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.

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6 Responses to “The Fair Extravagant; or, The Humorous Bride”

  1. “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!”
     
    I had much the same reaction to reading the Decameron, which repeatedly harps on a conception of “marriageable age” that begins at fourteen and starts petering out into inescapable spinsterhood in the early twenties.

  2. The heroine of the same story that has the sixteen-year-old pirate (she’s in a different plot-thread, as I recall) is fourteen – so yeah, I guess you can forgive Ariadne for feeling over the hill at seventeen.

  3. I guess the average lifespan then wasn’t real lengthy.

    Reminds me of the Clan of the Cave Bear series, in which people are rugged manly men at seventeen, and a wise crone of seventy-five is viewed as being almost superhuman.

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