“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.
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.