|The Metamorphosis of Mansfield Square
Author: Wilusa PM
A Dark Shadows essay, tracing the antecedents of the show's first and most famous time travel sequence to two classic movies and a never-completed novel.Rated: Fiction K - English - Chapters: 2 - Words: 5,378 - Published: 05-02-03 - id: 1293932
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In the first chapter of this essay I discussed similarities between Dark Shadows and Berkeley Square/I'll Never Forget You. Now I'll note a key difference.
In the films, the time traveler has always been a part of the past. There are no original and revised histories: history cannot be changed. In DS, on the other hand, the time traveler has not always been a part of the past, and we are dealing with original and revised histories. Both approaches to time-travel fiction are valid; all that matters is that writers understand which one they're using and stick with it.
Even a famous author can get into trouble by ignoring that rule.
Several years ago I wrote a brief letter to TWODS to mention the influence of Berkeley Square/I'll Never Forget You on DS. Then another fan wrote to ask if tapes of the films were available. She said she'd been unable to find the "story" on which they were based, "The Sense of the Past" by Henry James.
I had never realized Berkeley Square was based on a literary source. I found the Henry James work. And it's highly instructive, especially for would-be writers, to trace the development of James' idea through the films and into DS.
The Sense of the Past turned out to be a novel that was left unfinished when James died. It was intended as a companion piece to The Turn of the Screw. The completed portion and the author's notes on how he planned to continue it are published in The New York Edition of Henry James. The editor tells us that given James' known work habits, the completed portion is indeed in what would have been very nearly its final form.
I had never tried to read Henry James before. And after this experience, I never will again! The Sense of the Past is the most turgid, unreadable mass of prose I've ever forced myself to plow through. Sentences run almost a page in length. An extended scene in which the protagonist remains stationary in one room, while other characters troop in and out, drags on for a stultifying 170 pages. Dialogue is stilted, and all the characters are insufferable. Character names are awkward and ugly. Even the films' felicitous place name, "Berkeley Square"--as magical a name, to me, as "Collinwood"--was changed from James' prosaic "Mansfield Square."
It may seem unkind to criticize a work that was left unfinished because of the author's death. But James had begun this novel six years before, then laid it aside to concentrate on other projects. And the editor never suggests his literary skills were in decline when he resumed work on it.
Here's the plot of the completed portion of The Sense of the Past:
In 1910, Ralph Pendrel is a wealthy young American obsessed with the past. The woman he loves, Aurora Stent Coyne, rejects him because of that obsession.
Ralph goes to London to inspect a house he's inherited in Mansfield Square. On discovering the house has been preserved virtually unchanged since the 1820s, he falls completely under its spell. He's most intrigued by a full-length portrait of a man in 1820 dress, turned so that his face can't be seen. Ralph conceives the bizarre notion that the man in the portrait is deliberately concealing his face from him, and turns to look out at the room when no one is there. He begins sneaking about, trying to catch the figure in the portrait moving.
As he approaches the room late one night, candle in hand, he thinks for a moment that he sees a reflection of his candle flame in the doorway. Then he realizes he's looking at another candle, held by another man. The man who has stepped out of the portrait! It's only then he discovers that the man looks exactly like him.
Several days later an excited Ralph calls on the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. He feels he has a duty to report the momentous events that are taking place. So he tells the Ambassador the whole story, saying he believes a time portal (my term) was opened because his fascination with the past was exactly matched by an ancestor's fascination with the future. He claims his visiting ancestor--an earlier Ralph Pendrel--is waiting for him in a hansom cab parked near the Embassy. "Unless he's gotten tired of waiting, and gone exploring on his own..."
The Ambassador thinks Ralph is insane, but decides to humor him. Believing he should see this madman safely home, he goes out to the cab with him on the pretext of wanting to meet his ancestor.
There's no one waiting in the cab. But the Ambassador pretends to accept the explanation that the ancestor has gone exploring, and accompanies Ralph back to Mansfield Square. He stands at the curb, watching, as Ralph walks up the steps to his house.
Guided by intuition, Ralph makes no move to unlock the door with his key. Instead, he uses the knocker. The door is opened by a servant in livery. And as Ralph crosses the threshold, his clothing is transformed, and he steps into the world of 1820.
In that era, the man I'll call the Ancestor--just arrived in England--is expected to court and marry a young woman named Molly Midmore. But the Descendant soon finds himself drawn to her younger sister Nan...
That's as far as it goes. But James' notes tell us something about his intentions.
For a while he toyed with the interesting idea that the Descendant would somehow learn the Ancestor was having a much better time in the future than he was in the past! The Descendant would by then be disillusioned and anxious to return to his own time. But the Ancestor would be actively fighting to stay in the 20th century, trapping him in the past.
Then James abandoned that approach. He decided the Descendant would be plagued by apparitions of the Ancestor, who'd berate him for disrupting his (the Ancestor's) life by becoming romantically involved with the wrong woman. What was to come of that is unclear.
He also had a vague idea that Nan would remember an original history in which she'd been in love with the Ancestor, but he hadn't loved her. Beyond that, James felt that a sacrifice on her part should enable the Descendant to return to his own time. But none of it was fully thought out.
He was clearer about this. After spending some six months in the past, the Descendant would walk out the front door of the house...and back into the 20th century. He would definitely be happy to return.
To his astonishment, he'd see the Ambassador standing at the curb, just as he'd left him! But it would quickly be established that six months had passed in the present. Aurora had come to England to beg the Ambassador to search for the missing Ralph. And with that in mind, he'd come to stare up at the mysterious house where he'd seen Ralph vanish into the past. His returning to that spot, recreating the scene as it had existed six months before, had somehow made it possible for Ralph to transcend time again.
After explaining everything to the Ambassador while sitting on a bench in Mansfield Square, Ralph would ask him to send Aurora to him, saying he'd wait for her in the house.
An undramatic ending. In which, it seems, he's cavalierly summoning Aurora (who has already swallowed her pride by following him to England). Not to mention the gall of using the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain as his errand boy!
Some general observations. I've always heard that The Turn of the Screw leaves it unclear whether anything paranormal has really occurred, or the ghostly phenomena (which inspired the DS sequence with Quentin's ghost) were all in the protagonist's mind. Almost anyone would conclude from the completed portion of The Sense of the Past that Ralph Pendrel is insane and hallucinating. That he has an unhealthy obsession from the outset; begins deteriorating when he imagines a figure in a portrait is able to move; and experiences a complete break with reality when he "steps into the past." We'd expect him to "return to the present" and find himself in a straitjacket.
But James tells us in his notes that as the story progressed, he intended to make it clear Ralph was sane, his experience real. And since the novel was planned as a companion piece to The Turn of the Screw, I suggest this may also tell us his preferred interpretation of that work--at least as he looked back on it in retrospect.
The "present" of The Sense of the Past appears as 1910 because James began writing it in that year. In his notes, he states his intention of revising and taking out references to any specific year as the present.
On the old question of how much time should pass in the present while a time traveler is in the past: James felt strongly that if the Descendant was in the past for six months, he should return to find six months had elapsed in the present. But it seems never to have occurred to him that he should account for what the Ancestor was doing in modern London all that time.
The reader will have noted that none of the Berkeley Square plot details most suggestive of DS originated with James. They include the "ancestral" portrait whose resemblance to a modern man is clear for all to see; the 18th-century setting for the time travel; the allegations of witchcraft; and the "lover" lookalike the time traveler encounters in his own time. (James never hinted at a connection between Nan and Aurora.) The DS writers probably looked no further than the films.
Despite my low opinion of James' writing, I think that may have been a mistake.
To explain, I'll have to discuss James' approach to time travel. He began his novel with the intention of telling a story in which the time traveler had always been a part of the past. But then this established author made a series of amateurish blunders.
First, he plunged into writing without a clear vision of his plot and how the various incidents would fit together. That's acceptable in some types of novels. But the mechanics of time travel are tricky, and require careful advance plotting.
Next, after writing only a small portion of the planned work, he polished and fussed over it until he, at least, was delighted with what he had written.
Then he realized he had unwittingly sabotaged his original plan! He was firmly resolved that the portrait should be one painted in England, after the American cousin had been in residence for months. He'd made the Ancestor step out of that portrait. But then he'd let the Descendant walk into the past as Ralph Pendrel was first arriving in Mansfield Square. The Descendant had appeared in 1820 at an earlier date than the one the Ancestor had left.
And James was too attached to his completed scenes to be willing to change them. So he arbitrarily convinced himself he could make the story work by using original and revised histories.
He was courting trouble. For example, here's a problem he showed no sign of noticing. The house, built in the early 1700s, had been preserved unchanged since about 1820. That would only have made sense if the time travel had always been part of history, and the Ancestor, after returning to his own time, had left preservation instructions for the purpose of awakening the Descendant's interest in that era. (Someone could argue that the Ancestor had gone to the future and returned in the original history, but the Descendant had not gone to the past--or at least not to that early date. But then, why the change?)
The decision to use original and revised histories meant that the Descendant, in the past, had no idea how things would turn out--whether he'd get home safely. That provided a desirable element of suspense. But it also created a problem; and this one, James was aware of.
He intended Ralph to become disillusioned with the past era he had over-romanticized, and want desperately to return to his own time. But he also intended him to fall deeply in love with Nan--which should have given him a reason for wanting to stay! James had no idea how he would resolve this and make Ralph's emotions believable; he simply told himself he'd be able to do it. Frankly, I don't think anyone could have.
The filmmakers looked at James' work more objectively, and felt none of his attachment to the images of the Ancestor stepping out of a portrait, and the Descendant walking through a door and vanishing before the Ambassador's eyes. They discarded his opening and returned to the idea of an unchangeable history in which the time traveler had always been a part of the past. That eliminated the problem James had been wrestling with. Peter Standish knew from his interpretation of the historical record that his ancestor would be returned safely to 1784. That meant that whether or not he also got home safely, he and Helen/Mary Ann would inevitably be separated. So even though he was just as disillusioned as Ralph Pendrel, and just as much in love, he wasn't torn. He couldn't stay with his true love, and there was no use fretting over whether he would have chosen to.
An unchangeable history, however, created another problem: Peter's knowing so much in advance threatened to eliminate suspense. The screenwriters found an ideal solution. They took an unimportant point in James' novel and developed it into the central mystery of the films.
A detail I haven't mentioned: in The Sense of the Past, when the Descendant goes back in time, he initially "becomes" the Ancestor. Knowing only what the Ancestor knew. Not remembering he's really a different man, a time traveler from the future. James intended him to have subconscious foreknowledge of events--and modern attitudes--that would get him in trouble when he unthinkingly blurted things out. Only after he himself became disturbed by this would he begin gradually remembering his true identity. Eventually he would once again be a 20th-century man, an alien in the past. (Of course, there was no indication the Ancestor had forgotten who he was on arriving in 1910...one of many annoying inconsistencies.)
The time-traveling Ralph is perplexed when he first meets Molly Midmore's younger sister Nan, because he's never heard of her. But this only means the Ancestor had never heard of her before he arrived in England. The Midmores had been virtually hiding Nan, Cinderella fashion, while making their push to arrange a suitable match for her sister.
The films' time-traveler always knows exactly who he is and remembers everything he's read about the 18th-century family. In this situation, Peter's not having heard of Helen/Mary Ann is far more disturbing. It's a continuing puzzle, and ultimately causes Peter and the audience to fear his whole experience may have been unreal.
Now let's look at Dark Shadows. DS had to use original and revised histories, whether or not the writers knew what James had done (it's my guess they didn't). If Victoria Winters had always been a part of the past, Barnabas would have recognized her at first sight.
DS didn't have one problem James did. Vicki was in imminent danger of death in the 18th century. So she naturally longed for deliverance, by one means or another, no matter how much she loved Peter Bradford. And DS's substitution on the gallows provided a more dramatic ending to the time-travel sequence than either James' intended novel or the films.
The show did, however, have another problem. Vicki has been mocked for foolishly blurting out so many things that aroused suspicion. The same criticism can be leveled at the films' Peter Standish; but the screenwriters had no alternative. Suspicion had to be aroused. And they needed Peter to understand who he was--even if his gaffes seemed stupid in light of that knowledge--so he'd be troubled by the Helen/Mary Ann mystery.
DS was under no such restriction. I suggest that the writers would have been well-advised to go back to James' plan and let Vicki, for the first few weeks, believe herself to be Phyllis Wick. If her inappropriate knowledge and attitudes had come from her subconscious, confusing her as much as they did everyone else, her blunders would be easy to justify. In original DS, at least, this approach wouldn't have caused a problem in the "present": Phyllis was barely seen before she was gone.
Every treatment of this time travel theme has had its strengths and weaknesses. Dark Shadows fans who are aspiring writers can profit from an understanding of the wise and unwise choices that were made. And all of us can take pride in the fact that DS's handling of the theme is more than worthy to stand alongside a Henry James draft and two classic films.
The Sense of the Past and James' notes on how he planned to continue it make up Vol. 26 (the last volume) of The New York Edition of Henry James, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, Copyright 1917, Copyright Renewal 1945. I found it in a public library.
The 55-minute "Hollywood Radio Theatre" adaptation of I'll Never Forget You, starring Tyrone Power and Debra Paget, was broadcast 9/22/1952. I purchased the tape some years ago--for about $12--from Radio Yesteryear, Box C, Sandy Hook, CT 06482. I don't know whether the company still exists.
There was a Berkeley Square TV movie some years back--definitely the same plot, possibly starring John Kerr. I wasn't able to watch or tape it, and I have no reason to think it's available on tape.