"Thousands of women marry for money," she said. "Why shouldn't I?" (Scene 4, Ch. 13; all quotations today are from this chapter)
We are about two-thirds of the way into No Name when Magdalen, whose scheme for revenge or perhaps justice involves marrying a rich idiot under false pretenses, asks this question. I had already been asking it, off and on, for about a hundred pages. To state the problem more narrowly, thousands (roughly) of characters in Victorian novels marry for money and nobody seems to give it a second thought. Modern readers might, but in, let’s say, a Trollope novel the practice is perfectly acceptable, although not for the heroine, not ever, which suggests that there is some underlying doubt. Still, no one calls marrying for money evil, do they?
Magdalen fears that her carefully planned, entirely justified fraudulent marriage will be an evil act, a violation of a sacrament:
That interval passed, they grew restless again, and pulled the two little drawers backward and forward in their grooves. Among the objects laid in one of them was a Prayer-book which had belonged to her at Combe-Raven, and which she had saved with her other relics of the past, when she and her sister had taken their farewell of home. She opened the Prayer-book, after a long hesitation, at the Marriage Service, shut it again before she had read a line, and put it back hurriedly in one of the drawers. After turning the key in the locks, she rose and walked to the window.
"The horrible sea!" she said, turning from it with a shudder of disgust – "the lonely, dreary, horrible sea!"
The key to that drawer ends up lost in the garden, tossed out the window. Magdalen spends the single most remarkable chapter of No Name wrestling with her conscience, her debt to her family, and her religion. The chapter lasts for four days and nights, each one with a new arc of despair. Perhaps death is preferable to this marriage (which is, I remind myself, part of her own scheme). If death is preferable, perhaps suicide is justified.
This central chapter is basically ten pages in which the nineteen year-old heroine of a Victorian comic novel struggles against the impulse to kill herself. It is full of surprises:
"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me."
Underlying everything is Magdalen’s sexual repugnance towards the groom, expressed symbolically, of course, likely as part of the sea-and-ship motif that runs through the chapter, as seen in Magdalen’s odd non sequitur above. The sea is death, ships are life:
All the misery of her friendless position, all the wasted tenderness of her heart, poured from her in those words.
"Would you love me?" she repeated, hiding her face on the bosom of the child's frock.
"Yes," said the boy. "Look at my ship."
She looked at the ship through her gathering tears.
I am over-simplifying with the “sea = death” business, but not with the ships, one of which saves her life at the end of the chapter, and another of which wraps up the novel a couple hundred pages later.
The reason any of this works as fiction is that the symbolism, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is Magdalen’s, just as the sense of good and evil is finally not that of the omniscient narrator or Victorian society but Magdalen’s own. It is Magdalen’s struggle that is meaningful, that gives No Name its unusual ethical power.