The facts disclosed by our study of the Mary Carleton narratives contradict, if they do not wholly destroy, three cardinal doctrines about the origin of the modern novel,— (1) that the criminal biographies were as a class substantially true, (2) that the narrative methods of Defoe were acquired by “imitating truthful records,” and (3) that in seventeenth century fictitious literature there were no very close approaches to the work of “the father of the English novel.”
Mmm… You know, there’s nothing in the world I find more comforting than a big, steaming bowl of serendipity.
One of the stranger—and more unwelcome—side-effects of my tussle with The English Rogue is that I came away from it with a desire to read something else written by Francis Kirkman; something, that is, not produced under the influence of Richard Head and the shadow of his original work. The trouble was, Kirkman’s other fiction fell into only two categories: archaic romances copied after those he translated early in his career, and rogue’s biographies—of which I had had quite enough for the moment, thank you.
That said, the obvious choice amongst Kirkman’s solo works was The Unlucky Citizen. Published in 1673, on the back of some difficult financial times, this work is a “rogue’s biography” inasmuch as it is a thinly disguised autobiography. This book would, doubtless, have told me everything I wanted to know about Francis Kirkman but was afraid to ask; but in spite of this—or because of this—it didn’t really appeal; although I was amused by the reflection that at a time when most writers were frantically trying to sell their fiction as fact, Kirkman (possibly for reasons of self-preservation) chose to sell fact as fiction.
I was still pondering the issue when I dropped into my academic library one day to do a little browsing amongst the works classified as DD823.400 and slightly upwards. These are those studies of early modern literature that don’t really fit in anywhere else – and which are, for the most part, works decades old and usually considered superseded. Strange and wonderful things lurk on those shelves, which (or so I gather from the dust, the puzzled looks from the librarians, and occasional absence of a barcode) are rarely accessed by anyone but me. I was trolling the shelves with no particular purpose when one book jumped out at me, a slender maroon volume with an unreadable title sticker on the spine, which was quite visually distinct from all the others around it:
The Mary Carleton Narratives 1663 – 1673: A Missing Chapter In The History Of The English Novel, published in 1914 by Ernest Bernbaum, then Instructor in English at Harvard: a book whose importance to the aims of this blog can hardly be overrated, as we shall see; yet a book so obscure and unaccessed that, as I subsequently discovered, it was not listed in the library’s catalogue.
Mary Carleton was a notorious 17th century con-woman. Briefly, she was born and grew up near Canterbury, where she married one husband, possibly two, and fled with everything that wasn’t nailed down. She spent some time in Europe, chiefly around Cologne, and returned to England in possession of a reasonable sum of money and posing as a titled German lady, Maria van Wolway; her alleged position escalating over subsequent events until she became known as “the German Princess”.
Hoping to trap a rich prize through this pose, Mary got more—or rather, less—than she bargained for when she attracted the relatives of a young man called John Carleton, who by way of making him seem an attractive prospect, talked up his birth, fortune and holdings and began referring to him as “his lordship”. In a state of mutual deceit, the two married. The Carletons waited, slavering, for “the Princess”‘s fortune to be forthcoming, while Mary waited likewise for “his lordship”‘s promised shower of riches. Needless to say, they were both doomed to disappointment.
(I seem to be seeing Dickens forerunners everywhere these days. These two remind me of the Lammles from Our Mutual Friend.)
At some point during the ensuing stand-off, John Carleton’s father received a letter from a man who claimed that he knew Mary from Canterbury; that she was the daughter of a church organist, and had two “husbands” still living in the area. According to some accounts, the furious Carleton senior led a family charge to Mary’s rooms, where they literally stripped her of the expensive wedding-clothes they had given her and all of her own jewellery (most of which turned out to be fake), before having her arrested and charged with bigamy.
Mary’s trial was the cause célèbre of 1663. While some people believed her absolutely to be Maria van Wolway, it soon became evident that her guilt or innocence was less important to the gathered crowd generally - and to the jury – than who they preferred, and Mary was soon the popular favourite. The Carletons made the mistake of producing only an eyewitness to Mary’s previous marriage(s) instead of any documentary evidence, and this gave the court the excuse it was looking for to acquit her.
Mary’s triumph was short-lived. The dismissal of the bigamy charge meant that she was in law John Carleton’s wife, and that he was within his legal rights to take everything she owned and then desert her. Mary subsequently made overtures of reconciliation to her estranged husband, but the Carletons weren’t having any. Thrown back on her own resources, Mary was next seen in public starring as “herself” in a play first called A Witty Combat: or, The Female Victor but which soon adopted the title The German Princess; a tacit admission of fraud that must of galled Mary’s genuine supporters. The play, if not very good, had novelty value and for a while drew crowds; although a number of critics commented that Mary was more convincing in the courtroom than on stage.
From here, it was downhill all the way for Mary Carleton. For some time she supported herself through relationships with men, at one point “marrying” again under yet another identity, at others posing as a woman of means in order to attract suitors, but always with the ultimate goal of obtaining what she could by gift or theft before fleeing. Finally, she turned to confidence tricks and robbery. In 1671, she was arrested and tried for theft, found guilty and initially condemned, but had her sentence reduced and was transported to Jamaica. Some years later she managed to make her way back to England and resumed her old way of life, attracting and defrauding more men and stealing the silverware wherever she could insinuate herself. At last she went to the well once too often, and by this time the court’s patience was exhausted. Early in 1673, Mary Carleton was found guilty of robbery, condemned and executed.
Criminal biography, as we have seen, was hugely popular in the second half of the 17th century, and Mary activities were accompanied by two flourishes of related publications, one after her initial acquittal in 1663, the other after her execution in 1673—all told, more than twenty individual works.
The first wave included two accounts of the trial, The Great Trial And Arraignment Of The Late Distressed Lady, Otherwise Called The German Princess and The Arraignment, Trial And Examination Of Mary Moders, Otherwise Stedman, now Carleton, Styled The German Princess, as well as duelling vindications supposedly by John and Mary Carleton, but clearly ghostwritten: An Historical Narrative Of The German Princess and The Ultimum Vale Of John Carleton Of The Middle Temple, London, Gent.
Of the second wave, two publications, both substantial works, stand out: The Memories Of Mary Carleton, Commonly Styled The German Princess by someone calling himself only “J.G.”; and The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled, published in 1673 by—Francis Kirkman.
You were wondering if I was ever going to get to the point, weren’t you?
The truth is, I’ve felt uncomfortable about ignoring Mary Carleton who, whatever she was in life, was certainly a significant literary figure of the late 17th century, with the post-execution flourish of publications landing squarely within my target dates for this blog. So my discovery of Ernest Bernbaum’s study seemed to offer a useful shortcut: reading The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled would simultaneously satisfy my perverse Francis Kirkman fetish and sooth my conscience with regard to the Mary Carleton literature, while through The Mary Carleton Narratives I would get a sufficient overview of the remaining twenty-plus works on the subject.
Remarkably enough, The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled is in print, as the lead example in a 1961 anthology called The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled And Other Criminal Fiction Of Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Spiro Peterson. My academic library holding a copy, I walked over there one day about a week before last Christmas to pick it up, only to discover to my horror that the library had closed down for the Christmas-New Year break a week early, to facilitate renovations. Cue, if you will, a humiliating mental image of me pounding unavailingly on the front doors and wailing, “But I have to have my Francis Kirkman!!”
So, temporarily thwarted, I read The Mary Carleton Narratives first. To my surprise and delight, far from being merely a summation of the life of “the German Princess” and the writings she inspired, Bernbaum’s study is yet another slant upon “the rise of the English novel”, and one which has some startling things to say on the subject of Francis Kirkman’s work.
Ernest Bernbaum begins his study with a clear declaration of his intent to kick against the prevailing dogma on the rise of the novel, which as you might imagine does him no harm in my estimation; although given his date of publication, it’s the law as laid down by Walter Raleigh and his ilk that he’s arguing against, rather than that of Ian Watt and his descendents, as I like to do. And as so many of these arguments do, it begins with the positioning of Daniel Defoe – and includes the usual distinction:
In fact, most historians of literature, finding the Elizabethan attempts uninfluential, hold that realistic fiction begins with Daniel Defoe. It is Defoe with whom, according to Professor Raleigh, the novel (as distinguished from the romance) arises. It is Defoe who writes, in the opinion of Mr Edmund Grosse, “the earliest great English novel”; and who deserves, in that of Mr George A. Aitken, the proud title “the father of the English novel”… Before his time, we are told, “the promise of the novel dissolved like a mirage.” He remains “the founder of the novel,” in the sense of being the first after the Elizabethans to write a long fictitious prose narrative that is not an allegory, and that realistically and seriously recounts the actions of personages of the lower and middle classes. Such novels, scholars assure us with remarkable unanimity, were before not attempted…
One thing that Bernbaum and his opposition do agree on is that Defoe’s writing grew out of the “criminal biographies” of the previous century, which in turn grew out of the journalism of the day. As Bernbaum points out, journalism was born during the Civil War and, far from being an exercise in factual reporting, its function was to create lies and propaganda in support of one political viewpoint or the other. (Plus ça change.) While this aspect of journalism did not entirely recede following the Restoration, when greater or lesser danger attached to pushing a barrow, the reporting of facts with regard to day-to-day events became an increasingly important aspect of the journalist’s job. However, distances were great and facts sometimes hard to come by; and it was an accepted practice for journalists to fill the gaps in their stories by exercising their powers of invention. The line between “journalism” and “fiction” was often very thin indeed.
(The jokes just write themselves, don’t they? Bernbaum digresses at this point to offer a personal observation that, as you might imagine, surprised a laugh out of me:
The very productive and prosperous Henry Walker concocted, among many other fabrications, a wholly imaginary account of the flight of Charles II; and falsified the death-bed sayings of Oliver Cromwell, professedly recorded by “one who was a groom of his chamber”. Walker was indignantly called by the saintly George Fox “a liar, and forger of lies,”—terms which accurately describe the other prominent journalists of the period, John Harris, George Wharton, and Marchmont Nedham. They were indeed fit predecessors of Titus Oates, who may well be regarded as their monstrous scion, and who in 1678 unabashed perpetrated the most outrageous hoax that has ever misled the British public.)
Defoe himself was a journalist, of course – and a political propagandist – and a liar; qualities, if that’s the right word, that spill over into his fiction. We’ve seen before how Defoe’s supporters tend to dance around these uncomfortable facts, with some even claiming that his greatness is demonstrated by our inability to tell when he’s lying. Bernbaum, like certain others, takes it all in his stride:
As everybody knows, not all of Defoe’s supposedly fictitious narratives can be confidently deniminated either absolute fact or absolute fiction. The Memoirs Of A Cavalier, Duncan Campbell, Captain Avery, Robinson Crusoe itself, have a groundwork of fact… On the assumption that The Apparition Of Mrs Veal was fictitious, critics long used it as a favorite illustration of Defoe’s marvelous power to make the purely imaginary seem plausibly real,—until Mr Aitken’s valuable researches confounded their speculations with the discovery that the story was substantially true. The easy methodof disbelieving in each and every case the solemn protestations of Defoe that he is not romancing, will evidently not do. Sometimes he lies, sometimes he tells the truth; the real difficulty is to ascertain his moments of veracity. Add to that problem a legitimate suspicion that the amount of fictitious matter in the seventeenth century criminal biographies is perhaps larger than supposed, and you have a Gordian knot which may not be lightly sundered but must be patiently untied.
(“Moments of veracity” – heh! “Mr Aiken” is George Atherton Aitken, editor of a late 19th century release of Robinson Crusoe and various academic papers on Defoe.)
The positioning of Defoe as the immediate inheritor of the 17th century journalistic tradition of mixing lies and truth to tell a convincing story, rather than as the “father of fiction”, puts a new slant on where we should be looking for the origins of the English novel. It is precisely this viewpoint that, in Ernest Bernbaum’s estimation, makes the “Mary Carleton narratives” so historically important—because amongst this collection of literature, we find every kind of late 17th century writing, from newspaper reports, to burlesque “advertisements”, to satirical poems, to pamphlets, to novellas; the similarities and differences between these forms in their accounts of Mary Carleton offering a fascinating illustration of the sliding scale of fact and fiction, with each example throwing light on all the others.
As far as the truth of the first batch of the narratives go, Bernbaum is quick to make the amusing point that the two that made the loudest claim to be considered true, that is, the duelling post-bigamy trial publications of Mary and John Carleton, are probably the furthest from it. We are, he further contends, closest to the truth in The Arraignment, Trial, and Examination of Mary Moders, otherwise Stedman, now Carleton, styled the German Princess: this account of the trial is an example of 17th century court reporting, meaning that it offers a reasonably accurate recapitulation of the proceedings, although one embellished with the observatons, interpretations and opinions of its anonymous author.
But it is amongst the seven publications that appeared in the wake of Mary’s execution in 1673 that Bernbaum finds real historical value, singling out four of these seven as particularly informative. By this late date, Mary’s own account of her romantic youth had, of course, been entirely discredited; these publications offer in its place alternative histories that involve her earlier, bigamous marriages and her first forays into fraud and theft. All of them claim to be true; how remarkable, then, as Bernbaum comments wryly, that none of the “facts” contained therein emerged at the time of Mary’s trial for bigamy:
If we are to trust [Memories of the Life of the Famous Madam Mary Charlton, commonly styled the German Princess's] author, therefore, we must credit him with the remarkable feat of securing in 1673 specific details concerning many of Mary’s youthful crimes, only one of which her prosecutors in 1663, aided by the full light of the publicity of a scandalous trial, had been able to find.
Of all the Mary Carleton narratives, The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled, being a full Account of the Birth, Life, most remarkable Actions, and untimely Death of that famous Cheat Mary Carleton, known by the Name of the German Princess is not only the last, but the longest—the culmination of all the narratives, if you like. It is not a mere pamphlet, but a genuine novella, if not indeed a novel. As Bernbaum points out, to put things into perspective, Francis Kirkman’s contribution is twenty thousand words in length, fully four times longer than any other of the narratives, and almost the same length as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which generally is accepted as “a novel”. Its significance, however, lies not in its length, but in its content—something perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Ernest Bernbaum’s own examination of this text occupies more than half of his entire book upon the subject of Mary Carleton.
The first thing we notice about Francis Kirkman’s—oh, hell, let’s just call it “a novel”, shall we?—his novel, is that he did not write all of it himself: the text contains numerous excerpts of the earlier Mary Carleton works, in particular her (ghost-written) autobiography from 1663, and the other significant releases of 1673, The Memories… and The Life and Character of Mrs Mary Moders, alias Mary Stedman, alias Mary Carleton, alias Mary —– the famous German Princess, which is actually the second part of Mary’s own autobiography, The Case Of Madam Mary Carleton, with an appendix attached repudiating her own version of the story and adding an alternative account of her youth, plus her supposed confession that she was indeed the bigamous Mary Moders.
What matters here, however, is what Kirkman does with these appropriations. While all of the earlier narratives, as we have already observed with respect to a number of the rogue’s biographies we have studied, including The English Rogue, are content with a superficial, “this happened, then that happened” style of marration, in The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled that isn’t good enough for Francis Kirkman. Instead, after lifting passages from the earlier works, he proceeds to weave them together into a credible story, in which, in addition to continually embellishing the tale with convincing details, he adds passages where Mary Carleton’s motives, actions and thoughts are explained to us and analysed, while including on his own account various pieces of editorialisation in which he gives his opinion of actions that he himself invented.
Ernest Bernbaum devotes some pages to identifying passages that Kirkman lifted out of the earlier works, and then placing them side by side with Kirkman’s interpretation of them. Here is one example:
From the Appendix to The Case:
The landlady readily granted the use of her best chamber, whither the corpse was brought, and a topping undertaker in Leadenhall Street laid hold of the job, who, having received an unlimited commission to perform the funeral, resolved that nothing should be wanting to make the bill as complete as possible.
From The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled:
The landlady, hearing of profit, soon consented; and that evening the corpse in a very handsome coffin was brought in a coach and placed in the chamber, which was the room one pair of stairs next the street, and had a balcony. The coffin being covered only with an ordinary black cloth, our Counterfeit seems much to dislike it. The landlady tells her that for twenty shillings she might have the use of a pall of velvet, and for as much more some scutcheons of the gentleman’s arms. Our lady was well pleased with the pall, but for the scutcheons she said they would be useless in regard the deceased gentleman was unknown.
In the earlier works, it is simply a matter of “Mary fooled this person, then she fooled that person”; but Francis Kirkman repeatedly shows us how, with descriptions of Mary’s ingenuity. We are shown her skill in manipulation. Here, Bernbaum points out the touch about, The landlady, hearing of profit… and also the mention of the balcony: the funeral is, of course, a fake; Mary robs the household of its silver and some of its furniture, as well as appropriating the velvet pall, lowering the loot over the balcony to some confederates in the street before making her own, unladen way out of the house—leaving behind a coffin filled with “brickbats and hay”.
This is a minor example. Again and again, Francis Kirkman takes the bald statements of Mary’s actions from the earlier accounts and turns them into lengthy, vivid, and often suspenseful descriptions of the manoeuvring between herself and her potential marks; while even the minor characters are given credible motives for their actions, and for their falling victim to Mary’s wiles. The result is a surprisingly gripping and coherent narrative that offers something that none of its competitors does—that very few 17th century narratives do—a glimpse into the psychology of of its central character.
Yet the importance of The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled goes beyond its literary credibility. One of the most remarkable things about it is the lengths to which Kirkman goes to win the trust of the reader. For one thing, he bookends his work with a pair of moral disclaimers:
He begins: Let nature be never so liberal to us in the complete forming of our bodies after the most exact copies of perfection, and let us be never so well accomplished in all our outward qualities, so that we may imagine ourselves to be complete; yet if grace be not implanted in our hearts, whereby to guide us in all our actions, we are like a fair vessel at sea which is sufficiently furnished with all her sails and tackling but yet wants the only thing to guide and steer her by, her rudder…
And, likewise, concludes: But if we give ourselves over to ill company, or our own wicked inclinations, we are infallibly led to the practice of those crimes which, although they may be pleasing at the present, yet they have a sting behind. And we shall be sensible thereof when we shall be hurried to an untimely end, as you have seen in the vicious life and untimely death of this our Counterfeit Lady.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course; and while we may not sneer at these passages as we do when we find them coming from the pen of Richard Head, nor do we necessarily take them at face value.
However, Kirkman follows up on his moral premising by assuring us of his trustworthiness as a narrator—going so far as to tell us that not only did he interview Mary before her execution (and he certainly may have seen her in prison, since visiting the condemned was an accepted pastime), but that he tracked down John Carleton, also; while two of Mary’s late career victims were both relatives of his own, and hence he knows details that others do not. He therefore insists upon the reliability of his information—most amusingly, when he rewrites Mary’s own account of being “Maria van Wolway”, while simultaneously puncturing this version of events by stating, in effect, well, that’s what she says, but I don’t believe it:
…but although I shall contradict the opinion of many and what she declared of herself, yet I tell you that according to my best intelligence, which I think is sufficiently authentic, she was no German, but an absolute (I will not say true) Englishwoman…
In addition to these reassurances—and in context, most intriguingly of all—Kirkman makes a point of telling us what he does not know. There are gaps in his narrative where he admits ignorance, and other points where he offers two alternative possibilities before adding, But how it might have been, I know not.
Significantly, as Ernest Bernbaum highlights, these comments die away over the course of the narrative, as if Kirkman felt that he had said enough to convince the reader of his trustworthiness, so that his later assertions would be accepted unsupported. And in fact, between its detail, its offered motivations and its careful disclaimers, the whole of the narrative of The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled is constructed with the clear aim of luring the reader into accepting Francis Kirkman’s veracity even when he is lying.
Eat your heart out, Daniel Defoe.
The weaknesses and limitations of The Counterfeit Lady are obvious. Its diction is faulty, its style slipshod, and its construction without subtle refinements. Measured by the standard of a good modern novel, it is a crude performance. Those elementary principles of good narration which today a mere tyro, taught by great examples, may practice with facility, Kirkman applied with conscious and painful effort. He was doing no conventional thing, yet he succeeded surprisingly well in making both the action and the characterization in his story clear, lively, and so plausible as to compel belief. The Counterfeit Lady, ethically an indefensible fabrication, is to the historian of literature, considering that it was published in 1673, an admirable work; for it treats a story of common life in a serious tone, and makes the imaginary seem real.
I know that it must sometimes seem that I have a set against Daniel Defore. I don’t; truly I don’t. I dispute neither his importance in the time-line, nor that he was a far better writer than almost anyone who came before him; but when people try to tell me that he was, in any capacity, “the first”—well, then we’ve got a fight on our hands; a fight in which, in my very wildest imaginings, I never once envisaged being able to call Francis Kirkman—FRANCIS KIRKMAN!!??—as a witness for the prosecution.
But let’s leave the final word to Ernest Bernbaum, on the back of a consideration of several works, potential “early novels”, that preceded this one:
…undoubtedly each of these works contributed something to the coming novel; but of none of them can we say, what is precisely true of The Counterfeit Lady, that it closely resembles the novels of Daniel Defoe in both subject matter and composition.
What The Counterfeit Lady exhibits is, of course, an early phase of the realistic novel, and not the full development. It is considerably shorter than the average length of the novels of Defoe. Perhaps it contains a proportionally larger amount of true incident than they do, though this cannot be confidently asserted until they have been more thoroughly studied. Undoubtedly it is inferior to those admirably written works in style. Even making due allowance for the remarkable and general improvement in prose style that took place after 1673, we must judge the author of The Counterfeit Lady a writer whose diction is crude and whose interminable sentences are often incorrect. Such short-comings will, however, not surprise anyone who understands how slowly, as a rule, a literary type develops. What to him will seem really astonishing is that Kirkman managed to anticipate in so many particulars the ways of his great successor.