One fine evening, when the children were retired to rest, Ermina stole gently down stairs, and crossing through the hall to her own apartment, opened the glass door which led into the shrubbery, which she walked, and passed lightly over the lawn to a favourite walk, which was a long avenue of trees by the side of a canal, at the end of which was an elegant alcove, where she frequently delighted to seat herself, as she now did. A pleasing languor stole over her senses…
The dews of eve that bathed the various fragrant plants and odoriferous shrubs that surrounded the spot where she was, diffused a sweet refreshing perfume, which, added to the general stillness that reigned amidst the shades of night, lulled her mind into calm repose. The images of those she loved, and had so cruelly lost, presented themselves to her imagination in the most pleasing forms, and she pictured to herself that they beheld her conduct and sufferings with approbation. “Alas!” she mentally exclaimed, “though unrelenting fate persecute and tear from me all that my soul holds dear, yet have I the soothing consolation of preserving a heart unsullied with guilt, though not free from error, and this bosom can boast of moments of happiness which the conscience of those who injure me will not suffer them to enjoy, and of which they cannot deprive me, poor and dependent as I am.”
When your bosom starts boasting, it might be time to worry.
Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale is a fairly typical second- (or third-) tier novel of the turn of the 19th century, featuring a persecuted heroine and much high-flown sentiment, but with lingering flickers of the Gothic impulse (which, indeed, would not be fully extinguished for another two decades or so). Though the persecution persists, most of the Gothic touches are confined to the first of the novel’s three volumes; after which the narrative settles down and goes through essentially the same set of cyclic motions until the three volumes have been filled—viz. our orphan heroine finds a refuge where she can work and support herself, someone traduces her character, she flees secretly for some reason or another, she struggles with poverty until she finds a refuge where she can work and support herself…
But the repetition of the action is not the major shortcoming of Ermina Montrose, which is rather that Ermina suffers more at the hands of the people who are supposed to love her than she does through the machinations of her enemies. Indeed, this is one of a worrying number of novels I’ve read recently that turn on a man’s willingness (even eagerness) to believe the worst of the woman he loves. This novel features one of the most unlikeable “heroes” of a genre that rarely seems to recognise dickish behaviour when it sees it, and Ermina’s repeated forgiveness of her lover’s distrust, tantrum-throwing and selfishness grows ever more exasperating.
While it will turn out to play the most minor of roles in the story, aside from its symbolic value —“cottage” is a signifier for a sentimental novel in the same way that “abbey” is for a Gothic novel—Ermina Montrose does open at the titular cottage; while the language – and the occasionally infelicitous grammar – used in these opening paragraphs let us know clearly what we’re in for over the next 700 pages or so:
Embosomed in the deep romantic valley of Riversdale, stood the habitation of Colonel Montrose. Simple was its structure, being little superior to the cottages of the neighbouring rustics. Yet, with all its simplicity, dear was this abode to his feeling heart; for it had sheltered his beloved Ermina from the storms of life, and witnessed her flight to those regions of happiness, which the superior virtues of her mind rendered her worthy of attaining. The soft harmony of her voice, the æthereal sweetness of her smile, all dwelt on his imagination with forcible and pained remembrance.
Oh! souls of sympathy, cannot ye picture to yourselves the poignant anguish which overwhelms to agony a mind of sensibility, when it has lost a tenderly beloved friend and companion? What is the grief of common souls compared to theirs, who wear not only the semblance of sorrow, but its keenest shafts penetrate their lacerated bosoms; and objects that formerly created pleasure, serve only to bring the mournful recollection, that, alas! the chief source of delight is fled for ever?
If anything has the power to divert us from our attempts to make sense of that last sentence, it is the text’s apparent revelation that this novel’s heroine is dead—but of course, this turns out to be Ermina Montrose Sr. She and Colonel Montrose married without the permission of her father, Lord Belvidere, “a haughty, imperious nobleman”, who responded not merely by disinheriting her, but by actively persecuting the young couple, who finally fled to their isolated cottage to escape his vindictive wrath. Six years of happiness which included the birth of their only child followed, but now Colonel Montrose has been widowed and left the raise his daughter alone. The narrative skips lightly over this, content with observing matter-of-factly that, Each year, as it rolled away, brought some accomplishment in Ermina nearer to perfection, until she is fourteen, at which time the Colonel decides to place her in a convent in France for two years, so that she can perfect her French.
Like many sentimental novels of this period, Ermina Montrose chooses to behave as if the French Revolution never happened; though it goes it competition one better by forgetting, evidently, that its characters aren’t Catholic, and having Ermina decide to become a nun (it is clear later that she hasn’t converted). But while they occupy a fair chunk of the first volume, Ermina’s convent experiences and friendships – and hints at interesting back-stories for several of the nuns – ultimately turn out to have nothing to do with anything; except to make me suspect, in conjunction with what happens to her once she gets out of the convent, that Emily Clark originally intended writing a much more Gothicky novel, but for some reason changed her mind and instead sent her narrative in a domestic direction over the succeeding two volumes.
Neither Ermina’s sojourn in the convent nor her entering upon her novitiate prevents every man who sees her from falling in love with her. Victim #1 is the Count de Valcour, a volatile (to say the least) young Frenchman, who goes so far as to break into the convent in order to get up close and personal with her; Victim #2 is Father Eustache, a young Benedictine monk (!!), who starts repenting his vows the moment he lays eyes on her; and Victim #3 is Lord Henry Beauchamp, the son of the Earl of Darlington, who saves Colonel Montrose from bandits. The latter is invited to accompany the Colonel on one of his visits to the convent, and the damage is done. Here, however, we get damage in the other direction too:
…she was then as much charmed with his manners as with his appearance. She thought him learned without pedantry, sensible without affectation, and animated and witty without being frivolous or a coxcomb; and she admired him mostly for not being the least vain of his person (as handsome men in general are), but apparently unconscious of possessing more beauty than what falls to the usual lot of the male part of creation…
As it turns out, it’s just as well he’s got his looks to depend upon.
Lord Henry lays indirect siege to Ermina via poetry and then, as the time for her to take the veil draws near, declares himself in frantic smuggled letters, begging her to marry him. She is moved and confused, but still intends to take her vows when her father’s health collapses—because he can’t stand her becoming a nun, as he might have wanted to mention about a year ago. Ermina decides to leave the convent, and she, her father and Lord Henry become the guests of de Valcour.
The convent may be a thing of the past, but we’re not done being Gothicky just yet:
At supper the count introduced them to Father Anselmo, a monk, his friend and confessor. Ermina felt something repugnant to her feelings in his appearance; for though his sallow countenance was always dressed in smiles, yet under those smiles she fancied lurked cruelty and deceit… He easily perceived he was no favourite with her, as he had a great deal of penetration; and the glances he sometimes gave her from his yellow eye balls were replete with venom and ill-nature…
De Valcour regrets inviting Lord Henry to his chateau from the moment he gets a good look at him. His fears are well justified, as we learn with amusing casualness that—
…this animated party had been three weeks together at the chateau, which had passed on such silken wings that it appeared but as one. In this happy interval Lord Henry had again offered himself to Ermina, who, with the sanction of her father, had accepted his addresses…
…provisional upon Lord Henry receiving the approbation and consent of his father: this probably wasn’t intended as a pot-shot at her own parents, but it sure does read that way. Lord Henry is then abruptly called back to England, to the bedside of Lord Darlington, who is seriously ill, and must part from Ermina:
A cold shiver came over him…and his eyes were dimmed with tears as he entered the carriage… He could not shake off an uncommon depression of spirits, which he feared presaged some misfortune to himself, or (who was dearer to him) his innocent and beauteous Ermina.
He’s right about that, of course; although ironically he himself is the main misfortune which strikes her.
In Lord Henry’s absence, Ermina takes to wandering the grounds of the chateau alone, and on one of her expeditions comes across a lonely cottage occupied by a young Englishwoman and an elderly Frenchwoman. This, of course, is the cue for an interpolated narrative. Long story short, Adeliza’s intended marriage to de Valcour was prevented by the revelation of him being already married, so he abducted and eventually seduced her.
Shocked by her discovery of de Valcour’s true nature, Ermina begins to consider how to help Adeliza escape, but is diverted when Colonel Montrose’s health collapses. On his deathbed, he succeeds in extracting from de Valcour all sorts of promises about Ermina’s welfare; but no sooner is he dead than the count begins laying siege to her, intercepting her correspondence with Lord Henry, refusing to let her return to the convent, and finally imprisoning her, refusing to release her until she promises to marry him. Ermina withstands all this, and at length even persuades de Valcour to let her walk in the grounds, on the score that her health is suffering from confinement. On one of these expeditions she discovers a grotto, with a cave that has been turned into an apartment in its depths. Here she overhears a terrifying conversation between Father Anselmo and another monk:
After something that Anselmo had said, the other monk replied in an agitated voice, “Hold, ’tis cowardly to assassinate a woman, poison would be better.”
“No,” rejoined Anselmo, “she may then by some means escape, and suspicion be infused into her bosom. She shall no longer stand between me and my interest; for, were she disposed of, I could do whatever I pleased with de Valcour, and his fortune. Call it not murder.” Here he raised his voice, his countenance assuming a more diabolical expression, which she plainly perceived, as the cowl he wore concealed but half his face. “Is it not a religious act to stab an heretic, who, wedded to the count, will raise a brood of others? Here, mark me! take this dagger, steal to her chamber in the dead of night, and point it to her breast: for I’ve decreed it; ere three days more shall pass, she dies: France shall not another week contain alive the hated offspring of Colonel Montrose.”
At this point I had high hopes of Ermina Montrose, on the level of entertainment if not as literature, exactly; but sadly from here it’s downhill all the way. The present situation resolves itself when Adeliza’s outraged brother finally catches up with de Valcour and kills him; Adeliza dies of grief; Anselmo flees, never to be seen again (alas!); and Ermina returns to the convent to recover and sort out her life. There she becomes acquainted with Lady Julia Vernon, in retreat while mourning her husband (a short interlude that gives Ermina a completely false idea of her character), who offers to carry her back to England.
From here we settle into the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of the novel. Invited to stay with Lady Julia for a time, Ermina does in the hope of finding out why Lord Henry is not responding to the letters she is now certain he is receiving. Despite her disinclination, she feels obliged sometimes to accompany Lady Julia into society, and one night is taken to Ranelagh, where a certain Mr Devereaux becomes smitten with her.
From this point, Emily Clark strives in Ermina Montrose for the kind of social satire and character types with which Frances Burney’s novels abound, but her efforts are feeble, and occasionally embarrassing (as, for instance, when she stops to explain to us that any person with a disability or some sort of deformity, or is simply not physically attractive, will invariably prove to be “deformed” on the inside, too). All sorts of eccentrics wander in an out of the narrative, in scenes that are generally tiresome, rather than amusing as they are intended to be.
Clark is on firmer ground with the endless scenes of her heroine being persecuted; and we return to this dominating theme when, as Ermina walks with Devereaux, someone steps on the train of her gown:
The intended apology died away in confused murmurs on Lord Henry’s lips, the glow of surprise faded to an ashy paleness, and instead of returning the animated smile, he received from her, with the same look of pleasure, or accepting her proffered hand…he surveyed her with a repulsive gravity, uttered in a faultering voice, a few incoherent words of congratulations on seeing her in England, coldly bowed, and left her.
Get used to it, people: scenes like this comprise most of what this novel has to offer by way of “a love story”; when, that is, Lord Henry isn’t ranting at Ermina for being a whore. (My word, not his; but that’s the gist of it.)
When she can extricate herself from Lady Julia, Ermina returns to “the cottage of the vale” and is happy there for a time, reuniting with old acquaintances, until she receives word that the bank in which her small inheritance was placed has failed, and the banker fled. Forced to find work, Ermina requests her various friends to find her a position as governess, and is taken into the country house of Sir John and Lady Assop: near neighbours of the widowed Mrs Helderton, another person who, at this time, she considers a friend. For a time all seems well: the Assops are kind, Ermina’s young pupils well-behaved, the surrounding countryside beautiful. The first reversal of fortune comes when Mrs Helderton makes it very clear that her “friendship” for Ermina has altered with the girl’s circumstances.
But if Mrs Helderston dislikes Ermina as a governess, she positively hates her when she sees that her handsome cousin, Sir Charles Melrose, is immediately attracted to her. Mrs Helderton has no intention of remaining a widow, and Sir Charles is one of the two marital prospects she is assiduously pursuing, though only her second choice in this respect. The first happens to be Lord Henry Beauchamp…
By one of those capricious chances, in which fortune delights, a friend of Lord Henry’s and Mrs Helderton’s told her in confidence (unsuspecting her designs), of the hold Ermina still had on his affections, notwithstanding he was convinced of her unworthiness, though in what manner she had improperly acted Lord Henry would never tell his friend. Enraged, that she should be slighted for this insignificant girl (as she styled her), she vowed to do every thing in her power to mortify her…
And in this respect, at least, Mrs Helderton is a woman of her word; and her machinations and their consequences will b e at the root of much of what Ermina suffers over the following two volumes.
For a time Ermina is oblivious to the evil currents that are beginning to swirl around her; but one evening she overhears an enlightening conversation between Mrs Helderton’s maid and the Assop’s nursery-maid:
“Sir Charles may amuse himself with her as a mistress, but she will never be any thing more honourable to him. For my part,” continued Bridget, “if I was such a noble, handsome, rich gentleman as Sir Charles…I would never take up with other people’s hangers-on… Only to think now, that this wicked Miss Montrose enticed away my dear lady’s lover Lord Henry Beauchamp, when he was in France. She spent almost all his fortune, and then ran away with another gentleman, whom she intrigued with beforehand, which broke her poor father’s heart. There’s a wicked hussy for you, when she knew my lady was engaged to Lord Henry…and the poor gentleman, who was as beautiful a man as ever the sun shone on, is now wasting to a shadow: for nobody thinks he’ll live, it hurts him so, to think of her bad conduct; and I’m sure I wonder such a good woman as your mistress keeps the naughty creature in her house. Now you can’t be surprised that my lady hates her; and then to think, that she should make Sir Charles in love with her too! I do believe her to be a witch.”
This speech is a good example of the kind of talk that follows Ermina throughout the rest of the novel, always a framework of circumstantial truth surrounding the worst possible interpretation of events. And while it may be understandable that people who don’t really know Ermina may begin to lend an ear to the constant denigration of her character, there is no excuse for the people who are supposed to know and love her.
Annoyingly enough, the main thing that Ermina carries away from her enlightening eavesdropping (she does that a lot, though the narrative takes pains to find excuses) is the bulletin about Lord Henry’s failing health. This possibility preys upon her mind, affecting her spirits and her health so that everyone notices—including Sir Charles, who is so moved by her evident distress that he impulsively proposes marriage. Caught between her lingering feelings for Lord Henry, her awareness that he now despises her, and her gratitude for the generosity of Sir Charles, whom she likes and admires, Ermina wrestles with herself but finally accepts his proposal. News of the engagement spreads quickly, pleasing the Assops and causing everyone but Mrs Helderton to treat Ermina with increased respect.
Soon after this, however, Ermina is walking out when she is accosted by a gipsy—who turns out (for reasons not worth getting into) to be Lord Henry in disguise. She is taken so much by surprise that she stays to hear what he has to say for himself. As she suspected, their letters were intercepted; and Lord Henry knew nothing concrete until the news of Colonel Montrose’s death was reported. Shortly afterwards, still trying to bring his father (who objected to Ermina’s all-but-penniless state) to consent to their marriage, Lord Henry received further word of Ermina through a French friend of Lord Darlington’s, who mentioned to him a certain beautiful Englishwoman who was known by common report to be the mistress of the libertine Count de Valcour:
“I now attributed your neglect of me to a passion for my rival; and rage, jealousy, and contempt for your depraved conduct and infidelity, seized complete possession of my soul…”
Then the meeting at Ranelagh: he wondered at seeing her with Lady Julia—but assumed she had deceived her, too; he noted her mourning—and concluded it was for de Valcour… And so on. Finally he tore himself away from London and went wandering, ending up by pure chance at The Cottage Of The Vale, where Ermina’s maid, Therese, told him what had actually gone on in France:
“But, oh heavens! when she related in those simple unadorned terms, which so forcibly convey the truth, the various miseries and misfortunes in which you had been involved by the treachery and deceit of your worthless enemies, I execrated my credulity and unfeeling behaviour, reflecting with remorse that I ought, before I had condemned, to have heard your justification, and enable you to defend yourself against every calumnious aspersion.”
On the back of this, Lord Henry confronts the gossipy Baron de Belmont:
“…whom I brought to a confession that he had been instigated by Lord Darlington (whom de Valcour had treacherously informed of our attachment, and at the same time suppressed our letters) to invent those falsehoods of you, having himself never seen, or even heard of you and de Valcour, and would not for any consideration have aided such a scheme, if my father had not represented you as a girl of infamous character, who wished to seduce me to marry her.”
Now—you’d think an experience like this might have taught Lord Henry a thing or two, but you’d be very wrong: he spends the rest of the novel listening to anyone who has a bad word to say about Ermina; when, that is, he isn’t busy behaving like a dick of monumental proportions.
When telling Ermina’s story, Therese also informed Lord Henry of her engagement to Sir Charles Melrose; and now, though she forgives him for his distrust of her, Ermina insists that honour forbids her to break with the baronet. Lord Henry begs and pleads, but she is adamant; which produces this outburst:
Almost frantic at the idea of losing her, Lord Henry implored her compassion, intreating her not to sacrifice their happiness to a vain phantom of honour. This she steadily refused; and, irritated, abandoned to passion by the stings of disappointed affection, he exclaimed: “Then you have never loved me, deceitful girl, if I am to be resigned for the empty opinion of the world! You must prefer Sir Charles; but I swear by God, that I will not live to see you his wife—either one or other of us must fall. I will hasten instantly to him and demand satisfaction.”
Ah! – the always charming and by no means a sign that you are dealing with a narcissistic sociopath if-I-can’t-have-you-no-one-will gambit! (Which was last seen around these parts in Barford Abbey.) Although I admit to being intrigued by Lord Henry’s casual dismissal of “honour” as a mere excuse, given how many novels of this period have their characters tying themselves in knots over merely perceived demands of honour, let alone a case as clear as this one.
Ermina manages to calm him down, admitting that she still loves him, and pleading with him neither to risk his own life nor Sir Charles’s. Finally they part—forever, as far as Ermina is concerned. Preparations for the wedding continue, and the entire party travels from the country to Sir John’s house in London, where the ceremony to to take place. All is well until a few days before, when Sir Charles’s behaviour towards Ermina suddenly changes. He offers no explanation, however (of course not!), and Ermina is at a loss until the party attends a play: so emotionally caught up in the miseries on stage that she nearly swoons, Ermina is just recovering when…
…the first object she saw was Lord Henry Beauchamp contemplating her with an air of the deepest dejection, apparently regardless of every one but herself, whilst Sir Charles surveyed him with a fierce and sullen countenance…
Sure enough, the threatened duel takes place, though at Sir Charles’s seeking, and on the morning of his wedding-day!—and it is Sir Charles who gets the worst of it, being carried back to the Assops’ covered in blood and not expected to live. Mrs Helderton has been in the mix lately, so we are not much surprised at this, even if Ermina is; and in a state of guilt and shock, contemplating Sir Charles’s death on one hand and Lord Henry either under arrest or fleeing the country, she flees herself, slipping out of the house unseen and making sure no-one knows where she has gone (and that no-one will be able to find her, should things prove not quite so grim as anticipated, sigh).
Under the name of “Miss Smith” (no really), Ermina finds lodgings – poor, but with a kind landlady – and work, being employed to do fancy needlework by a French modiste. Though tormented by not knowing whether Sir Charles is alive or dead, and Lord Henry consequently safe, under arrest or on the run (it doesn’t occur to her to buy a newspaper), Ermina settles into her new, narrow existence until discovered by the dissolute Sir Patrick O’Neil, to whom she was introduced at Lady Julia’s. He informs his good friend, Mr Glencarnock – “an ugly, little, hump-backed man” – and the two begin persecuting her, both determined to obtain her in one capacity or another. Glencarnock, indeed, finally proposes marriages—provided Ermina is willing to keep it a secret.
In the face of this harassment, Ermina starts regretfully making plans to change her lodgings; but this is forestalled by an offer of work as a live-in seamstress for a certain Colonel Rivers. She accepts this offer with relief, only to be shocked by the discovery that – duh! – she has been decoyed into a trap by Glencarnock. To her credit, Ermina shows some backbone and makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, failing narrowly only when she suffers a bad fall, before Glencarnock unwisely gets into a physical confrontation with her over the key to her room and is left sprawling with a head injury. Ermina takes to her heels and is fortunate enough to find someone willing to help her, one “Zemin Linmore”.
Here erupts one of Ermina Monstrose‘s most absurd subplots; though its absurdity cannot compensate for its bad taste. Linmore turns out to be the son of a Native American chief – no, really – who has been handed over to one Captain Linmore to be raised and educated as an English gentleman. The narrative goes on and on about how handsome Zemin is, how good, how generous, how high-principled, how accomplished…before shaking its head over how sad it is that he isn’t white, without which the rest means nothing. Zemin falls in love with Ermina, of course, and equally of course knows it’s futile, since he isn’t white. He finally leaves the country to try and get over his hopeless passion—and when a newspaper reports that his ship sank with all hands lost, it is accompanied by a straight-faced suggestion that an early death was a fate to be desired, considering that he wasn’t white, and therefore could never be happy. (Too bad for the rest of the passengers and crew…)
Anyway— Zemin cannot prevent Ermina being dragged back by Glencarnock’s servants, but he arranges her escape and places her with friends of his, Quakers called Mr and Mrs Fairfield. Here the wash-rinse-repeat cycle starts again: Ermina is safe and happy for a time, until the Fairfields carry her to London, on a visit to their far less unworldly son and daughter-in-law. Against her will, Ermina is taken out into society, usually under the chaperonage of a Mrs Ballenden, where she attracts the attention of an elderly nobleman, the Earl of Valency, to whom she is also drawn for reasons she cannot articulate. (Jane Austen alert!) Other consequences are less pleasant, and include an encounter with Mrs Helderton. Soon enough, the daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, is asking pointed questions about Sir Charles Melrose, and excoriating Ermina for abusing the trust of the Fairfields:
“I have already spoken to them,” replied the quaker, “and it has occasioned a misunderstanding between them, my husband, and myself; for thy arts, of which I have been fully informed, have blinded them to believe any thing thou doth choose to advance. Verily, it was not well done of Zemin Linmore to introduce his mistress under the roof of our respectable parents, whose ill-placed charity in protecting thee, must bring disgrace on all their family.”
In the wake of this, Ermina has an excruciating encounter with her former employer, the modiste, who in front of Elizabeth addresses her as “Miss Smith”—which leaves her with nothing to do but run away again. This time she cannot find employment, and sinks into real poverty before being discovered and rescued again, this time by the same Mr Devereaux whom she met at Ranelagh, before her first encounter with Lord Henry. Devereaux finds a position for her as companion to his aunt, the eccentric Mrs St Austin. Before she leaves London, he begs her to allow him to escort her to the theatre. She feels that she cannot refuse the invitation—but of course is made to regret her decision:
…she perceived to her extreme consternation, Mrs Helderton and another lady of a most unprepossessing appearance, looking at her with a sneer on their countenances, and talking at the same time, apparently about her, to a gentleman who seemed very much interested in what they said… Suddenly, however, he turned round to seat himself by Mrs Helderton, and, overcome with joy, surprise, and terror, Ermina felt ready to faint, when their eyes at the same moment meeting, she discovered the man whom she had so long regretted, whom she fancied to be wandering, forlorn, unhappy, and anxious for her fate, far from his native country, to be now before her; for it was indeed Lord Henry…
…who behaves towards her exactly as we expect; and for a few glorious moments, Ermina reacts to it as she should:
When at liberty to reflect on the conduct of Lord Henry, she felt keener resentment against him than she could ever have thought it possible for her to feel for any person, particularly one who had so often vowed his affection for her was interwoven with his existence…How sincerely did she regret the loss she had sustained in the alienated affections of Melrose, whose faith and truth were so much more valuable than the fickle passion of Lord Henry… She regretted bitterly, that he should have prevented an union in which the greatest felicity would most probably have been her lot… She even worked up her imagination to a belief, that the story he had told her at their last interview in Devonshire, was a fabrication to exculpate himself…
Well—it’s nice while it lasts, anyway.
Ermina travels to Mrs Austin’s country estate, where she is safe and happy for a time; until—
Do I really have to say it?
First, however, Ermina interests herself in the situation of a peasant family living on the estate. Long story short (again), the beautiful daughter became the object of the lustful interest of a Squire Brandon, who to pave his own way to her, had her soldier-fiancé transferred to a regiment about to be sent overseas on active duty, while forcing Helen and her grandmother off their farm in order to deprive them of their income. Ermina relieves the immediate wants of the unfortunate women, but worries that Helen’s illness may be fatal. She and Dame Primrose agree to present an account of the circumstances to Edward’s commanding officer, in the hope that he will undo the young soldier’s transfer if he knows why it was brought about. Ermina writes a letter, stating everything she knows and asseverating her belief in the good character of all three, and Dame Primrose carries it to Carlisle. She manages to see the regimental colonel, and he does indeed read the letter—and is so affected by it that even the hopeful grandmother is surprised.
And here we get the novel’s one successful touch of humour as, thanks to Dame Primorose’s extreme country accent, Ermina does not recognise who she means when she speaks of “Lord Bochon”.
Sure enough, Lord Henry soon rocks up. He is scrupulous in assisting Dame Primrose, Helen and Edward; but when he sees Ermina, we start all over again:
“Fool, mean-spirited madman that I am, not all your infidelity and ill usage can eradicate the fatal passion you inspired, which has been my ruin… Yes, wretched woman, you have been my destruction, blasted every prospect of my happiness, and forced me to seek in battle an oblivion of my sorrows; as the fatal remembrance of your cruelty has denied me peace in this world. In a few months I quit England for ever; and in far-distant Eastern climes will bury all recollection of the falseness and treachery with which you have required my faithful love.”
He then has the gall to promise “always to be her friend”, if she will “return to the paths of honour”; warning her however that “the loss of [her] innocence is never to be recovered”.
Ermina is not unnaturally stunned by this outpouring, but as he starts to leave she insists on being heard; and again she says exactly as she should—except for not sending him on his way with a hearty wish of a close encounter between himself and a cannon-ball:
“That you should harbour suspicion after the explanation that took place between us in Devonshire, appears to me beyond belief; for having once made me suffer from your credulity, it is certainly unpardonable of you to err a second time. I have not much to say on the subject, because I feel myself perfectly undeserving of reproach, and know not who are my accusers; but in talking of injuries you totally mistake the affair, as it is myself, and not you, that is the injured person. I compassionate, however, the weak credulity of your disposition… Perhaps you will find a pleasure…in the reflection that you have insulted a woman you pretended to love with the most gross suspicions…”
“I would fain believe you innocent,” replied Lord Henry, “and what you affirm overwhelms me with fresh doubt, but will listen no more; warned by those, who know you and your power over me, not to attend to your fascinating voice…”
“Alas! I see but too plainly,” exclaimed Ermina, “the extent of my misfortunes. Not any assertions of mine will make you believe me innocent, and to combat with prejudices so rooted is quite useless. And now, Lord Henry, I take my leave; yet the time I hope will come…when you will repent your too easy belief, but it will then be too late, as from this moment I obliterate all traces of you from my remembrance; and be assured, that wounded pride and injured virtue will make the task far from difficult.”
And, oh!—if only she’d meant it! If only she had married Devereaux – who is in love with her, of course – or Charles Melrose – who isn’t dead, of course. I’d’ve quite liked this novel then, or at least liked it better. Buuuuuuuut, no; and sadly, Catherine Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano remains the only novel of this era I’ve yet discovered to have its heroine respond to mistreatment by breaking with a man who doesn’t deserve her and finding one who does.
Around this time we finally get some explanation of the chain of gossip which has pursued Ermina, and how Mrs Helderton managed to rope the Earl of Darlington, the Baron de Belmont, Mr Glencarnock and even Sir Charles into her plots against the girl; convincing the latter that she was Lord Henry’s cast-off mistress, and calling various “witnesses”, including her maid, Bridget, who overheard the conversation betweem Ermina and Lord Henry in Devonshire (translated into a “secret assignation”), to back up her story.
In the latter Mrs Helderton overreached herself, having certainly not meant for Sir Charles and Lord Henry to try and kill each other; and great was her exasperation upon discovering afterwards that although she had succeeded in ruining Ermina with both men, neither of them showed the slightest increase of partiality for her. Her malice then pursued Ermina to the Fairfields, where to the existing stories another involving Zemin Linmore was added; while later, applied to by Lord Henry, who knew her only as a connection of the various interested parties, after Ermina’s disappearance from the Assops’ house, she added to the mix the assertion that her reduced circumstances forced Ermina to become the mistress of Sir Patrick O’Neil; after which she taken under the protection of Mr Devereaux.
Mrs Helderton overreaches again, this time fatally, when she sends an anonymous letter denouncing Ermina to Mrs St Austin: the latter shows the ugly epistle to its subject, and Ermina recognises the handwriting. She tells as much as she understands of the sorry tale, which isn’t that much (as she knows nothing of Mrs Helderton’s personal plans for Lord Henry and/or Sir Charles), and Mrs St Austin persuades her (or orders her) to travel to London, to seek out those to whom she believes she has been calumniated by Mrs Helderton, and to show them the letter and the handwriting. Ermina obeys, but finds everyone she needs to talk to out of the country.
Forced, reluctantly, to wait in London for their return, Ermina is at least moved to send Mrs Helderton a satirical letter, thanking her for all her good offices (not that she knows the half of it!). This is a tremendous shock for Mrs Helderton, whose guilty conscience brings on hysterics, which eventually reduce her to a convenient state of shattered health, and put her into an even more convenient mood for confession.
But that is some time in the future. First (through circumstances too dumb to be dwelt upon), Ermina goes through one more round of lonely destitution; this time being rescued by the long-forgotten Earl of Valency, who turns out to be – surprise! – her grandfather, who inherited another title after he was introduced to us as the “haughty, imperious” Lord Belvidere. His lordship has long since repented his cruel treatment of his daughter and son-in-law, and wants to make amends of sorts by re-establishing Ermina.
After that, things fall into place pretty quickly, the process being greatly assisted by Bridget who, after being sacked by Mrs Helderton, retaliates by telling the truth to the Assops; while Mrs Helderton, literally dying of shame, as we are asked to believe, calls for Lord Henry and tells him the truth. This sends him flying to Ermina, and to her feet, to beg forgiveness.
So we would hope.
And yet there is still time for one more outbreak of dickishness from Our Hero, when the altogether too forgiving Ermina rightly “determine[s] to punish him just a little for what he had caused her to suffer”, by telling him:
“…your present confession, though it cannot restore my love, which your ill treatment of me quickly effaced, yet gains you my esteen and friendship”; and as she uttered these last words, with an assumed coldness and indifference, she held out her hand to him.
So well did she dissemble, that with an angry and mournful air mingled with surprise, Lord Henry rejected her proffered hand. “Cruel, insulting woman,” said he, “I will not accept your friendship; your love I require or nothing. Oh! had I ever been truly valued, you would not thus have wounded my feelings by such cold language, but would eagerly have forgiven errors for which I have been sufficiently punished.”
That’s right, folks—SHE has been cruel to HIM. And, yup, SHE ends up apologising:
Lord Henry now drew from the blushing Ermina a reluctant confession, that, notwithstanding the reasons she apparently had to detest him, he had always continued dear to her…
Woman—you ought to blush…