Archive for September, 2011

24/09/2011

For whom the book tolls…

Life being inconvenient, as it so often is, I’ve been trying not to dwell upon the fact that I’ve slipped behind in my review writing again. But no matter where I turn – or at least, no matter to which book I turn – I find an uncomfortable reminder of my unmet obligations. 

Outside the goalposts, I’ve been reading John Buchan’s Leithen Stories, a series of five novels connected by the presence of the character of Sir Edward Leithen. In the second volume, John Macnab, published in 1925, an aspiring politician is asked to make his first public appearance, and after freezing and forgetting every word of his conned speech, he blunders into an emotional and unrehearsed declaration of his feelings about things in general and England in particular:

It was a strange, inconsequent speech, but it had a curious appeal in it–the appeal of youth and candour and courage.  It was philosophy rather than politics, and ragged but arresting philosophy. He began by confessing that the war had left the world in a muddle, a muddle which affected his own mind.  The only cure was to be honest with oneself, and to refuse to accept specious nonsense and conventional jargon.  He told the story from Andersen of the Emperor’s New Suit.  “Our opponents call us Tories,” he said; “they can call us anything they jolly well please.  I am proud to be called a Tory.  I understand that the name was first given by Titus Oates to those who disbelieved in his Popish Plot. What we want to-day is Toryism–the courage to give the lie to impudent rogues.”

That was a bolt from the blue.

However, this passage was merely a teaser compared to the full-on assault on my guilt complex offered by Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris, the second volume in his “Herries Chronicles”, which is less like a hint that I should be catching up my blog reviews than it is a bizarre kind of family reunion.

Published in 1931 and set from 1774 – 1820, this novel is amazingly literary, if we use that word in its broadest sense. It teems with readers, and there are any number of references to hot-off-the-press works of non-fiction such as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Paine’s Age Of Reason, Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France and Rousseau’s Contrat Social. One character writes for the Gentleman’s Magazine; another has his life changed by the The Life Of John Wesley; while the appearance of a professional actress gives us a whirlwind tour of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But ultimately, novels and poetry predominate. A fit of righteous rage is described in the words of Ann Radcliffe: To speak in the terms of The Italian, he was ‘cold fury nobly seething’. Mrs Radcliffe wins a second mention when the heroine wakes from a strange dream with her mind in a bookish jumble: With confused notions of Mrs Radcliffe, a novel that the night before she had been reading, The Last Step; or The History Of Mrs Brudenal, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Isabella; or The Rewards Of Good Nature

We are introduced to the young John Herries, who at the age of fourteen…could read tales and poetry to himself by the hour. He would sit curled up in a corner somewhere and pray he would not be noticed. He had always detested Mangnall’s Questions, and Butler’s Guide To Useful Knowledge—for such things he had no use whatever, but Goldsmith’s History Of England he devoured in all its four volumes because of the thrilling detail in it. Then there was Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts In Prose And Verse, then Marmion, The Lay, the Waverleys, The Parents’ Assistant, The Fairchild Family and, secretly, obtained from some of the Forresters who lived in Bassenthwaite, many volumes of the Minerva Press, The Mysterious Hand, The Demon Of Society and the rest…

That’s my boy.

We also meet John’s mother, Jennifer, who keeps her children’s grotesquely unqualified tutor around because, among other reasons, he’s willing to entertain her by reading Minerva Press novels to her.

All sorts of literary figures flit across the pages of this novel. Robert Southey and Walter Scott appear in person, as do Sarah and Hartley Coleridge, although not their husband and father; while there are mentions of Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron. Francis Herries, while trying to support himself as a writer, becomes acquainted with Charles Lamb and Samuel Rogers; and it is the latter who introduces Francis to a young man destined to make his mark in the world:

    “This is Mr Macaulay, who is at Cambridge and will soon be having the world at his feet. Come, come, Macaulay. You know you will. You are as confident of it as I am.”
    The thick-set untidy youth raised a pair of very remarkable piercing eyes and began to talk with great eloquence and volubility. It was clear that he did not suffer from shyness… The loquacious youth had already forgotten him and was talking eagerly to Sumner about a book he held in his hand…

We are not made privy to the volume that has won the enthusiasm of the future Lord Macaulay, but I just know it was one of Mary Meeke’s novels…

But the crowning moment comes when Judith Paris calls upon some friends of hers, a tacitly lesbian middle-aged couple. She finds one of them sewing while the other reads a novel out loud:

    She knocked on the door, was admitted by their little maid Betty, and found them by the fire in the parlour, Miss West reading to Miss Pennyfeather from one of the novels of Mrs Cuthbertson.
    They were enchanted to see Judith.
    Miss West threw Mrs Cuthbertson on to the floor, crying in a deep bass voice: “This is Stuff!”

Oh, hey!!

So where did Hugh Walpole learn about the novels of Kitty Cuthbertson, which were long out of print by 1931? Possibly he found some old volumes in his family’s library—although all things considered, my best guess would be that he’d been reading The Life And Letters Of Macaulay, and thus learned about Cuthbertson – and Meeke – exactly the same way that we did.

Or, I suppose, he could have been reading Jane Austen’s letters

So there you have it: a sign from the ether that the universe is Not Best Pleased with my slackness, that I should be knuckling down to my exceedingly overdue review of Mary Meeke’s 1797 novel, Palmira And Ermance – and that it intends to keep pestering me until I do.

And furthermore that, having done so, I will be able to move on to the next novel in line for Authors In Depth—Kitty Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector.

Footnote:  The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterreanean Horrours!: A Romance by Augustus Jacob Crandolph and The Fairchild Family by Martha Sherwood were already on The List; but of The Demon Of Society, The Last Step and Isabella I can, alas, find no sign.

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17/09/2011

The Gilberts And Their Guests: A Story Of Homely English Life

“Miss Dale did not slight Mr Surrey’s advice: she presently seated herself before her cheerful fire, and opened the precious packet of books, as she took from it volume after volume.—‘How cheering,’ she thought, ‘is the conviction of being really cared for by a friend. How pleasant it is to obey the directions of so kind a monitor!’ And then she fell into a reverie in which memory brought before her, as in a dream, days long passed away—when her little fortune was not diminished—when there existed no necessity for the exertion of her talent. Then passed before her the first meeting with Surrey—how full of sorrow her heart had then been, and how the interest of his conversation had gradually drawn her from the weakness of indulging in unavailing regret—how almost imperceptibly she had grown to value his society, till at length it had become her highest pleasure; and now how delightful was his return!—Time had not yet robbed her of all her enjoyment.”

The solicitor Mr Gilbert lives near to the bustling country town of Woodridge with his second wife and the children of his first marriage. Sorrow has recently come to the Gilbert family: debts contracted by Edmund, the eldest son, have forced Mr Gilbert to lay off his loyal clerk, Davis, and to work long hours in an attempt to repair the family finances; while Edmund himself, ashamed and repentent, has departed for New Zealand to begin a new life. Concerned about the effect upon her husband’s health of the increased workload and incessant worry, Mrs Gilbert conceives the notion of taking in a paying guest to supplement Mr Gilbert’s earnings. Emily, the eldest daughter, suggests asking Miss Louisa Dale, a close friend of the family who lives in a cottage outside of Woodridge, to live with them, but Mrs Gilbert replies that she is sure that Miss Dale would prefer to keep her independence.

Shortly afterwards, the Gilberts receive an unexpected visit from Mr William Surrey, a cousin of Mrs Gilbert. Although a great favourite with the family, especially the youngest child, Rhoda, Surrey is an irregular visitor, preferring to maintain a rambling existence which allows him to indulge his love of nature, and which he supports through his philosophical writings, which have won him great admiration in academic circles. However, when the Gilberts’ situation is explained to him, Surrey immediately offers himself as their first paying guest.

Having suffered in her life a series of tragic blows, including the death of her fiancé, the loss of most of her fortune, and near-fatal bouts of illness, Miss Louisa Dale now lives a solitary life and supports herself somewhat precariously through the sale of her landscape paintings. The great consolation of Miss Dale’s life is her friendship with Mr Surrey, which is maintained by correspondence during his frequent absences. Miss Dale receives the news of Surrey taking up his residence with the Gilberts with pleasure, promising herself many walks in his company, and much conversation about their mutual interests, in particular literature. Indeed, it is not long before Miss Dale is aware that she cherishing warming feelings for Surrey than mere friendship. This, however, she keeps a closely guarded secret; not least because she is aware that Surrey, too, suffered a bitter romantic disappointment in his youth, and has since declared his intention of remaining a bachelor.

Another reason for Miss Dale’s reticence is that her sharp eyes have detected signs that, in spite of his resolution, Surrey is beginning to take an interest in Emily Gilbert. Emily herself, however, although the friendly affection that she feels for Surrey is quite evident, shows no symptom of wishing for a closer relationship. Indeed, from time to time, Emily seems to withdraw into herself altogether, her thoughts being hidden from her family and friends. The reason becomes apparent with the return to Woodridge of the young naval lieutenant, Charles Randall, whose parents live in the village. The two become engaged; although owing to Randall’s inability to support a wife on his current income, he and Emily must accept that it is likely to be a lengthy engagement.

Suppressing his feelings for Emily, Surrey announces his intention of leaving the Gilberts for some time, to stay with a friend and his wife. However, this visit to Sir James and Lady Dalton is hardly the balm that Surrey was seeking. Rather, as he watches his friends share both their domestic comforts and their intellectual pursuits, as well as the care of their young daughter, Lucy, it brings home to him all that he has missed in life.

In Surrey’s absence, the Gilberts take in another paying guest, a vivacious young widow called Sophy Duckenfield. Mrs Duckenfield is a cousin of Mr Gilbert’s, and has come to him for help with a complicated aspect of her late husband’s estate. Upon his return, Surrey is struck by her good looks and charm. Partly because of his determination to conquer his feeling for Emily, and partly because Mrs Duckenfield’s attentions flatter his vanity, he allows himself  to be drawn into a dangerous flirtation, and almost before he knows it is teetering on the brink of being obliged in honour to make an offer of marriage.

However, certain in his own mind that there is no real feeling on either side, Surrey extricates himself and leaves not just the Gilberts’ house but England, returning to his old peripatetic life in the painful knowledge that his conduct had lowered him significantly in his friends’ respect. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Duckenfield also departs—although not before setting her cap at, and making an obvious impression upon, Dr Bassett, the Gilberts’ family physician.

Disturbing as these events have been, much worse is to follow. The Gilberts take in another guest, an accomplished young woman called Sibella Crawford, who delights the family with her dusky beauty and her musical gifts. However, unbeknownst to the Gilberts, some years earlier, while stationed in the West Indies, Charles Randall became entangled with Miss Crawford, only his unofficial pledge to Emily standing between the two of them. Now an orphan and independently wealthy, Miss Crawford has pursued Randall to England, determined to win his love in spite of his engagement to Emily. But even as this drama begins to unfold in their house, the Gilberts collectively are distracted by a dreadful fear: that little Rhoda, the pet of the family, is beginning to lose her eyesight…

[SPOILERS]

While I’m not sure that it’s really possible to do an “Authors In Depth” study of someone who only wrote two novels, I suppose it’s the thought that counts; and on the basis of my reading of Julia Day’s second novel, I’m very much inclined to track down her first. Although it masquerades as a simple domestic tale, her 1858 work The Gilberts And Their Guests not only finds a most unusual perspective from which to tell its story, but is studded throughout with what I’m tempted to call touches of quiet revolution: moments of narrative daring, when subjects you would hardly expect to find in a mainstream Victorian novel suddenly disrupt the otherwise broadly conventional plot. The result is an intriguing piece of fiction—although one that is simultaneously quite exasperating to the reader; or, at least, to this reader.

In fact, The Gilberts And Their Guests managed to catch me on a perpetual sore spot. I have a long, long history, when reading books and watching movies, of finding myself in sympathy with the third point of any given romantic triangle. I can only assume that my ideas of what constitutes a desirable romantic partner is at odds with that of—well, almost everybody else, given the monotononous regularity with which I’m left with what seems to me a most unsatisfactory resolution to a love story.

Although its rambling narrative takes in any number of plots and subplots, ultimately the focus of this novel is on the largely unspoken triangle that forms between Louisa Dale, William Surrey and Emily Gilbert. What is unusual is that the story ends up being told chiefly from the point of view of Miss Dale, who not only conceals her own romantic longings from their object, but actively promotes a relationship between Surrey and Emily, after the latter at length recovers from the hurt and humiliation of being jilted by Charles Randall. In spite of the depth of her feeling for Surrey, in spite too of their many common interests and opinions, never does Miss Dale believe that he can return her love. Instead, from the instant she perceives that he has developed an interest in Emily, she decides that he is off-limits to herself; and not even Emily’s subsequent engagement makes any difference to her resolution to conceal herself. Indeed, ultimately it is difficult not to feel that there is a certain masochism about her determination to see her friends happy at her her own expense:

“No sooner was Miss Dale alone than burying her face in her hands she wept—wept long and bitterly. How little had the true nature of her feelings been understood. Yet could she have wished it otherwise? Oh! no, no. But she knew now that she was about to lose what had long been her most precious possession. Surrey might himself believe that his friendship for her would continue unchanged—but she could read his nature—could foresee that with the new tie awaiting him there would be room in his heart for only one affection. She would perhaps be remembered, but not with the fervent interest that surely had formerly responded to her own faithful regard—and without this how truly should she be solitary—evermore—evermore.”

One of the many interesting—and exasperating—things about this novel is that it is often difficult to pin down Julia Day’s own feelings on a given subject, and nowhere more so than with respect to how the reader is intended to react to Louisa Dale’s self-sacrifice. One thing we can say, and this is one of the really enjoyable aspects of this novel, is that Miss Dale is certainly not considered “beyond” romantic fulfillment on account either of her age, or her having been previously in love.

The text in its entirety, in fact, acts as a refutation to the conventional romantic notion that a person can only really love once. The novel abounds with second relationships: Mr Gilbert is twice married; both Surrey and Emily are thrown over by their first loves; while one of the tragedies of Miss Dale’s life is the accidental death of her fiancé, just before their long engagement was finally to end in marriage. The suggestion is that an early, unhappy experience can not only build character in the right sort of person, but pave the way for a deeper and truer love.

Although the text is never explicit, we can infer that when the story opens, Miss Dale is in her early thirties, and William Surrey perhaps five years older than her and some fifteen years older than Emily; while the events of the novel unfold over a period of five or six years. Quite early on, there is an explicit discussion of how old is “too old” when it comes to love; and significantly, it is Emily—who will be twenty-eight when she and Surrey finally come together—who rejects the idea that the passion is only for the young:

    “‘There is no harm in anything that I have ever said about them,’ cried Fanny.
    ‘No actual harm, my love, certainly: and yet it is a little hard that a lady and gentleman of middle age cannot associate together without subjecting themselves to the idle imputation of entertaining for each other a tenderer sentiment than that of friendship.’
    ‘To be sure it is!’ exclaimed Emily, ‘and I think Miss Dale would be very much annoyed if it reached her ear. I wonder though at what age people do give up being in love, as it is called. For my part I don’t see why the old should not like each other well enough to marry as well as the young.’
    ‘You need not go far for an example, my dear,’ said Mrs Gilbert, smiling, ‘your father and I certainly furnish you with one.'”

Running in parallel with this novel’s unconventional views on romantic relationships is an equally unexpected take on the male sex—or so it seems to me: here again Julia Day proves elusive. The narrative presents us with two self-appointed superior males, William Surrey himself, and Dr Bassett. Both, to differing degrees, take the female need for male guidance for granted; both express themselves without hesitation on the subject of natural female “foolishness” and “imprudence”; both tender their advice unasked for, and take any failure on the part of its recipient to act on that advice to its very letter as further evidence of her “foolishness”.

The targets of these strictures take it all in remarkably good part, particularly with respect to the rough-tongued Dr Bassett, who seems barely able to speak to a woman without rating her for something, but whose brusqueness is forgiven by his victims on the grounds of his bark being worse than his bite. If, however, any female should be so presumtuous as to offer advice or, heaven forbid, criticism in return, she is instantly reprimanded for overstepping her bounds.

The narrative never takes overt exception to this masculine assumption of superiority. It does, however, show us first William Surrey, and after him Dr Bassett, being taken in by the shallow and obvious attractions of Sophy Duckenfield, the former escaping only by the skin of his teeth, the latter falling squarely into her toils. More concerned with the character of Surrey, the narrative spends some time dwelling on the psychology of the situation, on the flaws in Surrey’s nature that allow the admiration-seeking, husband-hunting young widow to manoeuvre him, completely against his will, very nearly to the altar:

    “But although Surrey endured and sometimes even returned the tenderness thus lavished on him, for he was no ascetic—no stoic—he was as far as ever from any intention of asking the lady to be his companion for life: he was wrong perhaps, without such an intention, to continue in her society, but his conduct did not strike himself in this light. They had been accidentally thrown together, and it would be almost absurd in him, he thought, to fly from his temporary home, because a fair lady had invaded its precincts, and lavished upon him her favour. He would stand his ground manfully at all events—as to the rest, events must take their course.
    “
He could not absolutely repulse the lady’s advances, who still young and lively, with a fair share of beauty, had attractions sufficient to strike his fancy, though they could not touch his heart. He was soon in a predicament of some danger. Mrs Duckenfield, observing the increase of her influence over him, redoubled her fascinations: to resist them was wholly impossible, and without compromising his honour it would be difficult to escape from the entanglement of a tie, which in this instance he was resolved not to fetter himself with. No justification could be offered for the course which he pursued; it was altogether beneath him, but the flattery of woman’s favour lulled his reason, and made him fail to perceive that it was ungenerous of him to accept the love which he could not in full measure return: so he lingered from day to day, from week to week, in the society that he should have forbidden himself to indulge in, inhaling incense that intoxicated his senses…”

On the very brink of the abyss, Surrey pulls himself together, freeing himself from Mrs Duckenfield with a ruthlessness that the Gilberts, looking on, disapprove only sightly less than they would have done the alternative. Mrs Duckenfield is not backward about expressing her bitter resentment; but for all this it is not long before her batteries are turned upon Dr Bassett, who has had plenty to say about Surrey’s situation. Dr Bassett is in all respects a less complex character than Surrey, and we are not surprised when his defences prove entirely inadequate. The Gilbert ladies, having shaken their heads in grave disappointment over Surrey’s behaviour, respond to the doctor’s capitulation with laughter, and we can hardly blame them. It is noticeable that, subsequently, both Surrey and Bassett are considerably less vocal on the subject of “foolishness”.

These events are presented to the reader with a lack of authorial interjection that is significant in itself; and while the novel has paid, and continues to pay, lip service to the convention of natural male superiority, there is nevertheless a lurking sense here that in certain situations, the male of the species is less distinguished by his superiority than by his obtuseness.

And it is indeed William Surrey’s obtuseness in his dealings with Louisa Dale, the fact that it never so much as crosses his mind that they might be more than friends, that he is finally more attracted by Emily’s beauty and the “charming simplicity” of her character than by Louisa’s intellectual capacity and emotional depth, that makes this novel so very frustrating. And here again I am not quite sure of Julia Day’s point—which is, perhaps, nothing more complex than “love’s a bitch”.

Be that as it may, a great deal of this novel’s interest lies in scenes between William Surrey and Louisa Dale; and quite a number of unexpected things take place when they are together. The warm yet slightly adversarial nature of their friendship is made apparent at their very first exchange, during which Miss Dale declines to be advised in the matter of her painting, by which she earns a slender self-sufficiency:

    “‘I assure you this little success is a surprise to myself; I feel that my poor efforts have been rewarded with more indulgence than they deserve; but it is a happy circumstance for me, as you, who know pretty well the state of my finances, can easily imagine.’
    ‘But I must be permitted to repeat the caution which I have already given. It will be the height of imprudence to rely solely on so precarious a mode of support, especially with your uncertain state of health.’
    ‘There is no help for it; I have no other resource.’
    ‘You have relatives, affluent relatives.’
    ‘Yes, and I have also an antipathy to a state of dependence.’
    ‘Yet a home you must have.’
    ‘Do you not find me in one? You will say it is built upon the sand, for this is its only foundation,’ she said, faintly smiling, and laying her hand on the easel.
    ‘Ah!’ sighed Surrey, ‘you are impracticable.—impracticable as I have ever found you.'”

Miss Dale’s determined independence of thought and action displays itself quite startlingly in the novel’s most unexpected subplot, in which she provides a refuge for a “fallen woman”—a Mrs Copeland, who some years earlier was seduced into an affair, was  brought by her remorse to confess to her husband, and subsequently felt the full weight of society’s fury. Banished from her home, and her child, cut off from everything and everyone she had known, left somehow to support herself, and finally with her health failing, the desperate Mrs Copeland appeals for help to Louisa Dale, the friend of her youth—and not in vain.

Here, fascinatingly, Julia Day finds plenty to say, both in her own voice and in that of her characters. While not condoning Mrs Copeland’s transgression, Day is savage on the double standard, and the brutality of the punishment meted out to the sinning woman, while the man goes scot-free; even going so far as to touch upon the subject of the prevailing divorce laws.

Here Miss Dale, having settled her friend in the cottage in which she will live out the few weeks left to her, reflects upon her situation as she walks home:

    “‘Poor Jane!’ thought she, ‘poor, poor Jane! Alas! what anguish has she earned through one guilty step! But can it be right that this single lapse from social virtue, so long repented of, should remain for ever unpardoned?—that the affection of her own child—the child she once loved so intensely, and of whom she dares not now trust herself to speak—should be irretrievably alienated from her; that no woman’s heart should turn towards her with compassion—should reverence her noble toil, self-imposed that she may not eat of the bread of the wronged husband or of the base seducer? Is the one sin to be for ever remembered against her, and the penitence which led her to renounce it to pass unheeded?’…”
    “And if but a just amount of suffering had been imposed on the erring woman, how had society dealt with the acknowledged partner of her crime—her tempter, her seducer? Had it thrust him forth with ignominy? Had it closed to him one avenue to prosperity—to happiness? Was he not at this very moment an approved servant of the state, loaded with dignity, regarded with reverence? Was he not a cherished husband, an honoured father? For him the world had no memory of the transgression that had severed the holiest bonds of social life. Indignant virtue was satisfied to inflict no chastisement on the strong, it poured the full measure of its wrath on the weak.”

Later, as Mrs Copeland nears death, and with Miss Dale damaging her own health by nursing her, Mrs Gilbert and Mr Surrey worriedly discuss the situation, including the responsibility of Mrs Copeland’s implacable relatives. Significantly, neither Mrs Gilbert nor Mr Surrey—who has met and conversed with Mrs Copeland, treating her with ordinary politeness and concealing his knowledge of her history—condemn Miss Dale for helping her outcast friend:

    “‘She has been so completely cast off by them all, that the very mention of an appeal to them now agitates her painfully, but I understand that she has at last expressed a wish to see her daughter, who is to be summoned forthwith. It will be a terrible meeting. She left this daughter a mere child, and has never since beheld her.’
    ‘There is something deplorably at fault, Margaret, in the moral treatment which cases of this unfortunate description receive at the hands of society; the day must come that they will be more wisely dealt with.’
    ‘You would not wish them to go unpunished?’
    ‘I would at least not have all the punishment fall one one side, and that the weakest,’ answered Surrey.
    ‘It is a very difficult subject to interfere with,’ observed Mrs Gilbert.
    ‘It is, and we must have patience. There must be a gradual recognition of many errors in our social system before any rational change can be effected in our manner of dealing with it.’
    ‘I confess I am of the opinion it had best remain as it is,’ said Mrs Gilbert: ‘marriage cannot be regarded in too sacred a light.’
    ‘True: but its being rendered more easily dissoluble by law would, I believe, rivet rather than loosen the true nature of such a bond,’ said Surrey.

And on top of all this, Julia Day allows herself a little irony: it is via her pen that Mrs Copeland has been supporting herself in her troubles, her moral tales delighting a reading public that would no doubt flee from them in horror, were they acquainted with the author.

I know of few novels so unabashedly a fan of literature of all levels as The Gilberts And Their Guests. Not only Mrs Copeland but also Mr Surrey supports himself by writing, and all of the positively presented characters are great readers. One of the highest marks of Surrey’s regard for Miss Dale, and the one most gratefully received, is that he is always bringing her books. Various works receive approving mention along the way: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House Of Seven Gables, Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village, Washington Irving’s Sketch-Book, and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller and The Deserted Village, among others. However, the final word on the subject goes to Surrey’s friend, Lady Dalton:

    “Among works of higher importance some of the light literature of the day was always to be found on Lady Dalton’s reading table. She had a keen sense of enjoyment in the perusal of the imaginative and well-constructed novel, where neither nature nor art was outraged for the purpose of enforcing theological dogma or moral axiom. Any true picture of life, any delicate touch of well-directed satire, any shadowy form, which the wand of genius, only could evoke, had for her infinite charm. For art’s sake, she valued the work of art, and for art’s sake she reverenced the artist.
    “‘I never close a book that has instructed, or even simply interested me,’ she said one day to Mr Surrey, ‘without a feeling of lively gratitude towards the author; and more than this, for the mental feast that has been afforded me, I offer up silent thanksgiving, no less devout than that which I give for daily bread.'”

Amen, sister.

And with the tone of Lady Dalton’s benediction, and that allusion to “theological dogma”, we pass to Julia Day’s final bit of daring: her attitude to religion. Granted, my appreciation for – and understanding of – this aspect of the novel follows chiefly from my reading of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement.

Early in the novel, Emily Gilbert attracts the attention of the new minister, Mr Sandham. She dismisses him without hesitation, disliking his attitudes; and when he is praised for his dedication, she counters that she considers him narrow-minded and bigoted. A specific criticism is that he spends more time raising money to restore his church than he does serving his flock. This latter fixation paves the way for the revelation of Mr Sandham as very “High Church”, almost Anglo-Catholic, and therefore by definition (according to much of the literature of this time) overly interested in the externals of worship. Rejected by Emily, Mr Sandham turns his attention to her younger sister, Fanny, in whom he finds the helpmate he’s been looking for—though in saying so, Julia Day intends no praise of her:

“Fanny, after the first shock occasioned by her sister’s calamity, evinced her sympathy in little beyond the peevish lamentations over it in which she occasionally indulged; and engrossed by the interests of her new position, had not much time to bestow on her former home. In the contracted views entertained by her husband her narrow mind found congenial attention. She was content to believe that in the precise observance of certain appointed forms her highest duty lay, and her intellect, such as it was, became day by day more cramped.”

But perhaps Miss Day’s objections are not merely to the High Church approach to religion. Well before this, we are privy to a remarkable exchange between Mr Surrey and Miss Dale, the subject some dangerous verses written by the latter, which remind us that not all 19th century religious controversy was about the finer points of doctrine:

    “‘You must not allow your very orthodox friends to have a sight of these verses, excellent as in my opinion they are. Lock them in your desk. You are not half careful enough. Why run the risk of being tabooed by your matter-of-fact neighbours?’
    ‘My being known as the writer of those lines could scarcely bring about such a catastrophe as that.’
    ‘I beg your pardon, it would be very likely to do so; they might be considered to savour of sceptical philosophy: and although now the spirit of inquiry is bolder than ever, on the other hand the orthodox get more sensitive than ever to the least deviation from orthodoxy. Take my advice, go your own way, but keep your own counsel.’
    ‘What you call my own way is a way into which you first led me,’ said Miss Dale.
    ‘That may be, but to you, who are a thinking person, the subjects you have lately been revolving in your mind, the very spirit of the age would have brought before you through some other channel, if no such person as I had been in existence,’ said Mr Surrey.”

So—to recapitulate, we have: the humiliation of dependence; a woman’s right to support herself through her own labour; the iniquity of the double standard; a plea for the revision of the divorce laws; and a smattering of religious scepticism.

Not too shabby, for a novel that bills itself simply as “A Story Of Homely English Life“.

09/09/2011

The English Rogue (Part 2)

“When this piece was first published…the author intended and endeavoured to possess the reader with a belief that what was written was the Life of a Witty Extravagant, the author’s friend and acquaintance. This was the intent of the writer, but the readers could not be drawn to this belief, but in general concurred in this question, that it was the life of the author… They holding this opinion caused him to desist from prosecuting his story in a Second Part, and he having laid down the cudgels I took them up. My design in doing so was out of three considerations; the first and chiefest was to gain ready money, the second I had an itch to gain some reputation by being in print, and thereby revenge myself on some who had abused me, and whose actions I recited, and the third was to advantage the reader and make him a gainer by acquainting him with my experiences.”

Of course, which Richard Head wrote the line, There are knaves in all trades but book selling, he hadn’t yet met Francis Kirkman.

One of the odd things about this course of reading has been the way that certain names have kept reappearing in the background, and always in connection with dubious activities: plagiarism, copyright infringement, the selling of unlicensed works, and so on. Francis Kirkman’s first overt appearance upon this particular stage comes when his publishing partnership with three other men, including one Henry Marsh, fell apart over accusations that they had sold pirated copies of The Scornful Lady, a play by  Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher first published in 1616, It was a favourite of Charles II, and a revival production became one of the first great theatrical successes of the Restoration.

It was Henry Marsh who had the good fortune, in 1665, to publish Richard Head’s The English Rogue. The book was in constant demand, and Marsh reissued it several times before his death in 1666, after which (in circumstances too murky to be deciphered) the rights to this highly profitable publication fell to Francis Kirkman, who likewise issued it in several editions. We can only assume, however, that in time the profits began to dwindle. In 1668, Kirkman tried to revive his cash-cow by persuading Richard Head to write a sequel (plus ça change), but having been badly burned personally over his book, and being for once in a comparatively comfortable situation financially, Head refused. It does not seem that this refusal created any particular ill-feeling between the two men, who collaborated on other projects around this time; and it was presumably with Head’s blessing that Kirkman sat down to pen his own second part of the tale.

Reading this second volume of The English Rogue has been an interesting experience—but only, I hasten to add, because I’ve read the first one. In purely literary terms, Kirkman’s contribution is quite as worthless as its predecessor, and at times an equally dreary read (though overall, much less so); but when the two are compared some rather intriguing and, indeed, amusing impressions begin to emerge.

In short—the main thing I shall take away from the second part of The English Rogue is a sense that Francis Kirkman was a much nicer person than Richard Head. Though he does not seem to have been any more honest an individual, it is clear that his mind ran in very different channels. For one thing, while to Head writing was never more than a means to a handful of cash, it is very apparent from the course of his life, even, bizarrely, from his choice of illegal activities, that Francis Kirkman had a genune love of literature.

Although his life was a round of enterprises and failures, cheats, manoeuvrings, bankruptcies and debt, through it all Kirkman never lost his determination to be involved in the world of books. From an early age he collected manuscripts. His passion for drama led him to compile a comprehensive catalogue of some 800 plays that had been published in England, claiming in its introduction that he had read them all; while many of his illegal dealings involved the issuing of plays for which he had a particular enthusiasm—if not copyright. Kirkman also wrote a play himself, as well as several works of fiction. In The Unlucky Citizen, published in 1673, which was sold as fiction but is in fact an unacknowledged autobiography, he gives a disarmingly frank account of the ups and downs of his life. However, in historical terms Kirkman’s most significant contribution was his practice, begun in 1660, of lending out his collection of manuscripts on a short-term basis—in effect creating an early public library, possibly the first in London.

The differences between the first two volumes of The English Rogue are extremely telling. One highly significant aspect of the second is that it is relatively free of the sheer nastiness that is the outstanding characteristic of the first. Granted, there is some anti-woman ranting;  scenes of seduction and abandonment; practical jokes involving laxatives; and moments when someone loses control of their bowels (I swear, the only thing these people enjoyed more than a chamber-pot scene was an absence-of-chamber-pot scene); but these are isolated incidents scattered over some 200 pages, and not the bulk of the text. There’s also a half-heartedness about them, as if Kirkman accepted their necessity but didn’t much care for that style of writing.

More tellingly still, it is evident that Francis Kirkman could actually conceive of there being such a thing as a decent human being—if only in an “honour amongst thieves” kind of way. His characters sometimes help each other without hope of personal reward. They even keep promises. His men and women are occasionally faithful to one another. (Not his married men and women, of course; let’s not get carried away.) And when an individual is cheated or defrauded, his way of retaliation is generally not some grotesque act of violent revenge, but simply to take the other party to court.

It seems that Francis Kirkman was a man ahead of his time.

The other great difference between the first two volumes of The English Rogue is their content, as indicated by their relative subtitles: whereas Richard Head offered A Compleat History Of The Most Eminent Cheats Of Both Sexes, Francis Kirkman promises an account of The Most Eminent Cheats Of Most Trades And Professions—a promise he keeps. Wrapped within the 200 pages of the second volume of The English Rogue is nothing less than a 150-page treatise upon white-collar crime in the late 17th century. And if it happens that Francis Kirkman dwells with a little more feeling upon the disreputable practices that flourished in the world of bookselling than upon those in other trades, well, perhaps we can’t be too surprised about that.

When Francis Kirkman took up his pen to continue Richard Head’s story, he was of course confronted by a significant problem: namely, that Head had been so minutely circumstantial in his account of the life of “Meriton Latroon”, there was really nothing more to be said. Unable to go back, Kirkman was compelled to go on; and the volume opens with Latroon updating us on his Indian marriage, his success as a businessman, and his conquering of the nausea brought on by sex with non-Causcasians sufficiently to start frequenting the local brothels:

“What they wanted in beauty they supplied in respect and willingness to comply with and please me in all my desires; and though many times they have the pox, by reason of their heat and activity, yet they value it not…”

Nor anyone else, apparently. The book then takes an unwelcome turn (that is, even more unwelcome), as Latroon sits back to reflect upon (and give us us a potted version of, presumably for the benefit of those few individuals who might have missed it the first time around) his life so far, which induces another one of his rare fits of reformation:

“This consideration took me up much time, and possessed me with some virtuous thoughts, believing that I had not been preserved and reserved from so many hazards but for some good end; and now I had a fair opportunity of declining vice and living virtuously, I not being likely to be exposed to any such roguish shifts or courses as formally. These thoughts of virtue made way for those of religion…”

Here, I hope I may be forgiven for crying aloud, “Oh, God, no!” And in truth, things rapidly go even worse than I anticipated, as Latroon passes from thoughts of Christianity to the “absurdity” of the local religious practices, of which he then gives us “an account” which stretches for pages and which is, without exaggeration, one of the most numbingly boring things I have ever read, a kind of Hindu version of “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob…”, only much, much longer. (No offence to any Hindus intended; it’s the way he tells it.) At one point, as I struggled through, I began to suffer from horrifying visions of the entire volume being of the same sort of material. Rarely have I been so grateful to arrive at the conclusion of anything.

“Rarely” meaning that, yes, I was more grateful to reach the conclusion of The English Rogue Volume 1.

In spite of his virtuous thoughts, Latroon contunues to pine for the sight – and feel – of an Englishwoman; indeed, for the companionship of any white person; and he gets his wish with the arrival of a merchant-ship bearing six young Englishmen, with whom he quickly becomes intimate. Latroon entertains [sic.] them with his life history, and induces one of them (briefly introduced as Gregory) to give an account of his own life, and to explain why he and his companions left England.

And here this second volume takes a revealing turn, as the bulk of its narrative is taken over by Gregory. From this early point onwards, up until about fifty pages from the end, Latroon simply disappears from the story. He then reappears briefly, only to be pushed aside yet again as two other characters tell their stories. This device for continuing the tale is one that carries with it the tacit admission that, in Francis Kirkman’s mind at least, the character of “Meriton Latroon” was essentially irrelevant. There’s also, I think, the possibility that although he was prepared to exploit him for financial gain, Kirkman found Latroon a repellant character: his own narrator is, if little more honest, a great deal less offensive.

The other notable aspect of Kirkman’s tactic, one that was in all likelihood unintentional, is the growing – and in the end, almost postmodernistic* – absurdity of his story structure. Gregory’s account of his own life, as told to Latroon, quickly turns into the repetition of the experiences of others, as told to him by the individals in question, which in turn consist of stories told to them by another set of people altogether. In conjunction with Kirkman adopting Richard Head’s habit of never bothering to give his characters names, this Chinese puzzle-box approach makes it very nearly impossible – at points, literally impossible – to keep track of who is talking at any given moment. Gregory’s own habit of calling everyone he knows “my friend” doesn’t help, either.

(*Putting aside the question of whether you can have “postmodern” before you’ve had “modern”— While Tristram Shandy is probably the first true postmodern work, inasmuch as its author knew what he was doing, it really does seem here that Francis Kirkman stumbled into postmodernism quite by accident.)

At the outset, it seems horrifyingly likely that Gregory’s life will prove to be a simple reworking of Latroon’s, as many of the same sorts of juvenile incidents make an appearance. It is Gregory, for example, who commits the prank with the laxative, and he who in a separate incident loses control of his bowels. (I was sure you were all anxious to know that.) But before long, Francis Kirkman begins to make his own voice heard—and surprises us with some of his story choices, and even more with some passages of genuinely effective writing, such as Gregory’s chillingly matter-of-fact account of his childhood passage into thievery, after the budding criminal career of his brother is abruptly terminated:

“My eldest brother at seven years of age attained to such ingenuity that he seldom carried home any mended shoes to a gentleman’s or citizen’s house but he would filch either linen, silver spoons, or something else of worth, which by negligent servants was not laid up safely. Which trade he drave for some space of time, being by reason of his childish years not in the least suspected. But the pitcher goes not so often to the well but at length it comes home broken. In process of time he was taken with the theft, and for the same was carried to Newgate, where the poor little angel (peace be with him) he died in prison, under the penance of a discipline which was applied to him with a little too much rigour.”

Compelled by his father to take his brother’s place and so help support his family, Gregory involves himself in various criminal enterprises; but disaster follow: his father is press-ganged, and his mother dies, leaving him alone in the world but for an uncle, who reluctantly takes him in. A course of the by-now standard “roguery” and “revenge” follows, until at the age of twelve Gregory begins a series of unsuccessful apprenticeships, by which his eyes are opened to the various abuses of the different professions: that of the chirurgeon, the tapster, the baker, the astrologer, the nurse, the tailor, and the plasterer. Gregory gets along well with the last, but then, mistakenly believing he has accidentally killed his master, he runs away.

Taking to the road, Gregory falls in with a band of beggars—and Francis Kirkman takes the opportunity to insert yet another lengthy “thieves’ dictionary”, which fills a whole chapter. The beggars instruct Gregory in their own profession, but he never really gets the hang of it – he can’t get the tone of voice right – and when he turns to chicken-stealing, he is lucky to escape with nothing worse than a savage beating. This, however, on top of the grim and conclusive fate meted out to some of his less fortunate thieving companions, makes him pause and consider his way of life; and at the end of his ruminations, Gregory decides—to get an honest job.

Yes, I nearly fell off my chair, too.

“Being now come to London, I was resolved not to be idle, but settle myself to some one trade, that I might be able to get a living…[and] did now resolve to fix upon one that should do my business, and whereby I might at all times and in all places be able to live by my hands…”

Gregory binds himself to a tailer and commences his work. He also begins to make friends among his master’s friends and their apprentices, many of whom are engaged, and assist one another, in fraudulent practices. So begins the bulk of the narrative, in which Gregory is generally only an onlooker – or a listener – rather than a participant. In place of the earlier, brief sketches of criminality, here we get lengthy and detailed accounts of how the members of the various professions set about deceiving and defrauding the public. In particular, Gregory becomes intimate with a scrivener, a bookseller, and a drugster (who will later be three of his companions on his journey to India), and with their respective apprentices; and these are the source of his information about the criminal ways of London’s tradesmen.

One of the more unexpected trades under consideration here is that of preacher: the drugster, before finally he takes up that profession, makes a tidy living amongst the Puritans and the Dissenters, where he moves from congregation to congregation and becomes, “Very famous, and a great disputant.” At length, however, he wearies of the job; but fortunately, an excellent excuse for throwing over his, ahem, “beliefs” is at hand:

“As for my preaching trade, finding that it had already done me as much service as I expected from it, I left it…especially finding that it grew every day into disesteem, it being about the time of His Majesty’s happy return; when instead of a preaching fanatic, I quickly faced about, and leaving my congregational friends, I enquired out and procured cavalier acquaintance, so that I who a little before the King’s coming home was used to wear short hair, and was modest and precise in my habit, now had a large periwig, a great plume of feathers, and all other accoutrements accordingly…”

God save the King. This passage, by the way, puts this second volume of The English Rogue completely out of chronological synch with its predecessor, although I’m sure we’re not supposed to be worrying about details like that. And certainly not after Richard Head’s own chronological blunder in the first.

It is noticeable that of all the various discourses on the various professions, that of bookselling alone concerns itself not only with the overtly illegal habits of its practitioners, but also with their day-to-day activities, including the endless manoeuvring and bluffing that was, evidently, a necessary part the trade. We also notice – and this is almost the only point in all of this where the position of the victim is considered – how the triumphant account of the  financial successes of the bookseller is severely undercut by a note of resentment over the exploitation of the professional writer:

“I have thought my master a man cunning and crafty enough, and did believe that he who deals in books could not be outwitted… As he formerly had sought for and courted authors to write books for him, now they (knowing his way of preferring and selling of books) followed, and courted him to print their books. If a stranger came with a copy to him, though never so good, he would tell them he had books enough already. But, however, if they would give him so much money, he would do it… If he had a desire to have anything writ in history, poetry, or any other science or faculty, he had his several authors, who for a glass of wine, and now and then a meal’s meat and half a crown, were his humble servants, having no other hire but that…”

A bookseller divided against himself?

Now, while all this is going on, Gregory also enjoys various sexual escapades which, however brief, tend to conclude by mutual consent and with no hard feelings on either side. The most significant of these occurs when he falls in with a woman who, along with two friends, has been abandoned by their male companions and left with an unpaid inn bill which is beyond their slender means. Two of the women are held hostage at the inn, while she, the third, has been released in order to try and raise the money. Gregory believes the woman’s story, and lends her what she needs—and not only does it turn out that she was telling him the exact truth, she later tries to pay him back, although he won’t take her money. The three friends are so grateful, they thank Gregory the only way they know how:

“And now we all thought of removing to London, but one night more we lay at our old quarters, where I had the greatest frolic I was every guilty of, for that night I kissed with all three of the women, and pleased them round, by giving them each a trial of my skill. What now could I desire further? I thought myself to be as brave a fellow as the great Turk in his Seraglio, he having but his choice of women, which I now enjoyed to my full content…”

This early incident has repercussions when much later on it turns out that the woman to whom Gregory lent the money is the mistress of his friend, the drugster; and while they have been a constant couple up until then, eventually the drugster and Gregory end up sharing. However, the woman’s affections are steadfast, even if her desires are a little less so; and when the drugster overreaches his swindling practices and gets into serious hot water, her only thought is how to help him. 

The drugster tries to flee the country, but his creditors catch up with him and haul him off to prison. Luckily, he has already taken the precaution of liquidating his assets, giving the entirety into his mistress’s safe care, one hundred pounds in silver directly into her keeping, and the rest converted into gold coin and concealed by being stitched into his spare clothes; so that when the creditors confiscate the drugster’s trunks, it is in ignorance of what they have actually confiscated. At this juncture, the drugster’s friends band together and manage both to get him out of prison, and to quietly reclaim his “clothing”.

The six of them—Gregory, the drugster, his mistress, the scrivener and his mistress, and the bookseller—then decide they’ve had enough of England, and invest in a merchant-ship, on which they embark for India, the two women disguised in men’s clothes. And these are the six “Englishmen” with whom Latroon becomes acquainted.

Hey, you remember Latroon, don’t you?

And in fact, there are a couple of hilarious “waking-up” moments here, when it apparently occurred to Francis Kirkman that this might have been fun, and all, but it was hardly “continuing the life of Meriton Latroon”, as promised. In the voice of Latroon (silent for 117 blessed pages), Kirkman awkwardly interjects between the wrapping up of the “tradesmens’ frauds” section and the “how we came to India” section:

“I being unwilling to hinder the traveller in prosecuting his story, had with much pleasure attended and hearkened to what he had said; and though his discourse was long, and had taken up much time, yet I found so much pleasing variety, that had made me ample satisfaction and amends. And being desirous to know the rest of their adventures, and what fortune had brought them hither, I desired him to proceed, which he did in this manner—“

—while at the actual end of Gregory’s tale, we get this:

“Thus did our relator finish his long story, which was so filled with profit as well as pleasure that I accounted the time I had spent in hearing it the best bestowed of any…”

Uh-huh? Nice try, Francis.

Kirkman then again, as he did at the outset, throws in various bits and pieces to increase the resemblance between this work and its forerunner: some of Latroon’s verses, wearyingly frequent in the first volume; and some random observations about religious dissent in England, including a brief account of the Quakers, and a longer one of the anti-Quaker “Muggletonians”. There is also a mention of Lodowicke Muggleton’s 1663 publication, The Neck Of The Quakers Broken, or Cut In Sunder By The Two-Edged Sword Of The Spirit Which Is Put Into My Mouth.

Don’t laugh. It was a best-seller, and in print for decades.

We get closer to being back on track when Latroon recognises not one but both of the disguised women as amongst those he ploughed his way through in Volume 1. (I’d say “small world”, but he really did get around.) Rather more astonishing is the fact that neither one of them bears him any grudge, in spite of the subsequent misery and degradation suffered by both. Instead, they think of him “affectionately”, as their first lover; while one of them goes so far as to tell Latroon of, “The great love I have borne to you and your memory.”

Because nothing engenders lifelong affection in a woman like a rapid course of lies, seduction, impregnation and abandonment.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy learning about my own sex from these books.

Oh! Speaking of which!—another fascinating thing about women revealed by the pages of The English Rogue is that the vast majority of married women are frigid; and if I’m interpreting the text correctly, this is because  frigid women are the only ones capable of holding off a man’s sexual advances long enough to get him to the altar. However, no man likes to have sex with a woman who doesn’t like it herself (another fascinating touch, in light of our previous reflections upon the societal move from “woman as insatiable” to “woman as sexless”), and he will swiftly flee his wife’s “cold embraces” for the arms of someone a little more enthusiastic; and in fact, most married women can expect their husbands to start cheating on them anywhere from one to fourteen days after the wedding.

On the other hand, those few married women who are not frigid are ravenous beasts who will cheat on their husbands with anything in pants; which is, of course, much. much worse than their husbands cheating on them.

Francis Kirkman was married twice, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.

The two women—who, astonishingly enough are given names here, Dorothy and Mary—are then begged for their life stories; and yes, Latroon does basically ask, “So, what happened after I knocked you up and ran out on you?” The women’s tales take up the final section of this second volume—pushing Latroon off-stage again—and encompass such light, dinner-table topics as prostitution, fake-maidenhood selling, extortion, and child abandonment.

Then, most peculiarly, with Dorothy still in the middle of her story about how she swindled three different men into paying for her pregnancy, the narrative just stops:

“And this shall be the last I shall relate to you in this part, referring the prosecution of hers, and others’ adventures to a third part.”

So what happened? Did Francis Kirkman decide that 200 pages was quite enough? Would a longer book be too costly to publish, and eat into potential profits? Did he run out of ideas? Did he get bored with it?—or just plain sick of it? Whatever the answer, this was what he sent to the presses…and what he saw fail.

Depressing as it is to consider, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this second volume of The English Rogue failed because it was largely free of the violence and ugliness of the first; that Kirkman gave them fraud when they wanted robbery, camaraderie when they wanted betrayal, and mutually enjoyable, consensual sex when they wanted ruination and misery.

Be that as it may, even after this experience Francis Kirkman didn’t quit in his efforts to wring some further profit out of the story of Meriton Latroon – & Co. – although it would be another three years before a third volume appeared. By 1671, Richard Head had passed through his rare patch of financial security, and was once again up to his eyebrows in gambling debts; and when his old friend Francis came a-calling, it was to find him in a more amenable mood…