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…

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8 Responses to “The Lucky Mistake”

  1. Some of these plot details give me a distinct feeling like Aphra might be itching to get sarcastic, but is restraining herself, presumably in order to have more mainstream success.

    • I don’t know about that – there’s no indication that English fiction generally was getting any less nasty at this point. I think it’s more likely that Behn was experimenting with styles again, which she never stopped doing.

  2. I think that a relative lack of knowledge of conditions in foreign lands makes it easier to write blatantly ahistorical fiction in them. On the other hand here we have the all-too-historical Cardinal Mazarin.

    As usual in these things, I’m always more interested in the story of the “younger, less beautiful, less rigidly moral” sister who has a bit of gumption rather than being The Heroine. Shakespeare got this right in Much Ado.

    • Oh, yes – me for the overlooked sister, too! I don’t mind Behn going the other way here, though, because she had already given us a very different pair of sisters in The Fair Jilt (in which, as you may recall, the elder tries to have the younger whacked for her fortune).

      I don’t think the English ever lost their sense that anything could happen in foreign countries (that’s the basis of the entire Gothic genre, after all). At this time it probably helped the transition to straight fiction to set the stories “over there”; also the existence of convents may also have been a factor. 🙂

  3. You mean the previous snideness may have just been a fashion that she was conforming to?

    I don’t think she was conforming to anything, I think it was a dog-eat-dog period and that’s reflected in most of the writing. But—it is interesting that her tone shifts so often, for example from the shocking-ness of The Fair Jilt to the black humour of The History Of The Nun to the generation gap romance in The Lucky Mistake. I think it’s likely she was, not writing to the marketplace as such, but writing to see what sold best.

  4. It’s of course a minor point, but I don’t think the “generous” bit is ironical.

    If I’m not mistaken, generosity, at the time, meant putting your honor first and foremost. A nobleman’s honor was conceived to be imparted to him by his ancestors ( generosity being derived from genus ); his task was to clear it if it had been stained, to maintain it if it was pristine.
    Thus according to ideas that still held sway at the time in the nobility, count De Pais is being generous in preferring death to marriage with wealthy commoners for his daughters, as it would soil the bloodline.

    Obviously Aphra Behn considers this attitude inhuman, but she does so from another set of values, emphasizing happiness and freedom of the individual, that were gaining in strength at the time. What I believe she is doing there is stating the consequences of “generosity” and expecting the readers to side with her; still there is no denying that some would have felt “better my daughters dead than married to some unsuitable fellow” was the right thing and praised De Pais.

    In short, she is not, if I understand correctly, satirizing De Pais for not being ; she is attacking him for being .

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