And still more SPOILERS – although less than in the previous post. Maybe.
The “recent events” referred to in Agatha‘s subtitle, then, are those of the French Revolution. Britain’s reaction to the upheaval in France was peculiarly contradictory. The corruption, licentiousness and brutality of the French system was taken for granted across the channel and habitually held up as the symbol of everything to be depised, as everything that Britain and its government was not – but from 1789 onwards, the Ancien Régime became regarded as the lesser of two evils. The early years of the French Revolution were deeply disturbing to a nation that had not yet recovered from the humiliation of its own Revolutionary War and the subsequent loss of its colonies (in which, of course, the French had played a significant role).
Initially, although the ruling class was alarmed and horrified by the possibility of revolution spreading to its shores, many in Britain supported and even celebrated the events in France. All that changed, however, when the perversion of the principles upon which the revolution had been founded led first to the execution of Louis XVI and then to the bloodbath of 1793 – 1794. By the time that Elizabeth Jervis was writing Agatha, late in 1795, Louis had been dead for nearly three years, the new Constitutional Republic was a few months old—and Britain and France were at war. Some things the Revolution had not changed.
Agatha’s taking of her vows occurs late in 1789, when the Revolution was in its earliest phase; but we hear nothing about that. Instead, we are given a sketchy and not entirely convincing account of the new Sister Constance’s adjustment to her life, in which her secular interests figure as prominently as her religious duties. Agatha’s main pleasure in her new position is acting as the convent’s chief almoner, dispensing its not inconsiderable wealth amongst the deserving poor and in the process earning herself a third identity, becoming known as “the Angel of Auvergne”. Otherwise, we hear a great deal about the presents she receives from Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, who have relocated to France and bought an estate near to the convent, and about the visits of Agatha’s friend, Mrs Herbert, who has joined a travelling party in order to have the opportunity of seeing her. Again, the main thrust of this is to remind us of what Agatha has given up to fulfil her mother’s vow, and the extent of her self-sacrifice.
Agatha has been Sister Constance for two years before Mrs Herbert’s visit, and another passes fleetingly before the story settles down to be told again in detail. It is only when “the Revolution” starts to become “the Terror” that Elizabeth Jervis takes an interest in the events going on outside the convent. What follows is a staggeringly one-sided view of the situation. Jervis ignores the early revolutionary phase because, as it soon becomes clear, she has no intention of conceding that the revolutionaries had the slightest justification for their actions. Apart from an admission from the Abbess that, “The power given to the Nobles of our country over the peasantry, however temperately they have used it of late years*, is such as no one, for the honour of human nature, ought to have”, there is hardly a hint in the novel that pre-revolutionary France was anything less than a utopia.
Elizabeth Jervis was by no means the only English writer to react like this to the Revolution, which provoked a wave of astonishingly rose-coloured looks back at traditional French governance; and like many of them, Jervis’s keynote is ingratitude. At one point, the story of Agatha becomes a series of anecdotes about generous, right-thinking, self-sacrificing French aristocrats who dedicated their fortunes and their lives to looking after their peasants, and this is the thanks they get for it? There is a reference to “the sublime spectacle of a King giving liberty to his subjects – a King, whose humanity, and desire to make them happy entitled him to the adoration of his people”, without any indication of the series of events that brought about that particular “spectacle”. Later, a peasant family takes Agatha in and hides her from the pursuing mob: it comes as no surprise at all when we learn that they are fallen nobility, “degraded to the rank of Plebians”. Finally, we are repeatedly told that the revolutionaries who arrive to sack the convent, and who subsequently shun or attack its former inhabitants, were the very people who queued up to take its charity. Even as we hear of none but completely unselfish nobles, there is no hint here that the wealth of the covent was accumulated for any reason but to disperse it in charitable works.
As events in France threaten to engulf the convent, Agatha is beset on two fronts. First, Sir Charles and Lady Belmont are denounced as aristocrats, and must flee for their lives, their attempt to arrange Agatha’s removal from the convent thwarted. Cut off from her parents and in ignorance of their fate, in danger as both an aristocrat and as a nun, when the revolutionaries storm the convent Agatha manages to escape but is separated from her companions and must begin her dangerous journey on her own, still dressed in her habit. Seeking assistance from the those along her way, Agatha is either rejected in fear of the consequences, or ridiculed and abused. Jervis gets herself in a bit of a bind here: her use of irreligion to emphasise the degenerate state of the peasantry is undermined by the fact that the peasants’ attitude to nuns really isn’t that much different from her own: “Une Fanatique – une Religeuse!”
From the perspective of literary history, this section of Agatha is rather intriguing. Two years earlier, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries Of Udolpho had defined a new genre, the Gothic novel, inspiring imitations by the score. For almost a decade, English circulating libraries were awash with tales of distant lands, gloomy castles, evil monks, persecuted damsels, and supernatural events that were (usually) explained away at the end. My own favourite consequence of this movement is the subset of novels that in desperation sold themselves as Gothic via titles like “The Secret Of The Abbey“, and then turned out to be completely domestic and realistic.
In Agatha, Elizabeth Jervis also exploits the conventions of the Gothic novel. Thus, Agatha must make a series of frightening journeys in the dark, being pursued through the woods surrounding the convent. She takes refuge in a hidden cavern beneath a ruined monastery, where she discovers living in retreat another victim of the situation, Father Albert (he who advises her to forget her vows). Later, captured by the revolutionaries, Agatha finds herself sharing a prison cell with a dead baby; while Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, forced against their wills to accept “hospitality” from another group of revolutionaries, are confronted by their own imminent fate when they discover a secret “murder room” containing the dead and mutilated bodies of their hosts’ earlier victims. These sudden detours into graphic horror in what is otherwise an extremely hardcore didactic novel, and the fact that Jervis goes in that direction when the reality of the Terror offered, surely, enough factual opportunities for graphic horror, are a clear indication of the contemporary dominanance of the Gothic novel. You are sure they are all horrid?, indeed.
There are shifts and twists throughout Agatha that hold the interest even when it stumbles as a piece of writing, and we get another one when the novel abruptly forsakes Gothic horror for politics. However, even as Elizabeth Jervis’s own religious prejudices undermine her depiction of the revolutionaries, her reluctance to admit that the peasants may have had a point interferes with her various expressions of patriotic fervour: she keeps comparing France unfavourably with England, even while refusing to admit that things were really all that bad in France.
The same speech in which she concedes that the French aristocracy may have had just a leetle too much power finds the Abbess admitting to Agatha and Mrs Herbert, “I have often looked with envy towards your country, where the same laws protect the person and property of the peasant as of the lord.” St Valorie, the fallen noble who tries to save Agatha from the mob, also utters an empassioned speech about England: “Happy, happy country, if you knew your own happiness… Had this been the government, these the laws of France – !”
St Valorie’s next words are even more telling: “Even this government, excellent as it is, may not be perfect; there may exist faults which you say it is the opinion of many might be rectified; but it is not the season to begin to repair your own house when its foundations have recently been shaken by the shock given to the surrounding earth when that of your neighbour fell…and when the imperfections of yours, if not imaginary, are, at least, so trifling that you may reside in it with comfort and convenience in its present state…”
Here we find Elizabeth Jervis’s rose-coloured glasses perched firmly on her nose again. This time of trifling imperfections of government was that of a yawning gulf between the rich and the poor, and of parallel abuses of the law. Not for nothing did the ruling class of England fear that the revolutionary fever might take hold there. What’s more, the further this passage goes on – and it goes on – the louder becomes the tone of reproof, the more obvious the finger-wag at the working classes, who should just accept their narrow lot and not be so ungrateful as to ask for more. Note, too, the simultaneous finger-wag at the home-grown reformers – one that is almost comically familiar: Hey, if you don’t like it here, go live in— Wherever. In this case, Revolutionary France. I’ve never quite understood why conditions being worse in some other country frees a government from any obligation to try and improve conditions in its own country, but it seems that they do – and, apparently, always have.
There’s a closing point I want to make about Agatha, but before I do, it is necessary to first take a look at another of Elizabeth Jervis’s prejudices. There is a curious passage – curious in light of Jervis’s subsequent marriage to an abolitionist – in which an acquaintance of Agatha’s remarks, “There are two kinds of people I have always wanted to talk to, and those are, nuns and negroes” – going on to add that she has often wondered, “Whether negroes are really so cruelly treated as Mr Sharp and Mr Wilberforce say they are.” This is not the first reference to slavery in the novel. As you may recall, Edward Hammond is himself enslaved in Algiers, the single white man amongst a host of black slaves. His eventual rescue puts Elizabeth Jervis in another of her personal binds, as the fact that Hammond ups and leaves without any attempt to free his companions hardly gels with her depiction of him as “the soul of nobility and sensibility”.
To get around this (she thinks), she has Hammond pause on the brink of freedom and reflect, “Had the companions of my toil evinced the smallest traces of compassion for my sufferings, or even appeared sensible of their own, I could not have parted from them without compunction of heart…but they had always seemed unconscious of their own misfortunes and regardless of mine, which at this minute was a consolation to me, and prevented even the shadow of a regret at leaving them behind me…”
The native insensibility of its victims was a common justification of slavery at the time, of course, and this sophistical manoeuvring on the part of Hammond / Jervis would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for an unexpected piece of juxtapositioning. One of the subplots of Agatha concerns a long-term friend of Hammond’s, a Jew named Aaron Israeli, who was “hated and ridiculed by every other in the school” when Hammond took him under his wing. We don’t see much of Israeli ourselves over the course of the novel, but we hear quite a bit about him – and he is unfailingly generous, noble and loyal. It is he who rescues Hammond from slavery, and at considerable personal cost.
Casual, and not-so-casual, anti-Semitism would be a common feature of English literature for the next 150 years, with even otherwise liberal writers often lapsing on this point. We would hardly call Elizabeth Jervis “liberal”, considering the rest of her novel. Agatha in its entirety is a strange mix of piety and prejudice. Some of its excesses we laugh at, some (I hope) we wince at; but with her sketch of Aaron Israeli, she takes us entirely by surprise. In and of itself a welcome piece of generosity, in the context of the novel that contains it, it is nothing short of astonishing.