Archive for October, 2021

07/10/2021

Ellesmere (Part 2)


 
That he had some secret enemies did not remain a doubt, though he could not conceive why they should seek his life. Madame de Grand-Pré was certainly anxious to prevent his enforcing claims which must expose her duplicity; the Dubois’s in that case must be her accomplices. He certainly was not accidentally wounded: the very spot where the vile deed was perpetrated, seemed marked for such a purpose—there was not another equally convenient between Lausanne and the castle. Should the people who were gone in pursuit, secure the villain, he might perhaps be obliged to prosecute the mother of his daughter for an attempt upon his life. The bare idea made him shudder…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clement Davenport discovering his true identity and then taking his place in his parents’ world as the Earl of Ellesmere carries us to the end of Volume II of Ellesmere. From here the narrative undergoes a severe lurch, turning from its English-domestic scenes to an almost-Gothic European-set plot, as Clement sets out again to track down the Baroness—determined to discover her retreat and the reasons for it, and to take steps accordingly:

No longer the ardent lover ready to perform impossibilities to obtain the favour of the woman he had once so fervently adored, he could now calmly and dispassionately review his and her past conduct. Before marriage she had appeared an angel, in whom every perfection centred; but now he found she had been guilty of levity and imprudence in encouraging, nay even noticing him. Situated as he then was, and after she had, as he then supposed, blessed him for life, what homage did she not exact! How often did she obliquely glance at the great sacrifice she had made at the shrine of Love, and what a return she had made for his unbounded confidence! Therefore ought she to escape unpunished? Of what iniquity might not such a woman prove capable?—No, he must and would obtain a legal dissolution of so dishonourable a connection: he was therefore anxious for the lawyers’ answer, but his suspense no longer preyed upon his mind. Having brought himself, as he hoped, to think with perfect indifference of the Baroness, he was prepared to expect a divorce would be the result of those enquiries he was so fully determined to make…

I can’t think of any other novel of this time – or for a long time afterwards – that takes such a prosaic approach to the end of a marriage. There’s no sense here of “What therefore God hath joined together”, no agonising about the rights and wrongs of divorce: Clement wants out of his marriage, and sets about finding his wife purely so that she can cease to be his wife. Given Meeke’s general conservatism (and that allusion to the Baroness’s “levity and imprudence” absolutely captures her general tone), this is almost shocking; and I suspect she allows herself to go this road because the novel as a whole operates as a warning not just about the foolishness of “romance”, but against getting involved with “foreigners”. (There’s a plot-touch later that reinforces the latter in a most annoying way.)

The entire Ormond family ends up removing to the south of France, avoiding the English winter for the health of both Clement and his elderly father. Prior to this, Clement and Meredith are caught on the edge of an incident involving a mad bull, and offer their coach as a refuge for a young woman, Miss Belville, and her governess—the former of whom drops a letter. Rather incredibly, given the usual rules governing correspondence, Meredith reads the whole thing—and so learns, and reveals, that Clement is an object of interest (to say the least) to a certain Lady Augusta Cameron. Clement explains that the two of them knew each other as children, then met again some years later, when she was visiting a relative near Fairfield. The letter also reveals that Lady Augusta is resisting marriage to her cousin (a foreigner!), which her father, the Earl of Greville, is blaming upon her desire to “throw herself away upon that low fellow, Davenport”.

Once on the Continent, Clement and Meredith set out on their quest for the Baroness. Their first stop is Paris where, to pass the time, they attend a play. In the interval, Meredith is accosted by an old school-fellow, the Earl of Harold: a handsome but rather dissolute and selfish individual, for whom he has little liking. He is surprised to learn that Lord Harold is newly married, and rightly assumes that the lady’s money was his chief motivation:

    “I dare say your Lordship has made so prudent a choice, no one will venture to condemn you for having parted with your liberty.”
    “In my place, Meredith, I think you would have done the same. A very rich and very handsome girl fell in love with the cut of my face; and, although not absolutely an Englishwoman, out of pure compassion I offered her my hand…”

Marriage does not seem to agree with the new Lady Harold, however; with her loving husband observing dispassionately that he may be a widower soon enough. Discussing the matter afterwards, Meredith and Clement shake their heads:

    “…he has, therefore, most probably, imposed upon some silly credulous woman, who, I am apt to think, from his account, already severely repents having placed her happiness in his keeping.”
    “I never yet heard any man glory so openly in his own baseness,” replied Clement; “but he is really so fine a figure, I cannot so much wonder at his having retrieved his fortune through matrimony:—however, little as I have seen of him, I sincerely pity the poor woman who has fallen to his share.”
    “If he only turns her into ridicule,” replied Meredith, “she may esteem herself very fortunate; but depend upon it if she has either common sense, or common feelings, she must be miserable with such a character. He did right in marrying a foreigner; for I think no English woman of fortune would have accepted of his title…”

The friends travel on to Geneva, where they try to pick up information about the Baroness’s movements, prior to Clement undertaking the unpleasant task of confronting the Dubois. They learn quite as much about the latter as they do about their main quarry, which tends to confirm the suspicion that her secret marriage placed the Baroness in the power of two very unscrupulous people:

Every one had heard that Madame de Grand-Pré had quitted Switzerland; but why or wherefore no one could take upon themselves to say, nor could anyone fathom where the Dubois’s had raised the money necessary to make their recent purchase, as the husband was only a a subaltern Officer in the French service, at the time he married; and the wife was almost wholly dependent upon the Baroness. This rendered it rather astonishing that they should now be able to live quite in affluence in Rolles, a small town between Geneva and Lausanne, as they kept a carriage, regular set of servants, &c. &c. and were, in short, strongly suspected of having egregiously duped the too easy Baroness…

The financial situation is the main weapon in Clement’s armoury. The Baroness undertook the disposal of her Swiss property with his blessing, but since she was married, the sale was technically illegal—the property no longer being hers to sell. This includes the sale of the Castle de Grand-Pré to the Dubois, a matter which was clearly hinky anyway as they self-evidently could not afford the estate.

In fairness to the Baroness, as Clement pursues his search he is forced to realise how much he is to blame for her behaviour: how his concealment of his comfortable circumstances in England would have paved the way for the Dubois to convince her that he was only a fortune-hunter after all, and that hiding herself from him was her only protection against his inevitable claim to her property:

“Such are the blessed fruits of indulging romantic notions! I could not condescend to be happy in the common way. But I think my greatest enemies, even the Dubois’s, or Lord Clancastle, would allow, if they were acquainted with my feelings, I am sufficiently punished for having quitted the beaten path…”

But the situation as it exists gives him leverage with the Dubois. They are beyond dismayed to discover the Earl Of Ellesmere in the Baroness’s former courier, but not being about to give up their ill-gotten gains, their tactic is to deny, deny, deny. An ugly scene results, with Clement provoked into spelling out just how far both they and the Baroness have put themselves in his power by their treacherous conduct:

“I would have you reflect how little honour you will gain by having recourse to any more subterfuges. I told you then, whenever I should think it worth my while, I should find no difficulty in proving my right to the Baroness’s fortune; though, believe me, my contempt for her has, if possible, increased since that period:—still I now chuse to assert my claims, not because I covet her riches, but because I wish her accomplices’ infamy to be blazoned to the world. I mean to see her steward before I sleep. I have taken the advice of the most eminent lawyers in Great Britain; therefore when you are necessitated to resign your cheaply acquired castle, only reflect you are reaping the fruits of your own obstinacy; for I had much rather debate this point amicably with your friend, than publicly dishonour myself by acknowledging myself her husband…”

Driving away, Clement and Meredith agree that the Dubois could tell them everything about the Baroness, had they chosen to; Meredith advises Clement to go ahead with the legal seizure of his wife’s estates, as the best way of flushing her out. As announced, they seek out M. Monvel, the Baroness’s steward, only to learn that he is ahead of them, having set out for the Castle de Grand-Pré. Clement goes after him, resolving also to take the opportunity to call upon Mr Maynard, the current tenant, as he promised during his previous call there. He does not quite make it to the castle, however:

He had arrived within a mile of the place of his destination, when a rustling to the right, which he imagined proceeded from a bird fluttering in the hedge, induced him to turn his head: at the very instant he received a violent flash of gunpowder in his face, and the contents of a musket in his neck, which brought him to the ground…

(In the interests of full closure, I must here state that I have finally found one point of direct overlap between “Mrs Meeke” and “Gabrielli”, with both of them apparently believing that bullets do less damage the closer you are to a gun, a touch we also found in The Sicilian.)

Clement’s life is saved partly by the angle of the shot, partly by the thickness of his neckcloth (!), and mostly by swift action on the part of Mr Maynard. Knowing Clement only as the man who once came seeking the Baroness, Maynard is stunned and appalled when his possessions reveal him to be the Earl of Ellesmere—

—“Mr Maynard” being the Earl of Clancastle, not only wracked with remorse for his past crimes, but now fully awake to the implications of an attempt upon Ellesmere’s life almost on his own doorstep.

The situation also causes some attendant awkwardness for Meredith, hastily summoned, as it reunites him with the Lady Lucy Killarney. Far from intending any claim upon him, he finds her not only aware of her father’s villainy, but determined to share his fallen fortunes.

Clement reluctantly concedes that the Baroness may be behind his shooting; though he agrees with Clement that Dubois is most likely the one who pulled the trigger. Monvel, the steward, is also a suspect: though he bears a good reputation locally, he was long in the service of the Grand-Pré family, and was the other major financial beneficiary of the Baroness’s hasty disposal of her property. Monvel is called to the castle and told the whole story. He is shocked by the Baroness’s behaviour, but refuses to believe that she could have had a hand in the attempt upon Clement’s life—he, too, pointing a finger at Dubois.

The matter takes another turn when Monvel receives a letter from his former mistress, who begs him to seek her out at the Convent of St. Mary, near Chamberry, where she has taken refuge. The thought that his wife has been all this time in a convent, rather than pursuing a second marriage, or “marriage”, in Germany, as he was repeatedly told, causes a revolution in Clement’s feelings; as do her regretful references to the Dubois. He and Meredith make preparations to accompany Monvel to Chamberry, with Clement waving away his cousin’s fears for his health and indeed his life. He decides to take Monvel’s place, and interview the Baroness himself.

The three men travel a circuitous route to Chamberry, keeping their destination a secret. After taking rooms, Clement and Meredith survey the town and the convent—noting that the high, thick walls of the latter make it look more like a prison. At the agreed time, Clement sets out to call upon his wife.

He does not return…

In the dark of night, almost sick with apprehension, and with his suspicions of Monvel’s treachery fully revived, Meredith calls at the convent. His demands to see the Abbess are refused, while a surly porteress not only insists that no man called there that day at all, but denies that any such person as the Baroness de Grand-Pré is staying there.

Frantic with worry, Meredith turns on Monvel, who steadfastly denies any involvement in Clement’s disappearance. He also warns him, as a foreign Protestant in a Catholic land, to keep his head. Meredith heeds the steward’s suggestion that they call upon the convent’s confessor, Father Benedict. The latter listens seriously to their story, but tells them they will not gain entry to the convent without an order from the town Governor. He proves to be away from home and, Chamberry being a walled city, Meredith passes a night of painful suspense until the gates are opened at dawn the following morning. Intent upon his quest, Meredith pays little heed to the robed figure outside the walls, waiting conversely for entry—

—until the “monk” speaks to him in his cousin’s voice.

Clement’s adventure is the stuff of Gothic novels, though it represents only an interlude in the overall scheme of Ellesmere. It is, however, amusing to find Meeke dabbling in this sort of sensation material. Less surprising is the overt anti-Catholic tone of it: though at one point she has a character speak in defence of most convents, the Convent of St. Mary is the exception that proves the rule—receiving unwilling novitiates in exchange for payment, and acting as a prison for disobedient daughters.

Clement tells Meredith that he did not see his wife. It was Father Benedict with whom he had to deal, who began by announcing that he was fully invested with the power to act on the Baroness’s behalf. After abusing him roundly as a scoundrel and a low-born adventurer, the monk presented him with papers to sign, relinquishing all claim to the Baroness’s property. Declaring himself willing enough to give it all up, Clement nevertheless refused to sign under compulsion—hardly expecting the response from this man of God:

“…remember, your friends are at no certainty you ever entered these walls, and if you ever wish to leave them, you must first set your name to these deeds:—you shall have till midnight to reflect upon the alternative; an oath never to reveal what has passed between us, and compliance with the Baroness’s wishes, procure you instant liberty. If, on the contrary, (putting his hand in his bosom while he spoke, and discovering the haft of a poniard)—but no more—if you are wise, you will accept of your liberty upon the proposed terms. It is now ten; in two hours more you shall see me again;” once more leaving Clement to darkness and his own reflections…

Clement’s delivery comes in an entirely unexpected manner: a female voice whispers to him through a thin piece of paneling; and he learns that in the next room are confined one each of the convent’s aforementioned victims (an unwilling novitiate and a disobedient daughter), who had already been seeking a means of escape. They have a knife, and with it Clement is able to cut a way into their room, there being a way out through it into the body of the convent; while a spare monk’s robe in his own locked room offers a disguise. Coming together in total darkness, the three do not wait for introductions: Clement finds one of them bold and eager for freedom, the other shy and shrinking; he later learns that it was the monk’s pronouncement of the name “Clement Davenport” that inspired the young women to risk pleading for his succour.

Luck, courage and a little deceit combine to see the three escape their prison. After walking a considerable distance towards Geneva, Clement, in his guise as a monk, manages to borrow a cart and driver for the young ladies, sending them on to his hotel in possession of his watch and advising them to seek out a servant called Watson. He then turns back to Chamberry, where he encounters the frantic Meredith.

The two then walk almost smack into Father Benedict and, after an exchange of threats involving the Governor, make him their prisoner and carry him towards Geneva in a carriage secured via a message sent to Monvel. During the journey – the monk’s arms bound to keep his itchy fingers away from his poniard – they manage to convince him that Clement is who he says he is, and that he has been duped by the Baroness:

    “I find I have been deceived,” said he. “I little thought you could have adduced such proof of what I told you would allege by way of frightening me; your Lordship may now depend upon every atonement in my power.”
    “Now you do seem to understand your interest, Father,” replied Clement;—“for depend upon it you will gain more by endeavouring to make me your friend, than by persisting in a wilful error. Is the Baroness de Grand-Pré now at Chamberry?”
    “Not at present, I am pretty sure, my Lord; but I wonder, since you acknowledged last night you wished to be legally separated from this lady, that you should have been so averse to renouncing your claims upon her person and fortune.”
    “Had she come forward, as I expected, Father, I should have made no difficulty in complying with many of her demands; but signing those papers you presented to me last night would not unfortunately have unmarried me—that must be done publicly, and, as I said before, legally. The Baroness wishes to make quicker work of it, by sending me out of the world.”

The monk denies any such intention, and goes back to trying to get Clement to admit assisting in the escape of the young women he persists in calling “nuns”. Clement evades the point, insisting (truthfully) that he saw no women at all while in the convent.

When the carriage passes from Savoy into Genevese territory, Father Benedict is released—and roundly warned about what he says regarding his experiences. The monk turns back upon the road to Chamberry—

—upon which Dubois is later found weltering in his blood from stab-wounds…one in the back.

They really should have taken that poniard away from him…

In Geneva, Clement and Meredith discover the identities of the two convent escapees: the bolder one is Clara di St. Amori, one of the numerous progeny of a noble but impoverished Sardinian family, forced into the convent (though not yet a novitiate) by way of disposing of her; the shy, shrinking one is none other than the Lady Augusta Cameron, author of that very interesting letter to her friend Miss Belville.

I admit to some disappointment here (not with regards to Lady Augusta: nothing at all unexpected there, unfortunately): in typical second-banana style, both Meredith and Clara are livelier, more sensible and have a better sense of humour than their more “sensitive” friends, and it looks as for a time as if Meeke intends to hook them up. However, she must have remembered that Clara is a foreigner: so instead, she pulls an impoverished soldier-lover out of her hat, has Clement dower Clara as thanks for the girl’s help, and so disposes of her. Meredith, meanwhile – once her father conveniently dies – is steered back towards Lady Lucy.

(Who, it occurs to me – it may not have done to Meeke – may well be Catholic…)

Lady Augusta, on the other hand, was placed in the convent by her aunt, by way of persuading her to bestow herself and her fortune upon her cousin – a foreigner! – a match she was wholly averse to even without her secret (or not-so-secret) passion for Clement.

Clement now considers that the best thing to do is to place her under his mother’s care, until her father, currently ambassador to the Court of Madrid, can be contacted. This is arranged, and the party travels to Avignon. There, Lady Augusta’s esteem for Clement is soon obvious to everyone; while she learns soon enough of his marriage—though also, via the Marchioness, who is only too eager to gain this daughter-in-law, of his plans for a divorce.

There is much debate within the family of the appropriate action to take against the Baroness and her presumed co-conspirators, Father Benedict and the Abbess of St. Mary’s:

    Monvel had retired to the apartment allotted him, to draw up a short case concerning the manner in which Clement had been decoyed into the Monastery—the steps Meredith and himself had taken in consequence of his detention—how, and with whom, he had made his escape; which was to be submitted to the Cardinal Vice Legate, who, the steward affirmed, had unlimited power over the sons and daughters of the Church (as they were styled) of every nation, and might possibly be able to cite Madame de Grand-Pré to his tribunal as being the instigator of the Confessor and Abbess.
    To bring her forward in any way, was become so serious an object, that the Marquis had determined, if the Vice Legate did not seem likely to interfere with success, to apply, without loss of time, to the Sardinian Court, and the Sovereign Council of Berne, to order her immediate confinement, as he hardly conceived his son in safety while she continued at large.

While these larger matters are in train, tea-table gossip reveals that the Earl and Countess of Harold are in Avignon for the latter’s health, which continues to decline. No-one is very surprised at this outcome:

    “We learned that she was ill at Paris,” rejoined Meredith; “and I thought then there was very little chance of her recovery, being pretty well acquainted with the character of her unprincipled Lord. But how could a sensible, rich, and handsome woman make so preposterous a choice?”
    “I can’t see any thing so extraordinary in what I am more apt to consider as her misfortune, than as any lapse of judgement,” said the Marquis.—“Lord Harold is a remarkably fine figure, and in every sense of the word, a truly handsome man. His education, and the company he was early introduced into, have given him other advantages; and I dare say he appeared a very desirable lover. Once married, he probably threw off the mask; and, in endeavouring to break his wife’s spirit, seems to have nearly broken her heart…”

The Marchioness is sympathetic, but only up to a point:

“There is a great deal to be said on both sides in this case, though I don’t doubt but Lord Harold deceived her in many essential points; still we must suppose she once loved him, or she would have been more particular in her enquiries concerning his morals, &c.; for upon these more than his fortune, her happiness depended. Therefore I think, instead of sinking under the disappointment she has experienced, she had better have endeavoured to reclaim the man she must have chosen; for no parents would have advised such a match…”

Lady Ormond also comments that Lady Harold had evinced a desire for their friendship, when they were introduced, and hinted that she required advice as to the disposal of her property; though there she cannot feel herself justified in interfering.

All this precedes an expected visit from the Earl and Countess, in whom the young people have very little interest—except the frankly curious Meredith. Lady Augusta, who is using a false name while her issues with the convent are sorted out, and while she waits to hear from her father, withdraws altogether; while the disinterested Clement continues to play with his daughter, now a toddler:

    …she put her arms round his neck, and refused to leave her hold, closely hugging, and repeatedly calling him papa—a word that she found had hitherto procured her every indulgence she desired. He was therefore standing in this posture, unable to disengage himself from her, when the Countess of Harold stopped directly opposite him. Their eyes remained rivetted upon each other for several seconds; till Maria, not feeling herself supported as before, clung still closer to papa, and made him remember he had slackened his hold; but his emotion rendered him incapable of attending to her endearments, upon recognising, though scarcely the shadow of her former self, her mother in the wife of Lord Harold.
    Altered as she was, a second glance placed her identity beyond doubt; and hastily disengaging the lovely infant’s arms from round his neck, he put her down; but had not set her upon her feet before the Baroness, having made a sort of feeble effort to catch the child from him, sunk senseless on the carpet before anyone could prevent her fall…

Alas, though not surprisingly, Ellesmere disappoints me again: I don’t get my divorce, with the Baroness taking to her bed, never to rise again. The point remains valid, though: no other novel of this time that I know of is so casual – even positive – on the subject.

Meeke proceeds from here to absolve the Baroness of everything but abysmal stupidity, placing all the criminal guilt upon the Dubois, who parleyed their knowledge of the Baroness’s secrets into ownership of an estate and a comfortable fortune (rewards for service sliding imperceptibly into blackmail). She did not, for example, knowingly commit bigamy, having been induced to believe that Clement was married when they met—to Mrs Davenport, no less, whose footman he once was. So she is convinced by Mme Dubois—and the Earl of Harold, who doesn’t exactly understand why the latter has encouraged him to repeat a bit of gossip about a foolish old lady marrying her servant, but knows enough to see that it will somehow help him in his own scheme of a wealthy marriage.

The best thing the Baroness does in the entire novel is keep her mouth shut on that point: Clement and Harold are already at daggers drawn, and she fears for the outcome should the latter’s active role in her deception be known. She also has a will drawn up that bequeaths her entire estate to Maria and names Clement as her guardian, without declaring her true relationship to either.

At this point it becomes evident that Maria, like her father, has had a very narrow escape: when Clement prevented the Dubois from getting their hands on the child, the Baroness had just appointed them her guardians and – in the event of her death – heirs to the fortune settled on her…

Knowing herself dying, the Baroness makes what amends she can by helping to lure Mme Dubois into a legal trap, one that ends with her, Father Benedict and the Abbess handed over to the tender mercies of the Church. Dubois – confirmed as the attempted murderer of Clement, and his role in the deception / bribing of the monk revealed – is allowed to go on slowly dying of his stab-wounds.

Her sensation-plot resolved, and the notion of “romance” thoroughly debunked, Meeke then provides an almost defiantly prosaic ending to her novel (one, by the way, that suddenly fires an unprovoked pot-shot at Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication Of The Rights Of Women), with Lord and Lady Ormond making formal proposals to the Earl of Greville, on behalf of the Earl of Ellesmere, for the hand of the Lady Augusta Cameron…who he has learned to esteem:

…he requested the Marquis would solicit Lord Greville’s permission in proper form, as he had no wish his addresses should have a clandestine appearance; he had had enough of romantic mysteries, therefore chose to proceed this time in the usual routine.

 
 

05/10/2021

Ellesmere (Part 1)

    The painful reflection that he now had no friend solicitous for his future welfare, nor to whose care he could, with perfect satisfaction, consign his infant daughter, increased the dejection which continued to prey upon his mind; and for her sake alone he wished to live, as all his prospects of happiness seemed closed forever. An unfortunate planet, he conceived, had presided over his birth; yet when he reflected upon the almost miraculous manner in which he had been preserved in his infancy, and upon the virtues of his late benefactress—the manner in which she had brought him up, the education she had given him, so superior to his apparent rank in society, and the large fortune she had bequeathed him—he considered it almost impious to murmur against those decrees which had doomed him to survive his recent disappointment; and which he could not help acknowledging might, in some respects, be attributed to his own romantic notions.—Had he openly aspired to the Baroness’s hand, and succeeded in the attempt, no artful confidant could have undermined their conjugal felicity.
    His own duplicity, respecting his circumstances, had laid the foundation for this separation, which had nearly brought him to the brink of the grave. Though he would very fain have persuaded himself he despised the Baroness too much to make him regret the step he had taken, yet he had loved too fervently to admit of this self-deception, and at times he could not help cherishing the delusive hope, that she would yet be able to convince him of his innocence…

 

 

Sigh.

As I went seeking for a copy of this novel from 1799, it was made painfully clear how far the new argument that the Minerva Press novelist known as Mrs (Mary?) Meeke was actually Elizabeth Meeke has propagated.

I’ve made my thoughts on this subject clear in a previous post: briefly, that having ended up with two writers of the same name on his roster, William Lane made the second of them use a pseudonym, resulting in some novels by “Mrs Meeke” and some by “Gabrielli”. That these are indeed two different people, rather than one woman using two authorial names, is clear enough if you’ve read their books…but I’m quite sure I’m the only one who has, whatever other research might have been done in this area.

I have no means of halting the spread of what I believe to be misinformation, but I do have one more detail to add to my counter-argument: the fact that, as can be seen on the title page above, the ‘by the author of’ statement from the Minerva Press includes only those novels by “Mrs Meeke”, and none by “Gabrielli”.

Anyway—

Despite it running four volumes, I’m sure I can get through this review of Ellesmere in two posts—the first one being shorter than usual, as I certainly don’t want to dwell more than I have to upon the exasperating first volume and a half, which focus upon two young people behaving (each in their own way) in a frustratingly stupid manner. Thankfully, the novel improves from that point—amusingly repositioning what is ordinarily the favourite Meeke climactic revelation to the middle of Volume II and then involving its hero in some rather Gothicky adventures.

As with Meeke’s previous novels, Ellesmere lays much of its action on the Continent prior to the French Revolution—which at least this time she doesn’t pretend never happened, though nothing in its French-set passages even hint at discontent. It opens, however, in England, with the overturning of a London-bound coach and the death of a woman carrying a baby. The child is unhurt, and is rescued by a middle-aged widow called Mrs Davenport. Childless herself, she quickly becomes attached to the baby; though she scrupulously does everything in her power to find his people. None of her questioning or advertising brings information beyond where the dead woman boarded the coach, and that offers no pleasing interpretation of the baby’s background—he most likely being the bastard one of the soldiers whose regiment departed just before the still-unidentified woman likewise left town.

Regardless, Mrs Davenport decides to raise the boy herself; and she earns the disapproval of her gossipy neighbours by having him christened “Clement Davenport”. Accepting the likely lowness of his birth, Mrs Davenport resolves to prepare him to earn his own living and plans to send him to India, where his presumed origins will least hamper his rise in the world. However, as the boy grows her attachment to him becomes such that she cannot bring herself to part with him—somewhat to his own disappointment, as he too accepts his position and his need to fend for himself. Finally Mrs Davenport goes all out—willing to the young man Fairfield, her estate near London, and nearly all of her fortune, amounting to some £5000 a year.

Inheriting this property at the age of twenty, Clement consults with Dr Lewis, the clergyman who educated him and acted as Mrs Davenport’s co-adjutant during his upbringing, and decides to undertake the Grand Tour. He soon finds himself in Geneva with a group of friends—for the most part, young aristocrats whose birth is better than his, but their purses much slimmer. And it is there that Clement first hears of the beautiful and wealthy young Baroness de Grand-Pré, and her declaration that she will never marry except for love.

Here we must – or anyway, shall – cut a long story short: Clement becomes fixated upon the idea of being “loved for himself”, and enters the Baroness’s service as her courier; while she, in turn, cannot believe that his handsome, cultured, obviously adoring young man is anything less than an aristocrat in disguise, despite him being in service and what he says about his origins. The two fall in love and secretly marry—not without extreme qualms on the Baroness’s side, with her genuine feeling for Clement battling against the pride and ambition instilled in her by her English mother, who taught her to think of marriage to an English nobleman as the proper goal of her life.

Clement, meanwhile, has foolishly concealed his comfortable circumstances—planning on springing them on his bride as a pleasant surprise when they eventually reach England. First they spend a year together travelling through France and Italy, finally settling near Florence, where the Baroness gives birth to a daughter, named Maria for her mother. During this time, the Baroness begins to divest herself of her Swiss property, the young couple agreeing to a fresh start where their backgrounds are not known. Clement from the start has, despite the 18th century marriage laws, refused to take any of his wife’s money, and leaves her to dispose of her property as she chooses.

All this seems properly “romantic”—but if we have learned anything about Mary Meeke, it is that she thoroughly disapproved of “romance”. Her characters might esteem one another; they might even be permitted to feel a passion; but the intrusion into her narrative of romance invariably signals disaster, and so it is here. Clement’s scheme of posing as a servant – which even he sees before long was incredibly foolish, though he can’t bring himself to withdraw – and the Baroness’s certainty that her servant is in fact a nobleman, are both repeatedly designated – not to say stigmatised – as “romantic”; and we are not altogether surprised when their relationship implodes.

Meeke is roundly critical of both her characters—of Clement for mistaking the Baroness’s beauty and manners for character, and of the Baroness for, well…

…unfortunately, she imbibed a very romantic turn of mind, which was greatly encouraged by being permitted to read indiscriminately every novel that found its way to Vevay, the nearest town. This induced her frequently to make the declaration Mr Haller had repeated, and to peremptorily refuse a German Nobleman of the first rank, who accompanied her father into Switzerland, purposely to make her an offer of his hand. The Baron would probably have enforced obedience, had not an apoplectic stroke carried him off almost immediately, and thus left his fair daughter at liberty to pursue the dictates of her romantic imagination…

(Two “romantics” in one paragraph, oh dear. Note also Clement’s condemnation of his own “romantic notions” in the header-quote.)

There is a serpent in Eden in the form of Mademoiselle Denisir, a ward of the Baroness’s late father who acts as her companion. Behaving at any moment in a way best calculated to guarantee her own ongoing comfort and security, having encouraged the Baroness in her marriage to this supposed aristocrat, Mlle Denisir now begins poisoning her mind against her husband, and convincing her that she has thrown herself away on a base-born adventurer and fortune-hunter.

A crisis occurs when Clement is hurriedly summoned back to England to the deathbed of Dr Lewis, though he dies before his young pupil arrives. Clement must stay in England some time to settle his friend’s affairs, and also orders work done at Fairfield, in preparation for the arrival of his family. When he returns to the Continent, he finds his wife strangely elusive—sending letters of excuse rather than coming to him herself, and then falling silent. He discovers the baby and her nurse where they were left, in “Chamberry” (Chambéry) and makes plans to send them to England, but can find no trace of his wife. Upon returning to Grand-Pré, he finds it occupied by an Englishman, Mr Maynard, and his daughter: Maynard tells Clement that he rented it from M. Monvel, the Baroness’s former steward, who in turn had leased it from its new purchaser, a man called Dubois.

Clement continues to search for his wife, but the trail runs cold until an accidental encounter with Mlle Denisir – or rather, Mme Dubois – who astonishes and enrages him by speaking of him to her new husband as “the Baroness’s former courier” and denouncing him when he dares refer to their marriage; telling him, in fact, that the Baroness has gone into Germany to make preparations for her upcoming wedding…

Conversely, Clement’s revelation that he has already removed the baby and Jeanette, her nurse, from Chamberry obviously causes Mme Dubois great chagrin—which convinces Clement that they had been sent by the Baroness to bring the child to her. The meeting ends in an exchange of threats, and Clement retreats to lick his wounds:

…he now sunk under the mortifying reflection, that the obscurity of his birth had afforded his wife an opportunity of taking so base an advantage of his credulity, and of, perhaps, sheltering herself from his claims in the arms of some more fortunate rival.
Whenever this notion occurred to him, and it was generally uppermost in his thoughts, he resolved to proclaim his marriage, and thus make her as miserable as she had succeeded in making him…

Clement’s health subsequently collapses; and though the doctors pull him through, they fear he is sinking into a decline that must soon be fatal. He manages to rally under the stimulus of two forces: the thought of the precarious position his daughter would be left in, if he died without first settling his affairs; and a friendship formed with a young Welshman, Edwin Meredith. The two young men, indeed, swiftly become inseparable; and Meredith invites Clement to his own home in the foothills of the mountains of Wales. Having settled Jeanette and the baby at Fairfield, he accepts. Though his health remains somewhat precarious, and he tires easily, Clement begins to recover under the generous care of his new friend.

Though a commoner, Meredith is very well-connected, being nephew to the Marquis and Marchioness of Ormond, whose estate adjoins his own property. He runs tame in their household, and soon confides in them his friend’s troubles—as much as he knows, Clement having maintained a strict silence about the exact nature of what is so obviously preying upon his mind and undermining his constitution:

“From some disappointment of a very tender nature, I am of the opinion,” he answered, “from the visible indifference with which he seems to regard the fair sex. Had he been in mourning, I should have been tempted to suspect he had lost a beloved wife; but that not being the case, I attribute his melancholy to the death, or, at least, to the loss of a favourite lady. He certainly has been one of the handsomest men in England, nay, I hardly know whether he is not so still; though grief and bad health have robbed his cheeks of their colour, and his eyes of their natural lustre and animation. His person is as faultless as his face, and his manners and conversation are at once refined and fascinating; altogether he is, without exception, one of the most agreeable companions I ever met with; and I don’t think, short as has been our acquaintance, I could feel a much stronger regard for an only brother…”

Clement is subsequently introduced to the elderly Marquis and his much younger second wife. The latter fancies herself something of a healer, and takes the young man under her wing. Various comments from Meredith have alerted Clement to the Ormonds having suffered some cruel blow; while we have been privy to references to the Earl of Clancastle, the Marquis’s brother-in-law, being their enemy. The Marchioness is subject to outbreaks of uncontrollable grief; and there are allusions to a newspaper advertisement which has to date brought no response.

While the Ormonds and Meredith are debating how next to proceed, Clement picks up the newspaper in question and, rather than ask awkward questions, satisfies his curiosity by reading the advertisement in question:

“TEN THOUSAND POUNDS REWARD: Whereas, it has lately been discovered, that the infant son of a noble family was, for the basest of purposes, about one-and-twenty years ago, removed from under the protection of his parents, who were led to believe him no more, a dead child having been substituted in his stead, to further this iniquitous deception; there is every reason to believe, from the confession of one of the accomplices in this vile plot, that he is still living; in which case he bears a mark of two vowels, duplicates of which are in his parents’ hands, who dare not be more explicit, for fear of exposing themselves to a further imposition…”

So. Once again cutting a very long story short, the current Earl of Clancastle is a man risen from Irish obscurity, advancing through a naval career to the rank of Admiral, and then via marriage to the acquisition of a title. Obsessed with his sons advancing even more, he began to dream of their inheritance of the Ormond title and property, due to the Marquis having no heir—never dreaming that his widowed brother-in-law would remarry late in life and have a son. His subsequent mixture of intemperate threats and promised rewards with regard to his nephew moved his servant to take him at his word. Discovering that his sister’s baby had just died of convulsions, Gwillim managed to smuggle the body into the nursery, removing the infant Earl of Ellesmere and – having marked the child so he could be identified in the future – handed him into his sister’s care; allowing Lord Clancastle to believe, however, that the child had, ahem, mysteriously died.

So, yes—once again, my friends, say it with me:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

The sister is of course the anonymous woman killed in the opening scene, and “Clement Davenport” is of course Alfred Ormond, Earl of Ellesmere (though everyone continues to call him “Clement”, and so shall we).

This is Meeke’s most beloved and well-used plot-trick, but instead of keeping this revelation for the climax of her novel, in Ellesmere she puts it to very different use by foregrounding the relationship between her hero and his parents. Furthermore, though the point is never made overtly, Meeke indulges herself in a wicked irony: the fact that, when she allowed her “romantic imagination” to convince her that her servant was an aristocrat in disguise, the Baroness was absolutely right—only to end up spending three volumes fleeing exactly the husband her ambition would have chosen.

Anyway—after the hysteria recedes somewhat, it is revealed that, having believed their son dead for twenty years, the Ormonds only recently learned better when the Marquis and Meredith were present to receive the dying confession of Gwillim…who put the blame firmly upon Lord Clancastle.

Retribution had already caught up with Clancastle, with the sons for whose benefit he concocted his evil scheme both dying in action. In the wake of his bereavement, remorse took hold; and, when confronted by this ghost of his past, the Earl fled the country—taking with him his surviving child, the Lady Lucy Killarney, and causing a painful dilemma for Meredith who, though “esteeming” Lady Lucy, feels that under the circumstances he cannot marry her.

The discovery of his parents and his cousin – and of his own title and wealth, which Meeke is amusingly upfront about – and the mutual joy of the newly reunited family, completes the restoration of Clement’s health. Even his marital situation no longer has the ability to hurt him, though he dreads having to confess it to the others:

…who would probably, and very justly, blame him for having indulged the romantic notion of being loved for himself. Well, they could not condemn his conduct more than he did himself…

Clement does finally tell his story, begging his parents for their advice. Lady Ormond immediately sends for the baby, while her husband ponders his son’s situation:

    As for her mother, he hardly knew what to say: there was a bare possibility that she was not so much to blame as she appeared;—the Dubois’s seemed very designing people. Situated as his son then was, he saw nothing blameable in his disguise—it was a romantic notion, and many more young people had been attracted by the same impulse; besides it certainly afford him an opportunity of studying the Baroness’s character, rarely to be obtained.
    “But did not the blind God, my dear Clement,” he continued, “prevent you from perceiving her faults? I can’t acquit her of imprudence, even before she married—nor you of an excess of complaisance in leaving everything at her disposal. If she has abused your noble confidence, she is indeed unworthy your regret: this time alone must discover;—there is great reason to suppose that she has done neither you, nor her daughter justice; but if she seeks the child, I shall think that she has suffered herself to be misled by her artful friend…”

Lady Ormond and Meredith also weigh in, agreeing that the matter must be investigated and the Baroness’s degree of guilt, or credulity, determined, before Clement can judge how best to behave in future.

But Clement sees no way in which his wife can explain her behaviour to his satisfaction; nor does he intend to dwell upon the matter any longer:

“My prospects are now very different, and I should be unpardonable were I to suffer the desertion of an unprincipled woman any longer to affect either my health or spirits;—situated as I was at the time, it was hardly excusable, but it was a very severe disappointment.—Love and vanity, arising from the supposed preference I had met with, as my father very justly remarked, had blinded me to the imperfections of the heroine of my romance; and to find my goddess a mere mortal, was truly mortifying to my pride…”

 

[To be continued…]