Archive for March, 2011

28/03/2011

Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger

“An ominous silence presently struck the pitying Court, just before the fatal Sentence was pronounced, whilst the Royal Eromena strove to stifle her Tears with her Passion; it was then that the unseen Engine of mysterious Love first mov’d within her; ’twas first infused in the Embrio, which soon form’d a divine Idea subsisting in the highest sphear of harmonious Nature.”

William Chamberlayne was a minor literary figure whose career ran across those of the two Charleses. He was a passionate monarchist devoted to the doomed cause of Charles I, for whom he fought during the Civil War, while his later poetry was written to celebrate the Restoration. Chamberlayne’s best-known surviving works are Love’s Victory, a royalist drama; England’s Jubilee, a panegyric written upon the coronation of Charles II; and Pharonnida, an epic poem. Chamberlayne’s work was well-received in its day, but the man himself was not. Despite his impeccable Royalist credentials, his comparatively lowly birth and training as a physician saw him excluded from the literary circles of the Restoration.

Opinions about Chamberlayne’s writing vary wildly – particularly with respect to Pharinnida. While close analysis has demonstrated that this epic was a direct influence upon both Keats and Byron, in academic circles its reputation has withered and died over time. Gerard Langbaine, the 17th century biographer and critic, called Chamberlayne, “A poet, and little less than a great one”, and praised Pharinnida in terms of its, “…pleasure of image and phrase and musical accompaniment of sound.” By the beginning of the 20th century, however, we find George Saintsbury, in his Minor Poets Of The Caroline Period, stating flatly that, “… it has nothing to recommend it”; while in his introduction to a 1914 edition of Love’s Victory, Charles Meschter says (no less dismissively, but considerably less flatly), “Verily, a pretentious monument of ambition is Chamberlaine’s epic, Pharonnida…”

Whatever its artistic merits, or lack thereof – which I have no intention of trying to determine myself, for reasons which will shortly be obvious – there are three remarkable things about the writing of Pharinnida. First, it is epic indeed: some 13,000 lines in length spread across five books, each divided into five cantos. Second, its creation stretched right across the Civil War and the the Interregnum, with the first two books composed in 1644 and the other three in 1659, when the work was also published.

And third, which finally brings us to the point of this post – which, yes, does have a point – in 1683, Pharinnida was novelised as Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger. This work was published anonymously, and since for many years William Chamberlayne’s death was misrecorded as occurring in 1679, its origin was something of a mystery. However, it has since been determined that Chamberlayne in fact died in 1689, and there is good reason to believe that he was personally responsible for this reworking of his epic.

Giving us a clear taste of what is to come, Eromena opens with a 123-word run-on sentence that manages to combine two of my very least favourite things: bad grammar, and hunting:

“When the Earth had long lain marbl’d up in Frosts, and grown weary of the white Livery of Nature, began to invest it self with the more pleasing Enamel of the verdent Spring; when a young Spartan Lord, attended with a noble and magnificent Train, had almost spent the Morning in the Chase of a stately Stag, which they had forc’d from the safer protection of the Forest, to the hazards and perils of a flow’ry plain, till driven by his clamorous persecutors to the horrid Ascent of a craggy Cliff; where, as it were grown proud to fall a Sacrifice, he sinks weeping, while the victorious shouts of his Hunters eccho the sad News of their Leader’s Death to the distant Herds.”

And having told us that our huntsmen are Spartan, Chamberlayne then has them stand on a cliff-top and watch a sea-battle between some Christians and some Turks. Hmm. Nor are we we any less confused when the Spartans react to the sight of the Christians in dire peril by praying to their God – that is, the Christian God – and He responds by sending a violent storm that sinks both ships and drowns nearly everyone involved. Hmm.

The few survivors struggle to shore and immediately resume their fight. There is only one Christian still standing, and the Spartan lord, Thersander, and his retinue intervene to kill off the remaining Turks and rescue Horatio – the “noble stranger” – and his wounded companion, Aphron. Thersander invites the two Christians to his palatial home, where for the first time Horatio hears of Eromena, princess of Sparta, A Lady that Nature only created for Man to wonder at.

During his residence with Thersander, Horatio frequents a lonely grove, where one day he is called upon to intervene in an attempted rape. One would-be rescuer, a young man called Menalcus, has already been killed by the rapist when Horatio arrives on the scene. He succeeds in rescuing the terrified Floridella, but her assailant escapes. Unbeknown to Horatio, he is Almanzor, the Captain of the Princess’s Guard; and so enraged is he that he returns to the city and accuses Horatio of killing Menalcus. Horatio is arrested on his word, and brought to the court for judgement.

While Almanzor’s lies force Eromena to condemn Horatio, Thersander pleads for him and gives her an excuse to delay the execution. During this time, Floridella hears of her rescuer’s plight and manages to work up the courage to come to court and tell Eromena what really happened. Almanzor is saved by his birth, but banished from Sparta; and Horatio is offered his old post of Captain of the Guard. Of course, the inevitable happens; but not only does Horatio’s comparatively lowly status forbid the lovers to think of one another, Eromena’s father arranges a marriage for her with a prince of Lacedaemonia – and Horatio is charged with the task of acting as the king’s envoy…

William Chamberlayne’s writing style in Eromena is an uncomfortable blending of purple prose and adjectival-heavy imagery, which I’m guessing was paraphrased or even lifted from Pharinnida, and flat linking passages that I imagine were originally composed for this work. The result is a tale that uses a great many words to say not much – which makes me wonder about the content of Pharinnida, although not strongly enough to actually go and read it. The thought that Chamberlayne has managed to pare his 5-book-long epic poem down to a mere 70-page pamphlet is fairly staggering, however.

If Eromena can be said to have a point, it is certainly the elaborate dream that presents itself to our heroine after the news of her arranged marriage is broken to her, which occupies no less than 12 of the novel’s 70 pages. This dream essentially sums up the experience of reading Eromena: although it goes through a dozen different phases, depicting all levels of life in Sparta and in the most elaborate (and occasionally impenetrable) language, the only part of it that matters is the very end:

“But now a second Flash of Lightning, attended with a wild Horror, presented the pale form of her Royal Father; which no sooner vanish’d, but a Troop of Ghosts seem’d to descend from the dark Prison of the cold grave, endeavoured to seize her, and bear her to the gloomy Confines of that sad abode; when just as she appear’d to sink, lo! a resplendent Cloud bow’d from the fair Arch of Heaven, which discovered the Noble Horatio clad in bright Armour, who immediately redeemed her from the threatening danger: which done, the horrid Darkness vanish’d, and the welcome Sun of glorious Comfort, display’d its beams, by whose Light she beholds a Throne somewhat resembling the former, but far more rich and stately, on which the good Genius’s (ministering Angels) plac’d her and her lov’d Horatio; in which extasie of Joy she awakes, and with a pleasing Rapture descants on the particulars of her Dream; the memory of which shall live so long within her thoughts, untill Fate fulfill those illegible Mysteries of the dark Predictions.”

176 words. Not that anyone’s counting. And, by the way, if this is supposed to be an example of an “illegible Mystery”, I wonder what you get if Fate is being obvious? A thirty-foot-high flashing neon sign, perhaps?

Anyway, Eromena understandably concludes that she and Horatio are destined to be together, however unlikely their union appears at that moment. Sure enough, when Horatio arrives in Lacedaemonia, he finds that its prince has suddenly been taken ill. Shortly afterwards, he dies; and you rather have to admire the pragmatism with which Horatio and Eromena regard the convenient exit of this completely inoffensive and, indeed, “noble” individual: “He saw now, That even Dreams likewise are from above, and that Fate intended some extraordinary Revolution to make him happy by the Death of his too potent and formidable Rival… This likewise was soon known to the Royal Princess, who was now altogether so much transported with Joy, as she was before with grief.”

Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem of Horatio’s inferior birth; but fortunately, the King of Sparta turns out to be not just a loving father but a closet democrat: he helpfully loads Horatio with honours to a degree that disguises his origins, and then consents to his daughter’s marriage: “…and as soon as ever the Tide of Business that he was then cumber’d with, was abated, he gave their Loves the wish’d for Exit; where we now leave them, the Wonder and Glory of the present, and the best Example for future Ages to imitate.”

Whatever it was as an epic poem, as prose Eromena is pretty bad; indeed, just about the worst I’ve read so far in this chronological wander through the novel’s early days. Some of the political pamphlets we’ve examined, particularly The Fugitive Statesman, share its shortcomings, but since they were written not just to entertain but primarily to push an unsubtle agenda, it’s not really surprising that they’re lacking in style. But Eromena, which is fiction for the sake of fiction, fails on its single level.

And that, to me, is the single most interesting thing about this short work: its failure. We’ve seen that Aphra Behn made a successful move from poetry and drama to prose, but clearly that was not a transition within everyone’s literary power. The ability to write prose, then, was becoming a recognisable talent, which not everyone possessed or could acquire. What’s more, the fact that we are able to make these sorts of judgements at all, to say that in the year 1683 there were good novels and bad novels, well-written novels and poorly-written novels, means that at that time “fiction”, as a genre, was beginning to separate itself from other forms of writing and to develop its own rules; in short, that the evolution of the novel was truly under way.

25/03/2011

The Abbey Of Clugny

The Marquis fairly trembled with anxiety, and was more at a loss than ever to conjecture what this meant. It was certainly him they were talking about. What strange mystery still hung over his head; he now reflected upon the kind reception he had met with from the Prince and Princess; the great precautions his uncle had taken before he brought him to the Castle; the Princess having called him her dear child that very afternoon, though she had excused herself immediately. In short, his mind was upon the rack…

In France, in 1770, a priest and his sister receive into their house two travellers, an Abbé and a young man suffering from a depression so profound that he is weak and ill as a consequence. Having arranged sleeping quarters for his charge, the Abbé tells his hosts the young man’s story, which will, as he concedes, be public knowledge within days.

Twenty-two years earlier, a baby was left at the cottage of an elderly village curate who lived near Brussels. Unprepared for such a charge, the curate willingly gave the child into the care of the local lord, the Baron Wielbourg, who was already caring for his own orphaned niece, Alphonsine de Cheylus, and who offered to give the boy a home. Subsequently, the child, dubbed Alexis, and Alphonsine were raised as the Baton’s own children. As a young man, Alexis wished to become a soldier, but the Baron, knowing that the mystery of his birth might prove a stigma, refused to allow this. Alexis’s disappointment was swiftly cured, however, when the Baron revealed himself to be fully aware of his love for Alphonsine, and hers for him, and gave his consent for their marriage, in spite of Alexis’s uncertain status.

However, the mutual joy of the young people was short-lived. Only a week away from the wedding, the Abbé de Mondevergue called upon the Baron with astonishing news: that Alexis was in truth the son of the wealthy and powerful Duke de Longueville, who as a baby was kidnapped by an enemy of the Duke’s as an act of revenge. The man responsible died recently in great distress, but first confessed his crime. The Abbé gives the Baron a letter from the Duke, stating his claim to the child, and revealing that the long-missing Marquis de St. Cernin might be recognised by a certain birthmark – which Alexis has.

The Baron is initially overwhemed by this revelation, but when he recovers his faculties, he finds himself puzzled by certain aspects of the case, as presented to him: the seeming lack of sufficient motive on the part of the supposed kidnapper, who left the Duke’s second son unmolested, and his failure to step forth even when the Duke promised both a large reward and a free pardon to anyone who could restore the child, although he was at the time suffering desperate poverty.

However, in spite of his misgivings, the Baron cannot doubt that his Alexis is the missing child. He breaks the news to the young man, who is anything but pleased – not least because the Baron now refuses to allow him to marry Alphonsine, insisting that he must discuss the matter with his real father, who may not consider the girl a fitting match for his heir. Moreover, the Baron refuses even to let Alexis see Alphonsine before he goes, believing that it would be easier for both not to take leave of one another. Alexis is thrown into the greatest distress by this, but is finally compelled to obey his erstwhile father. The new Marquis de St. Cernin takes a sad and reluctant leave of the Baron, and departs with the Abbé for Paris.

His reception by the Duke de Longueville does nothing sooth the young man’s feelings. His father welcomes him with little emotion, speaks of the Baron with what Alexis – now called Alphonso – considers insufficient gratitude, and shows no particular desire for his son’s company. The final blow comes when, as the Baron anticipated, the Duke rejects Alphonsine as a potential daughter-in-law, beginning to plan a magnificent marriage for his heir.

The Marquis’s only consolation in his new situation is that he is permitted the military career he desired; and between his new duties and the unfamiliar dissipations of Paris, he tries to forget his troubles; but Alphonsine is never far from his thoughts. Relief comes, however, with arrival in Paris of the Marechal de Mercoeur, Alphonso’s maternal great-uncle, just returned from an embassy to Spain. Although, the Duke’s second son having recently died, the late Duchess’s huge fortune would have reverted to her uncle had Alphonso not been found, the Marechal is sincerely delighted to meet his great-nephew. That there is bad blood between the Duke and the Marechal is evident; but so powerful and influential a figure is the Marechal that the Duke can hardly object when he offers to take Alphonso under his wing.

Travelling in his uncle’s company, the Marquis finds the affection so lacking in his relationship with his father. He seizes an opportunity to visit the Baron Wielbourg, who greets him as warmly as ever, but reveals that Alphonsine is not at the Castle. He says no more, but from the sympathetic housekeeper the Marquis learns that the girl pleaded with her uncle to be allowed to enter a convent. This was refused, but the Baron did agree to a visit to Alphonsine’s paternal aunt in Arras, in the hope that this change of scenery would help to stop her dwelling upon her lost love. The Marquis sets out for Arras, but there learns from the Countess  de Verneuil that while Alphonsine was expected, she never arrived. The Marquis can only conclude that Alphonsine has managed to slip away and find a covent willing to receive her.

The Marechal invites his nephew to accompany him upon a visit to some old and dear friends of his, the Prince and Princess de Montalban, who live in an ancient castle in a remote and beautiful corner of Burgandy. On the journey, the Marechal tells Alphonso that his friends have suffered great tragedy in their lives, the deaths of two of their sons and the inexplicable disappearance of the third, and for this reason have retired from the world to their distant estate. At the castle, Alphonso is not merely welcomed, but almost overwhelmed by the reception given him by his hosts.

Overlooking the beautiful grounds of the de Montalbans’ estate is the Abbey of Clugny, a convent of the Order of St. Claire. In conversation, the Marquis learns of a beautiful novitiate who has recently arrived at the convent, and the description of the girl inspires him with the hope that he has accidentally found the refuge of Alphonsine. However, before he can act on this belief, his thoughts are sent in an entirely different direction. Strolling in the grounds one night, the Marquis inadvertently overhears part of a conversation between the Marechal and his friends – the Prince and Princess pleading, the Marechal urging caution, his own name – which convinces him that the mystery of his birth and identity is very far from being solved…

[SPOILERS, ho!]

Published less than a year after Count St. Blancard, Mary Meeke’s second novel is a marked technical improvement over its predecessor. Although her plot is no less complicated – if anything, rather more so – Meeke is more in control of her material here. There is a sense of increased confidence about this work, as if the commercial and, to an extent, critical success of her first venture led her to sit down to the second in a less tentative frame of mind; and this shows itself, among other places, in Meeke no longing pretending to be merely a translator, but claiming authorship of both her novels on the title-page of her new work.

If it was true that Mary Meeke shaped her novels to the prevailing public taste, it seems that in writing The Abbey Of Clugny she was also listening carefully to her critics, and responding accordingly. In place of a world where everyone, it seems, is amusingly willing to commit a dastardly act on the slightest provocation, here we have a more credible scenario of a single, serious villain who is responsible for most of the story’s evil and/or venal acts, assisted in his schemes by one particular act of madness on the part of another individual (repented too late) and by various hired goons.

Instead of all the novel’s virtues being ascribed to the aristocracy, and all the wickedness to various lower-born individuals, both are distributed with a more impartial hand. The protagonists are less boringly perfect, motives are more mixed, and at some points Meeke treats her characters (particularly the bad ones) with a certain wry humour. Here, for example, we have the Duke de Longueville greeting Alphonso – in front of witnesses – upon his return from his first military assignment:

The Duke de Longueville was excessively affected by this meeting; at least he took out his handkerchief to conceal his tears or his face; for every actor has not the absolute command of his countenance…

(And as it happens, this humour is very welcome in the overall scheme of things. Unreasonable of me to complain, I know, but I was a tad disappointed to discover that this novel is less unintentionally funny than the earlier one…)

The Abbey Of Clugny, as we have seen, features another of Meeke’s Cinderella plots; although here she gives the wheel an extra spin by seeming to solve a large slice of her mystery at the outset, and then slowly revealing that she has done nothing of the kind; on the contrary. We are almost as confused as the unfortunate Alphonso when it becomes apparent that the Duke isn’t merely cold by nature, but genuinely indifferent to the long-lost son he has gone to so much effort to find.

As in Count St. Blancard, the mystery itself is ultimately less a matter of “what” or “who” than it is of “why” and “how”, but it certainly catches and holds the reader’s interest. The tangle of relationships, hatreds and greed behind which lurks the truth of our young protagonist’s identity requires considerable unravelling. And it is only in retrospect that we properly appreciate various touches scattered throughout the early sections of the novel – such as, amongst the numerous miseries endured by the Duke and Duchess de Longueville in the early years of their marriage, a passing reference to the dangerously premature birth of their first child after a fall suffered by the Duchess. We are quite some distance into the novel before it is made quite clear that – ahem – the baby wasn’t premature at all…

But not all of Mary Meeke’s authorial quirks have disappeared between novels. For one thing, her dramatis personae are no less amusingly drowning in titles, and we again struggle to keep identities and relationships clear, particularly when certain individuals not only inherit multiple titles, but simultaneously acquire military ones. For example, the Marechal is, at various points, also known as the Chevalier d’Ormonville and the Duke de Mercoeur; while our hapless protagonist ends up changing his name and title no less than three times over the course of the story.

(Apropos, I can’t help wondering whether it ever occurred to Meeke that in loading her characters with titles in late 18th-century France, she wasn’t exactly doing them a favour…)

The weakest part of the novel is that from which it takes its title; a title which I’m sure was mean to imply that this was a Gothic novel, which it certainly isn’t. I can only assume that William Lane told Mary Meeke that the Francophobe aspects of Count St. Blancard were appreciated by her readers, because what was merely a few slaps in passing in her first novel becomes a major subplot here.

Even here, though, Meeke improves her technique. Instead of the narrator throwing in unprovoked attacks on France and French institutions, Meeke uses the Baron Wielbourg, who is (I think) Flemish, to voice her various criticisms. The usual targets take the usual beating, as we shall see, but we also get variations upon the theme, for instance when the Baron launches into a well-argued attack upon the French (and not only French, of course) practice of basing military appointments upon birth rather than seniority, after Alexis / Alphonso is made a Colonel at the outset despite having no experience or even knowledge of warfare. And it is the Baron who expresses perhaps the novel’s most unexpected viewpoint; a refreshing change from the virtue-as-genetic stance of Count St. Blancard:

The Baron was not weak enough to attribute the noble sentiments Alexis had always displayed, to his exalted birth; a peasant’s son, who had been equally well-educated, might have acted, thought and expressed himself as he did…

But it is Catholicism that suffers the most, both explicitly and implicitly, as Meeke presents the standard English Protestant view of the French religion as hypocritical and corrupting, built upon the exploitation of the ignorant and the superstitious; and of convent life as a cowardly retreat from the world. Other than the Abbess of the Abbey of Clugny, who is at least a well-bred lady, the religious characters in this novel are a sorry bunch indeed. Here again the Baron is the novel’s mouthpiece, as we discover that when it comes to Catholicism, his opinions are something less than, well, catholic:

Baron Wielbourg had often told him religion was the foundation of all noble and generous actions, and that a truly good priest was a most respectable character; but real piety was very seldom to be found in convents; monks, in general, were a very despicable set of men, who disgraced the order they professed, by their numerous vices; for they were all, more or less, hypocrites, tho’ some would even triumph openly in violating every vow they had taken; and it was no uncommon thing to see friars in liquor.— Poverty and laziness were their only inducements to embrace a monastic life, except a few mistaken wretches, whose narrow minds had made them a prey to the grossest superstition and the most infatuated bigotry…

This is possibly a good time to remind everyone that Mary Meeke was the wife of an English minister. It may not only have been her prejudiced readers she was writing to please.

We learn that Alphonsine’s retreat to the cloister has been facilitated by a woman who believes that helping her to elude her family and enter a convent, and then lying about it, is a “holy” act. The Abbey itself, when Alexis / Alphonso arrives in Burgandy, is in a state of mourning for its late Abbess…if “mourning” is the right word. Typically, the Abbess was a thoroughly immoral woman, raised to her position not through piety, but family influence and bribery. Tradition dictates that the Abbess’s grave must be watched and prayed over for a full year, a duty that falls to nuns and novitiates alike, and one filled with terror for the young women, as the Abbess’s evil life and sudden death, without receiving the Sacraments, has led to stories of the convent being haunted…particularly when strange and inexplicable sounds begin to interrupt their grim nightly vigil…

This abrupt detour in a story that is otherwise grounded in reality (if not particularly “realistic”) is obviously Mary Meeke’s way of placating any reader who bought her novel purely on the strength of its title, and might have felt somewhat disappointed in its domestic settings. Her atmospheric account of the convent’s haunting could have been lifted wholesale out of an actual Gothic novel…as indeed could the rational explanation for it that she eventually provides.

However, while this sudden eruption of the apparently supernatural is not unwelcome in itself, the fact is that this subplot is allowed to run on to unnecessary and indeed tiresome length, particularly inasmuch as the same ground is gone over in detail twice (first the haunting, then a point-by-point explanation). But it is not difficult to understand this seeming blunder, which is one not at all uncommon in the era of the three-volume novel. Clearly, Mary Meeke ran out of material after two and a half volumes, and had to find a way of fulfilling her contractual obligations. The Abbey Of Clugny might be a considerable improvement over Count St. Blancard, but as a professional novelist, our author still had a lot to learn…

20/03/2011

Nope. I got nothin’…

And so (finally) to the next round of Reading Roulette. After a couple of mis-datings and an unavailable (a work by Isaac Crookenden, which turned out to be a chapbook), I landed upon Milistina: or, The Double Interest, an anonymous novel from 1797 of which I have never heard and about which I have been able to find out…absolutely nothing.

So where does that leave us?

  • Chronobibliography:  Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger by William Chamberlayne (1683) (read but not reviewed)
  • Reading Roulette:  Milistina: or, The Double Interest by Anonymous (1797)
  • Authors In Depth:  The Abbey Of Clugny by Mary Meeke (1786) (read but not reviewed)
  • Reading Challenge:  Madame Margot: A Grotesque Legend Of Old Charleston by John Bennett (1921) (read but not reviewed)
  • Group Read:  The Law And The Lady by Wilkie Collins (1875) (read but not reviewed)

I’ll get back to you when the panic attack subsides.

19/03/2011

Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power

“It was better still for him, that when, from severe toll, depressed and morbid, he was inclined to forget the goods and magnify the ills of his position, he had Vivia with her divine alchemy to transmute his discontent to rejoicing, by convincing him that the inconveniences that disturbed, were also the blessings that saved him. Vivia was the sun of his world. And when her visible presence was not with him, her spirit still possessed, animated his soul, a living spring of inspiration.”

Published in 1857 and set chiefly in a remote corner of Maryland during an unspecified time in the 19th century, Vivia; or,The Secret Of Power opens with the birth of its heroine in Paris; an event that leaves her orphaned. Ten years later, Genevieve Laglorieuse – or Vivia, as she is generally known – travels from the convent school in Ireland where she has been raised to America in company with her uncle and guardian, the Abbe Francois. Their journey is the result of an urgent summons from the dying Colonel Malmaison of Maryland, who has been given reason to believe that Vivia may be the child of the son from whom he was bitterly estranged more than a decade earlier; although this the girl herself does not know.

As the travellers draw near their destination, the grand house known as Mount Storm, the Abbe falls ill and must stop to recover in a small village. Given the precarious state of the Colonel’s health and the short distance involved, Vivia sets out to complete the journey on foot, but is overtaken by a violent storm. She struggles on, and finds refuge in a convent, where her name and her story have a strange effect upon the young Abbess, Mother Agatha. Vivia is anxious to press on, but learns that her destination is across a dangerous river which cannot possibly be forded until the storm dies away. She spends the night at the convent, unknowingly watched over by Mother Agatha, for whom prayer brings little relief from the anguish in her heart…

Meanwhile, at Mount Storm, the dying Colonel Malmaison frets the few remaining hours of his life away, cursing the inflexibility that saw him cast out both a son and a daughter, and calling repeatedly for the expected child. The Colonel’s only companion in these dark hours is his daughter-in-law, Ada, the widow of his younger son; Ada, whose own son, Austin, is presently the Colonel’s sole heir; Ada, who has charge of the Colonel’s drugs…

The next day, one of the nuns, Sister Angela, takes Vivia to Mount Storm, where they learn of Colonel Malmaison’s death and present Ada with a letter written by the Abbe Francois to the Colonel – a letter which, having absorbed its contents, Ada promptly burns. After the Colonel’s funeral, Ada calls upon Mother Agatha, and a bitter scene ensues. The Abbess pleads for Ada to release her from a promise made many years before and allow her, not to speak to, but merely to see the Abbe Francois; but Ada is inexorable. As a result of their confrontation and the young Abbess’s unguarded exclamations, Ada suddenly realises that Mother Agatha is unaware of Vivia’s true identity. She explains smoothly that Vivia was summoned to Mount Storm to be given a home only in the character of her own orphaned niece; adding that as long as the Abbess abides by her promises, Vivia will be provided for. Mother Agatha has no choice but to acquiesce.

Having thus disposed of one-half of her difficulties, Ada visits the still invalid Abbe Francois, telling him regretfully that Colonel Malmaison died before being able to make provision for Vivia, but assuring him also that she will give the girl a home and, upon Austin attaining his majority and coming into his inheritance, see her properly established. The conversation then turns to the painful subject of the Colonel’s long-missing daughter, Eustacia. The Abbe begs for news, and Ada tells him that his worst fears are true: that Eustacia was last seen living a life of careless sin. In grave personal sorrow, but assured of Vivia’s security, the Abbe prepares to return to Ireland.

And Ada, having achieved her dual goals of disguising Vivia’s identity and preventing a meeting between Mother Agatha and the Abbe, returns to Mount Storm to begin her life as the great lady of the neighbourhood, leaving Vivia at the convent to complete her education.

As the years pass, Vivia forms friendships with the other children of the tiny community: the wealthy but ideallistic young Austin Malmaison; Helen and Basil Wildman, the selfish, careless scions of a once wealthy family brought to ruin by gambling and excess; Theodora Shelley, the shy, unwanted, orphaned niece of another of the valley’s prominent families, with her unexpected gift for art; and Wakefield Brunton, a mere boy carrying the burden of his desperately poor farming family, who dreams of an education and a life of the intellect. Together, these young people will face love, tragedy, hardship and triumph…

[MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on.]

Vivia is the first I have read of Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth‘s better than sixty novels, so I have no idea if its rather peculiar blending of intense religiosity and extreme melodrama is representative of her writing or not. It certainly manages never to be quite the book you expect it to be. For a considerable distance into its story, you would certainly be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a pure sensation novel; not only the incredible string of incidents and coincidences, but the extravagance of the language would support that classification. However, unexpectedly it is only halfway through the whole that the scheming, conscienceless Ada Malmaison is exposed as a multiple murderess, and the identities of the various characters revealed: Vivia as the true heiress of Mount Storm; Austin as the son of Eustacia Malmaison and Francois Laglorieuse, secretly married but then separated by Ada’s cruel manoeuvring, their child raised as Ada’s own after the mysterious (although ultimately not inexplicable) death of her husband.

But it is also from this point in the novel, and in spite of the sudden rush of confessions and revelations, and an accompanying eruption of violence, that E.D.E.N. Southworth’s true purpose begins to emerge, and we enter into an examination of the powers of religious faith, and the dangers inherent in its lack.

This is not to say, however, that following the readjustment of the positions of Vivia and Austin, the melodrama goes away. On the contrary. Austin and Theodora fall in love but, while they are separated for a time, Theodora falls victim to the parallel plotting of Helen Wildman, who wants Austin for herself, and her own family who, unaware of the greater prospects before their penniless niece, selfishly enter into a conspiracy with the merciless Helen. The defenceless Theodora is, finally, not merely tricked but drugged into submitting to marriage with the oblivious Basil Wildman. His own hopes shattered, Austin becomes easy prey for Helen; but built upon such shaky foundations, it is not long before their marriage begins to crumble. Meanwhile, Wakefield’s childhood dreams become reality when he achieves a worldwide literary success at his first venture with the pen, but his sudden, extreme celebrity puts the greatest of strains upon his character.

And through it all, only Vivia remains unwavering – although not untested…

How readers of this novel react to Vivia and her near-miraculous ability to influence, to uplift, to inspire will, I suspect, be a very individual thing. Personally, I found it slightly uncomfortable; although I don’t doubt for a moment Southworth’s sincerity in creating a character whose religious faith is so profound as to be almost mystical. Vivia herself is set within a larger consideration of faith generally and the right way of thinking and acting, and here, beyond the novel’s sensational surface, we find some issues worth pondering.

Although Southworth finally manages to contrive happy endings for her dual heroines, there is no suggestion in this novel – and this is true, I find, within the works of a number of female novelists of serious religious tendencies – that marriage is a woman’s only destiny, her only sphere. All people, Southworth contends, whether man or woman, must live in a way that is pleasing to God, and marriage is only one option for doing so.

On the basis of their steady faith, Southworth’s women (those of them that have faith) are able to call upon reserves of strength and endurance when required to do so. Unexpectedly, this is most clearly illustrated via the normally fragile and retiring Theodora, and her reaction to her shocking discovery of herself as Basil Wildman’s wife, and of her new position in the world. Up to this point in her life, Theodora has always had Vivia to rely upon in her troubles; but with Vivia and Austin away travelling, she now has no-one but herself to depend on; and not only does she find it within herself to forgive her relatives for their role in her unwanted marriage, but also brings herself to accept her situation and to take upon her own shoulders the running of the neglected Wildman farm, as well as the care of Basil’s dependent female relatives.

But while these various illustrations and implications of female strength and capacity are rather refreshing, it is disappointing that ultimately, the novel’s women are not allowed truly to carve out lives of their own, but rather are presented in a way that suggests that (married or not) a woman’s main duty in life, after her duty to God, is to inspire a man. Thus, the besotted and remorseful Basil reforms under the combined influence of Theodora’s gentle and forgiving character, her stoic example, and his own guilt, and accepts true responsibility for the first time in his life. Meanwhile, Theodora’s artistic gifts, while considerable, ultimately do more for others than for herself: she has an unconscious trick of “idealised” portraiture, showing people to themselves as they could be, and thus inspiring them to be so; and it is invariably men who are so inspired, most significantly Austin Malmaison, who in the wake of the disastrous end to his marriage has given himself up to sensual gratification and to a political career in which he has no real belief beyond the desirability of power.

As for Wakefield, his boyish adoration of Vivia has grown with him into a profound and enduring love; but in Vivia’s sorrowful but clear-sighted  judgement, Wakefield loves her too much. In doing so, he has lost sight of God – has made her his God. Wakefield lays his professional success at Vivia’s feet like a trophy; but having watched in silent disappointment as, mistakenly believing that greater fame will bring him closer to his goal and gradually succumbing to the hollow temptations of celebrity, Wakefield compromises his talents by writing for popularity alone, Vivia has no hesitation in rejecting him. It is an emotional lifetime later, after a journey through love and hate, loneliness and suffering; after regaining the courage to speak the truth in spite of scorn and rejection by a world that doesn’t want to hear it; and after learning to see past earthly love to the spiritual beyond, before Wakefield again allows himself to dream…

Vivia is, then, a rather odd piece of fiction: a sensation novel that sternly refuses to let itself be enjoyed simply on that level; or a religious novel filled with implausible plot twists, convoluted schemes, secret identities, and a surprisingly high body count; whichever way you prefer to look at it. It is, at the very least, never less than interesting and surprising; and it has inspired me with a desire to take a look at some of its creator’s other novels and discover whether this is a typical example or an aberration.

On that basis, I am tentatively moving Mrs Southworth over to “Authors In Depth” – recognising as I do so the extremely intimidating dimensions of the lady’s oeuvre, and retaining for myself the right to reclassify her right back again, should it turn out that Vivia is indeed entirely typical. As a one-off, it is entertaining; multiplied by sixty, however, I suspect I’d find it rather overpowering…

13/03/2011

Friend or Defoe?

“What makes Robinson Crusoe so monumental is the moment of hesitation – brief for some readers, longer for others – during which the horizon of expectations definitively shifted and adjustments were made that ultimately forced such ‘historical’ narratives to be read as works of fiction. Defoe’s importance to the history of the novel lies principally in the fact that his narratives were a key part of the process in the course of which readers created a new narrative category, eventually labeled ‘novel’.”

In History And The Early English Novel: Matters Of Fact From Bacon To Defoe, Robert Mayer contends that the novel as we know it evolved out of historical writing, and his study makes a case for Daniel Defoe as the critical figure in the development of the novel, based upon Defoe’s unique melding of history and fiction in those works which we now call his “novels” – but which were not generally recognised as novels at the time.

The first half of this book traces “the history of history”, the development of historical writing in England and the different forms in which it appeared before what we might now consider “proper” historical writing emerged, including history with a frank political or religious agenda, or history that was also autobiography, such as the Earl Of Clarendon’s History Of The Rebellion.

Although it covers a great deal of ground, Mayer’s main thrust here is his examination of how legendary or fantastic material, most notably the stories of King Arthur, was handled over the years by various categories of historians. He shows that even with a strong push towards factual and unbiased history, the old stories continued to be included and treated with respect. It was the attitude of the historian that changed, from one of declared belief to an acknowledgement that the stories were just stories. Many historians took the view that a respect for tradition demanded the inclusion of these tales; others recognised that a fabulous beginning was better than no beginning at all (harder-line historians tended to begin their work with the first Roman invasion); while others still, significantly, simply recognised that their readers liked stories.

The upshot of all of this, according to Mayer, is that the English people were not merely used to having, but happy to have, “fabulous” material included in their history; that they were accustomed to a little fiction mixed into their facts. And this, he contends, paved the way for the idiosyncratic writings of Daniel Defoe, who took the opposite tack of producing fictions that read like histories, and that challenged the reading public to categorise them correctly – and indeed, do so to this day.

Mayer uses Robinson Crusoe and The Journal Of The Plague Years as the basis of his argument, examing the puzzlement, the confusion and the outrage that greeted the former, and the way in which history and fiction are blended in the latter. Some of this we have glanced at before, courtesy of Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which Mayer references here, but which is considerably more critical of Defoe’s manoevrings than this study. Mayer makes a strong case, but a highly selective one; and the more I thought about his assertions the more I felt inclined to argue.

Mayer’s stance – and he uses the word repeatedly – is that Defoe’s writing is “revolutionary”; that it literally changed the landscape and determined the course of the development of the novel. There are, of course, quite a number of studies of the history of the novel that make a case for a single critical figure, an ur-figure, as Mayer puts it; and while I do not dispute the importance of Defoe or the uniqueness of his writing, my issue with this approach to literary history is that by definition it requires an accompanying argument as to why other writers are not important…and that’s where I start to get uncomfortable.

In fact, the main case that Mayer makes against Defoe’s “rivals” – and we are, of course, talking mainly about Aphra Behn, but also Eliza Haywood – is that their writings were not “revolutionary”; that readers were not confused and uncertain about them, as they were about the status of Defoe’s “histories”; that they didn’t change anything, or not immediately. This seems to me an odd sort of argument, but I suppose it is an unavoidable one once you start insisting upon a single writer, a single work, as responsible for the rise of the novel. In making this assertion, and dismissing Aphra Behn and her followers from the history of the novel, Mayer makes use of what seems to me some fairly specious arguments, which confuse the writings themselves with their changing public reception.

“The inescapable fact of the history of the English novel is that the so-called “novel of amorous intrigue” has been marginalized for two-and-a-half centuries, and no amount of criticism will change that.”

One immediate problem I have here is the snarkiness of that final clause. I would argue, on the contrary, that criticism has changed everything: that thanks to the hard work of some very determined academics, we have not only witnessed the rehabilitation of the personal and professional reputations of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, but seen, not just Behn and Haywood, but other writers like Delariviere Manley, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, among others, take their rightful places in the timeline of the novel’s development.

But if we’re only arguing the immediate effect of  the works in question, well, I feel inclined to dispute that point, too. Mayer seems to be suggesting here that the “marginalising” of certain writers meant that they could not be an influence upon the course of the development of the novel. If that is his contention, he’s rearranging the facts to suit himself. The marginalisation to which Mayer refers happened well subsequent to the original publication dates of the works in question, which were successful and popular to a degree that should not be underestimated. For example, Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister ran through something like eighteen editions between the time of its publication and the turn of the century, that is, better than one a year: hardly evidence of “marginalisation”. It was years, in some cases decades, before the writings of Behn and Haywood did fall out of favour, and then it was the result of shifting social mores, that is, a judgement made not upon the quality of the writing, but upon its content.

I also take issue with the implication that these writers wrote only “novels of amorous intrigue”. This may or may not be true of Eliza Haywood, or true of the first phase of her career – I haven’t examined her writing closely yet, so I can’t at the moment say – but you can hardly call Oroonoko a “novel of amorous intrigue”. Nor, in spite of its sex and manoeuvring, can Love Letters… possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a cheap thrill, as we have seen. What’s more, having now really sat and studied Behn’s first attempt at fiction, it seems to me Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana owe more than a little to the character of Sylvia, but there’s no consideration here of any such possible influence.

More importantly, however, at least to my mind, is the fact that if you dismiss Aphra Behn from the novel’s timeline, you lose along with her a proper understanding of the development of the epistolary novel, so dominant a form all the way through the 18th century, and so critical a factor in the emergence of true psychological writing. Here, too, Mayer strikes me as disingenuous: while arguing for Defoe’s creation of a new form of writing, he takes no notice of the fact that Behn did the same; his account of the novel, as all these “single figure” studies do, then jumps from Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, where we find him simultaneously admitting Aphra Behn’s influence upon Richardson while dismissing her as an important influence. He also skates over the fact that Richardson plundered Behn’s work while leading the growing wave of criticism, moral rather than literary, against her.

(While I wouldn’t call Pamela “a novel of amorous intrigue”, exactly, I do find its prurience much more offensive than Behn or Haywood’s frank approach to sex.)

I suppose  in the end it comes down to whether you want to posit the history of the novel in terms of a single individual, or whether you prefer see it as a stepwise process involving any number of writers. Mayer argues strenuously for Defoe’s writing as causing a “literary revolution” that expanded the “horizon of expectatations” for the early 18th-century reader. The trouble is, having made this assertion, and having dismissed Behn and Haywood for their failure significantly to alter the literary landscape, he then makes little effort to show how Defoe’s “revolutionary” writing actually changed anything, either for the contemporary reader or for contemporary and subsequent writers.

And while Robert Mayer makes his case here by talking in historical terms, I feel compelled finally to answer him biologically, and to say with respect to his vision of a single progenitor, an ur-figure, that evolution really doesn’t work that way. It is true that nature sometimes throws up a spectacular mutation, a sport. However, these dramatically different entities rarely lead to anything, but are, on the contrary, usually sterile. Most of the time change occurs, not instantaneously, but gradually, by a process of action and reaction, with the individual, or the individual species, pushing against the prevailing environment, which pushes right back.

We can illustrate this in a literary context. We’ve seen already how Aphra Behn’s move to fiction writing was shaped both by her knowledge of pre-existing texts (chiefly Love Letters From A Portuguese Nun) and by political and economic factors (no new plays being commissioned): the result was Love Letters…, which in turn inspired Delariviere Manley, who was simultaneously influenced by the nature of the text and by her environment, in which politics were dominated by the Whigs she so despised. Eliza Haywood, noting the ephemeral nature of Manley’s texts, so much a product of a single time and place and milieu, shed the literal politics but kept the sexual kind; while Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin, strongly disapproving of the earlier publications but nevertheless adopting their forms, began to strive for the novel as a moral influence… And so on, to Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Edgeworth, to Scott, and Austen, and beyond… All important figures, some truly great figures…but no ur-figures, if you please.

And now, to change the subject somewhat— Thinking over my reaction to History And The Early English Novel, and trying to articulate it, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, feeling somewhat reassured about this ridiculous blog project of mine*. Mayer, like many literary historians, simply steps over the intervening years between Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson…which are precisely the years that most interest me.

This may, at first glance, seem somewhat perverse. Off the top of my head, I can name only a couple of writers who worked during this time: Penelope Aubin, who certainly was influenced by Defoe (but perhaps that’s not considered anything to boast about?), but whose career ended in the 1720s; and of course Eliza Haywood – and the first part of her fiction-writing career came to a shuddering halt during the first part of this period, too, thanks largely to the limitless bile of Alexander Pope. So who else was publishing in the years before Richardson? Was it a wasteland, as most literary histories would suggest? – or were still further novelistic developments going on there in the shadows, in works perhaps more important than worthy? Do any forgotten gems lurk there? I don’t know…but it is these historical black holes that I’m finding increasingly fascinating…

(*Call it Robert Mayer’s revenge. I’ve come away from History And The Early English Novel with yet more additions to my wishlist, this time a set of publications that are for the most part either apologies for “the Glorious Revolution”, or reactions to those apologies. Never mind my hope of “getting the hell out of the 17th century“: at this rate I’m never going to make it out of the 1680s…)

05/03/2011

The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia

“It is neither to catch the admiration of the ignorant, nor to make proselytes of the more sensible, that I now lift my pen. To wish for the former, below the dignity of common sense, and to hope for the latter, would be downright vanity. Merely to expose error and falsehood, and to stand votarist for the truth, are I trust the motives which induce me to write and publish these letters…”

As I sit down to write this review, I must first give myself an admonitory smack on the hand. Using reading challenges to random up my reading is all very well—but I have, I think, an obligation to at least try to meet the spirit of the challenge. The intent of my latest, “read a book by or about or featuring a doctor”, was clear enough; and it was hardly an invitation to dig up an obscure epistolary novel from 1788 whose only authorial attribution is to “A Doctor of Physic, M.A. &c.”.

I’ll try to do better in the future, I promise. In the meantime, let’s take a look at this very odd publication entitled The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia; Being A Rational And Philosophical Enquiry Into The Nature Of Things. In A Series Of Letters, and consider what might be the significance of that ominous frontispiece motto: If Fiction persuades, what should Facts do?

And indeed, though it masquerades as one, The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia is not a novel at all: it simply uses the epistolary form as a vehicle for a series of bizarre rants by its anonymous author. As such, it isn’t possible truly to review this publication: what I’ll do instead is simply give you a taste of it via a series of excerpts.

So—the framework. Edwin is the illegitimate son of a noble father, who at his death leaves his “real” family to decide on Edwin’s fate, and whether he is acknowledged and/or inherits any money. The family’s response is to shun Edwin and cut him off essentially penniless, a reaction that for some reason takes Edwin by total surprise.

Julia, meanwhile, is the daughter of a man who contracts religious mania and ends up confined; her mother withdraws from all society, including that of her daughter. Julia is taken in by her uncle who, despite being a clergyman, is simply intent on getting his hands on Julia’s money via this act of “kindness”.

At some point, Edwin and Julia met, fell in love, and were separated; the “novel” never gives us details. When the “interesting story” opens, the two of them have been apart for four years. Edwin is in Paris for reasons that are never made clear (although he may be studying medicine), while Julia is travelling around England with her uncle and his family, also for reasons that are never made clear. The two of them correspond, which seems an unlikely concession on the part of Julia’s uncle – unless he’s keeping her hopeless love for Edwin alive with the aim of preventing her from marrying someone else and therefore taking her fortune out of his control. Amusingly, as we also saw in the roughly contemporaneous Valentine, the anonymous author has his correspondents telling each other their life stories, despite the fact that they’ve known each other for years. And also like Valentine, we are favoured with some hilariously jolting shifts from high pathos to simple commonplaces, without any sense that the author was aware of the incongruity of his tone.

For the most part, The Interesting Story… works itself out as follows: Julia will write a letter to Edwin in which she will relate an anecdote, or repeat a conversation. Edwin will respond with a lengthy lecture on the subject in question. Julia will thank him solemnly for his interesting / enlightening / touching letter, and beg for more of the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. At length, Julia is so overcome by Edwin’s brilliance, she begs his permission to have his letters published – the world must hear of this! Edwin kindly gives her permission, being equally convinced of his own brilliance and the world’s desperate need for his wisdom. The fact that Edwin has trouble constructing a grammatical sentence and spelling correctly is, of course, irrelevant. (And let me assure you: anything italicised below that looks like a typo, isn’t.)

The main topic of conversation is religion: Edwin is a firm believer in God, but a firm disbeliever in the church, and also in hell. He despises atheists, deists and Catholics equally. He contends that the bible has been misinterpreted, accidentally (through ignorance) or intentionally (through malice), and that the church has been using these mis-readings to increase its own power and to keep mankind, particularly women, powerless. (There’s almost a feminist subtext in this, but it gets drowned out by the floodtide of bile.) Furthermore, Edwin doesn’t believe in original sin. This particular revelation prompts Julia to ask why, in that case, mankind needed a Saviour? – a question which I don’t believe Edwin ever gets around to answering.

However, the two of them find many other topics on which to give their opinions pro and con – although mostly con. It’s remarkable, really, how much Edwin and Julia have in common: the enormity of the chip each carries on their shoulder; their endless dislikes and prejudices; and above all, their profound conviction that everyone in the world is stupid and wicked except for them. The publication’s attribution to “a doctor of physic” becomes rather interesting in retrospect, as members of the medical profession and medical opinions of the time attract a significant proportion of whatever vitriol Edwin has left over after dealing with organised religion.

Let’s listen in on a few of the opinions of Edwin and Julia, shall we? This opening passage, in which Edwin airs his views on the state of the world, essentially sets the tone for everything that follows:

“My only friend is dead, which loss has pressed very heavy upon me; Heavens grant you and me the necessary fortitude, for two of the most unfortunate mortals that ever trode the stage of life; and may the faults which we have committed, be as barriers against us in future, when we would slide from the path of virtue. Let us rather than reproach our relations for their follies, learn to correct our own errors. You know the world is made up of caprice and vanity; the ignorant thinks the wise foolish, and the rich hold the poor in despite; the wife betrays her husband, the father often ushers the child to destruction, and the son frequently brings his parents and himself to a morsel of bread. Thus you see the inhabitants of the earth destroying one another, and doubtless will continue so doing till they are totally extirpated from it…”

And here’s Edwin on himself (a favourite topic):

“According to your request, I must now begin to give you a short but faithful account of myself. I believe you know that my pride and ambition may be put into a small circle. I am not very ill-natured, not very severe, although I have the misfortune to be sanguine. I hate flattery and lies; I detest the rogue and despise the villain, but have severely suffered by them. Ever since Nancy S*****, the midwife, whirled me into this ill-advised world, I have been treated not as one of my own species, but as a monster, and will probably not be  used as a human creature, till death whirl me out of it…”

And now Edwin on adultery, of which he has evidently made quite a study (I’m glad, by the way, that Edwin helpfully categorised himself as “not very severe” in his opening remarks on himself; otherwise, there might have been some confusion on that point):

“Adultry and seduction are two of the most heinous sins that man can be guilty of.—Moses both in his livitical and civil laws, rewarded the former by death, and the wisest among the ancients followed his example, and looked on the adulterer and seducer to be equally wicked. The Babylonians, Arabians, Tartars, Javans, Brazilians, and Mexicans, made adultry a capital offence. Among the Turks the offending woman is sentenced to be drowned, and the man still put to greater torture.—The Hungarians force their daughters, their husbands, their wives, their sisters, and their brothers to the place of execution, as soon as found in this abominable crime, or rather the crime of crimes, of which none will be guilty, but those who are actuated by satan, to destroy the peace and happiness of all around them…”

Edwin again, on how a dignified silence is the most powerful weapon:

“…yet I must own, it is below the dignity of Innocence to wage war, or even to defend herself against the unmanly attacks of her enemies; because she can quench the most malignant reproaches of the wicked, and is that good which cannot be taken away even in the time of torment. Silence is the most defensive weapon with which an injured man can defend himself, and is generally the child of innocence, keeping consolation and quiet in the breasts of the good, and an outward peace amongst the bad…”

It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that this paean to Silence comes at the beginning of 200 pages of Edwin’s ranting, and about 150 before he admits to Julia that he always intended publishing his “private reflections”. The publication of Edwin’s various pearls of wisdom will of course be of great benefit to the world, unlike most of what passes for literature and learning in this degenerate day and age; and as for the men who write it – !—

“How they rejoice in evil, and delight in folly; and how anxious they are to raise vice to the dignity of virtue. How they drink, how they blaspheme, how they consume the tobacco, and take away their neighbour’s good report. They have called your sex women, but they ought to have called themselves women-woe and their own! They have jumbled a parcel of lumber and worthless things together, which they call learning, but I would advise you Julia, not to meddle with it, because it is real nonsense; it can neither refine your imagination, nor elevate your understanding; and indeed you may be convinced of what I say, when ever you associate with those who deem themselves of the true literati. They are disagreeable in their manners and conversation, and are often at a loss what to do with their own legs and arms. They are diffident and mistrustful, and delight in saying ill-natured things…”

And could Edwin have had anyone in particular in mind? Like, oh, I don’t know…

“…the late Dr Johnson, whose harsh and rude manners proved him to be a mere pedantic churlish clown, in his heart and principles; altho’ he was stuffed up with verbs, nouns and pronouns, and a quantity of other such rubbish, which his disciples, especially Mrs P— and Mr. R— call learning!…Should education make us disagreeable, ill-natured and hoggish? Or can we deem a man who is so, properly educated?…”

And such is the blighted character generally of the men credited with “learning” that Edwin feels it is his duty to warn Julia away from anything resembling an “education”…among other things:

“The politics of men are such an effusion of nonsense, their philosophy such an unintelligible jargon, and their religious tenets so absurd and contradictory, that one would really think they had not a single grain of judgment or good sense left them. Therefore Julia, I earnestly entreat of you again, to study neither Latin or Greek; laugh at their politics, and scorn their philosophy; avoid the pedant and detest the fop, as also the rigidly religious, be sure to mark them down in your pocket-book…”

But Julia is, after all, just a girl, so much of this is too high-flown for her. But being just a girl, she is able to give her opinion on such topics as the “pernicious” effect of novel-reading on young women (not that this is a novel, heavens no!):

“…their minds are tainted by the pernicious, but insinuating poison of novels and romances.—The imagination heated, and the passions excited in the most pernicious of all schools, the Circulating Library, the man of gallantry makes an easy conquest; and perhaps it may be some extenuation of his guilt, that the object he has devoted to ruin, is ready to surrender on the first summons…”

And indeed, I don’t want to give you the impression that the perverse entertainment value of this thoroughly eccentric polemic lies entirely with Edwin and his ranting. Julia contributes too, as with this rather marvellous example of her habit of going abruptly from the sublime to the ridiculous:

“Do we think that the Son of God came down in vain, or that he ever wished to enforce laws and duties on his creatures, which they are unable to keep or perform? Surely, if we think so, we are mistaken: and I trust, nay, am confident, that the eternal and incomprehensible Being, who is the fountain of all goodness, and the source of love and mercy, can have no respect of persons, or desire for revenge.—But let me finish this letter, by giving you a short description of Southampton…”

Not that Julia has things all her own way in this respect. Here is how Edwin’s rant on adultery, which goes on quite some time after the conclusion of the quotation above – and which runs four full pages, beginning to end – actually finishes:

“…to live with an adulterous woman, is to live with the devil’s companion; and I should think it is much better for one to be happy than too be miserable, or at least I am of opinion that every man should leave his wife when she loves another better than himself. But if I go on in this way, I shall never give you a description of Paris…”

But a talent for anti-climax isn’t all that Edwin and Julia have in common. As it happens (no wonder the two of them fell in love!), Julia also shares Edwin’s opinion of Samuel Johnson…

“…the former of whom I have been repeatedly informed, was so loaded with ill-nature and sarcasm, that he could scarcely speak a good word even of his own poor father and mother… I have read the greatest part of Dr Johnson’s works, and must confess myself totally at a loss to see in what he surpassed the common class of authors. ‘Tis true, I am but a weak judge of literary productions, however, I am inclined to think, that the public, who too often judge wrong of things, have raised Mr Johnson to that dignity which his merit never justly entitled him to…”

And is there anything stupider than “the public”? Hardly. Just look at its habits

“Julia, although I have sent you the above lines on a tobacco-pipe*, be assured I do not wish you should carry a box, or call for a pipe. Snuff is not such a harmless thing as many take it to be, and I believe we owe a great number of of our disorders to it, and that cursed plant Tea, which you ought never to drink above twice a week, and then eat a great deal of bread with it… One half of the people in England are dead years before they are buried, and seldom or never enjoy life!—Gouts, rheumatisms, nervous complaints, scurvies, declines, consumptions, &c. &c. are their continual attendants, all which I attribute, with many more, to the irregularity of diet. They drink such quantities of tea…”

(*And yes, Edwin does send Julia a poem on tobacco – the romantic devil!)

But even more than in its general habits, just look how stupid the public is when it comes taking medical advice (and this is probably a good moment to remind you of this pseudo-novel’s attribution to “a doctor of physic”):

“Physic is surely the most difficult and intricate science under the sun… When I was at the colleges of Edinburgh and Paris, I knew numbers of dunces, especially students in physic…who ought to blush in putting any initial after their names, except F.R.S. which I believe may signify a fellow remarkably stupid, or the foolish remains of a simpleton… Our quack medicines, our brewers, our bakers, and a set of men who pretend to have arrived at a competent knowledge of physic, only from making pills, filling bottles, and running through the town with bladders and gallipots, send us to the grave in multitudes; and we composedly say, The will of the Lord Be done!…”

And if mankind’s willingness to trust these medical frauds with its health is criminally stupid, what are we to make of its religious practice? – in particular, how it allows itself to imposed upon by that set of scoundrels known as “the clergy”!—

“Man must be a stupid being indeed to suppose than the Almighty, who wanteth no counsel, hath established a parliament of popes, liars, arch bishops, arch rogues, bishops, villains, deans, drunkards, poor curates, whore-mongers, and other such imposters, as the judges of his creatures…”

BUT—I don’t want to send you away from this abbreviated version of Edwin and Julia’s Theories Of Why The World Sucks (and believe me, there are many, many more things that they despise, which I haven’t mentioned here) thinking that there is nothing whatsoever of which they do approve. There is one thing…and so I’ll leave you to ponder the following:

“I have not the honour of being personally acquainted with Mr. C—, and therefore I am not at liberty to say much about him; only tell you that I coincide with the greatest part of the sentiments laid down in his letter…especially that respecting woman’s milk, in which I believe there is a something divinely good, though very seldom prescribed by our physicians. It is the softest, the most light, and nourishing fluid that exists, and according to my humble opinion, the most sovereign balsam in the world, and the greatest restorative in nature…”

02/03/2011

So where were we?

As far as this blog goes, I seem to have been suffering from chronic disorganisation ever since the end of last year. This was partly my own fault, for letting my reading outstrip my writing by too great a distance; but mostly I blame it on that pushy Aphra Behn. Boy, she just moved in and took over for a while there, didn’t she? – and not even in the correct chronological order. Tsk!

But we’re pretty much back on an even keel now, and I’ll be trying to keep things there via a proper rotation of reading categories, and updating the blog on (I hope) a more regular schedule. I need to settle back down into my journey through the literature of the Restoration, but at the same time there will be reading challenges and occasional group reads, along with the ongoing games of Reading Roulette, to help vary the diet. At the moment my planned categorical reads are:

  • Chronobibliography:  Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger by William Chamberlayne (?) (1683)
  • Reading Roulette:  Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power by E.D.E.N. Southworth (1957)
  • Authors In Depth:  The Abbey Of Clugny by Mary Meeke (1796)
  • Reading Challenge:  The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia by “A Doctor of Physic” (1788)
  • Group Read:  The Law And The Lady by Wilkie Collins (1875)

In other news…GoogleBooks has officially made my Enemies List. I was annoyed enough with the discovery that only three out of the four volumes of Nella Stephens’ The Robber Chieftain were available. I honestly don’t understand why you would make an incomplete novel available for download—it’s not, after all, a textbook, where readers might still get some value out of an incomplete work. The only reason I can think of to do that would be if the novel only survived in an incomplete state, and even it that case the posting should be accompanied by an explanation of the circumstances.

But even posting incomplete novels pales beside posting a complete novel in such bad condition that you may as well not have bothered. Such is the case with the GoogleBooks version of Vivia, as I belatedly discovered to my cost. From about halfway through the novel, only a portion of every second page of the novel is present, and so it goes on for the next 150 pages, as shown:

Surely there must be somebody who can check the quality of a piece of scanning before a digitalised book is made available? It could even be a volunteer service: there must be more readers than I who would gladly give a few minutes a day to prevent this frustrating and disappointing experience from being repeated. At the moment, these “available” books are just so much wasted effort; while the assertion that opens every one of Google’s scanned books – “This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google…” – feels like a taunt. 

Anyway—I did eventually find another copy of Vivia online, but only online: it is available through the Wright American Fiction Collection 1851 – 1875, a digitising project based at Indiana University (although with many other participants) that draws upon the bibliographical work of Lyle H. Wright from the Huntington Library in California. While I can only applaud this wonderful undertaking, my heart did drop when I realised I’d have to finish reading Vivia on my computer. The inconvenience I can put up with, but—oh, my eyes. My poor, poor eyes…

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