Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 1)

Every moment this day, which Julia could obtain for reflection, was now dedicated to Fitzroy; and not, as Mrs Goodwin apprehended, to painful, unavailing retrospections.—She had been, most unexpectedly, told by Fitzroy,—the amiable Fitzroy!—that he aimed at her affections, and wished to present her to his father as the wife his heart had chosen; and the mournful tone of his voice, when he said—“If you send me from you, I shall be miserable,” still vibrated on her ear. From the idea of making him miserable, her grateful heart recoiled… And then, too, he was so generous, and disinterested, to think of making her his wife, when, with his expectations and attractions, he might, she thought, command the affections of almost any woman in existence.—and she was portionless, deserted, unclaimed by her father’s family…

When an enemy of the elderly Mrs St. Clair sends the bailiffs to arrest her for debt, the shock kills her—upon which, they try to sieze her body instead. The ensuing confrontation draws a crowd which blocks traffic in the street, including the carriage of a young man who, when the reason for the delay is explained to him, immediately goes to see if he can help. The young man is profoundly affected when he learns from a servant that Mrs St. Clair’s death has left her granddaughter, Julia De Clifford, all alone in the world. Leaving a sum of money sufficient to pay the debts and support the orphaned girl, he then slips away without revealing his name…

Although the Goodwins, the family with whom Julia and Mrs St. Clair were boarding, express their willingness to help the girl, she knows that cannot afford to support her and is determined to find a position. Mr Goodwin, a bookseller and stationer, sees an advertisement for a companion to the Countess of Delamore and immediately calls to inquire. Told that Lady Delamore is too ill to see him, he writes a letter in which he declares all he knows of Julia’s history and character; and later that day, Julia receives a summons to Grosvenor Square.

However, when she calls as ordered, the bewildered Julia finds herself the target of ridicule and insult by the Lady Selina Southerland and her satellites who, as she later discovers, placed the advertisement in order to amuse themselves by sporting with those who came in answer to it. Mortified, Julia is about to leave when she is unexpectedly rescued by Mr Horatio Fitzroy, who berates his heartless cousin Selina for playing such a prank while her mother lies ill. Fitzroy leads Julia to the family’s housekeeper, Mrs Beville, and asks her to escort Julia back to the Goodwins’. Julia is startled when she realises that Fitzroy bears a strong resemblance to her dearest friend, the former Cecilia Hume, now Lady Storamond, and concludes that the two must be related.

Although they hear nothing more from the Delamores, over the next few weeks the Goodwins’ fortunes mysteriously improve: Mr Goodwin suddenly has more business than he can manage on his own, and an offer is made of a place for the eldest boy, Charles, provided he is willing to go to India. A relieved Mr Goodwin expresses to Julia his belief that her anonymous rescuer is responsible. Soon afterwards, Mrs Goodwin receives an invitation from her sister, Mrs Hargrave, for herself and Julia to visit her home in the country and observe an upcoming election. As the travellers draw near their destination, Mrs Goodwin and Biddy, the maid, who share a fear of carriages on steep hills, choose to walk some way, but find themselves surrounded and accosted by a rowdy and intoxicated group of men. Another man comes to their rescue. From the carriage, Julia recognises Fitzroy, who is one of the candidates in the election; although he does not see her.

At the Hargraves’, Julia finds a friend in the person of the elderly Dr Sydenham, a benevolent clergyman, who is drawn by her beauty, simplicity of manner and openness of temperament. Less congenial are Dr and Mrs Hargrave, who are affected and condescending; while the daughter of the house plays a cruel trick that leaves Julia and another young guest, Miss Penrose, unprotected in the main street of the village. They are extricated from their predicament by Fitzroy and his friend Lord Francis Loraine, who accept the grateful Julia’s invitation to call at the rectory.

Over the next few days, Julia and Mrs Goodwin are invited to several entertainments in the neighbourhood, at which Fitzroy’s attentions become marked; and Mrs Goodwin begins to indulge splendid visions of her young friend’s future when she learns that Fitzroy is heir-presumptive to his great-uncle, the Duke of Bridgetower. It is revealed that, earlier, Fitzroy offered himself as a boarder at the Goodwins’, and that although at the time the family were in great need, in the role of Julia’s guardian Mr Goodwin cautiously rejected the offer. Furthermore, the young man becomes visably confused when Mrs Goodwin suggests that he is the family’s anonymous benefactor. At this juncture, Fitzroy makes an unguarded declaration of his hope of gaining Julia’s affections, and from this moment makes no attempt to conceal from the world his feelings for her.

Fitzroy is successful in the election, and a public ball is held to celebrate the outcome. When Julia arrives, Fitzroy joins her instantly, explaining that as the “lion” of the evening, he will not dance after opening the ball with his hostess, Lady Gaythorn, for fear of giving offence by singling certain ladies out. Julia assures him that she understands, confessing blushingly that she has never been at a ball before and has no idea of the forms to be observed. Impatiently, Fitzroy declares his intention of returning to her as soon as the opening dance is finished, but Julia insists that he must do his duty.

Having gained a seat upon an elevated bench with Dr Sydenham, from where she can see all that goes on, Julia is shocked by the arrival of a beautiful young woman who is covered in jewels and scandalously dressed in a diaphanous gown that reveals almost all of her figure. Worse, it is soon discovered that the young woman is Lady Enderfield, whose husband has only recently died. Julia is summoned away from the ballroom when Lady Gaythorn is taken ill, and from that lady learns to her horror that Lady Enderfield was Fitzroy’s first love, and once betrothed to him; but that, Fitzroy’s cousin then standing between himself and his great-uncle’s dukedom, she jilted him to marry the elderly but wealthy Lord Enderfield. Lady Gaythorn also admits that out of jealousy of this woman, once her friend, she herself was lured into jilting the man she loved, a second son with a moderate fortune, and marrying instead—his father, Lord Gaythorn. Lady Gaythorn warns Julia that Lady Enderfield can have come for one purpose only, and urges her to save Fitzroy from imminent danger. Julia, however, is unable to believe that Fitzroy could now feel anything for Lady Enderfield but contempt.

But to Julia’s profound sorrow and mortification, when she returns to the ballroom it is to find Fitzroy dancing with Lady Enderfield, and seemingly oblivious to the shocked attention of those around them. Later, however, having parted from his former love, Fitzroy seems as if awakened from a dream; and when both Julia and Lady Enderfield narrowly escape injury when a chandelier falls, it is Julia to whom he flies. He apologises for what he calls his “infatuated desertion” of her, and begs her to walk with him the following morning, at which time he promises to explain everything.

That night, Julia reflects upon the events of the evening, and from the tumult of her emotions, finally admits to herself that she loves Fitzroy. The next morning finds her ascending a swell of ground near the Hargraves’ rectory, which commands a view of the road—and from where she sees the approaching Fitzroy accosted by Lady Enderfield. As she rushes towards him, she trips, clutching at her ankle, compelling Fitzroy to help her away. Conceding that he had no choice but to assist, Julia turns away, pacing around as she waits for Fitzroy to return and keep his appointment with her—and waits—and waits…

[SPOILERS]

Published in 1806, Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector is a real “Catherine Cuthbertson Experience” – by which I mean it is entertaining, surprising and exasperating in about equal measure. In structure it resembles its sister-novels, being untenably lengthy, with half a dozen wandering plots woven loosely about one another and a dizzying cast of characters whose names, titles, relationships and marriages are almost impossible to keep straight. In spite of its commercially astute title, with its suggestion of monastic horrors, in reality this is a domestic novel much closer in spirit and content to Rosabella than to Romance Of The Pyrenees, confirming my suspicion that Cuthbertson was no real devotee of the Gothic; and like Rosabella it has a young, innocent, “insulated” heroine who spends the novel moving from household to household, being buffeted by fortune and winning both unshakably devoted friends and dangerously jealous enemies, before a momentous secret about her true identity is revealed.

What is most exasperating about this novel – and we might as well get “exasperating” out of the way at the outset – is also one of the things that is rather interesting about it, at least in an historical context. In this course of reading we’ve already come across the curious phenomenon of the novel of sentimentalism, of which Valentine is a particularly amusing example. In novels of that school, it was always a simple matter of emotion for the sake of emotion, with the characters’ sufferings an end unto themselves. Santo Sebastiano, published some two decades later, belongs to the next generation of sentimental novels, and what we find here is something rather different: emotion in the service of didacticism, with the “sensibility” of the characters used as a moral yardstick. The better the character – the higher and more refined their sense of duty – the more frequently they suffer emotional collapses.

And what collapses! As you may recall, it was while reading Santo Sebastiano that Thomas Macaulay was inspired to keep a tally of just how often in the novel someone fainted – 27 times in total – including one or two appearances from our old friend, the death-like swoon. But those were only the actual faints; the Compleat Faints, if you like. If Macaulay had included in his survey the almost faints—the times that someone felt faint, or was taken faint, or had to sit down to avoid fainting—well, I shudder to think what the total would have been; certainly into three figures.

And then there’s the crying, which is of a frequency and volume that truly boggles the mind. It’s not so much a case of “cry me a river” as “cry me an inland sea”. No wonder the characters in this novel are always calling for glasses of water: they must go through life in a state of chronic dehydration. 

And even beyond all this, we have repeated instances of characters falling ill, contracting “dangerous fevers”, almost dying of the strength of their own emotions. And they don’t just do all this on their own account, but in sympathy with other people’s suffering—a single upsetting event thus being sufficient to set off a chain reaction of emotional breakdowns.

Of course, from a novel-reading perspective, what this means is, the more the author intends us to like and admire a character, the more thoroughly tiresome we are likely to find them; and really, we can only sympathise with Jane Austen’s impulse to hold this sort of thing up to mockery—and be grateful to her for helping to kill this particular trend by imbuing the concept of “sensibility” with a permanent sting in its tail.

So, yes—as I said of Rosabella, it is necessary to do a lot of “wading” to get to the good parts of this novel; but there are many good parts – some clever plot turns, and some extremely interesting treatments of novelistic conventions. It is true enough that Cuthbertson’s ideas are stronger than her writing – that she is not quite talented enough to do justice to her own concepts, besides having an unfortunate tendency to write her plot-points into the ground. My feeling is that if she had been held by her publishers to three volumes only, compelled to rein herself in, she would have been a better novelist; but as it is, over the course of the five meandering volumes of Santo Sebastiano she still expresses enough unexpected or unconventional opinions – particularly within the framework of the sentimental novel – to hold the reader’s interest, and to incline us to forgive her various excesses.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Santo Sebastiano is its treatment of the relationship between Julia De Clifford and Horatio Fitzroy. At the outset of the novel, nothing could appear more thoroughly conventional. Fitzroy, handsome, high-born, emotional, given to extravagant gestures and declarations, appears in every respect the model of a sentimental hero, and it seems merely a matter of how the author will manage to keep perfect hero and perfect heroine apart for five volumes. I think it’s safe to say that when the cracks start to appear in the character of Fitzroy – when he is at length revealed as having feet not merely of clay, but of something very like manure – it is as great a shock to the reader as it is to Julia. This is not the way things usually go in the sentimental novel:

“My good sir, what is it you can expect? I fear, by this most premature despondence, the women have spoiled you; and that it has hitherto been, ‘Ask, and you shall have;’ not, ‘Seek, and perchance you may find.’ Can you expect, the moment you feel an inclination for the affections of such a woman as Miss De Clifford, that she is at your nod, to throw them to you? If such was your hope, you lightly estimated her. She will give her heart with caution, believe me; for where she gives, the gift will be for ever.”

One the the most cherished tropes of the sentimental novel was that of “first love, last love”. It was a convention that spilled out from the realm of the strictly sentimental, where a disappointment invariably meant a broken heart and then death, into the more mainstream works, where it was not infrequently implied that a woman who could love a second time, or who ceased to love the first object of her affections, whatever the circumstances, was not quite “nice”.

There are any number of novels I could use to illustrate the point I’m making here, but the one that keeps coming to mind is Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds in which, after becoming engaged at the outset to the heroine – who is, like Julia, poor and obscure and forced to work to support herself – the alleged hero then neglects her for the rest of the book, exposing her to all sorts of unpleasantness, while he dallies with a wealthy widow and contemplates marrying her for her money. In the end, the widow’s bad behaviour frightens him into scurrying back home, where he is received with open arms by his fiancée, his mother and his sister, who not only refrain from uttering a word of criticism, but doggedly pretend that he’s done nothing wrong – all of which is presented, quite without irony, as “correct” female behaviour.

Not surprisingly, opinions on the subject of first and second love, and of the proper response to a disappointment, tend to split down gender lines; and I am pleased to be able to report that here we find Catherine Cuthbertson following on from so-called “radical” novelists like Charlotte Smith, and suggesting that the correct way for a woman to react to serious wrongdoing on the part of a man is not to look the other way, but to kick his ass to the kerb.

Although perhaps they don’t phrase it quite like that.

(Charlotte Smith, by the way, is a very interesting novelist, and one I intend to take a proper look at…one of these years…)

Indeed, the resemblance between Fitzroy and the anti-hero of Smith’s Emmeline; or, The Orphan Of The Castle may be more than just coincidental. In any event, both novels have their young heroines outgrowing an early, unhappy experience and finding enduring love with a man who has proven himself both honourable and steadfast. However, while Fitzroy’s behaviour does eventually kill Julia’s love for him, and while she does at last find another, true love, her journey is slow, painful, and full of self-doubt. No less than the average mainstream novelist does Julia feel that she has a duty to stay loyal to her first love – they are never, by the way, formally engaged – and for a long, worrying phase of the novel, even after she has faced the fact that she no longer loves him, Julia cannot free herself of the feeling that it is her duty to marry Fitzroy anyway, and to try and reclaim him. It takes Fitzroy committing a truly unforgiveable sin before Julia washes her hands of him once and for all, and admits her feelings for another man.

The slow reveal of Fitzroy’s real character is cleverly done by Cuthbertson. At first it is merely a matter of behaviour which, however wounding to Julia’s sensibilities, might stem from the kind of extravagant love that delights in making a spectacle of itself, but which over time looks to the reader more and more like selfishness, and a lack of proper regard for Julia’s reputation. His defection to the side of Lady Enderfield might be mere weakness, and indeed is explained and excused by his friend, Lord Francis Loraine, as due to “the siren”‘s knowledge of the vulnerable points in his character; and even when, Julia and Mrs Goodwin having ended their visit to the Hargraves without hearing one more word from Fitzroy, the newspapers carry an announcement of his engagement to Lady Enderfield, he is generally perceived as a victim:

“If this Mr Fitzroy is a worthy man, I most sincerely pity him: if an undeserving one, he will, even in this life, meet with ample punishment, in the wife he has chosen, for every crime he may or can commit. I knew this Circe well; I was at Venice when her husband died: was murdered, I scruple not to say, by the agent of a ruined Venetian count, a favourite of this vile woman’s, with whom I afterwards saw her at Paris, under the auspices of that licentious court, where her conduct could only be equalled by those who countenanced her.”

But it is clear to the reader long before it is to Julia or his relatives that Fitzroy is a real piece of work, and the fact that Cuthbertson’s novel was written in the early years of the 19th century allows her to be frank about his various misdeeds in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades later. Cuthbertson tries to make Fitzroy a tragic character, a potentially great man who becomes a victim of his bad upbringing and (above all) his lack of religion; and while it doesn’t entirely work, it’s never less than interesting.

One detail I’ve never seen before, even in a novel of these comparatively lax times, is that Fitzroy is the child of sinning parents: his mother and father had an affair while the former was married to another man and finally ran away together. Cuthbertson even allows herself to be sardonic rather than outraged in her telling of this tale, as the narrative remarks that if the adulterers had kept it all a secret just a little while longer, they could have had their cake and eaten it: the cuckolded husband broke his neck fox-hunting not long after his wife’s elopement.

(We are given another salutary reminder that this is a Regency novel, not a Victorian novel, when it is the young Lady Theodosia Southerland, second daughter of the Earl and Countess of Delamore, who recounts to Julia all the scandalous details about Fitzroy’s parents. Who told her, I should like to know!?)

As it was, with the scandal an open one, even though the sinners subsequently married they were no longer “received”, and were therefore forced to reside “on the Continent”, where their son was raised; the root, we are solemnly told, of all his evil. (Note that earlier reference to the “licentious” Paris court.) We are repeatedly assured that Fitzroy’s love for Julia is quite genuine, and that when he is with her, her influence is absolute; but for Fitzroy it is out of sight, out of mind, and whenever he is away from Julia he invariably passes the time in another dalliance – or another seduction.

But then, what can you expect from a man brought up amongst Catholics and atheists?

Santo Sebastiano is, it must be said, an incredibly bigoted novel, in a way that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so funny. Cuthbertson gets herself into quite a tangle trying to explain away the fact that her heroine is delicate and refined and profoundly religious in spite of the fact that she was – just like Fitzroy – raised in a thoroughly immoral household “on the Continent”. Unlike many English novels, for Cuthbertson the problem is not that “the Continent” is Catholic, but that it hasn’t much religion of any kind; and again and again, France and Italy, the scenes of Julia’s upbringing, are sketched as a moral cesspool, from which only the truly religious (i.e. Protestants) have a chance of escaping with soul intact.

The general tone of this aspect of the novel is best illustrated in a letter from the Earl of Ashgrove to his sister, Lady Delamore. In his youth, Ashgrove’s dearest friend was Frederick De Clifford; and while the friendship survived De Clifford’s marriage to the girl that Ashgrove also loved, the Lady Adelaide Montrose, when De Clifford remarried only a short time after his wife’s horrifying death in a fire, Ashgrove was so deeply offended that he turned his back upon his friend. However, belatedly becoming aware that De Clifford left a daughter from this second marriage, the embers of his boyhood friendship inspire the Earl to appoint himself the orphaned girl’s guardian. Detained in the Mediterranean on naval duties, Ashgrove asks Lady Delamore to take charge of Julia – but not without warning her that of the potential dangers:

“But now to the cause, my Emily, of this late confidence. De Clifford left a child, a daughter, by his second, and to me obnoxious marriage. His widow did not long survive him; and the unfortunate child fell to the care of the diabolical beldam, Mrs St. Clair… The poor child has been thrown upon the protection of strangers, in some gloomy sepulchre of the living—a dreary monastery, where neglect she has always experienced, and too often unkind treatment; and, even more dreadfully still, my sister, has, I fear, that terrible woman injured the child of poor De Clifford; an injury most direful. This woman—no, no, I insult the sex by classing her amongst them—this monster was—aye, shudder, Emily, for well you may—an avowed atheist; and this poor, pretty babe in her clutches; and, bred amongst ignorant and superstitious priests and nuns, is either a rank Catholic, or, oh! horror of horrors! has no religion at all!”

[To be continued…]

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14 Responses to “Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 1)”

  1. So Catholicism is almost as bad as atheism – interesting.

    I appreciated the description of the young ladies’ tricks – apparently Mean Girl behavior (for females) is almost as old as poo humor (for males)

  2. It’s even more interesting given that the perfect heroine of Cuthbertson’s previous novel was Catholic.

    But really, I’m not sure how far we should take this seriously. The impression I get of Cuthbertson is that she said whatever suited the events of any given novel (or what she thought would sell), without necessarily buying into it herself.

    Heh! Lady Enderfield is likewise A Real Piece Of Work, and we don’t see nearly enough of her in this novel. (Unlike the guests at the ball, who apparently almost got the entire picture! 🙂 ) Given her track record, we can only imagine what it is that she eventually does that makes Fitzroy break his engagement to her – Cuthbertson doesn’t tell us, but it must have been spectacular! It’s after that that he comes sniffing around Julia again.

  3. The Wicked (with a capital W) are almost always more interesting than the Heros. It reminds me of the little kid who was in a Sunday School play about Adam and Eve. When asked how he liked it, he replied, “the snake has all the good lines.”

  4. Cuthbertson actually does mixed characters rather well, but they don’t usually get promoted out of the supporting cast. However, in this novel she does try to expand her parameters: apart from Fitzroy himself, there is one very interesting attempt in this novel at a major character whose life is governed by his psychological hang-ups (lots more on that to come!), and the repercussions of that upon his family. And even Lady Delamore, who is one of the novel’s “perfect” characters, has a surprising secret…

  5. I realise that the narrative is necessarily compressed by your recounting, but it does seem that Fitzroy does an awful lot of rescuing. (And if he doesn’t see Julia on the occasion of the election… does he rescue everyone who crosses his path?)

    Ah yes, good old religious prejudice. They don’t do things like us, so they obviously can’t really believe – they’re just going through the motions for social reasons, and they’re all the same really. (I see this too in the modern-day “Real, True Christian” (a term coined by Fred West of Slacktivist), in whose mindset pagans, atheists, Muslims and Catholics are probably all in league together.)

    Is Lady Enderfield ever developed as a character? Does she have any reason for what she does beyond basic greed?

  6. Fitzroy does do a lot of rescuing, which is one of the ways that “perfect sentimental heroes” generally distinguished themselves and made an instant impression on the heroine’s heart. It’s one of the conventions that Cuthbertson exploits in misleading the reader.

    At the same time, it is made clear that Fitzroy’s championship of any threatened female is a reflection of the good side of his character – one of those he rescues is “just” a servant – and that he’s not just doing it because it’s Julia, or to impress Julia.

    (Amusingly enough, the novel’s real hero will also be introduced – and make an impression on the heroine’s heart – via a rescue scene.)

    Catholics aren’t religious, they’re “superstitious”. 🙂

    Alas, no, – Lady Enderfield fades from the novel after this one spectaclar appearance. Even for a Regency novel she was probably too “hot” to be seen in close-up.

    • For Fitzroy to break an engagement, Enderfield must have done something pretty seriously scandalous – it’ll do a fair bit of damage to Fitzroy’s own reputation, under the rules of the time.

  7. Fitzroy is generally perceived as “having come to his senses” and “having had a narrow escape”; he attracts more condemnation for having gotten engaged to her in the first place. And given that we’re talking about a woman who may have had her husband whacked by her lover, a broken engagement was hardly going to hurt her. 🙂

    • I admit I’m confused by this. My understanding of Regency mores is that if a man breaks an engagement he’s something of a social pariah, but whether that’s because he’s casting a “soiled” woman off to fend for herself is not entirely clear – if it is, that could account for this exception.

  8. In general terms a gentleman could not break an engagement because of the harm it would do the woman’s reputation, but (as we touched on with respect to Leap Year) it was permissable if the woman or the woman’s family did something improper or dishonourable. In this case, Lady Enderfield is so notorious that no stigma attaches to Fitzroy for calling it off.

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