Hargrave; or, The Adventures Of A Man Of Fashion (Part 1)

hargrave1b    Mr Hargrave opened a Bramah-locked drawer in his elegant library-table…and taking out a handful of gold coin, locked the drawer again; and returning to the table at which the ladies were sitting, threw the glittering treasure before the two girls…
    “Is it not magnificent, Adèle, to have money paid to us in this style?” demanded Sabina with childish glee. “Where in the world, papa, did you get all these beautiful sovereigns?” she added, beginning busily to employ herself by dividing the pieces into two equal portions.
    But Adèle happened to have her eyes fixed on her step-father as this question was asked, and was surprised by seeing him bite his under lip, and contract his brows into a frown, which it was very rare to see upon his usually bland and smiling countenance. But the painful feeling, whether of body or mind, passed away in an instant, and he replied,—
    “Where did I get this gold, Sabina? From that fertile source of all good things, the banking establishment of Messrs Lafitte and Co. Is it enough for you both? If not, say the word, and I will produce as much more; and that, I think, will about empty my hoards of your admired metal for the present.”
    Adèle was startled by hearing him say this: for when he had left his place to seek the money, her eyes accidentally followed him, and she was so placed as to perceive that the small drawer he opened was full of gold pieces, so full, indeed, as to make her more than share the wonder afterwards expressed by Sabina at the sight of a small portion of them. The assertion, therefore, that another such handful as he had laid on the table would ’empty his hoard’ was unintelligible… That her step-father had uttered a decided falsehood was certain. But his reason for doing it appeared so perfectly inscrutable, that she harassed herself in vain to find any plausible explanation of it…

As mentioned in an earlier post, Frances Trollope was another important figure in the development of English detective fiction. As was so often the case, Trollope began writing in order to support herself and her family after her husband’s failure in business; and while she is probably best known these days for her first book, the notorious non-fiction work, Domestic Manners Of The Americans, subsequently she became a prolific writer of fiction. Trollope wrote all manner of books, and often mixed different genres in her novels; and while (unlike her contemporary, Catharine Crowe) she never wrote anything that we could classify as a “detective story”, a number of Trollope’s works feature subplots dealing with crime.

Hargrave; or, The Adventures Of A Man Of Fashion, published in three volumes in 1843, is one of these; and while it does offer a detective plot of sorts, this novel’s perspective means that we would have to classify it as “an inverted detective story”, that is, one told from the point of view of the criminal—or at least, those trying to evade the forces of law and order, which (as we shall see) is not quite the same thing.

But while crime is prominent in the overall narrative, Trollope takes her time getting to that aspect of her novel, which at the outset seems to be more about the romantic difficulties of the two half-sisters at its heart, the daughter and step-daughter of Charles Hargrave: subplots which occupy most of the first half of Hargrave, even while the seeds of the crime subplots are being planted. This meandering approach is only one of several odd things about this book, which refuses at almost every turn to go in the direction you might expect—and this is true not only with respect to the unfolding of its crime story.

Most overtly, this is a novel by an Englishwoman, set in France, which goes out of its way to debunk stereotypes about the French and French society. Trollope herself lived for a time in Paris, and found much to admire there, particularly with respect to the arts; her early works not only reflect this, but tend to feature unflattering sketches of British tourists “doing” the Continent by guide-book, and generally making their country look bad. (We should note, however, that Trollope’s opinions underwent an abrupt change following the Revolution of 1848.)

But whatever else this novel might be, it is dominated by its psychological portrait of Charles Hargrave, for whom it is rightly named. Hargrave opens with a devastating sketch of its anti-hero, whose vanity, superficiality and endless social ambition are laid out for us in a few brief but witty paragraphs:

Those who have not been led by some accident or other to study the effects of vanity in characters where it greatly predominates, have little comprehension of its strength. There is probably no passion, from the very lowest to the most sublime, from the tenderest to the most brutal, which more deeply dyes with its influence the mind where it takes root. Greatly do those mistake who call it a “little” passion,—it is a great, an absorbing, a tremendous one. Its outward bearing, indeed, when the feeling is unskilfully permitted to catch the eye, may often seem trivial, and provoke more smiles than sighs; but its inward strength of influence is not to be judged thereby. As little do the graceful sinuosities of the constrictors’ wavy movements give notice of the deadly gripe into which they can contract themselves, as do the bland devices which purvey to a vain man’s appetite announce the insatiable voracity that is to be fed, or the unscrupulous means which may be resorted to in order to content it.

The son of a banker, as a young man Hargrave left England for France on the assumption that he would find it easier to stake his claim to a place in Society away from the class system of his home. His good looks, specious charm and inherited fortune gave him a foot in the door, and he consolidated his position by marrying the Vicomtesse de Cordillac, a young widow with a fortune of her own. Their joint incomes allowed Hargrave to indulge his taste for display, for (to use both his and Trollope’s preferred term) magnificence. Nothing is too expensive, too extravagant, too extreme, if it means that Charles Hargrave will hear himself and his entertainments admired and praised by the elite of Parisian society.

The novel proper opens in the wake of Mrs Hargrave’s death. Her daughters grieve deeply for their beloved mother—and naturally, assume that Hargrave must feel as they do. However, the reality is that while he does grieve, Hargrave is more deeply concerned about the fact that the family coffers have begun to run dry. Rather than dwelling upon his late wife, his thoughts are concerned with a new strategy for self-aggrandisement, namely, via his daughters’ marriages; once their tiresome mourning is over, of course:

    Little did they guess, poor girls! as they hovered mournfully near him, stilling their own deep grief, lest the sight of it should add to his, that the earnest gaze which was turned first to the one and then to the other fair face, was meditating what colours in the flowery chaplets which his fancy wove, would best set off the clear rich brown of Adèle’s cheek, and which decorate with most effect the fair-haired delicacy of Sabina. They fancied, pretty creatures, that his kind heart was wrung by thinking of their motherless condition; and their pity for each other, and their pity for themselves, and their pity for him, were so increased thereby, that, spite of all they could do to prevent it, the tears burst forth anew, till the bright black eyes of the one, and the soft blue eyes of the other, were so miserably swollen and disfigured as to force the distressed widower to turn his thoughts inwards, where he found the only consolation he was capable of receiving, from remembering that tears were invariably set aside at the same time that black dresses were taken off, and that six months would amply suffice for the use of both.
    Fortunately for Mr. Hargrave, his charming wife was taken from him on the 15th of June; the Paris season therefore was over…

When Hargrave married the Vicomtesse, she was the mother of a young daughter, Adèle; the birth of Sabina Hargrave followed. The two girls, three years apart in age, were raised together as sisters, with no distinction made between them. Yet for all that Adèle is not Hargrave’s own child: a point that will assume an ever-increasing importance over the course of the narrative. In addition, Adèle is financially independent due to a fortune inherited from her mother’s family, whereas Sabina is dependent upon her father.

Upon first reading Hargrave I was surprised that Trollope made the entirely French Adèle her heroine, rather than the half-English Sabina; but it could be fairly said that, except in one respect, Adèle is merely masquerading as French. She is the steadier, more sensible sister, thoughtful where Sabina is emotional and impulsive. Adèle is also a great admirer of all things English, to the point of secretly thinking that she would prefer an English husband to a French one. She has even independently converted to Protestantism: a choice which forms the one point of division between herself and Sabina, a devoted Catholic, and which is likewise strongly disapproved by Hargrave, who converted to Catholicism upon marrying the Vicomtesse de Cordillac. The only point at which Adèle is truly French is that her upbringing has prevented her from interacting with young men in terms of normal friendship, leaving her inexperienced to a degree which will create difficulties for her, as we shall see.

The family retires from Paris to Baden-Baden, where Hargrave finds society enough to sustain him in his “grief”, and the girls explore the countryside under the care of their elderly and intensely devoted English servant, Roger Humphries. On one of these expeditions they find a particularly beautiful vista; they also find a young man who explains to Sabina (who speaks fluent German) that the area is known for its legends of a vanishing castle, which may be seen at some times but not at others, and which is supposedly under the influence of the spirits which give to the nearby lake the name of Mummelsee, or Fairy Lake. Sabina is fascinated by this, and begs Adèle to stop again at the same point in the afternoon, so that she may try and catch a glimpse of the castle. The girls do so but, after a long day out, Adèle is dozing in the carriage when they get there. Sabina therefore slips out on her own and returns to the rock platform overhanging the lake, where to her delight see can indeed see the ruins of a once-splendid castle. When the young man reappears, Sabina is at first too enchanted by the scene to consider the circumstances; but when it presently dawns upon her that she is all alone with a strange man, she hurries back to the carriage, embarrassed and flustered, and says nothing to Adèle.

When the Hargraves’ period of mourning is over, they return to Paris, and Mr Hargrave sets about in earnest the task of attracting all the best people to his house and making himself the most admired and talked-about host in the city. Even before this, Adèle and Sabina have been much courted, but now they find themselves at the centre of a social whirl that appeals more to the outgoing Adèle than to the romantic Sabina (who is “apt to fancy that there was less of mental dignity in mirth than in melancholy”). For Adèle, indeed, this Parisian season has brought a particular happiness in the form of Alfred Coventry, who is the embodiment of her Angliophile dreams. However, Adèle’s upbringing has taught her to hide her feelings at all cost, which leaves Coventry uncertain where he stands with her:

    …the manners of her country…in which she had been most carefully educated, so guarded and fenced her in from all approaches not made in the usual way, that in the midst of daily intercourse and devoted attention she had still retained the manner of a young girl who had never dreamed of love. It was, indeed, this reserve, so constantly, and at all times and seasons preserved by Adèle, which had hitherto prevented Coventry from laying his heart at her feet. Like other young men of independent fortune and unobjectionable station and character, he had received his share of coaxing from careful mothers and provident fathers; and though still under thirty, he had learned to tremble at the danger of being married for his acres rather than for himself…
    Before he had been six weeks in the habit of daily and nightly conversing with Mademoiselle de Cordillac, he became most deeply attached to her. Yet he still spoke not the important words which were to place all his hopes of earthly happiness in her hands; for still he doubted whether there could be any feeling capable of being fostered into love in one so very free from every recognised symptom of it…

Despite his lingering doubts, Coventry comes to believe that Adèle does care for him and decides to propose. However, he has made up his mind that he will not follow the French custom of proposing for her through her relatives, but will wait until he can speak to her in person. This very English way of going about things creates difficulties when, attempting to call upon Adèle, Coventry is unable to get past her aunt and chaperone, Madame de Hautrivage.

The widowed sister of the late Mrs Hargrave, Madame de Hautrivage is more than happy to live with her brother-in-law and his daughters: though she passes herself off to the world as comfortably circumstanced, she is in fact in dire financial straits, with what money she can scrape together going to maintain the wardrobe which supports her pose. Presenting herself to society as a woman of wealth and fashion, Madame’s one great hope in life is to make a second marriage before her situation is exposed, and under the guise of chaperoning her nieces, she works hard at finding herself a husband.

When Coventry calls, Madame at first assumes it is to request her influence with her niece. However, her determination to bring him to the point, meeting Coventry’s determination not to be brought to the point by a third party, leads the two of them into a cross-purposes conversation from which Coventry emerges believing he has been assured of Adèle’s love for him—while the giddily happy Madame emerges convinced that she and not Adèle is his goal.

Though she had believed, prior to their startling conversation, that Coventry was interested in Adèle, Madame had too high opinion of her niece and her upbringing to suppose that Adèle could be guilty of allowing herself to feel anything for a man who had not proposed for her; but Adèle’s self-conscious reaction when Sabina teases her about Coventry suggests a shocking possibility. Calling Adèle for a private talk, Madame speaks with an anger in which jealousy and outraged propriety are combined:

“What am I to think of this confusion,—this terrified embarrassment, Mademoiselle de Cordillac?” said her aunt, trembling with passion. “Is it possible that you have so completely, so eternally disgraced yourself, as to bestow your affections on a man who is not only totally free from all partiality to you, but actually affianced to another?”

In fact most of Adèle’s confusion stemmed from expecting to hear that Coventry had proposed for her via her aunt; and when Madame goes on to announce herself as his fiancée, she is shocked and astonished—and incredulous. By this time, however, Madame has internalised an image of herself as the consort of a prominent British citizen and parliamentarian, and the conviction with which she speaks has its effect: it never occurs to Adèle that her aunt could be either lying or deluded. Believing, besides, in Madame’s non-existent fortune, Adèle is left with nothing to do but be thankful she has managed to conceal her feelings from Coventry, and to try and wring from Sabina, who is hurting for Adèle and angry and disgusted with Coventry’s mercenary conduct, a promise that she will not behave differently towards him, which might reveal her, Adèle’s, secret.

Meanwhile, the lovely Sabina has attracted the attention of Paris’s most prominent visitor, the younger brother of the ruler of a certain German principality. Prince Frederic is obviously strongly drawn to Sabina—so much so that Adèle is moved to speak a few words of caution to her sister. But Sabina is no fool: she knows very well that she is no wife for a man in Prince Frederic’s position, and thinks too well of him to imagine he would suggest anything other than marriage. She likes and admires Prince Frederic (although she does not tell Adèle that in the first instance, that admiration had its basis in a fancied resemblance between the royal prince and the young stranger of Baden-Baden, who she thinks about more than she should), and she enjoys his company; but she has set a firm and conscious guard over her heart—even as, she is sure, Frederic himself has done.

Sabina’s sensible reaction is in stark contrast to that of Hargrave, who begins to indulge an extravagant vision of himself as the father-in-law of a prince. To bring this about, he resolves on a season of entertainments such as Paris has never seen:

“He shall see her in all her glory,” thought the intoxicated Hargrave: “he shall see her as no Paris beauty of seventeen was ever seen before—he shall see her as a king’s son might glory to see his wife! And should it come to pass, as my prophetic spirit tells me that it will—should I see my Sabina borne to the feet of her brother-in-law’s throne, what will it matter to me as I follow her thither, and with all the affection of a devoted father consent thenceforward to reside beneath her princely roof, what will it then matter to me how many scurvy creditors ungratefully murmur…?”

Yes; there’s just one problem with Hargrave’s scheme for startling all Paris, and dazzling Prince Frederic into a proposal:

Mr Hargrave, in fact, at this time stood upon the brink of a precipice, one steady glance down which would probably sufficed to make him a maniac for life. This steady glance, however, he had never yet given; nor was there the least chance of his doing so, as long as these buoyant hopes and meteor-like expectations, begot between self-love and imagination, continued to float before him. But Mr Hargrave was deeply and desperately in debt. The large fortune he had brought with him from England had gradually been dissolving away from the year of his marriage with Madame de Cordillac; for her comfortable little income of twenty thousand francs was but a drop in the ocean of extravagance, into which the glory of outdoing the noblest and the wealthiest of her high-born connexions immediately plunged him. From that period, the income of his handsome fortune never sufficed to supply his annual expenditure; and the process of supplying the deficiency, by drawing upon his capital, though at first apparently a slow one, might have awakened any man to its inevitable consequence who had not lapped himself in the elysium of a variety of visions, all as extravagantly wild as that on which he now seemed determined to risk his last stake.

So, not letting a little thing like having no money at all get in the way, Hargrave begins planning a series of entertainments, each more elaborate and expensive than the last, and designed with the aim of making a young royal lose his head.

Meanwhile, the attention of the upper reaches of Parisian society is upon a series of shocking crimes, in which men leaving a certain fashionable gambling establishment have been set upon and robbed. The fact that all three robberies have followed success at the tables suggests the  possibility that the thief is someone admitted to this exclusive establishment, or has a confederate who is.

Alfred Coventry—during the comfortable period between his misleading conversation with Madame de Hautrivage and the next time he sees Adèle—hears about the robberies from his best friend, Count Romanhoff, a young Russian:

“Three weeks ago last Monday, M. Jules Roland, the eldest son of the rich Roland, had won a very considerable sum at Riccardo’s. How much it was I cannot exactly tell you, but I know that a portion of it consisted of a thousand napoleons and five hundred sovereigns, won of an Englishman… He turned off the Boulevard into a dark narrow street, and before he had traversed half its length, he was seized from behind in the arms of a tall powerful man, who contrived so effectually to twist his cloak round his arms and over his mouth, that he was rendered as completely defenseless as if a strait waistcoat had been fastened on him, and as incapable of uttering a cry as if he had been gagged. The villain then rifled him of his gold and his notes…”

Coventry, though not a gambler himself, is interested enough when the matter is explained to him, and quite as conscious as his friend of the implications of the circumstances of the robberies. He points out that a process of deduction should, at least, be able to eliminate certain parties from suspicion, and produce a short-list of the men who were present at the salon on all three of the nights in question. He also tries to dissuade Romanhoff from going back (he knows his friend can’t afford gambling losses, though he is rather addicted to the pastime), but to no avail—not least because Romanhoff himself was one of those present on all three occasions:

    “Why, do you not see, my dear fellow, that in the present state of affairs it would be as much as a man’s reputation is worth to be absent from Riccardo’s salon? Any habitué who should venture to withdraw himself at this crisis would be very suspiciously noté, you may depend upon it.”
    “Then I can only rejoice the more that I am not one of them,” returned Mr Coventry gravely; “and I most sincerely wish, my dear friend, that you were in the same category.”
    “Nonsense, Alfred; you positively look at me with as pitiful a visage as if you thought that, whether going to the salon or staying away from it, I was equally liable to suspicion. Why, think for a moment of the noble names to be found in the set you are thus condemning wholesale? I am not the only intimate friend you have among them: there are D’Obigny, Castello, Reindenberg, De Bruton, Hargrave, Fitzjames, D’Arusez, and a dozen others, at least…”

From here the conversation passes to anticipation of the grand ball which is to be the first of the Hargrave entertainments. Romanhoff has a few words of appreciation for the beautiful daughters of the house, and a few otherwise for Madame de Hautrivage—

“But heavens, that woman is a horror,—she positively expects one to make love to her!”

—but Coventry isn’t listening: he is making up his mind that he will find an opportunity at the ball to propose to Adèle.

The ball itself is a stunning success, as usual with anything undertaken by Hargrave. The recent robberies remain the main topic of conversation amongst the guests, and Prince Frederic, who has not heard the full story, requests that Count Romanhoff tell it. Romanhoff does, but becomes slightly embarrassed when the question of who was at the salon on all three nights is raised. Seeing this, the prince so pointedly changes the subject that the others gathered take the hint and drop the matter (at least in his hearing).

As far as Hargrave’s hopes go, the evening only serves to increase them: Prince Frederic’s admiration of Sabina is evident, and he dances with her as frequently as propriety allows. Nevertheless, several people notice that Hargrave is not in his usual spirits—and he is not the only one. For Alfred Coventry, the evening becomes one of bewildering mortification. Adèle’s determination that he will never guess her secret drives her into behaviour that is totally out of character: she  is coolly friendly and dances with him when asked, but her conversation is completely superficial, and she eludes all his attempts to secure a private word with her. With no idea of what has passed between Adèle and her aunt, Coventry is at first confused, then angry and hurt; he leaves the ball convinced that he has had the misfortune to fall in love with a heartless coquette.

Coventry’s behaviour with respect to herself and Adèle informs Madame de Hautrivage that she has made an embarrassing blunder, and her only thought is how to retrieve her position. Confronting the weary and miserable Adèle at breakfast the next morning, Madame puts on an air of great amusement:

“Don’t look so tremendously grave, because it is too ridiculous to turn les petites plaisanteries d’un esprit, gai comme le mien, into sober earnest! But the fact is, that I told you all that long story about M. Coventry merely to try a little experiment. I wanted to find out whether you really were as vulgarly in love, in la mode Anglaise, as I suspected… For shame, Adèle!—how could you be so foolish as to imagine that I was myself going to marry young M. Alfred de Coventry?”

Adèle is so relieved, she barely gets angry; all she thinks of is finding a chance to apologise and reconcile. It is the worried Sabina who points out that getting Coventry back to the house may not be so easy. However, there has been some suggestion of Mr Hargrave holding a small private dinner for Prince Frederic, intended as a pleasant relief from crowded social gatherings and stiff official functions, with very few, very select guests. The girls agree to ask their father to invite Mr Coventry: surely he will read correctly an invitation so flattering?

In their efforts to bring about this end, the girls press for the dinner party without realising the interpretation that Hargrave is putting upon their words—that he sees only Sabina’s eagerness for Prince Frederic to be invited to their house again, not the manoeuvring to secure an invitation for Alfred Coventry.

Hargrave is a man of notable taste, who has always guided his daughters’ choice of gowns: a fact which has helped secure them the reputation as two of the best-dressed young women in Paris. He now throws himself into the task of designing appropriate outfits for their dinner: nothing so elaborate as to suggest a state function, when the attraction of the dinner is that it is a mere “family party”; but nothing so simple as to suggest a lack of proper respect. The girls are more than happy to fall in with his suggestions, and agree to spend their morning passing on his designs to their chosen modiste. They only need some money…

Hargrave’s possession of a drawer full of gold sovereigns startles Adèle, although not as much as his misstating of his own financial position—to the extent of telling a lie about it. Though disturbed and confused, she says nothing to Sabina; finally accepting, although not without some effort, Sabina’s own laughing explanation of, “National partiality” in response to Madame de Hautrivage’s grumbling about “troublesome coin”. Perhaps Mr Hargrave merely wished to avoid being scolded or sneered at by his sister-in-law for indulging in some nostalgia for England, in allowing himself to be weighed down with inconvenient sovereigns; Adèle can certainly understand that

The dinner-party goes ahead and is another triumph for Hargrave—although not for Adèle: Alfred Coventry does not attend, having left Paris for a time. As far as Prince Frederic’s appreciation of the small, elite gathering goes, however, Hargrave has exactly anticipated his feelings of gratitude and enjoyment; accidentally surpassed them, indeed, since he was unaware of the prince’s deep love of music when he hired for the evening three of the leading performers of the Italian opera to sing for his guests.

Prince Frederic is moved offer fervent praise of Hargrave’s brilliance to to Sabina:

…such a feeling of gratitude and delight seized upon Sabina, that her eyes spoke her thanks much more eloquently than any words could have done, and so sweetly, innocently beautiful did she look the while, that the poor Prince felt for the first time that there was danger near him…

The two girls rehash the party the next day with very different feelings. Adèle is moved to warn Sabina again about Prince Frederic, but in response she both denies that she has allowed herself to grow attached to him, and that he has given her any sign of more than simple admiration. For Adèle, the misery of knowing her situation is her own fault—that she should have trusted her instincts instead of listening to her aunt—has her almost at breaking point. Finally, though reluctantly, she yields to Sabina’s counsel and sends Roger Humphries to make inquiries at Coventry’s hotel: knowing that there is no-one she can trust more than the devoted old servant, yet mortified at having to confess her secret to him.

Old Roger is only too flattered to be entrusted with such a mission, and promptly sets out; but the news (when the girls can extract it from Roger’s habitual circumlocution) is not good: Coventry is expected back in Paris, but only for as long as it will take him to pack up and leave altogether:

…it was only now that she was fully aware how wholly she had bestowed upon Coventry the affection of her heart. She spoke not, but she wept bitterly; and not the less so from the conviction that she had used him ill. The genuine worth and unmistakable nobleness of heart, which she had had sufficient opportunity of observing, ought, as she felt only too plainly, to have saved him from such hasty condemnation; and every sad moment of meditation on the past only brought with it the strengthened conviction that she had been loved, and was loved no longer…

Meanwhile, Hargrave, too, is meditating on the previous night’s events, to very different effect:

…his reverie changed from contemplation of the past to the most intoxicating anticipations for the future. He seemed to feel upon his heaving breast the delicious weight of stars and crosses of orders innumerable. Sweet sounds murmured in his ears as of whispering throngs of nobles, whose words, being interpreted, were “See! that graceful, noble gentleman is the father of Prince Frederic!” Long suites of gorgeous rooms opened in a palpable vista before him, and among them his heart told him he should find a home… “Ay, there will be my resting-place, and without the cursed, cursed necessity of seeking means to pay for it!…”

Hargrave is then brought down to earth with a thud: his steward, Jenkyns, interrupts his daydreams to announce that he has just been confronted by a very angry creditor, from whom Hargrave once borrowed one hundred and fifty thousand francs at high interest, and on a promise to pay back the capital on demand at any time after a two-year period. The creditor, M. Marsen, not only needs his money urgently, as he is about to leave France: he is furious that a letter demanding it has had no response.

Hargrave insists that he received no such letter, but assures Jenkyns that of course he will pay M. Marsen back—provided he is allowed the same one-month period originally agreed in which to get the money together. This, as it turns out, is not acceptable to M. Marsen, since all other aspects of their agreement have been violated; but after some argument, he agrees to accept payment in one week; agrees, too, to accept a package of jewels in lieu of cash, since Hargrave insists he will not be able to convert the gems into ready money in the time allowed. Marsen even agrees to keep the nature of their transaction a secret, after Hargrave expresses some shame at having to sell family jewels to pay his debt.

Another bullet dodged, Hargrave goes back to planning one, last glorious entertainment for Prince Frederic, to be held in a week’s time. He starts by sending him a personalised invitation, to ensure the prince’s presence, and the friendly note he receives in return almost sends him into a delirium of joy; particularly since it includes in exchange an invitation for the Hargrave family to attend a fancy-dress ball to be arranged and hosted by the prince himself: just the occasion for a public announcement, thinks Hargrave:

    “I have not lived so long in the very centre and heart of society without learning to interpret the signs and tokens belonging to it. Sabina is the elected wife of a prince, and I am destined to stand in the position of brother to a king! And poor Jenkyns thought to scare me by talking of a pressing claim for a few thousand pounds! What a whimsical incongruity it seems!”
    And Mr Hargrave laughed—laughed heartily at the jest he saw in it…

[To be continued…]


Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy (Part 2)

lisarda1bExtreamly pleased was the Melancholy Gentleman, with the courteous offers of Ricardo, who desir’d not to wonder that he of himself should relate a misfortune, that ought to be for his honour kept private from all the World, but his Civilities had such influence over him, that he had not Power to refuse him any thing; besides he thought the stillness of the night requir’d a Companion to Discourse with to pass away those tedious hours; so that Ricardo began, and related the whole story of his Misfortunes; and having ended, the Gentleman confest his Misfortunes were great, but those he should relate were far exceeding his, in as much as he had not only lost a Mistress that he lov’d, but a Wife, whom he admir’d above all Worldly things; and his Honour, a thing that ought to be dearer than Life…

Whatever the Criticks made of the first part of Lisarda, it seems that its author’s overriding ambition for it –  that “the Book sells” – was sufficiently fulfilled to satisfy Mr Cox’s publisher, since the concluding part of the short novel appeared in due course; with the two being reissued together in September of 1690.

Not that the author’s opinion of himself, or his opinion of his readers’ opinions, seem to have altered as a result of his apparent success. The second part of Lisarda opens with another address to “The Reader” wherein Mr Cox expresses his dismal conviction that they probably followed his advice, tendered at the beginning of the first part, and bought his book chiefly to abuse it; with more to come:

Now do not I know whether with truth begin with Gentle, Courteous, or Kind Reader; for perhaps you deserve none of these Epithets; examine your Conscience, and if you find yourself clear of having abus’d either Book or Author, send me but word of it, and I have left sufficient to have any of those to begin with: But if you had rather show your Wit, and exercise your Talent in Criticism; perhaps I shall give you subject enough to work on in this second Part, so that you would really be at a loss, if you had spent all your Satyrical Phrases on the first, and prodigally thrown away the last Jear your Mistress sent you on an odd expression you preferr’d from the Academy of Complements to your Heroick Love Epistle; and for a further advancement made it the ridicul’d Interpreter of your Incomprehensible thoughts; your Lovely Cælia, Aminta, or what other fine Romantick Names you have bestow’d on the sweet Lady. I protest, Sir, if so, you must change your Company, and there wait a fit occasion to put if off a second time: Or else continue saying every now and then, with a bonne Grace, But Damn me, Madam, if it ben’t very Silly. This will do; for without doubt, Sir, the Ladies will credit you; and the unknown Author hath but lost his labour, in thinking to forestall you, and be satyrical first; he’ll bemoan the loss of so much pains; and ten to one the next Novel he writes, you will read in the Preface that he hath either hang’d or drown’d himself to put the thoughts of it out of his mind…

(For what it’s worth, I can’t find that Cox ever did publish a second novel…)

The second part of Lisarda opens with the unhappy Ricardo slowly recovering from his wounds, but much tormented by his kinsman, the Corregidor, and other friends who keep trying to cheer him up. Finally, when he is able, Ricardo decides to go travelling. He heads first to Barcelona, and from there embarks; his ultimate destination being Rome.

On board the ship on which he is travelling, Ricardo meets another gentleman as miserable as he is; and since misery truly does love company, the two of them immediately fall into a “My Sufferings Are Worse Than Yours” contest; while the reader is presented with a clear indication that Lisarda has shifted into the realm of the picaresque with the appearance of our old friend, or at least acquaintance, the Interpolated Narrative:

My name is Enrique Thomas de Guanches Fernandez Ysugo, my Country Barcelona, the Metropolitan of the noble Principality of Cattalonna, my Quality of the Most Illustrious in that State; my Estate, though not of the largest, yet enough; and my Age thirty four years: There dwelt in the very next House to my Fathers a young Lady, whom I lov’d as I grew in sense and years, beginning from my Childhood: I mistake, I should say ador’d…

Don Enrique and Donna Estefania marry young, with the blessing of their respective parents, and at first all is well; very well indeed:

Whoever says that Marriage gluts, and consequently impairs Love, certainly must be such dull Souls, who more like Brutes than Men, are but satisfying their sensual Appetite, while I’m sure all refin’d Spirits, who by the continual Enjoyment, have daily the Experiments of the Wit, the Modesty, the pleasing Behaviour, affording daily fresh supplies to edge his Appetite…

But alas for our Refin’d Spirit, disaster was looming:

…but who would think it, Don Ricardo, that with all these visible signs of Love, (I am asham’d to say it) that Estefania should offend my Honour, that she should defile my Bed, rejoicing in a Strangers Arms; at least in desire if not in deed; and who would think, that I being who I am, should live to own it, and that grief for the loss of my Honour should not deprive me of Life: I will not, my Dear Friend, nor will my Honour permit me to speak ill of that Sex, since we owe our Births to them, with the dangers of their own lives; but laying these natural Obligations aside, and to speak how firm they ought to be, and how constant: Tell me what trust can a Man put in that Sex, or who can sleep secure of their Treasons, since Estefania could be false?

My sex thanks you for the sour persimmons, Don Enrique, while also noting that little loophole about in desire if not in deed: could this by any wild, improbable chance be another instance of an over-emotional Spaniard jumping the gun on flimsy-to-non-existent evidence??

Enrique and Estefania have a son, and because he cannot bequeath the boy as large an estate as he would wish, Enrique begins manoeuvring to acquire him a title. Esefania throws herself into the plan with enthusiasm, pressing Enrique to travel to Madrid, to the Court, to pursue the matter. Though he expects to encounter many difficulties, in fact the king is very gracious, and Enrique achieves his purpose very swiftly and hurries home ahead of the expected time. Not far out, however, he is caught in a violent storm and takes refuge at an inn, where he finds himself sharing quarters with another gentleman, a certain Don Federico, who also has cause to bemoan the delay, as he was in eager expectation of having his pursuit of a certain lovely lady come that night to fruition.

Once the servants have gone, Enrique asks Federico for more of his story—merely to pass the time, and never dreaming of the shock in store. Federico has mentioned that his would-be lover’s name is “unfortunate”, and Enrique picks up this point:

…but no sooner did I see our selves alone, but with as impertinent a Curiosity, as malicious, and designedly to know the Lady’s Name, I told him, I thought no Name in Spain unfortunate, because they are Names of Saints that are always given in Spain. To this he answer’d, That ever since in Castile there was a Lady named Estefania, who was Kill’d by her Husband, without ever offending him, only by the deceit of a Servant, That it was a vulgar Attribute of the Estefania’s to be Unfortunate. According to this your Lady is called Estefania said I, a little alter’d: And he answer’d, Having told you the Story first, it would be a folly to think to hide her Name now: So craving leave to sleep, he turn’d himself, and left me not altogether free from a villainous suspicion of being Horn’d…

…and to dwell on one detail in that story to the exclusion of another.

The next day, Enrique rushes on his fate, pressing Federico for all the details of his amour: the accidental meeting, the pursuit, the encouragement, the lady’s fear for her reputation, and finally a capitulation to the point of allowing Federico into her house. Federico explains how, by questioning some chair-men about a certain livery, he learns that the servants he described belonged to Donna Estefania de Arcosty Fuentes; while his further description of the lady’s house seems to settle the point. From that moment there is only one thought on Enrique’s mind:

At the crossing of a very thick Wood, where for many Years the Branches of the Trees hid the Roots from the heat of the Sun, I drew my Sword and gave him so strong a thrust through the Breast, that without speaking he fell on the Ground, where lighting from my Horse I gave him many Blows, that in a short time I put him past offending me, or defending himself; he begg’d me not to kill him, but to give him time to confess, not knowing me, nor why I used him so cruelly: I then thinking it would be too much Rigour, not to spare him so much time, since in it though his Body was beyond the Art of Chirurgery to heal, his Soul might be cured; I left him alive; for one thing it is to revenge my Honour as a Gentleman, and another thing to be a Christian…

Enrique’s first thought is to serve Estefania the same way, except that this would make his dishonour known to the world; finally he decides that he will never see her again. He tells his servants that he and Federico had a falling out and fought a duel, and that as a consequence he must leave the country—gaining their assistance to disguise himself and to cover up when he left Madrid. Without looking back, he embarks upon a galley to Naples…and loses no time in blurting out the whole thing to Ricardo.

The two bereft men decide to travel on together, and after seeing Rome and the Vatican, they move on to “Loretta” (Loreto) to see the Basilica. There Ricardo is suddenly accosted by a man in a state of emotional collapse and, after a moment, realises who it is…

(Ricardo remembers; our author, Mr Cox, not so much: first he misspells Fulgencio’s name as “Fulgentio”, then he renders the duplicated part of his name as Antonio, instead of Ricardo!)

Then of course it’s time for another Interpolated Narrative, as Fulgencio catches us up on his various misfortunes—which we might well consider he deserves, since it turns out that it was he (with a band of paid bravos) who engineered the abduction of Lisarda!—after first, of course, ridding himself of the unfortunate Clara:

…giving Clara a thousand sweet words lest she obstruct my Design, I left her in the Village…

This seems to be a recurrent theme for poor Clara.

Fulgencio and his goons then ride off with Lisarda’s coach:

I hoping by this to confirm her in the Belief of your Infidelity; and if not to get my own Ends at least, to dispose her never to make you happy. While we were on the way I used my Rhetorick, with all the Vows and Protestations imaginable, after my endeavours of disswading her from you; then I told her that ’twas in my power whither I carried her, and how I’d dispose of her; and therefore she had better comply than venture the Displeasure of a cholerick Man: But all this produc’d nothing but Scorns and Slights from her, telling me no Man should ever have her, save Ricardo, who, however the Misfortune happen’d that Night, she was sensible he lov’d her, and was one deserving her love. I told her you were kill’d in the Skirmish…

The effect of this upon Lisarda isn’t quite what Fulgencio expects. Sure, there’s a Flood of Tears, but then—

…he is dead, said she, and the Cause so near me yet lives! Snatching my Dagger from my side, gave me a Wound in my Breast, that had certainly kill’d me had her Arm had but a little more Strength…

Fulgencio then carries Lisarda to an isolated country house of his, where he imprisons her—

—to see if I possibly could gain her by all the Endeavours that Love and Kindness could invent.

So I guess it’s true what they say: hope springs eternal in the human breast that has just had a dagger stuck into it.

More sensibly, Fulgencio absents himself for a while to let Lisarda cool down; and, with nothing else to do, he passes the time dallying with Clara—with surprising results:

…Clara, who daily so endeavoured to make me love her; and considering I was married, and that I had best to make my Life as easie as I could: In two Months time seeing no hope of prevailing on Lisarda, Clara had so far gain’d me, that I really felt Motions of the greatest Tenderness for her; and as they say, Love begets Love, so was it with me; I left plying Lisarda with Letters, and began to forget her…

But at least – at least – Fulgencio gets around to telling Lisarda the truth about Ricardo: that he did recover, and then went travelling; and this off his conscience, he has her conveyed back to her father’s house.

Ricardo and Enrique dine with Fulgencio, and afterwards he tells them the rest of his story.

Fulgencio and Clara were very happy for a time—though not as happy as her family, with their erring daughter achieving respectable wifehood—but then…well, you know those Spaniards!

But as I lov’d her, so did I grow Jealous of her, remembering she had been faulty, and leaving one Night stay’d out, the next Morning a Servant told me he had seen a Man enter into my House, that was but just gone before my coming, who with all their Privacy in bringing him in and out, could not escape his Eyes: I without any further assurance, thought it must be Clara that was faulty, and there-withal going to her, though she lay asleep, wak’d her with a thousand Reproaches, upbraiding her with her former Life; and maugre all the Assurances and Protestations she made, to such a height my Choler grew, that I struck her… At last putting on her Night-Gown, she came near a Table where a Pen-knife lay, and taking it up, gave herself several Stabs…

At this rather critical moment, Clara’s maid enters the room; and, inevitably—

‘Twas I brought in the Man last night, who is my Husband…

It’s too late for poor Clara, however, though at least she dies vindicated; and in the wake of what he likes to call “the Misfortune”, Fulgencio sets out on a pilgrimage to Loretta.

Leaving Fulgencio to do his penance, Ricardo and Enrique set out for Andalusia; though they go a longer way, via Monserrat, so that Enrique will not be endangered by passing through Barcelona. The city is crowded due to a large influx of pilgrims to an image of the Virgin Mary known as Our Lady Of Monserrat. The two men are watching events from the window of their room when Enrique sees a familiar face—none other than Federico, not dead after all. It is clear, too, that there is a lady in his coach; and it takes all of Ricardo’s tact and persuasions to stop Enrique doing – yet again – something stupid. Finally he promises to look into it himself and goes out to investigate; sensibly locking Enrique in their room first.

Sure enough, Federico and Estefania it is; but they are not alone: Estefania’s sister, Donna Angela, is with them; and it does not take Ricardo long to establish that (i) Estefania is innocent; (ii) she has done nothing for the past two years but search for her missing husband; and (iii) it was Angela whom Federico was pursuing, and to whom he is now married. Moreover, discovering after he had recovered that the story of Enrique’s attack upon himself and Estefania’s supposed adultery was being gossiped about, Federico took pains to make sure everyone knew the truth, and that Estefania’s honour was re-established.

And so Enrique and Estefania are reunited. Meanwhile, Ricardo gets his reward from Angela:

Then Donna Angela desired to know if she might be acquainted with his Mistresses Name, which he told her was Lisarda, O then, Sir, saith she, you may safely depend on your Marriage, for by her name I guess yours to be Don Ricardo Antonio, the only person she hath told me should be her Husband; for about three Months ago I came acquainted with her here, she having vowed the Romery for your Prosperity; we became so intimately acquainted lodging in the same Inne together, that she told me the whole Story of your Loves…

Ricardo immediately sets out for Andalusia, where we discover than some people never learn anything:

…perceiving some Gentlemen at the Door of Donna Clara Lisarda’s House, tuning their Instruments, by which he knew they had a mind to Divert some Lady; he at a distance alighted off his Horse, desirous, if it was possible, to know who these were, serendaing, as he thought, his Mistress… No sooner ended, but he heard the Lady shut her Window; the Company took leave of one another, and one who seemed to be the Master of this Treat, mounted a Horseback: Don Ricardo, though tired with a long Journey, and very desirous to see Don Pedro de Vargas the Corregidor, was yet more desirous to see his supposed Rival…

Seriously, Ricardo? SERIOUSLY!?

Following his, sigh, rival, Ricardo is attacked by bandits, from whom his, sigh, rival rescues him—turning out to be none other than Don Pedro, who is delighted to see his cousin and takes him home for the night. The delight isn’t entirely mutual, but I’ll spare you Ricardo’s tossings and turnings and torments (at least he refrains from trying to kill anyone!), and cut to the chase: even more inevitably that poor Clara’s “lover” being nothing of the kind, Don Pedro is courting Lisarda’s cousin, Donna Maria, who happens to be staying with her.

Perversely enough, it turns out that the band of goons hired by Fulgencio were from amongst Donna Maria’s vassals; but between the letter which Fulgencio wrote to the Corregidor, taking all the blame onto himself, and Maria’s pleading for her people, they got off lightly. Don Pedro was immediately captivated by Maria, but soon discovered that he had, sigh, a rival: a story that of course requires an Interpolated Narrative.

The, sigh, rival is Don Roderido Vasques, a man who has acquired a reputation for courage and daring without doing anything to earn it—much to the annoyance of Don Pedro, who has earned the same reputation the hard way. The two men get put to the test when Maria’s house catches fire. It is Pedro who saves her, but Roderigo who manages to be there when Maria recovers from her inevitable swoon.

Wow! That chestnut’s even older than I imagined!

The grateful Maria promises to marry Roderigo:

    He with a feigned Modesty, said, That truly he had done nothing for their Service, at least, it was so little, as did not deserve Thanks from her Mouth, much less so great a Blessing as her self; but it was too Good to be refused, and that he now trusted to her Word.
    The next day it was all about the Town that Don Roderigo had ventur’d through the Fire, and rescu’d Donna Maria: This was every bodies story which did not a little vex me. I affirm’d the Action to be mine, and said that he ly’d who said the contrary. Don Roderigo said, Yes it was I did it; but that with such a false Smile, such a feigned Dissimulation, and with such Equivocating words, that he own’d the Action more in his Denial, than I in all my Affirmatives.

Luckily for Pedro, and for Maria, during his rescue of her he took a ring from her finger, which he could not have gained possession of at any other time. This backs up his claims, and Roderigo retires, as they say, disconsolate.

Which sorts out all our immediate romantic problems; and allows Mr Cox to wrap up his story of insanely jealous foreigners in a one brisk paragraph of happy-ever-afters:

…the Joy Lisarda had at the sight of Ricardo, cannot be exprest, no more than his at the sight of her. But to be short with you, and to make an end, both his Marriage with Lisarda, and his cousins with Donna Maria were concluded, and to be Celebrated both the following Sunday; on the day before the Marriage, Don Enrique and Don Federico, with their Ladies Arrived, so that they had a full House, great Entertainment, and a long continued Feast for Joy, and living very lovingly and happily all the Days of their Lives.

…or at least until some poor SOB looks the wrong way at Lisarda…


Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy (Part 1)

lisarda1b“I find it hard to marry a Man who woos not me but my Estate; and yet could I bear with this, (for Ambition is so grown into the World, that there must be a new Creation to find disinteress’d men:) who can assure their selves of their manners, where there are so many Cheats. In the time of wooing the most vicious appears a Saint, and detests all Vice: with what protestations doth the inconstant at that time avouch his Constancy? and how assured of his Mistress’s Vertue is the Gallant, who many times afterwards, he proves murderously troublesome with his Jealousy; and all, how false soever, call Heaven to witness the sincerity of their Love: O! how they Adore, Admire, Esteem, with many other such like terms, till they have got their aim. His friend stiles him vertuous, good, &c. His Relations will say that for him, He is good-natured, and given to no remarkable Vice; another as a gallant young Gentleman; Nay the Maid, the young Ladies Confident, hath had the itching of her Palms answer’d, to give her good word, and all this to her cost, who takes him for better or for worse; and gives her hand and heart to an Enemy…”

So I made it to 1690.

{Insert slow, sarcastic hand-clapping.}

We’ve touched previously upon some of the events of 1690, and I imagine they’ll be cropping up in the Chronobibliography in due course; but our current work, Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy by one “H. Cox” (a gentleman, his title page reassures us) has nothing to do with politics, or indeed with anything serious. Despite its title (and noting that “travels” is an archaic rendering of “travails”), this is a mostly humorous short work about various young Spaniards at romantic cross-purposes that serves as another illustration of the shifting position of fiction in England as the country entered the final decade of the 17th century.

The Puritan resistance to fiction, which retarded the development of the English novel, saw local writers frequently compromise by setting their stories in foreign countries—whether they were writing actual fiction, or political allegories disguised as such, as per the numerous romans à clef which we have already considered. In the former case, it was a way of dodging criticism, since the works in question could be pitched as cautionary tales about foreigners and how lucky everyone was to be English.

What is chiefly interesting about Lisarda is that, while it is set in Spain, there is no sense at all of this being a defensive tactic: rather, it simply suited Mr Cox to take advantage of the differences (real and perceived) between Spanish customs and those prevailing in England: another “cautionary tale” if you like, but one with its tongue tucked into its cheek.

This attitude is made clear from the very outset, in the book’s dedication to The Honourable James Levinston, Esq., wherein Cox speaks for his anxious heroine:

That, Sir, I hope will excuse my Presumption of Introducing Lisarda to you; A Lady, who though Vertuous to a Superlative, yet Unfortunate, till the Consummation of her Marriage with Don Ricardo, and the greater Happiness of attaining the Honour to be Presented to you; fearful least her Misfortunes might follow her here into England, and that many might blame that here, for want of knowing the Customs of Spain, which there is not felt a fault, no not a venial one: She fears our Ladies might be offended with so much Forwardness in Spanish Women, which for want of a Spanish Confinement, they are not Guilty of themselves: These thoughts are what troubled her, till now that I assur’d her, You were too Courteous to refuse your Patronage to a Lady…

Cox then moves on to address the reader directly, offering an amusingly clear overview of the state of the English novel, and the English novel-writer, circa 1690.

This may, in fact, be the most important aspect of this short novel. We are so accustomed to pointed dedications, to writers with political intent declaring their allegiances and/or showing that they have friends in high places, that the absence here of any such addendum – or rather, the substitution of a bit of prosaic reality – acts as a measure of how completely things had changed in England during the comparatively brief period between the “Glorious Revolution” and the publication of Cox’s work: fiction is longer necessarily about a political agenda, but about entertainment; it is also about the serious business of making a living, one opposed by the emergence of a new enemy. The main thing that writers of fiction had to fear was no longer The Law, but—The Criticks:

I have offer’d you this Book without the Commands of any Person of Quality, or the urgent desires of any friend, only for my own Pleasure, and perhaps a little for my Profit; besides, I think it a pleasant thing, though I shall no impose this Opinion on any one, nor think myself oblig’d to him who favours it; do but buy it, and let the Bookseller take your money; then Curse it, Damn it, and the Author, and throw it away, or what you please. Nor have I omitted my Name for fear of the Criticks, who I desire to have no more mercy on the Book, when once bought, than they have of their own unpitied Souls, who likely they may damn, by way of affirming the poor ignorant Author for a Blockhead, a Dunce, and Fool, with a long Et cætera of their ironical Titles; a thing that he’ll but smile to bear, so that his Expectations are but answer’d, and the Book sells…

Though Cox is clearly joking, the inference that it is no longer necessary for writers of fiction to publish anonymously is also significant.

The reader is then introduced to Clara Lisarda, a beautiful and virtuous sixteen-year-old with an equally attractive fortune. Naturally such a prize is much courted; but although eager for love and marriage, she hangs back, only too aware that she must be the target of fortune-hunters as well as honourable gentleman, and that courtship is often a matter of flowery falsehoods. The matter is becoming one of urgency for Lisarda, since among the throng of her admirers, her fancy has lighted upon one Don Ricardo.

Among many other public events to mark a new alliance between Spain and France, a bull-fight (sigh) is arranged to allow the gentlemen of Seville to display their courage. A certain Don Fulgencio nearly loses his life when he and his horse are attacked by a bull and, at this appalling sight, Lisarda faints. Thus she misses Don Ricardo rushing bravely to the rescue, dispatching the bull and saving Fulgencio’s life.

When the dust settles, Ricardo looks up at the spectators’ boxes to see how his actions have impressed Lisarda:

Ricardo lighting from his Horse, lookt up to the Window where Lisarda sate; but his Servants telling him that they saw her carried away in a swound when the Bull so fiercely attacqued Fulgencio, he concluded he was the Chosen from among the Crowd of her Adorers, and running to help him up, taking him by the Arm, said, Sir, Your fall to you is like that of Saul, for it hath made known your Election; and so retir’d extreamly discontented to his Lodging: where we’ll leave him complaining of his hard Fate…

…because, after all, who could get sick over a little thing like a horse getting disembowelled?

This moment sets the tone for an entire comedy of misunderstanding, wherein Cox’s characters are constantly leaping to ridiculous conclusions and taking drastic (and I mean drastic) action on the strength of evidence so flimsy it can scarcely be called “evidence”—and sometimes on the strength of no evidence at all.

Recovering at home, the dismayed Lisarda learns that Ricardo intends that afternoon to fight a bull on his own account. After struggling with herself, she decides to send him a letter begging him not to risk himself again, though she can only justify her action by admitting to him that she loves him.

When Ricardo – whose full name, we now learn, is Don Ricardo Antonio – receives Lisarda’s letter, however, the outcome is not exactly what she intended, though not through any fault of hers:

…he knew not what to make of the Letter; the Directions he knew to be Lisarda’s writing, but never having receiv’d, nor heard that she had ever writ to any of her Lovers before, he conjectur’d it was to discard him: since she had made her choice of Fulgencio, least she might give him Ombrage, or cause Jealousy, by entertaining still her old Suitors, she had writ to them all to forbear their vain Endeavours. This now past for granted, and he was resolv’d not to open the Letter, least it might draw Effeminate tears into his Eyes, therefore retaking his Poniard, he said, Come welcome steel, thy sharpness is much easier to be endur’d, than to see the happiness of my Rival; end my Misery; and as he was going to strike, says he, No. Though thy Charms hath made me miserable to that degree, that to avoid that succeeding Chain of Miseries that must needs follow, I will end my life. Yet in my last hour such is my Constancy, I will kiss thy Name, paying my last devoir to the sign of my cruel Sentence, submitting— More he would have said, but having open’d the Letter to kiss the name, he could not so confine his sight…

Yyyyeah: I generally find it is a good idea to find out what the contents of a letter are before killing yourself over them…

Having answered Lisarda’s letter, Ricardo does as she asks and refrains from participating further in the bull-fights. He attends, however, and Fulgencio invites him to sit in his box—which happens to be next to that occupied by Lisarda. The two spend the afternoon making goo-goo eyes at each other, so openly that Fulgencio can’t avoid noticing:

…at this he was in so great a Passion, that with much difficulty could he contain himself within the compass of Discretion, Envy, Jealousy, Anger, and a thousand other Passions tore his Breast; in short, he found them prevailing over his Reason, and least by seeing more it should be overpower’d, and that not being a fit place for a quarrel or disturbance, he slunk away…

With marriage to Lisarda on his horizon, Ricardo’s thoughts turn to how best to rid himself of his mistress—whose name, uncomfortably enough, is also Clara—Donna Clara Euphegenia. We learn that she is of good birth, but was seduced and abandoned by another man, and turned to elegant prostitution after being cast off by her family. She sincerely loves Ricardo, and it is soon clear to him that she isn’t going to go quietly:

nor would she hear him speak, but threatened to tear Lisarda to pieces; this urg’d Ricardo to think of another course, so that saying nothing, he went Streight to the Corregidors, or Governour of the Town who was his kinsman, and one that really lov’d him, to him he told the whole, and desir’d his assistance to get rid of her, which he promis’d; then they agreed; that the ensuing night, about eleven a Clock, the Corregidor should come with a Coach and Guards, and with a feign’d Warrant seize her, and send her in a Coach to Madrid, where the Guards should leave her…

Ricardo is on his way home from this highly honourable mission when he runs into Fulgencio, who by now has worked himself into a real state, and insists that they fight. Ricardo tells him, in essence, that he’s too busy just now, but he’ll be happy to fight him later, when he’s finished getting his mistress deported on trumped-up charges. A busy boy, Ricardo then calls upon Lisarda and makes his vows and proposals to her, before returning to Clara Euphegenia and dissembling his intentions, in order to keep her placated until the Guards arrive. He does it very thoroughly:

…he din’d with her, and staid with her till near four of the Clock, in which time he show’d so much love, and Caress’d her so handsomely, that she could not doubt but he was sincere…

—a little too thoroughly: Lisarda’s parents are away (thus she has been able to meet with Ricardo and answer him directly), and now, as she spots Ricardo, returning to the celebrations as she thinks, but in fact going back to Clara’s house for a second round of, ahem, placating, she follows him, meaning to join him, but finds herself outside a house which her servant is able to tell her belongs to him:

…she went in, but being in the first room, the door of the second stood half open, from whence our Lady heard these words; Ah, my dear Clara, Don’t imagine or think, that I can be false to thee; It is to have little Confidence in thine own Charms; Knowing this voice to be Ricardo’s, she carefully lookt the opening of the door, and saw her Lover lying on Clara’s Lap: O, Ye juste Powers! said she to herself, Is this possible! Could silly, easy Lisarda have believ’d it, had not her Eyes and Ears been Witnesses of his Ingratitude: Here she stopt hearing Ricardo speaking thus: My dear Clara, I don’t deny, that for my Friends satisfaction I gave out, and pretended to love Lisarda, but that was, that I might with secrecy give a full scope to my wishes, and thy Dear Embraces. What is Lisarda comparable to thee, but as a False Glass to a Diamond…

Lisarda can’t take any more, and rushes into the room—telling her startled rival that she’s welcome to Ricardo:

…I assure you, I have no design, if I could, which would be impossible, he being withheld by your all-powerful Charms, to rob you of the Gallant, who so justly enjoys your good will, that you ought to love him for his many good Parts, I mean as to his Body, for as to the rest, Heaven never fram’d a man so False, so ungrateful a Creature…

And in the middle of this scene, Ricardo hears the signal from Fulgencio, reminding of their appointment to fight. Worried about what might happens in his absence, he bundles Clara into another room and locks her in, then hurries downstairs to ask Fulgencio if they can put it off for an hour or two, as he has rather a lot on his plate; but Fulgencio isn’t in a mood to be put off, so they go off to duel. Meanwhile, hearing voices and now calm enough to worry about consequences, Lisarda throws on her veils to conceal herself from any newcomers—and thus finds herself under arrest and being carried off to Madrid…

The real Clara, meanwhile, escapes out of a window with her maid, and in the darkness encounters Fulgencio returning from the duel. He mistakes her for Lisarda and begins upbraiding her:

Madam, Might I never be so happy in any other Woman, I would not exchange the Hell wherein you have put me, not for that happiness: And she mistaking him for Antonio, I thought you would not have been in pain while you possest my heart; at least you have often told me so: He perceiving she mistook him for t’other was overjoy’d, not knowing he himself was mistaken , but on the contrary, by having seen her in the street go into Antonio’s; her discourse of having seen him that night, and his seeing Antonio go in just before her, had not any scruple, but really thought it was the Person he took her for; and since she took him for his Rival, not being able to worst Antonio by the Sword, he thought now to revenge himself by a trick, and so proceeded.
Well, Madam, said he, Since we love sincerely, let me beg of you, before we go further, to give me the assurance, you’ll ever be mine: How shall I do that, replied Clara? Why, Madam, for several urgent reasons, for your advantage as well as mine, we may be married now, and keep it private till— Here cutting off his words, not having power to contain her self for Joy, said, Ay, my Antonio, I Consent, You know I can refuse you nothing. So presently they went to a Priest, who was at Fulgencio’s Devotion, or rather was devoted to the gold he expected, who married them by the light of one single Lamp that hung i’ the church, so that neither perceived their mistake…

Amusingly enough, our author feels obliged to interject here—having reached levels of ridiculousness that, evidently, he considered too great even for a bunch of Spaniards. He has, of course, already made it clear that our ladies’ names overlaps; now he clarifies:

What cover’d extreamly the mistake was, as in all Foreign Countries, having two Names, Fulgencio could answer by that of Ricardo, and designedly did so, Clara was the first Name of Lisarda’s as well as hers, whom we call by that Name…

Meanwhile, Ricardo – whose disarming of Fulgencio in the duel is mentioned only in passing – returns to Clara’s house and there learns what has befallen Lisarda. He dashes off to the Corregidor, gets an order rescinding the warrant, and rides off after the coach, calling upon it to stop. Instead it goes faster, which prompts Ricardo to start firing his pistols after it. Someone fires back, and they keep it up until both are out of bullets—at which point, Fulgencio calls out to Ricardo, and before we know it, the two are in the middle of another duel, which ends exactly as the first did, much to Fulgencio’s mortification:

…when he came to examine the business, it was the discovery of a double deceit: First instead of Lisarda, whom both thought was in the Coach, they found Clara Ricardo’s late Mistress, and to Fulgencio’s great perplexity, his now Wife; he no sooner knew who t’was but he would have disown’d her, but in vain, for he had told Ricardo in his Capitulation, that on Condition he would not meddle with a Lady in the Coach, who he had that Night Married, he would surrender, but without that Promise, Disarm’d as he was, the Dispute should continue, and assuring him it was no Person sent by Command of the Corregidor, and consequently not the Person he sought for; Ricardo had granted his Request, deliver’d him his Sword, and went to wish the Lady Joy; when, Gods! what a surprise was it to him to see Clara; had he been capable to have receiv’d any Pleasure amidst that throng of Vexations, undoubtedly this would have been a great one to see himself rid of so troublesome a Mistress…

Washing his hands of that mess, Ricardo returns to the chase, and finally overtakes the government coach. The guards acknowledge their new orders and obligingly offer Ricardo a seat in the coach, inviting him to stay wherever they put up for the night. He accepts, although there is still a deathly silence within the coach, as both parties try to figure out what to say to one another, when the coach is suddenly held up by a band of men, who shoot three of the guards before Ricardo can finish making a speech:

Madam, I am far from being sorry for this occasion, of shewing how tenderly I love you; if I live I hope to clear my self of what things have happen’d to night; but if it is my misfortune to be kill’d, let me beg you to entertain a Charitable Opinion for me…

Ricardo manages to kill one of the band, but is shot and injured himself as the carriage is driven away. He expends what he honestly believes to be his dying breath on making yet another speech, a distinctly self-pitying one, only to be rescued by some locals—Cowardly Bores, we are assured—who heard the shots but kept well clear until the fight was over, and in fact only show up now to rob the corpses. They get a shock when one of the dead men starts resisting them, and Ricardo in danger of his life yet again when more guards show up, these dispatched from the nearest town where word of the fight and abduction was also carried.

Ricardo survives his ordeal, but is left in complete ignorance of Lisarda’s fate and can only fear the worst.

Meanwhile, we discover that this town has a short way with boring people:

…the Bores were carried before the Corregidor, who committed them to Gaol…innumerable were the imprecations laid on the Bores…the poor Bores were loaded with Irons, and laid in a Dungeon…

[To be continued…]


My man Hugh

Some of you with extremely long memories for trivia may remember that I once did a short post referencing Hugh Walpole’s historical romance, Judith Paris. This is the second book in Walpole’s “Herries Chronicles”, a family saga stretching from Georgian times to contemporary England (Walpole was writing in the 20s and 30s), and is interesting for the way it tends to present English history away from the “big events” that dominate historical fiction: much of the third volume, The Fortress, for instance, is set during that most-neglected period between the Regency and the ascension of Victoria.

Another attraction of this series is its amusing use of literature—using the term “literature” a bit lightly. Walpole not only introduces various literary figures as characters, but his people tend to be readers of the more eclectic type. The One of the highlights for me of Judith Paris was a short scene in which two minor characters are reading a novel by my homegirl, Kitty Cuthbertson. (They didn’t like it, which only proves there’s no accounting for bad taste.)

I was delighted to discover that Walpole kept up his game of literary allusions in The Fortress—where yet again we meet a raft of characters who feel they should be reading poetry and other such serious works, but would rather curl up with a novel…

In Judith Paris, we were introduced to an incompetent tutor who kept his position by reading Minerva Press novels out loud to his employer, the foolish Jennifer Herries; here, the far shrewder Judith picks a better qualified man for her own son:

His passion was for Homer, and Adam owed that at at least—that the Iliad and the Odyssey were to be ever friendly companions to him because of Roger Rackstraw. He had a pretty sense too of the virtues of Virgil, Horace, Thucydides and the Greek dramatists, and could make them live under his fingers. He had a poor opinion of contemporary English Letters, although he said a good word for the Waverley romances and told everyone that there was a young poet, John Keats, who would be remembered. For Mr Wordsworth he had more praise than was locally considered reasonable, but when alone with a friend confessed that he thought Southey’s poetry ‘fustian’…

Possibly the reason that Roger “had a poor opinion of contemporary English Letters” is that he was living during the literary black hole which occurred between the death of Jane Austen and the arrival on the scene of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens: a time when the void was chiefly filled by amusing but trivial Silver-Fork Novels. Judith sees this second-rate writing as the expression of a general malaise:

She saw that she was in a society where nothing was real, where nobody believed in anything at all, where everyone feared what the morrow would bring. The ‘Silver Fork’ novels of fashionable life, just then beginning to be popular, were symptomatic of the falsehood and sham, while cruel and malicious sheets like the Age and the John Bull of Theodore Hook showed where the rottenness was hidden…

(Hmm… She was in a society where nothing was real, where nobody believed in anything at all, where everyone feared what the morrow would bring— Is that why we have so many terrible movies at the moment?)

The young Uhland Herries has a crippled leg, and lives withdrawn from his family. Most people are frightened of Uhland (with good reason, as we shall learn), and even his father, Walter, who almost worships him, does not understand him—least of all his passion for reading:

    Uhland was reading Ivanhoe.
    “What a silly book, Papa!” he said. “I am certain that people never talked like that.”
    Walter placed his great bulk on the bed and put his arm round his son. Under Uhland’s nightdress there was a sharp rigid spine-bone that seemed to protest against the caressing warmth of Walter’s hand.
    “Why not, my boy?” said Walter, who had never read Ivanhoe. “Sir Walter Scott is a very great man.”
    “Have you ever read a book called Frankenstein, Papa?”
    “No, my boy.”
    “That’s better than this stuff. Frankenstein creates a Monster and cannot escape it. There is too much fine writing, however…”

(This is the earliest instance I know of, of a fictional character identifying with Frankenstein’s Creature, as I prefer to call him. As a grown man, Uhland will give in to the blackest side of his nature and persecute his cousin, John Herries, exactly as the Creature persecutes Frankenstein, for far less cogent but psychologically similar reasons.)

As a young woman, Uhland’s sister Elizabeth finds a post as governess, but discovers that (as with the incompetent tutor) she is also expected to entertain her pupils’ mother:

Mrs Golightly enjoyed entertaining her friends in the evening…but perhaps more than anything else she enjoyed sitting with her toes in front of the fire of an evening and listening to Elizabeth’s reading of a novel. The original inquiry at the Agency about the Poets had been genuine enough, but when it came actually to reading—well, the novel was the thing! Elizabeth had a beautiful, quiet, cultivated voice, as Mrs Golightly told all her friends. It was a pleasure indeed to listen to her. So Elizabeth read, night after night, from the works of Bulwer, Ainsworth, that delightful new writer Charles Dickens, Theodore Hook, Mrs Gore, Miss Austen (“a little dull, my love—not enough Event”) and even some of the old Minerva Press’ romances—Mandroni, Ronaldo Rinaldini and The Beggar Girl And Her Benefactors, the last in seven volumes…

Meanwhile, Adam Paris grows up to be first a literary critic, and then an author of fantasy stories:

    “There are two sorts of writers, Mother, just as there are two sorts of Herries. One sort believes in facts, the other sort believes in things behind the facts.”
    “The books I like best,” she answered, “are those that have both sorts in them.”
    “For instance?”
    “Jane is reading me a very amusing story called Under Two Flags. It’s silly, of course—not like real life at all—but most enjoyable. And then there’s Alice In Wonderland. And then there’s Mr Huxley’s Man’s Place In Nature.”
    Adam laughed. “Mother, what a ridiculous mixture!”
    “They all come to the same thing in the end.”
    “What thing?”
    “The world is made up both of fantasy and reality, I suppose…”

As these passages illustrate, Walpole uses his characters’ reading not only to reveal their natures – here, the many contradictions of Judith – but to mark the passage of time and the changing of society: the events of The Fortress covering the years between 1822 and 1870 and climaxing with Judith reaching her 100th birthday.

But there’s one more literary passage in The Fortress that I must highlight, and—well, let’s just say that my man Hugh didn’t let me down:

They had never been to Uldale before on a visit, and this was a great adventure. ‘Madame’ was a ‘character’ through the whole countryside, and it was wonderful to be entertained in her parlour. Or was it Mrs Herries’ parlour? People said that she was mad and walked about the country singing songs to herself—mad, poor thing, because her husband had discovered her with her lover and he had killed himself. Very shocking, but how romantic! And then her son John was so handsome, the best-looking young man in the North, a little sad and pensive as a good-looking young man ought to be. For they adored Thaddeus Of Warsaw and Mrs Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano and Mrs Meeke’s Midnight Weddings


Not so very steady…

Well, that kind of went to hell, didn’t it?

I have whinged long and hard elsewhere, so I won’t do it again here, merely explain that a combination of work issues and health issues managed to stop me doing anything I wanted to do for several months, and I am still in the process of picking up the pieces.

Things are more or less back under control now, and I hope to have this blog ticking over again shortly.

Apologies to those of you I left hanging (including my commenters), and thanks to everyone who kept the blog warm in my absence.


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…


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:





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.





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.


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.


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).


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…



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…