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…]

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