Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 2)

leigh2“To condemn him for his offences, would be at once declaring hostilities against those principles which my instructors ardently strove to imprint upon my heart. As they took pains to sow the seeds of charity within my bosom, it is undubitably my duty to be as ardent in my endeavours to cherish and bring them to perfection,—not from selfish desires alone to derive ensuing benefits, but that I may at a future period, should I be blessed with a family of my own, graft sprigs of the tree I have carefully nurtured upon the hearts of my offspring, who shall ever gratefully acknowledge the bounteous prize obtained through the piety of their ancestors, and who may as liberally tender branches of the invaluable plant to others, who, with equal caution and perseverance, may be the instruments of establishing groves of rectitude, from one pure seed of mercy and benevolence.”

Oh, undubitably.

Ah, dear. I had delusions of getting through Munster Abbey in two parts, but the more I flick through it and re-read the quotes I’ve marked, the more I feel that it would be an act of monstrous selfishness to deprive you of any of them, when to share with you more of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s deathless prose may plant in your hearts the seeds of desire for more terrible sentimental novels, and graft upon your consciousnesses that no matter how bad the last book you read was, it could hardly compete with this tangled weed-patch of a novel, in which tortuous metaphors encompass and asphyxiate all pretensions to quality writing like the treacherous strangler fig barbarously destroying the very host that has nurtured and sustained it, and the treacly exudate of maudlin and bathetic pseudo-emotion eats away at the tremulous buds of literary style like a boll-weevil with pretensions to a major award in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Damn. It’s catching.

Anyway— What I meant to say is, it’s all too good not to share, so I’m just going to let it be as long as it needs to be.

When we left the Belfords, she was having her soul harrowed up by the tale of her brother-in-law, Charles, not seen since he – for a second time – robbed his brother and ran away. This cloud passes over, however, and the Belfords spend their lives in benevolence (him) and domestic pursuits (her). In time, a daughter, Aurelia, is born to them; she will prove to be their only child. The Belfords devote all their energies to raising her as a true daughter of Munster Abbey. Do they succeed?

    Her mind was artless in the extreme:—She acknowledged the many blessings bestowed upon her by Providence, by a just sense of gratitude, connected with her continued exertions in the fair and unpolluted path of virtue. She never discovered anxiety or depression, but when the sufferings of others claimed her commiseration. The expression of her countenance described her internal emotions. When she smiled, there was some true cause for her apparent approbation; and, when an air of gravity gave a check to her vivacity, there were substantial reasons for her discomposure.
    In short, at a very early period of life, she promised fairly for approaching as near to perfection as human nature could aspire.

As a young lady, Aurelia is in the habit of walking by the river in the evenings. On one occasion, a galloping horse dramatically disturbs her solitude; it is evident that the rider is in trouble, and Aurelia shortly hears sounds indicating that he has been violently thrown. She follows his groans and discovers him unconscious and bloody. It is the first crisis of Aurelia’s serenely privileged life:

“Oh Heaven!” exclaimed Aurelia, as she fell on her knees, “I cannot support this scene of wretchedness,—despair will predominate over my exertions. Ha!” she exclaimed again, more wretched than before, “what have I rashly said? have I perfidiously flown into the face of Heaven, and for a moment encouraged a vice which has cost my parents years of labour to urge me to execrate!—Oh! what ingratitude have I discovered!—forbid it, that same heaven which I have so grossly offended, that I should ever again fall into an error so detrimental to the human mind,—and let my fortitude, in the present scene of misery, compensate for the guilt I have brought upon my head.”

Meanwhile, the injured man is STILL BLEEDING.

Aurelia finally brings the stranger around, but as he is too weak to walk immediately, she stays with him while he recovers. He wishes to offer her a reward for her assistance, but he knows not to whom he speaks:

    But the lovely Aurelia, who was purity itself,—exclaimed, with tears streaming from her eyes, expressive of her gratitude to heaven.— “Alas! good sir! I have been some time rewarded for the trifling attention I have shewn you on this occasion, rewarded beyond my most sanguine expectations.”
    “How?” replied the stranger, with an air of surprise, “how are you rewarded for all you have done for me; you have yet received no money.”
    “Money,” returned Aurelia, with a significant smile, and shaking her head, “Ha! that is but a paltry recompense to a compassionate mind, even when the possession of it is much needed; it is the secret gratification the heart experiences in performing an act of benevolence, that proves the grand reward, and the return of pleasure, for having alleviated another’s pain, never fails to more than compensate for any trouble that may be incurred in a case of distress.”
    “Indeed!” rejoined the astonished stranger, “I am a Frenchman, and have never yet made this discovery!”

Boom-tish.

Aurelia being five minutes late back from her walk for the first time ever has thrown the inhabitants of Munster Abbey into a total panic. Indeed, it is not too much to say that they are encouraging a vice that they spent the last eighteen years urging Aurelia to execrate. Belford goes out to search for her – leav[ing] his beloved wife in a state little short of insanity – but though he follows her favourite path and calls for her, there is no reply…

“Ah me!” he cried pathetically, as he cast his eyes towards the Heavens, “Alas! pale moon! I fear Aurelia’s loss will for the future place me under thy influence and direction, for lunacy must doubtless prove my wretched fate,—the loss of her is more than I can bear.”

Then he hears Aurelia nearby, speaking to someone she addresses as “sir”, urging that person to lean on her arm and consider her his servant, and without missing a beat, we get THIS:

    “Ha! what do I hear!” said Belford faultering,— “my senses surely are impaired! for I heard the voice of Aurelia breathe forth expressions in the strain of love!—and the sounds must certainly have been the effect of wild imagination!—yet they were very plain, and I feel that I yet know myself,—let me attend again.”
    “Indeed, Sir, ’twill be better for you,” she rejoined, “permit me to conduct you for the present to a more retired spot, where not even the chilling breeze of night can offend or discompose you.”
    “Oh! merciful Heaven,” sighed Belford in a languid tone, “it is indeed her voice. Her expressions have confounded me, and I am more wretched than ever. The anguish which her dissolution would have created within my bosom, would have proved sensations of delight in comparison to what I now experience. Alas! I never thought she could have thus deceived me;—but her tongue gives proof of her perfidiousness, and what clearer testimony need I look for.—Oh! it must be so,—Ah! my once loved daughter, who from the cradle I reared with the fondest affection, and in whom my every hope was centred; what have you brought upon yourself by this duplicity? and what misery have you in secret nurtured for your once joyous but now distracted parents. Farewell to happiness,—farewell to the long boasted respectability of Munster, whose sweet sequestered bounds, time immemorial, bore the enviable appellation of the seat of quiet.—Adieu to peace,—the Abbey is polluted from having fostered an unworthy being, and Munster can no longer boast of virtue. I now to my sorrow see the cause of your attachment to this your favourite walk. Artless as I thought you were, to find you involved in all the guilt of cunning, is too much,—too piercing to my afflicted heart.—I can no longer refrain from openly avowing my indignation,—patience is exhausted, and fortitude has forsaken me,—I am no longer armed against the frowns of fate.”—As he concluded this sentence, he exclaimed in a loud voice, indicating rage, “Aurelia, thy father approaches, prepare to meet him”—

Feh! – men.

Belford at least has the grace to be thoroughly ashamed of himself when the situation is explained – I should think so! – and Aurelia is too practically perfect in every way to resent his outrageous accusations. If I was her, I’d’ve told him to shove it and run off to live with my Uncle Charles. After robbing the house, of course.

(Mind you— “Expressions in the strain of love”? Really? All this gives me a very odd idea of the kind of love-making that goes on the Belford household. “So, big boy, wanna lean on my arm while we find a spot out of the wind?” “Oh-hh-hh, baby!”)

A weird interlude follows, in which the stranger, who turns out to be the Marquis de la Ville Neuve, is at first enchanted and moved by the Belfords and their philosophy of benevolence, but then (just like a foreigner!) it all wears off, he seems to forget he owes them anything, and finally takes himself off in a state of great indifference. This passage illustrates another of this novel’s strange, internal contradictions, along with, This world is a vale of tears, but the Belfords are blissfully happy and Money can’t bring happiness, but the wealthy Belfords are blissfully happy and much more comfortable than poor people and You should follow the example of superior people, but you’ll never be remotely as superior as Belford and there’s no point in you even trying and You should have total faith in the dispensations of Providence, but go into a complete emotional collapse at the first sign of trouble – namely, The gratitude and love of those who are the beneficiaries of your benevolence is its own reward, but people are nasty, selfish things so don’t expect them to thank you for it.

And having just shown that you won’t get thanked, it proceeds to prove you will get thanked by a lengthy passage showing Belford in benevolent landlord mode, touring his vast property (which doesn’t bring him happiness, except when it does), and relieving the wants of his tenants (who don’t thank him, except when they do). In preparation for this venture, Belford resolves:

…to leave at each house or cottage, a small treatise, of a few pages, composed with perfect simplicity, by himself, which should contain plain rules for sober and virtuous living,—for a sacred regard to rational piety,—for hating all strife and division about any subject relating to religion and government,—for peaceable and quiet dispositions,—and for faithful attachment to their King, Country, and Constitution.

Munster Abbey expiates at great length upon the superiority and perfection of the British constitution, and how much better off everyone would be if they would just accept that and stop pointing out things that might look like horrible flaws and profound injustices, but which aren’t, honestly! Meanwhile, that reference to “rational piety” prepares us for further expiation upon correct religious practice.

However—here I must stop and give this novel a surprised pat on the back. Though inevitably it expresses an anti-Catholic sentiment, it does so without virulence, taking an almost kindly “Oh, well, poor things, they can’t help it” attitude. What’s more, when Belford and Aurelia are later travelling on the Continent, they actually attend Catholic services in preference to not going to church at all:

Belford and his accomplished daughter carried their observations much farther than  our ordinary itinerants; and they displayed a spirit superior to those vulgar prejudices, which in every country flow from the sources of a weak understanding, or a narrow and bigoted education. They assembled every Sunday, and sometimes on other days, with their fellow-christians, to pay homage to their Creator: They perceived external forms and ceremonies to which they had not been accustomed in their own country, and they perceived these rites in a spirit of rational toleration. Perhaps they secretly lamented that so much superstition should be mingled with devotion: Yet both Belford and Aurelia have often declared, with visible emotions of joy, descriptive of the charity of their heart, that they have often, at Rome, and in other parts both of Italy and France, beheld, with the highest satisfaction, such symptoms of genuine manly devotion, as might put to shame many of high profession among those who call themselves the Reformed Church. They frequently saw priests of various ranks, from the highest of the Hierarchy to a humble curate, perform the sacred offices of religion with every degree of becoming gravity and apparent sincerity, and heard them pronounce discourses, as sound in doctrine, and as pure in morality, as ever were delivered by any priest or presbyter of Britain.

I can’t say I’ve ever come across such a radical thing before. It’s absurdly out of place in a novel that otherwise expends much energy sneering at things not English.

The trip to the Continent comes about when Mrs Belford’s health starts failing, and she is ordered to a gentler climate. Although consumed by concern for his wife, such that the entire expedition is accomplished by means of short journeys interspersed by long rests (so that it takes them quite some time to get out of England, which was actually the point of the venture), Belford never misses and opportunity for “improvement”:

Belford was not only a man of consummate moral excellence, but an accomplished gentleman, which no man can ever be, without having received a polished education, and been also careful, after the period appointed for education is over, studiously improve his mind. He was perfectly acquainted with the history of his country, both civil and ecclesiastic,—and he was equally able and disposed to mention with reverence, to the ladies, many of the names of those illustrious men who adorned the chapter of Canterbury. If there were, among those names, any who, by weakness or folly, had dishonoured their rank, or who, in rude ages, had been transported into acts of violence, by the influence of bigotry and superstition, the benignity of his soul either concealed their names, or he threw a charitable veil over their imperfections. Belford’s elegant, refined mind, however strong his internal disapprobation of characters living or departed, never permitted him to descend to the plebeian practice of abusive expression, coarse epithet, or malignant expression. Many departed heroes, in the cause of religion, he mentioned with rapture to his daughter, though his narrative, from the shortness of time, was necessarily very laconic.

Unlike some narratives I could mention.

(Yes, yes – and some blog posts…)

(He started it…)

While Belford and Aurelia are having a cheerful stroll through the cemetery, they come across a young man mourning by his sister’s grave. As people in the 18th century always did, it seems, they treat his manifestations of grief as a variety of performance art and move in close to hear what he is saying:

At this moment he perceived Belford and Aurelia slowly advancing:—He appeared in some degree of confusion:—The tone to which his soul had been wrought up by grief and solemn reflection, did not admit of a rapid transition to observe ordinary objects: But no ordinary object presented itself: The moment his eyes beheld Aurelia, he seemed enchanted,—his looks betrayed the emotions of his soul,—it had a mixture of the wild with the affectionate:—no wonder!—for all who ever beheld his lovely sister, and the daughter of Belford, agreed in observing the most striking similarity in form, in features, and in expression, between Louisa and Aurelia.

Ew.

We are not introduced for some time, but this is the first appearance of the Earl of Altamont, Aurelia’s soul-mate and future husband, who will presently sweep her off her feet with his boring perfections. (And because he reminds her of her father – ew.)

This brief encounter occurs early in the second volume of Munster Abbey, most of which is devoted to the travels of the Belfords across France and Italy, with much rumination upon history, art, forms of governance, comparative religion and the general inferiority of everything found in Europe to what might be found in Britain. Except for the fortifications. Belford, or at least Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, has an unhealthy fixation upon fortifications, and everywhere the Belfords go we have to stop to hear a description of the particular fortifications in question, and get a short résumé of their history. Otherwise— Credit is given where it’s due, of course, but that is rarely necessary:

    We are here, however, speaking only of those pleasures, or the sources of those pleasures, which are of a secondary nature, where only taste, elegance, fine-breeding, or splendour, present themselves. Of the fountains from whence more refined delights flow in upon the mind, few, alas! is the number to be discovered by the most inquisitive, or charitably minded traveller. The morality of France and Italy have been for centuries past regulated by a very low standard: Though, as has been mentioned above, many individuals in both kingdoms have shone conspicuous for every quality which adorns humanity; yet, from the nature of the religion and government of both countries, morals, in the higher and lower orders, have been relaxed to a most lamentable degree.
    The reader will forgive this apparent digression. The author humbly presumes it may be attended with some benefit to unexperienced and modest young men, who travel into foreign parts in quest of knowledge, and to make observations.

And who are keen to know where the most lamentably relaxed morals are to be found?

The narrative has at least admitted that there are “individuals” in each country who are up to Belford’s lofty personal standards, and in each city visited for any length of time he seeks out people distinguished by their high character, impeccable morals, deep piety, extensive learning and cultured mind. It’s pure coincidence that every single one of them also has a title, and an enormous fortune.

Meanwhile, Mrs Belford’s health has continued to deteriorate, and to the profound grief of her husband and daughter, she dies. They are, however, supported by their faith. And they need to be:

Heaven graciously conferred on Belford and Aurelia that composure of mind, and tranquillity of spirits, which enabled them to regulate, with propriety, every circumstance respecting the last honours to be paid to the memory of her who was no more. The generous and enlarged mind of the British Protestant, pitied the miserable and contracted spirit of ecclesiastical domination, which forbade christian burial to any Huguenot; or, at least, forbade that any Protestant should be buried in the same cemetery with a Roman Catholic.—This was a matter of no moment to Belford:—His principles were too exalted, and his understanding too enlarged, to regard in what spot of this globe the ashes of his beloved were deposited.

Belford and Aurelia continue their travels through Italy. In Milan, Belford must rescue from the consequences of his folly a young Englishman called Spencer, who “commits an outrage against religion and decency”. (It’s not that outrageous.) Asked to account for himself, as with the innkeeper in Volume 1, Spencer proves incapable of anything as briefly honest as, “I got drunk and did something stupid”, and instead responds with a 24-page-long recapitulation of his upbringing and education. This incident also brings to Belford’s attention a much more proper young man called Walpole, who becomes a part of his extended family of kindred spirits, and the elderly Father Contini, who despite being a Catholic priest proves “generous-minded”, with “liberality of sentiment”, probably because “he was not bred for the church”. The friends enjoy many pleasant hours. “of which a rude and illiterate mind can form no conception, and for which he has no more relish than a Hottentot”; but alas, it cannot go on forever:

The father of the convent and his beloved children must now part,—never more to meet in these realms of woe:—It was an interesting parting:—The venerable sage could not conceal his inward agitation:—He dropt the tear of philanthropy…

And so Belford and Aurelia press on again, passing through Mantua – The fortifications of Mantua are reckoned equal in strength, if not superior, to any in Europe – Parma, Modena and Lucca – I did tell you this doesn’t have a plot, didn’t I? – with a longer stop in Florence before they head to Rome. It is here that Belford gets wind of his brother, Charles, who turns out to have reformed all on his own (I was surprised at that) and gone into business in Leghorn. Belford is so overcome by this news:

…he could not resist the powerful propensity of his soul, but instantly…in a tone of voice more loud than delicacy and good-breeding would have warranted on any other occasion, he cries, “O my child, my Aurelia, rejoice with thy transported father!—My brother Charles lives!—he is in good health!—he is as happy as he can be on earth, removed far from Munster Abbey…”

Belford opens a correspondence with his brother and they agree to meet. Another meeting also awaits them: they encounter the love-sick Lord Altamont, who is travelling in order to try and restore his spirits, which have been overcome with “gloom and melancholy” since he glimpsed, but then lost sight of, Aurelia:

But, alas! travelling and variety cannot always banish that nameless something which agitates the soul that is pierced by the fatal dart. Altamont’s love was love at first sight,—an idea ridiculed by the soul of insensibility in all ages:—But an insensible soul is seldom blessed with a sound judgement:—Thousands, and tens of thousands, of the most wise, the most prudent, and the most worthy of men, have confessed the force and truth of this adage.

Oh, yeah? Name them.

It turns out that Altamont has been following Belford and Aurelia around, just missing them at practically every stage (if only he’d had the clue of the fortification fetish!) before tracking them to Rome:

To attempt to describe, or convey any adequate idea of the joy and happiness of Lord Altamont, and also of Aurelia (for Aurelia, too, acknowledged the truth and force of the adage just mentioned) would require a pencil which has not been hitherto formed by any mortal artist! The joys and raptures of the human soul never have been, nor never can be, described.—Here, as in numberless other instances, the Divine Fiat is pronounced, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther.”

“Also, I’m a lousy writer.”

Altamont becomes a frequent visitor to the Belfords’ lodgings, and is introduced into the usual cultured, elegant, high-minded, virtuous, distinguished crowd that naturally gravitates towards the father and daughter. The fact that they all have titles has nothing whatsoever to do with it, of course, but since they do, they are all aware of their duty to set a good example for their inferiors with respect to all the really vital aspects of life:

As every lady and gentleman present observed the laws of temperance and moderation in all their pleasures and scenes of festivity,—so, of course, very late hours were their utter aversion. By 11 o’clock they broke up, superiorly happy on reflecting on the rational joys of the day. As they were just about to depart, and the Countess of Castel Bianco observing it was not yet late, the Prince de Pignatelli gently addressed her, by remarking that 11 o’clock was a late hour at Rome;—and that no person in that city was more exemplary than the Countess, in order and regularity of every kind:—that he well knew, from his own present feelings, that it was an effort to leave such pleasant society; but as the example of persons of their order was of moral importance to society, he hoped and entreated that the liberty he had taken would be forgiven. The Countess bowed assent;—and, in a very polite return, thanked him for his observations and his candour.

A letter arrives from Charles, proposing that Belford and Aurelia head for Leghorn while he wraps up his business there before accompanying them back to England. They make their plans accordingly, and more heart-wrenching leave-takings occur; although to my profound regret, this time around no-one drops the tear of philanthropy:

Belford began now to prepare for his journey to Leghorn:—He and Aurelia employed some days in taking leave of the families who had paid them so many polite attentions, and even shewed them instances of the most genuine hospitality:—And in this business was not actuated by the vulgar and dishonourable idea of too many unfeeling strangers or travellers in every country, namely, even after receiving the highest favours, is a matter of mere good-breeding or ceremony, where the heart has no concern. No:—The sentiments of this amiable man were far more exalted. There was not a plebeian idea durst enter his honourable mind. He was fair, candid, and honest, in all his professions, and in all his actions.

Particularly when saying goodbye.

[To be continued…]

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4 Comments to “Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 2)”

  1. So he never descends into abusive expressions, unless he thinks his daughter is “leaning on someone’s arm”? So that’s what they called it then.

    • No, no, much worse! – he was leaning on hers! The hussy!!

      I think we can safely assume that Mr Belford is somehow related to Lady Catherine de Bourgh: “Heaven and earth! – of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Munster Abbey to be thus polluted?”

  2. Best opening paragraphs ever! You have truly dropped tears of philanthropy into our readerly cups.

  3. Indeed, whenever I’m chatting with my wife and conversation flags a bit, I’m inclined to talk about past Archbishops of Canterbury. Only the good ones, of course.

    It could be worse: Aurelia could remind Altamont of his father.

    Perhaps the guidebook to the fortifications of Europe was the most convenient, or cheapest, way of doing research into Foreign Parts?

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