Undercover on a Tale of Gothic Mystery and Intrigue
Consider the challenges facing Victorian women, and in particular the well-to-do Victorian wife such as Daphne in terms of living up to an unrealistic and unattainable ideal of perfection. Is Daphne sexually repressed or is she simply the victim of a loveless and unfulfilling marriage to Oliver? What are the consequences of her intelligence and independence in such an environment? What are the consequences of the choices she has made?
How many parallel stories are there squeezed into the pages of The Arrow Chest? Discuss:
A) The relationship between a Victorian painter and his model – the main story. Could this kind of relationship possibly be platonic and yet still endure?
B) The plight of Anne Boleyn at the Tudor court of the 1530’s, including the love-triangle between King Henry, Anne and Thomas Wyatt. What do you see as the parallels to Victorian England and to the main characters in The Arrow Chest?
C) The classical story of Daphne and Apollo from ancient myth. What was the role of Cupid (Amor), and how is this reflected in the character of Amos in the Victorian story?
What is the significance of the arrow chest and of arrows generally in the novel? Consider the symbolism and application of arrows and the bow of Cupid to:
A) The instruments of the hunt – the Tudor/Medieval poetic metaphor of courtship and sexual desire.
B) Cupid’s darts – the gold and lead tipped arrows that struck Apollo and Daphne respectively.
C) The brushes wielded in the hands of the artist, who also stores and travels with his canvases, brushes and other paraphernalia in an old elm chest.
One of the most useful outcomes from shifting an historical event forwards in time (Tudor to Victorian in this instance) is that it allows the reader to speculate on 'unknowns' - alternatives that might have occurred originally but for which historians and academics do not have any evidence, and so rarely discuss. Does the story, for example, hint at an alternative version of what might have taken place in the Tower during the days prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution. Thomas Wyatt was also there at the time. What might have been the purpose of this, if any? And would the King even have been privy to it himself?
What is the significance of the kiss between Daphne and Amos – especially in the light of the dream in which Daphne comes to him and says that his kiss will allow her to forgive him – and so to rest in peace? Is it also significant that this follows the scene in the book in which the psychic medium Madam Alenushka accuses Amos of having lied to Daphne at some indeterminate moment in the past? Why does she need to forgive him, anyway?
Regarding Daphne’s efforts to renew her relations with Amos in Chapter Nineteen, the question raised is, was she considered passing off someone else’s child as Oliver’s? Likewise, might the Tudor Queen Anne have pursued an extra-marital affair in a desperate, last-ditch effort to save herself and her family by providing that all-important heir to the king? The king who, for one reason or another, seemed incapable of doing so himself at the time.
Furthermore, in our Victorian story, might Oliver have even been complicit in the arrangement? He did, after all, give Amos the liberty of having Daphne sit for him in his studio. Might something similar have occurred, albeit in a very different context, at the court of Henry VIII all those many years ago? All is possible. And the novel encourages us to explore these possibilities freely. It does this without any disservice to the real people who lived so long ago. And it can liberate the imagination of the reader, too - every bit as much as he or she who tells the tale.
Among the minor characters of the Victorian story, who would best suit the role of Lady Rochford of the Tudor court? How does she betray Daphne, and why? And is there also a counterpart to Thomas Cromwell?
In the context of one of the parallel stories running through the text, does the maid Beth signify or remind you of any particular figure from history? What is the significance of the chivalric ideal of leadership through service? What is the significance of her dream of the Swan and of swans generally – as symbols of the Muses, for example?
How does the story deal with the problem facing the poets, writers and Pre-Raphaelite painters of the Victorian era when so much of their mental energy was devoted to the chivalric ideals of bygone, medieval times? Were these ideals possible to live up to in their own cynical, industrial world in which Darwin and others were beginning to negate the concept of altruism and even of God? Was the ideal of the ‘gentleman’ the only way to reconcile these conflicting forces – and if so, how does the temperament and character of Amos compare with that of Oliver? Where do we learn of Daphne’s misgivings and distaste for the times in which she lives?
The Lady of Shalott
What is the significance of Tennyson’s iconic poem The Lady of Shalott in the story? How many hints and clues can you spot that allude to the text of the poem itself? ? Does it bridge the Victorian era and the Tudor/medieval times successfully? Who is the Lady in the Tower? Who is the knight? What is the disadvantage of viewing reality vicariously, merely from the surface of a mirror? Can you think of any totally modern counterparts to this? And what is the nature of the curse that is activated the moment the Lady turns away from her world of reflected images?
What is the relevance in the novel of the then-new medium of photography to:
A) Amos, the 19th century artist and painter?
B) Daphne and her favourite poem about the Lady in the Tower?
Also, how does the photographic image as it was produced in Victorian times (upon glass plates with an emulsion of silver salts applied to their surface) compare to a mirror? What happens when the mirror finally cracks and all these characters are forced to turn away and deal with reality, with their love for each other and its consequences?
How many times does the character of Ted appear, and what is his purpose in Amos’s life? Is he real or just a figment of Amos’s imagination. Do you believe in spiritual guides or guardian angels? And do they always look like angels, anyway?
Who do we see in the final chapter, what do they represent and what do you feel might be their futures? Are they in fact all entirely real?
On a lighter note, if The Arrow Chest were to be made into a movie, what actors/actresses would you choose for the characters of Amos, Daphne, Oliver and Beth?