“I am no stranger to the situation of your heart, nor do I want the proofs that letter contains to convince me your passion was returned, even with interest; still, after what you have heard, and the restrictions you are laid under, would you venture your future happiness upon so hazardous a stake? Love is a wild, ungovernable, romantic passion, and often leads the greatest men to commit follies; I would therefore have you strictly examine your heart before you decide upon so important a matter; this may be a most advantageous offer, and may prove the exact reverse; your liberty, peace of mind, nay, eternal salvation, may become the sacrifice, were you to accept these fascinating offers; it is a sort of equal chance, and upon my honour, remember it is the strong friendship I feel for you makes me speak thus plain, I would not advise you to run so great a risk…”
There’s something oddly fitting, I suppose, about using a novel about a wife who refuses to reveal her true identity to try and determine the true identity of the person who wrote it. Published in 1797, The Mysterious Wife was the first Minerva Press release to bear the imprint “Gabrielli”—who, as discussed previously, may or may not have been the same person as “Mrs Meeke”. Certainly I had these questions in my mind while reading this novel, and I remain unconvinced that a second hand wasn’t involved.
For one thing, The Mysterious Wife is a very long novel in which not much happens, which is not something you can say about the three earlier novels by “Mrs Meeke”. The first half of the first volume is devoted to drawing the novel’s young hero into his strange marriage, the conclusion of the fourth volume resolves things with a rush; everything in between is essentially filler. The only question is whether the narrative will ultimately vindicate the romantic relationship at its heart, or whether its moral will turn out to be, “That’s what you get for marrying a foreigner, or at any rate a Catholic.”
Perhaps more revealingly, however, the style of writing here is quite different. Grammatical errors are not uncommon, while the author favours a rather tortuous form of prose involving lengthy run-on sentences strung together with a seemingly endless supply of semi-colons. The shift in topic between the beginning and the end of any given paragraph is often quite remarkable.
The Mysterious Wife opens in France, Some years before the fatal epoch of the French Revolution – in-text allusions later place the action about 1775 – and is the story of a young man whom we first know as Henry Westhorpe, the unwanted poor relation of an English family which has moved for economic reasons to the town of St Omers; quite the English conclave for people in the same sad situation. As a child, Henry is firmly discouraged from asking questions about his parents. He is led to understand that his mother made a disgraceful marriage, and that his uncle, her brother, has permitted him out of generosity to use the name “Westhorpe”. This is as far as Mr Westhorpe’s generosity extends, however. As an infant, Henry is put out to nurse; at the age of six he is sent away to an inexpensive school, and stays there for the next ten years. He is in some respects fortunate in this: though the school is not one of high reputation, its master, Mr Parker, is a good and well-educated man, who recognises Henry’s academic abilities and nurtures them; while Mrs Parker is a kind-hearted, motherly woman. It is to the deep regret of all three when, at the age of sixteen, Mr Westhorpe sends for Henry and places him in a college near St Omers to finish his education.
Henry’s education completed, Mr Westhorpe disposes of him by arranging for an army commission. The main consequence of Henry’s career move, rather to the chagrin of his relatives, though Mr Westhorpe is glad to have him off his purse, is that he acquires two powerful friends: the “Chevalier Macharty”, a Scotsman in the French army, arranges Henry’s commission in a Swiss Protestant regiment via his friendship with the Marquis D’Orcy, a colonel in a French regiment, who despite the difference in their ages takes such a shine to Henry that he adopts him as a sort of unofficial younger brother.
One of the most tiresome aspects of The Mysterious Wife is its constant harping upon Henry’s perfections—few of which we see in practice—and its insistence upon his limitless popularity with “the best people”; this short early passage sets the tone for the rest:
Henry’s elegant, manly figure, and rare accomplishments, soon made him a welcome visitor every where. The Chevalier was never invited to any party, without being entreated to bring his protégée in his hand, to the no small delight of the good old man, who soon became strongly attached to his young friend…
Prior to Henry setting out to join his regiment, the grovelling Mr Westhorpe tries to recommend himself to the Marquis by boasting of all he has done for Henry. In doing so, he not only says more about Henry’s parents than he has done before, but hints that Henry’s background is not what the boy was previously led to believe. Henry now discovers that his father was of good family, a soldier killed at the siege of Quebec. An unguarded remark discouraging him from “making any claim” upon his relatives suggests the existence of wealth, at least, making his difficult childhood even more difficult to understand. Mr Westhorpe refuses to be more explicit, however.
Though regretting his separation from the Marquis, Henry soon adjusts to his new surroundings:
…Henry, now equipped en militaire, was the next morning presented to all the officers of the regiment; one only excepted, who was a North-Briton, they were all Swiss, and received their new comrade with the greatest politeness, particularly Captain Beattie, his countryman; and Henry was excessively pleased to find himself not the only Englishman in the corps, and in less than a month he was quite at home among his new companions, and soon found he was infinitely better off than he would have been in a national regiment, as the inferior French officers are generally low-bred, illiterate coxcombs; the younger sons of the provincial nobility, who depend chiefly upon their pay for a livelihood…
Good GOD!! What kind of miserable excuse for a human being depends upon his pay for a livelihood!!?? Amusingly enough, at this stage of the novel the answer to that question would be “Henry Westhorpe”, although we are in little doubt that his kind creator will soon enough relieve him from his state of shameful income-earning.
Evidently being in the army imposes very little restraint upon a young man, nor does it require from him anything more arduous than wearing becoming regimentals, doing the occasional “exercise”, or acquiring many “brother officers” as friends. (Presumably there are soldiers who are not officers, but they never intrude upon the narrative.) Thus, Henry is soon able to arrange an extended leave, and goes off to Spa with the Marquis for a holiday. While there, Henry is powerfully attracted to a young fellow-visitor:
The one in the middle…now afforded him a full view of as fine a set of features as ever graced a female face; she was leaning upon an arm of each of her companions, and appeared to be in very high spirits; she was elegantly dressed, for a morning, in a sort of slight mourning, did not seem more than one or two and twenty, was rather tall, but possessed sufficient embonpoint to prevent her looking awkward. Her blooming complexion convinced the Marquis and Henry she had not come to Spa in search of Hygeia’s blessings; a pair of bright blue eyes expressed very strongly the natural vivacity of her disposition, though they beamed with mildness and sensibility…
It soon becomes apparent that there is a mystery attached to this beautiful young woman: no-one seems to know who she is, and it takes Henry and the Marquis some time to discover that she lives retired from the public eye in a rented house outside of the town. She does, however, walk at the spa most mornings, and the two men take every opportunity to improve their acquaintance with her—such as it is, considering their ignorance, which she does nothing to relieve. It is soon evident to the experienced Marquis that the two young people are falling in love, and he worries about what the mystery of the woman’s identity might imply. The two most likely explanations that occur to him is that either the young wife of an elderly and jealous husband, who forces her to live out of the world in an effort to keep her from the gaze of more attractive men, or that she is a kept mistress. Neither of these explanations appeal to Henry, who cannot believe her guilty of sin and deceit. He counters with a suggestion that she is in mourning for a dead husband, and living retired until the expiry of the usual period.
However, the mystery with which the young woman surrounds herself convinces Henry that there is something untoward, something that puts her beyond the pale, and he tries to get the better of his feelings for her. During one of his deliberate absences from the morning walk, the Marquis encounters the young woman, and the two have a frank conversation. The Marquis emphasises Henry’s apparent low birth and penniless condition in an effort to discourage her, but if anything she seems pleased—particularly since, at the same time, the Marquis cannot help but expatiate upon his young friend’s personal excellence.
In the wake of this conversation, Henry receives a letter:
“…you have, no doubt, often, during our acquaintance, thought me a strange mortal, therefore you will not so much wonder at my endeavouring to act up to the character I have adopted; I chuse to be a riddle, and am not inclined in the present instance to regulate my behaviour by form or rule, so must entreat you would candidly answer the following question:—Dare you venture, knowing as little of me as you do at present, and without making any further inquiries, (which I must acknowledge would prove absolutely fruitless) to unite your fate to mine. If you are so inclined, I offer you my hand; my heart you have possessed for some time, and I do not wish to separate them. Still don’t presume too much upon my weakness; my passion shall be always subservient to my will, and my situation is such, that should you comply with my wishes, our marriage must remain a profound secret for a time, the reason shall be hereafter explained fully to your satisfaction; upon this point I pledge my honour, but at present neither your prayers nor entreaties, even were you to bind yourself by an oath to secrecy, (though I would as soon trust to your honour) should induce me to declare why this mystery is required? who I really am? nor what are the motives of my strange behaviour?”
The conditions attached to this proposal are startling. On one hand, the young woman – “Josephine”; we learn no more – assures Henry that there is no disgraceful secret connected with the mystery of her identity, and that she is both high-born and wealthy. However, there are cogent reasons why she cannot be more explicit at the moment and, if he accepts her proposal, he must accept also that he will not yet learn her real name and that the two of them must subsequently live apart until her situation alters.
Henry is tempted by this offer – too tempted. He consults the Marquis, who warns him against succumbing. Yet it is also the Marquis who subsequently removes the barrier of Henry’s suspicions, reporting to him that although he still does not know who the young woman is, he has accidentally discovered that she is acquainted with a certain Archduchess known for her high principles and the selectivity of her friendship, and must therefore be as spotless as she has asserted herself to be.
At this discovery, Henry’s resistance crumbles. He agrees to all of Josephine’s conditions, even though she warns him that the period of their separation may be months, if not years, and that it must begin only a fortnight after their marriage.
The modern reader may be amused by the financial arrangements associated with this strange marriage. In the context of the narrative, Josephine’s generosity is meant to be an expression of her boundless faith in Henry, but as every repeated refusal to reveal her identity or her situation comes accompanied by a wad of bills, it is hard not to feel that Henry is being bought off.
Amusing, too, is the sudden shift from love and romance to cold hard cash; a not-uncommon touch in English novels of this time, as we saw with respect to Munster Abbey:
“You are a soldier, and I have commenced heroine of a romance, you very probably think; but this necessary separation will merely be a mutual trial of our love and fortitude, and we will each endeavour to encourage the other during the painful interval which must elapse ere we meet again. I will have proper settlements drawn immediately according to my own instructions, and which I am unreasonable enough to hope you will sign without hearing them read; depend upon my attention to your future interest, and I will make you immediately independent. I read the wishes of your generous heart in your countenance; but I desire your want of fortune may never occasion you a moment’s uneasiness, I am quite rich enough for both. You shall have a hundred thousand Livres Tournois down on or before our wedding-day, and I will insure you a like sum annually…”
And so they two are married – Josephine bearing for the occasion the title of “Madame la Baronne de Belville”, though Henry knows that isn’t her name – and enjoy a brief honeymoon. Then one day Henry comes home to find that Josephine has departed in his absence, choosing that there will be no difficult parting scene. Subsequently, the two communicate only by letter, their correspondence being facilitated by the Marquis and Josephine’s bankers.
Now—the separation of Henry and Josephine occurs on page 141 of a 1145 page novel, and the situation is not resolved until page 1137; so as you would appreciate, the author has to find some way of filling up the intervening three-and-a-half volumes.
In the first and most important ploy, the truth of Henry’s background is revealed. He is really Henry Cleveland, the grandson of Sir William Cleveland, “one of the wealthiest men in England”; his father was a younger son who quarrelled violently with his own father after marrying without his consent, and in opposition to his ambition. However, he was well-liked and respected in his own right, and died heroically in battle. Henry’s mother dying in childbirth, and Sir William Cleveland’s anger persisting, the infant boy was given to his mother’s relatives.
All this is discovered when Sir William’s agent comes looking for his long-lost grandson. Henry learns that his uncle and cousin have both died, and that he is now Sir William’s heir—Sir William being, we are reminded again and again—“one of the wealthiest men in England”. Henry is therefore summoned to England to take up his new position, thus ending his brief foray in the Swiss army. His grandfather, whose ambition is still his ruling passion, buys his grandson a title, and so humble Henry Westhorpe becomes Earl Fitz-Osborne.
The change in Henry’s circumstances also has the effect of revealing the real reason for Mr Westhorpe’s behaviour. It turns out that he embezzled the trust fund left to his care by Henry’s father, and lost the lot in bad investments. There were more reasons than one for the Westhorpes’ flight to France.
But even this drastic alteration in Henry’s situation takes up only a portion of the remaining pages. The rest of them are filled by:
- Henry trying to hold at bay his grandfather’s attempts to arrange a “good” marriage for him, without revealing (i) he’s already married, (ii) his wife is a French Catholic, and (iii) he doesn’t know her name.
- Henry embarrassing people who were mean to him when he was Mr Westhorpe’s unwanted poor relation
- Henry making a lot of rich and titled friends, and visiting them
- Henry exposing various blackguards and frauds
- Henry participating in various pointless activities, in scenes that are supposed to be funny, but really aren’t. (One of these involves a horse being literally spurred and beaten to death.)
So it all becomes rather an endurance test. The only subplot that really means anything involves Henry’s attempts to discover Josephine’s identity, and even these usually turn into one of the other dot-points. For example: Henry learns of a woman who not only fits his wife’s description, but is called Josephine; she has married a nasty old man for his money. Meaning to expose her in his righteous fury, he encounters a complete stranger and ends up hiding from her jealous spouse in a cupboard.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as time drags on and Henry continues to be put off with excuses, his patience begins to wear thin, and disillusionment sets in. When at length he resorts to making ultimatums, he receives an answer that both stuns and dismays him…
Now—assuming that he or she didn’t just zone out during the preceding 1000 pages, not that you would blame anyone who did, the reader should be aware of Josephine’s identity and the reasons for her reticence, even if Henry is not. About midway through The Mysterious Wife, Henry’s health begins to be affected by his constant lack of peace of mind, and he lapses into a fever. As he lies ill at an inn, he is visited by a woman calling herself Madame de Verneuil, who claims to be a cousin of the Marquis D’Orcy; she is a member of a nearby religious order, famed for its care of the sick and poor, and she insists upon Henry being transported to the Abbey. He is won over by her citing of his friend’s name, and allows the woman to have her way.
Pains are taken to assure the reader that the members of this particular religious order are not nuns, as such, and that they have no difficulty obtaining dispensation from their vows, should they choose to marry. We also hear much about the head of the order, the beautiful Princess de Beaufremont, “an angel upon earth”, though we do not see her. When it is subsequently revealed that Madame de Verneuil is not the Marquis’s cousin at all, Henry is puzzled, but thinks little more of it.
It is, however, “Madame de Verneuil” who responds to his final ultimatum to Josephine, spiriting him away in the middle of a masquerade and taking him to a mansion outside of Paris. Someone waits for him there, although it is not Josephine:
…a second little bustle induced him to seize one of the lights, and advance with cautious steps. He put by a silk curtain , which half concealed the object he was come in search of, and discovered a child, wide awake, who instantly put out its little hands to be taken up…
There is also a letter from Josephine, bidding Henry farewell forever…
Josephine is indeed the Princess de Beaufremont, “one of the wealthiest women in France”. With the death of her brother she has inherited her family’s titles and vast estates and wealth, something her greedy and vindictive relatives have no intention of allowing her to dispose of via marriage, least of all to an English Protestant. By misrepresenting the circumstances to the Pope, Josephine’s family not only prevents her from receiving dispensation from her vows, but has her marriage declared invalid. In addition, Josephine is to be confined to the Abbey for a full year, and has been forbidden to receive visitors or to correspond.
With these revelations, all of Henry’s love for Josephine is reawakened—but there is nothing he can do. With deep reluctance, he makes preparations to leave France for England, taking with him the baby, also called Henry, and resolving to raise him openly as his son, though he cannot be his legal heir.
When Henry learns the truth about Josephine, there are only 44 pages left in The Mysterious Wife, so it is purely a matter of how things will be resolved, rather than “what happens next”. For some considerable time, indeed, the narrative seems to have been shaping itself into a dire warning against romantic love and marriage, and an even direr one about getting involved with Catholics. (When Josephine’s fate is put to him in terms of papal infallibility, Henry had nearly sent the Pope to the —-, but reflected just in time, in whose company he was…) As Henry turns towards England, though in his bitter disappointment he swears that he will remain faithful to Josephine’s memory, the reader is very well aware that a highly suitable alternative bride awaits him in the shape of the beautiful and accomplished young daughter of a Scotch nobleman.
So it was, I admit, quite a surprise when it was revealed, only 4 pages from the end, that the Marquis D’Orcy had been very busy indeed since learning the truth about Josephine—petitioning the King, making sure that the true version of events reaches the Pope, negotiating Josephine’s release in exchange for her surrender of her title and one-half of her possessions, and having the legality of the marriage restored.
Though perhaps my surprise didn’t quite equal Henry’s:
Unable to utter a single word, he flung himself upon his knees by the side of the sofa, and in this posture caught the lovely Josephine in his arms. His transports greatly accelerated her recovery; and, when perfectly sensible, her looks were infinitely more expressive than words could have been.
Henry was half wild; his surprise almost equalled his joy, while a violent flood of tears relieved the bursting heart of his Josephine; and at last enabled her to say, “My Henry, we meet to part no more.”