There’s Daggers in Men’s Smiles

“The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle and “Hunted Down” by Charles Dickens feature unconventional antagonists.  The villains are not poor, brutish, or stupid; rather, they are educated men of good social class who use their poisoned minds to profit from the murders of their loved ones.  Doyle’s Dr. Grimesby Roylott imports a venomous snake from India to slither into his stepdaughters’ rooms and kill them; Dickens’s Julius Slinkton is a socialite who concocts his own poisons and pours them into the drinks of his nieces to cause their slow deaths (Doyle 24-25; Dickens 177-180, 192-193).  In this paper, I will focus on the passages in these stories in which the authors divulge the motivations of the murderers and will show what these incentives reveal about the Victorian character.  These paranoid people believed that death could be lurking behind any corner: “Where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles,” as Prince Donalbain, the son of the recently murdered King Duncan, says in Macbeth.  Dr. Grimesby Roylott of “The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle and Julius Slinkton of “Hunted Down” by Charles Dickens are both socially respectable men who kill innocent family members for money, thus personifying the Victorian view that anyone could be a murderer.

Both Roylott and Slinkton are socially respectable.  Roylott is a doctor and a landed aristocrat (Doyle 13).  He receives between ₤750 and ₤1100 a year from his dead wife’s estate (12).  The mansion in which he lives, Stoke Moran, is ancient, secluded, and surrounded by beautiful vegetation (13).  Slinkton is a smooth-talking “man of the world” (Dickens 190).  When Mr. Sampson asks Slinkton about Slinkton’s niece’s escape, the villain claims that it was an act of treachery orchestrated by “some designing rascal” (190).  He explains away the horrid condition of his “friend” Mr. Beckwith using the same devices; Slinkton first presents himself as a man of the world who will speak plainly with Sampson and then exclaims that the insurance agent’s “old tricks of trade,” meant to revoke Beckwith’s two-thousand pound policy, will not succeed (190).  The evil actions of these men defy the notion that the rich are more civilized than the poor.  People often assume that life is intrinsically just, so a good man should reap earthly rewards as well as heavenly ones.  Under this projection, wealth, cultivation, and education indicate moral character.  Roylott and Slinkton prove that this is not always the case and reinforce the Victorian belief that someone from any social class could be a criminal.

The two men compound their villainy by directing it against their closest loved ones: innocent, trusting, young, female family members.  Roylott focuses on his stepdaughters.  Miss Stoner says of her stepfather, “He is so cunning that I never know when I am safe from him” (Doyle 14).  Sherlock Holmes deduces that Roylott has strong motives to kill his daughters and advises Miss Stoner to keep herself away from the doctor (12, 14).  Slinkton turns his murderous designs towards his nieces using his homemade venom.  Beckwith, whom Slinkton tried to slay as well, reveals that the nieces were dying because their uncle wanted to collect the insurance policies on their lives (Dickens 191-192).  These men have perverted the family structure.  Relatives should love and support each other, and the adult males have a special responsibility to protect their dependents.  Roylott and Slinkton feast on their charges instead.  This aspect of the crooks’ crimes conveys the Victorian belief that a person must watch for murderous intent not just from strangers but from his own family and friends.  Anyone could be planning to kill anyone else at any time.

What inspires these scoundrels to do their dastardly deeds?  They have but one motivation: money.  According to the terms of Roylott’s wife’s will, each of her daughters can claim ₤250 per annum of her estate once they marry (Doyle 12).  The girls were close to marrying, and if both had done so, Roylott would have been ruined.  Thus, he plotted to take their lives and keep the whole of the stipend for himself.  For Slinkton, the impetus was not inheritance but insurance (Dickens 191).  He bought policies on the lives of his two nieces and Beckham and then slowly poisoned them to death so he could collect the money without incurring much suspicion (191-192).  People often say that money cannot buy happiness or love.  Yet, these men consider monetary sums more important than the lives of their dearest relatives.  If money can inspire socially respectable people to destroy their families, it could inspire any number of atrocities between people who don’t know each other.

In Macbeth, Donalbain and his brother Malcolm fear attempts on their lives so much that they flee Scotland.  Most citizens of Victorian England had no such option.  They spent their lives wondering if a Grimesby Roylott or a Julius Slinkton were living across the street or in their own homes.  To evildoers, money was thicker than any human institution, even social class or family.  Doyle and Dickens struck a chord with the English people who feared that anyone might kill anyone else for any reason at all.  Roylott and Slinkton were fantastic but plausible.  The dagger in one man’s smile could become the dagger in another man’s back.

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