Archive for April, 2011


The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore

There is no Nation in the World, but has in all ages, furnished Authors, who have made it their business to expose, as far as they were capable, the Frailties of the Female Sex. Some have been provoked thereunto, by their unfortunate Addresses, and by the disappointments they have met with in love; others have undertaken that Province, without any other reason, than to show their Wit. But my Business now in Writing, is to warn Men of the danger they may run in the persuit of their Amours; for which purpose, I thought a Narrative of my Life might be of extraordinary use, since it has been a continual Series of Stratagems and Artifices for the ensnaring of Men.







Published anonymously in 1683, this first-person narration of the life of a London prostitute is a remarkable work of fiction. Only one copy of The London Jilt survives today, preserved in the Harvard University Library; our very good friends at the Broadview Press have done their usual outstanding job not only in resurrecting this rare and important piece of writing, but in placing it in its historical context, as a nexus between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography.

(Before we really get started, a word about the authorship of this tale, which is in some quarters attributed to Alexander Oldys. The Broadview editor, Charles H. Hinnant, disputes this, and so do I, although not for the same reasons. Hinnant contends that the mistaken attribution was the result of some bibliographical confusion between this text and Oldys’ 1692 novel, The Female Gallant; or, The Female Cuckold, which had as a variant title The London Jilt; or, The Female Cuckold. For myself, having studied Oldys’ The Fair Extravagant, I can say that there is not a single point of comparison between the two works in terms of their subject matter, style or attitude.)

The most notable thing about The London Jilt is that it is a rare, possible unique, example of 17th-century first-person female narration – and all the more extraordinary for being the genre that it is. Works such as the Richard Head / Francis Kirkman collaboration The English Rogue included interpolated tales told by female narrators, and there had been a handful of third-person tellings of the lives of female criminals; but The London Jilt appears to be the only such work that not only focuses entirely upon a woman, but allows her to tell her own story. Of course, when we say “her” story, the question of the author’s sex remains moot. It is most likely that the anonymous author of this tale was a man, although there is nothing here to say so for certain.

The other significant feature of the presentation of this work is the gulf between what it purports to be in its preface, and what it actually is in its text. In fact, I found myself wondering if the same person had actually written both. The preface declares this novel to be an exposé of prostitutes’ tricks, so that men may be warned and guard themselves. The language in which the author of the preface declares his – definitely his – intentions could hardly be blunter:

And indeed what greater Folly can there be than to venture one’s All in such rotten Bottoms, and at length become the Horrour and Detestation of all the World, only for a Momentary Pleasure, and which in truth cannot well be termed Pleasure, considering what filthy, nasty, and stinking Carcasses, are the best and finest of our Common Whores? A Whore is but a Close-stool to Man, or a Common-shoar that receives all manner of Filth, shee’s like a Barber’s Chair, no sooner one’s out, but t’other’s in…

But our tale, when it comes to be told, is a pragmatic account of a life driven by sheer necessity, at a time when women’s options were terrifyingly few, and when violence, disease and starvation were imminent threats which only constant vigilence and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive could hold at bay.

Our narrator (revealed at a single point in the novel to be called Cornelia) writes from the vantage point of the latter years of her life. Like the writer in the preface, but in gentler terms, she offers her life as a cautionary tale, by which those men likely to be tempted by women’s arts may be fairly warned. She does not, nevertheless, condemn the life that she has led out of hand, merely some of the strategems to which she was forced (or chose) to resort. The narration takes the battle for survival, including the battle between men and women, for granted; and if a woman must resort to underhanded manoeuvres, that is only fair in a world where all of the power and most of the money lies with men; and where armed with only her body and her wits – and the occasional chamber-pot – a woman must contend against fists and knives, and a willingness to use them.

There is an unexpected sophistication about some of the writing in The London Jilt, included the divided vision with which Cornelia looks back upon her girlhood, her later understanding of the events of that time sitting side-by-side with childish incomprehension. The daughter of tavern-owners, the critical moment in Cornelia’s life comes when her father is one day drawn into a trap by a passing “rope-dancer” (that is, a tightrope artist), who lures the foolish man into taking rope-dancing lessons, and leaves him suspended some thirteen feet off the ground while he calmly plunders the household. Inevitably, a fall follows, a broken leg the result. In the wake of this, the fortunes of the family go from bad to worse; and when the father dies, Cornelia and her mother must fend for themselves.

The survivors try to continue in the tavern business, but life becomes a constant and desperate struggle. (As the later Cornelia is able to appreciate, she wasn’t then old enough to be an attraction for male customers.) It is at this time that Cornelia’s mother begins taking in “night-guests”; and if the child does not quite understand the nature of these transactions, she can appreciate their outcome:

And I remember that from time to time there was some man or other lay all Night at our House, and that upon such occasions I was forced to roost with the Maid, whereas at other times I lay in my Mothers Arms, from whence I then concluded, that she must needs be a very Commiserating Woman, since to free people out of pain, she imported to them the half of her bed, but she made them dearly pay for this pitty; and I could easily perceive, that the Chimney smoak’d more, and better by the half, when we had a night-Guest with us than otherwise…

Time passes, and at length Cornelia not only understands what her mother is doing, but is initiated into the life herself: an event treated not only with no particular fuss, but a certain wry humour:

About five Months after I had played Squire Limberham this Pranck, my Maiden-head was sold the first time. Be not amazed, O Reader, that I say the first time, for I have lost it several times after the manner of Italy, to which purpose I made use of a certain Water, which rendred me always the same; and though after the first Attack I found no pain at all in the Amorous Combate, but on the contrary an extraordinary Pleasure, nevertheless I sighed and groaned as strongly, as if I was to have given up the Ghost at the very instant, which moved so much Compassion in the poor Hunters after Maiden-heads, that they endeavoured to make me forget this feigned Grief, by the Unguent of several Guinnies…

Cornelia makes no bones about her enjoyment of sex, which she regards as normal and natural, considering a full and satisfying sex life as the positive side of her way of earning a living. At the same time, she views any woman who chooses prostitution as a career out of “lasciviousness” rather than sheer necessity to be either entirely mad or entirely wicked. The only people she despises more than voluntary prostitutes are the pimps and bawds who enslave and exploit young women, giving in return insufficient means to live on, so that their slaves must remain slaves.

Cornelia herself occupies “the middle ground” of prostitution, occasionally being taken into keeping but usually maintaining a rotating roster of regular customers, and above all never allowing herself to be trapped into working for anyone but herself. Ultimately, Cornelia survives her way of life because, despite numerous setbacks and dangers, she never loses sight of the main chance. Whatever relationship she is describing, how much money she made, how she went about getting it and what she did with it makes up a major portion of the story.

The London Jilt does keep its opening promise to expose the arts and artifices of prostitutes, but only up to a point. Cornelia is devastatingly frank about how she gets money out of her customers (including undergoing a real pregnancy and later, seeing the riches that yielded, staging an elaborately faked one). She makes no bones about promising fidelity and then cheating at every opportunity, arguing that any man who believes what a prostitute says gets what he deserves. Her narrative is full of negative aphorisms about women, and there are various “trade secrets revealed” passages in which she describes in detail the cosmetic arts used to conceal physical defects. Yet for all of this, we don’t necessarily feel that it is the women who use these devices that are the main target of criticism. On the contrary: behind every one of Cornelia’s accounts of “silly women” with their “silly stratagems” lies a condemnation, explicit or implicit, of the even sillier men who fall for these obvious tricks:

Now must I laugh at the foolishness of some men, whose unbounded Petulancy carries them sometimes so far, that they will forget the most horrible Affronts, only that they may not be banish’d from the Favor of a Woman, whose Caresses, they must purchase, while that another may as well as them enjoy her Affections for his Money. Without lying, those men shew that their Bodies have an Empire over their Minds, and that they are only Men, because they have the Figure of them: For is it not the greatest Sillyness; and the highest Madness that can be committed, that to satisfie the desire of a little Bit of Flesh, they proceed to the losing their Estates, their Reputations, and all they have dearest in the World…

As was the case in the contemporaneous Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, there is very little evidence in this account of life during the second half of the 17th century of the existence of anything that we might be inclined to call “love”. That said, our anonymous author’s view of the world differs rather interestingly from Aphra Behn’s. Whereas Behn saw the battle of the sexes as a contest the woman must inevitably lose, “Cornelia” contends that a woman may triumph as long as she remembers what is really important. In stark contrast to Behn’s writing and indeed most other amatory tales of this time, Cornelia holds that it is men who are more likely to be sincere in their feelings – or “fond”, as she puts it – simply because, having all the money, they can afford to be sincere. A woman who allows herself to “grow fond”, and to put her feelings for a man before what she can get out of him, is a woman heading for disaster. Monetary gain is and must be the chief purpose of a sexual encounter, whether a casual one in passing or within the context of a more stable relationship – and the few times that Cornelia allows herself to forget this, she is made to suffer for it.

The London Jilt‘s view of marriage is unswervingly negative. A woman’s great aim in life, Cornelia contends, should be a single existence in a state of financial independence; but failing this, prostitution is infinitely preferable to marriage. The novel contains any number of miserable marriages, and although the power is usually with the man, it may equally be the woman who brings the relationship to ruin. Cornelia’s parents get along until her father’s disastrous day, after which her mother transforms into a full-time termagent. Many years later, a bout of smallpox puts an end to the sexual career of Cornelia’s mother, until to her daughter’s astonishment she falls for the blandishments of “a young bully” who no sooner can call himself husband than he appropriates all of his wife’s fortune, beats her unmercifully when she objects, and seeks his pleasures elsewhere. (Seeing quickly enough that the benefits of her own activities will otherwise end in her step-father’s pockets, Cornelia coolly abandons her mother to her fate – she’s sorry for her, but it’s her own silly fault – and sets up in business for herself.) Likewise, most of Cornelia’s customers are married men, who only married for what they can get out of it, and would rather pay for a prostitute’s favours than sleep with their wives for free.

Despite all this, Cornelia herself is finally tempted into marriage with the owner of a tobacco-shop – and regrets it. There is simply something about the state of marriage, she contends, that brings out the very worst in people. In Cornelia herself, it gives birth to “a Devil of Pride”, which provokes her to ridiculous extravagance, so that within a few years her husband’s successful business can barely support her. He, not unreasonably, cuts off her supply, upon which Cornelia begins to defraud the business. Her husband discovering this, his reaction is short, sharp, and to the point:

…he took notice that his Tobacco lessened and fell short, and that no money arose from it, whereupon he ratled me the first time very sharply, but seeing that was to little purpose, he undertook to employ an other more powerful means, for one Morning when all the People were gone to Church, having called me into a Back-Room, he represented to me my Duty with such very pertinent Reasons, that I was very sensible of them for above a Week afterwards…

Significantly, while Cornelia is at all times explicit in her account of sexual matters, when it comes to the violence she suffers at various times, particularly this bout of domestic violence, she is far more guarded in her speech: this is the part of her life that she’s ashamed of. This passage focuses a major theme of the novel, its depiction of the world of late 17th century London as a place of plot and counterplot, wrongdoing and revenge. Cornelia’s professional depredations are committed in full awareness that she might bring violent retribution upon herself: again and again she must pick up her things and flee in order to avoid suffering deserved retribution for her own frauds and manoeuvres.

As with her sexual encounters, Cornelia describes all this quite matter-of-factly: she is sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Never, however, does she let a slight or a cheat pass without devising some scheme of revenge – and nor, for that matter, does she expect her own cheats to go unpunished. This is a world of dog-eat-dog, and the individual who lets himself, or herself, be imposed upon without retaliating is a coward and a fool. (When the victim of the sham pregnancy finds out, he deserts Cornelia leaving only an angry letter behind. While she is relieved to get off so easily, she is also contemptuous of her former keeper for his spinelessness.)

What we notice, however, is the difference in the nature of revenge taken by men and by women. The former generally resort to straightforward violence, a beating or worse; while women have to rely on their wits. Cornelia herself is very given to elaborate plots and “prancks”, which end in the humiliation of the victim, and generally leave him lighter in the pocket. Occasionally, driven to more direct means of retaliation, she resorts to that always handy weapon, the chamber-pot. There are at least three chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes in The London Jilt, one of which is—without any desire to go into detail—one of the most repulsive things I have ever read in my life. In fact, considering the substance of that scene in its entirety, the deployment of the chamber-pot may be the least repulsive thing about it.

A curious feature of this narrative as a whole, and another way in which The London Jilt differs from much of the other picaresque literature of the time, is the subplot of the rope-dancer, who reappears at various points in Cornelia’s life and becomes an ongoing and ever more dangerous adversary. The two push and push back, their mutual revenge-taking escalating with each encounter – but finally, it is the male capacity for physical violence which triumphs, ending not only Cornelia’s career as a prostitute but almost her life, after a strike at her throat with a knife that misses and gashes open her forehead instead.

In the wake of this, Cornelia takes pause. She has had a good run; she has scrimped and saved, so that she might not starve in her old age; and she has the two glories of her life, the annuities she has managed to secure (one a gift, one wisely self-purchased when times were good) amounting to almost one hundred pounds a year, on which to live. The fact is, she’s getting a bit long in the tooth for this way of life, even aside from the necessity to hide the ugly scar on her face. Customers are harder to come by, and not so generous with their guineas. It’s time for a fresh start.

And so, with the same pragmatism that has marked the rest of her life, Cornelia the prostitute becomes Cornelia the lace-dealer. Her little business is a success, and she is able to sit back and take stock of her life, finally deciding to put pen to paper. There are various points in the narrative where Cornelia stops to marvel at her own audacity in becoming an author – and more than one comparison of the business of bookselling to that other business she knows so much about…

Apart from placing it in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition of The London Jilt makes a strong case for this novel as a previously unacknowledged inspiration for Moll Flanders and Roxana: various points of similarity are found between those two famous novels and their more obscure predecessor; although perhaps the chief point of interest is not their similarities, but their differences, particularly their moral differences.

Whether it is a reflection of the shift in social mores in the five decades between their time of publication, or the difference in attitude and beliefs between Daniel Defoe and the anonymous author of The London Jilt, the most striking thing about the earlier text is Cornelia’s refusal to repent – or rather, the fact that she doesn’t consider that she has anything in particular to repent. She has done what she had to in order to survive, and sees no need to apologise for that.

And in fact, Cornelia is rather cynical about the late-life repenters of the world:

…but I content my self with the testimony that my Conscience gives me, and it is the same thing to me whether I am thought discreet, vertuous or debaucht; because that I have Experience enough in the World to know that it often blames Wise and Sober Persons, and often praises and extols such as are lewd and vicious. Nevertheless I am not of the rank of those who after having led a vicious Life during their Youth, and then becoming Converts, pretend to bygottism, and walk holding their right-Hand upon their Heart as the truly Devout do…




Miss Misery Guts

Ah, the horrors of the cautionary tale!

Having wrapped up Milistina, I rewarded myself with a quick game of Reading Roulette, and hit upon a novel by a completely obscure writer called Miss K. M. Weld. I have been able to find out nothing about the lady herself, beyond the fact that she wrote at least these three novels:

  • The Rat Pond; or, The Punishment Of Disobedience (1873)
  • Bessy; or, The Fatal Consequences Of Telling Lies (1876)
  • Lily, The Lost One; or, The Fatal Effects Of Deception (1881)

Are we sensing a trend here?

Of these three novels, the only one available is Lily, The Lost One. The good news is, that’s where this spin of the random number generator landed me. The bad news is, it’s a GoogleBooks edition, so heaven only knows what I’ll find when I actually try to read it. We shall see.

I tell you, though – I’m simply desolate that the rat pond one isn’t available…

Edited to add:  After reviewing Milistina, I was inspired to have one more go at finding out something, anything, about its anonymous author; but the only detail I’ve been able to turn up is the fact that the novel was translated into French and published as Milistina; ou, La Double Intrigue.

I bet there were a lot of disappointed French readers.

Edited yet again to add:  GASP!! – I’ve just found an online copy of Miss Weld’s Bessy!!!! But alas, alas, still no sign of The Rat Pond. O UNIVERSE, WHY MUST YOU TAUNT ME!!??


Milistina; or, The Double Interest


Milistina opened the paper, and the first article that met her eye was an account, dated from St. Vincent’s, relating the melancholy effects of the climate, which, in a short time, had taken off several of its inhabitants, and been fatal to many of the privates in our different regiments—several of the officers of which had fallen a sacrifice, with a list of the several names. One of the number mentioned was Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill.—Milistina read it, and involuntarily exclaimed—“My God! support me!” and fainted…








Milistina Berrel is the beautiful young daughter of Sir George and Lady Berrel, who live a life of quiet contentment in the country, devoted to one another and to their two children. The Berrels, however, are not the pre-eminent family of the neighbourhood, which is dominated by the Earl and Countess of Farnborough, whose only son, the Viscount Severn, is selfish and dissolute, but nevertheless considered a marital prize of the first order—should the Earl in his pride ever consider any woman a suitable match.

Hearing of Milistina’s beauty, the Viscount persuades his parents to host a grand ball, to which the Berrels are invited. During the evening, the dancing is disrupted when a young woman called Harriet Sheffield faints. Milistina and her brother, Henry, both hurry to Mrs Sheffield’s assistance, but must reluctantly resign her to the care of her brusque and impatient husband, who shocks them both with his callous attitude towards his delicate wife.

As soon as her health permits, Mrs Sheffield calls upon the Berrels to express her gratitude for their kindness to her at the ball. A warm friendship soon develops between Milistina and Mrs Sheffield, but for Henry, already attracted by their neighbour’s beauty and gentleness, a closer acquaintance induces a dangerous emotional state that only deepens with his increasing knowledge of Mrs Sheffield’s fine character. Observing these signs in her brother, Milistina warns him that he must fight against his feelings. Only too aware of the forbidden nature of his love – and, given the principles of both parties, its futility – Henry promises his sister that in order to conquer himself, he will in future avoid the company of Mrs Sheffield; but in a restricted neighbourhood, this is not always an easy task.

Nor is Henry’s situation made any easier by a better knowledge of Mr Sheffield. Entirely indifferent to his wife and worried by her ill-health only inasmuch as it interferes with his own comfort, Sheffield thinks of little other than dogs, horses, fox-hunting and drinking-parties. Mrs Sheffield’s only consolation in her lonely existence are the occasional visits of her brother, William Churchill, who spends as much time with his sister as his military duties will allow. Churchill is delighted to discover that Harriet has found so congenial a friend as Milistina—and if he is stunned at first glance by Milistina’s beauty, it is not long before admiration becomes something warmer.

Her doctor insisting upon a removal to Bath, Mrs Sheffield begs that Milistina might accompany her. Milistina has never been away from home before, but placing their faith in their young daughter’s principles, Sir George and Lady Berrel reluctantly give permission. To the relief of everyone except, perhaps, Mr Sheffield, who has accompanied his wife on her journey in a most ungracious spirit, the sojourn in Bath greatly improves Mrs Sheffield’s health. During this time, Mr Churchill and Milistina grow very close – and when his regiment is ordered to the West Indies, Churchill sends to Milistina a letter in which he avows his love to her. Milistina is at first thrilled by this, but then grows unhappy at the reflection that she has received her lover’s declaration without the knowledge or sanction of her parents. However, when she writes an circumstantial account of the situation, enclosing Churchill’s letter in her own, the Berrels are so delighted with this evidence of Milistina’s steadiness and the character of Churchill as revealed to them, that they give the desired permission.

Fortified by her parents’ approval, Milistina prepares to endure the long separation from her lover that his duty demands – only to be confronted, upon opening a newspaper, with an account of the rampant fever sweeping through St. Vincent’s, and by Churchill’s name amongst the fatalities…

Milistina is an oddly interesting little novel – something, granted, that is not immediately apparent from the foregoing synopsis – which is exactly the point. While on the surface this is the most straightforward of didactic novels, with virtue automatically rewarded and vice automatically punished, there’s a deeper purpose here, one for which the didacticism provides a convenient cover. It isn’t always easy to guess the sex of the author of an anonymous novel – Valentine being a case in point – but I haven’t any doubt that Milistina was written by a woman, and a woman with an agenda; a woman who, after placing her predictably perfect and, frankly, not very interesting heroine in the extreme foreground, then spends her novel quietly bitching away in the background.

Our author’s chief concern is marriage, specifically interested marriage, and girls’ lack of control over their own destiny. The Berrels, as a family, are the exception that proves the rule. Sir George and Lady Berrel have one of this novel’s few happy marriages, and offer to their children an example of a mutually loving and respectful relationship. As for Milistina, she has not only been inculcated with her parents’ principles, but given a thorough (although not, of course, unfeminine) education with which to support them.

The first few chapters of Milistina are actually rather dismal—at least until we realise that this is merely the means by which the author lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Sir George’s rearing of his lovely daughter has apparently consisted of instilling into her a series of ponderous platitudes, which are reproduced for us paragraph after paragraph; rather as if Sir George were a second Polonius, but a Polonius we are asked to take seriously:

    “Give ear, fair daughter of love, to the instructions of prudence, and let the precepts of truth sink deep in thy heart; so shall the charms of thy mind add lustre to the elegance of thy form, and thy beauty, like the rose it resembleth, shall retain its sweetness when its bloom is withered.
    “Who is she that winneth the heart of man, that subdueth him to love, and reigneth in his breast? Lo! yonder she walketh in maiden sweetness, with innocence in her mind, and modesty in her cheek. Her hand seeketh employment, her foot delighteth not in gadding abroad. She is cloathed with neatness, she is fed with temperance; humility and meekness are as a crown of glory circling her head.
    “Submission and obedience are the lessons of her life, and peace and happiness are her reward…”

And so on—and on—and on—

Now—you’d hardly blame any reader who turned tail at this point and fled Milistina with a shriek of horror; but in fact, as this novel goes on the contrast between this opening explosion of purple nonsense and the sotto voce snarkiness with which the author says what she really thinks becomes increasingly amusing.

For all that this novel is named for her, very little in it actually happens to Milistina herself; certainly nothing much out of the ordinary way. As a young lady would, she attends parties; she makes friends; she leaves her parents’ home for the first time; and she falls in love. The one real disruption to the ordered nature of Milistina’s life is the newspaper report that declares William Churchill dead of fever in the West Indies – but even here, she, and we, are given good reason to believe this may be a false report, as indeed quickly – or as quickly as 17th-century communication allows – proves to be the case. Finally reunited with her lover, Milistina sails forward into a future of serene happiness.

Very rarely is Milistina troubled by doubts or temptations; her principles are so deeply ingrained as to be reflexes, guiding her in every contingency—almost. Milistina’s over-scrupulous fretting at receiving her lover’s unsanctioned declaration may strike us as rather absurd, particularly in light of William Churchill’s imminent departure on dangerous and indefinite military duty, but it leads to an interesting outcome. Having mentally condemned both Churchill and herself, Milistina does penance by sending to her parents a circumstantial account of her situation, in which she confesses – and apologises for – her love, and encloses Churchill’s own letter. Sir George and Lady Berrel’s response is to praise Milistina’s conduct, and to sanction her engagement despite not having met the young man in question. They have raised their daughter carefully, they understand her character, and they trust her judgement—even in the most crucial matter of the choice of a husband.

Which brings us to the true, albeit hidden, purpose of this novel, the real interest of which lies lurking in its subplots. Surrounding Milistina and her happy love affair are a handful of contrasting relationships, marriages entered into for what the author considers all the wrong reasons. Significantly, the women involved in these marriages have, unlike Milistina, been given no say in their own disposal, but have been compelled by their parents for reasons of interest. The subsequent unhappiness of these wives is profound and constant—and commonplace.

In light of these subplots, that early declaration of Sir George’s about humility and meekness and submission and obedience, and the peace and happiness they bring, takes on a new and ironic significance. Wifely submission and obedience was taken very much for granted at the time of this novel’s composition, of course: religious duty supported by social convention. The theory was that a wife’s submission would evoke her husband’s chivalry; that the less she considered her own feelings, the more grateful and generous he would become towards her.

You can almost hear the author’s lip curl, as she sits down to deal with that one.

Our first unhappy wife is the Countess of Farnsborough, married without love or even regard because of her suitable birth. For a quarter of a century she has been the perfect English wife – with what the author clearly considers the natural result:

His gentle wife had not been absolutely wretched in her alliance to this pompous Peer: she owed her exemption from this state to her own submissive obedience to her haughty Lord:—when she differed in sentiments (which, alas! was too often the case), she was always silent, which he considered as her acquiescence to his superior knowledge on all points: this strengthened him in self-conceit…

And again:

Lady Farnborough had been too long in the school of passive submission and obedience to venture even a contrary opinion on indifferent subjects, and though her feelings were sensibly hurt by the implacable hatred and unforgiving menace denounced by her husband against her son, she remained silent…

Amongst the many trials and tribulations of her marriage, perhaps the greatest for Lady Farnborough is that her beloved only son is removed by his father from her care when just a child, and given over to be raised by servants and tutors: professional sycophants, with a great deal more interest in currying favour and feathering their own nests, than in building character. An explicit contrast is drawn here between Milistina’s scrupulous upbringing under her mother’s watchful eye and the destructive road which Lord Severn travels from a disastrously early age.

But Lady Farnborough is not the only unhappy wife in the neighbourhood. There is also Harriet Sheffield:

…who, contrary to the suggestions of her own heart or inclination, was united to a man of good fortune, a foxhunter, and not so formed as to estimate the value of the gem he was in possession of. He had seen her at the country races; had danced with her; and wishing for some time, as he expressed it, “the convenience of having a wife to save him some trouble,” he proposed to the lady, to the joy of her family…

The thick-headed, thick-skinned Mr Sheffield is interested in little except hunting, and compels his fine-natured and delicately-constituted wife to act as hostess to his habitually drunken friends:

The party that were then assembled at Oak Cover drank very hard, which made them very unfit society for the gentle Mrs Sheffield, who felt a great comfort in having the protection of such a brother at those times.—She made her appearance—he that should have been the guardian of the delicate sensibility of his wife, alas! too often wounded it by the coarseness and familiarity of a husband, which…gave him, he conceived, a privilege of being the rudest of the company…

Unlike the perpetually silent Lady Farnborough, Mrs Sheffield occasionally steels herself to voice a mild protest—for all the good it does her:

Mrs. Sheffield always took the earliest opportunity of withdrawing herself from the noisy mirth of the dinner, and had often prayed her husband to permit her wholly to absent herself on the days his jolly friends joined him; but this favour was sought in vain—his coarse reply was always—“What the Devil did I marry you for? you want to have your own way in every thing.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the author’s attitude towards Henry Berrel. Far from being horrified at the very idea of a man, let alone a “good” man, falling in love with a married woman, she takes a pragmatic, Oh, well, these things happen view of the matter, contending, in effect, that we cannot control our feelings, only our behaviour. Interesting, too, is that the innocent Milistina so quickly grasps her brother’s situation; and while she is implacable in her assertion that Henry must avoid Mrs Sheffield whenever he can in their restricted society, she blames neither party. (Mrs Sheffield, I should say, remains rather unconvincingly oblivious to Henry’s passion for her.) As for Henry himself, far from displaying the back-and-white determination we might expect, he vacillates, tearing himself away from his Harriet on numerous occasions, but always giving in to temptation and finding an excuse to come back. In his repeated making and breaking of resolutions, Henry Berrel is a far more interesting character than his immaculate sister.

The third marriage examined here is that of Lord Severn, whose dissolute way of life ultimately proves ruinous, and then fatal. As his health begins to fail, his lordship, who has quarrelled with his father and whose “friends” begin to drop away in his time of need, conceives the idea of marrying, in order to acquire a permanent nurse. With this entirely selfish aim, he lights upon Hester Errold, a pretty, thoughtless, uneducated, fifteen-year-old girl, whose guardian aunt thinks no further that the prospect of a coronet for her niece and encourages the match. For three months, the new Lady Severn lives a giddy social whirl—and then finds herself chained to the side of a man slowly and painfully dying of consumption.

In many ways, this is the novel’s most interesting marriage. The young Lady Severn certainly does not love her husband, but she is genuinely grateful to him for her elevation and the brief luxury of their life together, and this engenders affection. When his health collapses, this young, untested girl reveals an unexpected strength of character, devoting herself to the care of the dying Viscount and being tempered, as it were, by her passage through the fire, emerging from her ordeal a wiser and better person.

Well! – this is only a novel, after all, where Fate can behave more obligingly than it generally does in reality; and it is with great zest that our anonymous author sets about killing off her array of profoundly unsatisfactory husbands. Thus, Lord Severn succumbs to his consumption; Lord Farnborough has a stroke when he hears of the death of his son and heir—and dies before knowing he’s going to be a grandfather; and Mr Sheffield—

Well, that’s the one good thing about drunken, fox-hunting husbands: they’re not difficult to get rid of.

Now, I should stress here that our author is neither anti-man nor anti-marriage; on the contrary. The final third of Milistina devotes much of its time to the afterlives of our three merry widows, two of whom contract second marriages – happy marriages, of their own choosing, based upon love and compatibility of temperament. Mrs Sheffield marries the devoted Henry Berrel – becoming Milistina’s sister-in-law in a second capacity, the “double interest” of the title – while Lady Severn willingly surrenders her title to marry Mr Russel, a young protege of Sir George Berrel. As for Lady Farnborough, she settles down into a happy and useful widowhood, throwing herself into the charitable work her stingy husband disapproved of, enjoying the companionship of her gentle daughter-in-law, and playing a very hands-on role in the raising of her grandson.

The other point to be made is that, zealous in her cause as she is, our author is not so unreasonable so as to suggest that only women may be unhappy in their marriages. In fact, Milistina opens with an account of the unhappy marriage of the Reverend Mr Errold, tutor to the Berrel children and father of the future Lady Severn, who falls in love with a beautiful face and assumes a character to match, only to be bitterly disappointed.

However, in the author’s opinion there is a significant difference between this unhappy marriage and the others under consideration. For one thing, Mr Errold had freedom of choice, something women at this time did not. An explicit contrast is drawn between Mr Errold’s rash and unthinking decision, and the behaviour of his future son-in-law, Mr Russel, who like him is at one time drawn to a beautiful face, but bothers to investigate further and retreats when he finds nothing behind the lovely surface. Then too, having been disappointed, Mr Errold is nevertheless able to get away; to leave the house when he feels like it; to devote himself to his work. In short, he still has options; whereas an unhappily married woman is simply trapped.

(Obviously impelled by a sense of fair play, the author kills off the unsatisfactory Mrs Errold, too.)

There’s one other interesting thing about Milistina, or at least I found it so. Early on, the author is shaking her head over Lord Severn’s many and varied shortcomings, when she suddenly launches into this tirade – jumping abruptly from the specific to the general:

…he early took leave of the Earl and Countess, and returned to town as fast as four post-horses full gallop could convey him to the different stages which supply him with relays for that purpose. It is to be lamented, that the daily sufferings of this useful species of the animal creation, who are so necessary to the promotion and dispatch of our worldly interest and amusement, seldom calls forth the compassionate commiseration of even the feeling part of mankind, whose humanity would save those submissive animals the galling pains (in the most literal acceptation of the word) they suffer, by being pressed beyond their powers of speed, with every sinew extended, till they arrive almost breathless at the end of a long stage, to save only ten, or sometimes twenty minutes to the impatient traveller, in the imaginary consequence of their arrival…

While it is too much to say that our author is an advocate of animal rights per se – she doesn’t seem to disapprove of fox-hunting, except inasmuch as it contributes to the unsatisfactoriness of husbands – she is certainly extremely concerned over the habitual mistreatment of horses, as is made abundantly and hilariously clear during her account of Mr Sheffield’s inevitable drunken riding accident, where in addition to matter-of-factly describing the victim’s fatal fracturing of his skull, she makes a point of telling us that the horse was uninjured.

We shall probably never know for certain who wrote Milistina, but we do know one thing about her: that she was a woman after my own heart.




Catherine Cuthbertson vs. the critics

When I was looking for a copy of Catherine Cuthbertson‘s first novel, Romance Of The Pyrenees, for my next round of Authors In Depth, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that there were three copies of it at Open Library, two of the first edition from 1803, one of the third edition from 1807. As I was flicking through them to gauge their quality and decide which one I was going to download, I found this in the front of the 1807 version:

The Author of the following work, grateful for the commendations and animadversions it has been honoured with (both in public critique and private opinions), while cherishing in fond remembrance the encouraging praise as a pleasing incentive to future exertions, more fully to deserve it—to prove that the censure has been treasured in the stores of reason and reflection, as precepts to amend by, has in this edition attempted to correct those errors which superior judgement pointed out, as much as might be without injury to the plan of the whole; the leading features of which were too closely interwoven with every component part to allow greater latitude of alteration. The horrors of the work are something softened; repetitions avoided; and the long story now divided: but of the improbabilities the author has made no effort to divest it. For while the title-page announces a romance, the reader surely has no right to form an expectation of meeting only with the simple facts of common life, delineated by the hand of Nature; and those who relish not the bold unlicensed flights of fancy, in the region of fiction, must relinquish the perusal of this work, since romance has ever been the avowed offspring of imagination.

Hear, hear!

In any case, Miss Cuthbertson had the last laugh: her first novel went through at least five editions, possibly more; while twenty years after its initial publication, her works were still being advertised as, “By the author of Romance Of The Pyrenees.” It was also translated into French – and misattributed to Ann Radcliffe: high praise indeed.

This preface also settled for me the question of which edition I was going to read. While the repetitions I could do without, there’s no way I was going to choose a version in which “the horrors of the work are something softened”. Unlike the critics of the early 19th century – apparently – when I open a Gothic novel, I want a Gothic novel, dammit!

Which I suppose is another way of saying I’ve got no issue with “improbabilities”…



Madame Margot: A Grotesque Legend Of Old Charleston

Crouched in a high-backed chair sat a shriveled, dead-alive, mummy-like figure, as thin and fleshless as a skeleton,—an apparition, sinister, white, and wasted as a corpse new-risen from the grave. Its chin upon its folded hands, its hands about one knee, the knee upheld by the heel crooked at the chair-seat’s edge, the other gaunt leg dangling across the upraised foot, the spector smiled on Margot a bleak Saturnine smile. Its face was greatly wasted; all the life of it seemed gathered into the brilliant, terrible eyes, which blazed with infernal light, in a splendid scorn, without remorse, sardonical; a countenance such as God alone endures to look upon unmoved…








The circumstances surrounding John Bennett’s 1921 retelling of the legend of Madame Margot are at least as interesting as the story itself, and as informative. Bennett, a native of Ohio, moved to Charleston in 1898 and not only fell in love with his new home but, most rarely in those days, fell in love with the reality he saw about him and not with the myth of “the Old South”.

Fascinated by the black culture of Charleston – and this at a time when to the vast majority of white people the notion that there could be such a thing as “black culture” was ridiculous, outrageous and even insulting – Bennett began to study the Gullah language spoken by the local black population and to collect spirituals and folk-tales, some of which emanated from Africa, and some which had grown up over the decades of slavery.

Immersed in his studies and entranced by the richness and beauty of the material he was gathering, Bennett evidently failed to perceive how far he was wandering from the realm of acceptable behaviour, or how infinitely differently the “nice” people of Charleston felt about such matters. Early in 1908, he found out. Having earned an early reputation for his writing on more mainstream topics, Bennett was invited to speak before the Federation of Women’s Clubs. He accepted, giving his talk the title of “Old and Grotesque Legends of Charleston”. It is fair to say that both the audience and John Bennett got more than they bargained for.

The centrepiece of Bennett’s talk was a recitation of the legend of Madame Margot, a story not only of illicit love, but of love across the colour barrier. Bennett saw only the passion and the beauty of the tale; the ladies of Charleston, however, saw a calculated insult, in which the guest speaker’s use of the scandalous word “chemise” was the final straw. And so John Bennett awoke the next day to find himself an outcast in his adopted home.

Several miserable years followed for Bennett, and he did not regain something of his standing until after America’s entry into WWI. This was a time of growing racial tension in Charleston, and after an outbreak of rioting local officials appealed to Bennett for help, as a white man who could “talk to the blacks”. Whatever Bennett may have thought of owing his invitation back into society to the same perceived transgression that saw him exiled in the first place, he did as he was asked; and in fact, Bennett’s reputation amongst the black population as an honest and unprejudiced individual allowed him to help resolve the conflict.

In the years immediately following the war, Charleston underwent great and rapid change. “Old Charleston”, as John Bennett saw, was disappearing fast, and this compelled him to try once more to preserve the old legends and folk-tales. Of all of them, however, it was still the story of Madame Margot that held him in thrall; and in 1921 John Bennett submitted his version of the tale for publication. Madame Margot: A Romance Of Old Charleston (Bennett’s publishers disliked his original subtitle) was praised by critics everywhere, and a commercial success in the northern states – but in the south it was déjà vu all over again, as Bennett’s tale was dismissed as “obviously the work of a Northerner” and Bennett himself as “no gentleman”.

Madame Margot is a strange and often disturbing work. John Bennett’s use of language is closer to poetry than prose, as he piles adjectives and descriptors on top of one another in an evocative rush that is sometimes intoxicating, sometimes frankly suffocating. Bennett may not have bought into the revisionism of “the Old South”, but his vision of Charleston is equally mythic. His tale takes place in a never-never land of endless summer, of flowers perpetually in bloom, and of young people chastely in love:

Those were charmed days indeed. The town has changed since then. The world seems to have grown weary and gray, and the hearts of men bitter. The young were younger then; the old not so sorry for everything as they have been since. Then, someow, it seemed to be always summer morning, morning before the sun had burned the world to a dun crisp with his meridian heat, scorching bitter and blinding bright; before the advent of gasping afternoon with its languid leafage and evaporated sap. The calendar seemed to have paused among the daffodils, between the jessamine and the June, in that paradise of the year. The delicate and virginal camelia bloomed then, untarnished by rough wind or rain; its petals were sweet, which since then have grown so bitter…

Everything is beautiful; everyone is beautiful; but most beautiful of all, with perhaps one exception, is Marguerite Lagoux, Charleston’s leading milliner and a woman of mystery…

Her passionate, rich-colored, handsome face was like a line from an old enchantment, which took men’s souls captive, then cast them away without the least regret, or with a Circean spell that turned men into beasts. Her neck was a deep-colored, ivory tower poised perfectly over her breast. The dazzling orange-tawny skin of her broad bust turned to golden-russet before it reached her cheeks, and was there flushed to dusky rose, like the skin of a ruddy-gold peach. In the burnt splendor of her cheek the darkly eloquent blood in her veins made its golden proclamation…

While it still upset Charleston, it is evident in the light of the novella’s history that the written version of Madame Margot is not quite the same story as John Bennett told to his shocked audience on that fatal afternoon in 1908. For one thing, the racial aspect is played down to the point of being almost unobservable, unless the reader is already aware of it. Madame Margot herself is known by a variety of names to her various classes of acquaintance – Marguerite, Rita, Margoton – evidence of her ultimate “unknowability”. She is a tawny beauty, but no clear reference is made to her mixed blood; except perhaps in that deliberately contradictory description of her neck as “deep-colored ivory”. In a passion, Margot breaks not into Gullah, but into French. The word “creole”, used to describe the community in which she dwells, is ambiguous, as indeed is Margot’s “darkly eloquent blood”.

Still more extreme, and more misleading, is Bennett’s description of Margot’s daughter, Gabrielle, whose golden beauty is so rapturous that it takes a full five pages to describe (Margot’s own takes three and a half). In this dizzying word-picture, the original significance of Gabrielle is quite lost. The tale that offended John Bennett’s audience was one of a love affair between a white man and a woman of mixed blood; their daughter, although like her mother condemned as “coloured” by the world outside, is a vision of golden perfection able, and with ease, to pass as white.

Or at least, she could if her mother ever allowed her to be seen. As it is, Margot and Gabrielle inhabit a tiny, enclosed cottage in a secret corner of Charleston, a house surrounded by high walls and thick vegetation, where Gabrielle matures and blossoms in secret, hidden from the world by her terrified mother, who can foresee none but a tragic fate for such transcendent beauty:

Ever before her imagining was Gabrielle, dishonored and betrayed, abandoned to scorn and poverty…

And so Gabrielle lives a life of lonely innocence behind the barriers, the “cloistral hedges”, of her mother’s creation. Moved beyond words or understanding by the burgeoning loveliness of early spring, Gabrielle discovers a great yearning in her heart for something she does not understand and can barely give a name to, until the day when the inevitable happens:

As she stood thus, brooding on life’s inexplicable theme, she was aware of a sudden shadow which fell on the grass beside her, and turned in voiceless terror. There was a face in the green hedge, smiling, two butterflies hovering over it,—a lad’s face, laughing and debonair, with yellow hair curling around it like crisp little golden flames… Gabrielle, startled and terrified, shrank back against the magnolia’s black bole, one trembling, hesitant hand extended in doubt. Speechless she stared at that bright, boyish face with its nimbus of sunlit, yellow hair, until her dry eyes gushed tears, dimming her sight,—stared in wonder and adoration…

There is a shy reaching out, an embrace, a tender kiss, a promise of a further meeting… For Margot, one glance at her enraptured daughter is enough to tell the tale; the cloak of happiness that envelops Gabrielle repels her mother’s despairing railing against love as folly, as a lie, as the source of all wretchedness:

“God keep you from it. Two parts are pain, two sorrow, and the other two parts are death…”

Margot has already prayed that Gabrielle be saved from this fate – “she prayed for her daughter as she had never prayed for herself” – and that night, as a violent storm builds, she throws herself down before her crucifix and implores heavenly intervention, first begging, then demanding, a sign from God that He has heard her prayer and will answer it. Hour after hour she prays, but no sign comes:

Margot clung to the foot of the crucifix. “Pourquoi, O Dieu, rejettes-tu?” she asked in a voice grown shriveled and thin. She crouched a moment, motionless, her head on one side, listening. There was no reply. Heaven maintained its brassy silence. Her face went gray; her eyes were hard as stones; she turned her back on the crucifix, saying, “I will call upon You no more.”

And with that, Margot directs her prayers in another direction, towards someone terrifyingly prompt to answer them…and who does so in person…

We are left, in Madame Margot, to draw our own inferences about the life-history that drives Margot to this desperate pass; and here too there is a sense that John Bennett’s renovation of the story has interfered somewhat with its original intent. Clearly, Margot’s terror is rooted in her belief that her own sins are to be visited upon her daughter, her knowledge that Gabrielle, however immaculately innocent herself, is a child of sin. Yet this is contradicted somewhat in the text itself, where Margot’s cry to God that, “You breathed into her life; by your law she was made”, implies that Gabrielle was indeed born within wedlock, albeit a marriage kept secret, brief and unhappy.

This uncertainty about Gabrielle’s standing, along with the omission of any detail about the identity of her father, leads to an unsettling ambiguity. Margot’s anguished prayers finally settle into a mantra – “Plus blanche que la neige! Gabrielle, ma fille, mon Dieu! plus blanche que la neige!” – in which it is disturbingly unclear whether she is asking that Gabrielle be kept pure, “whiter than snow” – or that Gabrielle literally be turned white.

“Forgive in her my transgression; pardon in her my sins; deliver her from her inheritance…O my God!…let her be white!” she first prays to God; and then, when her re-directed prayers are answered, she begs for her “heart’s desire”: “That my daughter, Gabrielle, should be white to all eternity.”

At the time of John Bennett’s writing, the word “white” was used – by white people, of course – to imply not only purity, but honour; to “be white” was to behave in an honourable fashion. This jumbling of racial, social and linguistic issues and the triple-loading of the word “white” within the text makes it impossible to dissect out Bennett’s meaning here, or to be quite certain what it is that Margot is asking. Is Gabrielle’s “inheritance” her mother’s sin, or her mother’s blood? Or are the two inseparable? Does one signify the other? – and conversely, is to be white to be without sin?

With frightening promptitude, Margot’s prayers are answered. Gabrielle is whisked away to “a convent-school for orphaned girls kept by the nuns in New Orleans”, and there she remains until the memory of the golden boy has faded: “God made memory cruel, that men might know remorse; but the Devil devised forgetfulness, anodyne of regret.” She is in time married to a wealthy planter’s only son, and, “Secure in a faithful man’s unaltering love, she dwelt serene, in a country where the fruits of the earth and the flowers of the forest spread natural loveliness about fields of unsurpassed fertility. She never knew winter, want, nor war…”

(Given what we know or suspect of Gabrielle’s heritage, however, there is something singularly disturbing, in the midst of the account of her life of perfect happiness, about hearing that, “A thousand slaves were happy, being hers…”)

Margot’s bargain with her midnight visitor, then, yields the desired result; the promises made were kept. But there was another aspect to that dark agreement, and in due course, Margot must pay her outstanding debts. And if we are in doubt about how to interpret the language in which the bargain was struck in the first place, those doubts are perhaps resolved by the fact that, even as Gabrielle is kept whiter than snow, white to all eternity, her mother begins to change colour

As unbleached muslin sallows to dingy isabella, as metal tarnishes from neglect, as white paper dulls in the sun, as the spot on bruised fruit turns brown, Margot Lagoux was changing; she was becoming tawny, swart, bisblanc as the Creoles say. Her golden-ruddy cheeks had turned a morbid olive-brown as if a somber fountain were playing in her blood… She changed like a portrait whose shadows, painted in bitumen, have struck through and distempered the rest. Like a strange, nocturnal creature she seemed to absorb the gloom. Her glorious eyes grew jaundiced; her rose-brown lips grew dun; the delicate webs that joined her fingers grew yellow as bakers’ saffron. Malice laughed at her thickening lips…



The Law And The Lady

“Valeria! if you ever discover what I am now keeping from your knowledge – from that moment you live a life of torture; your tranquility is gone. Your days will be days of terror; your nights will be full of horrid dreams – through no fault of mine, mind! through no fault of mine! Every day of your life, you will feel some new distrust, some growing fear of me – and you will be doing me the vilest injustice all the time. On my faith as a Christian, on my honour as a man, if you stir a step in this matter there is an end of your happiness for the rest of your life!”







While living in the country with her uncle and aunt, Valeria Brinton meets and falls in love with Eustace Woodville. The two plan to marry, but Mr and Mrs Starkweather have reservations about the match, particularly when it is made clear that Eustace’s own family strongly disapproves. However, Valeria is of age and in possession of a respectable fortune, and as there is nothing they can do to prevent the marriage, the Starkweathers give up their objections. Valeria’s first act as a married woman is to mis-sign her name in the register: an act which her aunt, with gloomy satisfaction, interprets as an ill-omen.

As the Woodvilles depart on their honeymoon, Valeria is almost overwhelmed by her new happiness – but when she looks up into the face of her new husband, she finds tears in his eyes…

In Ramsgate, from where the newlyweds are to depart on a yacht cruise, Valeria is walking on the beach when she encounters a woman whom she recognises from a photograph as her new mother-in-law. Unsure how to introduce herself, Valeria is relieved when she sees Eustace approaching – but when he introduces her as his wife, his mother reacts with anger and bitter contempt. This scene is witnessed by the Woodvilles’ landlady who, fearing for the reputation of her house, makes her own inquiries and discovers that Eustace’s mother is a Mrs Macallan, and that Valeria has been married under a false name – if indeed she is married…

Nor, when Valeria questions Eustace, does he assuage her fears. He first attempts to impose an obviously fabricated story of his mother’s eccentricity upon her, and then, when Valeria refuses to be placated, suddenly breaks down, passionately declaring his love and swearing that the problem is only one between his mother and himself. Valeria, however, cannot rest. Without Eustace’s knowledge, she finds her way to Mrs Macallan and begs her for the truth. Mrs Macallan confirms that Eustace has married Valeria under an assumed name, but adds that she is certain the marriage is nevertheless legal. More than this she will not say – other than to warn Valeria, if she values her marriage and her peace of mind, not to seek to know any more.

At Eustace’s request, the two return to London, where Valeria is reassured about her legal position. However, when her attitude makes it clear to Eustace that she cannot do as he wishes and ask no more questions, or pretend that nothing is wrong, he warns her in the strongest language that if she inquires any further into his motives, she will shatter their marriage and destroy all possibility of happiness for them both.

To Valeria, these things have already come to pass. Unable to accept the thought of a life lived in the shadow of some terrible mystery, she makes up her mind to seek the truth, whatever it is and whatever the cost. As a first step, she pays a call upon an old friend of Eustace’s family, Major Fitz-David, and confronts him about her situation. The Major, an elderly roué with a deficiency of character and a weakness for pretty women, is completely dismayed by Valeria’s demand for information, but unable to bring himself to reject her plea for help outright. Telling her that he is sworn to secrecy on the matter of Eustace’s history, he also lets her know that the truth is hidden somewhere in his library, inviting her to find it if she can.

Left alone, Valeria begins a desperate search. Her first discovery is a photograph of Eustace with another woman, the back inscribed, E. & S. M. Her second, the discovery that will change her life, is the published report of a trial – a murder trial – the trial of Eustace Macallan for the arsenic poisoning of his wife, Sarah, which ended in a verdict neither of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty”, but in the unique Scottish outcome of “Not Proven”…

As is evident in many of his novels, Wilkie Collins’ early training was in the law; and in spite of the turn taken by his professional life, it was an interest he never lost. In The Law And The Lady, Collins draws heavily upon the famous case of Madeleine Smith, who was tried in Edinburgh in 1857 for the arsenic poisoning of her lover, and notoriously escaped with a verdict of “Not Proven”. This singular Scottish turn of the law forms the basis of this novel, wherein Eustace Macallan is neither convicted nor acquitted of his wife’s murder, but receives what Wilkie Collins repeatedly calls “the iniquitous Scotch verdict”. To Eustace (and to Collins), this outcome leaves upon the accused an ineradicable stain, and makes his life with Valeria impossible, once she has become aware of his ambiguous situation.

(Of course, whether the verdict of “Not Proven” was really as “iniquitous” as Wilkie Collins clearly believed probably depends upon where you stood with respect to it. To Eustace, conscious of his own innocence, it is an intolerable insult. To Madeleine Smith, however, whom pretty much everyone believed guilty except her jury – actually, scratch that, including her jury – it was in all likelihood extremely welcome.)

Wilkie Collins stands apart from most other prominent male novelists of the Victoriam era not only because of the sensational subject matter with which he habitually dealt, but for his attitude towards women. I never get any sense from the novels of Charles Dickens, for example, that he actually liked women; as symbols, possibly; but not as real people. Anthony Trollope is far more positive in his attitude – but only up to a point – only towards those of his female characters who are content to live their lives within some extremely narrow parameters. A step outside, and the result is generally punitive.

Wilkie Collins, however, although he was certainly not above exploiting their legal and social inequality for his own advantage, clearly did like women; and perhaps more importantly, he understood them. Above all, he knew that they were far from being the unimpassioned and straightforward creatures that convention demanded, and that most novels described – and was not disturbed by that knowledge. One of the enduring pleasures of Collins’ novels is their wide variety of female characters, who are nearly always handled sympathetically – even the “bad” women. Especially the “bad” women.

In drawing upon the law for his plots, Collins often displayed a particular interest in the way that legal anomalies effected women in a society in which a woman’s status was wholly determined by her family and marital standing, and was thus to a very large extent beyond her control. So it is in The Law And The Lady, a story told in the first-person by its heroine, who is one of the more remarkable creations of Victorian literature – not least because she represents perhaps the very first female detective in literary history, as she sets out to discover the truth about the death of her husband’s first wife, and to prove the innocence of which she has no doubt.

Ill-omens abound at the marriage of Valeria Brinton and Eustace Woodville; and we are not much surprised at the rapidity with which things go wrong. The nature of the mishap does, however, catch us off-guard. Nothing we have learned about Eustace, even allowing for the partiality of Valeria’s account of him, makes him strike us as the kind of cad who could deliberately take advantage of a woman’s trust – yet that is exactly what, it appears, he has done. The failure of the woman whom she knows to be Eustace’s mother to react when introduced to (presumably) another “Mrs Woodville” bewilders her daughter-in-law, who can only wait for the arrival of her husband to clear the matter up.

But the arrival of Eustace brings with it not merely more bewilderment, but a growing fear. When he does, and obviously with reluctance, introduce Valeria to his mother as his wife, the older woman reacts with outrage and scorn – all of it directed at her son.

Wilkie Collins wastes no time here in letting us know exactly what is at stake for Valeria – not only her private happiness, but her public reputation. The Woodvilles’ landlady is a witness of these scenes, and makes it her business to inquire into the truth; and although it is absolutely clear that Valeria is at worst the innocent victim of deception, she is inexorable in her subsequent rejection of her boarder:

“I am in a position to tell you, madam, what your mother-in-law’s name really is. She knows nothing about any such person as Mrs Woodville, for an excellent reason. Her name is not Woodville. Her name (and consequently her son’s name) is Macallan. Mrs Macallan, widow of the late General Macallan. Yes! your husband is not your husband. You are neither maid, wife, nor widow. You are worse than nothing, madam – and you leave my house.”

And the landlady is only getting started. Although she admits that whatever is wrong is none of Valeria’s doing, she does not care. Valeria’s standing as a woman is equivocal, and that means (and the word is used repeatedly) that she is “tainted” – and a tainted woman infects everyone with whom she comes in contact; infects the very building that houses her.

Valeria manages to hold her landlady at bay for a short time with the suggestion that Mrs Macallan was twice married (recognising as she does so that even were this the case, she would hardly have failed to react to the name “Mrs Woodville”), and goes to confront her mother-in-law.

Mrs Macallan, however, gives her little comfort – beyond the assurance that, legally, she is Eustace’s wife. That some terrible secret lies behind Eustace’s deception is clear; but Mrs Macallan is unmoved by Valeria’s pleas for the truth:

“I believe you to be lawfully my son’s wife; and I say again, make the best of your position. Be satisfied with your husband’s affectionate devotion to you. If you value your peace of mind, and the happiness of your life to come, abstain from attempting to know more than you know now.”

Valeria gets the same advice from her main sympathiser, her late father’s old clerk, Benjamin, who has known her since childhood, and to whom she tells her troubles:

“Leave things as they are, my dear. In the interest of your own peace of mind, be satisfied with your husband’s affection. You know that you are his wife, and you know that he loves you. Surely that is enough?”

But of course, it isn’t enough.

The detective story is so embedded in our culture now that we don’t think twice about its conventions, or question why its protagonist, professional or amateur, will persist in his or her search for the truth despite hardship, danger, violence, and in many cases people dropping dead on all sides. Such was not the case, however, when Wilkie Collins penned The Law And The Lady, in which he is doubly constrained by the sex of his detective. His answer to this conundrum, or one of them, is to cast Valeria’s quest in acceptably feminine terms: she is fighting to save her marriage; to vindicate her husband; to rehabilitate the reputation of the father of her child. What could be more womanly?

But in reality, it’s all much simpler than that. The most critical and revealing moment in this novel comes late in the story, when Valeria has succeeded in opening up a new line of inquiry about the death of Eustace’s first wife, and there is an excellent chance of the whole truth being discovered at last. Prior to this, Valeria has been in contact with Eustace, although without his knowledge. After leaving Valeria, Eustace enlists as a medical aide during the ongoing Spanish civil war.  When he is wounded, Valeria immediately goes to him, to nurse him – but only while he is unconscious or delirious; only while he cannot know her. When he begins to recover, she withdraws. Afterwards, Mrs Macallan tells Eustace of this, and this evidence of Valeria’s generosity and enduring love breaks down his resolve. He sends, via his mother, a plea for a reconciliation – but upon one condition: that Valeria give up her quest:

    I laid down the letter, and did my best (vainly enough for some time) to compose my spirits. To understand the position in which I now found myself, it is only necessary to remember one circumstance. The messenger to whom we committed our enquiries was, at that moment, crossing the Atlantic on his way to New York.
    What was to be done?
    I hesitated. Shocking as it may seem to some people, I hesitated…

And here we cut to the heart of the matter. Valeria may explain and excuse her conduct in terms of her love, her marriage, her pregnancy, but in the end her motives are even more fundamental, more primal, than that: Valeria has to know because she has to know.

But this was not, in its time, an acceptable reason for a woman to step outside the bounds of conventional behaviour, as Wilkie Collins makes abundantly clear in an early confrontation between Valeria and Eustace, wherein we find to our astonishment (and very likely, to our disgust) that Eustace considers himself the injured party:

“If you could control your curiosity,’ he answered, sternly, ‘we might live happily enough. I thought I had married a woman who was superior to the vulgar failings of her sex. A good wife should know better than to pry into affairs of her husband’s with which she has no concern.”

One of Collins’ concerns in this novel is the often impossible situation of “the good wife”, expected to be blind and deaf – and dumb – if it suits her husband’s convenience. To modern readers, the idea that Eustace’s love is “enough”, and that Valeria should spend her entire married life pretending that nothing is wrong between them is simply outrageous; but that this was not necessarily so for contemporary readers of The Law And The Lady is very evident from the tone of the ensuing tale.

Here, Valeria has been deceived by her lover from the moment of their first meeting. She has been married under false pretences; and, having been so, is now expected to live her life in the shadow of a lie. She has been kept in the dark not only about the circumstances of the death of her husband’s first wife, but even about her existence – and also about her husband’s secret love for another woman, not his wife. Yet to ask why? is to behave with unpardonable temerity; to persist beyond the first rebuff is to be a vulgar, inferior woman.

A good wife, we understand, asks no questions. A good wife looks the other way. She does not confront; she does not insist. She lives a lie if she must. She “suffers and is still“.

But Valeria, by Victorian standards, is in many ways a very bad wife…and therein lies the enduring interest of this novel.

Even with the absolute prohibition of her husband upon her (who she has, presumably, only a few days since promised to obey), Valeria persists in her inquiries. She gets what she was seeking – more than she bargained for – with the passive assistance of Major Fitz-David, who won’t break his word to Eustace by telling Valeria the truth, but obliquely points her in the direction of finding it. Opening the transcript of Eustace’s trial, she reads no further than the bald title statement of her husband having stood accused of the murder of his wife before, between shock and exhaustion, she faints. Upon regaining consciousness, she demands to see Eustace. Her only thought is to convince him of her belief in his innocence.

For Eustace, however, the mere fact that Valeria knows his secret means an end to everything. Waving aside her protestations of love and loyalty, he insists that now it is only a matter of time before suspicion and distrust grows between them; that through her stubbornness and disobedience, Valeria has made it impossible that the two of them can go on together.

And having made arrangements for her financial security, Eustace leaves his wife of only a few days, determined never to return. Valeria, then, when she begins her quest, is one of Victorian England’s unacceptable women: a deserted wife.

Valeria is, after a fashion, supported in her search for the truth by a number of reluctant allies: Mrs Macallan; Major Fitz-David; Mr Starkweather; Mr Benjamin; and Mr Playmore, Eustace’s former legal counsel. All of them react to her determination to reinvestigate the death of her predecessor with a mixture of horror at her dogged refusal to behave like a woman – that is, to be passive, to do nothing – and condescending amusement at the idea that she could discover the truth where The Law (i.e. men) failed to do so. From the unanimity of their reactions, we are to understand that even Valeria’s untenable social position is hardly sufficient excuse for her subsequent behaviour. Indeed, Valeria thinks so herself – or at least, she says she does.

As narrator of this novel, Valeria is able to tell her own story in her own way – and in the process spends much time criticising her own behaviour, exclaming in disbelief at her own outrageousness, and pleading with the reader to somehow try and understand what she concedes cannot possibly be forgiven.

This is, at all points, a case of the lady protesting far too much. The question is, who is really speaking here? – and how far do they believe what they say? Is this Wilkie Collins, thinking that Valeria’s behaviour needs this much excusing – or thinking that his readers might think so, and anticipating their negative reaction to his heroine? Is it Valeria, honestly describing her perception of her own behaviour? Or is it simply a tactical manoeuvre on her part, a veil of fluttering femininity thrown over over a series of actions that are, by the standards of her day, anything but properly feminine?

And in fact, The Law And The Lady spends much of its time pondering questions of “masculinity” and “femininity”, although rarely explicitly. Valeria evidently feels that her own strength of character is something that requires an apology; while ironically, all the time that Mrs Macallan is recommending a traditionally unquestioning and submissive role to Valeria, it is increasingly apparent that she, too, is made of much sterner stuff than her son. Eustace himself displays very few “manly” qualities: what his loyal wife excuses as “acute sensitivity” strikes the less sympathetic reader as a mixture of weakness and cowardice. His impulse to run and hide contrasts strikingly with Valeria’s own to stand up and fight; so much so that by the end of the novel, it is impossible not to believe that in spite of Valeria’s repeated claims to be striving for a traditional life as a traditional wife, for this strong-willed woman Eustace’s weakness is a large part of his attraction.

The most startlingly feminine man in the book, however, is also its most indelible creation: Miserrimus Dexter, a man born with the lower portion of his body missing; who has become almost one with his wheelchair; and whose disturbingly inappropriate handsomeness conceals a mind teetering between brilliance and insanity.

Learning that not only was Dexter visiting Eustace at the time of Sarah Macallan’s death, but that he spoke up for Eustace at his trial, Valeria determines against all advice to visit him at his isolated house, where she finds him attended only by his half-witted cousin, a woman he derisively dubs “Ariel”, and whose literally dog-like devotion to her “master” is both touching and unnerving.

The encounters between Valeria and Dexter have about them something of the quality of a fairy-tale – or of a nightmare. At first, Valeria is bested by Dexter, who easily reads her thoughts and feelings and skillfully manipulates her, particularly with regard to Mrs Beauly, the “other woman”, who Valeria rather too eagerly comes to believe was the real murderer. But over time, Valeria’s understanding of her ally-adversary grows, and with it her ability to manipulate him. Convinced that Dexter knows the truth of Sarah Macallan’s death, Valeria pulls him into a battle of wits, determined to draw the truth from him with or without his volition, and whatever the ultimate cost…

The Law And The Lady does not share the broad palette and extensive cast of varied characters of Wilkie Collins’ best-known novels, but in this single aspect it can compete with the best of them. Although his sketch is coloured to an uncomfortable degree with contemporary assumptions about the nature of mental illness, in Miserrimus Dexter Wilkie Collins succeeds in creating a character who is in turns pathetic, amusing, and terrifying.

Writing in 1875, Wilkie Collins cannot, of course, tell us explicitly what is missing from Miserrimus Dexter, his “half man, half machine”, but he makes his point by loading Dexter with traditionally feminine characteristics: his love of bright colours and interest in fabrics; his talent for cooking and needlework; and above all, the extreme emotionality of his nature and his tendency to go into hysterics. However, while Dexter is, in all overt respects, much more feminine than Valeria, this is not simply a contrast between a feminised man and a masculinised woman. Rather, Collins uses Dexter’s extreme outbursts to disguise the extent to which he and Valeria are alike, particularly in the way that both of them (consciously or unconsciously) use heightened female behaviour to disguise their more masculine impulses.

Dexter, indeed, is presented in such skewed terms that his declared obsessive love for the late Sarah Macallan seems like a joke – until suddenly, frighteningly, that obsession transfers itself to Valeria, and is revealed as anything but platonic. Valeria, on the other hand, uses her position of control as teller of the story to throw a feminine smokescreen over the clear intelligence with which she reviews the trial transcript and related testimonies, and the strength and determination with which she pursues her ends – in the process repeatedly defying a range of male authority figures, all of whom are of course presumed to “know better” than she.

At the same time, Valeria can be feminine enough, when it suits her; when she chooses; which is exactly Collins’ point. In Eustace and Valeria, as in Miserrimus Dexter and Mrs Macallan, we see the absurdity of pre-determining abilities and behaviours as “naturally” masculine or feminine; character isn’t that simple.

For Valeria, traditional femininity is a disguise that she dons when she needs to, whether to excuse her behaviour to the reader – forgive me, I’m only a woman – or to impose her will upon a man. We see this in her various approaches to Major Fitz-David and to Dexter, both susceptible to the attractions of a womanly woman. And finally – and in a twisted sort of way, fittingly – we see it in her reconciliation with Eustace.

Circumstances do bring Valeria and Eustace back together before the mystery of Sarah Macallan’s death is solved. At that time, the promise to give up her quest, over which Valeria so shockingly “hesitated”, remains ungiven – and when Eustace presses her for it, she hesitates again. It is now only a matter of time before the truth is uncovered, as Valeria well knows. So close to the end, can she bring herself to give it all up? – as, surely, a good wife would do, at her husband’s first word.

By now, I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear that, no, she cannot. But how to put off the equally determined Eustace? Simple: she asks in turn a promise of him – that the subject not again be mentioned between the two of them until after the birth of their child – by which time Valeria confidently expects to have the truth in her possession, as indeed it proves.

A woman using her pregnancy as a weapon to get her own way—what on earth could be more feminine than that?