Book Review by Jane V. I wanted to source an early title for the session on books produced by Mills & Boon publishers at the beginning of their existence. After much ado trying to find a title which I could verify was actually published first by M & B and which was not exorbitantly expensive, I lit upon Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.
Most of you will have seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical (1986) based on the story, or an earlier film version (1925, illustrated above), so I won’t go into the story. Suffice it to say that the original novel is packed not only with all the elements for which M & S became famous/notorious – romance between a junior aristocrat and a poor girl forced to earn her living in the theatre, danger, mystery, adversity and the final triumph of love, but it also includes comedy, exoticism, gothic horror, the supernatural, a fairy godmother figure, a wicked witch and historical fact. In essence a pot-pouri of a novel, part drama, part gothic horror romance, murder mystery, fairy story, comedy.
Leroux was a music critic and uses his knowledge of the musical cannon and the behind the scenes workings of a theatre to frame his story which he tells through a narrator. The story is set in the Paris opera house of Palais Garnier, which itself lends exoticism, (as does a mysterious ‘Persian’ who pops up from time to time in the early part of the story,) and it is true that this theatre did actually have a lake, or an aquifer, beneath it with an access onto the Rue Garnier. It is a fact that a chandelier broke from its anchorage in the ceiling and fell on a packed audience, killing one person and injuring several more. It was also rumoured at the time that a ghost lodged in the cellars. A fruitful base for a thriller based on fact. In order to lend the novel veracity Leroux pulls in references to actual events and people and to the details of the lighting and water effects, scenery mechanisms and construction of a theatre which was built above underground water. In addition he invents a report by the Persian of how he found out how to break into Erik’s domain, and even annotates it so that it looks like a real report. This report serves the purpose of filling in the background details of Erik’s life and activities to date.
Leroux’s story has at its centre Christine Daae, a courageous young Norwegian opera singer who is far from being a droopy female protagonist, and her pale and trembling suitor, the young Raoul, M. le Vicomte di Chagny whom she had met by chance when they were children. And of course, the ‘ghost’, a horrifically deformed man with an extraordinary talent for music and a sadistic streak. Christine has humble beginnings. She was born to a peasant man who soon became widowed. The father had a violin which he played like an angel and left to his daughter on his death predicting that she would one day find her own ‘angel of music’. The daughter he leaves to a kindly old lady (fairy godmother). When Christine joins the chorus at the opera house she has scant talent as a singer. The prima donna who sings all the lead roles is of a vicious and machinating nature (wicked witch). Yet, somehow, in order for Christine to have a chance at taking over the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and astounding audiences with her newfound talent, this hitherto gifted prima donna unaccountably loses her voice and is booed off the stage. This is evidence of the powers of magic worked by the phantom.
Comedy is supplied by one Madame Giry who seems to fulfil the role of usherette, except that she is aged, clad in faded black taffeta and a rusty black bonnet, is outspoken and coarse and not afraid to speak out to the managers. As the story unfolds two new managers are appointed and it is the interchange between these two which supplies most of the slapstick comedy, particularly when they are trying to establish how the pay-off money for the ‘ghost’ magically disappears from the tail-coat pocket of M. Richard – slapstick worthy of a Charlie Chaplin or a Groucho Marx. However, there are far too many scenes of banter between the two managers; they hold up the plot and become a distraction.
A scene set at night in a spooky graveyard where Christine goes to visit her father’s grave and where the ‘ghost’ follows her and plays beautifully on the violin her father left her provides a little gothic vignette – but adds little to the development of the plot. Of course the major scenes of gothic horror occur under the opera house, in the domain of the ‘ghost’ who progressively lures Christine into his Svengali-like power as he trains her voice.
Christine fears that her lover is a potential victim of the ‘ghost’ and wishes to spare Raoul all knowledge of the real identity of the mysterious presence beneath the theatre; the ghost is, after all, suspected of the murder of the theatre’s chief props man. But finally she has to tell him everything. Raoul sees that this brooding presence might well gain complete dominance over Christine and that the ‘creature’ has become obsessed with her and is trying to bind her to him for ever. At this point, when the ‘ghost’ shows his human passion for Christine who he has begged to love him for himself and the wonderful music her composes, the reader (and no doubt the audience of the musical) begin to feel a degree of pity and sympathy for the disfigured man (fairy tale – Beauty and the Beast?). And so it comes to pass that Erik, the phantom, born disfigured, rejected by his mother despite his musical talent does snatch Christine away just at the point when she and Raoul have agreed to elope after the performance. Raoul descends into the underworld with the Persian as guide to try to rescue his Christine (Orpheus and Eurydice? A further borrowing from classical Greek myth pops up in a resident siren who appears in the lake surrounding Erik’s house).
Desperate to save Christine from the underworld Raoul entrusts himself to the Persian as guide, and together they descend into the depths of the theatre. Here Leroux really ‘goes to town’ describing in the words of the Persian, as though in a written report of the events, and in vivid and dramatic detail all the terrors and dangers which the pair encounter in that hidden world. A torture chamber, endless jungle with extreme heat, then a parched dessert followed by a rising lake which threatens to drown them. Sinister voices appear to come from nowhere; the lighting is dim, or non-existent – and all the time both men are aware that the phantom is tracking them and could size them at any moment. The Persian knows that these are all illusions; he knows from past experience that Erik is a master of illusion. But the effects of these illusions work on Raoul’s senses and confuse, disorientate and terrorize him. The reader is similarly gripped by these lurid descriptions. But Leroux, with his knowledge of how productions were staged in a theatre, can’t resist at last telling us exactly how these effects were achieved. This section of the novel reads like a treatise on stage production with emphasis on sound and lighting effects.
Leroux’s novel was translated and published simultaneous in America and England. The 1910 version which I have does occasionally read too much like a translation. And the many exchanges between the vast ‘cast’ result in this novel resembling more a theatre drama than a novel and one can see why it has received later treatments as film and theatre. Indeed the whole story is a rich mine of material for a variety of books: a romance, a murder mystery, a psychiatric thriller, a police comedy featuring inept cops, a guide book to the Palais Garnier, a handbook on nineteenth century stage production, a gothic horror story. But there is far too much extraneous material for this to be in any sense a well-crafted novel. It could perhaps be constructed as a study of the darker side of sexuality compared to the innocence of young love; or as a study of obsession and control. Or perhaps, it could be argued, it is a study of the subconscious at work. On the whole though it is a good romp and there is plenty in it to entertain the reader – even if sometimes that reader becomes confused by the detail and the myriad personnel. It is an obvious forerunner to the subsequent M & B list, containing many of the elements which still sell these novels – a love affair between an aristocrat and a chorus girl which is thwarted by many trials and tribulations before ending happily ever after; the seemingly glamorous life of the stage; an exotic setting. It has them all!