The Repairer of Reputations: The Firing Line by Robert Chambers
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Despite the martial title, The Firing Line (1908) only has a single shot fired within its 498 pages, but that one's a doozy. The other 497 pages are about more metaphorical battlefields: the bloody crossfire of convention and the gallant charges of romance. If The Firing Line lacks in action, it overcompensates with a surplus of wit.
The primary storyline follows the star-crossed romance of Garret Hamil and Shiela Cardross. Garret is a landscape designer of great reputation (and presumably talent), recently arrived in Florida to undertake a commission on behalf of Cardross Senior, financial magnate.
Shiela is his daughter - she encounters Hamil twice by accident. The two charm one another in fabled fashion, but by the time they are officially introduced, Hamil understands the truth: Shiela is adopted. The Hamils, we learn, are one of the oldest and most storied names in Society - to mingle with an adoptee of unknown heritage is, well... not to be.
Still, despite conventional wisdom, Shiela and Garret continue to see much of one another. Shiela's a good sport - she's surprisingly witty, a crack shot and an excellent travelling companion. Garret starts off a little too squishy to be true, but his lantern-jawed manliness is tempered by a surprisingly decent sense of humor. Garret is also, in a Chambersian heroic trait, attracted by the genuine and repulsed by the falsely sincere.
Perhaps his finest moment is at a party, surrounded by pseudo-intellectuals and societal hangers-ons. Garret is miserable at the event and the author's venom gleams in his protagonist's eyes:
"A Swami, unctuous and fat, and furious at the lack of feminine attention, said something suavely outrageous about modern women. He was immediately surrounded by several mature examples who adored to be safely smitten by the gelatinous and esoteric."
Although Garret and Shiela are primly waltzing about in the book's primary romance, other a-wooings are going on in the background. Louis Malcourt has the distinction of not being the only upper-class twit in the book, although he's far-upper-middle, he's not Old Society, something that he clearly resents. He's also the book's bad boy - lovers in every port, a fondness for gambling and a hilariously sarcastic way of speaking that immediately endears himself to the reader. When hassled by Garret, for example, he defends his shameless behaviour:
"The trouble with me," continued Malcourt, "is that I possess a streak of scientific curiosity that you lack; which is my eternal undoing and keeps me poor and ignobly busy. I ought to have leisure; the world should see to it that I have sufficient leisure and means to pursue my studies in the interest of social economy. Take one of my favourite experiments, for example. I see a little ball rattling around in a wheel. Where will that ball stop? You, being less intellectual than I, don't care where it stops. I do. Instantly my scientific curiosity is aroused; I reason logically; I evolve an opinion; I back that opinion; and I remain busy and poor. I see a pretty woman. Is she responsive or unresponsive to intelligently expressed sentiment? I don't know. You don't care. I do. My curiosity is piqued. She becomes to me an abstract question which scientific experiment alone can elucidate—"
Malcourt is paired up with Virginia Suydam - who should be with Garret Hamil. Virginia sulks a bit because she's been thrown over for Shiela, but soon finds herself drawn to Malcourt (probably because he's the best character in the book). Unfortunately, Malcourt has little Name but a big Reputation - he could never be allowed to marry a Suydam, so they're stuck doing some light petting behind the mangroves.
Garret and Shiela soon overcome the adoption issue - even Garret's matron aunt is impressed by Shiela and encourages the match. But their union is not to be. Shiela, it is revealed, is secretly married. To none other than Malcourt. Their union is apparently (cough) unconsummated, more a reckless childhood thing gone horribly awry. Malcourt would be more than happy to grant her a divorce - in fact, he's encouraging it - but Shiela refuses because it would cast shame upon her adopted parents. So their marriage stays a secret and the three characters stay miserable. Garret makes cow-eyes at Shiela, Shiela makes cow-eyes at Garret, Malcourt tries to talk sense into both of them and is repeatedly ignored.
This dismal status quo persists until Garret finally pushes Shiela too far. Upon demanding that she get a divorce and marry him, Shiela weepily chucks Garret out of Florida and - much to everyone's surprise - publicly announces her marriage to Malcourt. Now everyone is openly miserable - including the carefree Malcourt, who is dragged away from his libertine life. (Virginia, as you can suspect, is none too pleased.)
The impasse has turned into an iron maiden. As Shiela still refuses to grant a divorce - and Garret refuses to do anything besides moodily sulk - it falls to Malcourt to sort everything out. Which he does - explosively. The final third of the book follows Malcourt as he puts his affairs in order (in some cases literally), wishes everyone a slightly melodramatic goodbye, then heads out in the woods to shoot himself. Perhaps the most darkly amusing moment is everyone's sheer astonishment that he's dead. The man just spent a hundred pages telling his close friends that he was "off on a long journey, with no need to pack" and was keen to "say hello to his dead father". Malcourt did everything but cock the pistol at the dinner table, yet his self-obsessed, so-called friend was too busy moping after his wife to notice.
With Malcourt's demise, the flair goes out of the book as well. Shiela has the unfortunate (but karmically-deserved) luck to stumble upon Malcourt's corpse and has a nervous breakdown. Garret manfully ignores her for four months, then the two are reunited by his meddling aunt. Within moments, there's swooning/engagement/kissing. Aaaaand curtain.
The Firing Line contains a few Chambers tropes. The hero being an artist from old money is a familiar figure, and placing his artistic specialty in the outdoors allows Mr. Chambers to throw in a few natural scenes. Throughout, there's a direct correlation between outdoorsiness and abstract "goodliness". Garret, Shiela and Shiela's semi-divine family are all nature-lovers, fond of petting pumas and shooting turkeys. The indolent rich, such as Malcourt's employer, Portlow, feel the need to "own" land, but refuse to use it. Malcourt is a talented rider and woodsman, but doesn't enjoy it. Mr. Chambers uses this to further emphasize his "alien" nature - no matter how charming or conversant Malcourt is, he has a hard time relating to his surroundings, and always feels the outsider. In 2008, he'd be easily diagnosed with depression. In 1908, he's destined for suicide.
A second Chambers trope - also seen in The Danger Mark - is the "Panic of 1907". A collapse in the market caused a run on the banks. A few bankers (directed by Andrew Morgan) managed to tide themselves over by using their own personal wealth and eventually restore the balance. In Mr. Chambers' books, the Panic is used as a financial Ragnarok - a violent toppling of the Old Money that that fueled high society. Again, like The Danger Mark, characters are defined by their relationships with money. Shiela, wealthy, is happy to go without - and hands her money over to her cash-strapped father without prompting. Malcourt sees money with the same scientific indifference that he does everything else, he's happy to have it (and frequently in need of it), but, like Shiela, pours his savings into helping out others. And Garret, of course, is an artist - he fills an essential societal need and, family funds or not, he'll never starve in a world of Mr. Chambers' creation.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay The Firing Line is that, for a period romance, I had no problem connecting to it. Granted, the vocabulary was a little strange - and the racial politics horrifying - but awkward romantic fumblings are seemingly eternal. Despite being posh twits from a forgotten time, the characters weren't unbelievable. Sadly, the illustrations scattered through the book disrupted that suspension. As described, these are characters in a timeless situation. When pictured, they're just goofy - and wearing way too many layers for Florida.
More than that, he demonstrates a witty turn of phrase that made the book - against all odds - enjoyable. There was a derth of swooning and a plethora of sarcasm, and that makes the sort of romance I can get behind.
[Editor's note: The Firing Line is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg. The Repairer of Reputations is our protracted attempt to redeem the forgotten & derided works of Robert W. Chambers.]