Archive for November, 2010

29/11/2010

The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince

The Faction, amongst the many Instances they have so frequently given of their Spleen and Hatred to the Government, hardly ever showed their Malice more in any one particular, than in the Business of the Black Box, which furnish’d a Pretext to a Libel, call’d The Perplex’d Prince; which, tho’ but poorly writ, yet the malignity of the Design being to poyson Peoples Minds with an Opinion of some Probability and Truth in this Matter. It was thought fit in Return, to shew the World one of their Principal Heroes, in his true Colours.

So – the Earl of Shaftesbury. We really do need to consider the Earl of Shaftesbury before we consider the Exclusion Crisis, and we really need to consider the Exclusion Crisis before we consider The Fugitive Statesman. Such is the nature of the literature of the late 17th century.

Briefly, then (or as briefly as I can manage), Anthony Ashley Cooper was a major political figure throughout the Interregnum and the reign of Charles II. He was a member of the Convention Parliament, which agreed that monarchy should be restored, and for the first years of Charles’ reign he was a strong supporter of the king. During this time he was in great favour with Charles, being created Earl of Shaftesbury and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Lord Chancellor of England.

However, a rift eventually began to grow between the two over the question of the succession. In 1669, Shaftesbury was amongst those who urged Charles to dissolve his fruitless marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Nothing came of this at the time, but in 1673 the Parliament passed the Test Act, under which all those holding military or civil office were required to take Anglican communion every year, and to renounce Catholic doctrine. There had been rumours about James’s conversion to Catholicism for years (he had in fact converted in 1667), and a month after the passing of the Test Act, he failed to take the Easter communion. Six months after that, he married Mary of Modena.

Until that moment, the question of James’s own religion was tempered by the fact that his daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, were Protestants; but now there was the threat of a Catholic prince. Shaftesbury and others again urged Charles to dispense with Catherine and remarry, and a motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning James’s marriage. This was the beginning of Shaftesbury’s fall from grace at court, and his emergence as a leader of a new political party that (after a flurry of mutual name-calling) would eventually be known as the Whigs.

The question of the succession and the role of Parliament under monarchy were two of the dominant issues that defined this new Opposition, and throughout the 1670s a series of bitter political battles was fought on both these fronts, with Charles repeatedly proroguing or dissolving Parliament in order to stop the passage of bills. During this time, various attempts made either to exclude James from the succession, or to impose conditions upon it, such as demanding that his children be raised Protestant.

In the middle of 1678, the Popish Plot broke, bringing the already prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to a new fever pitch. Shaftesbury was active in the ensuing investigations, and began to win a reputation amongst the English people as a defender of the Protestant faith. Over the following years he campaigned vigorously for James’s exclusion and the legitimising of Monmouth, who had begun to agitate on his own behalf – and was sent into exile by his father for his pains. Shaftesbury also tried to have the Duke of York indicted as a recusant, and while he failed at that, he did succeed in convincing Monmouth to return to England, where his arrival was greeted with widespread celebration by the general population.

However, all of the measures taken to remove James and secure Monmouth’s position eventually came to nothing. The final blow for the Exclusionists was the dissolution of the so-called Oxford Parliament of 1681 – the last Parliament of Charles’s reign. In the wake of this, Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with high treason. He was subsequently acquitted, courtesy of a combination of weak evidence and a stacked jury, but his days were numbered. During 1682, Shaftesbury put much effort into urging an open rebellion led by Monmouth, but when this failed he fled England for Amsterdam, where he died in December of that year.

It is not difficult to understand why much of the literature of this time is highly political in nature. Supporters of both factions took advantage of a comparative freedom of the presses to sway the reading populace to their cause. In terms of the quality of these productions, however, Dryden’s Absalom And Architophel is an extreme exception: most of them are political to the exclusion of literary merit. We’ve met one example already, in the form of The Perplex’d Prince, which was published at a time when the Popish Plot’s chief instigator, Titus Oates, had been exposed as a perjurer (although not charged or convicted) and expelled from Whitehall, and yet matter-of-factly asserts the reality of the Plot and openly accuses James of trying to murder his brother. And on the other side of the political fence we find the self-explanatory The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince, which was published in 1683.

In requital is almost understating things. The Fugitive Statesman copies its inspiration’s use of the roman à clef, and produces a one-sided account of the Exclusion Crisis in which all of the characters are given fictitious identities; fictitious identities with which we are already quite familiar – as by this time were many of England’s readers. In short, The Fugitive Statesman steals the metaphorical language of John Dryden: the English people are the Jews, Charles is David, Monmouth is Absalom, Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the Catholics are the Jebusites, and so on. It also steals pieces of Dryden’s poetry and twists them into prose. For example, Achitopel working on Absalom’s ambitions and ego – “Not that your father’s mildness I contemn; But manly force becomes the diadem” – is turned into, “Not that David’s Gentle Temper is to be despised, but it is a greater Virtue in a private Person, or an Ecclesiastick than a Soveraign, and a Masculine Soul is certainly fitter for a Throne.” And there are many more instances of this kind of thing. Whether the passing reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince put this approach into the author’s mind, whether it was intended as a tribute to Dryden, or whether it was a shameless attempt to ride the coattails of Dryden’s success, I really couldn’t say – although my money’s on the latter.

Reading The Fugitive Statesman is rather a chore. Its author doesn’t write about his subject so much as beat it into the ground, employing a ranting, Oh, and another thing – !! style that becomes perversely funny even as it becomes more and more tiresome. The pamphlet also has a habit (evidently assuming a thorough knowledge of the details of the Exclusion Crisis and of Absalom And Achitophel) of throwing name after name at the reader with a minimum of context, which not only makes for a confusing read, but in the end very nearly defeats the author’s purpose: you just can’t be bothered with it. In The Perplex’d Prince, cracking the code seems like a game; here it feels like homework. This is a sample:

Thereupon taking his leave he went to the Rendezvous, where he found Absalom, Zimri, Nadab, Shimei, Corah, Ishban, Belial, Rabsheka, Judas, Phaleg, Ben-Jochanan, Balack, Og and Doeg, with many others of all sorts and Conditions…

Still…if you can stick with it, there are some real insights here into the thinking of the time. The author, obviously a hardcore royalist, takes the position that kings are divinely anointed and that interfering with the succession is therefore blasphemous as well as treasonous. In its presentation of Charles, this pamphlet outdoes even The Perplex’d Prince: the king is no longer merely “valiant, wise and religious”, but quite literally “God-like”. In their opposition to the king’s will, then, Shaftesbury and his followers were perceived as doing the devil’s work – also literally. In Absalom And Achitopel, there is a reference to Shaftesbury as “Hell’s dire agent”; the author of The Fugitive Statesman latches onto this, referring to his Achitopel repeatedly as “Hell’s Minister” and “the hellish Contriver”, and speaking of his “Devilish Machinations”.

In this version of events, although Achitopel and his ilk intend to enrich themselves by taking over the estates and properties of those who remained loyal to David, once they have succeeded in overthrowing him (it was for the same reason that they rebelled against David’s father, and provoked civil war), for the most part they seem intent upon anarchy for anarchy’s sake. As for Achitopel himself, it turns out that a major motivation is that he thinks acting against David will help to get him into one particular’s woman’s—well, whatever it was that women wore under their dresses in 1683.

In pursuit of his ends – and her end – there is nothing so vile and dishonest that Achitopel will not stoop to it. It was he, for instance, who devised the Popish Plot, and bought the services of Titus Oates:

I once made him pretend himself a Jebusite, that so getting Acquaintance with those of that Sect, he might be the more able to varnish with probability the Matters he is to attest. This Fellow’s Livelihood must depend on his evidence; and he shall…swear, that the Queen and the next Heir are in the Plot against the King.”

And it was he who invented the story of Absalom’s legitimacy:

He likewise gave out that there was a certain Instrument preserved in a Black Box, being the Contract of Marriage between David and Absalom’s Mother, and a settlement of the Crown upon the Issue he might have by that Lady.

And it was he who started that ridiculous rumour about David undertaking secret negotiations with “Pharaoh” (Louis XIV), as well as the one about Solomon’s Jebusitism…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Fugitive Statesmen is its refusal to accept that James was actually a Catholic, preferring instead to see assertions to that effect as merely a piece of mud-slinging, something Shaftesbury and his followers made up to suit their purposes. At the same time, there is a note of uncertainty in the author’s handling of this that is noticeably absent from the rest of the pamphlet: his protestations that James is not, not, NOT a Catholic tail finally off into, And even if he was, he could easily be brought back to Protestantism…

But without doubt, the aspect of this pamphlet that resonates most strongly today is its bitter reaction to the one piece of legislation successfully passed while all this political brawling was going on: the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Although today we regard habeas corpus of one of the cornerstones of law, the author of The Fugitive Statesman saw things a little differently:

“…a Law the Seditionaries had taken care to have pass’d some time before the breaking out of the Plot, by this Law in case of Bail offered no Man could be detained in Prison… Thus Law and Justice were perverted in these wicked Men’s hands…”

The Fugitive Statesman exults over the downfall of Achitopel and his party after the “Baharim Parliament”, and Achitopel’s consignment to the Tower of London, but is not the least little bit happy over his subsequent acquittal. It has an explanation for the jury’s verdict, however:

Were not they themselves as well engaged as he in the Conspiracy? …And people of their Mould and Principles always make Conscience, give way, and submit to Self-Preservation and Interest… Thus was the Arch-Traytor again set at Liberty…”

But this is only a temporary reprieve:

“…to find all his Devilish Wiles and Practices display’d and expos’d to the eyes of all People, to find he was become the abomination of all the sound and honest part of mankind, Achitopel laying all these things to heart, I say, put an end to his loathed Life in such wise as the World well knows.”

So there.

(I should perhaps mention that while the biblical Achitopel committed suicide, his real-life counterpart did not.)

Despite the limitless evil ascribed to the Exclusionists by The Fugitive Statesman, the fact is, they lacked teeth. For one thing, although they used it as a threat, most assuredly they did not want civil war. However, from their own point of view, probably the bigger problem was that, although they did not want James, they didn’t really want Monmouth, either: he was just the lesser of the two evils, where there was no third option – or so it seemed. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to do anything so desperate as “invite” an invasion. The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of 1681 was really the end of this particular crisis: when James did succeed his brother in February of1685, there was barely a ripple of reaction.

Of course, the overriding irony here was that once James took the throne, he began to do exactly what the Exclusionists had warned he would – whether or not they only said it to scaremonger – changing the laws around religious practice, appointing Catholics to important positions, building a standing army, and trying to remove himself from the control of Parliament. Even the hard-line Tories who had fought to protect the royal line weren’t prepared to stand for all that, and another crisis began to build. However, long before that, indeed only four months into James’s reign, the next upheaval to impact significantly upon the literature of the time occurred: the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

25/11/2010

Absalom And Achitophel

I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer: this will be in no way, shape or form a proper attempt to analyse or engage with John Dryden’s Absalom And Achitophel, but is intended merely to bring it to the attention of those who may not be aware of it or of its significance – as I was not, until quite recently.

Although his first important appointment was under Cromwell, Dryden’s reaction to the Restoration in Astraea Redux makes his passionate Royalist feelings clear; and he would continue to celebrate Charles II in his poetry even whole earning the bulk of his living as a playwright – something Charles also made possible, of course. However, Dryden’s ambitions were always for his poetry, and his breakthrough work was 1667’s Annus Mirabilis, which both established him as England’s pre-eminent poetic talent and went a long way towards securing him the position of Poet Laureate, to which he was appointed the following year.

Dryden held the position of Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, often acting as a kind of literary weapon for the former. Loyal as he was to Charles, Dryden was involved in a number of ongoing feuds with some of those around the king, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, who were often satirised in his poems and plays. These were turbulent years, as we have seen, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. As early as 1669 there were attempts made to persuade Charles to divorce Catherine of Braganza or to annul their marriage, and to remarry in order to produce a legitimate Protestant heir. Charles had refused. A decade later, the situation reached crisis point, with the Popish Plot creating an atmosphere of violent anti-Catholicism, and the Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, attempting to have legislation passed that would exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother; and, when this failed, calling upon Charles directly to legitimise his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth, in order to establish a Protestant heir to the English throne. This, too, failed.

Towards the end of 1681, John Dryden published Absalom And Achitophel, an extraordinary satirical work wherein the events of the preceding three years and the circumstances that provoked them are reconfigured in the form of religious and historical allegory. The basis of the work is the biblical story of David and Absalom, and the rebellion of the latter, although a dearly beloved son, against his father, the king. In Dryden’s work, Charles II becomes David, and the Duke of Monmouth, Absalom; but there is barely a figure involved in the politics of the time who does not appear in the poem in one guise or another. The most critical, of course, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, otherwise Achitophel. In the Old Testament, Achitophel is David’s advisor, but betrays him and supports Absalom in his rebellion. By late in the 17th century, “Achitophel” had become a generic term of abuse for anyone seen as betraying his principles, and thus its application to Shaftesbury was a doubly loaded one.

Here a few brief extracts, just to give a taste of the work and to introduce the major players. First, the Jewish (English) people, whose agitations after a delusory “freedom” led first to civil war, and then to the regretted reigns of Saul (Oliver Cromwell) and his son, “the foolish Ishbosheth” (Richard Cromwell); and who cannot be satisfied even under the indulgent David:

      The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race,
      As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace;
      God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
      No king could govern, nor no God could please;
      (Gods they had tri’d of every shape and size,
      That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
      These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
      Began to dream they wanted liberty…

David, we find, is unable to produce a legitimate heir, but looks with favour upon Absalom:

      Michal, of royal blood, the crown did wear;
      A soil ungrateful to the tiller’s care:
      Not so the rest; for several mothers bore
      To god-like David, several sons before.
      But since like slaves his bed they did ascend,
      No true succession could their seed attend.
      Of all this numerous progeny was none
      So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom…

And there are those who recognise in the native impatience of the “moody, murm’ring” Jews and the dissatisfaction with his lot on the part of Absalom an opportunity for rebellion, and for self-aggrandisement – chief amongst them, Achitophel:

      Some had in courts been great, and thrown from thence,
      Like fiends, were harden’d in impenitence.
      Some by their monarch’s fatal mercy grown,
      From pardon’d rebels, kinsmen to the throne;
      Were rais’d in pow’r and public office high;
      Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.

      Of these the false Achitophel was first:
      A name to all succeeding ages curst.
      For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
      Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
      Restless, unfixt in principles and place…

And Achitophel begins to work upon the susceptible Absalom, who at first resists the schemer’s lures, acknowledging both his debt to David and that he has no legitimate claim to the throne:

      His favour leaves me nothing to require;
      Prevents my wishes, and out-runs desire.
      What more can I expect while David lives?
      All but his kingly diadem he gives:
      And that: but there he paus’d; then sighing, said,
      Is justly destin’d for a worthier head…

Seeing Absalom swayed by his ambitions, Achitophel persists, and Absalom begins to feel the stirrings of rebellion in his soul:

      Why am I scanted by a niggard-birth?
      My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth:
      And made for empire, whispers me within;
      Desire of greatness is a god-like sin.

      Him staggering so when Hell’s dire agent found,
      While fainting virtue scarce maintain’d her ground,
      He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies:

      Th’eternal God, supremely good and wise,
      Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
      What wonders are reserv’d to bless your reign?
      Against your will your arguments have shown,
      Such virtue’s only giv’n to guide a throne.
      Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
      But manly force becomes the diadem…

And on the way through, our old friend Titus Oates rates a heavily sarcastic mention:

      To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
      Would tire a well-breath’d witness of the plot:
      Yet, Corah, thou shalt from oblivion pass;
      Erect thyself thou monumental brass:
      High as the serpent of thy metal made,
      While nations stand secure beneath thy shade…

Absalom And Achitophel then metaphorically traces the course of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, concluding with the triumph of “David” and the exposure and disgrace of “Achitophel”. And in reality, the failure of the Exclusionists left the Earl of Shaftesbury in a perilous situation. In July of 1681 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for the next four months, awaiting trial on charges of high treason.

Examined as history and not as poetry, we can appreciate how carefully Dryden treads in Absalom And Achitophel, praising David at every reasonable opportunity while also scolding him gently for sometimes allowing the father to supersede the king, and for being overindulgent to those ungrateful “murm’ring” Jews; emphasising “Absalom”’s outstanding personal qualities and arguing that it his very “kingliness”, the unavoidable gift of his father, which brought him to the point of rebellion; and pouring the bulk of the blame upon the scheming, treacherous “Achitophel”.

Dryden’s work was an enormous success, both as poetry and as propaganda, influencing not only the public perception of the events of the Exclusion Crisis, but impacting upon other political writers of the time, as we shall see. In 1682, a second part of the poem was published, but although it was sketched out by Dryden, most of it was written by someone else (probably Nahum Tate), except for a few passages in which Dryden takes pot-shots at some personal enemies; one in particular…

21/11/2010

The art of the run-on sentence

Back when we were discussing The Isle Of Pines, blog visitor Supersonic Man exclaimed, “Holy crap, that thing has a 397 word sentence immediately followed by a 340 word one” – prompting me to the facetious observation that, “Historians generally agree that the late 17th and early 18th centuries were the Golden Age of the run-on sentence.” Well, many a true word is spoken in throwaway facetious remark. In The Perplex’d Prince, the anonymous author gives Henry Neville a run for his money by concluding with a sentence of some 268 words, which in its original formatting ran for over two pages.

And I quote:

“Very well, replyed the Prince, I think I never slept sounder in my life: the Country man expressed abundance of Joy thereat, intreating him that since he had been so happily directed to his house, he would do him the honour to stay and dine with him, the King desired to be excused, but yet upon his importunity he consented, and found his entertainment very much to exceed his expectation; dinner being over, and his Horse and all things being got ready and having taken his leave, he mounted and Rode towards Carmanio, until he came to a pleasant Path way that led unto a delightful Shady Grove situated upon an hill, from whence he might take a view of the neighbouring Vallies, and having viewed it he dismounted and entered the Grove, and being very much delighted with the umbrage, sat himself down beneath the spreading Boughs on the flowery Bank of a Christal Spring, whose murmuring Streams in Silver Trills discharged themselves into a neighbouring Brook, and with much admiration took a delightful view of the out spread Plaines and Vallies, which were curiously fringed with Trees and Blossom Shrubs, nor was he less delighted to see the careful Shepherds Feeding their Numerous Flocks, whose pritty bleatings answered still those rural Songs which they on Slender Reeds Tuned, Harmonious as the Musick of the Spheres; nor was there any other Rustick Exercise or Pleasing Object wanting to his sight, which had been hitherto been represented to his View in Land-skips dextrously drawn by the most curious Pencils, where we at present leave him to his Contemplations.”

Reading that sentence in context was an almost hypnotic experience. It’s all in the punctuation, of course. I guess you could cut it off at “the Country man”, or even at “dinner being over”; but I prefer the strict interpretation of fullstop to fullstop.

I also love the way that, as a piece of closure to a tale of deceit, conspiracy and danger, it builds to such a marvellous anticlimax.

20/11/2010

The Perplex’d Prince

Notwithstanding all the Favours and Priviledges the Gregorians enjoyed under the peaceful Reign of Conradus, by means of the Prince of Purdino, they were not therewith content, but greatly desiring to have their Religion the Religion established by Law, which could not be while Conradus lived, they began to think he had reigned long enough…

The period from the Restoration in 1660 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a time of continuous political and religious upheaval in Britain, and it is not surprising that much of what was published during those years was political and/or religious in focus as well. Fiction for entertainment alone took a back seat at this time to fiction with a purpose, including the emergence of the roman à clef as a political weapon. The “novel with a key” had been popularised throughout Europe in the middle of the 17th century by the elephantine productions of Madeleine de Scudéry, which in spite of their “Oriental” or “classical” settings were populated by characters based upon herself and her friends and acquaintances, and who spoke, thought and acted accordingly. Finding yourself in one of de Scudéry’s novels was a popular past-time amongst the habitués of French salon society.

In England, however, such writing took on a deeper and darker meaning during the reign of Charles II, when it became a means of taking a political stance while (at least in theory) avoiding accusations of libel or sedition. A perfect example of the genre is The Perplex’d Prince, published in 1682 and attributed only to one “T.S.”, which gives a fictionalised account of the Popish Plot of 1679 – 1681, and the supposed role played in it by the Duke of York.

Briefly, the Popish Plot was – allegedly – a plan to assassinate Charles II and thus ensure the succession of his Catholic brother, James. It was held to have emanated directly from the Pope and been propagated by the Jesuits; to consist of several separate murder schemes, so that one might succeed if the others failed; and to be the prelude to an uprising of the Catholic population of London and the slaughter of its Protestant inhabitants. The Plot became public on the testimony of Titus Oates, who claimed that he had infiltrated the Jesuits and learned of their plans. Oates himself had a chequered and fairly disgraceful history, and most of those supporting his claims were no better; but the time was one of growing and passionate anti-Catholic feeling, particularly in view of the failure of Charles to produce a legitimate Protestant heir, and Oates’ accusations did not fall upon deaf ears. Although Charles himself considered the claims preposterous, Parliament saw its chance and – in an unmistakable case of “I want to believe” – took the incredible and unreliable evidence of Titus Oates at face value.

A bloodbath followed. Sixteen Catholics were quickly executed for their supposed involvement, and eight Catholic priests for having knowledge of the plot beforehand; before a halt was called, thirty-five people lost their lives to Oates’ accusations. Among those to die was Edward Coleman, the personal secretary of Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York. The Queen’s physician, Sir George Wakeman, was also accused; while rumour was busy with Catherine herself. In the Parliament, the Earl of Shaftesbury in particular seized upon the situation (which became known in some quarters as “the Shaftesbury Plot”) and began an agitation that would eventually evolve into the Exclusion Crisis. Meanwhile, Oates was rewarded for his “services” with state apartments and a fat pension. At length, however, although too late for many of the accused, the holes in Oates’ claims, his contradictions and the failure to find any hard corroborating evidence turned the tide in many minds, including judicial ones. Acquittals of accused Catholics became more common, and attacks on Oates himself more frequent. Apparently quite unable ever to keep his mouth shut, Oates retaliated in kind, accusing James outright of involvement in the Plot, and initiating a chain of events that would lead to the pillory and prison for him, and post-mortem pardons for some of his victims.

The Perplex’d Prince was published in 1682, after Oates’ eviction from Whitehall, his accusations against James, and his consequence imprisonment for sedition. However, despite Oates’ fall from grace at court, there was still great belief in the Popish Plot amongst the population in general, with many seeing Oates’ imprisonment not as the just result of his exposure, but as an act of revenge by the Catholic James. The pamphlet was therefore speaking to an eager audience when it chose to take the events of the Plot at face value. Nor did it stop there, but also latched onto a rumour that was gaining strength under the looming threat of a Catholic monarch: namely, that Charles had been legally married to Lucy Walter, the mother of his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth; and that Monmouth, a Protestant, was the legitimate heir to the English throne. This was the so-called “black box” theory, in which Lucy Walter was supposed to have sealed her marriage-lines in a certain locked black box, which was then given into the keeping of John Cosin, an Anglican bishop, who by the time this theory became public was, like Lucy Walter herself, conveniently dead. The furious and exasperated Charles retaliated by declaring publicly that Catherine of Braganza was his only wife, and Monmouth illegitimate, but the conspiracy theorists – and the Exclusionists – paid little heed.

The Perplex’d Prince deals, self-evidently, with dangerous if popular material. Small wonder, then, that its anonymous author chose to pass it off as mere fiction, by telling the story of the country of Otenia, and the terrible plots against its Good King Conradus by a religious faction known as the Gregorians. The pamphlet opens with a brief, head-shaking account of the overthrow of Conradus’ father by the vile Vallinsia. After an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Vallinsia’s army, Conradus, Prince of West-tenia, goes into exile in Denesia in company with his younger brother, Heclasius, Prince of Purdino. There, Conradus falls in love with one of the ladies of the court, Lucilious, who he finally persuades into a secret marriage to which the only witnesses are the officiating priest and Heclasius. Lucilious bears Conradus a son, and they live happily together until Lucilious’ death.

Shortly afterwards, the people of Otenia decide they want their king back. Conradus is reinstated with all pomp and ceremony, and a desirable marriage is soon proposed to him with Berrelia of Legentine. The one fly in the ointment is a clause in the contract insisting that Berrelia’s children will be Conradus’ direct heirs. Conradus baulks at this, but finally declares the young Prince of Burranto illegitimate under the persuasions of Heclasius, who has already tried (and failed) to deny his own secret marriage.

Things do not remain peaceful in Otenia for long. The Gregorian faction begins to plot against Conradus, with the help of Heclasius, a secret Gregorian. Heclasius manages to surround the unsuspecting Conradus with his own people, who set to work poisoning the king’s mind against their religious enemies, the Calvenians. However, unable to push Conradus into action either in favour of the Gregorians or against the Calvenians, the Gregorians decide that the king must die…

Although the early section of The Perplex’d Prince, with its protracted account of Charles’ courtship of Lucy Walter, is fairly tedious, once the “Gregorian” plot is under way, it barely misses a beat. Scheme piles upon scheme, all attempts on the king’s life discovered in time purely by the grace of God – Who is, of course, a staunch anti-Gregorian. In light of what we now know about Titus Oates and the Popish Plot, this matter-of-fact account of the evil-doing of the Gregorians is rather chilling; but at the same time there is an amusing side to The Perplex’d Prince, albeit an unintentional one.

Virulently anti-Catholic as it is, we are not surprised at the pamphlet’s depiction of James as profoundly self-interested and deceitful, prepared to do anything to gain his ends, even to the extent of murdering his brother. The pamphlet makes much of the Gregorians, Heclasius included, having been absolved a priori by the “Pontify” for any sins they might commit for their cause. The difficulty for the anonymous author, clearly, was how to depict Charles, who in his inability to see through his brother’s façade to the dangerous plotter and religious fanatic beyond comes across as terribly naive – or as terribly thick, depending upon how you read it. Time and again, the evidence points to James as one of the main conspirators; time and again, Charles allows himself to be convinced by his brother’s tearful declarations of innocence and protestations of fraternal love.

The gap between the theoretical “Conradus” – So excellent a Prince as he was…every one who had the happiness to know him, highly commending him for a valiant, wise, and religious Prince – and the behaviour of the actual Charles was obviously a significant problem for the author, but perhaps no greater than the one he created for himself. With the best will in the world, the author cannot justify or explain away the perfect Conradus’ bastardising of the Prince of Burranto, whose birth is greeted with a solemn speech – “Sweet babe, thou art born Heir to a Crown, and although thy Father be at present out of possession thereof, yet he hopes shortly to recover it, and leave thee in quiet injoyment of it” – and who is subsequently disinherited under the pragmatic reflection that Conradus, Might safely do it to serve a present turn; and if his Highness saw occasion for it, he might right the young Prince at any time.

Very valiant, wise and religious of you, Charlie.

But of course, we see the author’s dilemma. Disgusted by the thought of a republic, a staunch believer in monarchy, a rabid anti-Catholic— How, then, to react in the face of a Catholic heir to the English throne? We cannot tell whether the author actually believed in either the Popish Plot or the “black box”, but we can understand why he might have seized upon both so avidly. In his view of the world, and of the natural fitness of things, Monmouth simply had to be legitimate.

The Perplex’d Prince is also an illustration of the dangers of writing to the minute, as it has no real ending. There is a concluding passage in which Conradus is separated from his brother and the rest of his party while out hunting (Heclasius hoping fervently that the leopard he was chasing has gotten him), after which he spends the night at the cottage of a simple countryman who doesn’t know who his guest is, and thus favours him with a few home truths about wicked Gregorians and saintly Calvenians, and how everyone knows the Prince of Burranto is the true heir and not Heclasius. This seems to be leading somewhere – back to the court for a showdown with Heclasius, perhaps – but instead the story just stops.

Although I’ve already gone on much longer than I intended (it’s hard to be brief when discussing the politics of this era), there are a couple of side-points I want to make about The Perplex’d Prince, one funny, one not funny at all. First of all we have the fact that no-one connected with this work seems to have been able to settle on the spelling of its adjective, which is given as “perplexed” in the first chapter heading, “perplext” in the dedication, and “perplex’d” on the title page, which is what I’ve gone with. It is also in the dedication that we get the feeling that the author may have had more of a sense of humour than his main text suggests, as he bemoans the unlikelihood of his pamphlet getting noticed at all amongst such a plethora of, “Intelligencies, Addresses, Absolom and Achitophels, Medals, Prologues, Epilogues…” and envisages the reaction of the customers: “The Perplext Prince! say some; Away with him, and tell us of the Victorious Prince… The Perplext Prince, says others, how can that be? Since he was indewed by Heaven with a Power to remove all Persons that occasioned any displeasing or Perplexing Thoughts…

(That reference to Absalom And Achitophel is something I’ll be coming back to later on.)

We can smile at these reflections upon the perils of authorship and bookselling, but the dedication in which they appear wipes the smile from our faces. In a discomforting touch, The Perplex’d Prince is dedicated to William, Lord Russell, who at the time was one of the leaders of the Exclusionists, and who was subsequently accused of involvement in the Rye House Plot (a plot to assassinate Charles and James), convicted and executed, although I’m not aware that there was any particular evidence against him.

The final point to be made about The Perplex’d Prince (Thank God! I hear you cry) is its source. The copy I have studied was originally owned by the bibliophile Narcissus Luttrell. Luttrell was a Tory, although not a particularly rabid one by the standards of the time, and an avid collector of material relating to the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. In later years, financial trouble forced him to sell off his collection of printed material, much of which eventually ended up in the British Library.

There are, and will continue to be, very passionate debates about the future of books and bookselling, and the part to be played by eReaders. My own stance on the subject is simple and selfish: I love actual books as much as anyone, but the eReader allows me access to material I would otherwise never get within a thousand miles of – like Narcissus Luttrell’s copy of The Perplex’d Prince. We know it’s his because he wrote his name on the fly-leaf. What’s more, recognising it as a roman à clef, he declared as much on the title page (see above), and then while reading it tried to break its code, adding notes about who and where he believed the characters and places were intended to be – and fixing up the typos. On the accessible electronic version, these hand-written annotations have a startling immediacy, effortlessly bridging the 350-year gulf between reader and reader, book-lover and book-lover. I can think of no better argument in favour of the eReader.

18/11/2010

Not “the” Fielding, just “A.” Fielding

At first, when I landed on such a high number, the highest yet, for this round of Reading Roulette, I figured that the Reading Gods were still ticked off with me for not immediately taking advantage of their offer of a low number, in the form of Mary Meeke’s The Mysterious Wife. Then I realised that it was simply a matter of them paying attention to the discussion of Philip And Philippa, and deciding that nothing in the world could be more appropriate than to land me on a novel written by a gender-neutral author, who was once believed to be a man, but who was subsequently discovered to be a woman.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, some twenty-five detective novels were published under the name of “A. Fielding”, or in America, “A.E. Fielding”. At one point, the author was declared to be a man named Archibald Fielding, although I’ve no idea where that notion came from. (You can still find listings of “A. Fielding”‘s books under that name.) Eventually, Fielding’s publishers, Collins, revealed that the author was one Dorothy Feilding (note the spelling), but then completely muddied the waters by supplying a series of biographical details that turned out to be wrong. For a time there was some support for the theory that A. Fielding was really Lady Dorothy Feilding. However, not only was this denied by her family (“Feilding” is the family name of the Earls of Denbigh), but apparently the dates don’t add up. It seems now to have been accepted that whatever else Collins were wrong about, they were right about their author’s true identity. As the story goes, wishing to write under a pseudonym, Dorothy Feilding realised that nothing could be simpler or more effective than just switching the letters in her surname and hiding amongst all those with the much more common spelling – hence, “A. Fielding”.

The book I landed upon is from the middle of Fielding/Feilding’s career, 1929’s The Mysterious Partner. (It seems, in any event, that the Reading Gods were determined to make me read something “mysterious”.) Given that this novel is – gasp! – less than 100 years old, I had some hopes that I might be able to just borrow it…but the only library copy I’ve been able to find is in the Rare Book section of my academic library. Sigh. However, I’ve since located a secondhand copy of it – thank you, Grant’s Bookshop of Armadale, Victoria.

In other news, that annoying person will not return the third volume of Count St. Blancard – grr!

17/11/2010

The Eternal Woman

On whom a flawless, well-grown specimen of the divine ‘rose of womanhood’ has been bestowed has been granted the greatest gift on earth, and although Clara did not know it, she was one of the fortunate ones.
— Dorothea Gerard (1903)

In spite of the involuntary, and rather violent, exclamation of, Blecchh!! that escaped me upon reading the above and similar passages in Dorothea Gerard’s The Eternal Woman, I did try to give this novel a fair shake; although it was evident from its earliest chapters that it and I were operating from, to put it mildly, opposing philosophies. Written and set at the turn of the last century, The Eternal Woman is a determined attempt to turn the tide of female emancipation, chiefly by convincing young women that not only is marriage their true destiny, but a realm of female power and control.

Orphaned at an early age, Clara Wood, an English girl, is taken in on an impulse by the Viennese widow Baroness Sieffert. Shallow and self-absorbed, the Baroness loses interest in Clara as she grows older, although she always means to provide for her. However, when she dies suddenly, it is discovered that the Baroness has not made a will, and at the age of twenty Clara finds herself alone in the world and almost destitute. Turning for advice to the feminist magazine editor Fraulein Pohl, Clara is offered the chance to attend university, but decides that what she wants is marriage and a home, and as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  Becoming a governess, Clara passes three years moving from position to position without finding what she seeks, before manoeuvring herself into the household of Philip Aikman in the position of companion-nurse to his senile mother. Aikman is single, lives in near solitude in a small coastal village in Scotland, and is heir to his uncle’s substantial fortune. He is, in other words, exactly what Clara has been looking for, and she sets to work at the task of becoming Mrs Aikman, and with success – provided that her conscience doesn’t intervene…

It is clear in The Eternal Woman that Dorothea Gerard did not like the changes that were happening in her world, and that she set herself to counteract what she regarded as feminist propaganda with some propaganda of her own. She starts by showing her readers the face of the enemy, in the rather paper-tigery form of Fraulein Pohl; at which point we discover that some stereotypes have very deep roots. The Fraulein is, to no-one’s surprise, “masculine”; she is “stout”, with “a pug-dog nose”; she wears glasses, and not only has a slight moustache, she actively cultivates it. Amongst a myriad of foolish notions, the Fraulein dreams of a world where women will be free to have short hair and wear pants – quelle horreur!

Informed of Clara’s situation, the Fraulein, with hopes of winning Clara to “her side”, offers her the chance to attend university on a scholarship. This is really where The Eternal Woman disappointed me. It was fairly obvious that Clara would ultimately choose to “be a woman” rather than “have a career” (naturally, you can’t do both), but I did hope that this novel would first offer a look at what higher education was like for young women at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, however, Clara decides to reject the Fraulein’s offer – and you’ll never believe what makes up her mind for her.

As Clara ponders the Fraulein’s words and contemplates her destiny, we are given the passage from which this novel takes its title:

And yet, for all the plausible arguments used, for all the grain of truth which undoubtedly lay buried under the mountains of the editress’s rhetoric, there was something in it all which failed to satisfy some part of her inner self, and she was far too inexperienced to know that this part was nothing less than the eternal woman within her, who is neither ‘New’ nor ‘Old’, since she belongs to yesterday as well as to to-morrow…

Still undecided, Clara tries to read herself to sleep. Instead, she stumbles across the personal philosophy which will in future shape her actions:

And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once; old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth: A woman with fair opportunities and without an absolute hump may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

Incredibly, Dorothea Gerard seems to have taken this passage at face value; Clara certainly does. Personally, I’ve always read it as a typical Victorian example of a comprehensive insult being offered in the guise of a compliment. I must be as stupid as Thackery thinks.

(I may also say that I find it highly significant that we are never made privy to Clara’s opinion of Amelia Sedley, that dear little clinging parasite.)

Anyway, Clara is inspired by this passage with a belief in “the power of her womanhood”, and decides to set about about life as a moral Becky Sharp, if you please: that is, she will conquer the world with her wits and womanhood alone, adapting herself to circumstances and making herself useful, thus creating opportunities, while staying within the bounds of conscience; and as soon as she finds “a decently marriageable man”, she will make him her slave.

And it works. As she goes from position to position, demonstrating how “clever” and “resourceful” she is, Clara finds every available man at her feet, and has to keep moving on because they’re not what she wants, one way or another. Three years on, however, Clara is beginning to get a little desperate; desperate enough to resort to some tactics that are a little too Becky-like for comfort in order to manoeuvre herself into a position in the household of the extremely eligible Philip Aikman.

The world that Dorothea Gerard creates in The Eternal Woman is one I find creepy and depressing. Gerard is so intent on turning young women away from work and self-sufficiency and into marriage with her vision of feminine dominance that – although I rather doubt this was her intention – I ended up feeling profoundly sorry for the male of the species. I wouldn’t wish Clara Wood on anyone.

Gerard seems to have no real notion of a companionate marriage. Her thesis is that any woman who understands her own “womanliness” can get any man she wants to marry her; and that having done so, she will control the situation from there on in. The only unhappy marriages in Gerard’s world are those where the wives do not grasp the true power of their womanhood, or where the wife wields her power in an insufficiently feminine way. Men, confronted by this dread force, are mere playthings, putty in their wives’ hands, who will work and slave and fall over themselves to provide these “queenly” creatures with everything they desire, asking nothing in return but the opportunity to worship at their feet. There’s an underlying implication in this novel that what women really want out of marriage is a roof over their head and children and, that being the case, it doesn’t much matter who they marry. And in fact, husbands are rather like children – just a little stupider, and easier to manage.

And if the promise of power is Gerard’s carrot, she provides a stick also, in her inferences about women who do want a career, or at least don’t particularly want marriage. Here she resorts to a form of language that became increasingly common in conservative novels throughout the second half of the 19th century, as the rumblings of female discontent grew louder, and as new opportunities began to open up. It was no longer sufficient to say, It simply isn’t done! – since, obviously, it was being done, and more often all the time. The implication then became that ambitions apart from marriage and motherhood were nothing less than a form of sickness. Anthony Trollope, that most Victorian of novelists, so generous in some respects, yet narrow to the point of being cruel on this particular subject, was very fond of telling his readers how healthy his marriage-minded young women were – and how unhealthy any woman who made the slightest effort to jump the extremely narrow tracks laid down for her life. Dorothea Gerard uses the same tactic: Whenever she had thought of the future she had thought of matrimony almost as a matter of course (as every healthy-minded young woman does, however furiously she may deny it). And backing this position up is the eternal threat: sure, you can have an education and a career if you want one; but if you do, no man will ever really love you.

It is true that Clara’s feelings finally prevent her from going through with her plan to manipulate Philip Aikman into marriage – but just the same, her tactics work on him as they have on every other man; the novel never really recants its central thesis. Rather, it finally argues that a love-marriage is best, if you can manage one; but failing that, any marriage will do; while beyond that lies a drab and difficult life as a governess, a teacher or a nurse; and beyond that

Actually, there’s nothing beyond that. No, no! – don’t look over there at the figure beckoning to you from the doorway to the university! Move along now – there’s nothing to see here.

Dismayed as I was by most of The Eternal Woman, there was one thing about it that I liked very much. Philip Aikman lives in a small Scottish fishing village called Rathbeggie, and his house is situated on a very cliff edge. We are given quite a number of word-pictures of Clara’s surroundings during the various extremes of local weather: the violent breaking of the waves, the power of the wind, the seaweed tossed upon the beach, the rock-pools and their scuttling crabs, the smell of salt in the air… In her physical descriptions of Rathbeggie, Dorothea Gerard’s writing contains a passion and a sincerity that are quite absent from her ruminations upon the relations between the sexes, and these passages are easily the best and most enjoyable part of this novel.

14/11/2010

Consider my cockles warmed

I’ve been suffering recently from a bout of chronic disorganisation, mostly the effect of a difficult patch at work spilling over into everything else. One of the things that has most suffered, particularly with my use of what time has been available to try and keep up my blog writing, has been my blog reading. However, during a brief lull in the storm, I did find find a few restful minutes to hop around my bookmarks, and discovered over at Wuthering Expectations three almost back-to-back posts that left me quite giddy. It can sometimes be lonely out there in blog-land (“Hello? Is this thing on?”), and suddenly I wasn’t feeling so lonely after all.

First up, on the back of my look at Clara Reeve’s The Progress Of Romance, I found Amateur Reader, too, considering the apparently eternal question of “the novel” vs “the romance”, this time apropos of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walter Scott. Then, a bit further down the page, I discovered some words that instantly engraved themselves upon my heart as, after pondering why exactly he was so set upon reading some of Hawthorne’s more obscure works, ones which held little inherent appeal for him, Amateur Reader concluded that it was due to the neurotic satisfaction of completeness. Oh, boy, do I understand that!

The knock-out blow, however, came a little further on again, in a post about The Demi-Monde, a play written by Alexandre Dumas fils in 1855. In the course of discussing the fact that it was Dumas fils who invented the expression “the demi-monde”, Amateur Reader quotes a passage from the play, which I, too, must quote:

“Each woman here has some blot in her past life; they are crowded close to one another in order that these blots may be noticed as little as possible. Although they have the same origin, the same appearance and the same prejudices as women of society, they do not belong to it: they constitute the “Demi-monde” or “Half-world”, a veritable floating island on the ocean of Paris, which calls to itself, welcomes, accepts everything that falls, emigrates, everything that escapes from terra firma – not to mention those who have been shipwrecked or who come from God knows where.”

Emphasis mine, of course. That island certainly did get around.

The cherry on top of this swift trip around the blogs was The Little Professor‘s review of Sister Agnes; or, The Captive Nun, a scurrilous piece of anti-Catholicism that is now firmly entrenched in The List. I may say that, under the Prof’s influence, I’m growing increasingly excited at the prospect of taking a look at this particular category of novel-writing, and can hardly wait until a spin of the roulette wheel lands me upon one of its entries.

What? No, of course I can’t just go and read one. That would be silly.

13/11/2010

O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island

“This story seems very fabulous, yet the Letter is come to a known Merchant, and from a good hand in France, so that I thought fit to mention it, it may be that there may be some mistake in the number of the Leagues, as also of the exact point of the Compass, from Cape Finis Terre; I shall enquire more particularly about it. Some English here suppose it may be the Island of Brasile which have been so oft sought for, Southwest from Ireland, if true, we shall hear further about it.”
— Abraham Keek (Henry Neville) (1668)

“As for the Island of Pines it self, which caused me to Write this Relation, I suppose it is a thing so strange as will hardly be credited by some, although perhaps knowing persons, especially considering our last age being so full of Discoveries, that this Place should lie Dormant for so long a space of time; Others I know, such Nullifidians as will believe nothing but what they see, applying that Proverb unto us, ‘That Travelors may lye by authority’. But Sir, in writing to you, I question not but to give Credence, you knowing my disposition so hateful to divulge Falsities.”
— Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten (Henry Neville) (1668)

“New Discoveries of late, are as much admired as Miracles of old, and as difficultly believed, notwithstanding the variety of apparent proofs which demonstrate their undoubted Veracity; and without question this Incredulity proceeds from no other cause, than the abuse of Belief, occasioned by such monstrous Fictions as the Isle of Pines, A New World in the Moon, with the like Lunatick Stories, by which the credulous World hath been misguided into a Faith wholly preposterously erroneous and ridiculous.”
— Richard Head (1675)

In 1675, Richard Head followed the publication of The Western Wonder; or, O-Brazeel with O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island: Being a perfect relation of the late discovery and wonderful dis-inchantment of an island on the north of Ireland: With an account of the riches and commodities thereof. Communicated by a letter from London-derry to a friend in London. This nine-page pamphlet consists of a single letter supposedly written by a man called William Hamilton, and sent from Londonderry on 14th March, 1674, to his cousin in England. Hamilton begins by thanking his cousin for the news of the death of “that Arch-Pirate Captain Cusacke“, then proceeds to repay the favour with an account of the true and final discovery of “that long-talk’t-of island O-Brazile.”

What follows is an oddly straightforward account of clearly magical (or at least, demonic) events. Hamilton admits that he had never believed the stories of O-Brazile: “Yet I lookt upon it as a perfect Romance, and many times laught the Reporters to scorn: Though many Sober, and Religious persons, would constantly affirm, That in bright days, (especially in Summer-time) they could perfectly see a very large absolute Island; but, after long looking at it, it would disappear.

(We may recall that in The Western Wonder, the narrator and his crew search for O-Brazile to the south-west of Ireland; in O-Brazile, the peripatetic land mass is found off the north coast. That “floating island” again.)

Recently, however, a certain Captain John Nisbet had succeeded in discovering the truth of the mysterious island. Nisbet was carrying a cargo of French goods back to Ireland when his ship became lost in an impenetrable mist, which vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving the ship close to unfamiliar land. Dropping anchor, Nisbet and most of his crew went ashore, where they saw animals of all sorts and an old castle, but no sign of human life, although they approached the castle and called out. Night falling, the men built a fire, and were warming themselves when the most appalling sound suddenly swept across the island – emanating, as it seemed, from the castle. Terrified, the men hurried back to their ship, but could not sail away, as the tide was out.

The next morning, to their amazement, the crew saw three men standing upon the shore, who persuaded them to come back onto the island. There they learned that this was indeed the legendary O-Brazile, which had been, A Receptacle of Furies, made (to Mortals) unserviceable, and invisible; and that when Nesbit and his men were calling at the castle, its inhabitants, By the malicious, diabolical Art, of a great Necromancer, had been tyrannically shut up [with] neither power to answer any that spoke to them, nor free themselves from imprisonment. However, the crew had indavertently lifted the curse upon the island when, Fire was indeed kindled upon the Island by some good Christians. The terrifying noises heard by the men signalled the permanent departure of the island’s demonic inhabitants.

Hamilton concludes his report by relating how Nesbit and his men, having been richly rewarded by the grateful residents of O-Brazile, returned to Ireland with their story; how others had since set out to find the island, now that it was stationary and visible; and that he, Hamilton, had heard the tale from Nesbit himself.

Short and to the point, O-Brazile differs from much of Richard Head’s writing by not straying from its main theme, and by maintaining a serious tone. We can understand how it could have been taken for a true account upon its first publication, far more so than The Western Wonder; although time, of course, would eventually have exposed it as yet another hoax. And it is as a hoax that O-Brazile is most interesting, not just in light of the culture of hoaxing that prevailed at this time, but with respect to one very particular hoax that we have already examined.

We know already that Richard Head had few scruples about borrowing from other writers – and that “borrowing” is putting it mildly – but what he did in O-Brazile is something a bit more subtle. As the 17th century wore on, and hoaxes began to pile upon hoaxes, there was an increasing tendency for the writers concerned to wink at each other, and at the more savvy of their readers: the clues to a piece of writing being a hoax were often there if you knew where to look. Mentioning another hoax by name and in opprobrius terms was a particularly popular touch.

Typically, the author of such a work would start by declaring the truth of his tale, and then decry all those wretched hoaxers who made it so hard for honest men to be believed. Another common tactic would be to have the story told by a third party, usually a merchant or a sailor, someone too “plain-spoken” and “uneducated” to make up a fabulous story. A piece of supporting evidence, separate from the main narrative, was often provided.

These are exactly Henry Neville’s tactics in The Isle Of Pines, as we have seen. The account of Van Sloetten, in which he apologises for the bluntness of his language, Being more a Seaman than a Scholler, is framed by the letter of Abraham Keek, a Dutch merchant of good repute. Van Sloetten shakes his head over the, Nullifidians as will believe nothing but what they see; while Keek, agreeing that the story of the Isle of Pines is fabulous, nevertheless gives it credence because, The Letter is come to a known Merchant, and from a good hand in France.

In terms of both fame and financial return, The Isle Of Pines was one of the most successful of the literary hoaxes, even if its cover was soon blown (as its author intended, of course). It became, in effect, the yardstick by which other such hoaxes were measured. O-Brazile is interesting in this context for two reasons: first, the actual mention of “the Island of Brasile” in The Isle Of Pines, which could even have given Richard Head the idea for a hoax of his own; and second, the fact that Head pinched Henry Neville’s framing device, initially publishing The Western Wonder, with its account of a failed landing upon the island, and then following up with O-Brazile, in which apparently reputable sources declare the mystery solved. In the latter, Head also adds to the credibility of his story by beginning it with a reference to a real and well-known event, the death of the Irish pirate George Cusack in 1674.

Both of these pamphlets shake their heads sadly over those despicable hoaxes so prevalent in the marketplace (one bemoans the sceptiscism, the other the gullibility, of the reading public), before asserting their own truth. Yet in O-Brazile, at least, there is a clear sign that this, too, is a hoax, in the shape of Head’s direct mention of The Isle Of Pines, here stigmatised as a “Lunatick Story” and a “monstrous Fiction”; to the cognoscenti, this would have been the literary equivalent of a broad grin.

And yet it seems that Head’s stories were believed – or at least debated. As Kate Loveman points out, early in 1675, according to his diary, Robert Hooke met Francis Lodwick at Garraway’s Coffee House in London, where the two natural philosophers discussed “O.Brazill and longitude”. Unfortunately, we don’t know what those two inquiring minds had to say about Richard Head’s accounts of the discovery of the elusive island. In all probability – “Oh, bollocks.”

08/11/2010

Speedbumps

I’ve been having a problem settling into a reading pattern lately, with each aspect of my reading program running into difficulties. And, yes, I’m well aware that most of those difficulties are self-inflicted, so you needn’t bother pointing that out.

My suprising success rate in accessing obscure, late 17th century texts must have lulled me into a false sense of security, because my first serious failure in that respect came as a real shock. I became aware of The English Monsieur, A Comical Novel, by James Howard, courtesy of an interesting article by Nicholas Hudson published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, entitled, Social Rank, ‘The Rise Of The Novel,’ and Whig Histories of Eighteenth-Century Fiction, which goes against many of the “rise of the novel” studies with their paradigm of the parallel “rise of the middle class” and an assumption of increasing liberalism, domestic values and social levelling.

Hudson argues instead for an even longer history of what we might call Tory novel-writing, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing at least into the early 19th century, that was concerned with maintaining a social hierarchy headed by an exclusive and self-contained aristocracy, and discouraged social aspiration and the mingling of the classes. The final author considered in this respect is Jane Austen. Hudson concedes that while her novels display a belief in the traditional Tory values, there has been a considerable softening of the 18th-century stance that shows itself in both an expressed disapproval of the aristocracy, along with an admission that the gentry is all the better for an injection of middle class values. Some of the barricades, at least, had been torn down.

The English Monsieur is cited by Hudson as an early example of his own paradigm of Tory novel-writing – and onto The List it went, despite having been published in 1679, earlier than the works I’d progressed to. (Just when I thought I was out of the 17th century, it pulls me back in.) And yes, I located and downloaded a copy, and off I went…until I got to the final page of what I had and found the ominous announcent, END OF PART ONE.

What the – !?

I subsequently had no luck finding a complete version. Admittedly, this was disappointing more from an historical point of view than a literary one. Whatever else it might have proven to be (and I might say that by the end of Part 1, I’d seen little to support Hudson’s theory), The English Monsieur was the first work I’d come across that used the word “novel” in the sense that we might use it today. Extrapolating from Part 1, it must have been a work of some length, certainly the longest piece of straightforward fiction I’ve encountered so far from this period; although a significant portion of the first volume is given over to a common tendency at the time, the interpolation of side-stories into the main one, usually in the form of one or other of the supporting characters relating their “history”. Still, there was a reasonable amount of movement and plotting, too; and that, along with the amorous adventures of the title character, made it strike me (and without wanting to get too carried away) as a sort of embryonic Tom Jones.

But, in the absence of Parts 2 – 4, it was back to the bad jokes and plagiarisms of Richard Head. Groan.

Well, I’ve made it over that speedbump now, although of course there’s a much bigger one to come. Anyway, I can’t be sorry I found out about O-Brazile, because apart from being mercifully short, it turns out (like most of Richard Head’s work, it seems) to be interesting for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing. But we’ll deal with that presently.

Elsewhere, with Philip And Philippa out of the way, I was up for another game of Reading Roulette. This time around, the Reading Gods smiled: my visit to the random number generator gave me an excitingly low number – which turned out to be connected to exactly the kind of novel I had in mind at the outset of this ridiculous project: The Mysterious Wife by Mary Meeke, from 1797.

Yes, it was perfect. A little too perfect… So perfect, I decided to make it, or rather its author, the focus of a third reading thread: Authors In Depth.

Mary Meeke was one of the mainstays of the notorious Minerva Press. Between 1795 and 1823, she wrote more than 30 novels, most under her own name, but some (evidently the more “daring” ones) under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, while some were published anonymously. She also translated several European works, including Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s The Messiah. Too prolific and popular ever to find much favour with the critics, Meeke essentially cut her own throat by admitting publicly that before starting a novel, she always consulted with her publisher to see what was selling. Her early novels had received some positive reviews, but from that moment onwards Meeke was regarded as the worst exemplar of the “scribbling woman”, and attracted nothing but scornful dismissal – the assumption being, as always, that you cannot both write to please an audience, and write good novels.

Whatever we make today of Mary Meeke’s professional pragmatism, her willingness to act as a literary weather vane makes her novels a remarkable window into shifting public taste over a full quarter of a century. Unfortunately, however, Meeke finally suffered the fate of many popular but critically dismissed novelists of the time: her works were never reprinted. Consequently, a number of them are today unobtainable. Others are available electronically (although I can’t currently swear to their condition); while back in 1977, her first novel*, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, was reproduced as a three-volume set by the Arno Press, God love ’em – and as it turns out, my academic library has a copy – God love them. However, right now, the third volume – just the third volume – is out on loan…which somehow is much more annoying than the whole book being unavailable. Anyway, when I get my hands on it, Authors In Depth will begin – and we’ll find out for ourselves just what kind of novels Mary Meeke wrote.

(*There’s a 1783 novel out there in eBook world called Madeline Clifford’s School Life, which is attributed to Meeke. It may represent an early effort, before she hooked up with the Minerva Press. However, none of the articles on Meeke that I’ve read – and I’m pleased to find that there have been a few recent efforts made to rehabilitate her reputation as a novelist – mention it, so I’m going with Count St. Blancard.)

So then it was back to the random number generator, where I landed upon Money To Loan, On All Collaterals: A Tale Of The Times by Minnie Lawson, from 1895. Alas, this one was obscure to the point of being unobtainable. (American novels are, generally, much harder to get hold of than British ones.) All I’ve been able to find out is that it expressed Lawson’s concerns about the state of public finance and the conduct of the banks and Wall Street (and plus ça change once again), that it contained an unflattering portrait of J.P. Morgan (although whether in person or under a pseudonym, I can’t say), and that Lawson wrote at least two other “social issues” novels under her married name of Minnie L. Armstrong.

Third spin, third time lucky? Yes, I guess so. This time I hit 1903’s The Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard. Not only did Gerard live an intriguing personal life, but like Mary Meeke, she wrote prolifically and over a period of many years, her career extending from the early 1880s to the time of WWI, with her novels featuring a wide variety of settings and subject matter. (Her first novels were written in collaboration with her sister, Emily, who was the collector of the Transylvanian folklore that Bram Stoker drew upon when writing Dracula.) And in fact, my moment of hesitation after landing on The Eternal Woman was due to an uneasy feeling that Gerard, too, really deserved to be the subject of Authors In Depth…

…but finally I decided that this business was getting out of hand even by my ridiculous standards. And so—

Chronobibliography:  it’s an Exclusion Crisis smackdown, with The Perplex’d Prince vs The Fugitive Statesman
Reading RouletteThe Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard – a “New Woman” novel, I gather, although not an approving one
Authors In DepthCount St. Blancard by Mary Meeke, which based upon its Arno Press revival, may be a Gothic novel…I hope

For the benefit of those of you playing along at home, I can’t see that Count St. Blancard is available electronically, but a good academic library might do the trick. The Eternal Woman is available through the Internet Archive, but I strongly recommend the PDF version rather than the ePUB one, which has some serious formatting issues.

06/11/2010

Philip And Philippa: A Genealogical Romance Of To-Day

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I embarked upon this “genealogical romance”. Well – in a way I do: to be honest, something a bit creepily eugenic. But Philip And Philippa (1901) never wanders into that territory, thankfully, despite its unabashed belief in “family” and various references to “our race”. The emphasis turns out to be not upon “genealogical”, but upon “romance”.

This sole, self-published novel by John Osborne Austin tells the story of Philip Faulconer, a young American who is the last representative of his branch of the Faulconers. When his father, also Philip Faulconer, realises that his own death is imminent, he tells his son their history. Of an old English family, the Faulconers divided in 1645 when the younger of twin brothers, Richard Faulconer, emigrated to America.

(I may say that I was rather put off this novel at the outset by the discovery that the title in the Faulconer family was a knighthood – which Austin evidently believed to be hereditary. I suppose he meant “baronet”, or even “knight baronet”. Confusion of this nature is common enough in American writing, but it seems an odd mistake for a genealogist to make.)

Since that time, the two branches of the apparently not very fecund Faulconers had run in parallel, with the last of the male English Faulconers, one of many Sir Philips, dying some nine years before the opening of the story, in the same year as American Mr Philip’s wife. The only remaining member of the English branch, a five-year-old girl named (surprise!) Philippa, had subsequently been taken to New Zealand by her mother’s aunt.

Learning that around the time of the last Sir Philip’s death, Faulconridge, the ancestral home of the Faulconers, had burned down, destroying most of the family heirlooms and leaving Philippa with very little, Mr Philip Sr travelled to England, where he bought the lodge attached to the estate, refurbished it, and installed a housekeeper to look after it, intending it as a refuge for Philippa. However, knowing that he will not have time to find the girl himself, Philip Sr bequeaths this quest to Philip Jr, begging him to seek out his distant cousin, now aged seventeen, and convey her “home” to England.

(Ever noticed how characters in sentimental novels are always independently wealthy? Nothing inteferes with the pursuit of a romantic ideal quite so much as the need to earn an income, I guess.)

After his father’s death, Philip – the last Philip, thankfully – travels first to England, visiting the lodge and meeting its caretaker, Elizabeth Brown, and touring the ruins of Faulconridge, where he is inspired by his family’s history. Courtesy of Mrs Brown, he learns of a thwarted romance between two of his ancestors, Richard Faulconer’s great-grandson, Godfrey, and the third Sir Philip’s daughter, Philippa, who died before the marriage could take place. Also courtesy of Mrs Brown, who becomes convinced that the young Philippa must be the image of her grandmother, the seventh Lady Faulconer, whose portrait is one of the very few to survive the fire, Philip conceives a romantic infatuation for his as-yet unseen relative. He sets out for New Zealand, intending both to fulfil his father’s last wish and to unite the two distant branches of the family.

Arriving in Auckland, Philip learns that Philippa’s great-aunt has died, and gains only the vaguest clue to her present whereabouts. Swearing to find her no matter what it takes, he walks through a local park, where the very first person he runs into is his cousin – who he recognises instantly because she just happens to be a dead ringer for her grandmother.

I guess this is how things work in the world of the  “genealogical romance”.

Persuading Philippa to accept his father’s legacy, Philip escorts her to England. His feelings for his cousin move rapidly from infatuation to love, but since he is essentially in the position of her guardian, he decides that he must not declare himself until she is securely within her own home. The bulk of the remaining story consists of Philip’s inability to read Philippa’s feelings, his efforts to control himself in a string of tempting situations, and the possible dangers of staying silent. The latter manifests itself in the form of two potential interlopers: Ethel Mayberry, Philip’s childhood sweetheart, who may have a view to being something more; and Jack Spaulding, a young stockbroker from London who is instantly smitten with Philippa.

Will the Faulconer family history repeat itself? Will Philip’s feelings for Philippa turn out to be only infatuation after all? Will the advantages of outbreeding win out over a genealogical attraction? Will a member of the Faulconer family prove capable of loving someone whose name doesn’t contain a variant of “Philip”? Well, you’ll just have to read Philip And Philippa and find out, won’t you? – but since I apparently own the only second-hand copy still in existence, good luck with that one. (Hey, happy to lend…)

I guess the really interesting thing about Philip And Philippa is that it begs the question – when did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? John Osborne Austin makes no pretence whatsoever of his novel being anything other than a love story. The only thing that at all separates it from its fellows is that it is told from the point of view of the man. It is deeply sentimental in both content and tone, and not ashamed of being so. On the contrary: the preface reads, in part, The same old story of love’s young dream? Yes, prescient reader, the world never tires of it; and have you found anything better to dream of or work for? In addition, Philip stops from time to time to lecture us on the same theme, speaking pityingly to those who act or think slightingly of love: This is not a book of travel. but of love experiences; a theme large enough for most, if too restricted for a few. Unhappy few!

I don’t know about you, but I find myself glad that the obviously mushily romantic Mr Austin didn’t live to see a world where stories like his would end up branded with that most oppobrious of literary putdowns, chick-lit.