Archive for October, 2011


Palmira And Ermance (Part 2)

As soon as the Duke was alone, his thoughts reverted to Ermance, he wished he had first been introduced to Palmira: she might, and he had been led to believe was, be as handsome as Ermance; but if she did not possess an equal share of vivacity, her countenance could not be so animated; Palmira was taller, Madame de l’Ecluse had told him; but Ermance had not done growing, and was far from short for her age… Such were his reflections before he went to sleep, and he found it rather difficult to forget himself; Ermance presented herself to him under so many different aspects; she became the subject of his sleeping as well as waking reveries: yet he was convinced he was only interested in her future welfare…







Several positives stem from Mary Meeke’s non-substitution plot in Palmira And Ermance, the most significant being the way it allows her to have her cake and eat it. Most pleasingly, in this novel we are light-years away from the noxious “birth is everything” attitude of Count St. Blancard, in which a supposed apothecary’s son is mysteriously superior to his position in life and sure enough proves to be a long-lost aristocrat. Here, character is allowed to predominate. The man we know as M. de Melac is the same man, whether he is the Duke de St. Piene, the bastard child of a servant and a prostitute, or a successful merchant; and while, inevitably in the overall scheme of things, it is at length established that he is aristocratic by birth as well as breeding, there is no sense here of, Oh, well, that explains it.

Conversely, it is the undoubted aristocrat, the Marquis de St. Firnim, who attracts the sneers of his creator, as she recounts how, upon hearing his son-in-law’s confession, it seems to him that all the virtues for which the Duke had hitherto been celebrated, Vanished the moment he became acquainted with the lowness of his origin, and how the Marquis suddenly remembered, That he had always been overly familiar with his inferiors…

And let us not forget the Dowager Duchess, more than ready to commit criminal fraud in order to hang onto her fortune and position. Like the Marquis, her morals are no match for her ambition. These characters are starkly contrasted with the various individuals we meet in Dunkirk and its surrounding villages, whose lack of birth and education are unimportant beside their honesty and wholeheartedness.

But of course, the novel’s point is most forcibly made in the character of its young hero. Part of the fallout from the disastrous end to her marriage is that the Duchess de St. Piene raises her son on liberal principles, while simultaneously erecting barriers between her child and her father.

(As the Duke recounts to M. de Melac, his mother’s intention in restricting his grandfather’s access to him was to prevent the Marquis from “spoiling” him; as the story progresses, we begin to appreciate that the Duchess meant that in more senses than one.)

It is as a result of this that the Duke, although himself a beneficiary of the established order, reacts with spontaneous anger upon hearing how M. de Melac was forced to resign his military commission because of, “The lowness of my origin”, condemning a system more concerned with a man’s family than with his conduct and abilities

It is evident throughout Palmira And Ermance that Adolphus—and I think, like Meeke herself, we will just call him “Adolphus” from this point on, now that we have two Dukes to contend with—that Adolphus is modelled upon that paragon to end all paragons of the 18th century, Sir Charles Grandison; but in a welcome surprise (and all the more so since character drawing really isn’t Mary Meeke’s strong point), he is actually a lot more likeable than his prototype. For one thing, he has a sense of humour; for another, he doesn’t go around lecturing people on how they, too, could be perfect like him, with just a little effort.

Nor is there any sense of noblesse oblige about Adolphus, any hint that his behaviour is part of some elaborate “theory of correctness”, painstakingly enacted, rather than just a reflection of who he is. It is one of his most pleasing qualities that he is never above his company, but willing and able to adapt himself to, for example, the simple hospitality and amusements offered by villagers, upon his first appearance in the story. That all this is not merely for show is evidenced by the frequency of his voluntary calls upon Madame des Ormes, M. de Melac’s elderly mother-in-law, who at her son-in-law’s expense has been established in a comfortable cottage in the village outside Dunkirk, through which Adolphus passes on a regular basis. This mark of respect from the Duke is starkly contrasted with the behaviour of Bazile, who considers his grandmother a “low connection” and avoids her whenever he can.

And of course, as we progressively understand, much of this is about the contrast between Adolphus and Bazile, those unacknowledged half-brothers—and about the situation of M. de Melac, caught between the perfect son he is unable to claim and the imperfect son he’d probably like to disown. Bazile is, indeed, a thoroughly exasperating individual, and we can only admire the patience that Adolphus displays when dealing with his various presumptions and idiocies, even as we sympathise with the frustration and disappointment of his father, which grows proportionately with M. de Melac’s closer acquaintance with Adolphus—leading, finally, to a moment of startling emotional honesty.

Mary Meeke was in many ways an anomalous writer for her time, making her success as a novelist all the more interesting. The late 18th century, as we have seen, was a period in which the popular novel was shaped by a prevailing taste for extreme sentimentality—giving rise to ludicrous works such as Valentine. In sharp contrast, Meeke is if anything an anti-sentimentalist; and although there have been hints of this in her earlier novels, it declares itself without disguise in Palmira And Ermance.

During the journey to Ypres, Bazile, Ernestine and Clemence travel in M. de Melac’s heavy coach with the girls’ governess and M. Vanval, while Adolphus and M. de Melac share the former’s light chaise. As they are passing through Roesbrugge, “the last town in the empire”, an unruly post-horse causes an accident in which the chaise is overturned. M. de Melac is uninjured, but Adolphus suffers a head-wound and is knocked unconscious.

As Adolphus is pulled from the chaise, bleeding and motionless, M. de Melac’s extreme emotion is evident to everyone present, which by now includes M. Vanval, who hurries to tend the young man’s injuries, and his travelling companions. As he regains consciousness, Adolphus himself is deeply struck by it; and it is obvious even to the self-absorbed Bazile, who however sees nothing in the situation beyond an opportunity to curry favour with his father by expressing some loud if insincere concern for the Duke:

    His Grace opened his eyes for some seconds before he was able to speak. Bazile, seeing him so likely to do well, went to examine the fragments of the shattered carriage: when he returned he gave the company a most exaggerated account of the damage it had sustained; and then asked his father if he was in it when it was overturned?—“To be sure I was, fool!” said M. de Melac.
    “I only wish I had been with you instead of the Duke.”
    “Would to God you had!” said de Melac, hastily.


As I mentioned earlier, in Palmira And Ermance Mary Meeke offers a more complex story than in her previous novels, which were really only concerned with the solution to their overt mysteries. Here, although the story is still intended chiefly just to entertain, the interwoven secrets and misapprehensions give her tale all sorts of subtextual touches that help to enrich it—and upon which Meeke, much to her credit, sees no need to editorialise.

My favourite of these unspoken points, I think, is the sharp contrast that lies at the very heart of the story. On one hand, we have the fact that the Duchess de St. Piene has had the sole care and education of her son, a situation that has produced a model young man, a verray, parfit, gentil knyght; while on the other, M. de Melac has had the sole care and education of his son, a situation that has produced—well, Bazile. Likewise, we know that after the shattering end to her brief marriage, the Duchess buried her heart in her husband’s grave, all but withdrawing from the world and devoting herself to her child; while in the same situation, M. de Melac, before three years had passed, had remarried and begun a second family.

Men, you can almost hear Mary Meeke sniff.

(To be fair, as frequently happens in Meeke’s novel, M. de Melac more or less inherits a wife, finding himself, after the death of his business partner, with the man’s young widow on his hands; the fact that she has inherited her husband’s share of the business makes marriage sensible as well as convenient. There is, as you might imagine, some embarrassment attending the restored Duke de St. Piene’s eventual reunion with his long-estranged wife. The Duchess, however, perfect as always, offers no reproach, and is thrilled to find herself with three more children.

It’s interesting how often bigamous marriages occur in the literature of this time – although this one is, of course, inadvertent. It’s curious, too, that no-one ever seems very upset about it, and nor do there ever seem to be any particular repercussions for the children of such marriages. On the contrary, here the de Melac children benefit from the French system that allows legitimacy to be purchased.

Now—by this point in the proceedings, you might well be asking yourselves (as indeed I was, while reading this book) just where the hell, in a novel called “Palmira And Ermance”are Palmira and Ermance? 

It is one of the many quirks of Mary Meeke’s novels that what we might consider the “main” plot tends to resolve itself by half to two-thirds of the way through the story, with some other plot emerging to flesh out the rest of the text—as with the detour into the Gothic in The Abbey Of Clugny. And it is in this respect, in Palmira And Ermance, that Meeke’s lack of sentimentality really comes to the fore. While both of her earlier novels were notable for the perfunctory nature of their love-plots, with the young heroes falling in love at the outset, being separated from the objects of their affection for the length of the book, and then married off at the end, Meeke outdoes herself here, not only—and in spite of naming the novel after them!—relegating her dual heroines to the realm of the subplot, but resolving their story in the most unexpected manner possible.

It is during the eventful journey to Ypres that Adolphus reveals that he is engaged to a girl he has never seen; and while M. de Melac expresses concern over this arranged marriage, Adolphus himself is quite cheerful about the prospect. The girl, Palmira de Moncove, has been chosen for him by his mother, and educated both for the social position she is to occupy and to be a suitable companion for her husband. And while, as Adolphus frankly admits, the mere fact that his mother wants the marriage would be enough for him, a lifetime’s experience of the Duchess has taught him how implicitly he may rely upon her judgement. He fully anticipates, therefore, finding Palmira everything that he could desire in his wife.

But, as they say, the best-laid plans…

Arriving in Ypres, the disappointed Adolphus finds that Palmira is not there, as he had been led to believe she might be, the girl’s mother, the Marquise de Neufpont, having been prevented by her duties at the Court of Versailles from bringing Palmira to the dedication of the church as she intended. Instead, Adolphus is introduced to his “sister elect”, Ermance:

Ermance de Moncove had been a cannoness for a year or more, and had constantly resided with her aunt at Bourbourg since she became a member of that society: she was just turned of sixteen, and in every respect a regular beauty; but her animated pleasing countenance was far more fascinating than her fine features and sparkling blue eyes, which expressed very forcibly the vivacity of a disposition no monastic rules could repress. Her natural colour was heightened during her introduction to the Duke; upon whom she smiled excessively, while she paid her compliments with the most unaffected gaiety—laughed at his disappointment, which she assured him she read in his countenance the moment he caught sight of her cross, and wished her sister supplied her place.

Presuming upon their almost-relationship, and addressing one another as “ma petite soeur” and “mon frere“, Adolphus and Ermance instantly form a fast friendship, not scrupling to spend much of their spare time together—and before long, Adolphus finds the vivacious girl occupying his thoughts rather more than is quite consistent with his engagement to Palmira…

At this point, you might think that you can safely predict how this novel will work itself out, with Adolphus caught between his pledge to Palmira and his feeling for Ermance, his honour and his heart, with the heart allowed to win out at last. Well—you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, and once again, wrong; because in defiance of literally centuries of novel-writing convention, and having spent two and a half novels criticising every French institution she can lay her pen on, from the country’s religion and its practitioners to its judicial system to its military preferments to the behaviour of its aristocracy, Mary Meeke here comes down upon the side of—of all things—the arranged marriage.

For all that Sir Charles Grandison is held up by his author as a pattern of correct conduct, I’ve always doubted that anyone ever really admired him for his ability to turn his emotions on and off like a light-switch. His calm, circumstantial toggling between the perfect English rose, Harriet Byron, and that personificaton of Italian Roman Catholic emotional instability, Lady Clementina, is disturbing in ways his creator can hardly have intended. Here, Adolphus is never more like his model—which is to say, never more unlikable—than in the wake of his visit to Ypres, when he coolly dissects his mind and heart:

“I had promised Ermance to visit her at Bourbourg; she will soon learn what prevented me from keeping my word. I must own the discovery I fancied I made, on the morning I left Ypres, did not tend to eradicate the strong impression her artless, nay almost infantine, sweetness of manners had made upon my heart: I am sorry to say I think we parted with equal regret;—but no more of the subject;—I neither like to reflect nor reason upon it at present—reason will, I hope, soon reassume her empire over my mind; the sight of Palmira will very probably restore me to my senses—for love certainly is a species of madness, and lovers in general, it is observed, are always either melancholy or raving.”

The now-Duke de St. Piene is not quite happy about these sentiments, nor indeed about the idea of arranged marriage in general; but lest we mistake him for the novel’s voice of reason, it is revealed to us that his perfect marriage to the perfect Duchess was itself an arrangement, with the subsequently blissful couple meeting for the first time at the altar. “There certainly are exceptions to every general rule,” he concedes, when his son points out the contradiction. However, as the Duke counters, he felt no preference for any other woman when he was married; and he counsels Adolphus to study carefully Palmira’s temper and inclination, as well as his own feelings, and above all not to rush into anything.

But as it turns out, the decision is taken out of Adolphus’s hands. On the road, there is an unexpected meeting with the Duchess de St. Piene and her friend, the Marquise de Neufpont, both of them dismayed and disappointed—for Palmira has suddenly declared that she does not wish to marry Adolphus but intends instead to enter a convent; and all the pleadings, persuasions and arguments of her parents and the Duchess have been unable to sway her determination.

Adolphus, though startled, is not hurt by this revelation; still less so when the Marquise adds that she and the Duchess had been on their way to Bourbourg, to explore whether Ermance might not make a suitable substitute for her sister. The Duke (by now reunited with his wife) gives away his son’s secret, and to the satisfaction of all, the matter seems to have settled itself:

Adolphus was very happy when he found himself alone, and at liberty to reflect upon the occurrences of the evening: how sincerely did he rejoice to think his father and mother were thus happily restored to each other: Ermance next came across him;—with what pleasure did he reflect upon all that had passed at Ypres;—he could not doubt the sincerity of Palmira’s vocation, since it had produced so agreeable and unexpected a change in his matrimonial prospects; he should be at liberty to speak the language of his heart when he next addressed Ermance!—with what raptures did he anticipate their meeting!—their love was reciprocal, he was convinced.

But although this is the standard language of the romance, it is difficult, in retrospect, not to feel that Mary Meeke is in fact being sarcastic here; because when Adolphus does next meet Ermance, he finds her elusive, cold in her manner to him, and no more inclined to become his wife than is her sister.

It’s enough to make even a paragon of virtue swear.

It probably goes without saying that a great deal has been going on out of the sight of the characters and the reader alike, which is progressively revealed to the reader, at least. A chain of events was set into motion at Ypres, when the artless Ermance wrote a letter to her sister full of rapturous praises of Adolphus, and without intention or even her knowledge, completely revealed to Palmira the state of her heart. It is this that determined Palmira to sacrifice herself by entering a convent, thus freeing Adolphus for Ermance.

But when the Marquise travels to Bourbourg to fetch her younger daughter, she is escorted by a relative, a hanger-on of her family, the Count de Selincourt, who while possessing a superficial charm and an adaptability that makes him a welcome addition to most gatherings, is a wholly self-interested individual with a great love of mischief for its own sake. Ill-charactered enough to dislike Adolphus on principle, as soon as he understands the situation he makes it his business to convince Ermance, firstly, of Adolphus’s indifference to her—since he can move so easily from Palmira to herself; secondly, that it is Palmira’s knowledge of Adolphus’s true moral character (or lack thereof) that has made her retreat into a convent rather than marry him; and finally, of his own desperate passion for her.

The bewildered and inexperienced Ermance has no defence against the Count’s wiles. She is horrified by what he reveals to her of Adolphus’s character, and soon lured into believing herself as devoted to the Count as he professes to be to her. The Count has, of course, no genuine feeling at all for the unfortunate girl; but his vanity is greatly gratified by his success in stealing her away from the immaculate and popular Adolphus. More to the point, however, Palmira’s retirement into the cloister means that Ermance will become her parents’ heiress, and a marital prize of the first order:

There is not a more dangerous companion for a young inexperienced girl, than a man who has designs on her fortune without caring for her person; self-gratification being his only aim, he is able to dive into every recess of her heart, and to discover every weakness of her disposition; and his own indifference enables him to form his plans infinitely better than the most ardent lover; her predominant passion seems transfused into his mind; he accommodates himself to her most unreasonable caprices, undermines every tie of duty, if it clashes with his separate interests, and conceals his deep and dark design under the veil of love, a word so fascinating in the vocabulary of youth.

Mary Meeke’s handling of Ermance makes her thoroughgoing scepticism about romantic love perfectly clear. Although she concedes the girl’s “youth” and “inexperience”, the words that linger from this passage are, rather, “weakness” and “caprice”. The attraction between Adolphus and Ermance is emotional, and therefore (in Meeke’s opinion) by definition unstable and transient; merely an infatuation; and while Adolphus is hurt by Ermance’s behaviour, it is made clear to us that his pride has suffered just as much as his heart. His father’s exasperated observation, that the girl who could care for Selincourt over him is not worth worrying about, is enough to cauterise the wound.

And when, in the wake of Ermance’s extraordinary about-face and her declaration that she will marry Selincourt or no-one, Palmira finally, finally, appears in person (on page 658 of a 759-page novel!), having been convinced by the Duchess that she is free to act as she wishes, the original engagement – based upon “esteem” – is calmly resumed, and the wedding arranged without delay. Adolphus and the lovely Palmira were as happy as they deserved to be, reports Meeke placidly, what more can be said of their mutual felicity?

Not much, apparently.

But Meeke is not quite finished yet, and she sets about disposing of her remaining characters with no little ruthlessness. Palmira’s emergence from the convent has, of course, restored her position as elder sister and heiress—just as the Count de Selincourt is declaring his disinterested love for Ermance. But although the unavoidable marriage is presented to us as his punishment, a case of the Count being hoist with his own petard, there’s very little doubt about who will end up being the greatest sufferer: a disturbing fate for poor Ermance, and one disproportionately harsh for someone whose only real crime was being a credulous and inexperienced sixteen-year-old.

And then there’s Bazile, who is of course stunned and thrilled to find himself the son of a Duke and, in fact, a Count in his own right. But the implacable Meeke isn’t about to let him get away, either:

As for Bazile, he found people might be unhappy though blest with a title, and allowed to wear red heels; he was placed in a German regiment, under a very severe colonel…

Ouch. Just—ouch.



Palmira And Ermance (Part 1)

Though the Duke had promised to try to sleep, and really found himself so inclined from loss of blood, he could not help revolving in his mind the various occurences of the last twelve hours; and the reiterated proofs of attachment de Melac had given him… He had been excessively struck with many of de Melac’s unguarded expressions during his state of phrenzy; and had particularly remarked what he said to Bazile, which seemed to come from his very soul, and to be occasioned by the impulse of the moment: yet, could he suppose he preferred him to his own son? it would be very strange if he did… Ermance also had been struck with the strong resemblance between them; yet he saw no possibility of their being in any way related. Still de Melac talked very ambiguously, and seemed acquainted with many of his friends; and it now struck him, though the idea had never entered his head before, that the bare mention of his relationship to the Marechal de St. Firmin had occasioned the first strange illness de Melac had been seized with…





After a profitable career in Guadeloupe, M. de Melac returns to France with his three grown children, Bazile, Ernestine and Clemence. Although his initial plan is retirement and a life of leisure, when as a result of his financial acumen and probity he is offered of his choice of posts, he accepts that of Receiver-General of Dunkirk, which gives him occupation without being overly demanding. The decision infuriates Bazile, a callow young man obsessed with dress whose only ambition is to cut a figure in the polite world; and indeed, one of M. de Melac’s reasons for moving his family to Dunkirk is to separate Bazile from the dangerous companions and temptations of Paris.

The attention of Dunkirk becomes absorbed by the arrival of the cavalry regiment commanded by the handsome young Duke de Civrac, whose glowing public reputation precedes him. Immediately, thinking how well a uniform would become him, Bazile is consumed by a desire to join the cavalry. One evening, M. de Melac takes his family to a fete in a nearby village. To their surprise, they find that several of the cavalry officers are in attendance; and that far from considering himself above the country gathering, the Duke de Civrac participates in its various amusements, and accepts the village Bailli’s eagerly offered hospitality. During the festivities, M. de Melac is introduced to the Duke – and for a moment can only stare at him in some confusion, struck by his appearance but unable to say why. It is two of the onlookers, one of the other officers and de Melac’s friend, the surgeon M. Vanval, who comment upon the resemblance between the two men. M. de Melac is embarrassed, but the Duke soon succeeds in putting him at his ease. He then requests an introduction to Ernestine and joins the dance with her, before partnering the daughter of the Bailli.

Over the following weeks, the Duke and M. de Melac find themselves drawn to one another, and in spite of the disparity in their ages a friendship grows between them. Yet M. de Melac never presumes upon the acquaintance: if anything, he keeps the Duke at a slight distance, offering him no encouragement to call at his house or to see more of Ernestine and Clemence. At the same time, he shows himself willing to ride out with the Duke or to dine with him whenever asked. The two men find that they have common interests, and often discuss topics such as military tactics, politics and the state of French finances. The Duke discovers that M. de Melac was, in the early part of his life, in the military; but seeing that this is for some reason a painful topic, he changes the subject.

But although M. de Melac strives to avoid presuming in any way upon the young nobleman’s favour, such is not the case with Bazile, who takes it into his head to exploit his father’s friendship by begging the Duke to grant him a place in his regiment. Although taken aback by the boy’s presumption, the Duke’s warm feeling for M. de Melac restrains him from snubbing Bazile; and although he will not help him – particularly after Bazile admits that his father does not want a military career for him – he agrees to discuss that aspect of the matter, at least, with M. de Melac. When the three meet one afternoon, at the prompting of Bazile the Duke recounts his own service history, which began at the age of fourteen in a regiment commanded by his own grandfather, the Marechal de St. Firmin, a great military leader.

The conversation is broken off when M. de Melac is suddenly taken ill and collapses. When he recovers from the spell, he insists that it is nothing serious; but the Duke, in his concern, sends the regimental physician, M. Bertrand, to attend him – an attention that almost overpowers M. de Melac again, as the doctor notes. Unable to make light of his illness to M. Bertrand as he did to the others, M. de Melac attributes it to a long-standing, though usually latent, condition – at which the acute physician diagnosis him as suffering from a secret strain upon his mind and spirits, rather than any bodily ill. He admits to it, and asks for the physician’s assurance that he will say nothing of his case to the Duke. When, some days later, the Duke tells M. de Melac that he will be leaving Dunkirk, the older man’s distress is evident, leaving the Duke both touched and a little confused. He explains that he will only be gone for a short time while he visits Ypres, where a great festival is to be held upon the dedication of a new church. At this, M. de Mercal replies that he, too, has been invited to Ypres by his friend M. Vanval, who was originally from that town and has many relatives there.

M. de Melac accompanies the Duke to Ypres in his chaise. On the way, the Duke confides to his friend that he was a very personal reason for going – that he hopes to see, for the first time, the girl to whom he has been betrothed for many years. When M. de Melac expresses surprise and some uneasiness over this arrangement, the Duke assures him that he is quite content with it; that with lady in question, Mlle Palmira de Moncove, is celebrated equally for her beauty and the sweetness of her temper. He goes on to explain that the girl’s mother, a daughter of the Marquis de Neufpont, and his own have always been the closest of friends – were married on the same day during a joint ceremony – and have long desired the union of their children.

However, the Duke’s story is interrupted when M. de Melac is again taken ill, although this time he recovers more quickly. He insists that there is nothing a doctor can do, and admits that his illness is not physical; commenting that a strange fatality seems to preside over his life. To his surprise, the Duke replies that, of his own experience, he understands what he means. When M. de Melac hesitatingly alludes once more to the betrothal, the Duke remarks that the marriage being his mother’s wish is enough for him, but beyond that he knows that he can depend entirely upon her judgement. He adds that it is to his mother alone that he owes his education, after being deprived of his father by an act of the cruellest villainy.

Hearing of the Duke’s upbringing, M. de Melac laments his own failures with Bazile. The Duke ventures to suggest the army for the boy, since he has declared an interest in such a career, but M. de Melac says bitterly that the boy’s lack of birth would be against him, and that it was because of his own lowness of origin that he was compelled to resign his military post. The Duke is warmly indignant on his friend’s behalf, speaking angrily of such prejudices. The two travel on to Ypres, where M. de Melac is invited to accompany the Duke while he meets the party waiting for him, chiefly the Bishop who is to perform the dedication ceremony – and who is the uncle of Mlle de Moncove. To the Duke’s disappointment, Palmira herself is not present after all. Instead, he finds himself being introduced to her lovely younger sister, Ermance…

You have to hand it to Mary Meeke. Although it’s hard to argue with the assertion that “all her novels are the same”, it’s also hard not to admire her ability to keep putting a different spin on her favourite plot-point, the substituted baby – and furthermore, to keep the reader guessing over how the various, seemingly contradictory, elements in her story can possibly be resolved. If you’ll forgive the stretching of a simile, Meeke’s novels are rather like a game of chess: she uses a traditional open gambit each time, yet each individual contest plays out differently.

In Palmira And Ermance, the improvement we noted between Meeke’s first and second novels continues, here manifesting as a better integration between the central mystery and the other elements of the plot. As in The Abbey Of Clugny, much of the interest of this novel lies in the slow revelation that the central mystery is not actually what we think it is. We certainly know enough to prick up our ears at the early mention of the death of someone close to the central character, whose demise was evidently surrounded by strange circumstances; and before too long we are as certain as we can be that M. de Melac is the young Duke’s long-lost father. The overarching question here, then, is not whether the West Indian merchant is in fact the supposedly dead Duke de St. Piene, but rather, if he is—why doesn’t he say so?

If you think it might have something to do with a substituted baby, give yourself a gold star.

Meeke has fun playing with her readers’ expectations in this novel, delaying explanation and confusing the issue even while scattering throughout her text all sorts of clever touches best appreciated in retrospect—my favourite being that, at quite distinct points in the story and when we are likely to be distracted by other events, it is separately revealed that the young Duke’s first name is Adolphus, and that M. de Melac’s initial is ‘A’. There’s also the detail that the Duke has been awarded a newly created title on the strength of his own merit and military accomplishments (and, as we later infer, as a way of glossing over the family embarrassment), the result of this being that until he casually mentions his grandfather’s name, M. de Melac doesn’t realise who he is talking to. No wonder he collapses.

The revelation of the Terrible Secret is another clever scene, with M. de Melac writhing in silent agony as he is compelled to hear his own secret history from the lips of his own son who, by now harbouring an almost incredible suspicion, watches him like a hawk as tells his story.

We learn of the blissful marriage of the young Duke de St. Piene and his Duchess, one about to be crowned by the birth of their first child when tragedy strikes. The fly in the young couple’s ointment is the family steward, Joinville, who takes advantage of the favour of the Dowager Duchess and grows ever more insolent and presuming—until the Duke finally loses his temper and threatens chastisement and dismissal, only to be threatened in turn:

Joinville, by no means intimidated, merely said, “Do your worst, young fellow! you are in my power; and no more whom you suppose yourself to be, than I am! you are not a Duke—do I speak intelligibly now?” Looking around as he concluded, as if fearful of being overheard, though he had said this almost in a whisper;—Astonished, staggered, and hardly believing he had understood the vile wretch, my father, for some seconds, remained motionless, till Joinville repeated his words, adding, in a still lower tone, “Not to keep you in useless suspence, young man—know you are my son—judge therefore how little right you have to exert the obedience of your father; and if ever you forget yourself as you have done this day, I will disclose this secret, which has lain heavy on my mind for some years, to the whole world, and reduce you by one word to a level with myself!”

And, believe it or not, it gets worse—for it is not, as we first suppose, a case of the Duchess fooling around with a servant:

“…it is no longer my intention to keep you in the dark respecting your real origin, my son.” —My father shuddered at the appellation, and the villain thus proceeded:— “nor of the reasons which induced me to connive at the deception the Duchess Dowager de St. Piene, your supposed mother, chose to put upon her husband’s family: you are my son by an opera dancer, for I was never married… The late Duke de St. Piene died before his son was six months old; strong convulsions…carried off his son a few days afterwards; and to make short of my story, to secure the property to the Duchess Dowager, you were by her desire substituted in his place…”

But in spite of being, as he puts it himself, the son of “a most abandoned villain and a common prostitute”, the ci-devant Duke is “the soul of honour”. His first impulse is to confess everything to his wife, and abide by her judgement; to stay or leave as she bids him—but with the birth of their child imminent, he does not dare give her such an appalling shock. Instead, he confronts his mother—or rather, “mother”—who confirms Joinville’s story. Instantly, the shattered young man resolves to relinquish everything he holds under false pretences, and he steels himself to confess to his wife’s father, the Marquis de St. Firmin. The outcome is even worse than he fears:

…few were greater slaves to etiquette, or more zealously conscious of the honour of their family, than the Marquis: to learn therefore that he had bestowed the heiress of one of the most noble and most ancient houses in France, upon the base-born son of a hireling domestic, and an abandoned woman, did not dispose the haughty Marquis to treat my father’s noble confession, as such generous frankness deserved. Every virtue he had been the first to acknowledge in the Duke de St. Piene, vanished the moment he became acquainted with the lowness of his origin…

The only up-side of the situation is that the Marquis is determined to hush the scandal up, partly for his daughter’s sake, but mostly in the name of honour. Having first secured a promise from his son-in-law that he will not attempt to see his wife, the Marquis has Joinville—who, judging by himself, never dreams that the young man will voluntarily surrender his title, fortune and position—seized and imprisoned, so that he will have no chance to air the family’s dirty laundry any further (no difficult matter, in a society unhampered by that nonsensical convention known as “due process”), before confronting the quaking Duchess and threatening her with dire punishment should she ever breathe a word of the truth.

The Marquis then consults with the uncle of the “Duke”—who should have inherited the title and estate upon the death of his infant nephew—and as a consequence, the young man is told that his wife has died in childbirth, and the baby with her. His world now utterly shattered, he makes no protest against the Marquis’s suggestion that he leave France and begin again in another country, and departs without delay for the West Indies. Meanwhile, waiting only until his daughter is safely delivered of a son, the Marquis tells her that her husband has been killed in a duel – a mock funeral being performed to support this outrageous lie. An invented flaw in the marriage settlements see the title and estates revert to the uncle, who (being unmarried) subsequently settles them upon his great-nephew, thus closing the circle of conspiracy…

And so the stubborn silence of “M. de Melac” is explained, and we are left gasping at Mary Meeke’s audacity. Has she truly written a novel in which the two central characters are the bastard offspring of a servant and a prostitute, and that child’s own blood-tainted son!?

No, of course she hasn’t. What, are you nuts!?

I said at the outset that we have to admire Meeke’s ability to keep ringing the changes in her favourite plot, and nowhere more so than here, in a a novel that turns out to be built around a baby substitution that never actually happened.

What did happen is this: Joinville and his mistress (who he had installed as the young Duke’s nurse) concocted a plan to exploit the venal Duchess and set themselves up for life by exchanging their own baby for their noble charge; but before they could do so, their child died. Not to worry. Switching to Plan B, they simply told the Duchess it was her son who died, and offered her “their” son in exchange, so that she could hold onto her fortune and her position in society—and the Duchess, being a proper 18th century mother, was of course quite incapable of recognising her own baby…

As it turns out, almost from the moment of his arrest Joinville tried to confess to this tremendous secret, but was unable to get anyone to listen to him. It was, consequently, twelve years after the “death” of the Duke de St. Piene before the truth came to light, to the horror and shame of the Marquis de St. Firnim and his co-conspirator. A search was immediately instigated, but no trace of the exile Duke could be found beyond the moment of his arrival in Nantes; and whether he is dead or alive his wife and son have been unable to determine.

Until now

    “I have no will but yours, my dear father,” said Adolphus; “God forbid I should ever again cause a moment’s sorrow to either; but my happiness will not be complete till I see you again restored to my dear mother. But why have you, I may say wantonly, so long retarded that happy event? You must have known that I was your son a very short time after we became acquainted.”
    “But not that I was Duke de St. Piene, my Adolphus; and nothing short of that conviction should ever have made me disclose a secret I was afraid, till within this half hour, would lower you in the eyes of the world. I have, as you observe, long known you was my son; and have never let a day pass since I became thus wise, without pouring out my gratitude to the giver of all goodness for such a blessing…”

[To be continued…]