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)

SophiaBerkley1

    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…

07/03/2014

Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years

gresley1“Depend upon it, we cannot too closely conform to the direction of the Church. Nothing can be so preposterous as the custom of the present day, to preach against ordinances, when they are so lamentably neglected. It almost looks as if clergymen wished to drive away their congregation on the festivals, in order that they may not have the trouble of performing the service. And then to enlarge on spiritual worship, as if the two were adverse, or incompatible one with the other; whereas the express object of Christian ordinances is to raise the soul to spiritual things. For what do we commemorate the deeds of saints and martyrs, but that, by the contemplation of their zeal, and faith, and holiness, a spirit of emulation may be kindled in our own dull souls? For what do we follow the steps of our blessed Saviour and the prophets and apostles, in frequent fasting and prayer, but that we may inure our souls to self-denial, and raise them above the carnal vanities of life? Have the Christians of the nineteenth century any right to think that they can safely dispense with aids to devotion which the holiest of men in all ages have employed? I am convinced,” continued Mr Manwaring, rising from his seat and speaking with more than usual energy, “I am convinced that our people are perishing by thousands, from the neglect of the means of godliness prepared for them in the Church. This is the grand stumbling-block of the Evangelicals, and is the cause of the comparatively small effect of their exertions upon the masses of the people. Much as I respect the zeal with which they have brought forward many vital and peculiar doctrines, I must freely say, that, practically, they have entirely failed in accomplishing any great amount of good. Their work is hollow and insubstantial, and will not endure the fiery trial.”

It’s my own fault, of course.

When I realised in the course of Stephen Jenner’s Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church that the novel had been written in response to an earlier, factionally-opposed work, it seemed to me that in the interests of fair play I was obliged to give that earlier work equal air-time. The work in question, Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years, is a Tractarian manifesto by one of the first people to recognise that the novel could be powerful and far-reaching vehicle for the dissemination of doctrinal positions. William Gresley was already the author of several successful non-fiction works on church history and practice when he turned to fiction as a way of broadening his audience. A number of his works were intended for a younger audience (what we would today call “young adult”), and use tales from history to entertain and preach, but his Bernard Leslie is an unapologetic polemic intended to explain, on one hand, not merely the content of the controversial Tracts For The Times, but their essential rightness, and on the other the many doctrinal and practical failings of the faction that Gresley chooses to call “Evangelical”.

Having struggled through both Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, I have to say that my sympathies are with the Low Church faction. At least Stephen Jenner pretended to be writing a novel for about 50% of his work, before dropping the façade of fiction and lecturing me unmercifully about the treacherous proceedings of the Tractarians and, conversely, the doctrinal soundness of the Low Church. William Gresley, on the other hand, is not even a quarter of the way into his 300-page work before he strips off the gloves.

Bernard Leslie and Steepleton are written on almost exactly the same scheme; a deliberate move on the part of Stephen Jenner, no doubt. Both novels follow a young man through his early education (the only thing that Gresley and Jenner agree on is that education at the time was grossly inadequate, both generally and particularly as a preparation for ordination), his first church appointments, and his subsequent rise to prominence as an advocate for his doctrines. Both start out with their protagonist declaring that he belongs to no faction; after joining a clerical society, eye-opening encounters with various fellow-clergymen, and much reading and reflection, the young ministers eventually come down on one side of the factional fence, though of course Bernard Leslie and Frank Faithful end up on opposite sides. Both works depict their minister-heroes as the personification of correct doctrinal practice. Both devolve into a series of long, hectoring lectures intended to support one position and undermine the other.

(The other thing these novels have in common is their attitude to women, who are essentially invisible in both. Like Frank Faithful, Bernard Leslie marries—and her bare existence is all we ever hear of Mrs Leslie, although her husband takes the opportunity to expound for a full chapter upon the question of whether clergymen should marry.)

It is unclear how much of Stephen Jenner ended up in Steepleton, but Bernard Leslie is clearly a semi-autobiographical work. Ironically, neither William Gresley nor his literary counterpart set out for a career in the church. Here, we are offered only the cryptic comment, Owing to circumstances which need not be detailed, the plan originally laid out for me by my father was abandoned; in reality, Gresley suffered an injury which damaged his eyesight and compelled him to give up his plans to become a barrister: the church was his second choice.

Since Gresley did not condescend to anything as prosaic and unnecessary as “a plot”, his Bernard Leslie is not really a reviewable work. That said, several things did leap off its pages at me, in addition to those issues which Stephen Jenner specifically highlighted in Steepleton—or, more correctly, wrote Steepleton in order to highlight. I think all I can do here is point out what particularly struck me on the way through.

The first thing, perhaps the most significant thing, is William Gresley’s choice to designate his opponents under the title “Evangelical”. Here immediately I stumble into difficulties, because – heaven knows! – I’m no expert in the finer points of the hair-splitting 19th century religious vocabulary. (For example, I’m still trying to figure out why “Puseyism” is a derogatory term.) However mistakenly, I was under the impression that “Low Church” and “Evangelical” were not necessarily interchangeable terms, though there was certainly overlap; although the difference was perhaps one of attitude rather than doctrine.

It seemed to me that by his blanket use of “Evangelical”, William Gresley was unfairly bundling some disparate factions together under a single heading in order to dispose of them collectively with a sometimes misapplied but sweeping condemnation—and I received some support for my uncertain views from some unexpected quarters, in the first place from William Gresley himself, in what struck me as a piece of revealing disingenuousness.

The contentious question of the correct response to the Tracts For The Times raises its head in the district in which Bernard Leslie’s first curacy is situated. The Evangelicals want them denounced, but a High Church clergyman named Mr Manwaring, who becomes Leslie’s doctrinal mentor and the novel’s voice of High Church reason, compels the Tracts’ enemies to admit publically that they haven’t read them. (I don’t have any trouble believing that was frequently the case.) This admission shocks the still-naïve Leslie, who responds by obtaining and studying the Tracts under Mr Manwaring’s tutorage—on the whole embracing them, occasionally pointing out passages which seem to go too far, or act as the expression of a personal opinion rather than church opinion. The first of several chapters devoted to the contents of the Tracts is also where the word “Evangelical” begins to intrude upon the narrative, and concludes with the following footnote:

There is an obvious objection to use a word of so excellent a meaning as “Evangelical” to designate a mere party. There seems, however, no alternative but the substitution of some offensive nickname. I have thought it better, therefore, to employ a word which conveys to all persons the notion which is meant to be expressed, and is not offensive to the party to whom it is applied: though of course I should maintain that High Churchmen are the most truly evangelical, in the right sense of the word,—that is, they keep to Gospel-truth more strictly than others.

Presumably the “offensive nickname” that Bernard Leslie chose not to use was “Low Church”: we may recall that in Steepleton, in all likelihood provoked by this very quote, Stephen Jenner has his Frank Faithful take to himself the term “Low Church” as a badge of honour: Now it is an undeniable fact, which is of great moment in this inquiry, that the appellation “High Church” is assumed—the designation “Low Church” imposed: the one is arrogantly claimed—the other meekly borne.

We might dismiss all this as a fairly childish exchange of name-calling except that, most tellingly, two contemporary publications that embraced Bernard Leslie, both of them unabashedly High Church, to say the least, each expressed unease at the novel’s use of “Evangelical”—indicating that the substitution was indeed a misapplication of the term.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a publication that lasted for almost 200 years, appearing in monthly issues from 1731 to 1922. During that time it changed content and approach several times, and in the first half of the 19th century was openly a Tory / High Church publication that campaigned against reform and “liberalism” and supported the Tractarians during the controversies of the Oxford Movement. Indeed, so devoted was it to its cause that in its review of Bernard Leslie, which appeared in the August 1843 issue (and must have been of the second edition), it finds itself capable of praising the author in the following terms: He understands the art of composition, and can impart his knowledge in a lively, dramatic form, without weakening its effect, or impairing the dignity of its subject…

If I were to make a list of words that do not describe Bernard Leslie, “lively” and “dramatic” would be somewhere near the top of it. However, doctrine is the real issue. The magazine’s praise is almost unstinting, but even so, evidently a squirm of conscience prompted the reviewer to observe in a footnote: The term “Evangelical,” it has been by some observed, is a misnomer…

And footnotes also intrude in a far more surprising context: The Christian Remembrancer was a High Church magazine that ran from 1819 to 1868, and a prominent vehicle for the leading Tractarians. In the July 1842 issue, Bernard Leslie is one of the works considered at length as part of an examination of “the great movement”: lengthy quotations are included, and Gresley is praised for his clarity of argument and his handling of the Tracts, in particular his ability to distinguish issues, and to separate doctrine from opinion. Yet even here, a caveat suddenly appears: The truth of this remark of course depends upon the sense in which the party term “Evangelical” is used…

Startlingly in some respects, the article in which Bernard Leslie is examined is titled “The Progress Of Anglo-Catholicism”—and startling, too, at least from certain perspectives, is the novel’s attitude to Catholicism, which is declared to be correct in its essentials: it is the Evangelicals who are the enemy, not the Catholics, who have simply, and rather foolishly, allowed a crust of human arrogance to overgrow correct doctrine and appropriate submission to church authority. “Dissenters—Wesleyans, for instance, or Socinians, or Papists, who as we believe, are born and educated in an erroneous system,” declares Mr Manwaring, and so are not to be blamed for their errors, which are circumstantial. The Evangelicals, on the other hand, have with eyes wide open chosen to reject many of the church’s traditional beliefs and practices, and are consequently damned.

My own use of the word “traditional” evokes an involuntary shudder. Even as in Steepleton Stephen Jenner devoted pages to the implications of “hereby” and “thereby”, here William Gresley, via Mr Manwaring, gives us a painfully lengthy and detailed explanation of why “tradition”, often a term of abuse applied to Catholicism and a way of summing up everything wrong with that religion, is actually a good and right thing:

    Mr L. “I begin to think that no satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at, unless we have a regular logical definition of tradition, or at least a mutual understanding as to what it means. Will you tell me, dear sir, what tradition really is?”
    Mr M. “I will endeavour to do so. You are quite right as to the importance of settling the meaning of the term. To have done so would have saved the controversialists a great deal of unnecessary trouble:—To begin, then, secundum artem. Tradition, as I need scarcely remind you, is derived from the Latin word trado, which signifies ‘to hand down’. But it is important to observe, that the English word tradition answers to two Latin words, traditio and traditum. Tradition (traditio) is the act of handing down; a tradition (traditum) is a thing handed down. Now the modes of handing down are various. A thing may possibly be handed down from generation to generation by mere word of mouth, and never committed to writing; or it may be handed down in writing; or it may be handed down for two or three generations by word of mouth, and then committed to writing…”

And so on.

Of course, within the context of the Oxford Movement this stance towards Catholicism is not surprising at all: at the very heart of the movement was a revival of traditional practices, and the propagation of the idea of the Established Church as a truly “catholic” body. However, when you have become accustomed to the bitterly hostile anti-Catholic voice that marks so much English literature over a period of some three hundred years, this sudden apparent embrace of Catholicism is jolting, to say the least. On the basis of Bernard Leslie, it is certainly not difficult to understand why the enemies of the Tractarians declared them to be, in truth, “backdoor Catholics”.

In addition to its examination of the Tracts, much of the narrative of this novel concerns the young minister’s efforts to revive various traditional church practices that have been allowed to fall to the wayside under the wicked influence of the Evangelicals. When he is appointed as rector of a parish, Leslie finds things in a deplorable state:

My two predecessors had been, the one, I am sorry to say, negligent in his duties, and the other, who succeeded him, not possessed of a zeal according to knowledge, but one who considered the feelings of the times, rather than the ordinances of the Church, to be the ground of his operation. Many of the practices which he had introduced into the parish were directly opposed to the rubrics and canons…

Deciding that he might as well start as he means to continue, Leslie revives in his parish various discarded practices including fasting, the observance of feast days and daily prayer, re-orders his services with respect to the sermon, psalms and prayers, and introduces a weekly lecture which he uses to explain himself to his bemused parishioners; who, once they understand why these things have been done, embrace them wholeheartedly. (Even The Gentleman’s Magazine found this instantaneous conversion somewhat improbable.) For a while Leslie has things all his own way:

Fortunately, there had not then arisen that wicked newspaper-agitation, which represents conformity to the ordinances of the Church as popery, and the minds of my parishioners had not been poisoned. At the present time, in consequence of the ignorant prejudices of some, and sinful misrepresentation of others, it is very doubtful whether a clergyman who conscientiously acted upon the established order of the Church would not be in danger of offending, or even driving from the Church, many unstable and ill-instructed persons…

But there is one group looking on in deep disapproval—

These were the Dissenters, who abounded in the parish when I arrived there, but, I am thankful to say, have since much diminished in numbers. Manifold were the expedients to which they resorted in order to prejudice me in the eyes of the congregation. Of course, the principal charge against me was, that I was an abettor of popery. What could be so popish as to keep fasts and festivals? What so uncharitable as to revive the Anathasian Creed? What so monstrous as the doctrine of apostolic succession, which unchurched all those who did not belong to the Establishment? Then there was the soul-destroying heresy of baptismal regeneration…

(I have been re-reading The Last Chronicle Of Barset, in which it is observed of the fiercely Evangelical Mrs Proudie – no problem with designating her an Evangelical – that, Services on saints’ days she regarded as rank papacy, and had been known to accuse a clergyman’s wife, to her face, of idolatry, because the poor lady had dated a letter, St. John’s Eve.)

Ah, yes—baptismal regeneration. You might recall that Steepleton devoted three whole chapters to arguing the Low Church stance on baptismal regeneration, clearly in response to what had been said on the High Church position in Bernard Leslie. This was one of the critical divisions between the factions, which (to put it simply and superficially) disagreed on the necessity of baptism, or rather upon whether or not the ceremony did in fact confer “regeneration”. Leslie’s own researches lead him to conclude that baptism is absolutely necessary, that the ceremony cleanses the child of original sin, and that, in suggesting that, “Our Church, in calling baptised children regenerate, speaks the language of charity…she expresses her hope and trust that the baptised person possesses, or, through God’s grace, at some future time may possess, the requisite qualification”, Mr Flavel, an Evangelical who has had great influence upon Leslie up to this point, is either misinterpreting the text or guilty of deliberate sophism. It is upon this point that Leslie turns his back upon Flavel and his followers:

I verily believe it was this discussion about the doctrine of regeneration that saved me from Evangelicalism, into which I was fast descending. I had  been struck with the usefulness and apparent zeal of Mr. Flavel, and others of his way of thinking,—had made him my counsellor, and adopted many of his views. But this discussion staggered me. I did not for a moment consider Mr. Flavel as dishonest; but I thought there must be some strange perversion of the understanding which could explain away the scriptural doctrine held by the Church of baptismal regeneration. If Mr. Flavel could so palpably distort the language of our formularies, supported as they were by Scripture, in one instance, how could I trust his advice in other matters?

And henceforth Leslie studies at the feet of the High Church Mr Manwaring.

The suggestion that the Evangelical Mr Flavel had been guilty of “palpably distort[ing] the language of our formularies” was another thing pounced upon by Stephen Jenner in Steepleton, who retaliated by accusing William Gresley of misunderstanding – or misquoting – the Catechism, in order to support his views on baptismal regeneration; arguing – at great length – that the substitution of “thereby” for “hereby” alters the entire thrust of the very passage he is quoting to make his case.

Be that as it may— We left Bernard Leslie about to have a smackdown with the Dissenters in his parish, who accuse him of “popery” when he reintroduces what he considers to be sound High Church practices:

But the principal cause of their anger was the progress which Church-opinions made, and the secession of some of their own members from the meeting-house. All these things gave ample scope for discussion in a small community like that of High Kirkstall. I was attacked several times, with some bitterness and scurrility, in the radical papers; but of this I took no notice. Tracts and handbills were spread profusely amongst my congregation, though without much effect. I might well have declined to answer them. But as I believed the Dissenters themselves to he a portion of that flock over which, as parochial minister, I was by the providence of God appointed, I thought it a good opportunity, in preference to preaching in the church, where the Dissenters would not hear me, to draw up my views on the subject in the form of a tract or pamphlet, which I circulated amongst them.

What follows is a sixteen-page-long argument against the dissenting stance, which attracted enormous attention at the time of Bernard Leslie‘s publication, to the extent that it was finally reprinted and disseminated as a tract in its own right.

Meanwhile, we also get an illustration of William Gresley’s indulgent view of Catholicism. A new curate arrives in the parish, a Mr Monkton (subtle!), who is devout and hardworking, granted, but who horrifies the congregation and dismays Bernard Leslie by wearing a cassock-like coat, making the sign of the cross, shaving his head to produce a tonsure, and substituting wafers for the wheaten bread generally used during communion. All of these things, however dangerously Papist at first glance, turn out to be some of those silly human additions of which the Catholics are guilty, not wicked but unnecessary and confusing for the congregation. Between scolding and argument, a chastened Mr Monkton is shown the error of his ways, and as a consequence settles down to become a good churchman. (It is, it is clearly implied, just that easy to convert Catholics, if only someone would take the job on!)

Having won over both the Dissenters and the Catholics to his way of thinking, Bernard Leslie then takes on his chief enemies: the conclusion of this novel is a diatribe against the Evangelicals. Many and varied are the ways in which they err, we learn, and somewhat curiously, given the stereotype of the joyless, hectoring, hard-line Evangelical (see also: Mrs Proudie), it seems that their main sin is that they leave their parishioners too much to themselves, and allow too much to depend upon the experience of the individual. Their faith is placed, literally, in personal conversion; it is in conjunction with this that the importance of baptismal regeneration is downplayed. All of this, in Bernard Leslie’s view, is not just wrong but deeply sinful: the Evangelicals are leading their followers into damnation by not “claiming” them at the time they are born, and holding them hard to a single way of proceeding from there. (And if that sounds very much like the Jesuit aphorism, Give me a child until he is seven—, well, I’m sure it’s only a coincidence.)

And here, I think, the problem with the dodgy definition of “Evangelical” rears its head in earnest:

I maintain, therefore, that the unsound and defective views, which I have specified as characteristics of the Evangelical party, are shared by all who belong to that party. All Evangelicals are unsound in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church. Not one only here and there, but all. All confound the doctrine of the visible Church with the communion of saints; and all refuse to receive, in its true and natural sense, the doctrines of the Church respecting baptism. All, more or less, exalt the doctrine of justification by faith, to the disparagement of other great doctrines,—though some more than others. All cry down ordinances, and more or less neglect the fasts and festivals appointed by the Church. It is these characteristics which constitute the Evangelical party. Those who do not hold these views are not Evangelicals.

But our friend Bernard is only getting warmed up:

    In a word, it is to be feared that Evangelicalism has so obscured the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and so unscripturally smoothed the way of repentance, that multitudes have been beguiled to their destruction. Multitudes have been destroyed, not so much by what the Evangelicals teach, as by what they leave untaught…
    They are unsound in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, confounding it with that of the communion of saints, or the invisible Church, holding it in a different manner from that in which it has been held by the Church universal from the beginning, and adopting the doctrines of the Dissenters.
    They associate with schismatics on the platform and elsewhere, contrary to the express command of Scripture; and by so doing, and by the near approach
which they make to the doctrine and practices of the Dissenters, they have confused the minds of the common people as to the duty and necessity of union with the Church, and the sin and danger of schism. This conduct has been the main cause of the lamentable state of schism and religious discord to which the nation has been reduced,—schism which, alas, has been communicated to our colonies in distant lands, and spread by our influence through the world, so as to impede the advance of Gospel-truth, and render the union of the Church more hopeless than ever…

Fortunately, however, a breath of fresh air is currently blowing through the church—causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters:

    They have now stood forward in a new light. They are no longer contending for the souls of men, but struggling to maintain a waning popularity. They see growing up around them, perhaps settling in their own parishes or neighbourhood, a zealous and laborious body of men who have devoted themselves to restore the ancient energy and purity of the Church. These men are gradually gaining an influence over the public mind, to the prejudice and annoyance of the Evangelicals. Hence their rage against them; and because these men blame as defective the effete Evangelicalism of the day, they are accused of being enemies to the Reformation; and because they endeavour to restore the ancient usages of the Church, which have been sinfully neglected, they are accused of popery and held up as departers from the Church’s discipline by men who err themselves in a tenfold greater and more dangerous degree. The effrontery with which these men accuse their brethren is marvellous. The daily newspapers and monthly magazines have been filled with false charges and injurious reports against those who are endeavouring to raise the tone of religion. Instead of that generous rivalry which ought to influence men engaged in the same great cause of winning souls to Christ, there has sprung up amongst the Evangelicals a bitter hostility and ungenerous jealousy; they bar the kingdom of heaven against men; they neither go in themselves, nor suffer those that are entering to go in…
    Under these circumstances, my feeling with regard to this party is changed. I no longer respect them as I used. They have assumed the attitude, not only of violent partisans of a defective system, but they stand forth as opponents of those who would raise the Church to her true position; and thus are fast approaching the sin of antichrist…

And having thus unburdened himself, William Gresley stops to draw breath:

It may appear to some that these accusations are penned in a spirit of harshness…

Heavens, no, William!—heavens, no…

22/02/2014

Everything’s relative

I said at the outset of my posts on Munster Abbey that I wasn’t able to find out much about the short life of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, and while that’s true, one or two factoids did emerge while I was digging into the background of his novel.

One point that came up in a number of contexts is that Sir Samuel was related by marriage to the famous actor-producer-playwright, David Garrick: his sister, Martha, became the wife of Garrick’s nephew, Nathan.

Another, which came up far less frequently – one might even say astonishingly less frequently – is that Sir Samuel was distantly related to Jane Austen through her mother, Cassandra Leigh.

I have been unable to determine the exact degree of connectedness between the two. The Leighs were one of those sprawling, multi-foci aristocratic families, wherein determining who belongs to which branch is next to impossible for anyone but a professional genealogist with a lot of time on their hands. It doesn’t help that the Leighs managed to acquire both a barony and two different baronetcies, including the one inherited by our friend, Sir Samuel, all under the name of “Leigh”; nor that the clan had a habit of reiterating family names, hyphenated or otherwise. Thus in addition to the Austen-Leighs and the Egerton Leighs, there were also the Egerton Brydges-es, who were connections of the Dukes of Chandros, the first holder of that title being Mrs Austen’s great-uncle, James Brydges.

(There is neither an Austen nor a Leigh on the list of subscribers attached to Munster Abbey, although curiously there are three Austin-s. We do, however, find on the list (separately) Egerton Brydges Esq. and Mrs Brydges, of Wootten-court, near Canterbury, Miss Brydges of Canterbury, Mrs Charles Egerton of Bath, and John Egerton Esq. of Wellbeck-street; while the ‘C’ list is topped by the Dowager Duchess of Chandros.)

Be all that as it may—I think it may be fairly observed that all the writing talent in this extended family concentrated itself in one area.

More immediately to the point, however, it is delicious to reflect that while Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was churning out the most deliriously over-the-top example of literary sentimentalism that I have yet come across, his distant cousin Jane was honing her own writing skills by mocking that very form of novel-writing. More than ever now do I want to believe that Sir Samuel was the anonymous author of Valentine: that novel was published in 1790, the same year that the fourteen-year-old Austen wrote Love And Freindship, her brilliantly funny deconstruction of the excesses of the genre. It amuses me no end to consider that one may even have provoked the other.

I’ve quoted from Love And Freindship before, when I was making the argument that in the final draft of Northanger Abbey, Austen was poking fun at fellow-novelist Catherine Cuthbertson. (And in fairness to Cuthbertson, gigglesome as her novels frequently are, she was a better writer than Sir Samuel, and never went quite so ludicrously far with her sentiment.) Here are a few more quotes from Austen’s burlesque: for extra enjoyment, put them side-by-side with the quotes from Munster Abbey:

    But lovely as I was the Graces of my Person were the least of my Perfections. Of every accomplishment accustomary to my sex, I was Mistress. When in the Convent, my progress had always exceeded my instructions, my Acquirements had been wonderfull for my age, and I had shortly surpassed my Masters.
    In my Mind, every Virtue that could adorn it was centered; it was the Rendez-vous of every good Quality and of every noble sentiment.
    A sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Freinds, my Acquaintance and particularly to every affliction of my own, was my only fault, if a fault it could be called…

    I soon perceived that tho’ Lovely and Elegant in her Person and tho’ Easy and Polite in her Address, she was of that inferior order of Beings with regard to Delicate Feeling, tender Sentiments, and refined Sensibility, of which Augusta was one.
    She staid but half an hour and neither in the Course of her Visit, confided to me any of her secret thoughts, nor requested me to confide in her, any of Mine. You will easily imagine therefore my Dear Marianne that I could not feel any ardent affection or very sincere Attachment for Lady Dorothea…

“Where am I to drive?” said the Postilion. “To Newgate Gentle Youth (replied I), to see Augustus.” “Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement—my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the RECITAL, of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.” As I perfectly agreed with her in the Justice of her Sentiments the Postilion was instantly directed to return into the Country…

I was determined to speak with Philander and Gustavus, and to that purpose as soon as I left the Carriage, I went to the Basket and tenderly enquired after their Health, expressing my fears of the uneasiness of their situation. At first they seemed rather confused at my appearance dreading no doubt that I might call them to account for the money which our Grandfather had left me and which they had unjustly deprived me of, but finding that I mentioned nothing of the Matter, they desired me to step into the Basket as we might there converse with greater ease. Accordingly I entered and whilst the rest of the party were devouring green tea and buttered toast, we feasted ourselves in a more refined and sentimental Manner by a confidential Conversation. I informed them of every thing which had befallen me during the course of my life, and at my request they related to me every incident of theirs…

Footnote: Now, here’s a curiously suggestive thing: as I say, there’s no “Austen” on that list of subscribers to Munster Abbey, but amongst the list of surnames, we do find people called Elliot, Ferrars, Dashwood and Bennet. Hmm…

17/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 3)

leigh3O ye great ones of this world! how frivolous, how insignificant are all the combined joys and fleeting pleasures which are the offspring of never ceasing bustle and dissipation, compared with that solid satisfaction which flows in upon the soul from the consciousness of a regular discharge of the many relative duties of elevated station, or of superior affluence! The feeling experienced by this blessed family, when leaving Munster Abbey, must have exceeded all power of expression.Yet it is in the power of every family of distinction in the kingdom, (if dissipation and folly have not brought them into despised circumstances,) to experience the same pleasures, or at least some degrees of these pleasures, every day, which we have now seen Belford and his family reaping as the reward of their most exemplary virtue.

The departure of the Belfords brings about a crisis for Altamont, who wants nothing more than to keep tagging along with them; but unfortunately for him, he has:

…given his honour to his former guardians and professors at Oxford, that he would visit Switzerland… So sacred he had held, and he trusted he ever should hold, his honour, that he was resolved to spend a few weeks in visiting Geneva… While Altamont thus addressed himself to his ever revered friend, he could not conceal the internal emotions, which agitated his whole frame: For, in fact, he was now engaged in a very serious warfare; no less than whether love or honour should prevail. Heaven strengthened the native virtue of his soul: he was enabled to preserve his honour, without forsaking his love…

Welcome to the wonderfully batty world of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, where changing your travel plans while on holiday can bring on a major crisis of conscience, and not doing so is evidence of an “exalted” character.

However, before they separate, Altamont declares himself to Belford, and receives his permission to address Aurelia. He does so in entirely characteristic fashion:

But, recollecting himself for a short while, before he approached her sacred presence, delicacy, modesty, and every grace and virtue were the ornaments of her character,—he determined to collect all his force of mind, and from respect to his fair one’s dignity, as well as to his own, to address her in strains far different from the mad, intemperate jargon of modern lovers.

I find myself feeling sorry for Lady Leigh.

But of course, Aurelia’s response is every bit as characteristic:

Aurelia, animated by the noble principles of honour and truth, after a moment’s hesitation, began with a voice that would have allayed the most savage breast, and charmed the wildest discord, into calm attention;—every accent breathed the soft emotions of her spotless mind… Thus did the happy couple, with the full consent of Belford, bring to a happy issue the great object of both their wishes, without foolish precipitancy, or those tedious delays occasioned by sordid and interested views of settlements, jointures, pin-money, &c. No:—The parties placed confidence, and they had every reason to place unbounded confidence in each others integrity and worth:—hence it was resolved, on both sides, to reserve all that unpleasant, (though necessary) business, till they should meet at Munster Abbey.

Ah, yes…”sordid” and “unpleasant”…but necessary

Mind you—I imagine it’s a bit easier to have “unbounded confidence” when both parties to the transaction are STINKING RICH.

So they separate, Altamont to preen himself upon his exalted honour in Geneva, and to write Aurelia letters more redolent with politics than love; not that she sees anything wrong with them:

As Aurelia was educated with singular attention by the best of parents, she was of course acquainted intimately with the geography of Europe, and, indeed, of all the globe. She relished therefore a minute account of this celebrated city,—but could not help lamenting to her father, that spirit of folly and absurdity which Altamont took notice of in the close of his epistle, which marked the political sentiments of the Genovese,—democratic, to a degree inconsistent with that subordination which is the very bond and cement of society:—Hence, he observed, the insolence of mechanics and the rabble,—who all erected themselves judges in matters of state; while every man of wisdom and of modesty knows, that there is not one of a thousand in any, even the freest state in Europe, who is entitled to converse on the subject either of political or religious government. Altamont sagaciously remarked, that politics is a science, and a profound science,—which the ignorant of the half-learned should not presume to give their sentiments on,—much less dare to violate the public order by attempting to take a share in administration.

Hence those stirring words that open the glorious British constitution: Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.

The Belfords travel to Leghorn, where they go through the emotionally wracking business of reuniting with Charles. The three take a boat for England, the journey being enlivened by the life-history of a fellow-traveller, Mr Piercy, who of course reveals every intimate detail of his unhappy and difficult life to them upon first request. (The company, though much entertained by Piercy’s interesting story, were, at the same time, exhausted by the length of it… Given that Piercy’s monologue is by far the shortest we’ve encountered so far, that is both unfair and unkind!) After landing at Plymouth, the Belfords return to their “terrestrial paradise”:

A transaction was now to take place at Munster Abbey, which puts to shame a very large portion of the human race…

Oh, good! Thank you for that! The transaction turns out to be Belford marking his reconciliation with Charles by bestowing on him an estate and a fortune (which, as we know, can’t possibly bring him happiness): an occasion marked by perhaps Munster Abbey‘s most crunching bit of gear-shifting, from exalted sentiments to cold hard cash:

But as delicacy marked every part of his conduct when he conferred any favour, he was resolved to observe this nice virtue on the present occasion, with the most scrupulous attention. The idea of laying his brother under an obligation was too gross for his pure and generous soul. He determined that the annual sum which he should settle on Charles should be held by him as an evidence of brotherly love, by the acceptance of it… This good man had early this morning cast his eye on the state of his affairs, and found them in the most flourishing condition.—He saw himself possessed of a clear landed estate of twelve thousand pounds per an. and eighty thousand pounds in the funds… “Charles, (says he) my fortune is overgrown:—it is far more than I was born ever to expect. I have found this morning, by glancing over my books, that I have a vast estate in land, unencumbered by a single shilling of debt, and a very considerable sum in the funds…”

I’d have given anything if Charles had responded to this by robbing his brother for a third time, but instead he girds his loins and nobly steels himself to accept at his brother’s hands:

…one of the finest places in England, not above nine or ten miles from Munster Abbey… An estate of three thousand a-year, highly cultivated,—most enchantingly situated,—and adorned by a mansion-house built in the Gothic Stile.

Even more self-sacrificingly, Charles accedes to his brother’s hints about a suitable bride, his own inclinations tending in the same direction having nothing to do with it. The lady is a Miss Louisa Draper, the daughter of a neighbouring family to the Abbey. Here we get either a delicious continuity error, or unexpected proof that dissipation and criminal conduct slow the ageing process. Weighing up Charles as a potential bridegroom, the narrative remarks that, Charles was but a young man, not yet more than thirty-five years of age; it also explicitly declared that he was twenty-seven at the time of Belford’s marriage. (Belford himself, meanwhile, manages to be only a few years older than his brother and about thirty at the time of his marriage. So perhaps it’s a family peculiarity.)

Munster Abbey goes into filler-mode for a while here, with Belford doing yet another tour of his estates (in much the same language as the first), and with the life-histories of various minor characters rendered for our, uh, delectation. Belford and Aurelia then go for an extended stay with a new friend (who happens to be an earl, although of course that’s quite irrelevant), and find themselves agreeably surrounded by kindred spirits. They enjoy some private theatricals, before a memorable meal – during which, Belford has “an episode”:

Much conviviality, as naturally must be imagined, prevailed in the circle of gaiety, and Aurelia partook of every lively joke of innocence, with much spirit, until a dejection in the countenance of her father suddenly attracted her attention. It was enough that he looked grave, to cast every smile at once from her delicate cheek: She was on the verge of exclaiming, “Are you not well, sir,” when the attention of Lord Denfeir was likewise directed towards him, who perceiving his gravity, immediately addressed him, “Good sir, is anything the matter.” Belford could not utter a word in reply, he let fall a tear, descriptive of some tender emotion, and, rising from his seat, precipitately left the room.

The explanation?

“I have this day,” returned Belford, “reflected on the pleasure of your innocent pastime,—looked round me, and reflected likewise on the independence of your Lordship’s friends, who formed the agreeable party. When I had reason to believe, from various observations which  had made, that many of them could boast of independence, even to an excess of wealth,—I could not help conceiving, that some plan might be readily adopted, from the nature of your diversions, to relieve those who are sorely oppressed by misfortune, in the same moments that you were erasing from your own minds the recollection of troubles or disappointments. As I pondered on this newly imbibed fancy, a happy thought suddenly occurred, which induced me to believe, that I could offer a plan, which, if adopted, would, while it was producing the wished for effects I anticipated, tend likewise in a great degree to augment the conviviality of your own circle. From the tenor of the general conversation of the day, and the liberality of sentiment, which, from unobserved remarks, I had reason to believe each individual possessed. I felt confident, that to propose a benevolent scheme, would prove at once sufficient to favour its immediate adoption. Still a degree of diffidence hankered about my mind, and, from my recent introduction, I feared that even in a good cause, I might give offence by discovering too suddenly an unreserved degree of freedom: It was a desire to unload my bosom of what I doubted not would prove the effect of much cheerfulness, if distributed to the company at large, that cast on my countenance the look of dejection at the supper-table;—and I was seriously meditating on the great benefits that would arise from the private theatrical performances of the higher classes of society, if but the small sum of half a guinea was exacted from each individual who attended, to be applied to the relief of any class of persons whom penury had involved into that state of misery which never fails to excite the compassion of the merciful. When roused from my reverie from your Lordship’s kind address, in consequence of noticing my air of gravity,—I could not suppress a tear which fell in testimony of my emotion,—and anxious to conceal from observation my suffering, which I feared might throw a damp on the entertainment, I precipitately left the room, which I now have reason to suspect rendered my situation more conspicuous than it otherwise would have been, had I remained true to my seat,—and braved the inquiry.”

But then we would have missed that speech. And what a tragedy that would have been.

But enough! Benevolent though Belford’s intentions are, his scheme to raise money to help the poor unwitting unleashes THE MOST PROFOUNDLY SHOCKING MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL!!!!!!

    The lovely Aurelia, equally alive to the feelings of humanity with her father, and forgetting, for a moment, the diffidence a young lady should observe in every society, in which she was by no means deficient, but which a sudden thought of kindness had for the moment dispelled, hastily exclaimed,— “Oh I have it! pray let me point out a method to dispose of the money.”
    As she concluded the last word, a recollection of her misconduct occurred,—a deep blush betrayed her sufferings…

You dare speak unbidden!? GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN.

Once urged to speak, however, Aurelia proposes that they use the money raised to free deserving individuals from debtors’ prisons. This, naturally, leads to yet another of those peculiarly embarrassing 18th century scenes, in which other people’s private moments are turned into a form of entertainment: the “benevolent” friends gather near the gates of the prison to watch the objects of their charity achieve freedom. When the ex-debtors kneel to pray, Aurelia is yet again (unreproached this time) provoked to spontaneous speech:

    “There,” exclaimed Aurelia in a tone denoting extacy, when they were engaged in their devotions, “does that scene favour the account given us by the worthy Solicitor Sordidus? Does it not prove, that, within the remote walls of a jail, virtues lie concealed?—Oh! I’ve been justly informed,—else would religion never so deeply engage their attention. They are worthy of their release!—Oh! blessed be the moment for ever, that first favoured so happy a thought as directing this charity to a prison. I am enchanted beyond my power to support myself!”
    The lovely Aurelia exhausted, could not utter another word,—and, weakened with excessive delight, leaned upon her father’s arm for support…

But the lovely Aurelia has not yet begun to be exhausted by her emotion. A letter from Altamont lets her know that he has been indisposed, though he is careful not to tell her anything until he is fully recovered. This discomposes her to a degree that prompts Mr I-Could-Not-Suppress-A-Tear to lecture her about the distrust in heavenly dispensation shown by letting anything bother her, ever, under any circumstances:

    Though Aurelia was possessed of a degree of self-command, which is too rarely the gift of youth, though her prudence and reserve (still mingled with benignity and cheerfulness) were above the ordinary display of those qualities in the greater part of mankind;—yet it was visible to the eye of discernment, that, at times, she discovered a certain pensiveness which imported some hidden emotions which the most guarded cannot conceal… Her affectionate father also remarked this temporary gravity or absence. With his never-failing candour and good sense, and with all the endearing softness of parental partiality, he called his Aurelia aside one morning, and mentioned to her his suspicions, that she had permitted some anxieties to take hold of her spirits, which was unlike to her well-principled mind.— “My dearest child, (he pathetically said) distrust in that superintending power which governs all the concerns of man, I well know you consider as an offence against the duty which dependent mortals owe to him who acts by the laws of unerring wisdom and goodness. I know also the cause of your present internal agitations. But, rouse up your reason,—collect your mind,—cherish these principles concerning the divine benignity, which have hitherto been the solace of your soul…”
    Aurelia, with a benignant smile, received her parent’s affectionate and salutary counsel; expressed the highest reverence for his sentiments,—and bid him rest assured, she would exert the utmost of her power to shew forth every degree of cheerfulness…

Shortly afterwards, the Belfords set out for Dover, where Altamont is soon expected. Note how sedulously Aurelia works to display her faith in the divine benignity:

Every vessel which arrived from Calais was instantly announced; but their patience was now to be put to the severest test:—A second, a third, and a fourth day past, and no sight of their dear Altamont,—till at length the lovely delicate Aurelia began to feel those indescribable sensations, attendant only on a truly refined being, whose whole soul is wound up in the beloved object of its affection and regard. Belford saw, with the most bitter sorrow, the health and spirits of his incomparable child fast declining, at the same time endeavouring to assume a cheerfulness foreign to her heart, fearing to alarm the most indulgent of fathers:—But alas! all would not do;—grief had taken too full possession on her delicate frame:—She struggled, but struggled in vain, to conceal her distracting thoughts from the best of parents: he saw the agitation of her spotless mind, but hoped to be blessed every hour with the sight of the dear object of her sufferings; and flattered himself, that a very short period would restore her to her usual health and spirits: But judge, reader, what must have been the feelings of this fond parent, when, on entering her room, one morning, he found her, as he imagined, a cold, lifeless corps!

Ummm…he found it hilarious, like I did? No? Okay, I give up.

Alas, indeed, dear reader, we are not in fact able to add, Dying because 18th century transport is less than totally reliable to, Dying from sighing too much, but for quite a while it’s touch-and-go:

    She now began to breathe with difficulty, and to discover much inward pain; frequently a deep sigh would escape her, and her entire frame seemed agitated by strong convulsions… The physician was again arrived, and every means used within the power of human art to restore her to some recollection; but to no purpose:—she became considerably worse,—few hopes were entertained for her life.
    During this melancholy distressing transaction, arrived in perfect health the happy Altamont…

And where have YOU been, might we inquire? Stopped to inspect some fortifications, did we?? And in fact, we never do find out why he was late, chiefly I suppose because he finds himself with a bit of a crisis on his hands:

Altamont approached near his Aurelia;—pressed her burning hand a thousand times to his lips, and discovered every symptom of madness. Nothing could prevail on him to leave her, even for a moment. Belford likewise sat by the side of his darling amiable daughter, in the utmost anxiety and misery, for many days. She continued in a state of the most imminent danger;—no hope could be entertained for her recovery. Belford himself became ill. Nature seemed exhausted, and he was forced to leave his dear charge, and retire to his bed; and, in a few hours after, it seemed difficult to decide which was in the most danger, the incomparable Belford,—or his lovely daughter.

What, it’s a contest? If so, Altamont’s not one to reject a challenge!—

What an awful trying scene!—every moment expecting to be deprived of all his soul held dear on earth,—his divine Aurelia and worthy friend,—required more than manly fortitude to support; and he began to sink under his load of affliction…

…but then they all get better. Pity. Simultaneous dying of emotional collapse would have been even more impressive than the simultaneous swooning of Volume 1. The news that Altamont is not in fact dead has to be broken to Aurelia over the course of several days, in case joy should prove even more fatal than grief, but once that’s taken care of:

Suffice it to say, Altamont and Aurelia met with the mutual expression of celestial spirits…

And then they hit the road:

The happy party set off for Munster Abbey, and after a short and delightful journey, hailed this mansion of sublunary bliss.

However, certain grim duties lie before Belford and Altamont:

It is utterly impossible to convey the most distant idea to a vulgar soul, of any rank, of what is perfectly delicate and purely refined, either in sentiment or manners. Altamont’s feelings, in the prospect of the necessity of entering on the business of settlements, and of holding conversation with men, many of whom he had been taught to believe were not governed by the strictest regard for integrity,—experienced all that derangement which is natural to a mind of superior honour and sensibility.

And yet somehow he grits his teeth and goes through with it.

Sordid business out of the way, the marriage takes place. Lord and Lady Altamont, accompanied by Belford and the still-Miss Draper, set out for Altamont House, famous for its two-hundred-foot frontage, not even counting the colonades. As we know, money cannot bring happiness, possessions are no more than a vulgar necessity, and meals merely the means of sustaining existence; so it is quite beside the point that:

Altamont’s fortune was ample. It was superior to Belford’s. And his establishment was befitting his noble rank. His servants, his equipage, and his table, displayed elegance, without extravagance… The side-board presented a rich service of plate, a royal present to his father, when he was ambassador at the Imperial Court. The courses were served up in the first stile. The wines were the first Europe could produce.

Marriage, of course, compels Aurelia to self-exile herself from that “mansion of sublunary bliss” known as Munster Abbey; although the vulgar amongst us might be inclined to observe that she hasn’t done too badly for herself in securing Altamont House as a replacement. She need not suffer too much through her sacrifice, however:

Before leaving Munster Abbey, it had been agreed between Belford and Lord Altamont, (as they had resolved to live and die together) to spend their time alternately at Altamont’s house, and on the beautiful banks of the Ex.

Aurelia’s future secure, Belford turns his attention back to Charles, who is married off to Miss Draper. The newlyweds spend time at Munster Abbey. And then they spend time at Altamont House. And then everyone goes to Bennington Castle, the estate that Charles was forced – forced, I say! – to accept from his brother. We’re halfway through the third volume now, and struggling to the finish-line. Some time is wasted on a peculiar interlude, in which a young woman turns up on Belford’s doorstep claiming sanctuary (well, it is an Abbey), and protection from the wicked uncle who is persecuting her for her fortune. Her life history fills out another nine pages. Belford unofficially adopts her, and eventually marries her off to a brother of Miss Draper, in a sequence that fills out another fifteen pages. Aurelia gives birth to a baby boy (George Frederick Augustus, like a good little royalist). Various schemes of benevolence are executed, with or without unsuppressed tears and unbidden speech.

And then, on page 549 of this exactly 600-page novel, Sir Samuel remembers he forgot something:

We deem it proper to offer some apology to our readers, that good Mrs Melville, Belford’s mother-in-law, and the amiable Julia, Mrs Belford’s sister, have never again appeared in the course of the history of Mr Belford, since their first visit to Munster Abbey…

Another eleven pages are spent catching up (short version: they moved to Copenhagen, and died and married respectively), before we hop back to England for another thirty pages of Belford and his schemes of benevolence, with which he fills his “declining years” (so I guess he’s stopped getting younger):

Belford had now arrived at the zenith of sublunary honour and glory,—a species of adoration was paid to him by all orders of society. Of no man in the kingdom could it be said, with equal justice, that he had completely answered the end of his existence in this world. From his youth he had learned the invaluable lessons of piety and virtue, ever mingled with moderation and benevolence;—he never lost one moment of his life in dissipation;—he knew the incalculable value of time,—his fortune was chiefly devoted to acts of public or private beneficence; yet (such was his economy) Munster Abbey was, at this time, the mansion of all affluence…

The narrative then goes on to praise Belford’s mother for her role in turning out such a pattern of perfection (poor Charles mysteriously fails to rate a mention here), until, suddenly realising that its words might be misinterpreted, it hastens to clarify:

    It is a fact which every one the least versed in the history of mankind is perfectly acquainted, that the world has been indebted, in every age, for the far greater number of illustrious men, in every department and profession of life, to the early education they have received from mothers of superior worth and intelligence. Antiquity and modern times record the names of thousands of these angelic characters. But let it not be rashly and weakly imagined, that these distinguished women were celebrated chiefly for their learning, their eloquence, or their taste for the fine arts.—No: these are not the provinces in which the great superintending Power has called the fairer part of the creation to immortalise their names;—though a certain degree of knowledge and lesser literary accomplishments are in all ages necessary to women of genteel rank in life…
    What signify all the frivolous accomplishments and acquisitions of common education?—of what consequence is a little smattering in some species of polite literature, in comparison of those virtues which are the ornament of the soul, which alone enable a mother to rear up her offspring to immortal fame?

So put down that novel right now, ladies! Yes, THAT novel!!

Belford’s immortality looms up rather quicker than we might have expected. Without much warning, he feels that he will soon die; and, recognising that there’s not much he can say to either Altamont or Aurelia that they don’t already know, he contents himself with requesting that they carry on with various schemes of benevolence not yet completed, before blessing them and dying.

And then we pass onto the passages that made me almost certain that Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was the anonymous author of Valentine, which likewise builds to a dramatic climactic death (in that case tragic, rather than serene and pious), and also likewise, instead of leaving it at that, then goes on to examine the contents of the will in minute detail:

    It is almost superfluous to observe, that Belford’s will must necessarily be every thing that was natural, parental, wise, and good. Indeed it was perfectly entitled to all those epithets.
    The marriage-contract between Lord and Lady Altamont settled the estate of Munster Abbey, and his grandfather’s other estates, on their Lordship’s second son.—Handsome provisions were also made for his other children at the same time. Belford’s economy was such, amidst his many expensive schemes, and his uniform hospitality, that each of Lord Altamont’s younger children were possessed of handsome fortunes; and the lovely family were now four sons and two daughters.
    He bequeathed a thousand pounds to each of his hospitals, (for they may be said in some measure to be of his own creation) and fifty pounds to each of the poor curates whose salaries he had procured to be doubled, but who were still far from comfortable in their stations.
    To each domestic, an annuity in proportion to their services, to none less than ten pounds.—To his butler, who had lived with him forty years, fifty pounds a year,—and to his faithful steward, two hundred, for life. A great many mourning rings he had ordered, as testimonies of regard for those characters, of both sexes, whom he had approved and admired on account of their virtues and happiness in their several stations and professions in life.
    Lord Altamont, with the excellent men we have just mentioned, Mr Charles Belford, Draper and Hammond, were nominated guardians to the younger children. The heir of Munster Abbey was declared, by the will, not to be arrived at the age of majority until he completed his twenty-fourth year,—a wise and judicious destination! Happy had it been for millions over Europe in the past ages, and in the present, that the period of majority had been prolonged by will still farther,—many an estate might have been preserved,—many a constitution saved from disease and debility,—and many a character indefaced from infamy.

I must say, I admire his—well, what shall we call it? – egregious benevolence? – in appointing guardians for children that (1) aren’t his, and (2) have living parents.

But anyway, this about brings us to the end of things:

Lord and Lady Altamont were now at the head of a beautiful family, and two large estates…

Not that they think anything of THAT. Or expect their perfect happiness to go on being perfect:

Such is the fleeting pleasures of this life,—the moment we are, as we imagine, experiencing all the blessings of the world, our enjoyments are suddenly dashed from our fond embrace, and we are instantly plunged into an ocean of wretchedness…

Except when we aren’t:

Lord and Lady Altamont continued to enjoy years of uninterrupted felicity… They spent their time alternately at Munster Abbey and at Altamont’s house, in Kent; but the peaceful shades of Munster Abbey were their favourite place of residence. Indeed, this charming scene of innocent retirement was enough to incline the minds of its blessed inhabitants, to expect a life of serenity, peace, and happiness, which they continued to enjoy many, many years:—And in this endearing situation we leave them, to experience that uninterrupted felicity they are so justly entitled to.

.

Footnote: Here is an excerpt from the 33-page-long list of subscribers that opens Volume 1 of Munster Abbey. The fact that they all have titles has absolutely nothing to do with anything:

leigh4

16/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 2)

leigh2“To condemn him for his offences, would be at once declaring hostilities against those principles which my instructors ardently strove to imprint upon my heart. As they took pains to sow the seeds of charity within my bosom, it is undubitably my duty to be as ardent in my endeavours to cherish and bring them to perfection,—not from selfish desires alone to derive ensuing benefits, but that I may at a future period, should I be blessed with a family of my own, graft sprigs of the tree I have carefully nurtured upon the hearts of my offspring, who shall ever gratefully acknowledge the bounteous prize obtained through the piety of their ancestors, and who may as liberally tender branches of the invaluable plant to others, who, with equal caution and perseverance, may be the instruments of establishing groves of rectitude, from one pure seed of mercy and benevolence.”

Oh, undubitably.

Ah, dear. I had delusions of getting through Munster Abbey in two parts, but the more I flick through it and re-read the quotes I’ve marked, the more I feel that it would be an act of monstrous selfishness to deprive you of any of them, when to share with you more of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s deathless prose may plant in your hearts the seeds of desire for more terrible sentimental novels, and graft upon your consciousnesses that no matter how bad the last book you read was, it could hardly compete with this tangled weed-patch of a novel, in which tortuous metaphors encompass and asphyxiate all pretensions to quality writing like the treacherous 
strangler fig barbarously destroying the very host that has nurtured and sustained it, and the treacly exudate of maudlin and bathetic pseudo-emotion eats away at the tremulous buds of literary style like a boll-weevil with pretensions to a major award in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Damn. It’s catching.

Anyway— What I meant to say is, it’s all too good not to share, so I’m just going to let it be as long as it needs to be.

When we left the Belfords, she was having her soul harrowed up by the tale of her brother-in-law, Charles, not seen since he – for a second time – robbed his brother and ran away. This cloud passes over, however, and the Belfords spend their lives in benevolence (him) and domestic pursuits (her). In time, a daughter, Aurelia, is born to them; she will prove to be their only child. The Belfords devote all their energies to raising her as a true daughter of Munster Abbey. Do they succeed?

    Her mind was artless in the extreme:—She acknowledged the many blessings bestowed upon her by Providence, by a just sense of gratitude, connected with her continued exertions in the fair and unpolluted path of virtue. She never discovered anxiety or depression, but when the sufferings of others claimed her commiseration. The expression of her countenance described her internal emotions. When she smiled, there was some true cause for her apparent approbation; and, when an air of gravity gave a check to her vivacity, there were substantial reasons for her discomposure.
    In short, at a very early period of life, she promised fairly for approaching as near to perfection as human nature could aspire.

As a young lady, Aurelia is in the habit of walking by the river in the evenings. On one occasion, a galloping horse dramatically disturbs her solitude; it is evident that the rider is in trouble, and Aurelia shortly hears sounds indicating that he has been violently thrown. She follows his groans and discovers him unconscious and bloody. It is the first crisis of Aurelia’s serenely privileged life:

“Oh Heaven!” exclaimed Aurelia, as she fell on her knees, “I cannot support this scene of wretchedness,—despair will predominate over my exertions. Ha!” she exclaimed again, more wretched than before, “what have I rashly said? have I perfidiously flown into the face of Heaven, and for a moment encouraged a vice which has cost my parents years of labour to urge me to execrate!—Oh! what ingratitude have I discovered!—forbid it, that same heaven which I have so grossly offended, that I should ever again fall into an error so detrimental to the human mind,—and let my fortitude, in the present scene of misery, compensate for the guilt I have brought upon my head.”

Meanwhile, the injured man is STILL BLEEDING.

Aurelia finally brings the stranger around, but as he is too weak to walk immediately, she stays with him while he recovers. He wishes to offer her a reward for her assistance, but he knows not to whom he speaks:

    But the lovely Aurelia, who was purity itself,—exclaimed, with tears streaming from her eyes, expressive of her gratitude to heaven.— “Alas! good sir! I have been some time rewarded for the trifling attention I have shewn you on this occasion, rewarded beyond my most sanguine expectations.”
    “How?” replied the stranger, with an air of surprise, “how are you rewarded for all you have done for me; you have yet received no money.”
    “Money,” returned Aurelia, with a significant smile, and shaking her head, “Ha! that is but a paltry recompense to a compassionate mind, even when the possession of it is much needed; it is the secret gratification the heart experiences in performing an act of benevolence, that proves the grand reward, and the return of pleasure, for having alleviated another’s pain, never fails to more than compensate for any trouble that may be incurred in a case of distress.”
    “Indeed!” rejoined the astonished stranger, “I am a Frenchman, and have never yet made this discovery!”

Boom-tish.

Aurelia being five minutes late back from her walk for the first time ever has thrown the inhabitants of Munster Abbey into a total panic. Indeed, it is not too much to say that they are encouraging a vice that they spent the last eighteen years urging Aurelia to execrate. Belford goes out to search for her – leav[ing] his beloved wife in a state little short of insanity – but though he follows her favourite path and calls for her, there is no reply…

“Ah me!” he cried pathetically, as he cast his eyes towards the Heavens, “Alas! pale moon! I fear Aurelia’s loss will for the future place me under thy influence and direction, for lunacy must doubtless prove my wretched fate,—the loss of her is more than I can bear.”

Then he hears Aurelia nearby, speaking to someone she addresses as “sir”, urging that person to lean on her arm and consider her his servant, and without missing a beat, we get THIS:

    “Ha! what do I hear!” said Belford faultering,— “my senses surely are impaired! for I heard the voice of Aurelia breathe forth expressions in the strain of love!—and the sounds must certainly have been the effect of wild imagination!—yet they were very plain, and I feel that I yet know myself,—let me attend again.”
    “Indeed, Sir, ’twill be better for you,” she rejoined, “permit me to conduct you for the present to a more retired spot, where not even the chilling breeze of night can offend or discompose you.”
    “Oh! merciful Heaven,” sighed Belford in a languid tone, “it is indeed her voice. Her expressions have confounded me, and I am more wretched than ever. The anguish which her dissolution would have created within my bosom, would have proved sensations of delight in comparison to what I now experience. Alas! I never thought she could have thus deceived me;—but her tongue gives proof of her perfidiousness, and what clearer testimony need I look for.—Oh! it must be so,—Ah! my once loved daughter, who from the cradle I reared with the fondest affection, and in whom my every hope was centred; what have you brought upon yourself by this duplicity? and what misery have you in secret nurtured for your once joyous but now distracted parents. Farewell to happiness,—farewell to the long boasted respectability of Munster, whose sweet sequestered bounds, time immemorial, bore the enviable appellation of the seat of quiet.—Adieu to peace,—the Abbey is polluted from having fostered an unworthy being, and Munster can no longer boast of virtue. I now to my sorrow see the cause of your attachment to this your favourite walk. Artless as I thought you were, to find you involved in all the guilt of cunning, is too much,—too piercing to my afflicted heart.—I can no longer refrain from openly avowing my indignation,—patience is exhausted, and fortitude has forsaken me,—I am no longer armed against the frowns of fate.”—As he concluded this sentence, he exclaimed in a loud voice, indicating rage, “Aurelia, thy father approaches, prepare to meet him”—

Feh! – men.

Belford at least has the grace to be thoroughly ashamed of himself when the situation is explained – I should think so! – and Aurelia is too practically perfect in every way to resent his outrageous accusations. If I was her, I’d’ve told him to shove it and run off to live with my Uncle Charles. After robbing the house, of course.

(Mind you— “Expressions in the strain of love”? Really? All this gives me a very odd idea of the kind of love-making that goes on the Belford household. “So, big boy, wanna lean on my arm while we find a spot out of the wind?” “Oh-hh-hh, baby!”)

A weird interlude follows, in which the stranger, who turns out to be the Marquis de la Ville Neuve, is at first enchanted and moved by the Belfords and their philosophy of benevolence, but then (just like a foreigner!) it all wears off, he seems to forget he owes them anything, and finally takes himself off in a state of great indifference. This passage illustrates another of this novel’s strange, internal contradictions, along with, This world is a vale of tears, but the Belfords are blissfully happy and Money can’t bring happiness, but the wealthy Belfords are blissfully happy and much more comfortable than poor people and You should follow the example of superior people, but you’ll never be remotely as superior as Belford and there’s no point in you even trying and You should have total faith in the dispensations of Providence, but go into a complete emotional collapse at the first sign of trouble - namely, The gratitude and love of those who are the beneficiaries of your benevolence is its own reward, but people are nasty, selfish things so don’t expect them to thank you for it.

And having just shown that you won’t get thanked, it proceeds to prove you will get thanked by a lengthy passage showing Belford in benevolent landlord mode, touring his vast property (which doesn’t bring him happiness, except when it does), and relieving the wants of his tenants (who don’t thank him, except when they do). In preparation for this venture, Belford resolves:

…to leave at each house or cottage, a small treatise, of a few pages, composed with perfect simplicity, by himself, which should contain plain rules for sober and virtuous living,—for a sacred regard to rational piety,—for hating all strife and division about any subject relating to religion and government,—for peaceable and quiet dispositions,—and for faithful attachment to their King, Country, and Constitution.

Munster Abbey expiates at great length upon the superiority and perfection of the British constitution, and how much better off everyone would be if they would just accept that and stop pointing out things that might look like horrible flaws and profound injustices, but which aren’t, honestly! Meanwhile, that reference to “rational piety” prepares us for further expiation upon correct religious practice.

However—here I must stop and give this novel a surprised pat on the back. Though inevitably it expresses an anti-Catholic sentiment, it does so without virulence, taking an almost kindly “Oh, well, poor things, they can’t help it” attitude. What’s more, when Belford and Aurelia are later travelling on the Continent, they actually attend Catholic services in preference to not going to church at all:

Belford and his accomplished daughter carried their observations much farther than  our ordinary itinerants; and they displayed a spirit superior to those vulgar prejudices, which in every country flow from the sources of a weak understanding, or a narrow and bigoted education. They assembled every Sunday, and sometimes on other days, with their fellow-christians, to pay homage to their Creator: They perceived external forms and ceremonies to which they had not been accustomed in their own country, and they perceived these rites in a spirit of rational toleration. Perhaps they secretly lamented that so much superstition should be mingled with devotion: Yet both Belford and Aurelia have often declared, with visible emotions of joy, descriptive of the charity of their heart, that they have often, at Rome, and in other parts both of Italy and France, beheld, with the highest satisfaction, such symptoms of genuine manly devotion, as might put to shame many of high profession among those who call themselves the Reformed Church. They frequently saw priests of various ranks, from the highest of the Hierarchy to a humble curate, perform the sacred offices of religion with every degree of becoming gravity and apparent sincerity, and heard them pronounce discourses, as sound in doctrine, and as pure in morality, as ever were delivered by any priest or presbyter of Britain.

I can’t say I’ve ever come across such a radical thing before. It’s absurdly out of place in a novel that otherwise expends much energy sneering at things not English.

The trip to the Continent comes about when Mrs Belford’s health starts failing, and she is ordered to a gentler climate. Although consumed by concern for his wife, such that the entire expedition is accomplished by means of short journeys interspersed by long rests (so that it takes them quite some time to get out of England, which was actually the point of the venture), Belford never misses and opportunity for “improvement”:

Belford was not only a man of consummate moral excellence, but an accomplished gentleman, which no man can ever be, without having received a polished education, and been also careful, after the period appointed for education is over, studiously improve his mind. He was perfectly acquainted with the history of his country, both civil and ecclesiastic,—and he was equally able and disposed to mention with reverence, to the ladies, many of the names of those illustrious men who adorned the chapter of Canterbury. If there were, among those names, any who, by weakness or folly, had dishonoured their rank, or who, in rude ages, had been transported into acts of violence, by the influence of bigotry and superstition, the benignity of his soul either concealed their names, or he threw a charitable veil over their imperfections. Belford’s elegant, refined mind, however strong his internal disapprobation of characters living or departed, never permitted him to descend to the plebeian practice of abusive expression, coarse epithet, or malignant expression. Many departed heroes, in the cause of religion, he mentioned with rapture to his daughter, though his narrative, from the shortness of time, was necessarily very laconic.

Unlike some narratives I could mention.

(Yes, yes – and some blog posts… He started it…)

While Belford and Aurelia are having a cheerful stroll through the cemetery, they come across a young man mourning by his sister’s grave. As people in the 18th century always did, it seems, they treat his manifestations of grief as a variety of performance art and move in close to hear what he is saying:

At this moment he perceived Belford and Aurelia slowly advancing:—He appeared in some degree of confusion:—The tone to which his soul had been wrought up by grief and solemn reflection, did not admit of a rapid transition to observe ordinary objects: But no ordinary object presented itself: The moment his eyes beheld Aurelia, he seemed enchanted,—his looks betrayed the emotions of his soul,—it had a mixture of the wild with the affectionate:—no wonder!—for all who ever beheld his lovely sister, and the daughter of Belford, agreed in observing the most striking similarity in form, in features, and in expression, between Louisa and Aurelia.

Ew.

We are not introduced for some time, but this is the first appearance of the Earl of Altamont, Aurelia’s soul-mate and future husband, who will presently sweep her off her feet with his boring perfections. (And because he reminds her of her father – ew.)

This brief encounter occurs early in the second volume of Munster Abbey, most of which is devoted to the travels of the Belfords across France and Italy, with much rumination upon history, art, forms of governance, comparative religion and the general inferiority of everything found in Europe to what might be found in Britain. Except for the fortifications. Belford, or at least Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, has an unhealthy fixation upon fortifications, and everywhere the Belfords go we have to stop to hear a description of the particular fortifications in question, and get a short résumé of their history. Otherwise— Credit is given where it’s due, of course, but that is rarely necessary:

    We are here, however, speaking only of those pleasures, or the sources of those pleasures, which are of a secondary nature, where only taste, elegance, fine-breeding, or splendour, present themselves. Of the fountains from whence more refined delights flow in upon the mind, few, alas! is the number to be discovered by the most inquisitive, or charitably minded traveller. The morality of France and Italy have been for centuries past regulated by a very low standard: Though, as has been mentioned above, many individuals in both kingdoms have shone conspicuous for every quality which adorns humanity; yet, from the nature of the religion and government of both countries, morals, in the higher and lower orders, have been relaxed to a most lamentable degree.
    The reader will forgive this apparent digression. The author humbly presumes it may be attended with some benefit to unexperienced and modest young men, who travel into foreign parts in quest of knowledge, and to make observations.

And who are keen to know where the most lamentably relaxed morals are to be found?

The narrative has at least admitted that there are “individuals” in each country who are up to Belford’s lofty personal standards, and in each city visited for any length of time he seeks out people distinguished by their high character, impeccable morals, deep piety, extensive learning and cultured mind. It’s pure coincidence that every single one of them also has a title, and an enormous fortune.

Meanwhile, Mrs Belford’s health has continued to deteriorate, and to the profound grief of her husband and daughter, she dies. They are, however, supported by their faith. And they need to be:

Heaven graciously conferred on Belford and Aurelia that composure of mind, and tranquillity of spirits, which enabled them to regulate, with propriety, every circumstance respecting the last honours to be paid to the memory of her who was no more. The generous and enlarged mind of the British Protestant, pitied the miserable and contracted spirit of ecclesiastical domination, which forbade christian burial to any Huguenot; or, at least, forbade that any Protestant should be buried in the same cemetery with a Roman Catholic.—This was a matter of no moment to Belford:—His principles were too exalted, and his understanding too enlarged, to regard in what spot of this globe the ashes of his beloved were deposited.

Belford and Aurelia continue their travels through Italy. In Milan, Belford must rescue from the consequences of his folly a young Englishman called Spencer, who “commits an outrage against religion and decency”. (It’s not that outrageous.) Asked to account for himself, as with the innkeeper in Volume 1, Spencer proves incapable of anything as briefly honest as, “I got drunk and did something stupid”, and instead responds with a 24-page-long recapitulation of his upbringing and education. This incident also brings to Belford’s attention a much more proper young man called Walpole, who becomes a part of his extended family of kindred spirits, and the elderly Father Contini, who despite being a Catholic priest proves “generous-minded”, with “liberality of sentiment”, probably because “he was not bred for the church”. The friends enjoy many pleasant hours. “of which a rude and illiterate mind can form no conception, and for which he has no more relish than a Hottentot”; but alas, it cannot go on forever:

The father of the convent and his beloved children must now part,—never more to meet in these realms of woe:—It was an interesting parting:—The venerable sage could not conceal his inward agitation:—He dropt the tear of philanthropy…

And so Belford and Aurelia press on again, passing through Mantua – The fortifications of Mantua are reckoned equal in strength, if not superior, to any in Europe – Parma, Modena and Lucca – I did tell you this doesn’t have a plot, didn’t I? - with a longer stop in Florence before they head to Rome. It is here that Belford gets wind of his brother, Charles, who turns out to have reformed all on his own (I was surprised at that) and gone into business in Leghorn. Belford is so overcome by this news:

…he could not resist the powerful propensity of his soul, but instantly…in a tone of voice more loud than delicacy and good-breeding would have warranted on any other occasion, he cries, “O my child, my Aurelia, rejoice with thy transported father!—My brother Charles lives!—he is in good health!—he is as happy as he can be on earth, removed far from Munster Abbey…”

Belford opens a correspondence with his brother and they agree to meet. Another meeting also awaits them: they encounter the love-sick Lord Altamont, who is travelling in order to try and restore his spirits, which have been overcome with “gloom and melancholy” since he glimpsed, but then lost sight of, Aurelia:

But, alas! travelling and variety cannot always banish that nameless something which agitates the soul that is pierced by the fatal dart. Altamont’s love was love at first sight,—an idea ridiculed by the soul of insensibility in all ages:—But an insensible soul is seldom blessed with a sound judgement:—Thousands, and tens of thousands, of the most wise, the most prudent, and the most worthy of men, have confessed the force and truth of this adage.

Oh, yeah? Name them.

It turns out that Altamont has been following Belford and Aurelia around, just missing them at practically every stage (if only he’d had the clue of the fortification fetish!) before tracking them to Rome:

To attempt to describe, or convey any adequate idea of the joy and happiness of Lord Altamont, and also of Aurelia (for Aurelia, too, acknowledged the truth and force of the adage just mentioned) would require a pencil which has not been hitherto formed by any mortal artist! The joys and raptures of the human soul never have been, nor never can be, described.—Here, as in numberless other instances, the Divine Fiat is pronounced, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther.”

“Also, I’m a lousy writer.”

Altamont becomes a frequent visitor to the Belfords’ lodgings, and is introduced into the usual cultured, elegant, high-minded, virtuous, distinguished crowd that naturally gravitates towards the father and daughter. The fact that they all have titles has nothing whatsoever to do with it, of course, but since they do, they are all aware of their duty to set a good example for their inferiors with respect to all the really vital aspects of life:

As every lady and gentleman present observed the laws of temperance and moderation in all their pleasures and scenes of festivity,—so, of course, very late hours were their utter aversion. By 11 o’clock they broke up, superiorly happy on reflecting on the rational joys of the day. As they were just about to depart, and the Countess of Castel Bianco observing it was not yet late, the Prince de Pignatelli gently addressed her, by remarking that 11 o’clock was a late hour at Rome;—and that no person in that city was more exemplary than the Countess, in order and regularity of every kind:—that he well knew, from his own present feelings, that it was an effort to leave such pleasant society; but as the example of persons of their order was of moral importance to society, he hoped and entreated that the liberty he had taken would be forgiven. The Countess bowed assent;—and, in a very polite return, thanked him for his observations and his candour.

A letter arrives from Charles, proposing that Belford and Aurelia head for Leghorn while he wraps up his business there before accompanying them back to England. They make their plans accordingly, and more heart-wrenching leave-takings occur; although to my profound regret, this time around no-one drops the tear of philanthropy:

Belford began now to prepare for his journey to Leghorn:—He and Aurelia employed some days in taking leave of the families who had paid them so many polite attentions, and even shewed them instances of the most genuine hospitality:—And in this business was not actuated by the vulgar and dishonourable idea of too many unfeeling strangers or travellers in every country, namely, even after receiving the highest favours, is a matter of mere good-breeding or ceremony, where the heart has no concern. No:—The sentiments of this amiable man were far more exalted. There was not a plebeian idea durst enter his honourable mind. He was fair, candid, and honest, in all his professions, and in all his actions.

Particularly when saying goodbye.

[To be continued...]

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