“I beheld her with Amazement, for never before did my Eyes behold any Thing so lovely: Yet that Amazement was accompanied with a Transport, in beholding so Rare a Creature, which brought forth a delerious Ravishment; and a Rapture of unusual Joys began to possess my Senses: So that then, and only then, I began to be wretched, and greedily began to devour that Poison I should have expell’d. This Fatal Minute was a Prologue to the Catastrophe of my Tragical Misfortunes.”
And with a mighty bound, they landed in 1687—ha-HA!!
Yeah, don’t get too excited. We’ll be hitting another political wall very shortly, just when it’s beginning to look like we might escape the 1680s. Such is my Tragical Misfortune.
Of course, the very fact that we’ve moved quite quickly through the middle years of the decade, with only a handful of fictional works coming to my attention, is interesting and informative in itself. Unlike the entire reign of Charles, the early years under James produced a literary wasteland.
Having succeeded, between the Rye House Plot and the Monmouth Rebellion, in wiping out most of his remaining opponents who had any political power or personal standing, from mid-1685 onwards James had his foot on the nation’s throat. The contradictory freedoms of life under Charles came to an abrupt halt; political writing was suddenly deadly dangerous – unless of course you were on James’s side. Plays with a message ceased to be written or produced, while those meant only to entertain were revived. Fiction became the safest form of writing. It was during these years that “the novel” took hold as a literary form. With politics out of the question, tales of the imagination had a chance to flourish – and the less any given story had to do with day-to-day reality, the better.
Into this climate came Cynthia: With The Tragical Account Of The Unfortunate Loves Of Almerin And Desdemona: Being A Novel, which was published anonymously in 1687 and proved remarkably popular. My own copy is the fifth edition from 1709, and it was still being reissued late in the 18th century. How to account for this? I really don’t know—except that Cynthia has all the staples: sex, and violence, and just a little horror, built into a framework of didacticism.
And perhaps that last is the most interesting thing about Cynthia, as well as being a hint of the direction that the novel would travel in the future. As a moral tale, Cynthia is something less than convincing; but the very fact that its author chose to sell it as such, to the extent of including a lengthy preface making exhorbitant claims for its “improving” nature, suggests that even this early, the idea of fiction as a vehicle for instruction and guidance was beginning to take root. The sub-sub-title of Cynthia promises the reader, “…both Pleasure and Profit.” In attitude even more than content, we’re light-years away from The London Bully.
Cynthia opens with a ridiculously highflown 10-page preface written in a deliberately archaic style and filled with Latin tags and quotes from the bible, presumably to illustrate simultaneously its author’s erudition and moral rectitude. Here’s just a taste:
“The Total Sum or Moral of the whole History is soon cast up, by examining it with that Saying of the Wise Man, That a Just Man falls Seven Times and riseth again, but the Wicked fall into Mischief: That is, the Upright Man is subject to many Dangers, but God delivereth him out of his Distress, making his very Misfortunes an Addition to his Joys. Oh, what Heavenly Comfort, (says an Ancient Father) do they inwardly feel, who are delighted with Remembrance of Sufferings past, with the Fruition of Joys present, and with the Expectation of Felicities to come! This Happiness is represented in the History of Cynthia and Orsamus. Wicked men are figured in the Person of Almerin, for Evil Men and Deceivers shall wax worse, their Portion shall be cursed in the Earth; and as a Fall on a Pavement is very sudden, so shall the Fall of the Wicked come hastily; because God strikes not presently the Wicked are set to do Evil; but although Heaven be slow in Punishment, yet when they strike they strike sure; for God spares the Wicked not in Mercy, but in Justice.”
Ten pages of it, folks! But if you do have the patience to wade through it, you’ll be awarded with an amusing descent into the realities of publishing life as (his language altering not a jot) our author gives us a version of a defensive reaction no less popular today than it was in 1687:
“This may serve for a silent Emblem to excuse the Errata’s of the whole History, which in the Eyes of many may seem fair, but when an Artist comes to survey it, it will not be found without Faults, (since Nature perfected it, and not Art;) many Faults are in the Orthography, many Errors o’erpassed in the Ingrossing; therefore I accuse my self to save the Curious Critick a Labour, who finds Faults in others, yet amends not his own: Yet to the Judicious and Partial Man I submit my self, who knows how to scan and pass by Infant Faults.”
And at length we arrive at our story proper, which I’m evilly pleased to reveal is written in the same style as the preface. For example—
“It was about the time that Sol left Watery Neptune’s Bed, and newly darted his Rays upon the Face of the Waters; Neptune walk’d proudly along with his Sweet Burthen, and Zephyrus gently courted their sails, while the pretty Fishes made pleasant Pastime, sporting themselves in the Ocean.”
In other words, it was sunrise and there was a light breeze. I’m beginning to suspect that the anonymous author of Cynthia was a lineal ancestor of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh.
Our tale opens in Albion, at a time when separate regions had separate royalty; and Cynthia is the daughter and heir of the King of Kent, who has arranged for her a marriage with Cordello, the son of his neighbour and ally, the King of East-Anglia. However, Cynthia is secretly in love with Orsamus, her personal guard, the sole survivor of a shipwreck some years earlier, who was taken into the service of the king. Royalty being what it is, the fact that Orsamus is smarter, stronger, braver, more honest and more loyal than anyone else in the country, and that as a soldier he was wholly responsible for saving the life of the king during battle at the risk of his own, means nothing next to his presumed inferiority of birth; and when upon the announcement of Cynthia’s betrothal Orsamus breaks down and declares his love for her, Cynthia is outraged and offended at his presumption. The heartbroken Orsamus is banished.
And having taken this step, Cynthia prepares for her wedding by slipping off into the woods where she can weep in private over, “My Dear, though Absent, Orsamus!” She is caught at this Cordello, but before he can do more than inquire into the cause of her sorrow, the two of them are confronted by Orsamus, who hasn’t taken his banishment well – or indeed at all. Ignoring Cordello, Orsamus throws himself at Cynthia’s feet, and after reproaching her injustice, prepares to commit suicide. Cordello, interpreting all this correctly, is himself outraged and offended. Cordello’s entourage then catches up with him. They fall upon Orsamus, who kills about six of them but is just about to be overpowered, when—
—pirates attack! Cordello and his surviving men promptly run away, leaving only Orsamus to defend Cynthia, who of course by this time has fainted. Orsamus manages some more impressive slaughter, but is finally overwhelmed by numbers. He and Cynthia are carried onto the pirates’ boat, which sails off with them. Orsamus’s fate is to be gruesome execution, in retaliation for his pruning of the pirates’ numbers. As for Cynthia— Almerin, the leader of the pirates, takes one look and falls in love with her. He declares himself at once.
Cynthia unexpectedly steps up here, with a nice piece of quick-thinking. She claims the seriously wounded Orsamus as her brother and guardian, making it clear that if Almerin wants to get anywhere with her, he’d better take good care of him, as she could not possibly listen to any man’s addresses without his consent. The execution is therefore called off, and Orsamus nursed back to health. Cynthia is allowed private visits to his room, where she makes the role he has to play clear.
Cynthia follows this successful manoeuvre with another, a kind of Scheherazade-in-reverse. She pretends to take Almerin’s declarations quite seriously, but tells him that she could not possibly listen to any man of whom she knows so little. She insists upon hearing his life-story. Almerin is thoroughly dismayed by this, knowing that nothing in his history will help his cause with her; but as a gesture of good faith, he fatalistically agrees.
The main body of this novel is indeed made up of, “The Tragical Account Of The Unfortunate Loves Of Almerin And Desdemona”. Almerin insists throughout upon viewing himself as the victim of an unkind fate, fortune’s pawn, a tragic figure; but the plain truth is, everything that goes wrong is his own stupid fault. This poses the question of how we’re supposed to take all this – because it is not at all clear that the author is beng ironic. Perhaps he did intend the gap between his theory and his practice; or perhaps he just wasn’t good enough a writer to pull off the kind of tale he was aiming for. We’ll never know…but after due consideration, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
We’re reminded again in Cynthia of how very different were 17th-century ideas of what was age-appropriate, compared to our own. You might remember that The Fair Extravagant, from 1682, opened with its seventeen-year-old heroine bemoaning her status as old maid. Here, out anti-hero, Almerin, embarks upon a career that ultimately embraces (and in quite rapid succession) killing, seduction, impregnation, marriage, murder, piracy and Satanic dealings at the ripe old age of sixteen.
Almerin is the son of the Governor of Syracuse, in Sicily. His acquaintance with Desdemona begins when he one day saves her from rape. After the quotes I’ve already given you, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that communication in Cynthia consists chiefly of an exchange of declamatory speeches. Some of my favourites are those exchanged by our young lovers upon their first meeting when, let me remind you, she at the age of fourteen has just had a hairsbreadth escape from violation and seen a man killed, and he at the age of sixteen has just killed a man and fallen in love. Here are their first words to each other:
“Sir, (said she,) this sudden and unexpected Assistance perswades me to Esteeme you as the Genius of my better Fortune, since you have by timely Redemption preserv’d what is more precious to me than that which we prize most dear. Seeing there’s no Possibility of making Satisfaction equal to the Obligation, take my Life in Lieu for a small Recompence; but continue still to preserve my Honour, which you have so bravely defended.”
“‘Madam, I rejoice that the Destinies have made me so Fortunate in making me the happy Cause of preserving you. If I have oblig’d you in this Action I have a Satisfaction above what I could hope, and Fortune ha been kind above my Wishes; since few Minutes have pass’d when I was to seek for such an Opportunity to Manifest my Affection. O Madam! Blame me not when I reveal I love you: And prove not cruel to one that adores you. And if you think I have oblig’d you, Oh! pay it in Love and I shall soon become the Debtor: And talk not of Death when te Gods detest the Proposition; but think, lovely Creature, if so much Beauty can be without Pity, and yield no Redress to my Love, see Beauteous Lady, Death will be kinder than you, and yield a Remedy when you deny it.’ This said (with an Action wholly Passionate) I set my Sword against my Breast, saying, ‘Here, Madam, is that will yield Relief in Necessity; and seeing I cannot live without your Love, I’ll endeavour in Death to gain your Pity: And if my Love be become an Offence, this very Sword shall make Satisfaction, and destroy that Life that gave it Birth.'”
Two pages of further declamation later, the pair of them shut up just long enough for Almerin to be introduced to Desdemona’s slavishly grateful parents. An instant betrothal would seem likely, except that there’s a fly in the ointment: Almerin is already betrothed to the daughter of a nobleman, a political match arranged by his father the Governor—who is, we learn, “A Man too passionate and rash, firm in his Resolves, and not to be altered by Perswasions in his Proceedings… He was obstinate in his Humours, nor could Reason make him reverse what he had decreed; but especially those he imagined did tend to further and advance his aspiring Ambition. These were such infallible Truths as I well knew by his Consent would never be revoked.”
And this being the case, does Almerin do the sensible thing and not see Desdemona again? Of course not! He makes one feint at breaking his engagement but then, in the face of his father’s explosive rage, retreats into a weak, Oh, I just wanted to know what you’d say, assuring his parents that he intends to honour his engagement. Having done so, he takes every opportunity to see Desdemona, carefully keeping his engagement secret from her. Before long, he seduces her (so much for what is more precious to me than that which we prize most dear) and gets her pregnant. Having promised her marriage, one day he unexpectedly finds himself (thanks to the manoeuvring of his parents, hardly convinced by his assurances) standing before the altar with his betrothed, Artemesia. Almerin baulks at first, but then, confronted by the point of his father’s sword and a threat of instant death, capitulates. Meanwhile, an increasingly desperate Desdemona is insisting that he keep his solemn oath to her…
And it’s all Fate’s fault!
No, really—he honestly thinks it is. Here’s how Almerin describes his situation to Cynthia:
“…Affrighted by his Danger, he endeavours by Craft (as his last Remedy) to deceive the Beast in his Pursuit. By chance he espies a deep Pit by the Way-side, and a little below the Pit’s brim grows a Twig, which the poor Man seeing, goes and takes hold of the Twig, thinking thereby to avoid the Beast; but then casting his Eyes down to the Bottom of the Pit, he sees a number of Scorpions, Dragons, and other venomous Beasts, waiting for his Fall to devour him; then casting his Eyes up, he sees the hungry, lean-jaw’d Beast gnawing asunder the Twig that he holds by…”
Almerin does indeed “endeavour by Craft” to find a way out of his dilemma; and while he never for a moment ceases to think of himself as “the poor Man”, it is unsurprisingly everyone else who suffers. The marriage of Almerin and Artemesia is solemnised – and consummated (“Come to my Bed, my Love, (said I,) and let us see if the Night can yield us as great Felicities as the Day has begotten us Miseries”) – but a reproachful letter from Desdemona makes Almerin decide that he has to do the right thing by her – and so he poisons Artemesia. She dies and is buried, but Almerin is not quite free of her yet. Soon afterwards he experiences a vision of her, in which she places a curse upon his head:
“The Remainder of your Life shall be a living Death: You shall seek for Death but you shall not find it; and when you desire to live you shall cruelly be cut off…”
Shaking off the effects of this ghostly warning, Almerin then hurries to Desdemona to keep his oath to her, only to discover that she’s committed suicide. This he learns from a servant of the family, who proves himself a worthy character in this story by winding up his four-page-long account of Desdemona’s end and her parents’ grief thus:
“Oh the Shrieks, the Moans, the Lamentations, the Sighs, the Sobs, the Tears, the Exclamations, the Griefs, the Sorrows, the Kisses, the Caresses, and the Embraces this Aged Couple bestowed on the Breathless Body of this their only Child, were numberless, and pitiful to behold! They were, Sir, such, and so many, so bitter and woful, that I want Words wherein I might express my self…”
Naturally, he then continues on for another three pages, including a page-and-a-half recitation of some of Desdemona’s very bad poetry:
Farewel the Author of my cruel Woe / Who in my Hour of Death I do forgive / Thy greatest Crimes; but Heaven only knows / It would go hard to do it were I to live.
(This individual shows up again later as part of a force sent after Almerin by King Tancredus of Siciliy, and is fatally wounded in the conflict. His dying speech runs a full six pages.)
Meanwhile, Artemesia’s family is convinced that she has met with foul play, and swears revenge; while Desdemona’s parents have found a letter from Almerin that makes the situation plain to them. The authorities closing in on all sides, Almerin’s parents contrive his escape from arrest and a flight from the country in a fully manned ship. Almerin later learns that his father was killed holding off the party of soldiers sent to recapture him, and that his mother died of grief.
Well! – I don’t see how we could possibly blame any of this death and misery on Almerin, do you? At any rate, he doesn’t—
“…none of my Crimes have proceeded from my Inclinations, but from my adverse Fate; did I practice Artemesia’s Death? Remember that Wicked Issue had a Noble Parent, Love; was I unconstant to Artemesia? Oh remember my Constancy to Desdemona!”
The most interesting aspect of Cynthia comes towards the conclusion of Almerin’s tale. Almerin and his crew head for Norway, his father’s place of birth. They arrive safely, but find no trace of Almerin’s family. They are without resources; starvation seems imminent. At the last moment, Almerin is confronted by a grotesque individual who bears him away on a flying carpet and into a hidden cave filled with the riches of the world. There his companion reveals himself:
“I am Servant to Lucifer, Lord of this World, Prince of the Air, and Arch-Duke of the River Styx, and chief King of the Infernal Shades; by him I am imployed as a Register to take the Names of all such Persons as will become his Servants; and having notice by my Intelligencers of the lost Condition you and your Men were in, by Order from my Sovereign Lord I have brought you here, where before I can give you Remedy you must with your own Blood write your Name in this Book…”
Almerin emerges from this meeting in possession of several supernatural artefacts, which permit him to control the winds and seas as he needs. He embarks upon a career of piracy, plundering and despoiling his way across Europe and Africa, and finally emerging so wealthy as to be almost respectable. The King of Norway offers him marriage with his niece; and Almerin is contemplating this match when – ha, ha! – Fate sends his ship to the shores of Albion, where Orsamus is holding Cordello’s forces at bay…
His love for Cynthia having given him a reason to live, Almerin is now rapidly dispatched as per Artemesia’s curse. It then only remains to wrap up the tale of Cynthia and Orsamus. The latter is doing what he does best and holding off the remaining pirates – “…thus he continued Triumphing in their Deaths, making himself a Barricado of their Carcases…” – when succour arrives in the shape of another ship, and Cynthia and Orsamus are rescued. Orsamus then finds himself confronted by an elderly man, Willifride, who he always believed to be his father, and who he thought had died in the shipwreck that cast him up in Albion. Willifride reveals that Orsamus is actually the long-lost second son of Oswin, King of Northumberland…meaning, conveniently enough, that not only is Orsamus sufficiently royal, but not being his father’s direct heir, he can stay in Kent with Cynthia.
And there was much rejoicing:
“Phoebus necessitated, gave a Farewel to this upper World, yet not before he had charged his Sister Cynthia to attend at Cynthia’s Nuptials, which she duly performed; for never was there seen a fairer Night, where the Heavenly Spangles were evident to the Eye, while Diana ran her career in Glory, perhaps to vie Splendor with Cynthia, whose Happiness she began to envy. The Time drew near when Morpheus with his Leaden Mace approaches, commanding to Rest; upon which Notice given, Cynthia was conducted by her Royal Attendance to her Bed, after whom followed Orsamus, accompanied by the Two Kings, who saw him lodged by her Side; and giving them the Good-night, not without the Blushes of Cynthia, left them unto their Rest, or to the Possession of those Pleasures the Stock of Mankind might envy him; and here I would rest and continue silent…”
Except, of course, he doesn’t.