Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 1)

    Pity me, Maria, pity me! even that quiet which my letters of late described, which I was contented to call happiness, is denied me. There is a fatality which every where attends the family of the unfortunate Roubigné; here, to the abodes of peace, perplexity pursues it; and it is destined to find new distress, from those scanty sources to which it looked for comfort.
The Count de Montauban—why did he see me? why did he visit here? why did I listen to his discourse? though Heaven knows, I meant not to deceive him!—He has declared himself the lover of your Julia!—I own his virtues, I esteem his character, I know the gratitude too we owe him; from all those circumstances I am doubly distressed at my situation; but it is impossible, it is impossible that I should love him. How could he imagine that I should? or how does he still continue to imagine that I may be won to love him? I softened my refusal, because I would distress no man; Montauban of all men the least; but surely it was determined enough, to cut off all hopes of my ever altering my resolution.
    Should not his pride teach him to cease such mortifying solicitations? How has it, in this instance alone, forsaken him? Methinks too, he has acted ungenerously, in letting my mother know of his addresses. When I hinted this, he fell at my feet, and intreated me to forgive a passion so earnest as his, for calling in every possible assistance. Cruel! that in this tenderest concern, that sex which is naturally feeble, should have other weaknesses to combat besides its own…


In the second half of the 18th century, as a result of increasing emphasis upon general education based upon egalitarian principles, a major and significant societal shift occurred in Scotland which on one hand produced remarkable accomplishments in the areas of science and medicine, and on the other the propagation of philosophical arguments which stressed rationalist thinking and humanitarianism, and the improvement of society through the moral and practical improvement of the self. While the so-called “Scottish Enlightenment” is best reflected by the philosophical works of David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, and the scientific writings of William Cullen, Joseph Black and James Hutton, it was also a time that embraced a national literature, best exemplified by the work of Robert Burns.

Henry Mackenzie was something of an anomalous figure within this movement. Though he knew and admired many of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, Mackenzie himself was a conservative thinker who resisted most of the more liberal theories of his contemporaries. A lawyer by training, Mackenzie’s position of Comptroller of Taxes for Scotland gave him the economic security to indulge his passion for writing. He became a major contributor to the important periodical magazines of the time, and eventually became editor for several years of two of them, The Mirror and The Lounger. He was also a playwright and a novelist—in his time and since best known for his first work of fiction, The Man Of Feeling, published in 1771, though written many years earlier.

Recent years have seen something of a reassessment of the works of Henry Mackenzie. Long considered a writer within the “cult of sensibility”, critical reading of his novels now suggests that he was, rather, attacking that movement in his novels. However, if indeed he did intend The Man Of Feeling to act that way, he overshot his mark by some distance: the work in question quickly attained and and still holds a reputation as the ne plus ultra of that lachrymose school of writing.

On the other hand, Mackenzie’s third and last novel, Julia de Roubigné, published in 1777, seems to have been recognised immediately as a critical examination of the tenets of sentimentalism.

This current consideration of Julia de Roubigné was prompted by some remarks which placed it within the timeline of the Gothic novel; and while it bears in outline little resemblance to the works of that genre, some of its details do warrant highlighting in that context. Though this is a wholly domestic novel, it gains some of its effects in a manner that would become a hallmark of the Gothic novel proper. Here, for example, is a just-married Julia reacting to her new home:

There was a presaging gloom about this mansion which filled my approach with terror; and when Montauban’s old domestic opened the coach-door, I looked upon him as a criminal might do on the messenger of death. My dreams ever since have been full of horror; and while I write these lines, the creaking of the pendulum of the great clock in the hall, sounds like the knell of your devoted Julia…

Furthermore, the character of the novel’s anti-hero, the Count de Montauban, would fit him for the role of Gothic villain, being conveyed in ominous signifiers such as “proud”, “stern”, “lofty” and “melancholy”.

The most obvious point, however, is Mackenzie’s choice to place his novel in France, and give it a male lead with Spanish ideas about “honour”. Mackenzie may have perceived sentimentalism as something which “infected” Britain from the Continent, even as the Scottish Enlightenment was heavily influenced by the new ways of thinking that were spreading across Europe in the 18th century. Or perhaps, like many British authors of this time, he felt that extravagant plots were most believable when set “somewhere else”.

Julia de Roubigné is an epistolary novel which, like The Man Of Feeling, carries an introduction from an editor explaining how he came into possession of the letters, and why he decided to arrange them in the given order. It is evident that the editor is meant to be one of the novel’s “characters”, rather than Mackenzie himself, both from his ideas about the nature of the entertainment he is offering, and his clear alignment with the cult of sensibility, seen in the value he finds in even the tiniest personal detail:

I found it a difficult task to reduce them into narrative, because they are made up of sentiment, which narrative would destroy. The only power I have exercised over them, is that of omitting letters, and passages of letters, which seem to bear no relation to the story I mean to communicate. In doing this, however, I confess I have been cautious: I love myself (and am apt therefore, from a common sort of weakness, to imagine that other people love) to read nature in her smallest character, and am often more apprised of the state of the mind, from very trifling, than from very important circumstances…

The novel proper features three main correspondents, each of them writing to a close friend, to whom they do not hesitate to “unfold themselves”: Julia herself, who writes to her best friend, Maria de Roncilles; the Count de Montauban, who writes to his best friend, Segarva; and Savillon, a young man raised within the de Roubigné family, who writes at different times to a M. Beauvaris in Paris, and to an English acquaintance, Mr Herbert, in Martinique. Narrative necessity will eventually introduce two other letter-writers, but the majority of the story is told from the perspective of these three.

The critical point about the letters given is that we never see those written in response. It is important to recognise that this is not another case of a novel being presented in epistolary form simply because that style happened to popular—as was the case with The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley. Instead, this is a deliberate authorial ploy to trap the reader within the the thoughts and, even more so, the emotions of the three main characters who, however else they may differ, have in common the dominant trait of allowing their impulses to override their judgement. In Henry Mackenzie’s mind, this is a tendency that can only lead to disaster.

Julia de Roubigné opens in the wake of a significant family upheaval: M. de Roubigné, Julia’s father, has lost a lawsuit which has cost him both his property and most of his fortune. Deeply embittered, he is forced to remove his wife and daughter from an existence divided between the luxury and entertainments of Paris and the dignity of an estate to a small, rather isolated country house. Mme de Roubigné and Julia try to show themselves contented with their new lot, and to do what they can to reconcile their husband and father to the situation, but between wounded pride and feelings of guilt, M. de Roubigné is a gloomy and difficult companion.

Finally, it is not the efforts of his womenfolk that eases the burden on M. de Roubigné, but the making of a new friend. In the Count de Montauban, a neighbour, he finds a man of ideas and feelings very similar to his own: upright, dignified and very proud, with little lightness or humour in his demeanour. Though his newly acquired thin skin makes him wary at first, M. de Roubigné becomes grateful for this new companionship, and gradually admits the Count into his family circle.

We see this introduction from the point of view of the Count who, we learn, though French by birth, has been raised in Spain and has Spanish ideas about morality and honour. As he admits to his correspondent, Segarva, returning to France has been difficult for him: he finds his countrymen frivolous and dissipated; while the less said about the behaviour of the women, the better. Not that (so we gather) the Count ever entertained much of an opinion of the female sex; he has no intention of marrying, of entrusting his honour to such a frail vessel.


    But her daughter, her lovely daughter!—with all the gentleness of her mother’s disposition, she unites the warmth of her father’s heart, and the strength of her father’s understanding. Her eyes in their silent state (if I may use the term) give the beholder every idea of feminine softness; when sentiment or feeling animates them, how eloquent they are! When Roubigné talks, I hate vice, and despise folly; when his wife speaks, I pity both; but the music of Julia’s tongue gives the throb of virtue to my heart, and lifts my soul to somewhat super-human.
    I mention not the graces of her form; yet they are such as would attract the admiration of those, by whom the beauties of her mind might not be understood. In one as well as the other, there is a remarkable conjunction of tenderness with dignity; but her beauty is of that sort, on which we cannot properly decide independent of the soul, because the first is never uninformed by the latter.
    To the flippancy, which we are apt to ascribe to females of her age, she seems utterly a stranger. Her disposition indeed appears to lean, in an uncommon degree, towards the serious. Yet she breaks forth at times into filial attempts at gaiety, to amuse that disquiet which she observes in her father; but even then it looks like a conquest over the natural pensiveness of her mind.

Julia, meanwhile, though glad indeed that her father has found a friend, and his spirits have both calmed and lifted, is repulsed by what she sees and senses of the hardness in the Count’s emotional makeup:

    In many respects, indeed, their sentiments are congenial. A high sense of honour is equally the portion of both. Montauban, from his long service in the army, and his long residence in Spain, carries it to a very romantic height. My father, from a sense of his situation, is now more jealous than ever of his. Montauban seems of a melancholy disposition. My father was far from being so once; but misfortune has now given his mind a tincture of sadness. Montauban thinks lightly of the world, from principle. My father, from ill-usage, holds it in disgust. This last similarity of sentiment is a favourite topic of their discourse, and their friendship seems to increase, from every mutual observation which they make. Perhaps it is from something amiss in our nature, but I have often observed the most strict of our attachments to proceed from an alliance of dislike.
    There is something hard and unbending in the character of the Count, which, though my father applauds it under the title of magnanimity, I own myself womanish enough not to like. There is a yielding weakness, which to me is more amiable than the inflexible right; it is an act of my reason to approve of the last; but my heart gives its suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause…

This is a curious and interesting moment. Hardly a reader, then or now, would expect or even desire Julia to prefer “inflexible right” to “yielding weakness”, or read this passage as anything other than the privileging of her “heart” over her “reason”; yet in retrospect, her admission – My heart gives its suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause – is the first ominous rumbling of the novel’s main theme.

Julia is dismayed when Montauban proposes to her, and grows angry when, after she refuses him, he nevertheless tells her parents about it, tacitly engaging their sympathy and support (prompting the quote given up above). However, while they certainly desire the match, the de Roubignés put no pressure on their daughter. Aware that her marriage would relieve her father of her support, and that there is certainly generosity in Montauban’s willingness to take her without a dowry, this forbearance makes Julia feel worse rather than better.

Julia de Roubigné strikes a false note here, giving us, in effect, English ideas in a French context. We must remember at this point that, unlike in other countries, in England the novel was from the outset a very middle-class form of literature, and spoke predominantly to that audience. This form of writing was a powerful vehicle for propagating new ideas, including those about love and marriage, and played a significant role in the acceptance of the notion that a girl should have the right, if not to choose her own husband, at least to say “no”. (This was one reason that girls reading novels was often disapproved: they got “ideas”.) If Julia was an English girl of the same social standing, say, of the landed gentry, then her parents’ unwillingness to pressure her might be considered advanced but reasonable. However, in pre-Revolution France, arranged marriages were very much the norm at this level of society. In this respect, Henry Mackenzie’s displacement of his narrative affects its credibility.

Julia’s examination of her feelings following Montauban’s proposal leads to a shocking realisation—shocking to her, in any event:

    The character you have heard of the Count de Montauban is just; it is perhaps even less than he merits; for his virtues are of that unbending kind, that does not easily stoop to the opinion of the world; to which the world therefore is not profuse of its eulogium. I revere his virtues, I esteem his good qualities; but I cannot love him.—This must be my answer to others: But Maria has a right to something more; she may be told my weakness, for her friendship can pity and support it.
    Learn then that I have not a heart to bestow.—I blush even while I write this confession—Yet to love merit like Savillon’s cannot be criminal.—Why then do I blush again, when I think of revealing it?

Savillon is the son of an old friend of de Roubigné, who effectively adopted the boy after his father’s death. He and Julia almost grew up together, even having the same nurse; sharing some of their lessons and learning to think alike on many subjects. However, Savillon’s general situation was a difficult one: his birth was somewhat inferior to Julia’s, and his father’s death left him poor. When, as a young man, he was sent for by his uncle in Martinique, who offered to start him in business, he felt that he could not refuse to go.

Julia’s recognition of her feelings leads us to another of the book’s critical passages:

To know such a man; to see his merit; to regret that yoke which Fortune had laid upon him—I am bewildered in sentiment again.—In truth, my story is the story of sentiment. I would tell you how I began to love Savillon; but the trifles, by which I now mark the progress of this attachment, are too little for description…

Here, of course, Julia finds herself in that familiar deplorable heroine’s situation, conscious that she loves a man without being certain that he loves her. She thinks he does; she believes he does; she sees how honour would have held him silent, considering his circumstances. But

I know I am partial to my own cause; yet I am sensible of all the impropriety with which my conduct is attended. My conduct, did I call it? It is not my conduct; I err but in thought. Yet, I fear, I suffered these thoughts at first without alarm. They have grown up, unchecked, in my bosom, and now I would controul them in vain. Should I know myself indifferent to Savillon, would not my pride set me free? I sigh, and dare not say that it would…

The distinction made here between “conduct” and “thought” would have set alarm bells ringing for contemporary readers.

However, Julia at least has the reassurance of hearing that Maria agrees with her about the sinfulness of marrying one man while loving another—however futile that love:

    I have ever thought as you do, “That it is not enough for a woman not to swerve from the duty of a wife; that to love another more than a husband, is an adultery of the heart; and not to love a husband with undivided affection, is a virtual breach of the vow that unites us.”
    But I dare not own to my father the attachment from which these arguments are drawn. There is a sternness in his idea of honour, from which I shrink with affright. Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself. Even before my mother, as his wife, I tremble, and dare not disclose it…

Just as well, too, because her castles in the sky are about to come crashing down upon her:

    I have now time to think and power to express my thoughts—It is midnight and the world is hushed around me! After the agitation of this day, I feel something silently sad at my heart, that can pour itself out to my friend!
    Savillon! cruel Savillon!—but I complain, as if it were falsehood to have forgotten her whom perhaps he never loved.
    She too must forget him—Maria! he is the husband of another! That sea-captain, who dined with my father to day, is just returned from Martinique. With a beating heart I heard him questioned of Savillon. With a beating heart I heard him tell of the riches he is said to have acquired by the death of that relation with whom he lived; but judge of its sensations, when he added, that Savillon was only prevented by that event, from marrying the daughter of a rich planter, who had been destined for his wife on the very day his uncle died, and whom he was still to marry as soon as decency would permit.

Again and again Julia must remind herself that there was no word of love spoken between herself and Savillon, and therefore no breach of honour. But this is comfort of the coldest kind, as Julia is left to writhe in the agonies of that special hell preserved for 18th and 19th century heroines who fall in love without being “bidden”.

Julia’s sufferings attract the attention of her mother, who feels the need to speak a few cautionary words to her; though even as she speaks them, she knows (from experience?) that they will probably fall upon deaf ears until it is too late:

“Your mind, child (continued my mother) is too tender; I fear it is, for this bad world. You must learn to conquer some of its feelings, if you would be just to yourself; but I can pardon you, for I know how bewitching they are; but trust me, my love, they must not be indulged too far; they poison the quiet of our lives. Alas! we have too little at best! I am aware how ungracious the doctrine is; but it is not the less true. If you ever have a child like yourself, you will tell her this, in your turn, and she will not believe you.”

(Which, by the way, is a fairly astonishing admission for a novel of this vintage; certainly in the phrasing of it in terms of the natural resistance of youth to cold prudence, rather than of outright wickedness in not believing every word a parent says.)

While Julia wrestles with her own emotions, another blow falls upon the family. While the devastating law-suit has been settled via the ceding of the de Roubigné property, the associated legal costs have not—and these added expenses can only be met by giving up the final mite of de Roubigné’s fortune and the family’s comparatively humble retreat. Genuine poverty stares them in the face.

Mackenzie resorts to a sly and suggestive literary reference here, as de Roubigné prepares to reveal this latest catastrophe to his wife and daughter:

    On his return in the evening, he found my mother and me in separate apartments. She has complained of a slight disorder, from cold I believe, these two or three days past, and had lain down on a couch in her own room, till my father should return. I was left alone, and sat down to read my favourite Racine.
    “Iphigenia! (said my father, taking up the book) Iphigenia!” He looked on me piteously as he repeated the word. I cannot make you understand how much that single name expressed, nor how much that look…

(We must understand here that in Racine’s version of the story, Iphigenia is so dutiful a daughter, she can hardly wait to be sacrificed by her father…)

And though at this point it seems that nothing else can go wrong for the family, the most overwhelming blow of all follows when Mme de Roubigné’s illness proves fatal. Knowing that her death is imminent, she gathers her strength to speak parting words to her daughter:

    The night before she died, she called me to her bed-side:—“I feel, my child, (said she) as the greatest bitterness of parting, the thought of leaving you to affliction and distress. I have but one consolation to receive or to bestow: A reliance on that merciful Being, who, in this hour, as in all the past, has not forsaken me! Next to that Being, you will shortly be the only remaining support of the unfortunate Roubigné.—I had, of late, looked on one measure as the means of procuring his age an additional stay; but I will not prescribe your conduct, or warp your heart…”
    These words cannot be forgotten! they press upon my mind with the sacredness of a parent’s dying instructions! But that measure they suggested—is it not against the dictates of a still superior power? I feel the thoughts of it as of a crime. Should it be so, Maria; or do I mistake the whispers of inclination for the suggestions of conscience?

For one of the few times in the novel, we are given a clear intimation of what Maria says in answer to this, and it isn’t what Julia wanted to hear. Maria accuses her of nursing her feelings for Savillon instead of honestly striving to overcome them, as she is now duty bound to do, and thus of being guilty of “a want of proper pride”.

Julia’s response is fascinating—at once a perfectly reasoned and reasonable argument, and a still louder ringing of the warning bell.

We have considered before the grave difficulty faced by young women at this time, with many being pressured into marriage upon an assurance that they would “learn” to love their husbands. Imagine my surprise when the emotionally irrational Julia de Roubigné offered the perfect riposte (and from a man’s pen!):

The suggestions I have heard of Montauban’s unwearied love, his uncommon virtues, winning my affections in a state of wedlock, I have always held a very dangerous experiment; there is equivocation in those vows, which unite us to a husband, our affection for whom we leave to contingency.—“But I already esteem and admire him.”—It is most true;—why is he not contented with my esteem and admiration? If those feelings are to be ripened into love, let him wait that period when my hand may be his without a blush. This I have already told him; he almost owned the injustice of his request, but pleaded the ardour of passion in excuse. Is this fair dealing, Maria? that his feelings are to be an apology for his suit, while mine are not allowed to be a reason for refusal?

Yet alas, this is not what we are to take away from this exchange of opinions, but rather Julia’s initial rejection of Maria’s counsel:

There is reason in all this; but while you argue from reason, I must decide from my feelings…

Surprisingly, after some consideration de Montauban concedes the strength of Julia’s argument, withdrawing his suit and apologising for causing disturbance in the family in their time of grief. This seeming generosity takes Julia off-guard, and softens her feelings towards him. However, de Montauban’s next move is quietly to pay off the final crushing debt hanging over de Roubigné’s head, saving him and daughter from ruin and eviction and, in de Roubigné’s case, a debtor’s prison…and leaving Julia with little choice.

(This is not presented as a deliberate ploy on de Montauban’s part, but it is impossible to believe this outcome wasn’t lurking somewhere in the back of his mind.)

The Count’s announcement of his triumph in a letter to his friend, Segarva, also contains a great deal of back-pedalling. This is, after all, a man who has always held a low opinion of the female sex, of Frenchwomen in particular, and who always swore he would never marry: sentiments in which Segarva wholeheartedly joined him:

    Trust me, thy fears are groundless—didst thou but know her as I do!—Perhaps I am tenderer that way than usual; but there were some of your fears I felt a blush at in reading. Talk not of the looseness of marriage-vows in France, nor compare her with those women of it, whose heads are giddy with the follies of fashion, and whose hearts are debauched by the manners of its votaries. Her virtue was ever above the breath of suspicion, and I dare pledge my life, it will ever continue so. But that is not enough; I can feel, as you do, that it is not enough. I know the nobleness of her soul, the delicacy of her sentiments. She would not give me her hand except from motives of regard and affection, were I master of millions…
    You talk of her former reluctance; but I am not young enough to imagine that it is impossible for a marriage to be happy without that glow of rapture which lovers have felt and poets described. Those starts of passion are not the basis for wedded felicity, which wisdom would chuse, because they are only the delirium of a month, which possession destroys, and disappointment follows. I have perfect confidence in the affection of Julia, though it is not of that intemperate kind, which some brides have shewn.  Had you seen her eyes, how they spoke, when her father gave me her hand! there was still a reluctance in them, a reluctance more winning than all the flush of consent could have made her. Modesty and fear, esteem and gratitude, darkened and enlightened them by turns; and those tears, those silent tears, which they shed, gave me a more sacred bond of her attachment, than it was in the power of words to have formed…

With nothing to wait for, the marriage takes place in only a few days’ time. Julia reports her intentions to Maria but, as the time draws near, finds herself unable to write again—since (we understand) her letters are reports of her feelings, and her feelings are particularly what she does not wish to share. It is left to her maid, Lisette, to send off a report to Maria, in which the position occupied by women in society at the time is presented to us all the more painfully for the complete obliviousness of the person making the point (emphasis mine):

And then her eyes, when she gave her hand to the Count! they were cast half down, and you might see her eye-lashes, like strokes of a pencil, over the white of her skin—the modest gentleness, with a sort of a sadness too, as it were, and a gentle heave of her bosom at the same time;—O! Madam, you know I have not language, as my lady and you have, to describe such things; but it made me cry, in truth it did, for very joy and admiration. There was a tear in my master’s eye too, though I believe two happier hearts were not in France, than his and the Count de Montauban’s

When Julia finally does write again to Maria, it is to apologise for her neglect, which she puts in terms of, not merely not wishing to share her feelings, but of not being able to put them into words. However, she makes it clear that understands the step she has taken, and means to do her duty, if nothing else:

Montauban and virtue! I am your’s. Suffer but one sigh to that weakness which I have not yet been able to overcome. My heart, I trust, is innocent—blame it not for being unhappy.

Yet this vow comes in the middle of Julia caught once again between her reason and her feelings, when in packing up her things she comes across a miniature of Savillon drawn when he was only a boy, which she has had in her possession for many years:

The question comes strong upon me, how I should like that my husband had seen this.—In truth, Maria, I fear my keeping this picture is improper; yet at the time it was painted, there was one drawn for me by the same hand, and we exchanged resemblances without any idea of impropriety. Ye unfeeling decorums of the world!—Yet it is dangerous; is it not, my best monitor, to think thus?—Yet, were I to return the picture would it not look like a suspicion of myself?—I will keep it, till you convince me I should not…


[To be continued…]



7 Comments to “Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 1)”

  1. It’s not surprising to learn that a Scottish book has less bullshit than a typical English one.

  2. We have not heard the last of Savillon.

    (No, I haven’t read this, I’m just thinking “what would be the worst possible thing for her to do”.)

    • Obviously I wasn’t going to respond to THAT until I’d posted Part 2. 😀

      18th century sentimental literature: no-one is ever dead, and no-one is ever married…

  3. So if a woman loves without return, she should try to overcome those feelings as soon as possible, through pride and self-respect. If a man loves without return, he just keeps trying (and pays off his beloved’s father’s debts).
    Jane Austen has several examples of unrequited love. Harriette struggles to overcome her love, until aided by the actions of Mr. Elton, who reveals himself to be a jerk. Mr. Collins overcomes his love with ease, since he was never in love with Elizabeth in the first place. Poor Elinor has the hardest case, since Edward proves himself to be worthy in every situation. But she does have the best ending.

  4. Hey, not taking ‘no’ for an answer is romantic, dontcha know…

    (Unless you’re a woman; then it proves you’re a psychopath.)

    Austen (of course) is sensible about it: she doesn’t suggest for a moment that ‘duty’ is easy—but does think it’s not just duty but what’s best for you in the long run if you get over a man who is either married to someone else, or turns out to be a jerk. Elinor’s situation is doubly painful because in addition to her own suffering, she is aware of Edward’s.

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