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!):

belon3b

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17 Comments to “The Court Secret: A Novel (Part 1)”

  1. I only needed to get as far as “substitute an Heir to the Empire” to know where this was going to start. Not so much roman à clef as roman à big stick with nails in it.

    Though perhaps by 1691 the basic outline of the warming-pan business was so well known as not to be enough to support a novel by itself any more?

    Bring on the seagulls!

  2. Ah-oops! That’s actually a mistake: this was published in 1689, the same as The Amours Of Messalina. I was thinking through publication patterns and wrote the wrong date. (I shall go back and fix that.)

    However, I would say that your point is made even more valid – as early as 1689, the story had been worked over so many times it wasn’t enough to fill a “novel” on its own any more,

    I was SO ANGRY reading this I kept having to stop and walk away for a while and take it in bit by bit. Seagulls are too good for him!!

  3. May I offer my services if you won’t be able to fing any seagulls?

  4. I can picture all the current right-wing evangelical protestants frothing at the mouth by being represented (even in allegory) as Mahometan followers, much less at Mahometan being presented as the True Religion.
    And don’t all true romance novels represent rape as indicative of true love, not to mention being completely unavoidable?

    • Not sure if you’re serious re: romance novels, but in case you are… No. I don’t even *like* romance novels, but – no. Just like not all fantasy is elves all the way down, not all romance novels are full of rape. That’s nothing but a stereotype, sorry. It *is* a common feature of so called “old school” romance, but it’s unfair to paint all romance novels the same brush.

      • I think it would be fair to say that there’s still a tendency one might call “dubious consent” — some terribly important and overpowering reason why hero and heroine must sleep together without the heroine being entirely happy about it — but it’s certainly not everywhere in modern romances.

      • “Dubious consent” — yeah. Some audiences apparently still find that a turn-on. But this… it sounds like they’re not even playing it as romantic or erotic, but as just a piece of plot machinery, or maybe even as an ignorant opinion about how the world ought to work logically.

  5. romance novels from a few generations ago may not have had ‘completed’ rape scenes, but the hero being violently overcome by his feelings and attacking the heroine (out of twue love) was a staple.
    Now, the heroine is just as likely to have a case of “at the touch of his bare skin, my body was inflamed with lust” (an actual quote from a recent novel). I want to say, “take a cold shower”, which is probably not the reaction the author was going for.

  6. Ew!

    I know very little about romance as a genre past about 1900 and I can’t saw this conversation is infusing me with a particularly burning desire to change that. Then again, perhaps it’s me that’s out of step. If my real-life experience has taught me anything, it’s that I have strange and unreasonable ideas about what constitutes romance, sigh.

    I suppose we’re talking post-Scarlet O’Hara marital rape, where it’s okay because it turns out she wanted it all along?

    Just to reiterate, in the present case it isn’t even dubious consent: the room is in darkness and Roxana loses consciousness because of the opium.

    {*goes to round up some seagulls*}

    • Well, far be it from me to try to change your mind – as I already said, I’m not really a fan of romance novels (at least, not of the het kind) – but they really are not *universally* that bad when it comes to consent, I swear.

      • Oh, no, I have no prejudice against romance novels generally, I swear! – it’s just that my reading doesn’t often lead me in that direction, at least not towards the modern iteration.

    • There’s plenty of actual good stuff in modern romance, in large part because women mostly stopped buying the dodgy ones; it’s just fragmented a bit. Like Redcrow I’m certainly not going to tell you what you should read. (A glance at the “reading” tag on my shiny new blog will reveal that I read an awful lot of rubbish…)

      I recommend a piece of bacon on the end of a string. An old fisherman’s trick is to tie a bit of bacon on each end of a nylon line and throw it into the flock: birds can’t regurgitate, so they fly round and round each other until the meat’s been sufficiently digested.

      • Recommendation noted. (Bacon: is there nothing it can’t do?)

        Your shiny new blog!? Dish! Dish!

      • blog.firedrake.org — which contains all sorts of stuff because I have diverse interests, but seems to be mostly short reviews so far.

  7. The style of this would make it a really tough read for me so the story would have to be brilliant to keep my interest. I think I can safely give it a miss

    • Hi, Karen – thank you very much for visiting, and taking the time to comment. I find that these days my brain “adjusts” quite quickly to the rhythms and usages of 17th century writing and that I tend to settle into a groove; though it is easier if I read in big chunks rather than fragmentarily; not always easy when a work is as infuriating and offensive as this one! 🙂

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