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 unlikeable—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…