Her mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…
It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:
If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the ﬁrst hasty and unﬁnished draught was taken from me, without its having received the beneﬁt of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
Under these circumstances, as well as its being a ﬁrst essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.
After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.
The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:
As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the ﬂorid descriptions of the poet. His ﬁgure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of ﬁre and softness, his ﬁnely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…
But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.
In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) opens in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.
The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…
Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.
Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.
The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.
But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…
The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.
To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, to where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:
“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”
Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:
“I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…
What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont, and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.
At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of Gunning’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.
And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.
The narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:
Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…
And after indulging this choice for a time:
The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…
Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.
There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.
Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:
To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.
Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…
While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:
Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy , which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.
But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.
This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.
Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.
Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.
During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.
Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:
“I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
“I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
“Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
“You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
“Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…
In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:
“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”
Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:
Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…
Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…
Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:
“What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
“Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
“Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…
It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.
Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…
The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.
Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…
Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.
(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)
And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, he arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…
…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:
“Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
“Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
“Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour was thus recalled to her mind.
“Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”