“…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!