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…

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6 Responses to “The Rival Princesses: or, The Colchian Court”

  1. “The conclusion of The Rival Princesses is far more cynical.” From Manley? Say it ain’t so!

    My word, though, what an expenditure of purple for nobody to end up in the situation they want. (Well, Homais, I suppose.)

    • Oh, yes, this was a real eye-glazer at points—“My God, will you people shut up and do something about it!?” I did get a good laugh out of Osman’s desperate last pleas, though.

      Manley turns it into a rumination on female power, or the lack thereof, and the contemporary dictum that a talking woman is a wicked woman. Bassima lives up to the dictum, refuses to defend herself even though she is innocent, and dies horribly (but silent). Homais also dies horribly – not as horribly – but has a much better run for her money first, winning power-struggles and manipulating people through her command of words.

  2. So just how easy is it for a Woman to be Criminal and Chaste? Do you speak from personal experience? We want details.

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