Archive for June, 2011

25/06/2011

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 2)

…plans of emancipation, elaborated from the brain of the patriot, found their way through his brother-son to the Senate hall of the Commonwealth. These were then freely admitted and discussed; but, as the years went by, opposition rose against them. The season had gone by; the enthusiasm for the cause of general emancipation, raised by their recent glorious victories in the cause of Liberty, had subsided. Like that of self-deceived converts to Christianity, they had become false to their first love, recreant to their first faith, lukewarm to the cause of universal liberty. And projects for the emancipation of mankind were fast giving way before selfish (miscalled patriotic) plans of national glory…

[SPOILERS]

To begin frankly— I am perfectly ignorant when it comes to the way slavery was addressed in novels of the 19th century. Like most people, I suspect, when it comes to abolitionist literature, I think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and that’s about it. Retribution is the first time I’ve come across abolition as a plot thread in what we might call an “ordinary novel”, a novel of entertainment; and while here again E.D.E.N. Southworth is not entirely successful in her presentation of her material, the fact that, at a time when she was writing to earn a living for her family, she nevertheless had the courage to tackle such a controversial theme to any degree seems to me admirable. I gather that, later on, when she was more established as a writer, Southworth wrote at least one more novel that dealt more forthrightly with slavery than does Retribution.

(I should probably mention here that Emma Southworth and Harriet Beecher Stowe were good friends.)

Although written in 1849, Retribution is set from the late 1790s through the first decades of the next century. This distancing of the story is not merely a safety mechanism for its author, divorcing the novel’s events from contemporary attitudes; it also allows Southworth to vent her frustration and disappointment with her countrymen. The two Ernest Dents and Hester’s father were all veterans of the War of Independence; and we hear, through Hester, her creator’s dismay at the way that the high ideals on which a nation was founded, the dreams of the equality of man and inalienable rights, were so swiftly compromised, reinterpreted and set aside.

One of those guilty of this is Hester’s own father, a Virginian and a slave-owner. Although the friendship forged at Yorktown leads him to name his comrade Ernest Dent as his daughter’s guardian, politically the two men could not be more divided. Thus an active abolitionist finds himself entrusted with a plantation of some three hundred slaves. General Dent’s compromise is, using his own money in the first instance, to begin running the property on a principle of wage-labour, with the slaves paid a percentage of its earnings. The experiment is a success; and General Dent further introduces an education program, under which the slaves are taught to read and write. All this is explained to Hester when her soon-to-be husband removes her from school. She is as enthusiastic about the scheme as the Dents could wish:

I have aims and objects now that occupy all my thoughts and employ all my faculties. I told you that Colonel Dent’s plan was a progressive one. Our final object in wishing to make this farm the very best and most beautiful in the state, is that, first, our nearest neighbours, who have seen every stage of this improvement, and then others, may perceive its benefits, and be induced to adopt it—thus paving the way to an emancipation that shall be agreeable and profitable to all parties. We wish to demonstrate on this farm the practicability of this plan.

One of the perpetual arguments against abolition was the question of what would happen if there was a blanket emancipation under which countless former slaves found themselves homeless and with no way to support themselves. I imagine that schemes such as the one Southworth articulates here in her novel, a graduated move from slave-labour to paid-labour, was one of the mooted alternatives – at least before history overwhelmed the situation.

Soon after her arrival at her family home, Hester learns that the property, known as The Vale, has a strange and bloody history, one which impacts upon her inheritance of it and her subsequent actions. Out riding with Ernest, Hester hears how her ancestor, determined to have the rich valley for his own, arranged the slaughter of its native inhabitants; and how the last survivor of the tribe, a woman, put a curse upon the land and those who would subsequently occupy it – a curse which in part threatened, that he who had murdered her sons before her face, be sonless to the end of time; he and his children. Ernest, of course, scoffs at this as nonsense, and sharply scolds Hester for the emotion she betrays; but he cannot get away from the fact that there has never been a son born to the owners of The Vale; that, in a strange sort of reverse entail, the property, destined to pass to the direct heir, has been handed down from mother to daughter over many generations. Men marry into it; they never own it.

(There are other aspects to this comprehensive curse, all of which also come true over the course of the story – including the threat of domestic treachery and misery: When they most fondly loved and trusted, might they still be most darkly betrayed…)

Although married at eighteen, Hester nevertheless will not control her property until she turns twenty-one. She is bitterly disappointed, but must resign herself to the legal ruling. In the meantime, promising the slaves that they will be free as soon as she comes of age, she continues the wage system and the education programs initiated by the Dents.

But by the time her coming-of-age is imminent, Hester is dying. Even in this extremity, her thoughts are upon the solemn promises she made. Ernest, between his political commitments and his secret, sickening guilt, is away from home. Hester summons a lawyer and has the deeds of manumission drawn up. Having done so, she must then cling to life through two days and two nights, holding desperately to the last fibres of her existence until the clock strikes midnight and she may set a wavering signature to the papers. By seven the next morning, she is dead.

And then Ernest, good old Ernest, points out that Hester was born at 10.00 pm; that she was strictly twenty-two hours short of her majority when she signed the papers, which are therefore invalid.

I may say that I have no idea whether Ernest’s objection would in fact be legally binding. The bigger question seems to be why he said anything at all. Possibly this hair-splitting was meant to illustrate the height of his principles, but it is more likely to strike us as a case of narrowness of the soul. It should, however, be pointed out that Ernest does not profit directly by his actions: Hester’s property descends to her daughter, the infant Julie, to be held in trust until she is of age; and the slaves, having waited so many years, must wait again:

    “But I hope to persuade you, Colonel Dent, to leave Minny with your daughter. Believe me, she will need a younger pair of feet than mine to follow her little steps about.”
    “Then take one of the girls from the plantation; take Kitty or Harriet.”
    “Oh! sir, Kitty or Harriet won’t do. They dislike the child; all the colored people do; although it is not like colored people to do so; but they have been so bitter, and grumbled so much, since their young mistress’s death.”
    “Grumbled?”
    “Yes, sir, grumbled. They say that Mrs. Dent loved her child better than she loved right and justice. They complain that she broke her promise; and, instead of setting them free, has left them all, with their children, and their children’s children, forever and hopelessly enslaved. And they dislike the child, as the supposed cause of their misfortune. It is very unjust, but you must allow for their disappointment, Colonel Dent.”

It is a valid criticism of Retribution that it tends to look at slavery from a safe distance. The slaves, with one exception, are never characters; they are more like a theory being worked out. But this might only be a reflection of the fact that, as a young woman and a non-slave owner, Southworth was lacking first-hand knowledge, and preferred to stick with what she did know. Her argument here, which allows her to stay with Ernest and Juliette, is that slavery degrades all parties to it, slave owners and slaves alike.

Juliette’s attitude to the institution is another black strike on her character: she enjoys not just the leisured existence, but the feeling of power that comes with “ownership”; and for a time the besotted Ernest indulges her. Ernest himself, whose political career continues to flourish, is appointed Ambassador to France. The newlyweds arrive just after the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (if you pay attention, there’s a careful timeline in this novel), and Juliette, La Circe Americaine, soon becomes the cynosure of the court. The revenues from The Vale, which belong to the child Julie, are squandered on jewels, gowns and other extravagances.

It is belatedly made quite clear that Juliette herself is also the child of slave owners, with a sudden and shocking account of the uprising in St Domingo (that is, Saint-Domingue, Haiti) from which the young Giullietta so narrowly escaped with her life. It is also made clear that slavery is a form of violence that can only beget vilence; and that Juliette’s heritage has left her tainted – marked for retribution almost from her cradle:

“A burning homestead, smoke, flames, falling roofs, glowing beams and blazing rafters hurled through the air before the furious blast, and hundreds of dark demons leaping, capering, and exulting in frantic orgies through the scene. These were the sights. The reverberation of the thunder—the roaring of the sea—the noise of the cataracts—the howls and shrieks of the wind—the groans of the wounded and dying—the screams of the women and children, and the triumphant shouts of the blacks. These were the sounds. Yes, Ippolyto! borne in a pair of strong, rugged arms, rested against a coarse, rough chest, through this scene of night and tempest, of flame and massacre, of shouts and groans, I was hurried, whirled. Yes, Ippolyto! that is the first thing I recollect of life. And the scene lives before me now, not as a retrospect, but as a vision—not as a memory, but as a prophecy.”

And indeed, by this stage of the novel, night and tempest, flame and massacre essentially describes Juliette’s character; while she is doomed in the reader’s eyes long before this sense of foreboding grips her. There is a second plot thread in this novel that addresses slavery, apart from Juliette’s and Hester’s relative backgrounds and their attitudes; and the two collide when Juliette, in a sick jealous rage, become convinced that the Dents’ single house slave, Minny, is Ernest’s mistress. Her vengeance is swift:

“Mrs. Wimset, I have sent for you to request you to send Minny Dozier to the quarters—to the quarters of the field negroes—with a note to the overseer, directing him to set her to work tomorrow with the others.”

Mrs. Wimset, the housekeeper, instead goes directly to Ernest, who as she anticipates intervenes. This both confirms Juliette’s suspicions and pushes her over the edge; and when Ernest, the root of the matter made clear to him, makes the mistake of laughing at his wife, Juliette’s response is to pick up a pistol…

Early in the novel, in one of his few uncompromised acts, Ernest Dent purchases a female slave, to rescue her from the fate that her youth and beauty would otherwise seem to make inevitable. At first, the girl’s erratic behaviour makes Hester worry that she is slightly unbalanced; but her entire devotion to the Dents is very clear. She becomes the baby Julie’s nurse; and as the two girls draw together over their love for the child, Hester extracts from Minny the terrible secret of her life—that young as she is, she too is a wife and a mother…

The story of Minny is one of Retribution‘s most frustrating aspects – but perhaps we need to blame the marketplace, not the author. Here is Hester’s description of Minny, in a letter to Juliette:

She is gentle and docile, but not quick in intellect. The child delights what you term my artistic love of beauty. Her frame is slight, but rounded and graceful; her hands and feet beautifully delicate; her head small; her forehead low, but shaded with a quantity of shining purplish black hair; her complexion is of that opaque white usually seen in quadroons, and sets into stronger relief the straight black eyebrows and long black eyelashes; her eyes are large and soft, tender and still. I have never seen her eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow…

Now, we’ve seen this tactic before, in The Rebel’s Daughter – which was written fifty years after Retribution, remember – the implication that readers, white readers, can only be expected to sympathise with a slave who is beautiful, who is in some other way remarkable, and above all who is herself – and it always is a girl, it seems – essentially white. And whether society or her own sensibilities dictated it, in the end Southworth’s portrait of Minny manages to be both ridiculously idealised and extremely moving.

Minny is the child of a white father and a half-caste mother; and while her father, Alphonse Dozier, a French West Indian, did sincerely love the woman he took as his mistress, the fact that she was his slave, that she had no choice, broke her heart and her spirit. She died young, leaving behind a quarter-blood child, Erminie – Minny – who became her stricken father’s constant companion. It barely occured to either of them that Minny, as well as being her father’s beloved daughter, was his slave, his property.

As she grew, the child proved to have an extraordinary gift for music, her favourite pasttime being to learn from, and to sing back to, the birds; and it is while she is doing this that she attracts and captivates a young man, Guillieme La Chappelle, himself a singer, and the son of a great maestro engaged to perform in Havana. And so Guillieme and Minny were married. Even then it did not cross Alphonse Dozier’s mind to reveal Minny’s history, or to make arrangements for her future. Of course, he meant to, some day

In the meantime, Guillieme lived with his wife and her father, teaching her to read and write, to draw, and to play musical instruments – until being summoned to Paris by news of his own father’s illness. His departure triggers two great shocks – Minny gives birth prematurely to a daughter, and Alphonse dies of apoplexy. In Guillieme’s absence, Dozier’s property falls into the hands of his cousins, who are swift to put Minny in her place:

    “Ole massa never offered for to give your free papers, did he?”
    “Free papers?”
    “Dem’s dey—have you got dem?”
    “I don’t know what you mean, aunty.”
    “Sorry for you; dis is what I mean. You ‘longed to ole massa jes’ as much as any of us; all de same you hadn’t been his darter; mudder slave woman—darter slave too.”
    “But my husband will return.”
    “Ef he does he can’t do nuffin’ ‘t all; you don’t ‘long to him. Property is property, and you anoder man’s property.”

The shellshocked Minny is promptly separated from her daughter – having a baby with her will lower her market price – and sold off to a slave merchant. She first ends up in New Orleans, where she is sold again to a plantation-owner from Richmond. She is rescued from life as her new owner’s whore in the first instance due to her hysterical grief, which ruins both her looks and her constitution, but ultimately only because of the death of her master. She is then returned to the auction block – and catches the eye of Ernest Dent.

This is the story that Minny tells to Hester – who, sickened and distressed by it, is still more deeply moved by knowing the end of it, which Minnie does not know: of a terrible tragedy, of a fire aboard a ship in which, after saving numerous lives himself, the young opera singer Guillieme La Chappelle is presumed to have perished. But this Hester does not reveal…

The abolitionist plot recedes in Retribution while it concentrates upon the spiralling misery of Ernest and Juliette; but after Juliette’s attempt on her husband’s life, it returns to the fore. It is Minny’s story which is first resolved. It is in Ernest’s power, he having bought Minny in the first place, to free her – and this he does. At first Ernest offers Minny the choice between retaining her place in the household at a fair salary or having her way paved for a career as a singer, but both options are forestalled when, in town, Ernest is confronted by a grave young man leading a lovely little child by the hand; a man whose long search has finally borne fruit.

Guillieme explains to Ernest that not only was he seriously injured in the maritime disaster on his way back to Havana, but that he had the further misfortune afterwards to be picked up by a ship heading in the wrong direction – back to Europe. At length returning, he discovered to his horror Minny’s fate, and managed to trace her to New Orleans – but no further. The child, however, contrary to what Minny had been told, was still at her grandfather’s former plantation. Here, too, Guillieme reveals that Alphonse Dozier did, at the last minute, do the right thing: not only granting his daughter her freedom, but making her the legal heir to his property…only he gave the papers to Guillieme, just before he left for Paris…

Why prolong this scene? Who can not follow, in imagination, the little, reunited, joyful family, through the hours, too blissful for eating or sleeping, that immediately followed their meeting? The next morning…they set out for Norfolk, whence in a few days, they sailed for Havana, they reached the Dell, where, reader, they still live prosperous and happy…

Oh, they do, do they? The French opera singer – and his quadroon wife – and their octoroon children? In the early 1800s? I’d love to think so; I really would.

Still, let’s not criticise Southworth for her optimism, but rather, let’s see how she wraps up her other plot. Following the final implosion of the second Dent marriage, Ernest crawls back to The Vale, broken in spirit and older than his sixty years. He finds his own situation and state of mind reflected back at him by his daughter’s neglected property, left to him in trust:

The fences and out-houses are in a miserably delapidated condition; the fields have been wretchedly tended, and the crop is nought; the trees in the orchard are, some of them, for the want of props, broken down with fruit, some of them covered with cobwebs and caterpillars, and some infested with worms; the grape vines in the vineyards,broken down by the storm of years, have been left untrained and unbound, trailling on the ground—dead—the caterpillars have woven over them a shroud of gossamer; the garden has grown up in weeds, and the cattle have trampled down the flowers; the apiary is a ruin. What had wrought this change? When the soul departs, the body falls into dissolution. The soul of liberty and hope had departed from the model farm…

And yet there is hope – but it lies in the next generation: in Julie Dent, long-neglected like her inheritance, who combines her father’s strength with her mother’s spirit and ideals. Ernest spells out to his daughter exactly what her sacrifice will involve – not only the surrender of any prospect of a leisured life, but the loss of the man she loves, who has already made it clear that if Julie proceeds, if she deliberately divests herself of her inheritance, it will mean the end of their engagement. She hesitates, but only for a moment:

Julie carried out her purpose of emancipation. Every man, woman, and child, to the number of three hundred, were freed…

It is often the case, I gather, in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, that a young woman is left to carry the torch of progress, in spite of the many obstacles placed in her way by the law, by male expectation and demand, and by social convention. Optimistic? Ideallistic? Unrealistic? Perhaps—but not to be depised on that account.

24/06/2011

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 1)

They were happy. Their reconciliation was complete…for the time. Well had it been for them had this been their only quarrel. Reader, it was only their first. The cause that produced this quarrel was not removed. The ulcer was scarred over, not healed, liable to break out again at the least irritation. It was a latent, deep-seated distrust in each other’s fidelity, but too well-founded on their knowledge of each other’s treachery. This voice of distrust, audible even amidst the full-toned music of love, became awfully distinct in the silence of cool reflection. There was no lasting peace or happiness for them. A love sown in treason could not possibly flourish in trust. Sin is its own retribution.

Shy, gentle and serious-minded, the orphaned Hester Grey is unpopular at her boarding-school, where the other girls plot and dream of romantic conquests and lives of weath and luxury and sneer at Hester’s solemn ideas of life and its duties. Taking pity on the lonely girl, one of the teachers tries to bring her out of herself by asking her to take under her wing a new pupil who is like herself an orphan.

When she was only a baby, Guillietta Nozzalina was, with her mother, a survivor of a violent slave uprising in St Domingo, in which the other members of her family were killed. Arriving in Alexandria upon an American ship, the near-catatonic woman and her infant daughter were received into the family of a local merchant. Signora Nozzalina died within a year, but the child – her name changed to Juliette Summers – was raised within the family. However, the Summers’ business failing, at sixteen Juliette found herself faced with the necessity to earn her own living, and has been sent to the school to complete her education and prepare for life as a governess.

Tall, dark and beautiful, with a rebellious and calculating nature carefully concealed from those about her, Juliette could not be more different from the shrinking Hester, who nevertheless, in her aching need for someone to love, immediately takes the newcomer to her heart. Juliette does grow fond of Hester, but her eyes are firmly fixed on the prospect of a comfortable and leisured future, when Hester comes of age and takes possession of the fortune and property currently held in trust for her.

At eighteen, Hester is taken away from school by Colonel Ernest Dent, to whom the care of herself and her property have devolved following the death of his father, General Dent. The guardianship of Hester has created a most unusual situation, with the abolitionist Dents left to manage a large, slave-based estate in Virginia. As Hester recounts in a letter to Juliette, with no legal right to free Hester’s slaves, the Dents instead put them in charge of the neglected farm attached to Hester’s house, known as The Vale, paying them wages in the form of a percentage of the farm’s subsequent earnings: the currently thriving concern becoming a practical demonstration to the surrounding plantations of the increased effectiveness and dignity of paid labour. Hester adds that it is her intention to emancipate her slaves as soon as she turns twenty-one.

In spite of the difference in their ages, Hester soons conceives a deep and worshipful love for her guardian. However, believing that so great and good a man could never care for someone so plain and insignificant as herself, Hester nurses her feelings in secret, only revealing them in her regular letters to Juliette. However, one day Colonel Dent catches her at her letter-writing – and from the depths of humiliation Hester is lifted into disbelieving joy when a proposal of marriage follows…

For Hester, her marriage represents the very pinnacle of human happiness. However, she continues to fret over her unworthiness and weakness, an attitude which increasingly draws from her complacent husband criticism and expressions of disappointment, rather than appreciation for Hester’s many virtues and abiding love. A daughter is born to the Dents, named Julie for her mother’s dearest friend. Hester’s legal attempt to use the occasion of her marriage to bring forward the date at which she may emancipate her slaves is frustrated when it is ruled that she must still wait for her coming of age, but her despondency over this outcome is tempered when Colonel Dent agrees to her request to have Juliette Summers, who has completed her schooling, come to The Vale for a visit.

Juliette, her disinclination to earn her own living having grown in parallel with her conviction that beauty like hers deserves a splendid marriage and a privileged existence, has through the years carefully nursed her relationship with Hester, fully intending that her wealthy but unassuming friend will be the means to her ends. Hester’s marriage is, therefore, something of a blow: Juliette, who has extracted from Hester’s letters an idea of Ernest Dent’s character that would horrify his wife, recognises that the Colonel may be a serious obstacle to her plans. When Hester’s invitation to The Vale arrives, Juliette accepts it avidly, conscious that while Hester herself will be easy enough to deceive and manipulate, she must tread carefully around Colonel Dent, and win his admiration at all cost.

To her surprise and secret glee, Juliette finds the task before her simpler than she could have imagined. Colonel Dent travels from The Vale into the city to collect Juliette, and is struck at first glance by her dark, imperious beauty. By the end of a week in her company, passed in shopping and in introducing Juliette to some of the pleasures of the city such as art galleries and a concert, seeds of discontent have taken root in Ernest Dent’s heart – as Juliette, although feigning obliviousness, is very well aware.

It is with great joy that Hester welcomes her dear friend into her home, marvelling at the way her presence seems to light up the house. Even Ernest seems quite changed! But Juliette has not been long under Hester’s roof before her personal plans undergo a dramatic change – for she, unlike the self-absorbed Ernest, has seen in Hester Dent the early signs of a serious illness…

[SPOILERS]

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte was born in Washington D.C. in 1819, and spent her early years in the rural areas of Maryland and Virginia. As a young woman she attended the small college of which her step-father was president, and subsequently became a teacher. In 1840, she met and married Frederick Hamilton Southworth, an inventor. The couple moved to Wisconsin and lived there until 1844, when Frederick Southworth abandoned his family, leaving his young wife pregnant with their second child. Returning to Washington, where her mother and step-father still lived, Mrs Southworth resumed teaching in order to support herself and her children. However, this earned her only $250 a year, and in order to supplement this slender income, she began submitting short stories and novellas to the magazines.

Emboldened by her early literary successes, Mrs Southworth then embarked upon her first novel. Retribution was serialised in the National Era, appearing in 14 chapters across 1849 before being republished in book form in 1850. The novel was an enormous commercial success, selling over 200,000 copies – and as a result its author, now known to the public as E.D.E.N. Southworth, was able to retire from teaching and write fulltime, producing more than sixty novels over the following fifty years. By 1857, she was earning an extraordinary $10,000 a year through her writing and is, by most reckonings, the best-selling American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.

I commented about Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, my first encounter with one of Southworth’s novels, that its most striking feature was its bizarre blending of genres, in that case the sensation novel with the religious / didactic tale. It seems that this approach was indeed typical of Southworth’s writing style, as we also find it here in her very first novel, which mixes the sensation novel with the abolitionist tract. Perhaps not surprisingly, Retribution is ultimately something of a failure as a novel – but a failure in ways that are intensely interesting.

The most significant failure here is the character of Ernest Dent. He is clearly conceived as something of a tragic figure, and indeed he dominates the second half of the novel in that capacity; but although all the pieces are there they never quite come together. Our initial sketch of Ernest is quite intriguing. He is the son of another Ernest, who married young and had a child immediately: the two go through life more like brothers than father and son. They enlist in the army together, and fight together at Yorktown; later, they enter the political arena together, both eventually becoming senators, and campaigning for the abolition of slavery.

But as is progressively revealed, it is only the elder Ernest who is a truly great man – “Patriot, philanthropist, and martyr”, as Hester describes him in a letter to Juliette . The second Ernest has, as it were, ridden to greatness on his father’s coattails, achieving success and acclaim without effort, and without sacrifice, and smugly taking himself at the world’s mistaken estimation:

There was much in the circumstances and character of Colonel Dent that the partial eyes of his young wife failed to observe. Colonel Dent was undoubtedly a man of high honor, of sincere philanthropy, and of fervent piety; the country said it—all men gave credence to it—and Colonel Dent believed it most implicitly of all.

It is Ernest Dent’s peculiar destiny to be sequentially involved with two women who bring out the very worst in his nature, although in very different ways: the innocent Hester feeding his egotism and self-satisfaction with her abject love; and the anything-but-innocent Juliette rousing dark passions that, before her arrival, had laid comfortably dormant, so that their owner barely knew of their existence.

The relationship between Hester and Juliette is – and perhaps not entirely accidentally, given this novel’s publication date – rather reminiscent of that between Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp; although unlike Thackery in his attitude to Amelia, there is little irony about Southworth’s characterisation of Hester – except, perhaps, when she, like Amelia, exhibits a tendency to dwell upon her husband’s non-existent virtues. In this case, however, it is not the unsatisfactory husband who dies.

One of the most unexpected strokes in Retribution is that Southworth “pulls a Psycho“, killing off her unfortunate young heroine less than halfway through the novel. By this time, a dangerous passion has grown up between Ernest Dent and Juliette Summers; although at the time of Hester’s death they are innocent in deed, if not in thought.

The second half of the novel is given over to the disastrous marriage of Ernest and Juliette, as they become one another’s torment, one another’s punishment for their mutual treachery to Hester, who loved them both so dearly. This grande passione is not entirely credible, but perhaps in this case we need not judge it an artistic failure. In 1849, a novel focused squarely on an uncontrollable sexual attraction would hardly have found its way into the magazines – or even into publication, except, perhaps, in France.  As it builds to its climax, Retribution descends into melodrama of the most unabashed kind, with Southworth arranging for her anti-heroine a fate so horrifying that it supports my growing theory of 19th century novel-writing: that it took a really nice woman to write a really shocking novel.

There’s a deeply curious aspect to the pattern of this story, one made clear in the quotation that heads this review: the sense that Southworth wasn’t prepared to “leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her”. Instead, Southworth seems rather annoyed with God, and his tendency to forgive; she wants her sinners thoroughly punished on earth. It is, inevitably I suppose, Juliette who pays the ultimate price; Ernest, suffering miseries, pulls back from the brink, his proud spirit finally broken and, in his new humility, with some prospect of finally achieving true greatness.

While doubtless we’re intended to be glad of Ernest’s belated reformation, I have to say I found it singularly unconvincing. The problem, I suspect, is that his creator’s heart just wasn’t in this section of her novel the way it was in many of its earlier scenes. There’s a real – and, frankly, fascinating – sense here of Southworth writing to a theoretical plan, rather than with sincerity; because try as she might to make him a genuinely tragic figure, the plain fact is that Ernest Dent is never so believable as a character as when he’s being a selfish, self-absorbed jackass of a husband.

I have no idea whether Frederick Southworth ran off with another woman or not, but be that as it may, it is impossible to read of the Hester-Ernest-Juliette triangle without feeling that Southworth’s own marital experiences were fueling her writing. There is a simmering resentment underlying these scenes, one that imbues them with an aching reality that just isn’t evident in the more melodramatic parts of the novel.

Frankly, we fear for Hester from her first introduction to Ernest Dent. Criticising Hester soon becomes Ernest’s favourite hobby; and so desperate is she to love and be loved, she receives his unwearying strictures with pathetic gratitude, taking them as a sign of his moral superiority:

    “Am I so very unlovely then, Colonel Dent?”
    “No. Oh, no, Hester. But you are not the girl to attract a young man’s admiration. You are aware that I never flatter, Hester.”
   
Yet I should like to have been flattered and petted a little just then. With his keen penetration, he must have perceived my foolish thought, for he answered it.
    “This is childish and puerile, Hester, and unworthy of you and me. It springs from an incipient self-love and vanity that you must root out and cut off.”
    Now, this was worse than before. There was nothing good in me, within or without. I felt provoked to bid him to go about his business, and marry a cast-iron woman, if it pleased him; but I looked up in his face—his unclouded, truthful, glorious face—the countenance of an archangel reproving folly—and my spirit fell at his feet again.

Of course, the consequence of all this is that, just as he estimates himself by the world’s opinion of him, Ernest begins to take Hester at her own estimation: she believes herself not good enough for him, and before too long he agrees with her. Into this situation walks Juliette, who is everything that Hester is not: beautiful, poised, self-respecting – and a challenge.

It is the sharp-eyed Juliette who first sees in Hester the warning signs of the illness that will end her young life, and from that moment she embarks upon a dangerous game of inflaming Ernest’s passion for her while righteously scorning him for it…although at the same time managing to hint that she secretly returns his love. But even Juliette herself is startled by the demons that these tactics arouse:

    “Colonel Dent, you should blush for yourself,” said Miss Summers, in a tone of withering scorn. “This is ungenerous, unmanly, cruel!”
    “And my love is cruel! exacting, fierce, and cruel! If I were about to die this moment, Juliette, I should kill you, lest anyone else should have you. If I were condemned to eternal misery, I should try to draw your spirit down to perdition with mine, from the love I bear you!” exclaimed he, passing his arm around her waist.
    Juliette darted her head down quick as lightning, and, setting her teeth in the flesh of his hand, bit it to the bone, exclaiming, as the blood spouted from the little semi-circle of wounds—
    “Now, lunatic! will you release me?”
    “Beautiful Vixen!—no. Bite again, Juliette. I like it!”

This violent scene takes place on the very night of Hester’s collapse, when it becomes clear to all parties that she is dying of consumption. The Dents and their guest are in Philadelphia (at this time still the national capital), where Ernest has gone to take his seat in the Senate. They are, of course, invited to all the most desirable and glittering social affairs; and upon Ernest Dent’s appearance with two women upon his arms, a mistake – perhaps a natural one – is made by the other guests, who assume that the tall, beautful woman is “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”, and the small, plain one, “Oh! that!—that is Miss—Miss—Wint—no, Summer. A poor relation, or a governess, or something; I don’t know what, exactly.”

This error gets around, eventually reaching the ears of the three people most concerned in it. It fires Juliette’s ambition to actually be “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”; it enrages Ernest against his unassuming wife, demonstrably unworthy of so great a man as he; while Hester—Hester thinks it’s funny.

She ceases to do so, however, over the course of an evening recorded with painful minuteness by Southworth. The lovely Juliette attracts a swarm of interested men as Ernest looks on in a jealous rage, taking out his anger and frustration on the unfortunate Hester who, her illness and her husband’s unkindness overcoming her simultaneously, collapses – but not before signaling the extremity of her condition by, for the first and only time, talking back:

    “Dear Ernest, I am sick; feel my fingers, how cold they are; and put your hand on my forehead—see how hot it is.”
    “Sick! Why, I never saw you looking better in my life. Your cheeks are glowing. Sick! You can’t be with that color, unless, indeed, you rouge. I hope you don’t rouge, Hester.”
    His wife replied by taking his hand and placing it against her burning cheek.
    “Yes, I see it is very hot. Well, no wonder. You are every way unfit for such a scene as this, Hester. Indeed, I don’t know why you should have wished to come. I should have supposed that you would have preferred staying at home with your child.”
    “Why, colonel,” said Hester, in a manner slightly petulant, from feverish and nervous irritability, “don’t you know I did want to stay at home, but you wouldn’t consent to it? Don’t you know that you insisted on my coming to chaperone Juliette, because she was anxious to be here?”
    “So I did. Very well; then I will not insist upon your coming again, since it puts you in such a bad humor as to make you forget the commonest respect due me.”
    “Dear Ernest, forgive me if you think I spoke petulantly. I am not in a bad humor, but I am faint, and feverish, and every nerve in my body seems quivering; my eyes are dim, and my head swims. Please let me go home.”
    “Heavens!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, with startling energy, “if there is not Juliette tête-à-tête with Murray in the alcove. Hester! no languishing and whining now; take my arm, and come and join them.”

The subsequent confirmation that Hester is fatally ill produces a certain reaction in Ernest of guilt and shame, but his obsession with Juliette is not one whit abated. Indeed, the knowledge that Hester is dying, that it is only a matter of time, grips both parties to this illicit passion, who silently, separately, watch and wait…

So Hester Dent, the loving, but unloved; the gentle, yet oppressed; the confiding, though deceived, was dead at last. The low, sweet voice, whose tones were never heard but in words of sincerity and affection, was hushed; the gentle eyes, whose mild beams ever shone with the light of truth and love, were closed; the little hands, ever so busy in the service of them—the treacherous, who neglected and deceived her—were cold, stiff, and useless. Hester was dead—and out of the way.

But wait! – didn’t I say that Retribution is an abolitionist tract? Yes, so it is; and so important, and so interesting, is that aspect of this novel, that it really deserves its own post; so—

[To be continued…]

11/06/2011

The Haunted Room

“I have been tracing a parallel in my mind,” he observed, “between the human soul and the so-called haunted dwelling. Most persons have in the deepest recess of the spiritual man some secret chamber, where prejudice shuts out the light, where self-deception bricks up the door. Into this chamber the possesser himself in some cases never enters to search out and expel the besetting sin, which, unrecognised, perhaps lurks there in the darkness.”

Upon the death of her husband from hydrophobia only weeks after their marriage, the young widow Mrs Myers has his room bricked up. For the next fifty years, she does not leave the house…and over that time, not only the room itself but the whole estate of Myst Court gains a reputation for being haunted… Upon the death of Mrs Myers, Myst Court descends to her nephew, the widower Mr Trevor. In company with his eldest son, nineteen-year-old Bruce, Mr Trevor travels to Wiltshire to inspect his inheritance, to decide whether to move his family there, or lease the estate and continue on in the pleasant villa near to London that the Trevors currently occupy. In their absence, Mr Trevor’s brother-in-law, Captains Arrows, a naval officer, concludes a long cruise and arrives at Summer Villa to visit his relatives. Arrows’ niece, Emmie, reports to her uncle all she and her younger brother, Vibert, know of the inheritance – including its ill reputation, and the fact that Mrs Myers’ will specfied that the bricked-up room was not to be entered. Arrows laughs off the thought of a haunted house, but sees that Emmie is more disturbed than she cares to admit.

When Mr Trevor and Bruce return, the former reports that the house and estate alike are in poor repair. He adds that not only would a tenant be impossible to find, but that the necessary improvements require the oversight of an owner, not an agent; and that consequently, he has decided that Summer Villa must be given up. Although she strives to hide it, Emmie in particular is dismayed by this news, not only because of the prospect of leaving a pleasant neighbourhood and goods friends for an old house in disarray, but because, as her uncle has observed, the thought of Myst Court being haunted has taken possession of her imagination.

Captain Arrows is recalled to active duty. During his visit, he has become concerned about certain aspects of the characters of his niece and nephews; and before he leaves, he tries to warn each of them of what he fears lurks in their own “haunted room”, that dark chamber in the heart where sins and weaknesses hide even from their owner. Bruce, although level-headed and dependable beyond his years, possesses an overweening pride that gives him too high an opinion of his own powers, making him reluctant to admit a fault, resentful of criticism and scornful of advice and assistance. Vibert, meanwhile, is thoughtless to the point of being selfish, disregarding the feelings and needs of others while he pursues his own pleasures. As for Emmie, she is puzzled when her uncle accuses her of mistrust. Captain Arrows explains that Emmie does not truly have faith in God, but rather allows herself to be ruled by her fears in everything from her terror of thunderstorms – and ghosts – to her neglect of her duties: failing, for example, to succour the poor for fear of encountering sickness. Unlike her brothers, who are offended and angry with Captain Arrows, Emmie is willing enough to admit her chief failing – but no less loath to try and overcome it.

Poor Emmie’s first experiences at Myst Court are not happy ones. As a prank on Bruce, Vibert drives off without him from the station, but then gets lost in the dark, overturning the small carriage and Emmie with it just as a storm breaks. The pair are rescued by passers-by, one a Colonel Standish, an American, the other a local man, Harper, who crowns Emmie’s misery by asking whether they are, “Some of the new folk as are coming to the haunted house.” At the house itself, Emmie is settled into the largest and most comfortable room, which Bruce has been at pains to furnish and decorate for her. However, when the housekeeper, Mrs Jessel, informs her darkly that it is adjacent to the haunted room, describing also her own ghostly encounters during her employment at Myst Court, Emmie’s terror overcomes her and she begs Bruce to swap accommodation with her – even though his room is small and stark. Bruce is hurt by her disregard of his efforts and disgusted by her cowardice, but agrees.

Nor do Emmie’s efforts to fulfil her obligations to her father’s tenants go well. After literally fleeing the field in a panic during her first attempt to help, a series of humiliating blunders sees Emmie giving money to the least deserving, neglecting to provide promised aid for the sick, and finally relinquishing her duties to Mrs Jessel – who is only too happy to have the family bounty in her charge.

But Emmie has not come to the end of her trials; and before much longer, the courage and endurance of all the Trevors will be tested to the utmost, as the dark and deadly secret of the haunted room is finally revealed…

[SPOILERS]

Charlotte Maria Tucker, who usually published under the sobriquet “A.L.O.E.” – “A Lady Of England” – was one of the most prolific of all 19th-century authors – even after giving her competitors a head start. Miss Tucker’s father, an important official in the notorious British East India Company, disapproved of women working; and it was not until after his death in 1851 that his thirty-year-old daughter felt she could devote herself to the two great passions of her life, missionary work and literature. For more than twenty years, Miss Tucker published stories intended for young people, which covered a wide range of topics from the strictly historical to the frankly allegorical, but always with overt moral and religious themes. Miss Tucker’s stories were successful and very popular; if her work was always didactic, it was also entertaining, and showed an understanding often missing from tales intended for the young. The considerable earnings of her efforts were donated almost in their entirety to charity.

The Haunted Room (in some editions, “Haunted Rooms“) was published in 1876. It carries a preface stating:

It is under peculiar circumstances that A.L.O.E. sends forth this little volume. As it is passing through the press its author is preparing to enter on a new field of labour in the East, as an honorary member of the Zenana Mission in India. Of the fact that the missionary cause has been dear to A.L.O.E. her readers may be aware from her former writings. She now hopes to be permitted to devote an evening hour of her life to that cause…

At the age of fifty-four, Charlotte Maria Tucker left England for India to work as a missionary, and spent the rest of her life there. The Reverend Worthington Jukes later recalled in his memoirs, She proved an inspiration to many, not the least, to the younger generation of Missionaries, men and women, who found in her the link which they had lost on leaving their dear ones in England. They found in her a sympathy and geniality born of the deepest spirituality and intellectual cheerfulness, and they were always happy in her company. Many of these Missionaries were deeply honoured by being allowed to call her “Auntie”, and I was one of the fortunate Nephews; of the nieces there were many…

Miss Tucker continued to write during her years in India – and to donate all the proceeds. Her stories often had Indian themes, and some were translated into local dialects. Miss Tucker died in 1893; tributes are paid to her memory in the form of plaques upon both the church in Batala, where she did much of her work and where she is buried, and Lahore Cathedral.  In 1895, the novelist Agnes Giberne published a biography of her entitled A Lady Of England: The Life And Letters Of Charlotte Maria Tucker.

While most of Miss Tucker’s stories were intended for children, The Haunted Room is aimed more at an audience that today we would call “young adult”. It is an extremely hardcore religious / didactic work. Miss Tucker is uncompromising in her ideas of religious duty. To her way of thinking, Bruce’s pride, Vibert’s selfishness and Emmie’s cowardice are not mere venal transgressions, but sins of the deepest order that a good Christian must fight against and subdue.

However, although much of The Haunted Room is given to considerations of duty and faith, these reflections are set within a realistic family dynamic, and a framework of the relations between the sexes, that any reader will recognise – and either smile or wince at:

“Come, come, there’s nothing to be terrified at now; the danger is over. You’re not hurt, are you?” asked Vibert, with some anxiety, for he loved his sister next to himself, though, it must be confessed, with a considerable space between.

“Of course I will change rooms with you if you really wish it,” said Bruce, willing to humour his sister, but making mental reflections on the fickleness and unreasonableness of the female sex, of which Emmie was the only representative with whom he was well acquainted.

   “You are the last person from whom I should have expected such a taunt,” said the spendthrift bitterly. “I thought that if I had no other friend in the world I should find one, Emmie, in you.”
   “Always! always!'”cried his sister eagerly: “I would do anything for you, dear Vibert!”
   “Will you lend me that five-pound note?”

While it would be incorrect to say that Miss Tucker sympathises with her young transgressors, there is certainly a sense of wry understanding in her presentation of them, particularly of the way in which family relationships tend to trap people in certain behaviour patterns.

Thus we have Vibert emotionally blackmailing the weak-willed Emmie into lending him money, even though (i) it’s all she has; (ii) she has earmarked it for charitable works; and (iii) she knows full well from past experience that despite Vibert’s protestations and expressions of hurt at her lack of trust in him, she’ll never see a penny of it again. Emmie’s chief desire is to be a mediator between her brothers, but somehow she always manages to put herself in the wrong just before attempting it, which gives her reluctant auditors an excuse to wave her gentle criticisms away. Vibert, in his resentment of Mr Trevor’s open reliance upon Bruce’s judgement, makes a point of defying his brother at every opportunity, no matter how foolish or hurtful to others his actions might be; while Bruce, in turn, equally resentful of what he views as his father’s over-indulgence of Vibert, consoles himself with the thought of how much better a person he is than his brother – hugging the very pride and self-satisfaction that his uncle has warned him against. And then there’s Mr Trevor himself, who never seems to be around when Vibert is jeering at and goading his older brother, but always manages to enter the room just as Bruce is losing his temper in retaliation.

Speaking of Mr Trevor, it is interesting that his main contribution to this story is his repeated absence from it for one reason or another, his children frequently left to their own control. While at first glance this may be seen as an “explanation” for their failings, in fact it becomes clear that Miss Tucker does not intend this interpretation. On the contrary, in her opinion, at the ages of 19, 18 and 17, Bruce, Emmie and Vibert are quite old enough to understand and execute their duties, without the need for adult supervision.

That said, Miss Tucker does admit that the children’s early loss of their mother has been damaging, and for Emmie in particular. There is a sense that, the world – and female education – being what it is, girls do need more guidance than boys, being given less chance to learn through experience and thus more susceptible to poor influences…including the usual suspects:

…the images of Harper and Jael Jessel mixed themselves up with the phantoms which their weird stories had raised in the imaginative mind of the girl. Emmie, early deprived of the guidance of a sensible mother, had often made an unprofitable use of her leisure; she had read much of the literature which is called sensational; she had pondered over tales of horror; her mind had been fed on unwholesome food. Emmie had let fancy lead her where it list, and it would be no easy task to undo the mischief wrought in idle hours in the name of amusement.

And I doubt we’ll find a clearer declaration of Miss Tucker’s own literary manifesto anywhere in her extensive oeuvre.

Of the three Trevor children, Miss Tucker is hardest upon Emmie. Although she admits the peculiar difficulties of being a girl, it is evident that she also feels that as a girl, Emmie has the best chance to be a true Christian. From the beginning of this story, however, it is made clear how very long and thorny is the path before her. The description of Emmie’s various blunders and shrinkings and retreats during her abortive attempts at charity work is unflinching and painful, a graphic account of the consequences of what this story calls Emmie’s “mistrust”, her lack of real, practical faith in God, which leads on to other failures little less serious:

It was not the love of God, but the dread of incurring His displeasure, which made the poor, hesitating, unwilling girl combat the fear of man. And if Emmie was not impelled forwards by a loving desire to please a loving Master, still less was she influenced by tender concern for the souls of those whom she felt that she ought to visit. The child of luxury, in her pleasant home, had scarcely regarded the poor as being of the same class of beings as herself. They were creatures to be pitied, to be helped, to be taught by those trained for the work; but as beings to be objects of sympathy and love, as children of the one Great Father, Emmie could not regard them. Charity was thus to her but a cold dry duty…

Although at times I found Miss Tucker’s attitude towards Emmie perhaps a little too unrelenting, I do have to say that reading a work in which a girl being weak, timorous and helpless was treated with scorn and derision, rather than being regarded as proper female behaviour, was remarkably refreshing.

And the haunted room? The real haunted room, that is, not those figurative dark chambers within the human heart, against which the concerned Captain Arrows warns his niece and nephews at the outset of our tale, for so long to no good effect. Well, the sealed-up room at Myst Court does in fact have a terrible secret, but as you’ve probably concluded by now, given the nature of the tale in question – and Miss Tucker’s opinion of horror stories and other sensational literarure – that secret isn’t a ghost. The secret is revealed, separately, to Emmie and to Bruce, with dire consequences. By the conclusion of The Haunted Room, the entire Trevor family will have suffered through an ordeal of the most dangerous and terrifying nature, a test by fire – in Bruce’s case, almost literally – with all three of the children confronted by and compelled to overcome their worst individual failings, finally emerging tempered in both body and soul…

Not in the least degree doubting that the woman had addressed one of the household, and eager to find herself once more amongst familiar faces, out of the darkness and chilly night air, Emmie quickly followed Mrs Jessel into the room. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than she stopped short in surprise and alarm, gazing in motionless terror at the unexpected sight which met her eyes.—for Emmie stood in the haunted chamber!

.

Footnote:  Even in the didactic literature of the 19th century, it seems I cannot quite escape the political turmoil of the late 17th and early 18th centuries:

“Let’s imagine ourselves as we would have appeared some hundred and fifty years ago. I’m a young Tory gallant (of course, I’m a Jacobite at heart, and drink to the king over the water); Bruce is a decided Whig.—I’m not sure that he is not a Dutchman, and has come over from Holland in the train of the Prince of Orange.”
—Vibert Trevor, 1876.

04/06/2011

The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son

“The End that I propose to my self in this little Book, is to render you wise by other Peoples Example; which is the surest and most commodious way of Learning for him who would know the Humours of the World. You may learn herein to precaution your self, by seeing my Negligence and little Care; and from my Infamy, you may reap Honour and Glory. For you are not ignorant that it is the first degree of Wisdom to begin by ones self to be wise; and the second, to listen to those who are wiser than we: and he who knows how to do neither the one nor the other, is in no consideration.”

If I’ve learned one thing from the research I’ve done to support my reading and writing  for this blog – other than that the England of the 1680s is a black hole of terrifying power, from which no-one ever escapes – it’s that you just never know what literary family tree you’re going to end up climbing next.

In his introduction to the Broadview Press edition of The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore, Charles H. Hinnant suggests that its anonymous author was also responsible for another short novel published in 1683, The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son. Having read the work in question (and formed a few opinions of my own), I was hunting around for any trace of background information when I stumbled across a source that throws a whole new light on the genesis of both these works – namely, The Burgher And The Whore: Prostitution In Early Modern Amsterdam by Lotte Van Der Pol.

Although predominantly an historical and sociological study,  Van Der Pol also examines the flood of whore’s and rogue’s biographies that emanated from Amsterdam during the 1670s and 1680s. Many of these works were subsequently translated into English, and in some cases Anglicised as well – although without acknowledgement of their origin. Among the “English” works that Van Der Pol cites as having Dutch originators are both The London Jilt and The London Bully. The former is held to be an adaptation of D’Openhertige Juffrouw, of d’ontdetke geveinsdheid (The Outspoken Damsel; or, Hypocrisy Unmasked), which was originally published in two volumes over 1680 – 1681, and translated into both French and German. For The London Bully, Van Der Pol cites De Haagsche lichtmis (The Libertine Of The Hague), published in 1679.

Since my grasp of Dutch is limited to the word “Heineken”, I’m obviously not in any position to dispute Van Der Pol’s contentions – and nor, given what we have already come across in this study of translations, adaptations, borrowings and outright plagiarisms in the English literary scene of the late 17th century, do I feel that there is any pressing need to dispute it. Although Van Der Pol herself is somewhat aggrieved about the works in question being claimed as “English”, their European origins do not take away from their position within the history of the English novel, nor reduce their immediate influence.

While rogue’s biographies were popular in England at the time, so to were picaresque tales, most of them originating from Spain; and while there numerous translations of actual Spanish works, this revelation of the Anglicisation of Dutch works begs the question of how many “English” picaresques (most of which were set in Spain anyway) may have had a similar history. Since there is no disputing the influence of these forms of fiction upon a number of significant English novelists of the 18th century – Defoe, Fielding and Smollett in particular – all this throws an interesting light upon the development of the novel generally, and more specifically upon the stubborn insistence of writers of the day and subsequent literary historians alike on drawing a sharp distinction between the English “novel” and the European “romance”.

If we accept the Dutch origins of The London Jilt and The London Bully, this still leaves us with some unanswered questions, chiefly whether the broad similarities between these two short works of fiction existed prior to their Anglicisation (that is, if De Haagsche lichtmis and D’Openhertige Juffrouw, of d’ontdetke geveinsdheid were written by the same Dutch author), or whether they are the result of the two being Anglicised by the same anonymous Englishman – or both.

There is certainly more than a passing family resemblance between The London Jilt and The London Bully. Both tales have their protagonist offering up their own life as a cautionary tale; both follow them from childhood to independent adulthood; both include sequences in which real or perceived grievances are revenged with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness; both promise a second part in which the protagonist, after a series of casual sexual encounters, embarks upon a stable relationship – although only The London Jilt keeps that promise. There are also linguistic similarities between the two, particularly the reiteration of the tell-tale word “prancks”, used to describe the protagonists’ acts of revenge. It is also important to note that if these tales have been Anglicised, it has been done so thoroughly as to be undetectable. The geography and milieu of both works are detailed and convincing.

In spite of these parallels, The London Bully is in every respect an inferior work to The London Jilt. Merely by putting its narrative into the mouth of a woman, the latter instantly gains interest via the unfamiliarity of its perspective. More significantly, however, the obsessive focus upon the grim economic realities of female existence in The London Jilt give it an overarching dramatic tension, a pervasive sense of urgency even at its most seemingly light-hearted, that is entirely lacking in The London Bully, which rather than a fairly unified narrative consists of a string of unconnected episodes, and in place of a pragmatic heroine driven by her terror of impoverished old age gives us a protagonist who resorts to swindles and theft just because he doesn’t like working, and who commits acts of cruelty and violence simply because he can.

A feature of the purely fictional works of this time is the self-aggrandising preface; it’s as if, lacking a political agenda, these short works had to find some other way of justifying their existence. Curiously, although as with The London Jilt there is a gap between what is promised in the preface and what is delivered by the text, here it is in the opposite direction. The London Jilt‘s preface is scathing and ugly in its denunciation of prostitutes and other lewd women, while the narrative of Cornelia is for the most part understanding and matter-of-fact rather than condemnatory. Conversely, in The London Bully the horrifying antics of William*, although again offered up as a cautionary tale, are treated rather indulgently in the preface, being described as merely, “The Sallies of Impetuous Youth” – impetuous youth apparently being given to humiliating “prancks”, fraud, gambling, whoremongering, theft and highway robbery.

(*Towards the end, our author forgets that his protagonist’s name is William, and starts calling him Frederick – while at the same time introducing another character called William. It’s horribly confusing.)

William – or “William” – is born in London to upwardly aspiring parents, who consequently send him out to nurse in the first instance, and pack him off to school thereafter; so we can’t really blame him for his lack of filial affection, whatever we make of his absolute lack of any moral sense. William doesn’t learn much at school, but he proves himself a dab hand at practical jokes, nothing making him laugh so hard as a “pranck” that ends with a schoolfellow being caned to within an inch of his life. It is also at school that William begins to supplement his own income by stealing from his companions, his own discovery and vicious caning teaching him no better, but rather inspiring him to give more thought to how to cover his tracks. It is the thought of what his father will do when he learns of the theft that chiefly concerns him – although as it happens circumstances intervene:

“…with all my strength I ran thither accordingly, without asking the Masters Leave, but it was too late, for my Father was already departed, and my Mother was in so poor a condition, that there was no hopes she could escape Death; as indeed she accompanied my Father two days afterwards into the other world. My Youth, and my Libertine Humor did not allow me to shed tears upon the double Loss I had newly had, and I felt it in time more than I did then; for to tell you the truth, I did in some manner rejoyce at it, forasmuch as that it would have been impossible for me to have escaped the punishment of the Theft I had committed, if my Father had remained alive…”

Falling under the guardianship of an indifferent uncle, William is apprenticed out to first an apothecary, then to a a “chirurgeon”: a professional life that allows this novel to supplement the apparent compulsory chamber-pot scenes with an unhealthy fixation with “clysters”, or enemas. His first period of employment ends when he takes umbrage at the domestic work he is compelled to do, and revenges himself by pushing his master’s wife downstairs and seriously injuring her; the second, when he has an encounter of a different sort with his new employer’s wife. Compelled to sneak into bed with her so that she will not know her husband is spending the night with his mistress, William finds her in an amorous mood:

“…I took her hand away, but she imagining this was only some remnants of her Husbands Anger, fell again into handling and taking it by the Head: Said she, ‘How, my little Rogue, is it not better to love in good intelligence and repose, than to quarrel and be always in anger against one another?’ When I perceiv’d she found no alteration in that part, I took heart of Oak, and did the feat without saying a word, notwithstanding all the Caresses this woman made me. This first Course was performed with so much satisfaction on my side, that I renewed it four or five times, until that she was desirous to take her rest…”

When the chirurgeon returns, he finds his wife in a wonderfully complacent mood – which is William’s cue to exit.

And here already we have the pattern of the novel: cruel jokes, criminal acts, and lots of sex – and sometimes all at once, as when William and his friends waylay a lady and her footman and compel them to have sex for their entertainment before stealing the woman’s purse. One mystifying episode has William encountering a, “Nephew of Don Quixot”, an escaped lunatic whose delusions lead him to dress and behave like a character out of a romance, and who conceives a grand passion for the landlord’s frankly ugly daughter: an indication, perhaps, of how far Spanish fictions had infiltrated the English marketplace. Late in the novel, dangerously broke, William takes to the road – justifying his actions by blaming a cruel fate, rather than his own sloth and improvidence:

“…I immediately made ready my Pistols, and taking his Horse by the Bridle, and setting a Pistol to his Breast, I demanded his Money. He had a man along with him, but on foot, and coming on me as my Back was turned, he thought to have run me through the Body behind; but I perceiving him, fir’d a Pistol at him, which however had not the effect I desired; for it only touched his right Arm, and I thought to have depriv’d him both of Speech and Life… Thus mounted I the Horse, and taking leave of the old Gentleman, I said to him, ‘Sir, I beseech you to excuse this rash action, for Poverty and Despair have been the cause of it…’.”

Like Cornelia before him, William makes a practice of “revenging” any slights again himself, whether they be real or only perceived – a habit that takes this short novel into some deeply ugly territory, thanks to William’s tendency to go well beyond measure-for-measure.

A connoisseur of whores, William spends much time and money in pursuit of one called Isabella. This relationship is marked by “fondness” on Isabella’s part (inexplicable to the reader), which leads to jealousy, misunderstanding, and mutual violence. However, while Isabella does cause terrible things to happen to William, they are chiefly inadvertent, as we shall see; while William’s retaliations are absolutely calculated and deliberate.

In the first instance, William gains access to Isabella only through a professional bawd, who demands in return that he service her – which he grits his teeth and does, even though she is a repulsive old crone (i.e. she’s thirty-five). The bawd, naturally in William’s estimation, also grows “fond” of him, which leads her to deceive Isabella as to the nature of their congress, provoking a terrible scene – with terrible consequences:

“…I embraced and kissed her, but she refused me also that small Favour, repulsing me very rudely, though this did not make me desist in the least; for I began to bear her a great affection. Seeing then that she could not get rid of me by that means, she rose from her Chair with intention to have gone out of the Chamber; but I withheld her, and took her by the Petticoat, when she strugling to get away, and I still holding it, made a great hole in it; seeing this, she fell into such a Passion, that she flung at my head a flaming Faggot-stick, when by chance there fell a spark into my Breeches…”

It is unlikely, by this point in the story, that the reader won’t get some grim satisfaction out of William’s injuries – “…I considered the miserable estate of my Instrument, which I found as black about the Head, as if it had newly made its escape with Aneas out of the Flames of Troy. My Thighs & Buttocks for company, had also received their share…” – but sadly, not only do they barely slow him down with respect to his sexual escapades, but the fact that Isabella is profoundly distressed by this accident has no effect at all upon his resolution to be revenged upon both her and the bawd, whose lies brought about the fight in the first place.

For Isabella, this means a series of escalating prancks that culminate in William luring her out of town, beguiling her into spending all her money on expensive suits of clothes, and then robbing her and leaving her stranded and penniless. As for the bawd, William’s revenge is rather more direct. Having first tricked her into sitting on an ant’s nest – “…which raised my Laughter to that excess, that I could no longer look upon the Sport…” – William then wraps things up:

“…I pusht her into the fire, insomuch that by this means the Pipe broke in her Body, whereupon she fell a crying so furiously, that I thought it time to be trooping; and accordingly I marched off, after having kicked her five or six times…”

There is,  I must stress, no sense at all of irony in any of this, no hint that we’re not supposed to be as delighted with William’s vengeance as he is himself. Once or twice in the novel he does express some regret for his actions, but these words hardly make a ripple in the flood of violence and ugliness that he leaves in his wake. The novel seems to take it for granted that we’re interested in his fortunes, and want to see him succeed.

This is certainly the tone of the novel’s major subplot, in which William falls in love with the Dutch wife of an Italian periwig-maker, although his pursuit of her is initially thwarted by the fact that her husband has recourse to a chastity belt. Here, however, William’s brief apothecarical studies come to the rescue. Sophia is given an opiate with which to drug her husband, allowing her to steal the key and have it duplicated, and thus to embark upon an affair with William. However, the duped husband’s business failing, Sophia is abruptly snatched away until the end of the novel. When she reappears, her unsatisfactory first husband has died, and she has married a man elderly but rich.

Sophia is, fittingly enough for the love of William’s life, thoroughly contemptuous of the fond old man who is keeping her in luxury; and having gathered up all she can by way of money and other valuables, she throws in her lot with William, who by this time has made England too hot to hold him:

“But all the Adventures I had since, and how Alexander behaved himself after having lost his Wife, I will give you an Account of in the Second Part of this Book. In the mean while I wish you, dear Reader, all sorts of Prosperities; and I’ll put a period to this First Part by this happy Adventure of Love which I have just now related to you.”

It is upon Cornelia entering into marriage with the tobacco-merchant that the first part of The London Jilt closes; only in that case, the second part followed in due course, tracing the later stages of her life, her change of career path, and her venture into authorship. Whether there was in fact a second part of this story in its original Dutch (that is, if we accept Lotte Van Der Pol’s account of its history) I’m not in a position to say – but there certainly isn’t one in English: The London Bully breaks off here, with no sign as yet (or not much) of a justifiably wrathful Providence catching up with William, still less of him undergoing any reformation. Personally, I like to think that by this time the Angliciser of William’s “happy Adventures” was as thoroughly sick of him as the reader is likely to be, and chucked the whole project in disgust.