“One concealment is certain to cause many others, and now I had no choice. I was compelled to acts of duplicity to ensure secrecy. I felt humbled at my position, and bitterly lamented my first false step in the beginning, when I first deceived and visited Agnes and her father. I felt like a snowball which continues to roll on, constantly augmenting in size, and I trembled, but did not dare take the only step which could free me, lest it should involve myself, wife, and child in utter ruin; I bowed down my head in despair.”
It’s been a strange experience, reading Lily The Lost One and The English Rogue back-to-back: it’s difficult even to imagine two works further apart than these in terms of content, tone, language and purpose.
Published in 1881 by Miss K. M. Weld, Lily The Lost One is a piece of hardcore religious / didactic fiction that in the end is interesting in spite of itself. Although this kind of writing was not uncommon at the time, this particular specimen nevertheless took me by surprise as being the first example I have come across of pro-Catholic didactic literature. It’s a fair commentary on the nature of English literature in the 18th and 19th centuries that while I barely even notice anti-Catholicism any more, the opposing stance made me sit up and take notice. Significantly, the text does not declare itself at the outset; rather, it allows its Catholicism to sneak up on you.
Now— The main difficulty in addressing Lily The Lost One is dealing with the particular thrust of its author’s religious tenets – avoiding the trap of criticising her beliefs instead of criticising her writing. In short, this is very much a “this world is a vale of tears” story. It is Miss Weld’s contention that where God loves, He sends suffering; the intent is to make people disgusted with this world, so as to detach their affections from it and encourage them to look forward to the next world. The tale by which she illustrates this belief is, consequently, one of unrelenting misery, tragedy and death; all in a good cause. As an illustration of Miss Weld’s beliefs this story is very much to the purpose; but as a piece of literature— Well, you see my problem.
Our story opens in the wilds of North Wales, where during a violent snow-storm a carriage disgorges a woman in the last stages of exhaustion, and her young daughter. The next morning, the woman is found dead of heart failure. After the inquest, the question becomes what is to happen to the child? The girl, Lily, is questioned about her name and her history, but is so ignorant that it is concluded she has been purposely kept so. Everyone is very sorry for her – she being so pretty, and helpless, and obviously gently bred – but the workhouse is nevertheless looming until Mr Heslope, the kind-hearted owner of the inn, offers the girl a refuge, much to the disgust of his parsimonious and bad-tempered wife.
Lily begins a new life as a drudge at Mrs Heslope’s beck-and-call, subjected to verbal and sometimes physical abuse; Mr Heslope’s business taking him away from home frequently enough for him to remain oblivious to the situation, since Lily never utters a word of complaint. Lily has two consolations in her unhappiness. One is a miniature portrait of her father, by which she hopes to find him one day. The other is the companionship of the Heslopes’ servant, Phoebe, who carries on the work begun by Lily’s mother and instructs her in “religion” – which is where the story begins to get interesting.
“But Phoebe did more than this, for being herself very well instructed on religious matters, she imparted all she knew to Lily. In her quiet simple way, she taught her everything necessary; and, above all, encouraged the poor child to confidence in God and conformity to His Divine will. Her words fell on a good soil and produced abundant fruit. The early impressions Lily had received from the example of her mother (which Phoebe soon discovered from the artless words and remarks of the child) had taken deep root, and the trials she now suffered seemed to strengthen them and bring them to maturity in her young mind.”
If you cast your mind all the way back to Agatha, you might recall that there we had an anti-Catholic novel whose plot exigencies demanded that its heroine nevertheless be Catholic. The author dealt with this by emphasising how “religious” Agatha was, without ever touching upon the specifics of her practice. Here we get a variation on the same tactic, but to a very different end. It is at length revealed that Phoebe is Irish-Catholic, but for all we know to the contrary, the instruction she gives to Lily is carefully non-denominational. I may say that at first, I assumed that this was Phoebe’s own compromise, made so as not to interfere with Lily’s faith as inculcated by her mother. The reality turns out to be somewhat different.
Our first hint of the truth comes when Phoebe is summoned home to Ireland to nurse her sick mother. Before leaving, she gives the distressed Lily as much religious consolation as she can, and for the first time gives a hint of their mutual persuasion, agreeing with her that being unable to attend Mass is one of the hardest things about their situation. However, the context of the remark makes it possible that Phoebe is speaking on her own behalf; and from this point the text resumes its oblique references to Lily’s faith.
Over the following years, Lily (suffering miseries of various kinds) goes from the Heslopes’ inn to an isolated farm, and from there to a milliner’s in London. An accident that results in the loss of a customer’s dress during a delivery trip puts an end to this last employment: Lily runs away, losing herself in the back streets of London. Terrified, and straying deeper and deeper into poorer and poorer neighbourhoods, the exhausted girl finally finds a refuge when she is taken in by an elderly apple-woman called Biddy M’Graph…who just happens to be Irish-Catholic. It is here, at last – better than halfway through the novel – that Lily The Lost One finally tips its hand:
“Poor Lily slept little that night, but her heart was tranquil and happy; she was not in the least alarmed at the prospect of the somewhat hard life she was to lead, every bitter was sweetened by the thought of the kindness of her new friends, and the comfort of being near a church and good priest to whom she could apply for advice and help if needed… She constantly implored our Lord to grant that she might discover her father, and implored His Mother to be a mother to her…”
Having drawn a deep breath and taken this leap, Lily The Lost One then goes the whole hog, as we shall see. Lily and Biddy are together for three years before the latter falls dangerously ill. In desperation, Lily turns to begging, and manages to secure a shilling, which she spends on some violets. Having dressed them into decorative posies, she tries selling them on the streets, to little success. Her wanderings lead her into the fashionable part of town…and into the most amusing stretch of the novel.
Here, Lily The Lost One reminded me of Valentine, in which the anonymous author gets into terrible trouble trying to reconcile an exalted opinion the virtues of “the simple life” with an intense desire to dress his or her heroines in the height of luxury and fashion. Something similar happens here. You get the sense that while Miss Weld was theoretically well aware of camels and needles’ eyes and so on, she was unable to get past a feeling that that, in reality, the poor were rather nasty while the rich were rather nice. She certainly believes in “breeding”, and that anyone born a lady or a gentleman (whatever their subsequent experiences) is instantly classifiable as such. She also struggles to account for so many “nice” people rebuffing Lily when she begs for help outside the church: there’s just so much imposture these days, you understand…although by Miss Weld’s own theory, the churchgoers should have been able to sum up Lily at a glance. Heigh-ho.
It has – of course – started to snow by the time Lily finds herself at the steps of a London mansion, where a footman is laying a carpet for two ladies to enter their carriage. When she tries to sell her violets, James, the footman, responds more violently than necessary, and Lily hits her head in her fall, lying pale and motionless on the footpath:
“He was now really frightened, he made sure he had killed her, and mentally resolved to show more compassion in future to the needy and distressed.”
Big of you, James. Meanwhile, the ladies – being ladies – give up their engagement to care for the injured girl, having her carried into the house and sending for a doctor. He manages to bring her around, but warns the ladies that the girl is Not Long For This World. He recommends transferring her to a hospital, and the ladies know just where she should go—St Elizabeth’s. The ladies are able to get Lily in because the husband of one of them is a subscriber, and therefore had “the disposal of one bed”—this being the time of the idiotic arrangement under which people had to have a recommendation before being admitted to a hospital. Thank God the healthcare system these days is so much more sensibly organised!*
(*You may take that remark as sarcastic or not, according to where you live.)
And so Lily is carried off to hospital; and so happy is she in her surroundings that she finds herself with only one earthly thing to wish for: that she might be granted a single glimpse of her father before she dies…
It probably goes without saying that in this kind of story, you should be careful what you pray for.
Meanwhile, Miss Weld feels compelled to take a diversion, and explain how in some circumstances being rich is a Very Good Thing, in spite of needles’ eyes:
“But these kind ladies had no real cause for self-reproach on that head, for they were only dressed as their position in life required… They kept up a large establishment, and lived in a style suitable to the position of the husband of the elder lady, and this in accordance with his wishes, as he considered that keeping up a large household, and spending money freely in all ways, was a praiseworthy employment of wealth, inasmuch as it encouraged trade…”
Hell, yeah! I mean, you don’t see poor people keeping tradesmen in work, do you!? By the way, isn’t this a version of the economic theory that Margaret Thatcher was so fond of? – the “Trickle-Down Effect”?
Anyway— It turns out that this household consists of the husband and wife, her sister, his nephew, and the nephew’s friend – and no-one is given a name. It is the next morning a breakfast that we hear of the odd behaviour of their guest (who is referred to throughout simply as “the stranger”), and The Nephew suggests that The Stranger has had his life blighted by some great sorrow in the past…
The Stranger finally shows up, excusing his absence on the grounds that he was going charity-work for one Father G— Told Lily’s story, he asks to accompany The Ladies to St. Elizabeth’s, to see the girl but also to see the hospital:
“He had been told by many persons that it was one of the best organised institutions in London, and that the invalids enjoyed every possible advantage, both spiritual and temporal, having high and airy rooms, devoted nuns to nurse them, and the attendance of some of the best medical practitioners in London.”
Take THAT, London Hospital! I’m reasonably certain, by the way, that this is referring to the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth, in St. John’s Wood, which was founded in 1856.
The three make their way to the hospital and to the bedside of Lily, where one glance at the dying girl has an extraordinary effect upon The Stranger:
“But why! when she raised her weak voice to thank the ladies for their kindness, did he start as if he heard a clap of thunder? Why did his stout and stalwart frame shake suddenly as one struck with palsy? Why did that strong, that brave-looking man, turn almost as white as the sheets of the bed on which the gentle sufferer rested? Why was he forced to take hold of the bed-post to prevent falling? And why did he look at that pale-faced child as if he was contemplating a spectre?”
Worried that the shock of the meeting might kill Lily instantly, the nuns bundle The Stranger out of the room, until they have prepared her for a meeting with her father – and her Father. In rapid succession, Lily makes her final confession, receives the last rites, and—gets her prayer answered.
While The Stranger grieves over his daughter, he is approached by a priest who spells out for us the story’s thesis:
“He to whom this life is a blank, ought to be grateful for that which has contributed to make it such, for slight, indeed, is his danger or chance of losing life eternal. The more thoroughly we are disengaged from this world, and disgusted with it, the more we shall love God, and adhere to God, and the more surely shall we finally reach God.”
After Lily’s funeral, The Stranger tells his story to the others, explaining how he came to misplace his wife and daughter in the first place—and as I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear, it has something to do with The Fatal Effects Of Deception.
The Stranger, then, is the son of an important, possibly aristocratic, Scottish family. His parents are religious; and while Miss Weld is discreet here as ever, the implication is that they are Presbyterian. They are also thoroughly grim and cheerless about their religion, and rigidly intolerant of other faiths. Trying to compel their son into their beliefs, they succeed only in inspiring him with a disgust of religion generally. In fact, he begins to pride himself on his “free-thinking”, and enjoys horrifying his parents with his lack of faith.
One day, The Stranger breaks his foot in a riding accident, and is taken in by a father and daughter who he knows his father loathes. (They almost get a name: Mr and Miss D—) The cause of this contention is never explained, and we are left to infer that the D.’s Catholicism is at the root of it. The Stranger falls in love with the lovely Agnes, but knows his father would disinherit him if he married her. He continues to make excuses to his parents in order to visit his friends whenever he can, and when Mr D— dies, leaving Agnes alone in the world except for a nasty aunt who doesn’t want her, The Stranger tries to persuade the girl into a secret marriage.
Agnes’ principles and religion will not let her agree, however, as she is sure that only evil can come from a course of deception. The Stranger becomes impatient with her steadfast refusal, and her putting her faith before their love:
“Then show your love, Agnes, by yielding your opinion. You are but a woman, and cannot take the enlarged view any sensible man would.”
A reluctant and unhappy Agnes finally gives in. After the marriage, The Stranger carries her to a small hunting-box that he owns, and divides his time between there and his parents’ home, always promising Agnes that he’ll tell his parents’ the truth as soon as opportunity offers…only somehow it never does. A daughter is born; and as she grows, her mother begins to instruct her in religion. The Stranger makes no objection. Religion is all very well, he considers, for women and girls; a good guide of their conduct; it just isn’t manly. A man should rely on his own intelligence for guidance…
Miss Weld intimates throughout this novel that woman are “better at” religion than men because they find it easier to submit themselves to authority, and because they’re less likely to suffer from the pride of intellect. (Yyyeah, I’m not going to argue with her about that, either…) The Stranger is, of course, riding for a fall; and I am, I confess, unable to decide whether Miss Weld was being ironic or not when she sat down to the task of describing her sensible man committing one incredibly stupid act after another.
First of all, The Stranger becomes frustrated by his narrow income, and decides to yank the £1000 he owns outright from its safe but low-interest investment and speculate in something promising a much greater return. He thus sends the money off to America, and is subsequently taken aback when not only does no return at all reach him, but he learns that he may never see a penny of his investment again.
The fact that there’s a Civil War going on might possibly have something to do with it.
The Stranger then decides he needs to look into things on the spot, so his leaves his wife and child and travels to America by steamer. On board, he becomes acquainted with Father Ignatius, whose conversation makes him feel uneasy and ashamed about his religious doubts. So annoyed by this is The Stranger, that he decides on an act of defiance: he calls upon God, challenging Him to prove his existence:
“The words were scarce out of my mouth, when a flash of lightning passed through the cabin as almost blinded me, and it was followed instantaneously by a clap of thunder, which shook the ship as if a thousand cannons had been levelled against her…”
Voila, instant conversion.
The onset of religiosity takes an extreme form with The Stranger: he breaks his journey in Baltimore to take Catholic instruction, although we are not immediately privy to this; while in the immediate aftermath of the dramatic demonstration of heavenly wrath, he utters a prayer:
“I added, myself, a petition that was heard, and granted so fully, that I should have trembled as I made it if I had known what it entailed. This petition was, that God in His mercy would deign to send me temporal punishment in this world to expiate my many years of sinful infidelity.”
And The Stranger isn’t the only one who’s praying along these lines: we later find out that Agnes has often prayed that her husband would find faith, declaring herself willing never to see him again in exchange for his awakening…
There is a definite point in this novel when Miss Weld realises she’s ended up giving us a rather worrying portrait of God: a God who, when challenged, instantly proves His existence; a God who responds to prayers for death or punishment with alarming promptitude but Who, when implored for relief from suffering, pays no attention whatsoever. (Because it’s good for you.) Miss Weld’s response is to provide The Stranger with a companion in the form of “a young ecclesiastic”, who takes pains to explain that, no, no, no, God isn’t answering his prayer for punishment: all the dreadful things that are happening are just The Fatal Effects Of Deception.
Anyway, The Stranger does find out he can kiss his £1000 goodbye. However, instead of immediately returning to Agnes and Lily, he decides to stick around and have a two-month holiday with some new friends he’s made, ignoring Father Ignatius’ sensible advice to get the hell out of Dodge (paraphrase):
“He almost advised me to defer my visit for a time, but I would not hear of this, because, in the first place, I thought I would rather enjoy the excitement of seeing a little of the war of which I had heard so much…”
And it is when The Stranger is finally making his way back to Baltimore some weeks later that his train is stopped and all the passengers on board captured. (Miss Weld is very careful not to say which side is responsible.) The Stranger protests his nationality to no avail, and a phase of forced labour is followed by imprisonment under appalling conditions, during which most of the captives die, including the young ecclesiastic.
The Stranger is finally released, and makes his belated way back to Scotland—but Agnes and Lily are long gone. In his absence, destitute, Agnes was forced to apply to her parents-in-law, and received a blisteringly angry reply that included a threat to take the child from her. It turns out that this was an empty threat made in the heat of passion, with no real intent behind it; but the time everyone cooled down and tried to be sensible, Agnes and Lily were on their frightened way to North Wales…
And then The Stranger sums up our moral for us:
“Yes, all this sorrow, this misery, was caused by deception. I tremble when I think of my first step in that dread path! But it is too late, let others take warning by my example.”
—and DON’T go wandering around IN THE MIDDLE OF A CIVIL WAR.
And so we leave The Stranger a sadder but wiser man (there was nowhere to go but up); although a vague concluding paragraph informs that he, “…found peace and happiness in his latter years”. After 413 pages of unrelenting earthly misery, that point is, naturally, skipped over as briefly as possible.
Now— While I was unable to quite decide on Miss Weld’s intentions in various parts of this novel, there’s one small section that I’m quite sure was meant satirically. Heading home at last, The Stranger sends ahead a letter of full confession to his parents, in which among other things he has to break the news of his Catholicism. His hope is that they’ll just be glad he has any religion, and he’s right about that…sort of:
“…with regard to your present religious belief, I can only say that I regard Catholics as one degree better than infidels, and this is as much as I can allow…”
Footnote: Amusingly, it turns out that Miss Weld’s illustrator was considerably less reticent than Miss Weld herself. Check out this frontispiece: