Archive for December, 2014

29/12/2014

One last thing…

Yes, yes. I’ll shut up in a minute, I promise.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my blog visitors for sticking by me in what has been an even more than usually erratic year, and particularly those of you who have taken the time to comment.

I should know better by now than to make promises, so I will confine myself to hoping for a more regular posting routine in 2015.

I’ll also hope to see you all there!

Advertisements
Tags:
29/12/2014

Like a hole in the head

Even though I need more things to write about like I need an aperture in my cranial equipment, for the past several months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly fixated upon the idea of taking a look at the development of the Australian novel. This area of study, like its American counterpart, offers one significant advantage over the Chronobibliography that comprises the main thrust of this blog—namely, that it is possible to identify a finite starting point.

More or less.

Truthfully, when it comes to identify “the first”, there are probably few areas of literary study that offer more ground for argument than the Australian novel of the 19th century—where we have novels written in Australia but published in Britain, and novels written in Britain but published in Australia; novels about Australia written in Britain, and novels about Britain written in Australia; authors born in Britain but publishing in Australia, and authors born in Australia but publishing in Britain; authors who lived all their lives in Australia, authors who emigrated to Australia, authors who emigrated from Australia, authors who wandered through for a space of months or years, and authors who never in fact set foot in Australia but wrote about it anyway. We even have a few – just a few – of those rarae aves, authors who were born, lived and published in Australia.

There are, consequently, as many “firsts” in the history of Australian fiction as even a complete obsessive like me could possibly desire.

The dogma (of which, by now, I have learned always to be deeply suspicious) is that “the first Australian novel” is Quintus Servinton: A Tale Founded Upon Incidents Of Real Occurrence by Henry Savery, which appeared in Tasmania in the early months of 1831. It was certainly “the first novel” written and published in Australia; its author, however, was born in England. Henry Savery was convicted of forgery in 1825 and sentenced to transportation after having his initial death sentence commuted. He wrote his novel – a semi-autobiographical and rather self-serving tale of convict life – while working as an assigned labourer in the New Norfolk district west of Hobart.

There appear to be three challengers for Quintus Servinton‘s crown. One of them is another, earlier work by Henry Savery: The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, which was published in 1830. This is not, however, a novel, but a series of sketches about Hobart life and its prominent citizens, which appeared first as separate stories in the local newspaper, The Colonial Times. It is also, in a sense, a roman à clef since, although without any political motive, its characters are based on real people, with a key to their identities being appended to the single-volume publication.

The other works highlight the difficulties in this area of study. Mary Leman Grimstone was already established as a poet and novelist when she accompanied her sister and brother-in-law to Australia in 1825. It seems that her second and third novels, Louisa Egerton and Women’s Love, were written during her stay in Tasmania, thus pre-dating all of the other contenders—but they were published in England, appearing in 1830 and 1832, respectively. Furthermore, as far as I am aware (I guess we’ll be finding out!), both are set in England as well.

We should also make mention of another 1830 publication, Arthur Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers. Although originally believed to be the work of the English writer, William Howitt (and is still listed in some sources as such), this children’s fiction has been attributed to a Mrs G. Porter, another English writer who never visited Australia, but drew upon Robert Dawson’s non-fiction work, The Present State of Australia : A Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects, with References to Emigration: and a Particular Account of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of its Aboriginal Inhabitants for her story—which is, in any event, the first work for children to be set in Australia.

Taking all this into consideration, Quintus Servinton still seems a sensible place to start—although knowing myself, I suspect that the other works mentioned (and perhaps Mary Grimstone’s first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps) will also be putting in an appearance.

29/12/2014

Vale, Aphra

epitaph1In her dedication of The Lucky Mistake to “George Greenveil” (George Granville, Baron Lansdowne), published the year of her death, Aphra Behn comments:

…the Obligations I have to you, deserves a greater testimony of my respect, then this little peice, too trivial to bear the honour of your Name, but my increasing Indisposition makes me fear I shall not have many opportunities of this Kind…

The last years of Aphra Behn’s life were a constant struggle against increasing ill-health. Most cruelly, it seems that she suffered from an arthritic complaint that made it painful, if not impossible, for her to write, and thus to earn an income. It is also easy to imagine that the overthrow of James II in 1688 took a simultaneous toll on Behn’s spirits. It is sad yet strangely fitting that her death almost coincided with the coronation of William and Mary in April of 1689.

Whatever her public reputation, Behn had friends and admirers who organised for her burial in Westminster Abbey; and while the epitaph on her gravestone is often taken as an expression of public disapproval, there are many who believe that Aphra wrote it herself—one last joke at her own expense.

Despite the increasingly punitive morality that would see Aphra Behn expunged from the English literary canon from the mid-18th century until her revival in the early 20th, in her lifetime and the decades that followed her writing was extremely popular – and profitable, for her publishers if not so much for herself. It has been pointed out that Behn was the first English writer of fiction to have her works collected and reissued, with William Canning publishing Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro together in 1688 as “Three Histories“. Then, in 1696, Charles Gildon issued another collection under the title, The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn—following this two years later with, All The Histories And Novels Written By The Late Ingenious Mrs Behn, and two years after that with, Histories, Novels And Translations.

And this is where things get awkward. The last volume was sold under the assertion that its contents were, “The greatest part never before printed.” It certainly offered under Aphra Behn’s name various short works not published before…but where did they come from? Charles Gildon, who declared himself to be Behn’s “literary executor”, insisted that they had fallen to his lot after her death; but this hardly explains why he waited eleven years to publish them, particularly given Gildon’s perpetual hand-to-mouth existence and his frequent forays into debt.

Not surprisingly, debate about the origin of these works still continues. There seems to be strong scepticism about their authenticity amongst the experts on Aphra Behn, with most prepared to go no further than to suggest that Behn may have left certain writings unfinished at the time of her death, and that Gildon, or someone paid by him, completed them and published them under her name. Others reject altogether the assertion of her authorship.

And on this basis, I have finally decided not to include these posthumous publications in my consideration of the oeuvre of Aphra Behn…which means that with The Lucky Mistake, we have reached the end of our journey through her works of fiction.

Furthermore, we have also finished our examination of the fiction of 1689—a point I hoped to reach by the end of this year (though for once I had more sense than to jinx myself by saying so out loud). The beginning of 2015 will see us tackling the works of 1690: a year in which I would expect at least a measure of politics to re-emerge, given the events that culminated in the Battle of the Boyne; but which, at least on the basis of a superficial glance, seems to have been a period of consolidation for the English novel.

I’m likewise hoping (ever hopeful, me!) that 2015 will be a year of consolidation for this blog. I did try to get back on track recently with “Authors In Depth”, but ended up lengthening the list rather than making significant headway with our established writers; while “Reading Roulette” came to a halt when a certain book took some dogged tracking down. (It’s on its way now, though!)

Now, between those categories of reviewing, plus my examinations of the roots of the Gothic novel and early detective fiction, you might think I had quite enough to be going on with; yet as I sit here in the waning days of 2014, I find myself in anticipation of founding yet another category of reviews; even though I need more things to write about like I need…um…

29/12/2014

The Lucky Mistake

LuckyMistake1Atlante was now arriv’d to her thirteenth Year, when her Beauty, which every day increas’d, became the discourse of the whole Town; which had already gain’d her as many Lovers as had beheld her, for none saw her without Languishing for her, or at least but what were in very great Admiration of her, every body talkt of the young and charming Atlante, and all the Noble Men who had Sons (knowing the smallness of her Fortune and the lustre of her Beauty) would send them for fear of their being Charm’d with her, or to some other part of the World, or exhorted them, by way of precaution, to keep out of her sight: Old Bellyuard was one of these Wise Parents, and by a timely prevention as he thought of Rinaldo’s falling in Love with Atlante, perhaps was the occasion of his being so; he had before heard of Atlante and of her Beauty; but it had made no impressions on his Heart, but his Father no sooner forbid him Loving, than he felt a new desire Tormenting him, of seeing this lovely and dangerous Young Person…

The Lucky Mistake was published in 1689, the year that Aphra Behn died at the age of only forty-nine. The tragedy of her early death is exacerbated when we consider that this short fiction seemed intended to mark a new phase in her extraordinary literary career. In her study on Behn, Aphra Behn’s Afterlife, Jane Spencer points out that the actual text of this work is sub-headed “The First Novel”, and suggests that Behn had entered into an agreement with the publisher Richard Bentley for a series of such fictions. If such a plan there was, it ended upon the 16th April that year.

Whatever may have been the larger plans for Behn’s fiction, in its own right The Lucky Mistake is clearly a transitional work. It is, for one thing, the first of Behn’s fictions that she announces as “a novel”. Up to this point, as we have seen, Behn tended to call her fictions “histories”, reflecting the fact that they were either based upon true stories, as was the case with Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt, or claimed to be so, as with The History Of The Nun. Neither the dedication nor the text of The Lucky Mistake makes any such claim; in the former Behn says simply:

…all I shall say for it, is, that ’tis not a Translation but an Original…

As I commented with respect to The Rival Princesses, 1689 was apparently a watershed year for the English novel, the point at which writers ceased to fret over the moral implications of “fiction” and began writing stories for the stories’ sake. (Of course, if Behn had been aware that 250 years later her “histories” would lead to her being publicly denounced as a shameless liar, she probably would have started writing “novels” a little earlier.) And in addition to categorising her work as “a novel”, Behn sets it in a country other than England, another common tendency amongst English writers of the time; although in fact, all of Behn’s fictions are set in other countries, possibly as a side-effect of her reading fiction in other languages in her quest to find suitable publications to translate.

Whether it was a conscious act on its author’s part or not, Behn’s “novel” separates itself from her earlier “histories” with respect to both its content and its tone. A fairly straightforward love story, The Lucky Mistake is by far the gentlest of Behn’s works, lacking the cynicism and black humour that mark the earlier short fictions; it even has a happy ending. The tension of the story lies in the conflict between the self-interested and mercenary views of the older generation, and the honest feelings of the younger. One of Behn’s enduring concerns, namely, young girls being forced into either a convent or a marriage against their wills, is a significant plot-point, but without editorialisation on her part and for once without a tragic outcome.

Set in France, evidently in contemporary times, The Lucky Mistake introduces two noble families of contrasting fortunes. Count Bellyuard has retired from court voluntarily, tired of the intrigue and the constant bustle; he gives himself over to the tranquillity of country life and focuses his energies upon his only son:

…call’d Rinaldo now grown to the Age of Fifteen, who having all the Excellent Qualities and Grace of Youth, by Nature; he would bring him up in all the Vertues and Noble Sciences, which he believed the Gayety and Lustre of the Court might divert: he therefore in this retirement spar’d no Cost, to those that could instruct and accomplish him, and he had the best Tutors and Masters that could be purchased at Court: Bellyuard making far less account of Riches than of Fine parts…

Which is easily said when you have riches. In the estate next door is the Count De Pais, of an old and distinguished family, but without the means of maintaining what he feels to be his proper place in the world. He has, therefore, also retired to the country, but not in the same spirit as Count Bellyuard:

And as it is most Natural for great Souls to be most proud, (if I may call a handsome Disdain by that Vulgar Name) when they are most deprest, so De Pais was more retir’d, more estrang’d from his Neighbours, and kept a greater distance, than if he had Enjoy’d all he had lost at Court, and took more Solemnity and State upon him, because he would not be subject to the reproaches of the World, by making himself familiar with it. So that he rarely visited, and was as rarely visited; and contrary to the Custom of those in France, who are easy of excess, and free of conversation, he kept his family retir’d so close, that ’twas rare to see any of ’em…

As with Count Bellyuard, most of Count De Pais’ attention is focused upon his children, although again, not exactly in the same spirit:

The old Count had two only Daughters, of exceeding Beauty, who gave the Generous Father ten thousand Torments, as often as he beheld them, when he consider’d their Extream Beauty, their fine Wit, their innocence, Modesty, and above all, their Birth; and that he had not the Fortune to marry them according to their Quality; and below it he had rather see ’em laid in their silent Graves, than consent to…

Behn’s use of the word “generous” to describe Count De Pais is a rare note of overt sarcasm in The Lucky Mistake, in which the representatives of the older generation progressively show themselves as monsters of selfishness, uninterested in their children’s happiness, and seeing them only as the means to their own aggrandisement.

The Count De Pais has one friend in the country:

…Count Vernole; A man of about forty Years of Age, of low Stature, Complexion very black and swarthy, lean, lame, extream proud and haughty; extracting of a Descent from the Blood Royal, not extremely brave, but very glorious; he had no very great Estate, but was in Election of a greater, and of an Addition of Honour from the King, his Father having done most worthy Services against the Hugonots, and by the high Favour of Cardinal Mazarine was represented to his Majesty, as a man related to the Crown, of great Name but small Estate; so that there was now nothing but great Expectations and Preparations in the Family of Count Vernole to go to Court, to which he dayly hop’d an invitation or Command.

In the meantime, Count De Pais and Count Vernole discover that they have things in common:

…whenever they went abroad, they club’d their Train, to make one great Show, and were always together, bemoaning each others Fortune; that from so high a Descent, as one from Monarchs, by the Mothers side, and the other from Dukes of his side, they were reduc’d by Fate, to the degree of Private Gentlemen.

Count Vernole spends much of his time with Count De Pais’ family, and finds himself drawn to Atlante…even though she is at that time only eight years old.

The extreme youth of the heroine of The Lucky Mistake is likely to cause modern readers some squirms, although it reflects the reality of Behn’s world, in which girls were considered marriageable as soon as they began to menstruate. It is not Atlante’s age per se that bothers Behn, but the age gap between herself and Count Vernole, who begins to think of the girl as his future wife when he is forty and she is barely out of the nursery.

Atlante herself very naturally has no such thought. Her feelings towards Vernole are mixed. She does not like him personally, but learns to appreciate some of his qualities. Vernole has no idea how to talk to children, and so addresses Atlante as a young woman; likewise conversing with her as if she were much older, and on the only subjects he knows: Vernole is no mean scholar. This odd approach actually does Vernole more good than any other could have. It appeals to Atlante’s precocious intellectualism, and wins him her respect and gratitude. In his vanity, Vernole takes her interest in his conversation as a sign of a budding affection—this evidence of her good taste giving him an even higher opinion of her:

Sir, I find the Seeds of great and profound Matter in the Soul of this Young Maid, which ought to be nourish, now while she was Young, and they will grow up to very great Perfection; I find Atlante capable of all the Noble Vertues of the Mind, , and am infinitely mistaken in my Observations, and Art of Physiognomy, if Atlante be not born for greater things than her Fortune does now promise…

By which he means, of course, she will become his wife. Considering Count Vernole’s “descent” and his expectation of being recalled to Court any day, Count De Pais looks upon him as infinitely superior to anything the family’s ruined fortunes entitles him to expect for his daughters; his age and his lack of physical attractions are, or course, irrelevant, as are Atlante’s feelings. Still, Count De Pais is uncomfortable at being unable to provide Atlante with a suitable dowry. He therefore decides to force his younger daughter, Charlot, into a convent, so that he may strip her of the moiety she is entitled to and concentrate what fortune he has in Atlante.

The two men are not so lost in their plans for the future, however, that they do not realise some time will first have to pass. Atlante is allowed to live unmolested until she is thirteen, at which time her fortunes take a dramatic turn…

In spite of the retirement in which she lives, Atlante’s transcendent beauty becomes the talk of her neighbourhood, and either because they have caught a glimpse of her at church or have heard the ravings of someone who has, the young men of the district become obsessed with the thought of her, spending their time scheming to gain access to the reclusive beauty. But while the young men think only of Atlante’s physical attractions, their alarmed elders see no further than her lack of fortune. Appalled at the mere thought of a daughter-in-law without a dowry, however splendid her other qualities—which in this case are mental and moral as well as physical—the fathers of the neighbourhood begin despatching their sons to other parts of the globe on a variety of pretexts.

And among the panicky parents is Count Bellyuard who, although Rinaldo is the apple of his eye, has no intention of allowing the boy any free will in the matter of his marriage, but is already calculating various suitable alliances for him according to the birth and fortune of the respective parties. As it happens, Rinaldo is perhaps the only young man in the neighbourhood who has not fallen under the distant spell of Atlante; but of course, as soon as his father tells him he is forbidden to approach her, approaching her becomes the only thing in the world he wants to do…

Which is easier said than done. One of the few reasons for which Atlante and Charlot are permitted to leave the house is to attend services. Rinaldo begins to haunt the local church, keeping watch on all the young women who come their to worship, certain that he will know the transcendent Atlante when he sees her. And he is right:

…one day he saw a young Beauty, who at first glimps made his Heart leap into his Mouth, and fell trembling again into its wonted place, for it immediately told him that the young Maid was Atlante, she was with her Sister Charlot, who was very handsom, but not comparable to Atlante. He fixt his Eyes upon her, as she kneel’d at the Altar, which he never remov’d from that charming face as long as she remain’d there, he forgot all Devotion, but what he paid to her, he Ador’d her, he Burnt and Languish’d already for her, and found he must possess Atlante or Dye…

Certainly later on, but perhaps even by the time of The Lucky Mistake, one the most useful conventions of English fiction and drama was the pair of contrasting sisters—usually an older, more beautiful, more saintly one, and a younger, less beautiful, less rigidly moral one, the latter often blessed or cursed with that most awkward of female acquirements, a sense of humour. Very often the younger will, in effect, act as her sister’s proxy, saying and doing things that the “good” girl cannot, and encouraging her to listen to her heart rather than her conscience.

So it is here. Atlante notices Rinaldo, but immediately avoids his eye and tries to focus on her religious duties. Charlot, meanwhile, takes a long, appreciative look at the handsome young man, observes his fixation upon Atlante, and immediately begins scheming to bring the two together. Rinaldo starts following the sisters home, but is shy and tongue-tied and unable to take advantage of the situation until Charlot intervenes. It is she who makes most of the conversation, and who, upon recognising the livery of Rinaldo’s servants, declares them to be neighbours and asks the young man to see them home. Along the way, Rinaldo works up the nerve to make a passionate declaration of his feelings. Atlante is simultaneously moved, embarrassed, and angry with herself for giving him encouragement, but feels that he is sincere.

From here, with Charlot acting as their go-between, the two begin a secret correspondence. They do not meet again in person for some time, until at length Rinaldo contrives to carry the sisters away from a supposed visit to church, and takes them out upon the river in his private boat. Rinaldo begs Atlante to marry him secretly, so that whatever happens they cannot in the future be wholly separated. She is sorely tempted but cannot bring herself to agree to marry without her father’s consent. She also fears, should the marriage result in Rinaldo being disinherited, that he will come to blame and resent her. In the end the two settle for exchanging solemn vows never to marry anyone else.

The sisters cover their extended absence with a story about being invited on a short pleasure trip by a lady of their acquaintance, met at church, but Count Verlone’s jealousy is awakened and he decides it is time to secure Atlante as his bride. Suspicious of Charlot’s influence, he first presses De Pais to go ahead with his plan to place her in a convent, which he does. It is a measure of how Atlante’s priorities have shifted that, while she misses her sister, her thoughts are focused on how she will now correspond with Rinaldo. In the end the two resort to the time-honoured tactics of Romeo and Juliet: not only are their parents’ estates contiguous, but Atlante’s rooms have a balcony opposite the balcony of an attic room in Rinaldo’s house. The two begin to meet, spending the nights talking or, when talk isn’t safe, passing letters back and forth across the gap by means of a pole with a split in the end.

The Lucky Mistake here offers something very rare indeed in fiction of this era, in that, after being drawn together initially purely on the strength of their personal attractions, Rinaldo and Atlante are then kept physically separated, their relationship subsequently developing emotionally and intellectually over a period of time.

Unfortunately for our young lovers, it eventually occurs to Count Bellyuard to wonder what Rinaldo finds to occupy him in the upper rooms of their house. When he discovers the truth he is absolutely furious but, learning from the outcome of his last attempt to forbid Rinaldo anything, he pretends ignorance and makes arrangements to send the boy away to finish his education in Paris. This request is too reasonable for Rinaldo to disobey, though he is struck with dismay at being separated from Atlante. In their mutual desperation, Atlante agrees to allow Rinaldo to climb up into her room:

…he throws himself at her Feet, as unable to speak as she, who nothing but blusht and bent down her Eyes, hardly daring to glance ’em towards the dear Object of her desires, the Lord of all her vows, she was asham’d to see a Man in her Chamber, where yet none had ever been alone, and by Night too; he saw her fear, and felt her trembling, and after a thousand sighs of Love had made way for Speech, he besought her to fear nothing from him, for his Flame was too sacred, and his passion too Holy to offer any thing, but what Honour with Love might afford him…

And the night is passed chastely in declarations of love and promises of fidelity. Come the dawn the two can still hardly bear to part, and are so tardy that Vernole – on the alert since the boat incident – convinces himself that he hears a man’s voice in Atlante’s room, and charges to the scene. Fortunately, what he has heard is Rinaldo leaving:

…the Count turning the Latch, entered halting into her Chamber, in his Night Gown clapt close about him, which betray’d an ill favour’d shape, his Night-cap on, without a Periwig, which discovered all his lean wither’d Jaws, his Face pale, and his Eyes staring, and making altogether so dreadful a Figure, that Atlante who no more dreams of him, then of a Devil, had possibly rather have seen the last, she gave a great shreek…

Atlante is able to take the high ground here, violently berating Vernole for daring to intrude upon her, and for the insult offered to her honour by the suggestion there was a man in her room. He is so cowed by her that for a time he withdraws into himself, changing his mind about formally proposing for her to Count De Pais; but only for a time:

‘Twas now that Atlante, arriv’d to her Fifteenth Year, shon out with a lustre of Beauty greater than ever, and in this Year of the absence of Rinaldo, had carry’d her self with that severity of Life, without the youthful desire of going abroad, or desiring any Diversion, but what she found in her own retir’d thoughts, that Vernole wholly unable, longer to conceal his Passion, resolv’d to make a publication of it, first to the Father and then to the lovely Daughter, of whom he had some hope, because she had carried her self very well towards him for this year past, which she would never have done, if she had imagin’d he would ever have been her Lover…

Atlante is overcome with horror and disgust when the marriage is proposed to her. Her father, surprised by the violence of her reaction, is at first dismayed and then infuriated by her refusal, threatening her with various reprisals if she will not obey. Atlante is forced to play for time, asking for some days to consider the matter, which her father allows. He then has to report to Vernole, who he knows is not expecting a refusal:

De Pais after some consideration resolv’d to tell him, she receiv’d the offer, very well; but that he must expect a little Maiden Nicety in the case…

In the meantime, word of the “engagement” is broadcast through the neighbourhood, Count De Pais hoping that the pressure of public expectation will help bring Atlante into a compliant state of mind.

Here the narrative of The Lucky Mistake pulls back a bit, showing us that there is no real reason in the world why Rinaldo and Atlante should not be married. Her birth is excellent, even if she has no fortune; while he certainly has sufficient fortune to make her lack unimportant. But both fathers refuse to budge, Count De Pais because he has sworn that Vernole will marry Atlante, Count Bellyuard because he has sworn that Rinaldo will not:

…and thereupon he told his Father all his passion, for that lovely Maid: and assur’d him if he would not see him laid in his Grave, he must consent to this Match: Bellyuard rose in a fury, and told him he had rather see him in the Grave then in the arms of Atlante, not continued he, so much for any dislike  I have to the Young Lady, or the smallness of her Fortune, but because I have so long warn’d you from such a passion…

Meanwhile, next door, Atlante is also revealing her secret; though in desperation she tells her father she is Rinaldo’s wife, rather than merely promised to him:

…if her Father storm’d before, he grew like a Man distracted at this Confession, and Vernole hearing them lowd, ran to the Chamber to learn the Cause, where just as he entered, he found Count De Pais Sword drawn and ready to kill his Daughter…

Vernole’s fury distracts De Pais from his own. Too much of a coward to do his own dirty work, Vernole hires a band of bravos to murder Rinaldo, who holds his own in the running battles, but is finally badly wounded. Ironically, the person who intervenes to save his life, and has him carried into his house, is Count De Pais, who from this incident learns to admire Rinaldo’s courage and honesty, while acquiring a feeling of contempt towards Vernole. Nevertheless, he still can’t bring himself to go back on his promise, considering that a worse breach of honour than forcing his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love and who he doesn’t respect. After some awkward conversation, De Pais reiterates that Rinaldo cannot marry Atlante, but (with his eye on Rinaldo’s fortune) adds that, well, there is another sister…

De Pais decides to place Atlante in the convent, partly to keep her safe until things cool down and partly to (as he perceives it) bring her to her senses. He does not do this openly, but sends her to “visit her sister”, sending also a secret message to have her confined. Count Bellyuard, for one, is thrilled with this development, while Rinaldo, confident that Atlante will never consent to becoming a nun, begins to plot ways to carry her off. It occurs to him that he has a conspirator already in place in the form of Charlot, and that he might be able to use Count De Pais’ proposal of his marrying the younger sister to gain access to Atlante.

There’s just one problem…

Actually, there’s two. Her probationary year has been more than sufficient to teach Charlot that she was not, repeat NOT, cut out to be a nun; and during her time acting as go-between for Rinaldo and Atlante, she developed her own passion for the young man. When she learns that her father has suggested a match between them she is delighted, and sees no reason why she should sacrifice herself for her sister’s benefit.

Not that she tells Rinaldo and Atlante that…

On the basis of Aphra Behn’s other fictions, we tend to expect an unhappy outcome here, if not a full-on tragedy; but for whatever reason – quite possibly her own situation at the time of writing – this final “novel” finds Behn in a more generous and forgiving mood; and she takes pity on her young lovers. Her story concludes with flurry of plots and counterplots and people acting at cross-purposes, all of which creates a smokescreen of confusion that leads two of the characters into making a mistake that not only determines their own futures, but those of the other parties involved.

All things considered, I think we might call it a “lucky mistake”…

It must only be guest by Lovers, the perfect joy these two received in the sight of each other, Bellyuard received her as his Daughter, and the next day made her so with very great solemnity, at which were Vernole and Charlot; between Rinaldo and him was concluded a perfect Peace, and all thought themselves happy in this double Union…

27/12/2014

The Rival Princesses: or, The Colchian Court

RivalPrincesses1    Levan was very young when he ascended the Throne, and left to the care of George, Sovereign Prince of Libardian, his Uncle, Protector of the State, who observed religiously to acquit himself of that high Trust with all imaginable Honour, meriting the highest Praise for his generous Conduct to him; he honoured him with as tender an Affection, as if he had been his own Child, and always made his Advancement and Glory his chiefest study. He read him early Lessons of Glory, gave him to know, that nothing was so admirable in a Prince as Justice and Clemency; and that on the contrary, nothing was so blameable as Cruelty or Lenity. He led him to Wars, taught him to Conquer his first Fields, and always Crown’d him with Success and Glory: He learn’d to be couragious, martial, and fierce from his generous President: He began to be indefatigable in all his Undertakings; so that it was with a great deal of Pleasure the Protector saw all his Care so well rewarded, in the advantage the Prince of Colchis made of his Instructions.
    But as a Cloud to these excellent Qualities, he was unfortunately inspired with a Passion Incestuous and Criminal at once; he became Amorous of the Wife of the Prince his Uncle; all the ties of Blood and Gratitude were here of no other force but to engage him the more strongly: For our Appetites are often so depraved, as nothing has power to fix them but what is not allowable in us to gratifie them with; and the abhorrence which every reasonable man would have had for so injurious a Passion, was the motive that drew Levan the more strongly to it…

The year 1689 seems to have found English fiction in a state of transition. On one hand, this would appear to be the point at which the word “novel” finally put down roots in England, and writers stopped worrying so much about selling their fiction to the public as “a true story”. It is not hard to imagine that, in the wake of so much political turmoil, and so much propaganda, English readers began to find relief in stories that were just stories. At the same time, however, it is noticeable that nearly all the overt fiction published in 1689 by English writers was set either in the past, or in another country—and often both. Perhaps it was felt necessary that writing not only be apolitical, but be seen to be apolitical.

But with the receding of politics, alas!—the amatory intrigue returned to the forefront of fiction. While many of those that appeared in England in 1689 were of foreign origin – often, though not exclusively, French – an example of home-grown amatory fiction was the anonymous The Rival Princesses: or, The Colchian Court, which tells of destructive sexual passions amongst the ruling classes of Colchis. Though of little merit in itself, this rather ugly little fiction has won itself a tiny place in history by being the unacknowledged source for Mary Delarivier Manley’s successful 1696 play, The Royal Mischief. While Manley admitted to drawing upon Jean Chardin’s 1686 non-fiction work, Journal du Voiage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse (published in England as The Travels Of Sir John Chardin Into Persia) – a much more respectable model – later scholarship has demonstrated that The Royal Mischief is unquestionably an adaptation of The Rival Princesses. The main alteration made by Manley is a shift of emphasis towards the title characters, Homais and Bassima, who represent the two extremes of female conduct. The play retains the unjust fate of the virtuous Bassima (in fact restoring a worse fate that is threatened but forestalled in the novel), but also metes out justice to the licentious, ambitious Homais. The conclusion of The Rival Princesses is far more cynical.

Its setting is one of the more interesting things about The Rival Princesses, which opens with a description of the land and people; the author excusing himself (and I’m pretty sure it is *him*self) by commenting that not much is known about this area on the Black Sea, at least aside from its mythological significance. However, the setting is effectively irrelevant to the tale of illicit passion and sexual manoeuvring that follows. In a jerky bit of narrative, The Rival Princesses starts out by declaring the desire of Levan, Prince of Colchis, for Homais, the wife of his uncle, then takes a leap backwards and sideways:

George, Prince of Libardian, had espoused Homais Dorejan, of the great Family of the Chickalites, a princess more wicked, and more ambitious than any ever was: She is guilty of all the Passions a Lover’s Breast can be capable of; for such are the regards of her passionate, tender, and languishing Eyes, that she never looks but to command Love, and inspire Hope. The Character of her Soul is ambitious, deceitful, cruel, and unconstant; her inclinations are obscene, and often transports her to the excess of Debauch. But before we proceed, it may be necessary to give some account of the Life of a Person who has so considerable a share in the following Narrative…

Actually, it isn’t necessary at all; nor does the narrative describe her life. Instead it steps back no further than a few months to inform us of Homais’ abortive non-affair with Osman, brother-in-law of George of Libardian, “first Lord and Bassa” to the Court of Libardian, and later Vizier at the Court of Colchis.

This non-event sets the tone for too much of The Rival Princesses which, for a story about illicit passions on the rampage, offers very little sex but an astonishing amount of talk. There is passion, there is lust, there is pleading, there is negotiation, plotting and manoeuvring—pages and pages and pages of it—yet with the exception of a single encounter between Homais and a young nobleman called Ismeal, all other sex in this novel occurs within the confines of marriage. It’s all very odd, and frankly rather tiresome.

Otherwise, the one cogent fact that emerges during the early stages of The Rival Princesses is that Homais is sixteen years old. As for how exactly how a girl of her age and position ended up with “obscene inclinations” that “transports her to the excess of Debauch”, the narrator offers the following:

In Colchis the Women have an entire Liberty, and not at all after the manner of the Persians and the Turks their Neighbours: They carry themselves after their own inclinations, and never submit to the capriciousness of a Husband: Jealousie is there less absolute than in any other place, and it is not always that a Husband talks of Poysons and Poyniards, when his Wife plays him false…

…a statement which the narrative then goes out of its way to contradict.

Anyway—Homais and Osman fall in lust, but never manage to get it together. They are still in the negotiation phase when Homais falls equally in lust with Ismeal. She then decides she isn’t that interested in Osman, who retaliates with a display of indifference that he knows will fire her up again, as it does. The two of them are still playing power games when Homais and Ismeal do manage to get it together, after which Homais  – “having satisfied her curiosity at that point” – loses interest in him.

While Homais is still juggling Osman and Ismeal, she attracts the attention of George of Libardian; and since the only thing stronger than her “obscene inclinations” is her ambition for a crown, Homais begins working on her elderly admirer. This leads to a farcical sequence strangely out of step with the tone of the rest of The Rival Princesses, in which Homais’s three lovers call upon her one after the other. Osman ends up locked in the closet in her dressing-room, Ismeal ends up in the dressing-room, and George – escorted by Homais’ father – is presented to her as her future husband out in her reception-room. Having agreed to the marriage, Homais gets rid of her father and her fiancé and returns to Ismeal:

But it is time to return to the Bassa, whom we left in the Closet of Homais: How did he accuse Heaven and his hard Fate, for taking him from the Arms of this charming Woman! He remain’d in that cruel constraint for some moments, without any other use of Reason; and all his sense was employ’d in reproaching his irreconcilable Stars; at length his Resentments gave place to his Curiosity, and the desire he had of rejoining those Conversations which had been so cruelly interrupted; he listened attentively to hear if the Person was gone, whom he mistook for the Father of Homais, and heard sighs which could not proceed from any but passionate Lovers…

But in spite of the jokiness here, Homais, Osman and Ismeal eventually emerge from this tangle as sworn enemies, a situation with literally deadly consequences.

Homais marries George, who carries her away to his own territories where – not being so blindly infatuated as all that – he keeps her more or less imprisoned in solitude; she eventually gives birth to a son, Alexander. Meanwhile, the neighbouring territory of Abcas breaks its treaty with Colchis and sends an invading army. Osman ends up at the head of one section of the Colchian army, and is sent into Abcas. In the woods, he and his men find an isolated estate, occupied by a single noblewoman and her train. He falls instantly in love with the beautiful stranger, who is also strongly drawn to him, and leaves her free in violation of his duty.

Unfortunately for Osman, the beautiful stranger turns out to be Bassima, daughter of the king of Abcas—who is proposed as a bride for Levan, as a way of restoring the truce between Abcas and Colchis. And if this isn’t painful enough for Osman, he is sent to Abcas to act as Levan’s proxy in a ceremony of marriage. Much of the rest of The Rival Princesses is taken up with – are we detecting a theme here? – the abortive non-affair between Osman and Bassima; although in this case it is Bassima’s high sense of virtue and duty that keeps her faithful to Levan in spite of her feelings for Osman.

Meanwhile, Homais is not taking her virtual imprisonment lying down. She tries to persuade George to allow her to travel to the Court of Colchis to attend the celebrations of Levan’s marriage, but he will not allow it—ironically enough, because his sister has awakened his jealous suspicions of Osman. And, by the way, we should not lose sight of the fact, either through Osman’s lust for Homais or his (supposedly) sincere love for Bassima, that he is a married man. Osman does lose sight of it…and pays the price…

Homais’ determination to escape her husband gains even more momentum thanks to her growing obsession with Levan:

The Prince of Colchis had been represented to her, as the Prince in the World, the best made, and the most gallant. She began, upon these Reports, to entertain a great deal of Curiosity to see him; but that being impossible, she desired of the Prince her Husband, that he would send her the Pictures of the Prince and Princess of Colchis: He fail’d not to oblige her in this, not suspecting the fatal Consequence… She had both these Pictures in Miniature; and her Husband, seeing she affected them so much, caused that to be brought to her, which in great, represented the Prince of Colchis Victorious over the Abcas: She so excessively indulged the inclination she had to love him, that in a few days she felt all the pain that arises from the greatest passions; and she learnt with incredible joy, that Levan no longer lov’d the Princess, but to say better, was grown weary of her: She thought this a fit conjunction of time for her Designs; the Prince of Libardian she abhorred, and wicked, as I have described her, it is not to be wondred, that she engaged so forcibly in a passion incestuous and abominable…

Levan goes along with the proposed political marriage to Bassima, and is sufficiently physically attracted to her to be an attentive husband for a time; but he soon grows bored with her. He is looking around for a new interest when he receives a mysterious plea for help, along with the portrait of the most beautiful woman he has ever seen…

Although he discovers that the woman in the portrait is his aunt by marriage, this does nothing to abate Levan’s growing passion for her. He manages to get himself smuggled into the Castle of Phasia, where he and Homais finally meet:

The interview between two persons who had never seen each other, and yet were passionately in love, upon the sight of a Picture, must sure have something extraordinary. We confess it to you, Reader, that for our part we find it impossible to express to you the emotions of these two amiable people…

(“Amiable”?)

Homais’ ambition now extending far beyond merely escaping her husband, she turns her full battery upon Levan, confessing that she loves him but insisting that she is too virtuous to show him how much. The inflamed Levan immediately loses his head. His first action is to carry Homais off to Colchis, in the teeth of his uncle’s orders that she not leave his castle. There, he pursues her almost openly, to the grief and humiliation of Bassima and the outrage of George. Osman again throws himself at Bassima’s feet and swears his undying love for her, pleading with her to run away with him, but she again rejects his advances.

Unfortunately for all concerned, however, Osman’s passionate pleas to Bassima have been overheard by his wife—and never mind that she also heard Bassima saying “no”. Unable to see further than Osman’s love for Bassima, the Sultaness carries her tale of woe to Homais…who carries it (or at least, a version of it) to Levan:

…I would deny you to the Gods, should they ask you of me. I hate my Wife, since I found out her incommodious humour. Ah, my Lord, interrupted Homais, if your Majesty knew all, you would hate her for being too commodious; but the Protector has forbidden me to you that which I think in Honour you should know; and if your Highness commands me, I will tell it to you. If it be heinous enough to destroy her, returned the Prince, I would not be ignorant of it; for I am resolved to make use of the first pretence to ruine her; I desire nothing more than to get rid of her, that I may enjoy my charming Homais at liberty… My Uncle shall know I stand not in need any longer of his Government; he shall yield you to me, or I will dispeople Colchis as well as Libardian, and leave not a person alive in either Kingdom to dispute our Felicities…

Osman again tries to persuade Bassima to run away with him. She refuses, but agrees to put herself under the protection of the Prince of Libardian, who arranges to have Homais seized and transported with Bassima back to the Castle of Phasia. However, this arrangement suits Homais from every perspective: once more up close and personal with him, she manages to convince the still-besotted George that her relationship with Levan has been misrepresented to him; she sends a note to Levan, begging him to rescue her from her “tyrannical” husband; and she gets to spend quality time with Bassima…

She was now to visit the Princess, and eat with her; and her wicked Spirit carrying her very far, she imagined it easie to Poison her; the Prince of Colchis, she thought, would not dare to put her to Death, and till she was removed, her Ambition would never be gratify’d: Consulting then nothing but what that suggested, she took a large Diamond, and pounding it very small, called to her a trusty Confidant, who was to give the Princess her Drink…

Perversely enough, it could be argued that Homais does Bassima a favour. The literally spiked drink is slow-acting, and there is time for Levan to send troops to the Castle of Phasia to capture both Bassima and Osman. Osman by this time has resigned himself to dying either for or with Bassima, and yet hope springs eternal… Even as the troops batter upon the doors of the castle, he gives it one last college try:

Let us employ, my Princess, the time we have left, in revenging our selves by the highest Joys; send me not unblest to the shades: They have five Doors to force, which I took care to shut after me, before they enter this; we have leisure for a taste of Happiness; prevent the cruel Death my Enemies design me, by a more pleasing one; I promise my self, my Princess, in enjoying you, though it be amidst all this Tumult and Horror, so much delight, that if I survive the Minute to suffer the effects of my Enemy’s Sword, it will be without feeling the smart; the extasie will possess all my faculties; and if you love me, as you have said, you ought to prevent the pains of Death, or, which is worse, those I shall find by your denyl: Then kissing her mouth with all the eagerness of a passionate Adorer, They conclude me happy, my Princess, why will you not make me so? After Ages will not know our Innocence; and is it not the same thing to be culpable, as to be thought so? We have no time to lose, we hear them already forcing the Door that leads to this Apartment…

Bassima stands firm on the desirability of immaculate virtue, however – “Let us die Happy, for we die Innocent.” It is too much to say that Osman is convinced  by her arguments, rather, she gets the last word: Levan and his troops finally force that final locked door:

Carry him to the Dungeon of the Castle, cry’d Levan; load him with Irons, let not the Villain have Meat or Rest, till the hour of his Death. And for you, Madam, turning to Bassima, my Council shall determine your fate; if I considered my just Resentments, and not your being Daughter to a King, you should die this moment, to clear my Honour. Here he commanded her to be taken away, and would not hear her speak. Not long after, he assembled his Council, and decreed, She should be sent home to the King her Father, with her Hands and Nose cut off, and her eyes put out…

However, Homais’ spiked drink intervenes. Meanwhile, well, perhaps Bassima was a little overly optimistic in suggesting that Osman might “die happy”:

She…died that day, (of the Poison Homais had given her) the moment after she had heard the discharge of that Cannon, in which, by the cruel Order of the Prince of Colchis, Osman was cramm’d alive, and shot off into the Air, so that his Carkass shatter’d into a thousand pieces…

The Prince of Libardian escapes this bloodbath and raises an army to march against his nephew; but his real aim is not to conquer but to die honourably in battle, which he does—freeing Homais to marry Levan.

And, do you mind, the narrative then has the gall to express sympathy for Levan!?—because none of that was HIS fault, right!? Of course not!—not when any transgression on a woman’s part is inevitably the prelude to an orgy of betrayal, deception and murder:

…ungratefully repaying the Kindness and Fondness of that poor Prince, whom she had ruined. Ought not ladies then, to preserve their Vertue with care, for that once violated, what Crimes are they not guilty of? Whereas on the other side, it is very difficult for a Woman to be Criminal and Chaste.

Actually, it’s remarkably easy.

But let’s not fixate on this nonsense, but instead conclude with what, in context, almost amounts to a happy ending:

The wicked Homais was not long unmarried, and being the source of all the Injustice committed by Levan, she likewise revenged them upon him; he died by Poison, which she administred, to make room for the Coronation of her Son Alexander, and her own Regency…