“A stupor seized the senses of Joanna when she found how cruelly her credulity had deceived her: the character of Byram stood before her imagination in the blackest colours; and she dreaded him as a monster, a savage creature, who made innocence his prey, a deceiver who put on the mask of virture only to serve the most vicious purposes.—Perhaps she was as unjust in her censures as in her applauses—she would have verged nearer to the truth had she supposed him only facile and unpitying, prone to indulgence…a cowardly, selfish being!—Was she not then correct in fancying him a monster?—alas! the term implies infrequency, and therefore suits not a character so common…”
Lambert Byram, being sent word of his father’s serious illness, reluctantly pries himself away from his London amusements and sets off for Bath; caring little for his father, but concerned about his patrimony. After a weary day’s travel, Byram encounters an acquaintance of his father’s, the Reverend Anselm Rufford, who persuades him to stop for the night at his home and complete his journey in the morning. Byram is soon sorry he accepts this invitation, as it becomes clear that it was offered to throw the young man together with the daughter of the house, the ill-mannered and ignorant Sarah. Byram’s only thought is how to escape from the Ruffords’ house—until he becomes aware of another, and very different, female occupant: a lovely young woman called Joan, who Byram assumes from the Ruffords’ treatment of her is a servant, but who he discovers to his astonishment to be the Honourable Joanna Doveridge, the near-penniless orphan daughter of Lord Doveridge, and Mr Rufford’s ward.
Byram attends a local ball, where he is further surprised and pleased to discover that Miss Doveridge is held in high regard by certain great ladies of the neighbourhood, who deplore her circumstances. One of them, Mrs Halnaby, hopes to marry the girl to her son, Charles.
Evading the Ruffords’ lures, Byram travels on to Bath, where he finds his father recovering. He begins to plot ways to become better acquainted with Joanna, while evading the obvious lures of Sarah Rufford. His task is further complicated when his father, Sir Clifford Byram, determines on a match between his son and the Lady Jemima Fawley, the sister of the Earl of Armathwaite, and stubbornly refuses to entertain any other. Byram, however, continues to pursue Joanna. As he does so, he becomes aware of a certain tension between her and Lord Armathwaite, who recently and quite unexpectedly married a much older woman for her money. Byram writes to Joanna and declares himself to her. She is grateful, but declines both his offer and the correspondence.
Byram’s flat refusal to marry Lady Jemima ends in his expulsion from his father’s house. In his desire to see Joanna again, he accepts another invitation from the Ruffords. During the time of this visit, Joanna finds favour with the usually ill-tempered Lady Armathwaite, which provokes the jealous Ruffords into treating more callously than ever. At this crisis, Mr Rufford receives a letter from a dissolute nobleman, Lord Surchester, in which he openly offers to buy Joanna from her guardian. Learning of this, the outraged Byram is only too willing to deliver to Lord Surchester Mr Rufford’s reply, which he assumes to be an indignant refusal—until a grinning Lord Surchester enlightens him. Byram rushes back to Joanna to protect her from any possible coercion, only to discover that after a terrible scene between herself and Miss Rufford, the girl has run away.
Byram searches frantically for Joanna. By luck he finds her, exhausted, penniless and frightened, having tried and failed to find even the most menial employment by which to support herself. Byram begs her to marry him, and in her misery and desperation Joanna agrees—upon which Bryam must explain apologetically that the marriage will have to be kept secret, on account of his father’s stubbornness with regard to Lady Jemima. Byram carries Joanna to the north of England where he has a friend holding a small living, and there they are privately married after living quietly with the vicar, Mr Broome, and his sister long enough for the banns to be called.
Byram takes his bride back to London, where they must live in straitened circumstances; and after a time Joanna grows peaceful and almost happy, in spite of the secrecy of her marriage and the consequent isolation of her life. After a year, a daughter, named Elizabeth, is born. Up to this time, Byram’s love for Joanna has endured, and he has lavished his slender income upon her; but at length Byram begins to chafe at the thought of all he has given up: his position, his friends, and a fortune—were he willing to take the brazen Lady Jemima with it. He begins to absent himself from home for longer and longer periods, to show bad temper when he is there, and to drink to excess; although what hurts Joanna most is his indifference towards the child. The final blow comes with the death of Mr Rufford, when it is discovered that he embezzled and wasted his ward’s small patrimony. In the wake of this, Byram deserts his wife and child—sending a letter in which he declares that the marriage was never valid. Shortly afterwards, he marries Lady Jemima…
This is one weird novel.
The British Library listing for this 1796 publication suggests that the name of its attributed author, Matilda Fitz John, is a pseudonym, but gives no hint why it thinks so or who the lady might have been—a pity, because the style is unusual and distinctive enough to make me interested to know if she ever wrote anything else.
It’s hard to know how to approach a review of a novel like Joan!!!, which is not only long and rambling, and multi-plotted in a way that makes it difficult to do justice to any one thread, but features a pattern of jarring shifts in tone, with one half of the novel (that dealing with its dual heroines) written as romantic melodrama with overtones of didacticism, and the other (dealing with most of the other characters) in a tone of wry, even cynical satire.
The melding doesn’t always work, but it does always hold the attention. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this approach is the growing sense that while our author may have felt that didactic romantic melodrama was what she should be writing, cynical satire was where she felt at home—to the extent that even her handling of her perfect heroines becomes tinged with irony. For all that the text overtly supports its “good” characters against its “bad”, and ultimately—at the very end of four long volumes, that is—rewards them, if Joan!!! does have a moral it is certainly that no good deed goes unpunished.
It is significant that Joan!!! opens in its satirical voice, with a brief sketch of Lambert Byram, one of the many callow young men who occupy rooms in “the Temple” and pretend to be studying law while passing the time in drinking, gambling and socialising. When news of his father’s illness reaches him, Byram simply shrugs it off, until a more wide-awake friend points out that he doesn’t want to risk a last-minute change of Will:
“His friend, rather less dead to prudence, though perhaps equally uninfected with the supersitions of duty, having first kindly cursed Lambert for a fool, in suffering the old man to die without securing his own interests by his presence, insisted on his setting out instantly for Bath…[and] saw him set out from the Temple, not without a hope that his friendly exertions would be repaid by the good effect this apparent filial piety might produce on the state of a purse, he often, notwithstanding his natural apathy, was used to apply to…”
On his way to Bath, Byram falls in with the appalling Ruffords—and the lovely Joanna. It is entirely typical of this novel’s odd attitude not merely that it should resort to the use of attention-grabbing triple exclamation marks in its title (hey, worked on me!), but that its heroine’s name should turn out not to be Joan at all.
For most of the first volume, the plot suggests that this is a tale of a young man redeemed by love—so the selfish cruelty of Byram’s abandonment of his secret bride comes as a considerable shock, as does his attempt to convince her – and himself – that their marriage was never legal. The psychology of this episode is acute. Byram’s love for his bride, inflamed in the first place by the barriers between them, withers and dies under the twin pressures of the removal of the barriers and life on a restricted income. Meanwhile, Sir Clifford continues to dangle the prospect of luxury and ease in front of his son, in the form of marriage with Lady Jemima.
Byram aleady blames Joanna for ruining his life, and spends longer and longer periods away from home. He cannot quite bring himself to leave her altogether, however, until she furnishes him with an excuse. Believing during Byram’s first extended absence that he has abandoned her, Joanna grows seriously ill. Terrified for her child’s future, she writes an “in-the-event-of-my death” letter to the Earl of Armathwaite, begging him to provide for the baby. When a drunken Byram unexpectedly returns, he finds it—and chooses to put his own interpretation on the contents.
Nothing makes us resent someone more than the knowledge that we have been unjust to them, and Byram caps his spurning of Joanna with a still more monstrous act. Having “married” Lady Jemima, Byram tries to justify himself to himself by arguing that Joanna probably was Armathwaite’s mistress…or if she wasn’t then, she is now…which makes her an unfit parent. Consequently, he has his daughter kidnapped, to remove her from Joanna’s “contaminating” influence. Confessing only to having kept a mistress, Byram has the child removed to a distant property in Ireland – part of his wife’s dowry – and brought up in ignorance of her mother; beyond knowing, of course, that she must have been a very bad woman.
As for the real relationship between Joanna and the Earl— No-one in this novel, not even Joanna herself, suffers quite as much as Armathwaite, thanks to his overly refined sense of the duties of friendship. His abrupt marriage to a much older, rather nasty, and extremely wealthy woman is the result of an unthinking oath taken to do anything – anything – to repair the fortunes of his dear friend Charles Halnaby, who has plunged himself ruinously into gambling debt, and whom Armathwaite finds one day on the verge of suicide. Having made his reckless promise, Armathwaite then realises there is only one way he can keep it; a way that puts an impossible barrier between himself and the woman he truly loves; but he grits his teeth and goes through with it—and has the satisfaction of looking on as his dear friend Charles pockets his fortune, pays off his debts, laughs at him for a fool and returns to his self-destructive way of life.
One of the fascinating things about Joan!!! is its heroine’s refusal to act up to what we might be inclined to call the conventions of the romantic novel. When she marries Byram, Joanna does not love him, as she makes quite clear. She is grateful to him, and her personal circumstances are desperate; and so she accepts his proposal. Her sense of duty is strong, and so she tries to quell the remnants of her love for Armathwaite; a task made somewhat easier by what she can only believe to be his venal betrayal of his vows to her. Byram’s generosity and kindness in the early months of their marriage engenders affection in his wife, and she comes to feel a kind of love for him as the father of her child; but she never does succeed in banishing the Earl from her heart.
Byram’s cruelty, on the other hand, swiftly kills whatever affection Joanna has for him. Her reaction to his spurning of her is everything that convention tells us that “good” women do not feel: anger, resentment, scorn—and a desire to put a spoke in his selfish wheels. No less surprising is that her impulse towards revenge is halted by her love for a man not her husband; an emotion the novelist dares to designate as “worthy”:
“Joanna’s temper was meek, but it was not abject; and she resented too deeply the indignity offered her, to accept it by replying to it.—She believed not the invalidity of her marriage; but to whom could she have recourse against her husband? To Lord Armathwaite alone—here she was certain of a defender against the intended cruelty; for she knew a discovery of her marriage would thwart Byram’s plans, but as the scale which contained her love for Byram rose, that more worthily filled preponderated, and fearing that Byram might revenge her application by divulging her attachment, and thus bring down added misery upon Lord Armathwaite, who was wholly in his wife’s power, she preferred suffering in silence.”
The matter is taken out of Joanna’s hands when Armathwaite tracks her down. There have, over the course of it, been rumours about Byram’s marriage; and while some people—including the Lady Jemima Fawley—prefer to believe the young woman in question to be merely Byram’s mistress, the Earl knows better than that. Though not denying his enduring love, Armathwaite begs Joanna to let him help her purely as a friend; and again the novel surprises us with its heroine’s practicality. She won’t let Armathwaite go public and force Byram back to her, because she doesn’t want him back—and anyway, what kind of future could they have together?—and nor will she be persuaded to attempt to get an annullment, because while that would free her, it would also bastardise her child.
Armathwaite loses his head here, and says a great many things which only strengthen Joanna’s determination not to accept his help; her sense of right balanced bolstered by her fear of wrong:
“But neither the past nor the future, however fertile the one had been in sorrows, or however barren the other seemed of hope, could so occupy her thoughts, as to exclude her own almost natural sentiments for Lord Armathwaite. To her love and esteem was now added, not only her pity, but her anxious fear lest the constancy of his passion for her should add to the wreck of all his wordly happiness, that of his intellects. She dreaded, lest human fortitude should not be able to support wounds never suffered to heal, but which hourly cruelty made rankle afresh; she feared too, lest the human heart could not be so nicely balanced as not to lean to the side of frailty:—she feared she must not trust him.”
And in fact, we’re beginning to gather an interesting picture of what was allowable in the novel of the late 18th century, as opposed to the rigid morality of the Victorian novel. It’s not that novels of this period permit their heroines to sin and get away with it; but rather, they are willing to admit that even a thoroughly good woman can experience temptation; that “duty” is often a grim and cheerless business; and that a clear conscience does not necessarily bring happiness. Like its contemporary, Milistina, Joan!!! simply accepts that you cannot always control your feelings, only your actions; and even that is no easy matter.
(Also like Milistina, Joan!!! has a distinctly female authorial voice; if “Matilda Fitz John” was a pseudonym, it hid a woman and not a man. It might make an interesting study to compare what men were saying of acceptable female conduct in novels of this period with the surprising things we’re gleaning from those written by women.)
All this is of course before the abduction of Elizabeth, which nearly destroys her mother. One final letter from Byram lets her know he is responsible, and why he has done it; or rather, how he justifies having done it. All of Joanna’s efforts to convince Byram of her innocence and to recover the child prove useless, and in the end the bereft mother—spurning Lord Armathwaite’s assistance one final time—takes refuge with her old friend, Mrs Halnaby, living with her in the role of companion; and there we leave her for a considerable stretch of the novel.
[To be continued…]