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The Tragedy of Chain Pier

September 20, 2010

I doubt anyone has been reading this blog for that long, but if you’ve poked around in the archives, you may remember Charlotte M. Brame and her less than aptly titled Everyday Life series. I really will finish reading it some day, and I am now one book closer to that goal.

The Tragedy of the Chain Pier is actually a little less ridiculously removed from everyday life than The Coquette’s Victim and Coralie. There’s only one wealthy young aristocrat and one unexpected succession to an estate, and both are fairly peripheral.

John Ford is a vaguely invalidish, vaguely heartbroken, vaguely wealthy gentleman. He goes to the mostly-deserted Chain Pier in Brighton to brood one night and sees a visibly distressed woman throw a bundle into the water. When he returns the following day, he discovers that the bundle was a baby. Cue lots of people talking about how cruel it is to murder a baby, and how it could only have been done by a woman. Ford pays for the baby’s burial and then goes to America for one of Brame’s beloved long-but-rapid periods of exile.

Ford returns to England three years later at the behest of his best friend, Lance Fleming, who has married since they last saw each other. And I think we can all guess who his wife is.

Ford is horrified, of course, to find that Lance’s wife is a murderess, but even so he has to admit that she’s pretty nice. And she doesn’t flinch when he talks pointedly and at great length about the sea and Brighton, and Lance clearly doesn’t believe Frances had ever had a wrong thought in her life. It’s actually pretty good, this bit. You get to doubt that Frances is actually the lady of the pier and wonder if she’s evil, or if there are extenuating circumstances. And then Frances starts reacting when Lance brings up the shameful practice of baby-murdering over the breakfast table, and when he buys a painting of Moses’ mother consigning her son to the river. Considering that I’ve believed for the past three and a half years that Brame was allergic to tension, it’s pretty suspenseful.

Finally Ford goes and tells the story to a priest, who advises him to tell Lance, but suggests that he might want to talk to Frances first. She admits that she was the lady of the pier, but pleads extenuating circumstances — a wealthy and unscrupulous seducer, a fairly evil grandmother, an accidental overdose of some kind of opiate — and asks Ford not to tell Lance. And Ford doesn’t deal well with moral quandaries, so he’s like, “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to agonize about this for at least another ten pages,” and Frances is like, “I would really appreciate you not equivocating.” But it doesn’t really matter, because she immediately dies of smallpox, neatly resolving the situation. Charlotte M. Brame may occasionally stray in the direction of suspense, but she always returns to her one true love, the cop-out.

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