Wednesday 7 November 2018

Review: The Elixir of Life by William Harrison Ainsworth

I picked this book up after reading Dickens and it is painfully clear how poor a writer Harrison Ainsworth is in comparison. Where Dickens can’t help describing things in surprising ways, Ainsworth is painfully bogged down by cliché, especially when he tries to make the writing soar.

A few pages in and this doesn’t matter. What Ainsworth does have is a delight in drama and story. After three pages, we have already had a man half-killed for trying to remove severed heads from London Bridge and a miracle recovery. By the sixth page, the man has discovered that the alchemist who made him better is his grandfather, by the eighth the alchemist has created the elixir of life and by the ninth he has had a sudden heart attack and his grandson has stolen the elixir of life rather than heal his Grandfather, taken it and stepped out into an eternal life… What Ainsworth lacks in skill at words, he makes up for in skill of action.

The writing is so by-the-numbers, an alchemical chamber is simply described by what it has in it and the people speak to themselves in a peculiar stagey dialect that no-one would ever use but this is because they are the simple tools needed to convey the happening in the story, which never lets up.

The dialogue is particularly awful. I’d noticed, but not hated the clunky nature of it in other Ainsworth books but here it really sticks out. The shady characters speak in a pinfull inwented speach vat grates on the eyes. I might have liked the character of Ginger, the dognapper with a couple of Charleys in his pockets, if he hadn’t been so painful to read. (I also thought it weird that in this, of all books, there was an attempt at a message against the law’s indifference to dognapping).

The book has a weird structure. There’s the prologue with the young man, Auriol, his alchemist grandfather and his drinking of the elixir. The next part is about Auriol’s secrets being found out and exploited by ruffians, details his falling in love with Ebba Thorneycroft and his bargain with a mysterious man in a black cloak who demands a woman Auriol loves every ten years. Then there was an interlude set thirty years earlier where the man in the cloak discovers his powers and makes his deal with Auriol. Then the next part, involves a group of people going to rescue Ebba and being trapped in a fiendish house of death before the end of the book when Auriol wakes up and discovers he’s been mad and has dreamed the last three-hundred years.

I didn’t understand why Auriol made a deal with the man in black after he’d been alive for two-hundred years already. My assumption was that the elixir’s downside is that the person would live forever but have no financial luck and the man in black promised to take this downside away for the price of a soul every ten years - but I had no confirmation. 

We never find out what happens to the intrepid rescuers trapped in the house of death, nor the fate of Ebba Thorneycroft and the other women. I was not convinced as a reader that the whole story had been a result of Auriol’s madness, the details of his imagined future were too accurate to not have taken place.

That’s not to mention the chapter in the barber’s that takes four pages describing a barber’s shop to only lead to a character gaining a new master called Loftus, which doesn’t really go anywhere because a few chapters later he is working for the man in black. That’s not to mention the mysterious figure in a mask who helps the rescuers whose identity is revealed in the following deft piece of exposition; “Is it you, Gerard Paston, the brother of Clara, my second victim?” We hadn’t even heard of Gerard or Clara before this moment.

All this moaning is not to say I didn’t love the book - I did. Any book where a man turns a key in a lock, pushes the door and the whole thing falls down is one I want to read. Any book with a bizarre trap with self-imprisoning chairs that give immobilising electric shocks and then huge helmets come from the ceiling to suffocate the sitters, is one worth reading. There was also a moment in the book where an immortal character complained that he’d been drowning for three days because it took that long to untie the stone from him. I loved the book, but it feels threadbare.

Essentially, it feels unfinished, and perhaps it was, although I can’t find any authoritative source to say so. The Dickens I was reading before this was ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, which has had people writing endings for it since Dickens died half-way through. This similarly feels like half a book, ending on the cliff-hanger of Auriol ‘waking up’ and it would be enormous fun to Drood it up, try and work out the relationships and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. If I had the time, I’d do it myself.

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