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.

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6 Responses to “Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 2)”

  1. The nature-over-nurture thing does seem to have been pretty much an article of faith for a long time – even Heyer, writing in the 1920s with an innkeeper’s son exchanged for an aristo’s daughter, has the boy always a clodhopper and uncomfortable in his fine clothes, while the girl has a natural grace.

  2. Well, there’s no point being an aristocrat if you’re not just naturally better than everyone else, is there?

    To give Meeke her due, though, Dubois does receive a gentleman’s education before he takes up medicine (and is treated much better at school than any actual plebian ever would have been, I’m sure!). I understand she took this kind of business to much greater extremes in some of her other novels, though.

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