International Centre for Victorian Women Writers: Part 2

by Janine Hatter on August 3, 2015

ICVWW, Second International Conference: Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1860s and 1870s, Canterbury Christ Church University, 6-7 July 2015

Part 2: Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association Round Table on ‘Three Times’ (1872)

Introduction: As the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association representative, I was asked by the organisers of the ICVWW conference to end their programme by being part of a round table discussion. They gave me free reign to discuss what I saw fit, so I opted for a Braddon short story – quick and easy for people to read, packed full of interesting themes and ideas! I chose ‘Three Times’ as it is one of my favourites and is usually overlooked, as well as being one of Braddon’s most difficult to categorise short stories as it draws on the theatre, mesmerism(?) and potentially the supernatural. Originally published in Belgravia Christmas Annual in 1872, ‘Three Times’ was reprinted a year later in Milly Darrell and Other Tales. This was standard publishing practice for Braddon, who usually published her short stories in different periodicals and newspapers, and then collected some of them into an edited volume for publication by her publisher and partner, John Maxwell. Throughout the course of her life, Braddon wrote over 150 short stories, but only a handful of these – mostly her supernatural tales – are republished in modern collections. ‘Three Times’ has recently been republished in the British Library’s collection The Face in the Glass and Other Tales (2014) and so is coming back into focus. Having given this brief introduction to the tale, the dedicated group of scholars who remained until the end of the conference undertook an hour’s discussion of the text.

Plot synopsis: The tale focuses on the life of a lion tamer, Herr Prusinowski, and is split into three chapters. In the first chapter, Herr Prusinowski is hosting a benefit night and in the run up to his big show he recounts a tale of a previous performance to his fellow theatricals. At this performance a mysterious man was a member of the audience; he is described as having ‘a cadaverous lantern-jawed face, and light reddish hair, very straight, combed neatly on each side of his forehead’. This audience member affected Herr Prusinowski so much that he almost lost control of the lions, and had to close the curtain before the finale of putting his head in one of the lions’ mouths. After the show, he recalled, he tried to find the ‘cadaverous man’ but he had left the theatre. The chapter ends with preparations underway for Herr Prusinowski’s performance that night. The second chapter details that night’s performance, a performance to which this mysterious man also attends. The cadaverous man sits ‘in the middle [of the balcony], in a position that commanded every inch of the stage’, so Herr Prusinowski could not miss his attendance. Having noticed this man, Herr Prusinowski again almost loses control of the lions, but manages to save the show, even performing the sensational finale. Afterwards, he is shaking all over with fright, but manages to track down the man in a shop outside of the theatre. He questions the man about his motives, and the cadaverous man replies he is ‘an amateur of sudden death’. In the third chapter, it is three years later on, and Herr Prusinowski is performing for three nights at a seaside resort. His show is declining in popularity, but the lions still draw a big enough crowd to warrant the performances. Once again the cadaverous man is in the audience, but this time Herr Prusinowski is determined not to let him throw him off his performance. He calls for the orchestra to pick up the music and he works the lions harder than usual. As Herr Prusinowski ‘look[s] defiantly at that watchful face’ the crowd’s applause turns to shouts of horror as the lion mauls him to death. The tale ends with the cadaverous man telling ‘the story as a pleasant kind of thing after dinner’, noting that Herr Prusinowski ‘left his wife and children comfortably provided for’.

Group Discussion: The discussion began by focusing on the cadaverous man – who is he, what did he want, was he evil? While he is described as having ‘red hair’ – a sure sign of the devil – and he enjoys amateur death, it was debated whether or not this made him evil. He follows lion tamers around specifically to see them be killed (and he has previously seen one or two killed in this way), which creates a sinister sense of foreboding in the text, and he creates unease for Herr Prusinowski, which makes him falter and ultimately fail in his performance. But, he does not (overly) appear to have any control over the lions or the lion tamer in order to make this happen – it could all be in Herr Prusinowski’s head, he could be a projection of Herr Prusinowski’s fears, or indeed it could be the weather… The cadaverous man argues that he is there out of interest, and if Herr Prusinowski happens to die, then that would please him – it is more of a right place, right time situation.

The power balance between them was also commented on. As the entertainer, Herr Prusinowski should have control over himself, the lions and the audience, and yet the audience have the power of the gaze, which places power with the viewer rather than the viewed. As the cadaverous man always sits separately from other members of the audience, he was seen as a Svengali-type figure, controlling from off-stage. Their relationship was also seen as a Faustus/Mephistopheles like pact, as Herr Prusinowski’s pride caused his fall (Faust), while the cadaverous man’s influence links him to Mephistopheles’ magical powers.

Another reading of this tale was through Freud’s death drive. Herr Prusinowski continues with the performances, even though he is afraid of the cadaverous man; the cadaverous man seeks out sudden death as a hobby; the audience go to see wild beast shows because of the unspoken fear that the beasts ‘might leap into the pit at any moment’; while the reader continues to read each chapter, knowing the inevitable outcome of the ‘third time’. We are, all of us, driven by this fear.

Another main theme that threads throughout ‘Three Times’ is story telling as a mode. Herr Prusinowski tells the story of his first encounter with the cadaverous man to his colleagues; the cadaverous man tells the story of Herr Prusinowski’s death to friends as an after dinner anecdote; and the narrator of the tale talks directly to the reader, hinting at what will happen. Braddon was well known for commenting on writing as a process, authorship as a profession, and the press as a medium (think Sigmund Smith in The Doctor’s Wife), and she develops this idea here with her use of personal reminiscences, word of mouth, and advertising.

All of these different layers of meaning make ‘Three Times’ an irresistibly sinister and intriguing tale that over forty five years after its publication still makes readers question the function of literature and the nature of humanity.

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