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…
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…]