19/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 1)

    Mrs Armstrong possessed one master passion, PRIDE; one predominant affection, MATERNAL LOVE… As Louise approached womanhood, these passions began to conflict, thus—
    The time was slowly but surely approaching when it would be proper for the heiress of Mont Crystal to be married. Her pride was interested in seeing her married, and established as the mistress of the most magnificent mansion and the greatest estate in the valley,
and pride, enlisting policy on her side, would suffer no delay, run no risk of the loss of this desideratum. But her maternal love, if the fierce, selfish, and exacting passion deserved the name, rebelled against this decision. Pride would have been highly gratified by seeing Miss Armstrong, as Mrs Stuart-Gordon, mistress of the Island Palace. Maternal love was grieved at the anticipation that her daughter should become the wife of Louis, maternal jealousy aroused by the thought that Louise should derive the happiness of her life from any other than herself. It is true, the mother coveted for her daughter no happiness that did not flow through herself. It is true, the thought of seeing Louise in another home, united to another…of feeling herself the mother of one only child, becoming of less and less importance to the happiness of that child, as year by year went by and aged her—this thought inflicted upon her selfish heart the sharpest pang it was capable of feeling…

 

While trying to determine which, of the many possible people and projects, is the most neglected around here is probably futile, there’s no doubt that if I did rank them, E.D.E.N. Southworth would be somewhere near the top of the list.

In my defence, for once there’s a good exc—uh, reason: for a long time, the only available copy of Southworth’s third novel, The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, was a scanned document of an edition resulting from a pernicious practice found in 19th century American publishing: reissuing three-volume novels in a single volume, with microscopic font, small margins and double-columns.

(In other words, almost the exact opposite of the 18th century British practice I pointed out with respect to The Picture…)

As an online text or as a PDF, the resulting scans are almost impossible to read, or read comfortably: if you fit a page on the screen the font is too small; if you make the font big enough, you have to toggle up and down repeatedly.

So perhaps I’ll be excused for putting off The Mother-In-Law as long as I have. I had girded my loins to the task, though, when I discovered that a different copy of the novel had been uploaded at the Internet Archive. I still had to read it online, but at least I could read it:
 

 

 
The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays was serialised in the National Era between 22 November 1849 – 18 July 1850, before being published in book form in 1851. It was subsequently reissued under three variant titles: The Mother-In-Law; or, Married In Haste; Married In Haste; or, Wife And No Wife; and The Mother-In-Law: A Tale Of Domestic Life. The first two give completely the wrong idea about what kind of novel it is; while with the third, you have feel that someone was being ironic.

As always with Southworth’s long and complicated sensation novels, it becomes a matter of how to do them justice in a review without simply recapitulating them. The Mother-In-Law, though quite as fully stuffed with characters and subplots as any other of Southworth’s novels, is actually more tightly plotted overall, showing the rippling impact of its central situation upon the surrounding community, and working to a climax that resolves early everything for nearly everybody. There is one important exception to this generalisation, however; and for this reason I have decided to address the novel in two posts, giving each of them their due weight.

The Mother-In-Law fits comfortably – well: not comfortably, exactly – within the framework of Southworth’s early fiction, in that it is a story of domestic misery. However, whereas in her previous novels, Southworth’s focus was on the consequences of male violence and male selfishness in the domestic sphere, here she gives us the monstrous feminine. Unnervingly, the novel carries a preface insisting that it is a true story; and while this is a common authorial ploy, of course, the length and seriousness of this introduction gives us pause.

Overall, this novel bears some resemblance to the first one of Southworth’s that we examined, Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, in that it deals with a community of families, the relationships that develop amongst its young people, and the influence – whether for good or ill (although mostly the latter) – of the older generation upon the next. In this respect, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Mother-In-Law is that while it has numerous characters, it is really a novel without either a hero or a heroine in the usual sense. This lack of conventional focus means that we must concentrate more than we normally would upon its ensemble cast.

Geographically, we find ourselves in familiar Southworth territory: The Mother-In-Law is set in the Virginian countryside, some thirty or forty years (we gather) in the past. “The Isle Of Rays” is the name given to an island situated in the middle of a broad river, which is big enough to support two important properties (as well as several much smaller ones); its land is divided into two, with one half of the island being under cultivation, the other a savage but beautiful wilderness. The natural glories of her characters’ surroundings occupy Southworth very much, and she includes many lyrical descriptions along the way—which, if it’s okay with you, we’ll take as read.

The leading property, not just of the island but the entire district, is called simply “The Island Estate”. This is the home of the Stuart-Gordons; its present lord is General Henry Cartwright Stuart-Gordon, who – as per a longstanding family condition – took his wife’s surname upon their marriage. At the story’s outset, Mrs Stuart-Gordon is recently deceased; her robust husband is recovering from the blow, but her only child, sensitive young Louis, is depressed and lonely.

Second in importance to the Palace is Mont Crystal, the home of the Armstrongs—Mrs Armstrong, a widow, and her only child, Louise—who in addition to the similarity of her name shares Louis’ birthday, 22nd February, though Louise is two years younger. Naturally, everyone expects the two estates to be merged when the young heirs are of a suitable age.

Louise, Louise and Mrs Armstrong are the three main characters of The Mother-In-Law, and since we will hear plenty about each of them along the way, I won’t talk too much about them here—except to highlight Southworth’s significant description of Louise. We’ve noted already Southworth’s tendency to “colour-code” her women with respect to their hair, also that clearly shared with her spiritual sister, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (like Southworth, a brunette), a certain exasperation over their society’s obsession with doll-like blue-eyed blondes. Fair-haired girls do not generally fare well in Southworth’s novels; and when we are offered the following portrait of Louise Armstrong—

…with her fair, transparent complexion, with her mild blue eyes and pale gold wavy hair, with her fragile and drooping form arrayed in white muslin as soft and pliable as her gentle disposition…

—we recognise her instantly as one of the author’s sacrificial lambs.

But there is a blonde of an entirely different description in The Mother-In-Law. Gertrude Lion – the “Gerfalcon”, as she is known to the district – stands nearly six feet tall; a wild, passionate, uncontrolled young woman to whom the term “Amazon” is repeatedly applied—though “Valkyrie” might have been a better choice. Orphaned early, Gertrude has been roughly raised by her equally unconventional brother, Brutus, at their isolated mountain property known as “The Lair”. Fascinatingly, particularly juxtaposed with certain other material offered by this novel, Gertrude and Brutus not only have Cherokee blood in their heritage, they are both very proud of the fact.

A unprecedented creation, Gertrude Lion explodes periodically into the narrative of The Mother-In-Law, “leaping” and “bounding” rather than ever just walking, and shattering both convention and other people’s nerves. Intriguingly, Gertrude shares certain characteristics with Hagar, the protagonist of Southworth’s The Deserted Wife, in that she is a creature of nature, excelling at all physical activities – including some distinctly unfeminine ones – and more at home with her horses and dogs than in society. However, since Gertrude is only a supporting character (and, unlike Hagar, not an authorial self-portrait), her behaviour not only goes unchecked, but unpunished. In fact, Southworth has a great deal of wicked fun with her—before pulling an extraordinary rabbit from the hat by turning Gertrude into her novel’s Deus ex machina

Pardon a digression.

An amusing contrast is drawn between the Lions and the Stuart-Gordons. The former, we learn, are descended from one of “the regicides”, who fled England upon the Restoration and settled in Virginia—then changing the family name to “Lion” as a precaution. The latter, meanwhile, are proud to claim descent from THOSE Stuarts. Southworth concedes this, though with a sardonic passing reference to “the bar sinister”; she also loads Louis with a selection of the less desirable Stuart characteristics, most significantly weakness in dealing with women; though we should note in his defence that, very un-Stuart-like, he is a young man of impeccable morals. Southworth herself digresses here for a few pointed remarks about the royal family in question, finally observing tartly that:

…their strong Scottish blood was diluted in the marriage of James V. with Mary of Lorraine, and still further reduced in the union of their daughter Mary Stuart with the imbecile Henry, Lord Darnley. Reader, did it ever occur to you to trace the downfall of that Royal House to the degeneracy of its stock from these two unfortunate marriages? If this were the place, or I had the time, I could almost prove it…

Meanwhile—Southworth lets her preference not just for brunettes, but dark brunettes, almost run riot. (No-one ever simply has brown hair in Southworth…nor have we yet met a red-head.) That said, the ladies in question could hardly be more different in either character or situation.

We are first introduced to Miss Britannia O’Riley – “Brighty” to her friends – Louise Armstrong’s Irish-American governess. Brighty—

…was about twenty-five years of age at the time our story opens, of medium height, moderately full figure, black eyes and hair, and dark complexion, features irregular, forehead broad and full, eyebrows slender and black, arched towards the nose, and elevated towards the temples, bright, piercing eyes, nez retroussé, and lips full, crimson, and quivering, formed the tout ensemble of a countenance irresistibly charming in its sparkling piquancy.

Brighty is a young woman of many faults: she is rather vain, a lover of luxury, and given to unmeasured speech. (Governesses, observes Southworth wryly, accounting for the fact that Brighty gets away with various acts of defiance and impertinence, were harder to obtain in early 19th century Virginia than they are at the time of writing.) But she is also generous, loving, and loyal.

We are next introduced to Susan Somerville, the granddaughter of old Major Somerville; the two occupy a broken-down property on the mainland known as “The Crags”: the last of an old, proud family sliding into poverty—and worse. After the death of Mrs Stuart-Gordon, Susan begins to call in the evenings upon Louis and his father, to make tea and provide sympathetic female companionship:

She was a medium-sized girl—full—even very full formed—with the well-developed bust, round chin and cheeks, and full, sweet lips, that indicate a fine vital temperament; her complexion was very fair, her eyes large, dark, and calm, and her hair black and silky, and rippling in tiny wavelets over her head. She wore it carelessly, but partly twisted up behind, partly drooping down her plump white cheeks and throat. Her dress of dark stuff was neatness itself; but her air—her air—there, that was magic! She looked like one that calmly and deeply enjoyed her life in every vein. Wisdom and innocence reposed in her serene face. Her manner was full of grave, sweet comfort…

Then there is Zoe Dove:

She was a gentle, tender little creature, with a fair, delicate skin, with soft, dark eyes, and fine, silky black hair, inclined to curl, but plainly twisted up.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of the old schoolmaster, Mr Dove, found literally upon his doorstep as a baby. She is the novel’s domestic goddess, a born housekeeper who finds all her pleasure in cooking and cleaning and sewing. A tiny, delicate creature, she is the unlikely object of Brutus Lion’s affections; even though Brutus – six-feet-nine in his stockinged feet – has to lift her up onto a table in order to converse with her. (Gertrude, a much tougher proposition than her brother, mocks him unmercifully for his “weakness”, only to get her comeuppance later in the novel via a still more unlikely romantic relationship.)

The novel’s final brunette is Mrs Armstrong herself:

She was a woman of majestic presence—very tall, very full formed—with the erect carriage, stately step, and assured manner that expressed conscious power, indomitable will, and accustomed sway. Her features were strongly marked—her forehead square and broad; her nose a high aquiline; her chin and cheeks full and round; her lips firmly set; her complexion opaque white; her eyes were dark gray—bright, cold, and hard; her eyebrows were square, heavy, and black; her hair was glossy, jet-black, and braided in large, heavy braids down her round, full, elastic cheeks, and plaited in a thick plait, wound around the back of her head, and confined by a comb…

It is Mrs Armstrong’s aberrant psychology that is the focus of The Mother-In-Law, and the driver of its plot. She is a woman of two mastering passions, which are irreconcilable—at "civil war" with each other, says Southworth, using a term less loaded in 1851 than it would become.

On one hand, there is the domineering pride which is determined that Louise will marry Louis Stuart-Gordon, and thus become the “first lady” of the district, if not indeed the entire state. Nothing less is acceptable for her daughter.

On the other, however—there is Mrs Armstrong’s attitude towards Louise, for which “possessive” is an almost laughably inadequate description:

Can you conceive, reader, a mother’s love for her only child—being a passion deep, intense, absorbing, yet selfish, jealous,’and exacting? This was the affection, if it deserved the name, that Hortense Armstrong cherished for her daughter. She had been jealous of the child’s affection for her own father, jealous of her attachment to her mulatto nurse, though the state the lady habitually kept continually left the gentle little child in charge of her attendants. But after the death of her father, and after the entrance of Louise upon her fifth year, the mother took her more particularly under her own charge—conducting her education herself; the whole bent of this education was to one object—the entire subjugation of the will of Louise to that of herself, to gain a life-long ascendancy over the heart and mind of the child, and thereby the disposal of her destiny. Not only did she require from her daughter the implicit obedience claimed by and ceded to parents by every law, human and divine, but she aspired to bring down the intellect and affections, the very mind and spirit of her child into absolute subjection to her will…

So far she has succeeded: at the age of fifteen, Louise has barely the capacity to think or act for herself, her slightest movement dictated by her simultaneous adoration and terror of her mother.

Southworth’s descriptions of Mrs Armstrong’s manipulation of her daughter are horrifying and painful. Louise is treated with a mixture of criticism and contempt, and repeatedly punished for her sins via the withholding of affection. She is made to feel insignificant and ungrateful, entirely unworthy of her magnificent mother—who, as Louise believes as an article of faith, has sacrificed her entire life to her daughter, who has no thought but for her daughter’s welfare…

Louise’s situation, not surprisingly, begins to take its toll upon her health. Her only refuge is the love and encouragement of Brighty, but these can avail little against the stone wall of Mrs Armstrong’s emotional demands. It is on Louise’s behalf that Brighty is periodically provoked into intemperate speech:

    “Pray, explain yourself,” said the lady, haughtily.
    “I will,” said Brighty, rising and settling the folds of her blue-black satin; “your daughter is attended to—worried—hurried too much—she wants rest—repose—Mrs. Armstrong, she wants a heart and mind at ease; she wants more freedom; she is afraid to stir hand or foot; to speak—to think—to feel—lest she should give her mother pain or displeasure.”
    “That is her religion,” said the lady, coolly. “Miss Armstrong, I am happy to say, is an example of filial piety. I repeat it, that is her religion.”
    “It is her superstition.”
    “You will please to remember you are addressing me, Miss O’Riley.”
    “And it is in full consciousness of that, that I say, Mrs Armstrong, that your system of education degrades, debases, enslaves, yes, destroys your daughter!—and that if it be continued, in two years from this Louise will be an irreclaimable idiot.”
    “You are speaking of Miss Armstrong,” said the lady, white with anger, but speaking steadily.
    “I know it ; and I repeat, that unless a different course is taken, in two years Miss Armstrong, of Mont Crystal, will be an idiot slave!”
    Brighty’s eyes were blazing…

Mrs Armstrong in fact heeds Brighty’s warning about Louise’s health; though a more imperative motivation is neighbourhood gossip about Louis Stuart-Gordon and Susan Somerville, with the latter’s tea-making having grown into visits paid and returned between the two young people. The thought that anyone might circumvent her marital schemes for Louise, least of all one of the destitute Somervilles, galvanises Mrs Armstrong: instead of keeping Louise isolated, as has been the case for the past several years, she begins entertaining—and throwing Louise and Louis together. The two were, in effect, childhood sweethearts, until Mrs Armstrong’s jealousy prompted her to kill off the friendship; and it does not take much for them to rediscover those early feelings. They are soon engaged, and then married—on the 22nd February, the day that Louis turns eighteen, and Louise sixteen.

There are two casualties of this arrangement. The first is Susan Somerville, who has indeed fallen in love with Louis—only to be made his confidante with respect to Louise, and to realise he thinks of her only as a sister. Pride sustains her through this mortification; even through the greater one of acting as one of Louise’s bridesmaids. The young couple see nothing but others see, and draw their own conclusions…

And the other person to suffer through this marriage is, of course, Mrs Armstrong. Though the match is of her own making, once it is made, as she anticipated she finds her altered position with respect to Louise intolerable.

Southworth makes it clear that, while Louis is genuinely in love with Louise, she is only “fond” of him—her worshipful love for her mother remaining her dominating emotion. It is thus less about what she can give, than what she is given. Louis is kind, considerate, thoughtful, always seeking new ways to show his love and to make Louise happy; while General Stuart-Gordon, likewise, pets and coddles her. Under this unprecedented treatment, this shower of love and encouragement, Louise begins to blossom—to smile, to laugh, to sing; to run and jump instead of walking sedately. And in doing so, she offends her mother past the possibility of forgiveness:

The presence of this haughty and frozen woman cast a cloud over the brightness of The Isle of Rays. She radiated a spiritual cold that chilled all who approached her. She had arrived in her coldest, hardest, and haughtiest mood; and all that she saw, heard, and felt there, aroused the most malignant passions of her soul. She saw Louise instead of being pale and dispirited at her long absence, looking rosy and joyous; and if she did not hate the child for daring to be happy, except by her permission and through her means, at least she loathed her daughter’s husband, for superseding her in the work. Yes, she began to hate Louis in proportion as Louise loved him. And sometimes she would look at Louise in astonishment, wondering that she presumed to be so free, so glad, in her presence! She grew alarmed for the permanency of her influence over her child’s intellect and affections. “In one short month I have lost so much ground. In a year longer I shall be nothing in the sum of Mrs Stuart-Gordon’s life! And she is my child—MINE! I gave her life! She came into the world by my will—mine! And who this Louis Stuart-Gordon? Perdition catch his soul! to come between me and the child I bore!” And deep in the heart of this woman whose external appearance was so cold, so hard, so stern, whose manners were so guarded, so haughty, so freezing—deep in the heart of this diabolical woman burned and burned a concealed, intense, and growing jealousy, as under the snow-clad surface of Etna glow the most dangerous fires…

Mrs Armstrong begins seeking a way to re-establish her mastery over Louise. Of course it cannot be done from a distance; but she soon perceives a way in which she and Louise can again be resident under the same roof: she will marry General Stuart-Gordon, and take over as mistress of the Palace.

But as she sets her plot in motion, it does not for a moment cross Mrs Armstrong’s mind, not just that the General is already thinking of marriage, but that he has a very different woman in his sights…

Louise’s marriage is the cue for Brighty’s dismissal from Mont Crystal. Her pride will not allow her to take payment for the months of her employment contract cut short and unfulfilled by the loss of her pupil; but since her vanity and extravagance have led her to spend most of her money on her own adornment, this gesture leaves her in a perilous situation—or it would have, had her friends not begun vying with one another for her company. Brighty, wise and far-seeing, accepts the invitation of Susan Somerville, who in the wake of the wedding is drooping into depression.

Brighty’s new situation – or rather, her emancipation from Mont Crystal – brings with it an unexpected consequence: the determined courtship of General Stuart-Gordon. During the preparations for the wedding, the two were much thrown together, including during an extended journey to New York to arrange for Louise’s trousseau and jewels. Intrigued by Brighty’s beauty and pertness, the General began what he thought of only as a dalliance, only to find himself honestly caught by the pride and self-respect with which she rejected his advances. Brighty is tempted by his subsequent offer of marriage – dazzled by the thought of being elevated to the social pinnacle of the Palace, almost won over by a vision of lording it over Mrs Armstrong – but her fundamental honesty prevails. She is touched by the supplication of the proud old military man, however, and when he persists in his courtship, she eventually finds in herself sufficient liking and esteem for the General to accept his hand.

Perversely, the General then begins to see objections where before he swept them aside—not her position as a servant, but his advanced age; and his fear that she cannot love him. Again his humility stands him in good stead with Brighty who, the more he offers to release her should she wish it, becomes the more determined to be his wife.

Matters reach crisis-point when Brighty is sought out by James Frobisher, a young Englishman attached to the British Legation in Washington and a distant cousin of sorts, who brings the startling news that as the only surviving descendant of the old Earl of Clonmachnois, who died intestate, she is now Countess of Clonmachnois in her own right; though otherwise her inheritance is only some poverty-stricken land in Ireland. Moreover, Frobisher has a proposition to make: now that he is convinced that Brighty will “do” as a member of the aristocracy, he wants to marry her; he will then petition for the reversion of the title and, as Lord Clonmachnois, set about the restoration of that Irish land.

The General takes this as the death-knell of his hopes, and he again offers to release Brighty; but this all has the opposite effect on her: she sends Frobisher to the right-about, resigns her title, and asks the General to set a date. He does—though the two of them keep it a secret until that date draws near. The General then accepts the necessity of breaking his news to the neighbourhood in general, and Mrs Armstrong in particular—who, meanwhile, has grown frustrated with the old man’s obliviousness to the various hints she has thrown out. When he begins, one morning, on a stumbling explanation of his intentions, she is at first delighted—until she realises that her hasty acceptance of his “proposal” was a trifle premature:

    Forgive me! I never presumed to the distinguished alliance of Mrs Armstrong.”
    “Sir!”
    “Pardon! pardon! The lady of my choice does not occupy so high a place in society. The lady of my choice—”
    “Is—”
    “Miss Britannia O’Riley!”
    Words would fail to express the dumbfounded astonishment, the astounded dismay, of that haughty woman, struck statue-still, with wonder, where she stood! Yes! at first it was simple stupefied wonder that fixed her there, with rigid limbs, pallid cheeks, and darkly corrugated brows. Yes, it was wonder, before it was even rage or vengeance.
    “BRITANNIA O’RILEY!”
    “Britannia O’Riley.”
    “A governess! a domestic! a hired servant!”
    “Britannia O’Riley! a beautiful, graceful, elegant, and accomplished woman.”
    “A beggar! a low Irish beggar!”
    “A lady! a lady to whom I shall be proud to give my name.”
    “A poor, miserable Irish beggar, whom I hired to serve my daughter!”
    “My intended wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior, and mistress of my house within one month from this.”

Mrs Armstrong’s response is not merely to depart, but to try and take Louise with her. Still incapable of withstanding a maternal command, bewildered by her mother’s insistence that she has been offered an intolerable insult, Louise is mechanically obeying when the General intervenes. The ensuing, violent scene only become more fraught when Louis himself returns home and becomes involved. Louise is unable to withstand the contending forces, and faints; Louis carries her back to her room, while the General—now every bit as much Mrs Armstrong’s enemy as he is hers—forces the departure of her mother.

Alone at Mont Crystal, Mrs Armstrong begins to lay her plans for the future—now quite as determined to destroy the lives of everyone at the Palace (which, by the time she sets her scheme in motion, includes Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior) as she is to regain possession and control of her daughter. Indeed, these two passions become inextricably linked together, as Mrs Armstrong begins using Louise as a weapon…

Her first step is to show herself open to the olive branch tentatively offered by the Palace. Louise, of course, suffers bitterly from the estrangement, and the feeling that it’s all her fault; and finally she and Brighty venture to Mont Crystal in an attempt to mend fences. Mrs Armstrong, taking her cue, shows herself more sorrowing than angry, and allows her penitent daughter to persuade to her to forgive the insults offered, and to dine at the Palace. From there, Mrs Armstrong keeps up her act so well that even the General’s suspicions are lulled—though granted, he is also distracted by his vivacious young wife. She bides her time until business calls Louis away from home for a week—and then she seizes her chance, inviting Louise to return to Mont Crystal for a visit. Of course she has no intention of letting her go again; or at least, only if her terms are met…

Calling alone, Mrs Armstrong confronts the General. We are reminded of the complicated situation at the Palace: that Louis is a Stuart-Gordon on his mother’s side; that the property descends to him from her, not his father; and that he is not as yet of age. Mrs Armstrong, meanwhile, is focused on Louise’s position now that the General has remarried:

    “When I bestowed the hand of my daughter, Miss Armstrong, upon your son, Mr Stuart-Gordon, it was understood that she should take the head of this establishment. Was this so, or was it not so?”
    “Certainly, madam, that was the tacit understanding, but—”
    “Never mind ‘but.’ This house was refurnished, fitted up, to suit the taste of Louise, was it not!”
    “Of course, madam, but—”
    “Louise was to have been its mistress—was she not?”
    “Certainly, madam, but—”
    “Who is its mistress!”
    “My wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior.”
    “Then the conditions of the marriage contract have not been fulfilled on your part.”

Of course in one respect this is ridiculous: Louise neither wants to be mistress of the Palace, nor is capable of fulfilling such a role; moreover, she is delighted to have the companionship of Brighty, and only too pleased to have her assume control of the household (which she does admirably, by the way). The General is understandably inclined to brush this off as nonsense—until:

“Then hear me, sir. I said that I was a woman of few words; you know that I am not a woman of vain words; and I tell you,” she said, rising, folding her arms, standing before him with her determined jaws firmly set, her determined eyes firmly fixed upon him—” I tell you,” she said, slowly, through her closed teeth, “that, until you and your wife evacuate these premises, Mrs Louis Stuart-Gordon never sets foot upon The Isle of Rays, and never exchanges one word with any one member of the Island family. I waited my time. I have her. She is in my hands now!”

So she is; and for the next several years, Louis is doomed barely to see his wife…

There are a couple of interesting social and legal points surrounding the manoeuvring of Mrs Armstrong; interesting too for the somewhat ambiguous light it throws on the character of Louis, who has been presented us us from the outset as unusually sensitive—or in his father’s opinion, weak. Taking after his mother, Louis had no interest in a military career; he doesn’t even hunt. He enjoys scenery for its own sake; he and Louise spend many hours walking hand-in-hand, admiring the Palace gardens and the wilderness beyond.

And when Mrs Armstrong tries to take Louise, Louis insists that she is free to make her own decision.

What’s fascinating here is the way that Southworth manipulates us into siding with the conservative old General, with his thunderous demand for husbandly authority and wifely submission. Of course—this really isn’t about “men” and “women”, or “husbands” and “wives”; it is about the fact that Louise as an individual is incapable of making any decision for herself, let alone one this big. Louis’ intentions may be admirable, but he picks the worst possible moment to live up to his principles; and had Louise not fainted, she would undoubtedly have been immured at Mont Crystal a few months earlier.

And when Mrs Armstrong does get her hands on Louise, a similar situation arises. Louis wants neither to force Louise to do anything, nor to wash the family’s dirty linen in public by taking legal steps to get his wife back, as he is within his rights to do; while the General is all for filing a writ of habeus corpus. It is Brighty who tips the scale towards Louis, warning the men that anything that looks (or can be made to look) like violence towards or an insult of Mrs Armstrong will not help them with Louise; but adding that, with time, Louise’s longing for her husband and their life together may override even her worship of her mother.

And perhaps so—under normal circumstances. But as soon as Mrs Armstrong has Louise back in her power, she sets about convincing her that no-one at the Palace ever loved her; that no-one has ever really loved her but her mother—least of all Louis, who only married her because she was Miss Armstrong of Mont Crystal; who was notoriously in love with Susan Somerville, and certainly would have married her had she not been destitute; and who has probably by this time made Susan his mistress…

    Louise dropped her head upon her mother’s shoulder, and groaned—
    “Oh, mother! what horrors are these you are revealing to me! My brain is reeling—reeling! my mind wanders. This is very dreadful, and yet it is of Louis—Louis that you speak! Oh, this is very, very horrible, and yet it is my mother that tells me…”

Unexpectedly, however, of the two it is finally Louis – after calling repeatedly at Mont Crystal, and being turned away; and after writing letter after letter, to no response – who suffers a collapse and its inevitable attendant, “brain-fever”. Louise herself is kept from this extremity by a growing conviction on her part:

    “Mamma, I must return to Louis! indeed I must, mamma, if he will take me back! Indeed I must, mamma, if he were twenty times a traitor!”
    “Hey! what! how! what is all this wretched nonsense, now?”
    “Mamma, I shall be a mother soon!” said Louise, in a voice between timidity and tenderness.
    “WHAT!” exclaimed the lady, raising upon her elbow, and gathering her black brows into an awful frown— ” WHAT!”
    “God has blessed me! I, too, shall be a mother, dear mamma! Oh! mamma, kiss me, now that I have told you!”
    “It is not true! It cannot be true I” exclaimed Mrs Armstrong, still glaring at her daughter.
    “Mamma, it is so; and I must return to Louis—indeed I must, mamma!”
    “To a man whose whole heart is given to his mistress—”
    “If it be so, it is dreadful, mamma, but I cannot help it. He does love me a little. Anyhow, I know I love him entirely…”

For a variety of reasons—jealousy, the potential change to Louise’s social position, her own changed position, the increased legal power this will grant Louis, and Louise’s altered affections—Mrs Armstrong is having none of it; none of it:

    “Mamma, how have I given you offence!”
    “By the subject of your conversation. Now, let me hear no more ridiculous nonsense about returning to that young scapegrace, nor the other miserable shift-about—pshaw! fudge! stuff! you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have such fancies.”
    “It is not fancy, it is fact, mamma.”
    “SILENCE! hush! not a word more of this, I command you, Louise. It is false! false! you are too young—far too young. You should blush at such imaginings!”
    “It is not imagination, mamma,” persisted Louise, with a tender earnestness.
    “Hush! I command you! Never dare to hint this subject to me, or to any one else, at the peril of my grave displeasure. Shameful! But you are really out of health. You are ill and nervous, and so, of course, full of idle fancies. You are too much confined. You do not take exercise enough. You must go out more. You shall ride on horseback. Nothing is better for low spirits than hard riding on a trotting horse…”

And having dismissed Louise, Mrs Armstrong calls her loyal waiting-woman to her:

    “What do you think of that child, Kate?” asked the lady, looking searchingly in the face of her attendant.
    “Well, madam, I think she is—indeed all the women about the house know she is—”
    “In bad health!” said the lady, emphatically, and looking sternly and threateningly at her attendant.
    “Yes, madam, of course, just as you say, in bad health.”
    “Listen to me! She is out of spirits, and she neglects her toilet sadly—more than I choose that my daughter shall. I shall dismiss her maid, and do you take her place, and superintend the dressing of your young lady. Do not permit her to go about as loosely and carelessly arrayed as has been her custom of late. See that she wears her stays; do you hear?”
    “Yes, madam, I hear and understand.”
    “Hear and literally obey.”

But none of this is to any avail; and some months later, Louise gives birth to a daughter, Margaret.

Louis is informed of the event not directly, but via neighbourhood gossip. He could, of course, demand custody—but of course he does not. His forbearance is hardly rewarded: in time he receives a black-edged letter from Mrs Armstrong informing him of his daughter’s death from scarlet fever. This is followed by a cold demand that, for the sake of Louise’s health and happiness, he arrange for a divorce. After long consideration, Louis writes back, agreeing to this if Mrs Armstrong’s claim is endorsed by Louise, in Louise’s handwriting. Such endorsement duly arrives…

Mrs Armstrong by this time has carried Louise away, not just from Mont Crystal, but Virginia; Louise remains apathetic as she is forced from place to place. Her mother finally establishes her in Washington—where the pale, pretty girl (who is assumed to be a young widow) attracts the kind attention of, “Mrs M—, the lady of the President…perhaps the most dignified and gracious of all the ladies that ever presided at the White House.” (Presumably Elizabeth Monroe, a detail which places the narrative between 1817 and 1825.)

Louise also attracts the attention of a certain James Frobisher, who by this time has succeeded in securing the reversion of the family title title—thus offering to Mrs Armstrong the glorious chance to smite her enemies with a final, decisive blow: to take Louise away altogether, out of the country, as far from the Palace (and her lingering affections) as possible; to have her marry another man, apparently of her own volition; to have her bear the title so lightly discarded by Brighty; and to see her socially elevated even beyond her mother’s wildest dreams, as Countess of Clonmachnois…

[To be continued…]

 

Advertisements
20/12/2018

Very critical indeed…

While doing a little research with respect to my timeline for the development of the Gothic novel, I ended up – as frequently happens upon these occasions – slipping down a rabbit hole.

As was the case with The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley and Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, Reginald du Bray was brought to my attention via the writings of Christina Morin, who has made an argument for the Irish origins of the Gothic novel. I did a quick search for access and information about this work after wrapping up the previous entry in my timeline, Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose and, while not delving too deeply at the time, became aware that there was something odd about its publishing history.

The Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) listing for this work asserts that Reginald du Bray is:

A reprint of the second volume of ‘The rival friends, or the noble recluse’, London, 1776.

While we know that publishers at this time often did release novels volume by volume, rather than all at once, it seems unlikely that anyone would reprint just one volume out of a novel—particularly the middle one out of three.

Chasing up information about The Rival Friends; or, The Noble Recluse brought me to “Volume the Forty-First” of The Critical Review, a British magazine published between 1756 and 1817: it was initially edited by Tobias Smollett, and carried writings from some of this era’s most prominent literary figures, including Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and David Hume. Of more immediate interest, the magazine made a concerted effort to provide a short review of every novel released in Britain (!). Thus, as you can imagine, it is an invaluable source of information about the now-obscure literature of the time.

In fact, this 1776 issue of The Critical Review offers the only evidence that The Rival Friends ever existed, via the following dismissive paragraph—which, given what I just got through saying about the publishing practices of the time, as illustrated by Susannah and Margaret Minifie’s exceedingly flimsy novel, The Picture, made me laugh like a loon:

But funny as that paragraph struck me, it was distinctly unhelpful with regard to the subject matter of the novel in question, and the issue of its putative connection to Reginald du Bray.

Though Christina Morin does not seem to have been aware of this asserted connection, she is right that the earliest version as such of the work in question carries a Dublin imprint: it appeared in 1779 under the title Reginald du Bray: An Historick Tale, with the author given as, A late lord, greatly admired in the literary world. This particular publication also came to the attention of Montague Summers in his important work from 1938, The Gothic Quest: A History Of The Gothic Novel, wherein he comments that, “Little attention was excited by [it].” Importantly from the point of view of the current literary thread, however, Summers adds that Reginald du Bray, “Acknowledges itself ‘the literary offspring of Longsword'”, which both places it as an early attempt at historical fiction, and suggests that one edition of the tale, at least, carried a foreword by its unidentified author.

A second edition of Reginald du Bray was issued in Dublin in 1784, this time simply as by, A late nobleman (and having lost the ‘k’ in ‘historick’). This is the version available through ECCO, which links it to The Rival Friends—and as it turns out, out of all its different editions and sources, at the present time this is the only available copy.

Accessing it online, we immediately notice something odd about this edition: it carries what is listed as a “Preparatory Discourse”, by “A Celebrated Female Pen”. This, without identification or acknowledgement of any kind, turns out to be Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld’s essay, On The Pleasures Derived From Objects Of Terror, which first appeared in Miscellaneous Pieces by Barbauld and her brother, John Aikin. Furthermore, this odd preface to Reginald du Bray also appends, also without attribution, Sir Bertrand, A Fragment, Barbauld’s attempt to illustrate the principles of her essay.

This same version of Reginald du Bray subsequently received a London release, being published in 1786 by William Lane (although prior to his founding of the Minerva Press). At this time it came to the notice of The Critical Review where, while paying little attention to the novel itself, the reviewer took offence at the “Preparatory Discourse”:

Ahem. My conclusion was that “the greater part” belonged to the lady, but we won’t quibble.

Of course we don’t know who wrote either of the brief critical responses here highlighted, so we can’t know if the same person wrote both or not: the tone is similar, but that might simply reflect the Review‘s editorial policy. But there is certainly no indication that the person who rescued Reginald du Bray from “the vale of oblivion” in 1786 recognised in it any of The Rival Friends‘ one-too-many volumes from a decade earlier.

Perhaps a more important point, however, is that remark of Monague Summers’, in which he quotes the author of Reginald du Bray. While the 1784 Dublin edition, as far as a brief examination has revealed, carries no such quotation, Summers presumably found it somewhere, perhaps the 1779 edition. As noted, it sounds like an excerpt from a preface—which makes the unavailability of that edition a frustration, as surely the author’s own words would settle once and for all the question of Reginald du Bray‘s origins: whether it was a standalone work or, the second volume of a three-volume novel, a case of the interpolated narrative gone mad.

Footnote:

I was moved to look into the local availability of Christina Morin’s The Gothic Novel In Ireland, c. 1760 – 1829. Unfortunately it is not held by any library here; and while it is available on Kindle, well…

That’s pretty much the face I made, when I saw the price:

14/12/2018

The Picture


 

 
In this picture were two principal figures, the one a fine old man with silver locks, which seemed to inspire veneration; the other, a beautiful youth in whose arms he was supported.—Miss Stanley observed, that but for their position, they might have been taken for Mentor and Telemachus.—You say right, my dear, returned Mrs Berkley.—Observe, continued she, pointing to the young man,—what nobleness in his air! what majesty! what sweetness! what expression in his looks!—If the countenance be an index of the soul, in his I read every godlike virtue of that heroe. Mrs Stanley, turning to the housekeeper, begged to know for whom it was intended.—The woman replied, that it was occasioned by a very extraordinary accident, adding, if the ladies would please to repose themselves, she would readily relate the circumstances…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The insistence of booksellers and, increasingly, the circulating libraries upon multi-volume novels had a range of consequences for authors and publishers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of them is well-illustrated in this 1766 work by Susannah and Margaret Minifie.

It is not in the least uncommon to find novels which could, and should, have comfortably occupied two or even a single volume being dragged out to the necessary three via padding of sorts, including unnecessary subplots, overly circumstantial descriptions, repetitions, and our old friend, the interpolated narrative. That these tactics almost invariably resulted in a less effective work of fiction was, evidently, considered of less importance than the financial gains to be achieved by breaking a single novel into pieces for sale and hire.

And if this artificial inflation of a book’s length damaged an otherwise successful work, you can imagine the results when the same tactics were applied to a novel with a narrative so flimsy, it could barely have sustained a single volume.

Such is the case in The Picture, which is one of the most insubstantial works of 18th century fiction I have ever read, the era’s tendency to privilege emotion over plot notwithstanding. In fact, so lacking is this novel in any sort of real content, the publishers had to chip in with padding tactics of their own, achieving three volumes only by virtue of (i) narrow pages, (ii) wide margins, (iii) large font, and (iv) spaces between paragraphs.

To illustrate:

   

By 1766, the Minifie sisters had published one novel as a joint venture, The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, and one as a solo effort—with Family Pictures released only as “By a LADY”, but in all likelihood written by Margaret.

Though it carries the ladies’ original attribution, “By the Miss MINIFIES, of Fairwater in Somersetshire”, I’m inclined to suspect that this third novel out of the stable is chiefly Susannah’s work: it has a slightly different “voice” from the previous two novels, and also from that of Barford Abbey. In fact, its style is one of the many irritating things about The Picture, with its inadequate story rendered even more so via a twee, chatty tone which becomes increasingly grating. The novel is poorly written even by the rather laissez-faire literary standards of its day, marked by a constant shifting of tense and perspective, and it resorts repeatedly to non-cliffhangers—that is, it tends to end its chapters with a dramatic interruption or a promise of important revelations to follow, which then turn out to be of minor importance if any at all.

As did Family Pictures, The Picture opens rather confusingly, with a generational shift. It begins by introducing us to a certain Mr Howard, as he receives a letter from the (we gather) newly widowed Mrs Stanley begging for his assistance. It then quickly falshes back to when Mrs Stanley was a Miss Dormer—who, between her father’s wealth and her own “most attractive sweetness”, was expected to make a great marriage.

It speaks volumes for the conventions of the 18th century sentimental novel that at this point, the authors felt compelled to stop and explain at length why, all those years before, Mr Howard did not fall in love at first sight with Miss Dormer. This passage also offers an excellent example of this novel’s overall style of writing—imagine this stretched out to about 600 pages:

By help of a little familiar named Fancy, who flies invisible, and whose flights are boundless, we are informed our readers have adjudged the sentiment proposed to love. Sorry as we are to contradict our ingenious friends, and universal as we acknowledge the power of that deity, truth bids us declare Cupid was not present at this interview, the reason of which can only be accounted for by the following incident. Some twenty years before this æra, as he was one day sporting near the sacred temple, a group of heavenly inhabitants moved towards it, surrounding two mortal figures; one appeared to be Mr Howard, conducted by Honour, the other a female of pleasing aspect, supported by Virtue. Cupid recollected and saluted his votaries. Hymen honoured in the presence of so many divinities, entered the temple before them, and performed his office in the most harmonious spirits. Which being concluded, and each bestowing on the happy pair some mark of celestial favour, Cupid presented the bride one of his best darts, rendering her husband invulnerable to the attack of any other in his whole feathered collection. Since Cupid stands acquitted, what then is the sentiment by which Mr Howard was agitated at this interview with Miss Dormer? Was it admiration? Was it compassion? Was it tender apprehension? It was not one, but all those passions blended in one…

Apparently a man feeling sorry for a girl whose father has just been ruined was far too straightforward a concept for readers of this sort of literature to grasp.

Anyway—her father’s ruination is simply an opportunity for Miss Dormer to display a whole new series of perfections. Discovering that Mr Dormer’s main creditor is Sir Thomas Stanley, she calls at his house intending to offer her jewels in part-payment of his debt, and ends up pouring out her story to someone she assumes is Sir Thomas, but who turns out to be a relative of his only—held silent because he has (of course) fallen in love with her at first sight.

Long story short, Miss Dormer becomes Mrs Stanley. We then begin our generational hopping again, with the Stanley marriage disposed of in a single sentence:

Happy in each other the thirteenth year returned, in which time she buried her father, one Son, and two daughters, and at that period Mr Stanley was also torn from her…

But the Stanleys are not the only ones subjected to a ruthless hand. Hilariously, having gone to all the trouble of introducing a Mrs Howard in order to explain Mr Howard’s otherwise incredible behavior, the lady having served her purpose the authors whack her in one off-hand phrase:

…and Mr Howard having lost his lady some years before, was retired to Rose-Hill, the sweet retreat in which our reader may remember we first discovered him.

What the reader is, in fact, more likely to discover is that the preceding fifty pages of this novel could have been dispensed with, at no cost to the plot, which (such as it is) begins properly here.

But then—we’re not going to make it to 600 pages with an attitude like THAT, are we?

The Howards and the Stanleys remained close friends over the years; and now that she is a widow, Mrs Stanley turns to Mr Howard for advice. We learn that Providence (and the Miss Minifies) has left Mrs Stanley with one living child, a daughter, Emily. She is also raising her husband’s orphaned niece, Louisa Orey, who is about Emily’s age.

It is with regard to Emily that Mrs Stanley wishes to consult Mr Howard. The Stanleys are a wealthy family, and Emily is a significant heiress. However, remembering her own plunge from affluence into poverty, Mrs Stanley has conceived a plan to raise Emily in the assumption that the family are in limited circumstances, so that she learns simplicity and humility before she comes into her fortune. Her intention is to carry the two young girls into the country, where she can supervise their education and ensure they are kept away from the pernicious influences of town life. And in order to obtain for the girls all the benefits of fortune without seeming to be able to afford them herself, Mrs Stanley makes an arrangement with a friend, a Mrs Berkley, who is herself in straitened circumstances: she will pose as the girls’ benefactor.

This complicated arrangement put in place, the all-female household retires to a cottage in the vicinity of Mr Howard’s country home, Rose-Hill. Their surroundings are exactly what we might expect, in a novel of this sort:

From this rising ground let us behold the beauties by which we are surrounded. The meadows how chearful, their robes are green-enliven’d with flowers of gold and azure; that hanging wood, which rears its lofty head, as if to overlook the distant hills, appears the seat of contemplation; the banks of yonder river, how fertile! how enriched! surely the inhabitants are nature’s favourites, and this its most luxurious garden. Mark the houses! how neatly elegant! and scattered hamlets, how gaily ornamented! the pure jessamine, and sweeter woodbine, blooms on the humble roof, regailing with their spicy breath the honest labourer, when at his threshold he eats his evening morsel…

And so are the characters:

Amazement! what do we see! two lovely forms! their actions still more lovely! Turn thy eyes to the next cottage, mark them well, with what tenderness they relieve that sick wretch, who with blessings follows them to the door; with what amiable smiles are they this moment caressing the children of poverty? Can it be any other than Benevolence and Humility descended upon this happy spot, in their own transcendent loveliness. But, hold! a friendly zephyr bears away from the most graceful, the envious hate which hid the beauties of her face. Let us examine if these can equal her fine height, easy shape, and majestic movement. Heavens! that dazzling complection, eyes black, sparkling and full of sentiment, animated features, and neck whiter than the down of swans, convinces us these are the infant charms of Miss Stanley, ripened by the hand of time… Take thy eye from Miss Stanley, to admire the modest vivacity of Louisa’s looks, her sprightly air, the delicacy of her forehead, the glossy auburne hair which shades it, the joy, the youth, the innocence that revel on her countenance…

It is, frankly, a relief to escape from these outpourings into The Picture‘s main subplot, wherein dwell our contrasting wicked characters and their criminal and venial transgressions.

Lady Edmonton, the late Mr Stanley’s half-sister, is a foolish, vain woman who contracts a second marriage with the dissolute Sir James Hallifax, and repents it soon enough. It is actually Sir James who occupies centre-stage in this plot, and in a curious way that would hardly have been permissible some years later: the baronet’s one redeeming feature is his passionate love for his illegitimate son.

However, this love leads Sir James to defraud his own young brother, Charles. The baronet intends, upon his own death, both to acknowledge his son and to leave him a fortune to counterbalance the stain of his birth. To this end, Sir James suppresses his father’s will, convincing Charles that he, as the elder son, has inherited the entire property. This situation impacts our main plot via Sir James’ scheme to see his brother provided for via marriage to Emily Stanley. Though the two are only children when the scheme is conceived, sixteen and ten respectively (this is some years before the effusions quoted above), Sir James considers there is no time to waste, and bullies his wife into doing all she can to promote the match.

Back in the country, we hear at length how Mrs Stanley’s scheme for shaping the minds and characters of the girls have been carried out. Confident in the success of her venture, when Emily and Louisa are of an age to make their debuts, Mrs Stanley begins to plan for their removal to London. However, these plans are diverted when Mrs Berkley’s pretended fortune becomes real, upon her unexpected inheritance of an estate. Mrs Stanley and the girls accompany her on her tour of inspection, the ladies stopping along the way to visit any place of note. Among these is one recommended by Mr Howard, the country-house of a certain Lord Eastley. It is here that Emily Stanley encounters her fate—or at least a representation of him:

Mrs Stanley seeing the door of another room open, imagined she might be there, stept back, and found it a little library which had been passed over in surveying many other splendid apartments.—Here then she found her daughter,—but found her with her attention so profoundly fixed on a picture which stood over the chimney, that she might be said at that moment to have resembled a fine statue of the goddess Contemplation…

Lord Eastley’s housekeeper then recounts the incident depicted in the painting, in which the household’s venerable old butler would have drowned, had not a young visitor to the estate risked his own life to save him:

    This piece of humanity had like to cost him dear, for soon after he was taken ill of a dangerous fever;—and when my lord expressed his fear that it was owing to this accident,—he replied,—that man is not worthy of life who would not risque it in the preservation of a fellow creature.—
    Unperceived even by herself, tears of admiration filled the charming eyes of Emily…

The ladies then press on to Mrs Berkeley’s house, which is situated near the estate of a duke (unnamed). While walking one morning, Emily and Louisa overhear a conversation between two young men, whom they deduce to be young Lord Eastley and the gentleman of the picture, whose first name only they learn, Harry. The subject of their conversation startles the girls: evidently Harry is engaged to a certain Lady Lydia, with whom Lord Eastley is in love…

Yet when there is an accidental encounter between Harry and the ladies, when he secures them seats at the playhouse in a nearby town, it is apparent that he is much struck with Emily. A second encounter follows:

[She] began to sing and play with a grace most enchanting.—Her soul imperceptibly softened by the Poet’s masterly representation of distressed love,—music added to that softness,—her skill inimitable,—her complexion dazzling,—her voice naturally melodious, accompanied with a more than usual sweetness;—the dove-like mildness in her eye;—her air the most melting;—her notes, her words, were all adapted to the present tenderness of her sentiments.—In this ravishing attitude she thought herself free from observation, but was undeceived by this sudden exclamation from a voice not unwelcome—Ah! Eastley, take Lady Lydia, but give me, heaven, this most perfect of thy creatures:—She rose to leave the room, covered with confusion.—Transported with admiration the inraptured Harry Prayed, nay, even kneeled, to prevent her design.—A secret emotion, a tender inclination, would have betrayed her; but considering such an inclination as stepping from that amiable reserve which she had made her standard, she retired precipitately, and ran to hide her sensibility in the bosom of Louisa…

The one really interesting thing about The Picture is how thoroughly its central love-plot violates the conventions—or at least seems to do so: naturally the authors find a way out of its worst implications, such as Harry’s pre-commitment to Lady Lydia, at the time he falls in love with Emily. Still, to have its heroine fall in love at first sight, on her own (albeit with a painting rather than the real thing), is remarkable—one of the most cherished of all literary tropes, through this century and the next, being that a proper young woman must remain unawakened until the right man asks her to love him; simultaneous love at first sight being the only exception, and even then she either has to hide her feelings or be unaware of their significance.

Meanwhile, as you have no doubt already deduced, the authors do indeed try to make a mystery of sorts out the identity of “Harry”, to the extent of stretching their narrative in improbable directions to avoid telling us who he is.

Emily makes a bid to regain her immaculate heroine status by confessing all to her mother, who warns her that for a number of reasons, she should try to overcome her “inclination”. Emily resolves to do so, but she is immediately thrown back into Harry’s vicinity when the ladies suffer a carriage accident, and he is one of those on the spot to help.

In the wake of this several odd things happen. Mrs Stanley is summoned to the duke’s castle—to see an old friend who is staying there, she tells her daughters, though the reader might doubt it—and upon her return announces that they will be departing immediately for the home of Mr Howard, who she claims is in poor health. He has, ahem, recovered by the time they get there; and Mrs Stanley again begins planning to relocate the girls to London.

But before they set out, the girls find a letter that has been smuggled onto their dressing-table:

    Its contents are weighty, replied Miss Orey; open it, whatever they are I claim a moiety.—Agreed, returned she, breaking the seal, when out dropped,—guess O! reader! it was not money, it was not jewels, but a fine resemblance of the amiable Harry.—Letter, picture, all fell from the trembling hand of Miss Stanley.—Louisa quite aghast, could only exclaim,—Heavens! what do I see?—Where am I?—What enchantment brought it hither?—Her fair speechless motionless cousin, neither hearing or answering her interrogations, she put the picture again into her hand, and applied to the billet for information;—the contents of which still plunged them into greater amazement.
    Mrs Stanley deceives you,—she is not indigent,—neither are you dependent.—You owe no advantages to the bounty of a stranger;—your own fortunes are immense.—Tax Mrs Stanley with these truths;—she cannot, will not, deny them.—These instructions belong equally to both; but to miss Stanley, the picture of a man who adores her.—

The girls immediately show the letter to Mrs Stanley, who admits the indictment it contains; the girls agree that she had good and sufficient reason for the deception, and that wraps up that unnecessary complication. Mrs Stanley then requires Emily to hand over the picture, which she does without hesitation, if not without reluctance. Confident that both girls are by now mentally and morally strong enough to resist the vanities and flatteries of the world, Mrs Stanley finally does carry them off to London.

Some of The Picture‘s most egregious padding follows, as the Hallifax subplot expands to encompass various friends and acquaintances, and their romantic – and more usually, financial – manoeuvring, and in this way fills out the rest of Volume II. The only minor relevance here is that Sir James is still trying to bring about a marriage between his brother, Charles, and Emily.

This causes much angst for the young lady we may consider the novel’s third heroine, Lady Lucy Carew. She is the daughter of Lord and Lady Castledale, but spends much time with Sir Thomas and Lady Stanley, as her parents rarely leave their Dublin home. Lady Lucy is secretly in love with Charles Hallifax, and is at first thrown into dismay by Emily’s perfections. However, reassured by her own observation that Charles cares nothing for Emily, Lady Lucy tries to attract his attention to herself and arouse his jealousy by flirting with a certain Colonel Stanhope, which causes numerous complications and allows for much tut-tutting and head-shaking by the authors.

(I’ll say this for the Miss Minifies: even as, in Family Pictures, they had the nerve to condemn fox-hunting, here they make a mockery of duelling, with a planned encounter between Charles Hallifax and Colonel Stanhope over a perceived grievance ending in the two young men agreeing that there’s really nothing to fight about, and becoming friends instead.)

After lengthy passages of courtship (honest and otherwise) and persiflage, the narrative suddenly take a dark turn. There is a violent confrontation between the Hallifax brothers when Charles positively declines courting Emily, on the grounds of his feelings for Lady Lucy. The brothers’ next encounter, however, finds Sir James wracked with guilt and remorse and misery, and obliquely confessing to having deceived and defrauded Charles, though he does not tell him why. Charles responds with brotherly and Christian forgiveness, and many solemn pronunciations of his own faith, his belief in heavenly forgiveness and the efficacy of sincere repentance; all of which which has a rather unexpected result:

    My dear brother, examine the materials of which your heart is formed: Is not the innate character of God impressed on it, however choaked or obscured by false opinions?
    Enough, enough, I am satisfied; your arguments have convinced meL retire, that I may consider and digest them: when I am disposed to hear you further, I will desire your company.
    This he spoke with so much composure, that Mr Hallifax withdrew; but hardly had he gone from the door, when the sudden explosion of a pistol recalled him.
    He ran back: The first sight with which his eyes were saluted, was his miserable brother weltering in his blood, and his brains scattered on the floor…

We then learn that Sir James had given in to impulse and revealed his paternity to his illegitimate son, who until that moment believed himself the son of the foster parents paid to care for him. Sir James did not, however, reveal the various disgraceful transactions that brought about the boy’s birth (seduction, abandonment, death in miserable circumstances, etc.)—but not understanding the reticences with which the story was told, the foster-father, Delany, later blurts out the whole ugly story. The double shock is too much for the young man, who collapses in a raging fever. A frightened Delany sends for Sir James:

    Roused by the sound of his son’s voice, he started from his drousy posture, and mad with ungovernable joy, ran to the bed, opened the curtains, and made himself known with so little caution, that he drove reason a second time from her throne, just as she was beginning to resume her empire.
    The sight of Sir James made so strong an impression on his imagination, that the idea of his unfortunate mother returned, on whom he was incessantly calling, during his delirium, in the most pathetic, the most melting terms.
    In short, a scene of so great horror is hardly to be described; or if described, scarce to be supported. Death at length stepped in, to drive these dreadful phantoms from his imagination. The twelfth day of his illness he expired in the arms of his distracted father.

This diversion having reached its conclusion, The Picture settles down to the resolution of its romantic plots. Colonel Stanhope and Louisa Orey fall in love, while Sir Charles Hallifax declares himself to Lady Lucy, which brings Lord and Lady Castledale to London. The countess and Emily are immediately drawn to one another, with consequences the latter neither expects nor wants:

    My dear, said Mrs Stanley smiling, can you guess what has been the subject of my conference with Sir Thomas?
    Nothing that displeases you, madam, I presume—
    Displeases! no, my Emily, you will be convinced I am not displeased when I tell you Lord Richmond, the son of our amiable countess, who already loves you as her daughter, Lord Richmond, the honour of our nobility, offers my child an alliance: an alliance that, I am satisfied, will make her happy: an alliance, on which all my hopes are founded.
    The dreadful knell which summons the guilty criminal to his fate, sounds in his ear less terrible than these words did in Miss Stanley’s…

Guess where this is headed? – although not, of course, before Emily gets jerked around one last time.

I’ve remarked on The Picture‘s tampering with the prevailing conventions in its main love-plot, albeit that the plot in question finally works itself out in the most predictable of ways. The only other thing of real note in this novel is the course of non-stop lying to which the girls are subjected.

One of the most cherished tenets of 18th and 19th century literature was that there was nothing worse than a lie: that lying could never be excused, and that the end never justified the means. There are entire novels devoted to depicting the inevitably disastrous consequences of even the mildest white lie.

Yet in The Picture, the supposedly wise and upright Mrs Stanley does nothing from start to finish but tell lies in order to achieve her ends. She lies to Emily and Louisa about their situation in life and their obligations to Mrs Berkley; she lies to them constantly about her conversations with the Stanleys and Mr Howard; she even lies about Mr Howard’s state of health, when she wants an excuse to relocate the girls in a hurry. It turns out that it was she who planted the letter in the dressing-room, as an indirect way of revealing to the girls their true status, and of testing Emily’s obedience and moral fortitude—giving her the picture of Harry purely in order to ask her to give it up again. The novel’s climax involves her deliberately leading Emily to suppose that she is to be compelled to marry one man while she loves another.

What the hell?

It is impossible to know how to interpret this example of what we might call education-through-deceit: whether it represents an early literary example of realism superseding didacticism, or whether – in light of what we know of the Miss Minifies’ involvement in some highly questionable transactions (considered here and here) – this aspect of The Picture is, rather, an unconscious illustration of the ladies’ own moral blindness.

 

03/11/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 3)

 

    “Be your resolve as it may,” added Ellen, hastily, “nothing shall induce me to turn back. Desert me—abandon me if you will, Filippo; but, in the name of every thing sacred, lend me the weapons which you carry with you.”
    The Italian made no reply for some moments, but continued to walk rapidly along by the side of the disguised lady. “I will believe, Miss Monroe,” he said, at length, “that your motives are excellent; but are you well advised?”
    “Listen,” exclaimed Ellen. “The individual, whose life we may perhaps this night save, is Richard Markham—the generous young man who has been a son to my father, and a brother to myself.”
    “I have heard Mr Greenwood mention his name many times,” observed Filippo.
    “He believes that he is to meet his brother, from whom he has been for many years separated, this night on the banks of the canal,” continued Ellen. “For certain reasons I know most positively that the idea of such an appointment can only be a plot on the part of some enemies of Richard Markham. And yet I dared not communicate those reasons to him—Oh! no,” added Ellen, with a shudder, “that was impossible—impossible!”

 

 

 

 
So far we would have to say that The Mysteries Of London is rather vindicating the personal philosophy of George Montague Greenwood. Certainly Richard Markham’s high principles and impeccable personal honour do him very little good in the practical sense; while all around him, criminals both high and low are flourishing.

This was one of the reasons that The Mysteries Of London was so loudly condemned; and it is true that for most of its length, Reynolds’ crooks are much more successful than his good people and, at the higher levels of society, live much more comfortably. (I imagine there’s a flourish of comeuppances at the end, though…but that’s a thousand pages or more away.) Moreover, Reynolds presents a staggering variety of crimes in minute detail—from burglary to fraud to counterfeiting to kidnapping for ransom to attempted rape to body-snatching to attempted murder…and to murder, of course.

Greenwood might be the most successful of the upper-society criminals, but he is not alone. Richard’s initial troubles stem from the efforts of Sir Rupert Harborough (husband to the oversexed Lady Cecilia) and Arthur Chichester, who likes to pass himself off as a gentleman of good standing, but is actually the son of a notorious pawnbroker. When the wealthy but naive Richard first goes out into the world, he falls into the clutches of these two. Their first thought is to fleece him at the gambling-tables – Chichester is an experienced sharper, and he teaches Sir Rupert the tricks of his trade – but not only is Richard opposed to gambling on principle, even when they succeed in luring him unknowingly into a den, the immediate consequence is that he witnesses a young man ruining himself and then blowing his own brains out.

Giving up that scheme, perforce, Sir Rupert and Chichester instead use Richard to pass some of the counterfeit banknotes they have been involved in producing. The notes are not as convincing as they might be, and Richard is arrested and examined by a magistrate. He is confused but not worried, certain that of course Chichester will be able to clear him:

    “I really am not aware,” said Mr Chichester, caressing his chin in a very nonchalant manner, “that I can throw any light upon this subject.”
    “All I require is the truth,” ejaculated Richard, surprised at the tone and manner of his late friend. “Did you not give me that note for five hundred pounds to change for you? and did I not receive the second note from you in exchange for fifty sovereigns?”
    Mr Chichester replied in an indignant negative.
    The magistrate shook his head: the prosecuting solicitor took snuff significantly;—MacChizzle made a memorandum;—and Whittingham murmured, “Ah! that mitigated villain Axminster.”
    “What do I hear!” exclaimed Richard: “Mr Chichester, your memory must fail you sadly. I suppose you recollect the occasion upon which Mr Talbot gave you the five hundred pound note?”
    “Mr. Talbot never gave me any note at all,” answered Chichester, in a measured and determined manner.
    “It is false—false as hell!” cried Markham, more enraged than alarmed; and he forthwith detailed to the magistrate the manner in which he had been induced to change the one note, and had become possessed of the other.
    “This is a very lame story, indeed,” said the magistrate; “and you must try and see if you can get a jury to believe it. You stand committed.”

Having dodged that bullet, Chichester and Sir Rupert go back to conspiring with Greenwood; although they can’t understand why he gets so agitated when he hears what they did to Richard Markham…

But most of the novel’s criminals are found amongst the poor and underprivileged—and were, as they one after the other reveal, driven into a life of crime by injustice and distinctly un-Christian conduct on the part of their “betters”. Thus we spend much time following the activities of Tom the Cracksman, Dick Flairer, the Buffer (who gets his nickname from his habit of stripping his victims), and of course the Resurrection Man:

    “You are certain that this is the place?” said the Resurrection Man.
    “As certain as one can be who stood by the grave for a quarter of an hour in day-light, and who has to recognise it again in total darkness,” answered the surgeon. “Besides, the mortar was soft—”
    “There might have been another burial close by,” interrupted the Resurrection Man; “but we will soon find out whether you are right or not, sir. Was the coffin a wooden one?”
    “Yes! an elm coffin, covered with black cloth,” replied the surgeon. “I gave the instructions for the funeral myself, being the oldest friend of the family.”
    The Resurrection Man took one of the long flexible rods which we have before noticed, and thrust it down into the vault. The point penetrated into the lid of a coffin. He drew it back, put the point to his tongue, and tasted it.
    “Yes,” he said, smacking his lips, “the coffin in this vault is an elm one, and is covered with black cloth.”
    “I thought I could not be wrong,” observed the surgeon.
    The body-snatchers then proceeded to raise the coffin, by means of ropes passed underneath it. This was a comparatively easy portion of their task; and in a few moments it was placed upon the flag-stones of the church.
    The Resurrection Man took a chisel and opened the lid with considerable care. He then lighted his candle a second time; and the glare fell upon the pale features of the corpse in its narrow shell.
    “This is the right one,” said the surgeon, casting a hasty glance upon the face of the dead body, which was that of a young girl of about sixteen.
    The Resurrection Man extinguished the light; and he and his companions proceeded to lift the corpse out of the coffin.
    The polished marble limbs of the deceased were rudely grasped by the sacrilegious hands of the body-snatchers; and, having stripped the corpse stark naked, they tied its neck and heels together by means of a strong cord. They then thrust it into a large sack made for the purpose…

—who in addition to his main source of income works as a burglar, as well as hiring himself out for any sort of villainy, as long as the price is right.

Though Greenwood remains the novel’s main villain, over the course of The Mysteries Of London the Resurrection Man emerges as Richard’s particular evil genius—persecuting him, as we have seen, and eventually trying to take his life.

Richard, for his part, is determined to put an end to the Resurrection Man’s career. An escalating battle takes place between the two, after their initial encounter in Newgate. When they meet again near the Alteronis’ villa, Richard unthinkingly insults the Resurrection Man, who retaliates with blackmail—threatening to reveal Richard’s past to the Count. Richard is cowed into promising to pay, though he has trouble convincing his adversary that he is no longer a rich man, and can only scrape together a few hundred pounds.

However, while waiting to meet the Resurrection Man and make the payoff, Richard encounters Mr Talbot, aka Pocock, the engraver who was responsible for the counterfeit banknotes. In the meantime he has had a falling out with Chichester and Harborough, and is only too glad to write out a declaration of their plot, and Richard’s innocence.

When Richard next meets the Resurrection Man (it not having crossed his mind that his innocence won’t make any practical difference to Count Alteroni), his attitude towards him is much changed:

    “Come now,” ejaculated the Resurrection Man, considerably crest-fallen; “assist an old companion in difficulties: lend me a hundred or so.”
    “No,” returned Richard in a resolute manner; “had you asked me in the first instance to assist you, I would have done so willingly;—but you have endeavoured to extort a considerable sum of money from me—much more than I could spare; and I should not now be justified in yielding to the prayers of a man who has found that his base menaces have failed.”
    “You do not think I would have done what I said?” cried the Resurrection Man.
    “I believe you to be capable of any villainy. But we have already conversed too long. I was anxious to show you how a virtuous resolution would enable me to triumph over your base designs;—and I have now nothing more to say to you. Our ways lie in different directions, both at present and in future. Farewell.”
    With these words Markham continued his way up Brick Lane; but the Resurrection Man was again by his side in a moment.
    “You refuse to assist me?” he muttered in a hoarse and savage tone.
    “I do. Molest me no further.”
    “You refuse to assist me?” repeated the villain, grinding his teeth with rage: “then you may mind the consequences! I will very soon show you that you will bitterly—bitterly repent your determination. By God, I will be revenged!”

His theoretical repentance begins almost immediately: the Resurrection Man follows Richard through the dark streets of London, and strikes him down when he gets the chance. He thinks he has killed him; and Richard, when he regains consciousness in his enemy’s house, has the sense to feign dead. The surroundings in which he finds himself nearly are the death of him:

    Markham was about to start from his prostrate position when the interior of that room was thus abruptly revealed to him; but for a few moments the spectacle which met his sight paralysed every limb, and rendered him breathless, speechless, and motionless with horror.
    Stretched upon a shutter, which three chairs supported, was a corpse—naked, and of that blueish or livid colour which denotes the beginning of decomposition!
    Near this loathsome object was a large tub full of water; and to that part of the ceiling immediately above it were affixed two large hooks, to each of which hung thick cords. In one corner of the room were long flexible iron rods, spades, pickaxes, wooden levers, coils of thick rope, trowels, saws, hammers, huge chisels, skeleton-keys, &c…

If he was in any doubt about the purpose of these objects, his ignorance is soon enlightened:

    “Anythink by vay of a change; partikler as when we want a stiff ‘un by a certain day, and don’t know in which churchyard to dive for one, we hit upon the plan of catching ’em alive in the street.”
    “It was my idea, though,” exclaimed the Buffer. “Don’t you remember when we wanted a stiff ‘un for the wery same Sawbones which we’ve got to meet presently, we waited for near two hours at this house-door, and at last we caught hold of a feller that was walking so comfortable along, looking up at the moon?”
    “And then I thought of holding him with his head downwards in a tub of water,” added the Cracksman, “till he was drownded. That way don’t tell no tales;—no wound on the skin—no pison in the stomach; and there ain’t too much water inside neither, cos the poor devils don’t swaller with their heads downwards.”
    “Ah! it was a good idea,” said the Buffer; “and now we’ve reduced it to a reg’lar system. Tub of water all ready on the floor—hooks and cords to hold the chaps’ feet up to the ceiling; and then, my eye! there they hangs, head downwards, jest for all the world like the carcasses in the butchers’ shops, if they hadn’t got their clothes on…”

The Resurrection Man is called away by his colleagues (to dig up the girl’s body, described above), and Richard has the opportunity to escape—although not before being embarrassingly trapped, albeit temporarily, by “the Mummy”, a hideous old crone with whom the Resurrection Man shares his residence…and who actually is his mother. When the Mummy must report that “the fresh ‘un” came back to life and escaped, her loving son is thoroughly enraged.

Richard, for his part, leads the police to the churchyard, but they are just too late to prevent the girl’s body being stolen; and he is subsequently unable to find the house again. It is in the wake of this that the Resurrection Man ruins Richard with the Alteronis. Richard strikes the next blow, when information obtained from Henry Holford (pint-sized invader of Buckingham Palace) does allow him to find the house again. He organises a police-raid:

    Already were two of the officers half-way up the staircase,—already was the door of the back room on the ground floor yielding to the strength of a constable,—already were Richard Markham and several officers hurrying down the street towards the spot, obedient to the signal conveyed by the springing of the rattles,—when a terrific explosion took place.
    “Good God!” ejaculated Markham: “what can that mean?”
    “There—there!” cried a policeman near him: “it is all over with the serjeant and my poor comrades!”
Immediately after the explosion, and while Markham and the officer were yet speaking, a bright column of fire shot up into the air:—millions and millions of sparks, glistening vividly, showered down upon the scene of havoc;—for a moment—a single moment—the very heavens seemed on fire;—then all was black—and silent—and doubly sombre.
    The den of the assassins had ceased to exist: it had been destroyed by gunpowder.
    The blackened remains and dismembered relics of mortality were discovered on the following morning amongst the ruins, or in the immediate neighbourhood;—but it was impossible to ascertain how many persons had perished on this dread occasion…

Richard allows himself to believe, or hope, that the Resurrection Man is among the casualties; but his enemy, ahem, resurrects himself when he sees a chance to wreck Richard’s life again. Just as Richard seems to have begun a promising new career as a playwright under the name “Edward Preston”, his bow to the audience is interrupted by a voice from “the gods” of the theatre that reveals his true identity and his criminal – or at least, prison – past, and ruins everything.

However—even as the Resurrection Man is tracking Richard, someone else is tracking him. When we first meet him, the Resurrection Man is being held, like Richard, awaiting his trial on a charge of burglary. He escapes imprisonment by “nosing” on his partner, Crankey Jem, who is convicted and transported—but doesn’t stay transported; and if he was cranky before—

    Meantime, the Resurrection Man had precipitated himself down stairs, and had already begun to unbolt the front door, when lights appeared, and in another moment he was surrounded by the gipsy chiefs, and pinioned by them.
    “Villain!” cried Morcar, tearing the bag of gold from his grasp: “is this the reward of our hospitality?”
    “It’s mine—and I can prove it,” thundered the Resurrection Man. “But let me go—I don’t want to hurt any of you—and you needn’t hurt me.”
    “Ah! that voice!” ejaculated the Traveller, who had just reached the bottom of the stairs as Tidkins uttered those words: then, before a single arm could even be stretched out to restrain him, he rushed with the fury of a demon upon the Resurrection Man, and planted his long dagger in the miscreant’s breast.
    Tidkins fell: a cry of horror broke from the gipsies; and the Traveller was instantly secured.
    “He is not dead—but he is dying,” exclaimed Morcar, raising the Resurrection Man in his arms.
    “Tell him, then,” cried the Traveller, in a tone of mingled triumph and joy,—“tell him that the man who was transported four years ago by his infernal treachery has at length been avenged,—tell him that he dies by the hand of Crankey Jem!”
    These words seemed to animate the Resurrection Man for a few moments: he made an effort to speak—but his tongue refused to articulate the curses which his imagination prompted; and, turning a glance of the most diabolical hatred upon the avenger, he sank back insensible in the arms of Morcar…

(Only “insensible” at this stage, we note…)

Between this post and the previous one, I think I’ve given you a good idea of what The Mysteries Of London is all about. But while there are many more things I could talk about, what I want to focus upon in the rest of this post is what I consider the single most fascinating aspect of this novel so far: the character of Ellen Monroe.

Ellen is the daughter of Richard’s agent, Mr Monroe—who has at least the grace to ruin himself as well as Richard, through “investing” with George Montague. This, you may recall, takes place while Richard is in prison. The Monroes are left in penury, forced to scratch a precarious living: Mr Monroe does piece-meal law-copying for a pittance, while Ellen does needlework for even less. It is she being exploited in that quote in Part 1, being paid a farthing and a half per hour (!!!) for her efforts.

Of course this is not enough to ward off starvation, let alone pay for a decent lodging. Ellen, with her beauty, has already attracted the attention of a nasty but shrewd old woman (the same one who arranged the Reverend Reginald Tracy’s viewing of the “statue” of Cecilia Harborough); and finally Ellen is desperate enough to ask the woman’s help. Of course the old woman has only one thing on her mind—but she sees well enough that Ellen isn’t ready to take the plunge, and has to be eased into it. She first arranges for her to lend her face to a statuary; then to model – clothed – for an artist; then to pose topless for a sculptor (and you better believe we hear about her breasts, despite the tut-tut tone); then fully nude for a photographer:

We shall not proceed to any details connected with this new avocation to which that lovely maiden lent herself. Suffice it to say, that having sold her countenance to the statuary, her likeness to the artist, and her bust to the sculptor, she disposed of her whole body to the photographer. Thus her head embellished images white and bronzed; her features and her figure were perpetuated in divers paintings; her bust was immortalised in a splendid statue; and her entire form is preserved, in all attitudes, and on many plates, in the private cabinet of a photographer at one of the metropolitan Galleries of Practical Science.

Though Ellen is still physically chaste, she is progressively losing that “chastity of the mind” so beloved of the 19th century male. She is also, though she is earning much more than for her needlework when she does work, earning it irregularly: having her income cease after she has become accustomed to having money again gets more difficult each time. And when the photographer is done, the old woman insists she has nothing more to suggest; but she is only biding her time…

At last, seeing her father starving, and his health failing, Ellen is driven back to the old woman one more time. She pleads for her help, any kind of help—and the old woman finally makes her the proposition she’s been intending to make all along.

But it’s all in the timing: these events coincide with Richard’s release from prison; and although he was forced to confront him once, to confess his loss of his fortune, Mr Monroe has not faced him since. Now, quite as desperate as Ellen, Mr Monroe takes on the shameful task of begging for help from the young man he has ruined.

And it is this that drives Ellen to the old woman. Though she has known Richard all her life – in fact, both the Markham boys – in her misery Ellen is unable to imagine him doing anything but spurning his former agent. Her anticipation of this final, crushing blow to her father is too much for her—and she agrees to sell the only thing of value that she still has in her possession: her virginity.

And then, of course—Richard does help—just a little too late.

He does more than help: he insists upon the Monroes coming to live with him and sharing his scanty bounty. For Ellen, this is almost killing with kindness…particularly in light of who it was the old woman brokered the deal with…and the fact that she, Ellen, is now pregnant…

As I said at the outset, the handling of the true identity of “George Montague Greenwood” is one of the novel’s oddest touches. Reynolds doesn’t even get into it squarely at this stage; although going forward, as Ellen gets to know Richard intimately, and benefits from his unselfishness and generosity, every aspect of her situation takes on a new kind of horror for her. However, she makes up her mind that the one thing she can do to requite Richard for all that he has done for her father and herself is to keep the truth from him at all cost.

When she realises that she is pregnant, Ellen goes to Greenwood and begs him to marry her for the child’s sake. When he counters with the offer of a life of luxury for herself and the child – but no marriage – she tells him to shove it. She subsequently manages to hide her condition from her father and Richard with the help of the housekeeper (not quite so blind as the men); and is fortunate to go into labour when they are both away from home. The baby, a boy, is smuggled out to the house of a poor young doctor, who agrees to care for it in exchange for a stipend. (Greenwood does pay for the baby’s support, which is his one semi-decent act in the entire novel.) Ellen must sneak visits the child, grieving when she sees that he does not really know her. Reynolds make it clear that, despite her circumstances, she is a loving and devoted mother, suffering by being parted from her baby—and never really suggests that she deserves it.

Once she has recovered her health and strength, Ellen goes back to thinking about earning her own living, to give Richard some relief. First she gets a job as assistant to a mesmerist and “mind-reader”; but that last only until she is guilty of an ill-timed giggling fit, mid-act. She then decides to train as a dancer, and turns out to be a quick study and a genuine talent, apart from her striking physical beauty. She quickly earns a glowing reputation, as well as a satisfactory income, as a ballerina. The main downside is that she must keep her occupation secret from her father (she performs under an assumed name); although it is also necessary for her ongoingly to evade the many men who haunt the theatre.

But she cannot evade one visitor:

    One evening, a short time before she was to appear in the ballet, the manager informed her that a gentleman desired to speak with her alone in the green-room. To that apartment did Ellen immediately repair, and, to her surprise, the found herself in the presence of Mr Greenwood.
    “Ah! I am not then mistaken,” exclaimed that gentleman, with one of his blandest smiles. “I saw you last night for the first time; and the moment you appeared upon the stage I knew you—that is, I felt almost convinced that it was you. But how happened this strange event in your life?”
    “My benefactor, Richard Markham,” answered Ellen, with singular and mysterious emphasis upon the name, “is not wealthy—you best know why; my father is irretrievably ruined—you also know how:—and, with all my faults, I could not endure the idea of eating the bread of dependence and idleness.”

    “But why did you not apply to me?” demanded Greenwood. “I would have placed you above want.”
    “No—I would not for worlds be dependent upon you,” replied Ellen warmly. “I appealed to you to support my child—our child; and you did so. There was only one way in which you could have manifested a real generosity towards me—and you refused. The service I asked you once upon my knees—with tears and prayers—you rejected:—I implored you to give a father’s honourable name to your child—I besought you to save the reputation of her whose father was ruined through you, and who herself became your victim by a strange combination of circumstances. You refused! What less could I accept at your hands? Do you think that I have not my little sentiments of pride as well as you?”

Greenwood nevertheless insists that he does care for her – in his way – and renews his offers of a life of luxury as his mistress, which the disgusted Ellen unhesitatingly throws back in his face. As we already know, Greenwood does not take rejection well; and he retaliates by setting in motion a plot to abduct her. It succeeds, up to a point—but thanks to the efficiency of Filippo, the household spy, she is enabled to escape.

Later on we get an amusing early example of “stunt-casting”: Richard learns that his first play, of which the theatre-manager has high hopes, is to include in its cast that celebrated ballerina, “Miss Selina Fitzherbert”, who has decided to try her hand at acting—at which she likewise proves brilliant. (Even as he did not know about her dancing, she did not know about his writing.) But that opening-night proves a first and last for Ellen as well as for Richard: she quits when he is driven out by the Resurrection Man’s verbal assault.

Meanwhile, Ellen maintains her vigilance over Richard’s safety and piece of mind. At one point, becoming convinced that Richard is walking into a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man – she of all people knows that the message supposedly sent to Richard by Eugene is a fake – she dons men’s clothes, arms herself with pistols, and (in a chapter titled “Female Courage”) sallies forth into the night to save his life…

Reynolds’ handling of Ellen is deeply peculiar. He obviously felt that he couldn’t go without some editorialisation on her behaviour; but while she is busy committing, in 19th century terms, the most heinous transgressions imaginable, he spends most of his time criticising her not for that, but for venial sins like her vanity. And despite those transgressions – despite, too, the sop thrown to conventionality via the boringly perfect Isabella – it is impossible to get away from the fact that Ellen Monroe is this novel’s heroine.

I tell you this—if Reynolds gets cold feet here—if he feels obliged to kill Ellen off, as per Victorian tradition—I am going to be royally pissed.

I’m hopeful that he won’t, though, judging from the fact that he grants his own open-minded tendencies to his “good” male characters. Ellen’s situation is eventually discovered when the baby becomes gravely ill. She rushes off, thoughtlessly dropping the letter sent to inform her—which is found by her father. When Ellen comes back, having been reassured that the baby has recovered and is no longer in danger, she is confronted by a man in the throes of a thoroughly Victorian emotional and physical collapse.

At this, Ellen confesses everything to him—everything. And Mr Monroe, having time to ponder her words as he lies upon what he fully expects to be his death-bed, finally concludes that (i) she did what she did for him, and (ii) dying of shame would therefore be the height of ingratitude.

So he gets better.

And as for Richard—

    The father and daughter were at length restored to partial tranquillity by each other’s endeavours at reciprocal consolation, and were commingling their tears together, when the door opened.
    Markham, followed by Marian, entered the room.
    But what was the surprise of Mr Monroe—what was the joy of Ellen, when Marian advanced towards the bed, and presented the child to his mother!
    “A parent must not be separated from her offspring,” said Richard; “henceforth, Ellen, that infant must be nurtured by thee…”

The Mysteries Of London – Volume I, at least – closes with an epilogue in which Reynolds addresses the reader directly, reiterating his overarching theme of WEALTH. | POVERTY., and expanding upon his intentions in writing this serial in the first place—all of them above reproach, of course:

    We have constituted ourselves the scourge of the oppressor, and the champion of the oppressed: we have taken virtue by the hand to raise it, and we have seized upon vice to expose it; we have no fear of those who sit in high places; but we dwell as emphatically upon the failings of the educated and rich, as on the immorality of the ignorant and poor.
    We invite all those who have been deceived to come around us, and we will unmask the deceiver;—we seek the company of them that drag the chains of tyranny along the rough thoroughfares of the world, that we may put the tyrant to shame;—we gather around us all those who suffer from vicious institutions, that we may expose the rottenness of the social heart.
    Crime, oppression, and injustice prosper for a time; but, with nations as with individuals, the day of retribution must come. Such is the lesson which we have yet to teach.
    And let those who have perused what we have already written, pause ere they deduce therefrom a general moral;—for as yet they cannot anticipate our design, nor read our end.
    No:—for we have yet more to write, and they have more to learn, of THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON.

And sure enough, across 1845 – 1846, another 52 weekly numbers of The Mysteries Of London appeared. I’m not so sure, though, that Reynolds can’t justly be accused of slacking off—because in contrast to Volume I, which in its unabridged Valancourt Books reissue is 1,176 pages long, Volume II runs a mere 1,146 pages…

 

02/11/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 2)

 

    “My mind is made up,” said Eugene, “and no persuasion shall alter its decision. I am my own master—my father’s conduct has emancipated me from all deference to parental authority. Richard, you have brought my things?”
    “My dearest brother—whither are you going?”
    “I am on the road to fame and fortune!”
    “Alas!” said Richard mournfully, “you may perhaps find that this world is not so fruitful in resources as you now imagine.”
    “All remonstrances—all objections are vain,” interrupted Eugene impatiently. “We must say adieu! But one word more,” he added, after an instant’s pause, as a sudden thought seemed to strike him; “you doubt the possibility of my success in life, and I feel confident of it. Do you pursue your career under the auspices of that parent in whose wisdom you so blindly repose: I will follow mine, dependent only on mine own resources. This is the 10th of July, 1831; twelve years hence, on the 10th of July, 1843, we will meet again on this very spot, between the two trees, if they still be standing. Remember the appointment: we will then compare notes relative to our success in life!”

 

 

 

Having addressed George Reynolds’ themes and style in The Mysteries Of London in the first part of this post, here I will try to give an overview of his characters and plots—though obviously, I will have to be representative rather than thorough, or this will be a thousand pages long, too.

(ETA: It still turned out quite long enough, thanks to the necessary illustrative quotes; so I’ll divide this piece into two.)

At its simplest, The Mysteries Of London is a tale of two brothers, Eugene and Richard Markham. They are raised in wealth and comfort by a generous yet autocratic father. Eugene, the elder, is sent to Sandhurst Military Academy—and there, out in the world by himself for the first time, and thrown amongst reckless, spendthrift young men – who, as Eugene puts it, “Enlisted me in their pleasures and debaucheries” – he falls seriously into debt. Offended both by the debt and the nature of it, Mr Markham chooses this moment to teach his eldest son a severe lesson. Since some of Eugene’s debts are from his gambling – debts of honour, in other words – his inability to pay has disastrous consequences: he is shunned by his fellow officers, and forced to sell his commission and resign.

Upon his return to the parental roof, a violent confrontation ends in Eugene taking his angry father at his word and leaving home, determined to make his own fortune in his own way.

The Markham brothers have always been close – Richard, indeed, is devoted to Eugene, though they are so different in temperament – and one of their joint projects as boys was the planting of two ash trees on a hill overlooking their home, where they frequently sat as they were growing up, to talk over the present and the future. Before setting out, Eugene makes a proposal: he and Richard will each follow their own path in the world, Richard guided by their father’s precepts, Eugene living by his wits; and in twelve years’ time, they will meet again at their ash trees to see which of them has prospered more.

And that is the last that Richard sees of his brother (at least to the end of Volume I, which takes us from 1831 to 1839). Once, he has a particularly vivid dream in which he thinks he sees Eugene standing by his bed; and on various occasions, he discovers that Eugene has carved his initials and the date into the bark of his particular ash; but no meeting between the brothers occurs, nor does Richard receive any word of Eugene.

Following Eugene’s departure, the narrative stays with Richard, who is the hero of The Mysteries Of London. He is also its chew-toy—losing his entire fortune (his portion and Eugene’s, after the latter is disinherited); being wrongly imprisoned for passing counterfeit banknotes; falling in love with a young woman whose circumstances are absurdly superior to his own; having his hopes and prospects crushed every time he starts to believe he has found a way of re-establishing himself in the world; and making an extremely dangerous enemy…

Meanwhile, we also hear of a conscienceless opportunist called George Montague—who later changes his name to George M. Greenwood, overtly as a term of an inheritance, in reality because he has made one particular corner of London too hot to hold him. (The fact that certain people do not know that “Montague” and “Greenwood” are the same person causes much difficulty and grief.) Greenwood is a skilled con-man, throwing up a smokescreen of seeming prosperity and successful financial ventures, and ruining those unwise enough to trust him to invest their money. One of those whose fortune he drains away is a certain Mr Monroe—only it isn’t actually Mr Monroe’s money: he was entrusted with the management of Richard Markham’s fortune while Richard was in prison; so that when the latter gets out, he finds himself reduced from many thousands to a few hundreds of pounds a year. When Greenwood belatedly learns what he has done, for once he is strangely disturbed…

Greenwood is also a complete scoundrel when it comes to women. It was he who seduced Diana Arlington, after she was thrown upon his tender mercies when her father was ruined—by Greenwood, of course. He also buys the virginity of another of our characters (a subplot I shall return to at more length presently). He does do something that you could call “falling in love” with Eliza Sydney – she who spends the first part of the novel masquerading as her own dead brother – and gets engaged to her. Even so, he hopes to avoid actually marrying her. Eliza’s principles are too much for him, however; and when he lets passion overcome him and ventures into her bedroom one night, she holds him off with the dagger she keeps under her pillow, and drives him away and out of her life with scorn and insults. Greenwood’s wounded ego leads him to plan a vicious act of revenge, in which Eliza will be drugged, raped while unconscious, and then – what other choice would she have? – become his willing mistress; but fortunately the plot is forestalled.

But Eliza’s escape is one of Greenwood’s few failure: for the most part he flourishes like the proverbial green bay tree.

And having shown him to the reader in all his vicious, destructive and unprincipled anti-glory, Reynolds finds the perfect place for Greenwood: he goes into politics:

    “You deserved success, after that brilliant speech;” said Chichester, laughing heartily at this narrative.
    “The polling was continued briskly until four o’clock, when the mayor closed the books and announced that George Greenwood, Esquire, Gentleman, was duly returned to serve in Parliament as the representative of Rottenborough.”
    “When shall you ‘take your oaths and your seat,’ as the papers say?” demanded Chichester.
    “This evening,” answered Greenwood.
    “And of course you will range yourself amongst the Liberals?”
    “How can you fancy that I shall be guilty of such egregious folly?” cried the new Member of Parliament. “The reign of the Liberals is drawing to a close: a Tory administration within a year or eighteen months is inevitable.”
    “But you stood forward as a Liberal, and were returned as such.”
    “Very true—very true, my dear fellow. But do you imagine that I became a Member of Parliament to meet the interests and wishes of a pack of strangers, or to suit my own?”
    “And at the next election—”
    “I shall be returned again. Mark my word for that. A politician is not worth a fig who has not a dozen excuses ready for the most flagrant tergiversation; and money—money will purchase all the free and independent electors of Rottenborough.”

One of the most intriguing things about The Mysteries Of London is that, although it is perfectly obvious to the reader who George Montague Greenwood actually is, the narrative never acknowledges it. There is only one other character who knows that unwelcome truth—and for a variety of reasons, she goes to extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden.

Eliza Sydney is another of Reynolds’ characters who masquerades under a false identity—also for financial reasons. Another con-artist persuades her to participate in an elaborate fraud, by convincing her that she herself is a victim of fraud, and that the masquerade is the only way she can redress her wrongs. In truth, under the terms of the will of the late Earl of Warrington (uncle to the present Earl, the “keeper” of Diana Arlington), whose illegitimate daughter was the mother of Walter and Eliza Sydney, Walter was to inherit a fortune if he lived to come of age; if not, the money was to revert to the original family. A certain Mr Stephens, the confidante of the late Mrs Sydney, convinces Eliza that Lord Warrington intends to withhold the money illegally, and that by pretending to be her lookalike brother (who did, inconveniently, die young), she can thwart him.

Eliza and Mr Stephens take some pains to establish her identity as “Walter”, which allows Reynolds to indulge to the full his fetish for women in drag:

    Then followed the mysterious toilet.
    Stays, curiously contrived, gave to that exquisitely modelled form as much as possible the appearance of the figure of a man. The swell of the bosom, slightly compressed, was rendered scarcely apparent by padding skilfully placed, so as to fill up and flatten the undulating bust. The position of the waist was lowered; and all this was effected without causing the subject of so strange a transformation any pain or uneasiness.
    The semi-military blue frock coat, buttoned up to the throat, completed the disguise; and as this species of garment is invariably somewhat prominent about the chest, the very fashion of its make materially aided an effectual concealment, by averting surprise at the gentle protuberance of the breast, in the present instance.
    Louisa arranged the luxuriant and flowing hair with particular attention, bestowing as much as possible a masculine appearance upon that which would have been a covering worthy of a queen.
    The toilet being thus completed, this strange being to whom we have introduced our readers, descended to a parlour on the ground floor…

He also likes emphasising the contrast between Eliza’s ultra-feminine tastes, shown in the decoration of her bedroom and the dresses she isn’t allowed to wear, and her masculine attire.

However, at the very last moment, the conspirators are exposed (a letter between Stephens and his brother falls into the hands of The Black Chamber of the General Post-Office). Eliza is so appalled to discover that she has been party to a criminal conspiracy, she reveals the entire plot, pleads guilty to the subsequent charges, and goes to prison (she and Richard are convicted on the same day, and get out on the same day: two years for both of them).

Eliza’s frankness and contrition win her the admiration of Diana Arlington and the Earl of Warrington. Diana visits her in prison, and becomes her best friend when she gets out; the Earl contributes to her support, but won’t see or talk to her: in his youth he was in love with her mother, his illegitimate cousin, whom she very much resembles; however, she rejected him to marry a farmer’s son, which is the kind of thing that happens all the time in George Reynolds’ world.

While exchanging girl-talk, Diana and Eliza discover that they have something in common:

    “Forgive me, my dearest friend,” said Eliza, taking the hand of Mrs Arlington and pressing it between her own;—“forgive me if I have kept back one secret of my life from your knowledge. That George Montague—I once loved him!”
    “You!” exclaimed Mrs Arlington in surprise.
    “Yes, Diana—I once loved that man—before the fatal exposure which led to my imprisonment;—but he behaved like a villain—he endeavoured to take advantage of my affection;—and I smothered the feeling in my bosom!”
    “Oh! you did well—you did well thus to triumph over a passion which would have been fatal to your happiness;—for never would your hopes have been fulfilled—with honour to yourself,” added Mrs Arlington, sinking her voice almost to a whisper…

But the two women don’t just commiserate with each other: they join forces, and take action to ensure that at least some of Greenwood’s dastardly schemes will be thwarted, by planting a mole in his household…

In the wake of Greenwood’s attempted rape, Eliza decides that she can only truly be safe from him by leaving England. She departs for Italy, and the Grand Duchy of Castelcicala, where the Earl owns a property.

Castelcicala is necessarily fictional – hilariously, its capital city is “Montoni”, after the villain in The Mysteries Of Udolpho – because it is the site of the most extravagant of Reynolds’ wish-fulfillment fantasies. How extravagant do they get? Let’s put it this way: he manages to elevate Eliza Sydney, ex-con, offspring of a farmer’s son and an Earl’s bastard, to the throne of Castelcicala—when the elderly and rather tyrannical Grand Duke Angelo falls in love with her. Various horrified statesmen try to prevent the intended marriage by revealing Eliza’s past to the Grand Duke, but it turns out she has told him all about herself already, and he doesn’t care. So in rapid succession, Eliza Sydney is created Marchioness of Ziani, and then becomes the Grand Duchess Eliza of Castelcicala…

…which is the kind of thing that happens all the time in George Reynolds’ world…

The marriage of Eliza to the Grand Duke has significant implications—not least the possibility of an heir to the throne. Castelcicala has been in turmoil for years, with tensions between the faction supporting the Grand Duke and his traditional, iron-fisted rule, and that supporting his nephew and heir, Prince Alberto, who wants to introduce more liberal ways. To prevent civil war, Alberto has voluntarily banished himself from his country, along with some of his followers.

One of the latter is the Count Alteroni, who settles with his wife and daughter in a villa outside of London. The Count’s own liberal ideas have led him to seek acquaintance with Thomas Armstrong, a radical writer, who in turn introduces Richard to the Count and his family—after the two of them become friends in prison:

    “I am a person accused of a political offence—a libel on the government, in a journal of considerable influence which I conduct. I shall be tried next session; my sentence will not be severe, perhaps; but it will not be the less unjust. I am the friend of my fellow-countrymen, and my fellow-creatures: the upright and the enlightened denominate me a philanthropist: my enemies denounce me as a disturber of the public peace, a seditious agitator, and a visionary. You have undoubtedly heard of Thomas Armstrong?”
    “I have not only heard of you, sir,” said Richard, surveying the great Repulican writer with profound admiration and respect, “but I have read your works and your essays with pleasure and interest.”
    “In certain quarters,” continued Armstrong, “I am represented as a character who ought to be loathed and shunned by all virtuous and honest people,—that I am a moral pestilence,—a social plague; and that my writings are only deserving of being burnt by the hands of the common hangman. The organs of the rich and aristocratic classes, level every species of coarse invective against me. And yet, O God!” he added enthusiastically, “I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”

Armstrong is clearly – very clearly – intended as a self-portrait; so it is curious that Reynolds kills him off quite quickly, albeit for plot-purposes. (And no, he’s not martyred for his cause.)

Richard and the Alteronis take a strong liking to each other, and the inevitable happens: Richard and the beautiful young daughter, Isabella, fall in love. Richard is nevertheless painfully conscious of his own circumstances, but cannot quite bring himself to tell the truth to Count Alteroni. However, the choice is taken out of his hands when he offends the Resurrection Man (as quoted in Part 1). The latter tries to burgle the Alteronis’ villa and, when caught, does Richard as much harm as he can—which as it turns out is a lot:

    “Silence, my dear friend,” said the count authoritatively: “I will hear the man, let him be who or what he may!”
    “And you will do well to hear me, sir,” continued the Resurrection Man. “You harbour a villain in your house; and that villain is now before you. He boasts of having secured the affections of your daughter, and hopes to gull you into allowing him to marry her.”
    “Miscreant—murderer!” exclaimed Markham, no longer able to contain his indignation: “pollute not innocence itself by these allusions to a lady whose spotless mind—”
    “Hush!” said the count. “Let us hear patiently all this man has to say. I can soon judge whether he be speaking the truth; and if he deceives me, I will show him no mercy.”
    “But, count—allow me one word—I myself will unfold—”
    “Excuse me, Markham,” interrupted the Italian noble, with dignified firmness: “I will hear this man first. Proceed!”
    “The villain I allude to is of course that Markham,” continued the Resurrection Man. “It was him, too, that induced me and my pals, the Cracksman and the Buffer, to make this attempt upon your house to-night… This is all I have to say—unless it is that me and your friend Markham first got acquainted in Newgate—”
    “Newgate!” ejaculated the count, with a thrill of horror.
    “Yes—Newgate; where he was waiting to be tried for forgery, for which he got two years in the Compter. And that’s all. Let him deny it if he can.”

Richard is promptly exiled from his earthly paradise and, though he manages later to convince the Count and Countess of his innocence (Isabella never doubted him), it does him to good: to the Alteronis, he is “tainted” by his time in prison, be he never so innocent.

But then circumstances intervene, with the Count becoming another of the victims of a certain enterprising financier…

In fact, things run so far in the opposite direction that the Count ends up in a debtors’ prison. Richard, who has managed to consolidate the poor remains of his fortune, pays to free him. He does it anonymously, but Isabella has no doubt about who was responsible, and convinces her parents of their debt to him. As a result, Richard is summoned back into the fold—but his happiness is short-lived, as Isabella’s devotion to him leads her to tell him the truth; the whole truth:

    “Beloved girl—this moment is the happiest of my life!” exclaimed Markham; and tears of joy filled his eyes, as he pressed the maiden once more to his heart.
    “Yes, Richard,” continued Isabella, after a long pause; and now her splendid countenance was lighted up with an expression of dignity and generous pride, and the timid, bashful maiden seemed changed into a lady whose brow was encircled with a diadem; “yes, Richard, if ever I felt that no deed nor act of mine shall separate us eternally—if ever I rejoiced in the prospect of possessing wealth, and receiving lustre from my father’s princely rank—”
    “Isabella!” exclaimed Richard, dropping the arm on which the Italian lady was leaning, and stepping back in the most profound astonishment: “Isabella, what mean you?”
    “I mean,” continued the signora, casting upon him a glance of deep tenderness and noble pride; “I mean that henceforth, Richard, I can have no secret from you,—that I must now disclose what has often before trembled upon my tongue; a secret which my father would not, however, as yet, have revealed to the English public generally,—the secret of his rank; for he whom the world knows as the Count Alteroni, is Alberto, Prince of Castelcicala!”
    Strange was the effect that this revelation produced upon the young man. He felt, as if, when in a burning heat, a mighty volume of icy water had suddenly been dashed over him: his head appeared to swim round—his sight grew dim—he staggered, and would have fallen had not Isabella rushed towards him, exclaiming, “Richard—dear Richard—do you not believe how much I love you?”
    Those words produced an instantaneous change within him: those sweet syllables, uttered in the silvery tones of lovely woman’s tenderness—recalled him to himself.
    “Ah! Isabella,” he exclaimed, mournfully, “how insuperable is the barrier which divides us now!”

Of course…Richard doesn’t know that he’s living in George Reynolds’ world…

 

[To be continued…]

 

22/10/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 1)

 

    Amongst these cities there is one in which contrasts of a strange nature exist. The most unbounded wealth is the neighbour of the most hideous poverty; the most gorgeous pomp is placed in strong relief by the most deplorable squalor; the most seducing luxury is only separated by a narrow wall from the most appalling misery.
    The crumbs which fall from the tables of the rich would appear delicious viands to starving millions; and yet those millions obtain them not!
    In that city there are in all districts five prominent buildings: the church, in which the pious pray; the gin-palace, to which the wretched poor resort to drown their sorrows; the pawn-broker’s, where miserable creatures pledge their raiment, and their children’s raiment, even unto the last rag, to obtain the means of purchasing food, and – alas! too often – intoxicating drink; the prison, where the victims of a vitiated condition of society expiate the crimes to which they have been driven by starvation and despair; and the workhouse, to which the destitute, the aged, and the friendless hasten to lay down their aching heads—and die!

 

 

 

 

It is hard to know where to begin with George Reynolds’ monumental penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London—which is one reason why, after introducing Reynolds at this blog, it’s taken me so long to get around to actually considering his writing.

Even a consideration of Volume I alone is daunting—not least because it runs some 1200 pages. Furthermore, it ends, not with any attempt to wrap up any of its numerous co-plots, but a simple promise of more of the same: a promise that Reynolds kept. Volume I is a compilation of the first 52 weekly installments of his serial, which ran from 1844 into 1845; and, having drawn a line at that point, Reynolds did it all over again from 1845 into 1846.

Consequently, a standard review is impossible (even a ‘standard review’ as long as mine usually are). Instead, what I am going to try and do is just give an overview of this first volume of The Mysteries Of London: to take a look, in this first part, at Reynolds’ approach to his writing and what he was trying to achieve—and in particular how this work stands apart from the literature of its time. (Some lengthy quotes to follow—perhaps over-lengthy, but I think it does Reynolds the best justice to let him speak for himself.) A second part will consider his characters and plot.

It can be difficult today to conceptualise the contemporary popularity of The Mysteries Of London—which was in all likelihood the best-selling book of its time. The sales figures for the weekly numbers were always high, but we must think in multiples when trying to estimate how many people were actually following the story. Many copies were bought by mechanics’ institutes, and other such communal organisations, where a single issue would be read by multiple individuals. Other single copies were read out loud in a variety of gathering places—both to save costs, and because in spite of rising literacy levels among the working-class, many among Reynolds’ potential audience could not read.

But we would be very wrong to assume that only the working-classes enjoyed Reynolds—whether or not some of the people reading his books admitted it to anyone else. When Reynolds’ publisher, George Vickers, reissued The Mysteries Of London in book form, it sold over a million copies; and while Vickers sensibly kept most of his editions at accessible prices, he also released high-quality, leather-bound sets that were very definitely not aimed at working-class readers.

However, Reynolds’ subject matter, his approach to his material, and his personal unpopularity with “the establishment” for his political agitation, saw his work buried after his death in 1879. The critical condemnation of his books as “vile” and “dangerous” was allowed to prevail; and it is only very recently that Reynolds’ reputation has been revived—and, more importantly, his books reissued.

One the things that struck me immediately about The Mysteries Of London was the extent of Reynolds’ influence upon Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose own penny-dreadfuls began appearing some fifteen years later. Braddon is certainly the superior writer of the two, displaying better control of her material, much more lightness of touch, and a more subtle sense of humour—but we must remember that, despite her pointed social criticisms, Braddon was writing chiefly to entertain and to earn a living; whereas Reynolds was a committed social agitator using his works as an overt attack upon the numerous injustices prevailing in contemporary England. Not surprisingly, then, he favours a declamatory, tub-thumping style, with copious use of exclamation marks; while his humour tends more to the overtly sarcastic than the ironic.

Humour is not a dominant factor in The Mysteries Of London, however. More typical is a tone of outrage—for example, in this passage dealing with working-class wages:

    “Madam,” said Ellen, bursting into tears, “I have worked nearly seventeen hours at that shawl—”
    She could say no more: her voice was lost in sobs.
    “Come, come,” cried the shopwoman harshly,—“no whimpering here! Take up your money, if you like it—and if you don’t, leave it. Only decide one way or another, and make haste!”
    Ellen took up the sixpence, wiped her eyes, and hastily turned to leave the shop.
    “Do you not want any more work?” demanded the shopwoman abruptly.
    The fact was that the poor girl worked well, and did not “shirk” labour; and the woman knew that it was the interest of her master to retain that young creature’s services.
    Those words, “Do you not want any more work?” reminded Ellen that she and her father must live—that they could not starve! She accordingly turned towards that uncouth female once more, and received another shawl, to embroider in the same     manner, and at the same price!
    Eighty blossoms for sixpence!
    Sixteen hours’ work for sixpence!
    A farthing and a half per hour!!!

In fact—you could justly describe The Mysteries Of London as an attack upon “the 1%”. From its earliest passages, Reynolds draws graphic and repeated contrasts between the obscene wealth of the upper classes, and the even more obscene poverty of the lowest—and the indifference of the one to the other. He makes his agenda perfectly clear at the outset, in a passage striking when put in the context of mid-Victorian literature:

    For in this city the daughter of the peer is nursed in enjoyments, and passes through an uninterrupted avenue of felicity from the cradle to the tomb; while the daughter of poverty opens her eyes at her birth upon destitution in all its most appalling shapes, and at length sells her virtue for a loaf of bread.
    There are but two words known in the moral alphabet of this great city; for all virtues are summed up in the one, and all vices in the other: and those words are:

    WEALTH. | POVERTY.

In 1845 the German philosopher, Fredric Engels, published (translated) The Condition of the Working Class in England, which in turn was a significant influence on Benjamin Disraeli’s “social condition” novel of the same year, Sybil; or, The Two Nations. Disraeli’s subtitle entered the vernacular, while a certain passage in the novel was much quoted in public debate:

    “Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”
    “Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”
    The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.
    “Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
    “You speak of—” said Egremont, hesitatingly.
    “THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

Reynolds was there before him, however. And frankly, the idea that future Prime Minister Disraeli was plagiarising despised radical George Reynolds delights me quite as much as it infuriates me.

Reynolds’ overarching mantra in The Mysteries Of London is that the main cause of crime is poverty. Even his very worst and most unrepentant criminals are generally given the chance to tell their life-stories, which almost invariably begin with that individual’s attempts to live honestly, and to earn an honest living—and how that proved impossible, usually thanks to the “nice” people. And while the narrative itself expresses a conventional religious view, there is a constant, sneering depiction of religious hypocrisy, and of the actual behaviour of those who preen themselves upon being Christians in a Christian nation. The brutal treatment of those who have strayed from the path, whether criminally or sexually, by those in comfortable circumstances – the practical uselessness of repentance, once a false step has been taken – is one of Reynolds’ recurrent themes.

Another is the unavoidable impact of squalor and deprivation upon the physical, mental and moral wellbeing of those forced by poverty to live under such conditions:

    The wealthy classes of society are far too ready to reproach the miserable poor for things which are really misfortunes and not faults. The habit of whole families sleeping together in one room destroys all sense of shame in the daughters: and what guardian then remains for their virtue? But, alas! a horrible—an odious crime often results from that poverty which thus huddles brothers and sisters, aunts and nephews, all together in one narrow room—the crime of incest!
    When a disease – such as the small-pox or scarlatina – breaks out in one of those crowded houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood; the consequences are frightful: the mortality is as rapid as that which follows the footsteps of the plague!
    These are the fearful mysteries of that hideous district which exists in the very heart of this great metropolis. From St. John-street to Saffron Hill—from West-street to Clerkenwell Green, is a maze of’ narrow lanes, choked up with dirt, pestiferous with nauseous odours, and swarming with a population that is born, lives, and dies, amidst squalor, penury, wretchedness, and crime…

Many passages in The Mysteries Of London either mock at or rail against government institutions, which are shown as corrupt and venal, run by the rich for the rich. In particular Reynolds attacks the Poor Laws, and the horrors of the workhouse—highlighting the starvation conditions and the brutal separation of husbands and wives, parents and children. All this was done intentionally, of course, to dissuade the poor from seeking this dubious refuge; but instead of “getting a job”, as the architects of the system smugly asserted they would, countless thousands, unable to find either work or relief, died in miserable poverty:

    Alas! that New Year’s Day was one of strange contrasts in the social sphere of London.
    And as London is the heart of this empire, the disease which prevails in the core is conveyed through every vein and artery over the entire national frame.
    The country that contains the greatest wealth of all the territories of the universe, is that which also knows the greatest amount of hideous, revolting, heart-rending misery.
    In England men and women die of starvation in the streets
    In England women murder their children to save them from a lingering death by famine.
    In England the poor commit crimes to obtain an asylum in a gaol.
    In England aged females die by their own hands, in order to avoid the workhouse…

Another significant subplot involves what Reynolds calls “the Black Chamber of the General Post-Office”, a secret department whose job is to open any letters that look like they might be important, extract any information, political or financial, that might be of use to the government, and then close the letters so that the invasion of privacy might not be detected:

    Oh! vile—despicable occupation,—performed, too, by men who went forth, with heads erect and confident demeanour, from their atrocious employment—after having violated those secrets which are deemed most sacred, and broken the seals which merchants, lovers, parents, relations, and friends had placed upon their thoughts!
    Base and diabolical outrage—perpetrated by the commands of the Ministers of the Sovereign!

(This subplot is an exaggerated version of a real scandal, in which it was revealed that correspondence directed to an Italian refugee in London had been opened under a government warrant, and the contents transmitted to the Court of Naples—resulting in summary killing of several would-be revolutionaries. The incident ruined the career of then-Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, who to that point had been responsible for several important reforms, but afterwards, as he put it himself, was only, “Remembered as the man who opened the letters of the Italians.”)

Likewise, Reynolds constantly ridicules the idea that everyone is equal under the law. The text is peppered with incidents involving corrupt and/or incompetent policemen, and magistrates and judges going out of their way to exonerate the rich and brutalise the poor. These scenes are not exactly subtle, but they have their effect. On one hand—

    The harmony was disturbed by the entrance of a constable dragging in a poor ragged, half-starved, and emaciated lad, without shoes or stockings.
    “What’s the charge?” demanded the inspector.
    “A rogue and vagabond,” answered the constable.
    “Oh! very well: put that down, Crisp. How do you know?”
    “Because he’s wandering about and hasn’t nowhere to go to, and no friends to refer to; and I saw him begging.”
    “Very good; put that down, Crisp. And I suppose he’s without food and hungry?”
    “I have not tasted food—” began the poor wretch who stood shivering at the bar.
    “Come, no lies,” ejaculated the inspector. “No lies!” echoed the constable, giving the poor wretch a tremendous shake.
    “Have you put it all down, Crisp?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Well, let him have a bit of bread, and lock him up. He’ll get three months of it on the stepper to-morrow.”
    The poor creature was supplied with a cubic inch of stale bread, and then thrust into a filthy cell.
    “What do you think that unfortunate creature will be done to?” enquired Markham
    “Three months on the stepper—the treadmill, to be sure.”
    “But what for?”
    “Why, for a rogue and vagabond.”
    “A vagabond he may be,” said Markham, “because he has no home to go to; but how do you know he is a rogue?”
    “Why—he was found begging, wasn’t he?”
    “And does that make a man a rogue?”
    “Certainly it do—in the eye of the law.”

And on the other—

    A constable then stood forward, and stated the charge. The prisoner at the bar had turned out of a flash tavern in the Haymarket at one in the morning, and commenced crowing like a cock, and ringing at front-door bells, and playing all imaginable kinds of antics. When the constable interfered, the gentleman knocked him down; and had not another policeman come up to the spot at the moment, the said gentleman never would have been taken into custody.
    The Magistrate cross-questioned the policeman who gave evidence in this case, with great severity; and then, turning with a bland smile to the prisoner, who was surveying the clerk through his eye glass in as independent a manner as if he were lounging over the front of his box at the opera, the worthy functionary said in a tone of gentle entreaty, “Now really we have reason to suspect that John Jenkins is not your name. In fact, my lord, we know you.”
    “Well, then,” exclaimed the prisoner, turning his eye-glass from the clerk upon the magistrate, “chalk me up as Lord Plymouth, since you are down upon me in this way.”
    “My lord—my lord,” said the Magistrate, with parental urbanity of manner, “these little freaks of yours are really not creditable: upon my honour they are not. I sit here to administer justice to the rich as well as to the poor—”
    “Oh! you do, do you ?” cried the nobleman. “Now I tell you what it is—if you dare talk any of your nonsense about prisons and houses of correction to me. I’ll not stand it. You know as well as I do that whenever a barrister is to be appointed magistrate, the Home Secretary sends for him and tells him to mind his P’s and Q’s towards the aristocracy. So none of your nonsense; but be quick and let me off with the usual fine.”
    “My lord,” ejaculated the Magistrate, glancing with consternation from the prisoner to the clerk, and from the clerk to the prisoner; “did I not say that I sate here to administer equal justice to the rich and the poor? The fine for drunkenness is five shillings, my lord—and in that sum I fine you. As for the assault upon the policeman, I give you leave to speak to him outside.”
    The nobleman demanded change for a ten pound note, and threw the five shillings in a contemptuous and insolent manner towards the clerk, who thanked his lordship as if he had just received an especial favour. The assault was easily settled outside…

But whatever Reynolds’ views upon the causes of crime, his narrative positively wallows in its effects. Much of The Mysteries Of London is set amongst the lowest of the low, and in the worst and most dangerous corners of London. Crimes of all sorts are plotted and committed—and described to the reader in detail. Professional criminals rank amongst the novel’s most prominent characters—one in particular:

    “And, in return,” he added, after a moment’s pause, “if I can ever do you a service, outside or in, you may reckon upon the Resurrection Man.”
    “The Resurrection Man!” ejaculated Richard, appalled, in spite of himself, at this ominous title.
    “Yes—that’s my name and profession,” said the man. “My godfathers and godmothers called me Anthony, and my parents had previously blessed me with the honourable appellation of Tidkins: so you may know me as Anthony Tidkins, the Resurrection Man.”
    “And are you really—” began Richard, with a partial shudder; “are you really a—”
    “A body-snatcher ?” cried Anthony; “of course I am—when there’s any work to be done; and when there isn’t, then I do a little in another line…”

The relationship between Richard Markham and the Resurrection Man is something I will return to in Part 2; here I will merely note that, though Richard is effectively the hero of The Mysteries Of London, and the Resurrection Man one of its main villains, this does not prevent Reynolds on occasion from—not siding with the latter, but doing him sufficient justice. Typical is this pointed exchange, when Richard finds the Resurrection Man in the vicinity of the house of the girl he loves. His unguarded protest is something he will later be made to regret:

    “Wretch! what do you mean to do?” ejaculated Richard, hurrying after him and detaining him by the arm: “you do not know that that abode is sacred—that it is the residence of probity, innocence, and honour—that if you were to breathe a hint who and what you are, you would be spurned from the door?”
    “Ah! I am accustomed to that in this Christian land—in this land of Bibles and Missionary Societies,” said the Resurrection Man, bitterly…

And this emphasis upon life amongst the lowest and most despised of society leads me to highlight what eventually struck me as the single most remarkable thing about The Mysteries Of London: the near absence of the middle-class.

So much of Victorian literature is for and about the middle-classes that this gulf in The Mysteries Of London is startling. This in itself is a commentary upon the nature of contemporary society: middle-class people might have been allured by tales of upward mobility through socially acceptable behaviour, but the poor knew very well that such aspirations were not for the likes of them; and Reynolds knew it, too—as he knew that his readers were more interested in (or at least, titillated by) tales of misbehaviour amongst the aristocracy. So while there is a scattering of middle-class characters in the story – among them Richard Markham – they all suffer either personal or financial ruin, and so end up excluded from their natural social sphere.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the narrative is split between the very highest and the very lowest levels of English society; and rather than bothering with the usual end-of-novel rewards, such as marriage and domesticity, Reynolds instead indulges his readers with a series of absurd wish-fulfillment fantasies, in which the most unlikely people are elevated to the most improbable heights.

Another really striking aspect of The Mysteries Of London is Reynolds’ relentless insistence upon smell. This is something that was completely anathema in polite society at the time, an attitude reflected in mainstream literature. Yet this was a convention that ran counter to the ugly reality of the mid-19th century. Even in the “nice” sections of London, there was no proper closed sewage system until the 1860s—and no real thought of one until the means of transmission of cholera was determined in the 1850s. Even then the government didn’t want to pay for the necessary work—not until what became known as “The Great Stink” of 1858, when a combination of an unusually hot summer and the untreated waste that clogged the Thames persuaded the powers-that-be of its necessity.

Nevertheless, you’ll look in vain in the literature of the time for any reference to, or even just acknowledgement of, the Stink. Literally—It Just Wasn’t Done; and this taboo persisted into the 20th century. It has been suggested that, as late as 1890, part of the virulent critical reaction to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray stemmed from the text’s emphasis upon odours—even though these, for the most part, are pleasant ones.

There’s nothing pleasant about the equivalent descriptions in The Mysteries Of London, however. On the contrary, Reynolds provides a series of revoltingly graphic descriptions of rubbish rotting in the streets, open sewers, slaughterhouses, and other such delights—reminding us over and over that countless people were forced to live and work in such conditions.

Most shocking of all, however, are the numerous scenes describing bodily decomposition. No doubt most of what Reynolds describes here was another sickening reality of life amongst the London poor—for instance, those forced to live near an overcrowded cemetery:

    The soil was damp; and a nauseous odour, emanating from it, impregnated the air. When the sun lay for several days upon the place, even in the depth of winter,—and invariably throughout the summer,—the stench was so intolerable that not a dwelling in the neighbourhood was seen with a window open. Nevertheless, that sickly, fetid odour penetrated into every house, and every room, and every inhabited nook or corner, in that vicinity; and the clothes of the poor inmates smelt, and their food tasted, of the damp grave!
    The cemetery was crowded with the remains of mortality. The proprietors of the ground had only one aim in view—namely, to crowd the greatest possible quantity of corpses into the smallest space. But even this economy of room did not prevent the place from being so filled with the dead, that in a given quantity of the soil it was difficult to say whether earth or decayed human remains predominated. Still the cemetery was kept open for interments; and when there was no room for a newcomer, some recently-buried tenant of a grave was exhumed to afford the required space.

—but nevertheless there is a definite sense of gratuitousness in the way he dwells upon the subject, in the body-snatching scenes in particular, but also in the way he continues his description of the operation of the cemetery:

    Baring his brawny arms to the very shoulders, he now set himself vigorously to work to dig the grave which was to receive a new-comer that after-noon.
    Throwing the earth up on either side, he had digged to a depth of about two feet, when his spade encountered a coffin. He immediately took his pickaxe, broke the coffin to pieces, and then separated with his shovel the pieces of wood and the human bones from the damp earth. The coffin was already so soft with decay that the iron rod had penetrated through it without much difficulty; and it therefore required but little exertion to break it up altogether.
    But the odour which came from the grave was now of the most nauseating kind – fetid, sickly, pestiferous – making the atmosphere heavy, and the human breath thick and clammy, as it were – and causing even that experienced grave-digger to retch as if he were about to vomit.
    Leaping from the grave, he began to busy himself in conveying the pieces of the broken coffin and the putrid remains of mortality into the Bone-House. where he heaped them pell-mell upon the fire.
    The flesh had not completely decayed all away from the bones; a thick, black, fatty-looking substance still covered those human relics; and the fire was thus fed with a material which made the flames roar and play half up the chimney.
    And from the summit of that chimney came a smoke-thick, dense, and dark, like the smoke of a gasometer or a manufactory, but bearing on its sable wing the odour of a pestilence…

And the third really shocking aspect of The Mysteries Of London is – surprise! – its attitude to sex.

It is difficult to describe Reynolds’ approach to this touchy topic. Overtly, his narrative plays out within a framework of conventional religion and morality, and this applies to his female characters: at one extreme his heroine is a perfect angel, and at the other his women criminals are much more depraved and vicious than his men. So far, so familiar.

Almost at once, however, we get a sense of a split-vision; of lip-service. There are “fallen women” aplenty in The Mysteries Of London, and although Reynolds classes a few of them amongst his “depraved criminals”, most of them are presented as victims and treated with sympathy—and sometimes more than that.

There are many passing references to young women being forced to sell themselves to stay alive, or being seduced and abandoned. That too is in its way familiar. Where Reynolds surprises us is giving us not one, but several, such women among his main characters—each one with different circumstances and motivations, but all – or almost all – treated with dignity and an almost matter-of-fact acceptance of their situation, at least once you wave away the smokescreen of, “Tut, tut!” One of them, indeed, can almost be considered this novel’s heroine!

I will deal with Ellen Monroe’s subplot in detail in Part 2, rather than here (ETA: Or as it turned out, Part 3); but two other of Reynolds’ transgressing women are worth considering in this context. One is Diana Arlington, known as “Mrs Arlington”, though she has never been married. She is originally the victim of the man to whom she thought she was to be married, but after her father is financially ruined (by him, as it turns out), he stops meaning marriage. When her father dies and she is left destitute, she has little choice but to become her once-fiancé’s mistress. In time he gets bored with the arrangement, and hands Diana off to an acquaintance of his, a Sir Rupert Harborough. She doesn’t care for him at all, but tries to feel grateful for his generosity. However, her progressive discovery of Sir Rupert’s dishonesty and, finally, criminal behaviour disgusts her, and she decides to separate from him and – accepting that while she’d like to be “an honest woman” again, there’s really no way back – find another keeper.

She has no shortage of men to choose from—and her doing so is presented to us with extraordinary facetiousness:

    Diana hastened to unlock an elegant rosewood writing-desk, edged with silver; and from a secret drawer she took several letters – or rather notes – written upon paper of different colours. Upon the various envelopes were seals impressed with armorial bearings, some of which were surrounded by coronets. She glanced over each in a cursory manner, which showed she was already tolerably familiar with their contents. The greater portion she tossed contemptuously into the fire;—a few she placed one upon the other, quite in a business-like way, upon the table.
    When she had gone through the entire file, she again directed her attention to those which she had reserved; and as she perused them one after the other, she mused in the following manner:—
    “Count de Lestranges is brilliant in his offers, and immensely rich—no doubt; but he is detestably conceited, and would think more of himself than of his mistress. His appeal must be rejected;” and she threw the French nobleman’s perfumed epistle into the fire.
    “This,” she continued, taking up another, “is from Lord Templeton. Five thousand a-year is certainly handsome; but then he himself is so old and ugly! Away with this suitor at once.” The English Peer’s billet-doux followed that of the French Count.
    “Here is a beautiful specimen of calligraphy,” resumed Diana, taking up a third letter; “but all the sentiments are copied, word for word, out of the love-scenes in Anne Radcliffe’s romances. Never was such gross plagiarism! He merits the punishment I thus inflict upon him;—and her plump white hand crushed the epistle ere she threw it into the fire.
    “But what have we here? Oh! the German baron’s killing address—interspersed with remarks upon the philosophy of love. Ah! my lord, love was not made for philosophers—and philosophers are incapable of love; so we will have none of you.”
    Another offering to the fire.
    “Here is the burning address of the Greek attaché with a hard name. It is prettily written;—but who could possibly enter upon terms with an individual of the name of Thesaurochrysonichochrysides?”
    To the flames went the Greek lover’s note also.
    “Ah! this seems as if it were to be the successful candidate,” said Diana, carefully perusing the last remaining letter. “It is written upon a plain sheet of white paper, and without scent. But then the style—how manly! Yes—decidedly, the Earl of Warrington has gained the prize. He is rich—unmarried—handsome—and still in the prime of life! There is no room for hesitation.”

So she doesn’t: she writes, offering herself; he accepts, and sets her up in a luxurious house. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, their subsequent connection is presented almost as a quasi-marriage—two people comfortable together and glad of each other’s company—though Reynolds daringly insists that neither is in love with the other.

Eventually the relationship comes to grief, due to the Earl’s thin-skin and pride; and Diana meets a grim fate that, in another context, would certainly be a case of cosmic punishment—but which here just doesn’t read like that. Before this, Diana is one of the characters who is indisputably on the side of right, waging an anonymous battle against the ongoing depredations of her original seducer, and becoming bosom friends with another of the novel’s prominent female characters, Eliza Sydney, who despite knowing all about Diana, begs to be allowed to call her “sister”—something, by the way, that our hero, Richard Markham, also insists upon.

But Reynolds’ greatest daring is in the character of Lady Cecilia Harborough—a serial adultress because she likes sex.

She REALLY likes sex.

The fact that such a character was conceived and written in 1844 is mind-boggling. There were other serial adultresses in Victorian literature, sure, but it was always about the money; here, Reynolds makes it hilariously clear that, while Cecilia certainly likes money, there’s something else she likes even more. In an era in which some men were desperately trying to convince society at large that women lacked the capacity to enjoy sex, Lady Cecilia is not only unprecedented, but would remain unparalleled for many decades to follow.

Amusingly in retrospect, when we first meet her, Cecilia is presented as one of the novel’s “victims”: she is seduced by Sir Rupert Harborough and impregnated, and marries him after her parents agree to pay Sir Rupert’s outrageous demands. The marriage is miserable, of course, chiefly because the money dries up. Sir Rupert embarks upon a series of criminal enterprises to retrieve his fortune, while Cecilia becomes the mistress of one George Greenwood—in exchange for his retrieval of her diamonds, which Sir Rupert stole and pawned. When Greenwood gets bored and moves on, Cecilia finds a rich, handsome Guardsman to replace him—and Reynolds has the audacity to write an overt sex-farce scene, in which both Sir Rupert and Cecilia try to sneak their respective lovers out of the house at the same time, all four bumping into one another in the vestibule.

But it is what comes next that takes the reader’s breath away, as Cecilia sets her sights on a minister, who is celebrated for his eloquence, his devotion—and his chastity. In (literally) Cecilia’s experienced hands, Reginald Tracy has no chance. Afterwards, wracked with guilt and religious terror, he tries to tear himself away from her, but Cecilia isn’t having any of that; and when he won’t approach her voluntarily, she finds a way of bringing him back to her.

An old woman approaches Tracy with a story of a poor sculptor and a remarkable stature, for which he wishes to find a purchaser. Tracy agrees to see it—and finds it somewhat…familiar:

    In somewhat bold relief, against the dark wall, stood the object of his interest,—seeming a beautiful model of a female form, the colouring of which was that of life. It was naked to the middle; the arms were gracefully rounded; and one hand sustained the falling drapery which, being also coloured, produced upon the mind of the beholder the effect of real garments.
    Lost in wonder at the success with which the sculptor had performed his work,—and experiencing feelings of a soft and voluptuous nature,—Reginald drew closer to the statue. At that moment the light of the fire played upon its countenance; and it seemed to him as if the lips moved with a faint smile. Then, how was his surprise increased, when the conviction flashed to his mind that the face he was gazing upon was well known to him!
    “O Cecilia, Cecilia!” he ejaculated aloud: “hast thou sent thy statue hither to compel me to fall at its feet and worship the senseless stone, while thou—the sweet original—art elsewhere, speculating perhaps upon the emotions which this phantasmagorian sport was calculated to conjure up within me! Ah! Cecilia, if thou wast resolved to subdue me once more—if thou couldst not rest until I became thy slave again,—oh! why not have invited me to meet thine own sweet self, instead of this speechless, motionless, passionless image,—a counterpart of thee only in external loveliness! Yes—there it is perfect:—the hair—the brow—the eyes—the mouth— Heavens! those lips seem to smile once more; those eyes sparkle with real fire! Cecilia—Cecilia—”
    And Reginald Tracy was afraid—he scarcely knew wherefore: the entire adventure of the evening appeared to be a dream.
    “Yes—yes!” he suddenly exclaimed, after having steadfastly contemplated the form before him for some moments,—standing at a distance of only three or four paces,—afraid to advance nearer, unwilling to retreat altogether,—“yes!” he exclaimed, “there is something more than mere senseless marble here! The eyes shoot fire—the lips smile—the bosom heaves— Oh! Cecilia—Cecilia, it is yourself!”
    As he spoke he rushed forward: the statue burst from chill marble into warmth and life;—it was indeed the beauteous but wily Cecilia—who returned his embrace and hung around his neck;—and the rector was again subdued—again enslaved!

And afterwards—

    The barrier was now completely broken down; and the rector gave way to the violence of the passion which hurried him along.
    That man, so full of vigour, and in the prime at his physical strength, abandoned himself without restraint to the fury of those desires which burnt the more madly—the more wildly, from having been so long pent-up.
    Day after day did he meet his guilty paramour; and on each occasion did he reflect less upon the necessity of caution. He passed hours and hours together with her at her abode; and at length he ventured to receive her at his own residence, when his housekeeper bad retired to rest.
    But he did not neglect his professional duties on the Sabbath;—and he now became an accomplished hypocrite. He ascended the pulpit as usual, and charmed thousands with his discourse as heretofore. Indeed his eloquence improved, for the simulated earnestness which displaced the tone of heart-felt conviction that he had once experienced, seemed more impassioned, and was more impressive than the natural ebullition of his feelings.
    Thus as be progressed in the ways of vice, his reputation increased in sanctity…

But while he’s busy exposing everyone else’s sexual peccadilloes, Reynolds also gives away a couple of fetishes of his own. First of all, he clearly had a thing about women in drag—and finds several excuses for cross-dressing scenes. Most significantly, the novel opens with a young man getting lost in the wilds of London during a violent storm, and undergoing a terrifying, near-fatal adventure after accidentally taking refuge in a thieves’ den. This “young man” is later revealed as the aforementioned Eliza Sydney, who (for complicated reasons I won’t go into here) is carrying out an extended impersonation of her own dead brother, Walter. Meanwhile, when Ellen Monroe becomes convinced that Richard Markham is walking into a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man, she disguises herself in men’s clothes and arms herself with pistols, in order to go to his aid.

But above all else—George Reynolds was a breast-man: he proves quite incapable of describing an attractive woman without telling us everything we might have wanted to know about the size and shape of her breasts. On several occasions this is entirely inappropriate—for instance, even when the point is that an unmarried woman has borne an illegitimate baby, Reynolds can’t help commenting on how much bigger her breasts are as a consequence. This, meanwhile, is a description of what Ellen Monroe conceals under her men’s clothes:

Those swelling globes of snow, each adorned as with a delicate rose-bud, needed no support to maintain them in their full and natural rotundity…

Even Queen Victoria is not exempt!—

At that time Victoria was yet a virgin-queen. If not strictly beautiful, her countenance was very pleasing. Her light brown hair was worn quite plain; her blue eyes were animated with intellect; and when she smiled, her lips revealed a set of teeth white as Oriental pearls. Her bust was magnificent…

And speaking of Victoria— Though the monarchy was one of the infinite number of British institutions of which Reynolds disapproved, he mostly* lays off it in The Mysteries Of London (unlike some of his later works, as we shall see)—putting it to a most unexpected alternative use.

(*Mostly: there is still a suggestion that George III’s mental illness was hereditary and transmitted to his descendants, another that George’s alleged morganatic marriage to Hannah Lightfoot meant that the entire royal family was illegitimate, and a third that the marriage produced “issue”. And yes: for Reynolds, that is “laying off”.)

I have said that Reynolds resorts to absurd wish-fulfillment fantasies in this novel: the most interesting of these involves a plot concocted by the Resurrection Man, his colleague, Tom the Cracksman, and an urchin called Henry Holford, to rob Buckingham Palace. The boy is sent in as a scout and, penetrating security with embarrassing ease, spends several days concealed within the palace—gorging on stolen food, gawping at its various luxuries, and above all spying and eavesdropping from his favourite vantage point of beneath the Royal Sofa. As it happens, Henry’s unofficial visit coincides with the official one of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, so there is much for him to spy upon. Long passages describing the glories of the palace and the (visual) splendour of the nobility follow.

Reynolds, as we have seen, could be vicious in his attacks, but in this case – to mix a metaphor – he sheathes his sword and keeps his tongue in his cheek—offering an outrageous moment in which Henry not only sits on Victoria’s sofa, but dares to occupy the same space as the Royal Buttocks:

Holford emerged from beneath the sofa, and seated himself upon it. He was proud to think that he now occupied the place where royalty had so lately been…now in a palace, and seated upon the very cushion which a few hours previously had been pressed by royalty…

Reynolds follows this up with a typical bit of nose-thumbing—having his scruffy urchin, a mere “pot-boy”, invade the throne-room itself:

    At length he reached the Throne Room. The imperial seat itself was covered over with a velvet cloth, to protect it against the dust. Holford removed the cloth; and the splendours of the throne were revealed to him.
    He hesitated for a moment: he felt as if he were committing a species of sacrilege;—then triumphing over this feeling – a feeling which had appeared like a remorse – he ascended the steps of the throne;—he placed himself in the seat of England’s monarch.
    Had the sceptre been there he would have grasped it;—had the crown been within his reach, he would have placed it upon his head!

 

[To be continued…]

 

30/09/2018

Enough is enough!

I took what I considered a well-earned break after dealing with a number of the relevant documents identified during my most recent return to the Chronobibliography. Now it seems that I accidentally chose just the right place to do it. A quick sweep of the remaining ones, meant to organise them into the proper historical and in-fighting order, reveals that they are actually less relevant than it initially seemed.

Moreover, when I realised that in fact most of them refer right back to the reign of Charles, and re-hash all the same old stuff yet again—well, as I say, it was a case of enough is enough.

So I’m neither going to read or review (most of) these documents. Instead, I’ll post about them briefly – and for once I do mean briefly – and explain (i) what they are, and (ii) why not.

First and least on the list of rejects is The Pagan Prince: or, A Comical History Of The Heroick Achievements Of The Palatine Of Eboracum, published in 1690 “By the Author of the Secret History of King Charles II. and K. James II.” (who my research indicates was probably Nathaniel Crouch). This roman à clef is such a farrago of incomprehensible nonsense, it’s nearly impossible to tell who it is supposed to be about. Thus we find Srinivas Aravamudan, in his Enlightment Orientalism: Resisting The Rise Of The Novel, commenting that The Pagan Prince “…continues this literary obsession with Charles II’s love life…”; whereas the listing of the document in the Early English Books Online database describes it as, “A satire on James, Duke of York, later James II.” As for me, while trying to make head or tail of it I began to think it may even have been about Louis XIV, who inspired his own crop of scurrilous literature at about this time.

You can just imagine how well this thing works as a satire.

Anyway—one passage, slightly more interpretable than the rest, finally made it clear that, not surprisingly, the EEBO people were correct:

After this the Palatine sold the Reversion and Remainder of the three Kingdoms of Albion, Caledonia and Hibernia, with all the Giblets thereto belonging, after the King of Albions decease, to the King of Astopia and his Heirs forever; Provided that the Palatine should hold them in Vassalage of the King of Astopia during his own Life. On the other side it was covenanted and agreed that the King of Astopia should furnish the Palatine with whatever summ or summs of Money he should ask or demand, to be expended all toward the Extermination of the Christians from the face of the Earth…
 

 
Another 1690 publication which does continue the literary obsession with Charles II’s love life is the anonymous The Secret History Of The Dutchess Of Portsmouth: Giving an Account of the Intrigues of the Court, during her Ministry. And of the Death of K. C. II. The ‘Dutchess of Portsmouth’ was Louise de Kérouaille, the most hated of all of Charles’ mistresses because of the (probably correct) perception that she was really there to spy for Louis, or at least push French interests. Even so—five years after both Charles’ death and Louise’s return to France, this one seems like a piece of supererogation. Perhaps the persistence of the campaign against her was due to the widespread belief that she was involved in, if not outright responsible for, the sudden death of Charles. Like its similar predecessor, The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary, The Secret History Of The Dutchess Of Portsmouth concludes with “Francelia” (as she is called in this roman à clef) poisoning “the Prince” after he discovers her infidelity:

It was there, that a little before he fell ill of his last fit of Sickness, coming into her Chamber, and finding fault with some odd kind of smell, which did offend him, she treated him with some excellent Cordial, which she said, she had newly received from Spain or Italy, but the Prince did very much dislike the taste of it, and divers times found fault with it that night; however, he retired Indispos’d, and never held up his Head after that…

Actually—the more I look at this thing, the more it seems to me to be a plagiarised version of The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary, with the names changed and the story tweaked just a bit; which makes it ever more unnecessary.
 

 
Meanwhile, the same year gives us an example of the anti-Louis literature I mentioned, in—

—wait for it—

The Most Christian Turk: or, a view of the life and bloody reign of Lewis XIV. present King of France: Containing an account of his monstrous birth, the transactions that happened during his minority under Cardinal Mazarine; afterwards his own unjust enterprizes in war and peace, as breach of leagues, oaths, &c. the blasphemous titles given him, his love-intrigues, his confederacy with the Turk to invade Christendom, the cruel persecution of his Protestant subjects, his conniving with pirates, his unjustly invading the empire, &c. laying all waste before him with fire and sword, his quarrels with the Pope and Genoieze, his treachery against England, Scotland, and Ireland, the engagements of the confederate princes against him; with all the battles, sieges, and sea fights, that have happened of consequence to this time.

I see no need to add anything to that.

(Ooh! Except, now that I look at its title-page, to point out that this is the first publication I have so far noticed as emanating from Fleet Street!)
 

 
A more interesting subset of literature (if not interesting enough to make me read any of it) finds recent historical events being turned into plays, or pseudo-plays: it is not clear that any of them were ever performed, or indeed ever meant to be. Either way, these are really just romans à clef in a different format; there’s nothing new here but the presentation.

Three of these would seem to be the work of the same anonymous author. The first is actually an account of the Monmouth Rebellion: The Abdicated Prince: or, The Adventures of Four Years. A Tragi-Comedy, As it was lately Acted at the Court of ALBA REGALIS, By Several Persons of Great Quality. This was followed by The Bloody Duke: Or, The Adventures for a Crown (which has the same subtitle), an account of the reign and downfall of James; with the trilogy completed by The Late Revolution: Or, The Happy Change. A Tragi-Comedy, As it was Acted throughout the ENGLISH DOMINIONS In the Year 1688. This last signs itself, “Written by a Person of Quality.”

I gather that these documents were a revival of sorts of something that went on during the English Civil War; that seems to be where the term ‘tragi-comedy’ originated, in any event.

Possibly not by the same author but cashing in on the same idea is 1693’s The Royal Cuckold: Or, Great Bastard. Giving an account of the Birth and Pedigree of Lewis le Grand, The First French King of that Name and Race. A TRAGY-COMEDY, As it is Acted by his Imperial Majesty’s Servants.
 

 
And this, by a circuitous path, brings me to the one piece of this literature that I did read, and do want to comment upon: The Great Bastard, Protector Of The Little One, from 1689.

“The Little One” is of course the infant Prince of Wales…or the Sham Prince, if you prefer. However, he really figures only in passing in this short piece of writing, which instead is an attack upon Louis XIV. It starts well and amusingly:

We find in holy writ, that, in the Jewish law, it was expresly provided by the supreme legislator, That a bastard should not enter into the congregation of the Lord, even to the tenth generation: but it seems the unhappy kingdom of France allows the bastard himself, not only to enter into the congregation, but to settle himself upon the throne, and to bear it higher than all the preceding kings before him, which had a better right to do it, as being the offspring of kings, and not the sons of the people, the proper term the Roman law gives to bastards. We have heard of the Salick law, in force in that kingdom, for a great many ages, by which the crown of France cannot fall from the sword to the distaff; but, ’till the blessed days of our august monarch, we never had the happiness to be acquainted with a law or custom, by which that was in the power of a Queen of France, to provide us an heir to the crown, without the concurrence of her husband, and to impose upon us, for our king, a brat of another man’s making. All the reign of our invincible monarch has been a constant series of wonders; but, amongst them all, this is none of the least, That he, who was, in the opinion of all the world, the son of a private gentleman, from his birth to the end of the Prince of Conde’s wars, has had the good fortune to be ever since, no less than the son of Lewis the Thirteenth.

Unfortunately, the tone is not maintained throughout. Instead, the author devotes most of the document to “proving” that Louis XIII could not have been the father of Louis XIV due to his impotence, and that Cardinal Mazarin probably was. (Whatever the whole truth, historians have established that Mazarin was in Rome at the time of Anne’s conception.) Most of this is tiresome, except for a reference to something I certainly hope was a real phenomenon—

Common fame was ever looked upon as a great presumption of the truth of a thing, especially if joined to other concurring circumstances; and never did that prating goddess extend her voice louder, than in proclaiming to the world the spurious birth of our august monarch. Time was, when she did not whisper it in corners, but expressed it in publick pictures, plays, farces, and what not? Modesty will not allow me to mention the bawdy shapes of these two sorts of bread, called to this day the Queen’s Bread, and the Cardinal’s Bread, sold through Paris, and in most places of France; so that, at that time, one could scarce sit down to eat, but he was put in mind of the queen and the cardinal’s amours…

Without getting into the details, it seems that doubt over Louis XIV’s parentage has long been a point of argument amongst historians (and others with an axe to grind). It is not the doubt itself, but the reason – or excuse – for it that caught my interest. I was unaware, until now, that a similar situation surrounded the birth of the future Louis XIV, as did that of—well, let’s call him James Francis Edward Stuart: that is, that Louis XIII and Anne of Austria had been married for twenty-three years before the birth of their first surviving child, with several stillbirths preceding that event, and with several long periods of estrangement punctuating those years. As with the pregnancy of Mary of Modena, there was widespread suspicion about the baby’s paternity, partly because of the long unproductive years, partly because of Anne’s behaviour, but also, I gather, because Louis may well have been homosexual and therefore a bit lax about his royal duties. (“Impotence” was probably a euphemism.)

In any event, when the boy was born, he was seen (ironically or not) as a miracle; and consequently he was baptised Louis Dieudonné, literally Louis the God-Given.

There is, as I say, a body of anti-Louis literature that emerged towards the end of the 1680s, and which tends to fall into one of two categories—both of which we’ve seen here. Most are straightfaced denunciations of Louis as a tyrant: The Most Christian Turk is an example. A few, however, question Louis’ parentage, and therefore his right to the throne—as in The Great Bastard, Protector Of The Little One.

But all of this is only the background to the truly fascinating thing about this last document—which is that it is perfectly clear that the anonymous author took a good long look at what had gone on in England, and how the Sham Prince propaganda contributed to forcing James off the throne—and decided to try it on with Louis.

It didn’t work, of course; something which the author (who I am very sure was not French) attributes, in the document’s funniest passage, to France being a Catholic country, and therefore accustomed to miracles:

    Among a great many other quarrels I have with the English nation, this is one, That they are a people too nice in believing miracles; and their haughtiness is such, as they scorn, forsooth, to believe Impossibilities: for albeit they, and all the rest of the world about them, are firmly persuaded, that the little bauble Prince of Wales was never of Queen Mary’s bearing, much less of King James’s begetting ; yet, if these infidels had been as well-mannerly credulous, as we in France have been, of the wonderful transmutation of our Lewis le Grand, they needed not have made all this noise about the little impostor infant, but might have comforted themselves in the hopes, that he, who was a spurious Prince of Wales to-day, might some years hence, by a new French way of transubstantiation, become a lawfully begotten King of England. But the mischief of all is, these stiff-necked hereticks, ever since they fell off from the communion of the holy church, make bold to call in question all our miracles ; and such a one, as this would be, I am afraid they would stick at, amongst others.
    Good God! how happy had it been for France, yea, for a great part of the world, that the French had been as great infidels, upon the point of miracles, as the heretick English; and that our Lewis the Fourteenth had been hurled out of France, when but Dauphin of Viennois, as the little mock Prince of Wales has been out of England, when scarce well handled into the light? What dismal tragedies has our French impostor caused in Christendom? How many cities laid in ashes, countries ruined, families extinguished, and millions of lives sacrificed to the vanity and ambition of a bastard?

 

 

 

29/09/2018

The Prisoners Of Hartling

 

    As he read, Arthur lost the sense of his surroundings. He visualised the narrow sitting-room of the little Peckham house, and heard Somers’s voice telling him that he ought to be doing hospital work or getting varied experience as a general practitioner; that he was becoming soft, going to pieces from a professional point of view. He blushed like a student under the rebuke of the demonstrator.
    Then he looked up and the illusion vanished. He saw that all his circumstances were now changed. All that advice would be sound enough if he were forced to return to such a general practice as Peckham. But if the old man left him, say £10,000, he might have a shot for his Fellowship; try for a registrarship at one of the bigger hospitals; perhaps get on the staff of one and set up in Wimpole Street. With a certain amount of capital, this would be so much easier, and the war had given him a taste for minor surgery. Indeed, it had always appealed to him more than medicine. Meanwhile, it was true that he must not let himself get rusty. He ought to go on reading, order some books from town; or at least have the Lancet sent to him every Friday. He must keep himself up to date while he was waiting. At the outside he could not have to wait more than five years…

 

 

 

While stories of ‘The Lost Generation’ may represent the most public face of the phenomenon, the between-the-wars era naturally gave rise to a significant body of work dealing with the readjustment of returned service people to society—or their inability to do so. The British subset of this literature deals, almost invariably, with life in the country, and the passing into history of the “long summer” of the Edwardians. It tends to fall into one of two categories: either a soldier, filled with longing for home, faces disillusionment in discovering that home has irrevocably changed; or conversely, in the face of his old life he discovers that he has irrevocably changed.

One odd but interesting example of this form of novel is J. D. Beresford’s 1922 psychological drama, The Prisoners Of Hartling, which finds a young medico returned from battlefield service growing increasingly restless and dissatisfied with his life as a panel-doctor in London.

(A ‘panel-doctor’ was a creation of Britain’s first, well-meant but mostly unsatisfactory system of health insurance, established in 1911 under David Lloyd George: those contributing to the scheme were entitled to – limited – healthcare from one of a panel of doctors who attended a particular geographical area. The work could be thankless and the turnover of medicos in poor districts was high. However, a positive consequence of this situation was that quite a considerable number of female doctors, who struggled to secure positions in hospitals and more ‘prestigious’ areas, gained both employment and practical experience working on the panels.)

Arthur Woodroffe went straight into his partnership with his older friend and mentor, Bob Somers, upon being demobilised, and the nature of the work and, in particular, his surroundings are beginning to tell upon him. His feelings remain unfocused and unspoken until he receives an invitation to spend a weekend in the country…

During a dinner, an acquaintance mentions to Arthur that he has been invited down to Hartling, the country estate of the wealthy Garvice Kenyon. This prompts Arthur to reveal that he is a connection of Kenyon’s, one of the old man’s sons being Arthur’s uncle-by-marriage. This conversation is, evidently, repeated during the visit to Hartling: Arthur receives a letter from his Aunt Hannah, written on behalf of the elderly Mr Kenyon, offering him a weekend in the country.

Childhood memories of the beautiful country estate, mental comparisons of the Kenyons’ life of ease and relative wealth with his own narrow financial circumstances, and the unpleasant realities of his working-life trigger a reaction in Arthur; and what starts as a desire to get away for a weekend escalates into a wholesale rejection of his current life and circumstances.

Arthur’s passionate longing for space, and beauty, and cleanliness, after the filth and misery of war, is entirely reasonable. Something of a problem arises, however, with his expression of that longing:

    “But you still avoid the real issue,” Somers persisted; “why this invitation has unsettled you.”
    “I don’t know,” Woodroffe said, settling himself a little deeper in his arm-chair. “I suppose if one analyses it, the thing set me thinking of—of the differences between Kenyon’s position and mine. Here I am with no decent clothes, and no money; sweating myself thin over a dirty job like trying to mitigate the sickness of Peckham, while old Kenyon’s got more money than he knows what to do with.”
    “Incipient socialism, this,” Somers confided to the wall opposite.
    “It isn’t,” Woodroffe said. “I’ve no sympathy with the greasy proletariat; not my line at all. It is that the whole thing has just set me wondering how I’m going to get out of it. It’s no damned good pretending, my dear Bob, that I wouldn’t sooner be lying snug in a clean comfortable bed than delivering women like Nellie Mason. And, oh! Lord, the accent is on the clean all the time.”
    “You don’t mean to imply…” Somers began.
    “My dear chap, of course I don’t,” Woodroffe cut in. “My bed here is clean enough for any one, but for about twelve hours of the day I am mixing with dirtiness of every sort and kind, and I had more than my fill of it in the war—lice by the yard and every sort of filth… I used to tell myself stories of getting clean, fantasy hot baths in exquisite surroundings, and picture myself going straight from them into brand new clothes and that sort of thing. Instead of which I’ve dropped straight into this…”

So much for the long-suffering people of Peckham—whose inescapable living conditions evidently resemble those of a battlefield. Yet having delivered himself of this comprehensive dismissal, Arthur is nevertheless startled and somewhat offended when Bob Somers responds to this not merely by releasing him from their partnership, but by telling him frankly that he wouldn’t keep him if he wanted to stay: that in his present state of mind, he’s not fit for the work.

The upshot is that Arthur departs for Hartling without any idea of where he is to go or what he is to do when the weekend is over—his vague future plan of emigrating to Canada notwithstanding. During his journey, he realises that the conversation with Somers, which was unplanned, brought into focus both his dissatisfactions and his desires; in particular, his resentful sense that the world owes him, if not a living, then at least a good time, in exchange for the years given up to the war. That good time will start with a weekend of luxury in the country; and should the weekend turn into something more, all the better…

He was beginning life again. Everything was coming right. He had visions of some delightful, improbable enlargement of his condition. Old Kenyon might take a fancy to him. Some one in the house, some special favourite of the old man’s, might be taken seriously ill, and Arthur Woodroffe, the brilliant young general practitioner from Peckham, would work a miracle at the eleventh hour. Old Mr Kenyon’s gratitude would take a practical form, and the thing was done. There were other variants of the dream, but this seemed to be the most promising.

Arthur’s fantasies take on a more concrete form when, during their drive from the station to Hartling, Mr Kenyon’s chauffeur reveals to him that the old man has a curious health complaint. Otherwise a surprisingly vigorous ninety-one years, Mr Kenyon is periodically afflicted by strange, almost catatonic seizures that the doctors have so far been unable to diagnose or treat.

Upon arrival at Hartling, Arthur is somewhat taken aback when he discovers that the people he assumes at first to be a houseful of guests are actually all residents of the estate: he meets his aunt, Mrs Hannah Kenyon, who he has not seen for many years; and he is introduced to Joseph, his uncle-by-marriage, and his cousins, Hubert and Elizabeth; to sixty-year-old Miss Esther Kenyon, the eldest daughter of the house; and to Charles Turner, who is married to Catherine, another daughter. He also hears of Eleanor, Mr Kenyon’s granddaughter, an orphan who works as his secretary.

Arthur immediately notices an attitude of only partly veiled suspicion amongst his relatives, and thinks he understands it when he has a talk with his rather hangdog young cousin, Hubert, who finally asks him tentatively if he is expecting to get something out of Mr Kenyon? – a recommendation for a job, for instance. Arthur puts Hubert in his place easily enough, summing him up in his own mind as a “feeble sort of rotter”, and concludes that the rest are jealous of their own privileges.

Meeting Eleanor, Arthur is immediately attracted to her. However, she too begins to quiz him about his presence at Hartling and his intentions for the future; while her attitude to his work is the last thing he wants to hear:

    “You’re a full-fledged doctor, aren’t you? Aunt Hannah said you wrote from Peckham. Were you practising there?”
    As they made their way to the terrace she had indicated, Arthur told her something of his work in Peckham and of his reasons for wishing to leave it. He expected sympathy from her, but he found none.
    “I dare say it was dirty,” was her comment—his insistence on that aspect had demanded a reply—“but it was work, real work. You were doing some good in the world.”

Arthur continues his attempt to win understanding, if not sympathy, from her, but in the end grows resentful of her lack of response, and what appears to him an interrogation of his intentions unwarranted by their degree of acquaintance:

He knew that he was not saying the things she wanted him to say. He could feel her longing to hear him disparage the delights of Hartling and enlarge upon those of what she had called “real work.” But her very urgency made it impossible for him to respond in his present mood. Also, he was aware of a curious desire to contradict her, even to hurt her. It was, as he put it to himself, all very well for her to talk about things she knew nothing about. He looked at her with a new criticism, and her youth and freshness seemed almost an offence. The whiteness of her hands, the spotlessness of her pale grey linen dress, the clearness of her complexion and of her blue eyes, even the lines of her firm, well-nourished young figure were all effects of the protected life she had led. It was not for her to find fault with him for wanting some share of the luxury that to the Kenyons had become commonplace.

When a message arrives from the as-yet unseen Mr Kenyon, asking Arthur to extend his stay from the weekend to “a few more days”, he accepts with alacrity; his defiance turning into giddy glee when he sees…his bathroom:

    He had a bathroom all to himself—a perfect bathroom with white walls above a tiled dado of pale green that curved round smoothly at its base to form a tiled floor of the same colour. The bath and lavatory basin were of white porcelain with nickel-silver taps, and the ample bossy towel rails, heated by hot water, were also of nickel silver…
    With a sudden whoop of joy he came back into the room and began to strip himself. He would have a bath at once, and another when he came to bed. Lovely hot water, nice soap, and splendid hot towels. Ripping house! Would he stay as long as he could? Wouldn’t he rather! He would stay altogether if he had the chance…

(It is perhaps worth pointing out that many English country houses, rich as well as poor, retained the most primitive of plumbing arrangements until after WWII, never mind WWI: running hot water and an – implied – flush toilet represent a height of luxury that few aspired to at the time. These details come of the back of the revelation that Hartling has electricity, another rare luxury in the country, generated by its own powerhouse.)

At dinner, Arthur finally meets his host, and is impressed with the power of his personality, which makes itself felt in spite of Mr Kenyon’s great age. However, during the meal he notices a strange, strained atmosphere: conversations seem to die for no reason he can elucidate. An unnerving distraction then occurs in the form of one of Mr Kenyon’s fits: he simply freezes, as if having fallen sound asleep with his eyes open. The others present, apparently accustomed, fall silent and wait for the fit to pass, as it duly does. Arthur notes that Mr Kenyon seems unaware of his withdrawal.

Arthur sees little of either Mr Kenyon or Eleanor over the next few days. During this time the others seem to pull back from him, their interaction settling into a sort of “boarding-house acquaintance”, as Arthur puts it to himself, a superficial passing of the time. This chiefly takes the form of games, at which several of his relatives excel: Elizabeth at croquet, Charles Turner at billiards and, most to Arthur’s surprise, Hubert at golf, at which he displays professional-level ability. The more he sees of his relatives, the more contemptuous of them he grows, interpreting their wary attitude towards himself as resentment of anyone sharing Mr Kenyon’s bounty. Their very passivity annoys him, with only the autocratic Miss Kenyon displaying any backbone—though that tends to take the form of a scornful and dictatorial manner. Arthur eventually becomes aware of the erection of a silent barrier between himself and the rest—as if the others all share a secret from which he is excluded.

It briefly crosses Arthur’s mind that the family secret which the rest seem to share, and are determined to exclude him from, might have regard to Mr Kenyon’s sanity; he even mentally casts Eleanor in the role of ‘keeper’. However, this suspicion is banished when Mr Kenyon surprises him one evening by visiting him in his room and settling in for a long talk. Arthur soon discovers a shrewd intellect behind the physical infirmities of age. Mr Kenyon questions him closely about his wartime experiences, his medical training and his intentions for the future. He then offers him a job: to stay on at Hartling as his medical attendant; although, as he admits, the main task would be to monitor his health so as to give him sufficient warning of his likely demise, so that he will have an opportunity to put his affairs in order, and write a proper and binding will—his current one consisting of, as he puts it, “a mass of codicils”.

Despite his enjoyment of Hartling, Arthur is repelled by the mental image of his future conjured up by this offer—passing the days as the others do, making a profession out of games, and waiting for an old man to die. Mr Kenyon sees his reluctance, and assures him quietly that he is sure within himself that Arthur’s attendance would be a matter of six months to a year at the outside; and of course Arthur would be properly recompensed for his services: there would be a legacy in that will.

They are interrupted by the dinner-gong before Arthur can respond, and he is given time to reflect. He is annoyed later to discover that everyone else seems aware of his situation, and even more annoyed by the general assumption that he will accept the offer. Once again he is conscious of a sort of unspoken conversation going on about him, an exchange of significant looks and cryptic remarks. He concludes, in his anger, that these battening relatives resent the possibility of having to share their presumed legacy with an outsider. Even Eleanor, whom he consults expecting honest advice, seems to have an ulterior motive behind what he views as her over-urgent insistence that he not only refuse the offer, but leave Hartling at once. They part coldly, with Arthur left nursing feelings of mingled disgust and hurt pride:

    It had come to him that he had an honourable purpose to serve by remaining: he might be a true help and support to the aged head of the house. Old Kenyon was so pitiably isolated from his family. He must always be aware that he was marked down, that the circle of harpies was forever closing more tightly about him, that the only interest his descendants took in him was in the search for symptoms of his approaching death. He would surely welcome some one coming from the outside, who would have no selfish object in view, who would give him real sympathy and understanding.
    Arthur felt a glow of self-satisfaction at the thought. He would make it quite clear, of course, in the coming interview, that no question of any legacy must complicate the arrangement. That should be absolutely definite; and yet—it was just a whimsical fancy, and he shrugged his shoulders—what fun it would be to cut out the rest of the family, to be made one of the principal heirs and disappoint those ghastly birds of prey! The disappointment would be only momentary. He would take the fortune solely to hand it back to them, but in doing that what an admirable lesson he might read them; what contempt he might show for the pitiful gaud of wealth. (He might possibly retain just enough to give him a small—a very small independent income?)

He stays, of course; though as it turns out his intention to demand – or at least request – a regular salary rather than a legacy comes to nothing. This causes him increasing worry, as his own resources are dwindling—his weekend at Hartling having stretched to five weeks…

The first break in the unvarying daily routine at Hartling is the arrival of Kenyon Turner, the only son of Charles and Catherine, which sends ripples of unwonted anxiety through the relatives. It emerges that Ken is in severe financial difficulties and, both in search of help and to avoid his creditors, has returned to his family. Arthur is present during a curious conversation between Ken and Hubert:

    Turner almost whimpered. “He’s got to put me right,” he protested, “absolutely got to.”
    Hubert rocked silently from foot to foot. “He hasn’t,” he said quietly, “and you can’t make him. You know that well enough. What did Eleanor say?”
    “She promised to do all she could,” Turner replied unhopefully, and added: “I’d sooner emigrate than come to live down here.”
    “Got the money for your passage?” Hubert inquired.
    “I suppose I could get that somehow,” Turner said. “Trouble’d be to dodge my creditors. Besides, some of the money must be paid—fellows in the office and so on. I couldn’t let them down.”
    “You’ll be living here before you’re a week older,” Hubert decided. “Safe as houses.”

Left alone with Hubert, Arthur becomes the recipient of confidences. He learns that Hubert is engaged, or would be, if either he or his intended had any money, or saw any opportunity for earning some. This coming out into the open in the wake of the revelation of Ken’s difficulties engenders a mood of suppressed panic amongst the Kenyons, which exasperates Arthur. He sees a revolting selfishness in their reluctance to rock the boat by supporting Hubert. Rashly, he promises to speak a word for Hubert to the old man—preening himself upon being above the petty financial considerations which he assumes are holding the others silent.

However, there is a delay before he can. As he stares at the rain falling in torrents outside, Arthur feels his moment of self-confidence giving way to doubt; all sorts of doubt:

    It was not a day, he reflected, remembering many such days, to spend going from house to house through fountains of London mud; nor in receiving poor patients at the surgery. How their wet clothes reeked! They brought all the worst of the weather in with them, the mud and the wet invaded the consulting room; one was never dry or clean on such days as this.
    Instinctively he rubbed his hands together, and then looked down at them. They were better kept than when he first came to Hartling; it had been impossible to keep his hands like that in Peckham. He liked the brown of their tan, deeper on the back than at the finger tips, and his nails were rather good. It was worth while now to spend a little time on them.
    Were the Kenyons to be pitied? They were not free, of course, but no one was free. They were certainly more free here than he would be if he went back to Peckham… If the old man turned him out for interfering in a matter in which he was not concerned, he would have to go back to Somers for a night or two. If he were not very careful with the little money still left to him, he would have to give up the idea of Canada altogether. Living in a place like this for five weeks changed one’s scale of values. He did not look forward to “roughing it” so much as he had before he came away from Peckham.
    Was he pledged in any way to plead Hubert’s cause with his grandfather?…

And indeed, it is very likely that Arthur’s “word” would never have been spoken, had he not encountered Eleanor on his way in to see Mr Kenyon. Even though he considers their fears exaggerated and probably unjust, the sincerity with which the others try to dissuade him from speaking, their conviction that he will be turned out if he opposes the old man’s will, all have their effect. He is putting it to himself in terms of doing more harm than good when he encounters Eleanor: clearly, she wants him to speak; and even more clearly, she thinks he won’t:

    “You admit that I shan’t do any good to Hubert,” he said. “Why are you so anxious that I should get myself into trouble by interfering—unless it is that you want to be rid of me? Because if that’s all, I can go any time of my own free will.”
    “I don’t want you to go,” she said coldly.
    “Then why are you so keen on—on my taking the chance of offending Mr Kenyon?” he insisted.
    She faced him with a cool, ready stare. “You can’t seriously believe,” she said, “that I should be so mean and small as to persuade you into this for any purely selfish purpose of my own? Why, none of them would be as paltry as that.”
    He blushed, but he would not drop his eyes from hers. “I’m to respect your motives, of course,” he said defiantly; “But you’re at liberty to impute any sort of cowardice to me?”
    “Isn’t it cowardice then?” she asked, returning his stare without flinching. “Haven’t you changed your mind because you’re afraid of having to leave here?”

In the face of that, Arthur’s wounded amour propre propels him into Mr Kenyon’s presence. Once the leap is taken, to his astonishment and relief, the old man takes his intervention in good part. Arthur learns that the old man’s objections to the engagement are, in his own view, entirely reasonable: Miss Martin has no money, no more than Hubert himself; and as the daughter of the agent of a neighbouring estate, she isn’t quite quite: a position with which the snobbish Arthur sympathises. So calmly reasonable is Mr Kenyon that Arthur, not for the first time, finds his entire way of thinking swayed by a conversation with him; while the apprehensions of the rest of the family come to seem foolish, even hysterical.

Mr Kenyon, meanwhile, is very far from wanting to turn Arthur out for his boldness:

    “I have taken a peculiar fancy to you, Arthur,” he continued after a brief pause, “and I need not be ashamed to tell you why; it is because I admire the independence of your spirit. I liked the way you spoke to me just now; your disregard of what might have been against your own interests; your championship of Hubert. I could wish—I have often wished—that there was more of the same spirit in my own family.”
    Arthur flushed with pleasure. But it seemed to him that he understood now, finally, conclusively, the secret of the Kenyons.
    They were all cowards, and Mr Kenyon despised them for their cowardice; not one of them had ever had the courage to stand up to him. If he had, in a sense, bullied them, it was because he had tried to stimulate them into some show of active response…

The flattering conversation then embraces Arthur’s future intentions. He has already been led into into holding himself up as a contrast to the others on the basis of his greater life-experience and need to earn a living; but he is more alarmed than pleased when Mr Kenyon takes it for granted that he must be “pining to get back into the struggle”:

    “And yet, Arthur, I should be so glad if you could stay with me—till the end. I gave you my reasons when we first talked the matter over together. I can add still another, now; I’ve taken a great liking for you… I wouldn’t ask you to make the sacrifice if I were a younger man. But as it is what difference will a year, two at most, make to you at your time of life? Come, now,” he smiled with a flash of roguery, “let’s make a bargain! Your friend Hubert shall have his Miss Martin, if you’ll promise to stay with me…”
    “Oh, of course, sir, rather,” Arthur said, blushing with pleasure and embarrassment. “I would promise that in any case. There’s no need for any—any quid pro quo, I mean.”
    Mr Kenyon still had his hands on the young man’s shoulders, and he gave him a gentle shake as he said, “Very well, that’s a bargain then; and I may tell you that you’ve taken a very great weight off my mind…”

Arthur’s sense of triumph soon fades when the others hear of the agreement. There is astonishment over Hubert’s engagement, but no sense of gratitude. If anything, the wariness with which the rest regard him increases. Arthur thinks he understands, and is nettled into a blundering assurance that he has no intention of accepting a legacy from the old man, at least, not an unreasonable one; and his offer to sign an agreement to that purpose only makes things worse. There is an embarrassed scattering of the relatives, with Charles Turner and Uncle Joe left to reject any such arrangement as unnecessary—assuring Arthur that they trust him to keep his word, should it become necessary:

    There was apparently nothing more to be said, and Arthur was on his feet preparing to go when Turner remarked casually to his brother-in-law, “Totting ’em up pretty fast just now, isn’t he? That’ll make three more of us if poor Ken has to come in.”
    Joe Kenyon’s only reply was to draw down the corners of his mouth and raise his eyebrows.
    Arthur did not want to hear any more. He was sorry he had heard so much. These petty criticisms of old Kenyon made him despise Turner and his uncle; they represented another aspect of their cowardice.

Nor is Hubert’s attitude to his grandfather at all altered, despite his excitement over his engagement. Rather, he complains that he has had no chance to see Miss Martin since the edict was handed down, being instead dispatched to do a job on the estate:

    “Probably he did it just to tantalise me a bit,” Hubert complained; “teach me that I couldn’t have everything my own way.”
    “Oh, surely not!” Arthur protested. He was offended, again, by this imputation of unworthy motives to old Mr Kenyon. “I don’t believe any of you understand him,” he continued warmly. “We had quite a long talk this morning and he rather came out of his shell. He may seem a bit hard and inhuman at times, you know, but underneath, I’m sure he’s trying to do the best for everybody.”
    Hubert looked faintly surprised. “Oh! that was the way he took you, was it?” he remarked.

When the family reconvenes for dinner, Arthur is surprised to find himself the object of Elizabeth’s attentions. Though she is attractive in an obvious sort of way, he is not at all drawn to her—and annoyed to realise that Eleanor’s image keeps getting in the way. This instinctive choice receives reinforcement the next day when Eleanor, albeit rather ungraciously, invites Arthur to accompany her on a long walk on the Downs—intimating that she has something to say to him which cannot be said under the roof of Hartling. The miles they cover, a simple lunch at an inn, and a rest on a hilltop overlooking the beauties of the countryside combine to bring down the wall of misunderstanding that has grown up between them, and finally Eleanor brings herself to say what she feels she must: that one of them must leave Hartling immediately.

To Arthur’s astonishment, Eleanor speaks bitterly of her grandfather’s intention to use her as bait—an added attraction to hold him, Arthur, at Hartling. He protests instinctively, yet cannot help remembered the old man’s urging of a closer relationship between the two of them. Seeing his resistance to the idea, Eleanor allows herself to speak frankly of herself and her family for the first time: her own father’s defiance in the matter of his marriage, which led to his banishment from Hartling, and ultimately his death under conditions of unrelieved illness and destitution; and her own, strange upbringing after being orphaned, isolated from the world to the point of barely knowing that there was a war. All the rest, too, trapped in a web of financial dependence and a failure of willpower: turned into the playthings of the old man’s selfishness and need to dominate…

In spite of Arthur’s lingering incredulity. Eleanor continues to insist upon the departure of one or the other of them: in that, at least, she is determined that Mr Kenyon will not get his way. Appalled by what he considers her unrealistic plans for herself, in securing either an office job or undergoing nursing training, if she can afford it, Arthur determines that if one of them must go, it will be him. Recklessly, he promises to write immediately to Bob Somers and accept an offered partnership, in a slightly better practice and at a slightly increased income—albeit still in Peckham. He will depart Hartling within the week.

But even this is hardly good enough for Eleanor: if he is going, why not go at once? Why wait? – risk it…?

Eleanor’s evident unselfish fear for him – her willingness to stay, if only he will make his escape – puts a new idea into Arthur’s head: why should they not both go—together?

Before he can act upon his new resolve, there is upheaval at Hartling. Far from “coming in”, as his father feared, Ken bolts—borrowing enough to pay the worst of his debts and to secure his passage to South Africa, where he has the offer of a job. In the wake of this, Mr Kenyon makes one of his exceedingly rare journeys away from the estate, a paraded departure that means only one thing: a visit to his solicitor in London and an alteration to his will…

In his absence, Arthur and Eleanor come to an understanding. They will depart together, and immediately. Arthur takes upon himself the task of telling Mr Kenyon their intentions upon his return…and finds it even more difficult and unpleasant than he anticipated:

    “Have you had it in your mind that you might be married quite soon?” he asked.
    “I think so, sir; yes, quite soon,” Arthur replied, andf then frowning and keeping his eyes averted from the old man’s face—he went on quickly. “As soon as ever we can find somewhere to live, in fact. Flats and so on are fearfully difficult to get just now. And in Peckham, where I shall be practising…”
    He paused and looked up. The old man had changed neither his position nor his expression. “But I know of no reason why you shouldn’t be married while you are still here,” he said, apparently missing all the implications of Arthur’s speech.
    “We—we thought of leaving here—at once,” he replied, making an effort that even as he made it seemed gross and brutal. “In fact I meant—that is, I’m leaving today.”
    Mr Kenyon’s keen blue eyes slowly concentrated their gaze with an effect of extraordinary attention on Arthur’s face; and as they did so, their lids, which commonly drooped so that the iris was partly hidden, were lifted until the pupils, completely ringed by white, stared with the cold, intent watchfulness of a great bird.
    “But that’s impossible,” he said quietly…

At its best The Prisoners Of Hartling is an unnerving psychological drama, particularly in its slow revelation of the domineering monster behind the kindly if autocratic façade of Garvice Kenyon, and of the various means of progressive entrapment by which he claims and holds his victims. As we watch in detail his manipulation of Arthur, we become aware that similar tactics have worked in the past—certainly the plea for companionship “until the end”. There is a subtle if morbid humour about the way Arthur’s likely “term” increases every time the subject is raised, from six months to one year, then to two, then to five… At the same time, the novel’s most chilling moment is Charles Turner’s response when Arthur tells him that he will be extending his visit from a weekend to a week—that he too once came to Hartling for a week’s visit…thirty years ago…

(In retrospect, we are able to appreciate that to Mr Kenyon, Dorothy Martin’s lack of money probably makes her a more, not less, suitable bride for Hubert.)

The main problem with this novel is that we have to see everything from the perspective of the distinctly dull-witted Arthur. Now, I do not need to like or admire a novel’s protagonist in order to like the novel, and were this a story of the drawing in to his destruction of Arthur Woodroffe, that would be just fine. Unfortunately, there’s a sense in The Prisoners Of Hartling that we’re supposed, at least, to sympathise with Arthur and worry about his fate—though for the life of me, I can’t think why. Despite his medical training and having served in war as both a soldier and a surgeon, Arthur’s dominant trait is his emotional immaturity; and that, combined with his conceit, and his snobbery, and his total lack of perception, makes him a thoroughly exasperating companion.

And that, finally, is where this novel really fails—the realisation that almost anyone would have made a more interesting protagonist than the one we were given. There are so many stories here: that of Miss Kenyon, living the life of a Victorian spinster more than two decades into the 20th century; or of Uncle Joe, the oldest son, kept from a career because he will inherit the estate…eventually (and maybe: there’s no entail); or even the Turners, finding a welcome refuge at Hartling from their struggles against the world, hardly noticing that the gates have closed behind them… And Eleanor; particularly Eleanor, clear-sighted and intelligent; raised in ignorance of the world but ironically learning about it from novels; holding hard to her resistance to her grandfather’s grip—even as she fears that her own willpower might fail when the crisis comes…

That crisis is another failing: there’s no earthly reason why Arthur and Eleanor should fall in love, except that it’s necessary for the plot. We can appreciate that Eleanor might fear for and even pity Arthur, seeing him walking unresisting into the Hartling trap; but that such feelings should turn to love is wholly incredible, particularly given the mixture of rudeness and petulance with which Arthur treats her whenever he realises that she doesn’t share his high opinion of himself. The idea that the two of them might provide ballast for one another, and together create the impetus for escape, is sound but the working out of it certainly is not.

Still—there are some devastating touches in The Prisoners Of Hartling, even if most of them exist outside of Arthur’s limited perceptions. The idea of this group of people being drawn into financial dependence through acts of seeming generosity, and their lives being reduced to waiting in helpless passivity for an old man to die, is a disturbing concept, and all the more so since none of them have any knowledge of the contents of the will dangled in front of them whenever Mr Kenyon is in any way defied—still less any guarantee. The possibilities of this situation are exploited to the full as The Prisoners Of Hartling builds to its climax: this is a story with a vicious sting in its tail…

 

 

26/09/2018

It’s been a while, by gar!

No, not just since I updated the blog: sadly, that almost goes without saying.

What I actually meant was that it’s been quite a stretch since Reading Roulette landed me on something outside my comfort zone.

The ‘goalposts’ for this particular subsection are set at 1741 – 1930, so we really should be mixing it up more; but the always-capricious Reading Gods have seemed content for some time to present me with a series of sentimental and didactic 18th and 19th century novels.

So I was a bit taken aback suddenly to find myself dealing with something from 1922.

John Davys Beresford was born in 1873 and, after being crippled by polio, devoted himself early in life to academic pursuits and a writing career. His marriage produced two children, Marc Brandel (Marcus Beresford) and Elizabeth Beresford, both writers of supernatural fiction—although the latter is best known for creating The Wombles.

As a young man, Beresford grew estranged from his clergyman father and his conventional views, embracing first agnosticism and later more esoteric beliefs including Theosophy. But however unconventional his religious views, Beresford always professed a sincere spirituality that was reflected in his writing, which often dealt with miraculous events and the triumph of the spiritual over the material. He also studied psychology as a different way of understanding the world.

Today, J. D. Beresford’s literary reputation rests chiefly on his works of speculative fiction, which cover a spectrum from outright science fiction to alternative / dystopian fantasies to allegories of religious doubt. An admirer of H. G. Wells (about whom he wrote the first critical study, titled simply H. G. Wells, which was published in 1915), Beresford followed though not copied him in writing novels about the clash between the miraculous – or even merely unusual – and narrow-thinking modern society. His first and most famous novel, The Hampdenshire Wonder, is the story of a super-child born to ordinary parents, and his rejection by the world around him; while his 1913 novel, Goslings, is the first literary attempt to depict seriously an all-female society. In 1921’s Revolution, Beresford imagined a full-scale socialist revolution in the United Kingdom.

However—my roll of the dice landed me upon none of these, but instead a between-the-wars psychological drama, The Prisoners Of Hartling.

Trust me.

 

 

10/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 2)

 

    The good man opened the fatal epistle, therefore, with a trembling hand and a heart deeply agitated, and found this new calamity more insupportable than any he had before experienced. He blamed himself as a kind of accessory to the untimely blasting of this tender flower, was amazed at his own remissness in not immediately transplanting it to a more natural soil, and saving this tender pledge, this emblem of their beloved child, from being subject to the capricious flights and giddy management of young unthinking relations, who had not the same call, to watch with carefulness over her.
    Mrs Parker said in a heart-wounding accent, that her Eliza had exhausted all her tears, nor had she one left for poor Louisa; but, continued she, I hope, the measure of my affliction is now completed, and that it will not be long before we are all re-united in that glorious state, exempt from misfortunes, where sin and sorrow are no more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first volume of Family Pictures, as we have seen (and quoted), opens with a standard scree about the rewards of virtue—part of a preface declaiming the high moral purpose of the novel and its fitness for reading by the young and innocent.

This is how the second volume opens:

Mrs Bentley was so kind to her niece, as to suffer Arabella to beat and pinch her, without check or controul. The poor infant was uneasy for some time, at the great change she experienced, and would alternately call upon her Papa and Mamma to save her; but at length custom began to reconcile her even to the cruel usage…

We’re left to ponder whether the novel’s title was intended to be ironic, or just baldly honest.

The shift in tone and subject matter between the two volumes of Family Pictures, from the familiar sentimentalism of the romance / tragedy of Anthony and Eliza, to the cruelty and crime that set in motion the second half of the narrative, is jolting. We seem, suddenly, to have picked up a different book. Again, we can only wonder if the period’s volume-by-volume publishing style prompted authors to hide their more sinister lights under a bushel, until they were safely into the marketplace—and if readers knew to stick it out through a dull or soppy first volume, in expectation of something better.

Having lost both her parents (mostly, we have to say, through their own faults), poor Louisa emerges as the new focus of Family Pictures, with an all-new plot set in motion by her father’s incredibly stupid decision to leave her to the tender mercies of her uncle, aunt and cousins—who are, as we have seen, devoted to casual cruelty even without the added motivation of Louisa standing between them and the family property.

It is true that Anthony meant for Louisa to be left predominantly with her grandparents; but he took no steps to ensure that this happened—instead trusting the parties involved to take care of it. However – and with a distinct lack of submission to God’s will – Mrs Parker is so devastated by the death’s of her daughter and son-in-law, she isn’t fit for the task of caring for her granddaughter; and since Mr Parker is unfamiliar with the true characters of Daniel and Arabella, he sees no harm in leaving Louisa with her uncle and aunt, at least for the present.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

    [Daniel] judged it very hard to be kept out of seven hundred pounds a year by such a little child. This noble sentiment he frequently revolved in his own mind, before he was so far abandoned as to communicate it to his wife; nor did he abruptly open his heart even to her, but just insinuated that it was a mortifying circumstance, that his brother and sister had not been taken off three years sooner than they were, as Anthony would not then have been excluded from his right by a little snivelling girl…
    Daniel had so much artifice as to leave her to reflect upon what he had hinted, in hopes of drawing a proposal from her of some kind or other, which might bring his purposes to bear, as he chose to appear to follow in this respect rather than lead.

Nope: nothing immoral in THIS novel.

Much oblique back-and-forthing between Daniel and Arabella follows, the upshot of which is a sudden journey to London, the Parkers being left in ignorance of this step until it is too late for them to countermand it. The Bentleys take up residence with Arabella’s aunt, a Mrs Blackiston, a widow in dire financial straits, and without the means to protest the uses she is put to, even if she had the inclination.

It is Mrs Blackiston who proposes an alternative to the outright murder of Louisa. She suggests farming the child out—that they find a poor woman in low circumstances who is willing to take the child in and, effectively, raise her as her own. She further sketches a cover-story that makes Louisa the illegitimate child of an unnamed “great man”, such that the need for secrecy may be stressed without raising questions.

Mrs Blackiston even knows a suitable candidate; though here she perhaps does better than her co-conspirators would have preferred, in that Mrs Brisco is a kind and honest, if rather simple woman, who has suffered many personal misfortunes including the loss of her husband and child. She willingly takes in Louisa, swallowing the story fed to her, and obediently passing the girl – who is now known as “Susan” – off as her own. The two retire to a small cottage in Bedfordshire.

But of course, this is only half of the plot. In order for the Bentleys to gain the property, Louisa must die. They therefore concoct a serious illness, of which they inform the Parkers by letter, along with many expressions of fear and grief, and contrition for having carried such a young child to London. Then the terrified Parkers receive another letter announcing the death of their grandchild…

Here too Mrs Blackiston proves invaluable:

    She applyed…to a body-stealer, to furnish her with the body of a female infant of Louisa’s age… Accordingly the next evening a flag basket was provided for the conveyance of the departed babe, recently committed to the earth by its afflicted parents, but which was almost as speedily taken up by this disturber of the dead.
    The poor little sacrifice to their ambition and avarice had a gentle opiate administered to her that evening, which, taking effect at nine o’clock, they knew would continue in operation ’till twelve the next day… At length the hour of deliverance arrived, and the sleeping babe was successfully conveyed into the carriage, destined to remove her from the knowledge of her relations, friends and fortune. This great work completed, the basket was unpacked, and the lifeless imposition dressed, by the hardened Mrs Blackiston, in a cap and bed-gown of Louisa’s, reserved for the purpose, and being laid in the bed…

Okay. I know that this isn’t our usual scenario, but I’m calling it anyway:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

For Mrs Parker, this third blow is almost the end, and she sinks into a permanent stupor of grief; while Mr Parker, with a distinct lack of resignation, is in a condition little better.

Despite the violent upheavals in her circumstances, Louisa / Susan revives under the loving care of Mrs Brisco; and she begins to forget her past in her new life as a humble cottager.

Some eleven years are then skipped over, until the next significant landmark in Susan’s life: the coming to her neighbourhood of a wealthy family, the Banstons. The husband and wife have nothing in common and are bitterly estranged; while their peculiarities of temperament and constant warfare make life unpleasant for their children, a boy and a girl of around Susan’s own age. In particular, Mr Banston is a domestic tyrant: his abrupt passions, his instantaneous likes and dislikes and their violent consequences, impacting his entire household:

He was extremely ambitious, and from an anxious pride, that his children should surpass every other person’s, he sometimes led them an uneasy kind of life… He was so accustomed to disapprove of their behaviour and conversation, that when he was present, they acted under continual fear and constraint. It seems, his disposition had been early soured by disappointments, and the loss of a beloved friend, which he had never overcome, so that he, who at twenty was an easy and most amiable youth, now at fifty was become a capricious and intolerable old man.

Mrs Banston, meanwhile, is a kind if underbred woman, weak-minded and easily influenced by stronger wills, who prefers the company of her own servants to that of her husband’s social acquaintances. The family money is hers, though, which only increases the state of ongoing tension.

The mother of Dame Brisco was the the nurse of Mr Banston’s father, and a connection has always been maintained. With her quiet tact and willingness to serve, Dame Brisco makes herself useful to the Banstons in a variety of ways, not least in helping to manage a household where daily tasks are often neglected. Seeing the need for a sewing-woman, she ventures to recommend Susan who, with her neatness of person, steady habits and fine work, is soon a fixture in the house. She becomes, indeed, almost a companion to Caroline Banston, and shares some of her lessons; acquiring smatterings of both education and accomplishments.

Consequently, when Charles Banston returns home after an absence of some months on a visit to his grandmother, he finds his family rather startlingly supplemented:

Master Charles soon informed himself by his sister’s means of all the internal graces and valuable endowments of this young girl, whose person had so exceedingly engaged his admiration, and he secretly wished, that fortune had been more liberal in her favours, so as to have enabled this master-piece of Nature to have shone in a less humble light. In consequence of these impressions he treated her with the utmost respect and kindness on every occasion; for two years together that this brother and sister were inseparable, now in all these youthful pursuits and diversions Susan had a share along with them, nor, indeed, could they enjoy any pleasure without her, her modesty, humility, and good nature recommending her most irresistibly to their favour.

But of course this pastoral interlude cannot last; and after a visit to some old acquaintances in Worcestershire, where he spent his youth, Mr Banston comes home to announce that he has arranged an advantageous marriage for Charles—or at least, he has arranged it with her father; he expects Charles to seal the deal when the family comes for a visit.

With visions of Susan dancing in his head, Charles is anything but delighted; though under his father’s scowling gaze he manages to mumble something that might be compliance. Undeceived, his father reacts with one of his volcanic outbursts:

“Ungrateful and insensible wretch, cryed he, is this the utmost sensation thy groveling heart is capable of; this the return for my sollicitude for your advancement? Your veins, I find, are replete with the mean blood of your mother, not one spark of my spirit being in your whole composition; but mark me well, continued he, darting a furious look at the poor dismayed youth, you have but this one alternative in your power, viz. either to marry the lady whom I have chose for you, or to turn out, for I will harbour no disobedient children.”

Charles has little option but to play along. Caroline soon notices his disturbed state of mind and, when he explains to her his situation, tries to console him by suggesting he might like the chosen young lady—which of course prompts him to blurt out his feelings for Susan, much to his sister’s dismay, as she knows that any such connection is impossible.

But whatever apprehensions Charles might be experiencing, the reader has them one-hundred-fold—for there is little doubt about the identity of the young lady in question, given her first action upon arrival at the Banstons’:

…but, added she, this sick beast, turning about and hauling at the same time a poor little puppy out of the carriage by one leg, has made my journey very uncomfortable. Mr Banston would have relieved her of her charge, and expressed some obliging concern for her (as he supposed) little favourite; but she soon gave him to understand, that she was superior to every weak attachment of that kind, and only kept the poor animal for the pleasure of tormenting it.

Sure enough, the visitors are none other than the Bentleys; and the contrast between the attractive but brazen and unfeeling Arabella, and the gentle Susan, is almost too much for Charles—who sees with despair that Arabella is fully informed of the purpose of the visit, and expects his co-operation. His embarrassed shrinking and timid demeanour provoke Arabella, who takes a dislike to him; but she resolves to conceal her feelings until she can see if there is meat more to her taste in the neighbourhood.

Arabella and Caroline are likewise antipathetic; the latter longing for the companionship of Susan, who has been banished to Dame Brisco’s cottage to free up room at table for the visitors. The brother and sister count the minutes until the conclusion of the planned fortnight visit, only to learn that while the senior Bentleys must depart – Mrs Bentley expressing concern over the health of her only son, who (it is implied) is drinking himself into an early grave – Mr Banston persuades Arabella to stay for the entire summer.

The only compensatory aspect of this for the young Banstons is that Susan may now be recalled. Caroline drives over to collect her, in company with Arabella who, mostly out of spite and snobbery, but also having taken one look at Susan’s pretty face, refuses to have a servant admitted to the carriage and orders her to walk instead. The mortified Caroline hastily intervenes, telling Susan to stay at the cottage overnight and to come to the house in the morning, and to bring Dame Brisco with her.

From this incident an infinity of misery results. Recounting the matter to Mrs Banston, Arabella turns it around, complaining of Susan’s “sullen refusal” to walk when denied the carriage. The dull-witted Mrs Banston sees nothing odd in this assertion about a girl well-known for her retiring modesty; and when Susan does arrive, she is stunned to be rebuked for misbehaviour and pride:

She was as yet but a novice to the injustice and unkindness of the rich; nor did she imagine that they conceived themselves licenced to treat their inferiours with occasional contempt and disregard, (without being accountable for their actions) merely from their superior possessions; that the wind was not more uncertain than their favour; that they were out of reach of expostulation, and deaf to conviction; that from their determinations there was no appeal, however disgracefully or unjustly they might discard their favourites; and that the world was prepared to acquit the mighty and condemn the weak, even without a hearing; that in the single epithet rich was comprehended all merit, beauty, grace, and that consequently the horrid sound of poverty conveyed sentiments diametrically opposite…

Ouch! I wonder who Miss Minifie had in mind when penning that passage? – and if this is why she and her sister started writing: because they had to, after someone let them down?

From this point matters go from bad to worse. Arabella doesn’t want Charles, and in fact begins a secret liaison with Mr Banston’s steward, who is the kind of “man of spirit” she prefers (in other words, a coxcomb and a cad); but the fact that Charles doesn’t want her is mortifying; while his evident preference for a servant is intolerable. Consequently, she sets about destroying Susan: a task simple enough, between Mr Banston’s insane pride and Mrs Banston’s weak will; and she succeeds in the first instance in having her banished from the house altogether.

Meanwhile, the sneaking Mr Letcroft, who can barely believe his own luck, persuades Arabella first into correspondence and clandestine meetings, then into a secret marriage:

The ceremony over, the happy pair spent a short time together at a farm-house, and then returned to Mr Banston’s with as hardened a countenance, as if nothing had happened…

Soon afterwards, Arabella receives word of the death of her brother, Anthony. She is personally unmoved; and the main consequence is that she becomes, in Mr Banston’s eyes, an even more desirable daughter-in-law, since her brother’s fortune will now augment her own. Naturally he increases the pressure on Charles—who, however, has a secret weapon in his armoury. The local parish-clerk is a relative of Dame Brisco’s, and informs her of Arabella’s marriage; and she, in turn, lets Caroline know. Charles, therefore, is able for once to face his father with relative equanimity; replying coolly to his menaces:

“Time and reflection have removed all my objections, and I am ready to receive Miss Bentley’s hand, whenever she shall be disposed to bestow it upon me.”

Mr Banston is so pleased with this, he grants Charles a three-month stay of execution (so to speak). Charles makes prompt use of the time and, finally giving in to temptation, declares himself to Susan by letter. She is moved and touched by this but, in spite of her own secret feelings, she immediately declares that there can never be anything between them. When Caroline finds out, she is furious with her brother; but she knows she can rely upon Susan’s strength of character, if not Charles’, to prevent the matter going further.

And fate has another bitter blow in store for Susan, when Dame Brisco suddenly dies:

The old woman had got her relation, the parish-clerk, to scrawl out a kind of a will, by which she bequeathed to the poor girl all she was worth. This all, after everything was sold, (Mr Banston burying her at his expense) amounted to eight guineas…

Susan decides that she must leave the country for London, in order to find a way of supporting herself—and to put distance between herself and Charles. Her departure and its circumstances are widely discussed amongst the Banstons, in the course of which Mrs Banston makes reference to Dame Brisco “countenancing a bastard”, much to Arabella’s delight. Her sneering response provokes a furious outburst from Charles—also remarkable for 1764:

“Was the poor bastard, you mention with such detestation, in the smallest degree accessory or a partaker in her parents guilt? I think, added this gentleman, the world is not more cruel or unjustifiable in any one respect, than in its consideration of such unhappy beings. Is it not sufficient, that a poor child shall be brought into existence involuntarily; and, from the culpable behaviour of those who ought to protect and provide for it, not only be excluded from the comfort of relations, and every title to property or provision, but also that a considerable share of the contempt and shame, incurred by the authors of its being, should devolve upon its innocent and inoffensive head? Wickedness of heart is the same in marryed as unmarryed persons, and if the adulterers children are allowed to be uncontaminated by their parents guilt, why should the simple crime of fornication be hereditary?”

Nope: nothing in THIS novel that the moralists could object to…

We are then reminded that lawful sex, too, has its consequences:

    Six months had now elapsed since the marriage of Mr Letcroft, and Miss Arabella had evaded from time to time the importunities of her father and Mr Banston, to receive Mr Charles as a husband, when she suddenly became altered, to an uncommon degree, in her shape. The servants soon perceived it, and having easy access to the ear of their mistress, communicated their observations to her. She communicated them again to her son and daughter; but they were far from being either surprised or sorry at the event, as it would infallibly in a very short time deliver them from her disagreeable company.
    Mrs Banson was unable, long to conceal her suspicions from her husband, who resented them highly, and said, “that if he could fix upon the original authour of such a scandalous report, he would prosecute him at his own expense.” Miss Arabella, however, discovering by a hint, which, if she had been innocent, would have been perfectly unintelligible, that her condition was suspected in the family…retreated to the house of Mr Letcroft, whose marriage to her was then promulgated all over the country, to the inexpressible chagrin of Mr Banston, the diversion of his wife and servants, the satisfaction of his son and daughter, and the great disappointment and vexation of the lady’s own family.

No sooner has this departure occurred than another visitor arrives, the son of an old friend of Mr Banston and an acquaintance of Charles, who has come to invite the latter to accompany him to London. Mr Banston is persuaded, and gives Charles various commissions to carry out during his holiday, including delivering some letters for him. One of these in to a certain Mrs Blackiston, who Charles finds in extremely reduced circumstances, consumed by thoughts of vengeance against a party or parties who she blames for her miserable situation. Charles doesn’t really listen to her ravings, however: he just wants to get out of there and, having given the old woman some money, slips away as soon as he can.

He and his companion then set themselves to see all the sights of London.

Ahem. ALL the sights of London.

In the wake of a rather boozy dinner at a tavern, Charles allows himself to be led to “a certain house under Covent-garden-piazzas”:

    Their youth and genteel appearance soon gained them admittance, and a bottle of Burgundy being brought, Mr Rutland enquired, if they could not be introduced to some young ladies that were tolerably decent and not very old practitioners? The mother abbess who presided in this temple of Venus, after having presented two or three, without giving satisfaction, said, “she had one damsel under her roof, whom she feared they would find as objectionable for her coyness, as the others were for the opposite extreme; but as there were two of them, if they would make it worth their while, they should separately try what they could do with her.”
    The enflamed Mr Rutland emptied his pockets upon the table, and swore, if that was not sufficient, he would give his note for as much more; but the conscientious lady said, as he was a customer, she was satisfied with what was before her, and Mr Banston, consenting to be served after his friend, was accepted upon easier terms.

Nope: nothing in THIS novel you’d want to keep away from innocent young girls.

Wow. Seriously. I’ve encountered scenes like this before in novels by men, but I have never come across anything like it, let alone this explicitly rendered, in a novel by a woman—and that woman a clergyman’s daughter!?

Anyway—

The aptly named Mr Rutland, having paid for his privilege, tries his luck first. The lovely young girl, in ignorance of her true situation, is first shocked, then terrified and repulsed by his behaviour. Discovering to her horror that she is locked in, she can only weep and plead for mercy. Mr Rutland refuses to be dissuaded by what he perceives as “artifice”, driving his potential victim to extremes:

    “I must inform you, that you have a person to deal with, that is neither capable of being intimidated by threats, nor allured by promises, and that your triumph over her can never be completed whilst her power of resistance remains; nor will she survive such a calamity to become a prey again to avarice and prostitution, for this weapon, snatching his sword out of the scabbard, shall be more merciful than you…”
    “Well, Madam, said the half-vanquished hero, as I find I can do nothing with you by fair means, and detest a rape as much as you, I shall resign you to my friend…”

So saying, he retreats downstairs:

    The abandoned procuress, who was in the room, asked him, what success he had met with? “Why faith, said he, none at all; she is the most squeamish little b—h I ever met with: but come, Charles, continued he, she expects you, pray, do not make her wait.”
    Mr Banston was not in his nature a debauchee; but fearful of exposing himself to the laugh of his more hardened companion, he arose, and, with a reluctance and agitation he could not account for, suffered himself to be led in to the frighted prisoner…

Having sobered up, he has no intention of doing anything, though; and he tries to reassure the terrified girl he finds cringing away on the far side of the room, even promising her that he will be her protector if she needs one. This makes her turn around:

…to her unspeakable surprise, she discovered her young master Banston, and he his beloved Susan…

Yes, well. The reader is probably a little less unspeakably surprised.

Susan explains to Charles that she was betrayed by the wagoner who had conveyed her to London, who had told her that he was in a position to help her secure the assistance of “a good charitable lady”; that she had entered the lady’s house in all good faith, and spent a fortnight doing needlework there, in constant expectation of being recommended to a position; that the clothes she is wearing, she had been persuaded to don on being told that in London, even servants were expected to dress finely; and that this night had been the first time she received an inkling of her true situation.

Charles promptly proposes—pointing out that one month’s residence in any parish will enable them to marry, despite their both being under age. Susan resolutely refuses, insisting that the distance between them is too great, and that she must live single and earn her own living. However, she does accept Charles’ secondary offer of rescue—

(—a rescue, by the way, in which his drunken visit to a brothel and his participation in the purchase of a virgin go politely unremarked—)

—and a refuge under the roof of a respectable woman.

But as it turns out, Charles’ own acquaintance in London is so very limited, the only person he can think of to leave Susan with is Mrs Blackiston…

I think we can all see where this is headed.

The sudden resurrection of Louisa Bentley produces all sorts of fallout—including the belated revelation that “Mr Banston” is actually Anthony Bentley’s old friend, Frank Taylor, who changed his name as a condition of his mercenary marriage. Family Pictures then closes with the expected flourish of rewards and punishments; and while the former take up more space (a romance for Caroline Banston is hurriedly conjured up, for instance), the latter are more interesting for their sense of prosaic reality, in place of the expected speeches about the inscrutable ways of Providence, which generally close novels of this sort.

Despite her repentance and active assistance in exposing the cruel fraud, Mrs Blackiston is rather dismally killed off:

…vexation, disappointment, and the inconveniences that poverty exposed her to, in conjunction with her wounded pride, and turbulent and impatient spirit, brought a complication of disorders upon her, which kept her in a lingering state of misery and suffering, which continued for a whole twelve-month, and then put a period to her existence…

—while the Bentleys are allowed to get away with full restitution of their ill-gotten gains and a hasty retreat, their corporeal punishment consisting of having to share digs with the Letcrofts; with rather more focus given to the consequences of all this for Arabella:

Mr Letcroft and his lady, and Mr and Mrs Bentley, led a very uncomfortable life. The goddess Discord had established her seat under their roof. His being disappointed in obtaining the immense fortune he expected, notwithstanding Mrs Letcroft was likely to inherit some few thousand pounds, changed the meek, servile adorer into the morose, untractable husband. He contracted many improper intimacies, and when his weak brain was heated by a too frequent repetition of the social glass, he was wonted to bestow some rough compliment upon his lady’s delicate bones…

And sure, there is some speechifying; but even here we are struck by the matter-of-fact admission that life doesn’t usually work out as neatly – or as justly – as novels would have us believe:

Thus did the chain of events, derived upon this family, run. Agreeably to our limited notions of rewards and punishments, and though many instances in life are the reverse of this equitable distribution, it must nevertheless by acknowledged, that villainous practices are frequently discovered and detected, and that a perseverance in well-doing is productive of the most happy and agreeable consequences.

And as if this shruggingly half-hearted moralising isn’t odd enough, we are then offered this thoroughly unconvincing closing argument:

Mrs Banston was the only person who remained unchanged, uninterested, and consequently unaffected by these happy revolutions, though I really do her injustice when I say, she did not partake in some measure of the general satisfaction; for her house was clear of every imcumbrance for a long season, and she at liberty to pursue her particular inclinations without interruption, which self-enjoyment was derived from an insensibility of mind, neither to be envyed nor coveted, as surely, to a rational being it must be highly satisfactory to possess a heart capable of generous sympathy, and every humane and tender disposition; for whatever exemption from the participation of others calamities this selfish narrow principle may confer upon its possessor, it can be by no means adequate to the reflected joys of friendship and benevolence.

You know—I rather find myself in sympathy with Mrs Banston…