- Florence Marryat’s “The Box with the Iron Clamps”: Pent-Up Grief and Guilt
By may 1868, when Florence Marryat published the first part of “The Box with the Iron Clamps” in the London Society magazine, she was a well-known sensation novelist. Readers glancing over the magazine’s table of contents would expect that the combination of the story’s title and Marryat’s name promised both suspense and the revelation of secrets. A box, especially one clamped with iron, invites speculation as to what is being concealed. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers the clamped box is also secured with a padlock, a further provocation to speculate as to its contents. The box’s owner, Blanche Damer, however, is anxious to keep her possessions well guarded and secret. Both her husband, Colonel Damer, who has recently returned from India, and her cousin, Bella Clayton, to whose house the Damers have been invited to spend Christmas, have shown little interest in the box.
Distant and unsympathetic, Colonel Damer alludes to his “wife’s fancy for a travelling kit of old” (424, emphasis in original), marking the box as an outmoded affectation. Elsewhere he “facetiously” reflects that “there must be something very valuable in that receptacle,” as if wilfully evading the question of the box’s contents despite the “imploring tone” in Blanche’s voice (425) when she requests that her boxes remain untouched. Bella Clayton assigns a practical function to the box by identifying it as Blanche’s “linen-box” (425). Husband and cousin recognize the box as something intimate, but the disconnect between Blanche’s restive feelings and her husband’s and cousin’s passing interest urges the reader to wonder not so much at the box’s contents as at its power to repel curiosity. Marryat depicts the box as a hiding-place for precious things and as a dwelling-place for Blanche’s thoughts and feelings. It is, to borrow a term from Gaston Bachelard, a “hybrid object, subject object” (99), at once inanimate and enlivened by Blanche’s reactions toward it, and it comes to stand as a synecdoche for Blanche’s selfhood, containing and hiding parts of her past that she can neither banish nor lay open.
I wish to ponder this rather obstinate item, which Blanche uses as a commemorative box and as a miniature purgatory, for Blanche is a “fallen” woman [End Page 170] and the evidence of her “fall” (520, emphasis in original) is at once freighted with remorse and lovingly commemorated in the padlocked box. Marryat is candidly sympathetic to a respectable woman’s fall and does not linger on the event itself but on the remorse and grief that ensue. She uses the image of the closed box, a conventional motif in sensation fiction, to store what will not go “anywhere” (424, emphasis in original) in polite society, namely Blanche’s extramarital affair and subsequent pregnancy.1 Lawrence, Blanche’s former partner in the affair, who is also a guest at Bella’s Christmas party, justifies her moral lapse: “[s]he was then, thoroughly unhappy, as scores of women are, simply because the hearts of the men they are bound to are opposed to theirs in every taste and feeling” (521, emphasis in original). These details provide a critique of marriage and its restriction of elective affinities rather than of Blanche, described as an “unselfish woman” who gave into Lawrence’s “selfish” desire (521). From such hints, the reader may deduce that the box contains the remains of Blanche’s newborn baby. The contents, however, are not explicitly described by the narrator until after Blanche’s death, when Lawrence opens the box for Bella to see “carefully laid amidst withered flowers and folds of cambric, the tiny skeleton of a new-born creature” (521). Marryat avoids calling this figure a baby; it is liminal, a “creature,” “whose angel even then beholding the Face of his Father in Heaven” (521) revivifies the relics that are presented as peaceful, even beautiful. Marryat notably pares down the Gothic connotations in this passage: the skeleton, covered in soft fabric and flowers, is that of a baby lost, and...