“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.