20/09/2014

Three Men And A Maid

fraser1    Philip, unnerved and horrified, scared at himself, at the eruption of his own rage, at the tarnishing of his honour, leapt across the slab across the entrance, and was running wild, plunging through the bracken, over the boundary-stone, down to the water-side and along it, as if flying from death, his hair lifting on the winds, his eyes agaze with suffering. By the time he reached the bridge he was quite breathless, but still at a mechanical trot he went on, over the bridge, up the steep of the village street, and the three or four boys and girls still playing at that hour out of doors gaped at the sight of the distracted man who rushed past them. On to the Greyhound on his left he went, and past it to the arcade on its south wall stretching down the alley, under which, all alone, stood Marjorie awaiting him: Marjorie, gloved and hatted, ready to go with him, wondering why he was late, her trunks already smuggled out of the hotel to the station by connivance of Hannah and her aunt.
    By a sideward look down the alley Philip saw her. In her sudden distress it seemed to her that he had forgotten her. He seemed hardly to recognise her for a moment, his stare was so fixed and glassy. Nor did he stop. When she, in her awe and surprise, made a step to follow him, he stretched out his left hand backward at her to stop her with such as aspect of gloomy warning in his look as her heart likened to the gaze of lost mortals, nor ever forgot to her dying day. In spite of herself she was struck rigid by it, for that forbidding hand was as peremptory as a law of fate…

Having succeeded in reviving Authors In Depth with The Mysterious Wife (and its associated investigation into The Mysterious Author), next cab off the rank was the equally long-neglected Reading Roulette.

The last spin of the random number generator landed me upon a short work from 1907, Three Men And A Maid by Robert Fraser—except that “Robert Fraser” turned out to be a pseudonym concealing two unlikely collaborators. Louis Tracy was a one-time army officer who then went into journalism, and who began in the late 19th century to supplement his income by writing fiction. In fact, “supplement” is a bit of an understatement: Tracy was a prolific writer who turned out novels and serialised stories for the magazines at quite a ferocious clip. He specialised in crime and adventure stories, although his greatest success came with The Final War, a paranoid fantasy in which Great Britain is betrayed and attacked by an allied French-German force. Tracy’s work was always jingoistic to the point of xenophobia, and the novel is a perverse kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy, one equally convinced of Britain’s unassailable position as the greatest country in the world and of the innate treachery of “foreigners” (ad infinitum) who, though vicious, deceitful and homicidal, are also craven at heart and therefore easily defeated.

Another prolific writer of popular fiction around the dawn of the 20th century was M. P. Shiel, who specialised in science fiction and the supernatural, but was also known for crime fiction featuring various master-criminals. His most successful work was The Purple Cloud, an apocalyptic fantasy in which an explorer returns from the North Pole to discover that a cataclysmic disaster has left him the last man on earth. Shiel had high ambitions for his writing that sorely conflicted with his constant need for money, the latter driving him to turn out what he dismissively called “hack-work”, though it was usually entertaining. The failure of some of his more experimental work prompted him to form a writing partnership with Louis Tracy with whom, other than the pace of their commercial work, he had little if anything in common. The two had first collaborated, sort of, when Tracy fell ill during the serialisation of his novel, The American Emperor, and Shiel was brought in to write one the instalments. After that the two men co-authored several works under the pseudonyms “Gordon Holmes” and “Robert Fraser”.

Three Men And A Maid (published first in the US, then in the UK as Fennell’s Tower) does not begin too promisingly, it must be said. What we seem—stress, seem—to have on our hands at the outset is a rather over-turgid romance, with a beautiful village lass being pursued by three very different but equally determined – not to say obsessive – suitors.

The lass is Marjorie Neyland: she is only the daughter of a local inn-keeper, but her artistic ability and the sympathy of an aunt with an independent income sees her whisked away to London for a time to study. Marjorie is both beautiful and good-natured, and by the time she returns to her family she has acquired too a certain air of refinement. She has also learned to despise her family—or at least, she is accused of doing so by her older sister Hannah, who sees the effect of Marjorie upon the local gentleman, and conceives for her a deep and bitter hatred:

    “She has only come here to upset the whole place,” said she, viciously stabbing a hole in the turf with her umbrella-tip. “She might have stayed where she was in London, studying her ‘Art’, and not been missed, I’m sure! But from the day she put her foot back in Hudston, everybody seems to have taken leave of their senses…”
    “Did you ever happen to hear of a certain Helen of Troy?” asked James Courthope, fingering the end of his blonde beard.
    “I’ve heard the name, I think,” answered the frowning Hannah. “Who was she?”
    “A young lady with a classic nose, and no doubt a naughty little fire in the corner of her eye; and because of these a city was sacked, and many souls of heroes were sent down to you know where. It isn’t an unusual thing, but we don’t want it going on at Hudston…”

The first of the three men is Robert Courthope, the local squire: a hot-tempered, hard-living, hard-drinking individual oblivious to women until the day when he tries to trifle with the pretty inn-keeper’s daughter and in addition to being firmly repulsed receives a sharp lessen in respectful behaviour. Losing his heart in an instant to the unexpectedly ladylike Marjorie, the squire makes up his mind to marry her—and since, as squire, he holds the lease on the Greyhound Inn, the public house run by Marjorie’s father, it does not occur to him that there will be any obstacle to his plans.

The second man is James Courthope, the squire’s cousin and heir. Although he has been trifling with Hannah, even to the point of making vague promises of marriage, James too is smitten with Marjorie. The squire’s reckless way of life has damaged his health, though he is only a young man, and until now James has been serenely confident of inheriting all upon his cousin’s early death. However, Robert’s sudden passion for Marjorie poses an unexpected danger, and James determines that a marriage between them must be prevented at all cost. His sharp eyes have seen that a romance is developing between Marjorie and another visitor to the area, Philip Warren, the nephew of the local vicar. Confident that if the squire does not marry Marjorie he will not marry anyone, James concludes that a hasty marriage between Marjorie and Philip would best serve his purpose. He finds an eager collaborator in Hannah, to whom the thought of Marjorie becoming the lady of the manor is torment.

An odd mixture of the scholar and the athlete, Philip Warren has a passion for antiquities and is an expert on the history of his ancestors, the de Warrenes; he is also deeply superstitious about the signet ring he wears, an inheritance of the de Warrenes, which traditionally brings good fortune to the wearer, while its loss would mean disaster. The vagaries of Philip’s life have left him dependent upon his uncle, the aesthete Mr Isambard, whose profound pride of family is at odds with his calling. Philip knows very well how his uncle would react to the thought of his marriage to Marjorie, who despite her personal qualities is anything but a lady by birth, and realises he must devote some time to carving his own way in the world and earning enough to support a wife—even if it means being separated from Marjorie for a time.

As anticipated, Robert Courthope calls upon the Neylands to ask Marjorie to marry him—but Marjorie, forewarned, slips away and hides in the tangled garden behind the Greyhound. While there, she receives a message, carried by the “simple” boy Felix, to meet Philip Warren at an ancient, isolated structure known as Fennell’s Tower. Marjorie is puzzled and apprehensive, but finally decides to go. Sure enough, Philip is there—and by the time the two realise that neither of them sent for the other, the door of the structure, long wedged open, has been slammed shut and locked…

Even the sure knowledge that Marjorie is compromised and disgraced, that she will never be the wife of the squire, cannot hold Hannah entirely silent, despite James’ warning to let events play themselves out. The squire, already furious and humiliated by Marjorie’s evasion of his proposal, is driven nearly to madness when Hannah hints at her whereabouts—and who she is with:

The moon was moving wildly in and out among flying masses of cloud, lighting them here and there to the whiteness of lunatic countenances, so Robert Courthope could see the two prisoners. Little he dreamed that they were not there of their own free will, and, indeed, he might well be forgiven his unhappy error at that moment. They were standing on the roof, and the battlement coping hid them no higher than Marjorie’s waist. The clean, high-headed profile of Philip, bending over Marjorie, looked almost elfin in the moonshine, while Marjorie’s arms cast about Philip’s neck had, in the maddened eyes of the man beneath, a certain wildness of abandonment. He could see, but because he could not see nearly and clearly, the scene up there on the tower-top was touched for him with something of strangeness and glamour, which poisoned his jealousy with a drop of mere mortal gall. That same redness and shaking of the face with which he had lately glared at Hannah in the hotel overcame him now, and he glared at them in their heaven, until finally there gushed from his throat one loud, long bellow of uncouth laughter, which the storm and the moor flung far in echoes down the valley…

Marjorie and Philip are eventually released by a passing doctor on a house-call, but the damage has been done. Robert has dripped poison in the ears of Mr Isambard, who is every bit as disgusted about his nephew’s involvement with a woman of “that class” as Philip anticipated. His way of speaking of Marjorie prompts a quarrel that ends with Philip being turned out of the vicarage, almost literally penniless. When he later tries to explain to Marjorie why he cannot marry her immediately, as he wishes to do even regardless of his need to make reparation to her, she won’t hear a word of it, finally persuading him to live on what her Aunt Margaret can give and she earn with her painting until he can support them both. The two make plans to leave Hudston and marry in London, but circumstances intervene…

Having recognised Robert Courthope’s laugh, Philip believes it was he who locked the door to Fennell’s Tower. A furious confrontation between the two ends in an extraordinary proposition. Robert and Philip have often fenced together; now, Robert challenges to Philip to an old-fashioned duel, the loser – should he still be alive – to have nothing to do with Marjorie in any way for a period of five years. Goaded beyond endurance, Philip accepts. The two men agree to meet that evening at a nearby ruined church. Both write letters explaining the circumstances, in case of misadventure, while Robert makes a will leaving everything to Marjorie.

It is from the site of the duel that Philip flees, repulsing Marjorie as she waits to take the train with him to London, and vanishing from the eyes of men. The next morning the dead body of Robert Courthope is found in the ruined church. There is only one sword at the scene—and its point is buried deeply in the squire’s heart…

The death of Robert Courthope brings upon the scene Inspector Webster of Scotland Yard, and all of a sudden the narrative of Three Men And A Maid—to this point a straight-faced and rather purple-prosed romantic melodrama—suddenly takes on a new lease of life. The story itself suddenly transforms into a murder mystery with a courtroom scene climax (one of its two climaxes, anyway), in the process acquiring a welcome albeit somewhat mordant note of humour. Inspector Webster is quite an original, and I am disappointed to have to report that while Louis Tracy did write a few crime series with recurring characters, this seems to be the only appearance of the “plump, bullet-headed, bullet-eyed” police detective:

    After bidding the local police disperse the villagers to bed by spreading the news that Philip Warren was under arrest, he went to the inn where he lodged, wrote several letters, posted them, built up a good fire, obtained a fresh supply of cigars, and locked the door of his sitting-room. Then he took from a drawer a rough map of Hudston, embracing Fennell’s Tower, Netherend Hill, Edenhurst Court, and Lancault. On the map he staged a number of small leaden figures, types of soldiers and army nurses which had served many purposes in their day. For these were Webster’s puppets when he tied to reconstruct a crime, and every little mannikin had been labelled with names famous in the annals of Scotland Yard…
    “How many people knew that Warren was in Lancault, and how many that Courthope meant to meet him there?” asked Webster. “James knew, and Hannah, and Marjorie, and Bennett, and Archibald, the groom, and Felix, the idiot. Some knew only of the one man’s presence, others knew of both. James knew everything, because he rode like a madman to Nutworth to warn Bennett of Robert’s intention to make the will which would disinherit him. What did those two precious rascals plan? They could not be sure of Robert’s death, because accidents may happen, and an accident did happen in this case, whereby the better fencer was beaten… Obviously, the one man who, next to Warren, had a mortal interest in the fight was James. Come on, Jimmie! Hunt ball or no, you must have been peeping into Lancault at 9.15 pm…”

The involvement of Inspector Webster in the investigation of Courthope’s death has the further benefit of bringing out the best in Marjorie, until then rather too much given to tears and collapses, although understandably so. Although he is presumably there to find and arrest the missing Philip Warren, Marjorie gets a trustworthy sense from Webster, and carries to him her knowledge and discoveries. The suspicion that he is only humouring her puts Marjorie on her mettle, and a partnership of sorts develops between the two, which on Webster’s part becomes increasingly respectful and sympathetic. Marjorie believes passionately that whatever happened between Philip Warren and Robert Courthope, the squire’s death was not murder; while Webster has seen and heard enough during the inquest to convince him that there is far more to Courthope’s death than meets the eye.

Indeed, mystery begins to pile upon mystery—one being why the squire would have summoned Hannah Neyland to witness what turns out to be nothing more important than a document pertaining to a land sale; another, why (as James testifies) the squire told his cousin that he locked Philip and Marjorie in, when he clearly did not; and yet another the origin of the crumpled, bloodstained letter that Marjorie finds among Hannah’s things while looking for a handkerchief (and of which she gains possession only after a spirited and surprisingly physical cat-fight). And above all, of course, we have the question of why, since two swords were evidently taken to the scene, Phillip Warren (if it were he) would have carried away his opponent’s weapon while leaving his own, identifiable as his, in the dead man’s body…

    “Proofs? Innocence?” asked the Inspector with a fine assumption of wonder. “Innocence of what?”
    “Of murder at least? Doesn’t this thing prove that there was a duel?”
    “If one man kills another in a duel, isn’t that murder? Not a very ugly murder, perhaps, but still murder in England. And why do you suppose that this letter and envelope constitute a proof that there was a duel? They don’t.”
    “They do to me.”
    “To you, no doubt. Others may be harder to convince. Suppose that Warren did assassinate the Squire, what was to prevent him, after the deed, from scribbling in pencil that there had been a duel, then enclosing it in an envelope out of the dead man’s pocket?”
    “But what marvellous luck to find in the dead man’s pocket an envelope in his own writing!” said Marjorie, “and an envelope directed to, of all appropriate people, the County Coroner!”
    “Queer, isn’t it?” said the Inspector, smiling.

Given the nature of Three Men And A Maid, it would be unfair to reveal too much about the true circumstances of Robert Courthope’s death; though more crimes than one must be solved before the matter is elucidated, and another, equally serious, averted.

A bonus for the reader offered by this short novel is its sense of the early 20th century. The fact that Hudston is “on the post-office telephone system” and may therefore be contacted directly by telegram is an important advantage at various points of Webster’s investigation. Meanwhile, in London at least, a young woman may live alone in a studio apartment and dine at a restaurant with a man without attracting notice or criticism; and while hansom cabs are still the most common form of public transport, more advanced institutions, such as expensive hotels and even Scotland Yard itself, are beginning to rely upon the “electric brougham”.

Speaking of Scotland Yard, one of the most interesting short passages in this novel gives us a glimpse into the dawn of forensic science:

    As Philip had assured him most positively that the sword found in Robert’s body was his, Philip’s, it followed that this sword, discovered by Webster himself, on the third day after the murder, plunged up to the hilt in the clay of the river bank quite a hundred yards from Lancault Church, was the weapon which had fallen he lifeless hand of the unfortunate Squire.
    The detective’s trained art had stopped him from withdrawing the rapier at once from its earthy sheath. He obtained a spade, and disinterred it, taking infinite pains to secure every particle of soil that adhered  the steel. As a result, a report from the Government analyst was now in his pocket. The laboratory had revealed that the point of the blade and some few grains of earth bore chemical traces of the blood of a mammal. Beyond that the expert could not go, but Webster knew that he held in his hand the sword which had wounded Warren and snapped his ring.

All in all, then, Three Men And A Maid is an enjoyable read—though you need to be able to accept its more melodramatic aspects, like the duel and its consequences, and Philip’s belief in the fate associated with his ring, and its emphasis on the Philip-Marjorie romance. It is most successful as a mystery, being consistently entertaining and offering some surprises along the way—such as the revelation that, intelligent, imaginative and resourceful though he is, Inspector Webster is not quite infallible…

    The second alternative was so staggering that he refused to permit it to take form in his brain. Nevertheless, as the homely phrase declares, he went hot and cold all over, a somewhat difficult and complex operation which, in the present instance, demanded the immediate swallowing of a tonic.
    “By gad!” he said again, when he dared to think. But he managed to smile at the monster his imagination had created. He was vain of his professional skill. Not willingly would he admit that he had blundered…

29/08/2014

Pamela’s Daughters

PamelasDaughters1bThus for nearly two hundred years Pamela has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case for the psychiatrist, a noble woman, a Shavian superman, the glory of her sex, a disgrace to womanhood, a saint, a pervert, a martyr, an entirely normal girl. In so far as she is human and normal, she is so because she has many traits and qualities, no one of which adequately represents her without the others. Her daughters, the heroines of later fiction, too often have to get along with one trait apiece—as if the heritage had to be divided among the heiresses. Hence come the type-form heroines who may be more or less safely classified according to the traits they inherit, and we have the Prude, the Weeper, the Fainter, “The Lass With The Delicate Air” , the “fallen” heroine and the poor working girl. One or two others there are who show relationship in collateral branches. Without defining here the exact degree of cousinship we may claim them as members of the family, include them in the sorority, and discuss them all as Pamela’s daughters.

I mentioned while reviewing Munster Abbey that it had been brought to my attention in the first place by a study of the English novel, which held it up as an example of the heights of absurdity reached by the 18th century sentimental novel—and which supported its argument by quoting the marvellous passage in which a character almost drowns because all the other characters are too busy demonstrating their “sensibility” by fainting to help her. I also mentioned that I had forgotten the title of the book in question, but expected, given my predilection for books-on-books, that I would sooner or later encounter it again.

I can now tell you that the book in question, to which I am deeply indebted, is Pamela’s Daughters by Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham. The explanation for this work’s genesis is amusing, though its conclusion is very sad. This impressive work, over 500 pages in length, began life in 1920 as an idea for a magazine article—in fact, as an article for the Women’s Home Companion—on “Fashions in Heroines”. Almost immediately, however, the project got out of hand. Robert Utter, an academic at the University of California, worked at it on and off for the next eight years, at which point he began collaborating with Gwendolyn Needham. The two of them carried on the enterprise for a further eight years, trying to mould their exponentially multiplying and unwieldy material into a coherent volume. Sixteen years after its conception, the manuscript of Pamela’s Daughters was handed to the publisher…and a month later, Robert Utter was killed in a freak accident.

It’s been mentioned before, but—you bite, Reality.

The 1930s was an interesting period in literary scholarship; quite a number of studies published during that time show an admirable willingness to get off the beaten path and to use “lesser” literature as a reflection of the times that produced it. (Sadly, over the three subsequent decades academic research focused upon anything other than a short list of canonical works was sternly discouraged.) Pamela’s Daughters is an excellent example of this variety of study. Unhindered by academic expectation, this examination of the development of the English heroine from the mid-18th century into the 1920s is solid and insightful, yet also freewheeling and good-humoured; though that said, Robert Utter’s 1930s-ish views with respect to “correct” female behaviour do occasionally intrude.

Pamela’s Daughters starts, of course, with Pamela herself, discussing the reception of Richardson’s novel and the widely varying reactions to the fifteen-year-old girl who would become the progenitor-figure of generations of sentimental heroines.

Utter and Needham then briefly outline the changing position of women over the course of the 18th century, during which time, due to increasing industrialisation and its consequent financial and social alterations, women were progressively stripped of their autonomy, rendered entirely financially dependent, and even relieved of their domestic duties—with the leisured woman becoming increasingly a status symbol, a reflection of the success of her husband or father. Financial dependency made marriage the only acceptable way of life for a woman, whose single imperative duty was to free her family of her support by securing a husband. At the same time, autonomy of thought and action were not merely discouraged but prevented by a relentless narrowing of the definition of proper conduct. The literature of the late 18th century illustrates the irreconcilable outcome of these pressures:

The Helpless Female was shaped by the forces that were shaping civilisation. Just as inevitably as selection and environment mould biological characteristics, so the forces we have been tracing moulded the legacy of Pamela to her daughters and granddaughters, the sentimental heroines of the eighteenth century, and the Victorian ones of the nineteenth. Certain physical, mental and moral traits become artificially female, others, more or less antithetical, are male. Delicacy, sensibility, chastity, these three (and the greatest of these is chastity), such are the canonical virtues of Pamela’s daughter for a century and a half after Pamela… Delicacy, physical, mental and moral, becomes so essentially female that it develops into feebleness in all three categories. Mental delicacy points to spelling and punctuation as intellectual achievement and dictates the concealment of any higher powers if they exist. Moral delicacy prevents a girl from receiving money if she has so far transgressed as to earn it. With this powerful equipment of feebleness she must defend her priceless chastity. If the villain tries to violate it, she must not violate her delicacy by slapping his face; if the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma, good for five volumes of sorrows in the hands of any delicate authoress…

In “The Importance Of Being A Prude”, Utter and Needham devote a chapter to a consideration of “delicacy”, its false twin, “prudery”, and all the shadings of behaviour in between, arguing that many of the behaviours usually summed up under the heading of “Victorianism” were in fact alive and thriving a hundred years earlier. In particular, authors (usually female, but not always) devoted pages to stressing that their heroines had not just delicacy, but true delicacy.

But if this heroine was born in the 18th century, she reached her apotheosis in the 19th:

Of all Pamela’s daughters, the one most moulded by prudery is the god-daughter of Victoria… In the beginning, before her lover comes, she is unawakened, virginal as virginity itself. She is at one and the same time as sexless as a china doll and as feminine as a practised coquette. Her innocence is really abysmal ignorance, but the effect of it is the same as that of the completest sophistication and circumspection. She is perpetually on guard against evils of which she cannot know anything, alertly sensitive to acts, words, implications which could not conceivably have any significance to her; their danger she is supposed to recognise by instinct… There is no evidence that she is anything but a head and a pair of hands attached to a costume… In her ball dress she may show us that her “bosom is faultlessly moulded”, but the rest is silence. We infer that she might nourish children, but know no possibility of her conceiving or bearing them. That she might have any sexual feeling is unthinkable. That even in married life she has any sexual experience is not hinted. It is true that between the last two chapters she has managed to produce three or four fine children, but no-one could guess how she did it…

Intriguingly, though the authors are discussing heroines rather than real women, what the find in the novels they are examining reflects the real-world pressures that we examined in Martha Vicinus’s Suffer And Be Still (rendered most vividly in Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s hair-raising contention that a truly “good” girl was one with the capacity to sense evil without recognising it):

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the history in the novel of the first principle of prudery, that where innocence is ignorance ’tis criminal to be wise, or what you don’t know won’t hurt you. When this was the guiding principle, the best armour for the protection of maiden purity was supposed to be a stout pair of stays and complete ignorance of the nature of chastity and its enemies. Virginity seemed no less of the mind than of the body. Its delicacy was such that if a girl so much as knew she had it, it was tarnished, and if she knew more, it was gone…

In “Liquid Sorrow”, Utter and Needham trace the rise of the cult of “sensibility” in the 18th century, examining its birth and evolution as a counter-force to the cool, emotionless tenets of the Age of Reason in the broader context of the historical significance of emotion in the development of European literature. They point out that tears have held an important place in literature since its very inception, and that for centuries it was male tears that directed the reader’s response; a man crying was a shorthand signifier of extreme circumstances. However, male crying went out of fashion during the pragmatic age that followed the Glorious Revolution. When tears returned as an important literary signifier, it was in an entirely different social context.

The evolution of the sentimental novel is then examined, from the earliest appearances of those definitive counterforces, corrupting civilisation and the untouched natural world populated by noble savages. By the 1740s, sentiment had taken root in the English novel, and the crying hero made a reappearance. For those who like to make a simple, masculine / feminine divide between the novels of Fielding and Richardson, it is pointed out that Fielding’s heroes are some of the most persistent criers of the era. Novels became less about the hero’s adventures, and more about his feelings, with Henry Brooke’s The Fool Of Quality and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It was at this time that the heroine came into her own: with the focus on feelings rather than events, a woman’s heart became sufficient subject matter for an entire novel. New ideas about “nature” also became an important aspect of literature. Eventually these various threads were melded into a new literary form called the Gothic novel.

The sentimental novel is treated fairly here. It is pointed out, for example, that these books were an important vehicle for concepts like sympathy, compassion, and charity, and played a part in instigating reforms in both prison conditions and the treatment of the mentally ill. However, in the long run this variety of novel became exaggerated beyond the point when anything about them could be taken seriously. What in the 1740s was an expression of honest emotion became, by the 1770s, a perverse variety of performance art, with crying, fainting and even dying of grief intended as a measure of an individual’s “sensibility”; while by the 1790s, expressing the appropriate emotion was all but a fulltime occupation.

The authors spend some considerable time gleefully attacking the absurdities of this literary era—and lo! – if the novel most held up for ridicule is not our old friend, Munster Abbey!!

AND—a second masterpiece of sentimentality is also brought to our attention:

In sentimental fiction, tears are by this time a bottomless ocean raging with storms of passion… On it we ship with Charlotte Palmer in Female Stability, 1780, five volumes of unmitigated misery whence comes the pearl of price which adorns the head of this chapter. (“She stopped and wiped her gentle eyes, that swam with liquid sorrow.”) We have met the heroine, Adeline, who exhibits female stability by a ceaseless flow of tears for a dead lover and unwavering refusal of a series of high-voltage suitors. The plot of this thanatopsis is contrived for the sole purpose of turning up tearful situations in rapid succession… [Tears] flow on and on, from page to page, from paroxysm to paroxysm, from volume to volume. At the end Adeline subsides into a middle-aged routine of weeping, a mere daily dozen at the tomb of the lost Augustus, which we may imagine keeps her happy for the rest of her life…

Naturally enough, this chapter on crying is followed by one on fainting (“Cut My Lace, Charmian”), which in turn yields to a consideration of evolving female fashion, and from there to a much more detailed examination of physical fashions—that is, of how woman were depicted in both word-pictures and visually, in novels and in art (“The Lass With The Delicate Air”). The traditional dichotomies are examined – blonde / brunette, Snow White / Rose Red – as are the seemingly limitless examples of stories featuring physically contrasting heroines, who meet contrasting fates apparently pre-determined by nature. Walter Scott, a leading exponent of this trope (Rebecca / Rowena, Rose Bradwardine / Flora MacIvor), is given a thorough airing—as is George Eliot’s passionate cry, courtesy of Maggie Tulliver, in defence of “the dark, unhappy ones”.

(My own observation here is to note the significance of Rebecca being invariably listed first—the only instance I know of in this context, of the brunette being given “billing”.)

A prime example of the kind of unexpected digressions that punctuate Pamela’s Daughters appears in “The Lass With The Delicate Air”, wherein the authors suddenly divert from the their consideration of the female body in art to give a brief history of depilation—offering such factoids as that the so-called “Brazilian” has a much longer history than we might imagine, and that leg-shaving was a consequence of a push-back against stockings, which in turn was linked to a greater emphasis on female exercise, and therefore upon clothing facilitating freedom of movement, and the rise of the “beach culture”. I was mildly disappointed that not much was said about underarm shaving; I often find myself, while watching period dramas, wondering to what degree modern fashions are incorrectly imposed upon the characters.

A consideration of women who never married (“Aunt Tabitha”) segues into one of those novels dealing with women who decided that marriage wasn’t necessary and the consequences (almost invariably disastrous) of that decision (“Some Do”); and from there into an examination of the endless depictions of young women staunchly defending their virtue against wicked men of all descriptions (“Some Don’t”). The shifting view of female virginity over the centuries, from a mere accident of nature not important in itself, to the be-all and end-all of female existence, is examined, as is the changing face of “the woman who did”. It is stressed that during the 18th century, virginity became a commodity to be sold—in marriage as well as in brothels; a woman who “did” on her own account, robbed not herself but her family or her pimp, and that in the crudest financial sense. By the 19th century, however, these bald economic facts had become obscured by a dense mist of sentimentality and pseudo-moral hand-wringing. By the end of the 19th century, although the burgeoning women’s rights movement was making all sorts of previously unthinkable suggestions, for the most part novels remained strictly conservative; it was a rare and brave novelist indeed who suggested that a girl’s loss of virginity might not be the end of the world.

Most novelists went to the other extreme, showing how it was absolutely the end of the world, or near enough. The 19th century’s prevailing view on the issue is illustrated via reference to its very first work on the subject: Amelia Opie’s Father And Daughter, published in 1800, which features in its opening paragraph the primal scene of the erring daughter, illegitimate baby in arms, fighting her way through a storm back to the parental home from which she was seduced:

If this is, as it seems to be, the first appearance of this famous necessary scene, Mrs Opie deserves a monument from the writers of melodrama of the nineteenth century. We who were brought up on it scarcely need, as Mrs Opie’s readers perhaps did, to read the next seventy pages in order to learn that “Agnes Fitzhenry was the only child of a respectable merchant in a country town…” and so on to page seventy where we read, “But to return to Agnes, who, when she beheld in her insane companion her injured father, the victim probably of her guilt, let fall her sleeping child, and, sinking on the ground, extended her arms towards Fitzhenry, articulating in a faint voice, “O God! My father!” then prostrating herself at his feet, she clasped his knees in an agony too great for utterance.” This tale is worth citing because it is true melodrama growing directly out of Puritan moralising… It is melodrama because the author is bold enough to impose a major catastrophe on her heroine, but not brave enough to enforce the full penalty. It shows the weakening of tragedy by sentimentality…

Conversely, girls defending their virginity until marriage remained a perennially popular novel-plot, and by the end of the century they were even defending it actively, and not passively through sheer ignorance. In fact, this plot became more popular as options for women opened up and they began to venture out into the world on their own account, into colleges and into the workforce. Very little had changed is essence, however: merely, marauding rakes had been replaced by marauding employers.

The highlight of this section of Pamela’s Daughters is its examination of “working girl” fiction. The heroines of these novels, Utter and Needham contend, were in truth “Pamela’s daughters”, since just like Pamela herself they were virtuous working girls clinging to a moral code in a world full of dangers and temptations. In most (again like Pamela), it was economic necessity rather than choice than launched the heroine into the world, and by the end of the novel she was relieved and happy to surrender all ideas of autonomy and make a conventional marriage. And most like Pamela of all, many of these heroines were truly working-class, not the “distressed gentlewomen” who populated the progenitor of this form of literature, the “governess novel”. In this branch of popular fiction, “mill girls” and “shop girls” abound; “office girls” came a little later. George Gissing’s Thyrza is the most serious and literary example of this sort of fiction, though the sub-genre is better represented by Geraldine Fleming’s Only A Working Girl. The danger of physical attractiveness in a working girl is a recurrent, even obsessive, theme:

Pamela’s father and mother feared lest Pamela’s beauty should lead to her downfall. So in the nineteenth century it is less often the heroine herself who thinks of beauty as a curse than her family and friends. The sister of “the little beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills”, Hazel Easterbrook, had “one earnest prayer to Heaven”; it was that “little Gay’s rare beauty would not prove a curse to her, for no man ever looked twice at that saucy, roguish, irresistible face whose heart was not conquered by it She was only sixteen, yet she could count admirers by the score.” Only by the score? There must have been hundreds, then, who looked but once. The mother and sister of Elsie Brandon “prayed fervently that her beauty would not be a curse to her”. The idea is explicit in the title of The Curse Of Beauty; or, The Cloakmaker’s Model.

As early as the late 19th century there were books in which the heroine was allowed to enjoy her work, and even to display a degree of ambition. However, in most cases this ambition fulfilled itself via marriage to the boss. Alternatively, the working-class heroine improves herself through her aspirations to be “a lady”; although sometimes her efforts in this respect also pave the way for a rapid rise up the social ladder via marriage. In light of all this, a special mention should be given to The Typewriter Girl by Grant Allen (the progressive, not to say radical, author of the scandalous – and hugely popular – The Woman Who Did), which concludes with its Girton Girl heroine stepping out of a love triangle (involving, yup, her boss) and devoting herself to her career instead: she does so partly because her romantic rival, in stark contrast to her intelligent, competent self, is traditionally “feminine” to the point of being completely helpless. It is wryly noted that Juliet, Allen’s heroine, is a brunette, her romantic rival a blonde:

The authors of these novels think that their readers prefer blondes. A check of many working-girl novels of the nineteenth century indicates that in every hundred heroines we have eighty blondes, ten brunes, and ten red-heads. The authors have little skill [and] for the most part their heroines appear only through raptures and ravings… In general, too, these authors follow the age-old tradition of behaviour patterns, at least to the extent that the brunettes take a more active part in the action of the tale…

Though Pamela’s Daughters has by now wended its way well into the 20th century, at this point its authors step back to take a look at the changing face of the heroine across the 19th century (“New Girls For Old”). On the whole the trend is positive: “the lass with the delicate air” with her crying and fainting begins to give way to a more grounded type of girl; physical fragility is no longer so prized; and though there is still plenty of sentimentality around, displays of strong emotion are now indicative of a lack of well-bred self-control, and frowned upon accordingly. But alas, few novelists are capable of giving the reader a thoroughly nice, thoroughly believable heroine. We are not exactly surprised when Utter and Needham jump back across the century for a visit with Jane Austen:

It is this refusal of Jane Austen to go to extremes in either direction that brings her to her supreme achievement. The best of heroines before her time, Clarissa Harlowe, Sophia Western, Emilia Gauntlet, are fine upstanding girls of whom any age might be proud, but their main attraction is that of their sex; they are men’s women, created to express the charm that women have for men. They do not exhibit what Jane Austen seems to give us for the first time, the best of womanhood, as endearing to women as to men, shining through any and all colours of fashion and undimmed by the changes of time… Meredith shows this figure at its best. Dickens was not up to it. Scott and Thackeray show it, but not until Jane Austen had shown it to them. Trollope has it more often than any other.

Heroines, like the young women who inspired them, became more active over the 19th century—and here the chapter diverts into a consideration of the changing silhouette, in a discussion of the battles waged progressively over stays, corsets, and eventually bloomers and bathing-suits. From this distance it can be hard to grasp just how deadly seriously these matters were taken, and the degree of outrage that attempts to popularise women’s clothes that allowed for greater freedom of movement provoked: the battle raged both in the streets themselves, and even more so in the letters pages of the daily newspapers. Ludicrous as this fashion war now seems, make no mistake: the battle over women’s clothing was a hugely important aspect of female emancipation. In fact, as the authors point out, underwear in novels becomes a marker of passing time:

In the novel we see in retrospect a girl’s graduation from waists to girdles in Ruth Suckow’s Odyssey Of A Nice Girl, 1926, and in Una Hunt’s Young In The Nineties, 1927, though in the novels of the nineties underclothes were kept out of sight. In these books also we see the reaction toward lighter clothing on the part of women who were forced as girls to wear prickly flannels and starched drawers, heavy waterproofs and winter coats, rubbers and galoshes…

By now, we are well into the 20th century. Victoria is long gone, and so is much of what she represented (justly or otherwise). The final chapter of Pamela’s Daughters, “Victoria, Where Is Thy Victory?”, considers how novelists dealt with rapid shifts in social mores and the dreaded topic of S-E-X. I may say that I was quite startled to learn that during the 1920s there was a significant sub-genre of novels dealing bluntly with, ahem, “girls who did”; although we should note that these books were more common in the US than in Britain. Shedding both their corsets and the expectation of ignorance, the heroines of these novels were only too eager to experiment with sexual experience – and perhaps most surprisingly of all, this experimentation does not always end in death or even in pregnancy. Quite often, having found out what she wanted to know, and learned to give sex its proper weight, the heroine settles down with an equally advanced young man, who is sometimes her erstwhile lover, sometimes not, but who either way considers her neither “sinful” nor “damaged”.

It is, by the way, quite clear from the tone of Pamela’s Daughters at this point that Robert Utter (if not necessarily Gwendolyn Needham) did not entirely approve of this particular turn in the history of heroines—and of real girls—though the role of WWI in bringing about this drastic shift is given fair weight. Another swing of the pendulum was in progress, however, by the time Utter and Needham drew a line under their history of heroines; and they close with some reflections upon what they consider this particular era’s exemplar novel, Nalbro Bartley’s The Premeditated Virgin, and by comparing Bartley’s Mary Ann Plowden with her great-great-great-grandmother, Pamela:

Pamela and Mary Ann Plowden are both premeditated virgins, but they wear their premeditation with a difference, and we may gauge the difference as a measure of progress. Pamela’s choice was a narrow one; she was held pretty helpless by the society of her time. In her game against fate her scope is restricted, her moves are sharply limited. She wins not only because she moves shrewdly but because luck is with her. Hers is a sort of poker game in which all the skill and intelligence she can bring to bear are, when the game is legitimately played, subordinate to luck. Mary Ann Plowden plays a different game, one in which skill, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, may have much more scope… Mary Ann does not lean on authority, on social order, or on God. She does not seek a verdict from society. She does not pray, or “invoke the protection of Heaven” for herself or her virginity. For any protection that she must have she invokes her own brain and summons her own powers. She “stands unshook” upon such truth as she can find, and she finds it in herself…

20/08/2014

The Mysterious Wife

MysteriousWife1b“I am no stranger to the situation of your heart, nor do I want the proofs that letter contains to convince me your passion was returned, even with interest; still, after what you have heard, and the restrictions you are laid under, would you venture your future happiness upon so hazardous a stake? Love is a wild, ungovernable, romantic passion, and often leads the greatest men to commit follies; I would therefore have you strictly examine your heart before you decide upon so important a matter; this may be a most advantageous offer, and may prove the exact reverse; your liberty, peace of mind, nay, eternal salvation, may become the sacrifice, were you to accept these fascinating offers; it is a sort of equal chance, and upon my honour, remember it is the strong friendship I feel for you makes me speak thus plain, I would not advise you to run so great a risk…”

There’s something oddly fitting, I suppose, about using a novel about a wife who refuses to reveal her true identity to try and determine the true identity of the person who wrote it. Published in 1797, The Mysterious Wife was the first Minerva Press release to bear the imprint “Gabrielli”—who, as discussed previously, may or may not have been the same person as “Mrs Meeke”. Certainly I had these questions in my mind while reading this novel, and I remain unconvinced that a second hand wasn’t involved.

For one thing, The Mysterious Wife is a very long novel in which not much happens, which is not something you can say about the three earlier novels by “Mrs Meeke”. The first half of the first volume is devoted to drawing the novel’s young hero into his strange marriage, the conclusion of the fourth volume resolves things with a rush; everything in between is essentially filler. The only question is whether the narrative will ultimately vindicate the romantic relationship at its heart, or whether its moral will turn out to be, “That’s what you get for marrying a foreigner, or at any rate a Catholic.”

Perhaps more revealingly, however, the style of writing here is quite different. Grammatical errors are not uncommon, while the author favours a rather tortuous form of prose involving lengthy run-on sentences strung together with a seemingly endless supply of semi-colons. The shift in topic between the beginning and the end of any given paragraph is often quite remarkable.

The Mysterious Wife opens in France, Some years before the fatal epoch of the French Revolution - in-text allusions later place the action about 1775 – and is the story of a young man whom we first know as Henry Westhorpe, the unwanted poor relation of an English family which has moved for economic reasons to the town of St Omers; quite the English conclave for people in the same sad situation. As a child, Henry is firmly discouraged from asking questions about his parents. He is led to understand that his mother made a disgraceful marriage, and that his uncle, her brother, has permitted him out of generosity to use the name “Westhorpe”. This is as far as Mr Westhorpe’s generosity extends, however. As an infant, Henry is put out to nurse; at the age of six he is sent away to an inexpensive school, and stays there for the next ten years. He is in some respects fortunate in this: though the school is not one of high reputation, its master, Mr Parker, is a good and well-educated man, who recognises Henry’s academic abilities and nurtures them; while Mrs Parker is a kind-hearted, motherly woman. It is to the deep regret of all three when, at the age of sixteen, Mr Westhorpe sends for Henry and places him in a college near St Omers to finish his education.

Henry’s education completed, Mr Westhorpe disposes of him by arranging for an army commission. The main consequence of Henry’s career move, rather to the chagrin of his relatives, though Mr Westhorpe is glad to have him off his purse, is that he acquires two powerful friends: the “Chevalier Macharty”, a Scotsman in the French army, arranges Henry’s commission in a Swiss Protestant regiment via his friendship with the Marquis D’Orcy, a colonel in a French regiment, who despite the difference in their ages takes such a shine to Henry that he adopts him as a sort of unofficial younger brother.

One of the most tiresome aspects of The Mysterious Wife is its constant harping upon Henry’s perfections—few of which we see in practice—and its insistence upon his limitless popularity with “the best people”; this short early passage sets the tone for the rest:

Henry’s elegant, manly figure, and rare accomplishments, soon made him a welcome visitor every where. The Chevalier was never invited to any party, without being entreated to bring his protégée in his hand, to the no small delight of the good old man, who soon became strongly attached to his young friend…

Prior to Henry setting out to join his regiment, the grovelling Mr Westhorpe tries to recommend himself to the Marquis by boasting of all he has done for Henry. In doing so, he not only says more about Henry’s parents than he has done before, but hints that Henry’s background is not what the boy was previously led to believe. Henry now discovers that his father was of good family, a soldier killed at the siege of Quebec. An unguarded remark discouraging him from “making any claim” upon his relatives suggests the existence of wealth, at least, making his difficult childhood even more difficult to understand. Mr Westhorpe refuses to be more explicit, however.

Though regretting his separation from the Marquis, Henry soon adjusts to his new surroundings:

…Henry, now equipped en militaire, was the next morning presented to all the officers of the regiment; one only excepted, who was a North-Briton, they were all Swiss, and received their new comrade with the greatest politeness, particularly Captain Beattie, his countryman; and Henry was excessively pleased to find himself not the only Englishman in the corps, and in less than a month he was quite at home among his new companions, and soon found he was infinitely better off than he would have been in a national regiment, as the inferior French officers are generally low-bred, illiterate coxcombs; the younger sons of the provincial nobility, who depend chiefly upon their pay for a livelihood…

Good GOD!! What kind of miserable excuse for a human being depends upon his pay for a livelihood!!?? Amusingly enough, at this stage of the novel the answer to that question would be “Henry Westhorpe”, although we are in little doubt that his kind creator will soon enough relieve him from his state of shameful income-earning.

Evidently being in the army imposes very little restraint upon a young man, nor does it require from him anything more arduous than wearing becoming regimentals, doing the occasional “exercise”, or acquiring many “brother officers” as friends. (Presumably there are soldiers who are not officers, but they never intrude upon the narrative.) Thus, Henry is soon able to arrange an extended leave, and goes off to Spa with the Marquis for a holiday. While there, Henry is powerfully attracted to a young fellow-visitor:

The one in the middle…now afforded him a full view of as fine a set of features as ever graced a female face; she was leaning upon an arm of each of her companions, and appeared to be in very high spirits; she was elegantly dressed, for a morning, in a sort of slight mourning, did not seem more than one or two and twenty, was rather tall, but possessed sufficient embonpoint to prevent her looking awkward. Her blooming complexion convinced the Marquis and Henry she had not come to Spa in search of Hygeia’s blessings; a pair of bright blue eyes expressed very strongly the natural vivacity of her disposition, though they beamed with mildness and sensibility…

It soon becomes apparent that there is a mystery attached to this beautiful young woman: no-one seems to know who she is, and it takes Henry and the Marquis some time to discover that she lives retired from the public eye in a rented house outside of the town. She does, however, walk at the spa most mornings, and the two men take every opportunity to improve their acquaintance with her—such as it is, considering their ignorance, which she does nothing to relieve. It is soon evident to the experienced Marquis that the two young people are falling in love, and he worries about what the mystery of the woman’s identity might imply. The two most likely explanations that occur to him is that either the young wife of an elderly and jealous husband, who forces her to live out of the world in an effort to keep her from the gaze of more attractive men, or that she is a kept mistress. Neither of these explanations appeal to Henry, who cannot believe her guilty of sin and deceit. He counters with a suggestion that she is in mourning for a dead husband, and living retired until the expiry of the usual period.

However, the mystery with which the young woman surrounds herself convinces Henry that there is something untoward, something that puts her beyond the pale, and he tries to get the better of his feelings for her. During one of his deliberate absences from the morning walk, the Marquis encounters the young woman, and the two have a frank conversation. The Marquis emphasises Henry’s apparent low birth and penniless condition in an effort to discourage her, but if anything she seems pleased—particularly since, at the same time, the Marquis cannot help but expatiate upon his young friend’s personal excellence.

In the wake of this conversation, Henry receives a letter:

“…you have, no doubt, often, during our acquaintance, thought me a strange mortal, therefore you will not so much wonder at my endeavouring to act up to the character I have adopted; I chuse to be a riddle, and am not inclined in the present instance to regulate my behaviour by form or rule, so must entreat you would candidly answer the following question:—Dare you venture, knowing as little of me as you do at present, and without making any further inquiries, (which I must acknowledge would prove absolutely fruitless) to unite your fate to mine. If you are so inclined, I offer you my hand; my heart you have possessed for some time, and I do not wish to separate them. Still don’t presume too much upon my weakness; my passion shall be always subservient to my will, and my situation is such, that should you comply with my wishes, our marriage must remain a profound secret for a time, the reason shall be hereafter explained fully to your satisfaction; upon this point I pledge my honour, but at present neither your prayers nor entreaties, even were you to bind yourself by an oath to secrecy, (though I would as soon trust to your honour) should induce me to declare why this mystery is required? who I really am? nor what are the motives of my strange behaviour?”

The conditions attached to this proposal are startling. On one hand, the young woman – “Josephine”; we learn no more – assures Henry that there is no disgraceful secret connected with the mystery of her identity, and that she is both high-born and wealthy. However, there are cogent reasons why she cannot be more explicit at the moment and, if he accepts her proposal, he must accept also that he will not yet learn her real name and that the two of them must subsequently live apart until her situation alters.

Henry is tempted by this offer – too tempted. He consults the Marquis, who warns him against succumbing. Yet it is also the Marquis who subsequently removes the barrier of Henry’s suspicions, reporting to him that although he still does not know who the young woman is, he has accidentally discovered that she is acquainted with a certain Archduchess known for her high principles and the selectivity of her friendship, and must therefore be as spotless as she has asserted herself to be.

At this discovery, Henry’s resistance crumbles. He agrees to all of Josephine’s conditions, even though she warns him that the period of their separation may be months, if not years, and that it must begin only a fortnight after their marriage.

The modern reader may be amused by the financial arrangements associated with this strange marriage. In the context of the narrative, Josephine’s generosity is meant to be an expression of her boundless faith in Henry, but as every repeated refusal to reveal her identity or her situation comes accompanied by a wad of bills, it is hard not to feel that Henry is being bought off.

Amusing, too, is the sudden shift from love and romance to cold hard cash; a not-uncommon touch in English novels of this time, as we saw with respect to Munster Abbey:

“You are a soldier, and I have commenced heroine of a romance, you very probably think; but this necessary separation will merely be a mutual trial of our love and fortitude, and we will each endeavour to encourage the other during the painful interval which must elapse ere we meet again. I will have proper settlements drawn immediately according to my own instructions, and which I am unreasonable enough to hope you will sign without hearing them read; depend upon my attention to your future interest, and I will make you immediately independent. I read the wishes of your generous heart in your countenance; but  I desire your want of fortune may never occasion you a moment’s uneasiness, I am quite rich enough for both. You shall have a hundred thousand Livres Tournois down on or before our wedding-day, and I will insure you a like sum annually…”

And so they two are married – Josephine bearing for the occasion the title of “Madame la Baronne de Belville”, though Henry knows that isn’t her name – and enjoy a brief honeymoon. Then one day Henry comes home to find that Josephine has departed in his absence, choosing that there will be no difficult parting scene. Subsequently, the two communicate only by letter, their correspondence being facilitated by the Marquis and Josephine’s bankers.

Now—the separation of Henry and Josephine occurs on page 141 of a 1145 page novel, and the situation is not resolved until page 1137; so as you would appreciate, the author has to find some way of filling up the intervening three-and-a-half volumes.

In the first and most important ploy, the truth of Henry’s background is revealed. His name is Henry Cleveland, the grandson of Sir William Cleveland, “one of the wealthiest men in England”; his father was a younger son who quarrelled violently with his own father after marrying without his consent, and in opposition to his ambition. However, he was well-liked and respected in his own right, and died heroically in battle. Henry’s mother dying in childbirth, and Sir William Cleveland’s anger persisting, the infant boy was given to his mother’s relatives.

All this is discovered when Sir William’s agent comes looking for his long-lost grandson. Henry learns that his uncle and cousin have both died, and that he is now Sir William’s heir—Sir William being, we are reminded again and again—“one of the wealthiest men in England”. Henry is therefore summoned to England to take up his new position, thus ending his brief foray in the Swiss army. His grandfather, whose ambition is still his ruling passion, buys his grandson a title, and so humble Henry Westhorpe becomes Earl Fitz-Osborne.

The change in Henry’s circumstances also has the effect of revealing the real reason for Mr Westhorpe’s behaviour. It turns out that he embezzled the trust fund left to his care by Henry’s father, and lost the lot in bad investments. There were more reasons than one for the Westhorpes’ flight to France.

But even this drastic alteration in Henry’s situation takes up only a portion of the remaining pages. The rest of them are filled by:

  • Henry trying to hold at bay his grandfather’s attempts to arrange a “good” marriage for him, without revealing (i) he’s already married, (ii) his wife is a French Catholic, and (iii) he doesn’t know her name.
  • Henry embarrassing people who were mean to him when he was Mr Westhorpe’s unwanted poor relation
  • Henry making a lot of rich and titled friends, and visiting them
  • Henry exposing various blackguards and frauds
  • Henry participating in various pointless activities, in scenes that are supposed to be funny, but really aren’t. (One of these involves a horse being literally spurred and beaten to death.)

So it all becomes rather an endurance test. The only subplot that really means anything involves Henry’s attempts to discover Josephine’s identity, and even these usually turn into one of the other dot-points. For example: Henry learns of a woman who not only fits his wife’s description, but is called Josephine; she has married a nasty old man for his money. Meaning to exposure her in a righteous fury, he encounters a complete stranger and ends up hiding from her jealous spouse in a cupboard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as time drags on and Henry continues to be put off with excuses, his patience begins to wear thin, and disillusionment sets in. When at length he resorts to making ultimatums, he receives an answer that both stuns and dismays him…

Now—assuming that he or she didn’t just zone out during the preceding 1000 pages, not that you would blame anyone who did, the reader should be aware of Josephine’s identity and the reasons for her reticence, even if Henry is not. About midway through The Mysterious Wife, Henry’s health begins to be affected by his constant lack of peace of mind, and he lapses into a fever. As he lies ill at an inn, he is visited by a woman calling herself Madame de Verneuil, who claims to be a cousin of the Marquis D’Orcy; she is a member of a nearby religious order, famed for its care of the sick and poor, and she insists upon Henry being transported to the Abbey. He is won over by her citing of his friend’s name, and allows the woman to have her way.

Pains are taken to assure the reader that the members of this particular religious order are not nuns, as such, and that they have no difficulty obtaining dispensation from their vows, should they choose to marry. We also hear much about the head of the order, the beautiful Princess de Beaufremont, “an angel upon earth”, though we do not see her. When it is subsequently revealed that Madame de Verneuil is not the Marquis’s cousin at all, Henry is puzzled, but thinks little more of it.

It is, however, “Madame de Verneuil” who responds to his final ultimatum to Josephine, spiriting him away in the middle of a masquerade and taking him to a mansion outside of Paris. Someone waits for him there, although it is not Josephine:

…a second little bustle induced him to seize one of the lights, and advance with cautious steps. He put by a silk curtain , which half concealed the object he was come in search of, and discovered a child, wide awake, who instantly put out its little hands to be taken up…

There is also a letter from Josephine, bidding Henry farewell forever…

Josephine is indeed the Princess de Beaufremont, “one of the wealthiest women in France”. With the death of her brother she has inherited her family’s titles and vast estates and wealth, something her greedy and vindictive relatives have no intention of allowing her to dispose of via marriage, least of all to an English Protestant. By misrepresenting the circumstances to the Pope, Josephine’s family not only prevents her from receiving dispensation from her vows, but has her marriage declared invalid. In addition, Josephine is to be confined to the Abbey for a full year, and has been forbidden to receive visitors or to correspond.

With these revelations, all of Henry’s love for Josephine is reawakened—but there is nothing he can do. With deep reluctance, he makes preparations to leave France for England, taking with him the baby, also called Henry, and resolving to raise him openly as his son, though he cannot be his legal heir.

When Henry learns the truth about Josephine, there are only 44 pages left in The Mysterious Wife, so it is purely a matter of how things will be resolved, rather than “what happens next”. For some considerable time, indeed, the narrative seems to have been shaping itself into a dire warning against romantic love and marriage, and an even direr one about getting involved with Catholics. (When Josephine’s fate is put to him in terms of papal infallibility, Henry had nearly sent the Pope to the —-, but reflected just in time, in whose company he was…) As Henry turns towards England, though in his bitter disappointment he swears that he will remain faithful to Josephine’s memory, the reader is very well aware that a highly suitable alternative bride awaits him in the shape of the beautiful and accomplished young daughter of a Scotch nobleman.

So it was, I admit, quite a surprise when it was revealed, only 4 pages from the end, that the Marquis D’Orcy had been very busy indeed since learning the truth about Josephine—petitioning the King, making sure that the true version of events reaches the Pope, negotiating Josephine’s release in exchange for her surrender of her title and one-half of her possessions, and having the legality of the marriage restored.

Though perhaps my surprise didn’t quite equal Henry’s:

    Unable to utter a single word, he flung himself upon his knees by the side of the sofa, and in this posture caught the lovely Josephine in his arms. His transports greatly accelerated her recovery; and, when perfectly sensible, her looks were infinitely more expressive than words could have been.
    Henry was half wild; his surprise almost equalled his joy, while a violent flood of tears relieved the bursting heart of his Josephine; and at last enabled her to say, “My Henry, we meet to part no more.”

03/08/2014

If I might Meekely interject…

Sigh…

I wonder if you guys are as tired of me starting my blog posts with an apology for my absence and/or unanswered comments as I am of starting them that way? But here we are again… I have an ambition, which is rapidly escalating into the realm of delusion, that at some stage I will be able to settle into a posting routine and be updating here about once a fortnight; but every time it begins to look like I might approach that particular asymptote, ill health, work horrors and/or computer issues start to interfere. I don’t know why the blogging gods hate me so; I only know they do… [*sniff*]

Anyway—after a more than usually painful period of cosmic intervention (involving ill health, work horrors and computer issues), I set myself to the task of getting things rolling again by resurrecting one of the more neglected corners of this blog, Authors In Depth, and by returning to the first author to feature in that category, the Minerva Press mainstay, Mrs Meeke…only to discover that in the interim, something in the nature of a revolution had occurred.

Early in 2013, academic Simon Macdonald published an essay in which he challenged the longstanding identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke, the wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke, a minor poet. Macdonald contends that the Minerva Press novelist was in fact one Elizabeth Meeke, whose full name appears in a catalogue for the publisher from 1798.

The fact that there was an “Elizabeth Meeke” on the Minerva Press’s roster of novelists is not a new discovery. This point was raised in a 1946 issue of that wonderfully peculiar journal, Notes And Queries, with the contributor referencing that same piece of Minerva Press publicity. What Simon Macdonald has done is identify and trace the life of the woman who could be the elusive Mrs Meeke. If Macdonald’s scholarship concerned only the identity of a minor 18th century novelist, perhaps only people who share my arcane tastes would be interested; but the academic community sat up and paid attention when it was revealed that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-sister of Fanny Burney.

Briefly, according to Macdonald’s account, the woman in question was born Elizabeth Allen; she became a de facto member of the Burney family when her widowed mother married Dr Charles Burney. When she was only fifteen, Elizabeth ran away with the much-older Samuel Meeke and, after an awkward delay, finally acquired the right to call herself “Mrs Meeke”. The marriage was not happy, and after various episodes of separation and reconciliation (and hints of the wife’s involvement with another man), there was a permanent break. Burney family letters suggest ongoing misbehaviour on the part of Elizabeth, who for a time seems to have gone under the assumed name of “Mrs Bruce”. She later married again, to a man called Rawlings, but this marriage was no more successful than her first.

Between 1795 and 1823 there appeared a remarkable number of novels, translations and children’s books which have been attributed to “Mrs Meeke”. Most of the novels carried the name “Mrs Meeke” (no first name) on the title page; others appeared under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, still others were published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that “Gabrielli” was a reference to the Italian opera singer, Catarina Gabrielli, whose London Performance was attended by the Burney family, as their letters attest. He also points out that the first “Gabrielli” novel, The Mysterious Wife, is dedicated Mrs Arthur Young (Arthur Young was an agricultural economist, active in the area of agricultural workers’ rights); Martha Young, e Allen, was Elizabeth Allen’s maternal aunt.

Now—if all of this is so, it begs the question of where the alternative identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke came from: a question not at all easy to answer. Those modern writers who have taken notice of Mrs Meeke (and they are not numerous) draw upon three sources:

Published in 1812, Robert Watt’s Bibliotheca Britannica; or, A General Index Of British And Foreign Literature has only this to say upon the subject:

MEEKE, Mrs, a prolific Writer of Novels…

Four years later, A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland offered a slightly more expansive (and rather tongue-in-cheek) listing:

MEEKE, Mrs, one of the numerous family of novelists whose prolific genius is always labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries. Her performances are— [list follows]

In 1885, the Dictionary Of National Biography (edited first by Sir Leslie Stephen, later by Sidney Lee) has rather more to say about Mrs Meeke, and is in fact the source of almost everything we thought we knew about her:

    MEEKE, Mrs MARY (d. 1816?), novelist, seems to have been the wife of the Rev. Francis Meeke (B. A. Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1773, and M. A., 1776), who published a volume of poems in 1782 (Notes And Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 229). She began her prolific career as a novelist in 1795, when she published ‘Count St. Blancard‘ in 3 vols., and continued her labours for more than twenty years. In October 1816 there died, at Johnson Hall, Staffordshire, Mary, the widow of the Rev. Francis Meeke, who may perhaps be identified with the novelist.
    Mrs Meeke naively recommends novelists, before planning a work, to consult their publisher as to how they may best satisfy the prevailing public taste
(Midnight Weddings, pref.). Personally, she apparently followed this plan with some success. Although her plots are commonplace, and her literary style poor, and her characters only faintly reflect contemporary manners, she had some distinguished readers. Macaulay ‘all but knew’, Lady Trevelyan writes, ‘Mrs Meeke’s romances by heart’, but, despite his liking for them, he relegated Mrs Meeke to the position of his favourite among the bad novel-writers, and agreed in his sister’s criticism that ‘that they were one just like another, turning on the fortunes of some young man in a very low rank in life who eventually proves to be the son of a duke.’ (TREVELYAN, Life Of Macaulay, vol. i.) Miss Mitford was also a reader of Mrs Meeke’s works in her youth, and in her old age re-read at least six of them (Notes And Queries, 7th ser. vii. 405).
    The titles of the novels published under her own name (all in 3 vols. unless otherwise stated) are— [list follows] Probably posthumously published were— [list follows]
    Mrs Meeke also translated from the French— [list follows] In 1811 she completed the translation by Mrs Collyer (q. v.) of Klopstock’s ‘Messiah‘ (another edition 1821).
    Mrs Meeke has been identified with the writer who assumed the pseudonym of Gabrielli (Notes And Queries, 2nd ser. i. 133) and published— [list follows] 

I’ve said this before, but it bears stressing— Pegging Mrs Meeke as a “bad novel-writer” on the strength of Lord Macaulay’s comments is misinterpreting what he meant. In the first place he was clearly sharing a joke with his sister, Lady Treveleyan, when he remarked that, “My tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.” When that remark is read in context, however, Macaulay is actually comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels to a satisfying, old-fashioned English dinner; he condemned his own tastes as “vulgar” because he was unable to enjoy the prevailing fashion for dinners comprised of elaborate but unsatisfying dishes. Furthermore, in another letter Macaulay comments that when he read a novel he didn’t enjoy, he would then re-read one of Mrs Meeke’s as a palette-cleanser. None of this proves she was a good writer, of course, but at least it indicates that she was entertaining.

But to return to the question of attribution— Note the hesitation in the Dictionary Of National Biography‘s identification of Mrs Meeke as Mary Meeke, wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke: she ‘seems to have been‘, and ‘may perhaps be identified‘ as such. Clearly, this was no more than someone’s best guess which, in the absence of any suggestion to the contrary, was allowed to pass unchallenged (that question in Notes And Queries excepted), and to become accepted as fact.

Simon Macdonald’s research does seem to establish that Elizabeth Meeke was at least the author of the “Gabrielli” novels. My remaining doubts focus on the question of why some of the novels attributed to Mrs Meeke were published under a pseudonym in the first place, and why others seem to have been published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that the “Gabrielli” pseudonym was adopted to avoid oversaturating the marketplace with novels by “Mrs Meeke”, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded by that argument. Consider the implications of that remark from A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland, about novelists “labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries”: given the Minerva Press’s position as a leading supplier of such fodder, would the publisher really have been concerned about producing too many novels?

It was my hunt for a copy of 1797’s The Mysterious Wife, the first of the “Gabrielli” novels, that led me into these murky waters in the first place. This is the fourth of the novels attributed to “Mrs Meeke”, after Count St. Blancard (1795), The Abbey Of Clugny (1796) and Palmira And Ermance (1797); it doesn’t seem likely to me that after three novels in three years, William Lane would have started worrying about “saturation”. What’s more, having now read The Mysterious Wife, I have to say that I’m not convinced that it was written by the same person. In fact, I found myself wondering whether the root of the confusion could possibly be that the Minerva Press had ended up with two authors on its hands called “Mrs Meeke”, and had allowed one to keep her name while the other published anonymously or pseudonymously.

Now—I admit that I was very conscious of this controversy while I was reading, and that it is entirely possible I was consequently reading with a bias. And there are certain points of comparison between this work and the earlier ones, chiefly that it is set partly in France, and that it separates its hero and heroine for a very long stretch of the narrative. It does not feature a baby substitution per se, but it does have a young man raised under a false name (the better to facilitate a little trust-fund embezzlement) who later succeeds to a title. It also has a strong streak of anti-Catholicism, but that, in English novels of the late 18th century, is hardly diagnostic.

On the other hand, whereas the earlier novels doggedly refuse to acknowledge that the French Revolution ever happened, The Mysterious Wife opens with a statement placing its action “some years” before that epoch. Its action is divided between France and England, with both good people and bad people representing each nation. Most significantly, the novel focuses upon a marriage contracted for wholly “romantic” reasons, and – after, admittedly, looking for some time like it was going to do the opposite – it ultimately vindicates romantic love (in conjunction with “virtue”) as a basis for marriage over prudential motives; as opposed to the stance of Palmira And Ermance, which supported arranged marriages and severely punished a young woman led astray by romantic yearnings. The Mysterious Wife also features a French Marquis, the last of his name, who has never married because he has never fallen in love.

However, the main reason I feel that The Mysterious Wife may have been written by a different author from the earlier novels is its style—or lack thereof. Put simply, The Mysterious Wife is poorly written, being full of grammatical errors, whereas the earlier novels were not. It is also rather dull, with very little happening over the course of its four volumes. The previous three novels by “Mrs Meeke”, in contrast, though no-one would ever mistake them for great literature, are if anything absurdly over-plotted, with much of their entertainment value lying in their constant twists and turns and the various revelations of secret identity. I can imagine re-reading the first three novels and enjoying them again; once I’ve reviewed The Mysterious Wife, I’ll be putting it aside for good.

Of course, none of this proves anything. The Mysterious Wife may just be a bad novel because it’s a bad novel; perhaps because it was written in haste, not because it was written by a different person (although that argues against the “oversaturation” theory). And perhaps its different philosophy simply reflects the greater freedom of a pseudonym. Certainly I have no real evidence one way or the other—but I will be keeping all this in mind as I move forward through the novels of “Mrs Meeke”, “Gabrielli”, and that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”.

30/05/2014

“A. Rogers” is “a young lady”

Wandering about in the realm of obscure 18th and 19th century fiction as I do, I often stumble over interesting cross-currents and odd coincidences. (On that subject, remind me to tell you sometime about The Two Lizzie Bates-es.) Not infrequently a factoid I’ve picked up in one context proves to have a bearing in another, or I’ll notice the same name cropping up in a number of seemingly unrelated places. Generally none of this is of the least actual importance, but in terms of my hunt for forgotten fiction, it adds another layer of enjoyment, like sprinkles on ice-cream.

When I turn up one of these writers who has, to all intents and purposes, vanished into oblivion, I like to see if I can find out anything about them. As you would appreciate, research such as this is a lot easier if the person in question is called, say, “Wilhemina Adelina de Vere Loftington”, than it is if they’re called “Anne Smith”. In this respect, a writer I’ve had a vague curiosity about since I first noticed her, but have been unable to discover anything concrete regarding, is one “A. Rogers”. If attributions are to be believed – and they are not necessarily so – “A. Rogers” wrote approximately ten novels, in addition to some miscellanea, during the second half of the 18th century. None of her works carried her name on their title page, but were all published as by “a young lady”.

There were a couple of reasons why this obscure novelist with a common name stuck in my memory.

The first is that although, to the best of my knowledge, she published spasmodically over a twenty-seven year period, “A. Rogers” never stopped referring to herself as “a young lady”.

The second reason is that, having started to publish novels in 1773 (perhaps; I’ll be coming back to that point in a minute), in the years 1787 and 1792, respectively, we find in the bibliography of “A. Rogers” the following works:

  • Lumley-House: A Novel. The First Attempt Of A Young Lady. In Three Volumes
  • Fanny; or, The Deserted Daughter. A Novel. Being The First Literary Attempt Of A Young Lady

Hmm…

So, simply because her discovery gave me a couple of giggles, I have always remembered “A. Rogers”.

Of course, attribution can be a tricky thing; and as I say, none of these novels carry an author’s name on the title page. However, “A. Rogers” comes up as the author of the works in question using a search of the Oxford University library system, which is good enough for me…

…usually.

Imagine my surprise when my research into the background of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley turned up this:

rogers1

 

 

 

 

This particular attribution does not come up searching through the Oxford University system, or through the Amazon system (a surprisingly good source for lost works), but only via Overcat, a search engine associated with the cataloguing site LibraryThing, which consists of “32 million library records…assembled from over 700 sources…” Boston College, as we see, happens to be the source of this particular search result.

I’m not quite sure what to think about this. My first impulse was to reject the attribution, chiefly because in spite of the spate of recent research into the origins of the Gothic novel and the Irish Gothic, academics in this area continue to refer to The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley as an anonymous novel. It seems to me that if it were possible to confidently assign authorship of the novel, someone would have done it.

In addition, this attribution puts a thirteen-year gap in the bibliography of “A. Rogers”, which doesn’t seem very likely.

On the other hand, if I arbitrarily reject this attribution, why should I believe any of the others? This confusion also throws a new light on those “first attempt[s] of a young lady”. Perhaps we’re not talking about the same person? Or perhaps “A. Rogers” was a very early example of the “house name”, the practice of concealing a variety of writers behind a single pseudonym, as with the Nancy Drew books by “Carolyn Keane”. Or perhaps an over-zealous cataloguing system simply decided that anything by “a young lady” was also by “A. Rogers”?

After pondering this for a ridiculous amount of time in the lead-up to my last spate of blogging, I finally decided to put the bigger problem to one side, and for the moment to stick with “If A. Rogers wrote The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, someone else would know it”. I was further confirmed in this line of argument by accessing the works of “A. Rogers” which are available online and noting their publication details. The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, as we have seen, was published in Dublin; whereas all the other novels attributed to “A. Rogers” were published in London; some of them (including one of the “first attempts”) by the Minerva Press.

All of them, that is, except 1786’s The History Of Jessy Evelinwhich was published in Dublin.

The mystery deepens…

 

 

28/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 2)

SophiaBerkley1O heavens! what was my amazement; I rose and flew into his arms. Joy and astonishment at once took possession of all my faculties. Every power of expression was lost—I only breathed forth, My Horatio! and sunk upon his bosom, unable to proceed: he casting a look of inexpressible delight upon me, clasped me to his breast, with all the enraptured transport that attends the return of a once enjoyed, but long lost blessing. It was with difficulty I could persuade myself, this was not all a vision. How inferior is all language to the varied emotions of my soul! I was even doubtful whether I should believe my senses; but my fond, flattering heart, confessed its loved possessor. The dear, the faithful Horatio, whose death I had so greatly mourned, was again restored to me. Conceive, my Constantia, conceive the mutual transport that filled us…

Having escaped from Castilio, Sophia goes cross-country and into some surrounding fields, where she feels safe enough to have a bit of a meltdown. She is found by an elderly shepherd who takes her home to his wife. The couple care for her until her health and nerves are restored. They are (rather improbably) sufficiently lettered to have paper, pen and ink in their cottage, allowing Sophia finally to get a letter away to Mrs Williams…and another…and another. When she does not hear from her friend, Sophia is despairing; but the cottagers come to her rescue once again, diffidently offering to adopt her, in effect, as they have no children of their own. She accepts with gratitude, and lives nearly a year with the elderly couple.

Here too The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley has more in common with the sentimental novels of the time than with the Gothics to come, as we get extended passages devoted to extolling the simple life and how happiness and virtue are to be found in a cottage, not a mansion. (We do get this in Gothic novels too, but generally from a safe distance, not when the heroine is actually living it.) But this idyll doesn’t last, as Typhoid Sophia strikes again. The old woman is killed when a cow kicks her in the head. The grieving widower decides he cannot bear to go on living at the cottage without his wife, and conveniently enough prepares to go to London, where after making sure Sophia has a safe refuge—

…the old shepherd, who was the only friend I had in the world, was taken ill, and died about three weeks after he came to London. At his death, he gave me all he had in the world, which consisted of about fifty pounds…

Sophia has already tried and failed to get word of Mrs Williams, though with a not unnatural fear of falling once again into the hands of Castilio or his myrmidons she restricts her public movements. Finally she decides that she will have to support herself by going into service. At this point she remembers the existence of the useful Juliet, in service herself some distance out of town:

She sent me an answer, expressing her sorrow for my misfortunes; she told me she knew nothing about Mrs Williams, to whom she had wrote, but that she never received any answer. She concluded her letter by telling me, that if she could be any use to me, she would leave her place and come to town…

We note with relief that Sophia does not accept this offer, but continues to seek a position as lady’s maid on her own account. She hears of a place that she thinks will suit her, but before she is able to act upon it, she is seized by a bailiff. Her bewilderment turns to horror when she discovers that she has been arrested for a debt supposedly owed to Castilio, who has forged her signature upon an IOU for one hundred pounds. Her protests and pleadings attract a crowd, but they hesitate to interfere with the law. However, a passing gentleman observes the commotion and intervenes, giving the bailiff a bank bill for the debt (whether he is in on the plot or not, the bailiff is disappointed with this outcome), and carrying the fainting Sophia away from the scene.

The gentleman, Dorimont by name, falls in love with Sophia at first sight (of course), which puts her in an awkward situation: she is grateful to him, and in his debt; but after her loss of Horatio she resolved never to marry. She is at least geographically rescued from her dilemma by an accidental encounter with Mrs Williams, not only hale and hearty but in possession of a small legacy that allows her to live independently. Sophia takes up residence with her friend, but this does not protect her from the inevitable declaration – not Dorimont from the inevitable can’t-we-just-be-friends? response:

A death-like paleness overspread his face: he let go my hand, which he had yet held between his; and reclining his head upon his breast, he remained for some time in that mournful posture. O Constantia, what various emotions filled my soul! To behold Dorimont, in a situation like this; to see his soul struggling between love and honour; to be witness to his agony, and to know myself the cause, overcame all my resolution. Tears filled my eyes. O Dorimont, said I, taking his hand, I cannot see you thus. Let not this unhappy passion for me—I was proceeding, but he interrupted me. O Sophia, said he, I am ashamed of my weakness: but who renounces calmly the fondest wishes of his soul? I foresaw what you would say, but no preparation was sufficient to guard me from the cruel conflict. You must, you shall be obeyed, even though my life should be the sacrifice…

Or not. Dorimont drops into an armchair and communes with himself for about half an hour:

He then on a sudden assumed a calm and serene air; and coming up to me, he again took my hand, and pressed it to his lips. What a victory you have gained, madam! said he; in Dorimont you are no longer to behold a lover, but a friend…

It’s just that easy!

Just as well, too:

…a servant came up, and told me there was a gentleman below, that asked to see me immediately. As I was still apprehensive of Castilio’s contrivances, I began to fear this was some new treachery of his, as I could by no means guess what gentleman should enquire for me. I entreated Dorimont to go down and see who it was. He was hardly gone, when he returned, leading in his hand, O Constantia, you will hardly believe it—My Horatio! my long lost Horatio!

Some credit is due here to our anonymous author, who again (as in her description of the practical means taken by Sophia and Fidelia to escape from Castilio) reveals a practical bent in conflict with the demands of her chosen genre: in spite of “sinking” onto Horatio’s bosom, Sophia does not actually faint. In fact, she pulls herself together in a remarkably short space of time, and starts making the necessary introductions. We are a far cry here from the absurdities of something like Munster Abbey, with its repeated scenes in which a character almost dies of joy. (And nor, for that matter, can Munster Abbey touch The Man Of Feeling, which actually does have someone die of joy.)

We then hear all about Horatio’s adventures among the “pyrates”. Of course he had only fainted from loss of blood when he was carried off; and also of course, when he is in danger of being tossed overboard his life is spared by one of the band, “having more humanity than the rest”. However, it turns out that one of the pyrates killed by Horatio during the initial fight was, ahem, “one of the favourites” of the captain, Rodolpho, who is so determined on revenge that he rejects the offer of a large ransom in preference for making Horatio’s life a living hell:

I was not without hopes that when we came to land, I might find some way to escape and return to England. I determined therefore to wait patiently, and arm myself with all my resolution to bear the insults of the inhuman Rodolpho, who took pleasure in making me sensible I was in his power. But I was always superior to my ill fortune, and treated Rodolpho with a contempt which provoked him beyond expression…

Not too smart on Horatio’s part, we might think, particularly when it turns out that the pyrates are slave-traders…

And here we might pause for a flashback. Those of you who were around in the very earliest days of this blog might recall that in the very first novel I ever considered for Reading Roulette, Elizabeth Jervis’s Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events, the hero (or at least, the man with whom the heroine was in love) was also captured by pirates and enslaved. Now, this did happen during the 18th century; but I can’t help wondering whether it’s one of those things that happened much more frequently in novels than in actuality?—and how many novelists did use this as a device for separating their lovers? Mrs Jervis does at least pay lip-service to the real circumstances, with ships from Christian countries being attacked by Muslim pirates operating out of North Africa. Our anonymous “young lady”, on the other hand, gives us a band of predominantly English “pyrates” operating rather improbably off the south coast of England. Either way, it should be kept in mind that after peaking during the first half of the 18th century, the activities of the Barbary pirates were severely curtailed mid-century onwards, first by an increasing multi-national naval presence in the Mediterranean, and then by the Barbary Wars of the 1780s.

In fact, most captives during this time were ransomed rather than enslaved. However, Horatio has ticked off Rodolpho to such an extent that not only does he refuse a ransom, he enslaves Horatio personally, setting him with a number of others to work in a marble quarry hewing rock from which he, Rodolpho, intends to have a luxurious house built. (The pyrates are based in Algiers, which is at least an accurate detail.) Horatio finds an escape plan already brewing – one rather questions the wisdom of Rodolpho in giving his slaves free access to tools – and becomes part of the band building a boat out of the flotsam and jetsam tossed up upon the coast. The men save up their scanty rations to make provisions and, under the leadership of a former sailor, make their escape.

And here we see how entirely Horatio and Sophia are made for each other: he, too, tends to walk away unscathed, while leaving death and disaster in his wake:

    The third day of our navigation there arose a violent tempest; the sea was prodigiously agitated; the waves tost up to an amazing height: the whole heavens were darkened; horrid peals of thunder roared over our heads; and a prodigious flash of lightning every now and then furnished us with light sufficient to behold our danger; for we were thrown into the midst of a great number of rocks, against some of which we expected every moment to strike…
    A horrid blast of wind, stronger than the first, now arose, and whirled us round and round for a few minutes; then it threw us with a redoubled violence against the same rock; at which instant, our ship split into a thousand pieces. I was thrown by the force of a wave upon the side of a rock, and was so bruised by the blow that I had the utmost difficulty to rise, which, however, I did; and finding there was a small neck of land adjoining to the rock, I made a shift to crawl a few paces forward, and got at last upon firm ground…

Horatio is the only survivor (of course) and finds himself not so badly off: his island offers fresh water, fish and fruit to eat, and flints for a fire; and he lives there for six months until picked up by a passing French ship that spots his distress signal. On board he makes a friend, who will be the linchpin of his next set of adventures:

    His name was the Marquis de Bellville: he was the only son to the Duke de Bellville, one of the oldest families in France. This young nobleman was possessed of a thousand good qualities. He had an uncommon elevation of soul, an untainted honour, and the utmost generosity.
    But with so many amiable qualities, he had one, which threw a shade upon them all, and was the source of the misfortunes that since befel him. He was naturally excessive passionate: the violence of his temper would so totally get the better of his reason, that, in a fit of rage, he would have committed the most extravagant actions imaginable…

The Marquis carries Horatio to his family seat. The two make plans to travel together to England, and in the meantime, via a friend, Horatio tries but fails to get some word of Sophia. His only thought is to go in search of her, but events intervene: the Marquis has a sister who (of course) falls desperately in love with Horatio. (If Sophia’s adventures owe something to Clarissa, Horatio’s own smack of Sir Charles Grandison.) Discovering his sister’s secret, the Marquis – despite the fact that he knows about Sophia! – proposes a marriage. When Horatio (of course) refuses, the Marquis does not take it well – to say the least:

Ah! my dear Marquis, said I, how distressful is the situation in which I find myself. I am truly penetrated with the distinguishing mark of honour I have just now received—but, O Belville! it is impossible for me—Enough, enough, interrupted the Marquis, whose eyes sparkled with indignation; and this is the return you make me; my sister, it seems, is unworthy your acceptance. Alas! Belville, replied I, you blame me most unjustly; Mademoiselle de Bellville deserves all that heaven, in its utmost profusion of blessings, can bestow—but you know that I am—A villain, replied he fiercely. How! Bellville!—But do not hope, continued he, transported with rage, do not hope to boast of having refused and insulted my sister, this very moment shall avenge her. At these words he drew his sword…

At first Horatio fights only defensively, hoping to disarm his psychotic young friend, or at least hold him off until he cools down; but finally there is only one way he can save his own life…

Then we meet the Duke de Bellville, and find out where the Marquis got all his rationality and sense of proportion:

…a letter de cachet was procured by the Duke against me; and I was conducted into a dark and horrible dungeon, where I was put in chains, as if I had been a common malefactor…

After four days of this, Horatio is hauled before the King; but since he won’t reveal the cause of the fight between himself and Bellville, he is condemned in short order.

Then something weird happens: Horatio literally has his head upon the block when there is an uproar nearby, and he is reprieved. He is taken back to the palace, where he learns to his bewilderment that someone else has confessed to the killing of the Marquis and, furthermore, that the two peasants who stumbled into the scene at the conclusion of the duel and were the main witnesses for the prosecution, are now insisting that the second young man, Clerimont by name, was responsible. Clerimont testifies that he and Horatio have been life-long friends, and that taking the blame for the Marquis’s death was Horatio’s way of repaying his friend for once saving his life. The peasants, meanwhile, were bribed by Horatio to remain silent over Clerimont’s guilt, Clerimont himself having been wounded in the duel and oblivious to his friend’s machinations.

Horatio being Horatio, he continues to insist upon his own guilt and that, furthermore, he has never seen his “life-long friend” before. The King, at first inclined to be admiring of his sacrifice, grows angry at what he comes to interpret as a plot to help Horatio escape retribution. Finally, losing his temper, he condemns both young men to death, and at once. Horatio and Clerimont are therefore hustled back to the place of execution. On the way, all Horatio’s thoughts are taken up with the question of just who this person is, but Clerimont does not explain, merely passing him a note with strict instructions not to read it until he, Clerimont, has been executed.

Clerimont now prepared himself to receive the fatal blow: but what words can paint the horror and surprise that filled me; when, as he was fixing his head upon the block, in the posture which the executioner thought most convenient, I beheld a mask, made so artificially, as to represent a human face, fall to the ground, and discover the lovely features of Mademoiselle de Bellville!

The young lady has stood up unshaken to the prospect of being executed, but being exposed like this before the mob causes her to be overcome with maidenly shame; naturally, she faints. A lieutenant who has had charge of Horatio, and become attached to him, obeys his pleas to carry Mademoiselle de Bellville to a safe place, and then accompanies his charge back to the palace once again – I know not, said the lieutenant, what effect this may have upon the king; but I think he will hardly send you to the scaffold a third time - and in fact, His Majesty has a mood swing, exonerating Horatio and trying to make it up to him for the whole repeatedly-trying-to-cut-your-head-off thing.

By this time the Duke has also cooled down; he is further appeased by Horatio offering him his sword, so that he might take his life if he chooses. Escaping this peril, Horatio nevertheless concludes that, all things considered, he is in honour bound to Mademoiselle de Bellville if she wants him; but she – so to speak – pulls an Isabella:

    After what I have done, Horatio, it would be vain for me to deny my real sentiments with regard to you. I shall own, without a blush, that you are the only man I ever did, or ever can love. But do not imagine my affection for you is attended by any of that weakness which generally accompanies this passion. I would have died for you, Horatio—Did that resolution appear noble? The one I have taken is much nobler.—Your heart, your vows, can never be mine; your gratitude is—your esteem shall be—You imagine, perhaps, that I shall accept the sacrifice you have prepared to make me of yourself; but here you are mistaken; for I swear by heaven I will never give my hand to any man…
    Mademoiselle de Bellville begged me to leave France immediately, and return to my native country; from whence I had been too long absent. Do not think, said she, to stay any longer here on my account, for after to-morrow you will not again see me; I shall retire into a convent…

Horatio, off the hook in both respects, wastes no time fleeing France for England (and who can blame him?). He immediately seeks out the friend who he tasked with trying to get news of Sophia, but he has learned nothing of her beyond the death of her father.

But not to worry! In a marvellous bit of anticlimax, after all their adventures Horatio and Sophia are reunited thus:

…but it happened very fortunately, that I took a lodging in that very house which my Sophia left when she came here. As I was asking the man of the house what lodgers he lately had, he mentioned several, and amongst them a young lady, who, by the description he gave me of her, I soon discovered to be Sophia. I asked him eagerly, if he knew where she now lodged; he told me that he did, and then gave me a direction here…

Horatio and Sophia are then married. This isn’t quite the end of things, but – in a touch that finally, out of all its possible genres, places The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley firmly in the camp of the novel of sentiment – it concludes with a paean to friendship, which novels of this kind commonly exalt above love. And in this spirit, although two of the friends in question are Dorimont and Mademoiselle de Bellville (whose father finally insists upon her leaving the convent), the novel surprises us just a little by declining to marry them off:

    Prepared as I was to admire and love Mademoiselle de Bellville—I was struck with the distinguishing graces of her appearance and manners. She treated me with the most polite distinction; she honoured me with her friendship; and never, I believe, was there a more perfect one than that which we contracted together.
    It is only souls of a certain kind that can conceive the happiness flowing from a society like ours.
    Friendship unmixed—confidence unbounded—reigned among us, and reigned uninterrupted…

25/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 1)

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    The hated Castilio renewed his unmanly treatment. He swore by heaven, he would no longer be imposed upon. Prepare, said he, in a menacing voice, to receive me this night to your bed; for may eternal perdition seize me, (that was his horrid expression) if I allow you another night; you abuse my complaisance, but I will no longer be trifled with. Having said this, the inhuman monster left me.
    I threw myself upon the floor, and gave myself up to the most agonising despair: I tore my hair, and bathed the earth with my tears. I now saw the fatal hour approach, when death or infamy must be my portion. I lay some minutes in this situation; then summoning all my resolution to my assistance, I reproached myself severely for my want of courage. What, thought I, do I hesitate between death and dishonour! I threw myself upon my knees, and poured out the bitterness of my anguish to heaven, resolving to die at once, and by that means relieve myself from the horrors that surrounded me…

While I was researching Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, I came across something both fascinating and frustrating. To start at the end, there has recently been a push to show that a number of the tropes we take for granted in English Gothic literature may be found, at least in embryonic form, in mid-18th century Irish writing. Academics working in this area argue that most such regional works are overlooked almost as a matter of course, with mainstream dogma taking it for granted that this school of writing started in England; and that even when such studies include Longsword as a proto-Gothic, rather than starting with The Castle Of Otranto, they rarely identify Thomas Leland as an Irish writer.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, the following remark in a piece by Deborah Russell titled, Generic Restrictions And The ‘Female Gothic’:

Morin also argues that “scholars of British Gothic fiction generally ignore the fact that two Irish Gothic novels were published before The Castle of Otranto”, the most significant of which is Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762).

This, as you might imagine, sent me off on a frantic hunt for “Morin”, and the identity of that second novel…

After some hunting, I identified the source of this remark as a paper by Christina Morin, Forgotten Fiction: Reconsidering the Gothic Novel in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, and the novel in question as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, published in Dublin in 1760 by “a young lady”, and therefore pre-dating Longsword by two years, and Otranto by four.

The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is a short novel, a single volume of only around 170 pages; but it is sufficiently entertaining, if not always in the way in which its anonymous author intended. By far the most interesting thing about it is how many different genres intersect within its pages. It has a number of features in common with the picaresque novel that flourished during the 18th century, although since its focus is a young woman the “adventures” are of a different kind (in this, its author may have been influenced by the earlier works of Penelope Aubin). It is an early example of the novel of sentiment, dwelling at length upon the moral superiority of its characters, and having them exhibit that superiority through their emotions; although it never reaches the heights, or depths, of something like Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It is an epistolary novel – sort of – which from mid-century onwards became perhaps the dominant novelistic form; and it is (albeit unknowingly) a proto-Gothic novel.

No more than Longsword is The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley a true Gothic, but its placing at the earliest point (so far) in the timeline of Gothic literature is justified. The usual historical and geographical settings are missing, but this is a woman-in-peril novel par excellence. However, the plot offers no mystery to be solved, and the narrative is quite as devoted to lengthy descriptions of its characters’ “exalted sentiments” as it is to its heroine’s adventures. Furthermore, in spite of its general popularity, the true Gothic novel would eschew the epistolary form, presumably since having someone to correspond with in the first place would undermine the sense of the heroine’s isolation and danger that is one of the genre’s hallmarks.

So the upside of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is that it is consistently interesting, even though it is extremely doubtful that its author intended any of the qualities that make it so. The downside is – if you consider it a downside – it’s not very good.

I say that this is “sort of” an epistolary novel because the correspondence presented is entirely one-sided. In fact, this is really just a first-person narrative broken up into letters rather than chapters. The main effect of this choice is to add a welcome note of the ludicrous to the proceedings, as without a third-person narrator to tell the reader how beautiful and accomplished and full of “delicacy of sentiment” Sophia is, she’s forced to tell us so herself:

I was then just nineteen, my person was graceful, and I was universally reckoned handsome by the men [who] all paid me the homage, that is in general so delightful to a young heart… As for me, I was totally unacquainted with the arts of my sex…

Similarly, the first-person narration of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley adds an unintentional comic edge to the action of the novel. It is not uncommon in this genre for the heroine’s beauty and goodness to win her partisans on her difficult journey through the world, but ordinarily we hear about their motivations from themselves. Here, with everything filtered through Sophia’s self-absorption, we hear only about her problems, as the people who help her drop like flies along the way.

Sophia’s letters, as so often in the novels of this period, comprise her attempt to fulfil a request from her dearest friend, Constantia, who signifies her attachment in the usual way:

You insist upon my giving you a circumstantial account of all that has happened to me, from my infancy to the time when I was so happy as to be acquainted with you…

However, Sophia starts with a background sketch of her parents: he an army officer and a younger son, she the daughter of an objecting nobleman, both of already feuding families; they eloped, and remained unforgiven by both sides (thus explaining why, later on, Sophia has no relatives to turn to in her travails). Sophia was the only child of the marriage, her mother dying young. She grows up happy in her father’s love and care, but regrets that she has no true friend:

I had naturally a turn for friendship. I found something in this passion more consistent with my ideas than any other; I wished to meet with one who could think on this head like myself; but here I was always disappointed. The young women of my acquaintance looked upon me as a romantic girl, and were incapable of conceiving those joys which flow from the sacred influence of friendship. I began at last to persuade myself that my ideas were perhaps chimerical, when I fortunately became acquainted with a young lady, who had a soul superior to her sex, and whose delicacy of sentiments were upon a level with my own…

Fortunate for Sophia, perhaps; not so much for Isabella. In a distinctly Gothic-y touch, we are told (not quite casually enough) that Isabella has been raised in her mother’s Roman Catholic faith – A religion which, as it addresses itself to the passions of mankind, can never chuse a better opportunity of taking possession of the mind, than when it is weakened by grief – thus immediately clueing us in on her eventual fate. Isabella is naturally of a “spritely” disposition, so Sophia notices at once when she suddenly grows grave and sad. Isabella finally confesses to unrequited love for the heir to a neighbouring estate. Sophia herself is unacquainted with the young man, Horatio, and when she expresses a curiosity to meet him, Isabella suffers a qualm at the thought of introducing them.

And not without cause:

O Constantia! how shall I teach you to conceive what a sight of this lovely youth inspired me with. His form and person was perfectly pleasing: the bloom of youth sat upon his cheeks. His eyes were a fine blue, and sparkled with a gentle lustre… His conversation was full of good sense, and perfectly consistent with that modesty of soul so little known among men, and yet the greatest charm they can possess. He seemed particularly struck with me…

And of course, he is; so much so that the very next day he asks permission to address her. This creates something of a dilemma for our perfect Sophia:

…the only obstacle I saw, was my friendship for Isabella; and to such a height did I carry this friendship, that I secretly resolved, let the consequence be what it would, never to marry Horatio, unless I could do so without making her miserable. To purchase my own happiness at the expence of my friend’s, was a meanness I should have despised myself for. No one, I believe, ever carried their ideas higher upon these heads than I did…

…except, luckily for her, Isabella, who seeing the writing on the wall, takes herself off to a convent, which we’ve been expecting since her religion was mentioned. Sophia suffers such qualms of conscience over Isabella’s sacrifice that it is a full six hours after hearing of her resolution before she accepts Horatio’s proposal.

Now—the fact that the hero and heroine come together so quickly and easily at the outset of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley is of course an unmistakable sign that they’re about to be separated, lengthily and painfully.

Only a couple of days before the wedding, our young lovers are late arriving home after sitting in the dying light by the sea. Sophia then finds that she has lost her watch. Horatio goes to look for it, and gets attacked by pirates. Naturally.

When Horatio fails to return to the house, a frightened Sophia sends her father after him; he returns some time later in a state of despair, bringing with him the dead body of Horatio’s servant. The servant did live long enough to describe the attack by “a crew of pyrates who frequently infested these coasts”, and how Horatio accounted for four of the pirates before succumbing to his own wounds. The pirates were looting his body when some villagers ran up and, rather than lose their valuable prize, they carried his body away with them…

Sophia suffers agonies of grief, though it is surprisingly never suggested that she is dying of it. In fact, she has just regained something resembling tranquillity of spirits when she suffers the loss of her father, from “a violent fever”. As he lies dying, he is forced to make a confession:

I have been too profuse in my manner of living—my whole estate is gone, and you are left to poverty and distress! At these words he fell into convulsions. The violent agitation which his tenderness for me threw him into, was too great for his strength to support…

Yes, well. It’s a pity his “tenderness” for Sophia didn’t lead him to save a buck or two, but I guess you can’t have everything. When her father’s affairs are settled, not without input from some rapaciously dishonest creditors who take advantage of her ignorance, Sophia finds herself in possession of a mere one hundred pounds, and without a roof over her head. Having dismissed all of the servants except a maidservant called Juliet, Sophia braces herself and resolves to move to—the most expensive and dangerous place she can think of:

I determined to go to London, though I had no acquaintance there… Thus, at the age of twenty, you behold me destitute of money or friends; having already undergone two of the severest trials that can happen to a woman upon the point of entering the place in the world, where, for a female, experience and protection are the most necessary.

Luckily for Sophia, she has Juliet. It is Juliet who does know something of London; who arranges the journey; who finds a safe place for Sophia while she goes out to look for lodgings for her; who finds those lodgings, and at a price Sophia can afford; and who takes every opportunity to express her profound devotion to her mistress:

…adding, with tears in her eyes, that if I chose to have her live with me, she would never leave me; that she should be sufficiently paid in being with me; and as she had saved money in service, she would never take any wages…

The woman with whom Sophia lodges, a Mrs Williams, is a distressed gentlewoman reduced to running a milliner’s shop. When she hears the particulars of Sophia’s situation, she offers to take the girl into partnership. Sophia eagerly accepts, and, well—

…having no longer an occasion for Juliet, I dismissed her…

Sophia has a peaceful interlude with Mrs Williams, but, as she says herself, she is simply being set up for another fall. A wealthy young rake named Castilio (an unlike name for an Englishman, one would think, but moving on) drops into the shop looking for lace for some ruffles. His reputation precedes him:

Never, said she, was the power and will of doing ill, so completely joined as in Castilio. He is just come to the possession of an immense estate, which he spends in the gratification of every inordinate desire. He has been the ruin of several young women; and is so far from being ashamed of it, that he publickly boasts of it. There are no vile arts and contrivances he does not put in practice for the execution of his projects: I tremble whenever he comes into my house, and yet I dare not deny him entrance; for, if I did, he would never rest till he had revenged himself upon me…

But alas, this warning comes too late—for Castilio has already caught sight of the incomparable Sophia…

Sophia’s persecution by Castilio, which escalates from harassment and improper suggestions to her being decoyed away and abducted and imprisoned in his isolated estate, makes clear the claim of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley for a place in the Gothic timeline. Yet perhaps more obvious still are the differences between this novel and its descendants: not just the domestication of the action in England, and Castilio’s “anything but marriage” attitude, which owes more than a little to Clarissa – with true Gothic villains, it’s usually either marriage or murder – but the sense of authorial uncertainty over how far Sophia should be active in her own defence, or whether helpless passivity is more attractive in a heroine. Thankfully, though she is not the prime mover, Sophia does not just sit and cry while someone else does the heavy lifting, but does her part, and with surprising physicality.

Ultimately Sophia owes her salvation to her predecessor in Castilio’s, uh, “affections”, who though discarded remains in his service. Given the task of persuading Sophia into compliance with Castilio’s “I’d rather you gave in gracefully, but if I have to I’ll rape you” scheme, the subtly named Fidelia, in spite of the fate that she knows awaits her should Castilio discover her betrayal of him, gives Sophia advice on how to hold him at arm’s-length for long enough for the two of them to hatch and execute an escape plan. Sophia discovers a bricked-up window behind some hangings, and the two girls set to work digging out the mortar. They manage to dislodge enough bricks to pull loose the iron bar that blocks their way (Sophia is never more likeable than when violently attacking the brickwork), and squeeze through the gap into the garden beyond. There’s a handy tree with branches extending over the high wall of the estate, and Sophia makes it to the top of the wall. Then disaster strikes:

I called Fidelia to follow me, which she prepared to do; but most unfortunately, when she had just got to the top of the tree, the branches on which she stood gave way and she fell backwards. I was shocked beyond imagination; I asked her if she was hurt. Alas! said she, in a feeble voice, I have, I believe, broke my leg, for I cannot rise; make haste, continued she, save yourself and leave me to my fate; I shall die in peace, since I have been a means of preserving your life and honour. My heart bled within me to see the poor creature, to whom I owed so much, in such a condition. I determined not to leave her; and was preparing to go back again, when I observed some people in the garden, and heard Castilio’s voice crying, This way, this way! This, you may believe, threw me into a terrible fright; I knew I could be of no use to Fidelia, and therefore resolved to get away as fast as I could…

So much for heaven protecting the working girl. We never find out what happens to Fidelia, though we are aware that she was in fear of her life from Castilio. Nor, as far as we know, does Sophia ever waste another thought upon her.

But, hey!—Sophia gets away safely, and that’s what really matters, right?

[To be continued...]

 

 

27/04/2014

The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker

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    But, as there are degrees of Vows, so there are degrees of Punishments for Vows, there are solemn Matrimonial Vows, such as contract and are the most effectual Marriage, and have the most reason to be so; there are a thousand Vows and Friendships, that pass between Man and Man, on a thousand Occasions; but there is another Vow, call’d a Sacred Vow, made to God only; and, by which, we oblige our selves eternally to serve him with all Chastity and Devotion: This Vow is only taken, and made, by those that enter into Holy Orders, and, of all broken Vows, these are those, that receive the most severe and notorious Revenges of God; and I am almost certain, there is not one Example to be produc’d in the World, where Perjuries of this nature have past unpunish’d, nay, that have not been persu’d with the greatest and most rigorous of Punishments. I could my self, of my own knowledge, give an hundred Examples of the fatal Consequences of the Violation of Sacred Vows; and who ever make it their business, and are curious in the search of such Misfortunes, shall find, as I say, that they never go unregarded.
    The young Beauty therefore, who dedicates her self to Heaven, and weds her self for ever to the service of God, ought, first, very well to consider the Self-denial she is going to put upon her youth, her fickle faithless deceiving Youth, of one Opinion to day, and of another to morrow; like Flowers, which never remain in one state or fashion, but bud to day, and blow by insensible degrees, and decay as imperceptibly. The Resolution, we promise, and believe we shall maintain, is not in our power, and nothing is so deceitful as human Hearts.

Written late in 1688 but not published until the early part of 1689, Aphra Behn’s The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker is an unexpected piece of short fiction in several ways. Most immediately, the text carries another of Aphra’s rather curious dedications, this one to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarin, whose history had long been intertwined with that of the Stuarts. Charles had actually proposed to her (or rather, for her) during his exile, but was rejected, the lady’s family seeing then no prospect of his restoration. Hortense was eventually married off to Armand de la Meilleraye, one of the wealthiest men in Europe, who was then created Duc Marazin. The marriage was bitterly unhappy due to the Duc’s numerous peculiarities and Hortense’s reckless disregard of convention.

Eventually Hortense fled both her husband and her country, finding a protector first in Louis XIV before being given a place at the English court while officially visiting her cousin, Mary of Modena. Ironically, she ended up as Charles’s mistress, effectively supplanting the much-despised Duchess of Portsmouth, but herself fell out of favour when she refused to curb her reckless behaviour. Hortense was bisexual, often cross-dressed, and had numerous affairs with people of both sexes—including the Duchess of Sussex, one of Charles’s illegitimate daughters. It was not this, however, but her affair with Louis I of Monaco that caused Charles to end their relationship. The two nevertheless remained friends, and first Charles and then James continued to support her. Remarkably, Hortense held onto her place at court even after the arrival of William and Mary, albeit on a reduced pension. During this time she established a salon which attracted many intellectuals, artists and writers, and gained a reputation as a patron of the arts.

The dedication to Hortense that precedes The History Of The Nun is fulsome enough to have caused some academics to ponder a possible relationship between the two women; Aphra herself being often been read as bisexual:

I assure you, Madam, there is neither Compliment nor Poetry, in this humble Declaration, but a Truth, which has cost me a great deal of Inquietude, for that Fortune has not set me in such a Station, as might justifie my Pretence to the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and hear that surprizing Wit; what can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty? A Beauty that is heighten’d, if possible, with an air of Negligence, in Dress, wholly Charming, as if your Beauty disdain’d those little Arts of your Sex, whose Nicety alone is their greatest Charm, while yours, Madam, even without the Assistance of your exalted Birth, begets an Awe and Reverence in all that do approach you, and every one is proud, and pleas’d, in paying you Homage their several ways, according to their Capacities and Talents; mine, Madam, can only be exprest by my Pen, which would be infinitely honour’d, in being permitted to celebrate your great Name for ever…

However, I see in this dedication something more significant, if not quite so titillating: Aphra Behn’s belated abandonment of the Stuarts—or at least, her abandonment of the hope clung to for so many years, that she would be recognised by them for her talent and her loyalty. William of Orange did not arrive in England until November 1688, and James did not abdicate (if we can agree to call it that) until December, yet here in a work licensed in October we find Aphra striving to attract the attention of a potential new patron. Of course, we can never know if she might have succeeded at long last in winning the financial support she so desperately needed, since by the time The History Of The Nun was published, Aphra was dying.

Another interesting thing about The History Of The Nun is Aphra’s use of the word “history”, which to this point has been employed deliberately to indicate, if not a true story, at least a story founded on truth: we have seen it used so in the omnibus Three Histories, which collects Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro, short fictions which all contain a demonstrable measure of historical fact. The History Of The Nun conforms to this convention inasmuch as the dedication concludes with the assertion, The Story is true, as it is on the Records of the Town, where it was transacted; but as far as I am aware, no equivalent “true story” has been identified. Nor does The History Of The Nun contain any professions of being an eyewitness account, or even of having been told to Aphra. While the short opening section in which Aphra ruminates on the consequences of broken vows is written in the first person, when the story proper begins, the narrative voice switches to the third person. The only “personal” detail in The History Of The Nun comes near the beginning—a remark which may or may not be true, but which doubtless has added fuel to the fire of the long-running academic argument over whether or not Aphra was Catholic:

I once was design’d an humble Votary in the House of Devotion, but fancying my self not endu’d with an obstinacy of Mind, great enough to secure me from the Efforts and Vanities of the World, I rather chose to deny my self that Content I could not certainly promise my self, than to languish (as I have seen some do) in a certain Affliction; tho’ possibly, since, I have sufficiently bewailed that mistaken and inconsiderate Approbation and Preference of the false ungrateful World, (full of nothing but Nonsense, Noise, false Notions, and Contradiction) before the Innocence and Quiet of a Cloyster; nevertheless, I could wish, for the prevention of abundance of Mischiefs and Miseries, that Nunneries and Marriages were not to be enter’d into, ’till the Maid, so destin’d, were of a mature Age to make her own Choice; and that Parents would not make use of their justly assum’d Authority to compel their Children, neither to the one or the other; but since I cannot alter Custom, nor shall ever be allow’d to make new Laws, or rectify the old ones, I must leave the Young Nuns inclos’d to their best Endeavours, of making a Virtue of Necessity; and the young Wives, to make the best of a bad Market.

Amongst a certain school of literary scholars, Aphra Behn has a quite unfounded reputation as an author of “amatory fiction”: a categorisation often used to legitimise her dismissal from the timeline of the English novel. It gives me a certain evil pleasure to envisage the profound disappointment of those individuals when, upon perusing The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker – which, I grant you, is a title that seems to indicate salacious goings-on – they discovered it to be, not an account of wickedness behind convent walls, but an ironic tale of a woman so desperate to maintain her reputation for respectability, she eventually resorts to murder. Furthermore, as this previous quote indicates, The History Of The Nun is also a rather wry rumination upon the distance between the image of the ideal woman as envisaged by society, and the flawed reality stemming from a very human nature.

The anti-heroine of The History Of The Nun is Isabella, daughter of a Spanish nobleman. When his wife dies, the Count de Vallary is so grief-stricken that he decides to retire from the world by entering a monastery; resolving too that when she is old enough, Isabella will take the veil. The count’s sister is abbess of a convent: he bequeaths half his fortune to her in trust for Isabella, making clear his preference that his daughter should become a nun, but instructing that should she show a preference for the world, she should be permitted to marry and properly dowered.

At the age of only two, therefore, Isabella is taken into the convent to be raised amongst the nuns, proving as she grows to be as virtuous and accomplished as she is beautiful. She is, in fact, regarded as something of a prodigy:

…so that at the Age of eight or nine Years, she was thought fit to receive and entertain all the great Men and Ladies, and the Strangers of any Nation, at the Grate; and that with so admirable a Grace, so quick and piercing a Wit, and so delightful and sweet a Conversation, that she became the whole Discourse of the Town, and Strangers spread her Fame, as prodigious, throughout the Christian World; for Strangers came daily to hear her talk, and sing, and play, and to admire her Beauty; and Ladies brought their Children, to shame ’em into good Fashion and Manners, with looking on the lovely young Isabella.

Isabella’s aunt, meanwhile, is caught between her own desire to see Isabella become a nun, both for the fame and credit of the convent and for the sake of her fortune, and her promise to her brother. She fulfils the latter by speaking to her niece of the pleasures of the world and what her fortune can bring her, and by allowing her occasionally to go out in public with fashionable relatives. Isabella’s emergence from the convent, her reputation preceding her, sets the town of Iper in an uproar:

Isabella arriving at her Thirteenth Year of Age, and being pretty tall of Stature, with the finest Shape that Fancy can create, with all the Adornment of a perfect brown-hair’d Beauty, Eyes black and lovely, Complexion fair; to a Miracle, all her Features of the rarest proportion, the Mouth red, the Teeth white, and a thousand Graces in her Meen and Air; she came no sooner abroad, but she had a thousand Persons fighting for love of her; the Reputation her Wit had acquir’d, got her Adorers without seeing her, but when they saw her, they found themselves conquer’d and undone; all were glad she was come into the World, of whom they had heard so much, and all the Youth of the Town dress’d only for Isabella de Vallary, that rose like a new Star that Eclips’d all the rest, and which set the World a-gazing. Some hop’d, and some despair’d, but all lov’d… And now it was, that, young as she was, her Conduct and Discretion appear’d equal to her Wit and Beauty, and she encreas’d daily in Reputation, insomuch, that the Parents of abundance of young Noble Men, made it their business to endeavour to marry their Sons to so admirable and noble a Maid, and one, whose Virtues were the Discourse of all the World…

In spite of all this adulation, however, Isabella sees nothing in the world that draws her to choose it over a life of religious retreat, and nor do the conscientious counterarguments of her father and aunt, who urge the advantages of one and the disadvantages of the other upon her, have any effect upon her resolution. Seeing her determined, they withdraw all opposition; the Count de Vallary, indeed, then admits that he would have been very unhappy had she done anything else.

To one person above all others, Isabella’s resolution is a shattering disappointment: a young nobleman called Villenoys has fallen desperately in love with her, and done everything he can think of to persuade her to change her mind. His persistence lures Isabella into a correspondence, but although she pities the young man, her letters only reiterate her decision and urge him to seek his reward in the world. As the time for Isabella to take the veil draws near, Villenoys collapses in a dangerous fever. His despairing relatives plead with Isabella to relent and save his life. Her response is not quite what they hoped:

She believ’d, it was for her Sins of Curiosity, and going beyond the Walls of the Monastery, to wander after the Vanities of the foolish World, that had occasion’d this Misfortune to the young Count of Villenoys, and she would put a severe Penance on her Body, for the Mischiefs her Eyes had done him; she fears she might, by something in her looks, have intic’d his Heart, for she own’d she saw him, with wonder at his Beauty, and much more she admir’d him, when she found the Beauties of his Mind; she confess’d, she had given him hope, by answering his Letters; and that when she found her Heart grow a little more than usually tender, when she thought on him, she believ’d it a Crime, that ought to be check’d by a Virtue, such as she pretended to profess, and hop’d she should ever carry to her Grave; and she desired his Relations to implore him, in her Name, to rest contented, in knowing he was the first, and should be the last, that should ever make an impression on her Heart…

Small beer as this is, it serves to check Villenoys’ decline; though his family keep Isabella’s assumption of the veil from him until he is strong enough to hear the news. He then rejoins the military career from which he was diverted.

Isabella, meanwhile, gives no-one reason to suppose she repents her choice of a religious life. For two years she devotes herself to the demands of her order:

…there was never seen any one, who led so Austere and Pious a Life, as this young Votress; she was a Saint in the Chapel, and an Angel at the Grate: She there laid by all her severe Looks, and mortify’d Discourse, and being at perfect peace and tranquility within, she was outwardly all gay, sprightly, and entertaining, being satisfy’d, no Sights, no Freedoms, could give any temptations to worldly desires… But however Diverting she was at the Grate, she was most exemplary Devout in the Cloister, doing more Penance, and imposing a more rigid Severity and Task on her self, than was requir’d, giving such rare Examples to all the Nuns that were less Devout, that her Life was a Proverb, and a President, and when they would express a very Holy Woman indeed, they would say, “She was a very ISABELLA.”

Isabella’s close friend within the convent is Sister Katteriena, whose brother, Bernardo Henault, visits her regularly—and who as a matter of course sees much of Isabella. And suddenly, the serenely devoted Isabella finds herself confronted by a temptation of which previously she had no conception…

Katteriena is quick enough to discover what ails her friend, and confesses that her own presence in the convent is due to her enraged father discovering a secret passion between herself and a young man of lower social standing. Isabella begs her friend to tell her how she can regain mastery over herself, since for the first time in her life her thoughts and feelings are not under her control:

“Alas! (reply’d Katteriena) tho’ there’s but one Disease, there’s many Remedies: They say, possession’s one, but that to me seems a Riddle; Absence, they say, another, and that was mine; for Arnaldo having by chance lost one of my Billets, discover’d the Amour, and was sent to travel, and my self forc’d into this Monastery, where at last, Time convinc’d me, I had lov’d below my Quality, and that sham’d me into Holy Orders.” “And is it a Disease, (reply’d Isabella) that People often recover?” “Most frequently, (said Katteriena) and yet some dye of the Disease, but very rarely.” “Nay then, (said Isabella) I fear, you will find me one of these Martyrs; for I have already oppos’d it with the most severe Devotion in the World: But all my Prayers are vain, your lovely Brother persues me into the greatest Solitude; he meets me at my very Midnight Devotions, and interrupts my Prayers; he gives me a thousand Thoughts, that ought not to enter into a Soul dedicated to Heaven; he ruins all the Glory I have achiev’d, even above my Sex, for Piety of Life, and the Observation of all Virtues. Oh Katteriena! he has a Power in his Eyes, that transcends all the World besides: And, to shew the weakness of Human Nature, and how vain all our Boastings are, he has done that in one fatal Hour, that the persuasions of all my Relations and Friends, Glory, Honour, Pleasure, and all that can tempt, could not perform in Years…”

And here, of course, we find Aphra Behn’s underlying point that the dangers of forcing life-changing decisions upon girls too young and too inexperienced to understand themselves or what temptations the world might hold. Note, however, that Isabella’s trial has a double face. Most obviously she is frightened that her passion for Henault is coming between herself and God, tempting her to forsake her holy vows. Yet beyond that, even at these very earliest moments, is Isabella’s painful consciousness that what is at stake is not just her private dedication to God, but her public reputation: The Glory I have achiev’d, even above my Sex, for Piety of Life, and the Observation of all Virtues…

Isabella struggles against her passion for Henault; but not all the prayers and mortifications she puts herself through have the slightest effect. The death-blow to her hopes of conquering herself is delivered when she succumbs to temptation to the point of creeping near the grate to see Henault and listen to his conversation with Katteriena: she hears not only her friend’s angry scolding of her brother for daring to suppose that anyone as saintly and immaculate as Isabella could give a thought to earthly passion, but, fatally, Henault’s returning declaration of love and his plea that Katteriena do what she can to turn Isabella thoughts towards him. Knowing that she is loved gives Isabella power over herself—not to banish her forbidden passion, but to hide it from Katteriena; the saintly young woman teaches herself to dissemble and prevaricate, and succeeds in deceiving her friend. Believing she speaks for Isabella, Katteriena continues to scold and shame her brother for his wish to lure a nun from her vows; warning him that, even should he succeed, their father would consider it a blight upon the family honour and doubtless disinherit him.

Finding Katteriena opposed to him, Henault also begins to dissemble, convincing his sister that her arguments have swayed him. Both he and Isabella resume their previous behaviours—until one day, during Henault’s visit to the grate, he and Isabella find an opportunity for private conversation. Their mutual declaration leaves Isabella more bewildered and enflamed than ever, and she spends a sleepless night devoted to the age-old art of sophistry:

She had try’d Fasting long, Praying fervently, rigid Penances and Pains, severe Disciplines, all the Mortification, almost to the destruction of Life it self, to conquer the unruly Flame; but still it burnt and rag’d but the more; so, at last, she was forc’d to permit that to conquer her, she could not conquer, and submitted to her Fate, as a thing destin’d her by Heaven it self; and after all this opposition, she fancy’d it was resisting even Divine Providence, to struggle any longer with her Heart; and this being her real Belief, she the more patiently gave way to all the Thoughts that pleas’d her… She…was resolv’d to conclude the Matter, between her Heart, and her Vow of Devotion, that Night, and she, having no more to determine, might end the Affair accordingly, the first opportunity she should have to speak to Henault, which was, to fly, and marry him; or, to remain for ever fix’d to her Vow of Chastity. This was the Debate; she brings Reason on both sides: Against the first, she sets the Shame of a Violated Vow, and considers, where she shall shew her Face after such an Action; to the Vow, she argues, that she was born in Sin, and could not live without it; that she was Human, and no Angel, and that, possibly, that Sin might be as soon forgiven, as another… Some times, she thought, it would be more Brave and Pious to dye, than to break her Vow; but she soon answer’d that, as false Arguing, for Self-Murder was the worst of Sins, and in the Deadly Number. She could, after such an Action, live to repent, and, of two Evils, she ought to chuse the least; she dreads to think, since she had so great a Reputation for Virtue and Piety, both in the Monastery, and in the World, what they both would say, when she should commit an Action so contrary to both these, she posest; but, after a whole Night’s Debate, Love was strongest, and gain’d the Victory…

But matters having come to a head, it is Henault who perceives the enormity of the step, and who hesitates – not least because he knows that he will indeed be disinherited. Isabella manages to convince him, however, although in terms that remind us that she is both young and inexperienced:

I thought of living in some loanly Cottage, far from the noise of crowded busie Cities, to walk with thee in Groves, and silent Shades, where I might hear no Voice but thine; and when we had been tir’d, to sit us done by some cool murmuring Rivulet, and be to each a World, my Monarch thou, and I thy Sovereign Queen, while Wreaths of Flowers shall crown our happy Heads, some fragrant Bank our Throne, and Heaven our Canopy: Thus we might laugh at Fortune…

Isabella’s reputation makes the elopement almost comically easy. For one thing, she is trusted with the keys to the convent; for another—

Isabella’s dead Mother had left Jewels, of the value of 2000l. to her Daughter, at her Decease, which Jewels were in the possession, now, of the Lady Abbess, and were upon Sale, to be added to the Revenue of the Monastery; and as Isabella was the most Prudent of her Sex, at least, had hitherto been so esteem’d, she was intrusted with all that was in possession of the Lady Abbess, and ’twas not difficult to make her self Mistress of all her own Jewels; as also, some 3 or 400l. in Gold, that was hoarded up in her Ladyship’s Cabinet, against any Accidents that might arrive to the Monastery; these Isabella also made her own…

Making their escape, the two flee the country. They are married, and take a farm near a small village under the assumed name of Beroone. They do not neglect to attempt to obtain a variety of pardons, but without much success: Henault is indeed disinherited; and although he adores Isabella, he has been raised in luxury, and the thought of future poverty begins to fret him. His worries are exacerbated by the continuous difficulties that beset him as he tries to make the farm a going concern—until he, like Isabella before him, becomes proverbial:

…so that it became a Proverb all over the all over the Country, if any ill Luck had arriv’d to any body, they would say, “They had Monsieur BEROONE’S Luck.”

However, Isabella manages to win pardon from her aunt and, in time, from the church authorities, which allows the two of them to return home. The Abbess gives them what financial assistance she can, but Henault’s father goes no further than promising to equip him if he will leave Isabella and enter the army; while various interested parties likewise argue that he should enter the service of his country as a step towards expiating his sin of inducing a nun to break her vows. Henault is finally won over, but the first consequence of his decision is tragedy: when she hears that he will be leaving her, Isabella collapses and miscarries. Henault remains with her another month, while she recovers, but then forces himself to go.

Once in the army, Henault finds himself stationed with a certain Villenoys, whose name he knows… In spite of, or because of, their mutual passion for Isabella, the two become fast friends. The two serve together—and it is Villenoys who must break to Isabella the news of her husband’s death…

Isabella’s tragedy has the effect of restoring her public reputation, forsaken upon her elopement:

She continu’d thus Mourning, and thus inclos’d, the space of a whole Year, never suffering the Visit of any Man, but of a near Relation; so that she acquir’d a Reputation, such as never any young Beauty had, for she was now but Nineteen, and her Face and Shape more excellent than ever; she daily increas’d in Beauty, which, joyn’d to her Exemplary Piety, Charity, and all other excellent Qualities, gain’d her a wonderous Fame, and begat an Awe and Reverence in all that heard of her, and there was no Man of any Quality, that did not Adore her. After her Year was up, she went to the Churches, but would never be seen any where else abroad, but that was enough to procure her a thousand Lovers; and some, who had the boldness to send her Letters, which, if she receiv’d, she gave no Answer to, and many she sent back unread and unseal’d: So that she would encourage none, tho’ their Quality was far beyond what she could hope; but she was resolv’d to marry no more, however her Fortune might require it.

Villenoys continues to visit Isabella, and his love for her reawakens. Though she admits his friendship, she resists his courtship for two years, until her aunt dies and with her Isabella’s slender financial support. Confronted by grim reality, Isabella contemplates re-entering a convent, but finally shies away from the idea: not only did she promise Henault she would not, but, Her Heart deceiv’d her once, and she durst not trust it again, whatever it promis’d. Realistically, her only option is to marry; and so she brings herself to listen to Villenoys—after the usual delusionary arguments, of course:

…’twas for Interest she married again, tho’ she lik’d the Person very well; and since she was forc’d to submit her self to be a second time a Wife, she thought, she could live better with Villenoys, than any other, since for him she ever had a great Esteem; and fancy’d the Hand of Heaven had pointed out her Destiny, which she could not avoid, without a Crime.

She manages to hold Villenoys off for another year, but finally the two are married; and as time passes, Isabella develops a genuine affection for her husband. In contrast to her struggles when married to Henault, Villenoys lavishes upon her all that money can buy, while Isabella dedicates herself to regaining the favour of heaven:

She had no Discontent, but because she was not bless’d with a Child; but she submits to the pleasure of Heaven, and endeavour’d, by her good Works, and her Charity, to make the Poor her Children, and was ever doing Acts of Virtue, to make the Proverb good, That more are the Children of the Barren, than the Fruitful Woman.

Villenoys is away from home on a hunting trip when Isabella receives a most unexpected visitor:

And pulling off a small Ring, with Isabella’s Name and Hair in it, he gave it Maria, who, shutting the Gate upon him, went in with the Ring; as soon as Isabella saw it, she was ready to swound on the Chair where she sate, and cry’d, Where had you this? Maria reply’d, An old rusty Fellow at the Gate gave it me, and desired, it might be his Pasport to you; I ask’d his Name, but he said, You knew him not, but he had great News to tell you. Isabella reply’d, (almost swounding again) Oh, Maria! I am ruin’d.

It is indeed Henault; a Henault with hair and beard long and wildly tangled, so worn down and prematurely aged, so ragged and thin, as to be almost unrecognisable. He tells Isabella that he was wounded almost to death, but saved by his captors, who recovered him for ransom. Writing several times to his father but getting no response, he was consequently sold into slavery, from which he finally managed to escape.

By this time Henault has had a chance to absorb the signs of wealth in Isabella’s home, and finds himself gripped by a terrible fear… Isabella, meanwhile, is gripped by some fears of her own:

Shame and Confusion fill’d her Soul, and she was not able to lift her Eyes up, to consider the Face of him, whose Voice she knew so perfectly well. In one moment, she run over a thousand Thoughts. She finds, by his Return, she is not only expos’d to all the Shame imaginable; to all the Upbraiding, on his part, when he shall know she is marry’d to another; but all the Fury and Rage of Villenoys, and the Scorn of the Town, who will look on her as an Adulteress: She sees Henault poor, and knew, she must fall from all the Glory and Tranquility she had for five happy Years triumph’d in…

However, she dissembles, speaking gently and welcomingly to Henault and leading him to a bedchamber—although she manages to put off being compelled to join him in bed, by pleading her usual evening prayers. This is so entirely in character that Henault’s suspicions are lulled; and, exhausted by his travails, he falls asleep before Isabella returns.

Prayers, indeed:

’Tis true, Isabella essay’d to Pray, but alas! it was in vain, she was distracted with a thousand Thoughts what to do, which the more she thought, the more it distracted her; she was a thousand times about to end her Life, and, at one stroke, rid her self of the Infamy, that, she saw, must inevitably fall upon her; but Nature was frail, and the Tempter strong: And after a thousand Convulsions, even worse than Death it self, she resolv’d upon the Murder of Henault, as the only means of removing all the obstacles to her future Happiness; she resolv’d on this, but after she had done so, she was seiz’d with so great Horror, that she imagin’d, if she perform’d it, she should run Mad; and yet, if she did not, she should be also Frantick, with the Shames and Miseries that would befal her; and believing the Murder the least Evil, since she could never live with him, she fix’d her Heart on that; and causing her self to be put immediately to Bed, in her own Bed, she made Maria go to hers, and when all was still, she softly rose, and taking a Candle with her, only in her Night-Gown and Slippers, she goes to the Bed of the Unfortunate Henault, with a Penknife in her hand; but considering, she knew not how to conceal the Blood, should she cut his Throat, she resolves to Strangle him, or Smother him with a Pillow; that last thought was no sooner borne, but put in Execution; and, as he soundly slept, she smother’d him without any Noise, or so much as his Struglin…

Barely has the deed been done, however, than Villenoys unexpectedly returns home. The distracted Isabella is almost overcome, but finally realises she has to tell him the truth—or at least some of it. She does tell him of Henault’s return, but convinces him that Henault died of the shock of hearing that she was married to Villenoys. Her hysterical pleading sways her adoring husband who, learning that only Maria knows of the visitor, and that she does not know his identity, makes a grim resolution: he will carry Henault’s body to a nearby bridge, and throw it into the river below, which will carry it to the sea. He is reassured by his own examination of the body that Henault has indeed changed so much that, even if discovered, he will not be identified. Villenoys redresses the body, ordering Isabella to fetch a sack and some needle and thread. She does so…

Isabella all this while said but little, but, fill’d with Thoughts all Black and Hellish, she ponder’d within, while the Fond and Passionate Villenoys was endeavouring to hide her Shame, and to make this an absolute Secret: She imagin’d, that could she live after a Deed so black, Villenoys would be eternal reproaching her, if not with his Tongue, at least with his Heart, and embolden’d by one Wickedness, she was the readier for another, and another of such a Nature, as has, in my Opinion, far less Excuse, than the first; but when Fate begins to afflict, she goes through stitch with her Black Work… When he had the Sack on his Back, and ready to go with it, she cry’d, Stay, my Dear, some of his Clothes hang out, which I will put in; and with that, taking the Pack-needle with the Thread, sew’d the Sack, with several strong Stitches, to the Collar of Villenoy’s Coat, without his perceiving it, and bid him go now; and when you come to the Bridge, (said she) and that you are throwing him over the Rail, (which is not above Breast high) be sure you give him a good swing…

Irony is the prevailing key-note of The History Of The Nun, in which, not actual piety, but the reputation for piety, becomes the motivation for murder. While it does operate as a commentary upon the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed upon “good” women, ultimately this short tale works best as an examination of a complicated psychology, with Isabella’s vision of herself as a model of purity and religious devotion driving her to unspeakable crimes. It is difficult to know what message, if any, Behn wanted the reader to take away from this perversely amusing horror story. Certainly it is difficult to believe that she intended it taken seriously as a warning against the perils of vow-breaking; although her early remarks upon the dangers of premature vow-taking, whether marital or religious, are evidently sincere.

In the end, it is hard to shake the feeling that Behn was so taken with the blackly comic aspects of her story, her message became obscured by its delivery. She even gives us what might be considered, at least from Isabella’s warped perspective, a happy ending: her crimes exposed, Isabella is tried, condemned and executed, and in the process wins a fame far beyond mere reputation—that of martyrdom:

…as soon as she was accus’d, she confess’d the whole Matter of Fact, and, without any Disorder, deliver’d her self in the Hands of Justice, as the Murderess of two Husbands (both belov’d) in one Night: The whole World stood amaz’d at this; who knew her Life a Holy and Charitable Life, and how dearly and well she had liv’d with her Husbands, and every one bewail’d her Misfortune, and she alone was the only Person, that was not afflicted for her self… While she was in Prison, she was always at Prayers, and very Chearful and Easie, distributing all she had amongst, and for the Use of, the Poor of the Town, especially to the Poor Widows; exhorting daily, the Young, and the Fair, that came perpetually to visit her, never to break a Vow: for that was first the Ruine of her, and she never since prosper’d, do whatever other good Deeds she could… She made a Speech of half an Hour long, so Eloquent, so admirable a warning to the Vow-Breakers, that it was as amazing to hear her, as it was to behold her… She was generally Lamented, and Honourably Bury’d.

30/03/2014

Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age

vicinus2bHow then could a Victorian woman break away from imitation – or guilty aberration – of the model of the perfect lady? The full answer is surely subject to interpretation, and far more research is necessary, but the new woman was in part a product of changed social and economic conditions, and in part the result of the courageous efforts of individual women who suffered social ostracism for their beliefs. The suffrage movement, educational reform, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts and the fight to distribute birth control information all contributed to the downfall of hypocrisy and rigidity. By the 1880’s the perfect lady could no longer hold her own unchallenged. Women increasingly demanded and gained constructive and useful roles in society. Job opportunities were opening to every class, making it possible for women to achieve economic independence (though often at great psychological cost. as George Gissing’s The Odd Women [1892] illustrates). Social attitudes were also changing… In popular literature independent women became heroines for the first time. Sexual attitudes also changed; the most consistent tenet of the women’s movement was the application of female sexual standards to all of society. Only a few advanced thinkers recognised that equality would not lead to male continence, but female indulgence. The women and men of the late nineteenth century were never so Victorian as when they insisted upon radical economic and social change within the context of stern Victorian sexual mores.

The 19th century gave birth to many sad statements on the “natural” position of women in society, but one of the saddest, given that it appeared in a conduct manual widely read and followed, Sarah Stickney Ellis’s 1845 publication, The Daughters Of England, is surely the following:

If, then, for man it be absolutely necessary that he should sacrifice the poetry of his nature for the realities of material and animal existence, for woman there is no excuse—for woman, whose whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is one of feeling, rather than of action; whose highest duty is so often to suffer, and be still; whose deepest enjoyments are all relative; who has nothing, and is nothing, of herself…

From this chilling passage comes the title of Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age, a collection of essays addressing the Victorian woman edited by Martha Vicinus and published in 1972—a time when the idea that “women’s studies” might be a legitimate field of research was still fairly new, rather ridiculous, and yet somehow threatening, as is evident in the tone of Vicinus’s introduction:

…there has been a widespread distrust in the new field of women studies. Some argue that it lacks academic depth and rigor, or that there is not enough material to study, while others say that we must maintain our loyalty to a particular discipline lest we lose ourselves in an ill-defined area without “acceptable” criteria of research or clear academic standards. The most common criticism has been against research has been against research that might be biased, trivial or, worst of all, trendy. The simplest answer to such critics is that the failure to study the position of women in society and history is equally biased—and to date no standard nineteenth-century history text gives the women’s movement more than token space. With the widespread publication of books about women, past and present, and the growing acceptance of courses on women, many of these fears will be silenced. Nevertheless, the financing of women studies and research remains minimal—in part because of financial cutbacks in higher education, but primarily because of the continued refusal to take seriously the study of women as a paramount, and not merely legitimate, field of study.

With this background, it is comforting to know that Suffer And Be Still grew out of a situation of demand. A 1970 issue of the journal Victorian Studies with the theme “Victorian woman” was so successful that a second round of essays were commissioned, eventually resulting in the publication of this book. The ten essays cover a variety of aspects of Victorian life, though necessarily the topics are fragmented and unconnected, and much remains unaddressed. Among the contributors are some important Victorianists including M. Jeanne Peterson and Helene E. Roberts, as well as the feminist authors Elaine Showalter and Kate Millet, who coincidentally (or not?) co-author and author two of the essays I found most compelling and wish to consider in the most detail.

M. Jeanne Peterson’s The Victorian Governess considers the anomalous position of its title figure, a lady but not a lady, a servant but not a servant, occupying a kind of twilight zone between “upstairs” and “downstairs”. It also examines the contradictory system wherein a man’s status was indicated by how thoroughly his wife was a lady of leisure, this in turn requiring that some other woman, born in the same sphere but faced with financial necessity, give up her own claim to be a lady of any kind by finding paid employment. Peterson also makes a case that the attraction of foreign-born governesses was not the advantage of language lessons for the children but that, existing outside English society in any case, these women did not bring with them the same awkward sense of class dislocation.

In From Dame To Woman, Jane W. Stedman examines cross-dressing stage actresses in the Victorian era, but her focus is on the handling of unmarried women on the stage generally, and by Gilbert and Sullivan in particular – Gilbert being a common (and in her opinion, unjust) target of criticism for his work in this area. She demonstrates the extent to which the old maid was a figure of ridicule and opprobrium, equally for being unmarried and for wanting to get married at an “advanced” age. However, she also shows that over the latter decades of the century there was a softening of attitude, with spinsters more frequently allowed a romance and a happy ending, a greater tendency to cast unmarried women in the role of fairy godmother, and a willingness to admit that there might be female qualities of more value than the external.

One of the two slightly “cheaty” essays in this volume is Peter N. Stearns’ Working-Class Women In Britain, 1890-1914, which goes beyond the bounds of “Victorianism” in order to draw upon the increasing availability of demographic data for the first decades of the 20th century in its discussion of changing financial, social and medical conditions for working-class women during this period. This essay considers shifting patterns of residence, employment, marriage and child-bearing – noting the decrease in average family size as understanding of birth control spread, and also the increasing tendency for married women with children to nevertheless find employment, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice. (I find myself thoroughly in sympathy with the woman who, questioned as to her choice to work instead of confining her activities to the home, responded: “It’ud give me the bloomin’ ‘ump.”) Overall, Stearns contends, the lot of the single woman improved during this time, with greater freedom, employment opportunities and recreational options, but that of her married sister deteriorated as ages fell, prices rose, and the economic partnership that had traditionally existed in working-class homes increasingly broke down under a variety of pressures.

Marriage, Redundancy Or Sin is Helene E. Roberts’ examination of women as depicted by artists during the early Victorian age, the vast majority of renderings falling, as she notes, into one of three categories, and too often functioning as a form of propaganda or a shying away from reality—although this was in keeping with the prevailing view of the function of art: a reviewer in the Art Journal of 1852 criticised those artists who used their work to draw attention to the darker side of life: “It is not the office of Art to present to us truths of an offensive kind; these are abundant in every-day life and it is in Art that we seek a refuge from them.” Though a few artists chose to ignore this stern warning, many took the hint and produced idealised portraits of fulfilling middle-class domesticity or, alternatively, happy cottagers living a life so increasingly far from the reality of industrialising 19th century England as to be pure fantasy. Alternatively, they produced cautionary tales showing the inevitable fate of any woman who strayed off the narrow beaten path – the most famous example being perhaps Augustus Egg’s triptych Past And Present, which centres upon an adulterous wife. A few artists did buck the system, doggedly producing confrontational pictures of either “redundant” or “fallen” women, though not without encountering resistance: when Richard Redgrave painted The Poor Teacher, showing the miseries of a governess’s life, his patron made him re-do it with happy children playing in the background, to lighten its mood (though they were by definition not the subject’s children). Other artists stuck to their guns, including George Frederic Watts, whose The Seamstress gives Suffer And Be Still its cover image.

From the idealisation of women in Victorian art we jump to a particularly grim Victorian reality in Eric M. Sigsworth and Terence J. Wyke’s essay, A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease, which offers wide-ranging statistics on both of these aspects of life, and covers the introduction of, and the battle against, the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed for the forcible detention, medical examination and virtual imprisonment of prostitutes. This area of study repeatedly highlights the tacit acceptance of prostitution as the “maintainer” of polite society, freeing “good” women from the vile necessity of submitting to their husbands’ carnal lusts and retaining marital sex as merely for procreation. The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduced in response to the skyrocketing levels of venereal disease amongst the armed forces, yet no attempt was made to alter the behaviour of the men, merely to render the prostitutes “safer”. Similarly, those pressing for the legal power to detain prostitutes in order to prevent the infection of married women and their babies managed to leave the erring husband almost entirely out of the equation, treating the prostitute as directly responsible for the transmission of disease to the wife. A bizarre sidelight of this area of research is the related argument over whether prostitutes experienced sexual pleasure, or whether they merely “simulated” it to heighten male passion; it was believed by some that sexual desire was dormant in women until they had “fallen”; though few seemed to join Point A and Point B, namely, that married men turned to prostitutes for the enthusiasm (simulated or otherwise) they were by definition not finding at home. Resorting to prostitution was also considered less transgressive and damaging than masturbation—or as it was discreetly called (in The Lancet, of all places!), “Another evil resulting in the abomination of prematurely exhausted powers.” This article quotes copiously from William Acton’s Prostitution, Considered In Its Moral, Social, And Sanitary Aspects (1857):

    Later, Acton echoed: “I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”, and, allowing for aberrant exceptions (“nymphomania, a form of insanity”), had no doubt, “That sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance…and even if roused, which in many instances it can never be, is very moderate compared with that of the male.
    “Many of the best mothers, wives and managers of households, know little of or are careless about sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.
    “As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions…”

(Yeah, baby… Nothing gets me hot and bothered like “domestic duties”…)

Much of the rest of Suffer And Be Still is devoted to the profoundly contradictory Victorian views on the nature of women and the relations of the sexes. The question of female sexuality was obviously a deeply troubling one, informing a set of life-rules for young women that were simultaneously hilarious, bewildering, and just plain cruel. Even supposedly scientifically-based studies of biology managed to conclude in justifications of a social system that confined women to the home and severely limited their activities and opportunities. Again and again academic studies showed signs of insight and advanced thinking, only suddenly to contract upon themselves in an explanation of why the existing social arrangements were biologically pre-determined.

Jill Conway’s Stereotypes Of Femininity In A Theory Of Sexual Evolution examines the work of some of the leading figures in sociology during the late Victorian period. At this time physiology and genetics were imperfectly understood, allowing academics to fill out the interstices in general knowledge with their own particular prejudices. Biological explanations for the “natural” inferiority of women were sought, and the idea that a woman’s primary function was reproduction, and that all her other functions, mental and physical, were subservient to the development and maintenance of her reproductive organs, recurs again and again. According to Herbert Spencer in his The Study Of Sociology, for instance, sex differences were the result of, “A somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution in women than in men, necessitated by the reservation of vital power to meet the cost of reproduction.” In The Evolution Of Sex, Patrick Geddes argued for distinct metabolic processes between the sexes, “katabolic” in the male and “anabolic” in the female: the former transmitting or dissipating energy, that latter conserving and storing it. Under this theory, “The hungry, active cell becomes flagellate sperm, while the quiescent, well-fed one becomes an ovum.” In the developed human, men were necessarily active, and women passive. Social structures which kept women in the home were an evolutionary determinant geared towards ensuring that women conserved the energy necessary to reproduce. A few years later, Leonard T. Hobhouse rejected many of Geddes’ arguments in Morals In Evolution, yet managed to come up with a competing theory that still kept women in the home, namely, the necessity of “reconciling” them to their fate by convincing them that, “Motherhood of the healthy and capable [was] a form of social service.” Pre-determination had been ceded, but women still weren’t making it out the front door…

The desire to stop women expanding their lives also fuelled one of the most peculiar Victorian arguments about female biology, as is considered in this volume’s second “cheaty” essay— “cheaty” because although it stays within the broader boundaries of Victorianism, it finds it necessary to cross from England to America in order to gather some of its materials. Co-authored by Elaine Showalter and her husband English, Victorian Women And Menstruation examines the co-opting of female biology by male doctors as part of the effort to prevent women having access to higher education. The early stages of the essay are devoted to emphasising just how little was understood about the process in question, and how long a variety of bizarre myths were believed and propagated. Like “wet dreams”, menstruation was regarded as a disease and treated accordingly; as the century wore on, there was greater and greater insistence upon regarding it as a debilitating condition. In 1869, addressing the Anthopological Society of London, James MacGrigor Allan, an author and prominent antifeminist, had this to say upon the subject:

At such times, women are unfit for any great mental or physical labour. They suffer under a languor and depression that disqualify them for thought or action, and render it extremely doubtful how far they can be responsible beings while the crisis lasts. Much of the inconsequent conduct of women, their petulance, caprice, and irritability, may be traced directly to this cause… Michelet defines woman as an invalid; such she emphatically is, as compared with man. In intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now, and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application.

And as the century wore on, the clamour grew ever louder—not without an underlying agenda. As women agitated for change, demanding greater access to education and even to careers, the medical profession fought back with lengthy treatises explaining why their own biology made it impossible.

The main focus of this essay is the publication in 1873 of a book called Sex In Education, which was devoted to arguing that higher education for women destroyed their reproductive capacity—if not their entire lives. The author of this remarkable work was Dr Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard; his argument (by no means unique to himself, astonishingly) was that education – too much thinking, in other words – “diverted” the blood flow from the reproductive organs to the brain, causing the former to shrivel and die.

(There were a variety of reactions to Dr Clarke’s treatise, as we shall see. Disappointingly, no-one seems to have inquired into whether higher education for men led to an epidemic of “shrinkage”.)

Clarke’s book was leapt upon by others with a similar agenda. Henry Maudsley, a leading British psychiatrist, used it to attack female aspirations across the board—for women’s own good, of course: “Women are marked out by nature for very different offices in life from those of men, and that the healthy performance of her special functions renders it improbable she will succeed, and unwise for her to persevere, in running over the same course at the same pace with him,” he wrote in 1874, adding that this was true even if women never married or had children. Their physiology was a fundamental, inescapable handicap: “[Women are] for one quarter of each month during the best years of life…more or less sick and unfit for hard work.”

But the barriers that these men were so desperate to keep in place were already crumbling. There were already female doctors and social scientists, and a number of them made sharp attacks upon the arguments of Clarke, Maudsley and their ilk—in the process dragging menstruation out of the mire of myth and into the light of common knowledge.

The ongoing argument was mostly confined to the predominantly masculine world of medical and scientific journals and societies – menstruation being regarded, of course, as a subject unfit for women – but Henry Maudsley made the tactical error of publishing his thoughts in the Fortnightly Review, thus opening it up to public debate. A doctor called Elizabeth Garrett Anderson published a rebuttal of Maudsley in the next issue of the magazine, contending both from personal and professional experience that the debilitating effects of menstruation were “much exaggerated” by male doctors. In particular, she pounced upon the blatant class bias inherent in their arguments, pointing out that working-class women were hardly known for taking “complete bed rest” for a week each month, as was often prescribed as necessary for their middle-class sisters. Nor were female servants in those very same middle-class households generally given any dispensation from their duties (which presumably included waiting on their incapacitated employers) at that time. Meanwhile, back in America, a women’s health manual called Eve’s Daughters by Marion Harland countered the “bed rest” brigade with admirable common sense, prescribing instead ginger tea and hot water bottles if necessary, backed up by warm encouragement to go on with life as normally as possible.

Yet Clarke’s book threw a long shadow. In 1908, M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, reflected upon her own encounter with it in her youth:

“We did not know when we began whether women’s health could stand the strain of college education. We were haunted in those days by the clanging chains of that gloomy little spectre, Dr Edward H. Clarke’s Sex In Education. With trepidation of spirit I made my mother read it, and was much cheered by her remark that, as neither she nor any of the women she knew, had ever seen girls or women of the kind described in Dr Clarke’s book, we might as well act as if they did not exist.”

As with this debate over menstruation, much Victorian thought on the subject of female sexuality was a matter of trying to reconcile reassuring theory with upsetting practice. Various sociological models at the time centred around the constructs known as Homo Economicus and Homo Sensualis and the tensions between these two “sides” to human – meaning male – nature. In Innocent Femina Sensualis In Unconscious Conflict, however, Peter T. Cominos is concerned with the female counterparts of these constructs, Femina Domesticus and Femina Sensualis. In both sexes, in addition to the overt conflict between Economicus / Domesticus and Sensualis, the Sensualis construct was also divided and in conflict, with tension between the “higher” part of human nature – reason, conscience, duty – and the “lower” – bodily appetites, including sexual desire. The very idea that women had bodily appetites was disturbing to many Victorians, and much effort was put into reconciling this distasteful idea with the prevailing belief in “natural” female innocence. Innocence itself was almost a tangible thing, to be preserved at all cost. Once it was lost – and at this time, “loss of innocence” meant not loss of virginity, but simply the acquisition of certain knowledge – purity was gone forever and corruption the inevitable consequence. But what of that troubling Femina Sensualis? Nature, it was argued, protected girls from their “animal” natures by making them ignorant that they existed in the first place; unaware that there was such a thing as desire, they surely could not feel it. Here we have the most consoling answer to the troubling questions highlighted in A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease: namely, that women could experience sexual desire, but as long as they did not know they could, they were safe.

Ridiculous as all this might seem to us, it wasn’t funny for the frightened and mortified girls who found themselves experiencing feelings which, it had been drummed into them, were low, shameful and corrupting. Really good girls, it was contended, though not of course recognising evil of their own knowledge, had an instinct which intervened in time to prevent them from gaining such knowledge. If you did not have such an instinct, if certain thoughts and feelings made their way into your consciousness, you were “soiled” forever.

We have met Elizabeth Missing Sewell at this blog before, in my consideration of the 19th century religious novel: you might recall her as a proponent of the theory that the best way for young women to live was to submit themselves utterly to the authority of fathers, husbands and/or brothers, immerse themselves in religious practice, and never, ever think or act for themselves. This being the case, it is hardly unexpected to find her also weighing in on the subject of the “protective instinct”: Cominos quotes from her Principles Of Education (1865), which has a chapter titled “Purity”:

“If a girl’s mind is not pure,—if her own instincts are so blunted that she cannot feel evil before she can explain it,—if she cannot shrink from it without knowing why she does so,—may God help her! for the wisest safeguards which the best friends may provide for her will never be sufficient to secure her from danger.”

We are not much surprised when Peter Cominos also starts quoting William Acton in this context, nor to find that he was a believer in the desexualised “angel in the house”. According to Acton, a “good” woman’s lack of desire was intended to help men control their own, more “animalistic” natures. The problem was that too many boys got their ideas about sex from “loose” women: “Any susceptible boy is easily led to believe, whether he is altogether overcome by the siren or not, that she, and therefore all women, must have at least as strong passions as himself.” Acton goes on to excoriate prostitutes for “simulating” sexual feelings, thus further propagating “false” ideas of female nature which were carried into the marital bed with tragic consequences. Remarkably, it seems that Acton was so set against the notion of women being capable of sexual pleasure that he was reluctant to concede that even prostitutes might experience it: one of his main purposes in writing on the subject, he explains, was to, “Vindicate female nature from the vile aspersions cast on it by the abandoned conduct and ungoverned lusts of a few of its worst examples.”

Comments Cominos wryly:

The contrast with ladies is simply marvellous. They were alleged to have no physical desire to control so long as their innate “island of innocence” was kept pure by the proper surveillance of mothers and chaperones and by the sense of shame which every manifestation of their own erotic desire aroused. Theoretically and ideally, gentlemen were to be masters of themselves, responsible and self-controlled; ladies had nothing to master or to be responsible for and were to be controlled or “protected” by others. Thus, in the Victorian battle of the sexes, women were disarmed of the weapon of their sexuality. Gentlemen imposed unilateral disarmament upon them which they simultaneously denied doing through the theory of female sexual anaesthesia.

Over the course of the 19th century, arguments over the “true” nature of women became more and more public; the two extremes of the conflict are the subject of Kate Millet’s essay, The Debate Over Women: Ruskin vs Mill, in which she considers the irreconcilably polarised views of women to be found in their definitive publications on the subject, John Ruskin’s own essay, Of Queen’s Gardens, and John Stuart Mill’s ground-breaking The Subjection Of Women.

Of course, given what we know these days about the ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—or rather, the lack of ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—the idea of John Ruskin setting himself up as an expert on women seems rather ludicrous; though of course, in his writings he was very much concerned with theories of the ideal woman.

Ruskin was a profound believer in “separate spheres”: he was in favour of female subjection, denial of education, and of an existence confined entirely to the home; not that he phrased it quite as bluntly of that. Instead he dresses it all up in the language of fairy-tale and chivalry – every woman is a “queen”, every man her loyal subject; instead of pernicious “rights”, she has “a natural power” – her innate moral superiority acted as a guide and an inspiration for men; her duty was to build, less a mere home, more a magical fairy-bower, which could act as an impenetrable barrier against harsh reality, and into which men could retreat. Where this system failed, it was because women did not appreciate the power they wielded over men, which was nothing less than “royal” in its extent; her home was not merely a home, but a “realm” which she “ruled”. If only women realised this and were content, instead of striving for empty acquisitions which could only breed dissension and cause unhappiness – !

Each [sex] has what the other has not; each completes the other. They are nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give… The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war and for conquest… But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle and her intellect is not for invention or recreation, but sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the quality of things, their claims and their places. Her great function is praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation…

Ah, yes— “temptation”—that spectre lurking just outside the door, which threatened to destroy any woman foolhardy enough to step over her own threshold, in spite of that moral superiority of which we hear so much… It is, in fact, painfully evident that John Ruskin had bought into the most fundamental contradiction of Victorian life: the belief that men were crude, animalistic, and irreversibly soiled by being forced to contend with the world—yet at the same time inherently superior and in a position of natural authority; whereas women were pure, spiritual, strong and superior in their innate morality—yet at the same time weak, vulnerable and liable to instant and profound corruption, and so in need of constant supervision.

In the course of his own comprehensive examination of the position of women in society, John Stuart Mill has a few choice words to say about this paradox:

[Women] are declared to be better than men; an empty compliment which must provoke a bitter smile from every woman of spirit, since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse…

The Subjection Of Women is a sweeping denunciation of the beliefs and practices most cherished by the Victorians. Mill attacks on every front: the law, education, home life, religion, finance, social theory; everything that contributed to a power imbalance between the sexes that, he contends, was not only unjust and brutalising in itself – to both sexes – but which was preventing society as a whole from achieving its potential. The “natural” differences between men and women, on which the “necessary” subjection of the latter is generally predicated, are a particular bugbear:

Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, so long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another… What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others…

All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite of that of men: not self will, and government by self control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others…

Mill sums up his thesis as follows:

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on one side, nor disability on the other…

Comparing Of Queen’s Gardens and The Subjection Of Women, it is almost impossible to grasp that they were the work of men exposed to essentially the same experiences and influences. Reading John Stuart Mill, the lasting impression one gains of him is not merely that he was ahead of his time, but that he was from another planet.

Which is also – more or less – the conclusion reached by Kate Millet:

It is hard to believe that Mill and Ruskin are discussing the same subject—or, that since each claims to have the best interests of womanhood at heart—that one of the two does not prevaricate.

She then pens three words that very nearly manage to sum up the bewildering and contradictory views of the Victorians on that most difficult of subjects, Woman:

Both are sincere.

08/03/2014

Speaking of evangelicalism…

I always enjoy it when my reading threads accidentally cross.

Having completed my post on Bernard Leslie, I relaxed with my current read, Vineta Colby’s Yesterday’s Woman: Domestic Realism In The English Novel. Although I have my problems with Colby’s style, I like the fact that she gets off the beaten track when examining the 19th century novel. In this particular study she examines the novel’s shift from romanticism to reality during the first half of the century.

After discussing “the fashionable novel” and “the novel of education”, Colby gives us a lengthy chapter on “the evangelical novel”, which in the context of Bernard Leslie and William Gresley’s use of “Evangelical” offers yet another way of thinking about this most fluid of terms. She uses it, most deliberately, with a small ‘e’ – “evangelical” – to indicate not a form of religious belief or practice, or even a religious party, but an attitude, an approach to religion:

The English church of the Victorian period was Protestant. Beyond that simple declarative statement it is impossible to make any generalisation about Victorian religion that cannot be seriously challenged. The stability, tranquillity, and homogeneity so often and so wrongly attributed to the Victorian age was nowhere more vulnerable and tenuous than in matters of religious belief. The half century from 1800 to 1850 that saw the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act and the first Reform Bill, the flourishing of the Claphamite sect and the Oxford Movement, the evolution of Evangelicalism and Dissent from the status of radical fringe to solid respectability, the emergence of textual criticism and revisionism in biblical study, and open expression of scepticism and even atheism, was a period of religious ferment and turmoil less violent but no less dramatic than the Reformation…

The strongest religious force in nineteenth-century English life was evangelicalism. This term is to be understood in its broadest sense, referring not merely to that school of Protestantism which, by dictionary definition, maintains that “the essence of the Gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning work of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy,” but to the many movements of religious enthusiasm and reform that swept through every Christian denomination. Victorian evangelicalism…was all but ecumenical in spirit if not in fact…

Evangelicalism embraced not only the entire spectrum of Protestant belief but also the widest social scene. It cut across class divisions and barriers that no political revolution could have trampled. Emphasising practical morality and philanthropy rather than theology, directed primarily to the emotions rather than to reason, it appealed to all ages and all classes…

The nineteenth century began with revolution in France, a tired and debauched monarchy in England, a starved and exploited working class both in the farms and in the industrial towns, massive drunkenness, prostitution, and crime. By the middle of the century, social and moral reform had swept England. No historian of the period underestimates the importance of evangelicalism in that reform movement…

Take THAT, William Gresley!

Of course, Gresley himself would no doubt argue that all this is quite irrelevant beside the Evangelical rejection of the sacraments; that all the people helped by reform and perhaps converted by Evangelical zeal are going to hell anyway, because they’re being taught the wrong doctrine. (I keep getting a mental image of an exasperated individual stamping his foot and saying crossly, “No, no, no! – that’s not how you do religion!”)

But as Vineta Colby makes clear in her introduction, we are talking here about emotional evangelicalism: a definition that allows her to classify together the novels of an amazingly disparate group of writers. Colby is uninterested in straight doctrinal “novels” like Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, whether they be for or against Evangelicalism, focusing instead upon the increasingly popular domestic-evangelical school of writing, a female dominated sub-genre of the religious novel:

We may therefore stretch the designation “evangelical novel” to embrace the extremes from Low Church to High, from Charlotte Elizabeth (Mrs Tonna), whose passionate anti-Catholicism made her positively regret her missed chance for Protestant martyrdom (as a child inspired by “that magic book” Foxe’s Acts And Monuments, she asked her father if she might someday hope to become a martyr; “Why, Charlotte,” he replied, “if the government ever gives power to the Papists again, as they talk of doing, you may probably live to be a martyr”), to Charlotte Yonge, whose Anglo-Catholicism inspired her to translate the intellectual issues of the Oxford Movement into romances of daily life that enchanted several generations of readers. In between we may include novelists of every variety and sect—Methodist, Presbyterian, Low-Broad-High Church. Even Roman Catholic converts like Lady Georgiana Fullerton and John Henry Newman wrote novels with the same zeal and fervour though for a different faith. And a Jewish novelist, Grace Aguilar, was evangelical, affirming in her Preface to Home Influence: A Tale For Mothers And Daughters that Christian readers need not fear: “…as a simple domestic story, the characters in which are all Christians, believing in and practising that religion, all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided, the author seeking only to illustrate the spirit of true piety and the virtues always designated as the Christian virtues hence proceeding. Her sole aim with regard to Religion has been to incite a train of serious and loving thought toward God and man, especially toward those with whom he has linked us in the precious ties of parent and child, brother and sister, master and pupil…”

Call me crazy, but right now a religious novel in which “all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided” seems strangely attractive…

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