The season of delusion is past, and the reign of reason restored—I turn back, ashamed to have sacrificed my youth to such fallacious pursuits, and to have vested so important a matter as my happiness on the fidelity of a woman who was unworthy of esteem—without doing myself the justice to consider the caprices of the sex. Blinded by my passion, I hurried on with heedless temerity, until the power of recovering myself was lost—
Or if I saw at all, it was with the partial eye of generous affection, that eagerly magnified every trait of merit in my mistress; whilst she, cunningly conscious of the weakness of love, with subtle dissimulation, moulded me to her will; and when a series of lengthened unkindness, or rather cruelty, had loosened the attachment, I was simple enough to be lured by a siren smile, and suffer the momentary gratification which resulted from it, to counterbalance an age of lingering anxiety.
Thus self-betrayed into the snare, I hugged my chains, and thought even captivity sweet…
I’m beginning to worry that I’m not giving the novelists of the late 18th century enough credit—or at least, I’ve noted a worrying tendency in myself, every time I come across something interesting in an obscure novel, to add a rider to the effect of, “It was probably accidental.”
But is it always accidental? This is the question raised in my mind by Sydney St. Aubyn, an epistolary novel from 1794, which on the surface is yet another tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but which gradually reveals itself as something rather different; different and, yes, interesting. Which is to say, it still is a tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but the message it leaves us with is not the one we are led to expect.
I don’t know much – in fact, I don’t really know anything – about John Robinson, the author of Sydney St. Aubyn, except that he wrote several novels in addition to some poetry. (As you would appreciate, the name “John Robinson” is not a great aid to research.) I can only say that I’m now tempted to try his other works of fiction, to see whether what struck me as so interesting about this novel might indeed have been a deliberate exercise in misleading the reader.
At any rate, my opinion of Sydney St. Aubyn differs from that of whoever originally owned the copy of the novel now held by the Houghton Library of Harvard University, who saw fit to express his feelings about the novel’s two leading female characters by way of marginalia.
Unusually, this work opens in the immediate wake of a broken engagement, with our eponymous hero – or at least, protagonist – pouring out his heart-break and his sense of betrayal in a letter to his friend, Stafford Sullivan. But although St. Aubyn swears to abjure any further thought of Augusta Conway, his love for her dies hard; so that subsequently he finds himself caught between his lingering passion for his former fiancée and a new attraction towards a girl called Emily Alderton. Both women are conveyed to the reader via the usual descriptors of the sentimental novel: Augusta is damned via words like “haughty”, “imperious” and “headstrong”, while we know all we need to about Emily when we hear about, A tear—which started into the lovely girl’s eye, and stood there a glistening monument of wounded sensibility.
Tempora mutantur, and all that: Augusta, with her moods and uncertainties, and the constant impression given of motives beyond the ones declared, is a far more interesting character than that bundle of boring perfections, Emily. So I say, but evidently the owner of this book disagreed with me. Here is his opinion of Emily, who declares her predilection for St. Aubyn in a letter to her sister, Harriet:
And here, conversely, is his opinion of Augusta, expressed at the conclusion of a letter to St. Aubyn, who, she believes, is revenging himself upon her by drawing from her a confession that she still cares for him, even as he courts Emily Alderton:
I haven’t quite been able to decipher the adjective – any suggestions? – but I don’t think there’s much doubt about the noun.
Sydney St. Aubyn opens with a flurry of letters between St. Aubyn and his friend, Sullivan, and between Augusta and her friend, Louisa Wentworth—the latter horrified that Augusta has broken such a long-standing engagement, and certain that she is at fault. Augusta’s letters are masterpieces of circumlocution, but it eventually emerges that she has come to believe that St. Aubyn is the father of an orphan they have both been providing for. The child is that of a young woman seduced and abandoned, who was taken in by a cottager, and who died after giving birth. Augusta does not believe St. Aubyn’s protestations of innocence, which he makes both to her outside the scope of the novel, and in his letters to Sullivan.
Moreover, Augusta has reacted to the breaking of her engagement by immediately contracting another, to a Colonel Alderton—much to Louisa’s doubt, Sullivan’s scorn, and St. Aubyn’s mingled misery and indignation. St. Aubyn’s health begins to suffer, and he takes himself off to the spa town of Matlock, in Derbyshire, where he finds a friend in a fellow-sufferer—a Colonel Alderton.
Long story short, Augusta’s betrothed – who has been pressing for an early marriage – is actually a penniless Irish adventurer called Douglas, who has been posing as a man known both as a military hero and as having a comfortable fortune of his own. The imposture is exposed by Sullivan, who makes it his business to inquire into this multiplicity of Aldertons, but actually recognises Douglas from an earlier encounter.
Douglas’s subplot is one of the stranger aspects of Sydney St. Aubyn. He starts out looking like the villain of the piece, but – after a series of largely comic experiences – undergoes repentence and redemption and allowed to have a happy ending. It turns out that (i) Douglas is the father of the illegitimate child, and (ii) the child’s mother faked her own death as a way of separating herself permanently from her lover, leaving her baby as part of her self-inflicted punishment. She and Douglas are eventually reunited and marry, and presumably live happily ever after. They’re about the only people in this novel who do.
Douglas, peculiarly enough, given the nature of his introduction into the plot, functions as the comic relief for much of Sydney St. Aubyn. Left without resources in the wake of the failure of his plan to marry Augusta’s fortune, he ends up joining an acting troupe—we are not surprised that he turns out to have a natural aptitude. What might surprise us – or at least, amuse us – is the role in which he has his first success:
The play I fixed upon to make my entré in, was “Oroonoko”—and on the awful day appointed, it was announced with all the honours of a country play-bill—besides all other embellishments, it set forth “how this tragedy was a particular favourite on the London stage, and drew crouded audiences—representing a royal black prince in chains, and how his fair Imoinda, from whom he was separated when taken prisoner, afterwards came into the country where he was captive, and how she there met with her long-lost lord—and at last how they died for each other, &c. &c.”…
Presently, Oroonoko was led forth in chains—my figure was striking, and I was welcomed with plaudits—this encouraged me, and I went thro’ my part tolerably well—but owing to the absence of one of our company, who was reported to be in a state of ebriety at a neighbouring ale-house, we were under the necessity of making free with the whole of the third act, and dividing the last into two—this was reckoned a harmless stratagem, and had often been practised.—The play was concluded, and Oroonoko retired with distinguished applause…
(Though intended as a joke, this interlude highlights the fact that, although Aphra Behn and her writing became increasingly unacceptable over time, dramatic adaptations of Oroonoko remained popular right through the 18th century and beyond.)
Meanwhile, our central characters are getting themselves into one hell of a mess. Determined to put his relationship with Augusta behind him, St. Aubyn begins courting Emily Alderton, when she comes to Matlock to be with her brother. Emily is immediately swept off her feet, as she confesses in a letter to her sister:
A bold assertion this, Harriet, and will carry with it a sort of whisper that your Emily’s affections are in danger.—
I despise the poor artifices of dissimulation—and were I to say that I could observe with indifference such a happy assemblage of amiable qualities in one form, I must have some motive—unworthy of myself.—Genuine merit commands the ready suffrage of sensibility, and on such an occasion, conscious innocence may chearfully stand forward to offer it…
The resplendence of St. Aubyn’s character, bursting upon me at once, captivated my yielding senses—and I could love the man, were it only for his humble unaffected modesty, his mild unassuming delicacy, and in short for those endearing graces which he so evidently possesses, as the pure inheritance of nature.—
I am only alluding to the accomplishments of his mind—his person deserves a separate panegyric.
And when I tell you that it is everything I could wish for in a lover, you will conclude that nature has also been equally liberal there…
And St. Aubyn writes likewise to Sullivan:
Emily Alderton came to Matlock, and won my affections.—I surrendered my heart, shattered as it had been by a former successless flame, whilst the lovely maid, unconscious of its imperfections, tenderly and fondly accepted it.
Yes, Stafford, she heard the ingenuous avowal of my love with melting sensibility—and proved to me that her soul, all purity itself, suspected not the integrity of another.
Then happiness spread forth her alluring blandishments, and I began to forget all I had suffered.
The hours flew away on silken wings—and Emily and St. Aubyn lived only for each other—blest in the delicious confidence, the happy intercourse of Love…
And so matters stand – that is (just to be perfectly clear), St Aubyn has declared his love for Emily but not formally proposed marriage – when he learns that Augusta Conway is in Matlock…
In the wake of the exposure of the false “Colonel Alderton”, Augusta suffers a collapse that, we gather, has its basis in humiliated pride rather than wounded affections. She also makes a wild declaration to her friend, Louisa, that she will never marry—a declaration that she then spends a fair chunk of the novel trying to take back. (It is touches like this that, while they condemn Augusta utterly in terms of the genre that contains her, make her so much more real to the modern reader than the personality-less Emily.) To assist her convalescence, Augusta’s doctor orders her to a watering-place of her choice…
St. Aubyn is thrown into a panic by Augusta’s arrival, and more so when he receives a note from her requesting him to call upon her. Augusta is in the immediate wake of her pledge never to marry and tells him so, offering her friendship on that basis. She also explains her misapprehension about the paternity of the orphan and apologises for doubting him. Augusta’s unwonted humility and gentleness overset all of St. Aubyn’s good intentions, and he ends up all but renewing his vows to her, leaving her with an assurance that he sees her proffered friendship only as the first step to their reconciliation.
Once parted from Augusta, however, St. Aubyn can see nothing but his untenable situation with respect to Emily Alderton…a situation which is no secret to the other visitors to Matlock, and which very soon comes to Augusta’s ears. Concluding that St. Aubyn’s intention has been to lead her on and then spurn her, as revenge for her breaking of their engagement, she experiences torments of humiliation beside which her sufferings in the wake of Douglas’s exposure are nothing:
At the moment when, like another knight of the woeful countenance, he ventured into my presence, trembling with confusion, his brow overspread with a modest, mild complacency, artfully endeavouring to exact from me an engagement that amounted to a pledge of my affections, do you know, my dear, that he was absolutely betrothed to another?
And your friend Augusta was to have been the mortified dupe to her credulity.— Oh yes, Mr St. Aubyn—undoubtedly you shall retaliate in this way, and take your own revenge on Augusta Conway!…
He has absolutely descended into the commission of a mean falsehood, to gloss over his artful hypocrisy—for whilst I ingenuously acknowledged the impulse of that friendship I proffered him, (and which I declared was founded on a conviction of his superior merits) I regretted that he could not, from the gay circles of fashion and beauty, select some deserving fair one, who by returning his affection, might establish the means of forgetting his former unsuccessful attachment.
But, no—if I would give him my friendship as a hostage for love, he would gratefully receive and preserve it.—
—Yet but an hour before he had been at the feet of this melting damsel—this enchanting Miss Alderton, sighing out his passion, and doubtless confirming the sincerity of it with a profusion of oaths…
As, indeed, he was.
In his fretting over Augusta, St. Aubyn is stand-off-ish to Emily, and her distress alerts Colonel Alderton to the situation. Matlock gossip has been busy with St. Aubyn and Augusta, too, and it is an outraged brother who finally confronts St. Aubyn about his apparent perfidy. This elicits something at least approaching a full confession from St. Aubyn, and ends with him insisting there is nothing he wants more than to marry Emily. Alderton gives his consent and approval, and the three of them depart Matlock for Bath, where the wedding is to take place. St. Aubyn writes an account – or a version – of these events to Sullivan, in which he admits that he knows very well that his only chance of being happy with Emily is if he never sees Augusta again…
(It is St. Aubyn’s hurried departure with the Aldertons, in the wake of all this, that prompts Augusta to send an angry, scornful letter after him—and that letter in turn which prompted the owner of this book to call her a bitch and accuse her of “plaguing the poor man so”—!!)
Up to this stage of Sydney St. Aubyn, the reader has certainly been encouraged to sympathise with the eponymous Sydney; while his position as the novel’s main identification character lends authenticity to his feelings, his version of events. But at this point, with St. Aubyn caught between Augusta and Emily, the possibility of a second and very different reading of the text begins to creep in.
Overtly, the narrative of Sydney St. Aubyn positions the capricious Augusta as the villain of the piece, wreaking emotional destruction upon herself and others through her wilfulness; yet as the story progresses, it is, it seems to me, St. Aubyn himself who really occupies that position—not least because of his appalling mishandling of the emotional tangle in which he finds himself enmeshed. Though he keeps declaring himself a victim of circumstances, or of fate, for the disaster that ultimately befalls him he has nothing to blame but his own selfishness and stupidity.
Then, too, there is the matter of the broken engagement, which is never properly accounted for—Augusta’s professed belief in St. Aubyn’s paternity of the illegitimate child being clearly an excuse rather than a reason. Perhaps, over time, Augusta began to sense something a bit “off” about St. Aubyn—nothing she could put her finger on, or give a name to—nothing that would justify the breaking of an engagement—but which determined her not to marry him after all…
And, in fact, there’s something else peculiar about this novel. All throughout it everyone harps upon St. Aubyn’s perfections—his “superior merit”, his “resplendence”, his “brilliant character”—and the more the other characters go on like this, the harder it becomes to take any of it seriously. The novel, in its entirety, protests far too much. And the more it does so, the more it begins to feel not like an example, but a deconstruction of the tenets of “sentimentalism”…
This, anyway, is the reading that I finally took away from Sydney St. Aubyn. Whether it is the reading I was supposed to take away—I have absolutely no idea. If it is intentional, it’s an unusually subtle bit of writing for this literary period.
The second volume of Sydney St. Aubyn opens—oddly. It was the practice in the late 18th century for multi-volume novels to be released volume by volume, and I suspect that this one was so. At any rate, John Robinson – posing as the “editor” of the letters, as so often the case with epistolary novels – switches to third-person narrative for a time here, apparently in order to hurry the plot up. We get a brief tut-tut visit with Augusta via an excerpt of a letter from Louisa, in which she deprecates Augusta’s contemplated “revenge” upon St. Aubyn; we hear of the marriage of St. Aubyn and Emily, and their departure for Dublin; and we learn that Colonel Alderton has stayed behind in England for a very particular reason—nothing less than to pursue his sudden attraction towards Augusta:
A few days previous to his sister’s departure for Dublin, he had invited St. Aubyn to a private interview, and with the confidence of friendship, unbosomed a secret that a good deal chagrined him—this was no other than a growing partiality for Augusta Conway…
St. Aubyn, a good deal disconcerted, (tho’ he knew not why) at this unexpected discovery, could hardly resolve what to answer to make the Colonel.—We would fain hope, for the honour of St. Aubyn’s character, that he had renounced every lurking thought which threatened to remind him improperly of Miss Conway—certain it is, he did not receive the intelligence with that cordiality which the other expected—whether St. Aubyn foresaw danger in too close an alliance with the former disturber of his peace, or that a selfish motive (unworthy himself) prevailed for a moment, the future contents of these pages will best determine…
Much of Volume II is devoted to the reclamation of Douglas and his reunion with Maria and their child; we needn’t get too much into that. Our A Plot finds Colonel Alderton pursuing a determined courtship of Augusta, who eventually capitulates—sending Louisa word that she will have her revenge upon St. Aubyn, after all:
I suppose, Louisa, I must marry him.—Well—St. Aubyn has had his whim that way, and my time must come—what think you my dear, will Mrs St. Aubyn’s husband be pleased with this family commutation?—Now, draw yourself up, my sober sentimental girl, and ask what right he has to be thought of?—Remember, Louisa, I told you I had not done with my gentleman yet!—he shall see what I am capable of—he shall see what real love can accomplish—that Augusta Conway might shine as a spinster, but that she is unrivalled as a wife…
Louisa takes Augusta’s invitation literally, and sends her back a letter full to overflowing with criticisms, admonitions, warnings and forebodings. The Colonel, meanwhile, sends what sounds like a masterpiece of tactlessness to St. Aubyn—only we don’t get the letter itself, we get some commentary upon it by our “editor” instead:
He forgets not to tell him, that he expects, very shortly, to lead her to the altar—nor is he sparing in his description of Augusta’s charms, but with too prodigal a hand dwells on the fascinating subject.—He felt as a lover, and forgot that it was possible for him to be fanning the expiring embers of a flame which ought, by that time, to have been wholly extinguished—perhaps it was imprudent in the Colonel to do so…
The consequences of this self-absorbed epistle become evident in a hasty letter sent to Stafford Sullivan by Emily St. Aubyn:
Ah, my God, Mr Sullivan—you are my St. Aubyn’s friend—will you not be a friend to me too?
He has been delirious for some hours—and there is that on his mind, which I am convinced will for ever mar our happiness, even if it should please providence to restore him to health.
He calls loudly on Augusta Conway—me he heeds not, but wildly declaims against the treachery of friendship, and swears, with ungovernable fury, that he will not live to see love’s altar polluted…
St. Aubyn has had a dreadful night.—She, the fatal she, has been the constant object of his thoughts, nor has there been a moment that his mind did not seem wholly occupied with a determination to punish some person’s perfidy, and abuse of confidence.—My God—surely he does not mean my brother!
St. Aubyn – unfortunately, we might be inclined to add – recovers, and sends Sullivan a letter full of mingled self-blame and self-pity:
Ah, Stafford—I was not born to be happy—I told you so over and over.—
Never did wedded love witness a brighter ornament than Emily St. Aubyn.—Nor did a purer, or more ardent affection ever glow in the bosom of virtuous love.—
I—I am a wretch, Stafford—who have profaned its hallowed rites—who have wantonly trifled away every hope of happiness.
What luckless agent of mischief brought the devoted Emily Alderton in my way, to be sacrificed to insensibility like mine—at a time, too, when fate seemed to be relenting—when AUGUSTA CONWAY herself, frank and unreserved, deigned to sue to St. Aubyn?
Was it well done of the Colonel to fasten me so closely to the flimsy etiquette of honour, whilst he was projecting the plan of robbing he of the mistress that I find, Stafford, is still dearer to me than life?
And upon St. Aubyn hearing that Augusta and the Colonel are actually married, we get this:
On my estate in Yorkshire, I have a small but elegant mansion, fitted exactly for a recluse.—
There is a wilderness behind it.
The first thing I have to do is to construct an hermitage in the most retired part of this wilderness—I shall have a lamp perpetually burning—and there I shall sojourn from morn to eve—my wife and I have agreed upon it—she says she won’t control me.—
Here I shall cherish reflection, instead of flying from it.— You know I have been disappointed a good deal in life—but ’tis all over—I laugh now at what fate can do—yet your friend is no common philosopher.—
Is not this an excellent scheme?
Sure—if you’re a pathetic, childish, self-indulgent wanker.
I think what makes Sydney St. Aubyn so difficult to gauge is the lack of editorialisation—novels of this period usually weren’t shy about telling the reader what to think, but John Robinson practices an unexpected degree of restraint. And while these days we might be inclined to conclude that there is no way the reader could be expected to sympathise with St. Aubyn, the fact is that there are plenty of sentimental novels in which the characters behave just as extravagantly and selfishly as St. Aubyn, and yet clearly do expect us to sympathise. So while we can give John Robinson the benefit of the doubt in this respect—doubt there still is.
And as for the conclusion of the narrative itself—from the moment he starts raving about hermitages, it’s pretty clear where Sydney St. Aubyn himself is headed. The only question is how many of the supporting cast he might manage to take down with him…