10/01/2016

Search Your Soul, Eustace

maison1bSo valuable seem these novels as powerfully revealing searchlights focused upon the Victorian spiritual scene, and as sensitive seismographic recordings of the cracks and upheavals in the accepted religious tradition, that they deserve a better fate than the neglect accorded to them by the mid-twentieth century. For, despite the advance of modern scholarship towards a reinterpretation of Victorian literature, our rich and abundant heritage of religious novels remains largely untouched. Its very abundance is probably a drawback, for the reader is presented with such an overwhelming embarrass de richesse that he scarcely knows where to begin. Our own very different religious climate also puts these novels at a disadvantage; so many of the stories run counter to the trend of modern taste and may inspire the reader of today with little more than boredom, revulsion or irreverent amusement. But there are splendid treasures among the huge dust-heaps and even those novels most sadly lacking in literary talent or spiritual profundity still remain for us as precious clues to the understanding of the Victorian march of mind. They are worth at least a glance or two, and, using for the sake of clarity the denominational framework of Christian belief in Victorian England, this survey will attempt to give the modern reader a glimpse, swift and superficial though it may be, into some of the many religious novels that so affected his Victorian forefathers, shaking or strengthening them in their beliefs, moving them to tears or paroxysms of rage, filling them with doubt and despair or bringing them to repentance and conversion.

As this quote rightly points out, the Victorian religious novel is one of the most important but least studied subgenres of 19th century literature—probably less because of subsequent shifts in beliefs, attitudes and interests than (as this quote also suggests) the gruelling nature of the material to be worked through. Still—a few brave academics have made the journey. We have already considered Joseph Ellis Baker’s 1932 study, The Novel And The Oxford Movement; the next notable work in this area was Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey Of The Religious Novel In The Victorian Age by Margaret Maison, published in 1961.

This later study differs from its predecessor in three important ways. Firstly – or so it seems to me – Dr Maison has less of a personal axe to grind: whereas Joseph Baker both admitted a bias in his views, in that he was a practising Catholic, and consequently omitted any notice in his work of the pro- and anti-Catholic wrangling that forms a significant aspect of the Victorian religious novel, Maison displays no personal bent, but examines each branch of this subgenre with interest. Secondly, as the title of her study indicates, Maison is detached enough to be fully alive to the inadvertent humour of this form of writing, which makes this a much easier work to read and enjoy. And thirdly, a related point, Maison understands (ii) that a bad novel is not necessarily an unentertaining novel, and (ii) that a bad novel can tell its reader just as much, if not more, about the society that produced it than a good one. She also has a keen eye for those works which are worth reading, as novels.

Maison begins by outlining the prevailing conditions at the time of the Oxford Movement, a period which saw the birth of the Victorian religious novel. It can be difficult these days to imagine the deadly seriousness of this conflict, and to grasp that it expressed itself not just in literary sniping, but in book-burning, attacks on churches, and violence in the streets:

    If England escaped the horrors of a revolution in the Victorian age her National Church did not. The history of the Church of England during this time is a stirring record of warfare, struggle, persecution, agonised secession and fiercest conflict, differences in religious belief causing hostilities not merely confined to verbal clashes, lawsuits and imprisonments but extending to the level of actual physical fighting…
    The Anglican Church had indeed awakened from her eighteenth century slumbers to become a real Church Militant. It was unfortunate, however, that so much of her war was internal, that the enemy was within as well as without, and that, in addition to the attacks of scientists and biblical critics, rationalists and agnostics, the hostilities of Dissent and the audacities of “papal aggression”, she had to contend with innumerable battles among her own ranks. The three principal groups in the Church of England, High, Low and Broad, were frequently at daggers drawn, and controversy raged throughout most of Victoria’s reign, the ritualism that marked the second phase of the Oxford Movement causing even greater uproars and the growth of religious liberalism provoking the increasing wrath of its opponents as the century progressed. High attacked Low and Broad, Low and Broad attacked High, Broad attacked Low, Low attacked Broad, confusions within the parties themselves making matters worse, for each group had its moderates, its extremists and various divergences, giving every appearance of a reign of anarchy within the one Church…

It was the Tractarians – in particular, William Gresley and Francis Paget – who first realised the potential of the novel as propaganda for their cause. However, it is important that we realise how much resistance there was at first to this form of writing: using religion as the basis of a novel, turning it into a form of mere entertainment, was considered by many people to be the height of disrespect. The early novelists were very mindful of this—with the result that you can search some of their works with the proverbial fine-tooth comb and not find anything that resembles “entertainment”:

    …”red-hot Puseyite stories” and “Oxford Movement tales”…flourished considerably in the eighteen-forties and fifties and were enthusiastically welcomed by keen Tractarians.
    Today, however, even the most devout High Anglican would survey these novels with a more critical eye. Their faults are glaring. Clumsy in technique, clumsy in construction, they are deficient in plot, characterisation and entertainment value. In general they conform to two set patterns and describe two imaginary types of lives—either the history of a chastened penitent or the life and opinions of a kind of propaganda prig.

Maison’s opening chapter proper, dealing with Tractarian fiction, is in fact entitled “Prigs, Pews And Penitents“: much to my delight, she tends to refer to the lead character of these tales not as “the hero”, but as “the prig”; a habit that almost leads me to forgive her for the fact that it was, almost certainly, as a result of my first reading of Search Your Soul, Eustace some years back that both the rabidly Tractarian Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years and its equally rabid factional enemy, Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church, found their way onto The List.

But apparently I haven’t yet learned my lesson, because Maison’s comments about Gresley’s 1841 novel, Charles Lever; or, The Man Of The Nineteenth Century, really make me want to read it. After dismissing the “prig” novels as simply “monologue and disputation”, and noting with amusement the Tractarian fixation upon church restoration and pew-building – to which subjects, entire books were devoted – she moves onto the generally more interesting “penitent fiction”:

The lives of the penitents are slightly more colourful, and in describing the temptations into which the erring heroes are led the authors had more scope both for narrative and for imaginative writing, although they are somewhat hampered by early Victorian moral and literary conventions, as Gresley’s Charles Lever shows. Charles is the victim of Satanic influences, a Dissenting father and a Latitudinarian schoolmaster who teaches him “a sort of general religion”… Poor Charles inevitably becomes a Liberal, then a Socialist and then apparently something too dreadful to mention. “We must draw a veil over some portion of our hero’s life,” says the author discreetly.

Most of the early religious novels are painful, slogging affairs, dogmatic lectures thinly disguised as fiction. In their terror of being accused of denigrating religion, the novelists of this time – Tractarian or Evangelical, but exclusively male – shied away from including any recognised fiction conventions in their books, evincing a particular terror of the love-plot.

Ironically enough, we may say that it was the female novelists who “saved” the religious novel; or at least who, for better or worse, extended its lifespan for decades by showing how it should be written. On the whole women were very hesitant to get involved in this area: feeling that religious practice and church dogma were matters beyond their understanding, and that to speak of them was to step outside their proper sphere, they looked around for other ways of supporting and promoting their religious beliefs in their novels—and began to write stories of how religious faith impacted ordinary daily life. Nor did these women see any reason to avoid a love story, often describing marriages built upon a shared faith and practice (or the catastrophe of the reverse). Consequently, the religious novels written by women are real novels, with plots and characters as well as religious propaganda; and unsurprisingly, they are usually far easier to digest than those of their male counterparts.

However—this does not mean that they are not sometimes just as terrible…

One of the most misunderstood pieces of 19th century writing is George Eliot’s essay, Silly Novels By Scribbling Women, which far too many people interpret as a bit of arrogance on Eliot’s part, dismissive of all female writers but herself. This is because they haven’t read it. In fact, Eliot’s essay is chiefly focused upon the religious novel: it does not really address the authors in question – though she is very critical of those novels which went too far in the opposite direction, forcing a church-plot upon a conventional love story and then preening themselves upon being “religious” – but rather criticises the publishers who encouraged this sort of nonsense, and were thus, in her opinion, responsible for the very denigration of religion that the early novelists had feared. We should also note that is was the Evangelical novel that Eliot was particularly attacking.

The specific novel that provoked Eliot was The Old Grey Church by Caroline Lucy Scott (aka Lady Scott), from 1856:

…the heroine’s father, a banker, cannot resist temptation and commits the crime of forgery. This unfortunate man, the author tells us, “was by birth, education and manners quite what is termed a gentleman; but the horrid trade in which he was engaged—that of money-making—had by degrees hardened and even vulgarised both his mind and feelings.” This sinner, as we might expect, is hanged at Newgate, after a last minute repentance and conversion when, we are told, “his prison-house became to him a passage,—an entry into the gates of heaven.” This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero…who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness, from opera tickets to frivolous fiancées, and ends up as a missionary in India (that country being the favourite missionary field for the Evangelicals).

Shortly afterwards, Eliot herself began writing fiction – Evangelical fiction, which is why she was so sensitive to bad writing in this area. Maison treats these writings with the proper respect, both for their moral and literary qualities, and most closely analyses Scenes From Clerical Life.

However, Eliot was not the only good female novelist in this area; and Maison highlights and praises three High Church ladies: Charlotte Yonge, Elizabeth Sewell and Felicia Skene. Yonge and Sewell can be a bit of a challenge these days, between the former’s rabid anti-feminism and the latter’s philosophy of complete female subjugation. The wild card here is Felicia Skene who, after an attempt to subjugate herself in the manner recommended by Sewell, broke free and began a new life as a social reformer, also boldly writing novels with daring subject matter such as prison conditions and prostitution.

On the other side of the fence, Eliot excepted, Maison struggles to find praiseworthy female authors, at least in the sense of quality:

    …from the eighteen-fifties onwards Evangelical writers busied themselves with sensational rather than psychological fiction and produced some very trashy tales of murders, hangings, elopements, shipwrecks, deathbeds full of unutterable agony, and dozens of wildly improbable conversions, all conveniently attributed to divine grace. In vain did the Pure Literature Society (founded in 1854 with three archbishops and sixteen bishops on the committee) rail against contemporary taste—the rising tide of sensationalism was too powerful to control. In 1863 the Religious Tract Society felt itself bound to lay down “the essential rules for healthful fiction”, insisting that it should be moral (not investing vice with interest), natural (not exaggerating its characters) and unexciting (not arousing the passions). But the rules were frequently broken by Evangelicals and although writers like Miss Fanny Mayne (a stalwart denouncer of sensationalism and champion of “a purified penny press”) kept within the prescribed limits and wrote about good working-class heroines who cooked their fathers’ dinners and did needlework for ladies and clung tenaciously to their Bibles, such stories did not please the public nearly as much as the more eventful and exciting ones.
    Hence the secret of Miss Worboise’s popularity. Emma Jane Worboise (Mrs Guyton) was a zealous Low Church writer who produced nearly fifty novels in which religious, domestic and sensational elements are all judiciously blended. She tells her stories well, and her portrayals of domestic life are not without psychological skill; indeed; she has left us several quite penetrating studies of the husband-wife relationship…

On the religious side, however:

Miss Worboise’s main interest…is in showing how people are brought to God… But her characters are always converted after some highly dramatic event, some bereavement or great shock or tragic calamity. It is no doubt a well-attested truth that God does draw many souls to Him through profoundly shattering experiences of this kind, but the frequency with which Miss Worboise employs this method of making conversions in her novels suggests that in her conception of the Divine Plan she attached an exaggerated importance to shock-tactics.

Before you ask—yes of course Miss Worboise is on The List; while I can’t leave this section of Search Your Soul, Eustace without quoting this passing observation from Dr Maison:

In minor Victorian fiction, governesses who are disguised wives are nearly as common as clergymen who are disguised Jesuits.

(We’ll get to the Jesuits in a minute…)

While the 19th century religious novel was thematically dominated by High Church / Low Church brawling, the Broad Church faction also weighed in on the conflict, in novels that appear to differ from their fellows chiefly in the occasional display of a sense of humour! Maison singles out F. W. Robinson in this respect, praising him for “satire without bitterness”. Furthermore:

Ridicule is indeed a weapon that Broad Church novelists use with considerable success, and it is not surprising that the most amusing religious novel of the century should come from a Liberal pen. The Reverend W. J. Conybeare’s Perversion (1856) is a neglected masterpiece of humorous fiction. (Lest the title might appear misleading, it should be noticed that the word “perversion” in popular Victorian usage had a religious and not a sexual significance, and to pervert or ‘vert meant to apostatise.) This book is written with the excellent purpose of showing how “the inconsistency, extravagance or hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians” has the effect of driving the young into infidelity, and it tells the story of a young man’s quest for faith and his wanderings in the mazes of ecclesiastic conflict and labyrinths of scepticism that characterise the mid-Victorian spiritual scene… Conybeare’s clerical portraits, his descriptions of the free-thinkers’ club at Oxford, and, mirabile dictu, life among the Mormons in America, are some of the funniest pieces of writing in all religious fiction…

Having devoted approximately half her text to this mainstream in-fighting, Maison then looks outwards, devoting a chapter each to the minority religions, and to those novels dealing with the loss of, or lack of, religious faith.

Though Catholicism appears most frequently in the 19th century novel in the form of anti-Catholicism, Catholic novelists also had plenty to say. First and foremost amongst them, of course, was John Henry Newman, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism was to the Tractarians like a bomb going off in their midst. (While we can easily imagine the astonished glee of the Evangelicals: “We warned you! We warned you, but you wouldn’t listen!”) After the event, Newman provided an account of his experiences in Loss And Gain, one of the most important Catholic novels.

But as Maison points out, nearly all the Catholic novels dealt with a conversion, and many of them were written by converts: this branch of religious fiction seems almost entirely driven by the need to explain the irresistible pull of faith. A particularly interesting novelist is Lady Georgiana Fullerton, who began to write novels at a time when her she was questioning her own faith, and did so throughout the process of her conversion to Catholicism and beyond. We should also note the sad case of Elizabeth Harris, who converted to Catholicism and then regretted it. She stayed within her new church, however—and began writing novels that warned people off converting!

Most of the Catholic novels are serious and well-intentioned, whatever their literary qualities. The same cannot be said for the anti-Catholic novel, however, nor for its perpetual villain, The Wicked Jesuit (who was sometimes granted a side-kick in the form of The Wicked She-Jesuit):

    Few modern horror comics could equal in crudity, sadism, hysteria and blood-curdling violence the story of Jesuits in popular Victorian fiction. From the best-selling literature of the day we see that the Jesuit loomed large in Protestant imagination as a villain of the blackest dye, a spy, a secret agent, suave, supercilious and satanically unscrupulous, laying his cunning plots for the submission of England to “Jesuit-ocracy”, wheedling rich widows, forcing his converts to change their wills in favour of his Order, or kneel in penitence almost naked for hours through chilly winter nights and to leave their families for life at a minute’s notice. When frustrated in his knavish tricks he would frequently gnash his teeth, foam at the mouth and write frantic letters in cypher…
    For the Jesuits were, to the average Englishman, objects of suspicion, fear and hatred throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, and the disguised Jesuit (sometimes referred to as a “crypto-Jesuit”) occupied the same place in popular fiction of the nineteenth century as the Communist spy in the fiction of today. The Oxford Movement, of course, increased the fear and hatred enormously, Tractarianism being considered by many Protestants as part of a devilish Jesuit plot to convert England—Puseyism, Popery and Jesuitism being to many unenlightened minds synonymous terms…

After noting the hysterical anti-Catholic fictions of Mary Martha Sherwood (best known for her hair-raising Evangelical children’s tale, The History Of The Fairchild Family), Maison becomes one of several academics to single out Hawkstone by William Sewell (brother of Elizabeth Sewell) as the very worst of the bunch:

Intending to show the British public what a ghastly mistake Newman had made in embracing the Scarlet Woman earlier that year, Sewell paints an abominable picture of Catholicism and makes his Jesuit villain a most loathsome character who foams at the mouth even more horribly than Mrs Sherwood’s Jesuits, and meets his death by being eaten alive by rats (full details given).

This branch of fiction also threw up another example of the kind of thing that made George Eliot tear her hair, with a number of female writers producing novels that posed as “religious” but were really about the thwarted agonies of Jesuits in love:

…in Miss Worboise’s Father Fabian (1875), a novel permitted for Sunday reading in many Protestant households, the hero, who has “a noble nature, warped and vitiated, forced…into uncongenial basesness”, falls in love with the governess in the wealthy household into which he has insinuated himself. To him too is meted out an untimely and repentant deathbed. (He also has a female accomplice, a “Jesuitess” with false curls, a “horrid little laugh” and a habit of putting emetic in people’s cough-mixtures.)

Catholic writers tried to push back against these two tides of nonsense—Maison particularly notes Grace Kennedy’s Father Oswald, A Genuine Catholic Story—but only succeeded in resembling the boy with his finger in the dyke.

When they weren’t having a go at the Catholics, Protestant authors of this ilk might be found having a go at the Dissenters:

If the Jesuit was only too often a nasty piece of work in Victorian fiction, so also was the Dissenter. But whereas the Jesuit and his intrigues were at least clever, exotic and exciting, the Dissenter was usually shown as ignorant, drab, provincial and depressing…

And while the Catholics were able to fight their own battle in this respect, the Dissenters faced an almost insuperable barrier:

    We have scores of satirical and hostile sketches and unfortunately, to offset them, we have very few religious novels describing the inner life of characters who find true faith in Dissent or who deepen and enrich their belief in any of the Free Churches…
    One reason for this is clear—the novel was not, among avowed Free Churchmen, the accepted medium for describing the life of the spirit Like some of the stricter Evangelicals in the Church of England, they considered the novel to be the Devil’s Bible, and the puritan conscience classed novel-reading with theatre-going and card-playing as worldly amusements sent by Satan to ensnare the soul…

Though a few Dissenters did defy this tacit ban in defence of their faith—the Methodist Hocking family prominent amongst them—they were often held by their fellows to have done more harm than good. The Dissenting minister, George MacDonald, who lost his job after antagonising his flock, turned to the novel in place of his pulpit, and found success with the general public, if not his own people. Elizabeth Gaskell, a Unitarian, dared to make a Nonconformist minister the effective hero of her controversial novel, Ruth, and to contrast him with him with his distinctly un-Christian Anglican counterpart.

More outside views, such as those presented by George Eliot in Adam Bede and Margaret Oliphant in Salem Chapel, were popular, but the most successful pro-Dissent novels were, curiously, usually imports from America, where the ban does not seem to have been interpreted so strictly (or maybe it was a Presbyterian thing):

Heroines of tender years were popular too, and several little girls exemplifying Nonconformist virtue in America crossed the Atlantic to invade the Victorian nursery. The most famous of these was Ellen in The Wide, Wide World (1851), a best-seller by the Presbyterian writer Elizabeth Wetherell (Susan Warner). Victorian maidens lapped up the story of Ellen’s trials and temptations, but amongst little boys it was not quite so welcome. Lord Frederick Hamilton tells us that, “In my early youth I was given a book to read about a tiresome little girl called Ellen Montgomery, who apparently divided her time between reading her pocket Bible and indulging in paroxysms of tears.” This tale, with its lively scenes of American life and its continual exhortations to remember “our dear Saviour”, “our best Friend”, “our Physician”, was approved by thousands of Protestant mothers, and Ellen’s popularity has survived to the extent of having her story serialised on BBC Children’s Television a hundred years later…

But while all might have been serene in the average Victorian nursery, the greater world outside was gripped by an unprecedented upheaval. Consequently, in the second half of the 19th century the religious novel found itself sitting side-by-side by something equally powerful and for many people much more emotionally true and moving, the novel of doubt:

For, although scepticism and unbelief have always existed and found a voice in literature, the dethronement of orthodoxy in the Victorian age was a major event of far-reaching consequences, and the reverberations from this mighty crash were minutely and accurately recorded in contemporary writings. Never has any age in history produced such a detailed literature of lost faith…
The Oxford Movement, by not letting sleeping clergy lie, and by showing that simple faith was not as simple as the ordinary Anglican imagined, raised a spectre of doubt, and although it quickened the faith of some to a new birth it almost completely destroyed the faith of others, while the conflicts that arose between science and orthodoxy, geology and Genesis, evolutionary theories and accepted beliefs, caused those warriors whose shield of faith was not very stout to find themselves miserably defeated… It would be interesting to compile a list of eminent Victorians who lost their faith in the fray, or to enumerate well-known figures who, having contemplated or been destined for a career in the ministry, were forced by their changing convictions to renounce it. (This latter group would include men so diverse as Carlyle, Clough, Ruskin, Morris, Butler, Pater, Hardy, Burne-Jones, Alfred Tennyson and his brother Frederick, J. A. Froude, Hale White and even Charles Darwin himself.)

In the middle of the century, doubters and free-thinkers were invariably either converted or killed off. While such themes remained in the later decades of the century (conversion became the more popular option), there arose a significant body of work in which such men – almost always men – were being treated as heroes by the novels that described them, and were as likely to convert someone else as be converted themselves.

Nevertheless, the main reason that the novel of doubt so captured the popular imagination was that they did not hesitate to depict all the pain and uncertainty associated with a change in belief: as Newman had admitted in 1844, there was loss as well as gain; and a shift in faith that might alienate an individual from all they had previously held dear was something to be treated with respect. It was this emotional and spiritual environment that gave birth to the era’s overwhelming best-seller, Mary Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, the story of a young minister who loses his faith, not in God, but in Christianity (this was a distinction often made). Ward was drawing upon her own crises of faith, and she returned to the same theme in her 1898 novel, Helbeck Of Bannisdale, which most unusually and daringly is the story of a female sceptic.

But in spite of the predominance of pain, there were those novelists who depicted a loss of faith as a new kind of freedom, a throwing off of weighty shackles. Those who felt that this in itself constituted sufficient material for a novel often made their central character a doctor: dedicated, hard-working, self-sacrificing—and faith-free. Other novelists, however, spoke for those who felt a void where their religion used to be, and sought to fill it with—well, what?

The fin-de-siècle aesthetes and decadents notoriously replaced it with the worship of beauty; others promoted what in an earlier time would have been called “good works”, and argued that religion had no monopoly on morality, charity and goodness; others again, though setting aside conventional worship, sought eagerly for what we might call “the historical Jesus”: trying, in effect, to wipe the slate and start over.

It is with a variation upon this final theme that Maison leaves us:

    …Marie Corelli saved the situation by rushing in where more learned novelists feared to tread. Not only did she popularise New Testament fiction in England, but she rescued the religious novel from the somewhat depressing rut of practical rationalism and pessimism into which it had fallen and exalted it into the glorious, miraculous and often very dizzy heights of a most vivid and extraordinary  Christocentric supernaturalism… No religious novel from this amazing pen is complete without a series of swoons, trances, psychic experiences, visitations of angels and aerial spirits, and generally an ecstatic vision of Christ himself to crown the day.
    In spite of the very glaring defects and limitations of Marie Corelli’s style it is an undeniable fact that she brought zest, vitality vision and imagination to the Victorian religious fiction at a time when it most needed them…

Religious novels, yes; novels of faith, certainly; but of a kind so bizarre and unique, readers of fifty years earlier would probably have added them to the bonfire, while even some contemporary readers were shocked and horrified:

    Thus the reign of Queen Victoria drew to its close, with Christianity being aestheticised, extroverted and even “electrified”, and Marie Corelli and Mrs Humphry Ward in undisputed sway as rulers of the religious novel, both commanding an enormous reading public and sales beyond the dreams of earlier novelists… Gresley and Paget, the fathers of Victorian theological fiction, would have been extremely shocked at the thought of such staggering influence allied to such staggering doctrines, for Miss Corelli’s eccentric revellings in supernatural fantasy and Mrs Ward’s earnest efforts on the other side to cope with “the crumbling of the Christian mythology” testify alike to the dissolution of traditional belief. The nemesis of a faith had at last received its popular recognition and acclamation, and the religious novel, the most influential ethical teacher of the time, fed the hungry sheep of late Victorian England with spiritual fare that differed considerably from the popular brands of nourishment offered fifty years earlier…
    The sixty or more years that separate us from the end of Queen Victoria’s reign have witnessed such great changes in literary taste and religious atmosphere that the majority of Victorian fictional sources of spiritual illumination, whether orthodox or unorthodox, Puseyite or Corellian, “infidel” or “perverted”, are now condemned to oblivion by the common reader of today, who neither understands nor appreciates the complicated theological traditions of his forefathers, and who generally finds crime more exciting than religion in fiction.
    But to the Victorian common reader, as we have seen, religion was an intensely exciting and absorbing affair. Even the religious novels least capable of communicating that excitement, three-deckers full of heavy didactic stodge with leading characters that are mere insipid “moral portraitures”, stiff, clumsy and lifeless (Paget’s pew was not the only “wooden hero” of a Victorian tale)—even these novels partly atone for their failure as fiction by demonstrating their authors’ deep concern with the Christian faith and by helping us to untangle some of the complex skeins of thought and belief in the Victorian age.

So I’m an “uncommon reader”? Cool!

One curious point about Search Your Soul, Eustace: Margaret Maison does not reveal within its pages the source of her title. (I should note that some territories found that title too facetious: this book was also published as The Victorian Vision: Studies in the Religious Novel.) But she does leave us a clue.

We have already met The Old Grey Church, the novel that provoked George Eliot. Allow me to reveal what was previously hidden under an ellipse:

This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero named Eustace who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness…

03/01/2016

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton

1689, and all that…

Fairly early last year I exasperated myself by stumbling across another work from the year I thought done and dusted: I was exasperated most of all because I couldn’t convince myself that it could legitimately be ignored.

The full title of this work is:

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton: giving an account of his birth, education, heroick exploits, and enterprises, his fights with giants, monsters, wild-beasts, and armies, his conquering kings and kingdoms, his love and marriage, fortunes and misfortunes, and many other famous and memorable things and actions, worthy of wonder: with the adventures of other knights, kings and princes, exceeding pleasant and delightful to read

There are two copies of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton accessible electronically, via the Early English Books Online project, the indirect source of most of my 17th century material. Ordinarily I download these early works in PDF form and read them on my eReader, but it soon became apparent that I would not be able to do so in this instance.

To my dismay, both copies of Sir Bevis exhibited a deadly combination of bleed-through and fade-out:

bevis5b

 

bevis6b

 

The fact that the entire book was printed in an almost-indecipherable Gothic font was merely the punchline to a bad joke.

However—by reading online, with the image blown up so as to give me some chance of dealing with the font, and by toggling between Copy A and Copy B as their individual idiosyncrasies demanded, I was finally able to decipher the text—and all for the low, low price of a splitting headache!

Imagine my “exceeding pleasure and delight”, then, when Sir Bevis turned out to be a Crusade-y sort of story, wherein Muslims who trick and deceive Christians are an evil scourge, while Christians who trick and deceive Muslims are pure and immaculate heroes; and Muslims who kill Christians are the tool of the devil, while Christians who kill Muslims are glorifying their God.

And let’s just say there was a whole lotta glorifying God going on.

After pondering the question, I’ve decided that I don’t want or need to go any further into the content of Sir Bevis: there’s nothing at all remarkable about it in a literary sense. It’s the bigger picture, the existence of Sir Bevis in this format in the first place, that is the important point, and the reason I couldn’t bring myself to just skip over it.

The story of Bevis of Hampton is much, much older than its 1689 rendering. For once, I think it’s easiest just to quote Wikipedia:

Bevis of Hampton (Old French: Beuve(s) or Bueve or Beavis de Hanton(n)e; Anglo-Norman: Boeve de Haumtone; Italian: Buovo d’Antona) or Sir Bevois, is a legendary English hero and the subject of Anglo-Norman, Dutch, French, English, Venetian and other medieval metrical romances that bear his name. The tale also exists in medieval prose versions, was transmitted to Romania and Russia, and was adapted into Dutch, Irish, Welsh, Old Norse and Yiddish… The oldest extant version, Boeve de Haumtone, an Anglo-Norman text, dates from the first half of the 13th century. It comprises 3,850 verses written in alexandrines.

(3,850 verses!? Apparently I should be counting my blessings…)

The story of this story is remarkable, and worth a read in full – here – particularly the assertion, one hard to argue with, that some version of this story was influential in the creation of Hamlet. (Long story short, Bevis’s mother conspires with her lover to murder her husband and son; the husband is killed but Bevis is saved and hidden by his maternal uncle, and later comes back for revenge—he’s a lot less indecisive about it than his descendent.)

Historically, the tale of Sir Bevis was astonishingly popular (which makes me feel a little bad for hating the 1689 version so very much). However, the aspect of it that I want to focus on is the shifting formats of the re-telling of the legend. As noted, this story was most often told in the form of an epic poem, either the English metrical romance or the French chanson de geste; with translations and adaptations toggling back and forth between the two nations before spreading to other countries and languages. Remarkably, the story of Sir Bevis became the first non-religious work to be printed in Yiddish, albeit in a somewhat de-Christianised version. (I’m curious how that might have worked, given the traditional plot…)

In England, meanwhile, version after version of Sir Bevis appeared in Middle English, all apparently descended from a single, earlier, now-lost work, but all of them telling the story in their own way and each varying significantly from the other. Modern scholars, attempting to reissue “the” story of Bevis in Middle English, were confronted with six manuscripts telling four or five different stories. That most commonly reprinted now is that taken from the so-called “Auchinleck manuscript” held by the National Library of Scotland, a codex dating from the 14th century. However, modern editors are at pains to acknowledge that this choice was made purely on the relative completeness of the available text, and should not be taken as privileging one version of the story over the others.

Versions of Bevis continued to appear in England over the following centuries: that by William Copland, which first appeared around 1560, is the oldest surviving complete edition; and this eventually became the “standard” version, being reissued regularly well into the 17th century. In fact, as the Spanish romances grew enormously in popularity in England, the story of Sir Bevis was the only local production to keep its audience; although it did eventually fall out of favour in the late 17th century, at least as a poem.

And THIS, my friends, is the real significance of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton. Other countries had gone in the same direction literally centuries before (Russia seems to have gotten there first), but in England, where the Puritan resistance to fiction was a significant factor in the late emergence of the novel, it was not until 1689 that someone – we don’t know who – had the bright idea of taking William Copland’s epic poem and re-telling the legend in prose.

This, to me, is further evidence that during the closing years of the 17th century, the novel was becoming the dominant form of literary entertainment in England. It was no longer necessary to pretend to be telling a true story; it was no longer necessary to say “history” when you really meant “novel”. And it was perfectly okay to take a 350-year-old poem and turn it into a work of fiction, because that is what the English people wanted to read.

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02/01/2016

More than ordinarily pear-shaped

Well…2015 rather fell apart there, didn’t it? I’m sure that those of you who visit here – and other places – are tired of listening to me whinge, so I’ll just say that some significant personal issues developed over the second half of the year, which prevented me from giving much time to any of my hobbies. I am trying to make some changes at the moment, and I hope that we will all see an improvement in 2016.

As far as this blog in concerned, I am utterly mortified to realise that the putative main subject thread – that is, the development of the English novel – did not get a single update during 2015. There were a couple of reasons for this, none of them very satisfactory: the unappealing nature of the material was one (though that never stopped me before), while another was the fact that after signing off the year 1689 with a flourish some twelve months ago, I immediately came across another item from that year that I was unable to persuade myself could be legitimately ignored. I did read the item in question (short version: erk), but didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully with the help of a little loin-girding, it will be showing up here before too much longer.

A side-reason for not progressing in the Chronobibliography was the introduction of the Australian fiction section, which proved a major distraction. I also made some progress with my examination of early crime fiction, with posts on Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Catharine Crowe’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights. I also read Frances Trollope’s Hargrave, another important work in this respect…which had the effect of sending me off on yet another tangled tangent…

…because YET ANOTHER TOPIC AREA is exactly what I need right now.

When researching Hargrave, I discovered that several of Frances Trollope’s novels have crime themes, and should probably be included in this section of reviews. However—it was also asserted that a major influence upon Trollope, and in particular her tendency to mix disparate genres in her novels, was Edward Bulwer-Lytton, specifically his 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures Of A Gentleman.

This is where it gets complicated. Pelham in turn had been influenced by Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, which was published the year before. Both of these novels drew heavily upon what is considered the first Bildungsroman, Johann Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship—and themselves influenced that odd, transitional English subgenre, the “Silver Fork Novel”…a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle, but put off because I felt I had quite enough to be going on with…

Which is of course beyond true. Trouble is, though, I’m now struggling to see this collision of elements as anything other than A SIGN.

Sigh.

So – as the panic begins to take hold – what is on the horizon? Four unwritten posts, to start with, consisting of my second attempt to draw a line under 1689, a “Reading Roulette” selection, another study of the 19th century religious novel, and of course Hargrave. This being the case, new material is the last thing I should be pursuing; but I’ve recently discovered that there may be an opportunity to get my hands on a copy of one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s more obscure early works via academic loan. If that does work out, it will be a case of drop everything.

Because let’s face it, everything’s better with Braddon.

23/10/2015

The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight

BlackBand1    In the lanes and alleys of the city, in the dismal rookeries where destitution and crime herd together in dismal companionship, the thief plies his dangerous trade, and the thief-catcher watches for his victim. In the gayer streets of the Western world of rank and fashion, the wretched daughters of sin, with silken garments and aching hearts, wait upon the miscalled pleasures of the wealthy and dissipated. Guilt and degradation are abroad beneath the midnight sky. Crime stalks beneath the quiet stars, and fears not to show its hideous face, hidden from the broader light of day…
    Oh wondrous mysteries of midnight! The felon doomed to die on the early morrow waits the coming of his executioner, with parched and burning lips which refuse to pray; with listening ears that count the strokes of the last hours left for his guilty soul; with dazzled eyes that see strange sights in the dim obscurity of his narrow cell; visions of horror and departed peace; of his victim’s death struggle, and of the happy home of his childhood. Oh, who shall tell of the tortures of the murderer’s last midnight? Far away in foreign lands, the soldier watches in his tent, on the eve of some decisive battle. He may never again hear the hour of twelve strike from distant turrets. There are prayers to be hastily murmured—prayers whose sincerity none can doubt, whose acceptance who shall fear? There are letters to be written to the grey-haired mother, tender words to the fair young wife waiting and hoping in the distant English home; while far away the clashing of arms, the galloping of horses’ hoofs, tell of preparations for the coming morn.
    No, midnight is not the hour of rest and silence we are so apt to deem it. The mighty wheel of Life and Time still rolls on. The ceaseless waves of the ocean still bent on the troubled shore; and that which is more restless than the ocean wave, or hurrying cloud, the heart of man, still fights the terrible battle—still suffers and still sins…

One of the remarkable things – one of the many remarkable things – about Mary Elizabeth Braddon is that while she was pursuing a successful public career as the author of “real” albeit rather shocking novels meant for middle- and upper-class readers, she was simultaneously toiling away at penny dreadfuls published in magazines aimed at the working-classes. Most of Braddon’s work in this area was conducted anonymously, and it is only recently that her activities have been brought to light.

Braddon’s first attempt at a penny dreadful was The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran in The Halfpenny Journal between July 1861 – June 1862 at an average of two chapters per week. In 1877, the tale was reissued in book form by the publisher George Vickers, but it was heavily abridged; there was likewise a pirated American edition which was even more altered from the original. The Black Band was not reissued unabridged until 1998, when The Sensation Press released a limited edition.

It is easy enough to see the connection between The Black Band and Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris; in fact, imitations of Sue’s work were popular for many years, with authors all around the world offering to reveal “The Mysteries Of—” this, that or the other city to their wide-eyed readers. The difference is that Sue used his sprawling serial as a forum in which to raise and debate various social issues, whereas his copyists were, for the most part, content to shock and entertain. The latter is mostly true of Braddon’s work, although – typically, as we have already seen – she does also voice a number of social criticisms when her plot allows.

Another connection between The Black Band and Les Mystères de Paris is that its constantly multiplying storylines* make it impossible to review; all we can really do is offer an outline of its dizzyingly complicated tangle of subplots, and then highlight some of its more interesting features.

(*In the Sensation Press edition, The Black Band runs 612 pages; Braddon is still introducing new characters and subplots at page 505.)

Rather than “a plot”, as such, The Black Band has a central premise, one which allows Braddon to pile incident upon incident upon incident for one hundred and one breathless – not say exhausting – chapters, most of which end upon a cliff-hanger. Along the way, the reader is edified with murder, attempted murder, adult abduction, baby abduction, death-faking, imprisonment, attempted rape, forgery, bigamy, arson, robbery, a mock marriage, illegitimacy, insanity, suicide, a variety of betrayal and treachery, and some extremely bloody vengeance.

It can be fairly said, I think, that the readers of The Halfpenny Journal got rather more than their money’s worth.

So: at the centre of this story is Colonel Oscar Bertrand, an Austrian soldier of high social standing, but who is also the head of a secret criminal organisation called “The Black Band”, otherwise known as “The Companions Of Midnight”:

“I am the centre of a system so vast in its operations, that it extends over the greatest part of civilised Europe. I am the captain of a company so large that there are men in it upon whose faces I have never looked, and never expect to look. It is a company which, though continually at war with society, can yet – secure in its internal strength and the unfailing prudence of its operations – afford to defy society year after year. Recall to your recollection some of those gigantic robberies which have startled the wealthiest cities of Europe – robberies in which a skill has been displayed partaking almost of the supernatural – robberies which have defied the determination and the perseverance of the cleverest police in Europe, and which have remained undiscovered until this hour. Remember these, and you may form some idea of the resources of the mysterious company of which I speak.”

We eventually learn that Bertrand’s ultimate personal goal is to establish himself himself with the Austrian government by bringing about the destruction of those who have devoted themselves to freeing Venice from Austrian rule.

Braddon became aware of Italy’s struggle for independence when she was commissioned to write the epic poem Garibaldi in 1860, and she put her researches to effective if somewhat cynical use in The Black Band. Although she positions her Venetians amongst her “good” characters and shows herself sympathetic with their cause, ultimately their role is to step up at the end of the story, when it’s time for gruesome retribution to be dished out to her bad characters; thus leaving her good English characters with clean hands.

We note with amusement that most of those good characters have something in common: The Black Band is full to overflowing with poor and/or working-class people who are happy because they are virtuous; whereas all the rich people are miserable, and most of them criminal. While obviously this is Braddon catering to her target audience, it is not mere pandering: we must remember that Braddon herself knew what it was to be poor, and to struggle to earn a living wage. Her family was left in an extremely precarious situation after her irresponsible father finally did a bunk (not coincidentally, I’m sure, The Black Band is full of terrible fathers; the one or two good ones are adoptive, not biological), which led to Braddon going on the stage when she was only a teenager. When she speaks bitterly of starvation wages and the battle simply to survive from day to day, we can feel that she is drawing upon her own early experiences.

While he keeps a company of professional burglars at his disposal, most of what we see of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment to his criminal society is done amongst the upper-classes—where there is no shortage of secrets to be exploited. Bertrand will help cover up a crime, if that is what is needed, or he will help in the commission of one. He particularly excels in helping people to come into possession of, or to keep, a fortune—for a price, of course.

Bertrand is one of these super-criminals who never seems to sleep. He spends his time flying from one end of England to the other, and from England to Italy and back again, seeking out dirty secrets he can use to bind new members of the Black Band to him, and others from which he can profit. Bertrand is a master manipulator, who uses the weakness and greed of others to his own ends. Recruits to the Black Band are tied to the society under threat of death, should they try to leave or betray the society in any way.

The Black Band opens with scenes of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment of Lionel Mountford:

    The face of the young nobleman grew ghastly white at the Colonel’s last words. “And you ask me to join a band of robbers?” he said.
    “I ask you to do what better men have done before you,” said Colonel Bertrand, coldly. “Members of the company have been the inhabitants of palaces before today. From the highest to the lowest—the strength of the band lies in that. Wherever there is genius, courage, endurance, and patience; a hand that can strike, or withhold from striking; a tongue that can be silent, and a head that can think,—wherever there are these, there is a worthy member. High or low, let him enter the band. He will never leave it.”
    “Your words appal me,” said Lord Lionel, gloomily.
    “Will you join us – yes or no?” said the Colonel.
    “What do you promise me if I do join you?”
    “The wealth you desire, and the hand of Lady Edith Vandeleur before the next year is out.”

And on these terms Lionel recklessly throws in his lot with the Black Band. He is blindfolded and carried off to a strange rendezvous with an assembly of masked men:

    “You hear, brother,” said the Colonel, “you are accepted by the Companions of Midnight. Is it not so, brothers?”
    The masked company raised their hands simultaneously. Lord Lionel noticed that while many of the hands were coarse and large, others were small, white, and delicate, and adorned with costly rings.
    “Executioners of the Order, advance!” said the Colonel.
    Two men rose, and advanced from the opposite sides of the amphitheatre. They were both dressed in black from head to foot, and Lord Lionel perceived that they each wore a long slender knife, fastened to a belt which went round their waists.
Each of them silently took one of Lord Lionel’s hands, which he held while the Colonel uttered the following words,—
    “Executioners of the Order of the Companions of Midnight, the brother whose hand you now clasp will never be harmed by you, while faithful to the society which he this night swears to serve. If unfaithful to that society, he will become yours to strike when you can, and how you can. Mercy is unknown to you – you are the blind and pitiless instruments of the order to which you belong. If the new brother is too weak to take the oath of the Order, let him release your hands as I speak these words. If he holds your hands after these words, he is supposed to have taken the oath. If he refuses to join, let him drop the hands of the executioners.”
    A deadly shiver agitated the frame of the young nobleman, but his hands tightened upon the hands of the executioners, which he grasped with convulsive strength…

The woman for whom Lionel takes this drastic step is one of The Black Band‘s wickedest pleasures, with Braddon showing what she could do when her hands weren’t tied by tenets of middle-class morality. Lady Edith Vandeleur loves Lionel Mountford (albeit that her feelings are repeatedly qualified with remarks like, “As far as a woman of her nature could love—“), but she will not marry a penniless younger son. She wants fortune and splendour, and a title if she can get it. It is her cold-blooded spurning of Lionel that drives him into Oscar Bertrand’s clutches.

However, not knowing that the Colonel is keeping his word to Lionel by disposing of his elder brother, a wealthy Marquis, Edith lures into marriage Robert Merton, “the millionaire-merchant”. Driven frantic by her subsequent discovery that, had she bided her time just a little longer, she really could have had it all, Edith herself becomes Colonel Bertrand’s next recruit—and she, the daughter of an earl, raised in luxury and privilege, takes to a life of crime like a duck to water.

Braddon has a lot of evil fun with Lady Edith, having her move from one shocking piece of behaviour to the next, and dwelling in mock-horror upon her transgressions, each one worse than the last, even while she punctuates her narrative with tut-tut passages like this one:

    “Goodness, virtue, truth!” she cried, with a sneer; “will those win me admiration or respect? No! I must be able to outdo them all in pomp and splendour, and then, though they may hate me, they will bow to me, and lick the dust under my feet.”
    If anybody who beheld this lovely creature (crowned with snow-white flowers, emblems of the purity which was a stranger to her guilty soul), could have known the secrets of her wicked heart, how loathsome would her grandeur and beauty have appeared!
    How far before her the poorest cottage girl, walking barefoot over her native heath, whose heart could glow with a sincere affection, and whose soul could scorn a falsehood!

And of course, Braddon serves up several poor-but-virtuous young women to act as a direct foil for Edith, the most prominent of whom is Clara Melville who, interestingly enough, works as a dancer to help support her father and younger siblings. And Clara is not the only one of Braddon’s good characters who is “on the stage”: Clara is befriended by a prima ballerina called Lolota Vizzini, who is a foreigner as well as a professional performer, but who is warm-hearted, generous and thoroughly honest. We also have an actor called Antony Verner, who is a quiet, well-behaved, high-principled young man.

At one point, Clara is hired to perform in a Christmas pantomime. As she prepares to make her debut, we get a sudden interjection from Braddon:

Merry children with bright and joyous faces were assembled in the boxes; happy tradespeople, dressed in their best, filled the crowded benches in the pit; stalwart mechanics, in tier after tier, looked down from the immense and noisy gallery. All was noise, bustle, and enjoyment. It was altogether a pleasant sight to see; and the austere teachers, who cavil at the harmless amusements afforded by a well-conducted theatre, might have learned a lesson thgat night. Husbands were there, surrounded by their wives and children; brothers with their sisters. Surely this was better than the gin palaces…

Braddon’s personal exasperation with the automatic damning of the stage as “immoral” is very evident through these subplots. She goes out of her way to show how performing is just a job like any other and that, if young women on “the stage” do go wrong, it is not because of any inherent immorality, but because of greedy employers who pay wages their performers cannot live on—particularly if they are working to support dependents. And because she is talking to a working-class readership, Braddon can speak frankly about the sheer necessity that drives young girls to supplement their incomes by immoral means; and while she does not condone this choice, neither does she condemn the girls who make it, keeping her anger for the men who prey, one way or another, upon the vulnerable.

(In pursuit of her argument, Braddon introduces a theatre manager called Rupert de Lancey, who pays his young women as little as he can get away with, among other wrongs. There is so much venom in Braddon’s sketch, and she kills de Lancey off so horribly, that we can only conclude he was based on someone she knew in her theatre days.)

Daringly, Braddon makes Clara Melville, who we must call the heroine of The Black Band, a ballet-dancer attached to the Opera House: these young women had the worst reputation of all those in the various stage professions, with many a young man treating the environs of their theatre as their hunting-ground. Clara, however, wants only to do her work, earn her wage, and go home. Her beauty attracts attention, but she is scrupulous in avoiding the men who hang around the stage doors—until she encounters one who will not take no for an answer, in the form of the old roué, Sir Frederick Beaumorris. Enraged by the scorn with which Clara spurns him, Sir Frederick has her abducted and carried off to a property in France that he keeps for these situations. He doesn’t believe that Clara really means what she said to him, mind you; he assumes she’s merely trying to drive up her price; but if she did mean it, well, that’s just too bad…

Clara avoids A Fate Worse Than Death by the unexpected intervention of Oscar Bertrand, who forestalls that, at least, by revealing to Sir Frederick that she is actually his own niece, the daughter of the younger brother whom he defrauded and left destitute by means of a forged will. This knowledge does not make Sir Frederick any less eager to destroy Clara; he just alters his approach. He joins the Black Band in exchange for assistance in keeping his crime concealed; which, since it turns out that the original will was not destroyed after all (one of the conspirators getting cold feet), may require the permanent removal of Jasper Melville, aka Arthur Beaumorris, and of his daughter, Clara.

One of the most outrageous characters in The Black Band is Dr Montague Valery, a West End physician who maintains a successful practice despite the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients; or rather, because of the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients:

    It was strange that, clever as the physician was, he rarely went into a house whose threshold was not speedily crossed by the dark visitant, Death.
    The wife, whose husband Montague Valery attended, wore weeds soon after the coming of the physician. The heir, who summoned Valery to attend his father, rarely waited long for his heritage. Behind the doctor stalked the invisible form of Death; and, go where he would, the undertaker was apt to follow.
    He was at home when Sir Frederick Beaumorris called…

The will that should have enriched Arthur Beaumorris is eventually unearthed in the rackety old house which Antony Verner shares with his mother, and which in time also becomes the home of Clara and her younger siblings. The house previously belonged to Antony’s uncle, who was one of Sir Frederick’s co-conspirators, and who said just enough on his deathbed to let his nephew know there was a mystery. On Clara’s behalf, Antony hires a lawyer to instigate proceedings against Sir Frederick Beaumorris in the Court of Chancery, and that lawyer, Weldon Hawdley, comes accessorised by a shabby-looking, middle-aged clerk. It is, however, soon evident who the brains of the outfit is, and that whatever professional success Hawdley has had, it has been on the back of the efforts of Joshua Slythe, who progressively emerges as the unlikely hero of The Black Band.

As with Lady Edith, Braddon has a lot of fun with this improbable but entertaining character; though we sense she’s not kidding with her contention that real heroes do sometimes come in very unexpected forms:

Again Joshua heard the key turned in the door. He wondered what was meant by this proceeding on the part of the agent. A coward would have trembled. Alone, in a strange house, in a strange corner of town, and completely in the power of a wretch, whose character he knew to be infamous, Joshua Slythe was certainly in no pleasant situation; but the old clerk was not an ordinary man; fear to him was utterly unknown. Many a stalwart giant, upwards of six feet high, might have envied the brave spirit of the lawyer’s confidential clerk.

We have seen already, in our examination of The Trail Of The Serpent, that Braddon was an important figure in the development of English crime fiction, and she takes another step in that role here. Slythe is not really a detective, but he is an investigator; he is also the honest (and of course, working-class) counterpart of Oscar Bertrand, in that he has a profound understanding of human nature in its blackest forms, and an unerring instinct for a secret. His hard-earned knowledge has left Slythe with a cynical patina, but he is unshakeably on the side of the angels. Late in the book he forms a couple of interesting working partnerships, the first with a pugnacious farmer, John Atkinson, the second with Antony. Both men are initially bewildered by Slythe’s manoeuvring; both, however, quickly learn to follow his orders without question.

It is Slythe, then, who tracks down Arthur Beaumorris after he is abducted and imprisoned in a private lunatic asylum; it is Slythe who recognises Montague Valery’s evil designs upon Arthur and Clara, and takes steps to circumvent them; and it is Slythe who breaks up the burglary arm of the Black Band’s English branch (although amusingly, most of the criminals succeed in escaping the law; still, their activities are put a stop to).

Meanwhile—

We left Lady Edith furiously and disgustedly married to Robert Merton. To cut a very long story short, she tries to murder her husband, fails and is caught, is incarcerated (privately, under the guise of “madness”, to avoid shaming her family), escapes and flees, all at the prompting, and with the connivance, of Oscar Bertrand (well, except for the failure), who subsequently reunites Edith with Lionel and packs the pair of them off to Venice, where Lionel’s job is to infiltrate and betray an important anti-Austrian secret society.

While separated from Edith due to the events above summarised, Lionel made the acquaintance of Lolota Vizzini, who fell in love with him. At that time, Lionel was still fixated upon Edith, but he was clear-sighted enough to recognise the vast difference between the two women (that is, between the foreign ballerina and the earl’s daughter), and likewise the very different quality of Lolota’s love. However, even had Lionel then been able to cure himself of his love for Edith, it could not have been—because Lolota is a married woman.

At seventeen, Lolota married a man she did not love to escape her brutal father, only to discover that she had merely gone from frying-pan to fire. She eventually separated from Antonio Vecchi and struck out on her own, finding success and fame as a dancer; however, her achievements bring her no happiness because of her situation, with Vecchi turning up periodically to demand large sums of money as the price of staying away.

Vecchi is a member of the Black Band (no big surprise, there) and he is tasked with carrying the information gained by Lionel back to London. Vecchi is a serial betrayer, with a history of joining political societies, learning their secrets, and selling them to the highest bidder; he decides to circumvent Bertrand and carry his information directly to Austria, to reap all the benefits himself. It is, of course, a fatal mistake:

    Colonel Bertrand took a key from his pocket, and deliberately unlocked the grated door of the cell. He stood aside as he opened this door, and, with a howl of fury, an enormous tiger bounded from its den and leapt upon the Italian traitor. It seemed as if the animal had power to divine the purpose of its master.
    The dagger dropped from the hand of Antonio Vecchi. He fell to the ground beneath the weight of the powerful animal. The atmosphere was filled with blood. He was helpless—suffocated. The weight of the monster’s paws upon his breast stifled him, a jerk, and the spinal cord was dislocated, the traitor expired…

Yes, that’s right: Oscar Bertrand keeps a tiger around, just in case.

Although this dramatic execution is intended both to fulfil the conditions of the warning contained in the oath that all members take to the Society, and to act as a grim warning to those watching, it naturally has the side-effect of widowing Lolota Vizzini; so that when she and Lionel meet again, she is no longer a married woman…

In Venice, Lionel and Edith pose as brother and sister, she furthermore as the widow of a French nobleman. Lionel at this time is as miserable as he can be, worn down by guilt and self-hatred, and by something else:

    For years Lady Edith had been the lodestar of his existence—the bright and wandering meteor leading him through seas of guilt, indifferent whither he went in pursuit of her he loved.
    But, during those past years he had only seen her at intervals. He had beheld her the queen of a ball-room, the idol of a crowd—he had seen only her beauty and fascination, and for these he had alone worshipped her.
    Within the last few weeks he had learnt to know her!

Such is Lionel’s state of mind when he discovers that Lolota is appearing in Venice; Lolota, whom he has learned to appreciate and to love. In their moment of reunion, neither can conceal their emotion—Edith sees it clearly enough, and is overwhelmed with jealous rage. Even as Lionel and Lolota make secret – they think – plans to flee, from Edith and the Black Band alike, Edith begins making plans of revenge. The lovers intend to slip away to Naples in the first instance, travelling separately to avoid attracting attention. This gives Edith her chance: working with a conspirator from the Black Band, she succeeds in decoying Lolota into a fever-ridden corner of the city, gloating at the thought that even if Lionel manages to find her, he will only find a corpse…

That taken care of, Edith makes plans for her own future:

    Within a fortnight of Lord Willoughby’s departure from Venice, the marriage of the Marquis and Constance de Grancy (it was thus that Edith called herself) was solemnised with great pomp and splendour in the church of St Mark.
    Lady Edith had declared herself a Roman Catholic. What mattered the difference of creed to this fiend in human form—this worshipper of Satan, who could scarcely have believed in the existence of an all-seeing and avenging Deity.
    The vows were spoken which united Constance de Grancy and Lorenzo de Montebello in the holy bonds of matrimony. The would-be-murderess added the guilt of bigamy to her list of crimes.

Throughout her time in Venice, Edith has lived in dread of meeting someone who knows her as Lady Edith Vandeleur or, worse, as Lady Edith Merton. Should this happen, her plan is simply to deny her identity and brazen it out; but this doesn’t work when it is Oscar Bertrand who confronts her. The information gathered by Lionel had no long-term effect upon the conspirators, and the Black Band needs to try again. Edith’s husband knows when and where the next meeting of the anti-Austrian society is to be held: Bertrand gives her a week to get the information out of him; if she fails, she will be exposed.

Edith succeeds, but only just; in the extreme urgency of the matter, she and Bertrand are just a little careless: their conversation is overheard…

Braddon concludes The Black Band by dealing out happiness and retribution with a liberal hand—in a few cases, we are surprised at who is deemed worthy to warrant the former, or at least to avoid the latter. However, there’s never any question of what’s coming for Lady Edith and Oscar Bertrand, after their plot against the Venetians is discovered.

On one hand:

    The niche, or recess, measured about three feet and a half in breadth, and six feet in height… As Lady Edith looked at these things a stalwart figure emerged from the opening in the rock, and Black Carlo appeared before the masked leader.
    “We have done our work, Captain,” he said.
    “Ay,” answered the mask, “and you have done it quickly and well. The niche is neatly made, and we have brought the statue.”
    One of the masked guards laughed.
    “Come, Signora,” said the Captain, “can you guess now why we have brought you here?”
    “To murder me!” exclaimed Lady Edith.
    “No,” answered the mask, with horrible deliberation; “to bury you alive!

…while on the other, Oscar Bertrand is lured into drinking some “wine” prepared by a scientifically inclined member of the Venetian society:

The handsome face of the Austrian was now a ghastly and revolting spectacle. Every spark of intelligence had fled from his once brilliant eyes. His chin fell forward upon his breast, and his under lip hung powerless upon his chin, while a white foam oozed slowly from his open mouth. His head, which, four-and-twenty hours before, had been carried with the haughty grace of an emperor, now trembled like the head of some wretched being in the last stage of decay. His hands hung loosely from his wrists, as if every sinew had been withered and every nerve destroyed. He stared straight before him—his dull meaningless laughed the discordant gibbering laugh of an idiot…

This is our last glimpse of Colonel Oscar Bertrand in The Black Band:

The wretched creature burst into a loud peal of shrill laughter, and tottered away, gibbering and mouthing as he went…

Note, however, that Braddon does not explicitly kill him off. Even at this early stage of her writing career, she knew better than to do THAT to her master-criminal…

BlackBand2

19/09/2015

Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights

Crowe2bThe common persuasion that accidents of fortune, good or ill, never come singly, is very often remarkably confirmed by the number of sudden and simultaneous circumstances that, without visible connexion between one another, contribute to the detection of crime—especially, and most notedly, with respect to cases of murder—each, perhaps, separated from the rest, undecisive; but the whole, when taken together, forming a body of evidence not to be resisted. These are the fruits of time, which, having borne and matured in her bosom, she puts forth in the perfect season; and it is a harvest that so rarely fails, that the doers of evil, however cunningly their crime has been contrived—though they may believe it buried a thousand fathoms deep from human eyes, may rest assured, that the seeds of their destiny are sown, that the tree is springing, and the blossoms falling, and that they are only respited until Time is ripe

I have already examined Catharine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley, and cited it as an important work in the development of crime and detective fiction. It now turns out that her follow-up work, 1843’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights, is even more so. Like the earlier novel, this is a long, digressive work of fiction, with frequent authorial interjections, multiple subplots, a constantly shifting scene and a dizzying cast of characters; but strip all these distractions away, and what we are left with is a thoroughly engaging and surprisingly modern murder mystery.

I say “surprisingly” advisedly: it is truly remarkable how much of what we take for granted today in this genre puts in an appearance in this novel. For instance, we have:

    • a murder victim so hateful, we don’t have to feel sorry he’s dead
    • numerous suspects with good and sufficient motive
    • the person to whom most of the evidence points being self-evidently innocent
    • an official investigation conducted through the stepwise interrogation of witnesses
    • various interested parties playing amateur detective
    • clues and red herrings scattered through the plot
    • a second murder to cover up the first
    • a race against time to prevent a miscarriage of justice

On the other hand, what’s missing from Men And Women is a central detective figure—a literary construct that would not appear for another twenty years or so. Though written in 1843, this novel is set during the Napoleonic era—before the establishment of the English police force. When murder is committed, there is an official investigation conducted by a panel of local magistrates; it is one of the novel’s pleasant surprises that these men remain level-headed and clear-eyed as they conduct their inquiry, proceeding in a logical, intelligent manner, and being swayed neither by emotion nor class prejudice. However, their job is not to discover the truth, but only to make out a prima facie case against a suspect.

Meanwhile, as in Adventures Of Susan Hopley, various other people begin to investigate the case for reasons of their own. In the earlier novel, it was the victim’s business partner and his lawyer who teamed up to uncover the truth; here, pitted against a faction determined that his client will be found guilty of the murder, the young barrister representing one of the main suspects conducts a personal investigation, initially in the hope of finding enough evidence against someone else to create reasonable doubt, but at last because he stumbles onto the truth—although whether he can prove it is another matter…

Men And Women opens by introducing us to the Rivers family, the head of which is an inveterate gambler—and one, moreover, who insists upon no curtailing of expenditure, in order to “keep up appearances”. The crash comes, with Marmaduke Rivers imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench prison, and his wife and three daughters forced to give up their comfortable, socially prominent life and begin a hand-to-mouth existence in squalid lodgings. This experience offers the cold comfort of teaching them who their real friends are: most of their old acquaintances drop away from them immediately. On the other hand, Henry Russell – who is in love with Caroline, the second daughter – does them very practical service by visiting Mr Rivers in prison and compounding with his creditors, while the ladies gain a new friend in Elias Longfellow, an artist and fellow-lodger, a terminally shy and awkward young man, but one whose heart is as big as he is tall. (He understandably hates his name; the ladies tactfully call him “Mr Elias”.)

After this opening, the narrative shifts abruptly and somewhat confusingly to the environs of York, where is situated the country estate of Sir John Eastlake. Sir John, we learn, is in many ways an admirable man—he is regarded as one by the members of his own class, anyway—although there is no shortage of people who would contend that his positive qualities are cancelled by his cynical contempt for the female sex, and in particular his habit of treating his tenants’ daughter as his private crop for harvesting.

When the story begins, Sir John has already left numerous tragedies in his wake – we hear of a fatherless girl called Bessy Lee, who has recently died (either in childbirth or by her own hand) – and we meet him in mid-pursuit of Jessie Matthieson, a pretty but fatally vain village girl, who preens herself on having “the squire” in her toils, and as a consequence slights and neglects Leonard Graham, the farmer’s son to whom she is “sort of” engaged—that is, everyone assumes they will marry someday. Nevertheless, Jessie has no intention of accepting the squire’s lures—or at least, she doesn’t until Sir John, growing bored, suddenly diverts his attention to Lucy Graham, Leonard’s lovely young sister.

Both because of her firm moral upbringing and because she engaged to a young soldier called William Bell – and because she is no fool – Lucy finds the squire’s pursuit of her completely distasteful, and she tries to avoid him whenever she can: no easy task, as she often summoned to “the Castle” to do needlework for his mother. It never crosses Sir John’s mind that Lucy genuinely wants nothing to do with him: he concludes that she is simply playing hard to get, and escalates his pursuit of her into outright harassment, lying in wait for her and manhandling her whenever he gets an opportunity, and scornfully laughing away her frantic pleas that he leave her alone.

Village gossip is not slow to conclude that Lucy Graham is an artful minx, who behind her prim and proper façade is no better than she should be; no better than Jessie Matthieson who, her self-love mortified by being passed over for Lucy, begins throwing herself in the squire’s way again and finally gives in to him…

This interlude is conducted so discreetly that no-one knows of it but Sir John’s confidential servant, Vincent Groves, whose duties include arranging his master’s liaisons—and cleaning up the mess in their aftermath, whether by threats or bribery. Inevitably, Sir John’s ardour cools as soon as it is satisfied, and Jessie is quickly discarded. In the wake of this interlude, she disappears from her home, almost driving Leonard Graham frantic. And when rumour speaks of a dark-haired girl living at Sir John’s hunting-lodge, “frantic” is putting it mildly. Determined to know the truth, Leonard sets out on foot for the lodge…

But Leonard is not the only person with a grudge against Sir John. Lucy’s engagement to William Bell meets with the approval of neither of her parents. He is an honest young man, and he and Lucy are very much in love; but the late Mr Bell lost all of his money, forcing William to enlist to support himself. Accepting that they cannot marry until William receives his promotion, the couple correspond regularly and stand their ground against the disapproval of the Grahams. Geordie, though not unsympathetic, feels that Lucy could “do better”; Hannah, meanwhile, is determined that she will. Though Leonard is her pet, and she has always coddled and indulged him, Hannah is jealously resentful of Lucy’s closeness to her father. She also wants Lucy to marry a neighbouring farmer of good fortune so that Geordie will not feel it incumbent upon himself to divide his property between his children. When Leonard’s relationship with Jessie implodes, Hannah becomes illogically determined to ruin Lucy’s relationship too—finally going to extreme of having their letters to one another stopped, with the connivance of her sister who is the local postmistress.

The result is catastrophic. A reluctant soldier at best, though a thoroughly dutiful one, William lives upon Lucy’s letters; when they stop coming he becomes almost distracted. Then a garbled version of Lucy’s involvement with the squire reaches his ears, losing nothing in the telling. When William receives no reply to his latest letter in which he begs Lucy to explain the situation – so that he can scotch the rumours; he does not doubt her – the situation becomes more than he can bear. When his regiment is ordered abroad, William deserts—even though he knows what desertion in time of war will mean. Nothing, not even an ignominious death, seems as unbearable to William as not knowing what has happened to Lucy. By secret paths, he makes his way home…

William declares his intentions to Lucy in one final letter, begging her to meet him at a secret rendezvous. Due to the postmistress’s illness, this one comes into her hands. Lucy is horrified by William’s desperate action, and at the vague threat of worse contained in his letter, and rushes away to the meeting-point, a lonely area by the edge of the woods. As she waits there in mounting panic, she is horrified to see Sir John emerging from the woods, where he has been shooting pheasants. Seeing Lucy in such an isolated locale, he immediately assumes that she has decided to give in at last…

…and as Lucy, crying out in fear and loathing, struggles vainly in Sir John’s grasp, even going on her knees to beg him to let her go, a shot rings out…

In the wake of Sir John’s death, his estate and fortune pass to a cousin, Marmaduke Rivers (ohhhh, we say at this belated revelation). The rapid journey from fortune to squalor and back to fortune is almost too much for the Rivers ladies, who keep themselves to themselves while they recover the tone of their minds and nerves, only admitting to their company their staunch friends Henry Russell and Mr Elias. This everyone understands: it is the state of Marmaduke Rivers’ nerves that attracts their puzzled attention… And Rivers is not the only one who seems unnaturally affected by the events: ever since the day of his master’s death, Vincent Groves has been in a state of near-collapse. Is this indicative of his attachment to Sir John, and shock at the circumstances of his death – or something else?

The local magistrates interrogate the witnesses, including the unfortunate Lucy, who can only assert her absolute belief in the innocence of William – who emerged from the woods not long after the shooting, but left the scene at her urging when they heard someone else approaching. That someone was Groves, who was also in the woods, but who was separated from Sir John when he was sent to take a brace of game to a cottager. A hat belonging to Leonard Graham is also found at the scene, along with a pistol – which is, however, still loaded…

Such is central mystery plot upon which Men And Women is built; but there is a great deal more going on in this novel. As was the case with Adventures Of Susan Hopley, Catharine Crowe uses her story as a vehicle for social criticism; and once again, we find her sympathies almost entirely with the working-classes. She is stringently critical of Sir John Eastlake and his selfish, destructive  philandering, and disgusted with the way he uses Vincent Groves (who, however, goes along with it unquestioningly).

But there is an excuse of a kind for Sir John, in the shape of the perverse and selfish mothering that has helped to make him the way he is. We learn, in time, that when he was a young man Sir John was honestly in love, but his mother succeeded in preventing his marriage—and, subsequently, encouraged his philandering ways, all by way of likewise preventing the grandchild that would irrevocably alter the dynamic of life at Eastlake, and take the reins of power and fortune out of her hands: her domestically easy-going son being happy to let her rule the roost. It never crosses Lady Eastlake’s mind that her son will pre-decease her, still less that she will live to see the man she regards as his mortal enemy step into his shoes. When these events come to pass, and as the result of her son’s murder, Lady Eastlake has no doubt whatsoever about the identity of the killer:

    “Murdered!” said Lady Eastlake, slowly, her mind apparently incapable of entertaining the idea.
    “Ay,” said Nelly, in a concentrated tone that spoke volumes of vengeance, that only waited to know where to wreak itself, “murdered! Who did it?”
    “Marmaduke Rivers!” replied Lady Eastlake.
    “I said so, in my heart,” answered Nelly.
    “He has murdered him for the estate,” said Lady Eastlake.
    “That’s it,” said Nelly. “I knew it the moment the doctor said it was a ball that killed him.”
    “Nobody else could have had any motive for taking away his life,” said the mother.
    “To be sure not,” answered Nelly. “Wasn’t he an angel to everybody?”
    “Oh, he was!” cried Lady Eastlake, clasping her hands, and bursting at length into a passion of tears—“he was the joy of my heart and the delight of my eyes!” and throwing herself on the bed, she passionately embraced the body of her dear son, kissing, with eager kisses the cold breast and marble features…

Lady Eastlake wastes no time in carrying her accusations to the magistrates, who enrage her by pointing out that there is no evidence to support her assertions. Conversely, there is evidence against at least two other people. Lady Eastlake may not be able to conceive that anything other than a mercenary motive could be behind the murder of her “angel” son, but the magistrates know very well that for years Sir John has been leaving misery and humiliation in his wake amongst his tenants, any number of whom could be said to have a motive.

During her questioning by the magistrates, Lucy Graham describes the circumstances of the murder—and the ugly scene between herself and Sir John that preceded it. It is her father, however, forced to provide testimony against both his son and his daughter’s fiancée, who gets the last word:

    “There was a lass he was fond of, called Jessie Matthieson,” said Geordie; “she’s been awa’ these three weeks past, and nobody could tell what was ‘come of her—some said the squire had got her at Hillside, and Leonard went to Calderwood to try and get news of her. He’s gone, now, the squire,” added Geordie; “the Lord has taken him; but he was an awful man to be at the head of a parish. He sowed sorrow under many a thatch—and, may be, he’s reaped the harvest of it himself, at last.”
    Everybody was affected by the old man’s words, the truth of which were too well known…

But in spite of their sympathy for Sir John’s victims, the magistrates see that a case may be made against either William Bell or Leonard Graham – or both of them together – and set in motion a search for the two missing men. Leonard turns himself in and is able to clear his name—though he admits that he had intended to kill the squire himself: the pistol left at the scene was his, dropped with his hat in the shock of someone forestalling him. The official investigation then becomes entirely focused upon William Bell; while Lady Eastlake, infuriated that no-one will listen to her, hires her own inquiry agents to find evidence of what she knows must have happened…

At this point in Men And Women, its plots begin to diverge. We spend much time on the run with William, who has any number of hair’s-breadth escapes from capture, several times because of the unexpected kindness of strangers. He even gets more help than he is comfortable with from a girl called Peggy Bland, the daughter of a soldier in his regiment, who is in love with him—much to his masculine dismay. The relationship between William and Peggy is one of the more interesting of this novel’s many digressions, and unfortunately reveals our William of something of a prig—a young man who buys wholeheartedly and humourlessly into the social conventions that dictate what young women should and should not do in their interaction with young men.

The resulting conversation between William and Peggy is the novel’s comic highlight (though its implications are not the least bit funny), with William trotting out platitude after platitude, and Peggy not having a bar of it. This passage runs several pages, so I can’t quote all of it, but here are a couple of excerpts:

    “Men are very hard upon us,” said Peggy, “for doing just what they do themselves.”
    “What’s that?” asked William.
    “Why, I mean they if we love them when they don’t ask us, they despise us, and think there’s nothing too bad for us, and everybody’s against us—yet men fall in love with just anybody they like, whether one wants them or not, and nobody blames them.”
    “That’s very true, Peggy, and perhaps it’s not quite fair; but women should wait to be courted.”
    “Ah! it’s very easy talking,” said Peggy.

    “…the advice I am giving you as a friend is the same—never let any man know you love him until he has asked you.”
    “But suppose he never asks me?” said Peggy.

    “…I suppose we like the pleasure of the chase; besides, you know nobody prizes what they get too easily.”
    “Well, that seems very odd, too,” said Peggy, “because I should think if one is fond of a man because one can’t help it, it must be much truer love than if we only do it because he courts us, when, perhaps, we should never have thought of him if he had left us alone.”

    “Still, Peggy, as you cannot make men different from what they are, you must take my advice, and never shew your love till it’s asked for—and then, perhaps, if you hide it very cleverly, and look very pretty—and you are very pretty, Peggy, and are very merry—you may sometimes win the heart you wish for—that is, if it’s free. They say some women are clever enough to make any man fond of them.”
    “But the worst of it is, people are not clever when they are in love, nor merry either,” said Peggy.
    “No, Peggy,” said William sadly, “indeed we’re not. We’re very foolish.”
    “People that have all their wits about them, and can stop to think what’s best to be done, can’t be much in love, I’m sure,” said Peggy.

It is due to Peggy that William keeps his freedom as long as he does—she rescues him when he is attacked in the street and stabbed, and successfully hides him for many weeks, working to support him—all of which he requites by telling her again and again that he does not love and cannot love her (Peggy is more than once driven to shrieking, in effect, “I KNOW, I KNOW, I’M NOT ASKING YOU TO!!”).

Despite the twin legal threats confronting him, William would undoubtedly have turned himself in at the outset were it not for the fact that, as he fled the scene of Sir John’s murder, he almost stumbled across Leonard Graham, who was in a state of collapse. Knowing his own innocence, William assumes that Leonard is guilty—and he stays on the run not least because he doesn’t want to have to give evidence against his future brother-in-law. (The spineless Leonard, conversely, when the law catches up with him, sells William out without a second thought.) However, eventually there is a one thousand pound bounty upon William’s head – belatedly offered by Marmaduke Rivers, after an unnerving confrontation with Lady Eastlake – and this is a bait that not everyone can forego.

In fact, a young man called Jacob Lines makes it his business to get his hands on the money – which, we should note, is offered simply for William’s apprehension, since no-one doubts that he will be convicted – using as his tools the flattered and infatuated Jessie Matthieson, who has inadvertently learned of William’s whereabouts, and Hannah Graham, whose campaign against William has become every bit as obsessive as Lady Eastlake’s against Marmaduke Rivers.

One of the main themes that runs throughout Men And Women is the damage done by careless and spiteful talk, which is shown to have a cumulative and corrosive effect:

Not that they had believed the rumour; on the contrary, they had treated it with contempt; still, certain it is, that no calumny, however apparently absurd and unfounded it may be, was ever uttered, that did not make an impression, more or less deep, on the minds of those who hear it. Amongst the candid, the generous, and the good natured, the impression will be slight—probably so slight, that they are themselves unconscious that any impression has been made at all—till, perhaps, some confirmatory rumour, or some other calumny aimed at the same quarter, revives the memory of the first; and they find themselves suddenly half way on the road to believe the whole. This it is that makes small calumnies great evils. They act like small doses of poison, where each is insignificant in itself, but the gross amount is fatal…

Gossip is very nearly literally fatal to William Bell. Hannah does everything she can to blacken his name, even to get him convicted—perversely enough, she desperately needs him to be found guilty of Sir John’s murder in order to justify her own prejudice against him, and her conduct in the matter of the letters. In spite of her daughter’s misery, every blow against William is a triumph for Hannah, who is able to excuse herself by asserting that, “I always knew he was a wrong’un!” And it is gossip that sets in motion the chain of events that will end with William on trial for his life:

    “Ha, ha!” laughed Jessie again, scornfully; “people are all very well until they’re found out—it’s very convenient to have such a fine character.”
    “Till they’re found out!” said Mrs Lawson, who was a foolish woman and a confirmed gossip. “Why, you don’t mean to say, Jessie, that Lucy’s doing anything wrong, do you?”
    “Oh, I say nothing,” replied Jessie. “Besides, how could such an angel as Lucy do anything wrong? Everything she does must be right, you know. Some people may steal a horse out of the stable, whilst another mustn’t look over the hedge.”
    “But what do you mean, Jessie?” said Mrs Lawson, drawing her chair closer. “Do tell me! You know you may trust me with anything. I shall never mention it again.”
    “She means nothing at all,” said Mrs Matthieson. “She’s just chattering like the magpie there, without knowing what she says.”
    “Don’t I, mother? I fancy I could astonish you, and Mrs Lawson too, if I were to tell you half what I know.”
    “Well, then, do tell us,” said Mrs Lawson What’s the use of making such a secret of what, I dare say, half the village knows.”
    “Oh, for that matter, there’s no great pains taken to make a secret of it,” said Jessie. “I’m sure when Sir John wants Lucy, he sends Mr Groves openly enough to the farm, to fetch her.”
    “But she doesn’t go!” said Mrs Lawson.
    “Doesn’t she? But she does though!” said Jessie; “as fast as her legs can carry her.”
    “What? To the Castle?”
    “Yes, to the Castle, or anywhere else he likes.”
    “No!” exclaimed Mrs Lawson.
    “I don’t believe a word of it, Jessie,” said Mrs Matthieson. “Don’t believe her, Mrs Lawson; she’s only laughing at you. Lucy would no more do such a thing than I would.”
    “It’s as true as I stand here, mother!” said Jessie.

Pure spite lies at the root of Jessie’s assertions. In her heart she knows that Lucy is not encouraging the squire at all, but at this point the vanity that is her leading characteristic is so lacerated by his neglect of herself and his evident preference for Lucy that she is beyond caring how much she hurts her rival—this on the back of a lifetime of having Lucy held up to her by her mother as a model. And as with all truly damaging gossip, there is just enough truth in what Jessie is saying to give the story legs: Lucy is summoned to the Castle frequently, and because of Sir John’s determined pursuit of her, they have been seen together, sometimes in some suspiciously isolated corners, due to Lucy’s unavailing attempts to avoid the squire while going to and from her work.

Mrs Lawson is married to the quarter-master of William’s regiment. She carries the story home from the village and repeats it to her husband, putting the worst interpretation upon each turn of it; and Serjeant Lawson – who disapproves of marriage for young soldiers (having met Mrs Lawson, we can understand why), and who thinks William should be thinking more of his duties and a lot less about Lucy, repeats it to the young man, hoping it will cause him to forget about the girl. Instead, the story coming on the back of Lucy’s apparent failure to write to him, the tale drives William to desperation…

But William and Lucy are not the only victims of spiteful talk. Despite her failure to persuade the magistrates of Marmaduke Rivers’ guilt, Lady Eastlake tells her story to anyone who will listen to her in her own social circle; while Sir John’s old nurse, Nelly, does the same at her level, as well as haunting Rivers like a veangeful spirit. No-one really believes it…but like water dripping on stone, it slowly has an effect, particularly in light of Rivers’ strange, nervous condition, which is evident to everyone who approaches him; and when it turns out that Rivers was in the vicinity at the time of the murder, the story paves the way for a belief in his guilt.

Here, however, Catharine Crowe pauses to illustrate once again the unjust distance between the privileged and the working-classes. The story about Rivers emerges in the middle of William’s trial, and as a result of the inquiries set on foot by Lady Eastlake (who has provided counsel for William—being, apart from poor Lucy, the only person quite certain of the young man’s innocence). Witnesses are summoned to testify to Marmaduke Rivers’ presence in the district at the time of the murder, to his highly agitated state, and to the fact that he was carrying pistols. Most of this emanates from the landlord of the public-house at which Rivers stayed, and a most reluctant witness he is—and he is not the only one. No-one hesitated to bear witness against William Bell or Leonard Graham, but when it turns out that the strange gentleman seen in the area at the time of the murder is “the new squire”, those people who did see him maintain a discreet silence…

The evidence produced against Marmaduke Rivers causes William’s trial to be suspended. Like William, Rivers asserts that he is a victim of circumstances: he explains his presence in the district, and the reason for the pistols, but cannot provide an alibi; his financial motive, though of a very different nature of that assigned to William, is recognised as every bit as powerful. There is, in fact, no more hard evidence against Rivers than there ever was against William, but the fact of Rivers having offered a reward for William’s apprehension works against him. From a widespread belief in William’s guilt, public opinion veers around to an even stronger belief in the guilt of Marmaduke Rivers.

Henry Russell, who offers to represent Rivers, recognises with dismay that the wholly circumstantial nature of the case against his client makes it almost impossible to refute; and concludes that he can only get Rivers acquitted by identifying the guilty party—or at least, by building an equally convincing case against someone else. To this end, Russell starts out by trying to find more evidence against William—who he believes is innocent—but his personal investigation soon takes a very different direction…

Towards its conclusion, Men And Women separates itself from the modern murder mystery by revealing to the reader who the guilty party is, and following that person through their increasingly desperate efforts to evade detection—and through their growing realisation that the only way they might be able to escape is by committing a second murder. It turns out that someone else was in the woods at the time of the shooting of Sir John Eastlake, and knows very well who the murderer is—but being one of the numerous locals with a bitter grudge against the dead man, the witness decides to keep his mouth shut.

It turns out to be a fatal mistake…

07/08/2015

Bellamy

mordaunt1b    “It was a lark at first—really it was a lark, Gale, for all your long face! And I’ve made pots of money by it. But I’m sick to death of the whole thing—want to get my fingers on realities for a change. You know, I’m going out on some business in which I’ve associated myself with Sir George Curst.” For the life of him Bellamy could not resist a rolling emphasis on the ‘Sir’… “I’ve done with this sort of tommy-rot once and for all. It’s a real good thing that I’ve got on to. I believe, and Curst believes, we’ll pretty well make our fortunes, if it turns out as we expect.
    “I say!” suddenly he laughed—he had not brushed his hair since he changed his clothes, it was a little longer than usual, and there was a hint of the old rampant crest above his brows:—“life’s not so bad after all, is it?—To be starting off afresh in this fashion; like the little dicky-birds which begin all over again every spring. La joie de vie! You cold-blooded fish, Gale. You don’t even know what it means.”
    “There’s Hansen—and the two girls: you’ll have to pay them a month’s screw you know, Bellamy. I’m sorry to intrude on your poetical rhapsodies with anything so sordid, but still,” Gale shrugged his shoulders: after all he did not know why he interfered. But Bellamy seemed so horribly prosperous—he remembered the plea of Reynard the fox, that he could not resist eating the lamb because it looked so fat and contented, so well pleased with itself—if anyone ever murdered Walter Bellamy it would not be on account of his vices, but of his infinite self-satisfaction…

Elinor Mordaunt’s novel, Bellamy, was well-received  by the critics at the time of its initial release, but seems afterwards to have vanished almost without trace. Possibly it was a case of bad timing: the novel appeared during the closing months of 1914, by which time its overt sympathy with the working-classes and the union movement, its graphic descriptions of the appalling factory conditions and its criticism of “the bosses” may have seemed inappropriate, not to say unpatriotic. Certainly this is not a novel to provide comfort or lift the spirits, or to make people feel good about the might of England.

That said, these aspects of Bellamy are not the novel’s focus, but rather the backdrop and framework of its eponymous anti-hero. This novel is above all a character study, tracing the ups and downs of Walter Bonnet Bellamy from his deprived childhood in a manufacturing town in the north of England to a place at the pinnacle of English society—almost. Bellamy’s is a life lived in cycles: he does not crave success and fortune so much as achieving success and fortune; again and again, on the very brink of grabbing the brass ring of his current enterprise, he self-sabotages, dropping himself back to the bottom of ladder for the sheer pleasure of climbing it all over again. Never once does it cross his mind that the next time, he might fail—failure is not a possibility for Walter Bonnet Bellamy.

For the most part Elinor Mordaunt presents Bellamy to us in a tone of wry detachment; there is a sense that she shares the strange mingling of revulsion and involuntary admiration that comprises the attitude of those closest to Bellamy himself. However, we should note the sardonic double meaning in Mordaunt’s choice of epitaph for her novel: It is ill work endeavouring to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—the town which produces Walter Bellamy also produces artificial silk, a substance that functions as both the reality and the metaphor of his life: try as they might, neither one nor the other will ever be mistaken for the real thing.

The early chapters of Bellamy offer a vivid, shocking picture of life in a manufacturing town: the struggle for survival, the inadequate wages, the injuries and fatalities that unavoidably occur, the stunted, half-starved lives that most take for granted, the miseries of an extended strike. Walter Bellamy begins to combine work with his schooling from the edge of eight. He is eleven when his father dies; at twelve he begins full-time factory work. Initially he accepts a position as a “runner”: this is the best-paid work that someone of his age can attain, chiefly because it is also the most brutally demanding:

    Directly it is taut, as it is in a moment, the boy runs forward with the loop in turn. And the twister, still winding, runs the silk on to big spools, set on a horizontal rod before him.
    The boy must run very fast, just as fast as the twister can turn his wheel, and that is with a concentrated fierce rapidity. For it is only by doing this business at a tremendous rate that the silk will twist exactly as the best tailors like to have it.
    If the boy does not run as fast as the man winds, the thread tightens too quickly and breaks. If he stops the man at the wheel must stop too: then there are words.
    He runs with bare feet, for no one could run rapidly or surely enough with shoes. He runs in his shirt and trousers, because the work is terribly exhausting; and when it is hot he runs in his trousers only. From six o’clock in the morning till half-past five at night, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. Through all the long day he runs, panting like a dog.
    Occasionally, if there is a slack moment while the twister is fixing his stands, he flies at a frame over which tresses of silk are stretched, divides them up and ties them, all with an incredible quickness of touch.
    But there are not many such moments: he is there to run; and he runs. Ceaselessly to and fro: padding out the hours with his bare feet; the days, months, years, till at sixteen, or there abouts, he is an old man, with bent and distorted legs…

Years later, when Bellamy is preening himself on having transformed himself from an ill-educated, ignorant, working-class-accented urchin into a gentleman – or at least, an artificial gentleman – he goes to a tailor to order a suit fitted to his new position in life. Though he has not thought about his days as a runner for the majority of those years, all of a sudden he is overwhelmed by memories—overwhelmed to such an extent, he has a rare moment of untainted sincerity:

    But Walter Bellamy did not hear him: neither did he hear the sound of the traffic in the street outside.
    All he heard was the pad, pad, pad of bare feet, and the buzzing whirr of a wheel… Suddenly, at the feel of the smooth stuff between his fingers, his imagination was again let loose: so vividly that memory seemed vitalised to reality. The pale January sunshine, creeping languidly through the high window sickened him. He felt the sweat prick out upon his skin; while his heart was somewhere up in his throat; his breath came in short, thick gasps, and once more he was running…
    Unloosing the end of the silk from the nick which held it, he pulled it out a few inches and examined it closely. It was springy and smooth and tightly twisted.
    Suddenly Bellamy realised the other’s presence and turned to him. “This silk is hand twisted.”
    The tailor looked surprised. But he had been a journeyman before he was a master, and knew the details of his trade. “You’re right there, Sir,” he answered: “we make a rule of always using the best of everything.”
    “Do you know what it’s done with?—It’s done with boys’ guts; with the hearts and souls and life of them. Don’t ever use it for my clothes, that’s all. And if you’ve got any humanity, don’t use it at all…”

From his earliest childhood Bellamy is somehow different from his fellows: a quality that, as he grows, he chooses to assign to the French blood on his father’s side of the family; fantasies about high-born relatives follow in due course. Bellamy is by instinct a story-teller, a play-actor, a poseur—but one who buys so deeply into his own inventions that he convinces others almost by sheer force of will. He has, likewise, a tendency to measure everyone else in terms of their “performance”. Bellamy’s dissatisfaction with “the show” put on by the invited preacher at the Methodist church attended by his family prompts him to make a play for the congregation’s attention:

    “We’ve gotten all we wants, more than we wants o’ Thy bounty. We dwarn’t ask Thee for nwart dear Lord as th’ world can gie us.”
    “It’s a loy!”
    The children were crouched on the platform, bent forward like their elders… It had all been outward decorum till Walter Bellamy’s voice broke the silence with its amazing declaration: “It’s a loy!”
    “‘Ush, ‘ush! Yark at ‘im!” The white faces swung forward, each punctuated by an open mouth.
    Walter thrilled. Once more he held the stage. He flung out his hands almost into the faces of the two boys who still crouched at either side of him.
    “We ain’t got what we want, an’ we ain’t contented, else we wouldn’t not be tryin’ fur better jobs. Us wants great foine ‘ouses like Morrison’s, an’ motor-cars an’ foine clothes an’ ter go the picture pallises every noight. Gawd dwarn’t give us all we wants. ‘E don’t do ‘alf as it’s up ter Yim ter do, so there! Why ‘E even lets it rain a Sundays!”
    A sibilant hush swept through the chapel, broken by a subdued crackle of exclamations. “Lord a’ mercy. The lod’s daft. ‘Oo is it? Walter Bellamy—Walter Bellamy.” The high whisper of his name was like wine to Walter. “The lod’s daft! Turn ‘im out. Where’s ‘is mither? Oh, Lord, oh, Lord—it’s divil for sure. Divil’s in lod.”
    The excitement roused by the minister’s prayer had been merely mechanical to this…
    There was a clear still moment. Walter Bellamy stood on his tiptoes swinging joyously to and fro in his Sunday boots. “We ain’t got nothing we want for all our yowlin’ and prayin’. An’ we won’t get nothing we want. I’ve asked God scores upon scores o’ times fur a bike. An’ what der yer think ‘E said? ‘Go ter ‘Ell—go ter ‘Ell’.”
    The boy’s voice had risen to a triumphant chant, he was drunken with his own imagery…

Later on, granted, Walter allows the minister to have the public triumph of casting out his devil – devils – but only because he takes such a profound delight in his own exorcism:

    The bump had been Walter Bellamy dropping on his knees: bending to the powers that be. Generously, superlatively testifying; calling upon the Lord. Confessing to sins that made the minister’s hair stand on end. He had gloried in the “wrastling”. Into no other boy in Edge had seven devils ever entered; he could feel them all capering round inside him…
    He would have gone on “wrastling” if it had not been that he wanted his tea: while it seemed that the minister was getting things altogether too much his own way. So he dropped to his knees with a will—as he did everything else. Such a sudden drop that he fell forward upon his hands; and the last devil tore him and came out of him, and went up the chimney.
    No wonder that the ceiling of the room below, the very walls were shaken. In a couple of days his knees were black and blue with bruises. But when Mrs Bellamy proffered vinegar and brown paper, [he] shook his head bravely. “They don’t yurrt, thank yer, Mither,” he said, with a beautiful patience. And indeed if they had hurt ten times as much he could have borne it, for no other boy in Edge could show such bruises, such supernatural scars…

These scenes occur within the novel’s first couple of chapters, and Mordaunt wraps up this sequence as follows:

    Walter took after [his father], but with all the pregnant differences of the newer generation. Bellamy senior was cheerful because he made a best of a bad job, Walter because he was determined to rise above the bad job; to trample those who made it under his feet: to live and be happy. Not merely content, but joyously happy—by foul means if it were not possible by fair. He could not have put it into words; but this was really the secret of his declaration that he meant to ask Satan for a bike if God would not give him one…
    Not for a single moment had he any sense of self-reproach for having deceived everyone. To use his own expression he had “made them sit up”. They enjoyed the stir and animation: if anything he was a benefactor. For never, at any time of his life, was Walter consciously immoral. He was simply non-moral. Or, rather, he was like an actor who carries every detail of his art into his own life: with such completeness that often enough he was honestly unable to distinguish between the true and the false. If there could be a charlatan by birth, such was Walter Bonnet Bellamy.

Much later in the novel, Mordaunt picks up on that remark about Bellamy being “like an actor who carries every detail of his art into his own life”. Involved with a chorus girl, Bellamy briefly considers trying life as an actor – a natural choice, the reader might think – only to recoil from the idea of someone else putting words in his mouth; or, even worse, getting the credit for those words.

Beyond a few short passages such as these, Mordaunt refrains from editorialising, content instead to let Walter Bellamy unfold before our eyes. It is a masterful piece of characterisation: Bellamy is – make no mistake about it – an awful excuse for a human being; yet time and again Mordaunt manages to lure the reader into sympathy with him, either because the people he is interacting with are even worse, or (as with the church sequence) because of his sheer joy his own capacity for performance, his ability to put personalities on and off at whim. And time and again also, she pulls the rug out from under the reader with a reminder of just how cruel Bellamy can be in his monstrous self-absorption.

Leaving Edge as a young man, Bellamy effectively leaves behind his entire life-to-date there, too. The things he discards include his mother, who he leaves entirely to the care of others except for the occasional gift of money. He has not seen her for two years when she dies, and he does not bother to attend her funeral. His mother is one of the people must be reminded about when he suddenly abandons one business venture for another – that business venture referenced in the quote above, which has made him “pots of money” – tossing aside likewise his existing clients and employees:

    “My dear Belle-amie, I think nothing, excepting that you’re truer to type than any man or beast I ever met. That reminds me—though why I don’t know—” Gale spoke smoothly, his head a little bent; but his deep-set eyes, suddenly keen and watchful, were full on the other man’s face. “What about your mother and—and Miss Irwin?”
    “Jane—my pretty plain—Jane? Mon Dieu, I’d clean forgotten!” Bellamy had been giving his nails a last polish; but now he slipped the little pad into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out his note-book. “Better send her something—I suppose she had a lot of expense coming up here, when I was seedy, and all that.”
    He was flicking over his notes as he spoke: passed by several for ten pounds, found one for five and held it out to Gale. “Send her that, will you? Tell her its for her and my mother to get some new frocks with: give them my love.”
    But Gale making no attempt to take the note, had moved back a step with his hands behind his back…

Bellamy‘s central portrait is offset and balanced by two more, those of the only people who ever get close to Walter Bellamy: Jane Irwin, with whom he grows up in Edge, and Francis Gale, a chance acquaintance made upon Bellamy’s first arrival in London—a man down and out, living hand-to-mouth, an alcoholic…yet for all that immediately and unmistakeably a gentleman in a way that Walter Bellamy is not and never will be, no matter how hard he works at it, and no matter how otherwise convincing his play-acting might be:

    The friendship between these two was a strange one. Francis Gale had the faculty of making Bellamy feel like a country bumpkin, coarse and commonplace; while he realised that the other man saw through him as no one else, excepting Jane, had ever done. Only with this difference: that while Jane liked him despite his flamboyant posing and prevarications—“flim-flam” as she called it—Gale liked him because of it: for he was piquant as a new cocktail to the waster’s jaded appetite, a creature of infinite variety and amusement.
    Once having realised that it was no use pretending, Bellamy found a certain sort of relief in the presence of one person with whom he could let himself go; be perfectly natural. After all it was no good putting on airs with Gale if he really wished to learn from him, as he did. For his ardent desire for improvement in the things which he knew the world values overcame his vanity. You might pick a pocket and merely be called a kleptomaniac; but if you dropped an “h” you were lost; while seducing your neighbour’s wife was a minor sin compared to eating with your knife.
    As for Gale he regarded Bellamy with a species of joyous bitterness, as the very quintessence of his kind: without heart or conscience or morals, the prophet of the great religion of “getting on”. The only excuse for the elder man being, that—having sunk so low himself—he found a sort of comfort in the thought of another who—without any sinking at all—was lower still…

Thus the two men, one as consumed with self-loathing as the other is with self-satisfaction, develop what is not so much a friendship as a perverse kind of symbiotic relationship. As Bellamy rises in the world, he feels strangely compelled to drag Gale up with him; while Gale, despising himself, goes along for the ride. As far as Bellamy can admire anyone, he admires Gale; as far as he is ever honest with anyone, he is honest with Gale, albeit chiefly because he has nothing to gain from being anything else. Yet, like his mother and the woman he professes to love, Bellamy tosses Gale away without a second thought or a backward glance when another opportunity for a fresh start carries him out of the country.

The third point of the novel’s strange central triangle is its most problematic aspect. Since they were children together, Jane Irwin has functioned as Walter Bellamy’s displaced conscience. She is as immovably, as fundamentally honest as he is the reverse; and yet in spite of herself she is drawn to him as something strange and exotic, something wild and exciting in the midst of her grindingly hard and monotonous life.

Along with her mother and Mrs Bellamy, Jane is an auditor of Walter’s “exorcism”; unlike her elders, however, she isn’t fooled for a moment. Still…

    Walter was very pale; for his histrionic art took it out of him, as it will out of anyone who practices it with such abandonment. But he allowed himself to be coaxed to eat a good many slices of bread and butter and cake, and drank three cups of tea; while Mrs Irwin was tearfully tender over him, the minister visibly yearned, and all Mrs Bellamy’s scolding served to bring out the wonder of the whole affair. Only Mrs Clarke said nothing; while Jane sat on her little stool, gazing up at Walter with a sort of maternal indulgence.
    Walter was made like that. He must seem to be very much better or very much worse than anyone else. All men folk told lies. But Walter’s lies were beyond the ordinary; it was wonderful how he did it. She was his one accredited friend and very proud of the fact; but though she understood him to the very innermost source of his being, his cleverness never failed to amaze her.

As he pursues his various life-schemes, Walter keeps Jane in a corner of his mind and heart—though sometimes it is a very small corner indeed. Jane is always the first person he runs to when he is in trouble; and she is the first person he brushes aside and forgets when things are going well. He leaves the thankless task of caring for his mother to her – Mrs Bellamy has one gear only, and that is “complaining” – sending money when he can, and when he remembers. Despite any number of irregular relationships and two different engagements (both of which he intentionally wrecks, for different reasons), Bellamy never ceases to suppose vaguely that he will marry Jane “some day”. Naturally it never occurs to him that she will do anything other than wait on his convenience.

When Bellamy suffers a collapse and contracts a dangerous fever, he calls incessantly for Jane in his ravings. As much out of curiosity as for Bellamy’s good, Francis Gale sends for her: he has always been aware that somewhere, there is a person Bellamy actually cares about. By this time Gale is sure that nothing to do with Walter Bellamy could surprise him, but Jane is a revelation to him:

    “He’s very ill. Miss Irwin.”
    Jane—seated on the very edge of one of the chairs pulling on the slippers—raised her head, her small face white with fatigue; her eyes, circled with black, serene and tender. “Don’t ‘ee take on,” she said. “It wouldn’t be Wally if he wasn’t very much whatever he was, that’s certain. An’ I’ve known him since we could both walk. He won’t be took yet, won’t Wally,” and she shook her head with an odd little smile.
    “Why do you say that?”
    “Well, he ain’t not ready yet,” her tone was one of infinite simplicity and finality. “But tell me, what does it seem loike, the sickness as has took him. Not—not—” her voice wavered, the colour went out of his cheeks: suddenly she was afraid. For even Wally, the audacious and indomitable Wally, might not be proof against that insidious white plague which claims its victims by the hundreds in Edge. “It’s not—not decline?”
    “Decline?”
    “Consumption, they names it down south.”
    “No, no—it’s a sort of breakdown. He’s been off colour for some time—something to do with his brain. I think I ought to prepare you. He’s raving—slightly delirious—talking all the time.”
    “Aye, lod, but Wally always did that.”

Jane moves into Walter’s rooms, nursing him back to health, and slipping away as silently as she came as soon as she is certain that he will recover fully—although not before she has gently refused an offer of marriage from Gale. It is in the wake of this interlude that Gale recoils in incredulous disgust from Bellamy’s crass offer of five pounds.

Jane Irwin, then, functions as this novel’s moral touchstone—and that is exactly the problem. Jane, plain Jane, never changes, not all throughout her years of hardship and deprivation and loneliness, and not in the face of Walter Bellamy’s alternating neediness and neglect. Her immobility of thought and feeling grows increasingly unrealistic as the novel progresses, particularly when set against the shaded portraits of Walter Bellamy and Francis Gale, and it contributes significantly to the novel’s main weakness, which it its ending.

To my mind there were two ways that Elinor Mordaunt could have satisfactorily closed her character study. Unfortunately she chose a third, and in doing so introduced a false note into Walter Bellamy’s behaviour for the first time. It makes for a disappointing coda to what is otherwise an enjoyably caustic piece of writing.

01/08/2015

Another adopted Aussie

One of the manifestations of the social phenomenon known as “cultural cringe” is that anyone who wanders through this country, for any reason, tends to get categorised as “Australian”. When it comes to authors, this otherwise exasperating tendency has a positive consequence: it means it’s likely that their books will be available here.

And so it was that I was able to get my hands on a copy of Bellamy by Elinor Mordaunt, for the latest round of Reading Roulette.

With Ms Mordaunt, the grounds for the local adoption was less tenuous than was often the case. After the failure of her first marriage, to a planter living in Mauritius, Mordaunt arrived in Australia in the middle of 1902 and spent the following seven years living in Melbourne. She bore a child nine months after her arrival (not her husband’s, though the boy carried his name) and worked obsessively to support him, taking any job she could find in addition to writing a women’s fashion page for a magazine and publishing short stories and sketches, which were well-received and began to gain her a solid reputation. During this time, Mordaunt made a number of close friends who stood by her through her financial difficulties and bouts of serious ill-health; in her 1937 autobiography, Sinabada, Mordaunt spoke with gratitude about the support she received during those years, and in general recalled her time in the country with warmth. A number of her short stories draw upon her experiences and observations during her years in Melbourne; and although she did not take up novel-writing until after her departure in 1909, several of her early fiction efforts have passages set in Australia, while her 1913 novel, Lu Of The Ranges, is set in country Victoria.

Mordaunt’s 1911 publication, On The Wallaby Across Victoria, is a non-fiction work that describes her travels throughout the state. Travel-writing later became one of Mordaunt’s specialties: after leaving Australia, she journeyed through the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia and published extensively about her experiences. She also undertook an around-the-world expedition and recounted her adventures in the Daily Mail. She was in the Canary Islands when she met and married her second husband, but this marriage also failed. Afterwards Mordaunt returned to England, where she spent the remainder of her life.

Elinor Mordaunt was a woman of many identities—perhaps not surprisingly, given the vagaries of her life and when she lived it. She was born Evelyn May Clowes, but began writing her short stories as “Elenor Mordaunt”; while her non-fiction appeared as by “E. M. Clowes”. In 1915, she changed her legal name to Evelyn May Mordaunt; by which time she had begun to publish as “Elinor Mordaunt”. And she had one more pseudonym associated with an episode of legal and literary uproar…

Before the spin of the wheel that landed me on Bellamy, I had already read one work by Elinor Mordaunt—or at least by “A. Riposte”. When, in 1930, Somerset Maugham published Cakes And Ale, Mordaunt was one of many offended by what they perceived as cruel caricatures of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy, the latter of whom had recently died (although, for what it’s worth, Maugham denied the Hardy portrait). A close friend of the second Mrs Hardy, Mordaunt was angry enough to retaliate. When a novel called Gin And Bitters appeared in 1931, published in America as by “A. Riposte”, no-one had the slightest difficulty in recognising the original of its dreadful central character—including Maugham himself, which is…interesting. His legal team immediately went into action, and succeeded in having the English edition of the novel suppressed in the face of threats of an action for libel. The novel, as a novel, is sufficiently entertaining, but its satirical intentions are its main point of interest. To modern eyes, perhaps the most surprising thing about Gin And Bitters is that never at any point does Mordaunt so much as hint at Maugham’s homosexuality; evidently she felt she had enough material to work with without wading into those dangerous waters.

In a way, Elinor Mordaunt had already had a dry run for Gin And Bitters in her 1914 novel, Bellamy, which likewise is a character study of a pretty awful individual; although Mordaunt is a lot more sympathetic towards her entirely fictional creation than she was towards the not-entirely-fictional “Leverson Hurle”…

12/07/2015

The Beauty Of The British Alps

grimstone1bHer mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…

It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:

    If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the first hasty and unfinished draught was taken from me, without its having received the benefit of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
    Under these circumstances, as well as its being a first essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.

After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.

The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:

    As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the florid descriptions of the poet. His figure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of fire and softness, his finely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
    But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…

But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.

In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) opens in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.

The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…

Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.

Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.

The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.

But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…

The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.

To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, to where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:

“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”

Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:

    “I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
    The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…

What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont,  and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.

At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of Gunning’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.

And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.

The  narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:

Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…

And after indulging this choice for a time:

The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…

Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.

There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.

Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:

To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.

Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…

While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:

Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy , which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.

But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.

This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.

Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.

Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.

During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.

Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:

    “I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
    “I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
    “Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
    “You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
    “Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
    He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…

In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:

“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”

Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:

Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections  which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…

Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…

Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:

    “What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
    “Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
    “Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
    Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…

It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.

Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…

The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.

Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…

Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.

(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)

And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, he arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…

…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:

    “Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
    “Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
    “Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler  betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
    Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour  was thus recalled to her mind.
    “Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”

09/07/2015

Novelist in transit

One of the challengers for Henry Savery’s title of “first Australian novelist” – or at least, “author of the first Australian novel” – is Mary Leman Grimstone. Though over her lifetime she was far better known as a poet and essayist, Grimstone wrote several novels, two of which are of particular interest with respect to an examination of the development of Australian fiction.

Mary Leman Rede was born in Hamburg, where her family had fled to escape their creditors, and was taken to England at the age of ten. In her mid-twenties she married a man called Grimstone, but seems to have been widowed after only a brief marriage. Possibly because of this, her health failed, and in 1825 she travelled to Tasmania (or rather, Van Diemen’s Land) with her sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom had a government position. While there she continued to write poetry, much of it inspired by the landscape, and gained notoriety for an essay in which she bewailed Hobart as a cultural wasteland – she was right, of course, but that didn’t endear her to the locals – while at the same time expressing sympathy and understanding of the embryo colony. In 1829 Mary returned to England, where she began moving in feminist circles and became a strong advocate for the reform of female education. She also continued to write.

In 1825, just before her departure for Australia, Mary published her first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps. Her second, Louisa Egerton: A Tale Of Real Life, was evidently begun on shipboard and completed after her arrival; while her third novel, Woman’s Love, was written during her time in Hobart—both of them pre-dating Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton. However, Mary published neither of these novels while in Australia, but waited until her return to England, with Louisa Egerton appearing in 1829 and Woman’s Love in 1832.

I’ve talked before about the difficulties of assigning “firsts” with respect to early Australian fiction, and with the work of Mary Leman Grimstone we have a case in point. Perhaps the best approach here is to follow the lead of The Australian Dictionary Of Biography, which calls Woman’s Love “the first novel of Australian provenance”.

Be that as it may, in time I will be taking a look at both Louisa Egerton and Woman’s Love. However, since I never in my life dreamed of simplifying something when I could make it more difficult and time-consuming, I will be starting my examination of the novels of Mary Leman Grimstone with The Beauty Of The British Alps.

28/06/2015

The History Of Lady Barton

griffith1b    Yes, Fanny, I confess it! you have searched my bosom, and found the arrow rankling in my heart! Too cruel sister! better, sure far better, that you had remained ignorant of my disease, unless you can prescribe a cure! I now detest myself; and all that generous confidence, which is the true  result and firm support of real virtue, is for ever fled! I shrink even from the mild eye of friendship—The tender, the affectionate looks of Harriet and Lucy, now distress me! How then shall I endure the stern expression of contempt and rage, from an offended husband’s angry brow! There is but one thing that could be more dreadful—I mean his kindness—That alone could add new horrors to my wretched state, and make me feel the humiliating situation of a criminal still more than I now do.
    I am, I am a criminal! Alas! you know not to what degree I am so! But I will tell you all, lay bare my heart before you, and beg you not to soothe, but to probe its wounds…

I can only apologise for the recent deluge of lugubrious sentimental novels at this blog—it certainly wasn’t intentional, as evidenced by the fact that each of these novels has emerged from a different reading category. In the case of The History Of Lady Barton, A Novel In Letters it turns out that the categorisation was not really accurate. This novel came to my attention at the same time as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, and like it was characterised as a proto-Gothic novel; but while the eponymous Sophia does indeed undergo various experiences that hearken forward to the travails of the typical Gothic heroine (including being abducted and imprisoned herself, while her fiancée is kidnapped by “pyrates”), the sufferings of Lady Barton are of an entirely domestic nature.

There are, however, a couple of distinctly Gothicky subplots along the way, chiefly affecting the supporting characters, which are the kind of thing that the Gothic novelists later seized upon and expanded into major narratives. In this respect we may indeed consider this novel another of the later genre’s forebears.

The History Of Lady Barton was the second novel published by Elizabeth Griffith, one of the more popular exponents of sentimentalism. (The title of her first novel, The Delicate Distress, suggests that Griffith hit the ground running.) Griffith is an interesting literary figure, and one who possibly deserves to be better known than she is. She was born in Dublin, and became an actress at the age of only seventeen, after her family fell on hard times following the death of her theatre-managing father. Her stage career lasted until her marriage to Richard Griffith (no relation), which occurred secretly due to the disapproval of the groom’s family—disapproval centred in the bride’s lack of fortune, ironically enough: Richard subsequently suffered a string of business failures associated with bankruptcy and debt, and Elizabeth, like so many of her literary sisters, took up writing in order to support herself and her two children.

It seems that Elizabeth Griffith may have been a case of “spoiled by success”, although given her circumstances we can hardly blame her for writing to the marketplace. She began as a playwright, and reports suggest that her early plays were startlingly feminist for the time, featuring strong-willed, intelligent female characters and overtly attacking the double standard and the social and legal inequities that attended woman’s place in society. However, after Griffith left Dublin for London in order to further her career, she found that her plays were attracting harsh criticism from the influential London critics. She responded by reining herself in, and although she continued to foreground her female characters, on the whole they stopped challenging the status quo and instead triumphed through patience and submission. (The History Of Lady Barton is something of an exception to that generalisation.)

Griffith ultimately had quite a varied and successful career. In addition to her plays and novels, she produced many translations of French novels, memoirs and collections of letters, and she became one of the first women to find success as a literary critic. And while at the time Griffith’s The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated was her most well-received work, of more note around these parts is that she also edited a collection of works by female dramatists – including Aphra Behn – in which she tried to show how the plays in question, far from being “immoral” as accused, were intended to illustrate and criticise immorality.

The History Of Lady Barton is a three-volume epistolary novel originally published in 1771; it carries a preface which pretty much spells out for us the perceived “dangers of novel-reading”, namely, the powerful influence of fiction upon the minds and morals of the young (by implication, particularly young women), but which also argues for the power of the novel – the moral novel – as a force for good:

    Works of this kind are in general of so captivating a nature to young readers, that let them run through but a few pages of almost any Novel, and they will feel their affections or curiosity so interested, either in the characters or the events, that it is with difficulty they can be diverted to any other study or amusement, till they have got to the end of the story.
    From the experience then of this sort of attraction, such sort of writings may be rendered, by good and ingenious authors, extremely serviceable to morals, and other useful purposes of life—Place the magnet low, and it will degrade our sentiments; hold it high, and it elevates them…

In short, the didactic purpose of The History Of Lady Barton is made clear—which may strike us as rather amusing, considering that the novel’s plot features countless incidences of seduction, attempted rape, illicit sex, forbidden love and various other transgressions. Nevertheless, the unexpected aspect of The History Of Lady Barton is that it’s story is told from the perspective of a woman who (all the preceding notwithstanding) commits the ultimate sentimental-novel sin of marrying without love.

Additionally, in Sir William Barton we have a convincingly exasperating portrait of a man who marries a woman who he knows does not love him—and then gets mad because she doesn’t love him. Worse—in this case, it seems, Louisa told him outright before accepting his proposal that she did not love him—but he didn’t believe her—she was just being shy, delicate, modest; how could she not love him? When the penny drops, Sir William becomes morose, domineering, capricious and insulting; so that, with the best will in the world to be a properly dutiful wife and to love her husband, Louisa finds it impossible—which in turn makes Sir William even more self-defeatingly unkind:

Yet this I am convinced of, that had Sir William persevered, perhaps a few months longer, in wishing to obtain that heart, it might, I doubt not, have been all his own. But can it now bestow itself unsought, and trembling yield to harshness, and unkindness? Impossible! The little rebel owns as yet no lord, and it may break, but it will never bow, beneath a tyrant’s frown!

Louisa’s chief correspondent is her sister, Fanny Cleveland, who is concerned by what she call’s Louisa’s “propensity to unhappiness”, revealed in her remarks about her husband and her marriage; although her advice is unexpectedly pragmatic (not to say cynical) coming from the individual who will act generally as the novel’s moral touchstone:

    I very sincerely join with you in wishing, since you have not yet, that you may never feel the passion of love, in an extreme degree; for I am firmly persuaded, that it does not contribute much to the happiness of the female world—and yet, Louisa, I will frankly tell you, that I am extremely grieved at some hints you have dropped, in your letters, which speak of a want of affection for Sir William.—It is dangerous to sport with such sentiments; you should not suffer them to dwell even upon your own mind, much less express them to others—we ought not be too strict in analysing the characters of those we wish to love—if once we come to habituate ourselves to thinking of their faults, it insensibly lessens the person in our esteem, and saps the foundation of our happiness, with our love.—
    I am perfectly convinced that you have fallen into this error, from want of reflection, and through what is called une maniere de parler; for I will not suppose that my Louisa, tho’ persuaded by her friends and solicited most earnestly by Sir William, gave him her hand without feeling in her heart that preference for his person, and esteem for his character, which is the surest basis for a permanent and tender affection…

She did, though:

How often have my brother, Sir William, and you, seemed to doubt my sincerity, when I have declared I knew not what love was! and, O! how fatal has that inexperience been to my peace, since! Yes, Fanny, your sister is a wretch! and gave away her hand, before she knew she had a heart to transfer.—

This is simultaneously the most interesting thing about the novel, and its elephant in the living-room—because Louisa Cleveland’s decision to marry Sir William Barton is never satisfactorily accounted for, in spite of those references to her friends’ “persuasion” and Sir William’s “solicitation”. Certainly Louisa does not marry for title or position, nor is she pressured into it by her family (although Sir William neatly uses her conventional put-off of “I cannot do anything without my brother’s consent” against her, ingratiating himself with the brother and intimating that Louisa has given a conditional ‘yes’ to his proposal). The only thing that really approaches an explanation is a reference to Sir William’s “obstinate perseverance”; presumably he simply wore Louisa down and, in her ignorance, she thought it didn’t much matter, since of course she would learn to love her husband…

And while its overarching theme is a typical sentimental novel stance against marriage without love, this, I think, is what Griffith really intended to be the focus of her novel—an exposure and condemnation of the prevailing belief that any truly “good” woman would inevitably “learn” to love her husband – and, even more so, of the attending implication that a woman who cannot is bad – but the point ultimately remains frustratingly muted.

Be that as it may, right from the beginning of the novel we find Louisa courting disaster, attitudinally speaking:

    You desired me, my Fanny, to write to you from every stage—this is the first moment I have had to myself—one of Sir William’s most favourite maxim’s, is, that women should be treated like state criminals, and utterly debarred from the use of pen and ink—he says, that “those who are fond of scribling, are never good for anything else; that female friendship is a jest; and that we only correspond, or converse, with our own sex, for the sake of indulging ourselves in talking of the other.”
    Why, Sir William, why will you discover such illiberal sentiments, to one who has been so lately prevailed upon to pronounce those awful words, “love, honour, and obey”! The fulfilling the first two articles of this solemn engagement, must depend upon yourself, the latter only, rests on me; and I will most sanctimoniously perform my part of the covenant…

Immediately after their wedding, Sir William carries Louisa off to his estate in Ireland. They pass through Wales (the narrative stopping for a brief instance of rhapsodising about nature: a touch also seen in William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage, published the following year, and something which became increasingly common in the sentimental novel before being adopted as a hallmark of the Gothic), and along the way collect two friends of Sir William’s: Colonel Walter, who owns a neighbouring estate, and to whom Louisa takes an immediate dislike; and the young Lord Lucan*, by whom, conversely, she is impressed…though perhaps not quite as impressed as he is with her

(*No relation, I’m sure.)

Disaster strikes on the party’s sea-journey to Ireland, and very nearly tragedy: as they approach their destination, a violent storm breaks, which lasts for hours, during which time their ship is in danger of being driven onto rocks. This situation provokes an extreme reaction from one of the party:

There was a great number of passengers on board, and their groans and lamentations would have affected me extremely, in any other situation; but the violent and continued sickness which I suffered, rendered me insensible, even to my own danger; nor did I feel the smallest emotion when Lord Lucan, who had seldom left my bedside, caught hold of my hand, with a degree of wildness, and pressing it to his lips, said, “We must perish!—but we shall die, together!”

Alas, the narrative does not reveal whether Louisa responded by throwing up on him; we can only hope.

Our main characters make it into a lifeboat and are cast ashore on a small island off the coast, from where they are shortly rescued. This experience has somewhat torn down the barriers between them, for good or ill.

A variety of new characters and sub-plots are now introduced, most of them acting as a compare-and-contrast backdrop to Louisa’s situation, as we are introduced to various people who are genuinely in love and miserable because of it.

Fanny Cleveland herself is engaged, but has the disturbing experience of her fiancée, Lord Hume, not merely spending much time on the Continent away from her, but now beginning to hint at a three-year Grand Tour. Lord Hume is a close friend of Lord Lucan, and through their correspondence we will learn that Hume has fallen in lust with a beautiful Italian adventuress and lost his taste for Fanny’s pallid perfections. Hume writes to Fanny and breaks off their engagement (without getting into specifics), with the result that her correspondence becomes all about the miseries of love, even as Louisa’s continues to be about the miseries of un-love.

Meanwhile, Sir George Cleveland, brother and guardian to Louisa and Fanny, is himself engaged to a Miss Colville (another bundle of pallid perfections). Here the impediment is Miss Colville’s ghastly mother, who refuses to consent to their marriage—because (we later discover) she wants Sir George for herself…and badly enough to facilitate her pursuit of him by immuring her daughter in a convent while faking her death to the world at large, while she tries to convince the stricken Sir George (via forged letter) that it was Delia’s last wish that they should be married.

This is, self-evidently, one of the Gothic-like subplots I referred to earlier, made even more so by the associated sub-sub-plot about the identity of the young woman buried as Delia Colville; but it is only a digression in the novel as a whole.

Back in Ireland, Harriet Westley, a young niece of Sir William’s, is received into the Bartons’ home and becomes a friend and companion to Louisa—who soon concludes that the girl is suffering from unrequited love. This sub-plot touches upon an interesting point from the literature of this time, the seriousness with which what to modern eyes is just a first crush tends to be treated. But then, in a society where girls were considered marriageable at fifteen, I suppose it’s not unreasonable to treat their emotions as likewise mature.

The object of Harriet’s passion is Lord Lucan—who has fallen in love with Louisa; while Colonel Walter, who is supposed to be engaged to a wealthy widow, Mrs Layton, also begins pursuing Louisa, though not out of “love”, exactly.

Fanny correctly deduces Lord Lucan’s secret passion from Louisa’s oblivious descriptions of his behaviour and change in demeanour—but that isn’t all she has deduced. Louisa’s letters have begun to evince an increasing tendency to compare Sir William with Lord Lucan, to the former’s discredit; perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since Sir William keeps going out of his way to behave like a dick an upright magistrate:

    Lord Lucan flew directly into the garden, and explained the phenomenon, by bringing the basket and its contents into the parlour, which was an infant, about a week old, clean, though poorly clad, with a note pinned to its breast, which said, this child has been baptised by its father’s name, William.
    This circumstance disconcerted Sir William who, after many unnecessary asseverations of his innocence, upon this occasion, at which the whole company smiled, as they knew he had been above a year out of the kingdom, determined to prove his virtue, at the expense of his humanity, by ordering the child to be left again in the garden where it was found, till the parish officers should come to take charge of it; and by commanding a strict search to be made for the mother, that she might be punished, according to law.
    We all opposed the severity of this resolution, as the poor infant appeared almost perished with cold, and hunger; but Sir William persisted in acting like an upright magistrate, according to the letter of the law—till Lord Lucan declared that he was ready to adopt the little foundling, and promised to take care of it for life, though his name was Thomas…

In this particular instance, Louisa’s sensitivity to the situation and the behaviour of the two men may be enhanced by the fact that she is pregnant—something which, due to the increasing estrangement between herself and Sir William, she delays in telling him, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Our main characters remove to Waltersburgh, Colonel Walters’ neighbouring estate, chiefly so the gentlemen can have some hunting, and there Louisa has a terrifying experience when a man intrudes into her bed-chamber and, um, takes liberties; though voices nearby stop things from going too far, and the intruder flees while Louisa faints. Since all the other men of the party are supposedly out, Louisa can only conclude that Lord Lucan (who has done an amusingly heroine-like thing by spraining his ankle) finally succumbed to his passion, and is both deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed:

    I determined, on the instant, to return to Southfield directly, let the consequence be what it would; and never to suffer Lord Lucan to come into my sight again; but, alas! when I attempted to rise, I found it impossible; the agitation of my mind, had disorder’d my whole frame; my illness encreased every moment, a messenger was dispatched for a physician, but before he could arrive—
    When Sir William was informed of my misfortune, he raved and stamped like a mad-man; said I must have designed to destroy his heir, out of perverseness, or I would certainly have acquainted him with my situation…

The estrangement between the Bartons naturally worsens from this point, and Colonel Walter, pursuing his own ends, is not slow to take advantage of it; intimating to Sir William, for instance, that the reason Louisa didn’t tell him about her pregnancy is that he was not the father…

While Louisa is recuperating, she receives a letter from Lord Lucan, full of regret and distress at her illness, but without the slightest hint of awareness of the cause, which makes her rethink her assumption; although in the circumstances she cannot see how anyone came to her room.

A secret passage, perhaps?—a rather Gothicky touch; while at this point our second Gothicky subplot also puts in an appearance. Via her maid, Louisa learns that a small child is a mostly-unseen resident of Colonel’s Walter’s house, and manages to make contact with her. The girl, who speaks no English, reveals to Louisa that her mother also is living in the house. First through an exchange of smuggles letters, then in a secret meeting, Louisa learns that the woman is Colonel Walter’s wife – possibly legally, possibly through a false marriage; she isn’t sure herself – and that out of fear for her own life and, even more so, for that of her daughter, she lives concealed in the attic, while her husband pursues various affairs and even tries to marry – or “marry” – a fortune.

(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)

As is common in sentimental novels, we then the get interpolated narrative of Mrs Walter’s entire life-story, and her escalating miseries at the hands of Colonel Walter and of society at large. Louisa of course repeats it all to Fanny in her letters and (showing a pleasing degree of backbone) the sisters plot to remove the unfortunate Olivia and her daughter from the Colonel’s dubious “protection”. In fact, in an unexpected and amusing touch, we get a full-on female conspiracy here, with Harriet Westley and Louisa’s friend Lucy Leister let in on the secret and offering their assistance, in addition to Benson the maid who has been the women’s go-between. Louisa succeeds in smuggling her new friends away from Waltersburgh and into a tenant-cottage at Southfield (Sir William’s property), and from there to Fanny in London.

Her interaction with Olivia provokes Louisa to the following suggestion—a topic that became quite common in sentimental novels, but which led to nothing in reality because of the stubborn refusal to see further than women’s refuge = convent = Catholic (the tone here makes me wonder if Griffith had been reading Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, an entire novel on the subject; particularly considering the radical suggestion of marital separation):

I should approve extremely of an establishment of this kind, in our own country, under our own religion and laws; both equally free from tyranny—An asylum for unhappy women to retreat to—not from the world, but from misfortunes, or the slander of it—for female orphans, young widows, or still more unhappy objects, forsaken, or ill treated wives, to betake themselves to, in such distresses…

Meanwhile, the continuous references in Louisa’s correspondence to Lord Lucan, her final conclusion that he could not have been guilty of the bedroom outrage, and her speculation about his connection with a Miss Ashford, a neighbourhood beauty to whom rumour has him attached, prompts Fanny to issue a stern warning:

    Vigilant and watchful must that woman be, who has so many foes to shield against—the unkindness of Sir William—the passion and merits of Lord Lucan—the arts and malice of Colonel Walter—but the last and most formidable—shall I venture to speak of it?—is your own heart.
    You have not yet begun to suspect it. It is therefore the more dangerous enemy. Examine it, my sister; call it to strict account; and if you find one sentiment or wish, that lurks in secret there, unworthy of yourself, banish it, I beseech you: thoughts, even without purposes, are criminal, where our honour is in question. Consider the slightest idea of this kind, as a young serpent; though stingless now, its growth will give it strength and power to wound the breast that nursed and cherished it! crush it, betimes, Louisa; and be at peace for life…

Louisa confesses that Fanny is right and suffers an agony of guilt and shame; although she cannot help wandering into the might-have-been, and offering another radical suggestion:

Flattering sophistry! Alas! I would deceive myself, but cannot! Have I not vowed, even at the altar vowed, to love another? Yet can that vow be binding, which promises what is not in our power, even at the time we make it? But grant it were, the contract sure is mutual; and when one fails, the other should be free…

(…particularly considering the countless 18th and 19th century novels in which an unhappy wife is told firmly by some authority figure or another that her husband’s neglect / cruelty / infidelity does not justify any failure in marital duty of her part.)

Much back and forth between the sisters follows, but for all of Louisa’s good intentions her practice keeps wandering away from her theory…until finally a concurrence of circumstances leads to a mutual declaration between Lord Lucan and herself, although also to a mutual resolve to do nothing dishonourable. They try to avoid one another, but their network of friends keeps unwittingly throwing them together, keeping both secret passions alive.

Meanwhile, Colonel Walter, experienced in intrigue, has seen what is going on between Louisa and Lord Lucan—sort of: he is incapable of believing that they might be in love without having sex; and likewise the type who assumes that if a woman is having illicit sex with one man, she’ll willingly have illicit sex with any man. When Louisa spurns his advances, he makes it his business to cause as much trouble as he can, partly as a way of blackmailing Louisa into his bed, partly out of sheer bastardry. The stresses of the situation bring about a collapse, and Louisa begins to suffer recurrent bouts of ill-health…

The History Of Lady Barton must necessarily devote much time and effort to the resolution of its almost innumerable romantic complications—although this doesn’t stop Elizabeth Griffith from taking up much of the third volume with yet another interpolated narrative, in this case the (of course) sad history of the young lady who ends up buried in Delia Colville’s grave (which contains yet another interpolated narrative). The true fate of Delia herself is revealed when Olivia finally decides to retreat into a convent, and discovers that she is a prisoner there, confined on the basis of false charges of immorality made by her mother.

Sir George Cleveland comes racing to the scene, in company with his new friend—Lord Hume, who was bled dry by his Margarita and her family and then, having outlived his usefulness to them, nearly murdered; a fate from which Sir George rescued him. Sir George is unaware of the former engagement between Hume and his sister, and unknowingly reunites them. By this time Hume has learned to appreciate Fanny’s modest virtues, and the two are married.

And so at last there is only our central complexity to resolve: will Elizabeth Griffith kill off the inconvenient Sir William Barton and let her secret lovers be happy, or will it be a case of broken hearts and ruined lives all around? Will Colonel Walter succeed in his evil machinations, or will he get his comeuppance? The matter stills hangs in the balance with very few pages to go:

About eight o’clock, this morning, there arrived a messenger from Waltersburgh, and in a few minutes after, Sir William rushed into my room, with an appearance of frenzy in his air and countenance.— “Vilest of women! cried he out, “you have now completed your wickedness—But think not that either you, or your accomplice, shall escape—That pity, which pleaded in my weak heart, even for an adultress, will but increase my rage against the murderess of my friend.” He then quitted me abruptly, as if bent upon some horrid purpose…

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