The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Good Villain

The tricky bit about writing a good villain is to find his or her core--his own viewpoint and motivations, I mean. Bringing back the Rev. Mr. Emilius (promoted to Bishop, so the Rt. Rev. Joseph Emilius, now) was something I knew I would do as soon as I wrote chapter 1, but it wasn't until later in the process I knew why I was going to bring him back.

In Phineas Redux, the two men never appear together--even in the television adaptation (scripted by novelist Simon Raven), they share the screen only in a brief scene in the courtroom where Phineas is standing trial for the murder committed by Emilius, and Emilius is brought in to demonstrate the grey coat he could have worn might have been the one identified by the shaky witness Lord Fawn (As Lord Fawn is played by Derek Jacobi, who, like Anthony Ainley (Emilius) played went on to play the recurring Doctor Who villain the Master, this episode is a Whovian's delight.) In the novel, it is Mr. Chaffanbrass's Solicitor's clerk Scruby who dons the coat, and so Phineas and Rev. Emilius do not meet, that we see.

And yet, vastly different as Emilius and Phineas are, there are some comparisons to be made. They both are charming outsiders, who rise in society due to their charisma and ability to win the admiration of others, especially of women. In a sense, Mr. Emilius is a tawdry, distorted mirror image of Phineas--Phineas as he might appear, say, to Mr. Kennedy, Lady Laura's insanely jealous husband. They have one other thing in common, as occurred to me in writing the introduction to a trial in which Phineas is defense counsel:
For the criminal trial is many things—a search for truth, a drama, a battle in which every technique of rhetoric and wit is brought to bear in the contest for victory. But it is nothing quite so much as it is a crucible testing the characters of all involved, though none so harshly as that of the accused, which must, unless it is of true steel, crack.

Phineas Finn had not cracked. Neither, though, had that other man, Joseph Emilius. If ever they were to meet again, each would have the measure of the other in a way that very few could understand, almost none who had not undergone the ordeal they each had survived. While the one man strove to use his days to do good, and the other sought to bend the precepts of what is good to his own uses, both had faced the extremity of fear and shame—and had come through intact.
After writing that, how could I not bring them together?

Finding his core required an evaluation of the outer man in trying to find the inner. The novel is informative, as Trollope always gives his characters their due, even the villains. Emilius' coolness under pressure, his seemingly unshakeable faith in his own rectitude is admirably well described, as is his slightly oily charm. Emilius has grit, whatever else he has--he never breaks, despite the mounting odds against him.

Anthony Ainley's performance was also suggestive. His portrayal of Emilius is highly stylized and theatrical--for Ainley, Emilius is a man conscious of playing a part, and aware that his every motion is calculated, planned, and affected. The real Emilius is only briefly glimpsed, as Ainley portrays him--once, in a moment of insolent ease with his then-wife Lizzie and once later in a hostile confrontation with her and Mr. Bonteen.

The clip above shows Anthony Ainley at his first Doctor Who convention, in 1981. He uses many of the mannerisms he brought to the screen as the Master, but also the conscious display of a very calculated, mannered performance of a character that made his Emilius so memorable. Note how he veers back and forth between the likable, unaffected cricket fan and the suave, musical tones of the Master. He knew who the fans wanted to see, and gave them enough of it to satisfy. That's just what Emilius does--he's constantly onstage, giving his devotees what they want, while the real man beneath is unseen, save in glimpses.

Which leads to the question: What is Joseph Emilius protecting?

And my answer to that question--consistent, I believe with every word Trollope wrote about the man in the two novels in which he appears--is what led me to what I believe to be the man underneath the mask.

Update: In a surprising bit of unconscious plagiarism, I did not mention that the point of the parallels between Phineas and Emilius (even their names echo each other) was brought into relief by Nicholas Birns in his lecture to the the Trollope Society on Phineas Finn and the Bidungsroman; after our discussion at the lecture, Professor Birns was kind enough to share with me his prepared text, which I have found very helpful in many ways, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge his insights.

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