“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…