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23 March 2021

From the NS archive: The villain

7 January 1922: The real villain is a contradiction of normal life – a contradiction so extravagant that he seems at times a grotesque invention.

By R Lynd

On 22 December 1921, a young woman named Irene Wilkins was lured to Bournemouth in response to a job offer where she was met, abducted and beaten to death with a hammer by a chauffeur named Thomas Henry Allaway. The case caused a sensation and it prompted R Lynd to think about the nature of what makes a villain. True villainy lay outside normal human understanding, he said, which is why even great writers struggle to come to terms with them. The baddies of fiction or stage melodramas are types, but the real “villain is a contradiction of normal life – a contradiction so extravagant that he seems at times a grotesque invention”. When it is close to us, said Lynd, as with the “resurrection men” Burke and Hare, villainy “fills us with awe before the incomprehensible. Villainy at a distance is a sort of gibberish of conduct that is not only incomprehensible but ludicrous. There are depths of vile meanness and malice which luckily the normal imagination cannot plumb. We call them madness.”

***

There are people who say they are not interested in the Bournemouth crime. One of them has declared in print that it is obviously the crime of a madman, and that a madman is not a human being like ourselves, but a wild beast. Apart from the fact that it is human to be interested in wild beasts, he ought to have remembered that wild beasts do not send telegrams or drive motor-cars or even, perhaps, read the Morning Post. The wild beast, moreover, usually acts from an intelligible motive – hunger, or pugnacity, or fear. It is only when the wild beast goes mad that it can reasonably be compared to a mad human being. Philosophers who are indifferent to the Bournemouth crime should be punished by having to live in the same street with a mad elephant, or even a mad dog. They would find that their neighbour, though a beast, was so interesting that statesmen would seem small as ants compared with it. Criminals, indeed, have never been less fascinating to the average man because he suspected them of having been entrapped into crime by madness.

The imagination of the Middle Ages and even of the Renaissance was thrilled by the notion that certain men were turned into wolves at night and driven by bloodlust to mangle and devour their fellow-Christians. Webster uses this theme in the Duchess of Malfi – mistakenly, we think, because it helps to a still greater degree to turn what ought to have been a tragedy into a drama of sensation. The interest of Englishmen in Jack the Ripper about thirty years ago was comparable to the earlier interest in the werewolf. Zola gave the Jack the Ripper theme a French setting in La Bête Humaine. No doubt it was the sense of mystery as well as the horror of his deeds that made Jack the Ripper the most talked-of man of his little hour. But the madness as well as the secrecy of criminals appeals to our sense of mystery.

The werewolf itself was merely an attempt to explain the mystery of certain forms of human wickedness. Men felt that something existed outside the ordinary formulas of conduct. Powers of darkness were abroad in the darkness, and the Devil was playing tricks with the human shape as well as with the human soul. It did not seem stranger to the Middle Ages that a man should become a wolf in figure than a wolf in nature. They were so awestruck before the mystery of evil that almost anything seemed possible. It may be that in those days men saw the Devil as more than lifesize, but they did at least recognise the truth underlying the saying that he goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. They were so terrified of him that they themselves did devilish things at times in self-defence, and played for safety by burning humpbacked old-women at the stake.

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Possibly they made much the same error as we make today. If they believed in a Devil, it was in an external Devil – in a Devil that roamed the landscape, not in a Devil caged behind their own ribs. The prophets may urge us to concentrate on the Devil in our ribs, but it is difficult to think as ill of him as of the Devil who gets into the newspapers. It is strange that a man has only to kill a young woman in particularly brutal and unintelligible circumstances in order to become a figure who seems to bestride the whole country like a Colossus. He casts, for the time being, his enormous shadow over the map of England. It is of him that men read first, if it is only for a few days, when they open their papers. He is here, he is there: streets, woods, counties become alive at the merest rumour that he has visited them. A seaside town that has ten thousand happy associations now hardly counts, if it is mentioned, save as the scene of a murder. All the other associations are driven before the new association like leaves before the wind. Who now, if he sees the name of Bournemouth, thinks of children digging in the sands and happy walks beside a blue sea? One thinks only of a woman enticed into a motor by an unknown man for an unknown reason and left dead and mangled in a field. We try vainly to penetrate into the murderer’s mind.

Was it some new eccentricity of bloodlust that incited him? We suspect something so unprecedented that we conclude he must have been a foreigner. Probably every complete villain is a foreigner to the average man and woman. Othello was a murderer, but he acted from a jealousy that any of us might feel, and, therefore, he is no villain to us, and therefore no foreigner. Macbeth was a murderer, but he acted from an ambition that any of us might feel: therefore, he, too, is not quite a villain or a foreigner to us. Iago, on the other hand, had the malice of murder in his heart without any motive that seems to us at all adequate. We can sympathise with Othello and Macbeth; we even believe in their nobility of soul. Spiritually, they speak the same language of good and evil as ourselves, differing from us mainly in the use of superlatives in certain places where we should use positives. But Iago conducts his life in a tongue as distant from us as the speech of Lilliput. Milton’s Satan is a good European compared to him. Satan, indeed, was almost British. He was simply a too ambitious leader of the opposition in the parliament of the universe. Iago was not a leader: he had the perfect solitude of perfect wickedness. He was such a monster that Shakespeare has often been accused of having invented him.

On the other hand, what can a great writer do in regard to monsters? Monsters undoubtedly exist, but a great writer cannot possibly understand them. Like the savage, he may be half-devil and half-child, but by no possibility can he get under the skin of the man who is whole devil. He can merely look on from the outside, and describe the monster’s actions, but not his soul. Hence the dearth of good villains in literature. To bring a villain into a book is to risk making the book unreal. It brings us as a rule, not the illusion of life, but the illusion of Drury Lane. Cheap, sensational literature abounds in villains to a greater extent even than life does, but it does not seem to us life-like. It is true that sensational writers turn out their villains on a pattern, so that we could recognise one of them in the street, as we could never recognise a real villain.

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Wilkie Collins was so startlingly original as to make the villainous Count Fosco as fat as Falstaff, but even in the same book he companioned Count Fosco with Sir Percival Glyde, the lean, well-dressed, recognisable villain of the stage. Sir Percival may not have been recognisable to the other characters in the story, but he is recognisable to us. On the whole, we believe that the real villain must, rather like the stage villain, except in his recognisableness. Were he immediately recognisable, we should not find so many people asserting the innocence of the man in the dock during almost every murder trial. At a play such as The Silver King, we do not see the audience taking sides in his way. A theatre audience knows a villain when it sees one, especially in the provinces, and the booing is unanimous. In real life, people are never quite sure. The French, it appears, are divided as to whether to make a villain or a hero of Landru.

It is possible that in some respects the melodramas are truer to life than the law-courts are. The melodrama always, or nearly always, shows us the villain as the victimiser, whereas the law courts show him to us as the victim. They bring him into a light in which we can sympathise with him. His motives may be alien to us, but his fears are our own. Hence, in melodramas, a man in the dock is usually an innocent person. The trial scenes and the prison scenes on the popular stage that linger in our memory nearly all have a falsely accused man as the principal figure. Human beings cannot unanimously gloat over the sufferings of the vilest wretch. We do not know if this squeamishness is a modern innovation. So long as executions were in public, there was undoubtedly always a crowd to enjoy them. The executed man, however, was often the hero of the crowd, and we question whether the virtuous ever attended the show merely for the love of seeing justice get the better of wickedness. At the same time, there were hangings that the crowd cheered as frantically as a victory in war.

When Burke, who murdered people in order to sell their bodies for dissection, was hanged, more than 20,000 men and women were present to cheer the execution. He, too, had committed crimes that put him outside the range of our sympathies. His motive seemed so tiny in comparison with his crime. There was an infrahuman foulness about the backstreet crimes of Burke and Hare that disgusts us like a loathsome disease. Yet Burke and Hare had their own scruples. On one occasion when they had decided to make a corpse of a cousin of Burke’s mistress, Burke’s finer nature got the upper hand. “Burke told Hare,” we read, “that he [Hare] would have most to do with her, as she being a distant friend, he did not like to begin first on her.” He accordingly insisted on playing second fiddle in this particular crime, only joining in when the stifling had already begun. He showed similar delicacy of feeling afterwards in the condemned cell. Though he passed much of his time in religious preparations for his last hour, he startled the priest who attended him one day by interjecting: “I think I am entitled and ought to get that £5 from Dr Knox which is still unpaid on the body of the woman Docherty.” “Why,” exclaimed the priest, “Dr Knox lost by the transaction, as the body was taken from him.” “That was none of my business,” declared Burke stubbornly, “I delivered the subject, and he ought to have kept it.” “But you forget,” the priest reminded him, “that were the money paid, Hare would have the right to half of it.” “I have got a tolerable pair of trousers,” Burke replied, “and since I am to appear before the public I should like to be respectable. I have not a coat and waistcoat that I can appear in, and if I got the £5 I could buy them.”

Is it any wonder that great writers can do so little with the psychology of villains? The villain is a contradiction of normal life – a contradiction so extravagant that he seems at times a grotesque invention. That, we think, explains how it is that Bluebeard has become a figure to entertain children, and Nero and Henry VIII in their crimes belong to the lighter side of popular history. Villainy, when it is close to us, fills us with awe before the incomprehensible. Villainy at a distance is a sort of gibberish of conduct that is not only incomprehensible but ludicrous. There are depths of vile meanness and malice which luckily the normal imagination cannot plumb. We call them madness. We hope this is not paying an undue compliment to the race of men.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)