Archive for January, 2011

29/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 5)

“But oh, it is fancy sets the rate on beauty, and he may as well love a third time as he has a second. For in love, those that once break the rules and laws of that deity, set no bounds to their treasons and disobedience. Yes, yes,— He that could leave Myrtilla, the fair, the young, the noble, chaste and fond Myrtilla, what after that may he not do to Sylvia, on whom he has less ties, less obligations? Oh wretched maid—what has thy fondness done…”

Reading Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister today as most of us do read it, via the Virago edition of 1987 (and really, has there ever been a more entirely fitting Virago publication?), the second part tends to feel a bit out of place. Shedding the classic epistolary structure of Part 1, Part 2 presents as a more familiar piece of fiction with a third-person, essentially omniscient narrator; and unlike both other parts, it is almost apolitical, having very little to do with the real events that shape its companions, to the extent that it sometimes feels that Aphra Behn was merely marking time when she wrote it.

However, much of this is artificial. It is important to realise that while today we think of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister as “a novel”, it was never planned or intended to be a unified work, but was written and published as three separate stories. The three volumes were not joined together until 1693, five years after Behn’s death. To do justice to Part 2, it needs to be considered more or less in isolation. It is, in its own right, an important piece of writing.

Although it was published in 1685, this volume must have been written in 1684, as there is no reference in it, not the vaguest allusion, to the momentous events that shook the whole of England in February, 1685: the sudden death of Charles II, and the succession of his brother as James II. No doubt writing quickly to cash in on the success of her first prose venture, Aphra Behn was immediately confronted by a significant problem – namely, that she had no material. Part 1 had ended with the escape of Philander and Sylvia from France, an event paralleling that of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley from England in June of 1683. Lord Grey, at least, would reappear on the public stage in the middle of 1685, but Behn wasn’t to know that. Part 2, therefore, while maintaining the pretence of being “about” Grey and Henrietta, is a work of pure fiction.

The other difficulty for Behn was that, Philander and Sylvia being together, there was no longer any need for them to correspond – at least, not at the outset. Having pioneered the epistolary novel in Part 1, Behn here responded by pioneering another form of novel-writing, one whose greatest ever exponent is probably Anthony Trollope.

Although he never wrote a true epistolary novel,  Trollope possessed an extraordinary facility for exploiting letter-writing in his works, which overflow with full or excerpted correspondence that reveals or conceals, and with acute analyses, in which the characters’ reactions to the letters in question are often juxtaposed with observations, expansive or ironic, made by the narrator. Aphra Behn does something similar here, albeit rather more crudely and tentatively; more than one-half of this novel consists of letters between the characters, which are linked with third-person narration and direct conversation. While via her narrator Behn keeps us fully informed of the characters’ real thoughts and motivations, we see simultaneously their use of letters to deceive, manipulate and misrepresent. There is a real understanding shown here of what Behn, as a political writer, must have known only too well: the gap between what people think and believe, and what they put on paper; what they are, and what they choose to appear.

And that’s probably the only time I’ll ever compare Anthony Trollope to Aphra Behn.

The story that eventually reached the public under the title Love Letters From A Noble Man To His Sister. Mixt With The History Of Their Adventures is as follows: Philander and Sylvia, with Sylvia’s husband of convenience, Brilliard, in tow, flee France for Holland. On the journey, they encounter a young Dutch nobleman, Octavio, with whom they become fast friends, Octavio not realising that Sylvia, still in her boy’s clothes, is a woman. Shortly after their arrival in Holland, Sylvia falls seriously ill, which compels Philander to confide to Octavio not only Sylvia’s secret, but their history. Before Sylvia recovers her health, an agreement between Holland and France compels the former to issue a warrant for Philander’s arrest and deportation, forcing him to fly the country. Philander leaves Sylvia in Octavio’s care; he falls in love with her, but his loyalty to his friend keeps him silent. Meanwhile, the tone of Philander’s letters to Sylvia make her fear that his passion for her is cooling.

She’s right: in Germany, Philander encounters, and instantly falls passionately in love with, Calista, the beautiful and innocent young wife of a Spanish nobleman. While still maintaining his protestations of love to Sylvia, Philander confides the truth to Octavio, who discovers to his horror that the object of Philander’s new pursuit is his own sister. Torn now between his love for Sylvia, his promises to Philander, and his sense that Philander has (albeit unknowingly) freed him from any obligation, Octavio is drawn to reveal Philander’s secret to Sylvia, who begins to plot revenge, with Octavio as her weapon, Meanwhile, Brilliard has also fallen in love with Sylvia, and begins to reflect darkly that he ought to be entitled to a husband’s privilege…

Not having any particular story to tell in this volume, Aphra Behn divides her time here between a serious and rather depressing analysis of women’s place in society, and some elaborate game-playing involving sexual hijinks and gender roles. In the latter respect in particular, this piece of prose has a quite a lot in common with Behn’s plays and poetry. There was a certain sexual ambiguity about Aphra Behn herself, with showed itself most frequently in her poetry (To The Fair Clarinda… being the most obvious example, as we have already seen); while Behn’s only serious love affair was with a known bisexual who was later arrested for committing homosexual acts.

Here, following on from Philander’s adventure while dressed as Sylvia’s maid in Part 1, Sylvia is frequently in drag; and not only is this beautiful women found more beautiful in that guise, she more than once becomes the object of a man’s affection while he believes her to be a man. For example, this  is Octavio, first encountering the young “Fillmond”, as Sylvia calls herself: “He felt a secret joy and pleasure play about his soul, he knew not why, and was almost angry, that he felt such an emotion for a youth, though the most lovely he ever saw…”

And this, too, comes on top of Behn’s descriptions of the growing friendship between Octavio and Philander, which has more than a touch of the homoerotic about it: “Octavio entered with an address so graceful and obliging, that at first sight he inclined Philander’s heart to a friendship with him; and on the other side the lovely person of Philander, the quality that appeared in his face and mien, obliged Octavio to become no less an admirer.” There are passages in this book where it seems that Sylvia is simply the vehicle via which these two men can work out their feelings for one another.

The climax of this volume – and believe me, I wish I could think of an alternative word to use there – is an extended sexual farce of cross-purposes and misidentification. Octavio has received two letters from Philander, one containing a graphic description of his affair with Calista (who is, let me remind you, Octavio’s sister), the other a placating letter to Sylvia intended to keep that particular iron in the fire, just in case. Sylvia begins negotiations for possession of the other letter; a process complicated by the interference of Brilliard who, as part of his own campaign to worm his way into Sylvia’s bed, has begun intercepting Octavio’s letters and sometimes substituting forgeries of his own. Thus, Sylvia is made to believe that Octavio will give up Philander’s incriminating letter in exchange for a night in her bed. She agrees, but plans to substitute her maid, Antonet, who is eager enough for sex with the handsome Octavio. Octavio, growing suspicious, lurks near Sylvia’s house, where (as he thinks) he sees another man being led to Sylvia’s bed. He waits in the darkness, his sword drawn and vengeance in his heart. And Brilliard, determined to make the absolute most of his night with his wife, not only doses himself with Spanish fly, but overdoses…with dire consequences.

As I have said, Part 2 is the closest in spirit of the three to Behn’s non-prose work, and it is easy enough to imagine how this complicated piece of physical comedy would have played out on the stage. At the same time, though, this is the one point in Behn’s short fiction career to date where you can really feel her struggling with the limitations of the form. There are some incoherent aspects to this twisted tale, and Behn is forced at the end to go back over her ground to clear up a couple of points that she must have felt were otherwise just a bit too obscure. Nevertheless, the jaunty sexual humour, in particular Brilliard’s painful comeuppance, is still perfectly enjoyable.

On the other hand, the way in which Behn handles the characters of Sylvia and Calista across this volume and the one following, and their contrasting fates, is not funny at all. Much of Behn’s writing concerned itself with woman’s place, woman’s destiny, and the question of whether a woman could really ever “win”…to which the answer was, in most instances, a dismal “no”. Hindered equally by the nature of her feelings and by society’s rules, the best a woman could hope for, it seems, was the briefest triumph, those moments preceding the sexual surrender. Beyond that point, there lies compromise at best, more often abandonment and despair.

We’ve already lived every second of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, his determination, her doubts and fears. Wrought up by the excitement and danger of their flight, by Sylvia’s masquerade, and even by her illness, the emotions of the two stay at a high pitch until the instant of their enforced separation. When finally off the boat and settled in Holland, they resume their sexual relationship: “It was not hard for the lover to steal into the longing arms of the expecting Sylvia; no fatigues of tedious journeys, and little voyages, had abated her fondness, or his vigour; the night was like the first, all joy! All transport!”

But Sylvia’s serious illness soon interrupts their congress. Calling upon his friends, the concerned Octavio, “…found Philander the most deplorable object that despair and love could render him, who lay eternally weeping on her bed, and no counsel or persuasion could remove him thence; but if by chance they made him sensible it was for her repose, he would depart to ease his mind by new torments, he would rave and tear his delicate hair, sigh and weep upon Octavio’s bosom…”

Likewise, when Philander learns he must leave Holland or be arrested, and Sylvia is too weak to travel: “He sighed and cried,—‘Why—farewell trifling life—if of the two extremes one must be chosen, rather than I’ll abandon Sylvia, I’ll stay and be delivered up a victim to incensed France— It is but a life’…”

Yes, very noble – if that were the end of it: “…’but by my stay I ruin both Sylvia and myself, her life depends on mine… By staying I resign myself poorly to be made a public scorn to France, and the cruel murderer of Sylvia.’ Now, it was after an hundred turns and pauses, intermixed with sighs and ravings, that he resolved for both their safeties to retire…”

We can only admire the depth and sincerity of Philander’s conviction that Sylvia couldn’t possibly survive his own death. Otherwise—well, perhaps we’re not quite as convinced by all this as Octavio is – or, for that matter, as Philander is, whose determination to rave over Sylvia in spite of her need for rest perhaps reminds us just a touch too much of his determination to fight Foscario, despite the betrayal of Sylvia’s secret inherent in that act.

But Philander does not leave Sylvia without certain qualms: “He fancied absence might make her cold, and abate her passion to him; that her powerful beauty might attract adorers, and she being but a woman, and no part angel but her form, ’twas not expected she should want her sex’s frailties…”

A fortnight after all this, Sylvia receives Philander’s first letter from Cologne, and recoils from it in horror:“It is all cold—short—short and cold as a dead winter’s day. It chilled my blood, it shivered every vein… Has thy industrious passion gathered all the sweets, and left the rifled flower to hang its withered head, and die in shades neglected?…”

Meanwhile, we have also Philander’s first letter to Octavio: “Perhaps, my friend, you are wondering now, what this discourse, this odd discovery of my own inconstancy tends to? Then since I cannot better pay you back the secret you had told me of your love, than by another of my own; take this confession from thy friend—I love!—languish! And am dying,—for a new beauty.”

Here, running in parallel with Behn’s caustic view of irregular sexual relations, we have Behn’s even more caustic view of marriage. The object of Philander’s new passion is Calista, the Countess of Clarineau, who was raised from early childhood in a convent in utter seclusion from the world, and then married off to a man some forty years her senior. The Count, a Spaniard, is living in exile in Germany because he murdered his first wife – a detail that apparently bothered Calista’s parents not one whit, while they were negotiating to sell their young and naïve daughter to him.

Indeed, so entirely ignorant and unworldly is Calista, that she takes her first glimpse of the physically beautiful Philander to be a vision – and unfortunately exclaims so in Philander’s hearing, giving him all the ammunition he needs to plot his way into her affections, and then her bed. If Sylvia, raised in and fairly knowledgeable about the world, had no defence against Philander’s strategies, what hope has poor Calista? She falls a willing victim with deadly swiftness.

It is not only the tragic certainty of Calista’s ultimate fate that makes this section of the novel so difficult for the reader, but the fact that we have to hear about all this in Philander’s own words…and after having already suffered through his languishing and dying for Sylvia and, indirectly, his languishing and dying for Myrtilla, this third serving of languishing and dying is very stale leftovers indeed. Mind you— None of this latest dying stops Philander dallying with the housemaid at the inn over the way from the Clarineaus’ house, while he figures out how to get to the guarded Calista.

The fundamental problem, in Aphra Behn’s opinion, is that there is simply no such thing as “a good man”. Octavio is often categorised as such, granted, but that’s mostly because he eventually ends up ranged amongst the novel’s victims. In practice, he’s not all that much different from Philander, his passion for Sylvia being progressively revealed as a purely physical obsession. When Philander’s letter informs him that his own sister is the object of his latest fixation, Octavio is horrified but makes no attempt to warn her. Perhaps a letter couldn’t have reached her in time – but you’d think he might at least make the gesture. Instead, he uses his certainty that Philander will seduce Calista to excuse his breaking of his own promises to Philander, and his pursuit of Sylvia:

“‘Well,’ cried he— ‘If thou be’st lost, Calista, at least thy ruin has laid a foundation for my happiness, and every triumph Philander makes of thy virtue, it the more secures my empire over Sylvia; and since the brother cannot be happy, but by the sister’s being undone, yield thou, O faithless fair one, yield to Philander, and make me blest in Sylvia!'”

Octavio’s fears – or hopes – are confirmed soon enough; and here Behn treats her more prurient readers to a large dose of the kind of erotica that helped to make her first volume so popular (not that I’m accusing you guys of prurience, or anything…):

“I who knew my advantage, lost no time, but put each minute to the properest use; now I embrace, clasp her fair lovely body close to mine, which nothing parted but her shift and gown; my busy hands finds passage to her breasts, and give and take a thousand nameless joys; all but the last I reaped; that heaven was still denied… I soothed the thought, and urged the laws of nature, the power of love, necessity of youth—and the wonder that was yet behind, that ravishing something, which not love or kisses could make her guess at; so beyond all soft imagination, that nothing but a trial could convince her… I dare not tell you more; let it suffice she was all that luxurious man could wish, and all that renders woman fine and ravishing. About two hours thus was my soul in rapture…”

 This is the letter that, at long last, seeing, “…her pain and irresolution, and being absolutely undone with love…”, Octavio delivers up to Sylvia, along with the letter he was directed to give to her in the first place: “…I have met with some affairs since my arrival to this place, that wholly take up my time; affairs of State, whose fatigues have put my heart extremely out of tune…so that I have not an hour in a day to spare for Sylvia; which, believe me, is the greatest affliction of my life…”

“Affairs of State”? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

One of the main threads running through this novel, all three volumes together, is the evolution of Sylvia’s character – particularly in contrast to that of the helplessly feminine Calista. In Aphra Behn’s writing, “good” women usually end up abandoned and alone – or dead. “Bad” women tend to fare a little better, but they pay a terrible price. Here, absorbing Philander’s lessons of deceit, manipulation and concealment, Sylvia gradually grows more and more like him – becomes, as it were, more masculine – while retaining both the female beauty and wiles that make her so dangerous, and the overweening vanity that threatens to destroy her.

Upon reading these letters both sides of her are roused. Octavio, seeing the effect of her reading upon Sylvia, presses his advantage, pleading his passion, Philander’s perfidy, Sylvia’s wounded pride. He offers to wreak vengeance upon Philander on Sylvia’s behalf…and then has the temerity to paint himself as equally Philander’s victim, swearing, “…to go and revenge himself and her on the false friend and lover, and confessed the second motive, which was his sister’s fame, ‘For,’ cried he, ‘that foul adultress, that false Calista, is so allied to me.'”

And Sylvia accepts his offer, swearing in turn that if he will do as he promises, she will marry him…Brilliard being no more than a minor inconvenience, you understand…

And so Part 2 closes, with an accompanying promise from Aphra Behn that, “The third and last part of this history, shall most faithfully relate”, the various fates of all our characters. And so it did…but not for another two-and-a-half years.

[To be continued…]

26/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 4)

“My Sylvia, thou art so dear to me, so wondrous precious to my soul, that in my extravagance of love, I fear I shall grow a troublesome and wearying coxcomb, shall dread every look thou givest away from me—a smile will make me rave, a sigh or touch make me commit a murder on the happy slave, or my own jealous heart, but all the world besides is Sylvia’s, all but another lover; but I rave and run too fast away; ages must pass a tedious term of years before I can be jealous, or conceive thou can’st be weary of Philander…”

And so, her passion overwhelming her judgement, Sylvia invites Philander to her room; and—

Nothing.

There are any number of ways in which we might interpret Philander’s embarrassing sexual failure, most simply that his mouth – or his pen – has been writing cheques that his body can’t cash. We should remember, in this respect, that Restoration writers often used impotence as a code for the presence of venereal disease. It is likely that Behn is covertly telling us here how far we should believe in Philander’s obsessive passion for Sylvia – i.e. not very.

More fittingly in the first true epistolary novel, there is also the sense here that Philander has “written” his passion for Sylvia into existence; that to an extent he has created an imaginary Sylvia with which the real one cannot compete. Repeatedly, Philander’s letters explode into extended fantasies of the joys to be experienced; again and again he speaks of “the irresistible Idea of Sylvia” and of “what I already so much adored in Idea”. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philander finds the reality inadequate to sustain his desire.

Impotence was a recurring motif in Aphra Behn’s writing – possibly her way of dealing with existence in a world where man’s power was essentially limitless, and woman’s essentially non-existent. You can imagine that she got a sour sort of satisfaction out of reminding people that in certain circumstances, the all-powerful male wasn’t quite so all-powerful. Behn’s most remarkable and sustained examination of the subject is her poem, The Disappointment, in which we find a situation very similar to the one implied in Love Letters: a young woman finally brought to the point of surrender, a man unable to perform. The difference is that in her poem, Behn is able to describe the event directly; very directly. Indeed, the subject matter and explicitness of her language resulted in The Disappointment being for some time misattributed to the Earl of Rochester. Behn quietly reappropriated her poem after her friend’s early death.

Philander’s abortive visit to Sylvia’s room presents Behn with her first major challenge as a prose writer. To that point, in the verbal sparring and manoeuvring of her lovers she has been quite at home; but now she must deal with events at which both were present. However, the nature of the contretemps makes it permissable for each of them subsequently to reflect upon it in a letter. Philander’s reaction is an even more than usually extravagant missive that, examined closely, amounts simply to a protracted wail of, This never happened to me before! – while Sylvia, in her shame and humiliation, responds by calling the affair off.

Perversely, the fact that the sexual act did not actually happen frees Behn here to describe the lead-up in deeply erotic terms – in Sylvia’s voice as well as in Philander’s. One of the things that drew so much contemporary criticism upon Aphra Behn was her stubborn insistence upon the reality and the strength of female sexual desire. She was a passionate woman herself, and looked upon women who denied, or refused to act upon, their sexual desires as hypocrites and liars. She says as much here, in Sylvia’s voice, railing against the social conventions that gave women only the choice of admitting their passions and being outcasts, or hiding them and living a life of practised deceit and concealment:

“Ah, what’s a woman’s honour when it is so poorly guarded! No wonder that you conquer with such ease, when we are only safe by the mean arts of dissimulation, an ill as shameful as that to which we fall. Oh silly refuge! What foolish nonsense fond custom can persuade: Yet so it is; and she that breaks her laws, loses her fame, her honour and esteem. Oh heavens! How quickly lost it is! Give me, ye powers, my fame, and let me be a fool; let me retain my virtue and my honour, and be a dull insensible.”

And for all the shocked reaction to it, feigned or otherwise, there is not much doubt that the eroticism of Behn’s language in describing the feelings of Philander and Sylvia here is one of the main reasons her novel remained in print throughout the entire 18th century, long after its political relevance had faded.

Here is Sylvia, reflecting upon her emotions upon Philander entering her room:

“What though I lay extended on my bed, undressed, unapprehensive of my fate, my bosom loose and easy of access, my garments ready, thin and wantonly put on, as if they would with little force submit to the fond straying hand: what then, Philander, must you take advantage?…So faintly and so feebly I upbraided you, as did but more advance your perjuries. Your strength increas’d, but mine alas declin’d; ’till I quite fainted in your arms, left you triumphant lord of all: no more my faint denials do persuade, no more my trembling hands resist your force, unregarded lay the treasure which you toil’d for, betrayed and yielded to the lovely conqueror…”

Philander’s own version of the same moment warrants close inspection. This was, remember, Aphra Behn’s first published prose work. She was still a neophyte at the form; yet consider here the brilliant building tempo of the writing, the physicality of the detail…and the comically abrupt conclusion:

“I saw the ravishing maid as much inflamed as I; she burnt with equal fire, with equal languishment: not all her care could keep the sparks concealed, but it broke out in every word and look; her trembling tongue, her feeble fainting voice betrayed it all; signs interrupting every syllable; a languishment I never saw till then dwelt in her charming eyes, that conradicted all her little vows; her short and double breathings heaved her breast, her swelling snowy breast, her hands that grasped me trembling as they closed, while she permitted mine unknown, unheeded to traverse all her beauties, till quite forgetting all I had faintly promised, and wholly abandoning my soul to joy, I rushed upon her, who, all fainting, lay beneath my useless weight, for on a sudden all my power was fled, swifter than lightning hurried through my enfeebled veins, and vanished all…”

It is, I think, the opening phrase of that quote that cuts to the heart of the matter. I spoke in my previous post about the tendency of this novel to equate love with warfare. This was not an idea unique to Aphra Behn; on the contrary. It was a commonplace at the time that women were to be “conquered”; that a man could not feel desire unless he felt also his own “triumph”, the woman’s “surrender”; and that the end of every affair was inevitable in its beginning, because where there was nothing left to be conquered, there was nothing to desire. The literature of this time, and indeed for several decades afterwards, is full of disturbing “seduction” scenes that are half an inch off being rape – and sometimes not that far.

Philander’s language in his letters reflects this convention. He dwells with pleasure upon his own capacity for violence, the idea that one day he will no longer treat Sylvia with “respect or Awe”, but sweep aside her hesitations and fears and, “…force my self with all the violence of raging Love…and Ravish my delight.” Even the inexperienced Sylvia uses the same sort of language, referring to Philander, as we have seen, as “triumphant lord” and “the lovely conqueror”. In her letter after the event, the mortified Sylvia assumes that Philander’s failure was her fault, while the real problem was not that she was insufficiently desirable, but too openly desiring. Met with a passion equal to his own, Philander retreats.

But Aphra Behn is not yet done humiliating her anti-hero. Worried that he has been spotted on his way to Sylvia’s room, upon making his escape Philander takes the precaution of disguising himself as Sylvia’s maid, Melinda. What he doesn’t remember, however, is that Sylvia’s father has designs upon the girl; and on his way through the grove of trees leading to the back gate of the property, “Melinda” is cornered by Count Bertoli and made a proposition of the most unmistakable nature:

“I replied as before—‘I am no whore, sir’—‘No,’ cries he, ‘but I can quickly make thee one, I have my tools about me, sweet-heart; therefore let us lose no time, but fall to work… Come, come, Melinda, why all this foolish argument at this hour and in this place, and after so much serious courtship; believe me, I’ll be kind to thee for ever;’ with that he clapped fifty guineas in a purse into one hand, and something else that shall be nameless into the other, presents that had been both worth Melinda’s acceptance…”

And Sylvia, too, suffers a further humiliation, but of a very different nature. To this point the story has been told essentially in two voices, but now a third intrudes, as Sylvia receives a letter from her sister, Myrtilla – Philander’s wife. We learn that Myrtilla is only too aware of the situation, but hoping for the best has held her tongue, keeping the secret from her parents. Seeing, however, that Sylvia is teetering on the brink of ruin, Myrtilla tries to pull her back from the edge, speaking, as she assures Sylvia, out of pity, not anger.

Myrtilla’s arguments are three-fold: the threat to Sylvia’s, and thus her family’s, honour; the unusual horror, as she phrases it, of it being Sylvia’s brother who pursues her; and finally, that Sylvia cannot trust Philander. It is the first two arguments that work upon Sylvia; the third that speaks to the reader, above all Myrtilla’s sad reflection that everything Philander is now saying and promising Sylvia, he once said and promised to her; that this desperate love-pursuit is nothing more to him than an elaborate game:

“He once thought me as lovely, lay at my feet, and sighed away his soul, and told such piteous stories of his sufferings, such sad, such mournful tales of his departed rest, his broken heart and everlasting love, that sure I thought it had been a sin not to have credited his charming perjuries; in such a way he swore, with such a grace he sighed, so artfully he moved, so tenderly he looked. Alas, dear child, then all he said was new, never told before, now it is a beaten road…love at second hand, worn out, and all its gaudy lustre tarnished…”

So accurate is this that it strikes the reader as equally comic and sickening: “piteous stories of his sufferings” are indeed Philander’s stock-in-trade, always dying for love yet always in perfect health. Significantly, too, there is no hint, no consciousness, in this letter of Myrtilla’s own supposed infidelities; and in spite of the insistence in the preface of Myrtilla’s affair with Cesario, we remember the contention by some that the rumoured affair between Lady Mary Grey and the Duke of Monmouth was merely a story invented by Lord Grey to give himself an excuse and an opportunity.

Shamed by this letter, yet not taking its truth to heart, Sylvia once again tells Philander, and far more definitely, that all is over; although she does not reveal to him the reason. Sylvia has a suitor, Foscario, who is approved by her parents; and seeing him leave the house in good spirits in the wake of his own receipt of Sylvia’s letter of renunciation, Philander chooses to believe that Sylvia has bestowed her hand upon his rival. He later sends Sylvia an account of his subsequent agonies, his contemplation of suicide—and his substitution of murder for suicide, confronting Foscario with his sword drawn; his need to dramatise himself, we note, infinitely outweighing his obligation to keep Sylvia’s secret.

Sylvia, however, does not see Philander’s essential selfishness, but only his danger, and his jealousy. Her need to reassure him of her love supersedes all else – including her loyalty to her sister. On the second attempt, there is no failure. We can readily believe that after the previous embarrassment, Philander found himself confronting a Sylvia who was far more shy, more shrinking, more uncertain; more desirable; more conquerable.

The concluding section of this tale gives us an oddly compressed version of reality. For one thing, Behn makes little use in her story of the arrest and trial of Lord Grey for his “debauching” of his sister-in-law; but as full transcripts of the trial were printed and devoured by the public, she may have felt that there was no point in re-working it too extensively. Moreover, as we may remember, the affair between Grey and Henrietta Berkeley was carried on for a year before discovery; here, the lovers are discovered almost immediately – and I mean, immediately: we can only cringe as Count Bertoli forces his way into his daughter’s room before she’s even had a chance to rearrange the bedclothes. (Which is to say, she stopped to write a letter first.) We learn that, ironically, it is the realisation that Melinda doesn’t understand his reproaches that alerts Bertoli to the fact that an outsider has been on the premises; an intercepted letter does the rest. Sylvia is jointly confronted by her father, her mother, and her sister, and her doom pronounced: she must marry Foscario at once, to cover her guilt.

It is this that provokes the elopement of the lovers – and while Aphra Behn didn’t feel compelled to exploit Lord Grey’s trial, the gossip about Henrietta making her escape in only her nightclothes is another matter. The elopement goes wrong, and Philander is not at the appointed place. Sylvia must trust herself to his manservant, Brilliard – the story’s substitute for William Turner, who Sylvia will shortly marry under Philander’s persuasion. Reaching Paris (remember, this is supposed to be taking place in France), Sylvia writes a letter of mingled panic and reproach to Philander, describing herself as, “…undressed…even to my under-petticoat and night-gown” and “…almost naked” – and which she signs off with the declaration, Paris, Thursday, from my bed, for want of clothes…

And where is Philander? In all sorts of trouble. He arrives at the rendezvous late, to find the carriage containing Sylvia and Brilliard gone. In fact, frightened at the delay and the likelihood of being caught, Sylvia has insisted that the carriage start for Paris, but Philander concludes that she has been found out and carried back to her home. Spying out the land there, he sees Foscario – on what he believes to be the eve of his wedding – and forces on him a second duel, in which both men are wounded. Unable to be moved from the inn to which he is carried, Philander falls prey to Count Bertoli. His next letter to Sylvia is written from the Bastille:

“I am, my Sylvia, arrested at the suit of Monsieur the Count, your father, for a rape on my lovely maid: I desire, my soul, you will immediately take coach and go to see the Prince Cesario, and he will bail me out…”

This is the first serious mention of Cesario for some time, and signals the novel’s belated return to politics. First, however, there is a flurry of action. Cesario does as Sylvia asks, warning both parties that a desperate search for the girl is under way. It is this that prompts Philander to insist upon Sylvia and Brilliard’s marriage. We get a sudden outburst here from Aphra Behn, speaking through Sylvia, against the ugly realities of “interested” marriage in the late 17th century; in particular the common situation of a young girl being sold to a rich old man: an arrangement repeatedly excoriated in Behn’s writing, along with the idea that such a union could be considered “holy”—

“Were I in height of youth, as now I am, forced by my parents, obliged by interest and honour, to marry the old, deformed, diseased, decrepit Count Anthonio…and rather than suffer him to consummate his nuptials, suppose I should (as sure I should) kill myself, it were blasphemy to lay this fatal marriage to heaven’s charge—curse on your nonsense, ye imposing gownmen, curse on your holy cant; you may as well call rapes and murders, treason and robbery, the acts of heaven; because heaven suffers them to be committed.”

But even as Philander and Sylvia discuss how they may meet again, another disaster strikes: “Riding full-speed for Paris, I was met, stopped, and seized for high-treason by the King’s messengers, and possibly may fall a sacrifice to the anger of an incensed monarch…”

However, as Lord Grey escaped the Tower of London via the power of his money, so too does Philander escape on his way back to the Bastille: “I resolved to kill, if I could no other way oblige him to favour my escape; I tried with gold before I shewed him my dagger, and that prevailed…” There is a brief reflection on the possible fate of Cesario (Monmouth, we know, was allowed to escape after the exposure of the Rye House Plot, while his co-conspirators died for the same guilt), and then plans for a reunion. Again, as Lord Grey after his escape risked recapture to meet and flee the country with Henrietta Berkeley, so too Philander:

“I wait for Sylvia; and though my life depend upon my flight, nay, more, the life of Sylvia, I cannot go without her; dress yourself then, my dearest, in your boy’s clothes, and haste with Brilliard, whither this seaman will conduct thee, whom I have hired to set us on some shore of safety…”

So closes what Aphra Behn originally intended as her whole story, that of the affair, the arrest, the treason and the flight. It was as much as anyone knew of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley, who hid themselves for two years after their escape from England. But as we now know, it wasn’t the end. Behn’s story, published anonymously, was a great success; and indeed, would be reissued at least a dozen times before the end of the century. Meanwhile, the literary climate of 1684 hadn’t changed: plays were still unwanted, and Aphra Behn still had to eat.

And, after all, I suppose it’s only fair that, having invented the modern novel, Aphra Behn should also invent the modern novel’s most frequent consequence: the cash-in sequel.

[To be continued…]

 

21/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 3)

“Let us, oh let us, my brother, sit down here, and pursue the crime of loving on no farther. Call me sister—swear I am so, and nothing but your sister: and forbear, oh forbear, my charming brother, to pursue me farther with your soft bewitching passion; let me alone, let me be ruin’d with honour, if I must be ruin’d.—For oh! ’twere much happier I were no more, than that I should be more than Philander’s sister; or he than Sylvia’s brother: oh let me ever call you by that cold name, ’till that of lover be forgotten.”

On top of publishing anonymously and resorting to the roman à clef format, the opening of Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister finds Aphra Behn providing for herself a third layer of protection against the possible consequences of her tale of sex and politics: the age-old pretence of the “found manuscript”. The volume’s preface asserts that the letters were discovered, “…in their cabinets, at their house at St Denis, where they both lived together, for the space of a year; and they are as exactly as possible placed in the order they were sent.”

The preface also spells out for us the nature of the roman à clef. The story is set during the Fronde, the French civil war that took place in the middle of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 – 1659. The Fronde had two phases, and it is the second, the Fronde des nobles, with which we are concerned: “The time of the rebellion of the true Protestant Huguenot in Paris, under the conduct of the Prince of Condé (whom we will call Cesario)…”

The preface then goes on to give us a sketch of one of Cesario’s followers, a young man given the sobriquet Philander, who achieved notoriety by eloping with Sylvia, the sister of his wife, Myrtilla. In this version of events, Myrtilla is not only Cesario’s mistress, but was in love with him at the time she married Philander, which she did purely for interest’s sake. We hear of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, their affair, its discovery and their flight. We hear also that, as a consequence of his involvement with Cesario, Philander was one of the rebels defeated by the king’s forces; that he was imprisoned, but escaped; and that he then fled the country in Sylvia’s company.

It is unlikely that anyone in England reading this far could fail to guess the true identities of the major players of this tale. Whether they believed that the letters were actually real is debatable, but either way, they could be certain that a scandalous story was to follow.

A word about the names here. All of the characters are given pastoral pseudonyms in place of their “real” (that is, fictional) names, which was a common practice at the time in both literature and literary circles, a hangover from the days of the classical romance. These days we might be inclined to snicker at our anti-hero’s name – what, we’re supposed to be surprised that someone called “Philander” behaves like this? – but in fact, it is because of the success of this tale that the word “philander” took on its modern meaning, “to behave like Philander” eventually becoming simply “to philander”. And there is a second word in this book that Aphra Behn, not invented, but helped to entrench in common parlance; but we’ll deal with that later on.

When the story opens, Philander and Sylvia have admitted their feelings for one another, and immediately, we see how skilfully Aphra Behn builds upon her model, the Lettres Portugueses. In place of the single voice, here we have two; and the reader is invited to decode the language of each to get at the motives beyond. Sylvia is understandably torn, her passionate desire for Philander at odds with her fear of discovery, the thought of her lost honour, the shame that she would bring upon her parents should the affair be discovered, and above all her consciousness that she would be betraying her own sister. Meanwhile, despite the increasing extravagence of Philander’s language, the reader is able to see what the inexperienced Sylvia cannot, the selfish single-mindedness of his passion. She vacillates, thinking of others; he relentlessly pursues his aim.

To contemporary readers, the language of Love Letters is frequently overripe and hard to swallow; but it is important to realise that it is an accurate reflection of its time, when verbal flamboyance was commonly used to disguise brutal reality, like putting a clean dress on a dirty body. So it is throughout this book, as it becomes dismayingly apparent that for all the pleading and the protestation, all the agonies and desperation, all the languishing and dying, there is nothing in this story that we might in modern usage call “love”; not a moment when it is ever about anything other than sex. And the more apparent that becomes, the less willing are the characters to admit it – and the more excessive becomes the language.

Furthermore, increasingly over the length of the story, there is a tendency to parallel the relations between man and woman with warfare: by the end, the phrase “the battle of the sexes” is barely even a metaphor. This is, undoubtedly, Aphra Behn’s own view of her world; and to a large extent the subsequent volumes of Love Letters are questioning whether in such a world it is ever possible that the woman might be victorious, or whether she must inevitably be conquered…and then ransacked and abandoned. Anything other than defeat for one party or the other is, however, quite out the question: it is destroy or be destroyed.

Language, then, is not so much a means of communication as on one hand a weapon, on the other a form of disguise. Philander, clearly, has already learned the power of the word before he turns his batteries upon Sylvia. In their exchange of letters, her language grows more and more like his, more heated, more exaggerated: words become a substitute for sex. Increasingly, Sylvia uses in her letters the words “brother” and “sister”, ostensibly to kill their mutual passion, in fact because the forbidden nature of the relationship adds to its fire. Consciously or unconsciously, Sylvia has absorbed Philander’s lesson: how to use language to conceal an ugly truth.

Having established the nature of her characters’ passion, it is then time for Aphra Behn to move onto politics. We must remember that the story’s “rebellion of the Hugenots” is a cover for the events leading up to the Rye House Plot. As in reality, Philander and Sylvia are on opposite sides of the political divide. Sylvia’s family is loyal to the throne, while Philander has thrown in his lot with Cesario in his intended revolt against his father, the king. It is Sylvia who broaches the subject in their letters, first uttering the standard female grievance that while she thinks of nothing but him, she knows that for all his protestations, Philander often has things other than love on his mind. From an early warning about the danger to his life if he persists in following Cesario, she initiates a frank political debate, demanding to know on what grounds the rebels are taking action?—

“What is it, oh my charming brother then, that you set up for? Is it glory? Oh mistaken, lovely youth, that glory is but a glittering light, that flashes for a moment, and then disappears; it is a false bravery, that will bring an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house; render your honourable name hated, detested and abominable in story to after ages; a traitor!”

Like Aphra Behn, Sylvia is a royalist; and like Behn again, there is an oddly sexual aspect to her devotion to her monarch: “I swear to you, Philander, I never approach his sacred person, but my heart beats, my blood runs cold about me, and my eyes overflow with tears of joy, while an awful confusion seizes me all over.”

However, Behn’s insistence upon the physical glamour of the Stuarts is far easier to take than her subsequent attempt forcibly to remodel Charles to fit the royalist vision of what a divinely-annointed monarch should be. In the literature of the time, we’ve seen any number of hilariously inaccurate descriptions of Charles by Tory writers, and Aphra Behn’s is among the most extreme; and when you consider that she probably had James as much as Charles in her mind when she wrote it, it becomes even more ludicrous:

“What has the King, our good, our gracious monarch, done to Philander?… But all his life has been one continued miracle; all good, all gracious, calm and merciful: and this good, this god-like King… His eyes have something so fierce, so majestic, commanding, and yet so good and merciful, as would soften rebellion itself into repenting loyalty… Oh! what pity it is, unhappy young man, thy education was not near the King!”

Sylvia here launches into a lengthy reproof of Philander’s intentions, and indeed his political principles – or the lack thereof. She should have heeded her own words: from the Tory perspective, as a man was in his politics, so he was in his personal life. Philander’s willingness to betray his king should have been a clear warning to Sylvia that he was not otherwise to be trusted. Sylvia’s speech here hits all the major heads of Tory attacks upon the Whigs: that their protests against “absolutism” and their claim to be acting “for the good of the people” were nothing more than a shoddy excuse for their own selfish actions; that their motives were pure self-interest and the hope of self-aggrandisement; that to oppose the will of the king was to be guilty of treason.

In all this, Philander is the very model of a Whig, particularly in his willingness to align himself with Cesario in spite of being cuckolded by him: to a Whig, we understand, lost honour is a minor consideration beside the opportunity for personal advancement. Philander admits openly that he has no respect for Cesario, and indeed, nothing but scorn for “the rabble”, in whose name he is supposed to be acting; and that it is entirely of himself that he is thinking. In doing so, he highlights one of the major debating points of the day: if it were possible to interfere with the natural line of succession (as the Whigs tried to do during the Exclusion Crisis); if it was acceptable to substitute one king for another, to, in effect, elect a king; if being king was not a matter of Divine Will, but of the strongest arm— When no man had a right to be king, then any man had the right to be king. It was the Tories’ worst nightmare.

And this is exactly Philander’s intention. He is merely using Cesario to jockey himself into a position of power. However dangerous the rebellion, however slim the chances of victory, if the rebels do prevail, why should not Philander be king?—“When three kingdoms shall lie unpossess’d…who knows but the chance may be mine… If the strongest sword must do it, (as that must do it) why not mine still? Why may not mine be that fortunate one? Cesario has no more right to it than Philander…”

Aphra Behn’s presentation of the Duke of Monmouth in this story, in the guise of Cesario, is marked by a venomous contempt for his ambition, his ingratitude to his father (and uncle) and above all his stupidity. At the same time, there is a certain disingenuity about Behn’s telling of the story, inasmuch as the religious division at the root of the crisis goes unacknowledged: the rebellion here is unmotivated by anything but greed. However, she is right in her assertion that while Monmouth supposedly had “followers” in his attempt to dislodge the Duke of York from the succession, what he really had were users: that he was never anything more to the Exclusionists than a means to an end.

Piling on the abuse, Behn first lets Sylvia loose upon the character of Cesario: here is Monmouth as seen by the Tories, his attraction for the Exclusionists laid bare—

“What is it bewitches you so? Is it his beauty? Then Philander has a greater title than Cesario; and not one other merit has he, since in piety, chastity, sobriety, charity and honour, he as little excels, as in gratitude, obedience and loyalty. What then, my dear Philander? Is it his weakness? Ah, there’s the argument you all propose, and think to govern so soft a king: but believe me, oh unhappy Philander! Nothing is more ungovernable than a fool; nothing more obstinate, wilful, conceited, and cunning…”

Not only does Philander not dispute this summation, he has a worse opinion of Cesario than Sylvia; and if this is how his “followers” feel, how must the rest of the country despise him?—

“They use him for a tool to work with, he being the only great man that wants sense enough to find out the cheat which they dare impose upon. Can any body of reason believe, if they had design’d him good, they would let him bare-fac’d have own’d a party so opposite to all laws of nature, religion, humanity, and common gratitude?… The world knows Cesario renders himself the worst of criminals by it, and has abandon’d an interest more glorious and easy than empire, to side with and aid people that never did, or ever can oblige him; and he is so dull as to imagine that for his sake, who never did us service or good, (unless cuckolding us be good) we should venture life and fame to pull down a true monarch, to set up his bastard over us.”

This political debate is merely an interlude, however, and soon Philander is ramping up his attempt to manoeuvre himself into Sylvia’s bed, using the fact that he has confided his secret, and therefore his life, to her as a measure of his love. At this point, Sylvia’s own desire is almost beyond restraint, except that she is haunted by the thought of her sister: “Myrtilla, my sister, and Philander’s wife? Oh God! that cruel thought will put me into ravings…”

These exclamations form part of one of the story’s most remarkable letters, in which Sylvia’s attempt to wean herself from her passion by harping on the marriage evolves into a tirade against the sister who is unable to appreciate what she has, which in turn becomes an erotic fantasy in which Sylvia dwells upon Philander’s physical perfections – only to conclude abruptly with the bitter realisation that Philander did not marry Myrtilla under compulsion, or for money or position, but for love.

Sylvia then tears up the letter…but Philander receives it anyway, delivered in pieces by Sylvia’s maid and confidante, Melinda, who brings also a warning that Syvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—

“My heart beats still, and heaves with the sensible remains of the late dangerous tempest of my mind, and nothing can absolutely calm me but the approach of the all-powerful Philander… Bring me then that kind cessation, bring me my Philander, and set me above the thoughts of cares, frights, or any other thoughts but those of tender love; haste then, thou charming object of my eternal wishes, and of my new desires; haste to my arms, my eyes, my soul,—but oh, be wondrous careful there, do not betray the easy maid that trusts thee amidst all her sacred store…”

[To be continued…]

17/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 2)

“Whereas the Lady Henrietta Berkeley has been absent from her Fathers house since the 20th of August last past, and is not yet known where she is, nor whether she is alive or dead; These are to give notice, That whoever shall find her, so that she may be brought back to her Father, the Earl of Berkeley, they shall have 200 Pounds Reward. She is a young Lady of a fair Complexion, fair Haired, full Breasted, and indifferent tall.”
— The London Gazette, September, 1682

The scandal that forms the basis of Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister was the illicit affair, and subsequent elopement, of Ford, Lord Grey of Werke, and the Lady Henrietta Berkeley, the younger sister of his wife. Although there were rumours about the affair, it became public knowledge when the above advertisement was placed, one of a series that ran across September and October of 1682.

Lord Grey was subsequently arrested and stood trial, along with various servant-accomplices, charged that they, “…did conspire the ruin and utter destruction of the lady Henrietta Berkeley, daughter of the right honourable George earl of Berkeley…and solicited her to commit whoredom and adultery with my lord Grey, who was before married to the lady Mary, another daughter of the earl of Berkeley, and sister to the lady Henrietta…” The already sensational trial took another turn when Henrietta, though as a woman and a minor not permitted to speak in court, nevertheless stood up and declared herself to be the wife of one William Turner and therefore no longer subject to her father’s authority. In spite of this, Grey was found guilty, only for the whole business then to mysteriously fade away – at least for him: the servants charged weren’t so fortunate. It is supposed that Grey bought his way out of trouble; something he had quite a talent for, as we shall see.

Although this scandal on its own merits would have been more than enough for a novelist like Aphra Behn to build on, the trial was neither the beginning nor the end of the business. For one thing, the matter fell squarely into the political division of the day: the Berkeleys were committed Tories, while Grey was not only a prominent Whig, but an open supporter of the Duke of Monmouth in his campaign to replace the Duke of York as heir to the throne.

(Oh, fun fact! – remember my mentioning that the only piece of legislation that Parliament managed to pass during the period of the Exclusion Crisis was the Habeus Corpus Act? Well, it turns out they wouldn’t have passed that, either, except that Lord Grey pulled off the 1679 equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. I’m not quite clear about how he managed it, but there were certainly shenanigans.)

Grey had first come to prominence during Monmouth’s “tour of the provinces”, the journey around England intended to build his popularity with the people. If the Earl of Shaftesbury was managing the business from London, as it was claimed, then Grey was the puppetmaster on the spot. However, after Charles prevented the passing of the Exclusion Bill by proroguing the Oxford Parliament in March, 1681, both Grey and Monmouth temporarily withdrew from the public eye, at least in the political sense.

The relationship between the two men was, and would remain, a peculiar one. For one thing, it was common gossip that Grey’s wife, Lady Mary, was Monmouth’s mistress. Opinions differed on the surrounding circumstances. Some held that Grey had pimped his wife to Monmouth in order to give himself a hold over the facile would-be king; others that he was genuinely deceived and, upon discovery, genuinely outraged. A third party suggested that there was no affair, and that Grey himself had started the rumours in order to give himself an excuse to banish his wife to the country, as he did late in 1680. Whatever the truth of the matter, what is indisputable is that the absence from the scene of Lady Mary paved the way for Grey’s pursuit and seduction of her seventeen-year-old sister, Henrietta.

While there’s little doubt that Aphra Behn was deliberately increasing the titilation quotient of her work by using the word “sister” in its title, she was within her rights to do so: under 17th-century law, the relationship between Grey and Henrietta was incestuous. The affair was carried on for a year before Lady Henrietta’s family discovered it. Her outraged parents then removed her from Berkeley House in London to Durdans, their country house near Epsom, but this attempt to keep her away from Grey failed. In another delightfully scandalising touch, one night Henrietta managed to escape from the house and elope with Grey, dressed only – or so it is said – in her nightgown.

The two returned to London and hid themselves in lodgings. If the marriage between William Turner and Henrietta was real (and there is some question about that), it must have happened around this time. Either way, it is believed that Turner was a manservant of Grey’s, who allowed himself to be used to facilitate his master’s affair. And in the wake of Henrietta’s disappearance, Lord Berkeley began advertising for his daughter in the London newspapers.

(The remark about Henrietta’s breasts disappeared from subsequent ads, by the way.)

The events that followed the trial are obscure, but when Lord Grey came into public view again, it was as a party to the Rye House Plot. After the Oxford Parliament, the Exclusionists essentially fell apart. The next two years were comparatively quiet, but political violence erupted again in the middle of 1683, when – or so it is alleged – a Whig / republican plot to assassinate both Charles and James was uncovered. The brothers were visiting Newmarket for the races and were supposed to return to London, passing Rye House, from where the attack was to be launched, on the 1st of April. However, a fire at Newmarket sent them home early, and so the plot was thwarted. As with all such plots, which don’t actually happen, it’s impossible to know the full truth. Some historians believe in the reality of the plot, while others contend that it was an invention, or at least a beat-up, by Charles and James to rid themselves of their remaining Whig opponents. Quite probably, it was “a little from Column A, a little from Column B”.

In any event, there was a round of arrests and convictions. Monmouth, who was implicated, got away to the United Provinces (we assume he was allowed to go), but William, Lord Russell, Sir Thomas Armstrong and Algernon Sidney were executed, while the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the Tower of London. Another of the condemned, our old friend Lord Grey, managed to escape from the Tower before his execution: an event involving guards who just happened to fall asleep or be looking the other way, and a boat that just happened to be on the Thames; Grey’s extremely deep pockets strike again. However it was contrived, when Grey fled to the Continent in July of 1683, he took Henrietta Berkeley with him.

It is not at all clear what happened to Henrietta after that, although at some point she seems to have crept back to her family, to live out her life in obscurity and disgrace. Curiously, when she died in 1710, it was declared that she was never married. Possibly the Turner story was a lie to help protect Grey, or possibly there was an annulment. Or possibly the Berkeleys simply preferred to pretend that the whole thing never happened.

In complete contrast to his former lover, Lord Grey returned spectacularly to the public scene during the long-anticipated and ultimately futile Monmouth Rebellion, which finally took place in June, 1685, four months after James succeeded his brother. It was an abysmal failure, an outcome that many blame upon the incompetence, or the cowardice, or even the treachery of Grey, who was put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry. Monmouth was convicted and executed as a traitor, along with many of his followers, after the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge George Jeffreys. During the autumn of 1685, some 200 people were executed for their involvement in the Rebellion, and a further 800 transported for life.

Lord Grey, however, was not among them…

[To be continued…]

13/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 1)

“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)

“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)

“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)

“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)

There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.

Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.

I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.

I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.

When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.

Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.

Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.

It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.

This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.

Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.

Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.

But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.

While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.

And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1863, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

[To be continued…]

09/01/2011

But what sayeth Thomas Macaulay?

And so the Reading Gods and I kissed and made up. After taunting me with a book from 1899, they relented and offered me a novel so exactly what I’ve been hoping for, it was almost scary:

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage by Catherine Cuthbertson, a five-volume sentimental novel from 1817.

Of Miss Cuthbertson herself, I can learn nothing, beyond a few unsupported assertions that I don’t see any point in repeating. What we do know for sure is that between 1803 and 1830, she wrote seven novels, most of them five volumes (!), and that they were popular in their time – and possibly influential. More than one researcher has contended that Miss Cuthbertson’s early novels were an influence upon Walter Scott in the writing of Waverley and, in particular, Guy Mannering.

The other thing I’ve found out about Miss Cuthbertson, a detail that in my current state of mind is perhaps the most important thing I could have found out about her, is that she was another of Thomas Macaulay’s pet novelists. Our knowledge of Macaulay’s fondness for Miss Cuthbertson comes, as usual, via the text of a letter, in this case one written by his sister, Lady Trevelyan, who once recalled of her brother that:

…there was a set of books by a Mrs. Kitty Cuthbertson, most silly though readable productions, the nature of which may be guessed from their titles:—‘Santo Sebastiano, or the Young Protector,’ ‘The Forest of Montalbano,’ ‘The Romance of the Pyrenees,’ and ‘Adelaide, or the Countercharm.’ I remember how, when ‘Santo Sebastiano‘ was sold by auction in India, he and Miss Eden bid against each other till he secured it at a fabulous price; and I possess it still…”

In fact, in his subsequent perusal of Santo Sebastiano, Thomas Macaulay was moved to keep a record of just how many times over the course of the story somebody fainted, and wrote his tallies in the back of the book. (FYI: 27 times over five volumes, the heroine 11 times.)

That “Miss Eden”, by the way, is Emily Eden, who was in India visiting her brother George, the Earl of Auckland and Governor-General there between 1835 and 1842. Miss Eden herself, of course, subsequently became a successful novelist; her letters from India to her sister were also published. I’ve never read any of her works, but now, all of a sudden, I really, really want to. (She is on The List.)

And the upshot of all this is that Catherine Cuthbertson has won herself an instant promotion from “Reading Roulette” over to “Authors In Depth”, right alongside Mary Meeke. If it’s good enough for Thomas Macaulay, it’s good enough for me. And astonishingly enough, it appears that all seven of Miss Cuthbertson’s novels are available electronically, so we will be able to do her full justice…one way or the other.

08/01/2011

The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War

“Memorable, too, was the election of 1860 to politicians; even to statesmen. Memorable, because Democracy, triumphant hitherto in the Federal elections, had been hurled from power. Not by the verdict of the people in their original capacity: a majority of them had cast their votes against the man who would be President of the United States by choice of the electoral college. A large majority had been cast against those who would represent the people in the Congress. But Democracy had been dethroned, because a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

First, a disclaimer of sorts: I’m a rank amateur when it comes to the Civil War. I’ve seen, and very much enjoyed, Ken Burns’ documentary series, but apart from that my knowledge is confined to viewings of the usual dramas, which use the conflict chiefly as a backdrop for their romance. Although there may be other novels that take this approach, and while I’m quite sure there are any number of non-fiction works on the subject, The Rebel’s Daughter is quite unlike anything I’ve previously come across. Published in 1899, a year before its author’s death, the novel is an acute and profoundly knowledgeable examination of the politics that led to the Civil War: the legality, or otherwise, of slavery and secession, and the factionalising of the Democrats that paved the way for the election of Abraham Lincoln; and the bitter and bloody division of the border states, forced not merely to take sides but to do so internally, person by person, neighbour against neighbour. I found this novel fascinating.

We’ve already taken a quick look at the life of John Gabriel Woerner, and from that it is evident that The Rebel’s Daughter is heavily autobiographical. Clearly, many of the places and people in this novel are sketches of the real thing, but I am insufficiently well-informed to recognise most of them. The novel begins with Victor Waldhorst, a young German-American, travelling from St Louis, Missouri, to the town of Brookfield, where he is to take up a position of shopman in a general store. On the way, Victor rescues a girl when her carriage horses bolt. She is Eleonora May – Nellie to her friends. The Mays, former Virginians, are one of the most prominent and wealthy local families. They are gracious, charming and hospitable – and slave-owners.

At first, Victor is profoundly shocked by this realisation, and unable to reconcile the warmth and generosity of the Mays with their involvement in what he considers an abhorrant institution. In his ignorance of local laws and conventions, Victor intrudes one night into one of the poor cottages of the Mays’ slaves, where he finds Nellie May’s own slave, Lucretia, known as Cressie, teaching the other occupants to read out of the Bible. Victor is caught in the cottage by the Mays’ overseer, Jeffreys, who has designs upon Cressie and immediately assumes that Victor is there for the same purpose. An ugly scene follows, in which Colonel May takes Victor’s side, and Jeffreys is dismissed. The overseer conceives a bitter hatred and resentment against the Mays and Victor, which will pursue them for many years. Almost immediately, Victor finds himself under arrest and charged with abolitionist activities, but thanks to a defence guided by Leslie May, the son of the household, who is studying law, he is triumphantly exonerated.

This outcome seals the bonds of affection between Victor and the Mays. He is, in a sense, adopted by the Colonel; becomes Leslie’s bosom friend; and is teased, laughed at and imposed upon by the imperious young Nellie. Under the Colonel’s political tutelage, Victor becomes a passionate adherent of the United States Constitution and all that it stands for…although he does puzzle over why, in a land priding itself on its guaranteed freedoms, including that of freedom of speech, the Colonel should warn him to keep his opinions on slavery to himself, if he knows what’s good for him. However, thanks to the Colonel’s teachings, Victor feelings on this point are somewhat softened, as he comes to accept that slavery is, if not right, at least constitutional.

Over time, Victor’s personal fortunes greatly improve. He moves from the general store to the offices of a successful German-language newspaper, first as a printer, later as its editor. Meanwhile, Colonel May is elected to Congress, and later receives a nomination for the Senate; a success in which Victor plays a significant part. With Leslie May’s encouragement and backing, Victor himself runs for Congress, and is elected. His entry into the legislature of Missouri occurs in 1860, the year also of a Federal election: an election in which the growing schism within the Democratic party allows the triumph of the Republicans and the inaugeration of Abraham Lincoln; events that bring with them the threat of secession of the southern states and even of civil war.

For Victor, the situation is one fraught with horror in a personal, as well as a political, sense. The incumbent Senator for Missouri, General Hart, is like Victor himself an upholder of the Constitution and sternly opposed to Missouri’s secession. In opposing Hart in his run for the Senate, Colonel May, the man who infused Victor with his own belief in the Constitution, begins a pragmatic drift towards the secessionist faction. Leslie and Nellie, unshakably devoted to their father and fiercely protective of their state’s rights, go with him – and expect Victor to do likewise.

But Victor, in conscience, cannot. In spite of his profound feelings of affection and gratitude for the Mays, in spite of his standing promise to support the Colonel, and above all in spite of the fact that he is desperately in love with Nellie, now grown from a sprite of a girl into the reigning belle of Missouri, he casts his lot with General Hart and the Constitutionalists, knowing that in doing so he has at a stroke severed himself from everything in life that he holds most dear – except his principles. When war comes, it finds Leslie May in southern grey, and Victor in the blue of the Missourian militia…

As a Civil War novel, The Rebel’s Daughter is rather unusual, inasmuch as the war itself remains at all times tangential to the main story. We get a description of the firing of Fort Sumter, and an account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (here called Winslo’s Creek), which marked Missouri’s entry into the war proper; but otherwise, the story remains solidly within the personal and political boundaries it has drawn for itself. I didn’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I found the careful, logical descriptions of the step-by-political-step journey towards war absolutely rivetting: an answer, at least to an extent, to the eternal, post-war cry of dismay, How can these things happen? This novel also makes very clear the profound reluctance of the Lincoln administration to move against the rebelling states, and the misinterpretation of this reluctance by the South, which grew bolder and increasingly provocative upon the tragic misapprehension that, “the North would not fight.”

And if a Civil War novel in which the war itself barely appears seems unusual, what are we to make of a Civil War novel that does not deal in any significant way with slavery? This is an aspect of the story that possibly strikes readers today more forcibly than it did its contemporary audience, given the modern tendency to view slavery rather simply as what the Civil War was “about”.

(I’m reminded here of the episode of The Simpsons in which Apu gets his citizenship: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” “Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter—” “Just say ‘slavery’.”)

According to the biography written by his son, William, J.G. Woerner was strongly opposed to slavery. That may be so, but if it was so, you wouldn’t know it from reading this novel. Possibly this was a deliberate choice, in keeping with the overarching political framework of the story. From J.G. Woerner’s own strictly legalistic point of view, and with Victor Waldhorst acting as his alter-ego, there is a definite implication throughout the novel that since slavery is constitutional, that is all there is to be said upon the subject. Various characters do debate the issue, but again, almost invariably from a legal standpoint: arguments that highlight the inherently self-defeating nature of the course of action pursued by the South, and the pragmatic view of the situation of many in the North:

…Reverence for the constitution is, to this day, so deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, both North and South, that they will tolerate no tampering with it, either by Northern or Southern fanatics. Break it, as secession must do, and slavery is doomed. For it has no hold on the majority of the people, save as it is guaranteed by the constitution. In the war that must follow secession, the forcible emancipation of slaves will be too powerful a weapon against the South to be neglected by the Federal government. There will be nothing, then, to save this fated institution from annihilation; and when once extinct, it will be no more forever, on the North American continent at least. I am thoroughly sure, Colonel, that the immediate abolition of slavery is impossible in this country, unless the way be paved for it by the attempt to destroy the national government…”

As for Victor, his moral qualms never quite go away, but after his first naive forays, he makes no further attempt to argue the point. Only one character, Victor’s cousin, Woldemar Auf den Busch, ever really opposes the institution on the grounds of morality – yet there is no sense that we are supposed to admire him for it. Far from it: his stance is tainted by the echo of the word, fanatic. Not only are we not encouraged to like Woldemar as a person – although he does grow and improve over the course of the novel – but whenever he tries to raise a moral objection to slavery, he is immediately and sharply slapped down. Furthermore, there is an implicit comparison in this plot-thread of actual slavery to life under monarchy that, personally, I found both disingenuous and distasteful.

Only about half a dozen slaves in total appear in this novel, all of them owned by the Mays, and only one who can rightly be called a character. This is Cressie, Nellie May’s own slave, who is referred to throughout as “the Octoroon”, on account of skin so pale, she is often mistaken for white; who is so beautiful, so graceful in her behaviour, so proper in her speech, that she is sometimes taken for a guest in the Mays’ house. When, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Mays’ other slaves depart in an instant, Cressie stays behind: the thought of leaving her former owners never crosses her mind.

This, then is the face of slavery in The Rebel’s Daughter; and we remember, too, that J.G. Woerner once wrote an anti-slavery play called Amanda, The Slave, in which the title character is white. How do we interpret this pattern? Perhaps Woerner believed that many white people could only understand the horrors of slavery if they saw them being inflicted on other white people; or perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, he felt that slavery became more wrong as the people enslaved were more white. It is impossible to say. While the oblique, to-one-side treatment of slavery in this novel is never less than intriguing, and quite in keeping with its political focus, I have to admit that the handling of this aspect of the story made me rather uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the relationship between Victor and Nellie is entirely conventional Civil War drama stuff, their romance acting as usual as a symbol of the relationship between North and South. Ever noticed how it nearly always is a Northern man and a Southern woman in these things? – or that when it is Southern man / Northern woman, it’s more likely to end unhappily? All sorts of implications in that, of course, including the North being coded “masculine” and the South “feminine”; the ensuing romance involving her being brought to the “right” way of looking at things, and her “rebellion” inevitably ending in “submission” – and absorption. I suppose, too, it’s a consequence of the convention that a proper woman adopts her man’s beliefs, and to have it the other way around would either mean her adopting beliefs that were wrong, or holding opinions different from her husband’s – and we couldn’t have that, now, could we?

The almost-not-quite romance of Victor and Nellie, which begins when they are little more than children, with his calf-love and her blithe acceptance of his homage, winds itself around the novel’s political content. Nellie is passionate in all her feelings: in her devotion to her father, to her state, and to the southern cause; so that Victor’s adherence to his constitutional principles, and his necessary separation from Colonel May, strikes her as an act of vile dishonour and betrayal. Victor himself is introverted and often self-doubting, though equally passionate when roused; and ironically, it is only in the face of Victor’s agonised renunciation of her that Nellie comes truly to understand and appreciate his character. By then it is too late, of course: the next time they see each other, Victor is wearing a blue uniform.

Back when I reviewed Philip And Philippa I asked the question, When did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? Well, The Rebel’s Daughter was published two years earlier, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find J.G. Woerner using extravagant and deeply sentimental language to tell his love story. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to a love story, or even to happy-ever-after; but while I don’t for an instant doubt Woerner’s sincerity, I have to admit that I found his verbal torrents rather hard to swallow. Here, for example, is Victor saying goodbye to Nellie. Can you actually imagine a man under extreme emotional duress making a speech like this?—

“…My glorious paradise, like some resplendent, sun-painted image in the clouds, has vanished into somber gloom. The bright ideal, that but now refulgently lit up my pathway, is intercepted by destiny’s mighty arm, snatching from me my soul’s crowning desire. Should ever, in the future, your thoughts recur to me, then, Nellie May, think of me as one, whose love for you, was so unbounded and unselfish, that he elected rather to be worthy of you, than to possess you unworthily…”

Too rich for my blood, I’m afraid. I prefer Woerner’s cool, reasoned politicking. Not very “feminine” of me, I suppose, but there we are. And truly, in the end it is the politicking that makes The Rebel’s Daughter such an interesting novel; one which deserves to be a great deal better known than it is.

(And our Word Of The Week, people? Refulgently. RE-FUL-GENT-LY. Try to use it in a sentence!)

06/01/2011

Hattigé, ou, Les amours du roy de Tamaran

What a shower of Tears fell with these words? She had a Store-house of them, and could command them thence in what quantity she pleas’d: The King did all he could to quiet her; he promis’d to vindicate her, and let her see very suddenly, he was not for Osman: Strange Weakness! But Kings in Love are Men, and not Gods.

That BEEP-BEEP-BEEP noise that you hear is me going into reverse. Because after declaring that my ambition for the year is to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE 17TH CENTURY, naturally I’d start by jumping from 1682 to 1676.

Sigh.

Anyway— I do have my reasons for scuttling back to take a look at Hattigé, ou, Les amours du roy de Tamaran, and as is usually the case, they don’t have much to do with its literary merits. This short fiction was originally published in French, and has been variously attributed to Gabriel de Brémond and Sébastien de Brémond. As Gabriel seems to have written several such novels, while Sébastien is best known for being the Consulate General of France in Jerusalem for the years 1699 – 1700, the former seems more likely. Hattigé was translated into English in 1670 by somebody calling himself only “B.B.”; this first translation was published not in England, but in Holland. The reason for this discretion may well lie in the fact that Hattige; or, The Amours Of The King Of Tamaran is a roman à clef describing Charles II’s affair with Barbara Villiers, and the infidelities of both parties.

The novel isn’t long, but does take some time to get to the point. It opens with “a young Knight of Malta” in his first sea-campaign, in partnership with an experience naval officer,”an Old Corsair”, known as Gourdan. The two attack a convoy of Turkish ships and, after a desperate battle, capture them. The terms of the partnership state that all prizes are to be divided equally, including human prizes; but the Knight learns from Gourdan’s disaffected lieutenant that the old sea-dog has smuggled the most beautiful of the captives, “a Turkish Lady of Eminent Quality”, onto his own ship, with no intention of sharing.

The two partners clash over this breach of their agreement, but Gourdan is unmoved by anything the Knight can say. On one of the captured ships, the Knight encounters the servant of the lady, who recounts her mistress’s history. What follows is swiftly recognisable for what it is, a description of the circumstances under which Barbara Villiers became Charles’s mistress, and her subsequent power over him.

The novel is intermittently amusing, in a cruel sort of way. Here is its sketch of Sir Thomas Palmer:

She…was Married to a Person of Quality, who had a competent Estate, sufficient to make her happy, had not her ambition preferred the Title of Mistress to a King, before private felicities: To shorten discourse, the good Man found himself oblig’d to endeavour to content himself  with the Honour the King did him in giving him a title, and an Imployment abroad, which he scarce took for a Favour, and would have been better pleas’d His Majesty had bestowed it on another.

Being mistress to the king satisfies Hattige’s craving for power, but not her desire; and her eye wanders towards a new lover: Rajep, the nephew of the palace gardener, who despite his lowly position was, “…a handsome Gentleman, young and vigorous, and had pleas’d other Women, and was reputed to make his Fortune that way…” Hattige begins devising ways to bring Rajep into her bedroom in the seraglio; manoeuvring that does not escape her inveterate enemy, the king’s Aga, Osman, in whom we may recognise Sir Edward Hyde, later the Earl of Clarenden.

Cordially hating Hattige, embarrassed by her control of the king, angered by her extravagance, Osman plots to reveal her infidelity, but is thwarted by the king’s profound reluctance to be enlightened. Brought to Hattige’s chamber at the critical moment, he stumbles and bumbles and makes such a row that Hattige’s lover has ample time to get away. Osman then produces the exchanged letters that brought about the rendezvous. Hattige declares them forgeries, and many tears and protestations later, the king is more her slave than ever. Even when he catches her, not in flagrante delicto, but the next best thing, he cannot discard her. On the contrary. After several days apart from her, he finally visits her room, declaring that in doing so he means nothing more than to take back the jewels he gave to her. But, well—

…she fell down at his Feet, with her Hair about her Ears, and embrac’d his Knees with that irresistible tenderness, he took her up, and led her into the Closet: what Reconciliation was made there, I know not; but certain it is, the King left the Jewels behind him, and returning two hours later, made her new Presents…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Hattige is its contemptuous depiction of Charles. We’ve seen already how the political exigencies of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis resulted in literary portraits of Charles glorified beyond any possible recognition. Here we have the other end of the scale, a Charles who is, in a word, whipped; his mistress’s plaything, an object of ridicule. The text takes pleasure in humiliating him. At his lowest ebb, the story’s king dresses as a woman, a bedouin, in order to slip into the seraglio incognito and catch Hattige out. Alas, he falls asleep before the arrival of Rajep, who upon inspecting the huddled figure lurking in the shadows, sees a sword protruding from beneath “her” robes and beats a hasty retreat.

Then we have the circumstances of the king’s own betrayal of Hattige. He still loves her, but despite his self-imposed blindness, events have shaken his belief in her sufficiently that his eye begins to stray. We’ve heard already of the great beauty of Roukia, the gardener’s wife; and it is to her that the king turns…in a manner of speaking. You see—well, perhaps I’ll let you figure out for yourselves what portion of the anatomy Charles is “credited” with a fetish for…and how the story’s king gets to see Roukia’s. It is, after all, what the author of Hattige did:

“…but I scarce dare tell you, how Love brought the King enamour’d of Roukia, who being one of the Handsomest Women of the Kingdome, charm’d him by that part, of which she took the less care, because she would have been asham’d to shew it to him, and would not have expos’d it to Light, but for necessity… One Evening, about Sun-Set, the King from the Terrasse of the Garden of the Seraglio, looking through the trees, had a sight of Roukia in that pleasant Posture… That Prince, never saw anything whiter, or better shap’d. ‘Twas in truth a Masterpiece of the kind, and (notwithstanding the unpleasing Function it was about) inflam’d the Heart of the Royall Spectator…

Nothing very divine about this king, I’m afraid. From here we descend once more into farce, as the king arranges a meeting with Roukia, while in the wake of the banishment of Rajep, the neglected Hattige turns her eye towards his uncle, Meharen the gardener; Roukia’s husband. Both couples end up meeting in the same place at the same time: an unfortunate conjunction that causes Hattige to suddenly get religion – “Hattige to be rid of him pretended a Revelation from Heaven, which the Turks are very subject to, and told him she was requir’d to make a Voyage to Mecha.” It is on this journey that she is captured.

Hattige’s journey is a reference to Barbara Villiers’ conversion to Catholicism, which after the enforcing of the Test Act in 1673 cost her her hard-won position as Lady of the Bedchamber. Her banishment from the household followed soon afterwards, her place in Charles’s bed taken by Louise de Kéroualle. It was this, we assume, that made the writing and publication of Hattigé, ou, Les amours du roy de Tamaran a comparatively safe venture.

Now, different accounts I’ve read of Hattige claim that it is not only about Barbara Villiers’ role as royal mistress, but about her affair with the young John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. This may be, but if so, I’m not sure which of the other characters we’re supposed to see him in. The most likely candidate is Rajep, who “was reputed to make his Fortune” by servicing the ladies; one of the most persistent bits of gossip around Charles’s court was that the cash-poor young officer was taking money from Villiers for his favours. However, another popular story of the time was that, in order to avoid being caught in bed with Villiers by Charles, Churchill jumped out of the window of her bedroom. In Hattige, the plot-threads involving Meharen the gardener and the “young Knight of Malta” both involve much climbing in and out of windows.

The first edition of Hattige, though in French, was published in England as well as in Europe – and promptly drew an investigation upon its publisher, Richard Bentley, for the novel’s alleged seditious content. Nothing came of it, as indeed it should not have done – not on the grounds of sedition, at least. From our perspective, ample grounds might have been found for a charge of libel, but romans à clef, however transparent, seem to have been strangely immune to that sort of attack – a fact that certainly did not go unnoticed throughout the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, as we have seen. In fact, Jane Curtis, the publisher of The Perplex’d Prince, a work far more deserving of accusations of sedition than Hattige, was likewise investigated, and likewise left unmolested.

And here, at long last, we arrive at the reason for my backing up to take a look at Hattige: namely, that it was not only the overtly political writers of the time who took note of the use of the roman à clef to disguise and yet exploit a contemporay scandal, and the apparent imperviousness of this format to retaliation. Another who did so was Aphra Behn. The turbulence of the time had a severe impact upon the London theatre, and in the early 1680s Behn was looking for ways to supplement her income. She was, both for interest and for ideas, a regular reader of European texts. That she had read Hattige we know from her later reworking of some of its phrases; that she she had also read Sir Roger L’Estrange’s translation of The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun would soon be even more evident.

In a moment of inspiration, Aphra Behn combined these two accepted contemporary literary forms, the roman à clef and the published letter, and in 1684 produced the first of three prose volumes that, joined together as they would eventually be, became the first novel in the modern sense of the word; a work that would play a significant role in the subsequent development of English literature: Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

02/01/2011

The Secret Life Of Aphra Behn

The Secret Life Of Aphra Behn is not an entirely satisfactory work, but given its subject, perhaps it could not be. Behn herself is one of the literary world’s most elusive figures; a fact that Janet Todd acknowledges at the outset of her biography, admitting that much of it is necessarily speculative. Almost nothing is known for certain about Behn’s early life or her marriage, and the first section of Todd’s book often feels strained and unpersuasive as she tries to weave together a cogent story from thin and scattered threads. Todd accepts the reality of Behn’s journey to Surinam, upon which her novel Oroonoko is supposedly based, arguing reasonably that this tale contains local colour and terminology absent from Behn’s other works set outside of England, and which suggest first-hand knowledge.

Not surprisingly, Todd finds herself on surer ground after Behn, as she puts it, “entered recorded history”, which her trip to Antwerp as an agent of the government of Charles II. What is known of this episode is so chiefly through Behn’s surviving letters to England, complaining that her mission has forced her to run into debt and begging for relief, which was only grudgingly and inadequately forthcoming. Behn should have known better: the Stuarts never paid their bills. Back home after this largely abortive enterprise, Behn determined on a literary career, choosing for her milieu the theatres that were thriving in the early Restoration. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged on 20th September, 1670.

Todd traces the history of Behn’s writing career, highlighting the literary influences, the ongoing financial crises, the personal relationships (mostly unhappy) and the royalist / Tory sympathies that shaped her career. The point is well-made that Behn herself had almost no female influences: one or two women before her had written and staged plays; Margaret Cavendish had published, and had been ridiculed and abused for it; while Katherine Phillips, “Orinda”, had warded off attack by expressing outrage (feigned or otherwise) that her private writings had fallen into the hands of a publisher. In the late 17th century, a career like Behn’s was unheard of.

The political and religious upheaval of the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis impacted negatively upon the theatre, and Behn turned increasingly to translation and to fiction to support herself. Although Behn herself most regarded her plays and poetry, it is as a prose writer that she had the most direct influence upon England’s literary course. Her remarkable Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister is a pivotal work in the development of the English novel, and one which was shamelessly plundered throughout the 18th century – usually by the same people given to abusing Behn sanctimoniously for her “immorality”. Shifting social mores would subsequently result in the burying of both the name and the works of Aphra Behn; Janet Todd’s book is only one aspect of the deserved ongoing rehabilitation of her reputation and standing, which began in the early 20th century with Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration that, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their mind.