Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 1)

MunsterAbbey1    And now the day dawned when two hearts and minds were to be united in the bonds of the purest love. Nothing, in this world, has ever been known to surpass the refinement of principle, and the excellence of moral conduct, of Altamont and Aurelia,—and, by consequence, their characters and their feelings must have soared far above the generality of imperfect mortals.
    At length the long-wished event took place, not only to the transporting joy of the revered Belford, but to the universal delight of all the county for many miles around.
    The second day after the celebration of the marriage, Belford, Altamont, and Aurelia, (accompanied by her dear companion Miss Draper,) set out for Altamont’s house. A palace opened to their view at the distance of eight miles from the place. It was situated on a rising ground, and watered by a beautiful stream not half a mile distant. Cascades, and fine pieces of water, embellished the scene:—And the venerable oak, and other lofty trees, added to the magnificence of this charming seat. The approach was by a gentle winding avenue, nearly two miles in length;—and, at once, the front of the house presented an extent which, to the eye, could not be less than two hundred feet, without the colonades.

So! – we meet again, Munster Abbey!

And by “we” I mean not just myself, but anyone who might have been around in the early days of this blog. Way back when, I posted a short piece highlighting one of the more absurd examples of “sentimentalism” that existed in the novels of the late 18th century, which had been brought to my attention by a work on the development of the English novel (the title of which, alas, eluded me then and still does now; though I’m confident I’ll stumble across it again one day). The author of that work held up Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s 1797 novel, Munster Abbey, as a prime example of everything that was wrong with the English novel during that period, and provided evidence in the form of a deliriously hilarious passage from the novel in question. The author further growled that:

Thirty-three pages of ladies and gentlemen, twelve hundred and fifty or more of them, subscribed to this nonsense in 1797 because they thought it was written by a gentleman. They could tell he was a gentleman because he called a pond ‘a humid space’…

The full title of this novel is Munster Abbey, A Romance: Interspersed With Reflections On Virtue And Morality. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that a more honest description would have been Reflections On Virtue And Morality: Interspersed With Munster Abbey, A Romance. I’m not sure I can actually review this book, because frankly, not much happens over its 600-and-something pages. Rather, an occasional mild incident occurs, and provokes a dozen or so pages of moralising. Repeat ad infinitum.

As for the way in which those incidents are described, and the language in which the moralising couched— You might fairly describe this post by saying, A brief description of the action occurs, and provokes reams of quotation. Repeat ad infinitum.

Coming on the heels of The Court Secret Part II, here we have another work in which what comes before the text proves intriguing in its own right, not to mention lengthy: it takes the reader quite some time to actually get to the novel. It transpires that this was a posthumously published work. Sadly, Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh died at the age of only 26, leaving behind a widow and a month-old son. Evidently Lady Leigh was responsible for getting her young husband’s work published; she may, indeed, have completed it herself; though who wrote what remains tantalisingly uncertain. Volume 1 opens with the usual female deprecation of critical wrath, although this time not wholly on the lady’s own behalf:

Immerged in the afflictions attendant on her unfortunate situation, every step she took in collecting and connecting the late Sir Samuel’s scattered papers, was traversed by sorrow, and impeded by inexperience;—and, in consequence, produced more delay than she had foreseen.—To embrace and accomplish every idea of her departed Husband, was difficult, and nearly impossible to her:—Pains, however, and anxiety have not been spared:—and, though Lady Leigh is conscious, that accurracy in execution, and brilliancy in composition, may not at all times have been attendant on her wishes, yet, she trusts that the refined and sympathetic Reader will find some touches of feeling in the Work, which may induce him to repel the shaft of censure from the unprotected Female, who has the honour to address him these lines.

(And yes, she does spell it “accurracy”.)

This passage is followed by two inserts by Sir Samuel himself, the first a dedication to the Duchess of Marlborough, which, though brief, gives a good indication of the baronet’s literary style:

Permit me, Madam, to express my warmest gratitude for a countenance which honours this production with an encouragement, greatly above what I can persuade myself it merits:—I can but hope, with sincerity, my REAL INTENTIONS MAY BE DISCOVERED:—Under such circumstances only, can I expect forgiveness, for intruding on Your Grace, and a liberal Public, by ushering a Work into the world, which, from its conscious burden of innumerable faults, trembles like a criminal on trial, who doubts the possibility of an acquittal…

This, in turn, is followed by a lengthy preface, in which Sir Samuel excuses his presumption in putting forth his ideas about virtue and morality—sorry, I mean Virtue and Morality—in the first place, let alone in the despised and dubious form of a romance:

I have offered this book under the title of a Romance, and such I have made it, by forming a story entirely from imagination, which constitutes it a work of that nature:—My contract is subsequently fulfilled.—I have, however, endeavoured to avoid what is but too often a fault in this species of writing, all extravagant descriptions of supernatural scenes and events…

Indeed. Trust me, nothing so interesting as a ghost will happen along in this novel; although there will be “extravagant descriptions” of numerous other things.

A painstaking explanation of how a romance can be a vehicle of instruction if properly conceived and executed follows, along with many apologies for his audacity in forcing his ideas upon the reading public; wrapping up as follows:

Should it be condemned, I shall rest content that, from the judgement of so many persons of superior talents and understanding, it merits condemnation:—should it be approved,—I shall feel highly flattered and gratified; not from simply gaining public applause,—but that I shall have the satisfaction and peculiar happiness in reflecting some trifling compensation is made, as an humble return for the very liberal and unexampled countenance bestowed on this undertaking;—for a proof of which, a reference is offered to the List of Subscribers.

It was not an uncommon practice at this time for novels to be published by subscription; less so for the list of financial backers to be included in the book itself, but it did happen. Having discovered this novel’s sad back-story, my first thought was that this particular “subscription” was a covert charity to support the widowed Lady Leigh, but clearly Sir Samuel was still with us while that list of subscribers was being compiled – and if he knew he was dying, there’s no sign of it either in the novel itself, or in the way he anticipates its public reception in his preface. It’s all very mysterious.

Be that as it may, as the author of the work mentioned above points out, the subscription list runs for no less than 33 pages, and consists of some 1250 people. It is astonishing to reflect that so many people could have wanted to read Munster Abbey badly enough to pay for it.

Ah, dear. After discovering the story of Sir Samuel, I confess there’s a part of me that feels bad about ragging on his novel. Yet it is impossible to get away from the fact that Munster Abbey is complete and unadulterated tosh.

What’s more—as I worked my way through it, it seemed to me strangely familiar unadulterated tosh. Munster Abbey is the only novel of which Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh is the declared author, but to my judgement there is a striking similarity between the style of this work and that of Valentine, an equally hilarious sentimental novel published in 1790, which I reviewed some time ago. The two share the same exaggerated style, the same tendency to moralise about everything and everything, the same equating of fragile nerves and health with moral superiority, and the same inability to say anything straightforwardly. The example above, in which a pond is called a humid space, is a very minor instance of this tendency indeed. Try this description of an evening scene; one of dozens such:

The evening was serene,—the whistling breeze of Boreas was no longer heard,—and the cheering beams of Sol cast but another glow of warmth upon the earth, when the stupendous western mountain obscured it from farther observation, and detained, for a while, only those golden streaks in the Heavens, which inform mankind of the sun’s recent departure. The birds had ceased to sing, and rustling their little bodies in the trees, were hopping to the rural abodes, allotted by Nature to favour their repose.

Above all, however, Munster Abbbey and Valentine share the most endearingly contradictory set of values—loudly extolling the “simple life” and insisting that money doesn’t bring happiness, while at the same time endowing every single character with fabulous wealth and a spectacular estate. See the quote at the beginning of this post for a typical example: note the abrupt lurch from “the refinement of principle, and the excellence of moral conduct” of Altamont and Aurelia, to the description of Altamont’s two-hundred-foot frontage (even without the colonades!). It’s exactly that sort of thing that makes these novels so absurdly entertaining.

Well— That, and Sir Samuel’s very real gift for the startlingly infelicitous phrase. There are any number of them scatted throughout pages of this novel, but this one, I think, would have to be my favourite:

Our ejaculations concluded, he raised me from the ground…

[*snicker*]

Munster Abbey wastes absolutely no time in setting the tone for the entire novel (and observe the very first thing we learn about Mr Belford):

    Mr Belford was a man happily possessed of a fortune, ample as his wishes, and independent as his spirit. Munster Abbey fell to him by inheritance, and was delightfully situated on the romantic banks of the river Ex in the county of Devon. He inherited, too, the virtues of his Ancestors: in him they were all combined; and that they might be perpetuated by an honourable connection, was the unceasing wish of his true friends.
    Munster Abbey and its environs abounded in beauties: on one hand, an expansive and richly cultivated country, raised the admiration of every beholder; and the flourishing state of its commercial territories was an unfailing object of pleasure. On the other hand,—the distant hamlet,—the village spire,—the rustic minstrels,—and rural gambols, all united their advantages to embellish the scene, while its majestic head aspired to the skies, and seemed to hailed a kindred Paradise! It had borne the appellation Munster, time out of mind; and from tradition was so called, in honour of some part of Belford’s family who were its founders: Much taste was displayed in the structure, and judgement in its site. The charms by “Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on,” left scarcely an improvement to bestow,—yet all was tried to make it peerless, and tried with so much skill, that a judicious observer might have been deceived, and have given Nature credit for the offspring of Art, in points that were no inconsiderable steps towards perfection. The winding river,—the variegated foliage,—the scattered cottages,—and their unruffled tenants, were grateful objects to the mind of the Philosopher and Moralist:—the Poet too, might have there fixed his temple, a retreat the muses must have gloried in:—there might every rapturous flight have been indulged, extended, and improved.

(Apparently this particular Abbey is called “Abbey” just to be romantic; not because, you know—it used to be an Abbey.)

Anyway—as we all know, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife; and sure enough, during his yearly trip to Exeter to visit friends Belford meets a certain Miss Melville, who is of course the embodiment of every possible perfection. The two paragons fall in love with each other at once, though for a time Miss Melville strives to hide her feelings, and indeed rejects Belford’s proposal the first time of asking: because, alas! – she has no fortune. However, Belford isn’t the kind of man to let a detail like that sway him – besides, of course, being stinking rich himself – and he overcomes Miss Melville’s generous scruples.

Overcomes them to a surprising degree: she being of age, he persuades her into an immediate marriage, before she has told her mother of her situation, and without Belford asking Mrs Melville’s consent. This is the most unexpected thing about Munster Abbey and, it being the kind of novel it is, led me to expect a 600-page diatribe on the inevitably disastrous and fatal consequences of this sort of filial disregard. Imagine my astonishment when the most serious side-effect turns out to be that Mrs Melville is miffed for a time. Granted, when her daughter (who never gets a first name; nor does Belford) writes to her, Mrs Melville goes into a panic and assumes that she has made a dreadful mistake, or been taken advantage of; but as she and her other daughter, Julia, draw near Munster Abbey, they are deluged with tales of Belford’s generosity and benevolence (and money). In particular, they encounter the owner of an inn who, when asked what he knows of Belford, instead of responding simply, “He helped me when I was in financial difficulties”, insists upon telling his entire life story in excruciating and irrelevant detail – 21 pages of it, people!

Meanwhile, the newlyweds have arrived at the Abbey, to be greeted by Belford’s tenants:

    As soon as they reached the majestic gate, they discovered the poor assembled from many miles around, prepared to congratulate them in their stile of uncultivated sincerity:—there wanted not the blandishments of words to evince their raptures:—the language of the heart is simple,—and flattery, which too universally pervades the bosom of the wordling, is a stranger to the honest bosom of the unlettered peasant.—Belford was the first that alighted from the carriage.—It was in vain that he attempted to enter the gate;—for the multitude that encompassed him would not suffer him to pass, until each of them, upon their knees, had kissed the hand that had so frequently been extended to their succour. Who, in so exulting a moment, could deny that virtue and benevolence are their own reward?
    All Nature bore the face of triumph.—The very infant offspring of the grateful throng, struggled with officiousness to quit their leading strings, that they might bend to their benefactor, as if by intuition taught that each had individually experienced their bounty. Mrs Belford’s eyes were riveted on the scene with rapture and admiration: As an indifferent spectator she must have been charmed,—then, what must have been her sensations to behold the man, on whom her fate depended, so idolized! Nor were their endearments confined to him,—for, independent of her own merits, which were easily discovered, she was entitled to their love, they warmly protested, as the wife of their adored patron;—nor would they allow her progress through the hall, without entreating to impress on her hand the same tribute of respect they had shewn her husband. The request was too flattering to be denied:—She granted it with and air of affability and condescension, which at once evinced the exalted character of her spotless mind…

600 pages of it, people!—and yes, I’d really better get on with it, because if I stop to quote everything I could quote, we’ll be here for, well, 600 pages.

BUT—of course, before I do speed it up, it is necessary that we all stop to admire Possibly The Greatest Piece Of Writing In The History Of The English Novel.

Mrs Melville and Julia finally make it to the Abbey (“Bless me!” exclaimed Mrs Melville with an air of astonishment, “with what injustice did I stile this noble mansion an inconsiderable cottage!”), where they find Mr and Mrs Belford out in the grounds, sitting together on the far side of a pond humid space. And, well—

    At length arriving at the garden-gate, which, with equal precipitation, they entered, Mrs Belford, who was seated on a bench by her husband, at the foot of a sheet of water which parted them from the house, suddenly beheld her mother.
    Elated with joy at the unexpected visit, which hurried innumerable hopes and reflections over her tender mind in an instant, and forgetting all thought but that of flying swiftly to the embraces of a beloved parent, she rushed directly forward, pursuing as she fancied at the time, from the straightness of her course, the readiest road; and with her eyes fixed on Mrs Melville, whose appearance had thrown aside the usual caution of her footsteps, she plunged into the centre of the pond. Oh, Heavens!—what a moment!—Belford attempted to fly to her assistance; but he had not proceeded many steps before horror overwhelmed him, and he fell senseless to the ground: Mrs Melville and Julia, swooned in the same state of insensibility.
    The servant, unacquainted with the art of swimming, and apprehensive of his own fate, should he venture into water of such considerable depth, hurried with all imaginable swiftness to the house for assistance. What an awful moment was this!—what was to be hoped!—all aid for a time suspended, and yet not an instant to be lost!—The mind prone to vice would have despaired: but the soul endowed with morality and confidence in the mercy of Him whom we are justified in believing is all merciful, can never cherish hopeless reflections. All help was still suspended—the struggling fair, unable any longer to contend for life, yielded to her fate with that composure, which the virtuous only can experience in the moments of departing life.—She cast her eyes towards Heaven, where her mind and soul surely were directed. In this moment of serious meditation, she was perfectly sensible of her danger, but the blessings of a pure conscience constituted her a stranger to every fear; and, when she had reason to believe her dissolution was near at hand, it was with pleasure she reflected that soon she would be relieved of her dying agonies.
    At length, when on the verge of closing her eyes from the dim light of this world, to open them in a pure and perfect atmosphere, the kind and liberal hand of Providence waved its influence o’er the dismal scene, and cast away the gloom.
How was it contrived?—Next to a miracle were the means by which the amiable Mrs Belford was restored to her distracted and disconsolate friends.
    Faithful Munster, an old favourite Newfoundland dog of Belford’s, named after the place, was the welcome instrument of deliverance.
    Approaching the pond in the critical moment, and viewing his mistress helpless in the humid space, he sagaciously plunged into the pool, and, seizing the end of her sash which floated, drew her cautiously to the side of the bank, where he contrived to raise her head above the surface of the water, by quitting the sash, and with anxious care holding her hat in his teeth, until more assistance could be procured.
..

[*snicker*]

Munster Abbey is, as I say, a hard novel to review because it has no discernible plot. Mrs Belford’s filial disrespect having been punished with a quick, refreshing plunge, that part of the story is disposed of. So, too, are Mrs Melville and Julia, who are subsequently banished from the story with surprising thoroughness: clearly as an afterthought, some 300 pages and a number of years on we are informed that, oh, ah, yeah, right, Mrs Melville died and Julia got married. I for one was terribly sorry to see the back of Julia, given the way she is described during her few early appearances:

The lovely Julia was not exempt from reflecting with pleasure on the beauties of this scene:—The trembling tear of tenderness,—which in its usual form tottered down her cheek, evinced the soft emotion of her spotless mind…

A trembling tear of tenderness that tottered!? Oh, we DEFINITELY needed to see more of Julia!

But alas, it is not to be. She and her mother depart our pages, and the Belfords settle down to a life of uninterrupted happiness, despite this being a vale of tears where all pleasures are short-lived and misery is certain. Except when it isn’t. The only cloud on their horizon is the shocking revelation that Belford has an estranged brother. This being the kind of book it is, Belford can’t just tell his wife, “I’ve got a black-sheep younger brother”; he has to spell out in minute detail every single associated action, thought and emotion.

Likewise, Mrs Belford can’t just be told that she has a black-sheep brother-in-law: she has to be prepared over a period of days for the overpowering revelation that there’s a Belford in the world who is less than completely perfect:

    In order to prepare her mind to receive a shock, which the feeling and benevolent heart only can experience, he frequently, in a delicate and distant manner, threw out hints, insinuating his wishes to unfold a moving narrative.—He continued this judicious plan for a number of days, to habituate her to expect a doleful account, that the unwelcomed intelligence might be received with more composure than a precipitate and abrupt recital would naturally occasion.
    At length she expressed so much uneasiness at being so long kept in suspence, and entreated he would not further hesitate, but at once describe the particulars of all that pressed so heavily on his mind.—“Perhaps,” said she with a bewitching softness of expression, enticing him to begin the narrative, “your trouble may, in some degree, abate, when I am constituted a partaker of the pain: and should my becoming a sharer of your affliction, assist in the smallest degree to dissipate your dejection, I will cheerfully submit to any suffering, that may be the cause of producing effects so salutary and congenial to my desires; and the fortitude with which I will conduct myself through the trial, shall prove an additional effort to dispel the gloom which hangs on your oppressed bosom.”

After several pages of this guff, Belford finally tells steels himself to tell The Awful Truth.

It’s awful, all right:

    “Born!” exclaimed Mrs Belford, in great agitation, “where was he born, my love, not at Munster!”
    “No, my life, he was not born at Munster,” returned Belford. “Ah, no, I am sure he was not,” rejoined the incomparable Mrs Belford exultingly: “for Munster ne’er gave birth to any one to pine in wretchedness: the offspring of this peaceful place were reared for better fate.”
    “Your observation,” said Belford, as he heaved a sigh, “forcibly strikes me with a superstitious kind of idea, that my unhappy brother, Charles, was doomed to misery from his birth: for my mother being on a journey at the time she discovered symptoms threatening his appearance into the world, used every exertion to expedite her arrival at Munster,—from a conviction that home was the place best adapted to afford necessary comforts for the invalid,—but her indisposition increased with such rapidity, when she approached within twenty miles of this our happy seat of retirement, that it was deemed dangerous for her to proceed further; and, after the delay of another day, she was delivered of this unfortunate votary of prodigality. Thus was he excluded from the pleasing reflection of looking on Munster as his native place…”
    When he recovered from his pensiveness, he exclaimed, in a voice truly pathetic and affecting,— “Ah! cruel remembrance.—how oft I’ve heard my tender mother say, that at the time unhappy Charles was born, the sullen gloom of lowering clouds darkened the country for many miles around; and, very strange to tell, that in the moment when the boy first wafted his first breath u[on the atmosphere, from the high vaulted heavens issued, in awful peals claps of tremendous thunder, such as the oldest shepherd in the county, who with his flock had often been exposed to tempests, ne’er before had heard;—and the lightnings which ensued, flashed so vehemently from the skies, that many hapless beings were deprived of sight:—the rain in torrents poured upon the earth, and, joined by powerful northern blasts of Boreas, laid waste innumerable fields and mounds, whence the industrious farmers had hoped to reap a liberal harvest, as a reward and tribute for their labours. Thus seemed the elements combined, as if in anger roused to execrate the birth of one, whose foreseen vices and pursuits would kindle the just resentment of the Deity. The scene, I’ve frequently been told,—was marked with every cast and sign of horror.—It is reported, e’en to the present day, that not a bosomed heart was known throughout the land that still could exercise its throb, but worked a double tide of pulse,—and every hand shook like trembling aspin leaf:—not even those escaped, whose owners long had boasted of strong nerves.”

And I bet hearing THAT story every five minutes while he was growing up was an enormous help in moulding Charles into an emotionally well-adjusted individual.

Now—after a spectacular introduction like that, you’re probably expecting to find in Charles some supreme villain, raping and pillaging and plundering as he twirls his moustache and laughs maniacally. Perhaps you’re even hoping that his spectacular career features prominently in this novel? Alas, it pains me to have to report that Charles is never anything more than a petty crim; and while we do eventually meet him, it isn’t until his inevitable repentance and reconciliation with his brother, after which he becomes every bit as boringly perfect as any other Belford.

(Meaning that you aren’t cursed for life if you’re not born at Munster Abbey? Good to know.)

As for Charles’ actual crimes, they’re nothing more than the usual reckless round of drinking, gambling and debts; except that he caps it by robbing his sibling on two different occasions. The high point of his career is when he steals a small portrait of his own mother for the jewels set into the frame; allowing his brother to go into a spiel about how foolish it was to create such a temptation when the real jewel was the portrait itself, blah-blah.

The loss of the portrait, however, is a bitter blow to Belford, because his mother, as is only fitting considering her incredible selfishness in going into labour away from home, has been driven by her guilt and remorse into an early grave.

And here I have to stop and give Munster Abbey all the credit that is its due. I’ve read a lot of ridiculous sentimental novels in my time, and a lot of ridiculous things have happened in them; but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever before come across an instance of a character dying of SIGHING TOO MUCH:

“Ah, my love, my poor mother often heaved a sigh, when she reflected on that awful day:— ‘twas an event which doubtless expedited her dissolution; for though she lasted many years after, and made her family happy in her endearing society, yet she at best but lingered:—Her frequent sighs failed not to impair her constitution, which led her into a gradual decline of health, when at length, exhausted nature, too feeble any longer to keep in play the organs, which when motionless, deprive the body of life, sunk into a sleep, when, fearless embracing death, with a serene smile on her countenance, descriptive of her composure, she yielded every earthly claim, to seek in purer climes an happier fare…”

You will, I’m sure, be disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, to hear that Munster Abbey does not manage to maintain over its full length the standard of sublime idiocy established in these first 100 pages. I’m not saying the rest of it isn’t funny; just that it never again reaches quite the same heights of staggering absurdity.

Then again— After suggesting that the arrival in the world of a painfully ordinary sinner is enough to provoke a cataclysmic storm (a system that seems rather hard on the farmers and sighted people, I must say), and killing off a character with a fatal dose of hyperventilation, where could there be for this novel to go but downhill?

[To be continued…]

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10 Responses to “Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 1)”

  1. “a humid space”, indeed. I like how he refers to the scene being embellished by “fine pieces of water”, which I take to mean it’s snowing.

    I haven’t even read past the first few paragraphs of this post yet…

  2. “where could there be for this novel to go but downhill?”

    Yeah, it often works that way for bad movies too. Most of the good absurdity is in the first half, then once it’s all established, things just plod from there to a predictable conclusion. We need more bad filmmakers who are willing to introduce unexpected wackiness late in the film, like Ray Steckler’s free gorilla.

  3. to be fair, for the true simple life, you need a whole heck of a lot of money.
    His tenants were not allowed to wear ruffles?
    Literacy leads to flattery.

  4. Hey, I’m an old-timer! You young whippersnappers, I remember when…

    “accurracy”? Kwalitee!

    The spotless emotion of her soft mind…

    “Ah, Mr Belford. Yes, your wife and son are healthy. But I have to tell you that he’s, well, an Evil Overlord. Your best recourse is to expose him on a hillside, to be brought up by wolves and later overthrow you in a bloody rampage across the land.”

    If you had a tagline on this blog, I’d suggest “Her frequent sighs failed not to impair her constitution” for it.

    • Actually, I’m leaning towards, “Exhausted nature was too feeble any longer to keep in play the organs, which when motionless, deprive the body of life.”

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