28/06/2015

The History Of Lady Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(*No relation, I’m sure.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01/05/2015

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:

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sydneystaubyn2

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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:

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sydneystaubyn3

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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…

So.

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…

27/03/2015

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.

Groan.

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—

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

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…

27/02/2015

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

.

Sue7

31/01/2015

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?

27/01/2015

A life in piecemeal

Hey, it’s Reading Roulette! Remember Reading Roulette?

Wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. The latest selection, A Duchess And Her Daughter by Alfred Bishop Mason, from 1929, proved frustratingly hard to get hold of, albeit that copies were out there. (And a big shout-out to my friend Will, for facilitating my belated acquisition.) The author of A Duchess And Her Daughter is also proving a bit elusive—likewise out there, but not in any comprehensive way.

Alfred Bishop Mason was born in 1851, the son of Roswell B. Mason, who was mayor of Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. He attended Yale Law School (and was a member of Skull and Bones), and subsequently wrote and translated various works on law, political economy and history. Otherwise, Mason is best known for his “Tom Strong” series, historical stories written for boys, in which a namesake representative of each succeeding generation of the Strong family manages to be present for the most important events in America’s history. A Duchess And Her Daughter seems to be Mason’s only other work of fiction.

In 1893 Mason pops up in the case of Harriet Hubbard Ayer, the cosmetics entrepreneur whose family took advantage of her depression to have her institutionalised. At that time people were compelled to pay for their own incarceration (even if it was involuntary), and Mason was court-appointed to manage the sale of Ayer’s assets. In 1889 he was the guest of Grover Cleveland at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St Augustine, Florida. He must have enjoyed his trip to Florida, because according to the New York Herald Tribune he returned to the Ponce de Leon four years later: “At St. Augustine the weather has been perfect and there have been innumerable sailing parties and picnics besides the usual round of receptions and dances. Mr and Mrs Alfred Bishop Mason recently arrived with a party of guests aboard their private car…”

The same 1889 article refers to Mason as “Vice-President of the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad”; by 1895, he was President of the company. In 1903 we hear of him in association with the Vera Cruz and Pacific Railway. Mason was granted a concession by the Mexican government for the building of a railway line between Cordoba and Santa Lucretia. In an article published by Mason himself on “Mexico And Its People“, he speaks paternally of “my railway”. Evidently the project came to grief, however: William Schell’s study, Integral Outsiders: The American Colony In Mexico City, 1876-1911 reports that, “In 1904, when his road ran into financial difficulties and was taken over by the government, Mason became a promoter of coffee and rubber plantations.” It also refers to Mason as a member of, “This tropical mafia camarilla.”

Mason was married twice. His first wife – who annoyingly I can only find referred to as “Mrs Alfred Bishop Mason” – sounds like a bit of a firecracker. Towards the end of the 19th century she was active in anti-Tammany politics in New York, urging women to use their “influence” on their menfolk and working to galvanise the immigrant population into political action. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Call reports that, having always been interested in machinery, in 1895 she took advantage of her husband’s presidency of the Florida railroad company and learned how to drive a steam train. Eventually, “She could take an engine from the Atlantic to the gulf of Mexico as well as an old engineer.” Mason’s second wife – who earned recognition in her own right and therefore got to keep her name – was Mary Knight Wood, a pianist, composer and song-writer.

And – to bring this blather back to something resembling “the point” – it was Mary to whom Mason dedicated A Duchess And Her Daughter

24/01/2015

A Forger’s Tale

savery4b    Most Australians would struggle to name the country’s first published novelist. Prior to researching this book that number would have included its author. While other literary pioneers are luxuriantly memorialised, Henry Savery seemed destined to dwell in obscurity – an author lost in the literary backstreets. Not for our Henry the glory of Henry Lawson Drive, with its postcard-perfect views over Sydney Harbour from McMahon’s Point. Nor anything approaching the mass adulation and leafy avenues accorded a whole anthology of English poets that can be found in Melbourne’s bayside ‘burb of Elwood.
    No, our writer’s name is cemented in history by an entirely nondescript street on the urban fringes of Canberra – and even this is a mere tributary of a larger road commemorating that more sentimental literary bloke, the poet CJ Dennis. At Point Cook in Victoria a tiny cul-de-sac bearing the maverick’s moniker pales into insignificance beside its more glamorously named neighbour, Miles Franklin Boulevard. But at least some history-savvy surveyor appears to have had the wit to call this little dead-end a court, a place in which our unhappy first novelist spent much time…

It turned out that one of my libraries held a copy of Rod Howard’s 2011 publication, A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, so I thought before moving on in my overview of Australia fiction I would take a look at this non-fiction work to see if the representation of Henry Savery in my examination of Quintus Servinton was accurate, and if any more information on his life had come to light since the publication of Cecil Hadgraft’s biography of Savery in 1962.

In some ways, A Forger’s Tale is rather an odd piece of writing. It is biography, but told very much from Henry Savery’s own point of view; and it draws very heavily upon Quintus Servinton—to the point of taking various passages in the life of “Quintus”, which were of course based upon passages in Henry Savery’s own life, and turning them back into passages from Henry Savery’s life. In fact, for a few horrid moments at the outset I really thought I was going to be reading Quintus Servinton all over again (and I may say that Rod Howard seems to take it for granted, perhaps not unreasonably, that the reader of A Forger’s Tale has not read Quintus Servinton); but at length these fears were relieved. What Howard does here is call upon the historical record where there is an historical record, but where there is not, he allows Henry Savery to speak for himself.

Overall, A Forger’s Tale does three crucial things: it reveals the real people and places hidden behind Quintus Servinton‘s pseudonyms and fudging; it clears up the business of the guilty plea; and it offers an explanation for the persecution of Henry Savery following his arrival in Tasmania, which – much to my surprise, I admit – turns out to have been every bit as unjust and brutal as represented; although Henry himself was not (as he suggests in his novel) the real target: he simply had the misfortune to get caught in the middle of a political shitstorm.

As a consequence of these revelations, A Forger’s Tale offers a far more sympathetic portrait of Henry Savery than Cecil Hadgraft’s rather snippy biography; in some ways, perhaps too much so…

Understandably, A Forger’s Tale skips fairly quickly over the early years of Henry Savery’s life—that is, the first two volumes of Quintus Servinton. (There seems to be consensus on that point: Rod Howard quotes the review of the novel that appeared in the English magazine, The Athenaeum, which declared that only the third volume was worth reading, “…and even that might have been infinitely better.”) The story picks up at the point of Henry’s near fatal decision, in the wake of having been financially burned himself, to pass a forged bill; it reproduces the dinner-table conversation in which the horrified Henry learns that putting imaginary names on a bill is the same under the law as literal forgery. The person making this unwelcome revelation was an attorney named Watson, a colleague of Henry’s brother.

Two things are emphasised at this point: the amount of publicity given the arrest, trial and execution of “celebrity forger”, Henry Fauntleroy, and the attitude of Robert Peel. The newspapers did so well out of the Fauntleroy case that, it seems, they tried to exploit Henry Savery in the same way, turning his false £500 bill into merely the tip of a forgery iceberg and insisting that he spent the proceeds of his untold crimes on wine, women and song. Meanwhile, we learn that two years previously, Robert Peel himself had been the victim of a forger, who managed to elude the law and skip the country; it is suggested that he was particularly harsh upon forgers as a consequence, in addition to his loathing of “gentleman-criminals”. Evidently the judges of the time understood what Peel wanted in forgery cases and usually gave it to him; Quintus Servinton indirectly cites the case of John Wait, who was executed in spite of his jury’s recommendation to mercy.

Indeed, the more we learn about the circumstances, the more miraculous it seems that Henry did escape with his life.

The first suggestion of a guilty plea, introduced by Edward Protheroe (“Mr Rothero”), the former mayor of Bristol and a partner in the defrauded Copper Company, seems to have emanated from John Kaye, the solicitor for the Bank of England who was responsible for the bank’s forgery prosecutions, including that of John Wait. Kaye evidently told an associate of Protheroe, Levi Ames, that Wait should have entered a guilty plea.

Furthermore, Ames and his business partner, Stephen Cave, met with Protheroe and pressed upon him the wisdom of Henry Savery pleading guilty, citing not only the condemnation of Wait (who pleaded not guilty) but the case of Francis Greenway, who was told by his judge that he would have been hanged if he had not admitted his guilt. (Greenway, ironically, became a convict success story, gaining both reputation and wealth as a designer of public buildings in New South Wales.) Cave – who was a friend of Eliza Savery’s family, the Olivers – then called upon Henry and urged him likewise. He added that a certain Alderman Daniel had told him that, “Since Bristol was made a city there has been no occasion when the recommendation of the aldermen has been ignored.”

There are still some mysteries in this part of Henry Savery’s story, in particular this business of the aldermen being consulted (Ames and Cave were both aldermen, as well as Daniel), which simply seems not to have happened. Neither Cave nor Daniel had attended the trial, and afterwards Cave denied he had advised Henry to plead guilty: an assertion contradicted by Henry’s jailer, who had overheard their conversation. It also came to light that before the trial, Cave had confronted a solicitor called Bigg, a cousin of Eliza Savery, over the letter written by Henry to his father-in-law, Lionel Oliver, in which he summed up the pros and cons of the advice he was given: after reading the letter, Cave did not repudiate any of its contents.

Charles Savery petitioned Lord Gifford, the judge, but he was unmoved. Charles then undertook the thankless task of petitioning Robert Peel, only too well aware of how slender Henry’s chances were in that quarter. By then the part played by Stephen Cave had been exposed: Charles emphasised both this and, conversely, the grounds for acquittal, backing his legal petition with an actual petition for clemency carrying over two thousand signatures – including those of Henry’s plaintiffs. Henry’s great-uncle, Lord Manvers, also intervened. Finally – and very reluctantly – Robert Peel gave in, commuting Henry’s death sentence to transportation for life. But the whole business infuriated him, so that he never forgot the name “Henry Savery”…

An explanation is also provided in A Forger’s Tale for Henry’s preferential treatment before and during his journey to Australia—a rare instance in this story of someone paying his debts. While Henry was the proprietor of the newspaper, the Bristol Observer, he had dabbled in politics, coming out in strong support of a campaigning politician called Richard Hart Davis, who was duly elected. It was Hart Davis who used his influence to get Henry removed from the hulks to the hospital ship prior to his transportation, and saw that he was permitted to retain his ordinary clothing and mingle with the paying passengers, rather than being confined below decks with his fellow-convicts, during the journey to Tasmania. He also wrote to a friend, Major-General Ralph Darling, asking him to look after Henry following his arrival. However, Darling either forgot or couldn’t be bothered.

Despite this, Henry’s business and financial skills helped him land on his feet. He was immediately seconded for government duty, and devoted his leisure time to quietly doing work “off the books” for various local businessmen, earning a great deal more in that way than he did via his official employment. Eventually he entered into a business partnership with one Bartholomew Thomas, whose Cressy Company had won the exclusive contract to supply “the colony” with horses.  He also leased himself a small cottage, and started getting his life in order generally. So when Henry wrote to his wife, Eliza, talking up his position and urging her to join him, he wasn’t just blowing hot air.

With the shifting of the scene to Tasmania, the story told in A Forger’s Tale takes on a new air of confidence, for obvious reasons. From this point onwards Henry Savery’s own account of events is supported by a written record – newspapers, letters and journals that throw light on his numerous travails. In particular, we have the personal papers of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, to whom Rod Howard devotes a chapter of his book. Though Arthur’s full story need not concern us, he arrived in Tasmania in 1824 a deeply disgruntled man, with enemies slandering his name in England and a hostile reception waiting for him. His predecessor, William Sorell, was popular locally – chiefly due to his complete failure to actually do his job – and Arthur’s arrival was greeted with anything but an outpouring of joy. Disgusted by the state of the sloppily run penal colony, the puritanical, hard-line Arthur landed on Hobart Town like a ton of bricks.

And Hobart Town – led by Andrew Bent, proprietor of the Hobart Town Gazette (a convicted thief), his offsider, Robert Murray (a convicted bigamist), and local businessman, Anthony Kemp (a former soldier and habitual mutineer) – fought back.

For a variety of reasons – predominantly politics, profit, and sheer bastardry – these three men waged a destructive campaign against George Arthur; one which, in the long run, crippled him. The war was at its height in December of 1825, when Henry Savery arrived in Hobart Town—and found himself caught in the crossfire.

Henry’s very sensible plan for working through his sentence was to pull his head in, keep his mouth shut and stay not only out of trouble, but out of the public eye. He was assisted by his own snobbery: the “upper classes” of Hobart, who he thought of as his social equals, would have nothing to do with him, a convict, and he wanted nothing to do with his fellow-transportees. When he wasn’t working, he kept to himself. Consequently, his dismay upon opening the Colonial Times (renamed after George Arthur founded a government-sponsored newspaper and also called it the Hobart Town Gazette) and finding himself mentioned in a hostile – and largely inaccurate – article may well be imagined. Drawing parallels between him and the much more famous Henry Fauntleroy, the article highlighted Henry’s preferential shipboard treatment, drew attention to George Arthur’s appropriation of his skills, and claimed (wrongly) that Arthur had arranged another “soft berth” for him, in the shape of a superintendentship at the Colonial Hospital.

We need not follow the entire campaign that ensued. Suffice it to say that the account of Henry Savery’s persecution in Quintus Servinton is accurate—except that Henry saw himself as the target, whereas in reality he was just a stick to beat George Arthur with; but in any event, the two men’s names became inescapably linked. Arthur’s appropriation of Henry’s particular skill-set, which was at a premium in the struggling colony, infuriated its embryo business community and seems to have been the catalyst for much of what followed. Again and again, Henry was represented in the press as doing George Arthur’s dirty work, while a variety of false claims were made as to the nature of his government appointment(s)—it was reported, for instance, that he was the editor of Arthur’s version of the Hobart Town Gazette. In reality he was doing straightforward accounting and clerical work, first in the Colonial Secretary’s office, then at the Treasury.

In time the constant slanders had the inevitable effect: people began to look askance at Henry Savery and assume him to be in the wrong. In particular, when the Cressy Company failed – mostly due to Bartholomew Thomas’s mismanagement – it was assumed that Henry was really to blame; that in short, he’d been cooking the books. Finally Henry acquired a real and dangerous personal enemy in the shape of local solicitor, Gamaliel Butler, who was eventually responsible for his imprisonment for debt.

But always George Arthur was the real target. The accusations made against him were transmitted to England, with articles originating in the Colonial Times reprinted in the London papers and constant written complaints directed to the Home Secretary, Lord Bathurst. For reasons that are unclear (beyond Arthur’s personal unpopularity), these reports were accepted at face value. A disbelieving Arthur received letters from Bathurst angrily rebuking him for his conduct, and in particular for his promotion of Henry Savery; an activity in which Lord Bathurst was joined by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to whom the thought of Henry Savery receiving privileges was anathema.

Meanwhile, Eliza Savery was on her way to Tasmania. When Henry wrote encouraging her to come, he was gainfully employed, had saved quite a sum of money, and was busy turning his little cottage into a home. By the time she arrived he was destitute, unemployed, and on the verge of a prison sentence.

I have a bit of a problem with A Forger’s Tale‘s attitude to Eliza Savery, wherein Rod Howard takes it for granted that Eliza had an affair with Algernon Montagu. Obviously I don’t believe Henry Savery’s romanticised depiction of his wife as an angel upon earth in Quintus Servinton; but there seems to reason to assume the worst, either. Certainly Montagu had an agenda, and interfered disastrously between Henry and Eliza; but he might well have done that to leave Eliza with no-one else to turn to, rather than because she was his mistress. There is no actual evidence of an affair, only a lot of gossip; yet Howard refers to Henry as “the cuckolded convict” and Eliza as “the adulterous wife”. It seems rather unfair, particularly given the fact that Howard just takes Henry Savery’s word for his own fidelity.

On the other hand, A Forger’s Tale gives an excellent and interesting account of the writing of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, Henry’s first venture into print. Since I will be examining this earlier publication in due course, we will not touch that part of the story now. I may say that The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land sounds altogether a more interesting work than Quintus Servinton turned out to be, and apparently includes all the local colour that the novel conspicuously lacks.

The final section of A Forger’s Tale deals with the sad conclusion of Henry Savery’s life. After he emerged from prison in 1831, things went better for Henry—for a time. He was employed as a private tutor in the New Norfolk district, and in 1832 he won his ticket of leave; although it was later rescinded for reasons that really weren’t his fault. Eventually he tried farming; but here he began to get back into financial difficulties. That said, his eventual conviction for passing forged notes seems to have been on pretty flimsy evidence. But perhaps the evidence had less to do with it than the fact that the judge before Henry appeared was none other than Algernon Montagu—while on the jury were two individuals who had been skewered in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that his sentence was that, “…you be transported beyond the seas for the term of your natural life.”

The final mystery of Henry Savery’s life concerns his death. Decades after the event, Henry Melville, the printer who saw to the publication of Quintus Servinton, called Henry’s death suicide; while David Burn, a Scottish poet and journalist, in the course of a bizarre, tourist-brochure-like piece of writing called An Excursion To Port Arthur, describes his encounter with a physically shattered Henry Savery, making reference to “the scarce-healed wound of his attenuated throat”.

Rod Howard accepts this as evidence that Henry Savery died, eventually, after cutting his own throat a second time. Cecil Hadgraft, conversely, in his biographical sketch in the 1962 edition of Quintus Servinton, dismisses Melville’s assertion as the effect of confused memories so many years later, and thinks David Burn was referring to the scar from Henry’s first suicide attempt: he concludes from the description of his general condition that Henry had suffered a stroke.

Either way, Henry Savery died from the complications of something, on the 6th February 1842, and two days later was buried in an unmarked grave on The Isle Of The Dead. His fate is known because the minister who oversaw his interment made a note of it in his journal; the minister’s rider, “His end was without honour”, tends to support the suicide theory.

So—there turns out to be far more truth in Quintus Servinton than we initially supposed; the only real fudging comes with Henry’s description of his relationship with Eliza, and in his parallel efforts to praise George Arthur, and make excuses for Algernon Montagu; none of which we can blame him for—and none of which did him the slightest bit of good. Given the extent to which Savery was in reality a victim, his critical self-analysis in his novel takes on an extra, and most interesting, dimension.

The pity of Quintus Servinton is that it is just not a well-written book; in spite of its importance you can’t really recommend it. However, even if his novel will never be more than a footnote in literary terms, at least Henry Savery’s place in the timeline of Australian literature has, albeit belatedly, been recognised and acknowledged.

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An excerpt from the preface of Quintus Servinton; and the official commutation of Henry Savery’s death sentence (both scanned from A Forger’s Tale, no specific sources given).

11/01/2015

Quintus Servinton (Part 2)

savery1bLike many others, he had read unmoved in the hour of his prosperity, the tales of suffering, endured by criminals at their various places of punishment; he had glanced slightly over occasional paragraphs in the newspapers, connected with those floating prisons, the hulks, but intelligence of this sort had passed him unheeded, and he had never thought of acquainting himself with any other than general information, respecting their internal management and condition. Little dreaming that it might ever fall to his own lot to acquire such knowledge by personal experience, he had merely felt, as is commonly the case, that bad as they might be, they were quite good enough for their inhabitants, and had troubled himself no farther about them. Hitherto he had endured few of the pangs of imprisonment beyond the loss of liberty. He had been allowed an unrestrained intercourse with his friends, had been kept separate and apart from other unfortunates, had been free from all distinguishing emblems of his condition, all which circumstances had greatly tended to mitigate the severity of his fate. But, as the carriage that was rapidly conveying him to Woolwich, approached the Arsenal, and he saw crowds of men in irons, all dressed alike, some dragging carts filled with rubbish, some up to their middle in water, labouring by the river side at excavations, some carrying timber or other burthens, others in saw-pits, or employed upon different sorts of artificers’ work, but observed that every gang or set was closely attended by soldiers, with muskets and fixed bayonets, and that here and there a task-master was watching a party, apparently under his immediate charge, an apprehension crept over his mind, that all distinction between himself and others, was now at an end…

But something did save his life; just.

It is not at all clear who advised Henry Savery to plead guilty, but since his account of his trial and its circumstances in Quintus Servinton is in accordance with the public record in every checkable detail, it is reasonable to accept his version of events in this respect, too. We find Quintus in receipt of tortuously conflicting advice: while “the first counsel of the day” highlights variously legal technicalities as grounds for acquittal and advises him to plead not guilty on that basis, a Mr Stephens, “one of the Aldermen of the City”, visits him for the purpose of urging the guilty plea, in which he is supported by Mr Rothero, a partner in the business defrauded but, more pertinently, the former Lord Mayor of London:

“…before the sentences are passed, the Aldermen and Lord Mayor of the day are always consulted, and the majority of their opinions is invariably attended to. I have been through it myself, in my own mayoralty and must know. Several cases have occurred, where such a course has been attended by the effects I state, and it has never once failed. Look at how many of the prosecutors are members of the corporation! they have no vindictive feeling… They want a conviction for the sake of justice, but nothing farther…”

Except in this case, it seems, no such consultation occurred.

Quintus Servinton takes an exasperating turn at this point, as we are told over and over again how terribly sorry everyone feels for Quintus, how much they like him and how terrible they think it is that such things are happening to him—all because he’s a gentleman. This strain of writing carries us from Quintus’s arrest through his trial and condemnation, the last-minute commutation of his sentence, his time in the hulks and his transportation; during which everyone he encounters goes out of their way to help him and to keep him separated from the other convicts—with whom, of course, no gentleman should have to associate.

It all gets a bit sickening, frankly; although it is not without its ironic side, since it appears that it was Henry / Quintus’s position that made the then-Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, so reluctant to commute his sentence—and that of others like him—on the grounds that gentlemen ought to know better. In this instance, however, the bad advice over the guilty plea from (it appears) someone who might expect to be listened to tipped the scale, and the sentence of execution was altered to one of transportation for life. But it took almost every minute between Henry / Quintus’s condemnation and his scheduled execution to obtain this outcome: it is fact, not merely novelistic melodrama, that the commutation arrived less than twenty-four hours prior to sentence being carried out.

It is possible, I suppose, that “white-collar” criminals were always treated a bit differently; but the description of Quintus’s early days as a convicted felon, with its self-comforting undertone of, Everyone could see that I was special, takes some swallowing. He is allowed to wear ordinary clothes, he is removed from the hulks on a specious diagnosis of ill-health, he is given the best possible shipboard accommodation, and he is separated from the mass of the convicts and permitted to associate with the ordinary passengers instead.

The most significant detail here (not that Savery could have known it was) is an account of a meeting between Quintus and one of the passengers, a “Presbyterian divine of the Scotch kirk”. As Cecil Hadgraft points out, this is undoubtedly John Dunmore Lang, who (very briefly, and among many other things) subsequently worked tirelessly for the abandonment of transportation, the introduction of local representative government, and the establishment of Australia as an independent nation. He was also the grandfather of John Lang, one of Australia’s first home-grown novelists, who we shall undoubtedly meet in due course.

Once Quintus arrives in Australia – New South Wales, not Tasmania; it is likely, I think, that the law suit over The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land frightened Henry Savery away from his home turf – Quintus Servinton takes an odd turn, with the self-exculpatory tone becoming predominant and a greater gap opening up between the facts and the novel’s interpretation of those facts.

Evidently Savery spent his time in Australia lurching from one kind of trouble to another. Not all of it was his fault. Savery got caught in the middle of a feud between various local interests and Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, chiefly because he was seconded to government service immediately upon his arrival: an appointment that infuriated the burgeoning local settlement where business and financial skills such as Savery’s were in urgent demand. Typically, this situation is turned around in the novel, with Quintus himself the target of these attacks and increasingly (though for reasons that are never entirely clear) dogged by enemies both local and back in England.

In reality, however, it seems that most of Savery’s troubles stemmed from his refusal – or his inability – to accept that the rules applied to him.

The focus of the final volume of Quintus Servinton is the relationship between Quintus and his wife, Emily—recapitulating, at least in outline, Henry Savery’s relationship with his own wife, Eliza. The basic facts of the story are remarkable enough: Eliza Savery’s first attempt to join her husband in Australia almost killed her, as her ship was caught in a violent storm and wrecked without getting any further than Plymouth. Despite this, a few months later she embarked again, undertaking the gruelling four-and-a-half month journey from England to Tasmania, and arriving in Hobart in October of 1828.

And then, in February of 1829, she turned around and went back to England.

There were various ways in which convicts could be joined by their wives. In the ideal scenario, a government certificate would be issued if the husband had shown exemplary conduct during the first year of his sentence and could demonstrate his ability to support his wife (naturally this system favoured convicts with marketable skills, who would be hired like normal employees), and the wife could provide letters of recommendation attesting to her own unblemished reputation. This strictness was at least partly because when these conditions were met, the wife’s passage was paid for by the government; it was a way of bringing a better class of woman to “the colony”. When the wife arrived, her husband would be “assigned” to her as a servant, allowing them effectively to live a normal life together until the end of his sentence. Husbands and wives not meeting these conditions could still be reunited, but at their own expense and their own peril.

While we cannot doubt Henry Savery’s devotion to his wife, it was his longing to be reunited with her that first led him into trouble with the authorities. Before he had been in Hobart a month, he was making application to have Eliza brought out. An understandable inquiry into how he managed to obtain the necessary certificate so quickly revealed that he hadn’t. Rather, a statement from the Colonial Secretary, that he should bring his wife out if possible, had been twisted by Savery into permission to do so—although whether this was a misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation is unclear. This incident was, however, the first of many occasions upon which Savery succeeded in earning the ire of the local authorities. It also set the tone for the rest of his time as a convict, in which he repeatedly attracted accusations of dodgy business practices and false representation.

Thwarted with respect to the certificate, Henry Savery continued to plead with Eliza by letter to join him at her family’s expense, until as we have seen she began making her arrangements late in 1828. It seems, however, that partly in his desperation to see her again and partly out of the same over-inflated opinion of himself that had led him into trouble in the first place, Henry Savery had sent his wife exaggerated accounts of the state of Hobart itself, and of his own importance in the colony. Instead of what she had been led to expect, Eliza arrived to find a struggling community built around a penal colony, with all its attendant deprivations, and her husband in such financial straits that he was not only unable to provide a home for her, but on the verge of being imprisoned for debt. Furthermore, barely had Eliza set foot in Hobart than she was threatened with having her own scanty property confiscated to pay off what her husband owed: an outcome that would have left her homeless and destitute.

While it is not hard to imagine the scene that must have followed, its climax is still shocking: a week after his wife’s long-anticipated arrival, Henry Savery attempted suicide by cutting his own throat; although prompt medical assistance saved his life.

While Savery was recovering, the local authorities tried but failed to arrange some sort of accommodation regarding his debts; and in December 1828 he was imprisoned. Eliza Savery, meanwhile, was urged to protect herself and her property by leaving the colony, which she did the following February.

Now—consider the events I have just outlined, and then consider this passage:

Already, therefore, had hope dispelled much of the recollection of the past, and in the flattering picture it drew for the future, little else than happiness appeared to await him. Notwithstanding the doom under which he had been banished from his native land, instances were of every day’s occurrence to justify the expectation, that in a few years he might be in a situation to return to England, should it be his desire to do so; in the mean time, he was in one of the finest climates on the globe – had conquered numerous difficulties by his energy and activity – had made many powerful friends – and had been altogether void of offence, either in his compulsory duties, or in his private relations. Every letter to Emily was full of the many agreeable subjects, connected with this state of things – he described in glowing colours, the beautiful scenery that surrounded the residence he had provided for her – pourtrayed in fervid language, the individuals who had been most kind to him – descanted upon his pleasing prospects, so far as worldly concerns went…

(Those references to “the finest climate on the globe” and “the beautiful scenery” are all we get by way of Henry Savery describing his surroundings.)

The final section of Quintus Servinton is all about Quintus’s relationship with Emily, and manages to be touching, painful and rather embarrassing all at once. As by this time we would expect, the facts are all there in outline but the circumstances and motivations have all been reworked, until the narrative strikes us as a mixture of romanticism and sheer denial.

In the novel, Emily Servinton is the very embodiment of the perfect nineteenth-century wife: loving, devout, self-sacrificing, endlessly patient, forgiving and forbearing. It is she who is determined at all cost to be reunited with her husband. However, by the time she arrives Quintus’s enemies have succeeded in putting him in an invidious position, accusing him both of illegal business practices and threatening him unjustly with imprisonment for debt.

Furthermore,  all unknowing, Emily herself has become an object of more than usual interest to one Alverney Malvers, who is travelling to Hobart to take up a judgeship, and who was given the task of looking after her on shipboard. Although Malvers does not misread Emily’s character so far as to think he has any chance with her, he takes at face value the slanders of Quintus’s enemies and becomes unable to tolerate the thought of her living with such a man; resorting to increasingly desperate, even dishonourable, actions to separate her from Quintus:

Emily continued unwilling to hear her husband spoken of reproachfully; but so assailed, she was in a measure compelled to sit and listen to a long train of his alleged misconduct – in the course of which, things, true in themselves, were so distorted, arising from the sources through which they had reached her informant, as to lose all semblance of reality. Mr Malvers told her, in its worst colours, the orders received from England for his removal into the interior – painted the utter hopelessness of his prospects – strongly insinuated that he had so comported himself, as to be again amenable to the laws – conveyed rather more of a suspicion of other delinquencies – mentioned the intention on the part of a person, whom Quintus had appointed trustee over some property, on account of his civil disabilities, of instantly seizing every thing she had brought from England, upon the ground that it now belonged to her husband, and became, therefore, vested in him; and concluded by saying, that Quintus would, in all probability, be torn from her in the course of the day, either under an arrest for debt, or as a consequence of the interposition of Government.

This passage very much captures the peculiar tone of Quintus Servinton, spelling out the facts but presenting them as exaggeration and slander.

(“Malvers” is based upon Algernon Montagu, who did travel out to Hobart in company with Eliza Savery. There was some ugly gossip about the two of them, although it may well have been just gossip. It seems that in the first instance Malvers offered financial assistance for Savery, in order to help Eliza, but when he discovered just how much of a mess he was in he washed his hands of it, apart from advising Eliza to leave as quickly as possible.)

Emily, of course, doesn’t believe any of this; but when Malvers tells her that she is hurting Quintus by staying with him – that his arrest leaving her destitute will reflect upon him – that the protection of a lady of high reputation will elevate her and Quintus by association – she begins, reluctantly, to heed him. She agrees to leave Quintus’s cottage for the Hobart house of a Mrs Cecil – regretting her decision almost as soon as it is taken. Malvers, however, having achieved his end, has no intention of allowing contact between Emily and Quintus and strives to keep them totally separated.

Consequently, Quintus returns to his cottage to find that, evidently, only a week after their reunion, Emily has deserted him. It is a blow he cannot withstand:

With a terrible foreboding, did Mr Leicester turn towards the spot, and his anticipations, gloomy as they might have been, were shortly more than realised. Stretched upon the floor of one of the rooms, weltering in a sea of blood, perfectly unconscious, and life’s stream, if not already exhausted, rapidly ebbing from its source, lay the man to whom, through good report and evil report, he had proved the firm, undeviating friend…

While Quintus is being nursed back to health by Emily, he and his friends try to hit upon the best course of action. In the first place, Emily appeals personally to the Governor of the colony (not George Arthur, since this isn’t Tasmania, though obviously based upon him). He tells her that Quintus’s only hope is for her to return to England and make a similar personal appeal to the Home Secretary who, though immovable by letter, may be influenced by Emily in person. Assured that this is the only way, Emily resolves to follow the Governor’s advice; steeling herself for the task of breaking to Quintus the news that they are to be separated again:

    His countenance altered, a deathly paleness succeeded the faint colour that had now resumed its place on his cheek, and which, Emily observing, continued, “Do not look so – I cannot bear to see it. I know what is passing in your mind,” and sinking into his arms as she spoke, “I will never leave you again for a single day, unless you desire me.”
    “Then, my love, you will remain with me until I close your eyes, or you do the same sad office for me – but I hope you do not think I mistrust you, for believe me, I have the most unbounded confidence in your good sense, your correct principles, and your affection.”

And at length Quintus agrees to Emily’s departure. Before it can be arranged, however, the person to whom Quintus is in debt has him imprisoned. Quintus has had his property placed in trust specifically to prevent this outcome, and the resulting legal tangle is one more reason for Emily to plead his case in England. As it happens, there is a ship in the harbour that is shortly to depart. Emily must make up her mind to go at once:

    “Do not fancy for a moment, my dearest Quintus, that I regard myself, or my own happiness, in urging upon you the wisdom of my embarking by the Zara. I can never be happy separated from you – and I solemnly pledge myself, that my absence shall not be one day longer, than is necessary for obtaining such a mitigation of the cruel orders now in force, as may prevent the probability of our living together, free from such storms as have latterly befallen us… I once more solemnly assure you, that if God spare my life, I will rejoin you; and that, no longer delay shall take place in your again seeing me, than is absolutely unavoidable. Let me only once gain the point I have in view, and I will never relinquish the pursuit till it be gained, you shall see how long it will be, ere I am again on the water to join you…”
    The two or three days that intervened, until the Zara would be ready for sea, were wholly devoted to her husband – and when, at length, the morning arrived that was to witness her departure from a spot, her arrival upon whose shores, only three months previously, had long been associated with many visionary scenes of happiness, the signal from the vessel had been more than once made, until she could tear herself from the last fond embrace of one, with whom she was leaving an undivided, a truly affectionate heart – and again and again did she say, “One kiss more, my dearest, dear husband – think of me, and pray for me, for you will be in my constant thoughts and prayers, and, if I live, we will soon see one another again,” ere this excellent, devoted woman could summon courage to leave the place – when, presently embarking, a prosperous wind soon wafter her far, far away from the unfortunate Quintus.

In Emily’s absence, Quintus remains in prison, treating it as a chastening exercise that will assist him in eradicating from his character those flaws that have been at the root of so much evil. Emily, meanwhile, devotes herself to pleading her husband’s cause to the Home Secretary; and although the process drags out over years, in the end she succeeds in winning for Quintus exoneration of the (trumped-up) charges against him and some mitigation of his original sentence. The two are reunited and, after several more years of quiet, honest conduct, Quintus has the rest of his sentence revoked. He and Emily return to England, retiring to a quiet corner of Devonshire—where the framing narrator of this novel (remember him?) discovers them many years later.

Though of course—that’s not how the story really ended.

Quintus Servinton was written and published, we recall, during 1830 and early 1831, while Henry Savery was first in prison and then an assigned convict labourer. He received his ticket of leave in 1832, and immediately wrote to Eliza, begging her to join him. She did not respond, and he never saw or heard from her again.

We recall that Quintus Servinton was published in Britain in 1832—and can only speculate as to whether Eliza read it – and if so, how she felt about it – and whether it influenced her decision. In particular you have to wonder how close to reality the parting scenes between Quintus and Emily might have been. Not very, we suspect. It is a matter of record that the colony of Hobart was shocked by the situation in which Eliza Savery found herself in upon her arrival. George Arthur himself commented in a letter:

This lady, it appears, is most respectably connected in England, and, allured by the gross misrepresentations of her Husband as to the comfort of his situation in this Colony, she, unfortunately, ventured to join him. Wounded by the shameful duplicity which had been practised upon her, some domestic misunderstanding took place immediately after her debarkation…

(“Domestic misunderstanding”—master of the understatement, our Lieutenant-Governor.)

After Henry Savery’s release from debtor’s prison, he worked for the newspaper, the Tasmanian, and again got mixed up in a libel suit; and although this incident really wasn’t Savery’s fault, it cost him his ticket of leave. Subsequently he tends to fall out of the public eye, although it is known that he developed an interest and some skill in agriculture, leasing farms and working to improve methods of cultivation.

However, he also got more and more into debt; until at last – believe it or not – he resorted to passing false bills. He was again exposed, arrested, and convicted. His sentence was “Transportation beyond sea for life” – which for someone in Henry Savery’s circumstances meant incarceration and hard labour at Port Arthur. But “life”, as it turned out, was only another fifteen months: Henry Savery died, apparently of a stroke, in February 1842. He was buried on what  is known as “The Isle Of The Dead”, an offshore cemetery.

Savery was rescued from this oblivion in 1978, when the National Parks & Wildlife Service placed a stone reading:  In Memory Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, Who Died At Port Arthur In 1842 One Of Many Convicts Buried Here In Unmarked Graves. In 1992, on the 150th anniversary of his death,  the Fellowship of Australian Writers replaced this with a memorial that – fittingly, I think – equals Savery’s novel in its frankness about the vagaries of his life:

savery2

Footnote: My remark that “not much is known about Henry Savery’s early life” may have been premature: this exercise has brought to my attention A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist by Rod Howard.

09/01/2015

Quintus Servinton (Part 1)

savery3Still, what was he to do? for the only other alternative, that of staying and facing the storm, seemed to him still worse than flight. At times he felt disposed to unbosom himself unreservedly to Emily; but again his courage failed him, for he could not endure the thoughts of thus contemplating his own picture. So hideous is vice, when seen in its true colours—so frightful the spectre even to ourselves, that we are driven from one position to another, seeking to avoid it, although, after the first wrong step, only to increase its power. We forgot also, how grievously we afflict others, at the same moment that we are ruining ourselves, by enlisting in its service; for our experience of the world tells us, that there are many, who are much more keen and sensitive, respecting the faults of others, than of their own – many, who view the same transaction in different lights, according to its actor – who think that, a beautiful flower, when belonging to themselves, which is esteemed a frightful weed, if growing in their neighbour’s garden – in a word, who measure their own and other peoples’ corn by different bushels. Not so however, was it with Quintus, in respect to the relative connexion between himself, and the affectionate friends by whom he was surrounded. Could he have summoned resolution to have poured into Emily’s ear, some of that contrition, by which his soul was distracted, and which, being suppressed, added twofold to his misery, he would have found in her, and in her relations, powerful and kind auxiliaries. Could he indeed, have brought himself to divest his mind of a portion of its care, by laying the burden upon one, who was most ready to share it with him, the subsequent excellence of her conduct gave full assurance, that he would have reposed his confidence, where it was well deserved; and both might have been spared years of sorrow…

When Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton: A Tale Founded Upon Incidents Of Real Occurrence is called “the first Australian novel”, we are much closer to the truth than is often the case when dealing with anointed “firsts”. The novel was published in Hobart, with volumes I and II appearing late in 1830, and volume III early in 1831. It received favourable notices in the local newspapers, which also noted that the novel was printed for “transmission to England”, and that consequently only a few copies would be “retained for sale in the Colony”.

These circumstances help to account for the extreme rarity of the first edition of Quintus Servinton, only three copies of which are known to exist. That held by the Mitchell Library, the main Australiana collection of the State Library of New South Wales, was used as the basis of the first local reprinting of the book, the Jacaranda Press edition of 1962. Vitally, this edition also carried a biographical introduction prepared by Cecil Hadgraft, which draws together what is known about the life of Henry Savery (and to which I am deeply indebted for much of what follows). Two subsequent editions, from the New South Wales University Press in 1984 and the University of Sydney Press in 2003, essentially reproduce the Jacaranda Press edition, including Hadgraft’s introduction; although the former, for inscrutable reasons, altered the title of the novel to The Bitter Bread Of Banishment.

It is perhaps not altogether surprising to discover that Quintus Servinton is more important than good; although to be fair, some of the reasons that the novel is likely to disappoint the modern reader lie in false expectations. While this novel is invariably referenced in terms of its author’s experiences as a convict, in fact these are reflected only in the third of the three volumes, the other two of which are devoted to getting its title character to the point of the (we are assured) single transgression that resulted in his transportation.

Furthermore, nothing in the novel addresses the convict experience generally, nor is there any description of the surroundings in which this phase of Quintus’s life is played out. This can be partly ascribed to the fact that, while Quintus serves his time in New South Wales, Henry Savery was transported to Tasmania. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we are given so little hint of what is going on around Quintus is that this narrow focus reflects the complete self-absorption of his author.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Quintus Servinton is not just that it is partly autobiographical, but the extent to which this is so: everything that is on the public record about Henry Savery appears in this novel. What differs between the reality and the fiction is the motivation and the tone. Although it is impossible to get away from the act of forgery that caused his conviction and transportation (and nearly got him executed), Savery’s Quintus is more sinned against than sinning, a victim of circumstances and of outside malice. However, when we consider the facts of Savery’s life, it is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that he brought most of his troubles on himself—not least from never knowing when to quit. As Cecil Hadgraft puts it:

It is not too harsh to suggest that apart from successful ingenuity and a practised bravado he had many of the qualifications of the confidence-man.

Not much is known about Henry Savery’s early life. He was born in 1791, the son of John Savery, a well-respected Bristol banker. The Savery family boasted descent from the Norman de Servingtons, and often gave “Servington” as a middle name. Henry was the family’s sixth-born son, but an elder brother died in infancy making Henry in effect the fifth (“Quintus”). As a young man he lived in London, and there married Eliza Oliver. The couple moved back to the west of England, and Henry went into business for himself. His first venture, in sugar refining, went bankrupt. He next changed horses and operated a newspaper for some two and a half years; it is not known why he gave up on the venture. While still publishing the newspaper, Henry took over an insurance and brokerage form, but this doesn’t seem to have lasted either. In 1822 he went back into the sugar-refining business—and that’s when things went wrong. Or at least, that’s when we know things went wrong: when Henry Savery was arrested in 1824, one newspaper report of it commented that there had been previous instances of “painful filial misconduct”, which perhaps suggests that John Savery had saved his son’s skin on other, less serious, occasions.

He could do nothing for Henry this time, however. While it has been suggested that Henry had been guilty of fraudulent practices on a large scale and over time, all we know for certain is that in 1824, he passed a false bill for £500—apparently because, without the knowledge of his business partner, he had committed their company beyond its means and had to find a way of covering the gap. The bill was not a forgery in the sense we might expect, inasmuch as it was entirely false—being “endorsed” by non-existent people, rather than carrying false signatures of real and trustworthy individuals.

Via Quintus, Henry Savery claims not to have known that this sort of bill fell under the contemporary statutes against forgery. However, the high-profile trial and execution of convicted forger, Henry Fauntleroy, may have taught him differently. In any event, he panicked and ran, but was apprehended as he was trying to leave the country. Seeing himself trapped, Savery jumped overboard and nearly drowned. Subsequently recovering, he was held in prison until his trial. During this period, it seems that certain prominent individuals convinced him that the only way to save his life was to plead guilty. He did so, persisting in his plea even against the strong advice of the court recorder, only to have his judge immediately assume the black cap.

Clearly some terrible miscommunication had occurred, since not merely Henry Savery reacted with shock and horror to this outcome: even George Smith, who had brought the charges against Savery, pleaded for mercy—to no avail. Savery was committed to prison, the date of his execution set for three weeks’ distance. In the meantime, frantic efforts were made on his behalf; and with less than twenty-four hours left, Savery’s friends succeeded in having his sentence commuted to transportation for life. He spent about six weeks in the hulk Justinia at Woolwich, and left England forever in mid-August of 1825 on the Medway, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then known, early in December.

Henry Savery’s time as a convict and a ticket-of-leave man was one of ups and downs; mostly, for one reason or another, downs. The period that most concerns us, that between December 1828 and March 1830, finds him imprisoned for debt. During the second half of 1829, Savery began to fill his time by writing, producing The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land, a series of sketches about Hobart life that appeared in the Colonial Times, and beginning work on Quintus Servinton. Upon his release, having exhausted the patience of the authorities and, in particular, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, Savery was dispatched as an assigned labourer to the farmlands of one Major Macintosh, in the New Norfolk district west of Hobart, where he stayed until receiving his ticket-of-leave in June of 1832. During his time in New Norfolk, he completed and arranged for the publication of Quintus Servinton.

(The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land attracted a libel suit from one of those sketched. However, the suit was directed against the publisher, not the author, and just as well: at the time there was a strict legal edict against convicts writing for the newspapers in any capacity, and had Savery’s authorship been made public, another criminal conviction would certainly have been the consequence. However, the sketches had originally appeared as by “Simon Stukeley”, and it is only because of an annotation by the printer Henry Melville appended to the copy of The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land now held by the British Museum, that Savery’s authorship is known.)

Quintus Servinton is a very odd book. On one hand it shows a clear understanding by Savery of the character flaws that led him into trouble, and makes no bones about his guilt in the matter of the forgery; though unlike his fictional counterpart it does not seem that Savery ever learned anything from his experiences, in spite of his literary consideration of the benefits of suffering and the inevitable consequences of transgression. But even while, via Quintus, he is admitting his culpability in the troubles that befell him, every contributing incident is twisted to make it someone else’s fault, with Quintus for one reason or another (jealousy, resentment, financial gain, or just plain bad luck) attracting malicious attacks from a surprising range and number of people. The result is a work that manages to be bluntly honest and totally dishonest at the same time.

But while there is certainly some psychological interest to the analytical self-portrait that comprises Quintus Servinton, as a novel it is a fairly gruelling read. It is easy to understand how Henry Savery might have been led into such an examination of his own life, but for the reader the circumstantial account of the first half of Quintus’s life becomes extremely tedious—not least because Savery has a tendency to write his subject matter into the ground. We learn early on that a combination of overweening self-confidence and impatient ambition, along with a certain way of thinking summed up as “cunning”, are responsible for leading Quintus astray; but this isn’t enough for Savery, who has to illustrate his point over and over, via incidents that no doubt happened to him (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), but which really aren’t necessary for the reader to hear about in such minute detail. Nor do we need to learn quite so much about Quintus’s school-days, or his abortive calf-loves. It is not until deep in the second volume, when the events leading up to the forgery begin to fall into place, that the novel’s level of interest lifts.

Consequently—I’m going to skip over most of those early stages, since the paragraph above tells you most of what you need to know.

Quintus Servinton is framed by a short narrative involving an unnamed young man who is injured while on a walking tour of Devonshire, and taken into the house of an elderly but still loving couple, who show signs of past suffering. The trio become attached, and towards the end of the young man’s stay, his host reveals to him the story of his life—offering it as a cautionary tale.

The novel proper begins in 1772, with Quintus’s birth being marked by a gypsy prophecy regarding his life, which reveals that he will know both great happiness and great sorrow and warns that the years between thirty and forty will be “the commencing years of his disasters”. This early phase of the novel is mostly interesting for the radical attitude of Mrs Servinton: Quintus is her eleventh child, and she is less than thrilled when the gypsy tells her to expect seven more. She greets Quintus’s birth with the following:

“I’m sure Mr Servinton, mine is a dreadful life – no sooner one child can walk, than there’s another in arms – I’m sure I hope none of my daughters will ever marry – they little know what they would have to go through.—We have another boy.—I really thought four were quite enough, and I don’t know what we shall do with any more…”

Mrs Servinton continues to ring changes on this theme throughout the following chapters, while Mr Servinton talks a lot about the dispensations of Providence but (as we may infer from the seven subsequent arrivals) never thinks of keeping it in his pants.

The elder Servinton brothers disappoint their father by getting ideas above their station and refusing to go into business, so Mr Servinton determines to raise Quintus quite differently, sending him away to school and, indeed, cutting him off from his family completely for a period of five years. At seventeen Quintus is placed in a London business, while also brushing up his manners and behaviour by associating with his relatives (his mother is related to an earl). We follow Quintus as he develops an aptitude for business, makes friends and connections, fancies himself in love, and generally grows up for a few years. He also begins to display some alarming tendencies that don’t, at this stage, offer much scope for damage, although the potential is clear. In particular, Quintus gets impatient, tending to prefer progressing quickly, by reckless leaps, to taking cautious steps.

All this occupies the first volume of Quintus Servinton, from which the only other passage I feel moved to quote is this:

Afterwards, addressing his conversation more particularly to Mr Burton, he said, “You were speaking of rustic games this morning, but did not mention golf…” Quintus accordingly went on to describe, that it was a game played by two persons, in an enclosure about seventy feet long, by twenty broad. In this, close to the sides, is a walk portioned off from the centre; and about nine feet from each end, a small pillar is erected, about three feet high. Two balls are used, stuffed, but rather hard; and each player is also furnished with a club or stick, one end of which is strengthened by brass or iron, in the shape of a racket bat. The players stand together, at one end of the enclosure. He who commences, drives his ball towards the pillar at the other extremity – the other afterwards doing the same. He of the two, whose ball rolled nearest the pillar, has now the first blow. They then strike alternately, and the skill and object of the game, consist in making the ball strike one pillar, and then so rebound, that it shall strike the other. He who succeeds in this, scores one; and eleven is the game…

At the beginning of the second volume, Quintus is introduced to the Clifton family—devout, cultured, honourable, but having fallen into some monetary difficulties. He is immediately drawn to the eldest daughter, Emily, but between their mutual financial situations, Emily’s youth, and his own past experiences, Quintus determines to do what he never does in business, and take a slow-and-steady approach. At length the two do marry; they are very much in love and very happy, while Emily, an exemplary wife, repeatedly presses upon Quintus her belief that a wife’s leading duty is to share her husband’s troubles and worries as well as his successes, urging him always to confide in her.

For a time Quintus does exactly this, but as he grows ever more ambitious in his business, and as he begins to associate with London acquaintances whose ideas and practices are considerably less refined than those imbibed by the Cliftons, there are periods of neglect stemming from a combination of concealment, guilt and impatience—but invariably, there is reconciliation and recommitment, too, and on the whole he and Emily are very happy together.

Nevertheless, trouble is brewing:

It is a singular feature in the formation of some minds, that they can exhibit an almost total indifference, where important stakes, involving perhaps, their entire fortunes, are concerned, and yet, show the utmost anxiety about trifles. Quintus was one of this description. His sanguineness enabled him to speculate deeply in business, rendering a trade, proverbially fluctuating, still more hazardous, by his mode of conducting it; and yet he could never bring himself, when cards or other games of chance were introduced at parties, to risk a stake that could in any manner, exceed a few shillings. Gambling of every description he professed to abhor – forgetting now nearly allied to this vice, are improvident speculations in trade…

In is in passages of detached self-analysis such as this that Quintus Servinton is at its strongest.

The initiating event of the defining crisis of Quintus’s life comes when he is the victim of what is, only too clearly, a false bankruptcy. Having paid out as little as possible to his creditors, the “failed” tradesman closes one business and opens another in a space of months upon the proceeds, guarded and assisted by an attorney specialising in loopholes in the law. Quintus gets his fingers badly burned in this transaction, particularly by ending up with a handful of endorsed bills that turn out to be fake (“kites”, as they were known), and therefore worthless. The experience has the effect of engendering in him a resentful, “everyone’s doing it” attitude towards sharp business practices; particularly when his own business strays into difficult financial waters.

By this time Quintus is charge of his own business, in partnership with a man who brought capital to the enterprise but no particular business knowledge; so there is no-one to check him or even recognise what he is doing when he starts to take ever-greater risks—finally crossing the line into illegality:

    It was about a month after the fatal resolve had been so taken, that Quintus met his friend Mr Trusty in the street, one morning, and was accosted by him, “I was on my road to call upon you. We hold an acceptance of yours, for a thousand pounds, in favour of Rothero & Co. due next Thursday, the twelfth, and if you wish it, running bills on discount, will suit us quite as well as cash.”
    No man could be more on the alert, than he ever was, to catch at any prop, or support to the credit of his house, and yet to make things wear the best possible face. He always bore in mind the adage, about being, and singing poor; and although, at this very moment, he had been somewhat uneasy, respecting the provision of this very thousand pounds, it was not his policy to admit to Mr Trusty, the full extent of the accommodation offered him…
    When the twelfth arrived, he provided himself, among several small country bills of exchange of great respectability, with a fictitious note for five hundred pounds, the drawers and endorsers of which, were creatures of his own brain, having no existence… After looking them all over carefully, Mr Rothero fixed upon the five hundred, along with others, of smaller value, and accompanying Quintus to the counting-house, directed the clerk to calculate the discount, and give up the other bill. The money thus raised for the occasion, was entered by Quintus, in the books of the house, as a loan, but without specifying from whom; and although for a few days, he was in a state of constant fear and trembling, nervously excited almost at his own shadow, and full of apprehension every time he saw his office door opened, his alarm by degrees yielded to his satisfaction, if it can be so called, that he derived, from having successfully accomplished his dangerous purpose…

Quintus’s satisfaction, muted as it is, lasts only until a conversation with some business acquaintances, regarding the upcoming execution of a convicted forger:

    This led to a discussion, upon the question, how far the punishment of death, was proper for this particular crime; and in the course of it, Mr Gordon observed, “Forgery is an offence, much more frequently committed, than most people are aware, but the punishment is the same in all cases. There is one branch, which I believe is daily practised with impunity, and almost without notice – I mean the circulation of fictitious bills, or using the names of persons having no existence; which is as much a forgery in the eyes of the law, as the offence for which poor — is doomed to suffer.”
    Quintus was thunderstruck at this doctrine, but managed to reply, “You surely do not mean, Sir, that it can be a forgery, to issue paper bearing the names of persons who never existed.”
    “Most unquestionably it is,” said Mr Gordon. “The Legislature makes no distinction between real or imaginary names; the offence and the punishment are alike in both cases.”

This aspect of the story would appear to be both true and self-serving. Certainly at the time a lot of people got away with forgery, either outright or of the kind practised by Henry / Quintus, because of a reluctance to prosecute (as was the case with respect to most capital crimes short of murder); generally forgers only suffered when the amounts involved were very large (as in the cited case of Henry Fauntleroy), or they did something to draw attention to themselves. However, if convicted, they were almost invariably executed.

It seems rather incredible that Henry / Quintus would not even have considered this aspect of his illegal transaction, although he certainly maintained that position, presumably as an illustration of his unfamiliarity with criminal transactions (only to be confronted, of course, with the inevitable retort that, Ignorance of the law is no excuse). In any event, instead of galvanising him into urgent action, this new knowledge seems to have had the counterintuitive effect of paralysing him. Whatever his own financial position, there were certainly those who would have helped him, either by covering his dereliction or by preventing the prosecution, had he been able to bring himself to confide in them. Instead, he stayed still and silent, making no effort to retrieve to counterfeit bill, despite several opportunities to do so, and allowed events to play out until his exposure.

Hauled out of the water following his abortive escape attempt and nursed back to health, Quintus faces trial for forgery. One of his brothers, Charles, represents him. During his preliminary imprisonment, various important and knowledgeable personages impress upon Quintus that his best chance of saving his life is by pleading guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the court. At the same time, Quintus is aware that there is a chance of his being acquitted on a technicality (Mr Trusty making a mistaken assertion with respect to his own handling of the bill in question). Weighing up his options, Quintus finally decides to take the expert advice pressed upon him:

    The Recorder himself seemed horror stricken, or appalled – but presently addressing the victim of an outraged, but disgracefully sanguinary law, said, “Prisoner at the Bar!” (what a sound!) “You have pleaded guilty to the indictment with which you have been charged, but your plea is not recorded.—Consider the awful situation in which you have placed yourself, and let me entreat you to withdraw your plea, and to take your trial. I trust no false expectations have induced  your present course – I assure you, that any hopes you may have founded thereon, will prove delusive.”
    Quintus gave no appearance of attending to these words, full of import as they were, until the Recorder had finished speaking; when, again uncovering his face for an instant, he said, with infinitely more composure than before, “Guilty, my Lord!” The Judge was now evidently distressed – the expression of his features bore a mixture of persuasiveness with half displeasure , as he replied, “Quintus Servinton, be advised by me, withdraw your plea, and take your trial – indulge no false hopes – your present course can do you no good whatsoever – consider ere too late – for if your plea be once recorded, nothing can save your life…”

[To be continued…]

29/12/2014

One last thing…

Yes, yes. I’ll shut up in a minute, I promise.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my blog visitors for sticking by me in what has been an even more than usually erratic year, and particularly those of you who have taken the time to comment.

I should know better by now than to make promises, so I will confine myself to hoping for a more regular posting routine in 2015.

I’ll also hope to see you all there!

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