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…
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…