A Love Pentangle? Relationships in The Beetle
One thing we all take for granted is the complex social structures that existed in Victorian England. It’s pretty much a known fact that the Victorians were people who thrived on etiquette and decorum and that England in general has always had a defined social strata and people behaved according to where they fell in the hierarchy. All this being said, one aspect of Marsh’s The Beetle that fascinated me was the casual references to marriages and courting rituals that appear throughout the text.
There is a complex web of relationships in the novel and they all centre somehow on love (or at least on the idea that someone is in love). You have Marjorie Lindon, who is in love with Paul Lessingham. You have Sydney Atherton who is in “love” with Marjorie and in some senses with Paul Lessingham by virtue of being obsessed with him and his connection to Marjorie. You have Dora Grayling who is in love with Sydney Atherton. And then the funniest character of all comes bumbling into this mess in the form of Percy Woodville, who also seems to believe he is in “love” with Marjorie.
Then to complicate things further, Marjorie rejects Sydney (in fact his proposal of marriage is “not only annoying…it is absurd” (192), accepts Paul’s marriage proposal, lives down the street from Dora and poor Percy never gets the chance to ask for her hand in marriage (thank goodness because I can only imagine how that proposal would have gone). Sydney can’t break himself of the idea that he loves Marjorie, completely misunderstands Dora’s intentions, has a strange frenemy relationship going on with Paul and nearly kills Percy by accident. Dora is frustrated, Paul is hiding a secret, Marjorie knows exactly who she wants and yet is wanted by everyone, Sydney is in possession of materials that can kill and Percy is just trying to survive. Throw a gender fluid Egyptian supernatural entity into the mix and you have a recipe for love hijinks.
The whole thing sounds like a modern day soap-opera and I think that’s why I find it so compelling. The ways these characters interact while doing and feeling all the aforementioned things is governed by the social mores of their culture. The scene with the dance cards is particularly interesting for me because there is a sense of restriction there – you can’t just ask a lady to dance, you have to make an appointment. And even when Sydney is rejected in his unwanted proposal to Marjorie, he doesn’t call her names or cause a scene, instead he has to finish up his time with her in a polite manner and move on to his next dancing appointment. I think this strikes me as so strange because that’s not the way things are done today (obviously) but they were such a common part of Marsh’s day that they give that sense of realism to the novel. Love was real, people had affection for each other just as they do today but how a person was able to express that love was governed by social rules.
There seems to be an undercurrent in Marsh’s writing that is dealing with the difference between love and infatuation. When Marjorie rejects Sydney’s proposal he takes on a rather petulant attitude and tells her “if I can’t be something else, I’ll be no friend” (92) in response to her asking him for help. This doesn’t seem to indicate true love on Sydney’s part, but only that he’s decided he wants Marjorie and when he can’t have her he doesn’t want to help her at all. It’s certainly selfish and he really can’t take the hint that Marjorie only loves him as one loves a brother and that he persists in his assertion that he loves her is an interesting connection between Sydney and the Beetle. The Beetle can mesmerize and make a person focus solely on one thing, much in the same way infatuation works and the Beetle is continually asserting that Sydney loves Marjorie as though it’s an established fact. Just as the Beetle’s powers are dangerous, so too is infatuation for what it does to a person’s ability to think and function. Regardless of the happy solutions to Love Pentangle that are found in the end, the love, obsession, relationships and interactions combined with Victorian social sensibility is an entertaining and interesting aspect of this incredible Gothic novel.