A Duchess And Her Daughter

mason1b    Even in far off Spain, when the news of the Duke of Valenzuela’s death reached there, a year after the event, the King and the Spanish Cardinals tucked away in a corner of their minds the question of the future husband of the new Duchess. Now the question of the future husband had emerged from its corner and was beginning to occupy the centre of the stage. King and Cardinals weighed the merits—more often the demerits—of a score of young noblemen who burned with chivalric zeal to make the young heiress—and themselves—happy. Two or three of these young men slipped out of Cadiz and were already on the high seas bound for Caracas. Also on the high seas was the King’s order that the marriage of the Duchess should await the Royal decision. And then—
    And then a rumour, a fantastic story, an impossible tale, crept along the Orinoco in canoes, plodded over the plains and climbed the Andes on mules, galloped through the streets of Caracas on horses. It was first whispered, then said, then shouted that while King and Church and State were deciding who was to marry the Duchess of Valenzuela, that headstrong girl had decided the matter for herself; had married; and had married a nobody…

If I were “the best woman in the world, M. K. W. M.”, I don’t know that I would be particularly flattered by having Alfred Bishop Mason’s A Duchess And Her Daughter dedicated to me: this is a strange and rather unpleasant work of historical fiction; “historical” in that it is set in the past, anyway—predominantly in 18th century Venezuela, a choice unusual enough to make it somewhat disappointing that the novel is not really “about” that, with the Spanish colony simply providing an exotic backdrop for the characters. As for the characters themselves, as far as I have been able to determine they are entirely fictional, which makes the whole exercise seem a little—well, pointless.

This is, as its title suggests, the story of a mother and daughter; but not their lives together: A Duchess And Her Daughter is a novel of two halves. The first half is tough going indeed, partly because Dolores – the Duchess of the title – is such a nasty bit of work, and partly because of the degree of violence in the story, including sexual violence. The second half, focusing upon Alegra, the daughter, is more interesting in a number of ways – Alegra is a far more engaging individual than her mother – but just because we do like her, the direction of the narrative is difficult to take.

A Duchess And Her Daughter begins in the middle of the 18th century, when the Conde de Arcetri is banished from Spain to the wilds of Venezuela for the heinous sin of marrying a woman “as good as she is beautiful”—but not noble. The two have a child, the fair and lovely Dolores, who grows to young womanhood chiefly under the care of the servants, and puts her own spin on her mother’s character by being as selfish and wilful as she is beautiful. When she is sixteen her parents die as a result of a spotted fever epidemic, and Dolores falls into the clutches of the Duke of Valenzuela.

On the principal of it being better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, the Duke of Valenzuela chose to exile himself to Venezuela after being ruled against in a matter of court precedence, his family deemed to rank below that of Medina-Sidonia: “The heralds-at-arms had been bribed and bought.” (This is the Duke’s point of view: the real family of Medina-Sidonia holds the oldest dukedom in Spain, whereas the dukedom of “Valenzuela” is fictional; although the family name of the marquisate of Villasierra is “Valenzuela”.) The Duke is an unhappy man for many reasons, not least his wife’s failure to give him the son and heir he craves. His only minor consolation is that he has succeeded in acquiring “a younger son of a younger son” of the family of Medina-Sidonia as his chaplain, gaining a morose satisfaction out of Father Josè’s subordinate position in his household.

So far from the government seat in Caracas, the Duke’s power is absolute, and there is no-one capable of interfering when he takes an interest in a woman – with or without her consent; a father who tries is tortured to death. When the death of her parents leaves Dolores alone, the Duke turns up in the guise of a respectful mourner and potential guardian, bringing an invitation from his Duchess that Dolores should make her home with them. Longing to escape from her lonely existence and ugly surroundings, Dolores accepts—and soon realises that she has made a terrible mistake. The Duchess is not at home, nor is she expected for some days…

After the first shock, Dolores takes her rape surprisingly well; disturbingly well. She is more upset by having to confront the Duchess when she returns from her visiting. The Duke, however, has already had a word with his wife:

    “You were a fool to come here without knowing I was here. A man must have his diversions. Mother-of-God, what else could pay him for living in this dreary country? Make the best of it. He is mad for a son of his own. If I could have given him one , he would have been as good a husband as a great gentleman can be. Bear him a son. The boy will be baptised as mine. Then we will adopt you as our daughter. You can go back to Spain with us and I will make a great match for you there. It is hard to follow my advice? He will make you follow the first part of it. Stop your silly sobs. Remember your race. Be proud that you are to mother the next Duke of Valenzuela.”
    The great lady leaned back in her chair of state, languid and silent. The Duke had told her what to say and she had said it. She did not wish to be further bothered with the affair…

And so Dolores becomes the third point of a ménage à trois. The Duke grows increasingly obsessed with her, sexually and as the potential mother of his son; but as soon as his fixation upon her gives her the ascendancy, Dolores grows bored with him. Instead she turns her eyes in quite another direction:

    Amid all his flock, Don Josè felt akin only to this flower-like girl and his very soul was shaken by the thought of her sin. She had, indeed, been forced into it, but was she really repentant? She had confessed the sin, but in a strange way. She had asked for absolution. He had told her he must think it over. Outside the confessional she had pouted over the delay. She was really adorable when she pouted. At this point in his pastoral meditation, Don Josè made a gallant, but unsuccessful, attempt to remember that he was not a man, but a priest.
    The confession had been rather startling, not only in substance, but in detail. Priest and penitent were separated as usual in the confessional, but they saw each other many times a day and perforce knew each other well. Even with a pierced plank between them, they were acutely conscious of each other as man and woman, young man and young woman. And when the penitent seemed to assume that the priest was a sexless Methusaleh and went into amatory detail with a frankness that left nothing unsaid, Father Josè had had a terrible tussle with Don Josè…
    Dolores had much enjoyed that confession. It was piquant to talk to a man about such things, especially to a man as handsome and as well-born as Don Josè. If the Duke were only like Don Josè, she mused…

Father Josè is devoutly religious and committed to his calling. He is also a man of great courage, which earns him the respect – and more importantly, the restraint – of Juan Paez, the local bandit chief, the son of an Indian woman and a runaway slave, who encourages the practice of “the old religion” and leads period raids against the Spanish settlers. But in battle with Dolores, Father Josè stands no chance. The girl stalks him, teasing and tormenting him until he is almost driven mad with his desire for her. He tries to avoid her, praying constantly for strength and even locking himself in his cell; but the end is inevitable:

The third night—it was four days before the Duke and Duchess were due—she came softly into his sala, put her finger on her lip, held him back with her left hand, and turned into the chapel. He followed as if he had been her dog. The moonlight fell upon the altar and across the ledge of stone in front of it, the ledge with the rich Moorish rug. In front of the altar she kissed him. In front of the altar she let fall her outer garment. In front of the altar her glorious arms and her marvellous breasts gleamed. She lay herself prone of the altar-rug…

The affair continues for some weeks but finally the tortured Father Josè tears himself away, withdrawing  from the Valenzuela household, retreating to an isolated Dominican monastery. In answer to the Duke’s request for a new confessor, he sends Fray Federigo, “a fat and aged friar”—much to Dolores’s amusement. Already certain she is pregnant by the priest, she announces the glad tidings to the Duke and Duchess; glad tidings for both, he because of his yearning for a son, she because the end of her Venezuelan exile seems finally in sight. But fate has other things in store for both…

Upon entering the Valenzuela household, Dolores is reunited with her foster-sister, Maria, an Indian girl, who was sent away when Dolores was ten and taken into the service of the Duchess—whom she hates. She learns to hate her even more for Dolores’s sake. Maria’s grandmother was a medicine woman, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft, but not before passing on her knowledge. Just before Dolores is due to give birth, the Duchess is taken violently ill and dies. Torn between her horror of what Maria has done and her soaring ambition, Dolores insists upon the Duke marrying her immediately and legitimising their child. Almost before the cowed and frightened Fray Federico can complete the hurried ceremony, Dolores is in labour. The child is—a girl.

The Duke is not really disappointed: the title and estates of Valenzuela may be inherited directly by a daughter in her own right, and if the right husband is found the title of Duke can be bestowed upon him. The Duke, indeed, is devoted to the lovely Alegra. When the child is five, Sister Isabel of Santa Clara, a convent in the town of San Fernando, arrives bearing credentials from the Archbishop of Caracas. The warm-hearted Alegra soon loves her instructress, and begins calling her “tia”, “aunt”—to which Dolores takes exception, on the grounds that they know nothing of the nun’s antecedents:

    The sister picked up the gage of battle that had been flung at her feet. “Before I made my vows,” she said, “I was the Countess of Estramadura; I was born a Medina-Sidonia; I am the sister of a holy man, formerly a priest, now a Dominican monk, who used to be chaplain here. It was probably before Your Grace’s time. He was Father Josè when he was at San Fernando.”
    Sister Isabel said this with a placid saintliness of face and of manner. There was no suggestion in her beautiful eyes of any hidden knowledge of the past. But the Duchess changed colour…

For five years life continues placidly; too placidly for Dolores, who longs to be queening it in Caracas instead of trapped in the middle of nowhere; she is bored with her life and doubly bored with her husband. However, the Duke is an old man now and reluctant to take his beautiful young wife into society, as so keeps reneging on his promises about visiting Caracas. The Duchess is just beginning to lend a willing ear to Maria’s dark counsel regarding her marriage when all plans become redundant. Juan Paez and his followers are on the warpath, sweeping across the Spanish settlements in an orgy of bloodshed and torture. Before the raiders reach San Fernando, Alegra and Sister Isabel are successfully concealed in a secret room in the church; but after their resistance is overborne, both the Duke and Duchess meet a gruesome fate…

Juan Paez, too, is killed during this final confrontation, and subsequently there is peace in the district. Alegra, now Duchess of Valenzuela and owner of vast wealth and estates both in Venezuela and Spain, continues to live in her father’s house under the care of Sister Isabel. As she grows into womanhood, she takes upon herself the management of her property and of the many branches of her trading businesses, by which she sends her goods to all corners of the globe, and by which she becomes almost unimaginably rich. She also devotes herself to the welfare of her peons—although the church firmly dissuades her from schemes for their education.

Naturally, Alegra represents a marital prize of the first order. She is herself aware of this—and also that it is only a matter of time before a husband is forced upon her by the King of Spain, eager to keep a grip on her vast possessions. Unless, of course, she can find a way of forestalling her fate…

Alegra begins to make frequent visits to the tiny village of Yriarte, which is near to the river-port town of Angostura, one of the centres of Alegra’s business interests. Overtly she is calling upon a native of Yriarte, a woman called Juana who, though clumsy and unattractive, has a rare skill for embroidery. Sister Isabel grows suspicious of these visits, certain that Alegra is up to something but unable to imagine what—and what could she be up to in a muddy hole like Yriarte? Like everyone else at San Fernando, Sister Isabel is staggered and disbelieving when Alegra finally does return home—because she does not come alone:

The nun seized the wedding-certificate, read it, looked with amazed eyes at the winner of this matrimonial prize, tried to congratulate her ward, broke down and left the room. The groom, meanwhile, had stood in awkward silence. He was, thank God, of unmixed Spanish descent, but there all thankfulness ended. He was almost as plain as his wife was beautiful. Despite his size, he did not look at all manly. His tiny moustache was no larger than many Spanish women had then and have now. A peasant and a very lout.

Sister Isabel is so profoundly offended by the marriage, the fact of it and Alegra’s secrecy, that she makes it her excuse to withdraw and return to her convent, in spite of Alegra’s pleas that she stay:

    When she said good-bye, the Duchess clung to her and cried, but the nun’s chill aloofness never left her. So long a companionship between two noble souls ended. So the love between them seemed to end, at least on Sister Isabel’s side. But love has its “ashes of roses” and within those ashes embers may live long, and may sometimes be fanned into flame again.
    There is no record of the nun’s first meeting with her brother, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior of the Convent of St Dominic, at Caracas…

News of Alegra’s marriage to Juan de Mendoza travels across Venezuela like an earthquake, and explodes like a bomb at the Court of Spain—but what can they do? – a marriage is a marriage, no matter how scandalous. As for the happy couple— Alegra goes back to running her estates and her businesses, while Juan fills much of his time in hunting up in the mountains; an acceptable pursuit for a man in his position. Eyebrows are raised, however, and tongues begin to wag, when during his time at home, he takes up embroidery.

The main difference in Alegra’s life brought by her marriage is that she is able to receive many more guests into her home. The world outside is changing; more visitors come every day to Venezuela, and those that arrive in San Fernando and in Angostura inevitably call upon the beautiful and gracious Duchess. Some are invited to stay. One of these is John Winthrop, the owner of a thriving commercial concern based in Salem, who has decided to spend some time in command of one of his own trading sloops.

The attraction between the handsome young American and the beautiful Duchess is immediate and deep, but of course the entire situation is impossible, as they equally recognise: she is a married woman, and he is a heretic. Winthrop is well aware he should leave, but day by day – then month by month – he lingers in Angostura. Meanwhile, Winthrop’s second-in-command, Henry Lyman, strikes up an unexpected friendship with Juan de Mendoza; the two begin taking lengthy hunting trips together up into the mountains, staying away for weeks on end. From one of these trips, Lyman returns in a panic, urging Winthrop to leave Angostura—then revealing that he must leave, and not alone:

He hesitated a long time, then let out a torrent of words. “This Don Juan, the Duchess’s husband, as you think and as everybody thinks, isn’t her husband, or anybody’s husband. He couldn’t be anybody’s husband. He’s a woman. And he—she—is with child by me. I must take her home and marry her and make an honest woman of her. And to do that we must start straightaway.”

As Lyman’s urgency indicates, he has in fact delayed his departure with Juan – Juana – past the point where it is safe for anybody; and although Winthrop immediately arranges for the couple’s departure, Juana goes into labour before they are well clear of the territory and Lyman must dock the ship and go in search of a midwife. Naturally, the news gets out. And if the story of the Duchess’s scandalous marriage rocked both Venezuela and Spain, it was as nothing compared to the fallout from this belated revelation about her “husband”. But before anyone has even had a chance to absorb the implications of the situation, yet another shockwave emanates from Angostura: the Duchess of Valenzuela has married a heretic…

To John Winthrop’s way of thinking, the revelation about Juana clears his path to Alegra, but for her the matter is hardly so simple. Winthrop, though he cannot promise conversion, does promise that he will study the matter; further, that he will never interfere with Alegra’s own religious practice, and that their children may be raised in the Catholic faith. Even so, Father Felipe, Alegra’s confessor, refuses to marry them—at least at first. The headstrong Duchess, having already bullied one frightened priest into “marrying” her to Juana Godina, now resorts to blackmail: she will either be John Winthrop’s wife or his mistress—Father Felipe may choose. Knowing Alegra, the priest also knows this isn’t a bluff. Consoling himself with the reflection that, occasionally, exceptions have been made and such marriages permitted, he does as the Duchess demands:

A year passed by. The lovers knew well the recipe for a happy marriage, to go on making love after marriage as before it. They practiced the recipe. Only those few happy souls who have known a great love can imagine what that year was. Its joys were worth more than all the sorrows that followed it…

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with A Duchess And Her Daughter: twelve months of marital bliss are skipped over in five sentences, and then we return to our previously scheduled ugliness and violence.

Alegra and John get their year simply because both communication and decision-making are slow processes. While the Duchess’s first marriage was a scandal, and the circumstances of its subsequent dissolution grounds for ribald laughter and obscene jokes, her marriage to a heretic – and the danger of her vast property passing into the hands of that heretic – is an outrage not to be borne. Spain begins to make plans for dire retribution, and gets as far as having the marriage annulled via a papal decree; but before it can take further action it is forestalled by Caracas, where the Inquisition holds ultimate power. Without warning, John Winthrop is arrested and imprisoned; a token trial ends in a unanimous vote that he be burned at the stake during the upcoming auto-da-fè. The Grand Inquisitor at this time is none other than our old friend, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia.

Despite her many transgressions, Alegra maintains her standing as a Grandee of Spain, and on this basis she obtains a private interview with the Grand Inquisitor. She offers him a bargain: if he will save John Winthrop’s life, she will enter a convent and  donate her entire possessions to the Church. At length Don Josè accepts, conniving at Alegra’s scheme to fool Winthrop with the lie that she will join him in a few days: she knows he will not leave otherwise. By the time he learns the truth, she will be beyond his reach forever.

Of course, there’s just one problem with this plan: the people of Caracas have been promised the burning of a heretic. Not to worry:

    The chief role in the procession, a role that eclipsed even those of the Grand Inquisitor, the Archbishop and the Governor, that of John Winthrop, English heretic, was played by a man as amazed as he was scared, a certain low-class Spaniard, Juan Galapagos by name, who had been awakened that morning from a sound sleep and advised to dress quickly, breakfast quickly and confess quickly, because he was to be burned alive. As the offence imputed to him had been only that of presenting himself with unclean hands at the communion service, it had never occurred to him that he ran the slightest risk of such a fiery doom. In fact, it was another man whom the Grand Inquisitor had remembered as a truculent ruffian…
    When he realised from the maledictions showered upon him that he was supposed to be Winthrop, hope came back to him, poor fool that he was. It was all a mistake; he would explain it and be set free. His manacled hands forbade the tearing off of the yellow bonnet with a peaked top that hid his face, but he began shouting: “I’m not the Englishman! I’m Spanish! I’m Juan Galapagos! Let me out! It’s a mistake! I’m not the Englishman!”
    A lay-brother deftly gagged him with a long scarf. When he threw himself upon the ground, he was prodded to his feet by sword-pricks, while the crowd roared approval and cursed the English heretic for his cowardice. A moment later he was bound to the stake that had awaited Winthrop. It so happened, doubtless because the foreign heretic was the wickedest of all the victims, that when the tiny flames were but beginning to crackle at the feet of the others, they had crept to his shoulders. When the mounting fire licked away the scarf that had gagged him, his screams and blasphemies made the exit of the heretic Englishman to hell deeply gratifying to the pious folk of Caracas. “I did not know the Englishman knew so much Spanish,” said the Governor laughingly.

The circumstances of their separation are more easily borne by Alegra, who is sustained by her faith. Over the years that follow she becomes celebrated for her tireless work amongst the poor and the sick—“Santa Alegra”. She dies loved and mourned by multitudes. But she has one last shock in store, one final act of defiance:

    When she was being arrayed for the great function of her burial, her shocked sister nuns found affixed to the back of the crucifix she always wore the miniature of a man, of a man who had been condemned to the stake for heresy and who, they thought, had died at the stake. They sent in haste for Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior, bishop and Grand Inquisitor, and showed him the awful thing. “What shall we do with it, Reverend Father?” they asked.
    “Do with it? Leave it as it is and bury it with the saint who wore it.”

It is some time before John Winthrop can accept that he has lost his wife forever but, after several bouts of near-fatal illness, and some equally dangerous attempts to see Alegra, he finally tears himself away from Venezuela. He returns to his old life in Salem, but he is not the same man. His business thrives but emotional life he has none. His experiences have left something inside him crippled.

Many years later, Salem is startled by the arrival of a monk—and even more so when the monk takes up residence with John Winthrop.  Unable in his pride to keep the secret of his relationship to “Santa Alegra”, Don Josè has been stripped of everything and exiled. He carries to Winthrop the news of Alegra’s death, and her last message to him—her plea that he convert so that they might meet again. As he promised Alegra he would while begging her to marry him, Winthrop begins to study her faith.

It is very difficult to be sure how the concluding stages of A Duchess And Her Daughter are supposed to be taken. The novel is shot through with anti-Catholicism – the “narrow-mindedness” and “bigotry” of the characters is mentioned again and again, while the plot repeatedly turns on what is presented as the “moral flexibility” offered by confession and absolution; and that’s before we start dwelling on the horrors of the Inquisition – and yet the story concludes with its hero’s conversion; albeit that we get here one of the few glimmers of humour to be found in this grim tale:

Then came the event that startled Salem as the old town had never been startled before. John Winthrop made a public profession of his new faith in the little Roman Catholic chapel in a by-street of Salem. It was a thunder-clap. Friends of a lifetime fell away from him. Widows and maidens stared aghast upon this lost soul. It was suggested that the community should cease to do any business with him. The two banks of Salem, in the first flush of the shocked hostility, agreed not to lend him any money, but they did not tell him so, partly because he had not borrowed any money for years and partly because each feared the withdrawal of the ample funds that stood to his credit on its depositors’ ledger. He was a merchant prince who financed his own ventures. Moreover his Midas touch did not seem to have deserted him. The grim New England God seemed to hesitate about punishing a Winthrop…

And what are we to make of what we must assume to be John Winthrop’s vision of his reunion with Alegra?

In the chapel to the right of the great doorway of the cathedral at Caracas…John Winthrop lies in peace, his skeleton feet some eighteen inches from Alegra’s, awaiting the Last Trump, when he and she are again to spring up triumphant, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, throbbing with love, pulsating with joy…

Really? Granted, I’m no expert; but I always thought of the afterlife as being a lot less—well, fleshy. Then it occurred to me to wonder—is that what Don Josè told John Winthrop to get him to convert?

Advertisements

7 Comments to “A Duchess And Her Daughter”

  1. It’s too bad that turned out to be a nasty read, because in outline form it sounds rather interesting.

  2. Other than that poor man being burned in place of the ‘heretic’, this does sound interesting. It would make a great telenovela, which could last for years. Although the 12 months of perfect wedded happiness would still take only about 5 minutes.

    • Offtopic, sorry, but – there are telenovelas that last for *years*?! I preferred them to American soap partly because they weren’t as long. I just have no patience for neverending stuff (says a Doctor Who fan… well, there are always exceptions).

  3. I believe that the term “telenovela” is used informally for both limited-run and indefinite-run soap operas, though I know it as the limited-run format.

    I know Medina-Sidonia mostly because of the 7th Duke, who got thrown at the Spanish Armada after the Marquis of Santa Cruz died. Decent enough administrator, poor fellow, but he’d never been to war or to sea.

    I wonder whether Venezuela was used as a substitute for the imaginary countries that previous centuries’ romances had invented – after all, this was apparently published in 1929, so you could hardly say “a land far overseas” any more. The Venezuelan oil boom had been big news from the early to mid 1920s.

    Indeed, this feels like a very old-fashioned sort of book (same sort of anti-Catholic stuff you find in Mussolini’s The Cardinal’s Mistress from a few years earlier) and one wonders whether Mason had a political reason for writing it as he did. (Mason doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, but M.K.W.M. does!)

  4. It *is* interesting, but over the length of it the misery wears you down.

    I think “telenovela” is mostly used in the sense of “mini-series”, i.e. a fixed and pre-determined length.

    Yes, the mixing of real and fake dukedoms is a bit odd. Perhaps Venezuela was chosen as the furthest colony from Spain, at least in terms of the pace of communication? A lot of the plot depends on Spain not hearing about things until it’s way too late anyway. On the other hand your point about Venezuela having been in the news is probably correct.

    This book put me very much in mind of A Queen After Death (and not just for its tendency to linger over gruesome executions)—though of course that was about real people. I’m still struggling to find an obvious point to this particular work.

  5. I didn’t think of telenovelas being mainly limited-run. I always thought of them as amped-up soap operas. And this one would be long, just because it covers 2 generations.
    But the 12 months of connubial bliss would still be only about 5 minutes. Fast-forward to the Agony portion!

  6. This seems like a nasty story….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: