Richard Marsh's A Metamorphosis

Sep 15 2008 Published by under Mystery/thriller

I continue with some reviews of the works of Richard Marsh, in celebration of the release of Valancourt’s edition of The Beetle. This time I discuss a book that is, as yet, only available through Google books, Richard Marsh's A Metamorphosis (1903).

This story is a marked departure from other Marsh works I've read, in that it combines the elements of a thriller with what can only be called a rollicking adventure story.  I discuss it and give some observations below the fold...

The story begins with an unhappy discovery by the protagonist of the story, millionaire George Otway.  While enjoying a pipe smoke outdoors, he overhears his fiancée, Dollie Lee, conversing with his cousin, Frank Andrews.  It is revealed that the two have had, or are planning to have, an affair.  Otway is devastated by the revelation and, after confronting his unfaithful love and relative, he heads off into the streets of London.

He the story truly begins.  Otway wanders onto Southwark Bridge and, although lost in his own problems, he spots and rescues a man about to commit suicide.  The man, Jacob Gunston, confesses to Otway that he is wrought with guilt over a murder he has recently committed, and will not stop until he has ended his life.  Otway, in a strange frame of mind, decides to allow this to happen -- provided the two men switch clothes before the deed.

This act -- followed by Gunston's suicide -- completes Otway's metamorphosis from wealthy millionaire to destitute stranger.  The world believes Otway to be dead from then on.  Unfortunately for him, though, the world still hunts for Jacob Gunston -- and will soon mistakenly focus on Otway as the man.

What follows is a series of adventures for Otway: captures, escapes, near misses, and life-threatening encounters.  His adventures will eventually lead him, among other places, to be trapped on a volcanic island and to join the circus as an entertainer!  The story seems at first to wander aimlessly from place to place, but by the end of the tale seemingly unrelated characters and plot elements will tie together, leading back to the act of betrayal that prompted Otway's transformation.

Unlike many of the other Marsh works I have discussed on this blog, A Metamorphosis is a book almost completely absent of supernatural phenomena.  Psychic powers are introduced, however, as a  deus ex machina late in the tale.

The story is quite entertaining, and I can recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Marsh's work.  The story ends up feeling somewhat like the classic television series "The Fugitive".

I have noted previously that Marsh seems to have a somewhat enlightened view of woman's role in society; the character of Norah in The Magnetic Girl seems very sympathetic, even though she, at least initially, seems to shun and be shunned by the societal norms around her.  This seems a somewhat markedly different view of women than in The Beetle.  As pointed out by Marsh scholar Minna Vuohelainen in the definitive edition, the book can be interpreted in part as a somewhat negative commentary on the shifting gender roles of 1890s London.

A Metamorphosis follows The Magnetic Girl in introducing many strong, independent-minded female characters, many of whom are depicted in a very positive way (helping Otway escape from danger, often against the wishes of the law or their husbands).  Others, such as the angry, vengeful former fiancée Dollie Lee seem to fit the worst female stereotypes. It almost looks to me as if Marsh's attitudes towards women had evolved, along with his writing, since the publication of The Beetle.

One last humorous observation about A Metamorphosis: in one chapter, entitled, "The Demon King", Otway takes a ride with a crazed driver of one of those new-fangled motor cars, and fears for his life as they travel down the road at a shocking 50 miles an hour!

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