I’ve never seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Phantom of the Opera so I came to this book as innocent of its plot as Gaston Leroux’s readers were when it was first published in 1911. I wonder if they were as confused by it as I was: veterans of Wilkie Collins The Woman in White and other mystery novels of the period, they were perhaps more used to Gothic melodrama?
The life of Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) had its own dramas: he apparently gambled away the millions he inherited (and that was in the days when millions were millions) and only narrowly avoided bankruptcy (in the days when bankruptcy meant absolute ruin). Abandoning law, he became a journalist and reported on the Russian Revolution, but in 1907 he began writing crime and thrillers which became very popular. If you check him out on Wikipedia you can see that he was remarkably prolific, and that like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in Britain, Leroux’s Adventures of Joseph Rouletabille detective fiction series established him as a popular author in France, successfully writing for the mass-market.
The Phantom of the Opera has all the elements of gothic tales (see my review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho for further elaboration) with the added frisson of its contrast with the extravagant world of opera. Even in Australia where we tend to be casual about dress codes, people usually dress up for the opera, and our opera houses (not just the famous one in Sydney) are places of glitz and glamour. The Paris Opera is one of the most beautiful and opulent opera houses in the world, but Leroux’s novel is set in its underbelly: a place of dark cellars, horrid chambers, mysterious trapdoors, winding passages, secret rooms used for escape in the days of the Paris Commune, and so on.
So there are plenty of places for a ghost to hide at the Paris Opera, and Leroux, who introduces the novel as if it were reportage, uses them all. This ghost, (whose name Opera Ghost is often conveniently abbreviated to O.G. in this translation) has established himself as part of the gloomy scenery. He is only ever seen just enough to horrify people with his skeletal frame, his swirling cloak and his death-mask, and on its own this would be enough to generate rumours and gossip - but for the gothic novel he must also supply atmospherics so he generates spooky noises and unexpected chilly breezes as well. With these accessories he is able to terrorise everyone and is thus able to extract regular payments from the management and have exclusive use of his favourite box, Box 5. He has his own lackey in the form of Madame Giry who in turn expects him to return the favour by elevating her daughter to dizzy heights not revealed until late in the novel.
But hey, the world is full of sceptics who don’t believe in ghosts, and when the new theatre management takes over, there is Trouble. M.Richard and M. Moncharmin are not disposed to pay 20,000 francs to a ghost, and they would rather have the income from making Box 5 available to others. Trouble comes in the form of a falling chandelier, a misfortune which actually happened in 1896. But that of course is not all.
Gothic novels have to have a beautiful maiden to wallow in ecstasies of emotion. Christine Daaé has all the prerequisites: she is an orphan, she has no money, she is very broody about her dead father and she is Torn Between Two Lovers. It is in a suitably gothic graveyard that she encounters ‘The Angel of Music’ and goes into transports of delight over the music she hears. Wow, it’s The Resurrection of Lazarus played on a violin, just like Papa used to play! O ecstasy! O sublime mystery!
Well, it’s the Angel of Music who propels Christine from the obscurity of an understudy to instant celebrity when the diva Carlotta finds mysteriously that her sublime voice becomes a toad-like croak. Yes, it is the O.G. who has fallen in love with Christine and is determined to Make Her His by stage-managing her career. Just what every young starlet needs, really. What a pity he overdoes it a bit…
But the O.G. is much too ugly to be the hero, and no, there is no Beauty and the Beast metamorphosis for him. Instead Christine attracts the attention of Raoul, younger brother to the wealthy Comte Philippe de Chagny, and therefore too aristocratic to marry her but poor enough to be a sympathetic character. He is foolish, impetuous and passionate, and No Match for the Wily Phantom who kidnaps Christine and lures Raoul to what ought to be his Doom in the torture-chamber! Will there be redemption?
Well, the problem is - having been an enjoyable romp till about half way through the novel - the plot then becomes terribly complicated. There is a Persian police officer who has been keeping a (not very alert) eye on the O.G. and he escorts Raoul on a bizarre journey through secret rooms and underground passageways to a house on a lake and (o carelessness!) into a torture-chamber reminiscent of hell. The reportage goes into overdrive with great slabs of testimony from the Persian (who obviously lives to tell the tale) and the narrator who claims to be an historian. Christine confuses both Raoul and the Reader by professing affection for the ghost now often referred to by the more prosaic name of Erik, while Raoul confuses both Christine, the Persian and the Reader by vacillating between Love and Eternal Devotion to the Innocent Maiden and Accusations of Nefarious Behaviour with his rival. (She is a girl, after all, and she spent a lot of time taking singing lessons with him). There is a farcical scene involving the sleight-of-hand disappearance of M.Richard and M. Moncharmin’s 20,000 francs, which confused me even more because I thought the O.G. was down in the opera dungeons making merry with Christine and her would-be rescuers.
Added to that were some most unfortunate proof-reading errors which distracted me from concentrating on the plot:
- two in
onone entrance (p.114) dumfoundereddumbfounded (p.116) Mummy– incongruously replacing the consistent use of Mamma elsewhere (p118)
heher hostile manner p.148) hiehe was Othello himself (p. 148) flingingsinging … her divine song (p.177)
I could be misreading the book entirely because gothic by definition tends to be over-the-top, and I’d have to read a lot of gothic tales to be sure (something I’m not inclined to do), but I suspect that the convoluted plot, the comic scenes, the melodramatic style and the pseudo-reportage of The Phantom of the Opera are signs that Leroux was satirising the genre. Nothing I have ever heard about the stage musical suggests this interpretation: the impression I have somehow acquired without ever seeing the show and while trying to avoid the music whenever possible, is that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is cloyingly sentimental. But still, my suspicions are these:
The heroine is not the sweet innocent that she ought to be because she not only spends an inordinate amount of time with the villain, much of it by her own choosing, she also tells lies and is a bit of a tease, as if she knows that no aristocrat will ever marry a chorus girl and is hedging her bets. The hero, Raoul, is wishy-washy. He doesn’t rescue the maiden, the Persian does. (Of course, he doesn’t Get the Girl because he is a Foreigner. I don’t think he even gets a name, though perhaps I missed it in all the confusion. He is swarthy too, which is always a no-no in this genre). And the villain? Well, he can’t be as repulsive as all that, not unless Christine is really a very artful young lady indeed, a sort of Jackie Kennedy to Aristotle Onassis. The O.G. has been collecting a regular 20,000 francs for a very long time, remember? and he seems to have no living expenses. He must be rich, right?
Subverting the Beauty and the Beast mythology, Christine kisses the monster, but lo! he doesn’t turn into a handsome prince, merely a transformation into the kind of bloke who promises he will be good in future if only she will behave as he wishes. I don’t think Leroux was a feminist, but Christine was smart enough to see through this, but not in time to prevent his experiments with bondage. Just as well there was a just-in-time moment when the Persian finds the key to everyone’s liberty, eh?
The Phantom of the Opera is jolly good fun. But make sure you have a clear head for when the action hots up…
Author: Gaston Leroux
Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Publisher: Vintage Classics, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House Australia