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The Miz Maze : or, the Winkworth puzzle ; a story in letters

November 24, 2013

So, I think The Miz Maze might be the best collaborative novel I’ve read. It was published in 1883, but seems to take place circa 1859, and the authors are as follows:

Frances Awdry
Mary Bramston
Christabel Rose Coleridge
Mary Susanna Lee
A.E. Mary Anderson Morshead
Frances Mary Peard
Eleanor C. Price
Florence Wilford
Charlotte Mary Yonge

Nine authors is a lot, and I want to know more about them and about the dynamic between them. But all I’ve got is the obvious textual evidence that they weren’t as acrimonious as The Whole Family‘s lot. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing but a page of signatures, a few Wikipedia pages, and a random selection of facts about Charlotte Yonge. And that’s okay. It’s a pretty self-sufficient book, I think, and the authors seem to agree.

The information they do and don’t choose to give is so interesting. First, the authors’ names appear only as facsimile signatures, and they don’t specify who wrote what. Second, they provide a list of characters, and it’s crazy. See, for example, “Sir Walter Winkworth, Baronet of the Miz Maze, Stokeworthy, Wilts, age about 64, residing, when the book opens, at High Scale, a small property in Westmoreland, which was his in right of his second wife, Sophia Ratclyffe, recently deceased.”

I mean, all else aside, that’s a hell of a lot of commas.

On the scale of literary parlor game pretension, these women fall somewhere between the authors of The Affair at the Inn and William Dean “Control Freak” Howells, progenitor of The Whole Family. Instead of, “hey, let’s write a story,” or “hey, let’s be super deep together,” they’re saying, “hey, let’s write something realistic.” And, I mean, it’s still a sentimental novel, so a Venn diagram with circles labeled “People who don’t think Italians are entirely respectable” and “People whose relations married Italians” would encompass most of the characters, with significant overlap. But the governing principle seems to be the idea that everyone has a different point of view, and that people rarely understand each other. And…well, a) that is obviously my favorite thing, even more than secret insane wives and people falling in love with their spouses, and b) they are so amazingly committed to this principle that I can’t help but kind of love them, even when the story doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

Let me tell you, for example, about Algernon Bootle. Algernon Bootle is the son of the vicar and his busybody wife. Sir Walter Winkworth (of High Scale and Miz Maze) hires him to tutor his eldest son, Miles. Aunt Dora, Sir Walter’s sister, says she wouldn’t have thought any real person could sound so much like Mr. Collins. All the Winkworth kids kind of hate him. And yet Miles, writing to his twin, says “He isn’t such a bad fellow at bottom. I told him the other day that you would have been a more creditable pupil, and he became natural on the spot and said: ‘I wouldn’t have undertaken him for a thousand pounds.'”

I thought Algy was the one character who was only ever going to be the butt of jokes. But no, the authors of The Miz Maze are committed to everyone’s humanity, and it’s awesome. Which is not to say that Algy’s not still continually the butt of jokes. But he’s not just that.

I want to talk about Miles, too, but I don’t quite know what to say. He’s shy in that way that comes off as dullness, and Aunt Dora says, “Miles will be better looking by and by, when he has overcome the heaviness that clings about fine young men in the undeveloped stage.” He’s desperately in love with his sister Zoe’s best friend Emily, but she’s not interested. His more outgoing twin is in the Army, and also Canada, and it makes sense for Miles to be the steady, stay-at-home one. But when Aunt Dora tells him that he and his brother had their initials written on their feet as babies so their folks wouldn’t get them mixed up, he says, “I think it’s rather a pity they didn’t.” He’s sort of inarticulately, endearingly young.

And then, Aunt Dora. You may have already noticed that I can’t describe other characters without help from Aunt Dora. That’s because she’s the best. She’s one of Sir Walter’s two spinster sisters, and while the other one, Bessie, has a tragically dead fiancé in her past, Aunt Dora is happily single. She’s also kind and intelligent, funny, and a little bit intimidating to the younger women before they know her well. And she’s awesome at gently taking Sir Walter down a peg when he deserves it, in a very realistically sibling-like way.

The family relationships in this book are fantastic all around. Or, the Winkworth family ones are. Other families don’t get the same amount of attention. But there are plenty of Winkworths, and I can’t decide which I like best. There’s Sir Walter’s fraught relationships with his eldest children, and the way his obvious love for them doesn’t lessen the weight of his expectations. There’s Miles and Clyffe — short for Ratclyffe, which ouch — who have been the most symbiotic of twins, and now have to learn to be apart from each other. There’s Miles and Zoe, who are so much alike and so different, and confide in each other and bully each other in equal measure. And there’s Sir Walter and Aunt Dora, whose teasing, open affection was my first sign that the characters in this book were going to closely resemble real people. I think this is what William Dean Howells wanted for The Whole Family, and that The Miz Maze happened 15 years earlier makes me feel even better about Howells’ book being a hilarious train wreck instead.

It gets a little worse toward the end, as books often do. There was a point at which I felt like everything had been wrapped up to my satisfaction, but the romances had yet to be resolved, so the book had to keep going, and I just didn’t care as much anymore. Also there was a while there where I thought Algy was going to be converted to Catholicism, and it would have been so funny, and I wish he hadn’t been rescued. Still, I kind of love The Miz Maze, and its authors, who clearly made an effort to agree instead of undermining each other. I think it’s because they were all women.

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4 comments

  1. Do you think it’s better to read this one first or The Whole Family first?


    • I don’t know that it makes a difference? They’re pretty unrelated. The Miz Maze is better, but I think you’d get a kick out of the weird meta-narrative of The Whole Family.


  2. It does sound better than The Whole Family. Charlotte Mary Yonge is the only author in the list I’ve heard of, but the others (I looked them up) seem to have been popular writers of their day.


    • Yeah, I’d heard of several of them as collaborators of Yonge’s. I’ve always been a little bit intimidated by Yonge for whatever reason, but this makes me want to read other stuff of hers.



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