Archive for August, 2011

27/08/2011

You should be ashamed of yourself, Mark Twain!

Talk about strange bedfellows.

I was rummaging around for information about Francis Kirkman – girding my loins, as it were – when I stumbled over a most unexpected conjunction. The notes appended to the edition of The Prince And The Pauper released by the Iowa Center for Textual Studies contains these remarks:

    “…Moreover, in Trumbull’s final chapter on the ‘Blue Laws of England, in the Reign of James the First’, Clemens found an account of punishments inflicted upon gamblers, beggars, and vagrants which suggested a number of possible adventures for his young hero in the clutches of a ‘gang of tramps who rove like gypsies…
    “Clemens found a less scholarly view of England’s laws in a seventeenth-century work by Richard Head and Francis Kirkman, The English Rogue…Being A Compleat History Of The Most Eminent Cheats Of Both Sexes. While purporting to inspire its readers with a ‘loathing’ for ‘Villainy’ and ‘Vice’, the book furnished a lively account of the lawless and immoral escapades of one Meriton Latroon and, incidentally, served as a complete guide to seventeenth-century ‘cony-catching’ practices. In his footnotes to The Prince And The Pauper Mark Twain acknowledged only a part of his debt to The English Rogue. In fact, the book not only provided details concerning confidence games and argot for the chapers dealing with Edward’s captivity among the vagabonds, it inspired dialogue, descriptions, and several specific incidents…”

“Lively”? Personally, I found it deadening. I admit to being rather taken aback by this revelation…although it’s certainly interesting that even in the most respectable of centuries, The English Rogue hadn’t been entirely banished from polite society. Apparently there’s a journal article out there dealing with this topic in more detail, but I don’t have JSTOR access from home, so I’ll have to chase it up next week.

It’s also interesting that Twain went back to the source – or rather, given Head’s magpie habits, a source – rather than taking the softer option of stealing from William Harrison Ainsworth, whose Rookwood was a huge success in the US as well as in its country of origin.

In other news— Ah, those insidious Stuarts! – they just just won’t leave me alone, even in my outside-the-goalposts reading, and even in books by American authors. In short, when I sat down to Booth Tarkington’s Wanton Mally, I was more than a little aggrieved, upon turning to the title page, to find the subtitle, A Romance Of England In The Days Of Charles II.

Well… Thankfully, most of this novel is set a refreshing distance away from the court, with only a few direct references to Charles, and one to the Duchess of Portsmouth (i.e. Louise de Kérouaille), the latter of which places the action of the novel after 1675. The story itself reminds us that it was not only the Catholics who were being blamed for everything at the time, but that there were those equally virulent against the Quakers—who, having no political weight, featured comparatively little in the literature of the day.

Elsewhere, in spite of my resolutions and promises, I’ve managed to get two reviews behind again: I’ve read The Gilberts And Their Guests by Julia Day for Reading Roulette, and Palmira And Ermance by Mary Meeke for Authors In Depth. That makes me due to read Volume 2 of The English Rogue, which ought to slow me down quite nicely.

On a more positive note, I’ve also spun the wheel again, and my next pick for Reading Roulette (or theoretically: it’s a GoogleBooks scan, so its readability remains to be seen) is Leap Year by Margaret Anne Curtois, from 1885. Curtois is yet another author about whom I can tell you very little, except that she published several works seemingly intended for girls and young women. And as I always say at these moments—we’ll see.

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19/08/2011

The English Rogue (Part 1)

“Thus have I given you a summary account of my life, from the Non-Age to the Meridian of my days. If there be any expressions either scurrilous or obscene, my onely design was to make Vice appear as she is, foul, ugly, and deformed: and I hope, he that hath sense will grow wiser by the folly that is presented him; as Drunkards are often cured by the beastliness of others that are so. The subject would not permit to be serious, neither would it have been suitable to our merry age, being generally of Tully’s minde, when he said, Lectionem fine ulla delectatione negligo: He hated reading where no pleasure dwelt.”

And so do I, Tully, and so do I…

Hindsight being what it is, I can now see clearly enough that I would have been much better off knuckling down to The English Rogue in the first place, rather than finding excuses to push it further along in the chronobibliography, so that I ended up dealing with some of its obvious descendents first. This grand-daddy of all English rogue’s biographies is easily three times the length of most of its imitators; and in a genre where a little goes a very long way, reading The English Rogue has been something like setting out for a stroll up Mt Wycheproof and finding myself confronted by the Matterhorn instead.

No offence to Mt Wycheproof intended.

All in all, I find it profoundly depressing to reflect that this was probably the most successful and popular work of its time. Its original publisher, Henry Marsh, reissued it several times between its original appearance in 1665* and his death in 1666. The rights then fell to Marsh’s former partner, Francis Kirkman, who not only followed suit, but tried desperately – and vainly – to persuade Richard Head to write a sequel. Furthermore, this was one of the very first English works, possibly the first, to be widely translated and distributed across Europe, where it achieved an equal success; and while the picaresque tale from which the rogue’s biography evolved was already an established genre in France and Spain in particular, the influence of The English Rogue in what would become the Netherlands (I never know what to call that territory at this time!) is clear enough from the subsequent wave of similar publications appearing in Dutch—some of which, as we have seen, ended up being turned into mock-English works.

(*Of course, at its real first appearance some months earlier, The English Rogue was denied a publication licence on the grounds that it was “too much smutty”. Copies of the original manuscript were, it seems, in circulation anyway; but the book achieved its real success after Head reworked it and resubmitted it. Given what survives, I can only suppose that he reduced the detail of the various sexual encounters described; he certainly doesn’t seem to have reduced their frequency.)

The details of Richard Head’s life are shadowy, and there is a definite tendency on the part of biographers to take the early sections of The English Rogue as straight autobiography—as their author probably intended them to be taken, not reckoning on the consequences.  Genuine biographies were very popular at the time, and the writers of fiction soon learned to imply that the events they were describing were based upon real people and events. The English Rogue is told in the first person, with the apparent name of its protagonist, Meriton Latroon, mentioned nowhere in the text beyond a faux-preface attached to the first edition; the namelessness of the teller of the tale would have helped to fuse his identity with that of his author. However, as has been mentioned previously, this ploy backfired on Richard Head when readers of his book took him at his word, and concluded him to be just the same sort of scoundrel as his alter-ego.

The English Rogue being what it is, a synopsis is largely pointless. The text is divided into phases according to the particular type of criminal enterprise in which Latroon is involved at a given time. In this respect, it is worth considering the boundary between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography—and as far as I can see, the division between these closely related styles of fiction is that in the picaresque tale, the central character tends to be the victim of fate, however criminal his (or, occasionally, her) actions become of necessity after that; whereas in the rogue’s biography, its all a matter of choice and inclination.

The opening phase of The English Rogue is perhaps its most inherently interesting, as the child Latroon and his family, living in Ireland, get caught up in the 1641 Catholic uprising. Latroon’s father and infant brother are killed, while he and his mother are helped to escape back to England by a loyal servant. They spend some years drifting about, Latroon’s mother professing whatever religion is necessary to draw financial aid from the local minister and his flock, while her son gives hints of the glories that are to come via acts of animal cruelty (and we know what modern psychologists would have to say about that) and an alarmingly precocious sexuality. In time, Latroon is packed off to school where his criminal career starts in earnest with a course of theft and extortion—accompanied, of course, by that great signifier of this school of fiction, the commission of acts of grotesque revenge against anyone who has, or who is perceived to have, in any way injured him:

“That he, going about to correct me for this unlucky and mischievous fact, was by me shown a very shitten trick, which put him into a stinking condition, for having made myself laxative on purpose I squirted into his face upon the first lash given. That being upon boys’ backs, ready to be whipped, I had often bit holes in their ears. That another time sirreverencing in a paper, and running to the window with it, which looked out into the yard, my aged mistress looking up to see who opened the casement, I had like to have thrown it into her mouth; however for a time deprived her of what little sight she had left. That another time I had watched some lusty young girls, that used in summer nights about twelve o’clock to wash themselves in a small brook near adjacent, and that I had concealed myself behind a bush, and when they were stripped, took away their clothes, making them dance home after me stark naked to the view of their sweethearts whom I had planted in a place appointed for that purpose, having given them before notice of my design.”

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. And can I just point out that this thing is nearly 300 pages long??

In our previous examinations of Richard Head’s work, we discovered that he is well-known in academic circles as a plagiarist, and long seems to have been so. George Saintsbury, writing in 1913, points out that while Head certainly stole ideas and content from other works for The English Rogue, he had a tendency to follow the conventions of, and steal from, works that were popular decades earlier, with the result that his writing often had an odd anachronistic feel. We saw a concrete example of this in The Floating Island, which was identified as being plagiarised from a work published in 1623, and barely altered by the thief.

Another such “throwback” happens here, after Latroon eventually runs away from both his school and his mother and is taken in by a band of gypsies, where he is taught criminality as a career rather than just a hobby. While describing his new life, Latroon appends to his text a dictionary of thieves’ cant, which runs for several pages, and which George Saintsbury suggests was drawn from a series of publications about the criminal milieu that were popular in the 1620s and 1630s. Here, however, we can’t really condemn Richard Head without acknowledging his possible influence upon a much later writer. As you might recall, in Rookwood, published in 1834, William Harrison Ainsworth also provided an extensive translation of thieves’ cant for his readers, one which subsequent writers have, only too clearly, plundered for their own purposes. Confronted now by Richard Head’s own urban dictionary, I can’t help wondering whether Ainsworth, too, wasn’t guilty of a little pilfering…

Anyway, Latroon becomes a professional beggar and thief, usually successfully, sometimes attracting retribution, until a passing merchant takes a fancy to him, “Being extraordinarily pleased with the form of my face and body [and] liking well both my speech and understanding.” On this basis, the merchant takes Latroon into his employ—more fool he. Latroon soon falls into company with a band of apprentices who make it their business, literally their business, to defraud their masters—although the profits made are generally wasted in drinking, gambling and whoring. Meanwhile, Latroon has been sleeping with the maidservant (as well as drinking, gambling and whoring), and she gets pregnant. Knowing that doing the right thing would both be expensive and damage him in his employers’ eyes, Latroon comes up with an alternative:

“Well, I bethought myself how to be rid both of cow and calf. I told her I would get together what money I could, and so marry her, upon condition she would be willing to travel with me whither I went, which I knew was her only desire. I informed her of my intention to go for Virginia… She assented to all I propounded, relying herself solely on me to dispose of her as I pleased. To palliate my design, I went with her to Gravesend… Being aboard, I suddenly seemed to have forgot something ashore; having well laid my plot upon the basis of a good sum of money I had distributed among the seamen, with a considerable present to the master, and telling my Lindabrides I would return to her instantly, I got into the boat, and immediately after, the ship weighed anchor, and quickly was under sail…”

We should pause here upon this momentous occasion: this is the single point in his entire career when Latroon admits to feeling bad about something he’s done…although it doesn’t stop him seducing and robbing the next woman he sees…who he meets on the dock. And in fact, later on it actually inspires him, as he embarks upon a dizzying orgy of seduction, impregnation, and enforced emigration.

Its attitude to women is one of the more perversely interesting things about The English Rogue, which, while it is certainly an extreme example, is by no means alone at this time in the opinions it expresses. Put simply, if men are bad, women are worse—perhaps because while men have a choice in the matter, women are just made that way, their whole lives being built about their insatiable sexual desire, and their behaviour utterly without conscience or restraint as they seek to satisfy it.

And by the way, gentlemen: if you can’t get into a woman’s, any woman’s, drawers after no more than ten minutes’ trying, well, you aren’t really a man. All you have to do is get your hand between her legs, and the battle will be over. Although at the same time, you’d best be careful: women are just naturally carriers of venereal disease, from which men are in great danger…poor things.

While having to listen to Latroon as he sits in judgement on women generally is rather sickening, I have to admit I’m both bewildered and fascinated by the abrupt evolution of society’s vision of the female sex. How on earth, and in a reasonably short space of years, could we have gone from “woman as uncontrollable sexual demon” to “woman as sexless”!?

At the same time, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that, as a woman, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Later on, Latroon hears a friend’s account of his pursuit of a married woman, who turns out to be virtuous and true to her husband—and so outraged is this individual at having his advances rebuffed, he revenges himself on the woman by destroying her marriage, Iago-like, with forged love letters.

Anyway— From mercantile fraud Latroon graduates to professional thievery, and from there to forgery and confidence tricks, and finally to highway robbery. (I’m skipping over about 150 pages here. No, no, don’t bother to thank me!) I may say here that the stretch concerning the defrauding of merchants gave me my only moment of genuine amusement while reading this book, in spite of its subtitle’s insistence on Latroon’s “wittiness”—probably because it’s a rare moment where Richard Head is simply speaking in his own voice:

“If I discover the fraud of any particular person, as long as I name him not, I do him no wrong; but if I detect by what deceitful and sinister means he worketh upon the infirmity of the youth of a green-witted gallant, it may serve for an use of instruction. In the most famous Universities there are some dunces resident, that by disgracing themselves, disgrace also their fellow students. In the most virtuous Courts there will be some parasites. So in the most goodly and glorious city under Heaven’s canopy, there are some asps lurking, that sting the reputation of their brethren by their poisonous and corrupt dealings. There are knaves in all trades but book selling.”

His career as a highwayman Latroon practices for a considerable time, both as a solitary marauder and as a member of various gangs. The most interesting phase of this enterprise is when Latroon himself is attacked on the road, and ends up battling an adversary who is at length overcome and found to have a great secret:

“Then did I come to his breeches (which I laid open) my curious search omitted not any place wherein I might suspect the concealment of moneys. At last proffering to remove his shirt from between his legs, he suddenly cried out (and strove to lay his hand there, but could not) ‘I beseech you, sir, be civil,’ said he. I imagining that some notable treasure lay there obscured, I pulled up his shirt (alias smock) and found myself not much mistaken…”

Latroon hastily apologises for his roughness and “rude dealings”, asserting – get this – the “greatness of love and respect I have for your sex.”  The “highwayman” subsequently introduces Latroon to two friends of hers who have likewise donned men’s clothing and taken to the road rather than submit to a life of marriage and domesticity. For a time Latroon joins forces with these sisters in crime, but although the partnership is profitable, he finally has to separate himself from them—because he just can’t keep up with their sexual demands…

Hereabouts we reach the most tiresome part of The English Rogue, wherein every other rogue that Latroon encounters insists on telling him their life-story, with every criminal enterprise spelled out in detail. Subsequently, Latroon himself, supposedly as evidence of his “reformation” (we’ll get to it), provides an equally lengthy guide to how the average punter can recognise when he’s in the company of rogues, and what he should do to keep himself safe. As any number of critics have demonstrated, much of this content is lifted from popular jest-books and pamphlets released over the preceding few decades; and however edifying these accounts may be in small doses, the reader of The English Rogue (as least these days) can only cry out in exhausted gratitude when the forces of law and order finally, finally, catch up with Our Hero and cart him off to Newgate, from whence the gallows beckon.

You know—I’m not generally an exponent of the death penalty, but in this guy’s case I would have made an exception. Alas, that’s the problem with first-person biographies: while they can end at Tyburn, miraculous escapes are far more the norm. So it is here, when for no earthly reason we can conjure Latroon’s sentence is commuted to seven years’ (!!) transportation. First, however, we have to sit through the rather nauseating spectacle of his repentence and discovery of religion; this it is that provokes his helpful guide to avoiding the criminal element.

And with this next phase of Latroon’s career we get a rather glorious blunder on the part of his author, who apparently forgot that he gave his anti-hero the same same birthdate as himself, 1637:

“The ship that was to transport me lay at Woolwich, about the latter end of Aug. 1650…”

Although, granted, we have spoken once or twice before about age-inappropriateness in the literature of this time…

Ironically enough, Latroon’s destination is Virginia—and just think of all the women (and children) who’d be there to meet him! But alas once more for those of us who would rather enjoy seeing Latroon undergoing hard labour—or being beaten to death by his discarded mistresses—we are thwarted again here, as he manages to survive not one but two shipwrecks. He finally ends up in Spain, and becomes the comrade of a Spanish merchant, who he agrees to accompany to “the Indies”. They have not been long at sea before their ship is attacked by three Turkish galleys; Latroon, one of the very few survivors, is sold into slavery. Now that’s more like it!

Sadly, however, even this doesn’t last: Latroon is passed from master to master—allowing him, who now professes Christianity, to throw ugly slurs at first the Muslims, then the Jews—and finally ends up owned by a Greek, “that in show was a Mahometan, but cordially a Christian”, despite the fact that he does things like owning slaves. The Greek and his possessions embark for the East Indies, but have gotten no further than southern India when they are yet again attacked by the Turks, from whom Latroon yet again excapes.

From here, The English Rogue turns from rogue’s biography to travelogue—another extremely popular form of literature and one where a writer could make quite an impression, as long as he didn’t have too much regard for the facts. As we saw in the early days of this blog, many and varied were the literary hoaxes practised on the reading public in the second half of the 17th century, fake accounts of travel, or descriptions of non-existent lands, being perhaps the most popular form. Richard Head dabbled openly in this brand of writing, with his pamphlets The Western Wonder and O-Brazile.

Perhaps the single most notorious example of the genre, however, is The Travels Of Sir John Mandeville, which was first—well, not published, but circulated in the 1370s. This often openly fantastical work was immensely successful and widely believed, in spite of its extravagance, and continued to be read well into the 17th century. And apparently one of those who did read it was Richard Head, since (as has been demonstrated in a paper published by Charles Moseley, who translated and edited a 1983 edition of the Travels) the last section of The English Rogue is a cut-down, plagiarised version of portions of it.

With a group of companions, Latroon spends time travelling around what we take to be territories in Africa and India, describing to the reader some of the more outré customs of the locals, such as cannibalism and suttee—the latter explained as a means of dissuading women from murdering their husbands, Which they were frequently guilty of, by reason of their extreme lechery and insatiate venery—shaking his head disapprovingly over their religious practices, and dwelling upon their sexual practices…as well as indulging in them. Like the protagonist of The Isle Of Pines, Latroon goes out of his way her to tell us how nauseating her finds the thought of having sex with a woman who isn’t white; and also like George Pine, he shuts his eyes, grits his teeth, and does it anyway.

Latroon’s wanderings take him from India to Zeyloon (Ceylon, Sri Lanka), where we get an account of the worshippers of Jagannath being crushed under temple cars; from there to Siam (Thailand), and onwards again to Do-Cerne (Mauritius) and Bantam in Indonesia. On the personal front, Latroon progresses from dallying with the natives, to castrating and murdering a man who tries to sodomise him (while he’s dallying with a native), to elaborately defrauding a Chinese merchant – an act that sees most of his companions end up the victims of a revenge killing:

“Whereupon I was strictly examined; but for all this sifting, I would not let drop anything of a confession that should convict me of guilt; but with lifting up of hands and eyes to Heaven, I utterly denied that e’er I saw this man, or ever had any dealing with him… I had now forgot what promises and vows I made to Heaven, when in Newgate, and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn, what a serious, pious, and honest life I would lead, if I escaped that eminent danger…”

You don’t say.

But we’re nearly in the home stretch, folks, because after all this wandering and his narrow escape from the Chinese merchant’s vengeance, Latroon decides to settle down, in company with an Indian woman whom he marries—or rather, “marries”, since he’s been down that road two or three times before—after a severe struggle with himself:

“She from the first shewed me as much kindness as could be expected from that lump of Barbarism; and I could discern her inclinations in the same manner as a man may from beasts, when they are prone to generation, but yet it went against my stomach to yield to her motions. However, she continued her love to me… Gold and jewels she had in great quantity, with an house richly furnished after the Indian fashion. For this consideration I persuaded myself to marry her; and with several arguments alleged, I gained so much conquest over myself that I could kiss her without disgorging myself…”

Oh, Latroon, you romantic devil!

And having found a woman who can and will keep him in the style he is convinced he deserves, Our Hero settles back to reflect upon his life and closes with an extensive piece of moralising that very nearly made me disgorge myself. As for writing down his life, well, that was done with the very best of intentions, and above all in the most delicate language, as we have seen:

    “As the daylight is purest, so I have endeavoured to make my slender wit appear terse and spruce, without the fulsomeness of wanton language. If I have in any place transgressed the bounds of modesty by loose expressions, you need not fear to be offended with their unsavoury breath, for I have perfumed it: but if it should chance to stink, it is only to drive you from my former inclination and conversation…
    “If any loose word have dropped from the mind’s best interpreter, my pen, I would have the Reader to pass it over regardless, and not like a toad, gather up the venom of a garden; or like a goldfinder, make it his business to dive in stench and excrements…”

13/08/2011

My man George

I seem to spend so much time – either mentally or here – arguing with the writers of non-fiction that it always comes as a most pleasant surprise when I come across someone I actually agree with (and no, I don’t mean, Who agrees with me…honestly). It’s happened twice, reasonably recently: the first instance, which I have mentioned previously, came in the form of James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England, from 1949, which I really must get around to writing a proper review of; and the second, which I stumbled across while reading around Richard Head, is George Saintsbury’s The English Novel from 1913.

I haven’t read this book in full yet, but these excerpts are enough to make me want to:

    “[The English Rogue] is quite openly a picaresque novel: and imitated not merely from the Spanish originals but from Sorel’s Francion, which had appeared in France some forty years before. Yet, if we compare this latter curious book with Head’s we shall see how very far behind, even with forty years’ advantage in time, was the country which, in the next century, was practically to create the modern novel…”
   
“Very few of the characters of The English Rogue have so much as a name to their backs: they are “a prentice,” “a master,” “a mistress,” “a servant,” “a daughter,” “a tapster,” etc. They are invested with hardly the slightest individuality: the very hero is a scoundrel as characterless as he is nameless. He is the mere thread which keeps the beads of the story together after a fashion. These beads themselves, moreover, are only the old anecdotes of ‘coney-catching,’ over-reaching, and worse, which had separately filled a thousand fabliaux, novelle, ‘jests,’ and so forth: and which are now flung together in gross, chiefly by the excessively clumsy and unimaginative expedient of making the personages tell long strings of them as their own experience.”
    “When anything more is wanted, accounts of the manners of foreign countries, taken from ‘voyage-and-travel’ books; of the tricks of particular trades (as here of piratical book-selling); of anything and everything that the writer’s dull fancy can think of, are foisted in. The thing is in four volumes, and it seems that a fifth was intended as a close: but there is no particular reason why it should not have extended to forty or fifty, nay to four or five hundred. It could have had no real end, just as it has no real beginning or middle. One other point deserves notice. The tone of the Spanish and French picaresque novel had never been high: but it is curiously degraded in this English example…”
    “Except in a dim sort of idea that a novel should have some bulk and substance, it is difficult to see any advance whatever in this muck-heap—which the present writer, having had to read it a second time for the present purpose, most heartily hopes to be able to leave henceforth undisturbed on his shelves…”

That last bit made me keel over in sympathetic laughter. Oh, Georgie, my man, I know exactly how you feel!

But it doesn’t stop there. In this same section Saintsbury draws comparisons between Richard Head and another Restoration writer:

    The reign of Charles II…is properly represented in fiction by two writers, to whom, by those who like to make discoveries, considerable importance has sometimes been assigned in the history of the English Novel. These are Richard Head and Afra Behn, otherwise ‘the divine Astræa.’ It is, however, something of an injustice to class them together: for Afra was a woman of very great ability, with a suspicion of genius, while Head was at the very best a bookmaker of not quite the lowest order, though pretty near it…”
   
“Not in this fashion must the illustrious Afra be spoken of… There is no doubt that The Royal Slave and even its companions are far above the dull, dirty, and never more than half alive stuff of The English Rogue. Oroonoko is a story, not a pamphlet or a mere ‘coney-catching’ jest. To say that it wants either contraction or expansion; less ‘talk about it’ and more actual conversation; a stronger projection of character and other things; is merely to say that it is an experiment in the infancy of the novel, not a following out of secrets already divulged. It certainly is the first prose story in English which can be ranked with things that already existed in foreign literatures…”

The book which contains this admiring but thoughtful positioning of Oroonoko appeared slightly earlier than Montague Summers’ editing and reissuing of Behn’s works, which is generally considered the beginning of her “official” rehabilitation…although it was about another seventy years before her place in the timeline was secure (and some people still want to give us an argument). The English Novel is available through Project Gutenberg, and I think I’ll have to put it on the reading list—particularly since it is clear that George Saintsbury isn’t one of those who thinks that the history of the novel began in England (and for the record, no, I don’t think that; I just came to the party late); still less does he think that the modern novel “began” with Richardson…or even with Defoe.

And as for myself— After that succinct yet comprehensive disposal of The English Rogue by My Man George, is there any real need to say any more? No, probably not—but of course I will anyway…

04/08/2011

Lily The Lost One; or, The Fatal Effects Of Deception

“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…

Dum-dum-dummm

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:

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