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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7 Responses to “The Court Secret: A Novel (Part 2)”

  1. What struck me is how they’re now willing to openly acknowledge that their foreign characters are stand-ins for current public figures, without any figleafery at all anymore.

  2. It’s one thing to be attacking barely-disguised public figures when the result was likely to be an accusation of treason and associated unpleasantness; by this point the Williamites were openly encouraging this sort of thing, so there was little need for figleafery.

    All things considered, I’m more impressed by efforts like The Perplex’d Prince, both with respect to the courage of the author, and the forbearance of Charles.

  3. That whole “2 men in the dark” scheme? ‘Cheers’ did it better and funnier.

  4. I’ve no doubt.

    The scene probably didn’t involve two Catholic priests, either.

  5. And that scene’s in Three Men in a Boat too.

    Darn, you just can’t get the deadly attack seagulls these days.

    The feeling I get from these passages – and I admit I’m unlikely to track down this cheery little gem myself – is “oh, well, everybody knows that” about the warming-pan business, a degree of subtlety of which this author has not otherwise shown himself capable.

    Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but I can’t help feeling that if you’re a rapacious bloke who wants to have his wicked way with a particular beautiful woman, you’d want actually to see her.

  6. Although we probably need to keep in mind that lighting wasn’t something taken for granted at the time, as we do now.

    In this case, “the Sultana” insists on darkness when making the assignation; but in the case of Roxana— Well, don’t start me on that again!

    Yes, I agree about the tone of “everyone knows that“, though I am still very hesitant over whether he could actually have meant it…

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