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04/06/2011

The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son

“The End that I propose to my self in this little Book, is to render you wise by other Peoples Example; which is the surest and most commodious way of Learning for him who would know the Humours of the World. You may learn herein to precaution your self, by seeing my Negligence and little Care; and from my Infamy, you may reap Honour and Glory. For you are not ignorant that it is the first degree of Wisdom to begin by ones self to be wise; and the second, to listen to those who are wiser than we: and he who knows how to do neither the one nor the other, is in no consideration.”

If I’ve learned one thing from the research I’ve done to support my reading and writing  for this blog – other than that the England of the 1680s is a black hole of terrifying power, from which no-one ever escapes – it’s that you just never know what literary family tree you’re going to end up climbing next.

In his introduction to the Broadview Press edition of The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore, Charles H. Hinnant suggests that its anonymous author was also responsible for another short novel published in 1683, The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son. Having read the work in question (and formed a few opinions of my own), I was hunting around for any trace of background information when I stumbled across a source that throws a whole new light on the genesis of both these works – namely, The Burgher And The Whore: Prostitution In Early Modern Amsterdam by Lotte Van Der Pol.

Although predominantly an historical and sociological study,  Van Der Pol also examines the flood of whore’s and rogue’s biographies that emanated from Amsterdam during the 1670s and 1680s. Many of these works were subsequently translated into English, and in some cases Anglicised as well – although without acknowledgement of their origin. Among the “English” works that Van Der Pol cites as having Dutch originators are both The London Jilt and The London Bully. The former is held to be an adaptation of D’Openhertige Juffrouw, of d’ontdetke geveinsdheid (The Outspoken Damsel; or, Hypocrisy Unmasked), which was originally published in two volumes over 1680 – 1681, and translated into both French and German. For The London Bully, Van Der Pol cites De Haagsche lichtmis (The Libertine Of The Hague), published in 1679.

Since my grasp of Dutch is limited to the word “Heineken”, I’m obviously not in any position to dispute Van Der Pol’s contentions – and nor, given what we have already come across in this study of translations, adaptations, borrowings and outright plagiarisms in the English literary scene of the late 17th century, do I feel that there is any pressing need to dispute it. Although Van Der Pol herself is somewhat aggrieved about the works in question being claimed as “English”, their European origins do not take away from their position within the history of the English novel, nor reduce their immediate influence.

While rogue’s biographies were popular in England at the time, so to were picaresque tales, most of them originating from Spain; and while there numerous translations of actual Spanish works, this revelation of the Anglicisation of Dutch works begs the question of how many “English” picaresques (most of which were set in Spain anyway) may have had a similar history. Since there is no disputing the influence of these forms of fiction upon a number of significant English novelists of the 18th century – Defoe, Fielding and Smollett in particular – all this throws an interesting light upon the development of the novel generally, and more specifically upon the stubborn insistence of writers of the day and subsequent literary historians alike on drawing a sharp distinction between the English “novel” and the European “romance”.

If we accept the Dutch origins of The London Jilt and The London Bully, this still leaves us with some unanswered questions, chiefly whether the broad similarities between these two short works of fiction existed prior to their Anglicisation (that is, if De Haagsche lichtmis and D’Openhertige Juffrouw, of d’ontdetke geveinsdheid were written by the same Dutch author), or whether they are the result of the two being Anglicised by the same anonymous Englishman – or both.

There is certainly more than a passing family resemblance between The London Jilt and The London Bully. Both tales have their protagonist offering up their own life as a cautionary tale; both follow them from childhood to independent adulthood; both include sequences in which real or perceived grievances are revenged with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness; both promise a second part in which the protagonist, after a series of casual sexual encounters, embarks upon a stable relationship – although only The London Jilt keeps that promise. There are also linguistic similarities between the two, particularly the reiteration of the tell-tale word “prancks”, used to describe the protagonists’ acts of revenge. It is also important to note that if these tales have been Anglicised, it has been done so thoroughly as to be undetectable. The geography and milieu of both works are detailed and convincing.

In spite of these parallels, The London Bully is in every respect an inferior work to The London Jilt. Merely by putting its narrative into the mouth of a woman, the latter instantly gains interest via the unfamiliarity of its perspective. More significantly, however, the obsessive focus upon the grim economic realities of female existence in The London Jilt give it an overarching dramatic tension, a pervasive sense of urgency even at its most seemingly light-hearted, that is entirely lacking in The London Bully, which rather than a fairly unified narrative consists of a string of unconnected episodes, and in place of a pragmatic heroine driven by her terror of impoverished old age gives us a protagonist who resorts to swindles and theft just because he doesn’t like working, and who commits acts of cruelty and violence simply because he can.

A feature of the purely fictional works of this time is the self-aggrandising preface; it’s as if, lacking a political agenda, these short works had to find some other way of justifying their existence. Curiously, although as with The London Jilt there is a gap between what is promised in the preface and what is delivered by the text, here it is in the opposite direction. The London Jilt‘s preface is scathing and ugly in its denunciation of prostitutes and other lewd women, while the narrative of Cornelia is for the most part understanding and matter-of-fact rather than condemnatory. Conversely, in The London Bully the horrifying antics of William*, although again offered up as a cautionary tale, are treated rather indulgently in the preface, being described as merely, “The Sallies of Impetuous Youth” – impetuous youth apparently being given to humiliating “prancks”, fraud, gambling, whoremongering, theft and highway robbery.

(*Towards the end, our author forgets that his protagonist’s name is William, and starts calling him Frederick – while at the same time introducing another character called William. It’s horribly confusing.)

William – or “William” – is born in London to upwardly aspiring parents, who consequently send him out to nurse in the first instance, and pack him off to school thereafter; so we can’t really blame him for his lack of filial affection, whatever we make of his absolute lack of any moral sense. William doesn’t learn much at school, but he proves himself a dab hand at practical jokes, nothing making him laugh so hard as a “pranck” that ends with a schoolfellow being caned to within an inch of his life. It is also at school that William begins to supplement his own income by stealing from his companions, his own discovery and vicious caning teaching him no better, but rather inspiring him to give more thought to how to cover his tracks. It is the thought of what his father will do when he learns of the theft that chiefly concerns him – although as it happens circumstances intervene:

“…with all my strength I ran thither accordingly, without asking the Masters Leave, but it was too late, for my Father was already departed, and my Mother was in so poor a condition, that there was no hopes she could escape Death; as indeed she accompanied my Father two days afterwards into the other world. My Youth, and my Libertine Humor did not allow me to shed tears upon the double Loss I had newly had, and I felt it in time more than I did then; for to tell you the truth, I did in some manner rejoyce at it, forasmuch as that it would have been impossible for me to have escaped the punishment of the Theft I had committed, if my Father had remained alive…”

Falling under the guardianship of an indifferent uncle, William is apprenticed out to first an apothecary, then to a a “chirurgeon”: a professional life that allows this novel to supplement the apparent compulsory chamber-pot scenes with an unhealthy fixation with “clysters”, or enemas. His first period of employment ends when he takes umbrage at the domestic work he is compelled to do, and revenges himself by pushing his master’s wife downstairs and seriously injuring her; the second, when he has an encounter of a different sort with his new employer’s wife. Compelled to sneak into bed with her so that she will not know her husband is spending the night with his mistress, William finds her in an amorous mood:

“…I took her hand away, but she imagining this was only some remnants of her Husbands Anger, fell again into handling and taking it by the Head: Said she, ‘How, my little Rogue, is it not better to love in good intelligence and repose, than to quarrel and be always in anger against one another?’ When I perceiv’d she found no alteration in that part, I took heart of Oak, and did the feat without saying a word, notwithstanding all the Caresses this woman made me. This first Course was performed with so much satisfaction on my side, that I renewed it four or five times, until that she was desirous to take her rest…”

When the chirurgeon returns, he finds his wife in a wonderfully complacent mood – which is William’s cue to exit.

And here already we have the pattern of the novel: cruel jokes, criminal acts, and lots of sex – and sometimes all at once, as when William and his friends waylay a lady and her footman and compel them to have sex for their entertainment before stealing the woman’s purse. One mystifying episode has William encountering a, “Nephew of Don Quixot”, an escaped lunatic whose delusions lead him to dress and behave like a character out of a romance, and who conceives a grand passion for the landlord’s frankly ugly daughter: an indication, perhaps, of how far Spanish fictions had infiltrated the English marketplace. Late in the novel, dangerously broke, William takes to the road – justifying his actions by blaming a cruel fate, rather than his own sloth and improvidence:

“…I immediately made ready my Pistols, and taking his Horse by the Bridle, and setting a Pistol to his Breast, I demanded his Money. He had a man along with him, but on foot, and coming on me as my Back was turned, he thought to have run me through the Body behind; but I perceiving him, fir’d a Pistol at him, which however had not the effect I desired; for it only touched his right Arm, and I thought to have depriv’d him both of Speech and Life… Thus mounted I the Horse, and taking leave of the old Gentleman, I said to him, ‘Sir, I beseech you to excuse this rash action, for Poverty and Despair have been the cause of it…’.”

Like Cornelia before him, William makes a practice of “revenging” any slights again himself, whether they be real or only perceived – a habit that takes this short novel into some deeply ugly territory, thanks to William’s tendency to go well beyond measure-for-measure.

A connoisseur of whores, William spends much time and money in pursuit of one called Isabella. This relationship is marked by “fondness” on Isabella’s part (inexplicable to the reader), which leads to jealousy, misunderstanding, and mutual violence. However, while Isabella does cause terrible things to happen to William, they are chiefly inadvertent, as we shall see; while William’s retaliations are absolutely calculated and deliberate.

In the first instance, William gains access to Isabella only through a professional bawd, who demands in return that he service her – which he grits his teeth and does, even though she is a repulsive old crone (i.e. she’s thirty-five). The bawd, naturally in William’s estimation, also grows “fond” of him, which leads her to deceive Isabella as to the nature of their congress, provoking a terrible scene – with terrible consequences:

“…I embraced and kissed her, but she refused me also that small Favour, repulsing me very rudely, though this did not make me desist in the least; for I began to bear her a great affection. Seeing then that she could not get rid of me by that means, she rose from her Chair with intention to have gone out of the Chamber; but I withheld her, and took her by the Petticoat, when she strugling to get away, and I still holding it, made a great hole in it; seeing this, she fell into such a Passion, that she flung at my head a flaming Faggot-stick, when by chance there fell a spark into my Breeches…”

It is unlikely, by this point in the story, that the reader won’t get some grim satisfaction out of William’s injuries – “…I considered the miserable estate of my Instrument, which I found as black about the Head, as if it had newly made its escape with Aneas out of the Flames of Troy. My Thighs & Buttocks for company, had also received their share…” – but sadly, not only do they barely slow him down with respect to his sexual escapades, but the fact that Isabella is profoundly distressed by this accident has no effect at all upon his resolution to be revenged upon both her and the bawd, whose lies brought about the fight in the first place.

For Isabella, this means a series of escalating prancks that culminate in William luring her out of town, beguiling her into spending all her money on expensive suits of clothes, and then robbing her and leaving her stranded and penniless. As for the bawd, William’s revenge is rather more direct. Having first tricked her into sitting on an ant’s nest – “…which raised my Laughter to that excess, that I could no longer look upon the Sport…” – William then wraps things up:

“…I pusht her into the fire, insomuch that by this means the Pipe broke in her Body, whereupon she fell a crying so furiously, that I thought it time to be trooping; and accordingly I marched off, after having kicked her five or six times…”

There is,  I must stress, no sense at all of irony in any of this, no hint that we’re not supposed to be as delighted with William’s vengeance as he is himself. Once or twice in the novel he does express some regret for his actions, but these words hardly make a ripple in the flood of violence and ugliness that he leaves in his wake. The novel seems to take it for granted that we’re interested in his fortunes, and want to see him succeed.

This is certainly the tone of the novel’s major subplot, in which William falls in love with the Dutch wife of an Italian periwig-maker, although his pursuit of her is initially thwarted by the fact that her husband has recourse to a chastity belt. Here, however, William’s brief apothecarical studies come to the rescue. Sophia is given an opiate with which to drug her husband, allowing her to steal the key and have it duplicated, and thus to embark upon an affair with William. However, the duped husband’s business failing, Sophia is abruptly snatched away until the end of the novel. When she reappears, her unsatisfactory first husband has died, and she has married a man elderly but rich.

Sophia is, fittingly enough for the love of William’s life, thoroughly contemptuous of the fond old man who is keeping her in luxury; and having gathered up all she can by way of money and other valuables, she throws in her lot with William, who by this time has made England too hot to hold him:

“But all the Adventures I had since, and how Alexander behaved himself after having lost his Wife, I will give you an Account of in the Second Part of this Book. In the mean while I wish you, dear Reader, all sorts of Prosperities; and I’ll put a period to this First Part by this happy Adventure of Love which I have just now related to you.”

It is upon Cornelia entering into marriage with the tobacco-merchant that the first part of The London Jilt closes; only in that case, the second part followed in due course, tracing the later stages of her life, her change of career path, and her venture into authorship. Whether there was in fact a second part of this story in its original Dutch (that is, if we accept Lotte Van Der Pol’s account of its history) I’m not in a position to say – but there certainly isn’t one in English: The London Bully breaks off here, with no sign as yet (or not much) of a justifiably wrathful Providence catching up with William, still less of him undergoing any reformation. Personally, I like to think that by this time the Angliciser of William’s “happy Adventures” was as thoroughly sick of him as the reader is likely to be, and chucked the whole project in disgust.

28/04/2011

The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore

“There is no Nation in the World, but has in all ages, furnished Authors, who have made it their business to expose, as far as they were capable, the Frailties of the Female Sex. Some have been provoked thereunto, by their unfortunate Addresses, and by the disappointments they have met with in love; others have undertaken that Province, without any other reason, than to show their Wit. But my Business now in Writing, is to warn Men of the danger they may run in the persuit of their Amours; for which purpose, I thought a Narrative of my Life might be of extraordinary use, since it has been a continual Series of Stratagems and Artifices for the ensnaring of Men.”

Published anonymously in 1683, this first-person narration of the life of a London prostitute is a remarkable work of fiction. Only one copy of The London Jilt survives today, preserved in the Harvard University Library; our very good friends at the Broadview Press have done their usual outstanding job not only in resurrecting this rare and important piece of writing, but in placing it in its historical context, as a nexus between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography.

(Before we really get started, a word about the authorship of this tale, which is in some quarters attributed to Alexander Oldys. The Broadview editor, Charles H. Hinnant, disputes this, and so do I, although not for the same reasons. Hinnant contends that the mistaken attribution was the result of some bibliographical confusion between this text and Oldys’ 1692 novel, The Female Gallant; or, The Female Cuckold, which had as a variant title The London Jilt; or, The Female Cuckold. For myself, having studied Oldys’ The Fair Extravagant, I can say that there is not a single point of comparison between the two works in terms of their subject matter, style or attitude.)

The most notable thing about The London Jilt is that it is a rare, possible unique, example of 17th-century first-person female narration – and all the more extraordinary for being the genre that it is. Works such as the Richard Head / Francis Kirkman collaboration The English Rogue included interpolated tales told by female narrators, and there had been a handful of third-person tellings of the lives of female criminals; but The London Jilt appears to be the only such work that not only focuses entirely upon a woman, but allows her to tell her own story. Of course, when we say “her” story, the question of the author’s sex remains moot. It is most likely that the anonymous author of this tale was a man, although there is nothing here to say so for certain.

The other significant feature of the presentation of this work is the gulf between what it purports to be in its preface, and what it actually is in its text. In fact, I found myself wondering if the same person had actually written both. The preface declares this novel to be an exposé of prostitutes’ tricks, so that men may be warned and guard themselves. The language in which the author of the preface declares his – definitely his – intentions could hardly be blunter:

“And indeed what greater Folly can there be than to venture one’s All in such rotten Bottoms, and at length become the Horrour and Detestation of all the World, only for a Momentary Pleasure, and which in truth cannot well be termed Pleasure, considering what filthy, nasty, and stinking Carcasses, are the best and finest of our Common Whores? A Whore is but a Close-stool to Man, or a Common-shoar that receives all manner of Filth, shee’s like a Barber’s Chair, no sooner one’s out, but t’other’s in…”

But our tale, when it comes to be told, is a pragmatic account of a life driven by sheer necessity, at a time when women’s options were terrifyingly few, and when violence, disease and starvation were imminent threats which only constant vigilence and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive could hold at bay.

Our narrator (revealed at a single point in the novel to be called Cornelia) writes from the vantage point of the latter years of her life. Like the writer in the preface, but in gentler terms, she offers her life as a cautionary tale, by which those men likely to be tempted by women’s arts may be fairly warned. She does not, nevertheless, condemn the life that she has led out of hand, merely some of the strategems to which she was forced (or chose) to resort. The narration takes the battle for survival, including the battle between men and women, for granted; and if a woman must resort to underhanded manoeuvres, that is only fair in a world where all of the power and most of the money lies with men; and where armed with only her body and her wits – and the occasional chamber-pot – a woman must contend against fists and knives, and a willingness to use them.

There is an unexpected sophistication about some of the writing in The London Jilt, included the divided vision with which Cornelia looks back upon her girlhood, her later understanding of the events of that time sitting side-by-side with childish incomprehension. The daughter of tavern-owners, the critical moment in Cornelia’s life comes when her father is one day drawn into a trap by a passing “rope-dancer” (that is, a tightrope artist), who lures the foolish man into taking rope-dancing lessons, and leaves him suspended some thirteen feet off the ground while he calmly plunders the household. Inevitably, a fall follows, a broken leg the result. In the wake of this, the fortunes of the family go from bad to worse; and when the father dies, Cornelia and her mother must fend for themselves.

The survivors try to continue in the tavern business, but life becomes a constant and desperate struggle. (As the later Cornelia is able to appreciate, she wasn’t then old enough to be an attraction for male customers.) It is at this time that Cornelia’s mother begins taking in “night-guests”; and if the child does not quite understand the nature of these transactions, she can appreciate their outcome:

“And I remember that from time to time there was some man or other lay all Night at our House, and that upon such occasions I was forced to roost with the Maid, whereas at other times I lay in my Mothers Arms, from whence I then concluded, that she must needs be a very Commiserating Woman, since to free people out of pain, she imported to them the half of her bed, but she made them dearly pay for this pitty; and I could easily perceive, that the Chimney smoak’d more, and better by the half, when we had a night-Guest with us than otherwise…”

Time passes, and at length Cornelia not only understands what her mother is doing, but is initiated into the life herself: an event treated not only with no particular fuss, but a certain wry humour:

“About five Months after I had played Squire Limberham this Pranck, my Maiden-head was sold the first time. Be not amazed, O Reader, that I say the first time, for I have lost it several times after the manner of Italy, to which purpose I made use of a certain Water, which rendred me always the same; and though after the first Attack I found no pain at all in the Amorous Combate, but on the contrary an extraordinary Pleasure, nevertheless I sighed and groaned as strongly, as if I was to have given up the Ghost at the very instant, which moved so much Compassion in the poor Hunters after Maiden-heads, that they endeavoured to make me forget this feigned Grief, by the Unguent of several Guinnies…”

Cornelia makes no bones about her enjoyment of sex, which she regards as normal and natural, considering a full and satisfying sex life as the positive side of her way of earning a living. At the same time, she views any woman who chooses prostitution as a career out of “lasciviousness” rather than sheer necessity to be either entirely mad or entirely wicked. The only people she despises more than voluntary prostitutes are the pimps and bawds who enslave and exploit young women, giving in return insufficient means to live on, so that their slaves must remain slaves.

Cornelia herself occupies “the middle ground” of prostitution, occasionally being taken into keeping but usually maintaining a rotating roster of regular customers, but above all never allowing herself to be trapped into working for anyone but herself. Ultimately,  Cornelia survives her way of life because, despite numerous setbacks and dangers, she never loses sight of the main chance. Whatever relationship she is describing, how much money she made, how she went about getting it and what she did with it makes up a major portion of the story.

The London Jilt does keep its opening promise to expose the arts and artifices of prostitutes, but only up to a point. Cornelia is devastatingly frank about how she gets money out of her customers (including undergoing a real pregnancy and later, seeing the riches that yielded, staging an elaborately faked one). She makes no bones about promising fidelity and then cheating at every opportunity, arguing that any man who believes what a prostitute says gets what he deserves. Her narrative is full of negative aphorisms about women, and there are various “trade secrets revealed” passages in which she describes in detail the cosmetic arts used to conceal physical defects. Yet for all of this, we don’t necessarily feel that it is the women who use these devices that are the main target of criticism. On the contrary: behind every one of Cornelia’s accounts of “silly women” with their “silly strategems” lies a condemnation, explicit or implicit, of the even sillier men who fall for these obvious tricks:

“Now must I laugh at the foolishness of some men, whose unbounded Petulancy carries them sometimes so far, that they will forget the most horrible Affronts, only that they may not be banish’d from the Favor of a Woman, whose Caresses, they must purchase, while that another may as well as them enjoy her Affections for his Money. Without lying, those men shew that their Bodies have an Empire over their Minds, and that they are only Men, because they have the Figure of them: For is it not the greatest Sillyness; and the highest Madness that can be committed, that to satisfie the desire of a little Bit of Flesh, they proceed to the losing their Estates, their Reputations, and all they have dearest in the World…”

As was the case in the contemporaneous Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, there is very little evidence in this account of life during the second half of the 17th century of the existence of anything that we might be inclined to call “love”. That said, our anonymous author’s view of the world differs rather interestingly from Aphra Behn’s. Whereas Behn saw the battle of the sexes as a contest the woman must inevitably lose, “Cornelia” contends that a woman may triumph as long as she remembers what is really important. In stark contrast to Behn’s writing and indeed most other amatory tales of this time, Cornelia holds that it is men who are more likely to be sincere in their feelings – or “fond”, as she puts it – simply because, having all the money, they can afford to be sincere. A woman who allows herself to “grow fond”, and to put her feelings for a man before what she can get out of him, is a woman heading for disaster. Monetary gain is and must be the chief purpose of a sexual encounter, whether a casual one in passing or within the context of a more stable relationship – and the few times that Cornelia allows herself to forget this, she is made to suffer for it.

The London Jilt‘s view of marriage is unswervingly negative. A woman’s great aim in life, Cornelia contends, should be a single existence in a state of financial independence; but failing this, prostitution is infinitely preferable to marriage. The novel contains any number of miserable marriages, and although the power is usually with the man, it may equally be the woman who brings the relationship to ruin. Cornelia’s parents get along until her father’s disastrous day, after which her mother transforms into a full-time termagent. Many years later, a bout of smallpox puts an end to the sexual career of Cornelia’s mother, until to her daughter’s astonishment she falls for the blandishments of “a young bully” who no sooner can call himself husband than he appropriates all of his wife’s fortune, beats her unmercifully when she objects, and seeks his pleasures elsewhere. (Seeing quickly enough that the benefits of her own activities will otherwise end in her step-father’s pockets, Cornelia coolly abandons her mother to her fate – she’s sorry for her, but it’s her own silly fault – and sets up in business for herself.) Likewise, most of Cornelia’s customers are married men, who only married for what they can get out of it, and would rather pay for a prostitute’s favours than sleep with their wives for free.

Despite all this, Cornelia herself is finally tempted into marriage with the owner of a tobacco-shop – and regrets it. There simply is something about the state of marriage, she contends, that brings out the very worst in people. In Cornelia herself, it gives birth to “a Devil of Pride”, which provokes her to ridiculous extravagance, so that within a few years his successful business can barely support her. Her husband, not unreasonably, cuts off her supply, upon which Cornelia begins to defraud the business. Her husband discovering this, his reaction is short, sharp, and to the point:

“…he took notice that his Tobacco lessened and fell short, and that no money arose from it, whereupon he ratled me the first time very sharply, but seeing that was to little purpose, he undertook to employ an other more powerful means, for one Morning when all the People were gone to Church, having called me into a Back-Room, he represented to me my Duty with such very pertinent Reasons, that I was very sensible of them for above a Week afterwards…”

Signficantly, while Cornelia is at all times explicit in her account of sexual matters, when it comes to the violence she suffers at various times, particularly this bout of domestic violence, she is far more guarded in her speech: this is the part of her life that she’s ashamed of. This passage focusses a major theme of the novel, its depiction of the world of late 17th century London as a place of plot and counterplot, wrongdoing and revenge. Cornelia’s professional depredations are committed in full awareness that she might bring violent retribution upon herself: again and again she must pick up her things and flee in order to avoid suffering deserved retribution for her own frauds and manoeuvres.

As with her sexual encounters, Cornelia describes all this quite matter-of-factly: she is sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Never, however, does she let a slight or a cheat pass without devising some scheme of revenge – and nor, for that matter, does she expect her own cheats to go unpunished. This is a world of dog-eat-dog, and the individual who lets himself, or herself, be imposed upon without retaliating is a coward and a fool. (When the victim of the sham pregnancy finds out, he deserts Cornelia leaving only an angry letter behind. While she is relieved to get off so easily, she is also contemptuous of her former keeper for his spinelessness.)

What we notice, however, is the difference in the nature of revenge taken by men and by women. The former generally resort to straightforward violence, a beating or worse; while women have to rely on their wits. Cornelia herself is very given to elaborate plots and “prancks”, which end in the humiliation of the victim, and generally leaves him lighter in the pocket. Occasionally, driven to more direct means of retaliation, she resorts to that always handy weapon, the chamber-pot. There are at least three chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes in The London Jilt, one of which is—without any desire to go into detail—one of the most repulsive things I have ever read in my life. In fact, considering the substance of that scene in its entirety, the deployment of the chamber-pot may be the least repulsive thing about it.

A curious features of this narrative as a whole, and another way in which The London Jilt differs from much of the other picaresque literature of the time, is the subplot of the rope-dancer, who reappears at various points in Cornelia’s life and becomes an ongoing and ever more dangerous adversary. The two push and push back, their mutual revenge-taking escalating with each encounter – but finally, it is the male capacity for physical violence which triumphs, ending not only Cornelia’s career as a prostitute but almost her life, after a strike at her throat with a knife that misses and gashes open her forehead instead.

In the wake of this, Cornelia takes pause. She has had a good run; she has scrimped and saved, so that she might not starve in her old age; and she has the two glories of her life, the annuities she has managed to secure (one a gift, one wisely self-purchased when times were good) amounting to almost one hundred pounds a year, on which to live. The fact is, she’s getting a bit long in the tooth for this way of life, even aside from the necessity to hide the ugly scar on her face. Customers are harder to come by, and not so generous with their guineas. It’s time for a fresh start.

And so, with the same pragmatism that has marked the rest of her life, Cornelia the prostitute becomes Cornelia the lace-dealer. Her little business is a success, and she is able to sit back and take stock of her life, finally deciding to put pen to paper. There are various points in the narrative where Cornelia stops to marvel at her own audacity in becoming an author – and more than one comparison of the business of bookselling to that other business she knows so much about…

Apart from placing The London Jilt in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition makes a strong case for this novel as a previously unacknowledged inspiration for Moll Flanders and Roxana: various points of similarity are found between those two famous novels and their more obscure forerunner; although perhaps the chief point of interest is not their similarities, but their differences, particularly their moral differences.

Whether it is a reflection of the shift in social mores in the five decades between their time of publication, or the difference in attitude and beliefs between Daniel Defoe and the anonymous author of The London Jilt, the most striking thing about the earlier text is Cornelia’s refusal to repent – or rather, the fact that she doesn’t consider that she has anything in particular to repent. She has done  what she had to in order to survive, and sees no need to apologise for that.

And in fact, Cornelia is rather cynical about the late-life repenters of the world:

“…but I content my self with the testimony that my Conscience gives me, and it is the same thing to me whether I am thought discreet, vertuous or debaucht; because that I have Experience enough in the World to know that it often blames Wise and Sober Persons, and often praises and extols such as are lewd and vicious. Nevertheless I am not of the rank of those who after having led a vicious Life during their Youth, and then becoming Converts, pretend to bygottism, and walk holding their right-Hand upon their Heart as the truly Devout do…”

  

19/08/2011

The English Rogue (Part 1)

“Thus have I given you a summary account of my life, from the Non-Age to the Meridian of my days. If there be any expressions either scurrilous or obscene, my onely design was to make Vice appear as she is, foul, ugly, and deformed: and I hope, he that hath sense will grow wiser by the folly that is presented him; as Drunkards are often cured by the beastliness of others that are so. The subject would not permit to be serious, neither would it have been suitable to our merry age, being generally of Tully’s minde, when he said, Lectionem fine ulla delectatione negligo: He hated reading where no pleasure dwelt.”

And so do I, Tully, and so do I…

Hindsight being what it is, I can now see clearly enough that I would have been much better off knuckling down to The English Rogue in the first place, rather than finding excuses to push it further along in the chronobibliography, so that I ended up dealing with some of its obvious descendents first. This grand-daddy of all English rogue’s biographies is easily three times the length of most of its imitators; and in a genre where a little goes a very long way, reading The English Rogue has been something like setting out for a stroll up Mt Wycheproof and finding myself confronted by the Matterhorn instead.

No offence to Mt Wycheproof intended.

All in all, I find it profoundly depressing to reflect that this was probably the most successful and popular work of its time. Its original publisher, Henry Marsh, reissued it several times between its original appearance in 1665* and his death in 1666. The rights then fell to Marsh’s former partner, Francis Kirkman, who not only followed suit, but tried desperately – and vainly – to persuade Richard Head to write a sequel. Furthermore, this was one of the very first English works, possibly the first, to be widely translated and distributed across Europe, where it achieved an equal success; and while the picaresque tale from which the rogue’s biography evolved was already an established genre in France and Spain in particular, the influence of The English Rogue in what would become the Netherlands (I never know what to call that territory at this time!) is clear enough from the subsequent wave of similar publications appearing in Dutch—some of which, as we have seen, ended up being turned into mock-English works.

(*Of course, at its real first appearance some months earlier, The English Rogue was denied a publication licence on the grounds that it was “too much smutty”. Copies of the original manuscript were, it seems, in circulation anyway; but the book achieved its real success after Head reworked it and resubmitted it. Given what survives, I can only suppose that he reduced the detail of the various sexual encounters described; he certainly doesn’t seem to have reduced their frequency.)

The details of Richard Head’s life are shadowy, and there is a definite tendency on the part of biographers to take the early sections of The English Rogue as straight autobiography—as their author probably intended them to be taken, not reckoning on the consequences.  Genuine biographies were very popular at the time, and the writers of fiction soon learned to imply that the events they were describing were based upon real people and events. The English Rogue is told in the first person, with the apparent name of its protagonist, Meriton Latroon, mentioned nowhere in the text beyond a faux-preface attached to the first edition; the namelessness of the teller of the tale would have helped to fuse his identity with that of his author. However, as has been mentioned previously, this ploy backfired on Richard Head when readers of his book took him at his word, and concluded him to be just the same sort of scoundrel as his alter-ego.

The English Rogue being what it is, a synopsis is largely pointless. The text is divided into phases according to the particular type of criminal enterprise in which Latroon is involved at a given time. In this respect, it is worth considering the boundary between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography—and as far as I can see, the division between these closely related styles of fiction is that in the picaresque tale, the central character tends to be the victim of fate, however criminal his (or, occasionally, her) actions become of necessity after that; whereas in the rogue’s biography, its all a matter of choice and inclination.

The opening phase of The English Rogue is perhaps its most inherently interesting, as the child Latroon and his family, living in Ireland, get caught up in the 1641 Catholic uprising. Latroon’s father and infant brother are killed, while he and his mother are helped to escape back to England by a loyal servant. They spend some years drifting about, Latroon’s mother professing whatever religion is necessary to draw financial aid from the local minister and his flock, while her son gives hints of the glories that are to come via acts of animal cruelty (and we know what modern psychologists would have to say about that) and an alarmingly precocious sexuality. In time, Latroon is packed off to school where his criminal career starts in earnest with a course of theft and extortion—accompanied, of course, by that great signifier of this school of fiction, the commission of acts of grotesque revenge against anyone who has, or who is perceived to have, in any way injured him:

“That he, going about to correct me for this unlucky and mischievous fact, was by me shown a very shitten trick, which put him into a stinking condition, for having made myself laxative on purpose I squirted into his face upon the first lash given. That being upon boys’ backs, ready to be whipped, I had often bit holes in their ears. That another time sirreverencing in a paper, and running to the window with it, which looked out into the yard, my aged mistress looking up to see who opened the casement, I had like to have thrown it into her mouth; however for a time deprived her of what little sight she had left. That another time I had watched some lusty young girls, that used in summer nights about twelve o’clock to wash themselves in a small brook near adjacent, and that I had concealed myself behind a bush, and when they were stripped, took away their clothes, making them dance home after me stark naked to the view of their sweethearts whom I had planted in a place appointed for that purpose, having given them before notice of my design.”

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. And can I just point out that this thing is nearly 300 pages long??

In our previous examinations of Richard Head’s work, we discovered that he is well-known in academic circles as a plagiarist, and long seems to have been so. George Saintsbury, writing in 1913, points out that while Head certainly stole ideas and content from other works for The English Rogue, he had a tendency to follow the conventions of, and steal from, works that were popular decades earlier, with the result that his writing often had an odd anachronistic feel. We saw a concrete example of this in The Floating Island, which was identified as being plagiarised from a work published in 1623, and barely altered by the thief.

Another such “throwback” happens here, after Latroon eventually runs away from both his school and his mother and is taken in by a band of gypsies, where he is taught criminality as a career rather than just a hobby. While describing his new life, Latroon appends to his text a dictionary of thieves’ cant, which runs for several pages, and which George Saintsbury suggests was drawn from a series of publications about the criminal milieu that were popular in the 1620s and 1630s. Here, however, we can’t really condemn Richard Head without acknowledging his possible influence upon a much later writer. As you might recall, in Rookwood, published in 1834, William Harrison Ainsworth also provided an extensive translation of thieves’ cant for his readers, one which subsequent writers have, only too clearly, plundered for their own purposes. Confronted now by Richard Head’s own urban dictionary, I can’t help wondering whether Ainsworth, too, wasn’t guilty of a little pilfering…

Anyway, Latroon becomes a professional beggar and thief, usually successfully, sometimes attracting retribution, until a passing merchant takes a fancy to him, “Being extraordinarily pleased with the form of my face and body [and] liking well both my speech and understanding.” On this basis, the merchant takes Latroon into his employ—more fool he. Latroon soon falls into company with a band of apprentices who make it their business, literally their business, to defraud their masters—although the profits made are generally wasted in drinking, gambling and whoring. Meanwhile, Latroon has been sleeping with the maidservant (as well as drinking, gambling and whoring), and she gets pregnant. Knowing that doing the right thing would both be expensive and damage him in his employers’ eyes, Latroon comes up with an alternative:

“Well, I bethought myself how to be rid both of cow and calf. I told her I would get together what money I could, and so marry her, upon condition she would be willing to travel with me whither I went, which I knew was her only desire. I informed her of my intention to go for Virginia… She assented to all I propounded, relying herself solely on me to dispose of her as I pleased. To palliate my design, I went with her to Gravesend… Being aboard, I suddenly seemed to have forgot something ashore; having well laid my plot upon the basis of a good sum of money I had distributed among the seamen, with a considerable present to the master, and telling my Lindabrides I would return to her instantly, I got into the boat, and immediately after, the ship weighed anchor, and quickly was under sail…”

We should pause here upon this momentous occasion: this is the single point in his entire career when Latroon admits to feeling bad about something he’s done…although it doesn’t stop him seducing and robbing the next woman he sees…who he meets on the dock. And in fact, later on it actually inspires him, as he embarks upon a dizzying orgy of seduction, impregnation, and enforced emigration.

Its attitude to women is one of the more perversely interesting things about The English Rogue, which, while it is certainly an extreme example, is by no means alone at this time in the opinions it expresses. Put simply, if men are bad, women are worse—perhaps because while men have a choice in the matter, women are just made that way, their whole lives being built about their insatiable sexual desire, and their behaviour utterly without conscience or restraint as they seek to satisfy it.

And by the way, gentlemen: if you can’t get into a woman’s, any woman’s, drawers after no more than ten minutes’ trying, well, you aren’t really a man. All you have to do is get your hand between her legs, and the battle will be over. Although at the same time, you’d best be careful: women are just naturally carriers of venereal disease, from which men are in great danger…poor things.

While having to listen to Latroon as he sits in judgement on women generally is rather sickening, I have to admit I’m both bewildered and fascinated by the abrupt evolution of society’s vision of the female sex. How on earth, and in a reasonably short space of years, could we have gone from “woman as uncontrollable sexual demon” to “woman as sexless”!?

At the same time, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that, as a woman, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Later on, Latroon hears a friend’s account of his pursuit of a married woman, who turns out to be virtuous and true to her husband—and so outraged is this individual at having his advances rebuffed, he revenges himself on the woman by destroying her marriage, Iago-like, with forged love letters.

Anyway— From mercantile fraud Latroon graduates to professional thievery, and from there to forgery and confidence tricks, and finally to highway robbery. (I’m skipping over about 150 pages here. No, no, don’t bother to thank me!) I may say here that the stretch concerning the defrauding of merchants gave me my only moment of genuine amusement while reading this book, in spite of its subtitle’s insistence on Latroon’s “wittiness”—probably because it’s a rare moment where Richard Head is simply speaking in his own voice:

“If I discover the fraud of any particular person, as long as I name him not, I do him no wrong; but if I detect by what deceitful and sinister means he worketh upon the infirmity of the youth of a green-witted gallant, it may serve for an use of instruction. In the most famous Universities there are some dunces resident, that by disgracing themselves, disgrace also their fellow students. In the most virtuous Courts there will be some parasites. So in the most goodly and glorious city under Heaven’s canopy, there are some asps lurking, that sting the reputation of their brethren by their poisonous and corrupt dealings. There are knaves in all trades but book selling.”

His career as a highwayman Latroon practices for a considerable time, both as a solitary marauder and as a member of various gangs. The most interesting phase of this enterprise is when Latroon himself is attacked on the road, and ends up battling an adversary who is at length overcome and found to have a great secret:

“Then did I come to his breeches (which I laid open) my curious search omitted not any place wherein I might suspect the concealment of moneys. At last proffering to remove his shirt from between his legs, he suddenly cried out (and strove to lay his hand there, but could not) ‘I beseech you, sir, be civil,’ said he. I imagining that some notable treasure lay there obscured, I pulled up his shirt (alias smock) and found myself not much mistaken…”

Latroon hastily apologises for his roughness and “rude dealings”, asserting – get this – the “greatness of love and respect I have for your sex.”  The “highwayman” subsequently introduces Latroon to two friends of hers who have likewise donned men’s clothing and taken to the road rather than submit to a life of marriage and domesticity. For a time Latroon joins forces with these sisters in crime, but although the partnership is profitable, he finally has to separate himself from them—because he just can’t keep up with their sexual demands…

Hereabouts we reach the most tiresome part of The English Rogue, wherein every other rogue that Latroon encounters insists on telling him their life-story, with every criminal enterprise spelled out in detail. Subsequently, Latroon himself, supposedly as evidence of his “reformation” (we’ll get to it), provides an equally lengthy guide to how the average punter can recognise when he’s in the company of rogues, and what he should do to keep himself safe. As any number of critics have demonstrated, much of this content is lifted from popular jest-books and pamphlets released over the preceding few decades; and however edifying these accounts may be in small doses, the reader of The English Rogue (as least these days) can only cry out in exhausted gratitude when the forces of law and order finally, finally, catch up with Our Hero and cart him off to Newgate, from whence the gallows beckon.

You know—I’m not generally an exponent of the death penalty, but in this guy’s case I would have made an exception. Alas, that’s the problem with first-person biographies: while they can end at Tyburn, miraculous escapes are far more the norm. So it is here, when for no earthly reason we can conjure Latroon’s sentence is commuted to seven years’ (!!) transportation. First, however, we have to sit through the rather nauseating spectacle of his repentence and discovery of religion; this it is that provokes his helpful guide to avoiding the criminal element.

And with this next phase of Latroon’s career we get a rather glorious blunder on the part of his author, who apparently forgot that he gave his anti-hero the same same birthdate as himself, 1637:

“The ship that was to transport me lay at Woolwich, about the latter end of Aug. 1650…”

Although, granted, we have spoken once or twice before about age-inappropriateness in the literature of this time…

Ironically enough, Latroon’s destination is Virginia—and just think of all the women (and children) who’d be there to meet him! But alas once more for those of us who would rather enjoy seeing Latroon undergoing hard labour—or being beaten to death by his discarded mistresses—we are thwarted again here, as he manages to survive not one but two shipwrecks. He finally ends up in Spain, and becomes the comrade of a Spanish merchant, who he agrees to accompany to “the Indies”. They have not been long at sea before their ship is attacked by three Turkish galleys; Latroon, one of the very few survivors, is sold into slavery. Now that’s more like it!

Sadly, however, even this doesn’t last: Latroon is passed from master to master—allowing him, who now professes Christianity, to throw ugly slurs at first the Muslims, then the Jews—and finally ends up owned by a Greek, “that in show was a Mahometan, but cordially a Christian”, despite the fact that he does things like owning slaves. The Greek and his possessions embark for the East Indies, but have gotten no further than southern India when they are yet again attacked by the Turks, from whom Latroon yet again excapes.

From here, The English Rogue turns from rogue’s biography to travelogue—another extremely popular form of literature and one where a writer could make quite an impression, as long as he didn’t have too much regard for the facts. As we saw in the early days of this blog, many and varied were the literary hoaxes practised on the reading public in the second half of the 17th century, fake accounts of travel, or descriptions of non-existent lands, being perhaps the most popular form. Richard Head dabbled openly in this brand of writing, with his pamphlets The Western Wonder and O-Brazile.

Perhaps the single most notorious example of the genre, however, is The Travels Of Sir John Mandeville, which was first—well, not published, but circulated in the 1370s. This often openly fantastical work was immensely successful and widely believed, in spite of its extravagance, and continued to be read well into the 17th century. And apparently one of those who did read it was Richard Head, since (as has been demonstrated in a paper published by Charles Moseley, who translated and edited a 1983 edition of the Travels) the last section of The English Rogue is a cut-down, plagiarised version of portions of it.

With a group of companions, Latroon spends time travelling around what we take to be territories in Africa and India, describing to the reader some of the more outré customs of the locals, such as cannibalism and suttee—the latter explained as a means of dissuading women from murdering their husbands, Which they were frequently guilty of, by reason of their extreme lechery and insatiate venery—shaking his head disapprovingly over their religious practices, and dwelling upon their sexual practices…as well as indulging in them. Like the protagonist of The Isle Of Pines, Latroon goes out of his way her to tell us how nauseating her finds the thought of having sex with a woman who isn’t white; and also like George Pine, he shuts his eyes, grits his teeth, and does it anyway.

Latroon’s wanderings take him from India to Zeyloon (Ceylon, Sri Lanka), where we get an account of the worshippers of Jagannath being crushed under temple cars; from there to Siam (Thailand), and onwards again to Do-Cerne (Mauritius) and Bantam in Indonesia. On the personal front, Latroon progresses from dallying with the natives, to castrating and murdering a man who tries to sodomise him (while he’s dallying with a native), to elaborately defrauding a Chinese merchant – an act that sees most of his companions end up the victims of a revenge killing:

“Whereupon I was strictly examined; but for all this sifting, I would not let drop anything of a confession that should convict me of guilt; but with lifting up of hands and eyes to Heaven, I utterly denied that e’er I saw this man, or ever had any dealing with him… I had now forgot what promises and vows I made to Heaven, when in Newgate, and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn, what a serious, pious, and honest life I would lead, if I escaped that eminent danger…”

You don’t say.

But we’re nearly in the home stretch, folks, because after all this wandering and his narrow escape from the Chinese merchant’s vengeance, Latroon decides to settle down, in company with an Indian woman whom he marries—or rather, “marries”, since he’s been down that road two or three times before—after a severe struggle with himself:

“She from the first shewed me as much kindness as could be expected from that lump of Barbarism; and I could discern her inclinations in the same manner as a man may from beasts, when they are prone to generation, but yet it went against my stomach to yield to her motions. However, she continued her love to me… Gold and jewels she had in great quantity, with an house richly furnished after the Indian fashion. For this consideration I persuaded myself to marry her; and with several arguments alleged, I gained so much conquest over myself that I could kiss her without disgorging myself…”

Oh, Latroon, you romantic devil!

And having found a woman who can and will keep him in the style he is convinced he deserves, Our Hero settles back to reflect upon his life and closes with an extensive piece of moralising that very nearly made me disgorge myself. As for writing down his life, well, that was done with the very best of intentions, and above all in the most delicate language, as we have seen:

    “As the daylight is purest, so I have endeavoured to make my slender wit appear terse and spruce, without the fulsomeness of wanton language. If I have in any place transgressed the bounds of modesty by loose expressions, you need not fear to be offended with their unsavoury breath, for I have perfumed it: but if it should chance to stink, it is only to drive you from my former inclination and conversation…
    “If any loose word have dropped from the mind’s best interpreter, my pen, I would have the Reader to pass it over regardless, and not like a toad, gather up the venom of a garden; or like a goldfinder, make it his business to dive in stench and excrements…”

02/07/2011

Cynthia

“I beheld her with Amazement, for never before did my Eyes behold any Thing so lovely: Yet that Amazement was accompanied with a Transport, in beholding so Rare a Creature, which brought forth a delerious Ravishment; and a Rapture of unusual Joys began to possess my Senses: So that then, and only then, I began to be wretched, and greedily began to devour that Poison I should have expell’d. This Fatal Minute was a Prologue to the Catastrophe of my Tragical Misfortunes.”

And with a mighty bound, they landed in 1687—ha-HA!!

Yeah, don’t get too excited. We’ll be hitting another political wall very shortly, just when it’s beginning to look like we might escape the 1680s. Such is my Tragical Misfortune.

Of course, the very fact that we’ve moved quite quickly through the middle years of the decade, with only a handful of fictional works coming to my attention, is interesting and informative in itself. Unlike the entire reign of Charles, the early years under James produced a literary wasteland.

Having succeeded, between the Rye House Plot and the Monmouth Rebellion, in wiping out most of his remaining opponents who had any political power or personal standing, from mid-1685 onwards James had his foot on the nation’s throat. The contradictory freedoms of life under Charles came to an abrupt halt; political writing was suddenly deadly dangerous – unless of course you were on James’s side. Plays with a message ceased to be written or produced, while those meant only to entertain were revived. Fiction became the safest form of writing. It was during these years that “the novel” took hold as a literary form. With politics out of the question, tales of the imagination had a chance to flourish – and the less any given story had to do with day-to-day reality, the better.

Into this climate came Cynthia: With The Tragical Account Of The Unfortunate Loves Of Almerin And Desdemona: Being A Novel, which was published anonymously in 1687 and proved remarkably popular. My own copy is the fifth edition from 1709, and it was still being reissued late in the 18th century. How to account for this? I really don’t know—except that Cynthia has all the staples: sex, and violence, and just a little horror, built into a framework of didacticism.

And perhaps that last is the most interesting thing about Cynthia, as well as being a hint of the direction that the novel would travel in the future. As a moral tale, Cynthia is something less than convincing; but the very fact that its author chose to sell it as such, to the extent of including a lengthy preface making exhorbitant claims for its “improving” nature, suggests that even this early, the idea of fiction as a vehicle for instruction and guidance was beginning to take root. The sub-sub-title of Cynthia promises the reader, “…both Pleasure and Profit.” In attitude even more than content, we’re light-years away from The London Bully.

Cynthia opens with a ridiculously highflown 10-page preface written in a deliberately archaic style and filled with Latin tags and quotes from the bible, presumably to illustrate simultaneously its author’s erudition and moral rectitude. Here’s just a taste:

“The Total Sum or Moral of the whole History is soon cast up, by examining it with that Saying of the Wise Man, That a Just Man falls Seven Times and riseth again, but the Wicked fall into Mischief: That is, the Upright Man is subject to many Dangers, but God delivereth him out of his Distress, making his very Misfortunes an Addition to his Joys. Oh, what Heavenly Comfort, (says an Ancient Father) do they inwardly feel, who are delighted with Remembrance of Sufferings past, with the Fruition of Joys present, and with the Expectation of Felicities to come! This Happiness is represented in the History of Cynthia and Orsamus. Wicked men are figured in the Person of Almerin, for Evil Men and Deceivers shall wax worse, their Portion shall be cursed in the Earth; and as a Fall on a Pavement is very sudden, so shall the Fall of the Wicked come hastily; because God strikes not presently the Wicked are set to do Evil; but although Heaven be slow in Punishment, yet when they strike they strike sure; for God spares the Wicked not in Mercy, but in Justice.”

Ten pages of it, folks! But if you do have the patience to wade through it, you’ll be awarded with an amusing descent into the realities of publishing life as (his language altering not a jot) our author gives us a version of a defensive reaction no less popular today than it was in 1687:

“This may serve  for a silent Emblem to excuse the Errata’s of the whole History, which in the Eyes of many may seem fair, but when an Artist comes to survey it, it will not be found without Faults, (since Nature perfected it, and not Art;) many Faults are in the Orthography, many Errors o’erpassed in the Ingrossing; therefore I accuse my self to save the Curious Critick a Labour, who finds Faults in others, yet amends not his own: Yet to the Judicious and Partial Man I submit my self, who knows how to scan and pass by Infant Faults.”

“Errata’s”??

And at length we arrive at our story proper, which I’m evilly pleased to reveal is written in the same style as the preface. For example—

“It was about the time that Sol left Watery Neptune’s Bed, and newly darted his Rays upon the Face of the Waters; Neptune walk’d proudly along with his Sweet Burthen, and Zephyrus gently courted their sails, while the pretty Fishes made pleasant Pastime, sporting themselves in the Ocean.”

In other words, it was sunrise and there was a light breeze. I’m beginning to suspect that the anonymous author of Cynthia was a lineal ancestor of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh.

Our tale opens in Albion, at a time when separate regions had separate royalty; and Cynthia is the daughter and heir of the King of Kent, who has arranged for her a marriage with Cordello, the son of his neighbour and ally, the King of East-Anglia. However, Cynthia is secretly in love with Orsamus, her personal guard, the sole survivor of a shipwreck some years earlier, who was taken into the service of the king. Royalty being what it is, the fact that Orsamus is smarter, stronger, braver, more honest and more loyal than anyone else in the country, and that as a soldier he was wholly responsible for saving the life of the king during battle at the risk of his own, means nothing next to his presumed inferiority of birth; and when upon the announcement of Cynthia’s betrothal Orsamus breaks down and declares his love for her, Cynthia is outraged and offended at his presumption. The heartbroken Orsamus is banished.

And having taken this step, Cynthia prepares for her wedding by slipping off into the woods where she can weep in private over, “My Dear, though Absent, Orsamus!” She is caught at this Cordello, but before he can do more than inquire into the cause of her sorrow, the two of them are confronted by Orsamus, who hasn’t taken his banishment well – or indeed at all. Ignoring Cordello, Orsamus throws himself at Cynthia’s feet, and after reproaching her injustice, prepares to commit suicide. Cordello, interpreting all this correctly, is himself outraged and offended. Cordello’s entourage then catches up with him. They fall upon Orsamus, who kills about six of them but is just about to be overpowered, when—

—pirates attack! Cordello and his surviving men promptly run away, leaving only Orsamus to defend Cynthia, who of course by this time has fainted. Orsamus manages some more impressive slaughter, but is finally overwhelmed by numbers. He and Cynthia are carried onto the pirates’ boat, which sails off with them. Orsamus’s fate is to be gruesome execution, in retaliation for his pruning of the pirates’ numbers. As for Cynthia— Almerin, the leader of the pirates, takes one look and falls in love with her. He declares himself at once.

Cynthia unexpectedly steps up here, with a nice piece of quick-thinking. She claims the seriously wounded Orsamus as her brother and guardian, making it clear that if Almerin wants to get anywhere with her, he’d better take good care of him, as she could not possibly listen to any man’s addresses without his consent. The execution is therefore called off, and Orsamus nursed back to health. Cynthia is allowed private visits to his room, where she makes the role he has to play clear.

Cynthia follows this successful manoeuvre with another, a kind of Scheherazade-in-reverse. She pretends to take Almerin’s declarations quite seriously, but tells him that she could not possibly listen to any man of whom she knows so little. She insists upon hearing his life-story. Almerin is thoroughly dismayed by this, knowing that nothing in his history will help his cause with her; but as a gesture of good faith, he fatalistically agrees.

The main body of this novel is indeed made up of, “The Tragical Account Of The Unfortunate Loves Of Almerin And Desdemona”. Almerin insists throughout upon viewing himself as the victim of an unkind fate, fortune’s pawn, a tragic figure; but the plain truth is, everything that goes wrong is his own stupid fault. This poses the question of how we’re supposed to take all this – because it is not at all clear that the author is beng ironic. Perhaps he did intend the gap between his theory and his practice; or perhaps he just wasn’t good enough a writer to pull off the kind of tale he was aiming for. We’ll never know…but after due consideration, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

We’re reminded again in Cynthia of how very different were 17th-century ideas of what was age-appropriate, compared to our own. You might remember that The Fair Extravagant, from 1682, opened with its seventeen-year-old heroine bemoaning her status as old maid. Here, out anti-hero, Almerin, embarks upon a career that ultimately embraces (and in quite rapid succession) killing, seduction, impregnation, marriage, murder, piracy and Satanic dealings at the ripe old age of sixteen.

Almerin is the son of the Governor of Syracuse, in Sicily. His acquaintance with Desdemona begins when he one day saves her from rape. After the quotes I’ve already given you, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that communication in Cynthia consists chiefly of an exchange of declamatory speeches. Some of my favourites are those exchanged by our young lovers upon their first meeting when, let me remind you, she at the age of fourteen has just had a hairsbreadth escape from violation and seen a man killed, and he at the age of sixteen has just killed a man and fallen in love. Here are their first words to each other:

    “Sir, (said she,) this sudden and unexpected Assistance perswades me to Esteeme you as the Genius of my better Fortune, since you have by timely Redemption preserv’d what is more precious to me than that which we prize most dear. Seeing there’s no Possibility of making Satisfaction equal to the Obligation, take my Life in Lieu for a small Recompence; but continue still to preserve my Honour, which you have so bravely defended.”
    “‘Madam, I rejoice that the Destinies have made me so Fortunate in making me the happy Cause of preserving you. If I have oblig’d you in this Action I have a Satisfaction above what I could hope, and Fortune ha been kind above my Wishes; since few Minutes have pass’d when I was to seek for such an Opportunity to Manifest my Affection. O Madam! Blame me not when I reveal I love you: And prove not cruel to one that adores you. And if you think I have oblig’d you, Oh! pay it in Love and I shall soon become the Debtor: And talk not of Death when te Gods detest the Proposition; but think, lovely Creature, if so much Beauty can be without Pity, and yield no Redress to my Love, see Beauteous Lady, Death will be kinder than you, and yield a Remedy when you deny it.’ This said (with an Action wholly Passionate) I set my Sword against my Breast, saying, ‘Here, Madam, is that will yield Relief in Necessity; and seeing I cannot live without your Love, I’ll endeavour in Death to gain your Pity: And if my Love be become an Offence, this very Sword shall make Satisfaction, and destroy that Life that gave it Birth.'”

Two pages of further declamation later, the pair of them shut up just long enough for Almerin to be introduced to Desdemona’s slavishly grateful parents. An instant betrothal would seem likely, except that there’s a fly in the ointment: Almerin is already betrothed to the daughter of a nobleman, a political match arranged by his father the Governor—who is, we learn, “A Man too passionate and rash, firm in his Resolves, and not to be altered by Perswasions in his Proceedings… He was obstinate in his Humours, nor could Reason make him reverse what he had decreed; but especially those he imagined did tend to further and advance his aspiring Ambition. These were such infallible Truths as I well knew by his Consent would never be revoked.”

And this being the case, does Almerin do the sensible thing and not see Desdemona again? Of course not! He makes one feint at breaking his engagement but then, in the face of his father’s explosive rage, retreats into a weak, Oh, I just wanted to know what you’d say, assuring his parents that he intends to honour his engagement. Having done so, he takes every opportunity to see Desdemona, carefully keeping his engagement secret from her. Before long, he seduces her (so much for what is more precious to me than that which we prize most dear) and gets her pregnant. Having promised her marriage, one day he unexpectedly finds himself (thanks to the manoeuvring of his parents, hardly convinced by his assurances) standing before the altar with his betrothed, Artemesia. Almerin baulks at first, but then, confronted by the point of his father’s sword and a threat of instant death, capitulates. Meanwhile, an increasingly desperate Desdemona is insisting that he keep his solemn oath to her…

And it’s all Fate’s fault!

No, really—he honestly thinks it is. Here’s how Almerin describes his situation to Cynthia:

“…Affrighted by his Danger, he endeavours by Craft (as his last Remedy) to deceive the Beast in his Pursuit. By chance he espies a deep Pit by the Way-side, and a little below the Pit’s brim grows a Twig, which the poor Man seeing, goes and takes hold of the Twig, thinking thereby to avoid the Beast; but then casting his Eyes down to the Bottom of the Pit, he sees a number of Scorpions, Dragons, and other venomous Beasts, waiting for his Fall to devour him; then casting his Eyes up, he sees the hungry, lean-jaw’d Beast gnawing asunder the Twig that he holds by…”

Almerin does indeed “endeavour by Craft” to find a way out of his dilemma; and while he never for a moment ceases to think of himself as “the poor Man”, it is unsurprisingly everyone else who suffers. The marriage of Almerin and Artemesia is solemnised – and consummated (“Come to my Bed, my Love, (said I,) and let us see if the Night can yield us as great Felicities as the Day has begotten us Miseries”) but a reproachful letter from Desdemona makes Almerin decide that he has to do the right thing by her – and so he poisons Artemesia. She dies and is buried, but Almerin is not quite free of her yet. Soon afterwards he experiences a vision of her, in which she places a curse upon his head:

“The Remainder of your Life shall be a living Death: You shall seek for Death but you shall not find it; and when you desire to live you shall cruelly be cut off…”

Shaking off the effects of this ghostly warning, Almerin then hurries to Desdemona to keep his oath to her, only to discover that she’s committed suicide. This he learns from a servant of the family, who proves himself a worthy character in this story by winding up his four-page-long account of Desdemona’s end and her parents’ grief thus:

“Oh the Shrieks, the Moans, the Lamentations, the Sighs, the Sobs, the Tears, the Exclamations, the Griefs, the Sorrows, the Kisses, the Caresses, and the Embraces this Aged Couple bestowed on the Breathless Body of this their only Child, were numberless, and pitiful to behold! They were, Sir, such, and so many, so bitter and woful, that I want Words wherein I might express my self…”

Naturally, he then continues on for another three pages, including a page-and-a-half recitation of some of Desdemona’s very bad poetry:

Farewel the Author of my cruel Woe / Who in my Hour of Death I do forgive / Thy greatest Crimes; but Heaven only knows / It would go hard to do it were I to live.

(This individual shows up again later as part of a force sent after Almerin by King Tancredus of Siciliy, and is fatally wounded in the conflict. His dying speech runs a full six pages.)

Meanwhile, Artemesia’s family is convinced that she has met with foul play, and swears revenge; while Desdemona’s parents have found a letter from Almerin that makes the situation plain to them. The authorities closing in on all sides, Almerin’s parents contrive his escape from arrest and a flight from the country in a fully manned ship. Almerin later learns that his father was killed holding off the party of soldiers sent to recapture him, and that his mother died of grief.

Well! – I don’t see how we could possibly blame any of this death and misery on Almerin, do you? At any rate, he doesn’t—

“…none of my Crimes have proceeded from my Inclinations, but from my adverse Fate; did I practice Artemesia’s Death? Remember that Wicked Issue had a Noble Parent, Love; was I unconstant to Artemesia? Oh remember my Constancy to Desdemona!”

The most interesting aspect of Cynthia comes towards the conclusion of Almerin’s tale. Almerin and his crew head for Norway, his father’s place of birth. They arrive safely, but find no trace of Almerin’s family. They are without resources; starvation seems imminent. At the last moment, Almerin is confronted by a grotesque individual who bears him away on a flying carpet and into a hidden cave filled with the riches of the world. There his companion reveals himself:

“I am Servant to Lucifer, Lord of this World, Prince of the Air, and Arch-Duke of the River Styx, and chief King of the Infernal Shades; by him I am imployed as a Register to take the Names of all such Persons as will become his Servants; and having notice by my Intelligencers of the lost Condition you and your Men were in, by Order from my Sovereign Lord I have brought you here, where before I can give you Remedy you must with your own Blood write your Name in this Book…”

Almerin emerges from this meeting in possession of several supernatural artefacts, which permit him to control the winds and seas as he needs. He embarks upon a career of piracy, plundering and despoiling his way across Europe and Africa, and finally emerging so wealthy as to be almost respectable. The King of Norway offers him marriage with his niece; and Almerin is contemplating this match when – ha, ha! – Fate sends his ship to the shores of Albion, where Orsamus is holding Cordello’s forces at bay…

His love for Cynthia having given him a reason to live, Almerin is now rapidly dispatched as per Artemesia’s curse. It then only remains to wrap up the tale of Cynthia and Orsamus. The latter is doing what he does best and holding off the remaining pirates – “…thus he continued Triumphing in their Deaths, making himself a Barricado of their Carcases…” – when succour arrives in the shape of another ship, and Cynthia and Orsamus are rescued. Orsamus then finds himself confronted by an elderly man, Willifride, who he always believed to be his father, and who he thought had died in the shipwreck that cast him up in Albion. Willifride reveals that Orsamus is actually the long-lost second son of Oswin, King of Northumberland…meaning, conveniently enough, that not only is Orsamus sufficiently royal, but not being his father’s direct heir, he can stay in Kent with Cynthia.

And there was much rejoicing:

“Phoebus necessitated, gave a Farewel to this upper World, yet not before he had charged his Sister Cynthia to attend at Cynthia’s Nuptials, which she duly performed; for never was there seen a fairer Night, where the Heavenly Spangles were evident to the Eye, while Diana ran her career in Glory, perhaps to vie Splendor with Cynthia, whose Happiness she began to envy. The Time drew near when Morpheus with his Leaden Mace approaches, commanding to Rest; upon which Notice given, Cynthia was conducted by her Royal Attendance to her Bed, after whom followed Orsamus, accompanied by the Two Kings, who saw him lodged by her Side; and giving them the Good-night, not without the Blushes of Cynthia, left them unto their Rest, or to the Possession of those Pleasures the Stock of Mankind might envy him; and here I would rest and continue silent…”

Except, of course, he doesn’t.

07/05/2011

And she sat back with a sigh of relief…

That sigh of relief is in recognition of the fact that, when I posted my review of Romance Of The Pyrenees, I had finally caught up all of my outstanding reviews: something I’ve been struggling with, and panicking over, since Aphra Behn took over my life at the beginning of the year. It took many library renewels, much scribbling of notes on the train, great cruelty to my poor suffering eyes, and in the case of The London Jilt, having to re-borrow and re-read the whole book, but I finally got myself up to speed.

And having done so, I then proceeded to do what I always seem to do in these situations, which is celebrate by plunging straight back into the mire I’d just fought my way out of. I’ve finished two books since that last post, both of which require a response. Thankfully, they are neither of them major works (or what counts for a “major work” around here, like a convoluted 4-volume Gothic novel), so I’m hopeful this won’t be too much of an issue.

Yeah, I know – Famous Last Words.

In the meantime, here’s what we have by way of Upcoming Attractions:

  • Chronobibliography:  The London Bully – Anonymous (1683)
  • Reading Roulette:  Lily, The Lost One – K.M. Weld (1881)
  • Authors In Depth:  Retribution – E.D.E.N. Southworth (1849)
  • Reading Challenge:  Rookwood – William Harrison Ainsworth (1834)
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17/12/2016

The Holy Lover

holylover1b    John Wesley received Oglethorpe’s order with an emotion in which astonishment mingled with a wild and heart-shaking joy… The flood of his happiness almost succeeded in drowning his uneasy clericalism. For a brief, enchanted interlude, a sunlit pause, John Wesley was become like other men, a very human lover, quivering with the joy of being alone with his beloved.
    When he had threshed and winnowed his conscience, he yet had a good hope that he would be delivered out of this sweet danger, this perilous joy, since it had not been his own choice that had brought it upon him; and he coddled the notion that he still perceived in himself his old desire and intention to live celibate. Further, he tried to believe he believed Sophy’s statement, which all young girls make to all men at the beginning of their more intimate acquaintance, that he resolve was to live unmarried. He wished to believe that this resolution of hers would hold fast even though his own wavered. So much he understood a girl’s heart; so much he understood his own!
    The thought of Sophy invaded him even at his prayers. She appeared, a tender and seductive vision, with sweet, persuasive lips and ardent eyes; and this occasioned him so profound a pleasure that he was terrified. He knew it for a snare of the devil, and redoubled his prayers. But as if the heavens were deaf, he was unable to quell the passion that shook and tormented him. He forgot that he was at high noon and high tide, son of a cleric who begot nineteen children, grandson of another who begot twenty-five. And he was afraid. He was dreadfully afraid.

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We know from the very first sentence of Marie Conway Oemler’s 1927 novel, The Holy Lover, that we’re about to be confronted with a very different kind of book from the religiously-themed novels previously examined at this blog:

“Sukey!” his father once shrieked to his mother in a fit of exasperation, “I profess, Sweetheart, I don’t believe our Jack would attend to the most pressing necessities of nature, even, if he couldn’t give a reason for it!”

This up-front reference to its central character’s bodily functions serves two purposes, although only one of them is immediately apparent: to wit, to alert the reader to the possibility that this biographical novel might not contain an altogether flattering portrait of its subject. The other, evident only in retrospect, is to foreshadow the fact that The Holy Lover is, to a significant degree, about the bodily functions of John Wesley—or rather, the lack thereof.

All of which immediately begs the question of what audience this novel was intended for?—certainly not for the admirers and followers of Wesley, who would likely be angered and offended by it; though those opposed, for whatever reason, to Methodism might get an unkind kick out of its merciless exposure of Wesley’s early-life feet-of-clay. Ultimately this is a book perhaps best read from an historical point of view, for its description of the early days of Georgia, and of the challenges faced by those who ventured into what was, even in its more “civilised” regions, a wilderness.

Briefly, in 1733 James Oglethorpe founded a British colony in Georgia, which was intended to provide a military buffer between the English settlements in the Carolinas and the Spanish settlements in Florida. Oglethorpe’s plan was create an agrarian society on a principle of equality, and to populate the region with “the worthy poor”, in particular basically honest people who had fallen foul of England’s harsh laws against debtors. Oglethorpe carried cotton seeds to the region, and played an important role in the establishment of the South’s cotton-based economy, even while declaring slavery illegal in the colony (a decision which would finally bring about his downfall, when “the worthy poor” wiped their feet on the principles of equality and demanded slaves to work their land grants). And finally, Oglethorpe wanted the civilising influence of religion—and thus invited four members of Oxford’s “Holy Club” to Georgia, to undertake ministries and work at the conversion of the local Native Americans. These men were John Wesley; his brother, Charles; Benjamin Ingham; and Charles Delamotte.

History has generally condemned John Wesley’s mission to Georgia as an almost total failure; Methodist writers have tended to interpret this period as a time of chastening, preparing Wesley for the great “revelation” that would precede his founding of the Methodist Church. However, there has been some revisionism in this area in recent times, a suggestion that the perception of failure was based mostly on Wesley’s harsh judgement of his own performance.

The Holy Lover, however, goes to the other extreme, highlighting the lack of proportion, the thin skin and the ignorance of the world that, the novel contends, made Wesley’s failure almost an inevitability. It also takes a distinctly female view of the behaviour of John Wesley—arguing tacitly that believing you have a hotline to God is no excuse for wrecking a young woman’s life.

Much of this novel rests upon Wesley’s own words, supporting its contentions with quotes from his journal and letters, and those of others—but the material is used in a self-evidently highly selective way. Whether Marie Conway Oemler’s own Catholicism influenced this choice (the Oglethorpe colony explicitly welcomed people of all religions but Catholic), or whether Wesley’s treatment of Sophia Hopkey earned her ire, is difficult to judge. At the very least, however, this novel goes some way towards restoring the reputation of the unfortunate Sophia, who has been roughly treated by a number of Methodist historians, and viewed indeed as a “catch” and a “snare” for the holy Wesley.

The Holy Lover opens with a sketch of life at the Epworth parsonage in Lincolnshire, placing “Jacky” amongst his bustling family and emphasising the lifelong influence of Susannah Wesley upon her youngest and favourite surviving son—but emphasising too a legacy from his mother that would cause John and those around him considerable grief at a later date: the lack of a sense of humour. These early scenes highlight both the positive and negative qualities that would shape Wesley’s life: his profound faith, tireless labours and self-sacrifice on one hand; on the other, his convenient ability to see “God’s will” in whatever it suited him to do.

The same mingling of positive and negative is seen in John’s conduct at Oxford, where he draws followers with his faith and dedication, building a group that achieves much good, particularly amongst the prison population; but ultimately alienates the majority through his assumption of superiority, his demands for a damaging personal austerity, and his unshakeable conviction of his own essential rightness.

It is at this point that John Wesley is introduced to James Oglethorpe, on the lookout for young men willing to undertake missionary work in Georgia, and offered a position. After much heart-burning, Wesley accepts and sets out on the long and dangerous sea-voyage to Oglethorpe’s colony with his three companions, all surviving members of his Holy Club.

Overtly the most important consequence of this trip was that it served to introduce John Wesley to some brethren of the Moravian Church, travelling to Georgia to become part of an established settlement. The Moravians were, historically, the first Protestant missionaries, and in America the first to gain a converted congregation of Native Americans (although their success in interacting with the Mohicans drew accusations that the Moravians were, sigh, secretly Jesuits recruiting for the French, and got them expelled from New York). The narrative of The Holy Lover reproduces the famous shipboard incident wherein, confronted by a violent storm and the apparently inevitable foundering of their ship, the English passengers (clerical and lay) gave way to panic and the terror of death, while the Moravian congregation stayed calm, singing hymns together in the teeth of the gale:

    “But were you not afraid?” Wesley asked one of the Moravians.
    “I thank God, no.”
    “But were not your women and children afraid?”
    “Brother, no.” And the German added, with a gentle smile: “Our women and children are not afraid to die.”
    Women and children…not afraid to die! Wesley had no answer to that. These humble folk had something which he, with all his intellect, his logic, his learning, his fastings, prayers, formulas, rituals, had not attained. They had some emotion of the spirit, some instinct of the heart which he had missed… He was afraid: afraid of life, of death, of God, of circumstances, of men, of women, of himself…

Subsequently, the Moravians’ quiet practicality and common sense form an amusing contrast to the extreme emotionalism of everything connected with Wesley. They also, alone of the Georgia settlers, manage to keep patience with Wesley, even as he uses them as an ongoing sounding-board for his increasing woes, constantly pouring out his troubles to them and begging for advice which (since it doesn’t happen to coincide with his own wants) he never takes.

(But it was after John Wesley’s return to England that the Moravians exerted their most significant influence upon him. He and his brother Charles were accepted by a Moravian congregation, and were counselled by Peter Boehler, a young Moravian missionary about to depart for Georgia himself, whose ideas about faith and grace had a profound effect upon Wesley’s own thinking. [A future bishop, Boehler was instrumental in founding the Pennsylvanian towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth.] It was while attending a Moravian meeting in London that Wesley underwent his great “revelation”, which altered and crystallised his views on personal salvation, and which planted the seed for the creation of the Methodist Church. But all of this is beyond the scope of this novel.)

Wesley’s interaction with the Moravians highlights what is, at this point in his life, his most significant failing as a minister of God: a total lack of love for humanity. Looking around, Wesley sees only sinners, damned by their failure to practice religion as he practices it. Of course, a deeper failing lies beyond this: Wesley has no love of God, either, just a deep and abiding fear. Much of his behaviour at this time resembles that of someone he would no doubt designate a “heathen”, trying to placate an angry spirit by sacrifice.

Throughout the journey to Georgia, Wesley and his companions pursue their fellow-passengers: not merely conducting services but attempting to bring the others to their own way of thinking and believing and acting, and doing so with unrelenting energy. There is nowhere for the passengers to run:

Their zeal kept the passengers in a chronic state of exasperation. For John wouldn’t feed them as babes with the milk of the Word; already he was cramming them with great raw collops of theology, and drenching their unwilling stomachs with the sour wine of High Church formalism… That he honestly practiced what he preached made him all the more infuriating, since it left no saving doubt to soften his rigid righteousness. There was no love in him; only the horrid zest of sacerdotal selfishness which urged him, for the saving of his own soul, to save other souls willy-nilly. Quite as though there were a bounty on souls, redeemable by Deity. The wonder is that some exasperated sinner didn’t quietly heave Mr Wesley overboard some dark night.

One of the exasperated sinners—though less so than the rest, since he alone has the option of withdrawing himself—is James Oglethorpe, who early on sees signs that his future work with Wesley will be no easy collaboration. Though the soldier views the priest with amused tolerance, the priest is constitutionally incapable of returning the favour, instead taking advantage of his calling to lecture Oglethorpe on various aspects of his conduct, particularly the nature of his interactions with the female sex.

But ironically, it is not Oglethorpe but Wesley who gets into trouble with the female passengers. Susceptible to female beauty, though wary of it, Wesley is drawn to Beata Hawkins, the wife of a surgeon, who, seeking some new form of amusement on the dreary sea-voyage, expresses a great desire to be instructed in religion. The minister is no more than a new sort of toy for her, something to test her theory that men are just men. Wesley, in turn, becomes obsessed with “saving the soul” of the pretty young wife, stubbornly ignoring the warnings of his companions, who see only too clearly that she is playing with him, and who have heard the shipboard gossip about her conduct—gossip that is now encompassing him. Over his friends’ strenuous objections, Wesley takes his infatuation to the extreme of administering Holy Communion to Beata Hawkins: an act which will have bitterly ironic echoes in his future life…

Did he really believe he had converted Beata Hawkins? Or was the wish father to the thought? Or was it that she attracted him more than he himself knew? To a temperament like his, sex-attraction was dangerously troublesome. He must repress it, stamp it out, become a celibate, a eunuch of the spirit. Sex to him stood for sin, so that when a woman intrigued his imagination and threatened the control which he wished to achieve and maintain over his natural impulses of a man, his immediate reaction was to desire to save her soul, shift his sex-emotion to the religious plane, and thus placate and enlist God, whom he was convinced his natural passions offended, and of whom he was afraid.

After a long, tedious and often dangerous journey, the Simmonds arrives safely in Georgia. John Wesley assumes his ministry in Savannah, with Charles Delamotte to assist him, while Charles Wesley and Bejamin Ingham travel on with James Oglethorpe to the island township of Frederica, a much rougher and less civilised settlement of Oglethorpe’s own making, and vital to his plans for the area. For a few brief, glorious weeks all seems well, the future bright:

Everything promised plenty. The people who greeted him so cordially seemed to him good and happy. And of the Indians he had not seen enough to dampen his ardour and dispel his illusions. He shared the curious notions of his age as to the Indians, picturing them as childlike souls panting for conversion, and with no preconceived errors of doctrine to keep them from ardently embracing the faith once delivered to the saints—his faith. They were clean, empty vessels into which should foam the pure milk of the Word. So he came to Georgia with his heart singing hymns in his breast.

But the narrative that follows is one of good intentions appallingly executed, for reasons jointly accounted for by the peculiar nature of the settlement and the ingrained nature of John Wesley.

Despite the clash of their personalities and morals, James Oglethorpe had high hopes for John Wesley’s contribution to his colony, recognising his honesty, his capacity for hard work and – where his own emotions and beliefs weren’t involved – his judgement. The austerity of his religious practice and his inflexibility did give the soldier some considerable concern, yet Oglethorpe’s hope was that the realities of life in Georgia would bring the minister to a more reasonable state of mind.

But in this respect, Oglethorpe was too optimistic. Much good John Wesley certainly tried to do—he was active in fighting the growing demand for slaves in the new colony, for instance, and he did sterling work in the founding and operation of schools—but his capacity for rubbing people the wrong way made him enemies at almost every turn, many of whom opposed his efforts out of personal dislike:

Oglethorpe wanted a colony for England, as against Spain. The colonists wanted everything they could get, including ease and pleasure. The Holy Club wanted a theocratic State, with God as Governor, John Wesley as Grand Vizier, and Charles, Ingham and Delamotte as Chief Deputies. These diverging aims brought them all one thing in common: Trouble.

Wesley’s fantasy with regard to the conversion of the local tribe is the first casualty. Whatever illusions the new minister may have cherished about them, the natives have met white men before and are under none whatsoever:

    This was the Holy Club’s first contact with the red men they had come out to convert—and didn’t. Wesley never had any closer contact with them. When Tomochichi was urged to become a Christian, the fine old Mico said vehemently:
    “Why, those Christians at Savannah! Those are Christians at Frederica! Christians lie! Christians steal! Christians beat men! Me no Christian!”

The new minister’s good opinion of his own parishioners soon undergoes revision too, with his initial positive outlook suffering from the contrast he cannot help drawing between the godly Moravians and his secular parishioners. Many and varied are the clashes between John Wesley and his congregation over the next two years, some provoked by his conduct, some by theirs, but all playing their part in the minister’s eventual downfall.

Meanwhile, Charles Wesley, too, is busy making enemies in Frederica, where his solemn condemnation of of anything secular is particularly offensive to the settlement’s female contingent. Charles Wesley, it is concluded, has to go…

On shipboard, even as John tried to “save” Beata Hawkins, Charles backed his own judgement about women by similarly adopting a Mrs Welch. At that time the women were bored enough to welcome even male attentions that came in the form of religious instruction and lectures about the state of their souls; but now in Frederica, Charles has become an intolerable nuisance. Both women, with unsatisfactory husbands and too much time on their hands, are pursuing James Oglethorpe: an amusement which the persistence of the Wesleys is making impossible. Well aware of the ministers’ credulity and their willingness to believe the worst of everyone, the two women put their heads together and come up with a daring plan: one which involves a public falling out and Mrs Welch’s assertion – made to Charles in the strictest confidence – that Beata Hawkins is in fact James Oglethorpe’s mistress; this on the back of the women complaining to Oglethorpe that the Wesleys’ pursuit of them isn’t entirely about religion.

The escalating trouble caused by the women and their circulating rumours and gossip finally drives Charles Wesley away: the Holy Club needs someone to return to England and report on conditions, and he is only too glad to go—and James Oglethorpe to see the back of him.

John takes over Charles’ duties in Frederica, and finds a hornet’s nest of resentment and criticism waiting for him. Even as the Wesleys believe the worst of others, Frederica is only too willing to believe the worst of them; and John veers between being shunned and being abused. Matters reach a climax when he feels himself bound in duty to call upon Beata Hawkins, who has been busy painting herself publicly as a victim of the Wesleys’ slander—by which she means, of course, that she she didn’t count on her invented adultery being made public; but in this, she and Mrs Welch bargained without the Wesleys’ habitual indiscretion:

    “You have wronged me!” she exclaimed suddenly and violently. “I am going to shoot you through the head this minute with a brace of balls!” and bringing her hands from behind her with a jerk, she showed him in one a large pistol, in the other a pair of shears.
    The startled man caught hold of the hand clutching the pistol, then of the other armed with the shears. With a piercing shriek, she hurled herself upon him, forcing him backward on the bed.
    “Villain! Let go my hands!” she roared at the top of a pair of lungs that carried half a mile. “You dirty dog, let me go!” And she began to swear like the mate of a troop-ship, pouring into his outraged ears a torrent of personal abuse, mingled with frightful imprecations. All the while she struggled to free herself.
    “I’ll have your hair, you lousy beast, or I’ll have your heart’s blood, damn you!” howled Mrs Potiphar, straddling the meagre stomach of the unlucky Joseph and making furious thrusts of the shears at his head. Weakened by fever, almost swooning with horror, John Wesley used all his enfeebled strength to keep the shears at bay.
    He feared to cry aloud, for very shame, unwilling to make public that which for her sake as well as his own, he wished to keep private. He dared not attempt to rise, since that would have made her ride him like a nag. Indeed, she rode him all too strenuously now, gripping his flanks with her knees, and using her heels to spur his shins black and blue…
    Her two men servants now rushing in: “Hold his hands!” she yelled at them. “Come here and hold his hands for me!”
    “Take her off me!” cried Wesley. “Take me off her, and hold her!”
    But they dared do neither. And in a burst of sudden, furious strength, the woman broke Wesley’s hold upon her wrists, and seizing his hair, sheared one side of his head…

This incident, a humiliating nadir in John Wesley’s time in Georgia (because of course it cannot be kept a secret) occurs in a period of unusual happiness for the minister—for he has been introduced to Sophia Hopkey, the young niece of Mr Thomas Causton, a magistrate of Savannah, and his bustlingly social wife, to whom the quiet, gentle and deeply religious girl is an annoyance and a burden:

You thought her pretty when you met her. You thought her beautiful when you knew her. She was in the the first flower of her youth, a tall and very slender girl topping John Wesley by the head, a girl whose quiet loveliness embodied as it were the freshness of an April morning softly shadowed by clouds. Her light brown hair was full of gold, her eyes a clear hazel, her lips a pink, sweet curve, soft lips at once innocent and provocative, the lips of a woman born to be loved… There was intellect in the clear brow, and when the veiled lifted, the hazel eyes were full of light. She wore her plain dress with a simple elegance that impressed the fastidious Wesley…

James Oglethorpe has already decided that what Wesley needs to settle him down and soften his hard edges is marriage, and he is quick to sound Mr Causton on the girl’s situation. One declared lover there is, the wild, violent Tom Mellichamp, who has frightened Sophy into a promise not to marry anyone else, if she will not marry him; while another, the cautious, long-sighted and rather cold-blooded William Williamson, a man of no birth but strong ambition, has also turned his eyes in her direction. Oglethorpe soon makes his feelings on the subject known to Mr Causton, who is willing enough for the connection. There’s just one problem…

    “You would wish me to encourage this?”
    “I should regard it as helping the welfare of the colony, Mr Causton.”
    “But I must tell you that I have heard from others, and once from himself, that he has a notion to remain celibate,” said Mr Causton. And he added: “As an aid to holiness.”
    “We must trust Miss Sophy to wean him from so deluded a notion, then,” said Oglethorpe, with what in a less superior person might have been called a grin.

And it is the battle between John Wesley’s austere and self-sacrificial religious beliefs, which include a determination never to marry, and his natural passions as a man that comprise the rest of The Holy Lover.

Through the giving of French lessons, Wesley soon has the opportunity to know Sophy better; while her desire for religious instruction sees her offering him the sweet incense of submission and obedience, as she joins his pre-dawn prayer sessions, attends his services, and in every way shows herself a willing follower and a devout believer. Her intelligence, her seriousness and her faith, combined with her physical attractions, are enough – almost enough – to overcome the minister’s long-held resolutions. When Wesley falls ill, as he does at intervals due to overwork and a near-starvation regime, Sophy insists upon nursing him—much to the silent anger of one particular observer…

One of the most peculiar details in The Holy Lover—a novel consisting almost entirely of peculiar details—is its sketch of the relationship between John Wesley and his Holy Club companion and assistant, Charles Delamotte. Though inevitably expressed in terms of the “snare” represented by women, and his fears for John Wesley’s soul in the face of such a temptation, Delamotte’s resentment of Sophy and his seething anger in the face of Wesley’s growing passion for her is impossible to read as other than a jealousy sexual in nature.

The long-suffering Moravians have become accustomed to John Wesley pouring out his troubles to them, albeit without ever taking their gentle, understanding, common-sense advice. Now Charles Delamotte likewise turns to them, and gets as little joy:

    “If the maiden is as pious as she seems, and loves our brother with a holy love, she might make him the godly and modest wife that he, and all men, need,” said David Nitschman, mildly.
    “Marry him? Ye would have her marry him?” croaked Delamotte, aghast.
    “We believe in holy matrimony, my brother,” said the Moravian. “It is a help to holiness. It trains and disciplines and restrains. If the maiden be what she seems, let us sing for joy!”
    “And if she is what I think she is—?” asked Delamotte.
    “Then must ye fast and pray,” said the Moravian.
    Delamotte fasted and prayed…

It is around this time that matters reach a crisis for Charles Wesley, with his departure for England requiring John to take over his duties in Frederica. Delamotte is overwhelmingly relieved, but the conspirators are before him: Mr Causton dispatches Sophy to visit friends in Frederica, and the relationship between herself and John Wesley continues and deepens—all under the watchful eyes of a community that has learned to view everything the Wesleys do with suspicion.

Despite their growing closeness, Wesley makes no definite sign to Sophy, apparently content instead to keep their relationship wholly in terms of their religious interchange. It is not until James Oglethorpe takes a hand, arranging for Wesley to escort Sophy back to Savannah by boat that circumstances begin to overwhelm the minister’s self-command. Days and nights spent in each other’s company bring the couple’s mutual but unspoken passion to a fever pitch. Finally a declaration of passionate love escapes John Wesley—but even then, he goes so far and no further; his demand for a life together does not include a proposal of marriage. Instead, he imagines a lifelong – and wholly celibate – companionship between himself and Sophy, with (although he does no express it like this, of course) all of their sexual passion channelled into religious devotion:

Presently, as if to lay the turbulent spirit which moved him, he entered upon the topic of Holiness, which seems to obsess the Christian mind. And as the ascetic in him feared he was in instant danger of losing this fine Holiness by becoming a natural human being, he held Holiness up to the young girl as a peculiar hope and grace, using all his powers of persuasion.

To this point in The Holy Lover, Marie Conway Oemler has shown sympathy as well as understanding in her portrait of John Wesley, albeit that criticism and a certain mockery sometimes creep in too, in the face of his blindness and self-absorption. But from here there is a distinct shift in tone, in response to the selfishness of Wesley’s treatment of Sophy: a selfishness dangerously blended with ignorance of, even contempt for, the ordinary usages of the world. A note of overt anger enters the text as Oemler describes the egoism which is the foundation of John Wesley’s conviction that he has been singled out by God, and the consequent crushing of Sophy Hopkey under the wheels of his relentless chariot of self:

    Had he loved the girl less passionately, or had she been older, he would not have feared her so much; for he would not have been afraid to take an older woman in marriage, as an act of expediency, somewhat as one might have put on a flannel shirt in a chill. Had there been no passion, no glamour, there would have been no terror of sin…only two stodgy Christians ambling heavenward in a sort of second-hand celibacy.
    But as it was now, Sophy with the dew of her youth sparkling on her bright hair, threatened his God-ordained mission—whatever it might prove to be—and so endangered his freedom, and his pride of supremacy, that his colossal selfishness saw in her the Great Temptation.
    He might talk of sacrifice; but to any artist, any priest, any professional man, nothing can be a sacrifice that does not call upon him to give up his work. There is no sacrifice in letting go anything that might interrupt or endanger the work… From the day he stepped out of his cradle, John Wesley had been at work moulding and fashioning and shaping his life in his own image and likeness, in his own way, to his own ends. Against that enormous egoism, what chance had any mortal woman?

As for Wesley’s obsession with physical chastity, his belief that only so can God’s work be done:

    Celibacy, virginity, a state of physical being too overrated among sentimental unthinking Christians, is an excellent restrictive regulation, good enough when not overemphasised and unduly enforced; but it is not, per se, virtue. Nature respects continence; she is apt to fill the unploughed, unsowed, and barren field with briars.
    Steeped in clericalism, with the bones of the ancients hung around the neck of his soul, John Wesley made a fetish of celibacy. It was, he thought, the most potent means to the end he sought—the saving of his own soul. It never seemed to dawn upon him that he might be involving a young girl’s happiness; nor did his own great selfishness occur to him. Men who seek heavenly riches are too often quite as ruthless and rapacious as they who are determined to gain the more obvious wealth of the world.

Sophy herself is understandably hurt and bewildered by John Wesley’s behaviour towards her—making passionate declarations and demanding eternal fidelity one minute, the next coolly suggesting that if she is unhappy at home she might go and stay with the Moravians; but being a modest young woman there is little she can do to help herself. Mr and Mrs Causton, looking on, grow increasingly frustrated, wondering how they might bring matters to a crisis. Already there is gossip about Sophy and the long hours spent at the parsonage—hours spent in prayer and religious discourse, as we know, but who outside could believe that their interaction has gone no further? – particularly in light of the lingering doubts in the colony about the probity of the Wesleys. The Caustons begin to fear that the talk will damage Sophy’s reputation to a point where no other man will marry her, should John Wesley disappoint them all.

The hot-tempered Tom Mellichamp, having gotten into trouble with the law, is more ineligible than he ever was, though still determined to prevent Sophy’s marriage to any other if he can. Eager to get the girl off her hands, Mrs Causton has always encouraged Tom, and continues to do so—until a more viable prospect emerges in the form of William Williamson who, with an eye on Sophy’s position as the Caustons’ heiress, has watched the non-progress of her romance with John Wesley with great interest.

Mrs Causton dislikes John Wesley intensely, but is willing enough that Sophy should marry him—partly to curry favour with James Oglethorpe, partly to rid herself of responsibility for the tiresome girl. But failing Wesley, another will do. In the spirit of getting Sophy married to—whoever—Mrs Causton undertakes the amiable task of making the girl’s home-life miserable. Having always encouraged Mellichamp herself, she now turns on Sophy for receiving from him the letters she is too soft-hearted to refuse, abusing the girl for encouraging a worthless young man and threatening to turn her out of the house. She makes sure that John Wesley is a witness to this last threat:

    “If your uncle and me did what we ought to do he’d give you a whipping for the hussy you are! Nothing but trouble with you! I am heart-scalded. Get out of my house!” she was yelling, as Wesley entered the room. “Get out of my house! I won’t be plagued with you any longer!”…
    For some minutes she continued to pour out a torrent of abuse and reproaches, mingled with threats. Then, as if becoming aware of Wesley’s presence, she turned to him:
    “Mr Wesley, I wish you would take her. Take her away with ye this minute, Mr Wesley! Take her out of my house!”
    Sophy raised her desperate eyes… She was driven to such a pitch of misery as to be careless of who saw her shame and anguish. Those uplifted, weeping eyes were full of an almost unbearable appeal. Oh, why didn’t he do something, say something, that might save her?
    If you love me, said her eyes, save me now or never! You must see how I am beset, how driven, how tormented; you must see, now, what they do to me; you must see that I am come to the end, that I can bear it no more!
    He said nothing at all. Had he allowed his heart to speak for him, he would have snatched the forlorn young creature in his arms, and rushed forth with her out of that wretched house, away from that virago. He said nothing at all…

John Wesley leaves the Causton house; and when the following day dawns, after a night of bullying, abuse and threats, Sophia has agreed to listen to Mr Williamson. She stands on a conditional agreement, however: insisting that she must have her minister’s advice and approval…

But Wesley chooses to misinterpret this:

    Mrs Causton was worrying about these stipulations now, as she looked at the clergyman. She said hurriedly as if against her will: “Mr Wesley, if you have any objection, pray speak. She is at the Lot. Go to her there. She will be glad to hear anything Mr John Wesley has to say.”
    After a moment’s reflection, he said, in a grave voice: “No, madam. If Miss Sophy is engaged, I have nothing to say. It will not signify for me to see her any more.”

And he walks away, wholly conscious of what he is doing:

She loved him, John Wesley, and because she loved John Wesley, she must know that William Williamson had no power to make her happy. He turned that thought over and over; but yet, with the obstinate man’s cruel struggle with himself, he could not make up his mind to save her by marrying her himself.

Sophy Hopkey is not the only young woman to whom John Wesley has expressed his conviction that a state of celibate devotion is the ideal one: her friend, Miss Bovey, likewise a young woman of faith, has also had the dubious benefit of his tenets—and has offended him by engaging herself to a worthy young man, a Mr Burnside. Wesley’s response is to counsel both of them to give up their plans of marriage, hectoring Miss Bovey until she loses all patience with him. The lovers agree that being married by John Wesley after this would be too absurd; they make plans to travel to Purysburg, to be married there by the town’s Swiss Protestant minister.

But there is more to this journey than immediately meets the eye. After consultation with Mrs Causton, Miss Bovey and Mr Burnside persuade Sophy to go with them, as bridesmaid; while Mr Williamson is invited to be the one to escort her home, after they have departed on their wedding-trip. But by the time they do return, thanks to a judicious but unrelenting course of pleading and pressure, Sophy has become Mrs Williamson…

The blow is almost more than John Wesley can stand:

    Sophy a wife. Sophy, in another man’s arms. Sophy, who belonged to him. He had never desired her as he desired her now… He experienced an agony so frightful that it all but deprived him of reason. He experienced a sense of desolation so immense it seemed to him he was lost, in time and in eternity.
    His imagination dragged him by the hair of his head into that bridal chamber, and though he winced, and cringed, and would have fled, it held him fast…

But when the first pain recedes, its place is taken by overwhelming anger. Here we see the very worst of John Wesley, the monstrous egoism that allows him to believe that in offending him, Sophy has offended God; by rejecting him—that’s how he sees it, she rejected him—she has rejected God. It is incredible to him that she continues to attend church, his church, as if she had done nothing wrong; without a sign of her sin upon her. He soon sees that her religious practice—that is, his religious practice, including pre-dawn prayers and regular fasting—has fallen away since her marriage, and he is glad of a concrete transgression to charge her with. The truth never crosses his mind: that she has been forbidden such extremes of behaviour by her husband, because she is pregnant. Nor would he – nor does he – consider obedience to her husband an excuse for anything, greatly as he always valued her obedience when it was at his own disposal. All it means now is that she has put another man before him God:

Sophy no longer came to him; no longer sought his advice. He doubted that she adhered to the strict rules he had laid down for her guidance. She was disobeying God and John Wesley, choosing rather to obey—her husband. Brooding on this terrible fall from grace into carnality, he began to doubt whether he would admit her to the Communion until she had, in some manner or other to be determined by himself, admitted her fault and declared her repentance…

Sophy’s faults have, by this time, achieved immeasurable proportions in his warped imagination. Her sins against him prove her guilty of countless other sins—falsehoods innumerable, misconduct with Tom Mellichamp, deliberate deception of himself right from the beginning of their acquaintance, a falling away of her duty to God… A scene conducted in the middle of the street, which ends when Sophy turns her back upon him in righteous anger, drives him to new heights of rage and jealousy.

And John Wesley’s mind begins to turn on what he does not recognise for what it is—revenge:

If angels, principalities, powers, thrones, dominions, seraphim and cherubim had said or seen or hinted otherwise, John Wesley, in the state he was then, would have rejected them all as lying spirits, false voices, evil cousellors trying to turn him aside from his plain duty: which was to punish Sophy. He had to punish Sophy. God Almighty meant him to punish Sophy. John Wesley meant John Wesley to punish Sophy.

And when Sophy next presents herself for Holy Communion, John Wesley—the same John Wesley who administered Holy Communion to Beata Hawkins onboard the Simmonds—publicly repulses her:

    His conscience licked its paws before the fire of content. He felt exalted—his punishment of Sophy had fulfilled the law… Confusing the will of God with his own will, he couldn’t see himself in the role of self-appointed harsh judge, the disappointed lover. Rather he saw himself as the Christian pastor doing his duty, nobly, unselfishly, refusing her even whom he had loved the Bread of Life, because she was unworthy to partake of it.
    The home-made robe of martyrdom is by no means uncomfortable in rough weather. Wesley wrapped it around his shoulders now and it kept him snug; it kept warm his sense of righteous superiority.
    He had, like many another, set the seal of duty to the Lord upon an act of self-will. He had been as autocratic, ungenerous, and unjust as only the godly can be in such crises. He had done exactly what he wished to do—punished and humiliated a woman who had married another man; and he did it in the name of duty and God.

Fittingly, it is this act of ungodly spite, recognised by Savannah for exactly what it is, that seals John Wesley’s fate in Georgia:

Admitting the most notorious sinner on earth to the Lord’s Table—as Jesus himself had admitted the Magdalene—would not have offended any congregation as much as John Wesley’s repelling of the girl whose only sin was that she had married someone else offended the people of Christ Church Parish.

—though the surrounding circumstances degenerate from tragedy to farce soon enough, when William Williamson brings an action for defamation of character against John Wesley, on behalf of his wife, which sees the minister summoned before the magistrates, and bound over to appear during the next session. Upon hearing the news, much of Savannah laughs in anticipation of rare entertainment—particularly when Williamson responds to Wesley being granted bail by setting up a public advertisement:

    …forbidding any person or persons to take John Wesley out of the Province of Georgia, under penalty of one thousand pounds sterling, Mr Wesley being “guilty of divers notorious offences”.
    All Savannah thronged to look at it and read it, those who couldn’t read hearing it from the lips of those who could. “Di-vers no-to-ri-ous of-fen-ces!” repeated the populous, and smacked its lips. “Eh, sirs!”

By the time the proceedings open the list of grievances lodged against Wesley is “divers and notorious” indeed, although most of them have to do with the way he does things rather than what he does. An undignified air of public brawling surrounds the entire affair, with opinions being aired on every street corner, Wesley arguing that most of the charges made lie within the purview of an ecclesiastical, rather than a civil, court, and the magistrates uncertain of their own authority and the public will—particularly with James Oglethorpe away in England. The case brings to flashpoint many of the religious and cultural dissensions with which the fledgling colony is rife, and pits faction against faction; John Wesley’s guilt or innocence soon ceases to be the issue.

Finally, the only thing left for John Wesley to do is leave—to return to England—and this he does in spite of William Williamson’s continued threats of action should be break bail, or anybody help him do so. By this time Georgia is aching to see the last of “the Holy Club”; the magistrates’ attempts to detain the errant minister are an empty gesture indeed:

    If he elected now to return to his own stamping ground, should they say him nay? But…there was the Majesty of the Law. They had to make the gesture of upholding the Majesty of the Law! Hence the Notice in the Great Square.
    It is quite possible that if any citizen of Savannah had taken that Notice seriously enough to try to prevent Mr Wesley’s departure, the magistrates would have mobbed him and then kept him in jail for the term of his natural life.

It is only at the very last that Marie Conway Oemler removes her foot from the throat of John Wesley, alluding obliquely to great deeds that would sweep away the memory of the bitter disappointment and failures of his time in America. But though the final paragraphs of The Holy Lover hint at this future, they do so without losing sight of what – and who – John Wesley sacrificed to achieve it:

Never, no matter what great hour might lie ahead; never, no matter what high destiny, what great and holy mission God might have in store for him; never, never more to know such joy, such love, such ecstasy, such high tide of ardour, and emotion, and despair…

.

12/07/2015

The Beauty Of The British Alps

grimstone1bHer mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…

 

 

 

It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:

    If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the first hasty and unfinished draught was taken from me, without its having received the benefit of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
    Under these circumstances, as well as its being a first essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.

After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.

The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:

    As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the florid descriptions of the poet. His figure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of fire and softness, his finely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
    But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…

But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.

In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) opens in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.

The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…

Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.

Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.

The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.

But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…

The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.

To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, to where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:

“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”

Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:

    “I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
    The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…

What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont,  and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.

At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of Gunning’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.

And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.

The  narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:

Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…

And after indulging this choice for a time:

The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…

Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.

There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.

Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:

To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.

Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…

While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:

Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy , which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.

But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.

This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.

Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.

Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.

During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.

Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:

    “I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
    “I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
    “Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
    “You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
    “Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
    He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…

In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:

“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”

Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:

Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections  which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…

Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…

Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:

    “What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
    “Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
    “Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
    Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…

It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.

Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…

The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.

Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…

Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.

(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)

And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, Lord Egremont arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…

…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:

    “Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
    “Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
    “Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler  betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
    Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour  was thus recalled to her mind.
    “Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”

 

11/08/2013

The Amours Of Messalina

amoursofmessalina1…early the next Morning she receives the glad Tidings that a Man Child was born, which with all speed was convey’d to the Dormitory adjoining to her Bed-Chamber, in the same reeking Circumstances it was Born in, and having before taken care for the conducting of it to the Queens Bed, the Alarm is given at Alba Regalis that the Queen was in Labour… Now the pretended Prince being Born the Pagans of Albion began their Jubilee, Laroon Governor of Iberia began to double the persecution of the Christians there, Polydorus by a strict Alliance and LEAGUE with Lycogenes, thinks of nothing but a Universal Monarchy, Lycogenes doubles the Oppressions of his Christian Subjects, Messalina boasts of the downfall of Heresie, and a perpetual Regency, during her Life: The poor Christians, especially the Albionites, though something apprehensive of the Consequences of this Intrigue, were yet by their constant Remarques of all Transactions since the Report of Messalina’s Conception sufficiently satisfied of the fallacy and cheat, and resolv’d on measures which they doubted not would in a little time unravel the whole Mystery.

The political writing that had been so sternly suppressed under James II came roaring back with a vengeance following the Glorious Revolution. The public stance was that the removal of James was right and proper, but a need for justification showed itself in an explosion of revisionist histories published early in 1689, as well as in the return of the roman à clef.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this school of writing is how swiftly James became irrelevant once the idea of the “sham prince” had taken hold. Feared as a monarch, in the political writings of mid-1688 onwards he appears variously as a cuckold, a buffoon, and an object of pity. The kinder versions of events present him as tragically misguided, led astray by the wicked machinations of the Pope, Louis XIV and/or his own wife. And as James recedes in these writings, Mary of Modena takes centre-stage.

The virulence of some of the attacks made upon Mary at this time make for uncomfortable reading—particularly in light of the fact that the grounds of those attacks were pure invention, as the people making them were well aware. The invention of the sham prince not only allowed, but demanded, a retconning of events that turned Mary into a dangerous enemy willing to do anything to bring England to its knees under the dual yokes of France and Catholicism. Nevertheless, in these writings her alleged religious and political conspiracies almost invariably take a backseat to lurid imaginings of her sexual misconduct.

Early in 1689 was published a roman à clef that is typical of the kinds of attacks made upon the departed royals at the time, yet different in tone and execution from most of its brethren. As tends to be the case with this branch of writing, the origins of The Amours Of Messalina are somewhat murky. Though presented as by “a Woman of Quality, a late Confident of Queen Messalina”, it is believed to be the work of an Italian, Gregorio Leti, a Milanese historian who converted to Protestantism and became known for his anti-Catholic, and in particular anti-papal, views; his biography of Pope Sixtus V (who was largely responsible for shaping Catholic thinking on contraception and abortion) is considered inaccurate and scurrilous. Leti spent some time at the courts of both France and England, publishing the first biography of Elizabeth I during the latter period. However, in 1680 he managed to offend Charles II with his satirical publication Il Teatro Britannico and fled to Amsterdam, where he spent the rest of his life.

Amsterdam, as we have seen before, was the origin of many notorious publications of this era. It was also the centre for translated works that were from there dispersed across Europe, which made it particularly useful for those wishing to disguise the true origins of a particular work. Thus the English-language version of The Amours Of Messalina asserts that it was translated from the French, while the French-language version has it as translated from English.

(Whichever language it was first written in, the most outstanding feature of The Amours Of Messalina is its run-on sentences, which are as extreme as anything I’ve come across. See, for a typical example, the first quotation below.)

I have mentioned the peculiar tone of The Amours Of Messalina, which is easier to understand once the document’s authorship is considered. While it unblushingly asserts the truth of the “sham prince” accusations, and while it describes in detail the alleged sexual intrigue of Mary of Modena with Ferdinanda d’Adda, the papal nuncio, the whole story is presented from the perspective of Mary and her courtiers. As such, the imposition of a false Prince of Wales is treated as reasonable and, indeed, the only thing to be done under the circumstances. The villain here is not Mary, but the Pope (or “Boanerges the High Priest”, as he is called) and his minions, particularly the “Jebusites”. Mary, being Catholic, simply doesn’t know any better. The text deplores her influence upon James, but does not blame her.

For the most part the disguises worn by the characters in The Amours Of Messalina are exceedingly transparent. Albion (England) is peaceful and prosperous under Brotomandes (Charles II), but trouble starts when he dies and is succeeded by his brother, Lycogenes (James II), who was once a brave and noble prince, but is now nothing more than a tool in the hands of Boanerges and Polydorus, King of Gothland (Louis XIV). His marriage to Messalina is the beginning of the end: she has been sent to England on a mission to re-establish once and for all the Pagan religion (Catholicism), and to extirpate, along with all of its followers if necessary, the Christian faith (Protestantism):

He at last dying, without lawful issue, Lycogenes the Second, his only Brother, succeeded, a Prince who in his Youth and Adversity gave so signal proofs of his Virtue and Gallantry, that he render’d himself the Admiration of Foreign Countries, and the Delight and Love of his own, but (I know not by what unhappy Counsels thereunto incited) after his coming to the Crown of Albion, he committed so many Irregularities against even the Peace and Safety of his own People, that they were obliged to call in Anaximander, Prince of the Low Lands, to their assistance to defend their Lives, which they affirm’d Lycogenes had expos’d and sold to Polydorus King of the Gaules, and to recover their Rights and Liberties which, they say, their King had encroach’d upon and taken from them: Lycogenes had by his first Wife (who was Daughter to a Noble Peer of Albion) two lovely Princesses to his Daughters, the Eldest called Artemisia, Married to Anaximander, the other Philadelphia, Married to Polycrates the Northern Prince. His second Wife was Messalina, Daughter of a Huge Prince in Italy, and nearly related to Boanerges the High-Priest, a Lady sent by Heaven to determine the Fate of Poor Lycogenes, and to ruine the growing greatness of the Pagan Interest in the Kingdom of Albion.

It is, of course, true that the Pope persuaded Mary to accept James’s proposal of marriage. Then a devout fifteen-year-old, Mary wanted only to enter a convent, and recoiled from the thought of marriage in general, and the forty-year-old James in particular, but was finally convinced that her true duty was to assist with the re-establishment of Catholicism in England.

The passage quoted above comes at the outset of The Amours Of Messalina. After presenting this overview, the text then goes on to explain in detail how “Messalina” went about determining the fate of her husband and her religion. Note the use of the expression “Poor Lycogenes”: this is the attitude of the entire document, and indeed almost every reference to Lycogenes comes qualified with a pitying “Poor”.

While, as I say, most of the disguises in The Amours Of Messalina are easily seen through, I confess that I was deeply confused by the identities of two of Messalina’s co-conspirators, “Count Davila” and “Father Pedro”. In this I was somewhat led astray by our previous dip into the murky waters of political propagandising, The Sham Prince Expos’d. As we have discussed before, the attacks on James and Mary at this time were two-pronged, offering up the mutually exclusive yet equally damaging visions of the new Prince of Wales being either the result of Mary’s infidelity, or not actually Mary’s child at all, but a substitute. For those propagandists who favoured the first alternative, the overwhelming favourite for the role of Mary’s lover was – of course – Father d’Adda. However, there was a second favourite I have not been able to identify by name, who figures in The Sham Prince Expos’d simply as “the Italian Count”.

Consequently, when an Italian Count showed up in The Amours Of Messalina, I assumed it was the same person, with Father d’Adda figuring as “Father Pedro”. However, the key to the work (belatedly appended to the fourth part, along with the rather hurtful explanation that, The Bookseller has been Advised to Add the following Key, for the benefit of the meanest Capacity, in understanding the whole History of Messalina) reveals that “Count Davila” is supposed to be Father d’Adda, while “Father Pedro” is the Jesuit Peters—or rather, Sir Edward Petre, an English Jesuit who was appointed privy councillor under James.

 The Amours Of Messalina offers both versions of the baby’s origin. With “Poor Lycogenes” in declining health, syphilitic and impotent, the worried conclave sees its chance of propagating Paganism in Albion slipping away. It is finally agreed that their only hope is for Messalina to bear a son, in conjunction with herself being named Regent in the event of Lycogenes’ death. Since Lycogenes himself is unable to father a child, the conspirators must decide whether it is best for Mary to bear a child fathered by another man, or whether, in order to ensure that the baby is a boy, they should fake a pregnancy and supply a substitute prince. Messalina decides to do both: she will take on the task of falling pregnant, while her conspirators make the arrangements for faking a birth, should it prove necessary.

And having made this decision, Messalina throws herself into her task with great enthusiasm:

The Queen who by the several remonstrances of her three Counsellors had been both press’d and convinc’d of the danger of her Affairs, and being partly overcome by the Solicitations and Endearments of the Count in particular, resolv’d now to give a loose to her natural inclinations, and thereupon turning to the Count, in a soft languishing Tone she reply’d, I must at length, dear Davila, confess my own Frailty and thy Power, my haughty mind I see at last will stoop, and thou art Born to be my Conqueror… Raising the Count, who at every Word was pressing and kissing her fair Hand, she threw her Arms about his Neck, and in Amorous Sighs and Murmurs she Whisper’d her Wishes in his Ears…

But Messalina does not conceive with Davila any more than she did with Lycogenes, and at last it is realised that the substitution must go ahead. Several young pregnant women, all due to give birth around the same time, are kept in seclusion, while Messalina goes through the motions of pregnancy, fretting over the possibility of a miscarriage and giving voice to her hopes and fears, but not letting anyone – particularly not the deeply suspicious Philadelphia – get too close to her or touch her.

The Pagans of Albion are enlisted to lend the strength of their prayers to the task of producing a Catholic Prince of Wales:

…as a Prologue to their intended Villainy, they give out, among their own Party, at least, the necessity of Unity in their Prayers to their Saints and the Deity, to send their Majesty an Heir to succeed him in his Throne and Dominions, and to settle their Holy Religion in this Heretical Land, they cause Processions and Pilgrimages, Offerings and Supplications, to be made… Such are the practices of the Pagan Religion, that the greatest Villainies and Rogueries they intend to commit are still preceded and usher’d in with great appearances of Sanctity…

The confidence expressed beforehand by Catholics and Tories that Mary’s baby would be a boy played right into the hands of their opponents, who made this apparent prior knowledge the basis of their conspiracy theories about the child’s origins. Here, of course, everyone is quite right to be suspicious; the confusion of Mary’s due date, which gave her enemies more ammunition, is also referenced:

Besides, the Confidence of the Pagan Party did strangely startle the People, when like Oracles they would affirm that of necessity it must be a Prince: These and many other material circumstances made the Albionites talk broadly of the business; nor were Lycogenes and Messalina ignorant of their Sentiments; however having the Power absolutely in their hands, they were resolved to cut that knot which they found impossible to untie, and since they had thus far advanced in a business of that importance, they resolv’d to go through and bring it about, though with a thousand absurdities and incoherencies; for besides the alteration of her Reckoning, which proceeded partly from a fear of disappointment if the Woman that came first should have brought forth a Girl, but chiefly to amuse the Nobility and Gentry of the Court and Kingdom, who would doubtless have made it their business in behalf of the Princess Artemesia and the Kingdom, to attend and watch that all things might have been carryed fairly and above board…

In April of 1688, seven bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury were arrested and charged with seditious libel after publishing their petition against James’ religious policies as a broadsheet; their subsequent acquittal was a huge blow to James and indicative of his increasingly shaky standing. In The Amours Of Messalina, however, the arrest of the bishops is all part of the plot:

Lycogenes was unluckily put in mind that by the Laws of Albion the presence of one or more of the Christian Prelates was to be at the Birth of every Royal Infant indispensably required; to resolve this difficulty a Council is immediately call’d, and after sundry debates it is concluded, that some way or other must be found to bring all or most of the dissenting part into a premunire, and so by aggravation either to endanger their lives, or at least to clap them up and secure them till the Queens Delivery; accordingly a flaw was immediately found and the Prelates forthwith confin’d…

There is indeed a false alarm when the first young woman gives birth to a girl, but with the second a sham prince is at the conspirators’ disposal, and Messalina “goes into labour”. Of this plot, if not the former, Lycogenes is fully cognisant, and plays his part by drawing away many of the courtiers who might otherwise insist on being present at “the birth”. A special, oversized, velvet-lined warming-pan has been devised for the transportation of the infant, which is smuggled into Messalina’s bed and subsequently produced in triumph.

Now feeling secure, Lycogenes begins to grant more and more privileges to the Pagans, even breaking the laws of Albion to do so. Torn between their duty to their country and their religion on one hand, and  to their king on the other, the Christians finally decide to petition Anaximander…

The Amours Of Messalina puts a spin on all the events that led up to the Glorious Revolution, presenting all the unsupported accusations made against James and Mary as based on fact and their removal as therefore right and proper. So intent is it upon its revisionism, it even manages the not inconsiderable task of being unjust to Judge George Jeffreys, then Lord Chancellor. As James pursued his increasingly open pro-Catholic policy, there was a growing fear amongst the English people that he might bring in French troops to enforce his position, particularly in light of the angry response of the army to Catholic military appointments. The Amours Of Messalina raises this particular spectre, but blunders by putting the prospect into the mouth of “Poliorcetes the Chancellor”, who also longs for the chance to assist the spread of Paganism by slaughtering more Christians. In spite of all his dirty work for James, Jeffreys was a staunch Protestant:  amusingly, the text manages to hit upon two things he would not have been guilty of, whatever his other excesses. (Mentions of Poliorcetes’ love of “fire and sword”, and a satirical reference to him as “the chief Judge of Conscience”, hit closer to the mark.)

Also amusing is that Monmouth appears at this point as “Perkin”. As we saw in the context of The Sham Prince Expos’d, Perkin Warbeck was a pretender to the throne of Henry VII. Finally admitting (albeit under torture) that he was an imposter, he was condemned and executed. Subsequently, “Perkin Warbeck”, or simply “Perkin”, became slang for any kind of audacious imposture; understandably, the term swiftly found its way into the armoury of those opposed to James. In particular, it became a favourite word with the future Queen Anne, who bought with great enthusiasm into the “sham prince” fantasy and never allowed that James Francis Edward was any blood relative of hers. Finding the expression put into the mouths of the “Pagans” and applied to Monmouth’s pretensions to the throne gives us a very good idea of Gregorio Leti’s opinion of him.

William of Orange, on the other hand, is everything that is noble and disinterested, desiring only to defend his faith and his wife’s interests:

When they plainly saw, their Own, and the Kingdoms Interest, resolved to be made a Sacrifice to the Ambition, and Covetousness of a small Party, that by the known Laws of the Land, were declared the irreconcileable Enemies of the Christians; they thought it then high time to look about them, and though they paid all the Reverence imaginable to the King, their Father; yet they could not resolve to yield their Rights and Inheritance, and hold precariously their Estates, at the Discretion of an Anti-Christian pack’d Councel… Anaximander, being a Prince of a Vast and Generous Spirit, was easily induc’d to condescend to their Relief; for, besides his proper Interest in the Crown of Albion, which by the common Principles of Nature, he was obliged to Maintain and Defend; he often would resolve on the Glory of the Action, and how Heroick and God-like it would shew, to appear the Great and Glorious Champion of the Christian Religion, which by a Secret League, between Polydorus King of the Gauls, and the King Lycogenes, was resolved to be wholly Extirpated…

In growing panic, the Pagans send their agents out amongst the people to try and win support for Lycogenes and to turn them against Anaximander, but to no avail:

And Father Pedro calling a convocation of his inferior Priests, makes them Dis-robe, and in disguise to mingle among the Christian Assemblies…and there with Confidence to utter false Reports, to lessen the Strength of Anaximander, to cry up the miseries of a Civil War, to Extol the Loyalty of the King’s Christian Subjects, to make comparison between young Perkin’s Expedition and this… Renegade Christian Divines, were ordered to Preach up the necessity of Obedience and Loyalty, to withstand the Prince in his Attempts, and to brand his Expedition with the horrible Title of Invasion. These, and many other Arts were used to take off the Edge of Anaximander’s Sword; sometimes they’d Brand His Royal Person with base and ignominious Names; other times they would think to terrifie the Rebels (as they would call all that would assist him) with the Exemplary Punishments, inflicted by the Chancellor Poliorcetes, in his bloody Western Campaign: But all would not do, the Christians knew the Pagan Punick Faith, as well as Inhumane Cruelty, they saw their Laws, their Liberties, and Lives at Stake; and that now was the only time to assert and recover them…

The Amours Of Messalina sticks briefly with the facts at this point, as Lycogenes vacillates over his response to Anaximander’s approach, trying to gauge how much support the venture is likely to find amongst the Albionites and who, if anyone, he can rely upon; while the narrative becomes openly pitying, lamenting James’ fall, his many mistakes, and ignominious retreat—but placing the blame elsewhere:

And now the Thread of Poor Lycogenes his Fate began to crack, now he could plainly see the errours of his Government, and when it was unhappily too late, might Curse the base designs of his pernicious Counsellors: now he was forc’d to stoop that Glorious Lofty Heart, which dauntless heretofore had braved the mightiest force of Europe. How was he chang’d, alas, from that brave Invincible Lycogenes, that did through Clouds of Smoake and Fire, Charge through the Belgian Fleet, and with fresh Lawrels Crown’d, return’d in Triumph to his joyfull Country: now every little Western breeze that heretofore did serve to blow and kindle up his flaming Courage, like some cold Pestilential air damps his Misgiving Soul; now Poor, forsaken of himself he stands, Conscience alone of Ills past done remains his tiresome guest: Attend ye cursed race of wicked Jebusites, see the Prodigious effects of your Pernicious Councels, ye Cloggs to Crowns, and bane of Power.

But on the back of this the narrative effectively dismisses Lycogenes, instead following Messalina to the court of Polydorus, who no sooner lays eyes upon her than he determines upon making her his mistress. Messalina sees this at once and, for that matter, has every intent of satisfying his desires and her own; although she strings Polydorus along for a time first, making a great show of her honour and chastity. At this point the whole exercise degenerates into a farcical bit of amatory writing, with Polydorus sleeping with the baby’s nurse by mistake before he and Messalina finally begin their affair, and with Messalina simultaneously pursued by the Dauphin. It was a common slander that Mary of Modena was (or became) the mistress of Louis XIV, but even so these ribald sexual manoeuvrings make for a peculiar conclusion.

27/10/2010

The Floating Island

Or, to give it its full title: The Floating Island; or, A new discovery relating the strange adventure on a late voyage from Lambethana to Villa Franca, alias Ramallia, to the eastward of Terra del Templo, by three ships, viz., the Pay-naught, the Excuse, the Least-in-sight, under the conduct of Captain Robert Owe-much, describing the nature of the inhabitants, their religion, laws and customs. Published by Franck Careless, one of the discoverers.

The longevity of satire is by its nature often dependent upon the identity and/or scope of its target. Attacks upon nations and rulers may be understandable decades, even centuries, afterwards; while the more specific a reference to a certain time and a certain place, the more likely it is that a particular work will be of relevance only to that time and place. Thus, while at this distance I was able to grasp a number (although certainly not all!) of the concerns that prompted Henry Neville to write The Isle Of Pines, a perusal of Richard Head’s 1673 pamphlet The Floating Island left me largely baffled. It was certainly set in London, despite its promise of voyages to fabulous lands, and it was certainly satirising something – but what?

Fortunately, help was at hand – a surprising amount of it, actually. I am indebted to the writings of Matthew Steggle (from Notes And Queries) and Nigel Strick (from Social History and the British Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies) for being able to shake a meaning from this faux-travelogue.

The Floating Island, as its extended title indicates, is supposedly an account of a voyage of discovery; although the names of the intrepid explorers and their vessels makes it clear that this is anything other than a serious scientific report. We hear at the outset that, A Council was held of Indigent persons, and such who were both Indebted and Insolvent; these individuals (failed tradesmen, as it turns out) meet to consider, What course might be most expedient, for the present relief, and future prevention of such insufferable mischiefs, which dayly threatened the utter ruine of the poor and distressed Society, called the Owe-much, or Bankrupt. The decision is to mount an expedition to distant shores, seeking new territories to colonise well away from the terrible laws of their own country, where the explorers live in imminent risk of, A dreadful Judgment, and irremediless cruel Execution. Setting out, the voyagers discover a number of exotic new lands – which, according to his or her knowledge of geography, history and literature, the contemporary reader may recognise as various regions and landmarks in London, their names twisted and Latinised. Meanwhile, the costumes and customs of the inhabitants of these strange realms are reported with mock solemnity by our narrator, Captain Owe-Much.

We have already touched upon Richard Head’s life-long battle with gambling and debt, and there’s a nice irony about him using his own difficulties as the basis of an effort to earn a little money via the publication of his pamphlet. However, the purpose of The Floating Island goes far beyond one man’s financial woes, and into an area about which I previously knew very little. Nigel Strick’s papers discuss not only the bizarrely counterintuitive English debtors’ laws (with which anyone who has done any 18th- or 19th-century reading would certainly be familiar), but the co-existence of debtors’ sanctuaries, areas within or near London to which those in debt could flee and live in relative security.

The medieval church had upheld the custom of sanctuary within London, but following the Reformation these traditional areas of protection were progressively undone. Nevertheless, certain regions around London, particularly those on which church buildings had previously stood, such as Whitefriars and the Minories, remained accepted as sanctuaries under common law well into the 17th century; and although protection for criminals ceased to be recognised, protection for debtors remained de facto even after technically outlawed.

The largest and most notorious of these sanctuaries was the Mint, a region in Southwark whose protective properties stemmed from a strangely mixed history that gave it some solid basis for its rejection the jurisdictional laws of the City of London. Its residents, the “Minters”, implemented their own laws and processes, claiming that their protection was only offered to the insolvent and bankrupt, and was exerted to allow those individuals an opportunity to pay their debts, as indefinite imprisonment under the actual laws did not. However, while the Minters certainly made their territory a place that any bailiff would enter at his peril, too often the “protection” turned violent – and far too often serious criminals were also given shelter. These breaches of the tacit agreement between the outside powers and the Minters gave parliament the weapon it needed, and the Mint, the last of London’s sanctuaries, was legally dismantled in 1723.

The Mint features in several well-known literary works, particularly the writings of Daniel Defoe. Despite his own financial woes, Defoe does not seem to have claimed sanctuary himself – but his characters do. It is within the Mint that his Moll takes the name “Mrs Flanders”, while for Roxana the prospect of ending up there was one to be dreaded. Fifty years earlier, however, when Richard Head was writing, the Mint was only one of several sanctuaries in which those in debt could hide from the threat of prison. The “journey” of Captain Owe-much and his crew, then, is in and out of these areas, with the men zig-zagging between these “territories”, where they are made welcome and feel safe amongst the inhabitants, and venturing out into dangerous new realms, such as the Fleta, or that ruled by the terrible King of Marshelsia, where danger and destruction lurk at every turn.

While we can (with expert help) make sense of the bulk of Head’s writing, the purpose of the object to which his pamphlet owes its name is less evident. The “floating island” encountered by Owe-much and his men, Called the Summer Island, or Scoti Moria, is situated in the middle of Golpho de Thame-Isis: the Christian-shore lying to the Norward, and the Turkish-shore to the Southward. This strange land mass appears only in the warmer months, when it becomes the site of a mysterious female ritual, its only means of ingress being, For the more convenient reception of the Christian and Barbarian Amazons, who in the Summer time constantly repair thither, to meet with their Bully-Huffs and Hectors to generate withall. Owe-much makes the acquaintance of one of the “Christian Amazons”, who turns out to be a native of Westmonasteria, a region that, Lyeth to the Westward of Pallatium Regale, which place is too splendent for common eyes to behold, and too virtuous for vulgar breath to prophane. An extended satire on the less-than-virtuous habits of the “Westmonasterians” follows.

Matthew Steggle points out in his article that the emphemeral floating island, which travelled across or even above the surface of the sea, was a potent symbol in these troubled and uncertain times, and had been throughout the 17th century. In 1636, a play called The Floating Island: A Tragi-Comedy, by William Strode, was performed at Oxford University by the students of Christchurch for Charles I and Henrietta Maria; the play was finally published in 1655. Various other works make use of this symbol, which became particularly popular in the period following the financial disaster known as “the South Sea Bubble”. Evidently, none of the emblematic potency of this idea was lost over the succeeding 150 years: Jules Verne eventually used it as the basis for his satire of “the Gilded Age”, The Floating Island: The Pearl Of The Pacific, published in 1895.

Steggle points out a few other things about The Floating Island, too – one of which probably tells us everything about its author that we need to know: namely, that significant portions of it were plagiarised. The source of these passages, which Richard Head barely bothered to alter, was a collection of essays called The Art Of Thriving, published by Thomas Powell in 1636, and in particular the 1623 tract, The Mysterie of Lending and Borrowing. There, we hear of an expedition undertaken by one “Oliver Owe-Much”. Oliver’s ships carry exactly the same designations as his descendant’s do, but he does journey from Ram Alley to Lambeth, instead of the other way around.

It seems that in some academic circles, Head’s plagiarisms are too well-known to attract much attention, or even criticism: the tone of Steggle’s paper is more resigned than outraged; and he moves on to make a cogent point about Head’s “borrowing”, the fact that in spite of England having suffered the upheaval of the execution of a king, a civil war, a Protectorate and the Restoration, the pinched passages, dealing with the unhappy lives of debtors and their necessary manoeuvrings, were still just as valid in 1673 as they were in 1623 – as indeed was London’s geography, even after the Great Fire, a reference to which is almost Head’s only updating of his stolen material.

The Floating Island, like much of the financially desperate writing of the time, is a strange hodge-podge of content, sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling, sometimes crude, sometimes pointless – and then it just stops. I was, I confess, amused to find within it several versions of that eternal legal joke, Who’s to blame? – “…whereupon Jasper had like to have slain Theophilus, which when Edward espied, he made it appear to both Luke and to Francis, that Rowland was the cause of the falling out…” However, I see no reason – no inherent reason – why this should be the one amongst all Richard Head’s pamphlets to be reprinted and propagated (and made available as a free eBook*); but then it isn’t about inherent reasons, is it? I know little more about this than I do about “Lambethana” and “Ramallia”, but my understanding is that, mystifyingly enough, Captain Robert Owe-much is one of the minor players in the world of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where he is celebrated for his discovery of Scoti Moria. I can only suppose that Alan Moore’s research, while impressive, didn’t go far enough to unearth the tales of Robert’s ancestor, Oliver, to whom Robert himself owed so much.

[*For which I’m actually very grateful. Part of my irritation with Sony was that, as with the delay over kicking off the blog properly by refusing to move on from The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, I’d made up my mind that my eReader’s baptism was going to be The Floating Island and was too stubborn to just read it in PDF instead while I was waiting. Besides…the thought of using this piece of 21st century technology to read an obscure pamphlet from 1673 made my brain melt in the nicest way.]