O ye great ones of this world! how frivolous, how insignificant are all the combined joys and fleeting pleasures which are the offspring of never ceasing bustle and dissipation, compared with that solid satisfaction which flows in upon the soul from the consciousness of a regular discharge of the many relative duties of elevated station, or of superior affluence! The feeling experienced by this blessed family, when leaving Munster Abbey, must have exceeded all power of expression.Yet it is in the power of every family of distinction in the kingdom, (if dissipation and folly have not brought them into despised circumstances,) to experience the same pleasures, or at least some degrees of these pleasures, every day, which we have now seen Belford and his family reaping as the reward of their most exemplary virtue.
The departure of the Belfords brings about a crisis for Altamont, who wants nothing more than to keep tagging along with them; but unfortunately for him, he has:
…given his honour to his former guardians and professors at Oxford, that he would visit Switzerland… So sacred he had held, and he trusted he ever should hold, his honour, that he was resolved to spend a few weeks in visiting Geneva… While Altamont thus addressed himself to his ever revered friend, he could not conceal the internal emotions, which agitated his whole frame: For, in fact, he was now engaged in a very serious warfare; no less than whether love or honour should prevail. Heaven strengthened the native virtue of his soul: he was enabled to preserve his honour, without forsaking his love…
Welcome to the wonderfully batty world of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, where changing your travel plans while on holiday can bring on a major crisis of conscience, and not doing so is evidence of an “exalted” character.
However, before they separate, Altamont declares himself to Belford, and receives his permission to address Aurelia. He does so in entirely characteristic fashion:
But, recollecting himself for a short while, before he approached her sacred presence, delicacy, modesty, and every grace and virtue were the ornaments of her character,—he determined to collect all his force of mind, and from respect to his fair one’s dignity, as well as to his own, to address her in strains far different from the mad, intemperate jargon of modern lovers.
I find myself feeling sorry for Lady Leigh.
But of course, Aurelia’s response is every bit as characteristic:
Aurelia, animated by the noble principles of honour and truth, after a moment’s hesitation, began with a voice that would have allayed the most savage breast, and charmed the wildest discord, into calm attention;—every accent breathed the soft emotions of her spotless mind… Thus did the happy couple, with the full consent of Belford, bring to a happy issue the great object of both their wishes, without foolish precipitancy, or those tedious delays occasioned by sordid and interested views of settlements, jointures, pin-money, &c. No:—The parties placed confidence, and they had every reason to place unbounded confidence in each others integrity and worth:—hence it was resolved, on both sides, to reserve all that unpleasant, (though necessary) business, till they should meet at Munster Abbey.
Ah, yes…”sordid” and “unpleasant”…but necessary…
Mind you—I imagine it’s a bit easier to have “unbounded confidence” when both parties to the transaction are STINKING RICH.
So they separate, Altamont to preen himself upon his exalted honour in Geneva, and to write Aurelia letters more redolent with politics than love; not that she sees anything wrong with them:
As Aurelia was educated with singular attention by the best of parents, she was of course acquainted intimately with the geography of Europe, and, indeed, of all the globe. She relished therefore a minute account of this celebrated city,—but could not help lamenting to her father, that spirit of folly and absurdity which Altamont took notice of in the close of his epistle, which marked the political sentiments of the Genovese,—democratic, to a degree inconsistent with that subordination which is the very bond and cement of society:—Hence, he observed, the insolence of mechanics and the rabble,—who all erected themselves judges in matters of state; while every man of wisdom and of modesty knows, that there is not one of a thousand in any, even the freest state in Europe, who is entitled to converse on the subject either of political or religious government. Altamont sagaciously remarked, that politics is a science, and a profound science,—which the ignorant of the half-learned should not presume to give their sentiments on,—much less dare to violate the public order by attempting to take a share in administration.
Hence those stirring words that open the glorious British constitution: Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.
The Belfords travel to Leghorn, where they go through the emotionally wracking business of reuniting with Charles. The three take a boat for England, the journey being enlivened by the life-history of a fellow-traveller, Mr Piercy, who of course reveals every intimate detail of his unhappy and difficult life to them upon first request. (The company, though much entertained by Piercy’s interesting story, were, at the same time, exhausted by the length of it… Given that Piercy’s monologue is by far the shortest we’ve encountered so far, that is both unfair and unkind!) After landing at Plymouth, the Belfords return to their “terrestrial paradise”:
A transaction was now to take place at Munster Abbey, which puts to shame a very large portion of the human race…
Oh, good! Thank you for that! The transaction turns out to be Belford marking his reconciliation with Charles by bestowing on him an estate and a fortune (which, as we know, can’t possibly bring him happiness): an occasion marked by perhaps Munster Abbey‘s most crunching bit of gear-shifting, from exalted sentiments to cold hard cash:
But as delicacy marked every part of his conduct when he conferred any favour, he was resolved to observe this nice virtue on the present occasion, with the most scrupulous attention. The idea of laying his brother under an obligation was too gross for his pure and generous soul. He determined that the annual sum which he should settle on Charles should be held by him as an evidence of brotherly love, by the acceptance of it… This good man had early this morning cast his eye on the state of his affairs, and found them in the most flourishing condition.—He saw himself possessed of a clear landed estate of twelve thousand pounds per an. and eighty thousand pounds in the funds… “Charles, (says he) my fortune is overgrown:—it is far more than I was born ever to expect. I have found this morning, by glancing over my books, that I have a vast estate in land, unencumbered by a single shilling of debt, and a very considerable sum in the funds…”
I’d have given anything if Charles had responded to this by robbing his brother for a third time, but instead he girds his loins and nobly steels himself to accept at his brother’s hands:
…one of the finest places in England, not above nine or ten miles from Munster Abbey… An estate of three thousand a-year, highly cultivated,—most enchantingly situated,—and adorned by a mansion-house built in the Gothic Stile.
Even more self-sacrificingly, Charles accedes to his brother’s hints about a suitable bride, his own inclinations tending in the same direction having nothing to do with it. The lady is a Miss Louisa Draper, the daughter of a neighbouring family to the Abbey. Here we get either a delicious continuity error, or unexpected proof that dissipation and criminal conduct slow the ageing process. Weighing up Charles as a potential bridegroom, the narrative remarks that, Charles was but a young man, not yet more than thirty-five years of age; it also explicitly declared that he was twenty-seven at the time of Belford’s marriage. (Belford himself, meanwhile, manages to be only a few years older than his brother and about thirty at the time of his marriage. So perhaps it’s a family peculiarity.)
Munster Abbey goes into filler-mode for a while here, with Belford doing yet another tour of his estates (in much the same language as the first), and with the life-histories of various minor characters rendered for our, uh, delectation. Belford and Aurelia then go for an extended stay with a new friend (who happens to be an earl, although of course that’s quite irrelevant), and find themselves agreeably surrounded by kindred spirits. They enjoy some private theatricals, before a memorable meal – during which, Belford has “an episode”:
Much conviviality, as naturally must be imagined, prevailed in the circle of gaiety, and Aurelia partook of every lively joke of innocence, with much spirit, until a dejection in the countenance of her father suddenly attracted her attention. It was enough that he looked grave, to cast every smile at once from her delicate cheek: She was on the verge of exclaiming, “Are you not well, sir,” when the attention of Lord Denfeir was likewise directed towards him, who perceiving his gravity, immediately addressed him, “Good sir, is anything the matter.” Belford could not utter a word in reply, he let fall a tear, descriptive of some tender emotion, and, rising from his seat, precipitately left the room.
“I have this day,” returned Belford, “reflected on the pleasure of your innocent pastime,—looked round me, and reflected likewise on the independence of your Lordship’s friends, who formed the agreeable party. When I had reason to believe, from various observations which had made, that many of them could boast of independence, even to an excess of wealth,—I could not help conceiving, that some plan might be readily adopted, from the nature of your diversions, to relieve those who are sorely oppressed by misfortune, in the same moments that you were erasing from your own minds the recollection of troubles or disappointments. As I pondered on this newly imbibed fancy, a happy thought suddenly occurred, which induced me to believe, that I could offer a plan, which, if adopted, would, while it was producing the wished for effects I anticipated, tend likewise in a great degree to augment the conviviality of your own circle. From the tenor of the general conversation of the day, and the liberality of sentiment, which, from unobserved remarks, I had reason to believe each individual possessed. I felt confident, that to propose a benevolent scheme, would prove at once sufficient to favour its immediate adoption. Still a degree of diffidence hankered about my mind, and, from my recent introduction, I feared that even in a good cause, I might give offence by discovering too suddenly an unreserved degree of freedom: It was a desire to unload my bosom of what I doubted not would prove the effect of much cheerfulness, if distributed to the company at large, that cast on my countenance the look of dejection at the supper-table;—and I was seriously meditating on the great benefits that would arise from the private theatrical performances of the higher classes of society, if but the small sum of half a guinea was exacted from each individual who attended, to be applied to the relief of any class of persons whom penury had involved into that state of misery which never fails to excite the compassion of the merciful. When roused from my reverie from your Lordship’s kind address, in consequence of noticing my air of gravity,—I could not suppress a tear which fell in testimony of my emotion,—and anxious to conceal from observation my suffering, which I feared might throw a damp on the entertainment, I precipitately left the room, which I now have reason to suspect rendered my situation more conspicuous than it otherwise would have been, had I remained true to my seat,—and braved the inquiry.”
But then we would have missed that speech. And what a tragedy that would have been.
But enough! Benevolent though Belford’s intentions are, his scheme to raise money to help the poor unwitting unleashes THE MOST PROFOUNDLY SHOCKING MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL!!!!!!
The lovely Aurelia, equally alive to the feelings of humanity with her father, and forgetting, for a moment, the diffidence a young lady should observe in every society, in which she was by no means deficient, but which a sudden thought of kindness had for the moment dispelled, hastily exclaimed,— “Oh I have it! pray let me point out a method to dispose of the money.”
As she concluded the last word, a recollection of her misconduct occurred,—a deep blush betrayed her sufferings…
You dare speak unbidden!? GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN.
Once urged to speak, however, Aurelia proposes that they use the money raised to free deserving individuals from debtors’ prisons. This, naturally, leads to yet another of those peculiarly embarrassing 18th century scenes, in which other people’s private moments are turned into a form of entertainment: the “benevolent” friends gather near the gates of the prison to watch the objects of their charity achieve freedom. When the ex-debtors kneel to pray, Aurelia is yet again (unreproached this time) provoked to spontaneous speech:
“There,” exclaimed Aurelia in a tone denoting extacy, when they were engaged in their devotions, “does that scene favour the account given us by the worthy Solicitor Sordidus? Does it not prove, that, within the remote walls of a jail, virtues lie concealed?—Oh! I’ve been justly informed,—else would religion never so deeply engage their attention. They are worthy of their release!—Oh! blessed be the moment for ever, that first favoured so happy a thought as directing this charity to a prison. I am enchanted beyond my power to support myself!”
The lovely Aurelia exhausted, could not utter another word,—and, weakened with excessive delight, leaned upon her father’s arm for support…
But the lovely Aurelia has not yet begun to be exhausted by her emotion. A letter from Altamont lets her know that he has been indisposed, though he is careful not to tell her anything until he is fully recovered. This discomposes her to a degree that prompts Mr I-Could-Not-Suppress-A-Tear to lecture her about the distrust in heavenly dispensation shown by letting anything bother her, ever, under any circumstances:
Though Aurelia was possessed of a degree of self-command, which is too rarely the gift of youth, though her prudence and reserve (still mingled with benignity and cheerfulness) were above the ordinary display of those qualities in the greater part of mankind;—yet it was visible to the eye of discernment, that, at times, she discovered a certain pensiveness which imported some hidden emotions which the most guarded cannot conceal… Her affectionate father also remarked this temporary gravity or absence. With his never-failing candour and good sense, and with all the endearing softness of parental partiality, he called his Aurelia aside one morning, and mentioned to her his suspicions, that she had permitted some anxieties to take hold of her spirits, which was unlike to her well-principled mind.— “My dearest child, (he pathetically said) distrust in that superintending power which governs all the concerns of man, I well know you consider as an offence against the duty which dependent mortals owe to him who acts by the laws of unerring wisdom and goodness. I know also the cause of your present internal agitations. But, rouse up your reason,—collect your mind,—cherish these principles concerning the divine benignity, which have hitherto been the solace of your soul…”
Aurelia, with a benignant smile, received her parent’s affectionate and salutary counsel; expressed the highest reverence for his sentiments,—and bid him rest assured, she would exert the utmost of her power to shew forth every degree of cheerfulness…
Shortly afterwards, the Belfords set out for Dover, where Altamont is soon expected. Note how sedulously Aurelia works to display her faith in the divine benignity:
Every vessel which arrived from Calais was instantly announced; but their patience was now to be put to the severest test:—A second, a third, and a fourth day past, and no sight of their dear Altamont,—till at length the lovely delicate Aurelia began to feel those indescribable sensations, attendant only on a truly refined being, whose whole soul is wound up in the beloved object of its affection and regard. Belford saw, with the most bitter sorrow, the health and spirits of his incomparable child fast declining, at the same time endeavouring to assume a cheerfulness foreign to her heart, fearing to alarm the most indulgent of fathers:—But alas! all would not do;—grief had taken too full possession on her delicate frame:—She struggled, but struggled in vain, to conceal her distracting thoughts from the best of parents: he saw the agitation of her spotless mind, but hoped to be blessed every hour with the sight of the dear object of her sufferings; and flattered himself, that a very short period would restore her to her usual health and spirits: But judge, reader, what must have been the feelings of this fond parent, when, on entering her room, one morning, he found her, as he imagined, a cold, lifeless corps!
Ummm…he found it hilarious, like I did? No? Okay, I give up.
Alas, indeed, dear reader, we are not in fact able to add, Dying because 18th century transport is less than totally reliable to, Dying from sighing too much, but for quite a while it’s touch-and-go:
She now began to breathe with difficulty, and to discover much inward pain; frequently a deep sigh would escape her, and her entire frame seemed agitated by strong convulsions… The physician was again arrived, and every means used within the power of human art to restore her to some recollection; but to no purpose:—she became considerably worse,—few hopes were entertained for her life.
During this melancholy distressing transaction, arrived in perfect health the happy Altamont…
And where have YOU been, might we inquire? Stopped to inspect some fortifications, did we?? And in fact, we never do find out why he was late, chiefly I suppose because he finds himself with a bit of a crisis on his hands:
Altamont approached near his Aurelia;—pressed her burning hand a thousand times to his lips, and discovered every symptom of madness. Nothing could prevail on him to leave her, even for a moment. Belford likewise sat by the side of his darling amiable daughter, in the utmost anxiety and misery, for many days. She continued in a state of the most imminent danger;—no hope could be entertained for her recovery. Belford himself became ill. Nature seemed exhausted, and he was forced to leave his dear charge, and retire to his bed; and, in a few hours after, it seemed difficult to decide which was in the most danger, the incomparable Belford,—or his lovely daughter.
What, it’s a contest? If so, Altamont’s not one to reject a challenge!—
What an awful trying scene!—every moment expecting to be deprived of all his soul held dear on earth,—his divine Aurelia and worthy friend,—required more than manly fortitude to support; and he began to sink under his load of affliction…
…but then they all get better. Pity. Simultaneous dying of emotional collapse would have been even more impressive than the simultaneous swooning of Volume 1. The news that Altamont is not in fact dead has to be broken to Aurelia over the course of several days, in case joy should prove even more fatal than grief, but once that’s taken care of:
Suffice it to say, Altamont and Aurelia met with the mutual expression of celestial spirits…
And then they hit the road:
The happy party set off for Munster Abbey, and after a short and delightful journey, hailed this mansion of sublunary bliss.
However, certain grim duties lie before Belford and Altamont:
It is utterly impossible to convey the most distant idea to a vulgar soul, of any rank, of what is perfectly delicate and purely refined, either in sentiment or manners. Altamont’s feelings, in the prospect of the necessity of entering on the business of settlements, and of holding conversation with men, many of whom he had been taught to believe were not governed by the strictest regard for integrity,—experienced all that derangement which is natural to a mind of superior honour and sensibility.
And yet somehow he grits his teeth and goes through with it.
Sordid business out of the way, the marriage takes place. Lord and Lady Altamont, accompanied by Belford and the still-Miss Draper, set out for Altamont House, famous for its two-hundred-foot frontage, not even counting the colonades. As we know, money cannot bring happiness, possessions are no more than a vulgar necessity, and meals merely the means of sustaining existence; so it is quite beside the point that:
Altamont’s fortune was ample. It was superior to Belford’s. And his establishment was befitting his noble rank. His servants, his equipage, and his table, displayed elegance, without extravagance… The side-board presented a rich service of plate, a royal present to his father, when he was ambassador at the Imperial Court. The courses were served up in the first stile. The wines were the first Europe could produce.
Marriage, of course, compels Aurelia to self-exile herself from that “mansion of sublunary bliss” known as Munster Abbey; although the vulgar amongst us might be inclined to observe that she hasn’t done too badly for herself in securing Altamont House as a replacement. She need not suffer too much through her sacrifice, however:
Before leaving Munster Abbey, it had been agreed between Belford and Lord Altamont, (as they had resolved to live and die together) to spend their time alternately at Altamont’s house, and on the beautiful banks of the Ex.
Aurelia’s future secure, Belford turns his attention back to Charles, who is married off to Miss Draper. The newlyweds spend time at Munster Abbey. And then they spend time at Altamont House. And then everyone goes to Bennington Castle, the estate that Charles was forced – forced, I say! – to accept from his brother. We’re halfway through the third volume now, and struggling to the finish-line. Some time is wasted on a peculiar interlude, in which a young woman turns up on Belford’s doorstep claiming sanctuary (well, it is an Abbey), and protection from the wicked uncle who is persecuting her for her fortune. Her life history fills out another nine pages. Belford unofficially adopts her, and eventually marries her off to a brother of Miss Draper, in a sequence that fills out another fifteen pages. Aurelia gives birth to a baby boy (George Frederick Augustus, like a good little royalist). Various schemes of benevolence are executed, with or without unsuppressed tears and unbidden speech.
And then, on page 549 of this exactly 600-page novel, Sir Samuel remembers he forgot something:
We deem it proper to offer some apology to our readers, that good Mrs Melville, Belford’s mother-in-law, and the amiable Julia, Mrs Belford’s sister, have never again appeared in the course of the history of Mr Belford, since their first visit to Munster Abbey…
Another eleven pages are spent catching up (short version: they moved to Copenhagen, and died and married respectively), before we hop back to England for another thirty pages of Belford and his schemes of benevolence, with which he fills his “declining years” (so I guess he’s stopped getting younger):
Belford had now arrived at the zenith of sublunary honour and glory,—a species of adoration was paid to him by all orders of society. Of no man in the kingdom could it be said, with equal justice, that he had completely answered the end of his existence in this world. From his youth he had learned the invaluable lessons of piety and virtue, ever mingled with moderation and benevolence;—he never lost one moment of his life in dissipation;—he knew the incalculable value of time,—his fortune was chiefly devoted to acts of public or private beneficence; yet (such was his economy) Munster Abbey was, at this time, the mansion of all affluence…
The narrative then goes on to praise Belford’s mother for her role in turning out such a pattern of perfection (poor Charles mysteriously fails to rate a mention here), until, suddenly realising that its words might be misinterpreted, it hastens to clarify:
It is a fact which every one the least versed in the history of mankind is perfectly acquainted, that the world has been indebted, in every age, for the far greater number of illustrious men, in every department and profession of life, to the early education they have received from mothers of superior worth and intelligence. Antiquity and modern times record the names of thousands of these angelic characters. But let it not be rashly and weakly imagined, that these distinguished women were celebrated chiefly for their learning, their eloquence, or their taste for the fine arts.—No: these are not the provinces in which the great superintending Power has called the fairer part of the creation to immortalise their names;—though a certain degree of knowledge and lesser literary accomplishments are in all ages necessary to women of genteel rank in life…
What signify all the frivolous accomplishments and acquisitions of common education?—of what consequence is a little smattering in some species of polite literature, in comparison of those virtues which are the ornament of the soul, which alone enable a mother to rear up her offspring to immortal fame?
So put down that novel right now, ladies! Yes, THAT novel!!
Belford’s immortality looms up rather quicker than we might have expected. Without much warning, he feels that he will soon die; and, recognising that there’s not much he can say to either Altamont or Aurelia that they don’t already know, he contents himself with requesting that they carry on with various schemes of benevolence not yet completed, before blessing them and dying.
And then we pass onto the passages that made me almost certain that Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was the anonymous author of Valentine, which likewise builds to a dramatic climactic death (in that case tragic, rather than serene and pious), and also likewise, instead of leaving it at that, then goes on to examine the contents of the will in minute detail:
It is almost superfluous to observe, that Belford’s will must necessarily be every thing that was natural, parental, wise, and good. Indeed it was perfectly entitled to all those epithets.
The marriage-contract between Lord and Lady Altamont settled the estate of Munster Abbey, and his grandfather’s other estates, on their Lordship’s second son.—Handsome provisions were also made for his other children at the same time. Belford’s economy was such, amidst his many expensive schemes, and his uniform hospitality, that each of Lord Altamont’s younger children were possessed of handsome fortunes; and the lovely family were now four sons and two daughters.
He bequeathed a thousand pounds to each of his hospitals, (for they may be said in some measure to be of his own creation) and fifty pounds to each of the poor curates whose salaries he had procured to be doubled, but who were still far from comfortable in their stations.
To each domestic, an annuity in proportion to their services, to none less than ten pounds.—To his butler, who had lived with him forty years, fifty pounds a year,—and to his faithful steward, two hundred, for life. A great many mourning rings he had ordered, as testimonies of regard for those characters, of both sexes, whom he had approved and admired on account of their virtues and happiness in their several stations and professions in life.
Lord Altamont, with the excellent men we have just mentioned, Mr Charles Belford, Draper and Hammond, were nominated guardians to the younger children. The heir of Munster Abbey was declared, by the will, not to be arrived at the age of majority until he completed his twenty-fourth year,—a wise and judicious destination! Happy had it been for millions over Europe in the past ages, and in the present, that the period of majority had been prolonged by will still farther,—many an estate might have been preserved,—many a constitution saved from disease and debility,—and many a character indefaced from infamy.
I must say, I admire his—well, what shall we call it? – egregious benevolence? – in appointing guardians for children that (1) aren’t his, and (2) have living parents.
But anyway, this about brings us to the end of things:
Lord and Lady Altamont were now at the head of a beautiful family, and two large estates…
Not that they think anything of THAT. Or expect their perfect happiness to go on being perfect:
Such is the fleeting pleasures of this life,—the moment we are, as we imagine, experiencing all the blessings of the world, our enjoyments are suddenly dashed from our fond embrace, and we are instantly plunged into an ocean of wretchedness…
Except when we aren’t:
Lord and Lady Altamont continued to enjoy years of uninterrupted felicity… They spent their time alternately at Munster Abbey and at Altamont’s house, in Kent; but the peaceful shades of Munster Abbey were their favourite place of residence. Indeed, this charming scene of innocent retirement was enough to incline the minds of its blessed inhabitants, to expect a life of serenity, peace, and happiness, which they continued to enjoy many, many years:—And in this endearing situation we leave them, to experience that uninterrupted felicity they are so justly entitled to.
Footnote: Here is an excerpt from the 33-page-long list of subscribers that opens Volume 1 of Munster Abbey. The fact that they all have titles has absolutely nothing to do with anything: