Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turns out to be a fatal mistake…



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another adopted Aussie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Beauty Of The British Alps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And after indulging this choice for a time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Novelist in transit

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

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

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

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

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


The History Of Lady Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(*No relation, I’m sure.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sydney St. Aubyn. In A Series Of Letters

sydneystaubyn1    The season of delusion is past, and the reign of reason restored—I turn back, ashamed to have sacrificed my youth to such fallacious pursuits, and to have vested so important a matter as my happiness on the fidelity of a woman who was unworthy of esteem—without doing myself the justice to consider the caprices of the sex. Blinded by my passion, I hurried on with heedless temerity, until the power of recovering myself was lost—
    Or if I saw at all, it was with the partial eye of generous affection, that eagerly magnified every trait of merit in my mistress; whilst she, cunningly conscious of the weakness of love, with subtle dissimulation, moulded me to her will; and when a series of lengthened unkindness, or rather cruelty, had loosened the attachment, I was simple enough to be lured by a siren smile, and suffer the momentary gratification which resulted from it, to counterbalance an age of lingering anxiety.
    Thus self-betrayed into the snare, I hugged my chains, and thought even captivity sweet…

I’m beginning to worry that I’m not giving the novelists of the late 18th century enough credit—or at least, I’ve noted a worrying tendency in myself, every time I come across something interesting in an obscure novel, to add a rider to the effect of, “It was probably accidental.”

But is it always accidental? This is the question raised in my mind by Sydney St. Aubyn, an epistolary novel from 1794, which on the surface is yet another tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but which gradually reveals itself as something rather different; different and, yes, interesting. Which is to say, it still is a tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but the message it leaves us with is not the one we are led to expect.

I don’t know much – in fact, I don’t really know anything – about John Robinson, the author of Sydney St. Aubyn, except that he wrote several novels in addition to some poetry. (As you would appreciate, the name “John Robinson” is not a great aid to research.) I can only say that I’m now tempted to try his other works of fiction, to see whether what struck me as so interesting about this novel might indeed have been a deliberate exercise in misleading the reader.

At any rate, my opinion of Sydney St. Aubyn differs from that of whoever originally owned the copy of the novel now held by the Houghton Library of Harvard University, who saw fit to express his feelings about the novel’s two leading female characters by way of marginalia.

Unusually, this work opens in the immediate wake of a broken engagement, with our eponymous hero – or at least, protagonist – pouring out his heart-break and his sense of betrayal in a letter to his friend, Stafford Sullivan. But although St. Aubyn swears to abjure any further thought of Augusta Conway, his love for her dies hard; so that subsequently he finds himself caught between his lingering passion for his former fiancée and a new attraction towards a girl called Emily Alderton. Both women are conveyed to the reader via the usual descriptors of the sentimental novel: Augusta is damned via words like “haughty”, “imperious” and “headstrong”, while we know all we need to about Emily when we hear about, A tear—which started into the lovely girl’s eye, and stood there a glistening monument of wounded sensibility.

Tempora mutantur, and all that: Augusta, with her moods and uncertainties, and the constant impression given of motives beyond the ones declared, is a far more interesting character than that bundle of boring perfections, Emily. So I say, but evidently the owner of this book disagreed with me. Here is his opinion of Emily, who declares her predilection for St. Aubyn in a letter to her sister, Harriet:




And here, conversely, is his opinion of Augusta, expressed at the conclusion of a letter to St. Aubyn, who, she believes, is revenging himself upon her by drawing from her a confession that she still cares for him, even as he courts Emily Alderton:




I haven’t quite been able to decipher the adjective – any suggestions? – but I don’t think there’s much doubt about the noun.

Sydney St. Aubyn opens with a flurry of letters between St. Aubyn and his friend, Sullivan, and between Augusta and her friend, Louisa Wentworth—the latter horrified that Augusta has broken such a long-standing engagement, and certain that she is at fault. Augusta’s letters are masterpieces of circumlocution, but it eventually emerges that she has come to believe that St. Aubyn is the father of an orphan they have both been providing for. The child is that of a young woman seduced and abandoned, who was taken in by a cottager, and who died after giving birth. Augusta does not believe St. Aubyn’s protestations of innocence, which he makes both to her outside the scope of the novel, and in his letters to Sullivan.

Moreover, Augusta has reacted to the breaking of her engagement by immediately contracting another, to a Colonel Alderton—much to Louisa’s doubt, Sullivan’s scorn, and St. Aubyn’s mingled misery and indignation. St. Aubyn’s health begins to suffer, and he takes himself off to the spa town of Matlock, in Derbyshire, where he finds a friend in a fellow-sufferer—a Colonel Alderton.

Long story short, Augusta’s betrothed – who has been pressing for an early marriage – is actually a penniless Irish adventurer called Douglas, who has been posing as a man known both as a military hero and as having a comfortable fortune of his own. The imposture is exposed by Sullivan, who makes it his business to inquire into this multiplicity of Aldertons, but actually recognises Douglas from an earlier encounter.

Douglas’s subplot is one of the stranger aspects of Sydney St. Aubyn. He starts out looking like the villain of the piece, but – after a series of largely comic experiences – undergoes repentence and redemption and allowed to have a happy ending. It turns out that (i) Douglas is the father of the illegitimate child, and (ii) the child’s mother faked her own death as a way of separating herself permanently from her lover, leaving her baby as part of her self-inflicted punishment. She and Douglas are eventually reunited and marry, and presumably live happily ever after. They’re about the only people in this novel who do.

Douglas, peculiarly enough, given the nature of his introduction into the plot, functions as the comic relief for much of Sydney St. Aubyn. Left without resources in the wake of the failure of his plan to marry Augusta’s fortune, he ends up joining an acting troupe—we are not surprised that he turns out to have a natural aptitude. What might surprise us – or at least, amuse us – is the role in which he has his first success:

    The play I fixed upon to make my entré in, was “Oroonoko”—and on the awful day appointed, it was announced with all the honours of a country play-bill—besides all other embellishments, it set forth “how this tragedy was a particular favourite on the London stage, and drew crouded audiences—representing a royal black prince in chains, and how his fair Imoinda, from whom he was separated when taken prisoner, afterwards came into the country where he was captive, and how she there met with her long-lost lord—and at last how they died for each other, &c. &c.”…
    Presently, Oroonoko was led forth in chains—my figure was striking, and I was welcomed with plaudits—this encouraged me, and I went thro’ my part tolerably well—but owing to the absence of one of our company, who was reported to be in a state of ebriety at a neighbouring ale-house, we were under the necessity of making free with the whole of the third act, and dividing the last into two—this was reckoned a harmless stratagem, and had often been practised.—The play was concluded, and Oroonoko retired with distinguished applause…

(Though intended as a joke, this interlude highlights the fact that, although Aphra Behn and her writing became increasingly unacceptable over time, dramatic adaptations of Oroonoko remained popular right through the 18th century and beyond.)

Meanwhile, our central characters are getting themselves into one hell of a mess. Determined to put his relationship with Augusta behind him, St. Aubyn begins courting Emily Alderton, when she comes to Matlock to be with her brother. Emily is immediately swept off her feet, as she confesses in a letter to her sister:

    A bold assertion this, Harriet, and will carry with it a sort of whisper that your Emily’s affections are in danger.—
    I despise the poor artifices of dissimulation—and were I to say that I could observe with indifference such a happy assemblage of amiable qualities in one form, I must have some motive—unworthy of myself.—Genuine merit commands the ready suffrage of sensibility, and on such an occasion, conscious innocence may chearfully stand forward to offer it…
    The resplendence of St. Aubyn’s character, bursting upon me at once, captivated my yielding senses—and I could love the man, were it only for his humble unaffected modesty, his mild unassuming delicacy, and in short for those endearing graces which he so evidently possesses, as the pure inheritance of nature.—
    I am only alluding to the accomplishments of his mind—his person deserves a separate panegyric.
    And when I tell you that it is everything I could wish for in a lover, you will conclude that nature has also been equally liberal there…

And St. Aubyn writes likewise to Sullivan:

    Emily Alderton came to Matlock, and won my affections.—I surrendered my heart, shattered as it had been by a former successless flame, whilst the lovely maid, unconscious of its imperfections, tenderly and fondly accepted it.
    Yes, Stafford, she heard the ingenuous avowal of my love with melting sensibility—and proved to me that her soul, all purity itself, suspected not the integrity of another.
    Then happiness spread forth her alluring blandishments, and I began to forget all I had suffered.
    The hours flew away on silken wings—and Emily and St. Aubyn lived only for each other—blest in the delicious confidence, the happy intercourse of Love…

And so matters stand – that is (just to be perfectly clear), St Aubyn has declared his love for Emily but not formally proposed marriage – when he learns that Augusta Conway is in Matlock…

In the wake of the exposure of the false “Colonel Alderton”, Augusta suffers a collapse that, we gather, has its basis in humiliated pride rather than wounded affections. She also makes a wild declaration to her friend, Louisa, that she will never marry—a declaration that she then spends a fair chunk of the novel trying to take back. (It is touches like this that, while they condemn Augusta utterly in terms of the genre that contains her, make her so much more real to the modern reader than the personality-less Emily.) To assist her convalescence, Augusta’s doctor orders her to a watering-place of her choice…

St. Aubyn is thrown into a panic by Augusta’s arrival, and more so when he receives a note from her requesting him to call upon her. Augusta is in the immediate wake of her pledge never to marry and tells him so, offering her friendship on that basis. She also explains her misapprehension about the paternity of the orphan and apologises for doubting him. Augusta’s unwonted humility and gentleness overset all of St. Aubyn’s good intentions, and he ends up all but renewing his vows to her, leaving her with an assurance that he sees her proffered friendship only as the first step to their reconciliation.

Once parted from Augusta, however, St. Aubyn can see nothing but his untenable situation with respect to Emily Alderton…a situation which is no secret to the other visitors to Matlock, and which very soon comes to Augusta’s ears. Concluding that St. Aubyn’s intention has been to lead her on and then spurn her, as revenge for her breaking of their engagement, she experiences torments of humiliation beside which her sufferings in the wake of Douglas’s exposure are nothing:

    At the moment  when, like another knight of the woeful countenance, he ventured into my presence, trembling with confusion, his brow overspread with a modest, mild complacency, artfully endeavouring to exact from me an engagement that amounted to a pledge of my affections, do you know, my dear, that he was absolutely betrothed to another?
    And your friend Augusta was to have been the mortified dupe to her credulity.— Oh yes, Mr St. Aubyn—undoubtedly you shall retaliate in this way, and take your own revenge on Augusta Conway!…
    He has absolutely descended into the commission of a mean falsehood, to gloss over his artful hypocrisy—for whilst I ingenuously acknowledged the impulse of that friendship I proffered him, (and which I declared was founded on a conviction of his superior merits) I regretted that he could not, from the gay circles of fashion and beauty, select some deserving fair one, who by returning his affection, might establish the means of forgetting his former unsuccessful attachment.
    But, no—if I would give him my friendship as a hostage for love, he would gratefully receive and preserve it.—
    —Yet but an hour before he had been at the feet of this melting damsel—this enchanting Miss Alderton, sighing out his passion, and doubtless confirming the sincerity of it with a profusion of oaths…

As, indeed, he was.

In his fretting over Augusta, St. Aubyn is stand-off-ish to Emily, and her distress alerts Colonel Alderton to the situation. Matlock gossip has been busy with St. Aubyn and Augusta, too, and it is an outraged brother who finally confronts St. Aubyn about his apparent perfidy. This elicits something at least approaching a full confession from St. Aubyn, and ends with him insisting there is nothing he wants more than to marry Emily. Alderton gives his consent and approval, and the three of them depart Matlock for Bath, where the wedding is to take place. St. Aubyn writes an account – or a version – of these events to Sullivan, in which he admits that he knows very well that his only chance of being happy with Emily is if he never sees Augusta again…

(It is St. Aubyn’s hurried departure with the Aldertons, in the wake of all this, that prompts Augusta to send an angry, scornful letter after him—and that letter in turn which prompted the owner of this book to call her a bitch and accuse her of “plaguing the poor man so”—!!)

Up to this stage of Sydney St. Aubyn, the reader has certainly been encouraged to sympathise with the eponymous Sydney; while his position as the novel’s main identification character lends authenticity to his feelings, his version of events. But at this point, with St. Aubyn caught between Augusta and Emily, the possibility of a second and very different reading of the text begins to creep in.

Overtly, the narrative of Sydney St. Aubyn positions the capricious Augusta as the villain of the piece, wreaking emotional destruction upon herself and others through her wilfulness; yet as the story progresses, it is, it seems to me, St. Aubyn himself who really occupies that position—not least because of his appalling mishandling of the emotional tangle in which he finds himself enmeshed. Though he keeps declaring himself a victim of circumstances, or of fate, for the disaster that ultimately befalls him he has nothing to blame but his own selfishness and stupidity.

Then, too, there is the matter of the broken engagement, which is never properly accounted for—Augusta’s professed belief in St. Aubyn’s paternity of the illegitimate child being clearly an excuse rather than a reason. Perhaps, over time, Augusta began to sense something a bit “off” about St. Aubyn—nothing she could put her finger on, or give a name to—nothing that would justify the breaking of an engagement—but which determined her not to marry him after all…

And, in fact, there’s something else peculiar about this novel. All throughout it everyone harps upon St. Aubyn’s perfections—his “superior merit”, his “resplendence”, his “brilliant character”—and the more the other characters go on like this, the harder it becomes to take any of it seriously. The novel, in its entirety, protests far too much. And the more it does so, the more it begins to feel not like an example, but a deconstruction of the tenets of “sentimentalism”…

This, anyway, is the reading that I finally took away from Sydney St. Aubyn. Whether it is the reading I was supposed to take away—I have absolutely no idea. If it is intentional, it’s an unusually subtle bit of writing for this literary period.

The second volume of Sydney St. Aubyn opens—oddly. It was the practice in the late 18th century for multi-volume novels to be released volume by volume, and I suspect that this one was so. At any rate, John Robinson – posing as the “editor” of the letters, as so often the case with epistolary novels – switches to third-person narrative for a time here, apparently in order to hurry the plot up. We get a brief tut-tut visit with Augusta via an excerpt of a letter from Louisa, in which she deprecates Augusta’s contemplated “revenge” upon St. Aubyn; we hear of the marriage of St. Aubyn and Emily, and their departure for Dublin; and we learn that Colonel Alderton has stayed behind in England for a very particular reason—nothing less than to pursue his sudden attraction towards Augusta:

    A few days previous to his sister’s departure for Dublin, he had invited St. Aubyn to a private interview, and with the confidence of friendship, unbosomed a secret that a good deal chagrined him—this was no other than a growing partiality for Augusta Conway…
    St. Aubyn, a good deal disconcerted, (tho’ he knew not why) at this unexpected discovery, could hardly resolve what to answer to make the Colonel.—We would fain hope, for the honour of St. Aubyn’s character, that he had renounced every lurking thought which threatened to remind him improperly of Miss Conway—certain it is, he did not receive the intelligence with that cordiality which the other expected—whether St. Aubyn foresaw danger in too close an alliance with the former disturber of his peace, or that a selfish motive (unworthy himself) prevailed for a moment, the future contents of these pages will best determine…


Much of Volume II is devoted to the reclamation of Douglas and his reunion with Maria and their child; we needn’t get too much into that. Our A Plot finds Colonel Alderton pursuing a determined courtship of Augusta, who eventually capitulates—sending Louisa word that she will have her revenge upon St. Aubyn, after all:

I suppose, Louisa, I must marry him.—Well—St. Aubyn has had his whim that way, and my time must come—what think you my dear, will Mrs St. Aubyn’s husband be pleased with this family commutation?—Now, draw yourself up, my sober sentimental girl, and ask what right he has to be thought of?—Remember, Louisa, I told you I had  not done with my gentleman yet!—he shall see what I am capable of—he shall see what real love can accomplish—that Augusta Conway might shine as a spinster, but that she is unrivalled as a wife…

Louisa takes Augusta’s invitation literally, and sends her back a letter full to overflowing with criticisms, admonitions, warnings and forebodings. The Colonel, meanwhile, sends what sounds like a masterpiece of tactlessness to St. Aubyn—only we don’t get the letter itself, we get some commentary upon it by our “editor” instead:

He forgets not to tell him, that he expects, very shortly, to lead her to the altar—nor is he sparing in his description of Augusta’s charms, but with too prodigal a hand dwells on the fascinating subject.—He felt as a lover, and forgot that it was possible for him to be fanning the expiring embers of a flame which ought, by that time, to have been wholly extinguished—perhaps it was imprudent in the Colonel to do so…

You think?

The consequences of this self-absorbed epistle become evident in a hasty letter sent to Stafford Sullivan by Emily St. Aubyn:

    Ah, my God, Mr Sullivan—you are my St. Aubyn’s friend—will you not be a friend to me too?
    He has been delirious for some hours—and there is that on his mind, which I am convinced will for ever mar our happiness, even if it should please providence to restore him to health.
    He calls loudly on Augusta Conway—me he heeds not, but wildly declaims against the treachery of friendship, and swears, with ungovernable fury, that he will not live to see love’s
altar polluted…
    St. Aubyn has had a dreadful night.—She, the fatal she, has been the constant object of his thoughts, nor has there been a moment that his mind did not seem wholly occupied with a determination to punish some person’s perfidy, and abuse of confidence.—My God—surely he does not mean my brother!

St. Aubyn – unfortunately, we might be inclined to add – recovers, and sends Sullivan a letter full of mingled self-blame and self-pity:

    Ah, Stafford—I was not born to be happy—I told you so over and over.—
    Never did wedded love witness a brighter ornament than Emily St. Aubyn.—Nor did a purer, or more ardent affection ever glow in the bosom of virtuous love.—
    I—I am a wretch, Stafford—who have profaned its hallowed rites—who have wantonly trifled away every hope of happiness.
    What luckless agent of mischief brought the devoted Emily Alderton in my way, to be sacrificed to insensibility like mine—at a time, too, when fate seemed to be relenting—when AUGUSTA CONWAY herself, frank and unreserved, deigned to sue to St. Aubyn?
    Was it well done of the Colonel to fasten me so closely to the flimsy etiquette of honour, whilst he was projecting the plan of robbing he of the mistress that I find, Stafford, is still dearer to me than life?

And upon St. Aubyn hearing that Augusta and the Colonel are actually married, we get this:

    On my estate in Yorkshire, I have a small but elegant mansion, fitted exactly for a recluse.—
    There is a wilderness behind it.
    The first thing I have to do is to construct an hermitage in the most retired part of this wilderness—I shall have a lamp perpetually burning—and there I shall sojourn from morn to eve—my wife and I have agreed upon it—she says she won’t control me.—
    Here I shall cherish reflection, instead of flying from it.— You know I have been disappointed a good deal in life—but ’tis all over—I laugh now at what fate can do—yet your friend is no common philosopher.—
    Is not this an excellent scheme?

Sure—if you’re a pathetic, childish, self-indulgent wanker.

I think what makes Sydney St. Aubyn so difficult to gauge is the lack of editorialisation—novels of this period usually weren’t shy about telling the reader what to think, but John Robinson practices an unexpected degree of restraint. And while these days we might be inclined to conclude that there is no way the reader could be expected to sympathise with St. Aubyn, the fact is that there are plenty of sentimental novels in which the characters behave just as extravagantly and selfishly as St. Aubyn, and yet clearly do expect us to sympathise. So while we can give John Robinson the benefit of the doubt in this respect—doubt there still is.

And as for the conclusion of the narrative itself—from the moment he starts raving about hermitages, it’s pretty clear where Sydney St. Aubyn himself is headed. The only question is how many of the supporting cast he might manage to take down with him…


The Histories Of Lady Frances S— And Lady Caroline S—

Minifies1cWe who have indulgent parents, or such as supply their loss, like the aunt of my Juliet, ought to think them the richest gift of Providence.—An incident has happened since my last, that gives more force to this reflection, than any other I have met with.—Scarcely am I yet recovered from the hurry of spirits it occasioned.—Sitting alone this morning, I was told that a young lady desired admittance to me, with great earnestness; but being suddenly taken ill, was obliged to drink a glass of water, before she could deliver her request… What was my astonishment to find there Lady Frances S—, whom but two days since I saw at the masquerade, inspiring all who beheld her, with respect, even to veneration, now unattended; in appearance all terrified, and ready to sink; her feet being scarce able to support their trembling burden.—Unable to speak, I received her in my arms; her head fell on my shoulder, while her hidden grief found vent in a most violent gush of tears…

Margaret and Susannah Minifie were the daughters of the Reverend James Minifie of Somersetshire. Margaret was born around 1734, and Susannah around 1740. Not much is known about their early lives; from our point of view, the most cogent fact is that in 1763, the sisters began writing novels: a profession in which they were later joined by Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth.

It should be stressed at the outset that the bibliography of the Minifie sisters is confused and contradictory when it comes to individual authorship—in short, it is not at all clear who wrote what. Sometimes they put their name, or names, or the title page and sometimes they did not; while certain works have been differently attributed by different academics. We should note that while it is canon to list Susannah Gunning as the author of Barford Abbey, the novel has been attributed by some to Margaret Minifie; though I’m not aware of any solid reason to do so. (We might recall that during the Gunning scandal – the first – Gunning scandal – Susannah denied writing this novel; although if that were true, “my sister wrote it” might have been a more cogent response than “I never heard of it.”)

The Minifies, separately and together, found a certain measure of success as writers. They specialised in “novels of sensibility”, usually featuring the stock wish-fulfilment fantasies of poor girls either marrying into the aristocracy, or discovering they are of the aristocracy, or both (ironic, considering their connection to the Gunning sisters, who did exactly that). Their over-the-top sentimentality saw them paid the backhanded compliment of having the term “Minific” coined to describe that type of writing; in which respect, Clara Reeve singled out Margaret Minifie for criticism in her study of the novel, The Progress Of Romance. However, while it is generally agreed that the Minifies’ early novels are fairly weak, there is also some feeling that they improved as writers over time.

The Minifies’ first novel, published as by “the Miss MINIFIES of Fairwater, in Somersetshire”, appeared in 1763. The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— is, as we might expect, a sentimental epistolary novel, and entirely typical of that branch of writing, inasmuch as there is a lot of talk, and a great many outpourings of “sensibility”, but not a lot actually happens.

Overall, however, the main weakness of the novel lies in its handling of one particular plot-thread.

Lady Frances S—, having fled from her parents’ house and taken refuge with the Lady Lucy Walton, daughter of the Earl of — (I’m not sure why Lady Lucy gets a surname and Lady Frances doesn’t; though their parents are equally title-less), feels obliged to give a circumstantial account of her entire life, in order to justify herself. This account Lady Lucy, naturally, transcribes word for word and sends to her chief correspondent, Miss Juliet Hamilton. At the outset of it (page 17 of the novel), Lady Frances declares:

About this time died my sister Caroline, two years younger than myself.—Had she lived—but for her sake I ought not, will not wish it…

But on the other hand, there’s this dream sequence:

Back again to town, my father spurning me from him, my mother frowning, and ordering me from her presence:—all insulting me, except my uncle, who with a look of mingled pity and resentment, took my hand, and convey’d me from them.—Once more at Audley-castle, Mr Worthley with us; all harmony. My father and mother both caressing him. To compleat all, a lovely creature rush’d into my mother’s arms, who presented her to me, bidding me embrace my sister…

What could the truth possibly be!?

Here’s a hint – take another look at the title of the novel.

Yes. Not a lot of suspense there. Basically we spend the whole novel waiting for the female version of The Suspiciously Superior Peasant to show up, which she duly does.

Anyway. The first half of The Histories— deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Frances; and the second half, although apparently we’re not supposed to realise it, deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Caroline. The plot, such as it is, has various of its characters being caught between love and duty; and though I doubt this was the moral that the Minifies intended to convey, things tend to work out whichever of those options is chosen. I can’t even really say that choosing love over duty brings more suffering, just a different kind.

One of the most unexpected things about The Histories— is the situation of Lady Frances who, though she would appear to be everything her aristocratic patents could desire in a daughter, is hated by those parents: or rather, she is hated by her mother, a former famous beauty suffering from poisonous jealousy of the young and even more lovely girl, while her father goes along with the resulting persecution because of his blind obsession with his wife. Most of what Lady Frances suffers is the direct result of deliberate cruelty from her mother and father, which in turns leads to the novel’s most exasperating aspect – exasperating in 1763, exasperating when Dickens did it about a hundred years later – the insistence that no matter how viciously a “good” girl is treated by her parents or, conversely, how entirely she is rejected by them, she will bear no feelings of resentment whatsoever, desire only to be reconciled, and (if and when that happens) evince nothing towards them but gratitude and love.


Lady Frances’s father, though inheriting a dukedom, was otherwise deprived of everything he could be deprived of as a result of marrying against his father’s wishes, with all unsecured property and money devolving to his younger brother, Lord Henry: a situation which not unnaturally caused deep resentment in the new Duke. Nevertheless, seeing Frances neglected by her mother and left to the servants (at that time not out of jealousy, just because of the Duchess’s passion for her social life), Lord Henry arranged for her to be sent away to school, where she spent the next ten years; it was shortly after she left that the Lady Caroline died {*cough*}.

Returning home, Frances finds her parents’ passive hostility has become active, resulting in her being, in effect, kept in solitary confinement; while Lord Henry’s attempts to make the Duke and Duchess see their injustice backfire as often as not:

His Lordship remonstrated to my mother on my too strict confinement; and at length got her to promise she would introduce me to some of her acquaintance… About six I was summoned to the drawing-room, and found there my father, Lord Henry, and my mother: his Lordship, with an air of affection not visible on any other countenance called me dear good girl; see brother, see sister, leading me to them, how your condescension has made her eyes sparkle with gratitude. Her Grace looked at me in a manner that made me tremble. In my agitation I dropped down on one knee, took her hand and put it to my lips; being so much affected by her unkind silence, that I felt the tears falling in a shower on my face.—What does the girl mean? said my mother; this indulgence spoils her.—Indeed, brother, you persuade me to take a wrong method.—Go, madam, walk back to your apartment; I shall not carry you abroad to expose me…

Repeat ad nauseum.

Eventually Lord Henry persuades the Duke and Duchess to let him take Lady Frances home with him, where she is loved and appreciated; though of course she never stops repining over her parents’ neglect and indifference. At this point (with Lady Lucy repeating Lady Frances’ account of herself to Juliet Hamilton), the narratives-within-narratives start to intrude. We are first given the life-story of the subtly named Mrs Worthley—severely abridged version, she is widowed when her soldier-husband is killed and left almost destitute. She is succoured by an aristocratic woman who turns out to be Lady Frances’ grandmother, the late Duchess; and here allow me to quote a couple of short passages which, I think, convey perfectly both the overall tone of this novel, and its more-than-occasional amusing clumsiness of expression:

Recovering, I found myself thrown on my bed, a lady standing by me, with a smelling bottle in one hand, in the other my daughter…

The sight of [my daughter] made me wish to preserve that life, which was become less valuable, by being deprived of its richest comfort. The greatness of her joy shewed what her sorrow had been. From my arms she ran into the person’s by whose means I had been restored. O, madam, (she cried, locking the child in them, and kissing her with an affection like my own) what a child is this! never did I see such sensibility…

Mrs Worthley has a son as well as a daughter. Charles eventually follows his father into the army, while Sophia becomes the object of Lord Henry’s affections—but dies shortly before they are to be married. Lord Henry buries his heart in her grave and devotes himself to Good Works, in which he is assisted by Mrs Worthley.

Lord Henry is one of this novel’s more interesting aspects and, as with most of what is interesting here, it feels accidental. Lord Henry becomes, progressively, the moral centre of the story, everyone’s touchstone for what is honourable; yet to the reader it appears that Lord Henry has a talent for placing those who love him in the wrong, or for being away when his advice is most needed; so that (given the kind of novel this is) we end up with a series of big emotional scenes in which someone – usually the unfortunate Lady Frances – acts on their own judgement and then – of course – has to throw themselves at Lord Henry’s feet and beg his forgiveness for the heinous crime of being a little less perfectly perfect than he, in the kind of public display that novels of sensibility eat for breakfast.

Lord Henry’s Good Works also smack of killing with kindness. Even allowing for the shifts in language that have occurred since this novel was written, it is hard not to laugh when Charles Worthley, discovering that it was Lord Henry who bought the small estate that his mother sold following her husband’s death, and that he intends to restore it to him along with twenty years’ of collected rents, describes himself as being, “Oppressed by benefits.”

While on leave from his duties, Charles Worthley visits his mother, who now lives upon Lord Henry’s estate, and is introduced to Lady Frances. Naturally, these very nearly perfectly perfect young people fall in love, much as they struggle against it, and much as they struggle to conceal the fact from one another. Eventually, however, they confide in Lord Henry. Although he knows – or ought to know – that the Duke and Duchess will froth at the mouth at the very idea of Lady Frances marrying a mere soldier, he nevertheless asks their permission on the young couple’s behalf, hoping that a fervent description of Charles’ manifold virtues and the news that he, Lord Henry, has made Charles his heir will sufficiently make up for his lack of birth.

Naturally, the Duke and Duchess respond by calling their daughter home, violently abusing her non-stop for her wilfulness, disobedience and lack of proper pride, and try to force her into a hateful marriage—partly because the party in question is a member of the aristocracy and therefore (whatever his personal failings) a proper suitor for Lady Frances…but mostly just because it is hateful.

And having played no small part in bringing about this situation, Lord Henry then fades from the scene, leaving Frances to fend for herself—to decide on her own, firstly, whether “duty” – the perfect “duty” so beloved of Lord Henry – really dictates that she must marry as her parents bid her, whatever her feelings; and secondly, what to do when Charles Worthley tries to persuade her into a secret marriage…

So much for Plot A. Plot B concerns Lord Ormsby, the brother of Lady Lucy, whose erratic behaviour has been referred to at intervals during the transmission of Lady Frances’ story. At length – at length – it transpires that Ormsby has fallen under the influence of the dissolute Lord Edgmore, who has made it his business to lead him away from the path of virtue. As with Lady Frances’ parents, there is a proximate and ultimate reason for Lord Edgmore’s behaviour: on one hand, he likes corrupting virtuous young men; on the other, he is plotting his revenge against a venerable old country clergyman, Mr Nevison, who discovered his wicked intentions with respect to a certain young girl and intervened. Mr Nevison is to be punished for his temerity, the target of Lord Edgmore’s vengeance being the old man’s own beautiful, innocent young granddaughter, the weapon Lord Ormsby…

Ormsby, masquerading under a false identity, and at this stage imbued with Edgmore’s own vicious immorality, does indeed lay siege to Miss Dalton, with the intention of making her his mistress via a false marriage. He finds the task rather more difficult than anticipated; Miss Dalton is not what he expected, particularly in light of her lowly situation:

Can a girl unacquainted with riches, resist the charm they bring? may she not have some sparks of vanity in her composition; and may I not, by the breath of flattery, blow those sparks into flames? but in vain did I try that common and generally successful battery; she was proof against all my arts: my visits, through frequent, were never placed to her account; though I could discern I had by my assiduity gained her esteem. With pleasure have I seen her with an additional chearfulness, and the warmest filial duty imprinted on her face, exerting all the powers of sense and eloquence to entertain her aged and almost decrepid grandfather; which seem’d to soften the rigor of his pain, and banish the remembrance of his misfortunes.—How different from what is called the well-bred of her sex, who make the most desirable and necessary duties of life subservient to the least of their amusements. Often have I regretted, that so many fine women should lose, in the stream of pleasure, a sympathising softness, which nature has originally implanted in them, as a soil more capable of improving those tender seeds, than in us, whose minds are cast in a rougher mould. Difficult as I found it to proceed, I found it as difficult to retreat…

Ashamed of going on with his plot, yet more ashamed to back down in front of Lord Edgmore, Ormsby retreats to his home, when his strange moods attract the notice of his family and friends. He realises that he is in love with Miss Dalton, yet does not relinquish his plan. He proposes and is accepted, then turning his mind to how to lure her away from home. He ends up forging a letter from Miss Dalton’s mother (of whom, more anon), in which she reveals she has been ill, and asks her daughter to come to her. Lord Ormsby offers to escort her to the meeting place, and so manages to remove her from her grandfather’s care and to a house that he has prepared for the occasion. Having got Miss Dalton into his clutches, Ormsby gets to work:

In that time I intended to discover to her my quality, the impossibility of my marrying her (which had made me act as I had done) to tell her that I would study her happiness; and that if my fortune and entire affection could bestow it on her, they were both at her disposal. This considered, I hoped would induce her to forgive the deception I had used, and listen to those sophistical arguments which I had made myself master of, till her virtue should be lull’d asleep by them.—I took a lodging near hers, which was a small distance from the town, and seeing my scheme now at its crisis, I ventured to laugh at those sacred rites which I had before seemed to venerate, called them priestcraft, talked of her sparkling with jewels in a side-box; and being distinguished for her beauty wherever she appeared. When she thus interrupted me— Certainly you are not Mr Beaumont! The Mr Beaumont that honoured me with his regard, was good and generous. Leave, leave me, sir, I will not be insulted; if you entertain those opinions, leave me, and know that I detest the one, and despise the other…

Lord Ormsby does leave her; and, once home again, he finally confesses all to his best friend, Sir William Hamilton (brother to Juliet, who is courting Lady Lucy), asking his advice and that of their respective sisters as to how he should proceed.

Juliet, who recounts all this to another correspondent, her cousin Miss Wentworth, is moved, if not quite to poetry, at least to elaborate analogy:

After all, my dear, what a dreadful thing it is, when any of our sex, who really love virtue, are so unhappy as to fall into the hands of men, who glory in bringing it on a level with vice; of which principles is the hateful Lord Edgmore, especially in the case of Miss Dalton? Like the villain spider, he had artfully spun his web of so fine a texture, as to make it imperceptible. Hid in the close recesses of his wicked machinery, with malicious pleasure, he saw the innocent unsuspecting fly enjoying the sweets of content, and the liberty of roving from flower to flower, and sucking the sweets of education; till at last allured by a sunbeam, she is entangled in the net of vice.—The spider now shews itself, creeping out by slow degrees, eyeing its prey; who, at his approach, sends out a feeble cry of pity to its destroyer.—Bloated with imagined success, methinks I see him just ready to seize the victim of his revenge, when behold she is miraculously delivered by her own virtue…

As is also the case with Susannah Minifie Gunning’s later novel, Barford Abbey, some fairly twisted morality emerges at this point in The Histories— When Lady Frances’ parents go berserk at the thought of her marriage to Charles Worthley, and try to force upon her an individual loathsome for everything but his title, we naturally take it as a typical sentimental novel view of birth-vs-worth. And naturally, when Lord Ormsby falls for a girl of low birth, but who is otherwise “the most beautiful and the most virtuous of her sex”, we expect their union to be held up approvingly as an example of the triumph of proper values. But it doesn’t happen.

Both because he is in love with her, and to make reparation, Lord Ormsby proposes to Miss Dalton, even though he knows his father will be utterly enraged when he finds out. (To modern eyes, “the best of parents”, as he is repeatedly described, is both a domestic tyrant and a terrible snob.) Miss Dalton, however, is steadfast in her refusal—not, we gather, so much because of Ormsby’s transgressions, but because she is now aware that he is the son and heir of an earl. And instead of disputing her stance, Lady Lucy thanks her for it, praising her generosity and self-sacrifice in preventing Lord Ormsby from disgracing his family, and promising to love her as a sister provided she never actually becomes her sister.

So much for Miss Dalton’s beauty, innocence, virtue and courage, which are brushed aside as of no importance. It’s a pity, they all agree, but her marriage with Lord Ormsby is impossible.

Well. Almost impossible.

Before I move on to the question of how we turn an impossibility into a fait accompli, we must digress a moment for an extract from Mr Nevison’s letter to his granddaughter, upon his becoming aware of her various travails. Apparently he and Juliet Hamilton had the same English teacher:

Suspicion and innocence seldom meet; how could you then suspect that under the appearance of merit, was hid a subtil poison, calculated to fascinate the senses, and bid us both asleep? Few they are that can fly from this serpent, under the disguise of a friend; but often when too late discover the deception, and the force of its baneful influence. For innocence, like the playful squirrel, skipping from bough to bough, unmindful of its safety, discerns the beautiful speckled serpent, attempting to climb the tree, which affords her liberty, food, and shelter. Not mistrusting it for an enemy, it descends nearer, whilst the sly reptile rolls himself in a thousand different ways, the more to attract her notice. Sometimes it towers its head, fold upon fold, shewing its glittering scales, and then again baking in the sun of prosperity, licks the dust, attempting, by devilish cunning, to bring his designed prey to the low level of his desires; till at length the poor animal, lured by deceitful appearances, having her head made giddy by them, drops into the extended jaws of the baneful snake, who exults in loud reproachful hisses, on the misfortune he had occasioned…

Lady Frances and Lord Henry have been popping in and out of this plot-thread, but we don’t hear much of the Duke and Duchess until Lady Frances is summoned home by her father, who is stricken with grief and remorse in the face of his wife’s possibly fatal illnesss; and even at this early acquaintance with the Minifies, we are not in the least surprised to discover that the illness in question is smallpox. In Barford Abbey,  the heroine being both beautiful and virtuous, she survives unmarked; the Duchess, being beautiful but rather lacking in the virtue department, survives but has the looks she has always been so vain about completely ruined. This brings about an almost instantaneous reformation, and reconciles her to the daughter she has always hated as a rival—while Lady Frances, of course, is overcome with dutiful joy at this outcome.

Not so fortunate is the Duchess’ tirewoman—a certain Mrs Dalton. She catches smallpox from her mistress, and soon knows she is going to die. This prompts her finally to reveal the Terrible Secret she has harboured for many years…

Come not near me, Madam, said the poor creature, I am a wretch, unworthy this condescension, or your forgiveness. I assured her I did not recollect any offence towards me, but such as I could easily pardon.—O blessed sound! she replied, am I forgiven?—Then staring up, she wrung her hands, and with wild vehemence cried out, O my good Lady—the Duke—Lady Caroline—they—they;—have mercy, heaven, hide—hide—my guilt…

That’s right, folks! Say it with me now, loud and proud—


We haven’t had one of those plots for a while! Personally, I’ve missed them.

It turns out that Mrs Dalton has left a written confession behind, so we get the details as well as the facts. She starts by assuring the Duchess that her long-lost daughter, Still lives; she lives, an honour to you, an honour to your sex! concealed by me under a fictitious name, her noble birth shines out in obscurity.

Yeah, for all the good it’s done her.

Mrs Dalton was Lady Caroline’s wet-nurse. When the baby became ill, she was ordered to take her into the country, as well of course as her own daughter, Elizabeth. There she conceived the idea of swapping the children, and giving her own all the advantages of birth and wealth – an imposture she was sure she could get away with:

Such a mother as yourself, who had never seen your own, but once from its birth, would not discern the changeling…

(This is the second time we’ve encountered a baby substitution plot facilitated by disinterested 18th century motherhood.)

And so Elizabeth Dalton was received into an aristocratic nursery, while the Lady Caroline was banished to the country, to be raised by Mr Nevison, Mrs Dalton’s father. The scheme worked admirably—at least until the false Lady Caroline died…

Despite these outrageous revelations, Mrs Dalton doesn’t hesitate to read the Duchess a lecture on her own conduct:

Now I fear not your resentment, yet implore your forgiveness, and that of my dear Lady Frances Worthley. Your Grace too well knows the part I have acted towards that excellent Lady; it was when I saw your Grace’s treatment of the gentle sufferer in sending her from your house, that a sincere repentance first entered my heart; it was then  that I resolved to write what you now read; not only to restore Lady Caroline to your arms, but to endeavour to convince your Grace that, had you acted like a mother, you would never have lost the one, nor driven the other from you…

The revelation of Lady Caroline’s identity of course removes all barriers between herself and Lord Ormsby, and her steadfast clinging to duty is rewarded…while Lady Frances, who defied her parents and contracted a clandestine marriage to a man out of her own social class is…also rewarded, with reconciliations and friendships all around.

I’m just a little confused right now…


The Mysteries Of Paris

Sue4b“You know my ideas on the subject of the good which a man ought to do who has the knowledge, the will, and the power. To succour unhappy, but deserving, fellow creatures is well; to seek after those who are struggling against misfortune with energy and honour, and to aid them, sometimes without their knowledge,—to prevent, in right time, misery and temptation, is better; to reinstate such perfectly in their own estimation,—to lead back to honesty those who have preserved in purity some generous and ennobling sentiments in the midst of the contempt that withers them, the misery that eats into them, the corruption that encircles them, and, for that end, to brave, in person, this misery, this corruption, this contagion, is better still; to pursue, with unalterable hatred, with implacable vengeance, vice, infamy, and crime, whether they be trampling in the mud, or be clothed in purple and fine linen, that is justice; but to give aid inconsiderately to well-merited degradation, to prostitute and lavish charity and commiseration, by bestowing help on unworthy and undeserving objects, is most infamous; it is impiety,—very sacrilege! it is to doubt the existence of the Almighty; and so, he who acts thus ought to be made to understand.”

I have long and sorely neglected my investigation of the roots of modern detective fiction, but now it is time to return to the murky depths of 19th century crime fiction. In an earlier post, I examined Catherine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley, which I described as a literary bridge between the Newgate Novels of the 1820s and the sensations fiction of the 1860s. The main thread of the novel describes the efforts of various characters to solve the murder of a Mr Wentworth, and to clear the name of his manservant, Andrew Hopley, whose disappearance has led to an assumption of his guilt. Around this anchor plot is built a dizzyingly complicated narrative with a myriad of intersecting plots and numberless characters with multiple identities.

“A dizzyingly complicated narrative with a myriad of intersecting plots and numberless characters with multiple identities” also describes the next important entry in the timeline of detective fiction, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris. Sue himself was something of a contradiction, a young man born into the upper middle classes and with aristocratic, even royal, connections – his godparents were Prince Eugène de Beauharnais and the Empress Joséphine – but who became an impassioned and vocal socialist. After a varied career as a naval surgeon, Sue settled in Paris and found work as a journalist with the liberal press, in time acquiring various publications himself and becoming an early “press baron”. He began writing fiction in the early 1830s, attracting readers with his exotic settings and scandalous plots. His fame today, however, rests chiefly upon his work for the feuilletons.

A “feuilleton”, meaning “leaf” or “scrap of paper”, was a supplement in a polical newspaper or magazine, offered in addition to the news and political editorialisation. In the earliest use of the term, it often referred to an arts or cultural section; later, usually to a work of fiction. Most popular of all were lengthy serial stories published over months or even years, such that “feuilleton” eventually became another word for “serial”. Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris appeared in Le Journal des Débats from June 1842 to October 1843.

Les Mystères de Paris was wildly popular, and not just in France. It was reprinted all over the world (sort of, as we shall see), and inspired a barrage of copycat publications, including two that we shall also be examining in this series of posts: Les Mystères de Londres by Paul Feval, another important figure in the development of crime and detective fiction, and its direct competitor, The Mysteries Of London / Mysteries Of The Court Of London by the king of English pulp fiction, George W. M. Reynolds. Another of Les Mystères de Paris‘s immediate offspring was Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, while its use of interlocking plots and interconnected characters, its sprawling, often undisciplined narrative and its use of fiction as a vehicle for social criticism were a significant influence upon Victor Hugo in the writing of Les Misérables.

Les Mystères de Paris was, as I say, republished all over the world, but in many different forms: there really is no such thing as a “definite edition”. However, conversely, some releases are to be avoided at all cost. Abridged versions are common, while certain English editions were also significantly bowdlerised. To the best of my knowledge, the Project Gutenberg version, based upon the 1899 6-volume Boston edition, is complete, and probably the safest copy to access. In this form, Les Mystères de Paris is 1,384 pages long.

I started out comparing Les Mystères de Paris to Adventures Of Susan Hopley and I’m about to do it again, inasmuch as I am going to declare it similarly impossible to summarise: it is, likewise, the kind of thing that demands either six blog posts or only one, and the interests of everyone’s sanity, I’ve decided on just one. Rather than really trying to convey its multitude of plots, I want to concentrate instead on some of the most striking aspects of this work, and in particular how it differs from contemporary English writing in the same field, which is shown up as shamefully timid by comparison.

The main character of Les Mystères de Paris is a certain M. Rodolph. The opening section of the novel finds its hero intervening between a young girl of the streets and a former convict known as “Le Chourineur” (the butcher), the latter a local terror for his violent temper, his enormous strength, and his history as a killer who served fifteen years in the hulks for murdering a soldier while in the grip of what we might today describe as a psychotic break. It is not entirely clear what Le Chourineur intended to do to the girl – he later insists he only meant a bit of rough fun, though we’re inclined to doubt it – but Rodolph does not wait to find out. A desperate fight between the two men ends with the Chourineur thoroughly vanquished—which earns Rodolph his respect and admiration.  Le Chourineur insists upon both Rodolph and the girl accompanying him to a nearby “tapis-franc” – a thieves’ haunt, where liquor and food is served – where over a rough dinner Rodolph persuades the other two to tell him their stories.

In many ways Les Mystères de Paris is an extremely peculiar book. It serves up any amount of sex, violence, intrigue, plot and counterplot—while every now and then halting the action so that Eugène Sue, either through Rodolph or via his omniscient narrator, can deliver a lecture on the prevailing social conditions, unjust laws, the responsibility of the rich to the poor, the selfish immorality of the aristocracy, the state of the prison system, or some other personal bugbear. The result is what might reasonably be described as “socialist-sensation fiction”.

Eugène Sue’s main thesis is made crystal clear at the outset. Although the streets of Paris swarm with criminals, although for many theft, fraud and even murder are a way of life, there are others who hold fast to a moral code and try to live a decent life. These are the people, Sue contends, to whom the rich have a duty; who should be sought out and rewarded for their tenacious honesty. It is this cause to which Rodolph has devoted himself.

Most critically, however, and most praise-worthily, Sue believes in redemption. The people who Rodolph helps are not only those who have stayed honest all along, but those who have repented their sins and are trying to make a new start. He spends much time decrying the conditions that make this almost impossible, either because someone who has been in jail can’t get a job, or because of the sheer inadequacy of the wages offered by most employers. Temptations to crime are everywhere, encouragements to stay honest few and far between.

Unexpectedly, one of those who is trying to stay clean is Le Chourineur, whose personal code will not allow him to stoop to theft—even though he would live better either as a robber or a convict. Here we hit another of Sue’s red buttons, the fact that people are often better off in prison than they are in the world at large, there having at least a roof, a bed, food, and the chance to earn a little money (although that said, he’s not happy about prison conditions, either). Rodolph is struck by this aspect of Le Chourineur’s history:

    “You were cold, thirsty, hungry, Chourineur, and yet you did not steal?”
    “No; and yet I was horribly wretched. It’s a fact, that I have often gone with an empty bread-basket for two days at a time…but I never stole.”
    “For fear of a gaol?”
    “Pooh!” said the Chourineur, shrugging his shoulders, and laughing loudly… “An honest man, I was famishing; a thief, I should have been supported in prison, and right well, too! But I did not steal because—because—why, because the idea of stealing never came across me; so that’s all about it!”

Rodolph is moved by this rough honesty into declaring Le Chourineur to have both “heart” and “honour”, which in turn serves to attach the former convict to him with dog-like devotion.

The “unconscious rectitude” of Le Chourineur’s code, as it is called, highlights another of Sue’s beliefs. Although he was hostile to the Catholic church as an entity, he was nevertheless religious, and this display of conscience where it might be least expected is a recurring theme. It is a display which tends to happen more amongst the working-classes than the aristocracy, we note; and yet—and yet–

For someone writing in 1842, Eugène Sue’s views seem not merely progressive, but often startlingly so—but they are undercut (at least to modern eyes) by a taint of classism. In spite of his socialist tendencies, it is clear that Sue did not believe in genuine equality; further, that he believed that there were actual, ingrained differences between the nobility and the common people, as is shown most distastefully in two of the most shocking of the novel’s many subplots, both of which feature a young girl being drugged and raped—one because she resists the advances of her employer, the other as the fastest route into a life of prostitution.

The terrible vulnerability of poor girls is another of the novel’s many concerns. The latter victim is the girl whom Rodolph saves from Le Chourineur, and who is also – although with reluctance and shame – persuaded to tell her history. Her name is Marie, known as Fleur-de-Marie for her delicate appearance, once called “La Pegriotte” (little thief) and now “La Goualeuse” (the sweet-voiced one, for her singing) – like I said, everyone here has at least two names – and her short life has been one of misery and abuse.

Abandoned on the streets of Paris when little more than a baby, she was taken in by a vicious hag known as “La Chouette” (the screech-owl) and subjected to all sorts of deprivation and violence. Running away at the age of eight, she was picked up as a vagabond and spent the next eight years in prison—being released when deemed “an adult”. Subsequently she fell into the hands of the owner of the tapis-franc, “the Ogress”, who also happens to be pawn-broker, a fence—and a pimp. Fleur-de-Marie has been only six weeks on the job when she comes to the compassionate attention of Rodolph.

Mind you—you have to do some mighty fine reading between the lines to take in the full story of Fleur-de-Marie at the first reading. Here’s how her rape and her brief career as a prostitute are described:

“At this moment I met the Ogress and one of her old women who I knew where I lodged, and was always coming about me since I left prison. They told me they would find me work, and I believed them. I went with them, so exhausted for want of food that my sense were gone. They gave me brandy to drink, and—and—here I am!” said the unhappy creature, hiding her face in her hands.

Compare this to the frank recitation of Louise Morel, daughter of a working-class family, who is taken into service by one of the novel’s leading villains, M. Ferrand, a notary, a thorough-going hypocrite with a public reputation for rectitude and piety and a private life steeped in vice and crime. One of Ferrand’s main amusements is bringing young girls into his household, ruioning them, them casting them aside. In Louise’s case, her father is in debt to him, and will be imprisoned at a word from Ferrand, meaning that Louise’s mother and numerous siblings will be left to starve. She herself is subjected to violence, and restrained and starved, but nevertheless holds Ferrand off, until he finally goes to extremes:

    “This lethargic feeling,” continued Louise, “so completely overpowered me, that, unable any longer to resist it, I at length, contrary to my usual custom, fell asleep upon my chair. This is all I recollect before—before— Oh, forgive me, father, forgive me! indeed, indeed, I am not guilty; yet— I know not how long I slept; but when I awoke it was to shame and dishonour, for I found M. Ferrand beside me…
    “My first impulse was to rush from the room, but M. Ferrand forcibly detained me; and I still felt so weak, so stupefied with the medicine you speak of as having been mingled in my drink, that I was powerless as an infant. ‘Why do you wish to escape from me now?’ inquired M. Ferrand, with an air of surprise which filled me with dread. ‘What fresh caprice is this? Am I not here by your own free will and consent?’ ‘Oh, sir!’ exclaimed I, ‘this is most shameful and unworthy, to take advantage of my sleep to work my ruin; but my father shall know all!’ Here my master interrupted me by bursting into loud laughter, ‘Upon my word, young lady,’ said he, ‘you are very amusing. So you are going to say that I availed myself of your being asleep to effect your undoing. But who do you suppose will credit such a falsehood? It is now four in the morning, and since ten o’clock last night I have been here… What, in Heaven’s name, can you tell your father? That you thought proper to invite me into your bedroom? But invent any tale you please, you will soon find what sort of a reception it will meet with…’.”

M. Ferrand proceeds to blast Louise’s reputation, wailing to anyone who will listen to him about his horror at discovering that he, the very personification of virtue, has being harbouring a whore under his roof; and subsequently, when Louise’s baby is born dead, he has her arrested on charges of infanticide and so facing the guillotine. But luckily for the Morel family – and most unluckily for M. Ferrand – by this time Rodolph has interested himself in their affairs…

The resolutions of the twin plots of Louise and Fleur-de-Marie differ as radically as the telling of their sad histories. Louise, though suffering horribly, refuses to take any guilt upon her own shoulders and sensibly gets on with life; while Fleur-de-Marie, who is filled with guilt and shame when we first meet her, only becomes more so over the course of the novel, until it literally subsumes her. The unfortunate implication seems to be that while a working-class girl might be able to survive such a trauma, this is a task beyond anyone with the sensibilities of “a lady”—even if she doesn’t happen to know she is “a lady”…

At the conclusion of Fleur-de-Marie’s account of herself, we are given the following:

    Rodolph had listened to the recital, made with so painful a frankness, with deep interest. Misery, destitution, ignorance of the world, had weighed down this wretched girl, cast at sixteen years of age on the wide world of Paris!
    Rodolph involuntarily thought of a beloved child whom he had lost,—a girl, dead at six years of age, and who, had she survived, would have been, like Fleur-de-Marie, sixteen years and a half old. This recollection excited the more highly his solicitude for the unhappy creature whose narration he had just heard.

Immediately, of course, a knowing grin starts to slide across the face of the experienced sensation-reader; but Eugène Sue has a surprise in store for us. Before the first volume of Les Mystères de Paris has concluded, he gives us the following blunt statement:

At this moment, we will content ourselves with stating, what the reader has no doubt already guessed, that Fleur-de-Marie was the fruit of the secret marriage of Rodolph and Sarah, and that they both believed their daughter dead.

It is, however, about a thousand pages further on before Rodolph finds out the truth. By withholding this information from the characters but not from the reader, Sue adds a fiendishly tortuous quality to his telling of the many, many subsequent travails of Fleur-de-Marie.

If Fleur-de-Marie is actually a lady, then of course Rodolph, despite his working-class disguise and the ease with which he moves through the various levels of Parisian society, is a gentleman. In fact, he is rather more than that. The novel is only a few pages old when Rodolph’s companion is softly calling him “Your Highness”, and not much older before Eugène Sue has revealed his hero to be no less a person that the Grand Duke Gustavus Rodolph of Gerolstein, a (fictional) German principality. After being taught a variety of painful life-lessons by a series of tragedies, the Grand Duke left Gerolstein for France where, after adopting the persona of M. Rodolph, a simple workman, he made it his mission to seek out and secretly assist the worthy poor—while also punishing (sometimes with startling violence and even cruelty) the worst of criminals. Meanwhile, in his own persona, Rodolph moves freely amongst the French aristocracy, where a whole series of parallel subplots unfold.

As I have already intimated, and as must already be clear even from this brief overview, the plot of Les Mystères de Paris is too insanely complicated even to begin trying to summarise it; so instead I’ll simply try to give you an idea of its main threads:

First, of course, there’s Rodolph himself. He was only a teenager when his father, the previous Grand Duke, committed the fatal blunder of putting his education in the hands of a certain Doctor César Polidori, “a renowned linguist, a distinguished chemist, learned historian, and deeply versed in the study of all the exact and physical sciences”—but also “atheist, cheat, and hypocrite, full of stratagem and trick, concealing the most dangerous immorality, the most hardened scepticism, under an austere exterior”—and a very ambitious man. Polidori makes it his business to encourage all the worst features in Rodolph’s character, in particular encouraging in him to neglect his duties; foreseeing a time when he might be the power behind the throne in Gerolstein.

(Polidori turns up in various guises, involved in various nefarious plots, all the way through Les Mystères de Paris.)

Meanwhile, Rodolph also falls victim to an even more insidious danger. Sarah Seyton, a beautiful young Scottish girl, the daughter of a baronet, had become obsessed with the thought of making a royal marriage even since having her fortune told to that effect. Sensibly not setting her sights too high, Sarah targets the inexperienced but hot-blooded young heir to the Grand Duchy of Gerolstein; further assisted in this plan by her late father’s political connections, which secure her an introduction to the Gerolstein Court. After ingratiating herself with the susceptible Grand Duke Maximilian, Sarah then gets to work on Rodolph, finally inflaming him to such a degree as to draw from him a proposal of marriage.

Rodolph, though dizzy with his first serious passion, is only too well aware of what his father’s reaction will be to such a mésalliance, and presses upon Sarah the absolute necessity for secrecy. She agrees and, with the connivance of Polidori, with whom Sarah has entered into a partnership of exploitation, the two are married. Sarah has no intention of staying in the shadows a second longer than absolutely necessary, however, and as soon as her pregnancy is sufficiently advanced, she begins dressing so as to reveal it…

The consequences are tragic, and very nearly fatal, as in the inevitable violent confrontation between Rodolph and the Grand Duke, the young man is provoked into drawing his sword upon his father—saved from parricide only by the swift intervention of Sir Walter Murphy, the blunt, painfully honest Englishman to whom Rodolph’s physical education has been entrusted. In the subsequent fallout, Polidori is arrested. To save his own skin, he proves that the marriage isn’t legal, and also sells out Sarah, producing one of her letters to her brother and accomplice, which he took the precaution of acquiring earlier, in which her schemes against Rodolph are spelled out in the most cold-blooded terms—and in which she hints at the possible disposal of the Grand Duke Maximilian.

Overwhelmed with grief and remorse, Rodolph did everything he could to expiate his guilt, leaving Gerolstein for a time at his father’s command, and later obediently marrying a bride chosen for him. During his absence, Sarah was banished from the country and the whole business hushed up. At that time, Rodolph’s deep bitterness and resentment did not leave him much feeling for his child, but later, when he heard that Sarah had remarried – or married – he found himself yearning for his daughter. He tried to contact Sarah, in order to beg for custody of the girl, by then four years old, but for two years was unable to gain any word of the child—and when he finally hear from Sarah, it was to inform him that their daughter was dead…

One of the novel’s surprises is that Sarah, too, genuinely believes her daughter dead; it isn’t just another scheme, or at least, not on her part. As part of her preparations for her marriage with the Count Macgregor (I’m not sure how anyone gets to be “Count Macgregor”, and the novel isn’t telling), she farms the girl out and arranges for her to be raised on the proceeds of a trust fund. Unfortunately, the people who have charge of Amelia (aka Marie) decide that such a nest egg would be wasted on the child and appropriate it for themselves, covering up the business with a fake death and an equally fake investment failure: a transaction facilitated by our old friend, the notary M. Ferrand.

When first sent away by his father, Rodolph swore a solemn oath:

“From that hour I have been a prey to the deepest, the most acute remorse. I immediately quitted Germany for the purpose of travelling, with the intent, if possible, of expiating my guilt; and this self-imposed task I shall continue while I live. To reward the good, to punish the evil-doer, relieve those who suffer, penetrate into every hideous corner where vice holds her court, for the purpose of rescuing some unfortunate creatures from the destruction into which they have fallen,—such is the employment I have marked out for myself.”

Such he did until summoned back to Gerolstein to marry, and such he begins doing again after the death of his wife. One of the first recipients of his assistance is a certain Mme Georges, real name Mme Duresnal, a connection of some close friends of his family, who he found in great distress in Paris, and removed to his model farm in the countryside. Mme Georges has the misfortune to be married to a man who, although well-born, has become one of the most vicious and feared of the Parisian criminal element. Many years earlier, Duresnal not only left his wife destitute, but stole away their only child, a son, with the aim of raising him to follow in his own footsteps. Unfortunately, from his father’s point-of-view, the boy took after his mother; and when as a mere youth he was placed in a bank with the sole purpose of facilitating a robbery, he blew the whistle on his father and his associates. Swearing bloody vengeance on his son, Duresnal was sentenced to life imprisonment—but subsequently escaped…

Rodolph’s plunge into the Parisian underworld is in hope of finding some hint of the fate of the boy, who after living under a series of false names, and moving from job to job, has disappeared—having either gone into hiding, or having fallen victim to his own father. The only clue to his identity that his grieving mother was able to offer Rodolph is that the last time she saw her child, he was wearing “a small Saint Esprit, sculptured in lapis lazuli, tied round his neck by a chain of silver”.

Various plots and manoeuvres bring Rodolph into contact with a notorious criminal known, for his superior education, as the Schoolmaster; his partner in crime (among other things) is none other than Fleur-de-Marie’s old nemesis, La Chouette. Rodolph is trying to lure these two vile criminals into a trap when he makes two startling discoveries: they have knowledge of Fleur-de-Marie’s origins, and La Chouette is wearing the lapis lazuli keepsake of Mme Georges’ son. The Schoolmaster is known as an escaped convict, one who has gone to length of horribly disfiguring his own face in order to conceal his identity: it occurs to Rodolph that he may be none other than M. Duresnal.

So begins a violent conflict that forms one of the main threads of the novel, as Rodolph counters and thwarts the criminal pair, earning their deadly enmity and finding himself in ongoing danger of his life, all while trying to discover what exactly the Schoolmaster and La Chouette might know about Fleur-de-Marie and the missing youth, and also protecting Fleur-de-Marie herself, against whom La Chouette nurses a venomous hatred. One of her favourite fantasies involves throwing vitriol into the girl’s lovely face… And horrifying as this is—we must observe that the punishment which Rodolph eventually inflicts upon the Schoolmaster comprises the novel’s most shocking moment.

Meanwhile, Rodolph is not the only one who has been widowed. A free woman again, Sarah is back on his track, more obsessed than ever not just with the thought of marrying royalty, but of drawing Rodolph back into her web. At this time Sarah does not know that Rodolph saw her incriminating letters, as so fools herself that she might be able to make him love her again. She follows him, spies upon him, weaves schemes around him…and sees that he is in love with another woman, and a married woman at that, who becomes the target of her secret emnity as a consequence. (I’m not even going to touch that incredibly convoluted subplot.)

Finally Sarah decides that the only way she can possibly recapture Rodolph and the crown of Gerolstein is through their daughter; their dead daughter. She has marked Rodolph’s protection of, and deep affection for, Fleur-de-Marie, and realises that she has identified his most vulnerable point. Were their daughter still alive, she could surely persuade him into a marriage that, however little he wanted it personally, would legitimise the girl. Sarah begins plotting to impose a fake Amelia upon Rodolph—deciding also to simultaneously remove an unwanted complication and increase Rodolph’s emotional vulnerability by having Fleur-de-Marie murdered. It is not until after she has set her plot in motion that Sarah finds out who Fleur-de-Marie actually is




A Duchess And Her Daughter

mason1b    Even in far off Spain, when the news of the Duke of Valenzuela’s death reached there, a year after the event, the King and the Spanish Cardinals tucked away in a corner of their minds the question of the future husband of the new Duchess. Now the question of the future husband had emerged from its corner and was beginning to occupy the centre of the stage. King and Cardinals weighed the merits—more often the demerits—of a score of young noblemen who burned with chivalric zeal to make the young heiress—and themselves—happy. Two or three of these young men slipped out of Cadiz and were already on the high seas bound for Caracas. Also on the high seas was the King’s order that the marriage of the Duchess should await the Royal decision. And then—
    And then a rumour, a fantastic story, an impossible tale, crept along the Orinoco in canoes, plodded over the plains and climbed the Andes on mules, galloped through the streets of Caracas on horses. It was first whispered, then said, then shouted that while King and Church and State were deciding who was to marry the Duchess of Valenzuela, that headstrong girl had decided the matter for herself; had married; and had married a nobody…

If I were “the best woman in the world, M. K. W. M.”, I don’t know that I would be particularly flattered by having Alfred Bishop Mason’s A Duchess And Her Daughter dedicated to me: this is a strange and rather unpleasant work of historical fiction; “historical” in that it is set in the past, anyway—predominantly in 18th century Venezuela, a choice unusual enough to make it somewhat disappointing that the novel is not really “about” that, with the Spanish colony simply providing an exotic backdrop for the characters. As for the characters themselves, as far as I have been able to determine they are entirely fictional, which makes the whole exercise seem a little—well, pointless.

This is, as its title suggests, the story of a mother and daughter; but not their lives together: A Duchess And Her Daughter is a novel of two halves. The first half is tough going indeed, partly because Dolores – the Duchess of the title – is such a nasty bit of work, and partly because of the degree of violence in the story, including sexual violence. The second half, focusing upon Alegra, the daughter, is more interesting in a number of ways – Alegra is a far more engaging individual than her mother – but just because we do like her, the direction of the narrative is difficult to take.

A Duchess And Her Daughter begins in the middle of the 18th century, when the Conde de Arcetri is banished from Spain to the wilds of Venezuela for the heinous sin of marrying a woman “as good as she is beautiful”—but not noble. The two have a child, the fair and lovely Dolores, who grows to young womanhood chiefly under the care of the servants, and puts her own spin on her mother’s character by being as selfish and wilful as she is beautiful. When she is sixteen her parents die as a result of a spotted fever epidemic, and Dolores falls into the clutches of the Duke of Valenzuela.

On the principal of it being better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, the Duke of Valenzuela chose to exile himself to Venezuela after being ruled against in a matter of court precedence, his family deemed to rank below that of Medina-Sidonia: “The heralds-at-arms had been bribed and bought.” (This is the Duke’s point of view: the real family of Medina-Sidonia holds the oldest dukedom in Spain, whereas the dukedom of “Valenzuela” is fictional; although the family name of the marquisate of Villasierra is “Valenzuela”.) The Duke is an unhappy man for many reasons, not least his wife’s failure to give him the son and heir he craves. His only minor consolation is that he has succeeded in acquiring “a younger son of a younger son” of the family of Medina-Sidonia as his chaplain, gaining a morose satisfaction out of Father Josè’s subordinate position in his household.

So far from the government seat in Caracas, the Duke’s power is absolute, and there is no-one capable of interfering when he takes an interest in a woman – with or without her consent; a father who tries is tortured to death. When the death of her parents leaves Dolores alone, the Duke turns up in the guise of a respectful mourner and potential guardian, bringing an invitation from his Duchess that Dolores should make her home with them. Longing to escape from her lonely existence and ugly surroundings, Dolores accepts—and soon realises that she has made a terrible mistake. The Duchess is not at home, nor is she expected for some days…

After the first shock, Dolores takes her rape surprisingly well; disturbingly well. She is more upset by having to confront the Duchess when she returns from her visiting. The Duke, however, has already had a word with his wife:

    “You were a fool to come here without knowing I was here. A man must have his diversions. Mother-of-God, what else could pay him for living in this dreary country? Make the best of it. He is mad for a son of his own. If I could have given him one , he would have been as good a husband as a great gentleman can be. Bear him a son. The boy will be baptised as mine. Then we will adopt you as our daughter. You can go back to Spain with us and I will make a great match for you there. It is hard to follow my advice? He will make you follow the first part of it. Stop your silly sobs. Remember your race. Be proud that you are to mother the next Duke of Valenzuela.”
    The great lady leaned back in her chair of state, languid and silent. The Duke had told her what to say and she had said it. She did not wish to be further bothered with the affair…

And so Dolores becomes the third point of a ménage à trois. The Duke grows increasingly obsessed with her, sexually and as the potential mother of his son; but as soon as his fixation upon her gives her the ascendancy, Dolores grows bored with him. Instead she turns her eyes in quite another direction:

    Amid all his flock, Don Josè felt akin only to this flower-like girl and his very soul was shaken by the thought of her sin. She had, indeed, been forced into it, but was she really repentant? She had confessed the sin, but in a strange way. She had asked for absolution. He had told her he must think it over. Outside the confessional she had pouted over the delay. She was really adorable when she pouted. At this point in his pastoral meditation, Don Josè made a gallant, but unsuccessful, attempt to remember that he was not a man, but a priest.
    The confession had been rather startling, not only in substance, but in detail. Priest and penitent were separated as usual in the confessional, but they saw each other many times a day and perforce knew each other well. Even with a pierced plank between them, they were acutely conscious of each other as man and woman, young man and young woman. And when the penitent seemed to assume that the priest was a sexless Methusaleh and went into amatory detail with a frankness that left nothing unsaid, Father Josè had had a terrible tussle with Don Josè…
    Dolores had much enjoyed that confession. It was piquant to talk to a man about such things, especially to a man as handsome and as well-born as Don Josè. If the Duke were only like Don Josè, she mused…

Father Josè is devoutly religious and committed to his calling. He is also a man of great courage, which earns him the respect – and more importantly, the restraint – of Juan Paez, the local bandit chief, the son of an Indian woman and a runaway slave, who encourages the practice of “the old religion” and leads period raids against the Spanish settlers. But in battle with Dolores, Father Josè stands no chance. The girl stalks him, teasing and tormenting him until he is almost driven mad with his desire for her. He tries to avoid her, praying constantly for strength and even locking himself in his cell; but the end is inevitable:

The third night—it was four days before the Duke and Duchess were due—she came softly into his sala, put her finger on her lip, held him back with her left hand, and turned into the chapel. He followed as if he had been her dog. The moonlight fell upon the altar and across the ledge of stone in front of it, the ledge with the rich Moorish rug. In front of the altar she kissed him. In front of the altar she let fall her outer garment. In front of the altar her glorious arms and her marvellous breasts gleamed. She lay herself prone of the altar-rug…

The affair continues for some weeks but finally the tortured Father Josè tears himself away, withdrawing  from the Valenzuela household, retreating to an isolated Dominican monastery. In answer to the Duke’s request for a new confessor, he sends Fray Federigo, “a fat and aged friar”—much to Dolores’s amusement. Already certain she is pregnant by the priest, she announces the glad tidings to the Duke and Duchess; glad tidings for both, he because of his yearning for a son, she because the end of her Venezuelan exile seems finally in sight. But fate has other things in store for both…

Upon entering the Valenzuela household, Dolores is reunited with her foster-sister, Maria, an Indian girl, who was sent away when Dolores was ten and taken into the service of the Duchess—whom she hates. She learns to hate her even more for Dolores’s sake. Maria’s grandmother was a medicine woman, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft, but not before passing on her knowledge. Just before Dolores is due to give birth, the Duchess is taken violently ill and dies. Torn between her horror of what Maria has done and her soaring ambition, Dolores insists upon the Duke marrying her immediately and legitimising their child. Almost before the cowed and frightened Fray Federico can complete the hurried ceremony, Dolores is in labour. The child is—a girl.

The Duke is not really disappointed: the title and estates of Valenzuela may be inherited directly by a daughter in her own right, and if the right husband is found the title of Duke can be bestowed upon him. The Duke, indeed, is devoted to the lovely Alegra. When the child is five, Sister Isabel of Santa Clara, a convent in the town of San Fernando, arrives bearing credentials from the Archbishop of Caracas. The warm-hearted Alegra soon loves her instructress, and begins calling her “tia”, “aunt”—to which Dolores takes exception, on the grounds that they know nothing of the nun’s antecedents:

    The sister picked up the gage of battle that had been flung at her feet. “Before I made my vows,” she said, “I was the Countess of Estramadura; I was born a Medina-Sidonia; I am the sister of a holy man, formerly a priest, now a Dominican monk, who used to be chaplain here. It was probably before Your Grace’s time. He was Father Josè when he was at San Fernando.”
    Sister Isabel said this with a placid saintliness of face and of manner. There was no suggestion in her beautiful eyes of any hidden knowledge of the past. But the Duchess changed colour…

For five years life continues placidly; too placidly for Dolores, who longs to be queening it in Caracas instead of trapped in the middle of nowhere; she is bored with her life and doubly bored with her husband. However, the Duke is an old man now and reluctant to take his beautiful young wife into society, as so keeps reneging on his promises about visiting Caracas. The Duchess is just beginning to lend a willing ear to Maria’s dark counsel regarding her marriage when all plans become redundant. Juan Paez and his followers are on the warpath, sweeping across the Spanish settlements in an orgy of bloodshed and torture. Before the raiders reach San Fernando, Alegra and Sister Isabel are successfully concealed in a secret room in the church; but after their resistance is overborne, both the Duke and Duchess meet a gruesome fate…

Juan Paez, too, is killed during this final confrontation, and subsequently there is peace in the district. Alegra, now Duchess of Valenzuela and owner of vast wealth and estates both in Venezuela and Spain, continues to live in her father’s house under the care of Sister Isabel. As she grows into womanhood, she takes upon herself the management of her property and of the many branches of her trading businesses, by which she sends her goods to all corners of the globe, and by which she becomes almost unimaginably rich. She also devotes herself to the welfare of her peons—although the church firmly dissuades her from schemes for their education.

Naturally, Alegra represents a marital prize of the first order. She is herself aware of this—and also that it is only a matter of time before a husband is forced upon her by the King of Spain, eager to keep a grip on her vast possessions. Unless, of course, she can find a way of forestalling her fate…

Alegra begins to make frequent visits to the tiny village of Yriarte, which is near to the river-port town of Angostura, one of the centres of Alegra’s business interests. Overtly she is calling upon a native of Yriarte, a woman called Juana who, though clumsy and unattractive, has a rare skill for embroidery. Sister Isabel grows suspicious of these visits, certain that Alegra is up to something but unable to imagine what—and what could she be up to in a muddy hole like Yriarte? Like everyone else at San Fernando, Sister Isabel is staggered and disbelieving when Alegra finally does return home—because she does not come alone:

The nun seized the wedding-certificate, read it, looked with amazed eyes at the winner of this matrimonial prize, tried to congratulate her ward, broke down and left the room. The groom, meanwhile, had stood in awkward silence. He was, thank God, of unmixed Spanish descent, but there all thankfulness ended. He was almost as plain as his wife was beautiful. Despite his size, he did not look at all manly. His tiny moustache was no larger than many Spanish women had then and have now. A peasant and a very lout.

Sister Isabel is so profoundly offended by the marriage, the fact of it and Alegra’s secrecy, that she makes it her excuse to withdraw and return to her convent, in spite of Alegra’s pleas that she stay:

    When she said good-bye, the Duchess clung to her and cried, but the nun’s chill aloofness never left her. So long a companionship between two noble souls ended. So the love between them seemed to end, at least on Sister Isabel’s side. But love has its “ashes of roses” and within those ashes embers may live long, and may sometimes be fanned into flame again.
    There is no record of the nun’s first meeting with her brother, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior of the Convent of St Dominic, at Caracas…

News of Alegra’s marriage to Juan de Mendoza travels across Venezuela like an earthquake, and explodes like a bomb at the Court of Spain—but what can they do? – a marriage is a marriage, no matter how scandalous. As for the happy couple— Alegra goes back to running her estates and her businesses, while Juan fills much of his time in hunting up in the mountains; an acceptable pursuit for a man in his position. Eyebrows are raised, however, and tongues begin to wag, when during his time at home, he takes up embroidery.

The main difference in Alegra’s life brought by her marriage is that she is able to receive many more guests into her home. The world outside is changing; more visitors come every day to Venezuela, and those that arrive in San Fernando and in Angostura inevitably call upon the beautiful and gracious Duchess. Some are invited to stay. One of these is John Winthrop, the owner of a thriving commercial concern based in Salem, who has decided to spend some time in command of one of his own trading sloops.

The attraction between the handsome young American and the beautiful Duchess is immediate and deep, but of course the entire situation is impossible, as they equally recognise: she is a married woman, and he is a heretic. Winthrop is well aware he should leave, but day by day – then month by month – he lingers in Angostura. Meanwhile, Winthrop’s second-in-command, Henry Lyman, strikes up an unexpected friendship with Juan de Mendoza; the two begin taking lengthy hunting trips together up into the mountains, staying away for weeks on end. From one of these trips, Lyman returns in a panic, urging Winthrop to leave Angostura—then revealing that he must leave, and not alone:

He hesitated a long time, then let out a torrent of words. “This Don Juan, the Duchess’s husband, as you think and as everybody thinks, isn’t her husband, or anybody’s husband. He couldn’t be anybody’s husband. He’s a woman. And he—she—is with child by me. I must take her home and marry her and make an honest woman of her. And to do that we must start straightaway.”

As Lyman’s urgency indicates, he has in fact delayed his departure with Juan – Juana – past the point where it is safe for anybody; and although Winthrop immediately arranges for the couple’s departure, Juana goes into labour before they are well clear of the territory and Lyman must dock the ship and go in search of a midwife. Naturally, the news gets out. And if the story of the Duchess’s scandalous marriage rocked both Venezuela and Spain, it was as nothing compared to the fallout from this belated revelation about her “husband”. But before anyone has even had a chance to absorb the implications of the situation, yet another shockwave emanates from Angostura: the Duchess of Valenzuela has married a heretic…

To John Winthrop’s way of thinking, the revelation about Juana clears his path to Alegra, but for her the matter is hardly so simple. Winthrop, though he cannot promise conversion, does promise that he will study the matter; further, that he will never interfere with Alegra’s own religious practice, and that their children may be raised in the Catholic faith. Even so, Father Felipe, Alegra’s confessor, refuses to marry them—at least at first. The headstrong Duchess, having already bullied one frightened priest into “marrying” her to Juana Godina, now resorts to blackmail: she will either be John Winthrop’s wife or his mistress—Father Felipe may choose. Knowing Alegra, the priest also knows this isn’t a bluff. Consoling himself with the reflection that, occasionally, exceptions have been made and such marriages permitted, he does as the Duchess demands:

A year passed by. The lovers knew well the recipe for a happy marriage, to go on making love after marriage as before it. They practiced the recipe. Only those few happy souls who have known a great love can imagine what that year was. Its joys were worth more than all the sorrows that followed it…

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with A Duchess And Her Daughter: twelve months of marital bliss are skipped over in five sentences, and then we return to our previously scheduled ugliness and violence.

Alegra and John get their year simply because both communication and decision-making are slow processes. While the Duchess’s first marriage was a scandal, and the circumstances of its subsequent dissolution grounds for ribald laughter and obscene jokes, her marriage to a heretic – and the danger of her vast property passing into the hands of that heretic – is an outrage not to be borne. Spain begins to make plans for dire retribution, and gets as far as having the marriage annulled via a papal decree; but before it can take further action it is forestalled by Caracas, where the Inquisition holds ultimate power. Without warning, John Winthrop is arrested and imprisoned; a token trial ends in a unanimous vote that he be burned at the stake during the upcoming auto-da-fè. The Grand Inquisitor at this time is none other than our old friend, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia.

Despite her many transgressions, Alegra maintains her standing as a Grandee of Spain, and on this basis she obtains a private interview with the Grand Inquisitor. She offers him a bargain: if he will save John Winthrop’s life, she will enter a convent and  donate her entire possessions to the Church. At length Don Josè accepts, conniving at Alegra’s scheme to fool Winthrop with the lie that she will join him in a few days: she knows he will not leave otherwise. By the time he learns the truth, she will be beyond his reach forever.

Of course, there’s just one problem with this plan: the people of Caracas have been promised the burning of a heretic. Not to worry:

    The chief role in the procession, a role that eclipsed even those of the Grand Inquisitor, the Archbishop and the Governor, that of John Winthrop, English heretic, was played by a man as amazed as he was scared, a certain low-class Spaniard, Juan Galapagos by name, who had been awakened that morning from a sound sleep and advised to dress quickly, breakfast quickly and confess quickly, because he was to be burned alive. As the offence imputed to him had been only that of presenting himself with unclean hands at the communion service, it had never occurred to him that he ran the slightest risk of such a fiery doom. In fact, it was another man whom the Grand Inquisitor had remembered as a truculent ruffian…
    When he realised from the maledictions showered upon him that he was supposed to be Winthrop, hope came back to him, poor fool that he was. It was all a mistake; he would explain it and be set free. His manacled hands forbade the tearing off of the yellow bonnet with a peaked top that hid his face, but he began shouting: “I’m not the Englishman! I’m Spanish! I’m Juan Galapagos! Let me out! It’s a mistake! I’m not the Englishman!”
    A lay-brother deftly gagged him with a long scarf. When he threw himself upon the ground, he was prodded to his feet by sword-pricks, while the crowd roared approval and cursed the English heretic for his cowardice. A moment later he was bound to the stake that had awaited Winthrop. It so happened, doubtless because the foreign heretic was the wickedest of all the victims, that when the tiny flames were but beginning to crackle at the feet of the others, they had crept to his shoulders. When the mounting fire licked away the scarf that had gagged him, his screams and blasphemies made the exit of the heretic Englishman to hell deeply gratifying to the pious folk of Caracas. “I did not know the Englishman knew so much Spanish,” said the Governor laughingly.

The circumstances of their separation are more easily borne by Alegra, who is sustained by her faith. Over the years that follow she becomes celebrated for her tireless work amongst the poor and the sick—“Santa Alegra”. She dies loved and mourned by multitudes. But she has one last shock in store, one final act of defiance:

    When she was being arrayed for the great function of her burial, her shocked sister nuns found affixed to the back of the crucifix she always wore the miniature of a man, of a man who had been condemned to the stake for heresy and who, they thought, had died at the stake. They sent in haste for Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior, bishop and Grand Inquisitor, and showed him the awful thing. “What shall we do with it, Reverend Father?” they asked.
    “Do with it? Leave it as it is and bury it with the saint who wore it.”

It is some time before John Winthrop can accept that he has lost his wife forever but, after several bouts of near-fatal illness, and some equally dangerous attempts to see Alegra, he finally tears himself away from Venezuela. He returns to his old life in Salem, but he is not the same man. His business thrives but emotional life he has none. His experiences have left something inside him crippled.

Many years later, Salem is startled by the arrival of a monk—and even more so when the monk takes up residence with John Winthrop.  Unable in his pride to keep the secret of his relationship to “Santa Alegra”, Don Josè has been stripped of everything and exiled. He carries to Winthrop the news of Alegra’s death, and her last message to him—her plea that he convert so that they might meet again. As he promised Alegra he would while begging her to marry him, Winthrop begins to study her faith.

It is very difficult to be sure how the concluding stages of A Duchess And Her Daughter are supposed to be taken. The novel is shot through with anti-Catholicism – the “narrow-mindedness” and “bigotry” of the characters is mentioned again and again, while the plot repeatedly turns on what is presented as the “moral flexibility” offered by confession and absolution; and that’s before we start dwelling on the horrors of the Inquisition – and yet the story concludes with its hero’s conversion; albeit that we get here one of the few glimmers of humour to be found in this grim tale:

Then came the event that startled Salem as the old town had never been startled before. John Winthrop made a public profession of his new faith in the little Roman Catholic chapel in a by-street of Salem. It was a thunder-clap. Friends of a lifetime fell away from him. Widows and maidens stared aghast upon this lost soul. It was suggested that the community should cease to do any business with him. The two banks of Salem, in the first flush of the shocked hostility, agreed not to lend him any money, but they did not tell him so, partly because he had not borrowed any money for years and partly because each feared the withdrawal of the ample funds that stood to his credit on its depositors’ ledger. He was a merchant prince who financed his own ventures. Moreover his Midas touch did not seem to have deserted him. The grim New England God seemed to hesitate about punishing a Winthrop…

And what are we to make of what we must assume to be John Winthrop’s vision of his reunion with Alegra?

In the chapel to the right of the great doorway of the cathedral at Caracas…John Winthrop lies in peace, his skeleton feet some eighteen inches from Alegra’s, awaiting the Last Trump, when he and she are again to spring up triumphant, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, throbbing with love, pulsating with joy…

Really? Granted, I’m no expert; but I always thought of the afterlife as being a lot less—well, fleshy. Then it occurred to me to wonder—is that what Don Josè told John Winthrop to get him to convert?


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