Archive for February, 2011

26/02/2011

Valentine

Orlando, the amiable Orlando, returns then to Magdeburg, to his Isabella; and Oh! dreadful, dreadful recollection! demands her hand—compels her to meet him at the altar, and pledge those vows she cannot assent to.— Orlando, truly worthy, how sensible I am of your merit, and your love, but I cannot return it— Valentine, your still more happy brother, possesses it, and I am born to make you wretched.

One of my plans for this year was to participate in reading challenges as a way of bringing more obscure novels to light. This month, I had the chance to join in a very February-focused challenge, to read a book by someone called “Valentine”, or a book with the word “valentine” in the title. My choice was an anonymous novel from 1790 called Valentine.

What can I say? I have a very literal mind.

One of the stranger eruptions of the 18th-century was that of “sentimentalism”. This was a movement that went far beyond the merely “sentimental”: it was a reaction to the tenets of the Age of Reason; and far from celebrating rationality, it condemned it as an approach to life that encouraged self-interest and calculation; the worst kind of secularism. In contrast, sentimentalism saw emotion as a hotline to God. Man’s natural impulses and passions were, it argued, literally God-given, that is, everything that was pure, unselfish and generous, until corrupted by a wordly education. While the rational individual protected himself from harm by distance and a refusal to be involved, the sentimentalist opened himself to every emotion; and not only his own, but those of others with whom he came in contact, via an intensely cultivated empathy.

For all the age’s broad emphasis on rationalism, in artistic terms the first stirrings of this kind of deliberate emotional indulgence were evident quite early in the 18th century. We recall in Pamela, for example, Richardson’s staging of the reunion of Pamela and her father, which is organised to take place in the presence of the entire household, while everyone else stands around and watches them. The emotion of the two and the sentiments uttered by Mr Andrews upon learning of his daughter’s rise in the world are “feasted upon” by the gathered gentry, who analyse the scene afterwards as if they’d just watched a play. This vicarious pleasure in the extreme emotion of others is the key to the novel of sentimentalism, the model of which is Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. The novel’s naïve hero, Harley, travels around with all his nerve endings exposed, trying to help those in need, feeling every pain of every unfortunate he encounters, and being repeatedly taken advantage of by “rationalists”. He weeps, he suffers, he collapses and grows ill under the weight of his own emotion. In the end, discovering that the woman he loves, loves him, he dies of joy.

It seems incredible today, but The Man Of Feeling was an enormous success. People read it in groups for the specific purpose of crying over it publicly: to react in this way was a measure of a person’s “sensibility”. It’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that Harley dies. The very hallmark of the novel of sentimentalism is that almost everyone dies; the hero and/or heroine, certainly. Usually the final scenes leave just a person or two still standing, so that they can look back over the literary carnage and mourn. It is the strangest aspect of this very strange movement that it openly admits its inability to survive in the world of the rationalist; but to the sentimentalist, this very incapacity is evidence of an inherent moral superiority. They’re too good to live, you understand.

As always, other authors were swift to react to the emergence of a new subgenre; and for a couple of decades in the second half of the 18th century, tales of misery, death, doom and despair flooded the marketplace. Amongst this deluge was Valentine, a “pre-Minerva Press” novel – that is, it was published by William Lane before he introduced the Minerva Press imprint. I can’t say I’m exactly surprised to find Mr Lane cashing in on a trend.

One of the most interesting things about Valentine is its preface. This novel was, as I say, published anonymously, and I’ve been unable to decide in my own mind the sex of the author. The preface has a male persona, however, and the distance that its writer tries to put between – himself? herself? – and the text makes me suspect it was a man. Women writers at this time, whether publishing anonymously or not, were generally swift to reveal their gender as (hopefully) a way of warding off critical attack. On the other hand, a certain fixation upon the minutiae of dress in the story proper might suggest a woman.

In the preface, the writer tells us about being stood up by the friend he was supposed to having dinner with, and being instead left with a manuscript to read until the friend finally arrived, Which I was to give my candid opinion upon, on his return. As he found the manuscript, …worthy your notice, I send it unvarnished by any eulogium of mine, a tale unadorned by fiction. So he didn’t write it, and he didn’t find it, and anyway it’s not a work of fiction.

Typical of the genre, the preface is almost a novel of sentimentalism in itself. At completely unnecessary length, Mr I-Didn’t-Write-It tells us about his inheritance of a fortune, his retirement from business, his move to the country – and his belated discovery that, on the whole, he rather wishes he hadn’t retired from business and moved to the country: A recluse and still life is not calculated to raise content, when the mind has been busily employed for years in a Court of Law. Man is born for society, the hours hang heavy when crowded with too much reflection; Books will not always entertain or relieve; there is a vacuity in solitude; to pass the tedious hours alone is burdensome, and I cannot solace the day by the sports of the field, which afford me no enjoyment…

And why is he so burdensomely alone? You have to ask?

I have felt a severe affliction in my earliest days, by a disappointment in the tenderest of passions, that of Love!—Dear amiable woman! why was I fated to know you and to love you? Can I ever forget the innocence and beauty of your first appearance? No, never; never will the impression be effaced from my still bleeding heart. Love, early implanted, is not soon eradicated— I felt it in its full force, and could tell a very tender— But I am not addressing myself to you, for my own history, but to inform you that a few days past I was under an engagement to dine with a very particular friend…

Welcome to the world of the novel of sentimentalism, where explaining how you went to dinner with a friend will inevitably entail a recitation of the romantic woes that have scarred your life.

The story of Valentine  takes place in 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, opening in the aftermath of the Battle of Sohr, which took place on the 30th September, and finishing after the Battle of Kesselsdorf on 15th December. Its sketched account of the relevant campaigns is, as far as some quick research can ascertain, accurate. This grounding in reality is rather unusual for this kind of novel. However, the setting isn’t all that important except so as to ensure a high body count amongst the male characters, every one of whom is a soldier.

But while the background of this novel is concrete, the plot is, far more typically, rudimentary. The children of the families of Dholte and Marluritz have been raised together. Count Marluritz literally wills his only surviving daughter, Isabella, to the older of the Dholte boys, Orlando. This engagement is ratified by Isabella’s brother, Ferdinand (just before he dies, too), and has royal approval. However, Isabella is in love with Orlando’s brother, Valentine, and he with her; the two finally declare their feelings for one another. As pressure mounts on Isabella to go through with the wedding to Orlando, Valentine convinces her to run away. He conceals her with a family he befriended after carrying the son wounded from the battlefield. They are noble, but the widowed Baroness has raised her two children far from the corruption of the Court. She confides to Valentine that Eleanor is not in fact her daughter, but a foundling who carried with her indications of a high birth. Valentine finally persuades Isabella to a secret marriage, but a call to arms separates them almost immediately…

Now, you could probably make a decent story out of this, but Valentine doesn’t even try. Instead it settles down into a competition to see which of its characters can behave and speak in the most unnecessarily extravagant manner – while remaining at all times blissfully unaware of its own absurdity. Therein lies the enduring charm of the genre. Indeed, Valentine is the most hilariously awful piece of tosh it’s been my pleasure to read in a long, long time. I giggled from the opening soliloquy of the hero, completely absorbed in his own romantic problems although up to his armpits in battlefield dead, to the inevitable body count in the final pages.

The novel is written in semi-epistolary style, alternating between letters between the characters and prose when straight narration is required. These interpolations have their own little chapter headings – for example, The Widow Woolstan’s Affecting And Pathetic Narrative, The Tale Of Woe Continued, Valentine’s Morn Of Happiness, and (since one “morn of happiness” is as much as any character in one of these stories is ever allowed) A Pathetic Conclusion.

Valentine himself sets the tone from the beginning, unable to refrain from dragging Isabella into everything he thinks, says or does. When we meet him he is soliloquising as he gazes around the body-strewn battlefield, his high-blown moralising on the empty glories of war rapidly and idiotically turning into a speech about how if Isabella doesn’t love him, then he wishes he hadn’t survived, either. He is interrupted in his self-pitying musings by a cry for help from a wounded soldier. This, naturally, brings on another soliloquy about how Isabella doesn’t love him, so really, what’s the point?—

“Can compassion be extended,” said he, “amidst this scene? I will assist thee, perhaps thou hast an Isabella who may mourn thy loss, may sooth thy pains. These wounds were gained in the field of honour; thy plaintive fair too may even now be weeping for thy loss; while mine, insensible and regardless of my life or fame, gives all her anxious cares and fears to her Orlando. Distraction’s in the thought, but I will assist thy enfeebled strength.” When looking around he beheld a youth wallowing in blood…

It must be said, some of the fun goes out of Valentine once its lovers come to an understanding, and Valentine stops being compelled to drag Isabella and her supposed cruelty into every single random thought that crosses his mind. On the other hand, this plot thread does climax in a passage that is a masterpiece of incoherency, when upon placing Isabella with the Baroness and her family, Valentine begins to worry that his friend Woolstan might prove a romantic threat; while at the same time he remains oblivious to Eleanor’s attraction to himself:

They parted, inviolable secrecy was promised by all parties—Isabella sighed, Eleanor sighed—the eyes of Eleanor followed him ’till out of sight. Eleanor loved Valentine better than any man on earth, Woolstan excepted, but Woolstan was her brother. Valentine left Isabella in safety, yet Woolstan was young, was susceptible! Isabella attractive! But Woolstan, bred with Eleanor from their infancy, must love her in preference to all the sex, and Eleanor is not Woolstan’s sister.

Since story is a minor consideration here, we can amuse ourselves instead spotting the various tropes of sentamentalism. Some of them are stylistic, like the insistence of the characters upon addressing each other by their names instead of ever using pronouns, and the use of archaicisms (“Dost thou, Isabella, truly intend such cruelty to Valentine?”) Others are philosophical, like the constant harping upon the superiority of the cottage over the court, the country over the city; a belief that here takes the author to such extremes, he feels compelled to insist upon the natural elevation of every aspect, every single action, of country life…even knocking on the door:

    No burnished knocker graced the portal of the cottage door—no party coloured lackies with leaded canes preceded on before the carriage, and by their thundering reiteratinf rap, told their master of their errand.—These were not wanting here to grace the entry of Valentine at Staudentz, ever expected, ever welcome.
    His whip performed the necessary notice, two taps, gentle as the breathing bosom of the lovely Isabella…

Mind you, the author’s determination to extol “simplicity” at every opportunity sometimes causes certain difficulties, such as when it clashes with a desire to bestow everyone with enormous fortunes (various solemn descriptions of death are interrupted to tell us who inherited what), or to to paint lengthy word-pictures of Isabella and her “elegant” wardrobe:

The beautious form of Isabella, which required no ornament, was neverthless elegantly dressed; her robe, of white muslin (according to the fashion of the country) was long, but not tuck’d up, for the convenience of walking, covered with an azure coloured petticoat; round her waist was a zone, or cestus, of black velvet, fastened with a gold buckle, on her head was a bonnet, originally the manufacture of Leghorn, decorated with white ribbon…

Eleanor’s whole attention was fixed on her diamond clasps, her gold buckle, and the flowing elegance of her robe… She viewed Isabella as a Deity; while, on the contrary, Isabella beheld Eleanor as a model of perfection, luxuriantly adorned by nature! for Isabella was truly insensible to the power of her own attraction—and for dress, she subscribed to it more from custom than any intention she had to embellish those charms, in which nature had been so lavish to her…

Another idiocy here, one that to be fair is quite common in epistolary novels generally, is the author’s inability to give us the characters’ back-stories without having them tell each other at length things they must already know. Here the main culprit is Isabella, writing to her friend Bertha; the tone of their correspondence is entirely set by the opening paragraph of its opening letter:

And will Bertha still favor with her friendship the unfortunate, the unhappy Isabella? Will the daughter of the amiable Baroness Waesneri, still give sanction to her friend, removed from her to a distant home? Will she honor with her confidence the former partner of her heart, intrust her secrets, tell her inquietudes, pour the torturing anxieties of disappointment or expectation into her faithful bosom; and receive, in exchange, the heart rending troubles and distresses of her Isabella? Yes, you have told me you will…

At one point, Bertha addresses Isabella as, The friend of my infant, as well as my maturer years. Heaven knows what the two of them were talking about all that time: in an earlier letter, Isabella states, That Isabella is the daughter and only surviving child of Field Marshall General Count Marluritz, is all my Bertha knows of a life, young and already seasoned in the disappointments of this world’s glories… – before proceeding to edify her (and, of course, us) with her life story.

I’m sure it won’t come as any surprise to anyone to learn that Isabella is a crier. Well – that is to say – they’re all criers; that goes without saying; but Isabella takes the prize. Here are just a few, a very few examples of how she seems to pass most of her time:

At the mention of his name her eyes were suffused in a briny torrent…

I weep, Bertha—an involuntary flood of tears comes to my relief.— You will, at parting from the Baron Schwerin, let fall regretting tears; yet not with such poignancy of sorrow as these which fall so abundantly, so incessantly, from the eyes of Isabella…

“No, Valentine, I love but you alone. I cry incessantly, it is Valentine draws the tears…” I threw myself on my knees, and with a flood of tears eased the bursting heart of Isabella…

The letter however from the first friend of Isabella drew those crystal drops that were wont to fall from her eyes…

Isabella’s tears ceased not to flow, and more, for Valentine was now her husband, she need not now conceal the cause…

“…yet Valentine I waked in tears, and the pillow which supported the head of your weary Isabella, was wet with the gushing suffusion…”

And really, I can only say with Oscar Wilde— Anyone who doesn’t find Isabella’s relentless and determined misery quite hilarious must have a heart of stone.

However, perhaps the single outstanding quality of the novel of sentamentalism is the gap that develops between the reader’s perception of the characters’ actions, and that of the characters themselves; a gap that, granted, may have been a great deal smaller, or even non-existent, in 1790. These days, however, it is impossible not to be struck by the way in which the characters in novels like these view everything through the distorting lens of their own total self-absorption.

In Valentine, the best example of this is the sneaking behaviour of our putative hero after his hiding of Isabella. An increasingly frantic Orlando begins to suspect every man he knows of being responsible for Isabella’s disappearance – well, except for his noble and honourable brother – and finally challenges one of them, Baron Schwerin, to a duel. Does even this cause Valentine, who has looked on silently at his brother’s growing distraction, to confess himself responsible? Of course not. Instead, he lets his brother and his good friend go off and try to kill each other – as they very nearly do. In fact, it is evident during the duel that Orlando has stopped caring whether he lives or dies, and it is only due to Schwerin’s generosity that he escapes with his life. Even Isabella, more than a little self-absorbed herself, is disturbed by this event – although it is only the danger to Orlando to which she reacts. Her lover’s self-serving passivity doesn’t seem to bother her, nor that the man her best friend loves could have been killed just to preserve her secret. I guess that things like that are all in a day’s work, when you’re a sentamentalist.

Anyway…it all ends in tears, of course. Valentine has a double-barrelled ending, its final miseries described first in a letter from Schwerin to Bertha, and then again by the author in the third person; I suppose in case we hadn’t all suffered enough the first time. And since we’ve been studying the various lengths and forms of the run-on sentence, it pleases me enormously to be able to report that Valentine ends with one even longer than that which opened Rosabella…which of course gives me an excuse to wrap up this nonsense by quoting it:

Orlando left the chief of his fortune to Eleanor, which with her own, made it very considerable; they were at a proper time married in Berlin, and though it was not possible for a man to be more attached to beauty, than the Baron was to his lovely Eleanor, with whom he had been brought up from their tenderest infancy, yet had she not influence sufficient over him to make him quit the path of fame and glory, in which his father and all his progenitors had trod, a path of fame, although so unhappily fatal to his dearest friends, in the lamented, the valiant and brave Valentine with the amiable Isabella.

24/02/2011

Keep away! Keep away!

I take back anything nice I may have said about the Reading Gods. They’re mean.

My journey to my latest Reading Roulette selection was an exercise in exasperation. My first hit was something called Such Things Were; or, The Lady On The Rock by Archibald Maclaren from 1820. My search for this was made more difficult by the surprising number of Archibald Maclarens out there (Scottish physical fitness experts, English Test captains, etc., etc.), but I finally determined that “my” Archibald Maclaren in fact wrote stage musicals: his various works are described as “a dramatic piece in two acts with songs”, as “a musical entertainment in two acts”, as “a comic opera in two acts”, and so on. I couldn’t find my actual hit, but there was a piece called The Isle Of Mull; or, The Lady On The Rock listed for 1820, so I guess that was it under a variant name. In any case, it certainly wasn’t for reading, so—delete—and back to the random number generator.

My next two hits both turned out to be for works that were dated incorrectly and therefore in the wrong spot in the Wishlist. Yes, I could have read them anyway; and yes, I should have; but my recent successes in finding things made me overconfident, I guess, so instead I re-dated both, slotted them in where they should have been, and tried again.

This time I hit a novel from 1825, The Robber Chieftain; or, Dinas Linn by Nella Stephens. This came up on GoogleBooks, so off I went downloading – only to realise that only three of the four volumes were available. (Why do they do that!?) They have the fourth volume but it hasn’t been digitised yet, so while I have future hopes of this one, I had to move on again.

Next up was Mairi Of Callaid: A West Highland Tale by Katherine I. Campbell, from 1878. My research on this one turned up the subtitle, Translated from the Gaelic and versified. Not exactly my usual thing, but I probably would have taken a whack at it if there had been a copy readily available. However, I didn’t feel like going the rather-pricey-import route, so it was back to the drawing-board once again.

And to cut a long and extremely frustrating story short, I then sequentially hit the following unavailable novels:

  • Wilburn; or, The Heir Of The Manor. A Tale Of The Old Dominions by Walter Whitmore (1852)
  • Deborah, The Advanced Woman by Mary Ives Todd (1896)*
  • Sweet Bells Jangled. A Dramatic Love Tale by Cara Oakey Hall (1878)
  • The Child Of The Wreck; or, The Stolen Bracelets. A Romance Of The South Of England by Fred Hunter (1848)

(*This one was particularly disappointing, since unlike some – I may even say most – “New Woman” novelists, Miss Todd was for and not against.)

And then the Reading Gods finally relented. Possibly they realised that if I hit my keyboard with my forehead one more time I might actually smash it, and then they wouldn’t be able to torment me at all.

So on my tenth attempt, I was given—

Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power by Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth, from 1857.

E.D.E.N. Southworth, as she is usually known, was one of the most prolific and the most popular American novelists of the 19th century; some sources have her as the most successful novelist of her time. She took up writing in order to support herself and her children after her husband deserted her, and wrote more than sixty novels between 1849 and 1899, some of which were published posthumously. Southworth was interested in social reform and a supporter of women’s rights, but with her family’s income at stake, she was careful in her handling of potentially controversial material. Although she herself was a northerner, many of her books are set in the post-Civil War south.

I have a notion that E.D.E.N. Southworth, too, ought to be on my Authors In Depth list…but I’m not sure I’m up to making such a long-term commitment. (A scary number of her novels are available.) So I guess we’ll wait and see about that. She will, however, be the first person slotted into my new subcategory – that for authors with quadruple-barrel names!

16/02/2011

Masterclass with Miss Austen

Okay, time to come clean.

I spoke at length about my enjoyment of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Rosabella; but while it’s true enough that I enjoyed the book on its own merits, as I was reading it I began to enjoy it simultaneously on a different level entirely; because the further I read, the more I became convinced that when Jane Austen was making her various comic attacks upon the excesses of the popular novel, Catherine Cuthbertson was one of the authors she had in mind.

Granted, at first glance this may seem unlikely – the writing and publication dates of the ladies’ respective efforts, for one thing, would seem to rule this possibility out. So perhaps it’s all just a coincidence. I did, after all, describe Rosabella as “a typical 19th-century sentimental novel”; if Miss Cuthbertson was, likewise, a typical 19th-century sentimental novelist, she may have been only one of many guilty of the transgressions which Miss Austen mocks.

And some of the issues in question are certainly generic. Pardon me for quoting this passage from Love And Freindship in full, but it cracks me up every time:

A Gentleman considerably advanced in years descended from it. At his first Appearance my Sensibility was wonderfully affected and e’er I had gazed at him a 2d time, an instinctive sympathy whispered to my Heart, that he was my Grandfather. Convinced that I could not be mistaken in my conjecture I instantly sprang from the Carriage I had just entered, and following the Venerable Stranger into the Room he had been shewn to, I threw myself on my knees before him and besought him to acknowledge me as his Grand Child. He started, and having attentively examined my features, raised me from the Ground and throwing his Grand-fatherly arms around my Neck, exclaimed, “Acknowledge thee! Yes dear resemblance of my Laurina and Laurina’s Daughter, sweet image of my Claudia and my Claudia’s Mother, I do acknowledge thee as the Daughter of the one and the Grandaughter of the other.” While he was thus tenderly embracing me, Sophia astonished at my precipitate Departure, entered the Room in search of me. No sooner had she caught the eye of the venerable Peer, than he exclaimed with every mark of Astonishment –“Another Grandaughter! Yes, yes, I see you are the Daughter of my Laurina’s eldest Girl; your resemblance to the beauteous Matilda sufficiently proclaims it. “Oh!” replied Sophia, “when I first beheld you the instinct of Nature whispered me that we were in some degree related–But whether Grandfathers, or Grandmothers, I could not pretend to determine.” He folded her in his arms, and whilst they were tenderly embracing, the Door of the Apartment opened and a most beautifull young Man appeared. On perceiving him Lord St. Clair started and retreating back a few paces, with uplifted Hands, said, “Another Grand-child! What an unexpected Happiness is this! to discover in the space of 3 minutes, as many of my Descendants! This I am certain is Philander the son of my Laurina’s 3d girl the amiable Bertha; there wants now but the presence of Gustavus to compleat the Union of my Laurina’s Grand-Children.” “And here he is; (said a Gracefull Youth who that instant entered the room) here is the Gustavus you desire to see. I am the son of Agatha your Laurina’s 4th and youngest Daughter…”

The sentimental novel is notorious for its belief in this kind of sympathetic recognition, of course, and was so long before Catherine Cuthbertson ever picked up a pen. Just the same, it is an indisputable fact that, almost thirty years after Jane Austen wrote her burlesque of the genre, the same sins were still being committed in the same sorts of novels. Rosabella does not have an outright “Gustavus scene”, as I like to call them, but its heroine spends the whole five volumes being “drawn” to particular people, to whom she is at length revealed to be related (one at a time, though, not all at once); and the girl who starts out as a destitute orphan ends up at the centre of an extended family of quite remarkable proportions.

Then there’s the fainting. We recall Thomas Macaulay keeping a tally of the fainting in Miss Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano, published in 1814, and we certainly know that her taste for fainting scenes hadn’t dissipated at all by 1817. Miss Austen’s own opinion of fainting was also made clear in Love And Freindship, wherein the characters spend an inordinate proportion of their time indulging in that particular pastime, to their ultimate cost:

It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself —We fainted alternately on a sofa…

“Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequences—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“ 

Miss Cuthbertson’s faints, on the other hand, are executed with great gravity. What’s more, her men faint, too. Here, for example, is Egremont hearing Rosabella’s story:

As she proceeded, his sympathizing and attentive preceptor beheld horror and despair diffusing itself overy every line of his expressive countenance; and when Rosabella came to her final close of all she yet knew of her sad history, he fell on the sofa beside her in a death resembling swoon…

What would they do without sofas? 

Much as I wanted to believe that this was not a coincidence, that it was not simply a case of Miss Cuthbertson being a sufficiently generic novelist to commit all of the revelevant crimes against literature, I didn’t see at first how a more direct relationship between the two women was possible. But then two points occurred to me: firstly, that Miss Cuthbertson may have maintained the same style of writing all throughout her career, which began in 1803; and secondly, that the main source of my suspicions, Northanger Abbey, while mostly written as we know around 1798, was revised twice before it was published, the first time also in 1803, the final time as late as 1817 – the year of Rosabella‘s publication.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen repeatedly draws a contrast between behaviour that is “natural” and behaviour that is “heroic” – that is, the behaviour of a heroine. No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine, Austen remarks at the outset, then goes on to tell us why. It is the entire lack of heroine in her composition that first attracts, then captivates Henry Tilney: “You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature.” When the odious John Thorpe manoeuvres Catherine into what seems like an an act of great rudeness towards the Tilneys, who are subsequently cool towards her:

Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.

In other words, Catherine doesn’t create trouble by dramatising everything, least of all herself. This is most significantly illustrated when after her first enjoyable encounter with Henry Tilney, she sees him a second time, but in company with another young woman:

He looked as handsome and lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasant-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already. But guided only by what was simple and probable, it had never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married… And therefore, instead of turning of a deathlike paleness, and falling in a fit on Mrs Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses…

It was this specific passage that anchored my suspicions about Miss Austen and Miss Cuthbertson, because Rosabella (and for all I know, Miss Cuthbertson’s other heroines) is repeatedly guilty of exactly this kind of melodramatic misinterpretation. Compare the language of this following passage to that in which we hear of Catherine Morland’s “simple and probable” reaction, and you’ll see what I mean:

…for in that very chaise Rosa beheld Lord Montalbert performing a têteà-tête journey with Lady Meliora Monson! Could Rosa doubt what sanctioned this? No, she could not; and in heart-rending agony poor Rosabella fainted.

And okay, maybe seeing a young man and woman alone together might lead you to assume an intimate relationship; but there’s no excuse whatsoever for this:

    But instead of these eager glances encountering her whom they sought, or any of the fugitive party, she suddenly beheld those whom of all the world she expected least to see there—Mr Trench and Egremont—not the Egremont overpowered by horror and distress she had last beheld him, but in all the brilliant bloom and animation of health and happiness; on whose arm familiarly hung a young female of uncommon loveliness, elegantly attired, and to whom his attention was wholly devoted at the moment, listening to what she was uttering with the most intense interest and a countenance beaming with affectionate admiration.
    To the prompt apprehension of the dismayed Rosabella this lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation; and with this belief a pang, stunning to every faculty, shot through her anguished bosom; and whilst endeavouring at articulation, to inform her companion she was not well, she fell, bereft of sense and power…

And the young woman on Egremont’s arm? His friend’s wife, who he has been asked to escort. Bereft of sense, indeed…

Just look at the parallels between this passage and that describing Henry Tilney escorting his sister: parallels that last right up to the denouement of each, when they abruptly part company. Amusingly, although the satire is Miss Austen’s, the exaggeration is all Miss Cuthbertson’s. Thus, for Catherine, It never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married, while to Rosabella, with her “prompt apprehension”, This lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation. You’ll never find a better illustration of the difference between “natural” and “heroic” behaviour.

I could go on – and on. There are plenty of other specific examples I could quote – like the fact that when Rosabella’s motives are misunderstood, instead of trying to fix things regardless of who is at fault, like Catherine Morland, she stays silent, In the pride of conscious rectitude… – but in the end it’s not the details themselves which are convincing so much as the cumulative effect of, as it were, reading this novel through the prism of Jane Austen’s teasing.

I might also add that while I believe that Miss Austen read Miss Cuthbertson’s novels, Miss Cuthbertson apparently did not return the favour; or at least, she couldn’t have read Emma. I refuse to believe that if she had done so, she could possibly go on to write a novel wherein all the married people are referred to as cara sposa / caro sposo – and with a straight face:

“…which, I trust, may prove a happy one,” said Lady Derville; “and that Mrs. Dolittle will, by the safe convoy of your treasure home, restore you to yourself; as I very much wish my old cheerful friend, Mrs. O’Dowd, and her gallant caro sposo, to give me the pleasure of their company this day at dinner…”

“…my head was so empty of mundane knowledge, that, had you managed me, instead of turning me out of doors, I would have flown with you from the aforesaid Myrtle’s Town to the land of uncontrolled marriage. So, rely upon it, child, it was all your own romantic sentimentalities, that alone prevented your being now my cara sposa…”

“You could not have a better counsellor than my sposa,” said Lord Flowerdew; “adopt her plans, and the pelf will fly. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, liberate the debtor from prison, visit the sick, comfort old age, and provide refuge for the destitute for that is the way my cara spends her sposo’s money in the country…”

Unbelievable.

Now…although through reading Rosabella I became convinced in my own mind that I was on the right track here, I might have kept all this to myself if it were not for one final touch – not the last straw so much as the cherry on the sundae. I’ve gone on trying to dig up some biographical information about Catherine Cuthbertson, although with no success. However, it did occur to me that while I call her, and was searching for her, under the name “Catherine”, her contemporary readers tended to refer to her as “Kitty”. And it was when I was searching for “Kitty Cuthbertson” that I came across this, in an essay by Martin Steinmann Jr, one of the editors of the book From Jane Austen To Joseph Conrad:

There was only one novel-reading public, and every novelist had this public in mind. Today the publics of Dr Cronin and Joyce are quite discrete (how odd it would be to find that Kingsley Amis reads Faith Baldwin, as Jane Austen did Kitty Cuthbertson, with pleasure)…

My friends…I could not even BEGIN to tell you how utterly full of myself I felt, when I came across that passage.

Mind you, that remark of Steinmann’s comes completely unsupported; no source is given for his assertion. However, its very matter-of-factness gives me confidence in its accuracy. I’m guessing that Miss Cuthbertson is discussed somewhere within Jane’s letters, which shame on me, I’ve never read. Does anyone out there know for certain?

13/02/2011

The art of the run-on sentence, Part Deux

While it is true that 19th-century novelists can’t really compete with their 17th- and 18th-century forebears in this respect, just occasionally you hit a passage that reminds you that even as late as 150 years after it reached its pinnacle, the art of the run-on sentence wasn’t entirely dead.

This is the opening sentence of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Rosabella, which in the novel’s original format ran for over a page:

It was in such a night as treason might conceive formed for its sanguinary projects, that many deluded individuals of a maritime province in Ireland stole from their straw-roofed cabins, and in the gloom of impenetrable darkness descended with cautious steps the craggy rocks to the seashore; there to meet the subtle agents of sedition, who had, with all the wiles of interested management, too successfully sown the noxious seeds of disaffection in the bosoms of the credulous, the ignorant, the idle, and the bigoted; leading them hoodwinked not only from their allegiance to the existing government, but into the commission of crimes hostile to their eternal welfare.”

A mere 108 words, I’m afraid; hardly up to the monstrous efforts of the late 17th century; but it made me smile.

12/02/2011

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage

      “…And although in cruelty we are compelled to leave you, without explanations of the fatal cause that thus severs you from your great prospect of every mortal felicity, yet be assured it would be yet greater cruelty to reveal to you the source of separation, that blasts your lover’s hopes of happiness, I fear, for ever.”
      “Oh, Sir,” softly murmured out the tortured Rosabella, in a tone of pathos that thrilled through the seat of pity in his bosom, “answer me but one question;—yet answer it, I conjure you!—Is he—or is he not my brother?”

Published in five volumes in 1817, Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage was the fifth of Catherine Cuthbertson‘s seven novels. It opens in Ireland in 1814, where agents provocateurs are trying to rouse the local population to violent revolt against their landlords, the Earl of Montalbert and the Dowager Countess of Derville. Their plans to assassinate the nobles are thwarted, however, by the sudden appearance of Lord Montalbert himself, who daringly confronts the mob, demanding to know their grievances. Against himself the would-be assassins can say little; but their sufferings at the hands of Lady Derville’s agent are genuine enough. The gathering is finally broken up by the arrival of the startling news of the abdication of Napoleon, and the entry of the Allies into Paris.

Lady Derville has indeed left the management of the estate of Ravenswood to an unscrupulous agent, while the whole of her attention is focused upon her three orphaned grandchildren, Lord Derville, Charles Monson and the Lady Meliora Monson. The other members of the household are the Reverend Thourby Sternham, a middle-aged cleric who is Lady Derville’s advisor and her grandchildren’s tutor, and a girl called Rosabella Frederick, who has been raised with the others and acts as companion to Lady Derville and Lady Meliora.

Many years earlier, while visiting a small, seaside village on the west coast of Ireland for the benefit of the young Lord Derville’s health, the children formed a friendship with a lovely little girl who lived at the inn where they were staying, but who was clearly not the ladylady’s own child. The landlady, Mrs Cormack, was brought to reveal the strange history of Rosabella. Some time before, while in better circumstances and operating a far more successful inn, Mrs Cormack had received two visitors: a man, a wealthy foreigner of threatening aspect and a violent temper, and his unhappy wife, an Englishwoman. With them was a maidservant, who carried in her arms a beautiful baby, at the mere sight of which the husband became enraged.

From the servant, Antonia, Mrs Cormack learned that the baby was the child of the lady’s first marriage. Having been left destitute by the death of her soldier-husband in battle, and with two small children to care for, she had compelled herself to marry the Spanish nobleman who was passionately in love with her. She had not reckoned with the violent jealousy of her new husband, however, who upon catching her crying over a cameo of her lost love, tore her oldest child, a boy, from her and sent him away to be raised by paternal relatives. With respect to the baby, Rosabella, history was brutally repeated: after the couple had left the inn, Antonia abruptly reappeared, leaving there the baby, some money, and a few papers, including a letter addressed to someone called “Frederick”.

Fascinated by this story and charmed by the beautiful toddler, Lady Derville persuaded the landlady to give the child into her care, to be raised with her grandchildren. She had little cause to repent her impulse as Rosabella – dubbed “Miss Frederick” for want of a surname – grew to be sweet-tempered, hard-working and deeply attached to her benefactress.

Their father having gone to ruin and dissipation before his early death, Lady Derville has taken the extreme step of raising her grandchildren away from society and in almost total seclusion, thwarting equally their desire for amusement and Charles’s ambition for the army. However, as the children grew older, Lady Derville began to fear that Lord Derville or Charles might fall in love with Rosabella, an arrangement that did not in the least suit the Countess’s pride, in spite of her real affection for the girl. It became, therefore, Lady Derville’s constant occupation to instill in all four children a firm belief in Rosabella’s natural inferiority. Accepting this, and accepting also that she might one day need to earn her own living, Rosabella alone of the children studied diligently under Mr Sternham and acquired a thorough education.

Lady Derville need not have worried. Their isolation, and their grandmother’s mistaken efforts to inculcate them with the distance between themselves and Rosabella, has the effect of encouraging in each of the other three a dominant and negative passion. In Lord Derville, it is his avarice, which makes him dream of wealthy heiresses, and will not allow him to consider the penniless Rosabella as a wife. As for Charles, his all-consuming pride makes her lack of identity and uncertain status offensive. Nevertheless, both young men feel a genuine affection for the girl, as does Meliora, whose sisterly love for her companion remains steadfast as long as she is able to believe what she had always been told about her own incomparable beauty, and Rosabella’s complete inferiority…

However, to Lady Derville’s frightened eyes there are signs that the young Charles, in particular, is beginning to feel more than brotherly affection for his fair companion. Her response is to send Rosabella away for a period of residence in the household of Lady Anne Belmont, who lives with her brother, a bishop. Although this manoeuvre achieves Lady Derville’s purpose in the short-term, when Rosabella returns to Ravenswood upon the death of the bishop, the dismayed Countess finds that under the influence of Lady Anne, she has grown into a beautiful and accomplished young woman.

The siblings keep up a clamour to be allowed to go into society, but the most they succeed in wringing from their grandmother is a promise that they will make their debuts when there is peace in Europe; a promise she does not expect to have to keep. Consequently, the news of the Treaty of Fontainebleau and Napoleon’s exile to Elba leaves Lady Derville as appalled as it did the local rebels. Caught in her own trap, she agrees to a trip to London – although she has no intention of taking Rosabella along, and begins to look around for someone to leave her behind with.

As the preparations for their journey are being made, the young people are thrilled to learn that a grand celebration will be held locally to mark the declaration of peace, and that it will be attended by Lord Montalbert, who since his return home after being wounded in the war has lived in total isolation; a withdrawal ascribed by gossip not to a need to recover from his injuries, but to an unhappy love affair. To keep Rosabella from attending the fete, Lady Derville feigns an indisposition. Her grandchildren attend, however, and Meliora returns not only with news of Montalbert’s attendance, but a rapturous description of his charm and elegance, and of his obvious and instantaneous passion for herself – one which she has no doubt will result in a proposal of marriage at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile, Rosabella has been having a romantic adventure of her own. One of her duties is to dispense Lady Derville’s charity amongst her needier tenants. On her way to their poor cottages, she must climb over a rocky outcrop, an exercise that thanks to long years of practice holds no terrors for her. However, she finds herself under observation by a handsome stranger, who in his anxiety for her safety, slips and falls himself. Rosabella hurries to his aid, but her efforts to help are strangely interrupted by the abrupt intrusion of Mr Sternham, who in a fit of anger for which Rosabella cannot account, sends her home, threatening to tell Lady Derville that she has been making secret assignations if she argues with him.

It does not cross Rosabella’s mind that at the age of nearly sixty, the austere Sternham has fallen in love for the first time in his life – nor that this unexpected and unfamiliar passion will drive him to behaviour both frantic and dishonourable. Sternham’s impulse to intervene between Rosabella and the young stranger, who obviously admires her, leads him to tell Lady Derville that the stranger is a notorious fortune-hunter, and that he is probably looking for some means to make the acquaintance of Lady Meliora – and thus pretended a fall to scrape acquaintance with Rosabella.

Circumstances then conspire to increase Lady Derville’s fears that Charles is falling in love with Rosabella, and it is for more reason than one that she is thrilled when a letter unexpectedly arrives from Mrs Kilbride – the former Mrs Cormack – to tell Rosabella that the Spanish servant, Antonia, has reappeared; that she is desperately ill; and that she has begged for Rosabella to come to her, that she might clear her conscience by confession before dying. Rosabella sets out for the village of Myrtle’s Town, hoping to at last learn the truth of her identity. There she finds Antonia in a high fever and suffering fits, able to tell her only, and with difficulty, that her brother is alive and in the British army.

Rosabella undertakes the nursing of the dying woman, desperate to hear anything more that she might say. The local doctor, becoming worried about Rosabella’s own health, insists that she go for regular walks upon the beach. There, Rosabella is alarmed by the appearance of the stranger from Ravenswood – and confused to discover that he is in the company of the Reverend Mr Trench, a man of unimpeachable character whom she has long known by reputation. Vouching for his friend, Mr Trench introduces him to Rosabella as Mr Egremont.

Convinced that, for reasons she is unable to comprehend, Mr Sternham must have traduced the young man, Rosabella admits his acquaintance…and the two of them fall very deeply in love. Rosabella’s new happiness is, however, shattered by the death of Antonia, who reveals nothing more, and by the accidental loss of a small locked box which may have held the key to her identity. Regardless, Egremont declares his love for Rosabella and asks her to marry him. Overwhelmed by his generosity, Rosa holds him off, insisting that he must hear as much of the truth about her solitary and penniless state as she knows, before he commits himself.

And so she tells her story…and as she does so, Egremont becomes more and more overcome with emotion…until he flees from her in unconcealed horror…

Egremont’s reaction to her story implants an inescapable suspicion in Rosabella’s mind, and she steels herself to ask Mr Trench whether what she fears is true?—whether the man she loves is in fact her long-lost brother..? Mr Trench, almost as affected by her story as Egremont, tells her emphatically that this is not so; that Egremont is not her brother; but that who he is, may separate them forever no less surely…

And that’s not even a full summation of the FIRST VOLUME!!

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that could be more aptly described as a typical 19th-century sentimental novel as Rosabella. All the ingredients are there: the perfect heroine, the inordinate length, the convoluted plot, the array of characters who pop up volumes apart yet have to be remembered, the didacticism, the purple prose, the unreasonable behaviour, the weeping, fainting and collapsing at the slightest provocation, and perhaps above all the long arm of coincidence, which reaches into every single corner of this story and gives it a good hard shake.

How the individual reader will react to this novel will, I think, be determined by his or her levels of tolerance for these conventions; my own, I find, is quite high; your mileage may vary. Miss Cuthbertson also exhibits another stylistic quirk common to novelists of this era, an obsession with a particular word or phrase, which is used repeatedly throughout the text…and remember, we’re talking about something like 1800 pages here!

To be fair, this was a common phenomenon at the time. Readers of Frances Burney’s novels, for example, might recall how none of her characters ever just felt something: they were always penetrated; penetrated by sorrow, penetrated with gratitude… Similarly, one of Miss Cuthbertson’s particular words is “transcendent”: no-one is merely beautiful or handsome; they are always trancendently beautiful or handsome. This one isn’t so bad, although you do end up wishing she’d occasionally used a thesaurus. More problematic is “insulation”, which she uses to indicate Rosabella’s solitary condition. The usage is technically correct, but between the repetition and the other meaning of that term, all the sad references to “Rosabella’s state of insulation” do conjure up some amusing mental images; not quite what our author was striving for.

As for the weeping / fainting / collapsing, be warned, there is a LOT of it. Indeed, Miss Cuthbertson’s characters faint so often, she was forced to invent a scale of faints, to distinguish your ordinary, everyday faint from a really serious one—or as she calls it, a death-seeming swoon. There are at least three of those, while I lost count of the other kind.

And yes, it is Rosabella who does most of the weeping / fainting / collapsing, which if not unexpected is annoying, because there’s more to her than that: she’s also intelligent, has a sense of humour, and upon occasion can be sarcastic and satirical; we don’t see nearly enough of that side of her.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s no genuine entertainment value in Rosabella, along with the inadvertent stuff; I’m merely warning you about what you’ll have to wade through to get to it, if you dare venture in.

Although not particularly deep, Cuthbertson’s characterisations aren’t without merit, particularly in the delineation of the various idées fixes that drive the members of the Monson family, and lead then to acts of harshness, even cruelty, against the unfortunate Rosabella, who they should know, must know, would never do anything to hurt them, or even to thwart their most selfish desires. Of course, this being a didactic novel, each of the Monsons finally gets his or her comeuppance.

Thus, Lord Derville’s avarice lures him into the pursuit of a rather dodgy “heiress”; Charles’s unfounded confidence in his powers of judgement makes him the perfect target for a pair of con-artists; Meliora’s overweening vanity and ever-increasing hunger for flattery lead her into dubious and ultimately dangerous company; and Lady Derville finally discovers the truth about the penniless, possibly low-born girl she’s been moving heaven and earth to keep out of her family… Meanwhile, in the appalling Mr Sternham, the austere cleric suddenly and belatedly gripped by a passion for a lovely young girl, we have a character sketch that occasionally foreshadows Mr Casaubon…although without any of that gentleman’s complexity or pitiable self-delusion (or any of Eliot’s subtlety).

Also interesting is the story’s setting against a defined period in history: from the abdication of Napoleon in April, 1814,  to the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. The characters’ visit to London coincides with that of the Allied sovereigns, most notably King Frederick of Prussia, Czar Alexander and his sister, the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg, and Field Marshall Blucher; the Monsons’ mad dashing around trying to get a good look at these notables at their various public appearances (or, as it often turned out, rumoured public appearances) occupies much of the second volume. By the final volume, circumstances have moved the characters to Brussels. We are accustomed, I suppose, to thinking of Vanity Fair as “the” novelistic depiction of this time and place, and it is interesting to read a different account of the same events, from a very different perspective; one rendered quite poignant by the fact that Rosabella and the others have by now become closely associated with a number of soldiers who are engaged in the battle.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect of Cuthbertson’s novel is her exploitation of the disjunction between private knowledge and public perception. The Monsons, of course, know where they got Rosabella from; they don’t think twice about it. What they don’t realise is that it is generally assumed that Rosabella is the illegitimate daughter of the late Lord Derville, and thus the siblings’ half-sister. Of course, no-one talks about any of this, so the mistake is never corrected. The result, however, is that when Lady Derville begins manoeuvring to separate Charles and Rosabella, it is perceived as being for good and, indeed, necessary reasons – instead of being what it actually is, a case of pure snobbery. When Rosabella decides she must flee the Monsons and find a way to support herself, she turns for help to her friends, Lord and Lady Flowerdew, who assume her motive is her illicit passion for her half-brother – and help her to hide herself on that basis. When Charles, who is in trouble, tries to turn to Rosabella for help, he finds himself blocked at every turn by a conspiracy of silence, everyone believing they are doing the right thing by keeping “the lovers” apart…when in fact they are doing a great deal of harm…

Rosabella certainly isn’t a sensation novel in the later 19th century sense of the expression, but Cuthbertson manages any number of plot twists and revelations over the course of her story. While some of these are guessable, at other times she succeeds in cleverly leading the reader astray. From the summary above, you can see how it is hinted that Egremont is in fact Rosabella’s missing brother; but no sooner have we, like she, come to that conclusion than Cuthbertson has Mr Trench pull the rug out from under us by declaring, no, it isn’t that…it’s something even worse…a secret whose revelation doesn’t occur for another three-and-a-half volumes! (I’m pleased to be able to report that the explanation for Egremont’s appalled reaction to Rosabella’s story, when it eventually comes, is actually fairly reasonable.)

Simultaneously with this, another revelation is in the making, one where the reader is probably more likely to guess correctly: namely, that the elusive Lord Montalbert and the devoted Mr Egremont are one and the same person. (If you think I shouldn’t be giving away this particular surprise, don’t worry, there are plenty more where that came from!) As you might imagine, the discovery that Lady Meliora’s great conquest is in fact pursuing her humble, nameless companion goes over like a lead balloon with the Monsons, driving a wedge between Rosabella and her adoptive family and setting in train a sequence of events that will eventually reveal the true identity of many more characters than just Rosabella…

How can I best sum up Rosabella? Perhaps by saying that for all its faults, its extravagances, its coincidences and its absurdities, I devoured all five volumes of this novel in under four days. I had the Christmas / New Year week off work last year, and that’s how I spent it. I’m not going to insult Miss Cuthbertson by resorting to the “fast food” analogy here, but I will concede to the box of chocolates / bag of chips comparison: just one more chapter, just a few more pages…

This kind of novel is certainly not for every reader, but I imagine I’ve said enough – more than enough – to let you know whether it might be for you. As for myself, I find I am once again in complete sympathy with Thomas Macaulay and his degenerate literary taste, and deeply regretting that Catherine Cuthbertson only wrote seven novels (although the reflection that most of them are five volumes long does help). If the others are as ridiculously entertaining as this one, bring ’em on!

09/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 7)

“Some bills Philander left her, and was so plain with her, and open-hearted, he told her that he went indeed with Cesario, but it was in order to serve the King; that he was weary of their actions, and foresaw nothing but ruin would attend them; that he never repented him of any thing so much, as his being drawn in to that faction; in which he found himself so greatly involved, he could not retire with any credit…”

The concluding stages of The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia – and of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister – finds Aphra Behn returning to the roman à clef format of her first volume, in order to deal with the events of June and July, 1685. First, however, like Behn herself, we must consider the fate of Sylvia, deserted once again by Philander who has left her to join Cesario and the other rebels.

In the wake of Philander’s departure, he and she between them having used up the bulk of what they filched from Octavio, Sylvia is thrown back upon her only remaining support: Brilliard, still fixated upon her, still biding his time and waiting for the chance that has finally come. Here we get a perverse kind of inversion of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, as now it is Sylvia who tries to create a fantasy world where she is still the great lady, Brilliard still her servant, her tool –  and Brilliard who plays along for his own purposes.

His tactics finally yield the desired result. Alone and with her resources dwindling, Sylvia begins to rely on Brilliard more and more, taking him into her confidence and at length allowing him to become increasing familiar with her, until, “Sylvia no longer resisted, or if she did, it was very feebly, and with a sort of wish that he would pursue his boldness yet farther; which at last he did, from one degree of softness and gentle force to another, and made himself the happiest man in the world.” Sylvia suffers reaction, naturally, but Brilliard has learned how to manage her: “He redoubled his submission in so cunning a manner, that he soon brought her to a good humour; and after that, he used the kind authority of a husband whenever he had an opportunity, and found her not displeased at his services.”

At this point, it seems likely that we are to be witness to Sylvia’s downward spiral; her growing dependence upon Brilliard; her inability to survive without a man; her final, abject destruction. Then something extraordinary happens: Sylvia shakes off her funk and pulls herself together. She cannot indeed survive without a man – in the sense that they have the money she needs – but that’s not to say she must submit to their terms.

The remainder of Sylvia’s story finds her increasingly taking charge of her own life. First she detatches herself temporarily from Brilliard, dons her boy’s clothes, and sets out on adventures of her own. She encounters a Spanish nobleman, Don Alonzo, who is young, handsome and wealthy – and finds herself sharing a bed with him, still in her man’s disguise. She sets herself to win him, and succeeds so well that Alonzo, “…was not seen in Brussels for eight days and nights after.”

Behn’s choice of language here is remarkable. We hear how Sylvia, “…gained that evening a thousand conquests; but those were not the trophies she aimed at, it was Alonzo was the marked-out victim, that she destined for the sacrifice of love.” Conquest…trophies…victim…sacrifice… We’ve heard all this before, but in another context: this is the language of Philander, from the beginning of our story. And most significantly of all, we hear that Sylvia is dying for Alonzo…

In short, Sylvia has become Philander – but a more successful Philander – a Philander who, absorbing the lessons of her botched affair with Octavio, has learned to keep her eyes on the prize. At length we find her juggling four men at once – conducting her affair with Alonzo; from time to time seeing Philander who, smugly convinced she still loves him, gives her money when he can; keeping Brilliard (“…she knew she could make him her slave, her pimp, her anything…”) on a string; and most incredibly of all, taking money from the still besotted Octavio, under promises of reformation and a retired, decent life – and successfully keeping all four balls in the air at once.

It is impossible to read Sylvia’s story and not feel how it influenced Daniel Defoe; but whereas Defoe’s anti-heroines tell their tales from a late-life vantage point of reformation (however unconvincing), Behn saw no need to reform Sylvia. On the contrary: Sylvia’s “reward” at the end of her journey is the profitable ability to keep her emotions in check, and to use and discard other people to her own advantage; in short, to behave like a man. It is a peculiar and disturbing triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. In a world where it is destroy or be destroyed, we know that Sylvia will survive. Our last glimpse of her in the novel is her enforced departure from Brussels, Brilliard in her train and the wreck of Alonzo in her wake: “…of whom they made so considerable advantages, that in a short time they ruined the fortune of that young nobleman and became the talk of the town; insomuch that the Governor not permitting their stay there, she was forced to remove for new prey; and daily makes considerable conquests wherever she shows the charmer…”

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

The last thing I want here (or, I’m sure, you want) is to get lost in a lengthy retelling of the Monmouth Rebellion. So I’ll try to keep this brief, touching only upon the main points, and those moments where our old friend Lord Grey comes to prominence.

After years of vacillation and plots that came to nothing, Monmouth was finally brought to the point of rebellion by the combined efforts of Grey and Robert Ferguson, “the Plotter”. Ferguson was a former Presbyterian minister who was active in pamphleteering and conspiracy all the way through the years of the Exclusion Crisis and, like Grey and Monmouth, implicated in the Rye House Plot. It was Ferguson who drafted Monmouth’s “manifesto”, the document that spelled out the grounds upon which Monmouth rebelled against James, which instead of focusing upon “acceptable” grounds of rebellion such as defence of Protestantism, accused James of every crime imaginable, including murdering his brother. It was probably this document as much as the rebellion itself that sealed Monmouth’s fate.

Monouth and his army landed in Dorset, a Protestant stronghold, and at first many among the local population did flock to him enthusiastically; but an extended period of  fruitless marching and manoeuvring saw the spirits of most begin to evaporate. The failure of a planned simultaneous rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyle was a severe blow. Indeed, Monmouth was at this point willing to call the whole thing off, and tried to slip away from his forces. He might have done so had he not been dissuaded by a passionate speech from Lord Grey, who convinced him that, “To leave the army now would be an act so base that it would never be forgiven by the people.”

Grey, by necessity, had been put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry – an arrangement on which some historians place much of the blame for the failure of the rebellion. The cavalry was twice completely routed by James’s forces, once literally turning tail and fleeing the battle, leaving Monmouth and the infantry unsupported. While our view of Grey’s conduct is now inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the outcome of his story, whether this was really cowardice or incompetence, as is often asserted, or whether Grey simply wasn’t qualified for the job, it is impossible to say. Only the damage done to Monmouth’s cause is indisputable.

The Monmouth Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. Around a thousand men were killed, most of them Monmouth’s, but the leaders of the rebellion survived. Robert Ferguson got away and escaped to Holland, but both Grey and Monmouth were captured. The latter, who had fled the battlefield, was discovered hiding in a ditch disguised as a shepherd. As soon as Monmouth found himself in enemy hands, he went to pieces. Grey, however, remained calm and composed. Possibly he was one of those who are at their best when things are at their worst. Or, possibly, he knew something…

Brought before James, Monmouth literally grovelled, sobbing and pleading for his life, and throwing the blame onto everyone else. He was soon brought to understand he wasn’t facing his soft-hearted father any more: James was inflexible and vengeful even under normal circumstances, and these were not exactly normal circumstances. In his last extemity, Monmouth – defender of the Protestant faith – promised to convert to Catholicism if James would spare his life. James met him halfway – which is to say, he offered to facilitate Monmouth’s conversion. Knowing himself doomed, Monmouth managed to pull himself together. He was comparatively calm during his final moments, making neither the defiant speech James feared, nor the public apology James wanted. “I come to die, not to talk,” was all he said; final words variously reported as stoic or sullen.

Indeed, Monmouth’s last thoughts and last words were not of his ambitions, or his rebellion, but of his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who he had loved for many years, and whose personal fortune paid for most of Monmouth’s activities. At the last, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, begging him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, before submitting to his execution – which was, by the way, nightmarishly botched. Legend has it that James made sure the axe was blunt…

Aphra Behn’s account of the rebellion runs in parallel with the ongoing story of Philander and Sylvia throughout the third volume of her novel. She also introduces a new character, Count Tomaso, who is one of the prime movers in the rebellion…and in whom we may recognise the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, of course, died in 1683, two years before James’s succession, and so played no part in the real story of Monmouth’s rebellion. However, aside from his role during the Exclusion Crisis, Shaftesbury did spend the final year of his life trying to argue, provoke and cajole Monmouth into revolt against Charles, so Behn’s resurrection of him in her novel isn’t as gratuitous or as spiteful as it might at first appear. (In case anyone was in doubt about Tomaso’s identity, Behn makes use of a piece of embarrassing gossip about Shaftesbury that was popular with his enemies, and has Tomaso avoiding arrest by scrambling naked up onto the canopy of his mistress’s bed and hiding there.)

Shaftesbury, as we may recall, was one of the five ministers forced by Charles to sign the Treaty of Dover. Those five became subsequently known as “the Cabal”, a word constructed from the first initials of their names or titles (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, Lauderdale), with the acronym subsequently entering the vernacular with its current meaning of a secret gathering, or a sinister conspiracy. As with the word “philander”, it was Aphra Behn who popularised the term, via her repeated use of it in her novel to signify the underhanded nature of Cesario’s doings. Cesario and his followers do not  meet to discuss things, they “cabal”; they are “caballists”, who are always “caballing”. The word is used from time to time prior to this point, although always with connection with Cesario; but with the arrival in the story of Tomaso, its use in the novel becomes almost obsessive.

But Tomaso is only a supporting character in Behn’s account of the events of 1685. Her focus is upon Monmouth / Cesario, who she turns into a figure of ridicule, entirely under the control of Robert Ferguson / Fergusano and Lady Henrietta / Hermione, the latter of whom dreams of being queen of “France”. Monmouth was known to be deeply superstitious; when he was caught, he was carrying a notebook full of supposed charms for warding off death in battle and opening prison doors. What’s more, Monmouth’s devotion to his Henrietta, a woman condemned in her day for being “old and ugly” (that is, she was twenty-five and no beauty), was often attributed to his being literally bewitched. The gold toothpick-case, given by Henrietta to Monmouth and which occupied the last thoughts of his life, was supposed to hold the charm by which she controlled him.

Behn, of course, has a field day with all this. Playing on Monmouth’s apparent belief in magic, she casts Robert Ferguson as a literal magician, a master of the dark arts, whose hold over Cesario rests largely on his mysterious powers; as if Monmouth’s rebellion against James could only be explained in terms of black magic. She also makes much of the toothpick-case, having Hermione keep in it a love-philtre received from Fergusano to use against Cesario. Cesario himself emerges as a fool, a buffoon, a puppet – until the moment of his death, when Behn backs off. She doesn’t reference the horrors of Monmouth’s execution, but neither does she ridicule him further; she allows Cesario to die with dignity, even to be mourned. She retreats even further when describing the fate of “Hermione”. Henrietta Wentworth herself died not long after Monmouth. Most commentators greeted the event with sneers and bad jokes; Behn, almost alone, is quite kind with her memory. Perhaps she was startled, even awed, to find that someone actually could “die of love”.

And where, in all this, is Philander? Not where you might expect. Lord Grey’s conduct during the rebellion and afterwards remains a matter for debate. I myself turned for guidance on this point to my dear friend Thomas Macaulay – who I find I prefer as a literary critic than as an historian; the political bias is just a bit too obvious. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, spends much of his detailed and otherwise very interesting account of the rebellion making excuses for Grey.

And oddly, by the end of her novel, Aphra Behn is also making excuses for “Philander”. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. But while Macaulay defended Grey as a Whig, Behn did so for quite opposite reasons. In her view, the rebellion was so entirely wrong and immoral that to desert it for any reason, at any time and under any circumstances, was the right thing to do – even if it meant behaving in a way that by normal standards was disgraceful and cowardly.

As the likelihood of open rebellion grows, so do Philander’s doubts. He confesses to Sylvia his fervent wish he’d never gotten involved, or that he could see a way out. He even speaks publicly against the venture, much to Cesario’s displeasure, and although he finally takes his place on the battlefield, his reluctance is apparent:

“Some Authors in the relation of this Battle affirm, That Philander quitted his Post as soon as the Charge was given, and sheer’d off from that Wing he commanded… He disliked the Cause, disapproved of all their Pretensions, and look’d upon the whole Affair and Proceedings to be most unjust and ungenerous; And all the fault his greatest Enemies could charge him with, was, That he did not deal so gratefully with a Prince that loved him and trusted him…”

Behn’s own discomfort here is evident, even as she tries to whitewash Philander; note the involuntary flicker of sympathy for Cesario, otherwise her whipping-boy. She does succeed somewhat in painting the impossible position of a man who no longer believes in his own cause. The problem is, we know Philander never did believe in the cause; that he was out for himself from the start, using Cesario, whom he despised, to further his own ends. Consequently, his belated moral qualms provoke, not understanding, but a curl of the lip.

In reality, debate about Lord Grey has centred on whether he was incompetent, or a coward – or whether, as Behn almost unconsciously (or even unavoidably) suggests, he was in fact a Quisling within Monmouth’s ranks all along. Whatever the truth, in the end Lord Grey did what Lord Grey always did: he found a way to wriggle out of a tight situation.

Brought before James, Grey was composed. In the wake of Monmouth’s embarrassing self-debasement, his behaviour probably looked more heroic than it was. However, nothing he did from that point on can be remotely classified as “heroic”.

First, he penned a long, rambling, self-exculpatory confession, throwing all the blame of the rebellion onto Ferguson and Shaftesbury, playing down his own influence over Monmouth as much as possible, and painting himself as a poor, lonely, friendless exile from England, who in his desperation fell into bad company, and was led into bad ways. (Not surprisingly, the reason Grey was an exile in the first place isn’t mentioned – and nor, for that matter, is Henrietta Berkeley.) Second, he ratted out his friends, providing voluntary testimony against many others captured after Sedgemoor, many of whom were condemned and executed. And last – yet hardly, one imagines, least – he paid a “fine” of forty thousand pounds into the always ravenous royal coffers.

And on the strength of these three gestures, while others only a fraction as guilty as he, men and women, aristocrat and commoner, were being sentenced to death, Lord Grey was forgiven; and not just forgiven, but eventually welcomed back at court.

There is a limit to everything – even to Aphra Behn’s inclination to make excuses for a man swearing new loyalty to James. When Behn picked up her pen in 1684 to begin what would eventually become Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, not in her very wildest imaginings could she have invented a conclusion to her story such as reality provided. Nevertheless, being given such an opportunity, she made the most of it. This most improbable denouement to a most improbable sequence of events allowed Aphra Behn to write one of English literature’s great closing paragraphs, an ending to her story none the less viciously satirical for being absolutely true:

“Philander lay sometime in the Bastille, visited by all the Persons of great Quality about the Court; he behaved himself very Gallantly all the way he came, after his being taken, and to the last Minute of his Imprisonment; and was at last pardon’d, kiss’d the King’s Hand, and came to Court in as much Splendour as ever, being very well understood by all good Men.”

After a decade of persistent and increasing ill-health, Aphra Behn died at the age of forty-nine on the 16th of April, 1689 – five days after the coronation of William and Mary. Although we must mourn her loss at such a relatively young age, it does seem somehow fitting that this woman so distinctly, so uniquely of the Restoration should not have outlived the age that created her. Then, too, perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t live to see the “real” end to her novel.

In June of 1688, a group of English noblemen, subsequently dubbed “the Immortal Seven”, sent a formal invitation to William of Orange, requesting his intervention in the English succession: the initial plan was to force James to disinherit his new-born son in favour of his daughter, Mary, William’s wife. It was November when William landed with his army, but his plans to do so had been known for at least two months, forcing not only James to decide upon a course of action, but also the dwindling numbers of statesmen who still publicly supported him – like Lord Grey.

It will come, I am sure, as no great surprise to anyone who has followed this story so far to hear that Grey’s choice was to betray the king to whom he owed his life, and to whom he swore oaths of fidelity after being received at court. His first thought as always his own skin, he abandoned James for William at the first opportunity.

And, sad to say, Grey did not merely survive under William: he thrived. Becoming a fixture at court, he was made Privy Councillor in 1695, the same year he was created Viscount Glendale and Earl of Tankerville. He subsequently served as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal and (in perhaps the sickest irony of all) Lord Justice of the Realm. The successful statesman died in 1701…remaining to the end, no doubt, well understood by all good men.

06/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 6)

“Thus he flatters and she believes, because she has a mind to believe; and thus by degrees he softens the listening Sylvia; swears his faith with sighs, and confirms it with his tears, which bedewed her fair bosom, as they fell from his bright dissembling eyes; and yet so well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so: and such effects it wrought on Sylvia, that in spite of all her honour and vows engaged to Octavio, and horrid protestations never to receive again the fugitive to her arms, she suffers all he asks, gives herself up again to love, and is a second time undone…”

So where was Aphra Behn between 1685 and 1687? Writing, of course. It was quite a good time to be a Tory writer, the very events that had so shaken the country opening up fertile ground for the monarchists. Behn had done her Tory duty early in 1685, producing an elegy for the departed Charles, and another for the widowed Catherine (who did a bunk back to Portugal as soon as she could organise it – and who can blame her?); although neither of these can hold a candle to the 800 line “pindarick” she wrote to celebrate the coronation of James. Around the same time, Roger L’Estrange received a knighthood and returned to his old position of Licensor Of The Press, John Dryden was confirmed as Poet Laureate – and Thomas Shadwell was blacklisted.

But for the most part the theatre was still stagnant; it was not until towards the end of his reign that James, all too late, began commissioning plays in the hope of using them to win some public support. Aphra Behn would not get another play produced until 1687, when both The Luckey Chance and The Emperor Of The Moon brought her dramatic success; the last of her lifetime. Also during 1687, Behn published the third part of her first venture into fiction as The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia. This is easily the longest of the three volumes, which may in part account for the delay in its appearance. It also finds Behn using a third different form of prose writing in as many volumes. While a few letters are interpolated, this work is worlds away from the epistolary style of the first, or even the “half-and-half” approach of the second, and presents as what we would now view as a conventional piece of third-person narration; although the narrator does make personal comments and additions from time to time, as we shall see.

This third volume is, I imagine, by far the most difficult for most modern readers to absorb. It consists of two overlapping yet distinct stories, the second being Behn’s account of the Monmouth Rebellion of June, 1685, in which her old friend Lord Grey suddenly reappeared on the public stage. It may even be that Behn had begun her third volume before that, then had to scrap it and start over when reality suddenly intervened. From the reader’s point of view, the difficulty here is that Behn not only describes the rebellion and its aftermath, but includes any amount of insulting minutiae about the Duke of Monmouth which, while it would have been perfectly familiar to a contemporary audience swamped by accounts of Monmouth’s life and death, means very little to the reader of today.

First, however, we rejoin our pairs of lovers. Sylvia has promised to marry Octavio (Brilliard notwithstanding) if he will take revenge on Philander for her, while Philander is still indulging in his dangerous affair with Calista, in spite of the growing suspicions of her husband, Clarineau, and Dormina, the servant set to spy upon her. Ironically, Clarineau’s way of showing his displeasure, namely, failing to visit Calista’s bed, which would have been more than welcome to her at any other time in their marriage, is now a matter of urgency: Calista is pregnant, but cannot bring about the encounter with her husband that she needs to cover her infidelity.

As her condition begins to show, Calista begs Philander to run away with her. This escapade finds Calista, too, in drag: a guise that brings out her (to Philander) strange resemblance to Octavio…and, perhaps, also makes clear the basis of her attraction for her lover:

“I own I never saw anything so beautiful all over, from head to foot: and viewing her thus, (carrying my lanthorn all about her) but more especially her face, her wondrous, charming face—(pardon me, if I say, what does but look like flattery)—I never saw anything more resembling my dear Octavio, than the lovely Calista. Your very feature, your very smile and air; so that, if possible, that increased my adoration and esteem for her…”

Remembering the fate of Clarineau’s first wife, both Philander and Calista carry weapons as they try to make their escape. They are caught by Clarineau, his nephew and his servants. As the latter engage Philander, Clarineau draws a poniard and stabs Calista, who fires her pistol at him, wounding him. Philander fights off the others, and manages to escape with the injured Calista. However, the two are soon caught and imprisoned – their jailers not realising Calista’s sex. She is terrified of being returned to Clarineau and his vengeance, while Philander knows that he himself will suffer nothing worse than a spell in prison and a fine for the cuckoldry. Calista having her jewels with her, Philander is able to pull his usual stunt – “The master of the prison was very civil and poor” – and Calista is allowed to escape, fleeing to Brussels and taking refuge in a convent where the Abbess is her aunt.

All this Philander recounts in a letter to Octavio, concluding with a request that Octavio write on his behalf to the magistrates of Cologne – sending to Sylvia at the same time another letter filled with the usual excuses. Having already broken his oath to Philander, Octavio shows her both. It doesn’t quite go as he expected. The outraged Sylvia insists upon travelling to Brussels, so that she can confront Calista – only to find herself so personally affected by Calista’s beauty (and, of course, by her resemblance to Octavio), that she almost finds it in herself to forgive her perfidious lover. Almost. On departing, Sylvia takes her revenge by giving to Calista the letter that Octavio gave to her; and Calista discovers that the man she believed loved her so honourably and tenderly has given a boastful, blow-by-blow account of their affair to another man…and that man her own brother. Sylvia, meanwhile, swears that she has cut Philander from her heart forever, and is entirely Octavio’s…

In her handling of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, and then again in the eventual reuniting of Sylvia and Philander, Aphra Behn displays a frank fascination with the masochistic potentiality of love – and an even greater one with the capacity of lovers for self-deception. Although we here a lot about “the brave, the generous, the amorous” Octavio, Behn’s language is belied by her action. Octavio’s obsession with Sylvia is an exercise in delusion and denial. To us, the onlookers, his passion for Sylvia is clearly a kind of physical addiction, a habit that he cannot kick, one that manifests as a total refusal to see reality.

When Brilliard hears of Sylvia’s promise to marry Octavio, he appeals to the local authorities, declaring himself her husband. Octavio is connected, however, and Brilliard’s attempt to claim his rights ends in failure. Although Octavio is at first horrified by Brilliard’s declaration, Sylvia manages to convince him that at the time she “married” Brilliard, he already had a wife and children, as she later discovered. At this time, Sylvia gives Octavio her own account of her relationship with Philander; and in an hilarious touch, Aphra Behn reveals that she and Sylvia were both readers of the London Gazette:

“…but all search, all hue-and-cries were vain; at last, they put me into the weekly Gazette, describing me to the very features of my face, my hair, my breast, my stature…”

The apparent barrier to their relationship removed, Octavio’s passion for Sylvia returns with redoubled force: “…he was given over to his wish of possessing of Sylvia, and could not live without her; he loved too much, and thought and considered too little…” Octavio renews his promises of marriage to Sylvia, and begins to lavish extravagant gifts upon her, his obsession with her growing uncontrollable…and in context, more than a little creepy.

Although his acquaintance with Sylvia begins when she is another man’s mistress, although he hears from both Philander and Sylvia the full truth of their relationship, Octavio insists upon courting Sylvia as if she were still the innocent girl she once was – not out of generosity, or kindness, or tact, but because this is the only way he can justify himself to himself. Sylvia is entranced by the fantasy world Octavio creates for them, which allows her to pretend that she has regained the position in life that she threw away for Philander, and intoxicated by her sense of power; she eagerly plays the part Octavio has tacitly written for her. When their mutual role-playing game ends, inevitably, in sex, Sylvia reacts not as an experienced woman, but like a ruined girl: “At first he found her weeping in his arms, raving on what she had inconsiderately done, and with her soft reproaches chiding her ravished lover…”

And perhaps here I should mention that while she lies in Octavio’s arms, weeping for an honour and a virginity long since departed, as Octavio swears to repair the great wrong he has done to her by making her his wife…Sylvia is at least five month’s pregnant with Philander’s child.

One of the most difficult things for modern readers to come to terms with in the literature of this period is its attitude to pregnancy, which is generally treated as just an inconvenience, a nuisance, but nothing that should be allowed to interfere with the business of life. It is certainly never considered a reason why two people shouldn’t have an affair. (If anything, on the contrary: you know the old saying…) In this respect, Love Letters is entirely representative. Remember that Calista, too, is pregnant when she finds refuge in the convent. There, taking stock, she is overwhelmed with shame and remorse. When her child is born, she has it taken away, before giving up the world and becoming a nun. Meanwhile, Sylvia also bears her baby…which is never mentioned again. We are given no hint of its fate; it simply disappears; and except for one or two passing references to Sylvia getting her figure back, there is no indication that she was ever pregnant, or that she ever thinks about it again. Nor is the double father remotely interested in his children’s fates.

Several decades after this, Daniel Defoe would be using his anti-heroines’ attititude to their children as a yardstick of their characters; here, Sylvia’s pregnancy is nothing more than a measure of the depth of Octavio’s delusion. As his obsession grows, Octavio rains money and jewels upon Sylvia, and sets her up in a mansion, swearing that he will marry her, “As soon as Sylvia should be delivered from that part of Philander, of which she was possessed.” But before Octavio can make good on his promise, Philander reappears on the scene…

Released from prison, Philander travels to Brussels, to the convent, where he hears quite a few home-truths from the Abbess before the door is slammed in his face. This encounter reveals to Philander that Octavio has betrayed him to Sylvia; and here Aphra Behn gives us another glimpse of the ugly reality of her world; woman’s world. Behn offers excuses for women’s perfidy in love, arguing that the world as it is hardly allows women to be honest if they would (and note the revealing slip into the first person):

“Thus she spoke, without reminding that this most contemptible quality she herself was equally guilty of, though infinitely more excusable in her sex, there being a thousand little actions of their lives, liable to censure and reproach, which they would willingly excuse and colour over with little falsities; but in a man, whose most inconstant actions pass oftentimes for innocent gallantries, and to whom it is no infamy to own a thousand amours, but rather a glory to his fame and merit; I say, in him, (whom custom has favoured with an allowance to commit any vices and boast of it) it is not so brave.”

But as with Behn’s railing against “interested” marriage and the selling of young girls to old men, this denouncing of the double standard is a cry in the wilderness. Despite Philander’s breaking of his vows to his wife, his seduction of Sylvia, and his months of bald-faced lies to her as he seduces and ruins another woman, we are given to understand that the only crime committed against honour in all this is Octavio’s breaking of his promise to Philander, the betrayal of man by man; that in fact, it is Philander who is the injured party:

“…he no longer doubted, but that his confidante had betrayed him every way. He rails on false friendship, curses the Lady Abbess, himself, his fortune, and his birth; but finds it all in vain: nor was he so infinitely afflicted with the thought of the loss of Calista (because he had possessed her) as he was to find himself betrayed to her, and doubtless to Sylvia, by Octavio.”

Philander and Octavio will later fight a duel on this point; later still, Octavio will concede to Philander that he was the one who committed the real breach of honour. And it is Octavio, the obsessive lover Octavio, who will finally put Woman firmly in her place – unearthing the novel’s subtext again in the process:

“‘These vows cannot hinder me from conserving entirely that friendship in my heart, which your good qualities and beauties at first sight engaged there, and esteeming you more than perhaps I ought to do; the man whom I must yet own my rival, and the undoer of my sister’s honour. But oh—no more of that; a friend is above a sister, or a mistress.’ At this he hung down his eyes and sighed—“

But Octavio still has some distance to travel before he can set aside his passion for Sylvia and become “a real man” – a man’s man, as it were. Although she has, to all appearances, got Octavio exactly where she wants him – has the prospect of a life so far beyond what she might expect in her circumstances as to almost boggle the mind – Sylvia is finally, fatally, betrayed by her vanity. Her absolute power over Octavio she credits to her own irresistible charm and beauty, not to Octavio’s consitutional blindness; and so abject is he in his devotion, she begins to take him just a little for granted…

Although Philander’s behaviour has killed her love for him, Sylvia realises that his betrayal of her, his finding another woman more beautiful, more desirable, than she, still rankles. She begins to toy with the notion of bringing him back to her feet, just to show that she can. As for Philander, Sylvia vanished from his thoughts the moment he set eyes on Calista; yet when he receives a letter from her declaring that she doesn’t want him any more, he instantly discovers that he wants her – and swears that he will have her again.

The resulting mutual exercise in emotionless manoeuvring and jockeying for the position of power evolves into a sick recapitulation of their original encounter – both of them falling back into their original roles without even recognising it (or as Behn puts it, “So well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so…”) – and ends, sure enough, in Sylvia’s bed…where Octavio finds them. And even this he forgives…but in a seemingly contradictory yet psychologically convincing touch, this for Sylvia is the final straw. She has demonstrated the limitlessness of her power over Octavio; he no longer holds any challenge for her. Instead, bundling up the jewels and money and other portables that he has given her, Sylvia elopes again with Philander.

What follows is one of this novel’s strangest passages – indeed, one of the strangest things Behn ever wrote – as Octavio, his eyes opened at long last, retreats from the world as his sister did, entering a monastery. Here, the narration suddenly switches to the first person, as we hear that, I myself went to this ceremony, having, in all the time I lived in Flanders, never been so curious to see any such thing…

The evolution of the narrative voice across these three volumes is intriguing, and a fairly clear indication that initially Behn intended to write only the first of the three. The letters that make up Part 1, as you may remember, were supposed to have been found in a closet after Philander and Sylvia left the house where they had been living together between the time of their original elopement and Philander’s arrest, escape and flight from France. Presumably, then, the writer of the first volume’s preface is not the same person who supplies the narrative voice for the later ones. This third part contains some interesting experimentation with narrative possibilities, as Behn shifts back-and-forth between third-person-omniscient and first-person-onlooker – sometimes within the same passage.

Although she was not, as I have said, at all religious, Aphra Behn had a life-long fascination with the external aspects of Catholicism, its rituals, its art, its exoticism, its public display…all the things, in other words, that good Protestants were supposed to despise. There are various bits of erotica through this third volume of Behn’s story, but perversely, nothing that matches the sensuality of her description of Octavio’s withdrawal from the world:

“For my part , I confess, I thought myself no longer on earth; and sure there is nothing gives an idea of real heaven, like a church all adorned with rare pictures, and the other ornaments of it, with whatever can charm the eyes; and music, and voices, to ravish the ear…But, for his face and eyes, I am not able to describe the charms that adorned them; no fancy, no imagination, can paint the beauties there: he looked indeed, as if he were made for heaven; no mortal ever had such grace… Ten thousand sighs, from all sides, were sent him, as he passed along, which, mixed with the soft music, made such a murmuring, as gentle breezes moving yielding boughs… All I could see around me, all I heard, was ravishing and heavenly; the scene of glory, and the dazzling altar… The Bishop turned and blessed him; and while an anthem was singing, Octavio, who was still kneeling, submitted his head to the hands of a Father, who, with a pair of scissors, cut off his delicate hair; at which a soft murmur of pity and grief filled the place…”

As for Philander and Sylvia, they’re in pretty much the state you’d expect of two people held together only by their equal determination not to be the one who is discarded:

“Philander, whose head was running on Calista, grudged every moment he was not about that affair, and grew as peevish as she; she recovers to new beauty, but he grows colder and colder by possession; love decayed, and ill humour increased: they grew uneasy on both sides, and not a day passed wherein they did not break into open and violent quarrels, upbraiding each other with those faults, which both wished that either would again commit, that they might be fairly rid of one another…”

And from this state of mutual torment they are at long last delivered by a summons to Philander from Cesario: the rebellion of the Huguenots against the king of France is finally to take place…

[Aww, I really thought this would be the last of it. Curse you, Aphra Behn, and your infinitely discussable novel! Just one more piece, that’s all, I swear…]