Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (1796) was the only novel ever written by Elizabeth Jervis. It was written when she was thirty-three years old, and published anonymously in the same year that she married Samuel Pipe Wolferstan, a Leicestershire lawyer and anti-slavery campaigner. The novel was well-received by neither the critics nor Elizabeth Jervis’s immediate circle, including her soon-to-be fiancé (although excluding her proud father); and this, combined with the assumption of new duties including becoming stepmother to two children in their teens, may have discouraged her from trying again. The new Elizabeth Pipe Wolferstan did, however, write poetry under her married name, as well as a text on the education of young children, but published nothing until after the death of her husband in 1820. Although Agatha was translated into French and Dutch, it failed to find an audience in its native land, and a second edition did not appear.
Until now. In my first “Reading Roulette” post, I gave an outline of the circumstances in which the identity of Agatha‘s author was unexpectedly brought to light, and the novel at long last reissued. As to the big question of whether it was worth it—
Is Agatha a lost classic? No. Is it an interesting novel worthy of consideration? Yes, absolutely.
Agatha is very much the product of its time. The language is often overwrought – or perhaps I should say, poetical – and it is full of characters suffering an excess of “sensibility”, to the point of being perpetually on the edge of physical and emotional collapse; and who are, as characters full of sensibility tend to be, utterly humourless.
(As I always say, I can deal with the weeping and the fainting: it’s the tottering that sets my teeth on edge.)
However, these are not mere indulgences. Agatha is a didactic novel, its lesson quite a stern one about the control of the passions and submission of the will to duty and to God; and in pursuit of this theme, it takes its story in some very—I might even say, completely unexpected directions.
Our titular heroine is Agatha Belmont, who from an early age displays “every sign of a warm and benevolent heart, a sweet and serene temper, and a soul exquisitely susceptible”. There is a shadow across Agatha’s life, as we, her readers, are aware: after her parents have been married for twelve happy, although childless, years – something happens – something that makes them thankful to have no child. Naturally, Lady Belmont immediately afterwards falls pregnant. Agatha is raised in almost total seclusion, and taught by her mother to depise the world, including love and marriage, which Agatha is assured are most likely to bring her only misery. Agatha dutifully imbibes her mother’s lessons, but has enough youthful spirit and independence of mind to fancy:
“…that the world, bad as it was, might afford her some happiness; and that when the time should arrive that she was permitted to enter it, thus guarded by caution, she should be able to discriminate; to separate the bad from the good; to make a moderate use of pleasures; to dance without fatigue, love without much jealousy, and to be one of the favoured few who married happily…”
When Agatha is sixteen, her parents visit France, leaving her with the only friend with whom they have not cut their ties over the preceding years, a Miss Hammond. However, Miss Hammond is “seized with a violent fever” and dies, leaving Agatha entirely alone and at a complete loss. Her solitude is abruptly shattered by the arrival of Miss Hammond’s long-lost younger brother, Edward, who (in the first but by no means the last of the novel’s improbable turns) has spent the last few years enslaved in Algiers, labouring for the “Moorish pirate” who captured him. Hammond and Agatha are two peas in a pod, and it is a mere matter of hours before they are in love; although Agatha does not immediately recognise her feelings for what they are. (In an amusing touch, having been taught by her mother that “friendship” is a far higher state than mere “love”, Agatha repeatedly torments her adorer by assuring him of her friendship for him.)
Since she cannot stay at the Hammond house alone with a man, Agatha is received into the household of a neighbour, Sir John Milson, with whose daughter she is slightly acquainted. Here, Elizabeth Jervis’s talent for character sketches shows itself: her protagonists might be sickeningly perfect, but her supporting cast is not. Indeed, and without wanting to get carried away, the crude Sir John Milson strikes me as almost a model for Jane Austen’s Sir John Middleton, right down to the similarities of name, with both Sir Johns embarrassing and disconcerting their young female guests by talking of little other than “catching husbands”. (Agatha conceals her feelings rather better than Marianne, despite her “sensibility”.) The cool description of Lady Milson, who “had she been married to a man of a liberal turn of mind, instead of one whose meannesses she had early learned to contract, would probably have been a respectable member of society”, also strikes me as somewhat Austen-esque.
Surrounding these two are Miss Milson, who “possessed from nature some sensibility, and from art infinitely more”; her brother William, who makes a profession out of being in unrequited love; the eccentric Mr Craggs, a self-ministering hypochondriac of the most peculiar sort; Mr Ormistace, whose “benevolence, untempered by reason” makes him the perfect target for con-men (and women), as well as an object lesson about self-control; and the sensible Mr Crawford, who functions as this menagerie’s voice of reason. Best of all, though, is the tart-tongued young widow, Mrs Herbert, who has both a sense of humour and a nice way with a sarcastic putdown:
“Why this is no how,” said Sir John. “Whenever one talks to you, Mrs Herbert, you answer one in such a roundabout manner, that a plain sensible man, though he may be a gentleman and a baronet into the bargain, perhaps, can’t understand what you mean.”
“I am sorry, indeed,” said Mrs Herbert, “and for the future I will endeavour to adapt my language to the comprehension of gentlemen and baronets.”
However, with the reappearance on the scene of Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, this lightness of tone almost vanishes from the novel. Agatha’s parents are furious and horrified at finding her not only in the midst of the very society from which they have deliberately kept her cut off, but only too obviously loved and in love. They whisk her away to her own home without loss of time, making it perfectly clear to Edward Hammond that he is persona non grata, and finally reveal to Agatha the Terrible Secret that will shape the rest of her story.
Now— I have said that Agatha is an interesting novel, and so it is; but it is impossible to discuss exactly what it is that makes it so interesting without resorting to MAJOR SPOILERS. Anyone proceeding past this point does so at their own risk.
The earliest pages of the novel mention in passing that Lady Belmont is French, and that she and Sir Charles made a runaway marriage, which left Lady Belmont estranged from her mother. We now get the rest of Lady Belmont’s story, and its looming impact upon her only child.
The mother of Lady Belmont was, we learn, “born with dreadful and violent passions, which had been from my youth upwards suffered to assume mastery of my reason”. Equally in love with and jealous of her husband, upon coming to believe that she had lost his affections to another woman, she set a band of hired assassins on him – regretting it, of course, as soon as the blow was struck. With her husband lying between life and death, she then swore an oath to God that the child she was carrying would be dedicated to His service. Her husband recovered from his wounds, and the child, the future Lady Belmont, subsequently educated in a convent with a view to her finally taking the veil. However, on a brief visit home before taking her vows, the young woman fell in love with Sir Charles Belmont and eloped with him, thus breaking her mother’s oath.
It was not until many years later that Lady Belmont was allowed again into her mother’s presence, and suffered the full consequences of her actions. As her mother lay dying, she forced from Lady Belmont another oath: that should she in turn bear a child, it would be dedicated to God as she, Lady Belmont, should have been; and that she would keep this oath on pain of eternal damnation. Appalled at this prospect, but facing her mother’s curse, Lady Belmont finally swore the oath – doing so in the belief that after so many barren years, she would never bear a child and thus never have to keep it.
[To be continued…]