Mystery of the Marsh

J.F. Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh — Thirty-first Instalment

It’s giving nothing away to say, here facing the penultimate chapter, that we’re fast approaching the end. The perfect place to spend a few minutes pondering not only ends — before it is too late, for one thing — but beginnings and middles as well. One of those perforated works of Aristotle’s, his Poetics, is the earliest we have to expand on the importance of these concepts to the shape or structure of a story — in the Aristotelian instance, a story expressed in the dramatic form of tragedy.

Nevertheless, the idea of narrative structure expounded by Aristotle is able to be — and is, often — generalized to include other story-forms, particularly popular ones such as films and novels. Many, many books and web-pages use the idea in useful frameworks and formulae for constructing and construing novels and screenplays; the emphasis being upon engaging, entertaining and gripping a reader or spectator. Readers disdaining the formulaic implication of such a practice might turn a blind eye, or temporarily suspend disbelief.

For Aristotle, the most important thing in tragedy (for our purposes, “story”) is the plot, the “arrangement of incidents.” The plot is the imitation of a complete, whole action. Thus it has a beginning, a middle and an end:

A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.


From this formulation, elegant in its simplicity, a framework may be extracted, and hung with the content and dynamics of an infinite number of different stories. In passing, Aristotle mentions that a beautiful object must have “an orderly arrangement of parts.” Followers of his minimalistic construct, and in particular its later permutations, emphasize its value as a key to holding a spectator’s attention, to engaging and impelling a reader. It is a staple of books on “how to write a novel” — read “page-turner” — so tends to be adaptable or malleable to diverse views and interpretations.

Gustav Freytag (1816-95) represented the basic idea of narrative structure as a pyramid, now known as “Freytag’s pyramid” or “Freytag’s triangle,” which can be used as the basis for three or five act plays or narrative structures:

Fretyag’s Pyramid

His point (a) is the introduction — what is presupposed for the action to occur. Soon after (a), an “exciting force” occurs (now known commonly as the inciting incident), which is a force that “sets the hero in motion.” Point (b) is the  subsequent “rising action,” and (c) the “climax

Freytag’s next point (d) refers to the “return or fall” (falling action), leading to (e) the catastrophe — that is, the closing action or, in archaic terminology, the exodus. Once again, terms and concepts are heavily determined by the specifics of the refined form of tragedy; though they are capable of being adapted to diverse stories in novels and screenplays.

Based on this format, later iterations of Freytag’s model lessen the technical emphasis upon the rise and fall of a tragic protagonist specifically, but are applicable to a huge variety of genres. Usually the pyramid is skewed to the right, to give a better idea of the placement of the climax. Among the best known are those in Syd Fields’ Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (1984; 2005) and Robert McKee’s Story: Structure, Substance, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997). There are many imitators and variants, all of whom stress the importance of the inciting incident to inspire the story and impel its reading. Such an approach to structuring may be useful in considering the massive popular appeal held by Smith’s writing.

Where to locate the inciting incident in Smith’s novel? The first few chapters are, quite naturally, introductory and expository; though Chapter 1 brings William and Kate together for the first time, when he helps the two “boys” by directing them to the red barn for refuge. William’s character arc is clearly inextricable from Kate’s. Everything is tied up in their love relationship, to the extent that the novel could be called a romantic suspense or romantic thriller, with a tincture of coming-of-age (not a “mystery” as such, as that genre has come to be known).

An inciting incident, however, needs to do more than merely set the stage. Not until Chapter 3, after the melee in the barn (a mini-climax of strands from the opening chapters with their own beginning, middle and end, but a sequence that William absents), do he and Goliah drive the girls to London in the wagon. Smith describes the moment when William is entranced by Kate’s eyes — “dark sapphire blue, gemmed in the tears which, like pearls, encircled them” — and he thrills for the first time in his life “with strange emotion.”

As inciting as it is enticing, is the moment a sufficient mobilizer of the story? Immediately after, a swag of business occurs that is unrelated directly to their romance.  Kate moves into the background as a lingering memory. During this phase, Mrs. Hearst can be said to represent a force opposing his transition to manhood and self-realization — which is resolved to some extent in the courtroom drama of Chapters 6 and 7 (a second mini-climax). So let’s stick with that for the Inciting Incident: Willie’s rapture in the spectacle of Kate’s eyes.

Although lacking in drama, William’s relocation to London is a very significant incident, as it places him once again in Kate’s vicinity — and importantly, sets in play his academic career. Of course, we know now that he will be readily prepared to sacrifice this asset when the moment of truth arrives.

Therefore it is reasonable to consider the move to London, in Chapter 7, as a “key incident” (Fields). It may be perceived as impelling a second of three acts, which is dedicated in part to counter-posing the villains’ plotting against Kate. Simultaneously this villainous plotting creates an opposing force against William and Kate’s romance. At the same time, the issue of class provides substantial opposition, as we have established previously.

K.M. Weiland, an acclaimed latter-day proponent of a three-act formula, has developed Freytag’s and later models into a comprehensive paradigm for the novel. Her convincing array of structural devices may be useful in helping delve into the multi-layered, multi-faceted world of Smith’s sprawling serial.

In her Structuring Your Novel Weiland determines that critical incidents or Plot Points should occur at a quarter, half, and three-quarters the way through a successful story. Actually, the move to London falls close to 25% of the way in. In Mystery of the Marsh, the inciting incident identified may be considered to work in combination with this key incident / first plot point, Willie’s move to London, by serving to lock his fate in with Kate’s. The story now moves into a second act with mise-en-scenes (Paris; London society; the liminal sphere of Bitterns’ Marsh) disconnected from parochial Deerhurst.

In accord with Freytag, the story is now in engaged in (b) the “rising movement” (or rising action), a series of complicating scenes that progress to a moment of climax or crisis at point (c). Here the consequences of the rising action are expressed “strongly and decisively”  (Freytag) — which is, not in the least unexpectedly, the moment about to occur in Chapter 31 of Mystery of the Marsh.

Weiland predicts that a significant Midpoint or Turning Point should occur somewhere in Chapters 15-16. As it happens, both these chapters are devoted to the duel in Paris, between Lord Bury (aka Egbert, Viscount Allworth’s son) and Clarence Marsham, upon whom pivots his mother Lady Allworth’s malevolent plotting. Such an incident of high drama as the duel itself between good versus evil brother would be an obvious contender for the Midpoint / Turning Point. Two subplots collide here: i) Egbert’s blossoming romance with Clara Meredith, which is linked with the Ned Burcham and May Queen Phoebe Burr affair;  and (ii) Marsham’s heinous behaviour and designs on Kate, which his mother goes to lengths to facilitate. So that choice of Midpoint seems fair.

How about the “turning” explicit in the term Turning Point? Well, immediately the story returns to the Allworths’ plotting. Concurrently, Willie is studying so hard at Cambridge he is almost burnt out. The doctor prescribes a rest, and consequently, while unwinding in a carriage in Hyde Park with Goliah, whom should he run into but Kate? The courtship is on, and running in counter, the build-up of Lady Allworth’s plot involving Brit and Moses, etc.; and the relocation of Burcham and Marsham to the Bitterns’ Marsh.

The Third Plot Point needs to be distinguished from the climax, since it must impel the third act, in which the climax is to occur. That function would have to be the dramatic kidnapping after the opera in Chapter 26, which leads inevitably to the climactic encounter by which we are about to be gripped.

This corresponds to the climax in Freytag’s Triangle: the imminent crisis in the current instalment, with the forces of good and evil poised in direct opposition. The stakes are at the highest: the very lives of the three heroines and three young heroes.

At any rate, that’s a beginning. It might be possible, next instalment, to apply some more of Weiland’s paradigm, towards a further tentative sketching out of narrative structure in J.F. Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh.


The Last Struggle — A Siege Not Carried On According to the Strict Articles of Warfare, but Gallantly Fought Despite of Them — Goliah’s Ammunition

‘They are preparing for the attack,’ observed our hero.

‘Let them,’ said Bunce; ‘we are ready for them.’

‘I should say we were,’ added Goliah, patting the breach of the culverin affectionately. ‘If they stand old schoolmaster’s larnin’ it’s more nor I could; it be all packed in here. Won’t he be arnest, right down savage when he finds out wha’ it’s charged wi’!’

‘We must reserve our fire to the last moment,’ continued the second speaker, impressively; recollect it is our last chance; so no precipitation. Our great object should be to keep our enemies at bay till succour arrives.’

‘Succour!’ repeated Willie, scornfully. ‘I tell you, no! We must depend upon ourselves, strain every nerve. Action! Action! Where, in this desolate region, where the features of man rival those of nature in hardness and cruelty, can we look for aid?’

‘Still I am not without hope,’ replied Bunce, in a more cheerful tone. ‘When Clarence and his associate employed me to assist in their dark enterprise, with that devilish cunning which accompanies crime like its own shadow, clearing the pathway to destruction, they concealed from me the place to which they intended to convey their victims. True, I had my suspicion, but no certainty. An error would have been fatal. Just as we were about to start I ascertained it, and wrote a few hasty words to your uncle.’

William gratefully pressed the hand of the speaker.

‘What!’ exclaimed Goliah, ‘be the old lawyer in the game? Then we shall win. He be like mother’s old goat at the farm, he can’t fight much, good for naught at a run, but he do butt awful hard wi’ his head, I can tell ʼee.’

Even in the painful position in which they stood his hearers could not restrain a smile at this quaint conceit.

As a further precaution, Burk and Ben, the Sawter boys, were placed, each armed with a pistol, at the loopholes flanking the culverin. Nature had made them quick of eye, practice ready of hand, and Bunce had given them instructions.

Clara Meredith, Lady Kate, Susan, and Nance were barricaded in their room above. They could render no assistance unless by prayer.

As the heavy mist rolled sullenly from the scene, loth to quit the stagnant pools and swamps of the Bitterns’ Marsh, more figures might have been discerned. Some came creeping through the brushwood, others were advancing more openly; all were armed. An hour had not elapsed before thirty men were gathered in front of the boulder.

Still the little garrison gave no sign of resistance. Prudence told them to wait till the leaders of the band, Clarence and Burcham, made their appearance. Eager eyes were strained, but failed to discover their presence in the motley herd. Cowardly as cruel, they sheltered themselves behind the Druid’s Stone, where Benoni and his father also prudently were concealed.

A consultation was being held.

Burcham proposed that they should fire the tower.

‘Absurd!’ said Clarence Marsham, who, having, as our readers may recollect, been in the Guards, possessed at least some elementary ideas of military tactics. ‘You forget that the building is fire-proof.’

‘All but the door,’ urged his confederate.

‘The girls might perish in the flames!’

‘And my books,’ added the schoolmaster; ‘my EIzevirs and Aldines, to say nothing of the precious labours of my own life.’

Had the speaker known the havoc already committed amongst his literary treasures by that Goth, as he used to name his former pupil, Goliah, the objection, probably, would not have been made.

‘No, no,’ he added, ‘I can show you a better way.’

What that way was will very soon be seen.

Calling to him such men as had armed themselves with axes, the schoolmaster led them to a spot, only a few feet distant, where several trees, already stripped of their branches for firewood, lay scattered upon the ground. Selecting the toughest looking of these, he directed them to shape it so as to form a species of battering-ram, leaving a blunt point at either end.

The work was instantly commenced.

The defenders, who had anxiously watched every movement, saw that the number of their enemies had decreased and felt puzzled to divine the cause. Alas, it was soon explained. In less than an hour they returned, bearing in their strong arms the trunk of a tree, fashioned into the shape of a battering-ram.

Bunce, whose quick eye at once detected the danger, called to Ben, the youngest of the Sawter boys, to shoot the foremost man. Receiving no reply, he rushed to the loophole where he had stationed him, and found the lad pale and trembling.

‘Why did you not fire?’ he demanded, angrily.

‘I dare not,’ was the reply.

‘Dare not! Are you cowardly or treacherous?’

‘Neither,’ said Ben, ‘but the man you called on me to shoot is my own father.’

This was true. Tim Sawter had regained his liberty, and, half mad with liquor and rage, was leading the attack.

The anger and suspicion of Bunce vanished in an instant. Although he had never known his own father, he comprehended the feelings of the youth and respected them.

‘Forgive me,’ he said, ‘if in my heart I wronged you. Give me the weapon.’

Ben hesitated.

‘Not against your father, I promise you that.’

It was yielded to his hand.

As the speaker reached the loophole where the culverin was planted, the attack had commenced.

William Whiston had fired the first shot, stretching one of the bearers of the battering-ram dead.

This caused a momentary check. Several retreated behind the boulder, but the rest, somewhat more resolute, gathering fresh courage, again advanced, when Goliah discharged his weapon with similar effect.

‘Two o’ the Marsh birds potted, anyhow,’ he observed, coolly; ‘first one I ever brought down. Don’t feel half so bad as I thought I might ha’ done; but, then, I ha’ my doubts if they be really fellow creatures; thar aint no real manhood in ’em.’

The honest fellow was right in his rude logic. It is manhood that constitutes the man; without it he is merely an animal, over which reason has lost control.

‘That pesky varsity, Willie, hasn’t sp’ilt your aim,’ he added.

‘It was my first and last shot,’ replied our hero; we have no more bullets left — nothing but powder.’

Goliah reflected for a few instants; a fit of inspiration — it could scarcely be termed anything else — seized him. Tearing the buttons off his coat, he commenced stripping them of their cloth covering, and never paused till he held twelve shining brass ones in his hand.

‘It bean’t sportsman-like I know,’ he observed, dryly, as he placed half of them on the sill of the loophole for his friend. ‘We can ax pardon afterwards,’ he added, with the old merry twinkle in his eye, ‘if they stand on pertickilar ceremony.’

Hastily reloading their pistols, the speakers discharged them a second time. With each shot, or as we should have said, button, one of the enemy fell. The rest retreated behind, the boulder — that was their citadel — where a fresh consultation was held.

‘Your fine plan has failed,’ observed Clarence to the schoolmaster; ‘we must advance with all our men, break down the door by weight of numbers, or they will defeat us in detail. You have your instructions,’ he added.

Not a ruffian moved.

‘Why am I not obeyed?’ shouted their employer.

‘We are waiting,’ said one of the more prudent ones, for the gentleman to lead us. I’ve always heard, the general should show the way.’

At this there was a half-smothered laugh.

The conspirators felt that if once they permitted themselves to become ridiculous in the eyes of those they had employed, their cause would be well-nigh hopeless. Neither of them much relished the idea of exposing themselves to the aim of the boys, as they termed them, who had proved such excellent marksmen. Once master of the tower, they knew that the band would return to their former subservient habit.

Money was the best disciplinarian in the present instance.

‘Lead you!’ repeated Clarence. ‘Who else should lead you? Myself and friend will be your generals. And paymasters,’ he added, ‘when the contest is over.’

The last remark produced a faint cheer, which was renewed when Burcham added:

‘And reward you liberally when the work is done.’

At last the final moment was at hand. The brave defenders, so few in number, but resolute of heart, saw, with straining eyes, their enemies advancing in a compact body against them. Our hero began quietly to blow the fusee in his hand.

‘Not yet,’ said Bunce.

‘Do not fear,’ was the reply. ‘My heart may be gnawing itself with impatience, maddened by doubts of the result, but my brain is cool and my hand steady. I shall not fire till they are all in range.’

‘At last!’ he said, as he fired the culverin.

The effect was terrible. Nearly a dozen of the assailants fell, some fearfully mangled, some fatally wounded. The rest paused, panic-stricken, paralyzed at the sight. Burcham lay dead. His partner in crime, severely wounded, was dragged out of the mangled mass to a distance by the school-master and his son.

The former, who possessed some skill in, surgery, began to examine his injuries.

When the fact became clear that the culverin had been charged with the clasps of his cherished books, and the wadding supplied by his own precious commentaries upon his favorite authors, where it probably made more noise than if it had been published, the old man uttered a yell of despair and fled from the spot.

Benoni waited for an instant only, to secure the pocket-book which he saw concealed in their employer’s bosom. Then he, too, disappeared, and was never more seen in England.

The four females during the scene we have described, had remained in their barricaded room, a prey to the most terrible feeling — suspense. A faint shout fell upon their ears, and Clara, rushing to the loophole which commanded the road to the beach, saw a considerable body of men advancing from that direction. For several minutes the doubt, the hope, were more than she could express.

‘Embrace me, Kate!’ she exclaimed. ‘We are saved. They are friends. Bury and my gallant old father are leading them. I knew they never would abandon us. No error. Saved!’ she repeated. ‘Saved! God has heard our prayers.’

It was true. The Leander had arrived, and landed its crew upon the Essex coast. Guided by the discharge of firearms, they were advancing rapidly to the rescue.

In less than an hour the martello tower was taken possession of by its new defenders, and the worn-out garrison relieved from its perilous situation. There was no more fighting. Not a Marsh bird was to be seen. Only the dead remained.

Liebespaar (c. 1900), Richard Borrmeister

We must pass over the transport of the meeting — Clara sobbing on her father’s breast; Kate in the arms of her lover; Susan clinging in undisguised happiness to the strong arm of her defender.

Some one at last suggested that the ruffians might return.

‘Pooh,’ said the baronet. ‘Ready for an army of them. Bury brought a party of his regiment with him. Tom Randal could thrash a dozen such fellows. Lawyer Whiston is with us; and that taciturn man in black, though I cannot say that he has been of any particular use to us.’

The turn of the gentleman in black to interfere had not arrived yet.

The last-mentioned personage now put in an appearance. After congratulating his nephew the lawyer next proceeded to reduce the chaos, moral as well as physical, to something like order. As if by tacit consent he took command of everything.

His greatest difficulty was to prevail upon Clara and Kate to take some refreshment, and we question if even his arguments would have prevailed if their lovers had not seated themselves beside them and pretended to join in the repast.

Accompanied by Tom Randal he and the gentleman in black next proceeded to search every part of the building as a fresh precaution. Several soldiers accompanied them. The first place was the chamber of the old schoolmaster, whose books they found in most admired disorder. The expression is Shakespeare’s — not the author’s.

Amongst other things they came upon a box of letters and papers marked private. Rather an unwise precaution, since they are sure to be the first examined by curiosity or cupidity.

A brief perusal satisfied the lawyer of their value. They were carefully sealed, and the gentleman in black took possession of them.

The rest of their discoveries we shall pass over as not being of particular interest to our readers. It was past midday before the now happy party reached the Leander, to which the ladies were conveyed in litters. No one was forgotten who had befriended them. Nance, the Sawter boys and their mother were conveyed on board.

The two prisoners, Bilk and Pike, had preceded them.

With a fair breeze the vessel turned its prows towards London. As it started the motley crew gave three hearty cheers. It was their farewell to the Bitterns’ Marsh.

On reaching London the murderers of the poor old domestic were committed to stand their trial, which was certain to end in their conviction; and Susan, who had remained behind to give her evidence before the magistrate at Guild Hall, was driven to rejoin the rescued cousins at Montague House, whilst our hero and Goliah accompanied Lawyer Whiston to his home in Soho Square.

It was a hard blow to the last-named personage when he discovered that his nephew had thrown up the all but certainty of being senior wrangler and fellow of Trinity; but he bore it bravely.

‘Never mind, my boy,’ he said, ‘there are still better prizes in the lottery of life than those you have missed — the sense of duty performed and the approval of your own heart. You will win your reward yet.’

Willie shook his head doubtfully.

‘I tell you that you will!’ said Lawyer Whiston, eagerly. ‘Take it as my legal opinion; pay me a fee for it, if you like. You know I rarely err on such points.’

‘And I’ll back thee, Lawyer!’ said Goliah. ‘What be it all about?’

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes, References, Further Reading

  • culverin: See definition previous chapter (n.).
  • haphazard: “First entered English as a noun (meaning ‘chance’) in the 16th century, and soon afterward was being used as an adjective to describe things with no apparent logic or order” (Merriam-Webster).
  • loopholes: Martello towers are known also as “loophole towers”; the loopholes being window-openings in the wall, for the firing of weapons.
  • most admired disorder: Macbeth 3.4.
  • fusee: flintlock; firearm

Aristotle. Poetics. (350 BCE). Trans. S.H. Butcher (1902). Available free at Jump to  file.

Chatman, Seymour. (1978) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell).

Fields, Syd (1984; 2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (London: Methuen).

Freytag, Gustav (1894; 1900). Technique of the Drama: an Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. Trans. Elias J. MacEwan (Chicago: Scott, Foresman). Available free Internet Archive. Jump to page (Freytag’s Triangle).

McKee, Robert (1997). Story: Structure, Substance, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (NY: Harper-Collins).

Weiland, K.M. (2013) Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. (PenForASword Publishing). Jump to plot structure summary diagram (PDF).

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