Archive for January, 2014

25/01/2014

The Court Secret: A Novel (Part 2)

belon2 …in a short time Amurat was told, that the Fleet, and all things necessary for his Expedition, were in a readiness, and ready to set Sail, only they wanted his Person, without which nothing could be done. Thus was Amurat sent away from his Sultana, to countenance Cha-abas Designs on Leridan, and to give more Liberty to his amorous Intrigues. For no sooner was Amurat gone, but that Cha-abas laid close Siege unto the Sultana’s Vertues, and follow’d it so close, that he prevented the Design that she had taken, and which doubtless she had executed, into confining her self into some Society of Religious Women, during Amurat’s Absence, had not Cha-abas Love been very diligent in breaking her measures. He had not yet made any Declaration of Love to her, and all those Services and Demonstrations of Respect which he shew’d her, pas’d but for the effects of his Courtesie and Civility, to a Princess in affliction: He had had some thoughts of declaring his Passion, but he thought it was not to be done in a mean and ordinary method, but in such a manner as should correspond with his Glory, the Greatness of the Sultana, and the Excess of his Passion… He resolv’d upon communicating of his Designs unto Clorineta, wife to Clorinet, who had accompanied the Sultana from Turky into Persia, and all along been Privy to all the Sultana’s Contrivances, Plots and Intrigues, and in whom the Sultana put all her Confidence and Trust…

Probably the most interesting thing—oh, let’s throw caution to the winds, shall we?—the only really interesting thing about Part 2 of Peter Belon’s The Court Secret is the preface. Unlike some of the publications from this era, the two parts of this novel carry only a year printing, not the month or even day the work appeared. Thus, while we know that the parts were published separately – and emanated from two different printers – we have no feel for the gap between them, and nor, more importantly, do we know their chronological relationship to the anonymous The Amours Of Messalina, which was published the same year (1689, despite what I tried to tell you the last time).

The significance of this point becomes clear as soon as the first page of Part 2 is turned, and we are confronted by the following address TO THE READER:

No sooner had the piece call’d, The Amours Of Messalina, appear’d in Publick, but some malicious Persons gave out, that I was the author of it, they having heard under-hand, that I was about some such thing; and though presently after, there came forth another Piece on the same Subject in my Name, Entitled, The Court Secret, in which Crown’d Heads are treated with that Reverence and Respect—

You guys all noticed the reverence and respect, right?

which is due to them: They have still continu’d to misrepresent me to the World, adding, That the severe Rebukes which I had received for my rude Behaviour towards Sovereigns in the first, had made me to compose the last in another strain, by way of Submission. Did those Persons that thus asperse me consider with what Respect I speak of Persons that once have had Dominion over me, they would not find one grain of that ill Nature in all my writings—

You guys noticed the absence of ill-nature, right?

with which the Amours of Messalina have been season’d by it Author, as if designedly writ as a Satyr against the late King and Queen, which has prov’d a Scandal to all moderate and modest Persons.

Who find the rape of an unconscious virgin a suitable basis for a sex farce.

    Certainly those Persons must needs be void of the Charity, which covers a multitude of Defects, that thus delight to impose the worst of Crimes on those that have been their Lords and Sovereigns, unto whom all Honour and Respect is due, from those who were once their subjects, if it were but for the bare Relation they have to our present King and Queen, whom God long preserve.
    It may be alleged (though disingenuously) That I my self am guilty of that which is blamed in others, by speaking too largely of another King, under the Name of Cha-abas Emperor of Persia. But when all is done, that very Person intended, was not my King, and God forbid he should be so; and what do I say of him, nay, what more can I say of him, than has already been declar’d and proclaim’d, not by a few of his own inconsiderable Heretick Subjects (as he is pleased to call those that are Protestants) but also by the Emperour of Germany, the Kings of England, Denmark, Sweden, the States of Holland, and all the Confederate Princes, all which has been confirm’d by his most Holy Father the Pope?

Who was also treated with great reverence and respect in Part 1.

Anyway, a two-page rant against Louis follows, which concludes with the overriding accusation that he is guilty of leading James astray:

If then that King has rendred himself so odious to all Christians…I may very well be excus’d, for what I have said of the same Person, in a Novel, where Hyperbolies are allowed in their largest extent: I having had no other design in the whole Business than to gratifie the Reader with joyning the Pleasant to the Useful—

Pleasant and useful! Those were the words I was trying to think of when I was writing up Part 1!

without the least intention of railing, or so much as making severe Reflexions, or bearing malice against any Person, even my profest Enemies, much less against such as are absolute Strangers to me.

Not to mention those of us who are both an absolute Stranger to him, and his profest Enemie!

It’s hard not to get distracted here by that tantalising reference to “a Novel”, and the fact that at the time, a novel was apparently considered a literary medium where, Hyperbolies are allowed in their largest extent; a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of 1689 and an indication, perhaps, of why Aphra Behn preferred to use the term “history” to describe her own stories. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that for the following 150 years, most English writers would go out of their way to insist upon the strict distinction that existed between the realistic “novel” and the exaggerated and improbable “romance”. Clearly the word “romance” had not yet entered the English literary vocabulary, at least not in that sense; its first usage is something to look out for in the future.

BUT—the real issue here is that despite insisting upon his “reverent” and “respectful” attitude towards his own monarchs, and justifying his handling of Louis with some shameless name-dropping, Peter Belon entirely fails to address his treatment of Mary of Modena. Putting aside (most willingly) its inclusion of the story of Roxana and her various miseries, the one significant difference between The Court Secret and The Amours Of Messalina is that the latter has Mary guilty of various sexual misdeeds; presumably it is this to which Belon refers when accusing his anonymous rival of being someone who, Delight[s] to impose the worst of Crimes on those that have been their Lords and Sovereigns. Conversely, both stories have Mary a willing participant in the conspiracy to impose a Sham Prince upon the English people—an accusation that Belon apparently doesn’t believe might be construed as disrespectful, or require an apology.

So how do we interpret this? Could it be possible—incredible thought!—that Peter Belon was the one person in England who actually BELIEVED that story? – that he thought he was simply reporting the facts, and consequently showing no disrespect towards Mary? Or – and perhaps his own use of the word is a bit of a giveaway – is this simply an outrageous piece of disingenuousness?

Anyway— I wish I could tell you that the continuation of the The Court Secret was anywhere near as interesting and amusing as its preface, but the truth is that this second part of the story, though only half as long as the first, is twice as pointless, expanding the sexual manoeuvring of the back-end of The Amours Of Messalina into almost its entire story. Ultimately, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Part 2 was written for no other reason but to give Peter Belon somewhere to publish his preface.

The one worthwhile aspect of this second part of The Court Secret is its constraint by real events: early on it dispatches Amurat (James) to Leridan (Ireland), in pursuit of a scheme to reclaim the Ottoman Empire (Britain) by first establishing Halist (Catholic) domination of that land and Clonstad (Scotland). Following his arrival in France in December 1688, James did depart for Ireland in March 1689; the Irish Parliament had refused to recognise William and still considered James the rightful monarch. James tried to sell himself to the Irish people generally by having their Parliament pass an Act granting religious freedom to Catholics and Protestants alike, and having done so set to work building an army. This series of events culminated in the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, which concluded with the overthrow of James and his permanent exile in France.

All of this is far in the future of The Court Secret, of course, which goes no further than James’ more-or-less successful establishment in Ireland: “more or less”, because the text references the Siege of Derry, which lasted from 18 April to 28 July 1689, and so places the composition of the second part of the text as later than that.

Presumably by way of demonstrating its reverence and respect for its sovereigns, The Court Secret pauses at the outset to explain why it was acceptable conduct on the part of the English people to turn against James; if indeed it was; the text isn’t quite comfortable on this point:

Upon Amurat’s deserting of his Subjects, and abandoning them to the Fury of all their Enemies, which in the Opinion of many of his Subjects, acquitted them of their Oaths of Allegiance to him; for as they said, There were mutual Oaths pass’d betwixt Amurat and his People at his accession to the Crown; He on his part did promise to govern them according to the Established Laws of the Land, and to maintain the Mahometan Religion, and all the Laws that had from time to time been made for its preservation, against all the Assaults and Conspiracies of its sworn Enemies the Halists, and to protect and defend his People from all Forreign Usurpation and Invasion; and his People on their part had promis’d to obey him, as their King and Governour, and pay unto him the same Allegiance and Obedience, which they had done to his Predecessors, on the assurance that he would faithfully keep and observe his Coronation Oath. I say, that many of his Loyal Subjects did believe, and thought in their Consciences, that the Emperour’s Breach of his Oaths had dispenc’d them from those which they had taken to him of their Allegiance. Yet there remain’d some amongst them, who still were of Opinion, That though Amurat had broke his Coronation-Oath, that did not free them from those Oaths of Allegiance to him which they had taken, saying, That his doing ill, or committing an Errour, was no warrant for them to do the same. But when it came to that pass, that the Emperour deserted them and his Kingdoms, and thereby renounc’d to the protecting and defending of them: Nay, that on the contrary, he joyn’d with the Halists against his own People, and applied himself to the greatest declared Enemy of the Ottoman Empire, and of the Mahometan Religion, which he had declar’d over and over, he would root out of the World; then, I say, that help’d to take off all those Scruples which had been left on their tender Consciences…

I find it another bit of authorial disingenuousness that James’ “desertion” is finally held to absolve his people of their oaths, in light of the great pains taken by the Williamites to bring about that very conclusion to the situation; and, after all, no matter what their own positions, no-one wanted another civil war. I can’t help feeling that the slightly squirmy reiteration of justification here echoes the linguistic manoeuvring of Parliament, in their efforts to demonstrate that James had abdicated, and that William and Mary’s assumption of the throne was therefore legal.

Anyway… None of this is really what The Court Secret is “about”, unfortunately; even more than Part 1, Part 2 consigns the affairs of Amurat to an occasional interrupting subplot. Instead, the bulk of Part 2 is given over to Cha-abas’ unsuccessful pursuit of the Sultana, which gets tangled up with his initially inadvertent overtures to Clorineta (Lady Tyrconnel), who is herself torn between her desire for Cha-abas and her ongoing affair with the Mufti Repset (Sir Edward Petre). Meanwhile, another Mufti called Chilase (François de la Chaise, Louis’ confessor) also dares raise his eyes to the Sultana, while the violently jealous Repset works to prevent Cha-abas getting sexual access to either Clorineta or the Sultana. And while all this is going on, Monitenna (Madame de Maintenon), offended and jealous over Cha-abas’ neglect, proves herself a better schemer and manoeuvrer than any of them and, though much less physically attractive that either the Sultana or Clorineta, triumphs over both of them and takes her place as Cha-abas’ official mistress. Along the way, there is (so to speak) hunting, charades, and ever so many delightful romantic misunderstandings.

Did I say delightful? What I meant was tiresome in the extreme. In fact, I see no reason to dwell upon any of this, except perhaps the, um, “climax”, in which Peter Belon gives us yet another sexual-confusion-in-the-dark scene; an infinitely less offensive one than the last, I am happy and relieved to report.

The final phase of The Court Secret is taken up with Monitenna’s plots to vanquish her romantic rivals and punish the presumptuous Muftis. While an extended bit of farce goes on, wherein Clorineta’s first planned assignation with Cha-abas is thwarted by Repset’s insistence on taking her plea of illness seriously and nursing her himself, Monitenna convinces Cha-abas that Clorineta has stood him up in order to have sex with a Mufti instead, which offends the monarch beyond any possibility of forgiveness. After this, Cha-abas becomes paranoid about Muftis generally, and convinces himself (with help from Monitenna) that the Sultana’s ongoing refusal to become his mistress has its basis in her affair with another Mufti, namely Chilase.

Chilase is in fact still pursuing the Sultana, but since he has done so in disguise at a masquerade and via anonymous letters, she has no idea who her presumptuous wooer might be. Repset, although he has given up on the Sultana himself, has no intention of standing by passively and watching Chilase succeed where he failed, and begins to interfere in one direction even as the Sultana and Clorineta conspire together in the other; while Cha-abas looks out for an opportunity to punish Repset for succeeding where he failed with Clorineta. Monitenna takes advantage of all this lust and jealousy and confusion by arranging a false assignation between Chilase and the Sultana, intending that Repset (who is to carry the letter) will read it, keep it to himself, and plot to take Chilase’s place; which he duly does. A second note goes direct to Chilase, setting up the same assignation and warning him not to say a word to Repset. With Cha-abas, the Sultana, Clorineta and Monitenna herself a silent but appreciative audience in the next room, the two Muftis creep through the darkness towards the same bed…

    With what eagerness did those two Mufties pull off their Gowns to step into the Embraces of the languishing Sultana! How were their Souls agitated with the very thoughts of the Enjoyments they were going to surfeit with! How many different violent Passions did at once seize on their Spirits! Love, Fear, Respect, and Ambition were all struggling at once, which should have the Mastery over their Spirit; and the Contention was so equally great, that it was the Cause, neither of those Passions had quite the power to exasperate their Spirits, and transport them beyond their natural bounds.
    They stept into the Bed at the same time, with all the gentleness and reservedness imaginable, and with trembling Hands, and aking Hearts, stretcht forth their Arms to feel out for the Prey, they met one anothers Hand, and at the very first touch pull’d them back, as if each had met with a Viper, not without a strange surprisal, and both lay quiet a while after, which endeavouring to inform themselves better with their Legs, they approach’d them towards the middle of the Bed, with as little satisfaction as they had receiv’d from their Hands, but with much more apprehensions: At last the boldest of the two had so much Courage as to lay his Hand on the others Face and Head, which having fully informed him, that it was a man he had felt, and that having emboldened the other to do the same, as much by way of prevention or defence, as to satisfie any further his Curiosity, they at last through fear of danger, did seize one another so hard, that the smart caus’d them each to offend his Enemy as much as he could, in order to secure themselves: these seising at last came to blows; and they were accompanied by words, and in the bustle and confusion of the Combat, holding still one another very fast with one Hand, while they laid on with the other, they at last came down on the floor together…

Okay…classy and high-brow it ain’t; but I’ll take it over rape jokes any day.

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16/01/2014

The Court Secret: A Novel (Part 1)

belon1Thus was Roxana’s Child us’d to substitute an Heir to the Empire, that might be brought up in the Sect of Hali, to the prejudice of Zelinda, who was the true and undoubted Heir apparent, only because she was of the true Mahometan religion… But now that so much of the great work was done; that which remained yet undone, was to be thought of. Roxana remain’d still unconsolable, insomuch that she never made any enquiry after her Child, whether it was dead or alive; neither did she take such care of her self as she ought to do; but that was her Mother’s part, of which she acquitted her self as she ought to do. The Cabinet Council thought fit to have Roxana convey’d out of the way, lest that, having been made privy to the Plot, at some time or other she should in one of her melancholick fits discovery the whole mystery: and the Mufti Repset was appointed to perform that pious piece of work. He undertook the business, but it was not till after he had attempted and try’d all the ways and means imaginable to reclaim Roxana out of her deep melancholy, and to bring her to give an ear to his addresses; but finding all to be labour in vain, he on the sudden converted all his former Love into Hatred…

Well. I was misinformed about the content of The Court Secret; it is not one of the clutch of anti-Louise de Kérouaille publications that appeared in the wake of the departure of James, but yet another roman à clef re-working of the Sham Prince affair.

It is also one of the most vilely infuriating things I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.

Published in two separate parts in 1689, The Court Secret was the work of Peter Belon, the author of The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal, one of the two 1688 translations of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. (A correction: at that time I thought Belon was French, but in the preface to The Court Secret he has much to say about “our Late Generous Liberator…our now most Gracious Lord and King” and “the Freeing of our Distressed Country“.) This first part of his novel is an example of the kind of rudderless writing that was the consequence of the anti-James, pro-William faction actually getting what it wanted; it blends politics, slander, amatory fiction and – something else – in a haphazard melding which never seems to have the emphasis in the right place. In fact, though it goes to the Sham Prince well one more time (one might be tempted to say, and with a cracked pitcher), that by-now stale old tale becomes effectively this novel’s supporting subplot, with most of its attention focused upon the endless travails of a young woman called Roxana.

In this place, as in many others of this Book, I might make divers curious Reflections; as here, for example, jealouisie is the natural effect of Love, &c. But my design being to give you only a bare account of the Court-Secret, according to the faithfulness of my Memoires; besides that, the Subject of this Novel is sufficient enough of it self to furnish me with matter, I shall decline all such kind of superfluous digressions, and stick close to my Subject…

The political content of The Court Secret follows the same old well-worn path, setting its action in “the Ottoman Empire” (England), where “the true Mahometan Religion” (Protestantism) is under threat from “the Sect of Haly” (Catholicism), partly because of the machinations of “Cha-abas, Emperor of Persia” (Louis XIV), partly because “Selim, the second of that name” (Charles II), who is staunchly of the Mahometan faith (!), dies under suspicious circumstances and is succeeded by his brother, “Amurat” (James II), who is no sooner crowned than he announces himself to be a Halist. Amurat starts out insisting that he will maintain all the prevailing laws of the Ottoman Empire and allow the Mahometans free practice of their religion, but the Halists have no intention of allowing this and get to work on him, chiefly through their main instrument, ” the Sultana” (Mary of Modena). Serious efforts are made to exterminate the Mahometan faith, but the Halists know that it will all come to nothing if Amurat does not have a Halist heir; his current heir being his daughter, “Zelinda” (Mary), a Mahometan married to “Prince Soliman” (William of Orange). A plot to arrange an heir is finally put in motion…

Not that any of this is presented in such an orderly fashion in the text itself. The first few pages of The Court Secret are devoted to laying out this schema, but the story gets only so far as the Exclusion Crisis (Selim’s tender Love and Affection to his brother Amurat, would never permit him to give his consent to it, so that it was not done…) before it lurches violently to the left and becomes the story of Roxana, a beautiful young Persian Halist, whose father Aladin (!) is appointed to the court of Selim. Aladin tries to keep Roxana concealed from the world by immuring her in a house with high walls about its gardens and the doors guarded, but his scheming wife dreams of a great marriage for her (or at worst, a position as Royal Mistress), and takes her to “Constantinople” (London) to show her off at court. The least consequence of this is that Ibrahim, a young man occupying the house next door to Aladin, develops an instantaneous passion for the beautiful Roxana and devotes himself to finding some way to declare his feelings to her.

At this point, The Court Secret leaves the affairs of the Ottoman Empire hanging for about 80 pages, while it focuses upon the machinations of Ibrahim who, mostly through the intelligence and devotion of his servant, Moretto, finds various ways of courting Roxana from a distance, including leaving impassioned verses for her to find, and finally meets with her in a little summer house. The affair gets no further than a mutual declaration of love, however, before it comes to a tragic end. While Ibrahim is sneaking into the garden of Aladin’s house, he is spotted, mistaken for an escaped slave, and shot. He dies in Roxana’s arms, Moretto stabs himself in grief, and Roxana has a breakdown.

Another person was plac’d near Roxana, on the account she might administer Comforts to her as well as other Services during her distraction; she was Sister to a Mufti, whose name was Repset, and hers was Zora: This Mufti did also frequently visit Roxana during her sorrow, in order to reduce her to her self again. But enough of that at present; we shall have occasion more than once to speak of this Mufti and his Sister, till then I leave giving you a Character of them: mean time, leaving Roxana to the care of those persons that were appointed by her Father and Mother to attend her, we will now come to the continuance of the Historical part of this Novel, till we have occasion to return to Roxana, and bring her again into play.

Smoothly blended, isn’t it?

Plot B picks up with the death of Selim (poisoned by Cha-abas’s agents, it is implied) and the succession of Amurat. One of the interesting things about The Court Secret (which becomes explicit in Part 2) is its comparatively gentle handling of James and Mary. We have seen before the progressive emasculation of James in the literature of this time, with writers left with the choice of presenting him as either the puppet of the Catholic church or a deluded cuckold – or both. The Court Secret seems genuinely regretful that it has to be critical of James; the newly crowned Amurat is described thus:

Of truth, Amurat of himself had very good inclinations, he was very Just, Pious, Religious, Charitable, and desirous to oblige all persons, that came near him, and had he been left to his own Will and Pleasure, he had doubtless Govern’d the Empire will all Peaceableness, Tranquility and Justice, to the great joy and content of his people. But what will not a blind Zeal do, Which is continually fomented by such as breathe nothing but ruine and destruction! It was now high time for Cha-abbas and all his Creatures, to put the last hand to the great work; to this purpose, all the Priests of Haly’s Sect, which were about the Emperor, were charg’d never to let him rest, till they had brought him to a film resolution, or changing the Religion of the Empire, by totally rooting out and expelling from it, the Ottoman Religion, and establishing in lieu of it, the Sect of Haly…

One of the curious things about the Sham Prince literature, before and after the departure of James, is that the identity of the villain of the piece changes. The 1688 writings invariably cast the Papal Nuncio, Ferdinando d’Adda, in this role, offering him as the prime mover behind the substitution of the baby and/or the baby’s real father. We see this in, for example, The Sham Prince Expos’d. Afterwards, however, there is a shift towards blaming the plot upon Sir Edward Petre, an English Jesuit who was James’ confessor; he was made a privy councillor, and remained to the last one of his main religious advisors. The Amours Of Messalina, published in earlier in 1689, features both d’Adda and Petre, with the latter dreaming up the Sham Prince plot and the former working hard to produce a real baby. By the time The Court Secret appeared, d’Adda was nowhere to be seen, with Petre (in the guise of the Mufti Repset) responsible for the novel’s villainies.

Compare this description of Repset to that of Amurat:

This Creature, of mean, obscure Extraction, of as mean a mercenary Soul, and of vitiated Principles, in the Station he was got, was the Primum mobile, or great Wheel, which set the whole Machine of the Halists to work in the Ottoman Empire; he had access to the Emperour and to the Sultana at all times, at all hours of the day and night, even when they were in their private retirements: He had since his greatness at Court shaken off the Rags of Monasteries, and had lick’d himself from a shapeless Cub, into a spruce Courtier… Those hours which he was to have employed in Private and Publick Prayers, and in other Devotions, he spent in his conversation with the Female Sex; being led thereunto by that most powerful Magnet, his natural inclination: He had not been satisfied with those private Stealths which he had made on particular Persons Wives and Daughters, under the Authority and Power of his Function; but his Ambition and Lust still increasing, as did his Fortune and Credit, he resolved to look higher , and to attempt the highest piece of Villainy, and Impudence, under the Cloak of his Religion, and the design of propagating it, as could be imagined…

In short, he aspires to become the Sultana’s lover. He goes about his initial approaches in a roundabout way, however, attempting to convince her that it is her duty to bear a male child – whether it is her husband’s or not. As with “Amurat”, “the Sultana” is quite gently handled by the text: she is outraged by the suggestion, although not unmoved by the Mufti’s argument that it is her duty to anchor the Halist Sect in the Ottoman Empire  by whatever means necessary. She finally baulks at the thought of bearing a false prince herself, but agrees to the substitution of a baby; chiefly because of a message from “the Grand Mufti” (the Pope) warning her that unless she produces a Halist heir, everything done to that point will be thrown away. But how are they to go about it?

As to the other doubt you have rais’d, Madam, in the first place, long before hand, we shall get several Women that reckon about the time we prefixt, that amongst them we may have a Male-Child to substitute for yours; and as to the ways of conveyance of it into the Bed to you, there are a hundred ways besides warm Clothes, warming-pans, trapp-doors, back-doors, and private Windows at the Bedshead to bring a Child in; pish those things are practis’d every day, especially amongst us of the Clergy, who are not permitted to marry…

And so the substitution plot goes ahead, proving to be the beginning of the end for the Halists. Interestingly (in light of real-life events that bear upon Part 2), The Court Secret follows the lead of The Amours Of Messalina by suggesting that the arrest of the seven bishops had nothing really to do with their rejection of James’ Declaration of Indulgence, but was rather a scheme to get them out of the way until the Sham Prince was safely in evidence. (The baby was born on 10th June; the bishops were then still in the Tower, and stood trial on 29th June.) With a male heir in their armoury, the Halists drop all pretence of toleration for the Mahometans, and so bring about their own downfall in the Ottoman Empire:

    Of truth, it was discover’d that there was an agreement made betwixt Amurat’s Council and Cha-abas to destroy all such as would not become Halists; and to that purpose, Cha-abas was to send a Persian Army into the Ottoman Empire, which was to assist the Halists in their wicked designs, to totally root out the True, Ancient Mahometan Religion, to destroy all the maintainers thereof with Fire and Sword, and to clear the whole Emoire of that Religion.
    The Blow was ready to be given, when that all the Nobility of the Ancient and True Religion of Mahomet, made an association amongst themselves, to stand and fall by one another, for the maintenance of their Religion, and the preservation of the fundamental Laws of the Empire. This they signed, and sent over to Prince Soliman, by a particular Messenger, with letters to humbly intreat him to defer no longer his coming to redeem them from Slavery and Idolatry…

The baby used to stand in for the royal heir in the self-defeating substitution plot is a boy born to the unfortunate Roxana. Having been forced to an extent to confide in the girl and her mother, the Halists decide it’s too dangerous to keep Roxana around; while Repset, still smarting from certain events which we will return to in a moment, decides it’s too dangerous to keep her alive. Roxana is consequently shipped off to a place of confinement in Persia. The captain of the galley that transports her is given a letter to deliver along with her, which suggests that a little poison might be in order…

While it does regurgitate one more time the Sham Prince plot and the subsequent downfall of the royal family, The Court Secret has quite as much interest in how Roxana came to be in a position to donate a baby to the cause in the first place, and what happens to her afterwards. You may recall that after the tragic conclusion of her romance with Ibrahim, Roxana was left in the care of Zora, the sister of the Mufti Repset. Zora becomes infatuated with a young man called Cara, and a supposedly comic subplot develops in which Zora tries to manoeuvre Cara into marriage, and he tries to extort favours such as court appointments from her (or from Repset, at Zora’s request) without marrying her. Likewise, he determines to get her into bed before the ring is on her finger.

However, the main focus of the narrative is on Repset who, thwarted in his attempts to seduce the Sultana, transfers his lusts to Roxana. Court gossip suggests that things went much further between Roxana and Ibrahim than she has admitted – they didn’t – and on this basis Repset assumes that he will have little difficulty making his own way into Roxana’s bed; because, after all, a woman who says ‘yes’ to one man will surely say ‘yes’ to ALL men – right?

But when he makes himself clear to Roxana, she not only rejects his overtures but makes her shock and disgust clear to him. Repset is outraged by what he views as her incredible selfishness in not immediately giving him what he wants, and concludes that if she’s going to be like that, he’ll just have to rape her. And once he has raped her, she will of course become his willing mistress, because what would be the point of her fighting him any longer?

Roxana tries to elude Repset, but the Mufti’s powers are almost limitless, and he finally manages to get Roxana alone in a room with her parents away and the servants at a safe distance:

Then, Madam, replyed the Mufti, seeing that you are so plain, I will be too, and tell you that my Passion being grown to that height and strength, that I can no longer be Master over it, I am now comer to now of you, whether I must obtain by consent or by force, that without I can no longer live… I have provided before hand, against all preventions, you are in my Power. There is not one of your Servants that can so much as hear you, the door is fast, you cannot escape me; therefore, once more, Madam, I humbly beg of you to have compassion on me, and afford me freely, what you see you cannot prevent me from taking by force…

But Repset doesn’t get his way. For reasons that don’t require getting into, Cara is hiding in Roxana’s closet; and although he knows his life will be forfeit if he is caught, he decides that he has to intervene. Disguising himself in some of Roxana’s clothes, Cara attacks Repset from behind. Roxana has fainted, so she doesn’t see him; and Cara then manages to escape before Repset knows what hit him. Literally.

But Repset isn’t a man who gives up easily, and finally he decides to cut to the chase by isolating Roxana once again, and getting Zora to drug her. Meanwhile, Zora has consented to a sexual assignation with Cara, and decides to take advantage of the deserted house by arranging it for the same night. Through complicated circumstances, the two plots cross paths…

Hey, fellas—here’s a pop quiz for you! (Stand aside for the moment, ladies: this one’s just for the boys.)

Q1: You have an assignation with your potential lover. When you creep into the darkened room, you find that the person in the bed is either asleep or drugged. As far as she responds to you at all, she protests and tries to fight you off. Do you:
(a) Stop for a moment and think that something might be wrong?
(b) Proceed regardless?

Q2: Having proceeded, you discover that you are not with the sexually experienced woman you were expecting, but a virgin. Do you:
(a) Stop for a moment and think that something might be wrong?
(b) Proceed regardless?

Bonus question: Assuming that you answered (b) to both questions, how does karma treat you afterwards? Do you:
(a) Find yourself afflicted in perpetuity by suppurating sores, until one day you are attacked by a flock of ravenous seagulls and pecked to death?
(b) Marry your rape victim and live happily ever after?

The degree to which The Court Secret dwells upon attempted and successful rape is bad enough, but that it ultimately treats it as a suitable basis for a kind of sex farce puts it an immeasurable distance beyond the pale. The overriding suggestion here is not that Repset’s attitude to Roxana and his resorting to force is wrong per se, but rather that it is wrong because he is a priest. When Cara eventually realises that it was Roxana that night – with whom, after various bouts of hiding in her closet, he has “fallen in love” –  he does feel rather bad about it, but supposes if he explains how it happened she can’t really stay mad at him…

Cara gets the chance to make his explanation because he happens to be the captain of the galley on which Roxana is being transported. Knowing that he is not the father of Roxana’s baby, Repset finally puts two and two together and gives Cara an appointment which effectively banishes him from the Ottoman Empire. Having him be the person to bring about Roxana’s death is Repset’s little joke.

Via the Sultana, Roxana’s mother gets wind of the plot against her daughter’s life and puts her on her guard, though she cannot prevent her being sent away. When Roxana discovers that the captain knows her, and receives from him all sorts of services and kindnesses, she begins to hope that she can convince him that he will be delivering her to her death. Cara, meanwhile, decides to confess via letter:

Yes, Madam, I here confess that I am the Person, who the Heavens thought more fit than the abominable Mufti, to gather those Fruits which he had design’d and contriv’d for his own Tooth, with contrivances that were hatch’d in Hell. But, Madam, I was innocent all this while; witness the strange surprizal I was in, to find that I had gathered such Fruit as none had ever touch’d before… How [Zora] came not to be in that Chamber, and how I came to light on you there, does still remain a Riddle to me. I must confess, that at the resistance you would have made, and which you endeavour’d to make, as much as the narcotick effects of your Opium would permit, I found my mistake; but who then could abstain and retire? No Flesh and Blood, Madam: I accepted of what Fortune had thus thrown into my arms…

All of which Roxana finds not only perfectly reasonable, but a sign that the two of them were made for each other:

…having seriously weighed all Circumstances, and convinc’d her self that Cara had not been in the least to blame, except he had before-hand known who she was, which he did not: She began to think, that of truth, the Heav’ns had design’d Cara for her, and she for him. Being further confirm’d therein, by that Providence which appointed him to be her deliverer… She therefore resolv’d to comply with the Heav’ns Decree…

I suppose it’s just vaguely possible that, at some point in my life, I’ve read something that made me more burningly angry than The Court Secret; but I can’t offhand think what it might be…

[To be continued…]

Footnote: Contemporary opinions of Sir Edward Petre and his part in the arrival of a royal heir are perhaps best reflected in this painting now found in the National Gallery, attributed to Pieter Schenck and showing Mary of Modena, Petre, and the baby (love the wig on the baby!):

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