“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 that 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 engrained 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…”
“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.