Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 2)


 
    The truth rises upon me, and every succeeding circumstance points to one conclusion. Lisette was to-day of a junketing party, which Lonquillez contrived for the entertainment of his friend Le Blanc. Mention was again made of old stories, and Savillon was a person of the drama. The wench is naturally talkative, and she was then in spirits from company and good cheer. Le Blanc and she recollected interviews of their young mistress and this handsome elève of her father. They were, it seems, nursed by the same woman, that old Lasune, for whom Julia procured a little dwelling, and a pension of four hundred livres, from her unsuspecting husband. “She loved them (said Le Blanc) like her own children, and they were like brother and sister to each other”—“Brother and sister, indeed!” (said Lisette.) She was more sagacious, and had observed things better.—“I know what I know, (said she) but to be sure, those things are all over now, and, I am persuaded, my mistress loves no man so well as her own husband. What signifies what happened so long ago, especially while M. de Montauban knows nothing about the matter?”
    These were her words: Lonquillez repeated them thrice to me.—Were I a fool, a driveller, I might be satisfied to doubt and be uneasy; it is Montauban’s to see his disgrace, and, seeing, to revenge it…

 

That Henry Mackenzie intended Julia de Roubigné as a criticism of the theories of sentimentalism is most evident by the mid-novel juxtapositioning of Julia receiving posthumous instructions from her mother, and Julia succumbing to irrational fears upon first setting foot in her husband’s house.

Before Julia sets out with de Montauban, her father gives her an unfinished letter from her mother, which is full of advice and admonitions about a wife’s duty. As with her earlier observation about Julia not listening, we get the impression that Mme de Roubigné is passing on hard lessons learned through bitter experience; that we saw her as an exemplary, self-sacrificing wife speaks for itself. The miserable idea passed on to the reader of 18th century marriage is, alas, no doubt accurate:

    “Sweetness of temper, affection to a husband, and attention to his interests, constitute the duties of a wife, and form the basis of matrimonial felicity. These are indeed the texts, from which every rule for attaining this felicity is drawn…
    “Never consider a trifle what may tend to please him. The great articles of duty he will set down as his own; but the lesser attentions he will mark as favours; and trust me, for I have experienced it, there is no feeling more delightful to one’s-self, than that of turning those little things to so precious a use.
    “If you marry a man of a certain sort, such as the romance of young minds generally paints for a husband, you will deride the supposition of any possible decrease in the ardour of your affections. But wedlock, even in its happiest lot, is not exempted from the common fate of all sublunary blessings; there is ever a delusion in hope which cannot abide with possession. The rapture of extravagant love will evaporate and waste; the conduct of the wife must substitute in its room other regards, as delicate, and more lasting. I say, the conduct of the wife; for marriage, be a husband what he may, reverses the prerogative of sex; his will expect to be pleased, and ours must be sedulous to please.
    “This privilege a good natured man may wave. He will feel it, however, due; and third persons will have penetration enough to see, and may have malice enough to remark, the want of it in his wife. He must be a husband unworthy of you, who could bear the degradation of suffering this in silence…
    “Above all, let a wife beware of communicating to others any want of duty or tenderness, she may think she has perceived in her husband. This untwists, at once, those delicate cords, which preserve the unity of the marriage-engagement…”

This (and much more) is transmitted in its entirety by Julia to Maria…yet Julia’s very next letter finds her not only reporting her doubts and unhappiness to her friend, but indulging in gloomy forebodings about the future. Here is only a short excerpt of the new wife’s feelings:

Why should I wish for long life? Why should so many wish for it? Did we sit down to number the calamities of this world; did we think how many wretches there are of disease, of poverty, of oppression, of vice, (alas! I fear there are some even of virtue) we should change one idea of evil, and learn to look on death as a friend…

So ends the first volume of Julia de Roubigné; the second starts with an interjection from our editor, explaining the difficulty he had working out how to organise his second batch of letters, since they clearly overlapped the first batch in date and in content. As always, “sentiment” is allowed to have the final word:

Many of the particulars they recount are anticipated by a perusal of the foregoing letters; but it is not so much on story, as sentiment, that their interest with the reader must depend…

The second batch of letters were written by Savillon, beginning at the time of his arrival in Martinique, and sent from there to his friend, Beauvaris, in Paris. Though he speaks of his duty to both M. de Roubigné and to his uncle, one theme dominates:

Julia de Roubigné!—Did you feel that name as I do!—Even traced with my own pen, what throbbing remembrances has it raised!—You are acquainted with my obligations to her father: You have heard me sometimes talk of her; but you know not, for I tremble to tell you, the power she has acquired over the heart of your friend…

Though Savillon feels himself unfitted for business, and in particular the business conducted by his uncle (of which, much more shortly), he knows his only hope of being considered a fit husband for Julia is to succeed and make his fortune, which might now weigh in the balance against his (relative) lack of birth. He therefore grits his teeth and knuckles down—but immediately finds himself confronting a barrier he cannot surmount, namely, that his uncle, a planter, runs his business on slavery.

As noted, Henry Mackenzie was in general a fairly conservative individual, who resisted the advanced social theories of his contemporaries; yet in Julia de Roubigné we find him espousing what would, in 1777, have been considered not merely “advanced”, but radical. This is one of the very earliest works of fiction not merely to protest slavery, but to suggest there was a better way; a way both more humane and more productive—and that it appeared more than one hundred years after Aphra Behn deplored the cruelty and mutual degradation of slavery in Oroonoko is a profoundly depressing thought. This time-gap is a chilling indication of the brutality that was the hallmark of the so-called “Age of Reason”. Conversely, we must keep in mind that whatever absurdity and self-indulgence may have belonged to the “cult of sensibility”, it also gave birth to the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

And whatever Mackenzie thought about sentimentalism in general, we have no reason to think he isn’t sincere about the words he puts in Savillon’s mouth:

To a man not callous from habit, the treatment of the negroes, in the plantations here, is shocking… I have been often tempted to doubt whether there is not an error in the whole plan to negro servitude, and whether whites, or creoles born in the West-Indies, or perhaps cattle, after the manner of European husbandry, would not do the business better and cheaper than the slaves do. The money which the latter cost at first, the sickness (often owing to despondency of mind) to which they are liable after their arrival, and the proportion that die in consequence of it, make the machine, if it may be so called, of a plantation extremely expensive in its operations. In the list of slaves belonging to a wealthy planter, it would astonish you to see the number unfit for service, pining under disease, a burden on their master.—I am talking only as a merchant: But as a man—good Heavens! when I think of the many thousands of my fellow creatures groaning under servitude and misery!—Great God! hast thou peopled those regions of thy world for the purpose of casting out their inhabitants to chains and torture?—No; thou gavest them a land teeming with good things, and lighted’st up thy sun to bring forth spontaneous plenty; but the refinements of man, ever at war with thy works, have changed this scene of profusion and luxuriance, into a theatre of repine, of slavery and of murder… Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason…stifles humanity, and debases the species—for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man.

In fact—the most radical part of that might be Savillon’s reference to the slaves as “my fellow creatures”: that black people were not fully human was the basic argument of the slavers; while the anti-slavery movement defiantly operated within a broader concept of “the brotherhood of man”.

Savillon persuades his uncle to let him try an experiment. He starts by forming a bond with an intelligent if understandably wary slave called Yambu, who was the former leader of a band of men captured together in Africa:

Next morning I called those negroes who had formerly been in his service together, and told them that, while they continued in the plantation, Yambu was to superintend their work; that, if they chose to leave him and me, they were at liberty to go; and that, if found idle or unworthy, they should not be allowed to stay. He has, accordingly, ever since had the command of his former subjects, and superintended their work in a particular quarter of the plantation; and, having been declared free, according to the mode prescribed by the laws of the island, has a certain portion of ground allotted him, the produce of which is his property. I have had the satisfaction of observing those men under the feeling of good treatment, and the idea of liberty, do more than almost double their number subject to the whip of an overseer. I am under no apprehension of desertion or mutiny; they work with the willingness of freedom, yet are mine with more than the obligation of slavery…

But while we must highlight and celebrate this interlude, it is only a diversion within the main narrative of Julia de Roubigné. Another comes in the form of a developing friendship between Savillon and an Englishman, William Herbert, which offers the reader both the inevitable “interpolated narrative”, as Savillon reports the details of Herbert’s life to Beauvaris, and the equally inevitable “tragedy we can all wallow in” as, after striving for years to support the wife and children he adores but is separated from, Herbert finally sends for them—and promptly loses them in a shipwreck.

This is somewhat curious, as it exactly the kind of thing that “real” novels of sentimentalism delight in, yet is presented straight in what we interpret as a critique of the genre.

Even more curious is that despite Savillon’s various outbursts of romantic agony about Julia, and about his ideas on friendship (most of which I’ve spared you), Mackenzie uses him from time to time as the novel’s voice of reason—which is to say, he puts into his mouth the frequent (and not unwarranted) rebuttal of “sensibility”, that it was simply a form of self-indulgence:

I begin to suspect that the sensibility, of which your minds are proud, from which they look down with contempt on the unfeeling multitude of ordinary men, is less a blessing than an inconvenience.—Why cannot I be as happy as my uncle, as Dorville, as all the other good people around me?—I eat, and drink, and sing, nay I can be merry, like them; but they close the account, and set down this mirth for happiness; I retire to the family of my own thoughts, and find them in weeds of sorrow…

We should note, however, that at another point Mackenzie is generous enough to make a distinction between “real” sensibility and “false” affectation; although we do come away with the impression that he felt most of it was affectation.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear of Savillon’s life in Martinique, and his affectionate but somewhat uneasy relationship with his business-hardened uncle, and of a new acquaintance:

At one of those dinners was a neighbour and intimate acquaintance of my uncle, a M. Dorville, with his wife and daughter. The young lady was seated next me, and my uncle seemed to incline that I should be particularly pleased with her. He addressed such discourse to her as might draw her forth to the greatest advantage; and, as he had heard me profess myself as lover of music, he made her sing, after dinner, till, I believe, some of the company began to be tired of their entertainment. After they were gone, he asked my opinion of Mademoiselle Dorville, in that particular style by which a man gives you to un|derstand, that his own is a very favourable one. To say truth, the lady’s appearance is in her favour; but there is a jealous sort of feeling, which arises in my mind, when I hear the praises of any woman but one; and, from that cause perhaps, I answered my uncle rather coldly… Her father, I am apt to believe, has something of what is commonly called a plot upon me; but as to him my conscience is easy, because, the coffers of my uncle being his quarry, it matters not much if he is disappointed…

Now—you might be struggling at this point to conceive of a marriage between Savillon and Mlle Dorville, and you’d be right:

    My uncle, who had staid some time behind me with Dorville, came in. He was very copious on the subject of Mademoiselle. I was perfectly of his opinion in every thing, and praised her in echo to what he said, but he had discernment enough to see an indifference in this, which I was sorry to find he did not like. I know not how far he meant to go, if we had been long together; but he found himself somewhat indisposed, and was obliged to go to bed.
    I sat down alone, and thought of Julia de Roubigné…

Like Mme de Roubigné, Savillon’s uncle goes to bed never to rise from it. Having inherited a fortune, Savillon himself embarks for France as soon as he can manage it, with only one thought on his mind. His correspondent at this point switches from M. Beauvaris to Mr Herbert, and for more reasons than one: when Savillon arrives in Paris, he discovers that Beauvaris has suddenly died. This shock is bad enough but, as we know, there is another in store…

While all this has been going on, there have been a few other interpolated letters—from Julia to Maria, and from de Montauban to Segarva: the former, trying to take her mother’s advice, has little say that isn’t superficial; the latter showing himself increasingly aware of the significant differences in temperament and character between himself and his wife. Guests, in the form of a M. de Rouillé and a Mme de Sancerre, drive the point home: de Montauban is often unable to enter into the spirit of their conversation, though his duty as a host requires him to at least seem pleased. He is particularly annoyed when he sees how the often “melancholy” Julia is brightened by de Rouillé’s cheerful and joking demeanour:

    Why should I allow this spleen of sense to disqualify me for society?—Once or twice I almost muttered things against my present situation.—Julia loves me; I know she does: She has that tenderness and gratitude, which will secure her affection to a husband, who loves her as I do; but she must often feel the difference of disposition between us. Had such a man as Rouillé been her husband—not Rouillé neither, though she seems often delighted with his good humour, when I cannot be pleased with it.—
    We are neither of us such a man as the writer of a romance would have made a husband for Julia.—There, is indeed, a pliability in the minds of women in this article, which frequently gains over opinion to the side of duty.—Duty is a cold word.—No matter, we will canvas it no farther. I know the purity of her bosom, and I think, I am not unworthy of its affection…

Perhaps not—but Julia’s “duty”, if not her “affection”, is about to be seriously challenged, and a new emotion reignite her correspondence:

    I have just now received a piece of intelligence, which I must beg my Maria instantly to satisfy me about. Le Blanc, my father’s servant, was here a few hours ago, and among other news, informed Lisette, that a nephew of his, who is just come with his master from Paris, met Savillon there, whom he perfectly remembered, from having seen him in his visits to his uncle at Belville. The lad had no time for enquiry, as his master’s carriage was just setting off, when he observed a chaise drive up to the door of the hotel, with a gentleman in it, whom he knew to be Savillon, accompanied by a valet de chambre, and two black servants on horseback.
    Think, Maria, what I feel at this intelligence!—Yet why should it alarm me?—Alas! you know this poor, weak, throbbing heart of mine! I cannot, if I would, hide it from you.—Find him out, for Heaven’s sake, Maria; tell me—yet what now is Savillon to your Julia?—No matter—do any thing your prudence may suggest; only satisfy me about the fate of this once dear—Again! I dare not trust myself on the subject—Mons. de Montauban! Farewell!

Maria and Savillon do meet in Paris; the outcome is reported to Mr Herbert:

    When I told you, my Beauvaris was no more, I thought I had exhausted the sum of distress, which this visit to Paris was to give me. I knew not then what fate had prepared for me—that Julia, on whom my doating heart had rested all its hopes of happiness;—that Julia is the wife of another!
    All but this I could have borne; the loss of fortune, the decay of health, the coldness of friends, might have admitted of hope; here only was despair to be found, and here I have found it!
    Oh! Herbert! she was so interwoven with my thoughts of futurity, that life now fades into a blank, and is not worth the keeping…

Maria, meanwhile, has the painful task of letting Julia know the truth:

    What do you tell me! Savillon in Paris! unmarried, unengaged, raving of Julia! Hide me from myself, Maria, hide me from myself—Am I not the wife of Montauban?—
    Yes, and I know that character which as the wife of Montauban, I have to support: Her husband’s honour and her own are in the breast of Julia. My heart swells, while I think of the station in which I am placed.—Relentless Honour! thou triest me to the uttermost; thou enjoinest me to think no more of such a being as Savillon.
    But can I think of him no more?—Cruel remembrances?—Thou too, my friend, betrayest me; you dare not trust me with the whole scene; but you tell me enough.—I see him, I see him now! He came, unconscious of what Fortune had made of me; he came, elate with the hopes of sharing with his Julia that wealth, which propitious Heaven had bestowed on him.—She is married to another!—I see him start back in amazement and despair; his eye wild and haggard, his voice lost in the throb of astonishment! He thinks on the shadows which his fond hopes had reared—the dreams of happiness!…

This passage is the most extravagant example of something that recurs throughout Julia de Roubigné, with the characters, Julia and de Montauban in particular – it’s the one thing they do have in common – able to summon up imaginary scenes more real to them than reality. For example, Julia’s early realisation of her love for Savillon came accompanied by a terrifying vision of confessing it to her father, to excuse her refusal of de Montauban: Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself…

This tendency that speaks back to the way in which the correspondence is organised within this epistolary novel, with the absence of responding letters making the emotional reality of Julia and de Montauban and Savillon its only reality. In Julia’s case, Mackenzie repeatedly places her outbursts against some piece of prosaic reality or unwelcome duty, in order to point out the growing distance between what she should be focused upon and what she is focused upon, and the danger inherent in her lack of emotional self-control. The warning conveyed when we were alerted to Julia’s habit of separating “thought” and “conduct” here comes to poisonous fruition.

Even before she learned that Savillon was not in fact married, Julia’s exact degree of success in driving him from her heart was conveyed to us in a letter from de Montauban:

I was last night abroad at supper: Julia was a-bed before my return. I found her lute lying on the table, and a music-book open by it. I could perceive the marks of tears shed on the paper, and the air was such as might encourage their falling: Sleep however had overcome her sadness, and she did not awake when I opened the curtains to look on her. When I had stood some moments, I heard her sigh strongly through her sleep, and presently she muttered some words, I know not of what import. I had sometimes heard her do so before, without regarding it much; but there was something that roused my attention now. I listened; she sighed again, and again spoke a few broken words; at last I heard her plainly pronounce the name Savillon, two or three times over, and each time it was accompanied with sighs so deep, that her heart seemed bursting as it heaved them…

Now, the fact that she could not bear to part with that miniature of Savillon comes back to bite her (and, by the way, we never do learn Maria’s thoughts on the subject):

    Segarva!—but it must be told—I blush even telling it to thee—have I lived to this?—that thou shouldst hear the name of Montauban coupled with dishonour!
    I came into my wife’s room yesterday morning, somewhat unexpectedly. I observed she had been weeping, though she put on her hat to conceal it and spoke in a tone of voice affectedly indifferent. Presently she went out on pretence of walking; I staid behind, not without surprise at her tears, though, I think, without suspicion; when turning over (in the careless way one does in musing) some loose papers on her dressing-table, I sound a picture of a young man in miniature, the glass of which was still wet with the tears she had shed on it. I have but a confused remembrance of my feelings at the time; there was a bewildered pause of thought, as if I had waked in another world…

His suspicions thoroughly awakened, de Montauban now sees guilt in every word and action of Julia; and (like so many 18th century male leads, though Henry Mackenzie at least has the grace not to call him “hero”) he seems to take a fierce pleasure in thinking the worst of the woman he is supposed to love. Here, de Montauban too shows his skill in conjuring up visions with which to torment himself:

    We dined alone, and I marked her closely; I saw, (by Heaven! I did) a fawning solicitude to please me, an attempt at the good-humour of innocence, to cover the embarrassment of guilt. I should have observed it, I am sure I should, even without a key; as it was, I could read her soul to the bottom.—Julia de Roubigné! the wife of Montauban!—Is it not so?
    I have had time to think.—You will recollect the circumstances of our marriage—her long unwillingness, her almost unconquerable reluctance.—Why did I marry her?
    Let me remember—I durst not trust the honest decision of my friend, but stole into this engagement without his knowledge; I purchased her consent, I bribed, I bought her; bought her, the leavings of another!—I will trace this line of infamy no further: There is madness in it!…

De Montauban’s Spanish upbringing now kicks in, at this perceived affront to his honour—an “honour” which doesn’t prevent him from setting his servant to spy on his wife, or from seeking intelligence about her amongst the other servants. Typically, though the vast majority of what he hears is capable (and rightly) of a perfectly innocent construction, it is the passing suggestion of Lisette that Julia once loved Savillon that de Montauban seizes upon; and from a childhood crush to the guilt of adultery is a small step in his disordered imagination. Lonquillez, the servant (Spanish, and therefore capable of stooping to anything in the name of his master’s honour), persuades de Montauban that Julia and Savillon must be corresponding, and that he should confirm his suspicions by intercepting their letters—

—a decision which coincides with the single exchange of letters between the two, with Savillon finally persuading Maria to send onto Julia a letter from himself begging for a single meeting, and Julia’s reply agreeing to it. The honourable de Montauban has no hesitation sending his discoveries to Segarva, in the name of self-justification:

    “I know not, Sir, how to answer the letter my friend Mademoiselle de Roncilles has just sent me from you. The intimacy of our former days I still recal, as one of the happiest periods of my life. The friendship of Julia you are certainly still entitled to, and might claim, without the suspicion of impropriety, though fate has now thrown her into the arms of another. There would then be no occasion for this secret interview, which, I confess, I cannot help dreading; but, as you urge the impossibility of your visiting Mons. de Montauban, without betraying emotions, which, you say, would be dangerous to the peace of us all, conjured as I am by these motives of compassion, which my heart is, perhaps, but too susceptible of for my own peace, I have at last, not without a feeling like remorse, resolved to meet you on Monday next, at the house of our old nurse Lasune, whom I shall prepare for the purpose, and on whose fidelity I can perfectly rely. I hope you will give me credit for that remembrance of Savillon, which your letter, rather unjustly, denies me, when you find me agreeing to this measure of imprudence, of danger, it may be of guilt, to mitigate the distress, which I have been unfortunate enough to give him.”
    I feel at this moment a sort of determined coolness, which the bending up of my mind to the revenge her crimes deserve, has confered upon me; I have therefore underlined some passages in this damned scroll, that my friend may see the weight of that proof on which I proceed. Mark the air of prudery that runs through it, the trick of voluptuous vice to give pleasure the zest of nicety and reluctance. “It may be of guilt.”—Mark with what coolness she invites him to participate it!—Is this the hand writing of Julia?—I am awake and see it.—Julia! my wife! damnation!

…all of which goes to show exactly how much de Montauban knows about the women he is married to. But then, we recall his low opinion of the female sex in general – the usual masculine self-fulfilling prophecy, which puts the worst possible construction upon everything on the flimsiest of evidence – and we see it in action when de Montauban calls upon the simple, kind-hearted old Lasune who (having nursed them both) thinks of Julia and Savillion both as her own children, and as brother and sister. But even here de Montauban sees only conscious guilt:

    Whether they have really imposed on the simplicity of this creature, I know not; but her answers to some distant questions of mine looked not like those of an accomplice of their guilt.—Or, rather, it is I who am deceived; the cunning of intrigue is the property of the meanest among the sex.—It matters not: I have proof without her.
    She conducted me into an inner room fitted up with a degree of nicety. On one side stood a bed, with curtains and a bed-cover of clean cotton. That bed, Segarva!… It looked as if the Beldame had trimmed it for their use—damn her! damn her! killing is poor—Canst thou not invent me some luxurious vengeance?

Segarva is, we gather, fully in sympathy with his friend’s homicidal rage; his only caution is that de Montauban should keep his revenge a secret, not in fear for himself, but so that general knowledge of Julia’s guilt should not posthumously tarnish his, ahem, “honour”:

I am less easily convinced, or rather I am less willing to be guided, by your opinion, as to the secrecy of her punishment. You tell me, that there is but one expiation of a wife’s infidelity.—I am resolved, she dies—but that the sacrifice should be secret. Were I even to upbraid her with her crime, you say, her tears, her protestations would outplead the conviction of sense itself, and I should become the dupe of that infamy I am bound to punish.—Is there not something like guilt in this secrecy? Should Montauban shrink, like a coward, from the vindication of his honour?—Should he not burst upon this strumpet and her lover—the picture is beastly—the sword of Montauban!—Thou art in the right, it would disgrace it…

Julia’s agreement to the meeting, however, has not come without agonies of doubt, and many changes of mind; her longing to see Savillon one last time battling with her painful consciousness that if she does so, she will no longer be able to draw that comforting if specious distinction between “thought” and “conduct”. At the last she accepts that she must not do it, and sends via Maria a message to Savillon telling him not to come.

The matter does not rest there, however: Maria, having been subjected to the full battery of Savillon’s own agonies, is overborne, and joins him in persuading Julia to a single meeting. Julia finds herself unable to resist temptation, when it comes from the person she is used to considering as the voice of reason:

    You intreat me, for pity’s sake, to meet him.—He hinted his design of soon leaving France to return to Martinique.—Why did he ever leave France? had he remained contented with love and Julia, instead of this stolen, this guilty meeting—What do I say?—I live but for Montauban!
    I will think no longer.—This one time I will silence the monitor within me…

The meeting, if impassioned, is of course innocent (despite the bed in the corner of the room):

I spoke of the duty I owed to Montauban, of the esteem which his virtues deserved.—“I have heard of his worth (said Savillon) I needed no proof to be convinced of it; he is the husband of Julia.”—There was something in the tone of these last words, that undid my resolution again.—I told him of the false intelligence I had received of his marriage, without which no argument of prudence, no paternal influence, could have made me the wife of another.—He put his hand to his heart, and threw his eyes wildly to Heaven.—I shrunk back at that look of despair, which his countenance assumed.—He took two or three hurried turns through the room; then, resuming his seat, and lowering his voice, “It is enough (said he) I am fated to be miserable! but the contagion of my destiny shall spread no farther.—This night I leave France forever!”

Overwhelmed by the emotion of their final parting (though not so much that she can’t write to Maria about it), Julia is again the victim of her imagination; and we reach the most thoroughly Gothicky bit of the novel:

    You know my presentiments of evil; never did I feel them so strong as at present. I tremble to go to bed—the taper that burns by me is dim, and methinks my bed looks like a grave!…
    My fears had given way to sleep; but their impression was on my fancy still. Methought I sat in our family monument at Belville, with a single glimmering lamp, that shewed the horrors of the place, when, on a sudden, a light like that of the morning, burst on the gloomy vault, and the venerable figures of my fathers, such as I had seen them in the pictures of our hall, stood smiling benignity upon me! The attitude of the foremost was that of attention, his finger resting upon his lip.—I listened—when sounds of more than terrestrial melody stole on my ear, borne, as it were on the distant wind, till they swelled at last to music so exquisite, that my ravished sense was stretched too far for delusion, and I awoke in the midst of the intrancement!…

…though of course, for once this may not be just imagination:

    Chance has been kind to me for the means. Once, in Andalusia, I met with a Venetian empiric, of whom, among other chymical curiosities, I bought a poisonous drug, the efficacy of which he shewed me on some animals to whom he administered it. The death it gave was easy, and altered not the appearance of the thing it killed.
    I have fetched it from my cabinet, and it stands before me. It is contained in a little square phial, marked with some hieroglyphic scrawls, which I do not understand. Methinks, while I look on it—I could be weak, very weak Segarva.—But an hour ago I saw her walk, and speak, and smile—yet these few drops!…

Julia de Roubigné is by no means—by NO means—the only novel of this period (not even amongst just those few we’ve examined in detail) to get its effects out of star-crossed lovers, misunderstanding and tragedy, or to wallow in the emotions of its own situations. The central premise, indeed, is very like that found in Elizabeth Griffith’s The History Of Lady Barton, which also has its heroine married to one man but in love with another. However, there seems to me to be a significant difference between this novel and most of its ilk, in its implicit condemnation of its characters and their behaviour. Most novels of “sensibility” seem to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that if you have “sensibility”, then the rules don’t apply to you: you’re “above” all that petty, day-to-day stuff. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find the heroes and heroines of such novels behaving with complete self-absorption, in a context exasperatingly free of criticism.

(Which is, of course, exactly the attitude that Jane Austen is attacking via Marianne Dashwood in Sense And Sensibility.)

It is this preening, and the accompanying tacit exemption from the ordinary obligations of life, that Henry Mackenzie takes issue with in Julia de Roubigné. Though he is by no means without sympathy for the way in which his characters have been trapped by circumstance, he obviously considers that they need to just bite the bullet. Julia’s privileging of her emotions is, in Mackenzie’s mind, a recipe for disaster; while her nursing of her feelings for Savillon after her marriage constitutes a real and serious violation of her duty. It is interesting, however, that Mackenzie does not consider Julia the only, or even the worst, offender. On the contrary, he clearly views de Montauban’s “honour” as another form of self-indulgent posturing—and one even more dangerous than the ordinary cultivation of “sensibility”. In this respect, the novel we have examined previously that is closest in spirit to Julia de Roubigné may be John Robinson’s Sydney St. Aubyn, which likewise casts a jaundiced eye over the hysterical self-pity of its misbehaving “hero”.

(In her introduction to the 1999 reissue of Julia de Roubigné, Susan Manning makes the wry point that the novel is, in effect, a version of Othello in which there is no Iago…because there is no need of an Iago.)

For all its effectiveness, there seems to me to be a flaw in Julia de Roubigné—which, ironically, concerns her flaw: it is not clear to me whether Mackenzie thinks that Julia’s “fatal flaw” lies in her marrying one man while loving another, or whether it is that, having done so, she is not able to smother her now-guilty love. Similarly, I’m not sure what to make of the silence that persists between Julia and Savillon prior to his departure for Martinique—his imposed by, sigh, “honour”, hers by “delicacy”. Whether or not Mackenzie intended a criticism of this prevailing societal norm, we cannot be other than painfully aware that if either of them had brought themselves to speak one single word at the time, then none of this would have happened.

(Mind you— Were Julia not so given to turning everything that might happen to her into some sort of dark fantasy, maybe she wouldn’t have been so quick to believe an unsubstantiated report from the other side of the world. I think we can interpret that with confidence.)

Nevertheless, within the context of the novel of sensibility, Julia de Roubigné is a fascinating anomaly; and even were it less successful than it is in offering didacticism in the guise of a familiar tear-jerker, it would still be a novel worth highlighting for its brave early stance on the subject of slavery: one of the first efforts indeed to carry the fight to that section of the public that preferred a novel to a pamphlet.

 

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7 Comments to “Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 2)”

  1. “Why did I marry her?” You mean, why did you force her to marry you?
    The defense of stalkers throughout the ages, “I love her, therefore she has to love me.”

    • …the trap being that not loving a man was not considered reason enough not to marry him, but then once you had married him, it was assumed you *did* love him.

      Ain’t it fun being a girl??

      • Funny, I thought I heard a voice, but there’s obviously nobody important here.

        I do feel that tragedy is de-fanged somewhat if the predominant emotion at someone’s death is a sense of relief.

      • If a book of this era can kill someone off without making me giggle like an idiot, it’s a major triumph! 😀

  2. Having people fail to communicate their feelings is to soap opera and melodrama as having peopke fail to take sensible safety precautions is to horror. Both are cheap easy ways of having characters get in trouble by being stupid.

    • Agreed, although the level of hysteria at the thought of girls speaking first (or even just feeling first) that we encounter across 18th and 19th century literature would suggest that at least to some degree, it was reflecting reality. As with so many things, it was probably a means of social control dressed up as “propriety” and “delicacy”.

      • Yeah, back then speaking your feelings could be a very bold transgressive act, hence how the characters agonize over it. Nowadays, on the other hand, it’s easy to take for granted that your feelings are easily understood, and get a rude awakening when you discover that you should have taken greater pains to express them unambiguously.

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