middle-class woman who supported her family with her writing which included playwriting 'as part of her broader career as a woman of letters'.
In fact at one time nine adaptations of Florence's novels were out there running simultaneously in provincial theatres, and nor were they tucked away on the fringe in private theatres or clubs but out there being performed in popular accessible venues.
women playwrights struggled to participate on something like equal terms with
their male colleagues, the theatre was voracious in its devouring of women's
Yet still I had never heard of Florence Marryat.
Kate Flint suggests in her excellent book The Woman Reader 1837-1914 that despite the male researchers of the day suggesting otherwise, Florence Marryat was indeed a truly popular writer among young girls and that perhaps those interviewed had offered suitable rather than accurate responses to the questions, thereby pushing Thomas Carlyle slightly higher up the popularity list than he really deserved to be.
On my shelves, one of Bookhound’s ancient old £1 market finds, thrown out of Exeter Library, a 1910 edition of The Literature of the Victorian Era wherein Florence's father Frederick Marryat is crowned the laureate of the British sailor for his sea-faring novels, our best first-hand authority on the great age of the English navy and who can know the wealth of tales he returned home with after fifty battle engagements.
Good to know this then
‘Like Thackeray, Marryat transmitted to a daughter Florence, a portion of his literary gifts; but it appears in an attenuated form , and is, of course, exercised on other fields.’
So having satisfied my curiosity it was clear that invisibility had beckoned for Florence here until now, and what a
good read The Dead Man’s Message has proved to be, as the domineering and
patriarchal scientist Professor Aldwyn wakes from a quick nap to discover that
he’s actually dead.
Really properly dead, but still very much of this world as a spirit.
This rational and scientific man now finds himself plunged into the abyss of his own cynicism about the existence of an afterlife by actually being forced to live his own. Worse is to come because all his sins are about to jump up and bite him as he is kept chained to his own body and must stand by and listen to what everyone has to say about him. Understandably it’s not pretty.
Childhoods blighted by a domineering father have taken their toll on son Gilbert and daughter Maddy whose mother Susan has died, and under what repressed circumstances I could only begin to guess. Comfort must now come from the Professor's long-suffering but highly sympathetic second wife, Ethel, rather disconcertingly called Mumsey by Maddy, which is a mirthful diminutive used here on occasion.
There is much in here that offers primary source information about Victorian beliefs in spiritualism and communicating with the afterlife, one of Florence's greatest interests. Fascinating insights into the world of spirit photography alongside interesting and seemingly early psychological explorations of how parents as a role model for their children may well reap what they sow.
I find Florence Marryat quoted elsewhere (Guardians and Angels - Parents & Children in 19th Century Literature by David Grylls) as saying of the influence of parents
'Not one hundredth part of the men and women who marry are fit to become fathers and mothers.'
When Professor Aldwyn is finally faced with the potential outcomes of his lifetime of vile behaviour...well, I'll leave you to discover that for yourselves.
Plenty of wonderful Victorian melodrama but all underscored by some profound and, for the time, some forward-thinking language and ideas from Florence Marryat. This novel first published in 1894, perhaps at a time when all those fin de siecle anxieties may have been looming. This edition blessed not only with a good introduction but also a really useful Appendix of added contemporaneous writing on several of the issues highlighted in the book.
Alongside this I can highly recommend Justine Picardie's book If the Spirit Moves You, which I had coincidentally just finished reading. It offers a really interesting latter-day perspective on so many of those issues that exercised Florence too, as Justine explores that year in her own life after her sister Ruth's death and seeks answers to those eternal questions,
...of the search for the afterlife in the age of reason, of scepticism, of science. It tells of the yearning for a voice among the silence, of how we fill the space that appears when someone dies; of how the space fills itself.'