A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is universally agreed to be the best of the half dozen or so comedies Middleton wrote or co-wrote. It is yet another comedy about sex and class and money, about corruption and greed and adultery – all the usual subjects – in fact the oppressively narrow range of subjects which Jacobean comedy dealt with. Elizabethan comedy is generally mirthful, while comedy under James I (came to the throne in 1603) becomes more and more disgusted.

These plays are saturated in an atmosphere of sex – not only are the plots about legal and illegal couplings (i.e. marriage and adultery) but right down at the verbal level, almost every word in Jacobean English was packed with sexual double meanings and innuendo.

This thick fog of sexual meaning radiates from just the cast list, before the play itself has even begun. As a little academic exercise I was going to keep a record of the sexual ambiguities mentioned in the notes, but there are four or five on every page and the play is 100 pages long, so it almost immediately became unmanageable.

Cast

Master YELLOWHAMMER, a goldsmith
MAUDLIN, his wife
TIM, their idiot son
MOLL, their daughter – heroine of the play
TUTOR to Tim
SIR WALTER WHOREHOUND, a suitor to Moll who has, for years, been sleeping with and impregnating Allwit’s wife
SIR OLIVER KIX, and his wife LADY KIX – endlessly argue because they can’t get pregnant
Master John ALLWIT, and his wife MISTRESS ALLWIT, whom Sir Walter keeps i.e. he pays for their entire London establishment on the agreement that he can sleep with the wife whenever he’s in town, and has sired on her no fewer than seven children!
A WELSH GENTLEWOMAN, Sir Walter’s whore, who he brings up to London to marry off to dim Tim
WAT and NICK, Whorehound’s bastards by Mistress Allwit
DAVY DAHUMMA, Whorehound’s man
TOUCHWOOD SENIOR and his wife MISTRESS TOUCHWOOD – helpful older brother to…
TOUCHWOOD JUNIOR – the ‘hero’ of the play, in love with Moll, the two young lovers who feature in all these plays
TWO PROMOTERS i.e. officials paid to police the city’s Lent policy i.e. buying, cooking or eating meat is forbidden
Three or four WATERMEN, who get involved in Moll and Young Touchwood’s attempts to escape the City by river
A WENCH carrying Touchwood Senior’s bastard, who confronts him in the street
Jugg, Lady Kix’s MAID
A DRY NURSE and A WET NURSE for Lady Mistress Allwit’s baby
TWO PURITANS, the first named Mistress Underman
FIVE GOSSIPS, a word which means both middle-aged wives and godmothers
A PARSON – drafted in to hurriedly marry Young Touchwood and Moll in Act 5
SUSAN, Moll’s maid – who is instrumental in the final plot

Smut

The play opens with Moll playing on the virginals – nudge nudge – and her mother, Maudlin, chastising her for missing her dancing classes, commonly associated with sexual opportunity. Page two starts with a pun about the size of women’s vaginas (‘When I was of your bord’, Maudlin tells Moll, where bord derives from ‘bore’ as of a rifle, i.e. when I had a nice young ****), then goes on to talk about imperfections, cracks and rents in smart fabrics, ‘cracks’ which need to be filled up by a husband, fnah fnah…

And on it goes, three hours of unrelenting smut and obscenity. Every mention of entering, before and after, up and down, standing to attention and so on, are drenched in sexual overtones, her mother tells Moll she’ll have to get used to kissing her husband ‘when he enters’ and using her hand ‘before and after’ and ‘waving her body’ i.e undulating up and down as in sex – not to mention the wealth of Jacobean slang terms for aspects of sex which crop up in the oddest places – ‘nock’ was a slang term for the female genitals. I don’t think I’ve ever read the words ‘c***’ and ‘f***’ and ‘penis’ used so often in the notes of any text.

The plot

Critics discern five plots in the play:

1. Young love A straightforward young-couple hampered-love story, namely Moll Yellowhammer (the chaste maid of the title) is the daughter of a wealthy Cheapside goldsmith and his wife. She is in love with dashing Young Touchwood, but her ambitious parents want to marry her off to Sir Walter Whorehound, who has just arrived in town, accompanied by a young woman, his ‘landed niece from Wales’ who they don’t realise is his whore.

2. Tim nice but dim The Yellowhammers have a son, Tim, who returns from Cambridge with his Latin tutor. Much piss is taken out of his low level classical learning, with Tim and the tutor given a scene where they speak to each other in pig Latin (Act 4 scene 1) and later he speaks to the Welsh niece in Latin and she replies in Welsh so they merrily speak at cross purposes for a bit before servants come in and misinterpret both their speeches.

Anyway, the idea is that Tim will be married off to the landed niece, and he is promised 19 mountains and 2,000 runts (there is much unsubtle wordplay on a rude word which rhymes with run) and indeed, at the end of the play dim Tim and his Welsh whore do get married, in an obvious parody of the happy wedding of the heroes Young Touchwood and Moll, and discovering she has no mountains and no runts, although she does have a ….

3. Whorehound’s arrangement In the most interesting because most genuinely original storyline, Whorehound has been paying Allwit and his wife to live in luxury, in a house with all mod cons, with food on the table every day and a bunker full of Newcastle coal, purely and simply so that he can sleep with Allwit’s wife every time he is in London. Allwit doesn’t mind, he’s been kept in very fine style for ten years! He has a soliloquy (Act 1 scene 2) in which he sings the joys of being a kept cuckold, not for him any worries or cares as long as Whorehound carries on shagging his wife. And his wife is quite happy with the arrangement, too, an occasional loaning out to Whorehound in return for a loving marriage and financial security.

In fact she has proceeded to bear no fewer than seven children to Whorehound, some of whom are 12 or 10-years-old and going to school. They are proudly presented to him on his arrival at the Allwit house and he promises them all financial support.

The other plotlines – frustrated young lovers, idiot young man duped into marrying a whore – these are boringly familiar. But the Whorehound-Allwit plotline feels as if it breaks new ground, and takes things into an entirely new realm of (entertainingly) cynical depravity.

4. The prolific Touchwoods Meanwhile, Touchwood Senior (the elder brother of Moll’s true love, Young Touchwood) has a scene (Act 2 scene 1) where he tearfully takes leave of his wife. His problem is that he is prodigiously fertile and impregnates any woman he sleeps with, but he is poor. Thus the couple have had umpteen children each one of which impoverishes them further.

we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.

Little more is heard of Touchwood Senior’s wife, and most of his energy goes, in the second half of the play, into helping his young brother organise eloping with beautiful Moll.

5. The barren Kixes Finally, there is yet another couple, the Kixes, an aging couple who are the mirror opposite of the Touchwoods in that they have been trying for years but cannot conceive. The result is an endless cycle of recriminations and arguments in which they blame each other for being barren or sterile before bursting into tears and falling into each others’ arms – as Touchwood witnesses on an embarrassing visit to their house.

As so often, fertility is directly connected with money across a web of relationships, because if they die without an heir, Whorehound will inherit their estate. He is so confident this will not happen that he has been living beyond his means for years, banking on inheriting and paying off his debts. Unfortunately for him, the Kixes’ maid, Jugg, tells them that Touchwood Senior has a special fertility potion which will soon see Lady Kix pregnant and in a sly scene (Act 3 scene 3), Touchwood Senior inveigles his way into Lady Kix’s bed, waves his magic wand and lo! she becomes pregnant.

So those are the five storylines which Middleton confidently and stylishly weaves together to make a play which is brilliantly crafted, and benefits from a really confident and mature interweaving of blank verse, rhymed verse and prose – but which I found utterly unfunny and unmoving. It is brilliantly made – but sterile.

The way the five storylines are interwoven becomes very complicated, but the key highlights are:

– There is an immensely long scene after Mistress Yellowhammer has given birth to another baby, her eighth child by Whorehound and – this is what makes it so long – a large retinue of ‘gossips’ i.e. local merchants wives, and several Puritan neighbours, are all called in to attend what we’d nowadays call a baby shower. The mickey is taken out of the gossipy ladies, and of the two Puritans who get blind drunk, at extreme length. Most modern productions of the play cut the entire scene as it isn’t part of any of the five plotlines and a lot of the force of its contemporary satire has evaporated.

– Similarly, seven pages are devoted to two ‘promoters’, officers who were set to enforce the new and more strict laws enacted under James I to ban the buying, cooking or eating of meat during Lent. Their scene exists solely to demonstrate how utterly corrupt they are, as we see them bullying citizens, all the time keeping the meat they confiscate either to sell to rich patrons or for their own families – until they get their come-uppance when a woman pretends to be caught red-handed with a basket full of meat, only for the promoters to discover a crying baby at the bottom of it for which they thereupon become legally responsible (and it is a hanging offence to abandon or kill).

Like the Puritans in the baby shower scene, it feels as if the promoters have been thrown into the play solely to get the audience laughing, mocking and jeering these popular hate figures.

– There’s a cooly cynical scene where Allwit presents himself to Yellowhammer as himself a remote member of the Yellowhammer family and says he has come to visit out of the goodness of his heart because he knows that they plan to marry their fine daughter off to Sir Walter Whorehound and he (Allwit posing as a Yellowhammer) has the sad duty to inform them that Sir Walter has for many years kept a married woman as whore in London and fathered a brace of bastards by her. Yellowhammer acts shocked and Allwit goes his ways rejoicing that he has scuppered Sir Walter’s plans for getting married (which means that he, Allwit, will remain in the life of luxury because Whorehound will continue swiving his wife indefinitely). What he doesn’t realise is that Yellowhammer doesn’t mind – he still thinks the marriage will bring his family social advantage and, after all, he casually tells the audience, he kept a whore when he was young and fathered a bastard on her (Act 4 scene 1).

– After an initial attempt to elope with Touchwood Junior, Moll is locked up in her room until the wedding with Whorehound. The day before the wedding, she manages to escape through a small hole and flee her parents’ home again – hooray! – but is once again caught just as she was getting into a waterman’s boat to go upriver to meet Touchwood Junior – boo!

Moll is dragged onstage by Yellowhammer’s furious wife, Maudlin, half-soaked from his riverside capture, locked up again and falls into a sickness, partly from the cold water, partly from despair (Act 4 scene 2). Eventually, while Touchwood Senior is visiting, she appears to collapse and to actually expire. Touchwood Senior takes her into the other room to tend her along with a maid. Later it will emerge that he has paid the maid a handsome fee to conspire to pretend that Moll is dead, get her laid in a coffin and brought onstage as if dead in the final scene.

– Touchwood Junior and Sir Walter encounter each other in the street and, as rivals for the hand of Moll, draw swords and fight. They manage to wound each other and stagger off in opposite directions.

– Believing he is dying, Sir Walter staggers to Allwit’s house where he surprises the complaisant couple by sincerely repenting his sins and attacking the Allwits for leading him on to damnation (Act 5 scene 1). Whorehound’s repentance is delivered in a long speech in powerful verse, and I found it the most moving thing in the play.

Still my adulterous guilt hovers aloft,
And with her black wings beats down all my prayers
Ere they be half way up; what’s he knows now
How long I have to live? O, what comes then?
My taste grows bitter, the round world all gall now,
Her pleasing pleasures now hath poisoned me,
Which I exchanged my soul for;

Which makes it all the more bitter when news arrives that Lady Kix is pregnant (hang on, didn’t she only have sex with Touchwood Senior about half an hour ago? No-one cares about timeframes or plausibility, this is the theatre). The point is that the advent of an heir to the Kixes spells financial ruin for Sir Walter and so the Allwits, in a gesture of breath-taking cynicism and cruelty, order their servants to kick Whorehound out onto the street, in fact to get him arrested for murdering Young Touchstone (news of whose demise also arrives by messenger). Super-cynically, they coolly plan to rent out the big house (I think the implication is to turn it into a brothel) and themselves move to a smaller one in The Strand.

– As mentioned above, Moll continues very sick and when Touchwood Senior brings word that his brother has died (as a result of wounds incurred in the duel with Whorehound), she faints and appears to die. Her parents are distraught and, with wild improbability, allow Touchstone Senior and her servant to look after the body. This is where they cook up the plan to convey her in a coffin to the same place where the coffin conveying Young Touchwood will go.

– Thus the climax of the play is reached when, to doleful mourning music, the two coffins are borne onstage containing Moll and Young Touchwood and Touchwood Senior asks the assembled cast whether they would do anything and forgive anyone to see the two young people alive again? Like the audience at a pantomime, everyone shouts ‘Yes’ and so Touchwood Senior orders the young couple to arise from their coffins – and the two young lovers spring up large as life. Hooray!

Now to tie up all the loose ends: 1. Young Touchwood and Moll are married and her parents finally give their blessing, as parents in all these plays eventually do. 2. Dim Tim is married to the Welsh niece, discovers she is a whore, and is jokily challenged by his mother to prove his Latin learning and logic to transmute her into a chaste wife. 3. Lady Kix, as we saw, is now pregnant so she and Sir Oliver are so delighted they promptly promise to support the family of Touchwood Senior, so he’s sorted out. 4. Finally, Touchwood announces that Sir Walter has recovered from his wounds but is now confined to the debtors prison where he is likely to say for a very long time.

Which is a shame because the shamelessness with which he carried out his scandalous arrangement with the Allwits – and then the blistering sincerity of his fear of hell and damnation when he thinks he is dying – were, for me, by far the most vivid and memorable moments in the play.

Thoughts

As with The Roaring Girl I don’t know whether it’s me or Middleton, but I didn’t find any of the characters or any moments in the play actually funny, and the whole thing left an acrid, metallic aftertaste. This was caused by at least two things:

1. The extended scene where Sir Walter thinks he’s dying and calls down genuine and powerful curses on the Allwits head is very vivid – and then is compounded when they, hearing he is no longer of financial value to them, kick him out on the street, ordering their servants to fetch officers to arrest him, this adds sulphuric acid onto sump oil.

2. The sad music, the slow procession, the widespread weeping and moaning of the cast, of the many gossips and mothers and bystanders at the double funeral of Young Touchwood and Moll was genuinely doleful and depressing, it had real emotional and dramatic impact. So much so that when the lovers then suddenly sprang to their feet and were reunited in a happy marriage, this seemed somehow trivial and superficial. The bleaker narrative felt more true to the play’s tone of rancid cynicism.

So, for me, a page or so of ‘happy ending’ in no way counters the much harsher and bleaker notes struck earlier in the play. It felt like the harsh vision of human nature demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s plays but without the energising zaniness of the fox or the alchemist which redeems his plays.

Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (T.S. Eliot on Thomas Middleton)

A final, fairly obvious thought is that the play is titled A Chaste Maid in Cheapside but, of course, the chaste maid – Moll, the young lover – is in many ways the most minor of all the characters; she is easily overshadowed by the cynical Allwits, by her dim brother, and by the monstrous but somehow dramatically powerful figure of Sir Walter Whorehound. I realise that that is the intention, to show how a chaste maid in Cheapside is overshadowed and dwarfed by the corruption all round her. Just highlighting how very much that is the case.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Way of The World by William Congreve (1700)

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

From a historical point of view, the most interesting thing about The Way of The World is that it was not well received. It was an attempt to continue the Restoration comedy conventions of aristocratic libertinage into what had become, by 1700, a new world of mercantile, bourgeois respectability. Its studied cynicism felt out of date.

MIRABELL: I say that a man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman with plain-dealing and sincerity.

To quote the excellent Wikipedia article:

The tolerance for Restoration comedy even in its modified form was running out at the end of the 17th century, as public opinion turned to respectability and seriousness even faster than the playwrights did. Interconnected causes for this shift in taste were demographic change, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William’s and Mary’s dislike of the theatre, and the lawsuits brought against playwrights by the Society for the Reformation of Manners (founded in 1692). When Jeremy Collier attacked Congreve and Vanbrugh in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, he was confirming a shift in audience taste that had already taken place. [The Short View is actually mentioned by name in The Way of the World, act 3, scene 2]. At the much-anticipated all-star première in 1700 of The Way of the World, Congreve’s first comedy for five years, the audience showed only moderate enthusiasm for that subtle and almost melancholy work. The comedy of sex and wit was about to be replaced by the drama of obvious sentiment and exemplary morality. (Restoration comedy Wikipedia article)

The cast

The names, as usual, include some comic inventions which immediately raise a smile e.g. Petulant, Foible and Mincing. But the profiles are thin compared to some other cast lists I’ve read.

THE MEN
Fainall – in love with Mrs. Marwood
Mirabell – in love with Mrs. Millamant
Witwoud – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Petulant – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Sir Wilfull Witwoud – half brother to Witwoud, and nephew to Lady Wishfort
Waitwell – servant to Mirabell

THE WOMEN
Lady Wishfort – enemy to Mirabell, for having falsely pretended love to her
Mrs. Millamant – a fine lady, niece to Lady Wishfort, and loves Mirabell
Mrs. Marwood – friend to Mr. Fainall, and likes Mirabell
Mrs. Fainall – daughter to Lady Wishfort, and wife to Fainall, formerly friend to Mirabell
Foible – woman to Lady Wishfort
Mincing – woman to Mrs. Millamant

Overall plot summary

Mirabell and Mrs Millamant are in love. Mrs Millamant’s vain aunt and guardian, old (55) Lady Wishfort, is preventing their marriage as revenge on Mirabell for having pretended to be in love with her. Mrs Millamant is set to inherit a fortune from old Lady Wishfort, so long as she marries with that lady’s approval. Mrs Millamant loves Mirabell but pretends not to.

Mrs Millamant is also wooed by two silly lovers, Witwoud and Petulant, who cordially dislike each other and are the butt of countless jokes by the much cleverer Mirabell and Fainall.

Mirabell devises a plot (‘a matter of some sort of mirth’) to embarrass Lady Wishfort, who is eager to get a husband. Mirabell persuades his servant, Waitwell, to dress up as his uncle, Sir Rowland, and woo Lady Wishfort. (Waitwell has been married that day to Lady Wishfort’s waiting woman, Foible.) Mirabell hopes that when Lady Wishfort realizes how foolish she has been in a) nearly committing bigamy b) the social disgrace of being wooed by a servant – that she will give permission for the marriage of Mirabell and Mrs Millamant – and also part with the fortune she controls.

Money, as always, is a key element to the plot.

This is the main plot. There are other characters and incidents involving marriage and money. Lady Wishfort’s daughter is married to Fainall, Mirabell’s confidant and sidekick. Fainall, besides sparking off Mirabell, is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood.

Also dominating sections of the play is the sub-plot about the prospective husband who Lady Wishfort has selected for Mrs Millamant, namely her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud (half-brother to the other Witwoud).

There are other admirers of both Mirabell and Mrs Millamant. Possibly the least sympathetic character is Mr. Fainall, son-in-law of Lady Wishfort and lover of Mrs. Marwood, who goes from being Mirabell’s ‘friend’ to becoming his bitter vengeful enemy.

More detailed plot summary

Act 1 A chocolate house Mirabell and Fainall have just finished playing cards. A footman comes and tells Mirabell that Waitwell (Mirabell’s male servant) and Foible (Lady Wishfort’s female servant) were married that morning. Mirabell tells Fainall about his love of Mrs Millamant, Fainall explains the ladies love meeting in a women-only ‘cabal’.

Witwoud appears and demonstrates what a fool he is:

WITWOUD: My dear, I ask ten thousand pardons. Gad, I have forgot what I was going to say to you.

Our heroes get Witwoud to insult his supposed friend, Petulant, in his absence. He reveals the extraordinary fact that Petulant sometimes arranges for himself to be ‘called’ by friends when he’s in a pub, so as to appear popular. Then Petulant appears and there is more comic business, but not before Petulant has announced he hears that Mirabell’s uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town.

Witwoud and Petulant announce they will go for a stroll round St James’s Park and Mirabell draws out the uncouthness of their manners; they think being rude and coarse enough to gentlewomen to make them blush is an achievement, what they call being severe.

Act 2 St. James’ Park Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are discussing their hatred of men. Fainall and Mirabell appear and while Mrs F and Mirabell walk ahead, Fainall accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of loving Mirabell (which she does). They have a terrific argument, with her threatening to tell everyone and his wife that they’ve been having an affair – leading her to burst into tears and he to apologise profusely. Not very funny.

Continuing the theme of unhappy marriage, Mrs. Fainall (Mirabell’s former lover) tells Mirabell that she hates her husband, Fainall, and then they begin to plot to deceive Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the marriage.

MRS. FAINALL: So, if my poor mother is caught in a contract, you will discover the imposture betimes, and release her by producing a certificate of her gallant’s former marriage.
MIRABELL: Yes, upon condition that she consent to my marriage with her niece, and surrender the moiety of her fortune in her possession.

Enter Mrs Millamant accompanied by the fool, Witwoud, and her servant, Mincing. Some funny lines:

WITWOUD: I confess I do blaze to-day; I am too bright.

and:

WITWOUD: Pray, madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters? I find I must keep copies.
MILLAMENT: Only with those in verse, Mr. Witwoud. I never pin up my hair with prose. I think I tried once.
MINCING (her maid): O mem, I shall never forget it.

Mrs Millament is very angry and cynical about mankind, love etc. She perplexes Mirabell with a parting shot that she knows about his ‘plan’. How the devil does she know that?

Enter the newly-wed servants Waitwell and Foible. Congreve does write funny lines:

MIRABELL: Waitwell, why, sure, you think you were married for your own recreation and not for my conveniency!

Mirabell reminds them of their roles in the plan, namely Foible will tell Lady Wishfort that Mirabell’s rich uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town, and Waitwell will then dress in disguise and pretend to be Sir Rowland.

Act 3 Lady Wishfort’s house We’ve had to wait till the third act to meet the ogre, Lady Wishfort. We are introduced in a comic scene with Lady Wishfort and the maid, Foible, who struggles to manage her hair, her makeup (and her booze). Foible exits while Lady Wishfort talks to Mrs Marwood, who mentions she saw Foible just now in St James Park with Mirabell.

Foible returns and commences the Mirabell’s plan – telling Lady Wishfort that the newly-arrived Sir Rowland is interested in her. Lady Wishfort brings up the matter of Foible being seen with Mirabell but Foible thinks quickly on her feet and says Mirabell was calling Wishfort a super-annuated old so-and-so which so infuriates Lady Wishfort that she ceases to be suspicious. Then regrets frowning and raging, has her makeup been affected? Foible has a funny line:

FOIBLE: Your ladyship has frowned a little too rashly, indeed, madam. There are some cracks discernible in the white varnish.
LADY WISHFORT: Let me see the glass. Cracks, say’st thou? Why, I am arrantly flayed: I look like an old peeled wall. Thou must repair me, Foible, before Sir Rowland comes.

Exit Lady Wishfort and enter Mrs Fainall who reveals to Foible that she knows about the whole plan. They both depart but they have been overheard in turn by Mrs Marwood, who now knows about the scheme and the parts everyone is playing.

Mrs Marwood and Mrs MIllamant both lie to each other about how much they hate men and Mirabell in particular.

MRS. MARWOOD: I detest him, hate him, madam.
MRS MILLAMANT: O madam, why, so do I.  And yet the creature loves me, ha, ha, ha!  How can one forbear laughing to think of it?

Sir Wilful Witwoud arrives, a booming 40-year-old countryman who embarrasses his would-be foppish brother and ridicules his foppish appearance and speech.

WITWOUD: Why, brother Wilfull of Salop, you may be as short as a Shrewsbury cake, if you please. But I tell you ’tis not modish to know relations in town. You think you’re in the country, where great lubberly brothers slabber and kiss one another when they meet, like a call of sergeants. ’Tis not the fashion here; ’tis not, indeed, dear brother.

Mrs Marwood has told The Plan to Fainall as well as the fact that Mrs Fainall was once Mirabell’s mistress. He is doubly angry at his ‘friend’ a) for cuckolding him b) if Mirabell marries Mrs Millamant, Fainall’s wife will be deprived of Lady Wishfort’s legacy, and so Fainall will be worse off. (I think.)

Fainall rants against his wife, declares he never loved her, tells Mrs. Marwood he’ll get his wife’s money and go off with her (Mrs M). He kisses Mrs Marwood.

Act 4 Mirabell and Mrs Millamant discuss in detail the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage. This has become known as The Proviso Scene and a) the frankness with which they discuss marriage as a business arrangement and b) the equality with which they do so i.e. the man isn’t dictating to the woman, they both approach the negotiation as equals, has meant the scene is referenced not only in books about Restoration comedy, but is often referenced in social histories of the period.

In fact during the scene they also reveal their the depth of feeling for each other. The scene leads up to Mirabell finally proposing to Mrs Millamant and, with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement (almost consent, as Mrs Millamant knows of Mirabell’s and Mrs F’s previous relationship), Mrs Millamant accepts.

Mirabell leaves as Lady Wishfort arrives. She is flustered by all these people arriving at her house, including Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and she wonders how to receive him. Witwoud and Petulant reel in having got drunk with the country cousin. Sir Wilfull is carrying on getting very drunk and, according to Mrs Millamant, stinks (‘He has a breath like a bagpipe’).

Drunk Sir Wilfull is led away in time for Lady Wishfort to receive the pretended Sir Rowland who is, of course, Mirabell’s servant in a disguise. He pretends to be a brave braggadochio and when he hears that Mirabell has in a little way been wooing Lady W, he threatens to draw his sword and run him through!

The scene is notable for the way Lady Wishfort uses comically elaborate diction and Sir Rowland is bombastic.

LADY WISHFORT: No, don’t kill him at once, Sir Rowland: starve him gradually, inch by inch.
WAITWELL: I’ll do’t. In three weeks he shall be barefoot; in a month out at knees with begging an alms; he shall starve upward and upward, ’till he has nothing living but his head, and then go out in a stink like a candle’s end upon a save-all.
LADY WISHFORT: Well, Sir Rowland, you have the way,—you are no novice in the labyrinth of love,—you have the clue.  But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite or indigestion of widowhood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence.  I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials?

This leads into a clever comic sequence: Sir Rowland has just begun wooing Lady Wishfort when a letter arrives from Mrs Marwood which Lady Wishfort starts reading aloud – and it explains that the man claiming to be Sir Rowland is an imposter!

Waitwell/Sir Rowland panics but his wife (and Lady Wishfort’s maid) Foible, tells him to seize the letter and face down the situation – so Waitwell/Sir Rowland seizes the letter from Lady Wishfort in mid-reading, and claims it is a hoax sent by Mirabell, a vain attempt to discredit Sir Rowland and retain his legacy, and – still in character – Waitwell/Rowland threatens to cut his throat, damn his eyes etc, and storms out to get a marriage contract for himself and Lady Wishfort to be married that night.

The interaction of the three, and especially Foible’s whispered asides to Waitwell, and then her spoken and feigned shock to Lady Wishfort, are all very funny. Incidentally an example of a woman (Foible) being far more quick-witted and clever than her man (Waitwell).

Act 5 There’s a sudden jump in the plot. Somehow Lady Wishfort has found out about The Plan and the act opens with her furiously denouncing Foible for her part in it and threatening to send her back to the slums where she found her.

And in fact she is entirely justified in being furious at discovering that her own pampered servant was exploiting her and exposing her to ridicule.

Lady Wishfort exits and Foible explains everything to Mrs Fainall i.e. Mrs Marwood revealed The Plan to Lady Wishfort who has sent to have Waitwell arrested. It was Mrs Marwood who revealed to Mrs Fainall that Mrs Fainall had once been unfaithful with Mirabell. But in this conversation, Foible also reveals that the servants once caught Mrs Marwood in a night of passion with Mirabell. Aha!

Enter Lady Wishfort with Mrs. Marwood, whom she thanks for unveiling the plot, but Mrs Fainall argues fiercely that she is not guilty and not to blame. There is an extended passage where Lady Wishfort describes Mrs Fainall’s childhood and how they took extreme care to make sure she was never exposed to boys or men or any kind of temptation (the theatre etc). I didn’t quite understand what it is Mrs Fainall is supposed to have done which is so ruinous: is it to have had some kind of fling with Meribell?

Enter Fainall who uses the information of Mrs. Fainall’s previous affair with Mirabell, and Mrs Millamant’s contract to marry Mirabell, to blackmail Lady Wishfort. Mr Fainall orders Lady Wishfort that a) she is forbidden to marry b) her daughter i.e. Mrs Fainall, shall immediately make over to him the remainder of her fortune.

MR FAINALL: Lastly, I will be endowed, in right of my wife, with that six thousand pound, which is the moiety of Mrs. Millamant’s fortune in your possession, and which she has forfeited (as will appear by the last will and testament of your deceased husband, Sir Jonathan Wishfort) by her disobedience in contracting herself against your consent or knowledge, and by refusing the offered match with Sir Wilfull Witwoud, which you, like a careful aunt, had provided for her.

Fainall exits to give Lady Wishfort time to consider his demands.

Enter Mrs Millamant who declares that she has heard that The Plot is revealed, apologises for her part in it and is ready to marry Sir Wilfull. They call in Mirabell who throws himself at Lady Wishfort’s feet and abjectly asks, not even for forgiveness, but for Pity.

Re-enter Fainall still insisting on his demands; the blackmail threat is otherwise he will tell all the town about Mrs Fainall’s infidelity. But Lady Wishfort has been a little touched by Meribell’s pleading (and so has drunk Sir Wilfull who threatens to draw his sword and chop up Fainall’s document.)

At this critical juncture, Mirabell hints that he might have a way of saving Lady Wishfort’s fortune and her daughter’s reputation. Lady Wishfort says she’ll give anything, anything for that to happen; even the hand of Mrs Millamant in marriage.

Mirabell then presents two witnesses. First Mincing and then Foible confirm that Mrs Marwood is in love with Fainall, and that they conspired this whole thing together, Mincing adding that they found them in bed together. But this doesn’t address the main point – it discredits the pair but is no solution.

Then Mirabell presents his second trick. Waitwell brings in a black box which contains a legal document, witnessed by Witwoud and Petulant, whereby Mrs Fainall, while she was still a widow and before she married Fainall, signed “A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow in trust to Edward Mirabell“.

In other words – it is not in Lady Wishfort’s power to give her daughter’s money to Mr Fainall, it is already legally pledged to Mirabell – and so Fainall’s blackmail scheme collapses!

He makes a rush as if to attack Mrs Fainall, but bold Sir Wilfull steps between. Fainall and Mrs Marwood depart, utterly crushed and vowing revenge.

MRS. FAINALL: Thank Mr. Mirabell, a cautious friend, to whose advice all is owing.

Lady Wishfort forgives her maid, Foible, and Mirabell’s servant Waitwell. And Mirabell is thanked by getting the hand in marriage of Mrs Millamant and the full £12,000 inheritance.

The way of the world

Congreve sprinkles references to the title throughout the text, using various incidents in the play to justify it.

FAINALL: Why, then, Foible’s a bawd, an errant, rank match-making bawd. And I, it seems, am a husband, a rank husband, and my wife a very errant, rank wife,—all in the way of the world.

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

FAINALL: Very likely, sir.  What’s here?  Damnation!  [Reads] ‘A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow, in trust to Edward Mirabel’l. Confusion!
MIRABELL: Even so, sir: ’tis the way of the world, sir.

But things are not so just because a writer says so. The claim that the way of the world involves adultery and faithless spouses or the humiliating revelation of embarrassing secrets or the overthrow of all your plans in ‘confusion!’ is neither a proof nor a truth.

It is just a rhetorical reinforcement of the cynical worldview the Restoration comedies demanded. In a way, the more his characters claim that that kind of behaviour is ‘the way of the world’, the less it feels like it. The more it feels like the outdated worldview of a bygone era.

Conclusion

For some reason I liked this play. I warmed to the rural boisterousness of Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and the scene where Sir Rowland is found out is very well done. The squabbling between Witwoud and Petulant is mildly diverting. Lady Wishfort’s pretentious diction when being wooed by the fake Sir Rowland is funny.

The way the entire play revolves around one Great Plan gives it simplicity and purity. But there are, I think, two objections:

1. The Great Reversal in the last act shares the weakness of all Restoration comedies, that it feels contrived. Right at the very very end it turns out that the fate of almost everyone depends on that one legal document, the deed of conveyance, a deus ex machina, a rabbit pulled out of a hat.

In the theatre it may work well as a sudden and dramatic revelation – but as you go away and think about it, it is an extraordinary vision that an entire set of human lives and loves are made to hang on one legal document. And that Mirabell knew about it all along and didn’t tell anyone he had this one-stop solution!

The more you think about it, the more contrived and unsatisfactory this feels.

2. I can’t overcome a nagging sense that the characters are all unpleasant. Fainall is meant to be Mirabell’s friend but quickly becomes an unpleasant, exploitative enemy. Mrs Marwood is just a graceless Iago, a fount of hate. Lady Wishfort is a crabbed, pretentious old lady. Mrs Millamant, for me, never comes to life. Maybe part of the reason the Provision Scene is remembered is because it’s one of the few scenes where she comes to life. They’re just not a very likeable crew.

Restoration clichés

Restoration comedies are all stuffed with the same old cynical clichés about men, women, marriage, poets, fops, lovers, cuckolds, mistresses and so on. Rather than ‘the way of the world’, they present an endless iteration of a small number of ideas about a narrow range of persons. A few of them are given more than usually memorable expression in this play:

Men

MRS. FAINALL: Is it possible? Dost thou hate those vipers, men?
MRS. MARWOOD: I have done hating ’em, and am now come to despise ’em; the next thing I have to do is eternally to forget ’em.

The country

MRS MILLAMANT: I nauseate walking: ’tis a country diversion; I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

Currency in Crisis: German emergency money 1914 – 1924 @ the British Museum

We all know about the hyper-inflation which hit post-Great-War Germany in the early 1920s, when people ended up pushing wheelbarrows full of billion-Mark notes around just to buy a loaf of bread, I thought this exhibition would be a mildly interesting display of those notes, but it is something much more interesting, stimulating and fun.

Notgeld

Notgeld is German for ’emergency money’ or ‘necessity money’. During the First World War and afterwards, as the national economy came under increasing strain, many German towns issued their own emergency money, aiming to address shortages of small denomination notes and coins and at a purely local level. Different towns and localities produced works which promoted or referenced their distinctive attractions or products. Designs quickly became sophisticated and the notes became collectible.

The point is that what started out as fugitive ‘money’, designed to be used as the small change of daily life, ended up becoming a hugely varied, inventive and entertaining social history of the period 1914 to 1924.

The British Museum has one of the largest collections of Notgeld in the UK and this exhibition brings together 100 or so examples of Notgeld with really useful wall labels setting the social and economic context and then detailed labels for each of the notes, explaining their design elements.

A 500 mark note made out of silk from Bielefeld. The note included an anti-American and laments the decay of (Christian) morals during the inflation © Trustees of the British Museum

Social issues There are notes featuring local landmarks, designs which comment on social issues such as the Turnip Notgeld lamenting the disastrous food shortage of 1917. In one design on display an artist included a hidden message, criticising the dire food situation in Germany in the winter of 1917, the so-called ‘Turnip Winter’. Hidden within the seal of the town, the artist included the words ‘sweet hope’ above a picture of a ham, and ‘thus we live’ above an image of a turnip. Images of turnips abounded.

25 pfennig ‘turnip’ Notgeld note from Bielefeld, 1917 © Trustees of the British Museum

Collectible From 1919, towns made a profit by issuing local Notgeld and ‘selling’ it to collectors all over Germany. The exhibition includes two Notgeld albums of collectors from the 1920s. There were thousands of different designs and even minor villages issued their own Notgeld. The myriad designs give an insight into the turbulent political and cultural life of Germany at the time.

25 Pfennig Notgeld note from Bad Oeynhausen, 1921. The note is commenting on the political strife of the early Weimar Republic © Trustees of the British Museum

Local legends Many notes show references to local history, fairy tales or legends. For example, one note from Cologne refers to the alleged pact with the devil that a master builder struck to build the city’s grand cathedral. The Harz Mountains are home to legends about witches and notes produced in the area bore the legend: ‘There are witches in every place, but ours are the best!’ Or the series from Pritzwalk telling the story of a local outlaw.

Notgeld from the Harz Mountains, 1921. The note alludes to famous legends about witches in the region © Trustees of the British Museum

Local products Other advertise local trade and tourism. Take the Köstritz Black beer series promoting black beer from, er, Köstritz, emphasising the beer’s healthful properties. There are notes from Bitterfeld promoting the town’s electrical products, and from Thale promoting its ironworks, notes from Wetzlar showing glass lenses and from Wittgensdorf advertising stockings. Some unusual notes were made out of silk or leather, intended to advertise the local textile and leather industries, at Bielefeld and Pössneck, respectively.

A rare leather 50 million Mark Notgeld from Pößneck, originally coloured with fake gilding

Local holidays Many feature idealised views of German history and culture. There are romantic travel advertisements, appealing to a people longing to shake off the bitter war years such as the notes printed by a small town near Hamburg promoting itself as ‘a hiker’s paradise’ or the notes from Thuringia promoting it as a skiing destination.

Notgeld issued by the Braunschweig public transport authority, 1921. The image shows a coach travelling in the Harz Mountains, watched by the ‘Wild Man’, a mythological figure © Trustees of the British Museum

Nationalism There are nationalist notes that demand the return of Germany’s colonies, seized under the Treaty of Versailles, or which promote the image of authoritarian Paul von Hindenburg.

50 pfennig Notgeld note showing Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg established himself as a nationalist politician in the post-war period and was elected president in 1925 © Trustees of the British Museum

There are notes castigating war profiteers and then, when the hyper-inflation hit, caricaturing the supposed speculators supposedly responsible for it. Allied to these are the anti-semitic notes like the one from Tostedt showing two Jewish speculators hanging from a tree.

Notgeld from Verden, 1921. The note shows how ‘profiteers’ were punished in the middle ages. It was easy for contemporaries to read this as a more or less implicit threat to alleged profiteers of the inflation © Trustees of the British Museum

Politics There’s a set of notes issued just for the 1921 Social Democratic Party conference in Emden which show portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and August Bebel and which were only valid for the duration of the conference. And bitter images of the reparations Germany was forced to pay for years and years after the end of the war and which were the trigger for the 1923 hyper-inflation crisis when France re-occupied the Ruhr industrial region and the German government began printing money to pay workers for going not strike, a strategy which quickly spiralled out of control.

Notgeld from Bitterfeld, 1921. The note depicts a train transporting coal to France as part of the Treaty of Versailles. There is a small Eiffel tower on the left of the note © Trustees of the British Museum

1923 and the hyper-inflation

During the hyperinflation in 1923 Notgeld played a pivotal role as well. As the Reichsbank could not keep up with printing ever new notes, the government allowed towns and even companies to issue their own emergency money with denominations of millions, billions and even trillions of marks, at the height of the inflation. The note with largest denomination in the exhibition is from Duisburg in western Germany, denominating a whopping 50 trillion mark or 50,000,000,000,000.

Strikingly one of the notes on display was designed at the Bauhaus and shows how in this, as everything else, Bauhaus designers sought clarity and function above all else.

1 million mark note from Thuringia (1923) designed by the Bauhaus © Trustees of the British Museum

The notes on display show the hurried character of these emergency currencies, which were often only printed on one side of the paper. At the end of November 1923 the hyperinflation ended with the introduction of the Rentenmark. A less known fact is that the introduction of the Rentenmark was accompanied by a ban on Notgeld, which had contributed enormously to the currency crisis in the first place.

Conclusion

The closer I looked at each individual notes and read up on its story, the more fascinated I became. What a treasure trove of fascinating stories, local history and fabulously inventive design. There are even labels about designers who became famous, such as Franz Jüttner who was a popular cartoonist before the war and went on to design many Notgeld notes in a distinctive comic book style.

This is a small exhibition in tiny exhibition room 69a (on the first floor at the front of the Museum and easy to miss) but I found it absolutely fascinating.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011)

As most of you will be aware, the Chicago Board of Exchange operates what is known as the S and P 500 Volatility Index, or VIX. this has been running, in one form or another, for seventeen years. It’s a ticker, for want of a better word, tracking the price of options – calls and puts – on stocks traded in the S and P 500. If you want the math, it’s calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a thirty-day term, quoted as an annualised variance. If you don’t want the math, let’s just say that what it does is show the implied volatility of the market for the coming month. It goes up and down minute by minute. The higher the index, the greater the uncertainty in the market, so traders call it “the fear index”.’ (p.115)

This is a very good, very intelligent novel, but the least satisfying of Harris’s five thrillers. Of course there’s a plot, but the plot is spread out among a number of characters – about four main ones; it includes a number of flashbacks and memories to earlier events, which pad out, slow or stop the momentum; and above all, it is heavily themed in a way I didn’t find totally convincing.

The plot

Multi-millionaire American banker Dr Alex Hoffmann is woken in the middle of the night in the high-security, $60- million home he recently bought near the shore of Lake Geneva, to realise there’s an intruder in his house. Someone has got past the 9-foot fence, the locked gates and through the password-protected door, to rummage around in the razor sharp knives in his kitchen. This is where Alex disturbs him. Next thing he knows, he is coming round as the police and his distraught wife revive him. He was clobbered with a fire extinguisher and, as well as a lot of blood, has lost some mental function so that he’s struggling to remember what happened.

He is taken to hospital where he has a CAT scan. This reveals no major damage but the consultant points out a number of white dots on the scan: could be tiny blood leaks but could be other things, for example early signs of dementia. Scared, Hoffmann refuses a follow-up MRI scan and also refuses advice to stay in hospital for 24 hours. He has a busy day ahead of him, and so does the reader, for the events of this 390-page novel take place over the course of one frantic day.

Hoffmann goes to work, meets up with his partner Hugo Quarrel and then plays a key part in his company’s presentation to, and then lunch with, a group of seriously rich investors in his fund. But the day is interrupted by a number of quirks and oddities:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Someone has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and put the bookmark of the seller in the section about fear, which is full of explanations of the evolutionary origins of fear, and also Victorian photos of human specimens exhibiting fear. But who? He asks his wife, he asks his partner – they both say it wasn’t them. Finally he phones the bookseller, in Belgium, and is nonplussed to be told that he bought the book for himself, via email, and using an account in the Cayman Islands. What?

The figure of fear

In the taxi from the hospital, Hoffmann is shocked to see the man who attacked him in his house sitting at the back of a passing tram, a thin, older man with a ponytail of grey hair. Not only is his shock renewed, but the sighting confirms his impression that the man looks like one of the illustrations from the Darwin book! What is going on?

Gabby’s exhibition

Later that morning he attends the opening of an art exhibition devoted to the works of his beautiful English wife, Gabby. Hoffmann is nervous as he doesn’t really like people, let alone large groups of rich people all bitching at cocktail parties. But he’s not as nervous as Gabby, who’s first proper show this is. The works are all based on one technological idea: MRI scans show the inside of the body, the brain, organic bodies, as layers. Gabby had the idea of printing each successive layer of selected MRI scans onto thin sheets of glass which she suspends above each other, creating a sliced 3D image. She’s done images of a human brain, a body, a foetus, each sliced into glass wafers.

But, for the purposes of the story, the point of this long scene is that the gallery owner, at its climax, goes round and sticks a red sticker on each work indicating that it’s been sold. Everyone expected some to go (Gabby was nervous that none would be sold), but all of them? It is unlikely, improbable, and even embarrassing. It makes it look like a stitch-up and, importantly, means that none of Geneva’s great and good, all elaborately invited to the show, even have a chance to buy one.

Puzzled and, in some cases, insulted, well before the gallery owner has finished placing the stickers, the crowd has begun to drift away. Gabby is furious and has a stand-up row with Hoffmann, convinced that he bought them in a cack-handed attempt to be ‘romantic’ or ‘generous’, but in fact humiliating her in front of ‘everyone who is anyone’. He swears he didn’t, but she runs off, furious.

Gana’s worries

Upset and confused, Hoffmann takes a cab back to the shiny offices of Hoffmann Investment Technologies just in time for the scheduled presentation to the assembled investors. The core of the presentation is Hoffmann’s explanation of the algorithm his company uses to assess the market. Named VIXAL-4, it is tasked with identifying signs of anxiety or fear in market sentiment, and then ‘shorting’, ie selling stocks or other securities or commodities in advance of acquiring them, with the aim of making a profit when the price falls. (Before the presentation, his small management team, particularly the Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, try to buttonhole Hoffmann with their fears that the VIXAL program is buying too many shorted stocks, thus going beyond acceptable defined risk thresholds, but he brushes them aside.)

Hoffmann’s presentation

Hoffmann’s presentation is, in a way, the author’s message, as he gives a brisk summary of philosophical thinking about humankind, which emphasises risk, fear and anxiety. Anyone who can master and control this emotion, can control the world. VIXAL-4 is only an algorithm but it is the smartest yet created for identifying risk and fear, and then co-ordinating buying activity, in anticipation of market falls in value and prices.

Fear then murder

As the presentation draws to a climax Hoffmann sees out the window, at a bus stop opposite, the thin, pony-tailed man who attacked him. He interrupts his presentation to bolt out the door, run down the stairs, out into the street and follow the man as he disappears down an alleyway. He chases through narrowing streets until he realises he is in the seedy brothel district, and is astonished to get a text giving an address. When he tentatively gets to the address, and climbs the stairs and opens the door, he is, sure enough, greeted by the lank, grey-haired assailant, who immediately tries to attack him. There is a prolonged and gruesome struggle, with the assailant repeatedly attacking, until Hoffmann, overcome by fear and anger, throttles him to death. He ties shoe laces round his neck and hangs the corpse from a wardrobe door in a feeble attempt to dress the murder up as a suicide. Then he turns on the laptop the man had – and is horrified to read extensive extracts around the idea of a willing victim searching for someone to murder them via the internet – and to emails which appear to have been sent by him directly to the attacker, asking him to kill him. Like the Darwin book he never ordered. Like Gabby’s artworks he never bought.

The conspiracy

By this stage I think it is a slow reader who hasn’t realised that the computer programme is out of control and is clearly mimicking Hoffmann’s behaviour – or putting into action his deepest wishes. Hoffmann, being slower on the uptake than the reader, thinks that someone is out to get him – a real person or rival is trying to frame him or drive him crazy.

Walton’s story

This hypothesis is reinforced by a separate plotline concerning a former colleague of Hoffmann’s at CERN the physics research institute where Hoffmann originally worked. Out of the blue this man, Professor Robert Walton, turned up at the exhibition of Gabby’s art works. Hoffmann denies he invited him but Walton claims he emailed him personally. Now the distraught Gabby takes Walton up on an open invitation to visit him at CERN.

Here she gets the visitors’ tour and some history of CERN, dedicated to unravelling the mystery of the smallest sub-atomic particles etc. For the purposes of the novel, though, she hears Hoffmann’s backstory for the first time: namely, that he was recruited in the mid-1990s as a keen young PhD student, and immediately applied himself to devising programs to handle the vast trillions of data points which the experiments were producing. He developed a computer program which was capable of identifying which data was significant, and learning from its experience. As you might expect, the program began to spread beyond its initial host computers, learning by experience how to overcome firewalls and jump into other systems, until the CERN authorities eventually shut it down and terminated Hoffmann’s line of work. He had worked 20 hour days for months and, unable to accept that his baby was being destroyed, had a massive nervous breakdown and was sacked from CERN.

Good God, Gabby thinks. Is Hoffmann now in the grip of another mental collapse? Has part of his mind done all the mystery acts – ordered the Darwin book, bought all Gabby’s art, and so on – while the conscious part of his mind is completely unaware, and even denies it?

Hoffmann’s therapist

Craziness is confirmed as a possibility when we follow Hoffmann to another part of the city where he reluctantly knocks on the door of the psychotherapist who treated him when he had a nervous breakdown 6 years earlier. Dishevelled, bleeding from his head wound and bruised from the savage fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann presents a threatening appearance which he doesn’t improve by, after initial polite conversation with the lady psychiatrist, pushing her out of the way so he can access her records on him. There he is horrified to find that, in their most secret confidential sessions, he spoke of his deep desire to end it all by being murdered in exactly the same words which were used in the emails to his mystery attacker. Someone must have hacked into the psychotherapist’s records, cut and pasted his words, and gone trawling the internet for an assassin. My God, someone really wants to kill him. Hoffmann hears the psychotherapist’s staff calling the police, and barges his way out of the building and into a cab.

Who put them under surveillance?

When Hoffmann arrives back at the HIT offices, looking terrible and sounding like he really is having a nervous breakdown, he has a brainwave. The screensaver on the attacker’s laptop shows him, Hoffmann, leaning back in his plush expensive chair in his office. Suddenly he realises it was taken from a spot directly above him in the ceiling. Appearing utterly frenzied and mad to his terrified partner, Hugo, Hoffmann stands on a chair and rips down the fire alarm unit in the ceiling and, concealed within it, finds a webcam. Now he thinks about it there’s one of these in every room in the building and – my God! – at his luxury home.

Hoffmann calls in their highly paid security consultant, Maurice Genoud, who astonishes Hoffmann and Quarry (though not, by this stage, the reader) by revealing that he, Hoffmann, ordered him to instal these webcams in every room in the office and at his home. No, he never did, Hoffmann shouts furiously. At which point Genoud brings in his laptop and calmly shows him the series of emails he, Hoffmann, sent him, Genoud, with detailed instructions for their installation. Not only that, but the emails give detailed requests for security to be set up at the new ‘server farm’ in a remote industrial estate on the outskirts of Geneva. What? This is the first time Hoffmann or Quarry have heard about this place.

VIXAL-4

In the background during all of this, the quants, the market analysts, are getting more concerned about the wild positions VIXAL-4 is committing the company to. In particular, it has withdrawn all the ‘hedges’ ie the safe bets, which are meant to balance out the speculative profitable bets. Their Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, chooses this moment to insist that they close VIXAL-4 down. Responding to this clamour, Hoffmann reluctantly walks into the room containing all the servers and turns off the power. The computers go off. There is silence in the computer room. But when he walks back into the main office Quarry and the quants are still waiting for him to do it. They haven’t noticed any change. VIXAL-4 is trading more furiously than ever. The industrial estate! What if a parallel system has been set up there?

Gana is murdered

Gana begins further criticism of the programme which merely prompts Hoffmann to launch a tirade against his priggish cowardice, and Quarry, the hatchet man, to sack Gana on the spot. Gana clears his desk, walks to the lift, whose doors ping open, he steps through them and – disappears. Disappears? The lift wasn’t there; he stepped into empty space!

Any sci-fi fan will by now be completely sure that the computer program has taken over. It heard Gana threaten it and, like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and all the other rogue computers in thousands of sci-fi stories, it is now defending itself from attack.

Hoffmann runs down to the basement, prises part the elevator doors with a car jack and, sure enough, discovers Gana’s body splatted on the bottom of the elevator shaft. Not only that but, as in a thousand horror movies, the shaft door slam shut and the elevator begins descending towards him at top speed. It is only by holding the thick steel jack vertically, that Hoffmann halts the elevator’s descent and survives in the foot or so of space beneath it and the floor. Then it goes back up and he is able to prise open the lift shaft doors and escape.

Fiery climax

Now his mission is clear: to stop VIXAL-4 which has clearly acquired a mind of its own. He hijacks a car from a bemused Austrian businessman and drives at top speed out to the grim industrial suburb of Zimeysa. On the way he stops at a gas station to buy five petrol containers, rags and matches. Yes he is planning to blow it up. By now Leclerc the Swiss policeman who had been called in to respond to the original mugging of Hoffmann at his home, and was told by his boss to stay with the case, has also found the murder scene in the seedy hotel, been called by the irate psychotherapist and arrived at the offices of Hoffmann Investment to find it in turmoil. And then to discover what is left of Gana’s body at the bottom of the lift shaft. Reports of a wild-eyed man buying petrol at the gas station alert him, Quarry and Gabby to Hoffmann’s destination and Hoffmann has barely passed the installation’s security barriers and passwords before a whole posse of police cars and fire engines appear at the gates.

Briefly, Hoffmann explores the strange intricate installation the program has designed for itself, pouring petrol as he goes. Gabby and Quarry get as far as the door and beg him to leave but, with one last adoring look at his baby, Hoffmann flicks the cigarette lighter and WHOOMPF! it all goes up in flames. there are a terrifying few pages as Hoffmann finds himself running through the maze of rooms and compartments before emerging onto the roof as a human torch and plummeting to the ground below.

Epilogue

However:

a) Hoffmann survives, for in the final pages we are told he is in hospital, swathed in bandages and burn cream.

b) When Quarry finally makes it back to the Hoffmann Investment Technologies office in the evening of what has been a very long day – he discovers the quants all still sitting looking at their screens, even though it’s past 8pm. Why? Because VIXAL-4 is still trading. Hoffmann blew up the remote computer centre but — the programme has obviously installed itself somewhere else, in the cloud, throughout the internet, everywhere. And not only is it still functioning, it is still making huge profits for the company. After is initial shock, Quarry leans back in his chair. The police will charge Hoffmann with various misdeeds. They know he went mad and tried to destroy a computer centre. But they don’t know why. Maybe Quarry should relax and let the programme carry on making him a billionaire. Perhaps, after all, this is the future, and it is unstoppable!

The characters

Dr Alex Hoffmann An American, Hoffman came to Switzerland in the 1990s to work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. He worked there for 6 years designing programs to manage the vast amount of data generated by the Collider, but got into trouble with the authorities for creating an artificial intelligence programme which threatened to run out of control. A chance meeting with Hugo Quarrel, just as CERN were closing down his project, persuaded Hoffmann that he could apply the same technique – devising an algorithm which would learn which data was significant – to analysing money and risk. He’s not really interested in money – or people – except as expressions of data and behaviour.

Gabby the modern artist. This makes it rather unlikely that he should therefore have hooked up with the astonishingly beautiful Gabby, an Englishwoman who did an art degree in Manchester. She, for her part, is uncomfortable with his astonishing, obscene wealth. A memorable incident in their relationship was when he bought a whole tank of lobsters in an up-market restaurant purely to release them back into the sea. During their blazing row at the art gallery, she reveals that she hates the vast house he has only just bought and moved them into.

Hoffmann’s business partner Hugo Quarry, gladhanding and pressing the flesh but Hoffmann and his investment algorithms are the heart of Hoffmann Investment Technologies – with its swish ten-story paperless office and 60 quants or quantitative analysts aka quants (p.72) working silently at their computer screens, on an average annual salary of half a million each (p.73)

The Swiss detective Jean-Philippe Leclerc is called to the scene of the break-in at Hoffmann’s mansion. Already tired at the end of a shift, looking a bit rumpled in his dirty raincoat, he is not happy when his boss rings him and tells him to stay with the case and shadow Hoffmann, in other words to pull a double shift. Harris has to have Leclerc do this, in order to have him cover the events of the next 24 hours, to slowly uncover the trail of murder and mayhem which Hoffmann is leaving behind him, and to be in at the climax at the exploding computer centre.

The theme of fear

  • Fear is the emotion referred to in the Darwin book
  • Each chapter opens with a quote, generally from one of Darwin’s books, some about the topic of fear and anxiety in animals, later on about the way the process of evolution itself is unstoppable
  • Hoffmann becomes a walking record of anxieties and paranoia:
    • he thinks the intruder is going to kidnap or harm Gabby, or kidnap her
    • he is told he might have dementia, triggering anxiety
    • he gives a long cerebral explanation of fear as the key factor of international trading markets
    • he and his partner become genuinely fearful at VIXAL-4’s irrational behaviour
    • he is fearful of whoever sent him the book
    • he is fearful of whoever bought all Gabby’s artworks
    • during the fight with the attacker, he resorts to basic animal-fear, fight or flight blind fury.
  • The VIX index is the fear index. Fear stalks the financial markets, in an all-too-predictable way.

The word fear is frequently repeated throughout the text, as if simple repetition will somehow instal it at the heart of the fiction. But although the final 50 pages or so are every bit as nailbiting and intense as Harris’s other thrillers, somehow all these different people all having different sorts of fear diffuses the effect.

The more Harris explicitly mentions fear of this, that or the other, the more we feel we’re being coerced or hassled into accepting a thesis and not responding imaginatively to a fully worked-out work of fiction.

A miscellany

Interesting though each one of them is individually, it feels like the book is grappling with too many issues:

  • the threat of artificial intelligence (or autonomous machine reasoning, AMR, as Hoffmann prefers to call it, p.49) running out of control
  • the computerisation of the world’s stock exchanges vastly increasing the risk of irrational crashes
  • the dark side of the internet putting in touch people who murder and who want to be murdered
  • hyper modern art ie the MRI scans on glass

as well as lengthy sections explaining Hoffmann’s work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider and modern particle physics.

It is a tribute to Harris’s grasp and ability as a writer that he manages to pull so many disparate threads together into one coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the plot goes on hold too many times while we are subjected to another factual briefing about computerisation or artificial intelligence or the amount of data generated by CERN or the speed of stock market transactions or any of a score of other interesting but distracting topics.

The book still has some slick and fancy turns of phrase:

A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end, gutting it. (p.76)

But nowhere near as many or as atmospheric as in its predecessor, The Ghost. And too many of its sentence read like this:

Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. (p.309)

They’re interesting in themselves, and necessary to explain the book’s multiple scientific issues. But they make it read at many points more like a Wikipedia article than a novel. Despite its gripping and thrilling climax, for me the majority of the book felt like it consisted of too many disparate elements, which the actual story struggled to pull together, and which were too resolutely factual and documentary to really come to life.

Plus, at a bucket level, the whole book relies on us caring what happens to an American banker. And who, in our day and age, is going to do that? Probably the majority of its readers actively want him to come to a sticky end.

Credit

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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