Archive for December, 2010

31/12/2010

And so to 2011

Given that neither my “reading course” nor this blog turned out remotely as I envisioned beforehand, it’s probably foolish to make statements about what next year will bring. However, a few definite things will be going on, whatever else gets out of hand.

My overriding ambition for 2011 is to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE 17TH CENTURY…but somehow The List just keeps creeping up. My main encouragement here is the fact that once William and Mary were safely installed, the political stuff mostly died away – at least until Delariviere Manley showed up. Hopefully, then, the majority of the remaining texts will simply need to be assessed in their own right, rather than requiring a week’s research before I can even understand what I’m reading. I’ve still got five years of throne-wrestling to deal with first, though.

Otherwise, I’ll be keeping the pattern of alternating my chronological reading with random novel selections via Reading Roulette and Authors In Depth. I’ve also signed myself up over at LibraryThing for a number of the challenges, in the hope of randoming things up even more. (Although at the moment I’m having a good run of what I planned to read anyway fitting into existing challenges, so that’s not really working yet.)

I had a lot of trouble this year finding a comfortable reading / writing / real world rhythm, which either led me to overcommit to certain texts, or (more frequently – and right now) allowed my reading to outstrip my writing to an extent that made me panicky, and resulted in a lot of wasted time going over texts I’d already read trying to remember what I’d meant to say about them. So as a kind of “stopper”, I’ve decided to bring more non-fiction back into the mix, and also to move outside my self-imposed reading goalposts into 1931 and beyond, and picking up those books when I feel things getting out of control. I won’t be blogging on these texts (which would rather defeat the purpose!), but I may do a “Books In Brief” post about them if the spirit moves me.

In conclusion, I’d like to say a big thank you to my blog visitors, and particularly those of you who took the time to comment. It’s nice to have some reassurance that I’m not just shouting into the void…not entirely. 🙂

See you next year!

30/12/2010

Upholding the proud traditions of Oxford

From Oxford, by Christopher Hobhouse, published in 1946:

    Though their numbers are so small, a casual visitor to Oxford might well gain the impression that the women form an actual majority. They are perpetually awheel. They bicycle in droves from lecture to lecture, capped and gowned, handle-bars laden with note-books, and note-books crammed with notes. Relatively few men go to lectures, the usefulness of which was superseded some while ago by the invention of the printing press. The women, docile and literal, continue to flock to lectures with mediaeval zeal, and record in an hour of longhand scribbling what could have been assimilated in ten minutes in an armchair…
     The assiduity of women undergraduates is stupefying. After the long morning’s round of lectures they swarm to the Bodleian. Radcliffe Square is dark with their bicycles. After dark, in their own college libraries or in their own comfortless little college rooms, they huddle for hours on end, stooping and peering over standard text books…
     The women have a truly Teutonic respect for their own dons, who in their turn take full advantage of it. Spinsters almost to a woman, the female dons present a terrifying caricature of the mediaeval tutor… Very few of the women take the least pains to be attractive or even mature…
     Their domestic background is equally repellent. Instead of a quiet pair of rooms, guarded by an impenetrable ‘oak’, upon a secluded staircase, each girl has a minute green-and-yellow bedsitter opening off an echoing shiny corridor. Instead of deep sofas and coal fires, they have convertible divans and gas stoves. Instead of claret and port, they drink cocoa and Kia-Ora. Instead of the lordly breakfasts and lunches which a man can command in his own rooms, they are fed on warm cutlets and gravy off cold plates at a long table decked with daffodils…
     In this setting the mind of an Oxford woman grows narrower day by day…

The above passages – and more of a similar ilk – are quoted in Mortimer Proctor’s The English University Novel, published in 1957 – that is, 78 years after women were first permitted to attend lectures and sit certain examinations at Oxford, and 37 years after being admitted to full membership of the university.

“Discussing modern Oxford, Christopher Hobhouse has written of its women students with the instinctive, unyielding revulsion of the man who sees his ancient university overrun by a race of bedraggled intruders,” comments Proctor with obvious sympathy. He then quotes Max Beerbohm’s assertion that, “Beauty and the lust for learning have yet to be allied”, before going on to remark on his own behalf:

Women, although they have been admitted to, have clearly never been fully assimilated by, the still predominantly male societies of Oxford and Cambridge. They have enjoyed at best a doubtful welcome there. The ‘undergraduette’, though she has her own colleges, is nevertheless suspect as a collegienne and is rather cruelly assumed to belong to a group that is plainly unattractive and fearsome in its devotion to learning…

Evidently, the ‘undergraduettes’ of 1946 weren’t the only ones to have their minds narrowed by Oxford.

What I find most puzzling about all this is that it comes on the back of seven chapters of Proctor’s book that are devoted (in a literary context) to, one one hand, a celebration of the Oxford experience as a character-building, life-changing rite of passage for young men; and, on the other, to praise and admiration of those men who suffered personal deprivation and hardships of all kinds to gain an Oxford education. We are left to ponder the mystery of why the same ambitions and sacrifices that evoke respect and approval in men should, in women, attract ridicule and abuse; and why experiences that open a man’s mind should close a woman’s.

Mind you… In the end, it’s not the big stuff that flummoxes me so much as the implications of that passage about “lordly breakfasts and lunches” and drinking “claret and port”. I get the distinct impression that for Mr Hobhouse, the Oxford experience had precious little to do with his education.

It was once said that youth was wasted on the young. On the basis of this tosh, I’m tempted to add that, Oxford is wasted on the Oxonian.

28/12/2010

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 2)

The Apothecary, roused from his stupefaction by these orders, again called out, “Stop – stop!”, catching hold of the coach door, the glass being down; but the coach went on, and was driving out of the court; not being able to keep his hold at the gate, he let go, saying, in a loud voice, “Go, then, unnatural father, and condemn thine own son: Dubois is not mine, ’tis your son will perish, by your unjust decree!”

Our story, set in France, opens with an account of the fast friendship between the young Marquis D’Elcour and Dubois, the son of an apothecary. The nurses of the two were sisters, and thus the boys spent much of their time together while children. Reciprocal friendship seldom exists (at least to a strong degree) between superiors and inferiors, states Mary Meeke at the opening of her tale, going on to explain the apparent anomaly with which she then presents us by commenting, It must be observed, that this strict union had taken place between the young Marquis and Dubois, at an age when they were both totally ignorant of the distinction of rank, &c. &c. However, despite the social gulf that lies between them, the “likeness in disposition” that drew the two together in the first place maintains their friendship as they become men.

Although Dubois’ first choice in life is the army, followed by the law, his father – who took the name Rhubarbin upon his marriage – thwarts his son in both of these ambitions and insists upon his studying medicine. Dubois reluctantly accedes to his father’s wishes, and soon proves to have a great talent for his profession. His skills are put to their ultimate test when the half-sister of the Marquis D’Elcour is taken desperately ill. When the physicians first called in give Adelaide no chance of survival, D’Elcour persuades his step-father, M. de Ceare, to allow Dubois to treat her. Under his management, Adelaide begins a slow recovery, during which time Dubois becomes an inmate of M. de Ceare’s house. Inevitably, Dubois and Adelaide fall in love; but knowing that the overwhelming pride of M. de Ceare would never permit their marriage, they accept that they must part forever. However, before Dubois leaves his house, M. de Ceare becomes aware of the situation and, despite owing his daughter’s life to him, begins to treat the young man with offensive coldness and arrogance. The heart-sore Dubois returns home, hoping to be soothed by his father’s company, but to his dismay is immediately sent away by Rhubarbin to further his studies in Padua.

Meanwhile, M. de Ceare plans a splended marriage for his daughter. For a time, Adelaide manages to avoid this fate by starting objections to her suitors that appeal to her father’s controlling pride, but at last a wholly unobjectionable suitor presents himself. In desperation, Adelaide decides to run away and place herself under the care of her aunt, an Abbess. Needing help, she confides her plan to Champagne, a footman in her father’s employ who is also her foster-brother. He agrees to assist her, pretending affection and loyalty, but knowing that she will be carrying her jewellery, plans to rob her. With his hired confederates, Champagne springs his trap, but a passing traveller sees Adelaide’s peril and comes to her aid, killing two of the robbers and wounding Champagne. To her astonishment, Adelaide sees that her rescuer is Dubois, on his way home from Italy. When she explains her situation, Dubois agrees to escort her to her aunt. On the way, however, they are stopped by officers of the law. Dubois finds himself charged with murder, seduction and theft, and held in irons in the Conciergerie, while Adelaide is confined in a convent.

It is to Champagne that Dubois owes his imprisonment. Hoping to disguise his own role in them, the would-be thief gives M. de Ceare an account of the events calculated to inflame his fury and outrage against both Dubois and Adelaide, so that he will listen to neither of them. The plan succeeds. Offended almost to the point of madness by his belief that the lovers were eloping, M. de Ceare carries his grievances to the judge who is to try Dubois. The first Président du Parlement is renowned as a man of unimpeachable professional honour. Why, then, does he listen so avidly to M. de Ceare’s distorted account of Dubois’ crimes? – ignore testimony in Dubois’s favour and accept Champagne’s obviously fabricated evidence against him? – and condemn a man he knows to be innocent of wrongdoing to prison, under threat of a cruel and shameful death..?

From the particular structure of Count St. Blancard, it is impossible to talk about its story without giving away most of its plot. However, this doesn’t really spoil the novel, as its pleasures lie less in its central mystery than in the question of how all these people managed to get themselves into such a mess. The rest of its entertainment value lies in a variety of quirks that distinguish Mary Meeke’s writing.

[From here there are MAJOR SPOILERS]

From what I have been able to determine, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, published in three volumes by the Minerva Press in 1795, is an entirely typical Mary Meeke novel – probably because her popular success, upon her first venture, encouraged her to keep writing after that same pattern: even her Number One Fan admitted that Mrs Meeke’s novels were overly similar to one another. She had, it seems, a particular fondness for the Cinderella plot, although her Cinderellas tend to be male. She also had a touchingly simple faith in the power of hereditary over environment. From the opening paragraphs of this novel, in which we are introduced to an apothecary’s son who is mysteriously superior to his birth and upbringing, well, we know what to think.

Before the end of Volume 1, we’ve already begun to hear the sad history of President de Ransal, whose father, in retaliation for his son marrying against his will, abducted his daughter-in-law and infant grandson and disposed of both, confining the former in a convent and giving the latter to a servant to be left at a Foundling Hospital. After many desperate years’ searching, the future President managed to discover and reclaim his wife; but of their son, the couple found no trace until the servant, knowing herself dying, confessed to her part in the plot. She tells the desperate parents that, hoping for a better fate for the baby, she left him not at the Foundling Hospital but on the doorstep of a certain house in the Rue St. Honore in Paris, with various tokens about him indicating his parentage. She later learned that the house belonged to one M. Rhubarbin, a wealthy apothecary.

Inspired with hope at last, President de Ransal and his wife confront Rhubarbin. To their dismay, he flatly denies knowing anything about a baby, declaring that the only child in his home is his own son, to whose identity anyone can attest. Something in Rhubarbin’s manner convinces de Ransal that he is lying, but neither pleading nor threats can extract any more information from him. Left with no choice, the President and his wife withdraw, the former conceiving against Rhubarbin a bitter hatred and swearing that he will revenge himself upon the apothecary if ever he gets the chance – which he does, when Dubois appears before him on a capital charge.

Determined to use Dubois’ situation to force Rhubarbin to tell him the truth, the President pretends a belief in the young man’s guilt that he does not feel. Beyond caring how much harm he does in pursuit of his ends, he has Dubois placed in irons in a foul, lightless cell in a prison where fever is rife, and leads him to believe that his execution is imminent. The tactic works: Rhubarbin does indeed confess the truth about the foundling baby – thus revealing to the appalled President just who it is that he is wreaking his vengeance upon…

And then, after hearing the President’s lengthy history, which runs from towards the end of Volume 1 and across four-fifths of Volume 2, it’s time for us to hear Rhubarbin’s story – which polishes off Volume 2 and extends into Volume 3, and which contains some of my favourite bits of Mary Meeke’s writing.

We hear how the young Dubois, as he was then, was apprenticed to a M. Rhubarbin, an apothecary; and how, after the death of his master, Dubois married the widow, who was some twenty years older than himself, changing his surname for the sake of the business; and that, after his wife’s not-too-distant death, and in spite of the fact that he openly married the woman for her money, and equally openly despised her, M. Rhubarbin was genuinely and sincerely outraged when he discovered that she had willed her fortune away from him.

In fact, after the birth of her baby, knowing herself dying, the new mother secretly created a trust for her son, with his fortune invested until his coming-of-age, the interest only coming to Rhubarbin for the child’s care, and the money to go to a cousin in the event of the boy’s death.

In the meantime, though, Rhubarbin had control of his son’s fortune – at least while the child lived – which he did not. The burial was held in the country, where the child was at nurse, and where Rhubarbin succeeded in persuading his brother to keep silent about it for one month, so that he could receive one more interest payment before he losing his wife’s money forever. The brother reluctantly agreed. Rhubarbin then returned to Paris…where he found a baby on his doorstep…

I don’t know if this is a characteristic of all of Mary Meeke’s writing – although I certainly hope it is – but if the characters of Count St. Blancard have one thing in common, it is that they are pragmatic to the point of being hilariously crass. Perhaps the outstanding example of this comes when Rhubarbin describes the expiry of the one month’s grace his brother gave him. Rhubarbin has successfully substituted the foundling baby for his own, as far as his own household is concerned; but how to deal with his brother? I’ll let Rhubarbin tell it:

    “I soon found all my difficulties had not ceased; the time my brother had promised to conceal the death of my child, was more than expired, and I had received the dividend which had occasioned the strategem. This he knew, and wrote me several letters, desiring I would make my son’s death publick. I really began to think heaven favoured my iniquities, for just as I was in the greatest perplexity to devise some means of preventing my brother from rendering all of my precautions fruitless, by discovering my secret; he was seized by an apoplexy, which carried him off in a few minutes.
    “I was really very much afflicted when I learnt the news, but I should have been still more so, if this misfortune had not put a final stop to his remonstrances, and raised [razed] the only difficulty I had left to combat with…

Way to assuage your fraternal grief, there, Rhubarbin.

A great deal of the fun of Count St. Blancard lies in the completely outrageous conduct of its characters – well, most of them. While its hero and heroine – and the Marquis D’Elcour, for that matter – are your typically boring sentimental novel constructs, all tears and self-sacrifice, the supporting cast spends its time doing the most appalling things, and with barely the batting of an eyelid.

Thus we have a member of the nobility who reacts to his son’s marriage by locking up his daughter-in-law and disposing of her baby, then denying all knowledge of the business; a “model of rectitude” who is quite prepared to commit judicial murder in pursuit of his own ends; a wealthy and successful businessman so offended by a young man daring to fall in love with his daughter that he tries to get him broken on the wheel; our hero’s loving and generous father, who is revealed as a kidnapper and a thief; various nuns who imprison unoffending young women in exchange for payment; and a footman who, when his plans for robbery and murder are thwarted, does everything he can to get an innocent man executed.

And of all these miscreants, try and guess who is the only one to be punished? If you said “the footman”, give yourself a gold star. In the world of Mary Meeke, it doesn’t pay to be low-born and/or poor. M. de Ceare, once the truth is revealed, is given the rounds of the kitchen for his behaviour towards Dubois, but since it is Rhubarbin – you know? the kidnapping thief? – who tells him off, it hardly strikes us as fitting retribution.

Whether revealing her own prejudices or pandering to the anticipated preferences of her readers, in her debut novel Mary Meeke dispenses titles and fortunes with a lavish hand. This is one of the reasons, I suspect (although only one, as we shall see), why so many of her novels were set in France. In truth, though, the forest of titles – some characters have two or more – gets rather confusing, and that includes with respect to the novel’s title. “Count St. Blancard” was the title held by the President at the time of his marriage, although that isn’t made clear to us until we’ve known the man by another name for the better part of a volume; it is also the title that the ci-devant Dubois assumes at the end of the novel. Frankly, The Prejudiced Judge; or, The History Of Count St. Blancard would have been a better title.

Count St. Blancard is, as I say, set in France – but what France? Certainly not Revolutionary France, in spite of the novel’s date of publication; not with the nobility spilling off every page. But the possibility of multiple titles in the same family wasn’t the only attraction for Mary Meeke of the time of the Ancien Regime: another was obviously the scope it offered for parental tyranny – convents for girls, lettres de cachet for boys – upon which much of the story rests. A French setting also allowed for the usual English slaps at Catholicism, which here take the form of a casual assumption of the Catholic clergy’s dishonesty and venality.

Above all, though—by setting her first novel in France, Mary Meeke was able to pretend that she hadn’t written it at all. It wasn’t uncommon at the time, of course, for female novelists to resort to various tactics to try and ward off the anticipated blows of the critics. Some would include a self-deprecatory preface; others point out that it was their first attempt at writing a novel. Some would plead pecuniary necessity. Mary Meeke tried a slightly different approach. Here is the final paragraph of the novel:

Having now brought our history to a conclusion, the translator merely hopes this slight specimen of the late laws and customs of France, will not prove unacceptable to those who may peruse these volumes.

Incredibly, the ruse worked. The Monthly Review concluded that the novel was, “Probably the work of some industrious emigrée“, and praised it for being devoid of, “The immorality, party, and levity, which are too frequently found in the lighter productions of French writers.” Meanwhile, the Critical Review took exception to the novel’s evident belief that, “Beauty, grace, and talents, can only belong to persons of high rank, by right of hereditary tenure“, while conceding that it probably couldn’t help feeling that way, “Being a translation from the French.” Nevertheless, the reviewer concluded, in other respects the novel was, “An entertaining, well-connected story, and may agreeably beguile a leisure hour.”

In any event, Mary Meeke’s debut novel was a commercial success; enough so that when it came to her second, The Abbey Of Clugny, published in 1796, she was prepared to shed her disguise and declare herself on the title page to be, “Author of Count St. Blancard.”

And as for myself—on the strength of Count St. Blancard, I think it is fair to say that while no-one is ever going to mistake Mary Meeke’s writing for great literature, she certainly does keep you turning the pages.

27/12/2010

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 1)

“…for my tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.”
—Thomas Babington Macaulay (1832)

Which brings us to the first entry in our new series, Authors In Depth, in which (to start with) we will be examining the extant works of the once popular and now largely forgotten novelist, Mary Meeke.

Anyone who knows anything about the popular literature of the late 18th and early 19th century will be aware of the notorious Minerva Press, home of the “scribbling women”, mainstay of the circulating libraries, and favourite target for condescending critics and antinovelists alike. For some twenty years, William’s Lane’s mini-empire turned out three-, four- and even five-volume sentimental and gothic novels, crammed from cover to cover with instanteaneous passion, extravagant speeches, swooning women and improbable events. Mary Meeke is, in many respects, the perfect exemplar of the Minerva Press novelist: prolific, popular, and critically scorned.

Very little is known about Mrs Meeke herself. She seems to have been the wife of a minister, and was evidently well-educated. Between 1795 and the (disputed) time of her death, she wrote over thirty novels, as well as publishing several translations of European works. Though selling well in their time, her novels were not reissued and have since fallen into obscurity. Search for information on her, and for the most part you will find only that quote above, which has been used time and again to demonstrate conclusively that Mary Meeke was a bad writer – which is not at all what Thomas Macaulay intended when he penned those words. That damning quote has been taken quite out of context.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, later the 1st Lord Macaulay, was a poet, an historian, and a politician, serving at various times as Secretary of War and as Paymaster-General. He was also – and for our puposes, this is far more important – a lifelong, voracious devourer of novels, good, bad and indifferent. Even as today we adopt lines of dialogue from popular TV shows, Macaulay and his sister Hannah, later Lady Trevelyan, quoted novels at one another and compared people they knew to various fictional characters. Macaulay once contended that, between them, he and his sister could re-write Sir Charles Grandison from memory. His letters to Hannah contain any number of references to his reading, and there are at least three remarks in them about the novels of Mary Meeke. The tone of those remarks makes it clear that Macaulay’s fondness for her books was something of a running joke between his sister and himself.

And in truth, Macaulay may have been Mary Meeke’s Number One Fan. By his own assertion, he owned and repeatedly re-read her novels. He used catchphrases from her writing. When he went to India in 1834, he took a crate of her books with him.  Once, having read a novel he really didn’t enjoy, he declared his intention of cleansing his palette by re-reading Mrs Meeke’s Langhton Priory. In the letter containing the quote above, jokingly as it is phrased, Macaulay is in fact comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels favourably with a good old-fashioned English dinner. It is quite incorrect for that quote to be used as “evidence” that she was a bad novelist.

Mind you— None of this proves that Mary Meeke wasn’t a bad novelist, either. It simply proves that Thomas Macaulay wasn’t ashamed of his taste in light literature – and that he had a sense of humour. In the course of this series, we shall find out for ourselves exactly what kind of a novelist Mrs Meeke was.

(By a rather charming coincidence, sometime in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a bit more from Thomas Macaulay, Literary Critic.)

27/12/2010

Well, it’s a start…

The Reading Gods must have been listening when I was complaining about my inability to hit anywhere near the novels I was most interested in while playing Reading Roulette: this time around they dropped me in the right century, at least – just. My latest random selection is The Rebel’s Daughter by John Gabriel Woerner, which was published in 1899.

It’s a start.

For the following information we have to thank Woerner’s own son, William, who published his John Gabriel Woerner: A Biographical Sketch in 1912. A German immigrant, Woerner spent his early years in Philadelphia, but grew up in Missouri, in St Louis and the (then) small towns of Springfield, Belle Font and Waynesville. Initially acquiring only a patchy education along the way due to his need to earn a living to help support his family, Woerner took every opportunity that presented to improve himself in this respect. Beginning in trade, Woerner became a printer and then a newspaper editor, but his ambition was for the law. Obtaining a legal clerkship, he studied in his spare time and was admitted to the bar. He found great success as a lawyer, but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Missouri was a bitterly divided “border state”; Woerner served on the Union side in the militia, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

In parallel with his legal career, Woerner entered politics on the Democratic ticket, repeatedly elected as a Councilman before being elected to the Senate in 1866. Before this, however, he was forced to confront the political division of his state. During the war years, despite his affiliation with the Democrats, Woerner not only served in the Union forces but became a supporter of Lincoln; afterwards, however, he fought against what he considered the self-defeatingly punitive measures of the Reconstruction. In 1870, Woerner was elected to the position of Judge of Probate, an appointment that would shape the rest of his life. Apart from an unblemished career on the bench, Woerner won professional fame for his legal treatises, in particular for one dealing with probate law – on which subject, I gather, he quite literally wrote the book.

But law books were not Woerner’s only literary output. From an early age he had written and published poetry and short stories. He also wrote a novel, which was serialised in a German-language newspaper and then published to strong sales amongst the German-speaking community. Also in German, he wrote a play that was completed in 1873: it was Anglicised and produced as Amanda, The Slave, and became a success. After this, Woerner wrote another play, which was also produced, but which he later evolved into a fully-fledged novel: The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War, which in its author’s words was intended to illustrate, “An ideal of a Southern woman, purified and chastened by the fierce war of rebellion and representing the triumph of Truth and Freedom over the negative phases through which American civilization has passed.”

Appropriately enough, I have had to obtain a copy of this novel from Missouri – thank you to Patten Books of St Louis.

26/12/2010

Prudence Of The Parsonage

      “It seems to me,” said Mrs. Adams, “that I know more about your sisters than I do about you. I feel more acquainted with them at present, than with you.”
     
“That’s so, too,” said Prudence, nodding. “But they are the ones that really count, you know. I’m just little Prudence of the Parsonage—but the others!”

The small town of Mount Mark, Iowa, looks on with interest as the new Methodist minister, the Reverend Mr Starr, moves into the parsonage with his brood of daughters. It is five years since Mrs Starr died, and the combined duties of mother and housekeeper have fallen to the eldest daughter, Prudence, who is now nineteen. Following her are sixteen-year-old Fairy, the clever one of the family; the thirteen-year-old twins, Lark and Carol, who specialise in stories and jokes; and solemn, nine-year-old Constance.

Delighted with their new posting, which comes with a large, rambling old house with a barn attached just made for games, the Starr family tries to settle into its new life, as the people of Mount Mark try in turn to adapt to this rambunctious brood, and a minister who likes jumping fences and romping with his family. The members of the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society shake their heads over Prudence and her unconventional household methods, but have to concede that she discharges her various duties with aplomb – except, perhaps, for certain episodes involving the twins, who have a talent for trouble.

Prudence has long since made up her mind that raising her sisters and getting them settled in life is her particular sacred trust, and that helping them to achieve their dreams must be the focus of her life, even at the cost of her own. Although Mr Starr expresses his misgivings over her selfless scheme, Prudence remains serenely committed to it until a bicycling accident throws her unexpectedly into acquaintanceship with a young man named Jerrold Harmer. Jerry has no doubt about his own feelings for Prudence, but she in her innocence is for some time unaware of hers for him – and when realisation dawns, Prudence finds herself, for the first time in her life, caught in a bitter struggle between her inclination and her duty…

Even though I feel rather churlish saying so, I have to admit that Prudence Of The Parsonage didn’t really work for me – although the fact that it didn’t probably says a lot more about me than it does about the novel. This story’s success depends very much upon the reader’s identification with its cheerfully self-effacing heroine, and I never managed to reach that point, mostly because I kept finding myself in disagreement with Prudence’s viewpoint and  methods.

(Of course, disagreeing with Prudence is tantamount to agreeing with the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society…which in the context of this novel is tantamount to being WRONG.)

Oh, heck. I suppose I’d better ‘fess up. Midway through the novel, Prudence catches the romantic interest of the young professor of entomology from the local college – much to her horror. She is repulsed by his profession generally, and not least when, while out on a walk, he tucks an interesting specimen into his pocket: she spends the rest of the ramble manoeuvring away from her escort and avoiding being touched by him. The reader is clearly supposed to consider Prudence’s reaction a demonstration of her proper femininity, but— Well, here’s the problem: I find insects fascinating – and I would very much enjoy being courted by a “buggy professor” with caterpillars in his pockets. Prudence and I had already had our differences by this point in the novel, and with this episode it became clear that she and I were never really going to see eye to eye.

But my own peculiar prejudices aside— Prudence Of The Parsonage was Ethel Hueston’s first novel, and it does show at various points in the book. Early on in particular, the good-humour of the Starr family is several times illustrated by them collapsing en masse into laughter, or reducing others to a similar state with their sayings and doings, but these scenes feel rather forced. A more serious problem is the presentation of Prudence, which similarly suffers from over-insistence on Hueston’s part. We can well believe that the modest Prudence considers herself the uninteresting and unimportant member of the family; the problem is her tendency to describe herself so to others. What was needed here was a course of show, don’t tell: Prudence’s repeated assertion of her own inferiority begins to feel like an exercise in fishing for compliments.

There is also – at least to me – an uncomfortable narrowness to the religious belief evinced by the various Starrs: they display very little tolerance or understanding towards anyone who does not share their particular view of life, but calmly condemn them as simply wrong. That said, the novel has an encouraging take on religious practice. Despite Mr Starr’s position, we never venture inside his church. Rather, there is an insistence upon the weaving of faith into all aspects of life, and not merely confining it to a few hours on Sunday. Prudence herself is much given to spontaneous prayer, regardless of time and place. Her first visitor from the Ladies’ Aid is taken aback when, dropping in to offer her assistance to the newcomers, she finds Prudence on her knees in the barn – offering fervent thanks for the barn:

“…As they walked slowly toward the house, Mrs Adam looked at this parsonage girl in frank curiosity and some dismay, which she strongly endeavoured to conceal from the bright-eyed Prudence. The Ladies had said it would be so nice to have a grown girl in the parsonage! Prudence was nineteen from all accounts, but she looked like a child and, well, it was not exactly proper for a grown-up to give thanks for a barn, to say the very least! Yet this girl had full charge of four younger children, and was further burdened with the entire care of a minister-father!

As the Starrs try to find their feet in Mount Mark, the town looks on, sometimes with amusement, often with consternation. Many of the incidents described reflect, I suspect, episodes in Ethel Hueston’s own early life. Prudence Of The Parsonage is heavily autobiographical, drawing on Hueston’s experiences as one of the numerous children of a Methodist minister – although from the novel’s dedication, we gather that there was a devoted mother in charge of the brood. Various passages in the novel have an unmistakeable authenticity. It is impossible, for instance, not to sympathise with Prudence’s rapturous response to the discovery that, for the first time, the Starr family will have both a proper bathroom and electricity:

“…Oh, father, the night after you wrote there was a bathroom, Constance thanked God for it when she said her prayers. And I couldn’t reprove her, for I felt the same way about it myself. It’ll be so splendid to have a whole tub to bathe in!…And electric lights!…I’m sure we’ll all feel much more religious in a parsonage that has a bathroom and electric lights! Oh, father!

Ethel Hueston’s alter-ego here is Lark, one of the twins, whose imagination leads her sisters into fun and adventure – and occasionally trouble. Lark plans a career as a novelist and is constantly on the look-out for “material”, spinning tales at the drop of a hat and using her story-telling ability to enliven – and sometimes avoid – the housework. Entirely credible is the dark and dangerous secret society, “Skull and Crossbones”, founded by the twins, which carries out its nefarious schemes in the depths of the Starrs’ barn, and to which the youngest child, Connie, is absolutely desperate to gain admission. Who could really blame the society’s ruling members for taking advantage of such an opportunity..?

Also amusingly believable is the sequence of events that brings Prudence to the crisis of her life. Reminded of her early passion for bicycling, Prudence borrows a machine from a neighbour. However, worried that her indulgence might be regarded as too undignified for a daughter of the parsonage, she sneaks out early one morning to have her fun unseen. A long sloping hill tempts her to some freestyle coasting – only for disaster to strike:

“…but as she neared the bottom, a disastrous and totally unexpected thing happened. The placid mule, which had been righteously grazing beside the fence, suddenly stalked into the middle of the road. Prudence screamed, jerked the handle-bar to the right, then to the left, and then, with a sickening thud, she landed head first upon some part of the mule’s anatomy…

The resulting tangle of girl, bike and mule leaves Prudence stranded, her means of transport badly damaged and her ankle sprained. (The mule is uninjured, I am happy to report.) Unable to help herself, and with her family unaware of her intentions, it is with overwhelming relief that Prudence hears the approach of a stranger, a young man out for an early walk. He first offers to go for help, but the distraught Prudence begs him not to leave her, but to wait with her until some means of transport happens by. He does so, and by the time a local farmer with a cart enters their vicinity, the lives of both young people have changed forever.

But of course, for Prudence it’s not that simple. For almost seven years her every waking thought has been devoted to the care of her father and sisters, and the idea that she might now pursue her own happiness at the expense of theirs is intolerable to her. Determined to keep her pledge to her family, Prudence sends Jerry away, at bitter emotional cost to herself. The struggle with herself has a serious affect upon her health, so that when a subsequent accident leaves her weak, bedridden and feverish, her family begins to fear that she may have sacrificed much more for them than just her happiness…

Prudence Of The Parsonage was a success for Ethel Hueston, and even though I have my issues with the novel, it is not hard to see why. It’s a perfectly sincere work, a deeply heartfelt tribute to Ethel Hueston’s parents and their way of life. The depiction of small-town life with its various pleasures and conflicts, and the attractions of the surrounding countryside, is entirely persuasive. Perhaps more significantly, however, the book was published in 1915, and it captures a world, that of pre-WWI America, that would soon be gone forever. The various naive references to the seemingly remote possibility of war, and the twins’ entirely unrealistic plans for a romantic career as war nurses, have a terrible poignancy about them. It is easy to imagine that, given the events of the following three years, many people found solace in this novel’s view of the world and its overtones of simple and abiding faith.

18/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 3&4)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, Mélanie Thierry, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten, Cyrille Thouvenin, Robert Kavanah, Simon Woods, Robert East, Dorian Lough, Rob Jarvis

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Part 3 of Charles II: The Power & The Passion opens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, with the anti-Catholic rumblings that formed a background for much of the earlier drama coming to the fore: while there are some who see the fire as a judgement upon Charles and his court, far more are lending an ear to the story of the “Papist” who was seen running through Pudding Lane with a torch. As a weary Charles comments later, when people have lost everything, it’s no use trying to tell them it was just an accident. It is the end of any hope for religious tolerance, and he knows it.

In Versailles, Charles’s mother is dying. Her last words to her daughter, Henrietta Anne (Ann-Marie Duff), known as “Minette”, are of Charles: that he must be made to see how Louis XIV (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) can help him, and that he must die a Catholic. Afterwards, Minette is approached by Louis, who is also her brother-in-law. He, too, speaks of Charles, in bitter reference to the Triple Alliance, England’s pact with Sweden and Holland. Minette argues that the pact was Parliament’s doing, not Charles’s, and Louis responds by ordering her to England, with an offer of his friendship – a very generous friendship – should he convert to Catholicism.

There are only the vaguest allusions here, mostly through the mutterings of the eternally sneering Buckingham, to the rumours that Minette and Louis were lovers (some claim he was the real father of her eldest child), but it does make her husband, the Duc D’Orleans (Cyrille Thouvenin), known as “Monsieur”, not only openly homosexual but violently abusive.

Back in England, Charles has things other than religion on his mind. Well, not his mind, exactly: a young actress called Nell Gwynn (Emma Pierson) has caught his attention, which is just too bad for Barbara Villiers, whose star begins to fade as Nell’s rises, and whose latest baby is disclaimed by its putative father. Barbara’s spiralling debauchery and extravagance have Charles’s ministers and followers baying for her blood, although her final eviction does not come until Charles catches her in bed with a young John Churchill (Simon Woods). The series chooses a slightly more dignified encounter with Charles for the future Duke of Marlborough than history usually allows, which generally has him either hiding from his king in a cupboard, or jumping out of the window to avoid him. This version has him admitting he took money from an “insistent” Barbara in exchange for his services. (Come to think of it, is that more dignified?)

Meanwhile, Nell is going from strength to strength: Charles buys her a house, Sir Peter Lely paints her portrait, and as she lolls about in the company of Charles, Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester (Robert Cavanah), the latter composes his famous (and much re-written) epigram on Charles, who gives his equally famous retort.

In the face of Charles’s general intransigence, Parliament begins to tighten the financial screws on him, meaning that when Minette makes her visit, she finds her brother in a receptive mood. Charles’s ministers look on apprehensively, interpreting this “family visit”, this “visit for her health”, quite correctly. When the terms of Louis’ cash offer to Charles are made known – to recognise his sovereignty over the Netherlands, to support him against the Dutch, to declare war against the Dutch themselves, as soon as an excuse is found – the ministers, Shaftesbury in particular, are outraged, demanding to know what Parliament will think of Charles taking French money to rule alone?

Charles responds coolly that Parliament will know nothing of the situation, because no-one in the room will speak of it – and what’s more, each of his ministers will sign his name to the treaty. Slowly, with shame and reluctance, they do. It is Shaftesbury who hesitates the longest, but in the end even he does as he is told. Buckingham, meanwhile, is disturbed and angry at the realisation that Charles trusted the Earl of Danby (Shaun Dingwall) with his decision, rather than himself, and begins his drift towards opposition.

But Shaftesbury & Co. don’t know the half of it. In a private meeting, Charles and Minette discuss the other part of Louis’ offer: enough money to rule without Parliament, in exchange for Charles’s conversion to Catholicism. In one of his ugliest manoeuvres, Charles does not sign the secret treaty himself, but maintains plausible deniability by compelling his two Catholic ministers, Lord Arlington (Robert East) and Sir Thomas Clifford (Dorian Lough) to sign it instead. It is only Minette who dares voice the truth of the situation: that Charles has no intention of converting, but every intention of taking Louis’ money.

Minette’s visit to England may not have been for her health, as contended, but she is ill – for the simple reason that she is being poisoned. She dies shortly after her return to France. Although the official verdict on Minette’s sudden death was peritonitis, there has always been a strong belief that she was murdered, probably by her husband. This is how her death is presented here, with perhaps just a faint underlying  implication that, having served her purpose in getting the treaties signed, she is then disposed of.

Minette’s lady-in-waiting during her visit to England was the young and beautiful Louise de Kéroualle (Mélanie Thierry), who instantly caught Charles’s eye – although with Minette guarding her, nothing happened. Now, Louise is recruited by Louis and given the mission of returning to England, where she will share Charles’s bed (share being the operative word, I guess) and act as Louis’s spy. The carrot dangled is the prospect of Catherine’s premature death and Charles’s subsequent need for a new queen…although as it turned out, Catherine not surprisingly outlived her profligate husband by some twenty years. Louise is soon revealed as a very clumsy spy, and Charles isn’t fooled for a moment – but what the hey, he sleeps with her anyway.

And the visitors just keep coming, as Charles affectionately embraces his nephew, William of Orange (Jochum ten Haaf). William himself is less kindly intentioned, accusing Charles openly of being either bribed or tricked by Louis, and on that basis declaring war on the Dutch. Assuming that William has come to make terms, Charles turns the other cheek to this, but he is soon disabused. Declaring that Holland has not surrendered and will not surrender, William adds that if England wants to offer terms, he will listen; that England cannot afford to fight indefinitely; that, after all, it is only a matter of time before Parliament cuts Charles’s supply. “When you are ready to talk sensibly, you will not find me unreasonable,” he says calmly. As William bows himself out, Charles gives a half-smile, obviously impressed with his nephew’s cojones – and, perhaps, his grasp of English politics.

The Duchess of York dies, and almost before her body is cold, James announces to Charles his intention of marrying Mary of Modena. Charles begins with dissuasion and progresses to forbidding the match – and is ignored. Here, for the first time, is mooted the possibility of James’s exclusion from the line of succession. A meeting of Charles and James with the ministry rapidly turns violent, with accusations of loyalty to the Pope on one hand provoking an explosion against the bastard usurper, Elizabeth from James. “The sooner the country should be brought back to the path of righteousness, the better for us all!”

And that, of course, is that. As Charles closes his eyes in silent pain and Buckingham drops his head into his hands, the battle-lines are drawn. The Protestant ministers insist upon the Test Act being enforced, the first consequence of which is the resignation of Arlington. Soon afterwards, Buckingham makes his way to a certain coffee-house, where he meets with Shaftesbury. Buckingham begins by protesting that he is Charles’s friend and loyal subject, but soon learns that it is he who has been betrayed, when Shaftesbury reveals what he has discovered about the second secret treaty: “One which bound King Charles to take the Catholic faith, in exchange for French gold and a Papist army to suppress his own people.” As Buckingham chews this over, Shaftesbury proposes two possible courses of action: Charles can divorce Catherine and re-marry; or if not, well, he already has a Protestant son…

So we stand at the conclusion of Part 3 of this series, which is, as we have seen, crammed with incident and quite compelling. Part 4, however, is—well, actually, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with Part 4. This series came to me as a two-disc set, with the first three episodes on Disc 1. When I put in Disc 2, I expected there to be another three episodes. There was one.

It’s only a personal irony, of course, but given that it was the events of the following years, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, that led me to watch this series in the first place, I couldn’t help feeling rather let down that it was exactly those events, of all things, that it chose to skimp on. Even the bloodbath brought on by the Popish Plot is skimped! And yes, I suppose the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis did consist predominantly of a great deal of arguing in the House of Commons, and of pamphlets in the bookstores, rather than anything “dramatic” – but really, this whole episode feels rushed and unsatisfying, particularly in the way in which it concludes.

The other striking thing about this episode is that, having kept a fair balance to this point, from here it increasingly asks the viewer to sympathise with Charles. It emphasises his growing isolation, both emotionally and politically (irony of ironies, he really only has Catherine to rely on – in both capacities), and the ultimate futility of his determination to hold on to the crown and the succession. On the back of his various mistakes, stupidities and duplicities, the sudden emergence towards the end of an all-wise and all-seeing Charles (even though it is only for the sake of dramatic convenience) is particularly discomforting. So too is the tone of the final parliamentary scene, when Charles confronts his enemies in full monarchical regalia: Ooh, look, isn’t he handsome in his robes and crown? He must be right after all!

We open in the earliest days of the Popish Plot, with Christopher Kirkby (Rob Jarvis) bringing the “found” written proof of the conspiracy to Lord Danby, and accusing the Jesuits in general, and Sir George Wakeman, Catherine’s physician, in particular, of plotting to assassinate Charles. He tells Danby that he got the papers from one Israel Tonge, who in turn received them from a man called Titus Oates (Eddie Marsan). These two are summoned to Whitehall, where Oates insists that the Pope and Louis XIV are behind the conspiracy, and that Catherine and James are both privy to it. This is enough to bring Charles, who has been listening secretly to the interrogation, into the room, where he demands the names of the Catholic conspirators. After only a slight hesitation, Oates names all of England’s most prominent Catholic noblemen, along with Sir George Wakeman and Edward Coleman, Mary of Modena’s secretary.

Having listened to all this with an unconcealed scepticism amounting almost to amusement, Charles fastens upon Oates’ insistence that he originally became aware of the plot by overhearing details of it within the queen’s household during one of his visits to the palace on business. Reasoning that Oates must, therefore, know his way around Whitehall very well, Charles asks him to lead the way to the spot where he overheard the plot – a test that ends with an embarrassing encounter with the Royal Water Closet. For Charles, this says it all.

Now, oddly enough, we get the one point in this episode in which it is profoundly unjust to Charles, and where I am prepared to defend him. We can criticise him for many, many things, but he certainly did not just turn his back upon events at this juncture and leave Parliament to “deal with it”, and expect it to be done – while he, mind you, went off to the races! On the contrary, Charles tried repeatedly to expose the plot as false and prevent the rush of events, but was out-manoeuvred and finally backed into a corner by a Parliament that had no intention of letting such an opportunity slip, no matter how much innocent blood might be spilled as a result. Here, we get a crude shorthand of these events when Buckingham beats the real story out of Oates – that the plot was his revenge upon the Catholics for his expulsion from a Jesuit seminary under accusations of attempted sodomy – and then warns him to keep his mouth shut, or else. Before long, “the truth” is all over England.

Strangely, the extent of the Catholic massacre is very much played down here, with only the executions of Edward Coleman and, eventually, that of  Viscount Stafford, one of the Catholic nobles, foregrounded. These events prompt Charles to send a seething and mistrustful James into exile, so that “the people’s grievance” may be kept out of their sight for a while. Meanwhile, Shaftesbury’s health is failing, and with his time running out, he ups the ante and begins taking dangerous action against Charles.

First, he and Buckingham lure Monmouth into their own plots with the prospect of the crown. (These scenes make it very clear that Monmouth’s attraction for Parliament lie as much in his vanity and weakness, which make him easy to manipulate, as in his Protestantism.) Shaftesbury then reveals to Parliament copies of letters written by Lord Danby, which make reference to the secret treaty with France, and introduces the Exclusion Bill. All this leads to another scene of Charles averting his eyes from his most loyal supporter, in this case Danby, and then throwing him to the wolves…

…but he does save Danby’s life, when Shaftesbury and Buckingham are clamouring for his execution; although it is evident that Danby’s head is their bargaining chip, which they intend to exchange for James’s exclusion from the succession. Thwarted in this, the pair arrange instead for the conviction and condemning of Lord Stafford – an act that requires Charles either to acquiesce to the judicial murder of a loyal and innocent man, or to spare him and damn himself with the English people. Charles is fully aware that if he pardons Stafford, he will give Parliament exactly the weapon it wants. He tries to make Stafford “confess”, arguing that he can then save his life, but Stafford won’t buy his life with a false oath. Still Charles hesitates. It is Catherine who convinces him that he must proceed, or he will lose everything he has fought for – and proceed he does…

In the middle of all this, the series pauses to give us Nell Gwynn’s moment of transcendant glory when, having been taken for that of “that Papist whore”, meaning Louise de Kéroualle, her coach is violently attacked by the London mob: “Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore!”

Meanwhile, Monmouth has been on a “publicity tour”, travelling the country and gaining the affection and support of the people – which doesn’t exactly endear him to his father. It is here that the series begins to give us a Charles who is mysteriously prescient about future events, in this case telling Monmouth that he will never be king, and that if he kicks against this fate, he will die a traitor’s death. He then sends Monmouth, too, into exile, telling him on no account to return until summoned. But come back he does, on Shaftesbury’s command…

And here we jump abruptly to the dissolution of Parliament at Oxford, Charles’s supreme moment of individual defiance, and the final defeat of the Exclusionists. In the wake of this, a bewildered Monmouth is sent into permanent exile, a cynical Buckingham simply shrugs and withdraws from politics, while for Shaftesbury, his own mortality staring him in the face, it is the end of everything.

And then we jump again to the series’ uncomfortably awkward final scenes, which has all of the remaining characters (those not in exile) passing their time together, while the suddenly all-knowing Charles predicts each and every one of the various events that will transpire over the next four or five years. Frankly, I find the potted-history approach used here rather irritating. We could have had the Rye House Plot instead of this. Anyway, the series proper concludes when Charles suffers a stroke, but staggers out to his father’s portrait and appeals desperately for his approval before collapsing. In the wake of Charles’s death, we get still more potted history, with each character reciting his or her own fate, which in the case of William of Orange means ascending to the English throne – but it is Charles in voiceover who gets the final word. These closing moments carry far more of a sense of what England lost with the passing of Charles, than of what it gained.

12/12/2010

Thomas Shadwell, superstar

I wonder what odds the Las Vegas bookies were offering last January, about there being two unrelated blog-posts on Thomas Shadwell during the same calendar year?

I suppose that’s unfair. There’s no more reason why people shouldn’t write about Shadwell than that they should write about, oh, I don’t know –  Alexander Oldys? –  to whose legacy I have just contributed 3000 words. Still, I couldn’t suppress a surprised yelp of laughter when I stumbled across this post…nor a sigh of admiration as I explored more thoroughly the blog that contained it.

As you might recall, my own mention of Thomas Shadwell was a rumination over whether he might have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince. Professor Robin Bates, blog-master of Better Living Through Beowulf, chose to draw comparisons between Shadwell and today’s more irresponsible political commentators, making outrageous remarks merely to get themselves noticed. Both of us alluded to John Dryden’s attack on Shadwell in the satirical smackdown, Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell may at length have won the political war against Dryden, but in the artistic one he crashed to bloody, humiliating defeat:

      Now Empress Fame had published the renown,

      Of Sh——’s coronation through the town.
      Roused by report of fame, the nations meet,
      From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling Street.

      No Persian Carpets spread th’imperial way,

      But scattered limbs of mangled poets lay:
      From dusty shops neglected authors come,
      Martyrs of Pies, and Relics of the Bum.
      Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,

      But loads of Sh—— almost choked the way.

As for Better Living Through Beowulf, it’s a heady mixture of literature, film, poetry, politics, religion and social issues. And if that doesn’t grab you, there’s tennis, ice hockey and (American) football. Off you go.

11/12/2010

The Fair Extravagant; or, The Humorous Bride

“Whoever She be, She is Beautiful enough to tempt any man to make me a Monster! A Cuckold! Which (perhaps) is just now in Agitation. — O Justice! Justice! How many of my own intimate acquaintances have I served so! Not to name Strangers and Foreigners. — Well! I am at last overtaken, and now I pay for all! For all of them put together could never have made half such a beauty as my false Ariadne! My Jilting Ariadne, my Devil, Damn’d imposter Ariadne!”

After all the propagandising and politicking of The Perplex’d Prince and The Fugitive Statesman, I must say that it was a great relief to read something intended chiefly just to amuse and entertain. The Fair Extravagent; or, The Humorous Bride. An English Novel, published in 1682 by Alexander Oldys, is a remarkably interesting piece of writing, particularly from the perspective of the development of the novel. It is impossible to say, of course, whether this specific piece of early fiction was a direct influence on what came after it, but what we can say is that here again we have evidence of a style of writing supposedly “invented” in the 18th century, in existence decades before.

In light of this, it is a shame that no complete copy of James Howard’s The English Monsieur is accessible: a reading of its first section indicates that it is an interesting early example of a genre long popular in other nations and becoming increasingly so in England, the picaresque. Given Henry Fielding’s adoption of this form of writing (though more in the style of Cervantes specifically than of the genre in general), it is intriguing that it is Fielding that Alexander Oldys most puts me in mind of here – particularly with respect to the presence in his novel of a chatty narrator who tends to get distracted from the main story and to go off on personal tangents, or to argue with the reader about his artistic choices:

“…But did I ever tell you she kept a Coach? yes, now you shall know she did. However, she foresaw the inconvenience if she had met Polydor in her own Coach; and besides her Servants would have been witnesses of what she intended to conceal, had she returned to Town with them about her. And again, I believe she was willing to spare her own Horses. Now are you satisfied?”

Furthermore, the story of Don Quixote plays an oblique part in this story, partly by way of delineating its heroine’s mindset, but also as an indication that she and the hero are well-matched. However, Oldys takes pains to assure us, in his text as well as in his subtitle, that this will be a very English story. Of his heroine, he says:

 “Her birth two was Honourable enough, being Daughter to a Knight Baronet, by which you may guess she was an English Woman and our Neighbour; for (by the way) I am not going to put any Spanish Intrigue upon you.

This attitude is not only an expression of Oldys’s not-unpleasant Anglocentrism, but a reference to the fact that aside from the picaresque tales that actually were Spanish, a great many English writers at this time published mock-Spanish stories, using an exotic locale to excuse fantastic events and immoral conduct – or in other words, they wrote “romances”. Given what we have already seen of the divide between “the novel” and “the romance”, it is interesting that Oldys is so emphatic about his own work being “AN ENGLISH NOVEL.”

Our heroine is Adriadne, who by the ripe old age of “about the seventeenth year of her reign”, is beginning to despair of ever finding a man she can love enough to marry, despite the number of suitors who have besieged her due to her birth, beauty and money. However, she fully intends to, as she puts it, “Commit the dangerous Sin of Matrimony”, announcing to her cousin, Miranda, “I am just now weary of that o’repressing weight of a Maidenhood, which I have laboured under these five long years.”

(When you read around this period, you quickly adjust your ideas of what’s age-appropriate: in our mutual futures lies a story that has its protagonist embarking on a rapid career of marriage, murder, adultery and piracy at the age of sixteen!)

Ariadne persuades Miranda to join her in dressing up in men’s clothes and going out on the town, reasoning that by disguising herself and venturing into male-only territory, she will get a better idea of the real men behind the polished suitors. The young women penetrate such forbidden territories as coffee-houses, gambling-dens and the pit of the playhouse; and in the latter, Ariadne finds what she’s been looking for in the shape of a young man called Polydor. Inviting Polydor to share a bottle, and passing herself off as her own cousin, Ariadne gives a rapturous (although not inaccurate) description of herself and proposes marriage, but gives Polydor only until the following morning to make up his mind – and warns him that when he meets his bride-to-be, she will be masked.

Although well-born, Polydor is not merely a younger son but (ouch!) a youngest son, and the proposal of a match so infinitely beyond his situational deserts takes his breath away. He passes the night torn between hope and the gloomy reflection that in all probability, the – lady? – is either looking to foist an illegitimate child on him, or that her debts will see him arrested as soon as his ring is on her finger. In the end, Polydor decides at least to meet the mysterious Ariadne and, in spite of her disguise, sees and hears enough to give him heart. The two head for church, where Ariadne is compelled to remove her mask.

(Of course, this tale sits squarely within the comedy-of-the-sexes tradition that dictates that no woman dressed as a man will be recognisable as a woman; and nor, when she resumes her skirts, will she be recognisable as the man.)

Polydor, mesmerised by the beautiful face revealed to him and immensely heartened by finding that this much of the representation, at least, is true, goes through with the ceremony. As they celebrate the occasion with a sumptuous luncheon, the bride and groom grow more and more pleased with one another, discovering matching intelligence and wits, as well as matching passions:

“First he threw himself at her Feet, Embrac’d her Knees, kissing her Hands by force, and almost wept with Joy. Then on a suddain up he starts, and like a meer Tyrant in Love, falls aboard her delicate powting lips, and Lovely Rising Breasts, without so much as giving her an opportunity to chide him.”

Chide him she does – when she can – but soon responds in kind:

“Well! Have at you! (cry’d she throwing her arms about his Neck)… Now my dear Polydor (said she giving him a Thousand Kisses) Are you now convinc’d Ariadne loves you?”

So convinced is he, that he begins to intimate that he would like something more than kisses. Ariadne modestly asks permission to retire for a few moments, which Polydor grants…but then the minutes tick by and by, until the new husband discovers to his horror that his bride has done a flit…although not without paying the bill.

In fact, Ariadne has taken it into her head to really test her man, intending to know him thoroughly before she submits herself to him. To this end she runs out on him, tempts him with another woman, manipulates him into fighting a duel, and finally has him imprisoned for her (non-existent) debts. It is made clear that this “extravagance”, as the title puts it, stems from Ariadne’s passion for reading romances. However, instead of throwing up his hands in horror, lecturing us on the mortal perils of light reading and punishing his heroine for her tastes, as later writers would certainly have done, Oldys has fun with it.

For one thing, Polydor shares Ariadne’s “extravagance” and “humours” (they probably read the same books). When Ariadne stops before the church and gives him a chance to back out of their marriage, Polydor responds gallantly, “No, no, I am resolved to enter the Enchanted Castle with thee, and try the force of it’s Charms!” – a sentiment completely undercut by the narrator’s later appropriation of Polydor’s inflated language when Our Hero is hauled off to jail: “Polydor took leave of him to go to his Enchanted Castle…” – and yes, I’m sure the paralleling of marriage and prison was entirely intentional.

Although the fact that Ariadne is “humorous” refers to her whims and moods rather than her sense of humour, there’s no doubt that we’re supposed to find Polydor’s romantic travails funny – and for the most part we do, although the duel and the prison-cell might strike us as beyond a joke. We need to keep in mind, though, that this was written during a period when life in general, including the humour, was nothing short of brutal. (I couldn’t tell you how many chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes that were supposed to be funny I’ve already read.) Compared to most of its ilk, The Fair Extravagant is a gentle romp.

More worrying to me – yes, yes, remember when it was written, and all that – is that we’re back at the narrow, specific definition of “virtue” in a woman. As he becomes convinced of Ariadne’s perfidy, Polydor vents by name-calling: Ariadne is false, a jilt, a siren, a prostitute, a lewd woman… Are we detecting a theme here?

Although his soliloquies make it clear that in his time he has slept with plenty of married women, Polydor cannot bear the thought that Ariadne may have had another lover. Indeed, in time finds that he can bear anything but that, even reflecting that he’d gladly pay her debts for her…if he could afford to pay her debts for her… Finally he admits as much publicly: asked what happiness he can expect with her, he replies simply, “The greatest I could wish were she yet but Virtuous”, while at length he tells Ariadne to her face, “Wert thou but half so Virtuous as Fair; and I a thousand times more Rich and Happy, than I now am miserable: I’d kneel to get one Smile of thee…” And upon discovering at length that Ariadne is indeed just as virtuous as he could wish, Polydor is so overcome with joy that he never bothers to ask an explanation of her behaviour!

There you go, ladies: as long as you’re technically “virtuous”, you can do anything you like to a man and it’s a-okay. So have at it!

Interestingly, more than a decade after the publication of The Fair Extravagant, the story was turned into a play called She Ventures, And He Wins by someone known only as “Ariadne”. The play takes some interesting liberties with the text. In the novel, Ariadne accepts that for a woman, marriage means dominion by the man; her quest is therefore to find a man to whom she can submit with a good grace, and her “testing” of Polydor is intended to give her a thorough understanding of his character, more than she could gain from standard courtship. In the play, however, Ariadne’s manipulation of Polydor is undertaken to put her into the position of power within the marriage. Possibly this was too outrageous an idea for 1695, as the play was not a success.

(Hmm… I see that it was revived last year. [I make no comment. I merely report.])

I did say that The Fair Extravagant isn’t about “propagandising and politicking” the way that the pamphlets we have been examining are, but there’s a dollop of politics woven into the story even so. You get the feeling that, so politically charged were the times, writers found it hard not to venture into that territory. Alexander Oldys was tagged by Nicholas Hudson, in his paper on “Tory novel-writing”, as one of the Tory writers of the time, which is clearly correct. Polydor is the very model of a young Tory gentleman: he might spend all his time drinking, gambling and intriguing, but he is also a good Christian who prays regularly and sincerely, and passionately loyal to the crown. Indeed, Polydor’s arrest for debt provokes an extraordinary outburst:

I think here within your Dominions ‘tis a matter of Imprisonment, at least for a Gentleman to draw his Sword in his own defence: It scares your whining Zealots out of the little sense they had. Besides they are always apprehensive of their own guilt, and fear the Punishment they might reasonably expect from the Sword, for their Rebellious, Seditious and mutinous Endeavours against the Royal Prerogative.  I’le tell you (continued he all in a flame, not so much for his own Circumstances as with Zeal for his Prince) I will not be Prisoner within these wicked Walls, within this City, in whose Great Streets and highest Places, the best of Kings (O hellish Riddle!) That Glorious Martyr for the Liberty of his People, was proclaim’d a Traitor!… Was there a Necessity that I must be brought hither to this Stage, where the factious Schismaticks are playing the old Gaim again with some of the same Cards, only the Knaves are all Chang’d!

This is, of course, another example of Polydor’s “extravagance” (not to mention a fine fit of egotism, comparing his arrest for debt to the execution of Charles I!), but there is no doubt of the sincerity of the sentiment. Interestingly, there is a passing reference in this section to the debtors’ sanctuaries, which we discussed with respect to The Floating Island, as the men apprehending Polydor comment that they needed him to come within Temple Bar before they could arrest him.

(By the way— If I ever have a band, I’m calling it “The Factious Schismaticks”.)

Early in the novel, the disguised Ariadne and Miranda venture into a coffee-house called Richard’s, which we find is frequented by those of Whiggish tendencies. Under discussion is The Character Of A Popish Successour, And What England May Expect From Such A One, written by the playwright Elkanah Settle, allegedly at the prompting of the Earl of Shaftesbury. One of the coffee-house denizens remarks that this pamphlet is, “As Rational a Discourse as has been writ of late, nor can I think that Mr. L’Strange has any way answer’d his least Objections to the D.’s Succession.

(The ‘D.’ is the Duke of York, and ‘Mr. L’Strange’, Roger L’Estrange, a prominent Tory writer who we’ve met before at this blog, in his guise as the first English translator of  The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun.)

Ariadne, like Polydor (and her creator) a good Tory, weighs into the debate, demonstrating that she reads pamphlets and plays as well as romances. A flurry of literary references follows, with Ariadne suggesting that Elkanah Settle would be better off sticking to the stage and not meddling in statecraft. (There are references here to Settle as “her friend” and “my friend”, which suggest that he and Oldys knew and liked one another, but disagreed about politics.) She gets the last word, too:

Pray Sir, (continues he pertly) don’t you think the late Parliament dissolv’d at Oxford, were all wise and honest, well meaning Gentlemen? How Sir! (cry’d Ariadne very briskly) All wise and honest! that can’t be, for there must be some Fools, and some Knaves, or else they are not the true Representatives of the People.

She and Miranda then beat a retreat to the playhouse, where they see a production of Thomas Otway’s The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage, and meet Polydor.

And there’s one more political / literary allusion in The Fair Extravagant that warrants examination. Thanks to Ariadne’s manoeuvring, Polydor becomes convinced that his new bride is a vile imposter and that, consequently, his life is over and he might as well go to the devil as quickly as possible. In his despair, he begins to make a list of all the increasingly desperate and dreadful things he’s going to do:

“…Ay, Ay (pursu’d he) and I’le throw off my Sword, and turn as great a Cheat as any Tradesman of them all! As great a Rebel, and as great an Hypocrite as any Puritan Villain among them, nay more (added he fiercely) I cou’d almost find in my heart to write Pamphlets against the D. and call the Kings late most Gracious Declaration a Libel.

—which is, of course, a reference to The Perplex’d Prince.

I’ve remarked before that the fun of this reading course isn’t just the reading itself, but discovering the historical and political context of the literature of the day, and the richness this lends to the texts. This, though— This was something special: the fact that, in 1682, Alexander Oldys made a throwaway facetious remark, and that in 2010, I got the joke

Brain-melt.

08/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 1&2)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten

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You know, when I set out on this course of reading I knew very little about the Restoration, and I find myself surprised at the amount of knowledge I’ve managed to absorb just by trying to make head or tail of the literature of the day; enough, as it turns out, so that I can spot when the makers of Charles II: The Power & The Passion start tampering with the facts.

This mini-series has been broadcast here at least three times, although for some reason I never watched it properly before. (Probably because I had no interest in the Restoration, ha-ha.) I did catch bits and pieces of it, though, which from what I can gather puts me in more or less the same boat as the American viewers of this series, who got a significantly cut-down version of a drama that is, in my opinion, far too short to start with.

However, the good news here is that, whatever the series’ faults, its production values of are truly excellent. (Finding Kate Harwood’s name in the opening credits was immediately reassuring.) The casting of Rufus Sewell as Charles was a bit of a no-brainer, I guess, but he’s really very good, capturing the mixture of character traits that drove so much of the era’s upheaval. We see Charles’s obsession with his father’s death, and his consequent determination not just to hold the crown, but to revive its divine attribution – and sacrifice anything or anyone that might interfere with his goal.

It is on this point alone that Charles is steadfast, however: in all else he is facile in a way that is occasionally admirable, and frequently dismaying. We see a spirit of compromise and tolerance, particularly in matters of religion, completely out of step with the times; we see also the unfortunate habit of being swayed by just the wrong person at just the wrong time; and above all we see that he is, when it comes to the ladies, a complete putz.

Part 1 opens with the execution of Charles I, which turns out to be the younger Charles’s nightmare (complete with sitting bolt upright in bed – tsk). We find Charles and his entourage in Antwerp – for simplicity’s sake, I imagine, they keep the peripatetic prince fairly stationary – where he is advised and supported by Sir Edward Hyde (Ian McDiarmid), and passes his time in company with his lifelong friend, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Rupert Graves). The latter is bored and frustrated with his position – and Charles’s poverty – and begins to counsel compromise with Cromwell, to Charles’s outrage. At length, Buckingham reveals that he has been invited back to England under promise of forgiveness by Cromwell and with the offer of an advantageous marriage. He accepts, initiating a growing rift between himself and Charles that will ultimately find Buckingham amongst the leaders of Charles’s opponents.

We also have a first glimpse of religious discord, ominously enough within Charles’s own family, as he and his mother, the coldly Catholic widow Henrietta Maria (Diana Rigg), clash over the religion of Charles’s younger brothers: Charles is adament that it is only as the Protestant king of a Protestant country that he can regain his father’s throne; that Parliament will accept nothing else. The queen counters that he would not need Parliament if, as a Catholic king, he joined with Louis XIV, and shared his bounty and his armies. She also recommends the re-Catholicisation of England by the simple expedient of burning all the Protestants at the stake.

Charles soon finds some consolation for his various woes, however, when he encounters one Lady Palmer – aka Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory), the first and longest-lasting of many, many, many royal mistresses, who would bear Charles five (acknowledged) children, but whose increasing promiscuity and debauchery would eventually see her supplanted and evicted from Whitehall. This series also posits an ongoing affair between Barbara and Buckingham, who was – I think – her half-cousin, and has her seducing the young Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson), and encouraging his ambitions. It is via Barbara that we here learn that Buckingham, far from finding the expected pardon in England, has been consigned to the Tower of London by Cromwell.

In the wake of Cromwell’s death and the resignation of Richard Cromwell, the question of the restoration is broached. Her we are introduced to the Earl of Shaftesbury (Martin Freeman), who reveals Charles’s intentions to Parliament – including, typically, a promise to reopen the theatres and allow music and dancing. It also includes an offer of amnesty for those who opposed him; and offer that does not (and did not) extend to those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The beginning of Charles’s reign is marked by the bloody execution of the condemned (and oh, how these historical dramas love to dwell upon the horror of hanging, drawing and quartering!); although here it is implied that, sickening of the slaughter midway through the process, Charles pardoned those still alive.

Under Barbara’s influence, Buckingham is restored to favour. Barbara further exhibits her power over Charles after the birth of their first child when, as Monmouth looks on in startled admiration, she throws a monumental tantrum from which she emerges triumphant as Countess of Castlemaine. Mistresses and bastards aside, Parliament is already considering the question of Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza (Shirley Henderson), whose dowry outweighs her Catholicism, at least to some. We get the first scuffle here between Charles and Shaftesbury, as the latter protests Catherine’s religion. Charles voices his determination to pursue a policy of religious tolerance: perhaps the noblest of all his intentions and, alas, like most noble intentions at the time, one which came to nothing.

I’m going to make a concerted effort here not to append the word “unfortunate” to every mention of Catherine, but I’m not sure how far I’ll succeed – particularly not in the face of her unkind reception by a snickering royal household, provoked by her appearance, her lack of English, and her outrageous request for a cup of tea; nor in that of the terror with which she prepares herself to submit to her wedding-night: a terror so evident that Charles suggests they postpone things for a while. There’s certainly a careless sort of kindness in this, but at the heart of it, he simply doesn’t find her attractive. The marriage remains unconsumated until a day when Charles, catching Catherine off-guard, dressed in boys’ clothes, her hair loose and romping with a dog, is caught off-guard himself.

There’s a certain detached humour in this series, particularly in the way it views Charles himself, and we get a taste of it here. Upon her arrival in England, it is discovered that Catherine speaks not a word of English; yet before much longer, having become only too well aware of Barbara Villiers, she is throwing the furniture at Charles and screaming about, “Your whore!” She learned that word quickly enough, of course. (“I suspect the queen still has some reservations over Lady Castlemaine’s appointment to the household,” deadpans Sir Edward.)

Meanwhile, James, Duke of York (Charlie Creed-Miles) and Buckingham are agitating for war against the Dutch, against the counsel of Sir Edward Hyde and Shaftesbury. Swayed by James’s muttered aside that the monetary spoils of war would free him from Parliament’s grip, Charles votes yes. Now, we’ve already considered just how bad an idea this was apropos of Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines. It also gives us one of the series’ odder glitches, at it places the Battle of Medway before the Great Fire.

Actually, James is having quite a run of outs, as it is now that his affair with Ann Hyde (Tabitha Wady) becomes public due to her pregnancy. The series takes the stance that James was essentially trapped into marriage, whereas there seems reasonable evidence that, despite urgings that no-one expected him to keep the promises he made before the Restoration, he insisted on going through with it. If so—well, no good deed goes unpunished, I guess: it would of course be a child of that marriage to whom James would eventually lose the throne. The script here takes the opposing view chiefly, I imagine, to give us an early scene of Charles refusing to interfere with the succession in any way: having Parliament dissolve James’s marriage and declare his child illegitimate would be setting far too dangerous a precedent.

Part 2 opens with the court gathered around a telescope, as Halley’s Comet passes. Charles tells Catherine that it means nothing, but Sir Edward comments quietly that many see it as a portent: “They foretell disasters and catastrophes before the year is out.” (Possibly this is why they moved Medway.) For Charles himself, the year certainly starts disastrously, with his pursuit of Lady Frances Stewart (Alice Patten) finishing – gasp! – unsuccessfully. (The sorely harrassed young woman had to find ways to hold him off until she could arrange to elope with her lover, the Duke of Richmond.) Elsewhere, the unfortunate Catherine (yeah, I know…), after three childless years, is taking the waters at Tunbridge Wells, which were believed to help with conception; while James is taking Catholic instruction…

For a time it seems that the former, at least, will end well, but Catherine’s joyfully announced pregnancy ends in miscarriage. In her misery, the unfortunate woman (sorry…) wanders into the royal nursery, staring in agonised bewilderment at Barbara and her illegitimate children. “What did you do…to warrant such a sign of Grace…?”

In the wake of Catherine’s miscarriage, Charles recalls James from sea, where he is leading the war against the Dutch in his position of Admiral of the Fleet. James is outraged, but Charles tells him flatly that with only his infant daughters to follow him, his life cannot be risked.

When it becomes apparent that Catherine will never bear a child, an odd evolution takes place in her position at court. In her despair, she becomes one of the few people who will speak the truth to Charles without hesitation; and over time she slowly transforms into Charles’s friend and counsellor – quite a ruthless counsellor at times – but one, perhaps the only one, he can trust completely. It is to Catherine he confides the secret of James’s conversion, predicting that it will bring everything to ruin. Interestingly, Charles’s attitude is entirely secular: he views James’s choice as selfish and ultimately destructive, but there is no hint he sees it as dividing him from his brother forever; as his mother would certainly see it. Whether this is a sign of Charles’s fundamental irreligiosity or his fundamental Catholicism is unclear.

As Part 2 moves towards its conclusion, we get two very strange choices from screenwriter Adrian Hodges – one of them, indeed, unforgiveable. With the outbreak of the Great Plague, a horrified and sickened Charles is taken through the streets of London by the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (David Bradley). Berry Godfrey is best known as the magistrate who took Titus Oates’ deposition, his “final” version of the events of the Popish Plot – and who was murdered soon afterwards. To many, the murder was proof positive of the truth of Oates’ accusations – while some say it was Oates and his people who had the magistrate murdered for just that reason. When the character of Sir Edmund turned up at this point in the series, I assumed it was to prepare for these later events – but he never appears again. Odd.

The other mystifying plot-thread concerns debate over Charles’s supposed marriage to Lucy Walter and Monmouth’s legitimacy. Barbara has been pushing this bandwagon, as well as trying to convince Charles to divorce Catherine – mostly because of personal emnity, we imagine; while she and Buckingham are both busy poisoning Charles’s mind against Sir Edward Hyde, who has too much influence for their liking. The question of the Test Act has already created a rift between Charles and Sir Edward, and in the wake of the Battle of Medway, Hyde’s enemies see their chance, with Buckingham calling for his impeachment. Buckingham’s outspokenness sees him back in the Tower for a time, but he emerges triumphant. For a time it seems that Hyde’s enemies will bring about his death, but Charles commutes the sentence: the most loyal of his counsellors is instead sent into permanent exile. Here we have the first of a long line of moments in which Charles averts his eyes from a friend, murmuring that someone must take the blame…

Meanwhile, according to the script, it was not Lucy Walter at all who owned a black box containing proof of her marriage to Charles, but Charles himself! Repeatedly, Charles denies his marriage and declares Monmouth illegitimate; but a silent scene has him producing a hidden black box, him taking a paper from it and destroying it…

This is an absolutely bewildering touch – particularly in light of the series’ depiction of Charles’s stance on the succession. Think about it: what he’s doing here is destroying the proof that he has a legitimate Protestant heir: an heir that would have solved all his problems; an heir that would have solved EVERYONE’S problems. The hell – !?

Okay, I guess they just wanted to work the famous black box into it somehow… And they as good as admit the tampering, too: we never actually see what the paper is. And really, perhaps it was just the symbolism of it they were after; because, as Charles drops that mysterious paper into the fire, we cut from those flames to the Great Fire of London…