Archive for January, 2019

21/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 2)


 
    She is a slave!” murmured Susan, in a low, but emphatic tone.
    Louis looked perplexed, bewildered, and did not reply. Susan smiled sadly at his embarrassment, as she continued gravely—“You would say, Louis, that you were already aware of that fact; that this was nothing new or extraordinary in her position—that, in a word, you know she is a slave; but do you also know, Louis, all that means to her?”
    He did not reply, but seemed engaged in thought. Susan continued, in a low, earnest voice—“No; you, like other excellent men I know, look on slavery with indifference. It is the nonchalance of custom. But this girl! I tell you, Louis, that were you or myself now reduced to slavery—were we to change positions with one of our slaves—become his property, subject to his orders—a thing to be chained, imprisoned, beaten, bought, sold, at his whim—neither you nor I could have a more poignant sense of degradation than she suffers…”

 

 

 
While the power struggle over Louise is foregrounded in The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, something else is going on in this novel that I felt was worth highlighting.

Unlike Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows, this is not an abolitionist tract, as such: slavery is not present on what we might call “the large scale”, with the only slaves we do see being the house servants of the main white characters. The reality of slavery is still prominent in the narrative, however; and much is conveyed about the individual characters via their attitude towards it, and their treatment of their servants. There are references to who has freed their slaves, and who hires their servants for wages.

At one end of the character spectrum is, unsurprisingly, Mrs Armstrong—of whom it is observed in passing:

Only she avoided the Northern cities, to which she could not carry her slaves. Mrs Armstrong abhorred the attendance of any one over whom she did not possess absolute control…

We’ve seen up close how Mrs Armstrong treats her own daughter; Southworth leaves us to infer how she treats her slaves.

At the other end of the spectrum is Gertrude Lion, who Southworth allows to do some extraordinary things. Insisting passionately upon her own individual freedoms, Gertrude not only abhors slavery, but displays a distinct tendency towards all-men-are-created-equal in those words’ most literal sense. At one point, having come across a bad carriage-accident in the mountains, Gertrude is dealing with the situation when she encounters a runaway slave – one of Mrs Armstrong’s – who has taken refuge in a cave:

    The haggard and wolfish features of the slave relaxed a little, as he said, in a hoarse voice—“And you’ll not set the constables on me, Miss Gertrude!”
    “Explode the constables! no, I’d do you good, I said. Listen; I know you, Antony, you are Mrs Armstrong’s fugitive slave. Now, I don’t adore Mrs Armstrong myself, and if you will do me a favour, I will assist your escape from the State.”

A deal is struck between them, and after Antony has performed his part – honestly and diligently – Gertrude keeps her side of the bargain:

“Here is the pass I wrote for you.” She took it out and read it—“‘Antony Burgess has my permission to again pass and re-pass from Peakville to Alexandria, free of molestation, between the first of June and the first of July inclusive…’ There, Antony, that is exactly the pass that I give to my own men when they want to go to town. Now, it is true that you are not my own man, but that is no reason why I should not give you my  consent to go where you please, since I have no objection to it; and so, when you present that, people will naturally think it comes from your owner. And even if it fails, it cannot get you or me into trouble, since I only express my consent.”

And when Gertrude finally parts from the man (emphasis mine):

“Do you attend to what is left behind; bury the poor dead coachman, and don’t forget to recite the ten commandments over the grave. Now, good-by.” And shaking hands with him, Gertrude turned and lifted up her patient…

Much is also implied throughout The Mother-In-Law about the nature of Virginian society as a whole: almost all of the people of colour in this novel are of mixed blood; and though Southworth does not overtly pursue this point, we are left to ponder the structures and practices of the society that produced this situation.

One intriguing detail concerns Mrs Armstrong’s waiting woman, Kate Jumper: she is the niece of the local midwife, who works chiefly amongst the poor people and the servant class, and who is referred to as “Kate Jumper’s white aunt”. Though this is probably due to the low social status of each, the lack of any attempt to deny the relationship is striking. (Mr Jumper is nowhere to be found, of course…)

Kate Jumper is also important because she represents the one point in the novel where we might feel Southworth has resorted to nasty stereotyping, with much emphasis placed upon her wild and repulsive appearance. However, in this Kate is the exception to the rule; and in time it is evident that her appearance is rather meant as an externalisation of her role as the do-er of Mrs Armstrong’s dirty-work.

With all the other servants in the other households, Southworth emphasises their honesty, loyalty and intelligence. Most daringly of all, she makes a tacit argument that the supposed “inferiority” of people of colour is due purely to opportunities denied them. When in childhood, Susan Somerville is sent to the local school, her devoted servant – and “foster-sister” – Anna, insists upon accompanying her each day—being allowed, bit by bit, to creep into the classroom to sit quietly at Susan’s feet. Simply by sitting and listening, Anna absorbs as good an education as was given to any girl at the time. Far from displaying any “natural” stupidity, or “inferiority” of talent, Anna proves intelligent and thirsty for knowledge; she comes away from her indirect lessons with a thorough understanding of the world and a passion for literature and history. (Susan has already taught her to read, a dangerous undertaking at the time.)

There are two different slavery plots in The Mother-In-Law, linked, but used for different purposes. The first concerns the position of the Somervilles’ house servants, Harriet and George, and Anna, their daughter. Anna, by the way, is another of Southworth’s roster of beautiful brunettes:

And now he observed for the first time that she possessed the most lofty style of beauty. Her tall, full, graceful figure was finely curved, as she leaned upon the high back of an old leather chair, looking abstractedly from the window, the light from which fell upon her superb head, covered with a magnificent suit of black hair, that, dividing above her broad, pale forehead, rippled off into thousands of tiny jet-black, glistening wavelets over her temples and around her cheeks, and was gathered into a large knot confined by a silver bodkin behind. Her sloping, gloomy, but beautiful eyes, the sad expression of her full, red lips, closed as they habitually were, were  added to the fascination of a face that attracted without volition or consciousness. Her dress was of the coarse linsey-woolsey worn in winter by Southern house-servants, but hers was plaid, of very brilliant colours, made high in the neck, with sleeves reaching the wrists, fitting. accurately her charmingly developed form, and harmonising well with her dark, imperial style of beauty. Louis looked at her, at first, in obedience to Miss Somerville’s indication; then with surprise and admiration at the singular beauty he had never before noticed…

But the key phrase there is “broad, pale forehead”: Harriet and George are both “mulatto”, and Anna – was her background not fully known – could “pass”.

Unlike some other of the novel’s servants, Harriet, George and Anna are still slaves, owned by the elderly Major Somerville. Southworth uses the Major as an illustration of nearly everything wrong with Virginia society: he has exhausted his land by stubbornly refusing to budge from old-fashioned farming methods, and has fallen into debt he cannot possibly meet. The house, likewise, is falling into ruins, held together by the joint efforts of Susan and the servants. Meanwhile, at the end of his life, the Major clings to his dignity, wary of doing anything that could be interpreted as conceding power. Thus, despite Susan’s persuasions, he refuses to free any of his slaves—insisting that, as a woman, she doesn’t understand these things.

She does, of course—but not as well as the slaves themselves. A conspiracy of silence keeps Susan from knowing exactly how bad the situation is; so that, while she sees a profound depression taking hold of Anna, she interprets it as caused by the girl’s growing understanding of her degrading situation. What she does not know is that Major Somerville’s creditors are circling; that the bailiffs could descend any moment; and that, should that happen, Harriet, George and Anna will be sold along with all the rest of the Major’s property.

And this comes to pass when the Major dies suddenly of apoplexy. Susan takes immediate steps to free the servants, but is forestalled by the arrival of the deputy-sheriff and his goons. Even then Susan does not understand: she thinks they have come to do an assessment of the property for tax purposes, and is only angry that they have come so hard on the heels of her grandfather’s death:

    “How many slaves have you about the house, then, Miss Somerville.”
    “None, sir.”
    “What! my dear young lady.”
    “Sir, I have my foster-parents, George and Harriet, who brought me up, and my foster-sister and companion, Anna, who has always shared my room, my table, and my school. They are quadroons. I do not call them slaves.”
    “They were the slaves of the late Major Somerville, however?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “And they are yours now.”
    “No, sir! I do not for a moment acknowledge any right in myself to hold them. My dear grandfather’s funeral took place only on yesterday afternoon, and to-morrow morning I go to Richmond to take measures for their emancipation!” said Miss Somerville, in a cold, severe tone—for now she believed herself in conversation with a would-be purchaser.
    “Will you? Ah! yes, well! A generous and praiseworthy design on your part, my dear young lady,” said the deputy sheriff, perceiving for the first time that Susan was entirely unsuspicious of the object of his visit. “Will you, however, let me see these people, my dear Miss Somerville?”

Still under her misapprehension, Susan does, sending Anna to call her parents:

    Anna, who had conquered herself, and now stood calm, cold, and impassible, went out to obey.
    “Is that one of them?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “That girl?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Why, she is white!”
    “Very nearly, sir.”

Once the family is all present, the real purpose of the visit is made brutally clear:

    The assessor looked at Anna; and, as his sensual eyes roved all over her girlish figure, gloating on her beauty, he muttered an exclamation—“She is a handsome girl, and it would be a good spec’ to take her to New Orleans. She’d bring twelve or fifteen hundred dollars…”
    “That is not the question; what would she bring here?”
    “Gentlemen, I beg of you—” commenced Susan Somerville.
    “Be patient, young lady. What is her value here, Jones!”
    “Gentlemen, I insist—” began Susan again, with her cheeks burning and her eyes flashing, “I insist that this is arrested. I command you to finish your business and leave us.”
    “One instant, Miss Somerville. Well, Jones, her value is—”
    “Three hundred dollars…”
    “Miss Somerville,” began the deputy, “I have now to perform a very painful duty; a simple and short one, however.”
    “Yes, as short as an execution,” muttered George.
    “Miss Somerville, I attach this property at the suit of Spier & Co., Grocers, Peakville.”
    Susan started to her feet, clasped her hands, and turned deadly pale, as the truth suddenly struck her…

George and Harriet have tried to remain dignified and still in the face of this humiliation, and their knowledge of far worse to come; but when the assessor makes to lay hands on Anna, it is more than flesh and blood can stand. A short, ugly scene ends with George unconscious and in handcuffs, and Susan in a state of collapse. Anna is allowed to stay, temporarily and under guard, to care for Susan – a white lady, after all – but her parents are carried away to the slave auction in the nearby town of Peakville.

This situation rescues Anna from the otherwise inevitable—but only at the cost of her life: the next morning, Susan finds her dead. Heart failure is the medical ruling; although the jurors at the subsequent inquest, who know the circumstances, think differently:

The coroner’s jury came nearer the truth in their verdict—“A VISITATION OF GOD.”

We learn later that Susan had sent to the Palace for help, but the message miscarried. Hearing afterwards of these shocking developments, Louis promises Susan to get George and Harriet back at whatever cost required. He sets out after the bailiffs, but when he arrives in Peakville, he discovers that the two have already been sold to a slave-trader, necessitating a further journey to Alexandria.

And it is while Louis is away from home on this mission of mercy that Mrs Armstrong, taking advantage of his absence, regains possession of Louise.

The second slavery-related subplot in The Mother-In-Law is far less forthright, far more sensation-novel-y and plot-contrivance-y, yet still manages to make some very cogent points.

Our first hint of something untoward – well, the second, following the revelation that she was a doorstep baby – comes when old Mr Dove notices the developing situation between Zoe and Brutus Lion, albeit that there was been no overt declaration on either side. Having extorted from his blushing daughter a confession of love for Brutus, and her belief that he loves her, Mr Dove reacts with grief and dismay. There are many overt reasons, he tells Zoe solemnly, while a marriage between herself and Brutus would be unlikely and even unsuitable; yet it is a covert one that must determine her fate—

    “He is of an old and haughty family—you, Zoe, are a foundling.”
    “I know it,” murmured the maiden.
    “Yet you, in your secret heart, hoped that this might be overcome; that he might stoop to lift you to his level—on your truth, did you not?”
    Zoe bowed her head lowly, sadly.
    “He is wealthy, you are penniless; but you thought never of this as an objection, but believed that his superfluities might supply your deficiencies. Ha, child?”
    Again she bowed her head, slowly, lowly.
    “All this might happen, Zoe—the patrician might stoop to the plebeian; the millionaire to the beggar. Brutus Lion might offer his hand and name in marriage to Zoe, yet Zoe can never be the wife of Brutus Lion—”
    “Father!”
    “It is true!”
    “Father!”
    “It is fixed, inevitable, irrevocable.”

Now—this is early in The Mother-In-Law, before we have taken its measure; so those of us with experience of the sensation novel might have already leapt to a conclusion (and yes, I am looking at you, Dawn!). Amusingly, and to Southworth’s credit, she immediately takes that particular bull by the horns:

    “An insurmountable obstacle to your union exists, my dear,” said the old man, with the tears dimming his eyes.
    “Father,” said Zoe, in a suffocating voice, “father, I am a foundling, as you say—do you know or guess—that I am of—of—very near kin to Brutus?”
    “You are no kin to him, Zoe but it is not less certain that you can never, never be his wife.”

More amusingly still, when Zoe later rejects Brutus’ proposal, explaining the situation as far as she understands it, the same objection occurs to him: he reassures Zoe that both his parents died before she was born.

When Brutus brings himself to discuss his situation with Gertrude, she suggests a different possibility…

    “Now why, Gertrude, do you disapprove of Zoe??—why do you hate Zoe?”
    “I don’t hate Zoe; neither do I hate humble-bees, but I do not particularly affect either; and I will not have a little coffee-brewing, cake-baking fool in the house.”
    “You despise her for her birth!”
    “I do not despise her for her birth, although I know, as you do not know, that she is a mulatto!”
    “A mulatto!” echoed Brutus, in dismay.

***

    “Zoe is of mixed African blood, I tell you. Look at the dead white skin—”
    “Susan Somerville’s is the same.”
    “Susan Somerville’s is pure white—clear white. Zoe’s is opaque white. Look at the darkness around her finger nails; look at her
rippling black hair—not brownish black, like the English or American hair, or bluish black, like West of Ireland hair, or purplish black, like Italian hair, but jetty black like African hair, and with the little, undulating, wavy curl all through it.”
    “Pooh! Nonsense! The devil! It is not true. You know nothing about it!” exclaimed Brutus, very pale, and very much troubled.

Of course, Gertrude, being Gertrude, sees an up-side to the situation:

“I shall go by for Zoe this evening, and wrap the little one up in a cloak and take her in my sleigh to Miss Armstrong’s wedding. Ha, ha, ha! Little does Mrs Armstrong guess that in Zoe Dove she will have a mulatto guest!… Little does Mrs. Armstrong suspect that her daughter’s second bridesmaid is a mulatto—-a slave!”

At this point Brutus chooses to shrug off Gertrude’s unsupported assertion; but later, Mr Dove confirms all of his worst fears:

    “I love Zoe; I wish to marry Zoe; I will devote my life to her happiness; consent to our marriage, and her future is secured!”
    “Brutus, you love her?”
    “God knows it!”
    “Only her?”
    “Only her, of all womankind!”
    “Brutus, you cannot marry her.”
    “You have said so before, but that does not prove it.”
    “Brutus, swear that you will not divulge what I tell you.”
    “I swear it, sir.”
    “ZOE IS A SLAVE!”
    Brutus Lion reeled as if struck by a cannonball.
    “Great God, sir!”
    “And there are some in this neighborhood that know it…”

I hardly know where to start with this—and in fact I’m going to start almost at the end, with the explanation finally offered of Zoe’s origins: that she is another child of George and Harriet, born in secret and smuggled away in order to save her from the threat under which Anna lives her entire life.

Mr Dove himself has only just learned of Zoe’s origins from Nancy Jumper, who many years before was called out one night to attend a patient in labour, under conditions of great secrecy intended to conceal the mother’s identity from her; but who later, unseen herself, saw an obviously stricken Harriet leave a baby on Mr Dove’s doorstep. She kept the secret, however (we get the impression that keeping family secrets has necessarily been part of her stock-in-trade), until an encounter with Mr Dove on the 17th April – the date of these memorable events – brought it all back to her mind. Furthermore – being now old and unreliable and struggling to get by – Nancy sells the truth about Zoe to Major Somerville’s creditors.

The effect of all this upon Mr Dove is devastating—not because of Zoe’s origins, but because, a desperately poor man, he cannot afford to buy her. The old man suffers a psychotic break of sorts, during which money obsesses him to the exclusion of all else; and finally collapses altogether into a state of second childhood.

The ugly reality is that Zoe’s birth makes her every bit as much the Major’s property as her parents and sister; and she, too, is to be sold to meet his debts. Fortunately, when the deputy-sheriff comes for her, Zoe is at The Lair with Gertrude. At this moment she has no knowledge or understanding of her own position, and is more confused than frightened. Gertrude, however, grasps the situation at once:

    The bailiff walked up to Zoe, and touched her on the shoulder.
    “HANDS OFF!” shouted Gertrude, bringing the loaded end of her riding-whip down upon the floor with the force of a hammer on the anvil, the walls resounding with the report. The bailiff involuntarily started back.
    “Come here, Zoe,” said Gertrude, holding out her arms for the child. The poor girl—the victim of a vague terror—fled to her protector.
    Gertrude, with flashing eyes, raised the end of her whip, menacing the bailiff, while she encircled the waist of Zoe by one arm, and laid the head of Zoe gently on her own broad, soft bosom.
    “There, there, there, there, don’t be terrified, Zoe; nothing shall hurt you, Zoe. I’ll horsewhip the fellow within an inch of his life, if he does but lay his hand on you again, so I will.”
    “Miss Lion, are you aware that you are transgressing the law?”
    “Mr Bailiff, I don’t care a fox’s brush for any law but the ten commandments!”
    “Do you know that in harboring a slave you expose yourself to—”
    “Mr Jones, your way home lies straight out behind you. I give you two minutes’ grace; and if at the end of that time you are not out of this hall, I’ll put you out!” exclaimed Gertrude, her bosom heaving like the ocean waves in a tempest, her lips quivering, her nostrils distended, her eyes flashing, sparkling, and scintillating, as though they would explode.
    “Miss Lion, do you know, are you aware, that you are threatening an officer of the law?”
    “Ha, ha, ha, ha!—ha, ha, ha! Yes, and if an ‘officer of the law’ don’t take himself out of my sight in double quick time, I’ll take an ‘officer of the law’ by the nape of his neck and the straps of his pantaloons, and throw an ‘officer of the law’ over the precipice. You know me, sir! I am Gertrude Lion!”

He does; and consequently slinks off with his tail between his legs, to round up reinforcements; though by that time Gertrude has Zoe concealed in that same cave in the mountains.

There is some extraordinary stuff buried in this subplot—and not so buried. When the truth about Zoe becomes public knowledge, it makes no difference to anyone in the neighbourhood – except Mrs Armstrong – other than that everyone goes out of their way to love and care for her. Remarkably, Zoe herself is basically unbothered by the revelation, except for how it has impacted Mr Dove; she certainly does not react as we would expect a gently-bred white girl in a 19th century American novel to react.

But it is the response of Brutus and Gertrude that we must examine in detail—being very careful to do justice by Brutus. Certainly he recoils at Gertrude’s first suggestion of Zoe’s situation; and when Mr Dove confirms it, we get this exchange:

    “This child, Brutus! I loved her as my own!”
    “Ah, sir!” heavily sighed Brutus.
    “You do not know all she was to me!”
    “Oh, sir! yes, I do.”
    “She was the life of my heart.”
    “Oh! Heaven, sir! of mine too!”
    “I called her Zoe—life!”
    “God have mercy on us…”
    “Brutus!”
    “Sir!”
    “You can never marry her.”
    “Oh! I know it,” groaned the young man.
    “Therefore, Brutus, there must be no more love passages between you.”
    “Oh! no, no, sir,” sighed the Lion, dropping his shaggy head upon his hands…

We have to be very careful in interpreting this correctly: Brutus’ “recoil”, his despair upon receiving this confirmation, his agreement that he cannot marry Zoe, are entirely because that at the time, and in Virginia, such a marriage was illegal. The marriage is impossible not because Brutus will not, but because he cannot.

He does, however, go straight to Susan, still reeling from the triple tragedies of her grandfather’s and Anna’s deaths, and the sale of George and Harriet:

    “If she is mine, as you say, I will free her at once!”
    “But, my dear Miss Somerville, that will not do. To emancipate her would require time and trouble. In the mean while, another writ of attachment, at the suit of some other creditor, would be served on her, and your benevolent designs defeated. What I propose is the only safe way. It is very easy. Here is the deed. You have only to write your name at the bottom, and she is mine—she is safe. Come, Miss Somerville, do it,” pleaded Brutus, putting the pen in her listless fingers, and laying the deed before her.
    “Well, well; as you think best.”
    And, scarcely conscious of what she did, Susan Somerville wrote her name at the bottom of the bill of sale, and Zoe became the property of Brutus Lion.

And indeed—Zoe is inclined to think slavery not so bad, if she might be Brutus’ slave. But he having none of that, nor of anything less than marriage (Southworth shows a streak of pragmatism here unusual in this sort of fiction):

    “After all, it is nothing but the name; only it came on me like a shock; and I was a little proud; that’s all. I shall not be sad. People will say that the schoolmaster’s adopted daughter, who used to be so proud of her house-keeping, is a slave. Well; I shall not hear them say it. I shall be here with Brutus; waiting on Brutus; and I shall be happy. Don’t grieve for me, Brutus; indeed, I am not unhappy. Do you think that Zoe considers it such a misfortune to belong to Brutus? No, indeed. Come! don’t weep, Brutus! dear Brutus! I hate to see tears in manly eyes;” and she raised her apron and wiped away the tears from the eyes of her great big lubberly nurse, who was quivering with emotion like a mammoth blanc mange.
    “Zoe, my child !” he said, “did you think I would hold you bound a moment longer than I could help! Zoe, you should have been free to-day, but that the court-house was closed before I had even completed the purchase. Zoe, you shall be free to-morrow; and then you must return with your adopted father to the Dovecote.”
    “Must I leave you, Brutus?”
    “Zoe, my dear child, yes. You cannot be my wife, Zoe—and I will not make you my mistress; and loving you as I do, Zoe—loving me as you do—that would be your fate if you lived with me, dear child. Take her, Gertrude;” and pressing one passionate kiss upon her lips, he tossed her in his sister’s arms…

Now—there’s one other thing I want to consider here, before moving on to how Southworth resolves her plots—or rather, this point more or less forms the bridge for such a consideration.

You may remember that in The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, her second novel, Mary Elizabeth Braddon pulled exactly the same “racial identifier” stunt as Southworth does here, with its white-skinned, mixed-blood heroine being “outed” on the basis of her fingernails and “the corner of her eye”. Well—I have no doubt that Braddon read Southworth, and little more that (sitting in England, writing a book set in the American South), she swiped certain details from The Mother-In-Law, published ten years before.

And likewise, Braddon did what Southworth and others did at the time, in handling the dynamite that was abolitionist literature: she took it for granted that white people were only capable of really sympathising with a slave who was, effectively, white herself (and it is invariably a beautiful girl in these novels).

Here’s the thing, though:

Zoe isn’t of mixed blood after all. She is not the daughter of George and Harriet, but of two people who couldn’t be whiter. And whatever it was that Gertrude thought she saw, she was wrong.

This might at first glance seem like a cop-out, but the way that Zoe behaves, and is treated, once her supposed secret is out negates that possibility; and even as she takes the knowledge of her supposed birth and status in her stride, she is unaffected by the discovering the real truth except so far as it alters her relationship with Brutus.

No—Southworth is making a different point here and, when you think about it, an amazingly courageous one—one built around the twin characters of Zoe and Anna, the one a white lady of high social status, the other a born slave, the two of them physically indistinguishable. Not only does she explode the notion that “you can always tell”, that however white a person might look, there were certain infallible signifiers, but at a time when the pernicious “one drop of blood” scenario was firmly entrenched, she actually dared to say, in effect—What actually IS the difference, if you can’t even TELL the difference??

Meanwhile, Southworth handles this reverse-revelation rather curiously, but in doing so she’s making yet another serious point. We are made aware that Gertrude, Susan and Brighty have discovered something about Zoe; they don’t reveal it, or who was their source of information, other to say that they know for a fact she isn’t of mixed blood.

As it turns out, there are many more shocking secrets surrounding Zoe’s origin than “mere” slavery—and most of them have to do with Mrs Armstrong. They have remained a secret so long because the only witness to the events in question was Harriet. As Gertrude later explains (to a non-American), to do Zoe any real good, Harriet had to keep quiet until after the death of Major Somerville:

    “But the servant, then—Harriet! Why did she not disclose the secret?”
    “Because it would have done every sort of harm, and no good. It would have covered an honest family with shame and confusion, without restoring Zoe to her rights.”
    “I do not see that.”
    “Do you not know, then, that, however honest and good they may be, the oath of a slave or other colored person, will not pass in a slave State against a white person?”

The various plots of The Mother-In-Law come together when word filters back to Virginia of Louise’s intended marriage to James Frobisher.

Frobisher—as I did not before mention—was the only survivor of that carriage-accident in the mountains, from which he was rescued by Gertrude and carried back to The Lair. While nursing him back to health, Gertrude falls in love with him—allowing Southworth to have some fun with the gender-role reversal, with tall, powerful, domineering Gertrude attracted to the weak, helpless Frobisher – who she calls her “pretty boy” – precisely because he is weak and helpless. Frobisher is dazzled by Gertrude, but even more doubtful of her qualifications for aristocracy than he was of Brighty’s; they become sort-of engaged, until a miscommunication leaves Frobisher believing Gertrude has rejected him. Back in Washington, his wandering fancy then drifts to Louise…

Gertrude, however, considers herself plighted to Frobisher—and she is not about to let Mrs Armstrong take her “pretty boy” away from her (she knows Louise has nothing to say in the matter):

“I have felt a long time as though I ought to roll up my cuffs and take that woman in hand! This is a judgement on me for not doing it. I have let her scheme and plot, and marry and unmarry, and torture and break hearts to her own heart’s content. Oh, just God! I that I have spent so much time in ridding the woods and mountains of wolves and bears, and that I have let this human hyena walk abroad among women, and never resolved to deal with her, until she struck her fangs into my own heart! Selfish that I was! Not for the sake of Susan, of Louise, of Louis, of Zoe, of all the hearts that she has trampled in the dust, did I resolve to punish her! Now she would plant her cloven foot upon my bosom—would marry off my boy—my own, own boy—the gift of the mountain cataract to me; my own beautiful white water-lily, that I found broken and half drowned amid the foam of the torrent and the peaks of the rocks…”

And with that, Gertrude is onto her horse and off to Washington—determined to put a stop to the wedding if she has to publicly reveal every one of Mrs Armstrong’s guilty secrets to do it.

Ahem. She does.

Brighty is one of those to whom Gertrude declares her intention, and when she carries the news home to the Palace, Louis also sets out on a desperate chase to Washington—to stop Gertrude stopping the wedding, not because he doesn’t want it stopped, but because of what he fears such an appalling scene will do to Louise. But he knows he has no real hope of catching Gertrude, and sure enough, by the time he makes his way to the house where the wedding is being held, the assembled guests—

…members of the House of Representatives, Senators, members of the Cabinet with their families, foreign Ministers with their suites, were present. The President himself honored the occasion with his presence…

—are standing aghast in the face of Gertrude’s enthusiastic response to being invited to speak of any just cause or impediment

Louis is, however, just in time to witness what may, in a book full of outrageous touches, be the most outrageous:

    “Young lady,” began the Bishop, “will you please to—”
    “SHUT UP,” snapped the giantess.

 
 

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19/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 1)

    Mrs Armstrong possessed one master passion, PRIDE; one predominant affection, MATERNAL LOVE… As Louise approached womanhood, these passions began to conflict, thus—
    The time was slowly but surely approaching when it would be proper for the heiress of Mont Crystal to be married. Her pride was interested in seeing her married, and established as the mistress of the most magnificent mansion and the greatest estate in the valley,
and pride, enlisting policy on her side, would suffer no delay, run no risk of the loss of this desideratum. But her maternal love, if the fierce, selfish, and exacting passion deserved the name, rebelled against this decision. Pride would have been highly gratified by seeing Miss Armstrong, as Mrs Stuart-Gordon, mistress of the Island Palace. Maternal love was grieved at the anticipation that her daughter should become the wife of Louis, maternal jealousy aroused by the thought that Louise should derive the happiness of her life from any other than herself. It is true, the mother coveted for her daughter no happiness that did not flow through herself. It is true, the thought of seeing Louise in another home, united to another…of feeling herself the mother of one only child, becoming of less and less importance to the happiness of that child, as year by year went by and aged her—this thought inflicted upon her selfish heart the sharpest pang it was capable of feeling…

 

While trying to determine which, of the many possible people and projects, is the most neglected around here is probably futile, there’s no doubt that if I did rank them, E.D.E.N. Southworth would be somewhere near the top of the list.

In my defence, for once there’s a good exc—uh, reason: for a long time, the only available copy of Southworth’s third novel, The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, was a scanned document of an edition resulting from a pernicious practice found in 19th century American publishing: reissuing three-volume novels in a single volume, with microscopic font, small margins and double-columns.

(In other words, almost the exact opposite of the 18th century British practice I pointed out with respect to The Picture…)

As an online text or as a PDF, the resulting scans are almost impossible to read, or read comfortably: if you fit a page on the screen the font is too small; if you make the font big enough, you have to toggle up and down repeatedly.

So perhaps I’ll be excused for putting off The Mother-In-Law as long as I have. I had girded my loins to the task, though, when I discovered that a different copy of the novel had been uploaded at the Internet Archive. I still had to read it online, but at least I could read it:
 

 

 
The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays was serialised in the National Era between 22 November 1849 – 18 July 1850, before being published in book form in 1851. It was subsequently reissued under three variant titles: The Mother-In-Law; or, Married In Haste; Married In Haste; or, Wife And No Wife; and The Mother-In-Law: A Tale Of Domestic Life. The first two give completely the wrong idea about what kind of novel it is; while with the third, you have feel that someone was being ironic.

As always with Southworth’s long and complicated sensation novels, it becomes a matter of how to do them justice in a review without simply recapitulating them. The Mother-In-Law, though quite as fully stuffed with characters and subplots as any other of Southworth’s novels, is actually more tightly plotted overall, showing the rippling impact of its central situation upon the surrounding community, and working to a climax that resolves early everything for nearly everybody. There is one important exception to this generalisation, however; and for this reason I have decided to address the novel in two posts, giving each of them their due weight.

The Mother-In-Law fits comfortably – well: not comfortably, exactly – within the framework of Southworth’s early fiction, in that it is a story of domestic misery. However, whereas in her previous novels, Southworth’s focus was on the consequences of male violence and male selfishness in the domestic sphere, here she gives us the monstrous feminine. Unnervingly, the novel carries a preface insisting that it is a true story; and while this is a common authorial ploy, of course, the length and seriousness of this introduction gives us pause.

Overall, this novel bears some resemblance to the first one of Southworth’s that we examined, Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, in that it deals with a community of families, the relationships that develop amongst its young people, and the influence – whether for good or ill (although mostly the latter) – of the older generation upon the next. In this respect, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Mother-In-Law is that while it has numerous characters, it is really a novel without either a hero or a heroine in the usual sense. This lack of conventional focus means that we must concentrate more than we normally would upon its ensemble cast.

Geographically, we find ourselves in familiar Southworth territory: The Mother-In-Law is set in the Virginian countryside, some thirty or forty years (we gather) in the past. “The Isle Of Rays” is the name given to an island situated in the middle of a broad river, which is big enough to support two important properties (as well as several much smaller ones); its land is divided into two, with one half of the island being under cultivation, the other a savage but beautiful wilderness. The natural glories of her characters’ surroundings occupy Southworth very much, and she includes many lyrical descriptions along the way—which, if it’s okay with you, we’ll take as read.

The leading property, not just of the island but the entire district, is called simply “The Island Estate”. This is the home of the Stuart-Gordons; its present lord is General Henry Cartwright Stuart-Gordon, who – as per a longstanding family condition – took his wife’s surname upon their marriage. At the story’s outset, Mrs Stuart-Gordon is recently deceased; her robust husband is recovering from the blow, but her only child, sensitive young Louis, is depressed and lonely.

Second in importance to the Palace is Mont Crystal, the home of the Armstrongs—Mrs Armstrong, a widow, and her only child, Louise—who in addition to the similarity of her name shares Louis’ birthday, 22nd February, though Louise is two years younger. Naturally, everyone expects the two estates to be merged when the young heirs are of a suitable age.

Louise, Louise and Mrs Armstrong are the three main characters of The Mother-In-Law, and since we will hear plenty about each of them along the way, I won’t talk too much about them here—except to highlight Southworth’s significant description of Louise. We’ve noted already Southworth’s tendency to “colour-code” her women with respect to their hair, also that clearly shared with her spiritual sister, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (like Southworth, a brunette), a certain exasperation over their society’s obsession with doll-like blue-eyed blondes. Fair-haired girls do not generally fare well in Southworth’s novels; and when we are offered the following portrait of Louise Armstrong—

…with her fair, transparent complexion, with her mild blue eyes and pale gold wavy hair, with her fragile and drooping form arrayed in white muslin as soft and pliable as her gentle disposition…

—we recognise her instantly as one of the author’s sacrificial lambs.

But there is a blonde of an entirely different description in The Mother-In-Law. Gertrude Lion – the “Gerfalcon”, as she is known to the district – stands nearly six feet tall; a wild, passionate, uncontrolled young woman to whom the term “Amazon” is repeatedly applied—though “Valkyrie” might have been a better choice. Orphaned early, Gertrude has been roughly raised by her equally unconventional brother, Brutus, at their isolated mountain property known as “The Lair”. Fascinatingly, particularly juxtaposed with certain other material offered by this novel, Gertrude and Brutus not only have Cherokee blood in their heritage, they are both very proud of the fact.

A unprecedented creation, Gertrude Lion explodes periodically into the narrative of The Mother-In-Law, “leaping” and “bounding” rather than ever just walking, and shattering both convention and other people’s nerves. Intriguingly, Gertrude shares certain characteristics with Hagar, the protagonist of Southworth’s The Deserted Wife, in that she is a creature of nature, excelling at all physical activities – including some distinctly unfeminine ones – and more at home with her horses and dogs than in society. However, since Gertrude is only a supporting character (and, unlike Hagar, not an authorial self-portrait), her behaviour not only goes unchecked, but unpunished. In fact, Southworth has a great deal of wicked fun with her—before pulling an extraordinary rabbit from the hat by turning Gertrude into her novel’s Deus ex machina

Pardon a digression.

An amusing contrast is drawn between the Lions and the Stuart-Gordons. The former, we learn, are descended from one of “the regicides”, who fled England upon the Restoration and settled in Virginia—then changing the family name to “Lion” as a precaution. The latter, meanwhile, are proud to claim descent from THOSE Stuarts. Southworth concedes this, though with a sardonic passing reference to “the bar sinister”; she also loads Louis with a selection of the less desirable Stuart characteristics, most significantly weakness in dealing with women; though we should note in his defence that, very un-Stuart-like, he is a young man of impeccable morals. Southworth herself digresses here for a few pointed remarks about the royal family in question, finally observing tartly that:

…their strong Scottish blood was diluted in the marriage of James V. with Mary of Lorraine, and still further reduced in the union of their daughter Mary Stuart with the imbecile Henry, Lord Darnley. Reader, did it ever occur to you to trace the downfall of that Royal House to the degeneracy of its stock from these two unfortunate marriages? If this were the place, or I had the time, I could almost prove it…

Meanwhile—Southworth lets her preference not just for brunettes, but dark brunettes, almost run riot. (No-one ever simply has brown hair in Southworth…nor have we yet met a red-head.) That said, the ladies in question could hardly be more different in either character or situation.

We are first introduced to Miss Britannia O’Riley – “Brighty” to her friends – Louise Armstrong’s Irish-American governess. Brighty—

…was about twenty-five years of age at the time our story opens, of medium height, moderately full figure, black eyes and hair, and dark complexion, features irregular, forehead broad and full, eyebrows slender and black, arched towards the nose, and elevated towards the temples, bright, piercing eyes, nez retroussé, and lips full, crimson, and quivering, formed the tout ensemble of a countenance irresistibly charming in its sparkling piquancy.

Brighty is a young woman of many faults: she is rather vain, a lover of luxury, and given to unmeasured speech. (Governesses, observes Southworth wryly, accounting for the fact that Brighty gets away with various acts of defiance and impertinence, were harder to obtain in early 19th century Virginia than they are at the time of writing.) But she is also generous, loving, and loyal.

We are next introduced to Susan Somerville, the granddaughter of old Major Somerville; the two occupy a broken-down property on the mainland known as “The Crags”: the last of an old, proud family sliding into poverty—and worse. After the death of Mrs Stuart-Gordon, Susan begins to call in the evenings upon Louis and his father, to make tea and provide sympathetic female companionship:

She was a medium-sized girl—full—even very full formed—with the well-developed bust, round chin and cheeks, and full, sweet lips, that indicate a fine vital temperament; her complexion was very fair, her eyes large, dark, and calm, and her hair black and silky, and rippling in tiny wavelets over her head. She wore it carelessly, but partly twisted up behind, partly drooping down her plump white cheeks and throat. Her dress of dark stuff was neatness itself; but her air—her air—there, that was magic! She looked like one that calmly and deeply enjoyed her life in every vein. Wisdom and innocence reposed in her serene face. Her manner was full of grave, sweet comfort…

Then there is Zoe Dove:

She was a gentle, tender little creature, with a fair, delicate skin, with soft, dark eyes, and fine, silky black hair, inclined to curl, but plainly twisted up.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of the old schoolmaster, Mr Dove, found literally upon his doorstep as a baby. She is the novel’s domestic goddess, a born housekeeper who finds all her pleasure in cooking and cleaning and sewing. A tiny, delicate creature, she is the unlikely object of Brutus Lion’s affections; even though Brutus – six-feet-nine in his stockinged feet – has to lift her up onto a table in order to converse with her. (Gertrude, a much tougher proposition than her brother, mocks him unmercifully for his “weakness”, only to get her comeuppance later in the novel via a still more unlikely romantic relationship.)

The novel’s final brunette is Mrs Armstrong herself:

She was a woman of majestic presence—very tall, very full formed—with the erect carriage, stately step, and assured manner that expressed conscious power, indomitable will, and accustomed sway. Her features were strongly marked—her forehead square and broad; her nose a high aquiline; her chin and cheeks full and round; her lips firmly set; her complexion opaque white; her eyes were dark gray—bright, cold, and hard; her eyebrows were square, heavy, and black; her hair was glossy, jet-black, and braided in large, heavy braids down her round, full, elastic cheeks, and plaited in a thick plait, wound around the back of her head, and confined by a comb…

It is Mrs Armstrong’s aberrant psychology that is the focus of The Mother-In-Law, and the driver of its plot. She is a woman of two mastering passions, which are irreconcilable—at "civil war" with each other, says Southworth, using a term less loaded in 1851 than it would become.

On one hand, there is the domineering pride which is determined that Louise will marry Louis Stuart-Gordon, and thus become the “first lady” of the district, if not indeed the entire state. Nothing less is acceptable for her daughter.

On the other, however—there is Mrs Armstrong’s attitude towards Louise, for which “possessive” is an almost laughably inadequate description:

Can you conceive, reader, a mother’s love for her only child—being a passion deep, intense, absorbing, yet selfish, jealous,’and exacting? This was the affection, if it deserved the name, that Hortense Armstrong cherished for her daughter. She had been jealous of the child’s affection for her own father, jealous of her attachment to her mulatto nurse, though the state the lady habitually kept continually left the gentle little child in charge of her attendants. But after the death of her father, and after the entrance of Louise upon her fifth year, the mother took her more particularly under her own charge—conducting her education herself; the whole bent of this education was to one object—the entire subjugation of the will of Louise to that of herself, to gain a life-long ascendancy over the heart and mind of the child, and thereby the disposal of her destiny. Not only did she require from her daughter the implicit obedience claimed by and ceded to parents by every law, human and divine, but she aspired to bring down the intellect and affections, the very mind and spirit of her child into absolute subjection to her will…

So far she has succeeded: at the age of fifteen, Louise has barely the capacity to think or act for herself, her slightest movement dictated by her simultaneous adoration and terror of her mother.

Southworth’s descriptions of Mrs Armstrong’s manipulation of her daughter are horrifying and painful. Louise is treated with a mixture of criticism and contempt, and repeatedly punished for her sins via the withholding of affection. She is made to feel insignificant and ungrateful, entirely unworthy of her magnificent mother—who, as Louise believes as an article of faith, has sacrificed her entire life to her daughter, who has no thought but for her daughter’s welfare…

Louise’s situation, not surprisingly, begins to take its toll upon her health. Her only refuge is the love and encouragement of Brighty, but these can avail little against the stone wall of Mrs Armstrong’s emotional demands. It is on Louise’s behalf that Brighty is periodically provoked into intemperate speech:

    “Pray, explain yourself,” said the lady, haughtily.
    “I will,” said Brighty, rising and settling the folds of her blue-black satin; “your daughter is attended to—worried—hurried too much—she wants rest—repose—Mrs. Armstrong, she wants a heart and mind at ease; she wants more freedom; she is afraid to stir hand or foot; to speak—to think—to feel—lest she should give her mother pain or displeasure.”
    “That is her religion,” said the lady, coolly. “Miss Armstrong, I am happy to say, is an example of filial piety. I repeat it, that is her religion.”
    “It is her superstition.”
    “You will please to remember you are addressing me, Miss O’Riley.”
    “And it is in full consciousness of that, that I say, Mrs Armstrong, that your system of education degrades, debases, enslaves, yes, destroys your daughter!—and that if it be continued, in two years from this Louise will be an irreclaimable idiot.”
    “You are speaking of Miss Armstrong,” said the lady, white with anger, but speaking steadily.
    “I know it ; and I repeat, that unless a different course is taken, in two years Miss Armstrong, of Mont Crystal, will be an idiot slave!”
    Brighty’s eyes were blazing…

Mrs Armstrong in fact heeds Brighty’s warning about Louise’s health; though a more imperative motivation is neighbourhood gossip about Louis Stuart-Gordon and Susan Somerville, with the latter’s tea-making having grown into visits paid and returned between the two young people. The thought that anyone might circumvent her marital schemes for Louise, least of all one of the destitute Somervilles, galvanises Mrs Armstrong: instead of keeping Louise isolated, as has been the case for the past several years, she begins entertaining—and throwing Louise and Louis together. The two were, in effect, childhood sweethearts, until Mrs Armstrong’s jealousy prompted her to kill off the friendship; and it does not take much for them to rediscover those early feelings. They are soon engaged, and then married—on the 22nd February, the day that Louis turns eighteen, and Louise sixteen.

There are two casualties of this arrangement. The first is Susan Somerville, who has indeed fallen in love with Louis—only to be made his confidante with respect to Louise, and to realise he thinks of her only as a sister. Pride sustains her through this mortification; even through the greater one of acting as one of Louise’s bridesmaids. The young couple see nothing but others see, and draw their own conclusions…

And the other person to suffer through this marriage is, of course, Mrs Armstrong. Though the match is of her own making, once it is made, as she anticipated she finds her altered position with respect to Louise intolerable.

Southworth makes it clear that, while Louis is genuinely in love with Louise, she is only “fond” of him—her worshipful love for her mother remaining her dominating emotion. It is thus less about what she can give, than what she is given. Louis is kind, considerate, thoughtful, always seeking new ways to show his love and to make Louise happy; while General Stuart-Gordon, likewise, pets and coddles her. Under this unprecedented treatment, this shower of love and encouragement, Louise begins to blossom—to smile, to laugh, to sing; to run and jump instead of walking sedately. And in doing so, she offends her mother past the possibility of forgiveness:

The presence of this haughty and frozen woman cast a cloud over the brightness of The Isle of Rays. She radiated a spiritual cold that chilled all who approached her. She had arrived in her coldest, hardest, and haughtiest mood; and all that she saw, heard, and felt there, aroused the most malignant passions of her soul. She saw Louise instead of being pale and dispirited at her long absence, looking rosy and joyous; and if she did not hate the child for daring to be happy, except by her permission and through her means, at least she loathed her daughter’s husband, for superseding her in the work. Yes, she began to hate Louis in proportion as Louise loved him. And sometimes she would look at Louise in astonishment, wondering that she presumed to be so free, so glad, in her presence! She grew alarmed for the permanency of her influence over her child’s intellect and affections. “In one short month I have lost so much ground. In a year longer I shall be nothing in the sum of Mrs Stuart-Gordon’s life! And she is my child—MINE! I gave her life! She came into the world by my will—mine! And who this Louis Stuart-Gordon? Perdition catch his soul! to come between me and the child I bore!” And deep in the heart of this woman whose external appearance was so cold, so hard, so stern, whose manners were so guarded, so haughty, so freezing—deep in the heart of this diabolical woman burned and burned a concealed, intense, and growing jealousy, as under the snow-clad surface of Etna glow the most dangerous fires…

Mrs Armstrong begins seeking a way to re-establish her mastery over Louise. Of course it cannot be done from a distance; but she soon perceives a way in which she and Louise can again be resident under the same roof: she will marry General Stuart-Gordon, and take over as mistress of the Palace.

But as she sets her plot in motion, it does not for a moment cross Mrs Armstrong’s mind, not just that the General is already thinking of marriage, but that he has a very different woman in his sights…

Louise’s marriage is the cue for Brighty’s dismissal from Mont Crystal. Her pride will not allow her to take payment for the months of her employment contract cut short and unfulfilled by the loss of her pupil; but since her vanity and extravagance have led her to spend most of her money on her own adornment, this gesture leaves her in a perilous situation—or it would have, had her friends not begun vying with one another for her company. Brighty, wise and far-seeing, accepts the invitation of Susan Somerville, who in the wake of the wedding is drooping into depression.

Brighty’s new situation – or rather, her emancipation from Mont Crystal – brings with it an unexpected consequence: the determined courtship of General Stuart-Gordon. During the preparations for the wedding, the two were much thrown together, including during an extended journey to New York to arrange for Louise’s trousseau and jewels. Intrigued by Brighty’s beauty and pertness, the General began what he thought of only as a dalliance, only to find himself honestly caught by the pride and self-respect with which she rejected his advances. Brighty is tempted by his subsequent offer of marriage – dazzled by the thought of being elevated to the social pinnacle of the Palace, almost won over by a vision of lording it over Mrs Armstrong – but her fundamental honesty prevails. She is touched by the supplication of the proud old military man, however, and when he persists in his courtship, she eventually finds in herself sufficient liking and esteem for the General to accept his hand.

Perversely, the General then begins to see objections where before he swept them aside—not her position as a servant, but his advanced age; and his fear that she cannot love him. Again his humility stands him in good stead with Brighty who, the more he offers to release her should she wish it, becomes the more determined to be his wife.

Matters reach crisis-point when Brighty is sought out by James Frobisher, a young Englishman attached to the British Legation in Washington and a distant cousin of sorts, who brings the startling news that as the only surviving descendant of the old Earl of Clonmachnois, who died intestate, she is now Countess of Clonmachnois in her own right; though otherwise her inheritance is only some poverty-stricken land in Ireland. Moreover, Frobisher has a proposition to make: now that he is convinced that Brighty will “do” as a member of the aristocracy, he wants to marry her; he will then petition for the reversion of the title and, as Lord Clonmachnois, set about the restoration of that Irish land.

The General takes this as the death-knell of his hopes, and he again offers to release Brighty; but this all has the opposite effect on her: she sends Frobisher to the right-about, resigns her title, and asks the General to set a date. He does—though the two of them keep it a secret until that date draws near. The General then accepts the necessity of breaking his news to the neighbourhood in general, and Mrs Armstrong in particular—who, meanwhile, has grown frustrated with the old man’s obliviousness to the various hints she has thrown out. When he begins, one morning, on a stumbling explanation of his intentions, she is at first delighted—until she realises that her hasty acceptance of his “proposal” was a trifle premature:

    Forgive me! I never presumed to the distinguished alliance of Mrs Armstrong.”
    “Sir!”
    “Pardon! pardon! The lady of my choice does not occupy so high a place in society. The lady of my choice—”
    “Is—”
    “Miss Britannia O’Riley!”
    Words would fail to express the dumbfounded astonishment, the astounded dismay, of that haughty woman, struck statue-still, with wonder, where she stood! Yes! at first it was simple stupefied wonder that fixed her there, with rigid limbs, pallid cheeks, and darkly corrugated brows. Yes, it was wonder, before it was even rage or vengeance.
    “BRITANNIA O’RILEY!”
    “Britannia O’Riley.”
    “A governess! a domestic! a hired servant!”
    “Britannia O’Riley! a beautiful, graceful, elegant, and accomplished woman.”
    “A beggar! a low Irish beggar!”
    “A lady! a lady to whom I shall be proud to give my name.”
    “A poor, miserable Irish beggar, whom I hired to serve my daughter!”
    “My intended wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior, and mistress of my house within one month from this.”

Mrs Armstrong’s response is not merely to depart, but to try and take Louise with her. Still incapable of withstanding a maternal command, bewildered by her mother’s insistence that she has been offered an intolerable insult, Louise is mechanically obeying when the General intervenes. The ensuing, violent scene only become more fraught when Louis himself returns home and becomes involved. Louise is unable to withstand the contending forces, and faints; Louis carries her back to her room, while the General—now every bit as much Mrs Armstrong’s enemy as he is hers—forces the departure of her mother.

Alone at Mont Crystal, Mrs Armstrong begins to lay her plans for the future—now quite as determined to destroy the lives of everyone at the Palace (which, by the time she sets her scheme in motion, includes Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior) as she is to regain possession and control of her daughter. Indeed, these two passions become inextricably linked together, as Mrs Armstrong begins using Louise as a weapon…

Her first step is to show herself open to the olive branch tentatively offered by the Palace. Louise, of course, suffers bitterly from the estrangement, and the feeling that it’s all her fault; and finally she and Brighty venture to Mont Crystal in an attempt to mend fences. Mrs Armstrong, taking her cue, shows herself more sorrowing than angry, and allows her penitent daughter to persuade to her to forgive the insults offered, and to dine at the Palace. From there, Mrs Armstrong keeps up her act so well that even the General’s suspicions are lulled—though granted, he is also distracted by his vivacious young wife. She bides her time until business calls Louis away from home for a week—and then she seizes her chance, inviting Louise to return to Mont Crystal for a visit. Of course she has no intention of letting her go again; or at least, only if her terms are met…

Calling alone, Mrs Armstrong confronts the General. We are reminded of the complicated situation at the Palace: that Louis is a Stuart-Gordon on his mother’s side; that the property descends to him from her, not his father; and that he is not as yet of age. Mrs Armstrong, meanwhile, is focused on Louise’s position now that the General has remarried:

    “When I bestowed the hand of my daughter, Miss Armstrong, upon your son, Mr Stuart-Gordon, it was understood that she should take the head of this establishment. Was this so, or was it not so?”
    “Certainly, madam, that was the tacit understanding, but—”
    “Never mind ‘but.’ This house was refurnished, fitted up, to suit the taste of Louise, was it not!”
    “Of course, madam, but—”
    “Louise was to have been its mistress—was she not?”
    “Certainly, madam, but—”
    “Who is its mistress!”
    “My wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior.”
    “Then the conditions of the marriage contract have not been fulfilled on your part.”

Of course in one respect this is ridiculous: Louise neither wants to be mistress of the Palace, nor is capable of fulfilling such a role; moreover, she is delighted to have the companionship of Brighty, and only too pleased to have her assume control of the household (which she does admirably, by the way). The General is understandably inclined to brush this off as nonsense—until:

“Then hear me, sir. I said that I was a woman of few words; you know that I am not a woman of vain words; and I tell you,” she said, rising, folding her arms, standing before him with her determined jaws firmly set, her determined eyes firmly fixed upon him—” I tell you,” she said, slowly, through her closed teeth, “that, until you and your wife evacuate these premises, Mrs Louis Stuart-Gordon never sets foot upon The Isle of Rays, and never exchanges one word with any one member of the Island family. I waited my time. I have her. She is in my hands now!”

So she is; and for the next several years, Louis is doomed barely to see his wife…

There are a couple of interesting social and legal points surrounding the manoeuvring of Mrs Armstrong; interesting too for the somewhat ambiguous light it throws on the character of Louis, who has been presented us us from the outset as unusually sensitive—or in his father’s opinion, weak. Taking after his mother, Louis had no interest in a military career; he doesn’t even hunt. He enjoys scenery for its own sake; he and Louise spend many hours walking hand-in-hand, admiring the Palace gardens and the wilderness beyond.

And when Mrs Armstrong tries to take Louise, Louis insists that she is free to make her own decision.

What’s fascinating here is the way that Southworth manipulates us into siding with the conservative old General, with his thunderous demand for husbandly authority and wifely submission. Of course—this really isn’t about “men” and “women”, or “husbands” and “wives”; it is about the fact that Louise as an individual is incapable of making any decision for herself, let alone one this big. Louis’ intentions may be admirable, but he picks the worst possible moment to live up to his principles; and had Louise not fainted, she would undoubtedly have been immured at Mont Crystal a few months earlier.

And when Mrs Armstrong does get her hands on Louise, a similar situation arises. Louis wants neither to force Louise to do anything, nor to wash the family’s dirty linen in public by taking legal steps to get his wife back, as he is within his rights to do; while the General is all for filing a writ of habeus corpus. It is Brighty who tips the scale towards Louis, warning the men that anything that looks (or can be made to look) like violence towards or an insult of Mrs Armstrong will not help them with Louise; but adding that, with time, Louise’s longing for her husband and their life together may override even her worship of her mother.

And perhaps so—under normal circumstances. But as soon as Mrs Armstrong has Louise back in her power, she sets about convincing her that no-one at the Palace ever loved her; that no-one has ever really loved her but her mother—least of all Louis, who only married her because she was Miss Armstrong of Mont Crystal; who was notoriously in love with Susan Somerville, and certainly would have married her had she not been destitute; and who has probably by this time made Susan his mistress…

    Louise dropped her head upon her mother’s shoulder, and groaned—
    “Oh, mother! what horrors are these you are revealing to me! My brain is reeling—reeling! my mind wanders. This is very dreadful, and yet it is of Louis—Louis that you speak! Oh, this is very, very horrible, and yet it is my mother that tells me…”

Unexpectedly, however, of the two it is finally Louis – after calling repeatedly at Mont Crystal, and being turned away; and after writing letter after letter, to no response – who suffers a collapse and its inevitable attendant, “brain-fever”. Louise herself is kept from this extremity by a growing conviction on her part:

    “Mamma, I must return to Louis! indeed I must, mamma, if he will take me back! Indeed I must, mamma, if he were twenty times a traitor!”
    “Hey! what! how! what is all this wretched nonsense, now?”
    “Mamma, I shall be a mother soon!” said Louise, in a voice between timidity and tenderness.
    “WHAT!” exclaimed the lady, raising upon her elbow, and gathering her black brows into an awful frown— ” WHAT!”
    “God has blessed me! I, too, shall be a mother, dear mamma! Oh! mamma, kiss me, now that I have told you!”
    “It is not true! It cannot be true I” exclaimed Mrs Armstrong, still glaring at her daughter.
    “Mamma, it is so; and I must return to Louis—indeed I must, mamma!”
    “To a man whose whole heart is given to his mistress—”
    “If it be so, it is dreadful, mamma, but I cannot help it. He does love me a little. Anyhow, I know I love him entirely…”

For a variety of reasons—jealousy, the potential change to Louise’s social position, her own changed position, the increased legal power this will grant Louis, and Louise’s altered affections—Mrs Armstrong is having none of it; none of it:

    “Mamma, how have I given you offence!”
    “By the subject of your conversation. Now, let me hear no more ridiculous nonsense about returning to that young scapegrace, nor the other miserable shift-about—pshaw! fudge! stuff! you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have such fancies.”
    “It is not fancy, it is fact, mamma.”
    “SILENCE! hush! not a word more of this, I command you, Louise. It is false! false! you are too young—far too young. You should blush at such imaginings!”
    “It is not imagination, mamma,” persisted Louise, with a tender earnestness.
    “Hush! I command you! Never dare to hint this subject to me, or to any one else, at the peril of my grave displeasure. Shameful! But you are really out of health. You are ill and nervous, and so, of course, full of idle fancies. You are too much confined. You do not take exercise enough. You must go out more. You shall ride on horseback. Nothing is better for low spirits than hard riding on a trotting horse…”

And having dismissed Louise, Mrs Armstrong calls her loyal waiting-woman to her:

    “What do you think of that child, Kate?” asked the lady, looking searchingly in the face of her attendant.
    “Well, madam, I think she is—indeed all the women about the house know she is—”
    “In bad health!” said the lady, emphatically, and looking sternly and threateningly at her attendant.
    “Yes, madam, of course, just as you say, in bad health.”
    “Listen to me! She is out of spirits, and she neglects her toilet sadly—more than I choose that my daughter shall. I shall dismiss her maid, and do you take her place, and superintend the dressing of your young lady. Do not permit her to go about as loosely and carelessly arrayed as has been her custom of late. See that she wears her stays; do you hear?”
    “Yes, madam, I hear and understand.”
    “Hear and literally obey.”

But none of this is to any avail; and some months later, Louise gives birth to a daughter, Margaret.

Louis is informed of the event not directly, but via neighbourhood gossip. He could, of course, demand custody—but of course he does not. His forbearance is hardly rewarded: in time he receives a black-edged letter from Mrs Armstrong informing him of his daughter’s death from scarlet fever. This is followed by a cold demand that, for the sake of Louise’s health and happiness, he arrange for a divorce. After long consideration, Louis writes back, agreeing to this if Mrs Armstrong’s claim is endorsed by Louise, in Louise’s handwriting. Such endorsement duly arrives…

Mrs Armstrong by this time has carried Louise away, not just from Mont Crystal, but Virginia; Louise remains apathetic as she is forced from place to place. Her mother finally establishes her in Washington—where the pale, pretty girl (who is assumed to be a young widow) attracts the kind attention of, “Mrs M—, the lady of the President…perhaps the most dignified and gracious of all the ladies that ever presided at the White House.” (Presumably Elizabeth Monroe, a detail which places the narrative between 1817 and 1825.)

Louise also attracts the attention of a certain James Frobisher, who by this time has succeeded in securing the reversion of the family title title—thus offering to Mrs Armstrong the glorious chance to smite her enemies with a final, decisive blow: to take Louise away altogether, out of the country, as far from the Palace (and her lingering affections) as possible; to have her marry another man, apparently of her own volition; to have her bear the title so lightly discarded by Brighty; and to see her socially elevated even beyond her mother’s wildest dreams, as Countess of Clonmachnois…

[To be continued…]