Acmat, who was the most amorous of all Princes, and who had Grandeur enough to maintain those Inclinations, now indulged himself. Indamora had for him a thousand Charms; and contrary to that wretched custom which makes the Grand Signior’s Passion the sole Reward of her he favoured, and that they were confined to a Seraglio, without the Liberty to see any but the Sultan and the Eunuchs that attended him; I say, contrary to this observed Custom, Acmat gave the Title of Sultana of Barbary to Indamora, and restrained her in nothing but in the Point of Amour and Gallantry. None of his Predecessors had ever indulged the fair Sex so much as he. The Sultana Queen had a great Liberty allowed her: He was much condemned for his tendency for the Women, and his very enemies acknowledged he had no other weakness…
As those of you kind enough and brave enough to follow along would know, I’ve read some difficult things in my attempt to put together a “Chronobibliography” of the early English novel—ugly stories, violent stories, scatological stories—yet I’m not sure that in its own peculiar way The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary isn’t the worst of the lot. At least ugly / violent / scatological tends to hold the attention; while this short novel commits the twin sins of being boring and pointless. Pointless, above all.
In The Protestant Whore, Alison Conway discusses the subset of literature dealing with Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the most hated and despised of all the royal mistresses. She suggests that the sudden flurry of romans à clef still mired in the era of Charles that appeared across 1689 / 1690 were actually written much earlier but deemed too dangerous to publish in the wake of the Rye House Plot, only to be rushed into print with the coming of William as forming, however vaguely, part of the ongoing literary push to legitimise the new monarchy. Thus, various publications attacking de Kéroualle continued to appear well past the point where, you would imagine, she had become an irrelevance.
However, the weird thing about The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary is that it isn’t an attack—not really—at least, not until its very last pages. Despite its overt focus on the much-despised Louise de Kéroualle, it is hardest on Barbara Villiers, surely an even greater irrelevance by that time than her successor. Moreover, though it is almost entirely concerned with the amorous doings at the court of Charles, it is content to simply relate them without resorting to more of a smidgeon of the usual justification of Catholic plots against England and the king. Instead, its narrative is made up almost entirely of who loved who, who was cheating on who, who was pursuing who, who was seeking vengeance for (romantic) betrayal on who; all reported fairly matter-of-factly, and with very little malice. When you consider that by the time this publication appeared, Charles had been dead for nearly five years, James had come and gone, and William and Mary had been on the throne for a good six months, it is hard to imagine that anyone reacted to it other than with an impatient cry of, “Oh, who cares!?”
“Oh, who cares!?” was certainly my main response, along with numerous sighs and stubborn re-reading of certain paragraphs whose sense I missed the first time because my eyes kept glazing over. However, “stubborn” being the operative word…
The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary resorts to the same tactics we’ve seen many times before, with “Turky” standing in for England and Charles being represented by “the Sultan Acmat”; while Turky’s great enemy is “Germany”:
Acmat (the Grand Signior) who succeeded Mahomet III was the best-made Man in the whole Empire. He was tall, had a goodly Meen, full of majesty and Grandeur; his eyes were black, large, and roll’d with a sparkling Fire: The Air of his Face was noble and commanding and whenever he spoke, it softned into a thousand Sweetnesses; His Soul was much more agreeable than his Person, though it was a receiv’d opinion, it was not to his Quality he owed the number of those that called him the goodliest Man that had been formed. He was exactly made for a great Lover and a fine Gentleman…
Acmat’s heir is his brother:
Mustapha, brother to the Sultan, (matchless for Valour and Conduct) returned from gaining a glorious Victory. His success was alone derived from his Governing; and never was a great Prince a better Soldier: He had early all the experience of a brave General, and never could the great Acmat commit the Safety and the Glory of his Empires to a better Manager. Success constantly followed all his Designs, and it was said of him, He was the best of Soldiers and the best of Subjects; nor did his warlike humour render him unfit for other things, he was a great Courtier and a great Statesman…
Doesn’t read much like an attack on the previous monarchies, does it? But then, it doesn’t really support them, either. It just kind of—sits there.
So far as Charles is ever criticised in this narrative, it is for his tendency towards “petticoat government”, and even this is excused as resulting from a nature that is simultaneously peaceful and amorous—he’s a lover, not a fighter. And since “Acmat”’s susceptibilities are the basis of the few imperfections he does possess, the narrative then switches its focus to the women in his life. “The Sultana Queen” is given short shrift, as indeed poor Catherine of Braganza was in reality; and instead we pass over her to “Homira”, our stand-in for Barbara Villiers, skipping the majority of her time as royal favourite and going straight to the exposure of her affair with the young John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. The old scandals are dug up again, so that not only does Acmat catch Homira and Amurath together, but we hear how Amurath, always strapped for cash, took money from Homira in exchange for his services.
What’s more, Homira doesn’t confine her infidelities to one object; while her outrageous example is beginning to have a bad influence across Turky:
The Sultana Homira had studied all his Weaknesses, and was perfectly acquainted with his inclinations. Jealousie was never apt to disturb him, which she easily saw, and procured first for her self, and then for the Sultana Queen, that Liberty they possessed. Gallantry reigned here incessantly, and all manner of Pleasures, with a great deal of Luxury, which notwithstanding was believ’d to please the Sultan, since he never reprov’d it. It was this Licentiousness ruined Homira; she fell at last into a habitual Debauchery, and was a principal Advancer, being the great Example of all the Liberties taken by Women of Quality. Love and Intrigue was no more so secretly confined to the walls of the Seraglio, and if People were discreet, it was what they were not at all obliged to be…
Agreeing that Acmat cannot continue to be made a fool of by Homira, who even now this easy-going Sultan declines to banish, though he does not love her any more, Mustapha and “Mahomet Bassa, the Grand Vizier” (of whom, more below) conspire to provide him with a replacement mistress, one that they can control.
Mahomet Bassa bears a grudge against Homira, who promised him her favours if he could arrange the title of “Sultana” (Duchess of Cleveland) for her, but then reneged on the deal. He has recently seen a Christian slave who is beautiful enough to turn the head of Acmat; and who, in gratitude for her release from slavery, will certainly do as she is told. He ransoms her, brings her to court, and—as you do—demands to hear her entire life story.
I don’t know how much of the potted history of “Indamora” that follows is true; I do know it is mostly irrelevant. Its one point of interest is that it posits a secret romance between Louise de Kéroualle and Philippe de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, Grand Prior of France, who appears as “Tiridate Agustus”. We get a lengthy recapitulation of Indamora’s various romantic travails, most of which is – you guessed it – irrelevant, except that Indamora is still in love with Tiridate when she manoeuvred (rather than manoeuvring herself) into the position of royal mistress:
It is a Truth, replied the Grand Vizier, That I have those Orders from the Sultan; I do not at all doubt but that you have Wit enough to make your advantage of the favourable Sentiments he has for you; Is it not better to live gloriously, full of splendour and magnificence, (as you will do then, if you are wise) than continue in a miserable Slavery? You must flatter the Sultan in an Opinion you love him, it will not fail of pleasing him, which if once you can be so happy as to do, there is nothing in the whole Ottoman Empire but will be disposed of as you shall advise. The Sultan lets himself be governed by the Woman he loves…
And so Indamora is installed as Acmat’s mistress, much to the rage and jealousy of Homira; gets raised to the title of “Sultana of Barbary”; and actually starts to fall for Acmat—at least until Tiridate Agustus arrives unexpectedly in Turky. The old love rekindles and the two try to find a way to be together, while Homira plots to expose them to Acmat.
The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary then takes an odd turn. Mustapha, having already contracted one marriage contrary to Acmat’s desire (to Anne Hyde, though she is not mentioned), is now revealed as being on the brink of another, to “Zayda, Relique of a Noble Turk and Son to Mahomet Bassa”. Acmat is furious when he finds out, and intervenes; a contrite Mustapha begs pardon and meekly marries the bride selected for him by Acmat—“the Daughter of the King of Tunis”—in other words, Mary of Modena: a marriage that, far from being arranged by Charles, ticked him off mightily.
William Musgrave, the original owner and annotator of the copy of The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary now held by the Bodleian Library, changed his mind over the identity of the Grand Vizier. He starts out suggesting that Mahomet Bassa is George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, then later identifies him as Henry Bennett, the Earl of Arlington. I agree with the latter suggestion. By the time of Louise de Kéroualle’s arrival on the scene, Buckingham had fallen out of favour. On the other hand, Arlington was a Catholic who was heavily involved in Charles’ behind-the-scenes negotiations with Louis XIV, which resulted in the Treaty of Dover. It is much easier to picture him as the “sponsor” of Louise de Kéroualle.
When it comes to the identity of “Zayda”, however, Musgrave and I agree to disagree. He suggests that “Zayda” is Susan, Lady Belasyse, who was no connection of Buckingham or Arlington, and whose real father-in-law never got any closer to court than being elected an M. P. None of this seems to make much sense— and even less so since Zayda’s real identity is (in my opinion) perfectly plain. Furthermore, in light of future historical events, the intrusion into the narrative of “Zayda” is by far the most interesting thing about it.
When Zayda declares her passion for Amurath, we may recognise her as Sarah Jennings, the future Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah was indeed taken into the royal household in the position of maid of honour, but that was after James’ marriage to Mary of Modena. (The two frightened fifteen-year-olds quickly became close friends.) The suggestion that James wanted to marry Sarah seems bizarre. In any event, she subsequently married John Churchill while still holding her position at court, though the marriage was not made public until she fell pregnant.
However, none of this stops The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary diverting into an interpolated narrative, “The Amours Of Mustapha And Zayda”, which concludes with Zayda—in spite of her passion for Amurath—plotting vengeance against Mustapha for breaking his promise of marriage to her and thwarting her ambition. Zayda’s story is told to Homira, who has dark thoughts of her own:
Thus did Zayda finish her relation. The Sultana Homira, in another time, would have died with Rage at the Confession she made of being in Love with Amurath; but he had used the Sultana too barbarously to merit any thing of Tender from her: He had exposed her letters, and basely rendered her as ill Offices as possible; though it was by her he was first made considerable…
Anyway, the narrative then reverts to Indamora’s attempts to get herself free of Acmat so that she can be with Tiridate. One of her schemes is to fake a near-death illness, which has the double benefit of allowing her to plead for the attendance of Tiridate, “Chief of the Religious” (not that his being a priest interferes with his intrigues, of course) and to “recover” with a conscience awakened to the sin of her relationship with Acmat, which she uses as an excuse to beg her release from his court. Homira gets wind of what’s going on between Indamora and Tiridate, and tries to ruin Indamora with Acmat out of spite.
And then on the back end of all this tiresome manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring, we get the following astonishing assertion:
But whil’st [Homira] has thus disposed of her self, and that the whole Ottoman Empire enjoy’d a Tranquility beyond all example, the Sultana of Barbary will disturb it; and having got a slow Poyson, she conveys it into a Glass where the Sultan was to drink, he supped with her that fatal night, and whil’st he is more admired than ever by all the World, he falls by the extreme malice of a Woman…
That Charles’ sudden death was murder was a frequent, anti-Catholic accusation (you could take your pick of guilty party). You might expect to find something along those lines here, but no: instead we get a woman resorting to murder for the prosaic reason of not being able to rid herself of her unwanted lover by any less drastic means:
Mustapha (now the Sultan,) had not long possess’d the Crowns and Title, then that his Nephew Osmen rebels against him; but that not being my business…
Ouch! Poor old Monmouth!
…I must pass it over to come to the Sultana of Barbary, she mourned strictly for Acmat, and was very well pleased, she was no manner of way suspected (nor, in a word, any else,) for the murdering of him. After her first mourning, she implored, and received, Permission of Mustapha to retire from Turky, which, in effect, she did, not long after, with those designs which we have already related, in her Orders to the Prince Tiridate Agustus at his departure from Constantinople.
“Oh,” I said blankly.
So—yeah. The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary does finally get around to slandering Louise de Kéroualle; but frankly, I doubt by that time anyone less obstinate than me would have been awake to know it.