Archive for ‘Authors In Depth’

17/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 3)

ladylisle3b    “I tell you,” cried Olivia, her voice vibrating, clear and loud, through the lofty room—“I tell you that I know all about the base and wicked plot that has been carried out by that vile tool, and I know your infamous share in it, Major Varney. Why, look at him!” she cried, with passionate vehemence, pointing to her husband as she spoke—“look at him, as he sits there in his stupid drunkenness—more brutal than the oxen that sleep in his fields—lower than the lowest brute in his stables. Good heavens! what a pitiful dupe I must have been to have been deceived by such a thing as that!”
    The Major quietly took the key from the lock of the door, and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket; then, advancing to Lady Lisle, he tried to take her hands into his.
    “Lady Lisle,” he said, “listen to me.”
    She snatched her hand indignantly from him.
    “Lady Lisle!” she cried. “Hypocrite, plotter, trickster, cheat! how dare you call me by that false and lying name! which has never—no, never, not for one hour been my own. O, fool, fool, fool!” she moaned, her rage and scorn changing to a tone of anguish. “Fool, to sell my soul for pomp and grandeur, to sacrifice an earnest and noble heart, for what—for what? For an imposter, whose name is a lie, and who fattens upon the wealth of another man.”

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The implied past relationship between Olivia Marmaduke and Walter Remorden and the sins of the former are interestingly handled by Braddon, and in a way that does her heroine no favours. At this point she chooses to leave matters just as they stand and Olivia without excuse, as she commits just about the worst sin that a novel-heroine of her class and position can commit, jilting a good poor man for a bad rich man in an openly declared mercenary marriage. It is not for some time that we get the rest of the story: that there was indeed an exchange of promises between Olivia and Walter Remorden, just before he left to take up his curacy, and when she was barely seventeen; an exchange kept secret from Colonel Marmaduke. Because of that, and because, perhaps, of an imperfect knowledge of the girl to whom he had plighted himself, Walter made no attempt during the following two years to contact Olivia, not a visit, not a letter, not a message; while she, growing into young womanhood amidst loneliness and poverty, was left to eat her heart out—and then to harden her heart.

The wedding goes off as planned, despite Sir Rupert’s fears, and a splendid wedding it is—on externals. The bride and groom depart on their honeymoon, while those remaining for the night at Lislewood—even Mrs Walsingham—find the atmosphere much improved by the absence of the master of the house. The Major, who, after a serious conference between himself and Sir Rupert the night before, which ended with the baronet’s signing of his name to a certain document, seems to have let go of his objections to the marriage, and is in a genial mood:

    “How well Lady Lisle looked this morning!” said the Major.
    Mrs Walsingham started at the mention of the name which had once been her own. Olivia’s four sisters felt a simultaneous thrill of envy at the sound. Lady Lisle! Yes, it was really true—she was indeed Lady Lisle!

The narrative of Lady Lisle then follows Walter Remorden to his new curacy in Yorkshire, where he tries to bury the past in hard work and good service. Mr Hayward, the minister, is new to Belminster, replacing a lazy old man who neglected his duties, and consequently has much lost ground to make up: work in which his energetic, devoted young curate is invaluable to him.

Though only a minor character, Mr Hayward is entirely typical of his author who, as we have seen before in her novels, had nothing but scorn for polite hypocrisy and platitudes, and who herself knew only too well what it was like to be poor (a fact which shows itself in her sympathetic attitude towards Olivia). When she diverts into a description of how Mr Hayward goes about his work, we suddenly hear the voice that Braddon usually kept for her working-class readers:

He reprobated the vices of his people; but he took care to show them how they might be amended. He was not afraid of sin; he never shuddered at its aspect; but he hunted it down, and hand to hand with it struggled and conquered… Mr Hayward never tried to beguile grown men and woman with pretty lollipop sayings that nobody ever yet believed in. He did not tell wretched creatures living in stifling hovels, to which the pure air never penetrated, that it was a pleasant thing to be poor and comfortless, and that if they were only good they would be sure to be happy. No; he told them that they must not be contented with dirt and filth, but that they must cover over drains and break open blocked-up windows, and scrub, scour, whitewash and purify… And when all was done, and the house cleansed, and the eldest girl rescued from the wretched streets…when the little ones were in the National School, and the father had succeeded in getting a job at his own trade; then the rector set to work to teach these people how to be good Christians…

The rector’s right-hand person in all his efforts is his daughter, Blanche, who is not a pretty girl, but whose intelligence, good-humour and compassion win her wide popularity. Blanche is as tireless as her father in her labours, and also tirelessly friendly and interested in people. She takes an immediate liking to her father’s new curate who, she is quick to see, has something preying on his spirits, for all his focus and dedication. For his part, Walter finds Blanche invaluable as a companion, a friend, and a workmate. Further than that his thoughts and feelings do not carry him, whatever hers might be doing…

One day Mr Hayward consults with Walter and Blanche about a problem that has been presented to him, regarding a young man, a pupil at the local school, who was placed there more than twelve years earlier by a man who said he was the boy’s uncle, and who wanted him (he said) kept in the country for his health as well as his education, the boy having just gotten over a serious illness. After placing him at the school, the uncle paid his nephew’s fees with perfect regularity, though making only brief and infrequent visits to see him; but no new remittance has been received for some eighteen months, nor can the uncle be found. Richard Saunders is now twenty-two, and what is to be done with him?

In answer to Blanche’s eager questions, Mr Hayward explains that the young man seems to know nothing that can help them: his uncle is his only known relative, and his memory of his childhood is erratic due, it is supposed, to his long illness. He even gets frightened and upset when anyone asks him to recall the time before his illness; though, Mr Hayward assures Walter, his intellect is in no way impaired.

It is Blanche who comes up with a practical answer to the situation: getting new National Schools built is one of Mr Hayward’s pet projects, and schools need schoolmasters. With Hayward’s approval, Walter agrees to meet the young man, and sound him out about this prospect.

Richard Saunders is a fair, pale young man, so nervous and inarticulate that Walter begins to doubt the assertions about his intellect; but as he overcomes his shyness, he shows himself as he has been represented. The young man is delighted and grateful for the offer of a position at the new school, particularly as it will enable him to repay the generosity of Mr Daunton, who kindly kept him on at his own school as a boarder of sorts, despite the ceasing of his fee-payments.

A great collector of lame ducks, Blanche adopts Richard as a special project; and while she has no more success than anyone else in getting him to talk about his childhood, she does get at the reason why he won’t talk:

    “No, no, no,” cried the young man, with the same look of terror that Walter Remorden had seen in his face the day before; “no, I remember nothing of that time. My thoughts and fancies about that time are nothing more than delusions; nothing but delusions—nothing!”
    “But, Mr Saunders,” urged Blanche, her curiosity more and more excited by the young man’s strange manner, “but these these delusions, what are they?”
    “Do not ask me!” he exclaimed. “I have taken a solemn oath never to speak of them to any human being.”
    “An oath? But to whom?”
    “To my uncle George. He told me that my only chance of being saved from becoming a madman was to resolve never to speak of those things again.”

In time, Blanche’s kindness, sympathy and support have the inevitable effect upon Richard, who falls very deeply in love with her—but, as she assures him as gently as she can, hopelessly. When Walter walks into this unhappy scene, he decides to tell his own story, by way of illustrating that although it might seem like it now, this need not be the end of the world. It is during the following conversation that we learn what exactly went on between Walter and Olivia—of course, from his point of view—but still, the period of separation and silence, measuring almost three years, is revealed. It is already evident that Blanche is suffering unrequited love for Walter, as Richard is for her, and her indignation on his behalf is boundless. Walter’s response contains both an indication that he is aware of her feelings, and a tacit apology that he cannot return them.

As Walter concludes his sad story, dwelling not upon his own situation, but Olivia’s, there is a sudden cry from Richard:

    …he started from his seat, and, ghastly pale in the dusk, cried, in wild and terrified accents,—
    “Sir Rupert Lisle! Are you mad, as well as I? It is the very name—the very name—which I have neither heard nor spoken for twelve long years.”
    “What do you mean, Richard?” exclaimed Blanche Hayward, almost alarmed for the young man’s sanity.
    “I mean that when I was a child I had a dangerous fever which made me mad, and my madness was to fancy myself Sir Rupert Lisle!”

And what of Sir Rupert Lisle?—or at least, “Sir Rupert Lisle”?

Sir Rupert and Lady Lisle are away six months, travelling through Europe; and, well, if Olivia has sinned, she has her full measure of punishment in being known everywhere as the wife of a bad-tempered, petulant, drunken boor. Fortunately (at least from one perspective), Olivia’s contempt for her husband has reached such proportions it acts as a kind of armour: she so far beyond caring what he is or what he does that she does not feel his behaviour as otherwise she might.

When the newlyweds return to Lislewood, they find Mrs Walsingham on the verge of departure. She has made up her mind that it will not be fitting for her to go on living in her son’s house now that it has a new mistress. She has also taken a strong dislike to Olivia, whose worst side she has certainly seen glaringly emphasised; although whether she can admit it to herself, the thought of being separated from her son has quite as much to do with her decision. But an unexpected scene makes her alter her plans somewhat: when she grasps the significance of Mrs Walsingham’s baggage, the previously cold and detached Olivia breaks down into a storm of tears, begging her mother-in-law not to leave her. Startled and touched, Mrs Walsingham compromises, removing from the house but only so far as the village, to the house she shared with her aunt when she was Miss Claribel Merton, which she still owns.

Olivia’s life then takes on a strange, divided quality. She spends her husband’s money without stint, devising a series of lavish entertainments and filling the house with a constant stream of people; while any spare time on her hands is devoted to the welfare of Lislewood’s tenants. What she won’t do is sit still. During this time a tacit truce is called between Olivia and Major Varney, who quietly makes himself useful to her in all sorts of ways, and manages to lull the suspicions which Olivia conceived about him upon their first acquaintance.

But a deeply ugly incident is about to tear the mask from more person than one…

Olivia is riding home one day when she is witness to a confrontation between Lislewood’s lodge-keeper and a woman in a state of extreme distress. The lodge-keeper explains that Sir Rupert has already refused to see the woman, and that he has been trying to send her away as ordered, but she won’t go—even though Sir Rupert has threatened to have her arrested.

Seeing something more in this than a simple request for charity, Olivia takes the woman under her own protection. Getting a straight story out of her is almost impossible, though between tears and excuses the woman finally reveals herself as Rachel Arnold. Olivia knows well the story of Sir Rupert and Gilbert Arnold, but is inclined to believe the hysterical woman when she swears she knew nothing of her husband’s plot. Mrs Arnold further explains that, once they arrived in America, Arnold abandoned her; she subsequently found work as a servant and scraped together enough money for a passage home. Now she asks only for enough to live upon, which she seems to feel that Sir Rupert owes her for reasons that Olivia can’t quite get at…

A puzzled Olivia takes the direct route of leading Mrs Arnold to Sir Rupert, who is playing billiards with Major Varney and several other guests. The effect of Mrs Arnold’s appearance is electric: instantly the baronet flies into a violent rage, cursing her and Olivia before committing an act that horrifies the involuntary witnesses to this scene:

The poor creature, still kneeling on the ground and clinging to his hand, lifted up her face in supplication as she spoke. In a mad fury the Baronet, with his disengaged fist, struck the wretched woman full in the face; so violently, that the blood trickled fast from a cut across her upper lip…

And well as he he knows the baronet—better, indeed, than anyone else—even Major Varney is shocked by this; so very shocked, he is provoked into showing a side of himself usually carefully concealed:

…he caught Sir Rupert Lisle by the collar of his coat and flung him violently against the wall of the room. “You ruffian!” he cried, “you mean pitiful hound! you contemptible villain! without one redeeming touch of common humanity! I swear to you that, if I had known what you really are, you might have rotted piecemeal in the garret where I found you before I would have soiled my hands by lifting a finger of them to help you. I don’t believe in all Newgate there is a wretch who would have done what you did just at this moment. Dog! I loathe and detest you! and hate myself for being mixed up with you!”

But we should not be misled by this into sympathy for Major Varney who, when he cools down, and sees the comfortable and lucrative nest he has been at such pains to acquire for himself and his wife threatened, will reveal himself every bit as vile and contemptible as Sir Rupert. His methods are merely less crude.

Olivia has Mrs Arnold carried to a room and arranges medical attendance for her—and she needs it. The physical and emotional scene with Sir Rupert, coming on top of exhaustion and even starvation, reduces her to a pitiful condition of suffering. The doctor—who knew her when she was the abused wife of Gilbert Arnold—tells Olivia there is little hope.

Sir Rupert seems eager to make what amends he can for his actions, not opposing Mrs Arnold’s residence under his roof, and constantly inquiring after her health. He seems particularly interested in what she talks about… The one thing he won’t do is see her himself, despite her entreaties.

At this time the baronet finds himself back in his old position of being wholly reliant upon Major Varney—and wholly in fear of him. All his old habits, his tendency to check with the Major before he speaks or acts, re-emerge. And it is to the Major he turns for advice about the sick woman:

    “What can I do?” he said. “She’s always worrying,—sending sickly romantic messages about wanting to be forgiven, and all such foolery. And what do I care about seeing her, you know?” he whined, in his peevish treble voice.
    “Very little, I should think, Sir Rupert,” replied the Major. “I can see the glitter of that superb sapphire ring upon your right hand at this moment. I’ve heard you say that you gave a hundred and twenty napoleons for that sapphire in the Rue de la Paix, and it was the ring that cut Rachel Arnold so severely over the mouth. No, I should think you would scarcely care about seeing your—your old servant.”
    “I’ll tell you what,” muttered Sir Rupert, “I think you might keep your tongue between your teeth. You’ve made a good thing out of it…”
    “As to what I get out of you, or what I may intend to get out of you in time to come,” said the Major, looking full at Sir Rupert, “that is of very little moment. But remember, that I have got that out of you which makes you as much my slave as if I had bought you for so many dollars in the Southern States of America; as much my dog as if I had paid a dog-fancier for you, and had you chained and padlocked in my kennel.”

Major Varney makes it his business to visit Mrs Arnold, who recoils in terror at the sight of him, and learns from the weary, disinterested servant-girl assigned to attend her that she is much given to wild, rambling talk about her son. The Major then requests a consultation with the doctor, who emerges from it agreeing that there should be no difficulty acquiring the necessary certificate…

One day, however, Mrs Arnold’s talk takes another direction: she demands to see Lady Lisle, even going to the length of threatening the maid with a knife when she cannot immediately get her way. Betsy Jane flees the room in terror and does as she is bid, but Mrs Arnold repudiates her visitor, demanding the other Lady Lisle. Olivia explains to her that Mrs Walsingham is away from her home in the village for a few days, which causes Mrs Arnold to cry out in despair, afraid that she may die before she can unburden herself. Olivia offers to hear the woman’s confession, but this only distresses Mrs Arnold even more: she sobs that Olivia has been injured too, and could never forgive her.

Finally Mrs Arnold agrees to tell her secret. Olivia sends Betsy Jane away, and listens to an incredible story…

Mrs Arnold chose her moment well: Olivia was alone in the house, Major Varney and Sir Rupert having gone out for the day; it is hardly to be supposed that she would have been permitted a private interview with the sick woman otherwise. When the men return, Sir Rupert is drunk; nothing unusual these days. He turns on Olivia:

    “Curse her for a kill-joy; what do I want with her white face and great black eyes, and her grand airs? I’ll teach her to treat me to her airs. I’ll make her know who I am, d–n her!”
    So vile a coward was he on ordinary occasions, that the factitious audacity engendered of strong drink was a surprise to himself. He felt proud of his own temerity, and he slapped his hand upon his thigh with a triumphant gesture as he looked about him.
    Lady Lisle rose from her low chair and walked straight over to the young man.
    “Suppose I do know who you are!” she said, standing before him, and looking down at his face with an expression of unutterable disgust.

Sir Rupert does not immediately grasp her meaning, but Major Varney does. He quickly intervenes, trying to scoff away the implication, to convince her that she has been listening to an hysterical, deluded woman and has become deluded herself, but Olivia is having none of it. Major Varney then turns judicial, forcing Olivia to admit that she has no proof of what she asserts:

    “You say that our friend there is not the real Baronet, and that the actual Sir Rupert Lisle is now living. May I ask where?”
    “I cannot tell you?”
    “I thought not,” murmured the Major. “It is not in your power to produce him, and it is not likely to be in your power to produce him, eh?”
    “I fear not.”
    “Good. And pray may I ask when Mrs Rachel Arnold last saw him alive?”
    “When he was removed from the hospital, upwards of fifteen years ago.”
    “Fifteen years!” repeated Major Varney; “a long time, my dear Lady Lisle. And on the strength of the ravings of a woman who has been pronounced by her medical attendant to be out of her mind and without any other proof whatsoever, you would charge your husband as an imposter. We are not afraid of you, Lady Lisle, for our position rests upon substantial proof, and if you choose to bring forward the witness of a madwoman, we can show the evidence of that madwoman’s husband, in the shape of the formal deposition made by Gilbert Arnold, and duly signed by him, in the presence of the Baronet’s lawyers.
    “Heaven help me!” cried Olivia, clasping her hands together passionately; “my instinct tells me that the woman has spoken the truth.”
    “Your instinct would go very little way towards the support of your case in a court of law, my dear Lady Lisle,” said the Major. “We are not afraid of you, are we, my Rupert? We are not afraid of you, or of Mrs Arnold either; indeed, there is only one person whom Sir Rupert Lisle need fear, and that is Major Granville Varney.”

And it is he who Olivia also needs to fear, as he makes brutally clear to her. Olivia is a witness to the terrified Mrs Arnold’s forcible removal to the County Lunatic Asylum, with the Major warning her that a similar fate might be arranged for her, if she isn’t very careful…

This is clearly a favourite tactic of the Major: we know already that it was with threats of confinement that Richard Saunders was taught to keep silent about his delusions. And while this is all very melodramatic in context, we should note that during the 19th century it was terrifyingly easy—if you were a man with money—to get people committed against their wills, and that this was not an uncommon way for inconvenient relatives and other connections (usually women, so given to “hysteria”, but not always) to be disposed of. The Major’s threat has weight behind it, and Olivia knows it.

But when things seem darkest for her—when the Major’s triumph seems absolute—we learn that Nemesis is on her way…

Nemeses, actually—one in the form of a grim, gaunt man with murder in his heart, recently returned from America, who must make his way by foot from Liverpool to Lislewood, but who is sustained through hunger, cold and exhaustion by his rage and hatred. Finally he has a stroke of luck when he falls in with a troop of gipsies who happen to be heading his way, and who amicably take him in and offer him shelter and food. The man, who calls himself John Andrews, soon realises that something is wrong within the troop: there is a young woman whose wild, muttered talk of vengeance sounds remarkably like his own, and whose story Andrews manages to extract from the leader of the troop, a man named Abraham. The young woman once had a sister, a virtuous and most beloved sister, who had the grave misfortune to attract the obsessive attention of a dissolute young gentleman, and could not with all her efforts avoid him:

“Half way between the town and the common, where the road was most lonesome , we found her lying in the shallow water, cold and dead. There was footmarks upon the bit of grass alongside of the ditch, a woman’s and a man’s, and there was marks of horses’ hoofs upon the road. The grass was trodden down as if there’d been a struggle, and a broken riding-whip lay among the reeds hard by. I’ve kept that whip ever since, and it was his. I knew it by the gold handle, shaped the same as his crest.”

John Andrews has been listening with the greatest of attention ever since the geography of the story told by Abraham was made clear to him; and when he hears of the young man of the whip, and his older friend, and how they laughed at Abraham when he confronted them—and how Abraham ended up serving three months for assault—he can contain himself no longer:

    “But I do mind his name,” answered the other, with a strange eagerness, “and if you won’t tell it me, I’ll tell it to you.”
    “You!” exclaimed Abraham; “how should you know it?”
    “His name is Sir Rupert Lisle,” answered Andrews; “and he lives at Lislewood Park, about nine miles from here, and the friend you see along with him was a stout chap in a yellow waistcoat, with yellow chains and lockets hanging all about it, and his name is Granville Varney, and he’s the biggest villain as walks this sinful earth!” cried John Andrews, his voice rising with every word, until it ended in a savage scream..

If we were so inclined, we might at this point say of Sir Rupert Lisle and Major Granville Varney, “God help them both”; but I doubt we’ll be so inclined…

Braddon never hesitates to dispense rough justice, and in this case she has her twin Nemeses catch up with their respective quarries on a dark and lonely road between Brighton and Lislewood; Major Varney is driving their open carriage, and Sir Rupert Lisle is in an alcoholic stupor. The physical confrontation between Granville Varney and Gilbert Arnold ends with a pistol-shot to the face, and a corpse rolled down a long slope into a stagnant pond and plundered of its ready cash; although the pocket-book chained to the Major’s person must stay where it is. Abraham the gipsy, meanwhile, more intent upon something that looks like an accident, sends the carriage and its insensible occupant careening down the dangerous road…

It is some days before the Major’s body is found. When the pocket-book is inspected, found within it is a signed and witnessed statement from James Arnold, declaring the imposture, and that the real Sir Rupert Lisle may be found in the county of York. James Arnold himself, crushed and broken by the overturning of his carriage, lingers some days; long enough to confirm the truth of his statement; while the signatory witness to the undated confession—none other than Alfred Salamons, who grieves most sincerely for the Major—boldly asserts that it was only very recently that he became aware of the substitution and, being unable to find any trace of the missing Sir Rupert, held his peace.

The law eventually catches up with Gilbert Arnold, who has in his possession objects that make his guilt clear enough. Having carried through his plan of revenge, Arnold is almost disinterested in the grim fate that necessarily awaits him…

Curiously, however, none of the novel’s other transgressors are punished. We never, for one, hear another word about Abraham, who slips quietly from the narrative with the rest of his troop.

But Braddon’s most interesting non-fate is reserved for Mrs Varney who, when all is said and done, is in many ways the most intriguing character in Lady Lisle, albeit that her creator never dares bring her out into the clear light of day. No wonder. Though never an active participant—at least, not when we are watching—Mrs Varney is au fait with all the Major’s schemes, and benefits from them. Furthermore, what we already know by inference is finally spelled out here, that she was the first Mrs Walsingham, an “infamous woman” even before she entrapped the reckless young officer into marriage; and that she and Major Varney were therefore living in sin. Yet for all this, Braddon is prepared to present the Varneys as very sincerely in love; even though, as we belatedly learn, the Major “married” the lady for payment, thus assuming her support—this being the service he rendered Arthur Walsingham, and subsequently held over his head—and to allow that Mrs Varney’s grief at her husband’s death is equally sincere.

(We do not know whether the Varneys marry after Walsingham’s death. Of course, Braddon herself was living in sin at this point in her life, and probably didn’t think that marital status necessarily spoke to the true state of a relationship.)

With the Major gone, Mrs Varney turns Arthur Walsingham’s letters over to Claribel, so that they may finally be destroyed—and then she, too, is allowed simply to walk away, and to live in comfort for the rest of her life on the proceeds of the Major’s wrongdoing: presumably sharing her inheritance with her brother, Alfred Salamons, who likewise gets away scot-free!

(I should, perhaps, mention that it was Mr Salamons who took on the role of “Uncle George Saunders”…)

But while Braddon amuses herself with these background details, she also lets all of her good (or perhaps we should say, “better”) characters off their various hooks. Her plot-threads come neatly together when, after the discovery of James Arnold’s confession, Claribel Walsingham advertises for anyone knowing anything of Sir Rupert Lisle—an advertisement which comes to the attention of Walter Remorden…

So poor Claribel finds her real son at last; the unfortunate Rachel Arnold is released from her incarceration, and placed once more in her old home, where she recovers her health and even her spirits (once, Braddon implies but does not say, her husband and son are both safely dead); Walter returns to Lislewood to find Olivia a widow; and in the year that must pass before the reconciled lovers may marry, Blanche Hayward, recognising the futility of her first love, strives to banish it from her heart, and succeeds so well that she is able, in good faith, eventually to accept the second proposal of marriage made to her by “Richard Saunders”.

One bright morning, there is a double wedding at Lislewood Church:

    …there is no fashionable crowd, no long string of carriages; only a simple procession of two happy couples, attended by about a dozen friends. First, Mr Hayward’s daughter, Blanche, leaning upon the arm of Sir Rupert Lisle, and smiling brightly on the schoolchildren, who throw their flowers under her feet; while close behind them comes Walter Remorden, with Olivia by his side. Colonel Marmaduke has given his daughter into the curate’s hands with a pride and happiness he never felt in the marriage which seemed such a splendid one.
    The worthy rector of Lislewood obtained a better living from the bishop of the diocese, and abandoned the pleasant rectory, shut in by shady gardens, and close under the shadow of the grey old church tower, to Walter Remorden and his wife.
    The poor of Lislewood learned to bless the day which brought them Blanche, Lady Lisle; the third who had borne that name within twenty years…

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14/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 2)

ladylisle1b    “I can say nothing plainer than this, Mrs Walsingham—I believe the young man now living with Gilbert Arnold, the ex-poacher, the sham Methodist parson, to be no son of his; I believe him to be the child of parents in a superior rank of life, and I believe him to be the victim of some diabolical plot, some hideous conspiracy, at the bottom of which is Mr Gilbert Arnold. This, Mrs Walsingham, is what I believe; and until you yourself have seen the boy, I will say no more.”
    “O let me see him! Take me to him, I implore you! Now—this moment—this very moment! The suspense will kill me!”
    “My dear madam, I rely upon your Christian forbearance—your self-control. This is not a matter in which impulse can serve us. One rash step might destroy all. Patience and caution are vitally necessary to us. Remember we have to meet cunning with cunning—to combat the ruses of others by other ruses of our own. Before you see the young man, nothing can possibly be done. I shall trust entirely to your instinct as a mother. See him, talk to him, examine every feature, watch every look, and if after that you say to me, ‘Granville Varney, that young man is my son, Sir Rupert Lisle’, I will move heaven and earth to prove the young man’s identity to the world, and reinstate him in his rights.”

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After the death of Arthur Walsingham, the narrative of Lady Lisle shifts to London, and takes an interest in a certain Joseph Slogood, who has set himself up as an Independent minister, and found a measure of success in this capacity amongst the local people; though not everyone cares for his violent, denunciatory style, in which some claim to find not only vulgarity and profanity, but blasphemy. But still Mr Slogood fills his pews.

After one sermon, Mr Slogood gets a nasty shock in the form of a past acquaintance—who knows him under at least two other names. This particular acquaintance expresses an interest in a boy raised by Mr Slogood; he has heard of this boy through a mutual acquaintance, a Mr Salamons, and has a desire to see him.

Mr Slogood takes his visitor to a house in the vicinity of his chapel, and then up to a small, grimy room on the first floor, where they find a young man of about twenty years of age:

    “My dear young friend,” he murmured softly, gazing at the young man with an expression of supreme compassion, “they don’t treat you well—they don’t treat you well.”
    The dear young friend sprang from his chair with a bound, and faced the Major. His pale sickly face lighted up at the sight of the fat rosy cheeks and the shining yellow moustache.
    “At last,” he exclaimed,—“you’ve come at last. I’m sick of this hole,—I’m sick of all this juggling and conjuring. Who am I, and what am I, and what’s the difference between me and other people?”
    The young man’s face flushed with a faint, unhealthy crimson as he spoke. His pale blue eyes dilated, and his thin bloodless lips quivered nervously. The Major watched him with a smile, nodded gently, and murmured to himself, “Salamons is very clever, Alfred Salamons is a great creature.”

And then the Major sits down with his young friend and tells him everything he wants to hear—more than he ever expected to hear, even in his wildest dreams—that indeed, he is not like other people; that Joseph Slogood is not his father, though he has posed as such; and that the “minister” has been guilty of a great crime, in withholding from him his true identity and all that he is entitled to on account of his birth. Slogood’s outrage and indignation, which come very close to bursting free during this speech, are quelled with a reference to a Mr Bird…

The young man, who now looks upon the Major as his preserver, his rescuer, his good angel, swears eternal fidelity to his interests, and agrees to remain patient for just a while longer, in the face of the Major’s promise that all will shortly be revealed.

The Major then rejoins his wife in their house in Kensington Gore, finding the lady in a dissatisfied mood. The couple’s recent hand-to-mouth existence has worn very thin for her; so much so, she finds herself thinking longingly of a return to the stage: anything being better than having to rely on the Major’s luck at the card-table and race-track.

Mrs Varney is both startled and sceptical when her husband declares that they are done both with India, and with their present peripatetic existence; that within a very short period of time, they will be able to settle down permanently, and live luxuriously on the bounty of Sir Rupert Lisle:

    Mrs Varney’s black eyes opened to their widest extent. “Sir Rupert—?”
    “Lisle,” said the Major. “That injured young man will have to thank me for his restoration to name and fortune. Poor dear child! he had very nearly fallen victim to an infamous conspiracy.”
    “But,” exclaimed Mrs Varney, “you will never—”
    “Suffer the poor boy to be separated from his devoted mother, to be deprived of his place in life, to be robbed even of his name amongst men. No, my Adeline, never!” said the Major, pulling his moustache in a transport of virtuous indignation.

There is, it turns out, a reason why the Major has chosen this particular time to take action: he directs his wife’s attention to the newspaper, where the firm of solicitors that has long represented the Lisles is advertising for Major Granville Varney. The Major does not respond to this appeal directly, but instead writes to Mrs Walsingham, explaining that he dislikes lawyers, but would be delighted to see her if he can serve her in any way. To his puzzled wife he explains that he has been watching for such a notice since hearing of Arthur Walsingham’s death:

“This advertisement…convinces me that my poor foolish Arthur spoke before he died. Dear boy, it was like him to speak—it was like him to die; he has always been consistent, and he has been very useful to me. O Adeline! no man would ever commit a punishable offence, if he knew what a nice little income may be made out of the peccadilloes of others.”

Mrs Walsingham responds almost immediately, calling as suggested, and impatiently waving aside the Major’s condolences and his explanation of his failure to call, since he and his wife have only just returned from India, you see… Mrs Walsingham tells him of her husband’s last words—that he said so much, but no more, thus soothing away the Major’s one concern—and begs him to tell her whatever he knows. To this, the Major expresses great surprise; how should he know anything? Even in the unlikely, the very unlikely event that Sir Rupert is still alive? And if had any such knowledge, what should he gain from concealing it?—no more than Walsingham himself.

Despite his denials, the Major manages to convey a hint that he does know something; although he does not admit it until he has driven Mrs Walsingham almost frantic, and his admission causes his visitor to fall into a fainting-fit. When she recovers, she pulls herself together, and demands sternly that the Major be explicit with her. Emphasising again that he has no real information to go on, only his own excellent memory for faces, he tells Mrs Walsingham about a young man glimpsed recently at the theatre, who in his judgement bore a startling resemblance to Sir Rupert Lisle, even allowing for the passage of years. As luck would have it, his servant, Mr Salamons, was in the pit that night, and therefore available to undertake the task of finding out all about the young man in question. Salamons followed his quarry to his home, discovering that his name was Slogood, the son of a preacher calling himself Joseph Slogood—but in whom Salamons recognised the former lodge-keeper of Lislewood.

Of course, adds the Major, this proves nothing, since there was always a striking resemblance between Rupert Lisle and James Arnold—at least, he always thought so, though he sees that Mrs Walsingham disagrees—but the suspicious behaviour of Gilbert Arnold, his angry refusal to let him see his son, raised a question in the Major’s mind. He managed to lure Arnold away from home and see the young man for himself—coming away convinced that whoever he might be, he was no son of Arnold.

More than this, the Major will not say. He tells Mrs Walsingham sternly that it is all up to her—her memory of her son, the instinct of the mother’s heart. Then, far more gently, he promises to support her through the coming ordeal:

The Major took both Mrs Walsingham’s hands in his and pressed them affectionately. He looked so brimming over with benevolence, so overflowing with devoted attachment to the cause of oppressed innocence, that the most suspicious of women could scarcely have doubted him; and Claribel Walsingham had never suspected anybody in her life. She looked at the Major with confiding earnestness, as to a guardian angel, and as she looked up, the sun, shining through a window behind him, lit up his yellow hair, and seemed to encircle his handsome head with an aureole of golden light…

At the house near the chapel, the invaluable Mr Salamons is waiting, having taken steps to ensure that both Joseph Slogood and his unfortunate wife are away from home when the Major brings the trembling Mrs Walsingham to see the house’s other occupant. In solemn silence, the three make their way to the small room at the top of the stairs. The two men stand back, allowing Mrs Walsingham to advance:

    The young man with the pale face and fair hair had thrown himself upon the bed, and lay with his head on his arm in a sound sleep. His flaxen hair, which grew rather long, had fallen away from his low, narrow forehead. His clothes, though rather shabby, were of the prevailing fashion, and such as only a gentleman’s son would wear. His hands were white and delicate…
    Mrs Walsingham uttered a faint scream, and, rushing to the bed, fell on her knees, and lifting the fair face in her arms, kissed the young man’s forehead passionately. He awoke with a startled look in his widely-opened blue eyes, and stared about him wildly. It was rather a delicate regular face on which the widow looked so tenderly, but it was a face that gave no promise of a powerful intellect.
    “My poor boy! my poor injured boy!” said Major Varney, “remember what I told you the other night, and prepare yourself.”
    “Yes, yes,” cried the young man; “yes, I know. And you are my mother,” he added, turning to Claribel…

So let’s see—

So far in Lady Lisle we’ve had bigamy and blackmail and murder, to name only the outright crimes, and ignoring for the moment instances of immorality and other dishonourable conduct; but what else we may have had remains for quite some time delightfully ambiguous.

Certainly the implication is clear enough, yet Braddon tells her tale so that we cannot be quite sure. We have had, after all, Sir Rupert Lisle declared both dead and alive, in the aftermath of his accident; and such is the Major’s handling of the incident, there is a possibility that Arthur Walsingham’s dying declaration was based upon what he thought he knew, rather than his actual knowledge. Even the nasty crack about the young man’s lack of intellect could apply either to Rupert Lisle or James Arnold. As for the identification—well, we know better than to rely upon Mrs Walsingham, for all the Major’s unctuous speeches about “a mother’s heart”. And it will be some considerable time yet before the narrative tips its hand one way or the other.

The statement made by Gilbert Arnold—once Major Varney has manoeuvred the other participants into agreeing to an immunity from prosecution, in exchange for a full statement and proof of the baronet’s identity—supports either theory. According to Arnold, he found Sir Rupert after his accident, and spirited him away. He had always been struck by the resemblance between his boy and Rupert Lisle (a resemblance which the helpful Mrs Walsingham has again indignantly repudiated, in making her identification), and thought that something might be made out of it:

    “I picked him up, took him home, and kep’ him hid for a day or two, bein’ all that time queer in his head and knowin’ nothing nor no one; and then I contrived to take him to London by the train one night. I put him into a hospital there, and he picked up and got round in a few months, and then I moved up to London myself, taking my wife and child with me.”
    “And what did you mean to do with the two boys?” asked the Major.
    “Why, I meant to let the time slip by till they grew older and bigger; and when there was a chance of my lady there having forgotten the looks of hers, I meant to have gone to her and told her as how I’d found him a poor lad in London streets, and how I thought he was stole by gipsies, and my boy would have been taught his lesson, and would have bore me out in what I said, and then my boy would have passed as Sir Rupert Lisle, and been master of a fine house and a fine fortune.”
    “But your boy died?”
    “Yes, a twelvemonth after Sir Rupert’s accident he took ill of a fever and died. There, will that do?”

In support of his statement, Arnold produces the clothes Sir Rupert was wearing on the day of his accident; while inquiries at the hospital locate a long-serving nurse with vague memories of a small boy with a head injury, who seemed to be suffering delusions, and his rough, offensive father.

Through various disapproving lawyers, all this is conveyed to the incumbent, the elderly and childless Sir Launcelot Lisle—still living in Italy—who accepts the identification and surrenders his position, and even offers to restore the income he has enjoyed from the estate; but this offer Sir Rupert, on the advice of Major Varney, rejects.

And so Sir Rupert is received again at Lislewood Park:

    The servants were ranged in the hall waiting to welcome their master. How they all exclaimed when they saw the pale-faced young gentleman, whom his mamma and Major Varney led into the house! How little Sir Rupert had changed, they said. He had only grown taller, and perhaps, if anything, handsomer. The young Baronet was a little embarrassed by their honest greetings, and seemed to look to his champion, the Major, for assistance.
    A close observer would not have been long in the society of the young man without discovering that he appeared to appeal to Major Varney on every occasion, however trifling. He was leaning on Major Varney’s arm when he pointed out to his mother…the portrait of his father in the dining-room, the oriel window in the library, in which he had been so fond of sitting when a little boy…

And while Sir Rupert Lisle settles down at Lislewood Park—albeit not without displaying some awkwardness and ignorance about his surroundings and his expected behaviour, natural enough in one raised by Gilbert Arnold—of course Major and Mrs Varney settle down there too, after all the Major has done for the Lisles. Mrs Walsingham, though various points about her restored son wound and puzzle her—the effect of evil associations, which will wear away in time, the understanding Major assures her—is at peace at last. The only person who isn’t happy is young Arthur Walsingham, called home from Eton to meet his half-brother, and still grieving for his father. Arthur is unimpressed by the baronet, and suspicious and wary of the Major, who goes out of his way to charm the boy but, for perhaps the first time in all his endeavours, fails utterly.

Nor does Arthur hesitate to speak his mind to his horrified mother:

    “Get rid of him? My dear Arthur, do you forget the part he has taken in the restoration of my son? Do you forget that to him we owe the discovery of the vile plot against my boy? How can we ever sufficiently prove our gratitude to Major Varney?”
    The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I suppose you’re right, mother,” he said; “but if I were you, I’d give the Major a few thousands as a repayment for his services, and kick him out of doors.”
    “Arthur! As if he would accept money!”
    “Not from you, very likely, mother; and shall I tell you why not? He knows that he will get double and treble from Sir Rupert Lisle. My brother is little better than a puppet in his hands.”

A brief respite from the Major is granted the household when he travels to London to see Gilbert Arnold for one last time. Sir Rupert baulks at giving Arnold money, but as usual he does as the Major tells him, and writes a cheque for six hundred pounds. Arnold, who had not calculated upon being cut off completely from the restored Sir Rupert, is in an angry, resentful mood. It recedes slightly when the Major requests him to write a receipt for the six hundred—then comes back with a vengeance when the Major informs him that he will, without delay, pack up himself, his wife, and his possessions, and embark for America—and not, if he knows what’s good for him, ever come back. Compelled by the thought of the money, Arnold obeys; but just as the ship is to sail – and having waited until then to make sure of his collaborator’s departure – Major Varney hands over a mere three hundred pounds:

    “And when this here’s gone, what am I to do?” roared Gilbert, clutching hold of the Major’s coat-sleeve, as if he would have detained him by violence.
    “What are you to do?” said Major Varney, turning round, as he stood on the topmost rung of the ladder, “rot, starve, steal, die in a workhouse, or live in a gaol! I’ve done with you!

The reappearance of the long-lost Sir Rupert Lisle is naturally a bombshell in district of Lislewood; the discovery that the young baronet is “sufficiently good-looking” as well as titled and rich of interest in more households than one. Once over his initial apprehensions, Sir Rupert begins to explore his neighbourhood; and he causes a variety of emotions under one roof, and heart-burnings in all the rest, when he falls in love with the youngest daughter of Colonel Marmaduke.

Colonel Marmaduke is not a pleasant man, violent with almost everyone, including his five daughters. Circumstances have seen the Colonel’s income dwindle to vanishing point; the Miss Marmadukes have lived all their lives in a state of poverty, with few joys at home and fewer abroad, since their father’s pride will not allow them to venture out in any carriage but their own, and they can no longer afford to keep one. Long, dreary days are their almost unchanging portion, and their only expectation for the future.

Four of the Miss Marmadukes resemble their mother in both looks and disposition, which does nothing to endear them to their father; the youngest is as unlike them as possible: dark, attractive, and spirited; as proud as her father, and with his temper; not merely unquailing in the face of the Colonel’s frequent outbursts, but given to reading the riot act over him for his own rough language and behaviour.

Olivia is, naturally, her father’s pet, much to the indignation of her well-behaved but spiritless sisters.

Olivia is, in addition, her creator’s pet; sort of:

What shall I say of my heroine? for, unfortunately, faulty and imperfect as she is as this young lady may be, she is nevertheless my heroine. What shall I say of her? She has by no means an amiable temper. She is vehement and impulsive. But, on the other hand, she is generous and truthful…

We shall see a great deal more of Olivia’s faults before we see anything of her virtues: her behaviour, indeed, is of a kind to put her beyond the pale with many of Braddon’s brother- and sister-novelists (always with the exception of her contemporary and rival, Wilkie Collins, who himself had a soft spot for flawed, headstrong young women), and see her cast, most likely, in the role of the good girl’s foil.

Olivia is much given to riding out alone, albeit on a bony old horse and in a made-over habit of her mother’s; and on one of these expeditions she encounters Sir Rupert Lisle. She isn’t impressed, either with his uncertain horsemanship, his evident fear when her dog briefly worries his horse, or the language in which he expresses that fear.

Unfortunately, Sir Rupert is impressed; so impressed, the next day he forces himself upon the Marmadukes in an ill-timed morning-call:

    “I know I’ve come too early,” he said, “and I’ve caught you all in your morning gowns, as he said I should, and he said I oughtn’t to come till one o’clock; but I couldn’t wait any longer, and I should have come last night, only he wouldn’t let me.”
    During the delivery of this very obscure speech, the young Baronet grew every moment redder in the face. Insolent and self-sufficient as he usually was, he seemed today affected by a painful sense of his own insignificance…

But he gets over that, chiefly by dwelling on his various material advantages and the Marmadukes’ poverty. Presents of all sorts rain upon Olivia, and when he discovers that the Marmadukes do not dine out or attend other entertainments, Sir Rupert concocts wild schemes of having them come to stay in his house. When Major Varney attempts to dissuade him, reproving him at the same time for the inappropriate violence of his language, it provokes a startling explosion:

    “Rupert!” exclaimed his mother, “can you forget?”
    “O, I don’t forget anything,” said the Baronet; “people take precious care that I don’t forget anything. My banker could tell how often I get reminded of things; but as to that,” he added, turning to the Major, “you’re free to stay as long as you like, and eat and drink what you like, and to get all out of me that you can, but I won’t be interfered with when I set my mind on a thing. Do you hear me? I won’t be interfered with.”
    The Baronet walked out of the room, slamming the door after him. It was the first time he had ever resisted Major Varney’s authority by so much as a word…

We can only be surprised at the experienced Major’s underestimation of the effect that sexual attraction might have upon the feckless young man, for all that he dignifies his passion for Olivia under the title of “love”. Trying to rectify his error, the Major makes a point of seeking Olivia’s acquaintance, and for the second time in recent weeks finds himself confronted by someone wholly unimpressed by him, and who does not bother to hide it. Recognising in Olivia not only an inconvenience to the comfortable unfolding of his plans, but potentially a formidable adversary, he does his best to undermine her influence over Sir Rupert, but without success.

(We get a typical Braddon moment here when the Major temporarily separates Olivia from Sir Rupert by inviting her to play a game of chess—and much to his surprise and indignation, she beats him.)

But if Sir Rupert is not to be put off by Olivia’s own constant rudeness towards him, and her habit of laughing at him, the Major’s criticism can have little effect. Shortly afterwards, during another meeting on horseback, Sir Rupert blurts out a graceless proposal, offering to make her the richest woman in Sussex.

And Olivia—after coolly noting that not a word of love has been spoken, either offered or asked for—accepts him.

The announcement of the engagement has a curious effect in both affected households. When it is greeted with dismay and doubt under his own roof, Sir Rupert grows furiously angry. Most of his tirade is aimed at the Major, whose silence in the face of it makes Sir Rupert foolishly believe that he has at last put him in his place. A later confrontation, when the two are alone, disabuses him of this notion, and leaves him pale and shaken. Nevertheless, Sir Rupert refuses the Major’s command to break off his engagement, which prompts a midnight visit from the ubiquitous Mr Salamons:

    “Why, you see, Sir Rupert,” said the valet, looking round the room cautiously… “what I’ve got to tell you is a bit of a secret, perhaps I’d better whisper it.”
    Mr Salamons bent his lips close to the Baronet’s ear, and whispered two or three sentences.
    Sir Rupert Lisle burst out laughing. He laughed till his shoulders shook under the bedclothes.
    “Is that all?” he said, when he had done laughing. “Is that all that such a clever man as Major Granville Varney could send you here to tell me? Tell him, with my compliments, that I’ve known it all along, and that I shall marry Olivia Marmaduke less than a month from to-night.”

It cannot, however, be said that Sir Rupert is finding much joy in an engagement to a girl who does not trouble to hide her own indifference to it, or her contempt for him personally:

    “Egad! I think if I were not Sir Rupert Lisle, and the rightful owner of the Lislewood estates, I should have a very poor chance with you, Miss Livy.”
    “I think you would, Sir Rupert. Pray let us never quarrel about that. Heaven forbid that I should deceive you! Yes, you are quite right; I marry you for your title, and I marry you for your estate, and if you had neither title nor estate, I wouldn’t marry you. I am candid enough—am I not? And now, if the honest truth displeases you, let us shake hands and say ‘good-bye’. I am quite willing to do so, I assure you.”

But of course, the more she shows herself willing to call it off, the more determined he is to possess her, whatever her behaviour towards him.

Meanwhile, Olivia’s situation (in spite of the grim reality of her bridegroom) driven the eldest Miss Marmaduke, Laura, with whom Olivia has always been at loggerheads, past her breaking-point. She sees and grasps an opportunity for revenge, however, waiting until Olivia and Sir Rupert are together at Colonel Marmaduke’s house to break an interesting piece of news:

    “Well, papa, poor Walter Remorden has been compelled to abandon his duties on account of his very delicate health, Mrs Milward says…”
    “What!” exclaimed the Colonel, “is Walter Remorden staying at the Rectory?”
    “Yes; he only arrived yesterday. He has been dreadfully ill, and is quite a wreck they say. But I must not bore Sir Rupert by talking of an invalid curate. Such congratulations, Olivia. Everybody is talking of the future Lady Lisle, and congratulating me upon my sister’s brilliant prospects.”

The effect of this upon Olivia is everything that Laura hoped, nor is Sir Rupert so stupid as to not understand the significance of her reaction. Yet the only immediate consequence is that Olivia begs Sir Rupert either to call their engagement off, or set an early date for their wedding. Naturally he chooses the latter. An unprecedented money gift from an aunt allows the preparation of a proper trousseau, but Olivia takes no interest in this; nor indeed in anything, spending her days in her room, silent and alone, refusing even to ride out on the splendid horse that Sir Rupert has bought her. As the wedding draws near, the baronet understandably continues to live in fear of a belated rupture.

And it is very near when Olivia walks over to the Rectory one evening, despite the falling rain. She hesitates long outside the door, and finally only being caught by one of the servants compels her to go inside. Mrs Milward welcomes her warmly, but she barely exchanges greetings with Mr Remorden, found lying on the couch in front of the fire, the signs of his long illness clear upon him; and once exchanged, he returns to the perusal of his newspaper.

Over tea, Mrs Milward finds plenty to say; it is not until she leaves the room that Olivia makes an awkward inquiry about Mr Remorden’s curacy, and learns that he has had the offer of a more advantageous place in Yorkshire, once his health is re-established:

    Olivia seemed scarcely to hear what he said, but sat pulling her dog’s ears and looking thoughtfully into the fire; presently she said, with strange suddenness,—“Walter Remorden, how utterly you must despise me!”
    He had been so entirely calm and self-possessed before, even when he could scarcely have failed to perceive her agitation, that a stranger would have set him down as incapable of any strong emotion, but as Olivia spoke his face changed, and he lifted one thin hand entreatingly, as he exclaimed,—
    “For pity’s sake, for the sake of all that is merciful and womanly, do not speak one word to recall the past. I have wrestled hard. I have prayed so many prayers that I might be able to bear my sufferings, and it is not for you to reopen old wounds, which are healed, which are healed,” he repeated passionately. “I live for nothing in this world but to do my duty as a minister of the Gospel. For that end I pray to be restored to health and strength; though, Heaven forgive me! the day has been when I have wished that I might never leave this house, except to be carried to one of yonder graves.”

The two are then interrupted by the arrival of Sir Rupert, sent after Olivia by Laura, furious and jealous over her unconventional call, and apparently determined to display himself at his very worst. Olivia finally agrees to leave with him as he demands, but obtains a few more private moments by sending him out to see about the carriage:

    “Olivia,” said Mr Remorden, in a voice which trembled with emotion, “there is no dishonour in my asking you if this marriage is irrevocably determined upon?”
    “It is.”
    “And it is no longer in your power to withdraw from your engagement to this man?”
    “It is no longer in my power.”
    “Heaven help you, then, unhappy girl!”

.

[To be continued…]

12/11/2016

Lady Lisle (Part 1)

ladylisle2b    “My dear Arthur,” said Major Varney, “do you think that if I ever left the course of my life to be directed by accident, I should be the man I am? No, I knew where I was coming and why I was coming; and now you may know it too. I come to claim my share in your winnings, according to the old bargain. I come to exact my rights established by precedent long ago. Whatever amount of your wife’s fortune may fall into your hands, I claim the half of that amount. Whatever of your step-son’s wealth and power can be wrested from him by you, the half of that wealth and power is mine. Whatever comfort, luxury, indolence, and extravagance you may enjoy, I claim my right to enjoy the same. And now get up, dear boy, and come back to the house. Walk on, Arthur Walsingham and Company, but remember your senior partner walks behind you, though he may choose to keep in the shadows.”
    Pale and shivering, Arthur Walsingham walked along the avenue, across the bridge, and through the gardens. Some doomed and wretched criminal, stumbling up the steps of the gallows, might have walked as he walked…

While she was spinning out the insanely complicated, year-long penny dreadful, The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran between July 1861 and June 1862, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was simultaneously writing a second serial, Lady Lisle, which was intended for a more “respectable” audience—but which, for all that, offers plenty of shocking material.

Lady Lisle was serialised in The Welcome Guest between May and September 1861, before appearing in book form during 1862. It is, as these dates suggest, a shorter and less complicated work than its companion-piece, and differs from it in several other ways that offer an intriguing glimpse into Braddon’s own mindset. The thing that was most striking to me upon a first read is the dearth of sympathetic characters. Whereas The Black Band, which has large sections of its narrative set amongst people of the lower-middle class and the working-classes, offers no shortage of interesting, likeable characters, in this novel set amongst the gentry we struggle to find anyone to attach ourselves to…

…at least until the novel’s villain shows up.

Whether this aspect of the novel is to blame or not, Lady Lisle remains one of the more difficult of Braddon’s novels to obtain, at least in English: a modern edition was reissued a few ago, but only in French. (Sacré bleu! J’étais tellement énervé…) However, I was fortunate in eventually gaining access to a copy through one of our academic libraries; though, mind you, when I say “fortunate”— Mary Elizabeth Braddon was insanely popular in Australia, with book after book achieving best-seller status here, so it is less surprising than it might otherwise be that our older libraries do hold copies of her works. (Whether it was her focus upon crime, or her frequent assertion that “nice” people are often secretly terrible, that was the secret of her success, well, I wouldn’t like to say…)

Lady Lisle opens with a startling confrontation between the young widow of the title and Captain Arthur Walsingham, just returned from service in India. A wild, one-sided exhortation from the latter ends in a proposal, or rather a demand, of marriage, which is accepted.

The narrative then steps back some nine years to tell the story of the obsessive love of the dashing young Arthur Walsingham for the beautiful Miss Claribel Merton; of the intervention in his frantic courtship of her friends; and of her subsequent marriage to the wealthy Sir Reginald Lisle—with whom Walsingham was staying during his pursuit of Miss Merton, and had considered his best friend…

Braddon’s scorn for all three points of this romantic triangle is evident from the outset; so too is her personal exasperation with the persistent English taste for “doll-like” blue-eyed blondes, pretty on the outside but empty on the inside (with her irritation shortly to find its fullest expression in her breakthrough novel, Lady Audley’s Secret). Though Lady Lisle opens in company with its title character, it is soon evident that we are not to regard her as the novel’s heroine:

    “You must think me a fool, because I am going mad for a wax doll!” Arthur Walsingham cried out one night at Lislewood Park, when he had been drinking more than usual, and the baronet and his other companions had rallied him upon his silly passion. “I know, as well as you, what a foolish school-boy’s fever it is; but that makes it no better for me, if I die of it.”
    But if Miss Claribel Merton had, as her enemies declared, many attributes in common with a pretty, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired, waxen image fashioned by the toy-maker, she was not the less a beautiful woman and an heiress…

Too much of an heiress to be allowed to bestow herself upon an impecunious army officer; at the same time, beautiful and fashionable enough to catch the tepid interest of Sir Reginald, with the added appeal of cutting out his friend:

She was the rage; and, eight weeks after the Captain’s arrival, Sir Reginald Lisle—who rarely in the whole course of his brief and useless existence had desired to possess himself of anything, except for the pleasure of taking it away from somebody else—proposed for her hand, and, after a brief delay, was, at the instigation of her aunt, duly accepted.

There is, of course, an appalling scene between Walsingham and his erstwhile friend, but when Sir Reginald coolly refuses to be duelled with, the shattered officer shakes the dust of England from his boots and returns to his duties in India, dividing his time between reckless pleasure-seeking and trying to get himself killed in action.

As for the bride:

As usual, they could discover nothing from her face. It was at all times a face which revealed no secrets. Perfect in feature, most delicate in colouring, but inscrutable, enigmatic, almost expressionless. She married Sir Reginald Lisle without loving him, as passively as she had taken her music-lessons without having an ear for harmony, and her drawing-lessons without being blessed with an eye for form. Whatever other people bade her do, she did. She would have married the Captain at his command, being utterly incapable to resist the influence of a stronger mind than her own, had she not been restrained by the counter-influence of her aunt, which, from the force of long habit, was more powerful still. She was entirely at the mercy of those who controlled or counselled her. She saw with their eyes, thought with their thoughts, and spoke with their words…

The marriage works out about as well as you’d expect, although Lady Lisle is not long troubled with her disinterested husband. The Lisles are not a long-lived race, but have a history of dying young; though in spite of this, having acquired the habit of marrying young for obvious reasons, they have as yet managed to propagate the line and pass on the baronetcy. Such is again the case, with Lady Lisle a widow after eight years of marriage, and the title and estate inherited by her boy, Rupert. The child is an unfortunate combination of his father’s weakness of constitution, and his mother’s lack of personality (“…like her, unblest with brilliant talents or energy of character…”); yet from somewhere he has acquired a certain spirit which makes him quite a physically intrepid little boy: a quality which causes his mother endless distress as, far from nursing his health as she wishes, Rupert is given to overtaxing his fragile strength.

Mother and son are playing together on a hillside overlooking Lislewood Park when Lady Lisle is confronted by the ghost from her past—who has left India for England immediately upon seeing the death-notice for Sir Reginald. Before she knows it, Lady Lisle has been overpowered into another engagement; although to her credit, as she gazes once again upon Arthur Walsingham, she finds more genuine feeling in her heart than was ever there for her first husband.

Walsingham, meanwhile, has no illusions about the step he is taking:

“Listen to me, then. I hate you as much as I love you. My heart was rent asunder by these two passions, and I scarcely know which of these two has brought me from India, and to your feet to-night. It was a murder which you committed by your treachery of eight years ago; and it is the ghost of the Arthur Walsingham whom you killed that stands by your side at this moment. For your sake, and through your treachery, I have been a gamester, a drunkard, and a rogue. The memory of you, pursuing me in every hour of my life, has driven me to the brandy-bottle, the hazard-table, and the smiles of artless women, for relief from its cruel torture…”

Despite the unpropitious signs, the two are married; a quiet, private wedding, quite different from the bride’s first; and after a six-week honeymoon, the couple settle at Lislewood Park. There, awake to the bitter irony, Arthur Walsingham finds himself smothering in his bride’s wealth and his step-son’s grandeur: the house, indeed, has not changed at all since the night of the terrible scene between himself and Reginald Lisle.

To the world at large, however, Walsingham is a damned lucky man; so lucky, he is not without enemies. One of these is Gilbert Arnold, the husband of the Park’s lodge-keeper. Once a poacher, with a prison-sentence behind him, Arnold was supposedly reformed by the efforts of an evangelical chaplain, and at that time married the hard-working, God-fearing Rachel; but in fact all Arnold learned was a prevailing hypocrisy. Now, living upon his wife, his habitual discontent has escalated into a passionate hatred of anyone more comfortably situated than himself; and although he expresses this in terms of an unjust social inequality (and often uses the language of the evangelical tracts given to him by the still-deceived chaplain), at base it is a combination of selfishness, laziness and envy.

Arnold’s most bitter hatred has always been directed at the Lisles—because, not in spite of, all they have given to himself and his wife; why should they be able to give?—and in particular at the young Sir Rupert, who is almost the same age as the Arnolds’ child, James, and, as it happens, rather like him in general appearance, but with one boy having so much while much the other has so little. That his own son tends to cry and run in the face of any sort of danger or confrontation, while the small baronet displays a definite pugnacity, is another source of grievance for Arnold, feeling obscurely that some sort of cosmic injustice has been committed with respect to the two children, and hating Sir Rupert all the more as a consequence. Now, however, the focus of his anger redirects itself towards Arthur Walsingham, married to a fortune and an estate.

Be all this as it may, things are fairly serene at Lislewood Park six months after the wedding, when Walsingham opens the Brighton Gazette—and almost instantly proposes to his wife that they leave Lislewood for a time—go travelling—and do it immediately. Mrs Walsingham is bewildered but acquiescent, and only the need for packing and making arrangements with the servants prevents their departure that very night. While these preparations are underway, the Walsinghams walk out—and come home to find that two visitors have called, and are waiting to see them:

“Why, Arthur, nothing ever was so strange, I think; they are the very people whose names we saw this morning in the Brighton paper. Your Indian friends, Major and Mrs Granville Varney.”

The Major is a big, bluff, laughing man with auburn hair and moustaches; Mrs Varney is dark, quiet and very beautiful. Both are friendly, the Major almost effusively so. If Arthur Walsingham is not exactly delighted to see them, he at least does not repulse them; and before much time has passed, the Continental trip has been postponed, and the Varneys installed in the best guest-rooms. Over dinner, the Major exerts himself to captivate Mrs Walsingham, and succeeds very well.

Afterwards, as the others talk, Arthur Walsingham goes out for a walk, finding one of the loneliest and most secluded spots on the estate—but before he can take the action he intends, the pistol is snatched from his hand: he is not getting off that easily…

And then the two men talk over old times:

    “Some years ago, Arthur, you were in such a hobble, that, but for the assistance of a kind friend, it’s exceedingly unlikely that you would ever have got out of it.”
    “Granted,” said the Captain.
    “Dear boy, if you will only show an amiable and conciliating spirit, we shall get on as well as ever. Well, the friend did help you, and by his aid you were extricated from the hobble. As might be reasonably expected, a very lively attachment sprang up between you and the friend in question. People in Calcutta began to talk about Damon and Pythias. It was something more than friendship. It was a mysterious and masonic fellowship, which nothing but death could destroy. Was it not, Arthur?”
    “If you ask me whether we were useful to each other,—I shall say yes,” answered the Captain.

Graceful badinage and innuendo are the Major’s stock-in-trade, but here he is provoked into stripping off his gloves; and it is a chastened, indeed thoroughly frightened, Arthur Walsingham who eventually staggers back to his house. No more is heard about the Walsinghams’ departure for the Continent…

We are in a curious position at this early point of Lady Lisle: on one hand, Major Varney is clearly revealed as a thorough villain; on the other, we have been given no reason at all to sympathise with either of the Walsinghams, but on the contrary plenty of reason to think that both of them are getting what they deserve. It becomes, in fact, increasingly difficult for the reader not to start siding with the Major, if only because he is interesting in a way that his victims are not—in the same way, I suppose, that we hope that the criminals in a heist movie will succeed, for the pleasure associated with watching highly-skilled people working together to pull off a complex plan. The Major is a schemer and a plotter, a master-manipulator; a man of few if any scruples, for whom other people’s secrets and weaknesses are a ready source of income; yet he does what he does with such panache—hardly ever stooping to the blunt talking just felt necessary in the case of Arthur Walsingham—while maintaining all the while such an air of invincible good-humour, that it becomes harder and harder not to feel some sneaking sympathy with his proceedings, even when they take an honestly shocking turn.

Moreover, Braddon has enormous fun with the contrast between the Major’s bright appearance, all golden hair and blue eyes and genial expression, and the darkness of his deeds (at the same time, of course, making a serious point about the infuriating tendency of some writers to equate “beautiful” and “good”). Whenever we find the Major in the very depths of his plotting, there is sure to be a pull-away to his physical appearance at the time, and the effect if that appearance upon the people being, inevitably, taken in by him.

One of the Major’s many talents is planning for the future. He is a man who is capable of biding his time with great patience, and for a period of years, if the eventual reward is great enough…

The Varneys remain at Lislewood Park for a further five weeks, during which time the Major captivates Mrs Walsingham, quietly bleeds Arthur Walsingham, and looks around for more grist for his mill. His interest is caught by Arnolds—angry, glowering husband, unhappy wife, cringing little boy. As a guest of the Walsinghams, Major Varney has come in for his share of Arnold’s hatred; while the experienced eye of the Major, in turn, has noticed certain significant signs that point to a secret in Arnold’s past.

It is unfortunate to note that in Lady Lisle we find Braddon pandering to her readers’ prejudices, and in a way peculiar to the time of her writing: Major Varney’s valet and right-hand man is repeatedly described, not as Jewish, but as Jewish-looking—I suppose this approach was meant to imply an extra layer of deceit, since the only thing worse than a Jew was someone pretending he wasn’t one. This particular side-stereotype shows up again and again in novels of this period (half of the plot of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister turns on precisely this is-he-or-isn’t-he? sort of characterisation, if you can call it characterisation), but it is disappointing to find the usually broadminded Braddon playing this nasty game. It is worth noting, however, that it is a tactic that seems associated only with her writing for “nice” people, not that meant for the working-classes. Make of that what you will.

But whatever else Mr Alfred Salamons may or not be, it seems that despite being in a position of servitude with respect to Major Varney, he is nothing more or less than the Major’s brother-in-law—the beautiful Mrs Varney escaping with a descriptor of “oriental” rather than “Jewish-looking”. How exactly this ménage works is left largely to our imaginations, but we do see that Salamons is not only entirely in his employer’s confidence, but a vital cog in his various activities. To him the Major confides his suspicions about Gilbert Arnold, sending him away to hunt into the lodge-keeper’s past. A scheme of vastly greater magnitude than anything he has attempted before, and with the potential for a yield so rich he can retire upon it, has suggested itself to the Major’s vivid imagination:

    The Major finished his toilette, and dismissed his servant. The door of the inner room opened, and Mrs Varney, dressed in white, with natural flowers in her dark hair, stood upon the threshold.
    “You look very lovely tonight, my soul’s idol,” said the Major, tenderly. “Those flowers have an air of innocence that becomes you admirably. Ada, otherwise Adeline Varney, how would you like to be mistress of Lislewood Park?”
    “Don’t talk nonsense, Granville!” said the lady; “but come downstairs. I thought you would never have finished dressing.”
    “Ada, this train must be a very long one that would undermine this house, and we should begin to lay the gunpowder a great way off, should we not? But don’t you disturb yourself, my darling. The grand system is at work. Alfred Salamons has received his instructions. Great things may be done yet, and all with a clear conscience—with a clear conscience, and no fear of prison dress from first to last.”

That nothing can ever be brought home to him that could result in a prison sentence is the Major’s great pride and boast, although we gather from this that his ideas and ours about what constitutes a “clear conscience” may not be quite the same.

On the day of the Varneys’ intended departure from Lislewood Park, the Major takes a moment to drop a sovereign into Gilbert Arnold’s hand, adjuring him to take very good care of his boy, before insisting upon Arthur Walsingham accompanying him on a last walk. The two are joined by the young Sir Rupert Lisle, who is mounted on his pony. The three take the winding path up the steep hills overlooking Lislewood Park where, with the boy safely out of hearing, the Major makes one last blunt demand for money. When Walsingham digs his heels in, the Major produces a packet of letters, threatening to send them to Mrs Walsingham if five thousand pounds aren’t forthcoming.

Somewhat to the Major’s surprise, Walsingham calls his bluff. He is momentarily disconcerted by this rebellion, but is not a man to let the grass grow. If one scheme fails, why then, he has another in mind…

    “No, you’re right. I don’t want to tell the secret. I don’t want to see poor Lady Lisle, or Mrs Walsingham, or whatever else she may choose to call herself, break her heart. I don’t want to see you kicked out of Lislewood Park, or sent to some unpleasant colony, where they might have the impertinence to ask you to pick oakum or break stones…
    “I am not one of those unlucky wretches to whom ready money is of vital importance… I would rather have fifty thousand pounds ten years hence than I would have five thousand today. Arthur Walsingham, what is the age of that boy yonder?” Major Varney pointed, as he spoke, to Sir Rupert Lisle…
    “He was seven last July.”
    “Seven years old. Very good. What would you say, Arthur, if I were to tear these silly letters and that other little document into a thousand pieces, and not ask you for another farthing for fourteen years?”

We are not privy to the details which Major Varney whispers into his companion’s ear, only to Walsingham’s appalled reaction—which extends so far as threatening to expose the Major, whatever the cost to himself, should he take one step towards putting his scheme into effect. The Major takes this easily enough, only shaking his head over Walsingham’s short-sightedness, and pointing out that he may have to use those letters after all…

Then, apparently putting all unpleasantness out of his mind, he requests an explanation for the name of ‘Beecher’s Ride’, given to a steep hill nearby. Walsingham tells him impatiently that it was named for a certain Captain Beecher, who won a wager by riding his horse down the face of the dangerous slope.

Walsingham then walks off, and the Major turns his attention to Sir Rupert, who has listened to this with great interest, and immediately declares that he could ride down the slope. The Major scoffs at this assertion—which gets exactly the response he expected, and perhaps the outcome, too…

    The Major, with every one of his white teeth displayed in an insolent laugh, and with his face towards the sun, was provokingly bright to look at.
    “No, no, my little Baronet,” he said, “you’re not brave enough to try that; for you’re too sensible not to know that it can’t be done.”
    The boy’s pale face flushed crimson with passion. “Can’t it?” he screamed at the top of his shrill treble voice. “Can’t it be done, Major?”
    He turned the pony’s head, galloped once round the summit of the hill, and then, lashing the animal violently with his whip, flew over the narrow ridge and down the hill-side… The pony reached the bottom of the hill, the boy swaying backwards and forwards in his saddle, but keeping his seat, but in the impetus of the last rush, the animal lost his balance, and fell, rolling over his rider. From where the two men stood, the pony and the boy looked like one confused mass, which rolled over and over for a few moments, and then grew suddenly still…

The two men rush to the scene via a less dangerous path. The pony is not seriously hurt, and scrambles to its feet; but when the Major kneels to inspect the child…

The Major is not slow to take advantage of Walsingham’s state of grief and shock—and guilt—arguing that he never intended such a thing to happen—he promised, did he not, that the boy would not be harmed?—but now that this has happened…

The numb Walsingham does not intervene as the Major springs into action, whipping the the pony to drive it deep into a nearby pool of muddy, stagnant water, from where it scrambles up into the woods beyond. He then wraps the child in his own plaid, telling Walsingham to go home and alert everyone that the boy is missing; to tell them that he galloped away from his companions and became lost; no more than that.

The Major carries his grim bundle to his carriage, waiting nearby with Mrs Varney and Alfred Salamons, and places it upon the seat inside. As he climbs in, he tells the others that Sir Rupert has been badly injured, and must be taken to Brighton immediately for more expert care than may be found near Lislewood:

    The Captain laid his hand upon the carriage-door. “What are you going to do with—with—the boy?”
    For the first time since the accident, Major Granville Varney smiled.
    “You know, or can guess,” he said. “Au revoir, dear boy.”

When the alarm is given at Lislewood Park, a wide-ranging search is put into effect; with the wet and muddy state of the pony, which wanders back to its own stable, suggesting the worst. Mrs Walsingham all but collapses in shock and grief, clinging desperately to the fact that her son’s body has not been found; and it never is…

No suspicion that the boy’s disappearance, and presumed death, is anything but a tragic accident crosses anyone’s mind. After all, with the boy dead the estate will pass to a distant cousin; while the profound grief and perpetual mourning of the boy’s mother, and the unyielding gloom of his step-father, speak for themselves. The entire district is affected by the tragedy—with one exception. Though Mrs Arnold mourns for the boy, and the sorrow of her patroness, Gilbert Arnold himself is in a state of high glee, delighted that adversity has finally struck the Lisles in a way that not all the wealth and property in the world can help.

But late one night, Arnold’s unwontedly cheerful mood receives a severe check when he has a visitor in the person of Major Granville Varney. Polite and urbane as always, the Major sends Mrs Arnold to bed, then settles in for a long talk with Arnold: one which encompasses the doings of a certain Josiah Bird, wanted for the murder of a gamekeeper in Kent, and includes the fact that Bird is a man identifiable by a gunshot wound in his right leg, such that he might be supposed to have a limp…

After this, the conversation takes an abrupt turn. Gilbert Arnold is advised—strongly advised—to pack up his family—including his boy; he must take great care of his boy—and go to London, where he will be met at the station by Mr Alfred Salamons, who may have some good news for him.

And so the Arnolds depart from Lislewood; although under the circumstances, this is not much noticed, nor is Arnold at all missed.

In London, the invaluable Mr Salamons directs the Arnolds to their new lodgings, taken in the name of “Green”, and further informs Arnold that if he behaves himself and does as he is told, particularly with respect to the care of his son, he will receive a weekly stipend until further notice. Arnold, typically, snarls at what he considers the smallness of the amount; but on the other hand there is the shadow of Josiah Bird…

Fourteen sad years then slide by at Lislewood. The cousin who has inherited the baronetcy is comfortably settled in Italy, and has no desire to return to England, instead leasing his estate to the Walsinghams in exchange for their management of his property. Mrs Walsingham’s grief for her son finally settles into resignation, a process assisted by the birth of her second child, also a boy: a healthy, happy, good-natured boy, who becomes the pet of the whole household, and the apple of his father’s eye.

But in spite of this, the loss of Sir Rupert Lisle is a blow from which Arthur Walsingham never recovers. His health deteriorates; far more seriously, indeed, than he allows his wife to know; but it is not until a short time before what would have been Sir Rupert’s coming-of-age that he speaks to her of any of the things on his mind.

At last, sure within himself that he has a very short time to live, he is moved to tell her a certain sad story—about a young army officer, who fell passionately in love with a beautiful girl who jilted him—and who responded to her perfidy by going sixteen ways to the devil. In particular, the young man completely lost his head over an actress, who was even more beautiful than his lost love, and unlike her in every other way, being dark, stately and mysterious. A brief but violent courtship conducted chiefly through wild letters ended in marriage. It was only after the ceremony that he ran into an acquaintance from India, who, recognising the new Mrs Walsingham from her earlier days in Calcutta, told the new bridegroom all about his wife…

On the instant, the young man abandoned the woman he had married, although not without giving her money, and returned to his old life in India. Some years later he saw his wife again, by then calling herself the wife of another man; well-contented, he did not interfere. Soon afterwards, a terrible temptation was placed in his path, one to which he succumbed—and so left himself the perpetual victim of a conscienceless villain. For the young man learned that the girl he had loved, the girl who had jilted him, had been widowed…

Claribel Lisle—not Walsingham—is appalled by the story unfolded to her, as well she might be; but her years of suffering have strengthened her, and she rises to the occasion with forgiveness and pity.

But for Walsingham, the stress of the moment brings about the crisis he has long expected. He collapses in a fit of apoplexy; only managing to utter, before he dies, a few incoherent words:

“Claribel—the boy, Rupert,” he gasped with a painful effort, “the boy is alive—Major Varney—ask—ask—“

.

[To be continued…]

23/10/2015

The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight

BlackBand1    In the lanes and alleys of the city, in the dismal rookeries where destitution and crime herd together in dismal companionship, the thief plies his dangerous trade, and the thief-catcher watches for his victim. In the gayer streets of the Western world of rank and fashion, the wretched daughters of sin, with silken garments and aching hearts, wait upon the miscalled pleasures of the wealthy and dissipated. Guilt and degradation are abroad beneath the midnight sky. Crime stalks beneath the quiet stars, and fears not to show its hideous face, hidden from the broader light of day…
    Oh wondrous mysteries of midnight! The felon doomed to die on the early morrow waits the coming of his executioner, with parched and burning lips which refuse to pray; with listening ears that count the strokes of the last hours left for his guilty soul; with dazzled eyes that see strange sights in the dim obscurity of his narrow cell; visions of horror and departed peace; of his victim’s death struggle, and of the happy home of his childhood. Oh, who shall tell of the tortures of the murderer’s last midnight? Far away in foreign lands, the soldier watches in his tent, on the eve of some decisive battle. He may never again hear the hour of twelve strike from distant turrets. There are prayers to be hastily murmured—prayers whose sincerity none can doubt, whose acceptance who shall fear? There are letters to be written to the grey-haired mother, tender words to the fair young wife waiting and hoping in the distant English home; while far away the clashing of arms, the galloping of horses’ hoofs, tell of preparations for the coming morn.
    No, midnight is not the hour of rest and silence we are so apt to deem it. The mighty wheel of Life and Time still rolls on. The ceaseless waves of the ocean still bent on the troubled shore; and that which is more restless than the ocean wave, or hurrying cloud, the heart of man, still fights the terrible battle—still suffers and still sins…

One of the remarkable things – one of the many remarkable things – about Mary Elizabeth Braddon is that while she was pursuing a successful public career as the author of “real” albeit rather shocking novels meant for middle- and upper-class readers, she was simultaneously toiling away at penny dreadfuls published in magazines aimed at the working-classes. Most of Braddon’s work in this area was conducted anonymously, and it is only recently that her activities have been brought to light.

Braddon’s first attempt at a penny dreadful was The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran in The Halfpenny Journal between July 1861 – June 1862 at an average of two chapters per week. In 1877, the tale was reissued in book form by the publisher George Vickers, but it was heavily abridged; there was likewise a pirated American edition which was even more altered from the original. The Black Band was not reissued unabridged until 1998, when The Sensation Press released a limited edition.

It is easy enough to see the connection between The Black Band and Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris; in fact, imitations of Sue’s work were popular for many years, with authors all around the world offering to reveal “The Mysteries Of—” this, that or the other city to their wide-eyed readers. The difference is that Sue used his sprawling serial as a forum in which to raise and debate various social issues, whereas his copyists were, for the most part, content to shock and entertain. The latter is mostly true of Braddon’s work, although – typically, as we have already seen – she does also voice a number of social criticisms when her plot allows.

Another connection between The Black Band and Les Mystères de Paris is that its constantly multiplying storylines* make it impossible to review; all we can really do is offer an outline of its dizzyingly complicated tangle of subplots, and then highlight some of its more interesting features.

(*In the Sensation Press edition, The Black Band runs 612 pages; Braddon is still introducing new characters and subplots at page 505.)

Rather than “a plot”, as such, The Black Band has a central premise, one which allows Braddon to pile incident upon incident upon incident for one hundred and one breathless – not say exhausting – chapters, most of which end upon a cliff-hanger. Along the way, the reader is edified with murder, attempted murder, adult abduction, baby abduction, death-faking, imprisonment, attempted rape, forgery, bigamy, arson, robbery, a mock marriage, illegitimacy, insanity, suicide, a variety of betrayal and treachery, and some extremely bloody vengeance.

It can be fairly said, I think, that the readers of The Halfpenny Journal got rather more than their money’s worth.

So: at the centre of this story is Colonel Oscar Bertrand, an Austrian soldier of high social standing, but who is also the head of a secret criminal organisation called “The Black Band”, otherwise known as “The Companions Of Midnight”:

“I am the centre of a system so vast in its operations, that it extends over the greatest part of civilised Europe. I am the captain of a company so large that there are men in it upon whose faces I have never looked, and never expect to look. It is a company which, though continually at war with society, can yet – secure in its internal strength and the unfailing prudence of its operations – afford to defy society year after year. Recall to your recollection some of those gigantic robberies which have startled the wealthiest cities of Europe – robberies in which a skill has been displayed partaking almost of the supernatural – robberies which have defied the determination and the perseverance of the cleverest police in Europe, and which have remained undiscovered until this hour. Remember these, and you may form some idea of the resources of the mysterious company of which I speak.”

We eventually learn that Bertrand’s ultimate personal goal is to establish himself himself with the Austrian government by bringing about the destruction of those who have devoted themselves to freeing Venice from Austrian rule.

Braddon became aware of Italy’s struggle for independence when she was commissioned to write the epic poem Garibaldi in 1860, and she put her researches to effective if somewhat cynical use in The Black Band. Although she positions her Venetians amongst her “good” characters and shows herself sympathetic with their cause, ultimately their role is to step up at the end of the story, when it’s time for gruesome retribution to be dished out to her bad characters; thus leaving her good English characters with clean hands.

We note with amusement that most of those good characters have something in common: The Black Band is full to overflowing with poor and/or working-class people who are happy because they are virtuous; whereas all the rich people are miserable, and most of them criminal. While obviously this is Braddon catering to her target audience, it is not mere pandering: we must remember that Braddon herself knew what it was to be poor, and to struggle to earn a living wage. Her family was left in an extremely precarious situation after her irresponsible father finally did a bunk (not coincidentally, I’m sure, The Black Band is full of terrible fathers; the one or two good ones are adoptive, not biological), which led to Braddon going on the stage when she was only a teenager. When she speaks bitterly of starvation wages and the battle simply to survive from day to day, we can feel that she is drawing upon her own early experiences.

While he keeps a company of professional burglars at his disposal, most of what we see of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment to his criminal society is done amongst the upper-classes—where there is no shortage of secrets to be exploited. Bertrand will help cover up a crime, if that is what is needed, or he will help in the commission of one. He particularly excels in helping people to come into possession of, or to keep, a fortune—for a price, of course.

Bertrand is one of these super-criminals who never seems to sleep. He spends his time flying from one end of England to the other, and from England to Italy and back again, seeking out dirty secrets he can use to bind new members of the Black Band to him, and others from which he can profit. Bertrand is a master manipulator, who uses the weakness and greed of others to his own ends. Recruits to the Black Band are tied to the society under threat of death, should they try to leave or betray the society in any way.

The Black Band opens with scenes of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment of Lionel Mountford:

    The face of the young nobleman grew ghastly white at the Colonel’s last words. “And you ask me to join a band of robbers?” he said.
    “I ask you to do what better men have done before you,” said Colonel Bertrand, coldly. “Members of the company have been the inhabitants of palaces before today. From the highest to the lowest—the strength of the band lies in that. Wherever there is genius, courage, endurance, and patience; a hand that can strike, or withhold from striking; a tongue that can be silent, and a head that can think,—wherever there are these, there is a worthy member. High or low, let him enter the band. He will never leave it.”
    “Your words appal me,” said Lord Lionel, gloomily.
    “Will you join us – yes or no?” said the Colonel.
    “What do you promise me if I do join you?”
    “The wealth you desire, and the hand of Lady Edith Vandeleur before the next year is out.”

And on these terms Lionel recklessly throws in his lot with the Black Band. He is blindfolded and carried off to a strange rendezvous with an assembly of masked men:

    “You hear, brother,” said the Colonel, “you are accepted by the Companions of Midnight. Is it not so, brothers?”
    The masked company raised their hands simultaneously. Lord Lionel noticed that while many of the hands were coarse and large, others were small, white, and delicate, and adorned with costly rings.
    “Executioners of the Order, advance!” said the Colonel.
    Two men rose, and advanced from the opposite sides of the amphitheatre. They were both dressed in black from head to foot, and Lord Lionel perceived that they each wore a long slender knife, fastened to a belt which went round their waists.
Each of them silently took one of Lord Lionel’s hands, which he held while the Colonel uttered the following words,—
    “Executioners of the Order of the Companions of Midnight, the brother whose hand you now clasp will never be harmed by you, while faithful to the society which he this night swears to serve. If unfaithful to that society, he will become yours to strike when you can, and how you can. Mercy is unknown to you – you are the blind and pitiless instruments of the order to which you belong. If the new brother is too weak to take the oath of the Order, let him release your hands as I speak these words. If he holds your hands after these words, he is supposed to have taken the oath. If he refuses to join, let him drop the hands of the executioners.”
    A deadly shiver agitated the frame of the young nobleman, but his hands tightened upon the hands of the executioners, which he grasped with convulsive strength…

The woman for whom Lionel takes this drastic step is one of The Black Band‘s wickedest pleasures, with Braddon showing what she could do when her hands weren’t tied by tenets of middle-class morality. Lady Edith Vandeleur loves Lionel Mountford (albeit that her feelings are repeatedly qualified with remarks like, “As far as a woman of her nature could love—“), but she will not marry a penniless younger son. She wants fortune and splendour, and a title if she can get it. It is her cold-blooded spurning of Lionel that drives him into Oscar Bertrand’s clutches.

However, not knowing that the Colonel is keeping his word to Lionel by disposing of his elder brother, a wealthy Marquis, Edith lures into marriage Robert Merton, “the millionaire-merchant”. Driven frantic by her subsequent discovery that, had she bided her time just a little longer, she really could have had it all, Edith herself becomes Colonel Bertrand’s next recruit—and she, the daughter of an earl, raised in luxury and privilege, takes to a life of crime like a duck to water.

Braddon has a lot of evil fun with Lady Edith, having her move from one shocking piece of behaviour to the next, and dwelling in mock-horror upon her transgressions, each one worse than the last, even while she punctuates her narrative with tut-tut passages like this one:

    “Goodness, virtue, truth!” she cried, with a sneer; “will those win me admiration or respect? No! I must be able to outdo them all in pomp and splendour, and then, though they may hate me, they will bow to me, and lick the dust under my feet.”
    If anybody who beheld this lovely creature (crowned with snow-white flowers, emblems of the purity which was a stranger to her guilty soul), could have known the secrets of her wicked heart, how loathsome would her grandeur and beauty have appeared!
    How far before her the poorest cottage girl, walking barefoot over her native heath, whose heart could glow with a sincere affection, and whose soul could scorn a falsehood!

And of course, Braddon serves up several poor-but-virtuous young women to act as a direct foil for Edith, the most prominent of whom is Clara Melville who, interestingly enough, works as a dancer to help support her father and younger siblings. And Clara is not the only one of Braddon’s good characters who is “on the stage”: Clara is befriended by a prima ballerina called Lolota Vizzini, who is a foreigner as well as a professional performer, but who is warm-hearted, generous and thoroughly honest. We also have an actor called Antony Verner, who is a quiet, well-behaved, high-principled young man.

At one point, Clara is hired to perform in a Christmas pantomime. As she prepares to make her debut, we get a sudden interjection from Braddon:

Merry children with bright and joyous faces were assembled in the boxes; happy tradespeople, dressed in their best, filled the crowded benches in the pit; stalwart mechanics, in tier after tier, looked down from the immense and noisy gallery. All was noise, bustle, and enjoyment. It was altogether a pleasant sight to see; and the austere teachers, who cavil at the harmless amusements afforded by a well-conducted theatre, might have learned a lesson thgat night. Husbands were there, surrounded by their wives and children; brothers with their sisters. Surely this was better than the gin palaces…

Braddon’s personal exasperation with the automatic damning of the stage as “immoral” is very evident through these subplots. She goes out of her way to show how performing is just a job like any other and that, if young women on “the stage” do go wrong, it is not because of any inherent immorality, but because of greedy employers who pay wages their performers cannot live on—particularly if they are working to support dependents. And because she is talking to a working-class readership, Braddon can speak frankly about the sheer necessity that drives young girls to supplement their incomes by immoral means; and while she does not condone this choice, neither does she condemn the girls who make it, keeping her anger for the men who prey, one way or another, upon the vulnerable.

(In pursuit of her argument, Braddon introduces a theatre manager called Rupert de Lancey, who pays his young women as little as he can get away with, among other wrongs. There is so much venom in Braddon’s sketch, and she kills de Lancey off so horribly, that we can only conclude he was based on someone she knew in her theatre days.)

Daringly, Braddon makes Clara Melville, who we must call the heroine of The Black Band, a ballet-dancer attached to the Opera House: these young women had the worst reputation of all those in the various stage professions, with many a young man treating the environs of their theatre as their hunting-ground. Clara, however, wants only to do her work, earn her wage, and go home. Her beauty attracts attention, but she is scrupulous in avoiding the men who hang around the stage doors—until she encounters one who will not take no for an answer, in the form of the old roué, Sir Frederick Beaumorris. Enraged by the scorn with which Clara spurns him, Sir Frederick has her abducted and carried off to a property in France that he keeps for these situations. He doesn’t believe that Clara really means what she said to him, mind you; he assumes she’s merely trying to drive up her price; but if she did mean it, well, that’s just too bad…

Clara avoids A Fate Worse Than Death by the unexpected intervention of Oscar Bertrand, who forestalls that, at least, by revealing to Sir Frederick that she is actually his own niece, the daughter of the younger brother whom he defrauded and left destitute by means of a forged will. This knowledge does not make Sir Frederick any less eager to destroy Clara; he just alters his approach. He joins the Black Band in exchange for assistance in keeping his crime concealed; which, since it turns out that the original will was not destroyed after all (one of the conspirators getting cold feet), may require the permanent removal of Jasper Melville, aka Arthur Beaumorris, and of his daughter, Clara.

One of the most outrageous characters in The Black Band is Dr Montague Valery, a West End physician who maintains a successful practice despite the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients; or rather, because of the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients:

    It was strange that, clever as the physician was, he rarely went into a house whose threshold was not speedily crossed by the dark visitant, Death.
    The wife, whose husband Montague Valery attended, wore weeds soon after the coming of the physician. The heir, who summoned Valery to attend his father, rarely waited long for his heritage. Behind the doctor stalked the invisible form of Death; and, go where he would, the undertaker was apt to follow.
    He was at home when Sir Frederick Beaumorris called…

The will that should have enriched Arthur Beaumorris is eventually unearthed in the rackety old house which Antony Verner shares with his mother, and which in time also becomes the home of Clara and her younger siblings. The house previously belonged to Antony’s uncle, who was one of Sir Frederick’s co-conspirators, and who said just enough on his deathbed to let his nephew know there was a mystery. On Clara’s behalf, Antony hires a lawyer to instigate proceedings against Sir Frederick Beaumorris in the Court of Chancery, and that lawyer, Weldon Hawdley, comes accessorised by a shabby-looking, middle-aged clerk. It is, however, soon evident who the brains of the outfit is, and that whatever professional success Hawdley has had, it has been on the back of the efforts of Joshua Slythe, who progressively emerges as the unlikely hero of The Black Band.

As with Lady Edith, Braddon has a lot of fun with this improbable but entertaining character; though we sense she’s not kidding with her contention that real heroes do sometimes come in very unexpected forms:

Again Joshua heard the key turned in the door. He wondered what was meant by this proceeding on the part of the agent. A coward would have trembled. Alone, in a strange house, in a strange corner of town, and completely in the power of a wretch, whose character he knew to be infamous, Joshua Slythe was certainly in no pleasant situation; but the old clerk was not an ordinary man; fear to him was utterly unknown. Many a stalwart giant, upwards of six feet high, might have envied the brave spirit of the lawyer’s confidential clerk.

We have seen already, in our examination of The Trail Of The Serpent, that Braddon was an important figure in the development of English crime fiction, and she takes another step in that role here. Slythe is not really a detective, but he is an investigator; he is also the honest (and of course, working-class) counterpart of Oscar Bertrand, in that he has a profound understanding of human nature in its blackest forms, and an unerring instinct for a secret. His hard-earned knowledge has left Slythe with a cynical patina, but he is unshakeably on the side of the angels. Late in the book he forms a couple of interesting working partnerships, the first with a pugnacious farmer, John Atkinson, the second with Antony. Both men are initially bewildered by Slythe’s manoeuvring; both, however, quickly learn to follow his orders without question.

It is Slythe, then, who tracks down Arthur Beaumorris after he is abducted and imprisoned in a private lunatic asylum; it is Slythe who recognises Montague Valery’s evil designs upon Arthur and Clara, and takes steps to circumvent them; and it is Slythe who breaks up the burglary arm of the Black Band’s English branch (although amusingly, most of the criminals succeed in escaping the law; still, their activities are put a stop to).

Meanwhile—

We left Lady Edith furiously and disgustedly married to Robert Merton. To cut a very long story short, she tries to murder her husband, fails and is caught, is incarcerated (privately, under the guise of “madness”, to avoid shaming her family), escapes and flees, all at the prompting, and with the connivance, of Oscar Bertrand (well, except for the failure), who subsequently reunites Edith with Lionel and packs the pair of them off to Venice, where Lionel’s job is to infiltrate and betray an important anti-Austrian secret society.

While separated from Edith due to the events above summarised, Lionel made the acquaintance of Lolota Vizzini, who fell in love with him. At that time, Lionel was still fixated upon Edith, but he was clear-sighted enough to recognise the vast difference between the two women (that is, between the foreign ballerina and the earl’s daughter), and likewise the very different quality of Lolota’s love. However, even had Lionel then been able to cure himself of his love for Edith, it could not have been—because Lolota is a married woman.

At seventeen, Lolota married a man she did not love to escape her brutal father, only to discover that she had merely gone from frying-pan to fire. She eventually separated from Antonio Vecchi and struck out on her own, finding success and fame as a dancer; however, her achievements bring her no happiness because of her situation, with Vecchi turning up periodically to demand large sums of money as the price of staying away.

Vecchi is a member of the Black Band (no big surprise, there) and he is tasked with carrying the information gained by Lionel back to London. Vecchi is a serial betrayer, with a history of joining political societies, learning their secrets, and selling them to the highest bidder; he decides to circumvent Bertrand and carry his information directly to Austria, to reap all the benefits himself. It is, of course, a fatal mistake:

    Colonel Bertrand took a key from his pocket, and deliberately unlocked the grated door of the cell. He stood aside as he opened this door, and, with a howl of fury, an enormous tiger bounded from its den and leapt upon the Italian traitor. It seemed as if the animal had power to divine the purpose of its master.
    The dagger dropped from the hand of Antonio Vecchi. He fell to the ground beneath the weight of the powerful animal. The atmosphere was filled with blood. He was helpless—suffocated. The weight of the monster’s paws upon his breast stifled him, a jerk, and the spinal cord was dislocated, the traitor expired…

Yes, that’s right: Oscar Bertrand keeps a tiger around, just in case.

Although this dramatic execution is intended both to fulfil the conditions of the warning contained in the oath that all members take to the Society, and to act as a grim warning to those watching, it naturally has the side-effect of widowing Lolota Vizzini; so that when she and Lionel meet again, she is no longer a married woman…

In Venice, Lionel and Edith pose as brother and sister, she furthermore as the widow of a French nobleman. Lionel at this time is as miserable as he can be, worn down by guilt and self-hatred, and by something else:

    For years Lady Edith had been the lodestar of his existence—the bright and wandering meteor leading him through seas of guilt, indifferent whither he went in pursuit of her he loved.
    But, during those past years he had only seen her at intervals. He had beheld her the queen of a ball-room, the idol of a crowd—he had seen only her beauty and fascination, and for these he had alone worshipped her.
    Within the last few weeks he had learnt to know her!

Such is Lionel’s state of mind when he discovers that Lolota is appearing in Venice; Lolota, whom he has learned to appreciate and to love. In their moment of reunion, neither can conceal their emotion—Edith sees it clearly enough, and is overwhelmed with jealous rage. Even as Lionel and Lolota make secret – they think – plans to flee, from Edith and the Black Band alike, Edith begins making plans of revenge. The lovers intend to slip away to Naples in the first instance, travelling separately to avoid attracting attention. This gives Edith her chance: working with a conspirator from the Black Band, she succeeds in decoying Lolota into a fever-ridden corner of the city, gloating at the thought that even if Lionel manages to find her, he will only find a corpse…

That taken care of, Edith makes plans for her own future:

    Within a fortnight of Lord Willoughby’s departure from Venice, the marriage of the Marquis and Constance de Grancy (it was thus that Edith called herself) was solemnised with great pomp and splendour in the church of St Mark.
    Lady Edith had declared herself a Roman Catholic. What mattered the difference of creed to this fiend in human form—this worshipper of Satan, who could scarcely have believed in the existence of an all-seeing and avenging Deity.
    The vows were spoken which united Constance de Grancy and Lorenzo de Montebello in the holy bonds of matrimony. The would-be-murderess added the guilt of bigamy to her list of crimes.

Throughout her time in Venice, Edith has lived in dread of meeting someone who knows her as Lady Edith Vandeleur or, worse, as Lady Edith Merton. Should this happen, her plan is simply to deny her identity and brazen it out; but this doesn’t work when it is Oscar Bertrand who confronts her. The information gathered by Lionel had no long-term effect upon the conspirators, and the Black Band needs to try again. Edith’s husband knows when and where the next meeting of the anti-Austrian society is to be held: Bertrand gives her a week to get the information out of him; if she fails, she will be exposed.

Edith succeeds, but only just; in the extreme urgency of the matter, she and Bertrand are just a little careless: their conversation is overheard…

Braddon concludes The Black Band by dealing out happiness and retribution with a liberal hand—in a few cases, we are surprised at who is deemed worthy to warrant the former, or at least to avoid the latter. However, there’s never any question of what’s coming for Lady Edith and Oscar Bertrand, after their plot against the Venetians is discovered.

On one hand:

    The niche, or recess, measured about three feet and a half in breadth, and six feet in height… As Lady Edith looked at these things a stalwart figure emerged from the opening in the rock, and Black Carlo appeared before the masked leader.
    “We have done our work, Captain,” he said.
    “Ay,” answered the mask, “and you have done it quickly and well. The niche is neatly made, and we have brought the statue.”
    One of the masked guards laughed.
    “Come, Signora,” said the Captain, “can you guess now why we have brought you here?”
    “To murder me!” exclaimed Lady Edith.
    “No,” answered the mask, with horrible deliberation; “to bury you alive!

…while on the other, Oscar Bertrand is lured into drinking some “wine” prepared by a scientifically inclined member of the Venetian society:

The handsome face of the Austrian was now a ghastly and revolting spectacle. Every spark of intelligence had fled from his once brilliant eyes. His chin fell forward upon his breast, and his under lip hung powerless upon his chin, while a white foam oozed slowly from his open mouth. His head, which, four-and-twenty hours before, had been carried with the haughty grace of an emperor, now trembled like the head of some wretched being in the last stage of decay. His hands hung loosely from his wrists, as if every sinew had been withered and every nerve destroyed. He stared straight before him—his dull meaningless laughed the discordant gibbering laugh of an idiot…

This is our last glimpse of Colonel Oscar Bertrand in The Black Band:

The wretched creature burst into a loud peal of shrill laughter, and tottered away, gibbering and mouthing as he went…

Note, however, that Braddon does not explicitly kill him off. Even at this early stage of her writing career, she knew better than to do THAT to her master-criminal…

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27/03/2015

The Histories Of Lady Frances S— And Lady Caroline S—

Minifies1cWe who have indulgent parents, or such as supply their loss, like the aunt of my Juliet, ought to think them the richest gift of Providence.—An incident has happened since my last, that gives more force to this reflection, than any other I have met with.—Scarcely am I yet recovered from the hurry of spirits it occasioned.—Sitting alone this morning, I was told that a young lady desired admittance to me, with great earnestness; but being suddenly taken ill, was obliged to drink a glass of water, before she could deliver her request… What was my astonishment to find there Lady Frances S—, whom but two days since I saw at the masquerade, inspiring all who beheld her, with respect, even to veneration, now unattended; in appearance all terrified, and ready to sink; her feet being scarce able to support their trembling burden.—Unable to speak, I received her in my arms; her head fell on my shoulder, while her hidden grief found vent in a most violent gush of tears…

Margaret and Susannah Minifie were the daughters of the Reverend James Minifie of Somersetshire. Margaret was born around 1734, and Susannah around 1740. Not much is known about their early lives; from our point of view, the most cogent fact is that in 1763, the sisters began writing novels: a profession in which they were later joined by Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth.

It should be stressed at the outset that the bibliography of the Minifie sisters is confused and contradictory when it comes to individual authorship—in short, it is not at all clear who wrote what. Sometimes they put their name, or names, or the title page and sometimes they did not; while certain works have been differently attributed by different academics. We should note that while it is canon to list Susannah Gunning as the author of Barford Abbey, the novel has been attributed by some to Margaret Minifie; though I’m not aware of any solid reason to do so. (We might recall that during the Gunning scandal – the first – Gunning scandal – Susannah denied writing this novel; although if that were true, “my sister wrote it” might have been a more cogent response than “I never heard of it.”)

The Minifies, separately and together, found a certain measure of success as writers. They specialised in “novels of sensibility”, usually featuring the stock wish-fulfilment fantasies of poor girls either marrying into the aristocracy, or discovering they are of the aristocracy, or both (ironic, considering their connection to the Gunning sisters, who did exactly that). Their over-the-top sentimentality saw them paid the backhanded compliment of having the term “Minific” coined to describe that type of writing; in which respect, Clara Reeve singled out Margaret Minifie for criticism in her study of the novel, The Progress Of Romance. However, while it is generally agreed that the Minifies’ early novels are fairly weak, there is also some feeling that they improved as writers over time.

The Minifies’ first novel, published as by “the Miss MINIFIES of Fairwater, in Somersetshire”, appeared in 1763. The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— is, as we might expect, a sentimental epistolary novel, and entirely typical of that branch of writing, inasmuch as there is a lot of talk, and a great many outpourings of “sensibility”, but not a lot actually happens.

Overall, however, the main weakness of the novel lies in its handling of one particular plot-thread.

Lady Frances S—, having fled from her parents’ house and taken refuge with the Lady Lucy Walton, daughter of the Earl of — (I’m not sure why Lady Lucy gets a surname and Lady Frances doesn’t; though their parents are equally title-less), feels obliged to give a circumstantial account of her entire life, in order to justify herself. This account Lady Lucy, naturally, transcribes word for word and sends to her chief correspondent, Miss Juliet Hamilton. At the outset of it (page 17 of the novel), Lady Frances declares:

About this time died my sister Caroline, two years younger than myself.—Had she lived—but for her sake I ought not, will not wish it…

But on the other hand, there’s this dream sequence:

Back again to town, my father spurning me from him, my mother frowning, and ordering me from her presence:—all insulting me, except my uncle, who with a look of mingled pity and resentment, took my hand, and convey’d me from them.—Once more at Audley-castle, Mr Worthley with us; all harmony. My father and mother both caressing him. To compleat all, a lovely creature rush’d into my mother’s arms, who presented her to me, bidding me embrace my sister…

What could the truth possibly be!?

Here’s a hint – take another look at the title of the novel.

Yes. Not a lot of suspense there. Basically we spend the whole novel waiting for the female version of The Suspiciously Superior Peasant to show up, which she duly does.

Anyway. The first half of The Histories— deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Frances; and the second half, although apparently we’re not supposed to realise it, deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Caroline. The plot, such as it is, has various of its characters being caught between love and duty; and though I doubt this was the moral that the Minifies intended to convey, things tend to work out whichever of those options is chosen. I can’t even really say that choosing love over duty brings more suffering, just a different kind.

One of the most unexpected things about The Histories— is the situation of Lady Frances who, though she would appear to be everything her aristocratic patents could desire in a daughter, is hated by those parents: or rather, she is hated by her mother, a former famous beauty suffering from poisonous jealousy of the young and even more lovely girl, while her father goes along with the resulting persecution because of his blind obsession with his wife. Most of what Lady Frances suffers is the direct result of deliberate cruelty from her mother and father, which in turns leads to the novel’s most exasperating aspect – exasperating in 1763, exasperating when Dickens did it about a hundred years later – the insistence that no matter how viciously a “good” girl is treated by her parents or, conversely, how entirely she is rejected by them, she will bear no feelings of resentment whatsoever, desire only to be reconciled, and (if and when that happens) evince nothing towards them but gratitude and love.

Groan.

Lady Frances’s father, though inheriting a dukedom, was otherwise deprived of everything he could be deprived of as a result of marrying against his father’s wishes, with all unsecured property and money devolving to his younger brother, Lord Henry: a situation which not unnaturally caused deep resentment in the new Duke. Nevertheless, seeing Frances neglected by her mother and left to the servants (at that time not out of jealousy, just because of the Duchess’s passion for her social life), Lord Henry arranged for her to be sent away to school, where she spent the next ten years; it was shortly after she left that the Lady Caroline died {*cough*}.

Returning home, Frances finds her parents’ passive hostility has become active, resulting in her being, in effect, kept in solitary confinement; while Lord Henry’s attempts to make the Duke and Duchess see their injustice backfire as often as not:

His Lordship remonstrated to my mother on my too strict confinement; and at length got her to promise she would introduce me to some of her acquaintance… About six I was summoned to the drawing-room, and found there my father, Lord Henry, and my mother: his Lordship, with an air of affection not visible on any other countenance called me dear good girl; see brother, see sister, leading me to them, how your condescension has made her eyes sparkle with gratitude. Her Grace looked at me in a manner that made me tremble. In my agitation I dropped down on one knee, took her hand and put it to my lips; being so much affected by her unkind silence, that I felt the tears falling in a shower on my face.—What does the girl mean? said my mother; this indulgence spoils her.—Indeed, brother, you persuade me to take a wrong method.—Go, madam, walk back to your apartment; I shall not carry you abroad to expose me…

Repeat ad nauseum.

Eventually Lord Henry persuades the Duke and Duchess to let him take Lady Frances home with him, where she is loved and appreciated; though of course she never stops repining over her parents’ neglect and indifference. At this point (with Lady Lucy repeating Lady Frances’ account of herself to Juliet Hamilton), the narratives-within-narratives start to intrude. We are first given the life-story of the subtly named Mrs Worthley—severely abridged version, she is widowed when her soldier-husband is killed and left almost destitute. She is succoured by an aristocratic woman who turns out to be Lady Frances’ grandmother, the late Duchess; and here allow me to quote a couple of short passages which, I think, convey perfectly both the overall tone of this novel, and its more-than-occasional amusing clumsiness of expression:

Recovering, I found myself thrown on my bed, a lady standing by me, with a smelling bottle in one hand, in the other my daughter…

The sight of [my daughter] made me wish to preserve that life, which was become less valuable, by being deprived of its richest comfort. The greatness of her joy shewed what her sorrow had been. From my arms she ran into the person’s by whose means I had been restored. O, madam, (she cried, locking the child in them, and kissing her with an affection like my own) what a child is this! never did I see such sensibility…

Mrs Worthley has a son as well as a daughter. Charles eventually follows his father into the army, while Sophia becomes the object of Lord Henry’s affections—but dies shortly before they are to be married. Lord Henry buries his heart in her grave and devotes himself to Good Works, in which he is assisted by Mrs Worthley.

Lord Henry is one of this novel’s more interesting aspects and, as with most of what is interesting here, it feels accidental. Lord Henry becomes, progressively, the moral centre of the story, everyone’s touchstone for what is honourable; yet to the reader it appears that Lord Henry has a talent for placing those who love him in the wrong, or for being away when his advice is most needed; so that (given the kind of novel this is) we end up with a series of big emotional scenes in which someone – usually the unfortunate Lady Frances – acts on their own judgement and then – of course – has to throw themselves at Lord Henry’s feet and beg his forgiveness for the heinous crime of being a little less perfectly perfect than he, in the kind of public display that novels of sensibility eat for breakfast.

Lord Henry’s Good Works also smack of killing with kindness. Even allowing for the shifts in language that have occurred since this novel was written, it is hard not to laugh when Charles Worthley, discovering that it was Lord Henry who bought the small estate that his mother sold following her husband’s death, and that he intends to restore it to him along with twenty years’ of collected rents, describes himself as being, “Oppressed by benefits.”

While on leave from his duties, Charles Worthley visits his mother, who now lives upon Lord Henry’s estate, and is introduced to Lady Frances. Naturally, these very nearly perfectly perfect young people fall in love, much as they struggle against it, and much as they struggle to conceal the fact from one another. Eventually, however, they confide in Lord Henry. Although he knows – or ought to know – that the Duke and Duchess will froth at the mouth at the very idea of Lady Frances marrying a mere soldier, he nevertheless asks their permission on the young couple’s behalf, hoping that a fervent description of Charles’ manifold virtues and the news that he, Lord Henry, has made Charles his heir will sufficiently make up for his lack of birth.

Naturally, the Duke and Duchess respond by calling their daughter home, violently abusing her non-stop for her wilfulness, disobedience and lack of proper pride, and try to force her into a hateful marriage—partly because the party in question is a member of the aristocracy and therefore (whatever his personal failings) a proper suitor for Lady Frances…but mostly just because it is hateful.

And having played no small part in bringing about this situation, Lord Henry then fades from the scene, leaving Frances to fend for herself—to decide on her own, firstly, whether “duty” – the perfect “duty” so beloved of Lord Henry – really dictates that she must marry as her parents bid her, whatever her feelings; and secondly, what to do when Charles Worthley tries to persuade her into a secret marriage…

So much for Plot A. Plot B concerns Lord Ormsby, the brother of Lady Lucy, whose erratic behaviour has been referred to at intervals during the transmission of Lady Frances’ story. At length – at length – it transpires that Ormsby has fallen under the influence of the dissolute Lord Edgmore, who has made it his business to lead him away from the path of virtue. As with Lady Frances’ parents, there is a proximate and ultimate reason for Lord Edgmore’s behaviour: on one hand, he likes corrupting virtuous young men; on the other, he is plotting his revenge against a venerable old country clergyman, Mr Nevison, who discovered his wicked intentions with respect to a certain young girl and intervened. Mr Nevison is to be punished for his temerity, the target of Lord Edgmore’s vengeance being the old man’s own beautiful, innocent young granddaughter, the weapon Lord Ormsby…

Ormsby, masquerading under a false identity, and at this stage imbued with Edgmore’s own vicious immorality, does indeed lay siege to Miss Dalton, with the intention of making her his mistress via a false marriage. He finds the task rather more difficult than anticipated; Miss Dalton is not what he expected, particularly in light of her lowly situation:

Can a girl unacquainted with riches, resist the charm they bring? may she not have some sparks of vanity in her composition; and may I not, by the breath of flattery, blow those sparks into flames? but in vain did I try that common and generally successful battery; she was proof against all my arts: my visits, through frequent, were never placed to her account; though I could discern I had by my assiduity gained her esteem. With pleasure have I seen her with an additional chearfulness, and the warmest filial duty imprinted on her face, exerting all the powers of sense and eloquence to entertain her aged and almost decrepid grandfather; which seem’d to soften the rigor of his pain, and banish the remembrance of his misfortunes.—How different from what is called the well-bred of her sex, who make the most desirable and necessary duties of life subservient to the least of their amusements. Often have I regretted, that so many fine women should lose, in the stream of pleasure, a sympathising softness, which nature has originally implanted in them, as a soil more capable of improving those tender seeds, than in us, whose minds are cast in a rougher mould. Difficult as I found it to proceed, I found it as difficult to retreat…

Ashamed of going on with his plot, yet more ashamed to back down in front of Lord Edgmore, Ormsby retreats to his home, when his strange moods attract the notice of his family and friends. He realises that he is in love with Miss Dalton, yet does not relinquish his plan. He proposes and is accepted, then turning his mind to how to lure her away from home. He ends up forging a letter from Miss Dalton’s mother (of whom, more anon), in which she reveals she has been ill, and asks her daughter to come to her. Lord Ormsby offers to escort her to the meeting place, and so manages to remove her from her grandfather’s care and to a house that he has prepared for the occasion. Having got Miss Dalton into his clutches, Ormsby gets to work:

In that time I intended to discover to her my quality, the impossibility of my marrying her (which had made me act as I had done) to tell her that I would study her happiness; and that if my fortune and entire affection could bestow it on her, they were both at her disposal. This considered, I hoped would induce her to forgive the deception I had used, and listen to those sophistical arguments which I had made myself master of, till her virtue should be lull’d asleep by them.—I took a lodging near hers, which was a small distance from the town, and seeing my scheme now at its crisis, I ventured to laugh at those sacred rites which I had before seemed to venerate, called them priestcraft, talked of her sparkling with jewels in a side-box; and being distinguished for her beauty wherever she appeared. When she thus interrupted me— Certainly you are not Mr Beaumont! The Mr Beaumont that honoured me with his regard, was good and generous. Leave, leave me, sir, I will not be insulted; if you entertain those opinions, leave me, and know that I detest the one, and despise the other…

Lord Ormsby does leave her; and, once home again, he finally confesses all to his best friend, Sir William Hamilton (brother to Juliet, who is courting Lady Lucy), asking his advice and that of their respective sisters as to how he should proceed.

Juliet, who recounts all this to another correspondent, her cousin Miss Wentworth, is moved, if not quite to poetry, at least to elaborate analogy:

After all, my dear, what a dreadful thing it is, when any of our sex, who really love virtue, are so unhappy as to fall into the hands of men, who glory in bringing it on a level with vice; of which principles is the hateful Lord Edgmore, especially in the case of Miss Dalton? Like the villain spider, he had artfully spun his web of so fine a texture, as to make it imperceptible. Hid in the close recesses of his wicked machinery, with malicious pleasure, he saw the innocent unsuspecting fly enjoying the sweets of content, and the liberty of roving from flower to flower, and sucking the sweets of education; till at last allured by a sunbeam, she is entangled in the net of vice.—The spider now shews itself, creeping out by slow degrees, eyeing its prey; who, at his approach, sends out a feeble cry of pity to its destroyer.—Bloated with imagined success, methinks I see him just ready to seize the victim of his revenge, when behold she is miraculously delivered by her own virtue…

As is also the case with Susannah Minifie Gunning’s later novel, Barford Abbey, some fairly twisted morality emerges at this point in The Histories— When Lady Frances’ parents go berserk at the thought of her marriage to Charles Worthley, and try to force upon her an individual loathsome for everything but his title, we naturally take it as a typical sentimental novel view of birth-vs-worth. And naturally, when Lord Ormsby falls for a girl of low birth, but who is otherwise “the most beautiful and the most virtuous of her sex”, we expect their union to be held up approvingly as an example of the triumph of proper values. But it doesn’t happen.

Both because he is in love with her, and to make reparation, Lord Ormsby proposes to Miss Dalton, even though he knows his father will be utterly enraged when he finds out. (To modern eyes, “the best of parents”, as he is repeatedly described, is both a domestic tyrant and a terrible snob.) Miss Dalton, however, is steadfast in her refusal—not, we gather, so much because of Ormsby’s transgressions, but because she is now aware that he is the son and heir of an earl. And instead of disputing her stance, Lady Lucy thanks her for it, praising her generosity and self-sacrifice in preventing Lord Ormsby from disgracing his family, and promising to love her as a sister provided she never actually becomes her sister.

So much for Miss Dalton’s beauty, innocence, virtue and courage, which are brushed aside as of no importance. It’s a pity, they all agree, but her marriage with Lord Ormsby is impossible.

Well. Almost impossible.

Before I move on to the question of how we turn an impossibility into a fait accompli, we must digress a moment for an extract from Mr Nevison’s letter to his granddaughter, upon his becoming aware of her various travails. Apparently he and Juliet Hamilton had the same English teacher:

Suspicion and innocence seldom meet; how could you then suspect that under the appearance of merit, was hid a subtil poison, calculated to fascinate the senses, and bid us both asleep? Few they are that can fly from this serpent, under the disguise of a friend; but often when too late discover the deception, and the force of its baneful influence. For innocence, like the playful squirrel, skipping from bough to bough, unmindful of its safety, discerns the beautiful speckled serpent, attempting to climb the tree, which affords her liberty, food, and shelter. Not mistrusting it for an enemy, it descends nearer, whilst the sly reptile rolls himself in a thousand different ways, the more to attract her notice. Sometimes it towers its head, fold upon fold, shewing its glittering scales, and then again baking in the sun of prosperity, licks the dust, attempting, by devilish cunning, to bring his designed prey to the low level of his desires; till at length the poor animal, lured by deceitful appearances, having her head made giddy by them, drops into the extended jaws of the baneful snake, who exults in loud reproachful hisses, on the misfortune he had occasioned…

Lady Frances and Lord Henry have been popping in and out of this plot-thread, but we don’t hear much of the Duke and Duchess until Lady Frances is summoned home by her father, who is stricken with grief and remorse in the face of his wife’s possibly fatal illnesss; and even at this early acquaintance with the Minifies, we are not in the least surprised to discover that the illness in question is smallpox. In Barford Abbey,  the heroine being both beautiful and virtuous, she survives unmarked; the Duchess, being beautiful but rather lacking in the virtue department, survives but has the looks she has always been so vain about completely ruined. This brings about an almost instantaneous reformation, and reconciles her to the daughter she has always hated as a rival—while Lady Frances, of course, is overcome with dutiful joy at this outcome.

Not so fortunate is the Duchess’ tirewoman—a certain Mrs Dalton. She catches smallpox from her mistress, and soon knows she is going to die. This prompts her finally to reveal the Terrible Secret she has harboured for many years…

Come not near me, Madam, said the poor creature, I am a wretch, unworthy this condescension, or your forgiveness. I assured her I did not recollect any offence towards me, but such as I could easily pardon.—O blessed sound! she replied, am I forgiven?—Then staring up, she wrung her hands, and with wild vehemence cried out, O my good Lady—the Duke—Lady Caroline—they—they;—have mercy, heaven, hide—hide—my guilt…

That’s right, folks! Say it with me now, loud and proud—

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

We haven’t had one of those plots for a while! Personally, I’ve missed them.

It turns out that Mrs Dalton has left a written confession behind, so we get the details as well as the facts. She starts by assuring the Duchess that her long-lost daughter, Still lives; she lives, an honour to you, an honour to your sex! concealed by me under a fictitious name, her noble birth shines out in obscurity.

Yeah, for all the good it’s done her.

Mrs Dalton was Lady Caroline’s wet-nurse. When the baby became ill, she was ordered to take her into the country, as well of course as her own daughter, Elizabeth. There she conceived the idea of swapping the children, and giving her own all the advantages of birth and wealth – an imposture she was sure she could get away with:

Such a mother as yourself, who had never seen your own, but once from its birth, would not discern the changeling…

(This is the second time we’ve encountered a baby substitution plot facilitated by disinterested 18th century motherhood.)

And so Elizabeth Dalton was received into an aristocratic nursery, while the Lady Caroline was banished to the country, to be raised by Mr Nevison, Mrs Dalton’s father. The scheme worked admirably—at least until the false Lady Caroline died…

Despite these outrageous revelations, Mrs Dalton doesn’t hesitate to read the Duchess a lecture on her own conduct:

Now I fear not your resentment, yet implore your forgiveness, and that of my dear Lady Frances Worthley. Your Grace too well knows the part I have acted towards that excellent Lady; it was when I saw your Grace’s treatment of the gentle sufferer in sending her from your house, that a sincere repentance first entered my heart; it was then  that I resolved to write what you now read; not only to restore Lady Caroline to your arms, but to endeavour to convince your Grace that, had you acted like a mother, you would never have lost the one, nor driven the other from you…

The revelation of Lady Caroline’s identity of course removes all barriers between herself and Lord Ormsby, and her steadfast clinging to duty is rewarded…while Lady Frances, who defied her parents and contracted a clandestine marriage to a man out of her own social class is…also rewarded, with reconciliations and friendships all around.

I’m just a little confused right now…

15/11/2014

Gillray vs the Gunnings

By the late 1780s, James Gillray was England’s leading political satirist. His caricatures, prepared as prints and etchings, were enormously popular and demonstrably capable of influencing public opinion. It is of note, however, that Gillray rarely took sides; or rather, he would satirise both sides of any given issues—for example, caricaturing both George III and the Prince of Wales, or presenting William Pitt as either a hero or a villain, according to whether his topic was international or domestic. Gillray’s work was heavily influenced by that of William Hogarth, and in addition to politics per se he produced any number of confronting images about various grim realities of contemporary life, often opposing the excesses and immorality of the upper classes with the miseries of the poor. The third stream of his work, the one that most concerns us at the moment, finds its subject matter in the scandals of the time.

The Gunning Mystery“, as it was called, inspired Gillray to three different caricatures. The one which we have already highlighted, The Siege Of Blenheim; or, A New System Of Gunning Discovered, not only combines outrageous images and obscene jokes (“Mother, mother, my masked battery is discovered!” exclaims the spraddle-legged and obviously underwear-free Elizabeth Gunning), but is an example of Gillray’s habit of presenting both sides of an issue. Although the Gunnings were the main target, the barrage of faeces emanating from Blenheim Castle is an acknowledgement that many people believed that the Duke of Marlborough or his son, Lord Blandford, were not as innocent as they claimed. Meanwhile, the reverses suffered at this time by the British army, widely blamed upon a corrupt and incompetent command, are referenced in the words given to John Gunning, as he slinks away from the scene of his family’s disgrace: “I find our Stratagem won’t take effect, & therefore I’ll be off; & manoeuvre;—any common Soldier can lead on, to any attack, but it takes the skill of a General to bring off his forces with honour after a defeat…”

The Siege Of Blenheim is a comparatively straightforward effort. Far less so is another of James Gillray’s attacks upon the Gunnings, which ties them to an earlier 18th century scandal. In my post addressing Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History Of Georgian London, we touched briefly upon the bizarre story of Elizabeth Canning, who in 1753 claimed to have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, but who was eventually proved to have made up the whole story. In Betty Canning Reviv’d, Gillray recasts the Canning scandal with members of the Gunning family; beyond the sheer similarity of the names “Elizabeth Canning” and “Elizabeth Gunning”, both scandals involved a young woman of good family solemnly swearing to the truth of their version of events and then being proved a liar. Betty Canning Reviv’d is an example of Gillray’s more complex humour, not only requiring people to understand the connection he was making, but to spot the various subtle visual details scattered around his image. The signpost to Blenhein in the background is clear enough, but in addition we have such touches as Elizabeth Gunning kissing a deck of cards instead of a bible as she swears an oath. My favourite detail, however, is the presence of a copy of that best-selling novel, “Waltham Abbey by Peg Niffy”.

Gunning3b

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This particular caricature introduces into the Gunning scandal Margaret Minifie, the sister and aunt respectively of Susannah and Elizabeth Gunning: that’s her on the far right in Betty Canning Reviv’d. She is even more prominent in Gillray’s third Gunning caricature. Here again he works the Gunnings into a different context, in this case referencing “Margaret’s Ghost”, a popular ballad from the first half of the century about a young woman who dies of a broken heart, and then appears as a ghost to reproach her lover with his broken promises and false oaths. In Margaret’s Ghost, Elizabeth Gunning’s “Auntee Peg” comes to break the terrible news that “Dishonourable-infamous-false-accusations” have been made against the three of them.

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NPG D12414; Margaret's ghost' (Elizabeth Gunning; Susannah Gunning (nÈe Minifie); Peg Minifie) by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

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I have been unable to come up with any specific reason why people were so convinced that Margaret Minifie was involved in the plot of the forged letters…which makes me wonder whether the rapidity with which the public seized upon the three women as the perpetrators of the forgery was that all three of them were novelists?

If this is true, we can understand why Susannah Gunning might have felt she had to defend herself by denying that she was guilty of the heinous crime of novel-writing…although the sad reality is, her doing so certainly made things worse, and not better, for herself, her daughter and her sister—besides confirming all Society’s worst suspicions about women who write.

The first novel to emanate from the Minifie household was The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, which was published in 1763. Below is the title page.

How on earth could she think she’d get away with it?

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Minifies1b

20/08/2014

The Mysterious Wife

MysteriousWife1b“I am no stranger to the situation of your heart, nor do I want the proofs that letter contains to convince me your passion was returned, even with interest; still, after what you have heard, and the restrictions you are laid under, would you venture your future happiness upon so hazardous a stake? Love is a wild, ungovernable, romantic passion, and often leads the greatest men to commit follies; I would therefore have you strictly examine your heart before you decide upon so important a matter; this may be a most advantageous offer, and may prove the exact reverse; your liberty, peace of mind, nay, eternal salvation, may become the sacrifice, were you to accept these fascinating offers; it is a sort of equal chance, and upon my honour, remember it is the strong friendship I feel for you makes me speak thus plain, I would not advise you to run so great a risk…”

There’s something oddly fitting, I suppose, about using a novel about a wife who refuses to reveal her true identity to try and determine the true identity of the person who wrote it. Published in 1797, The Mysterious Wife was the first Minerva Press release to bear the imprint “Gabrielli”—who, as discussed previously, may or may not have been the same person as “Mrs Meeke”. Certainly I had these questions in my mind while reading this novel, and I remain unconvinced that a second hand wasn’t involved.

For one thing, The Mysterious Wife is a very long novel in which not much happens, which is not something you can say about the three earlier novels by “Mrs Meeke”. The first half of the first volume is devoted to drawing the novel’s young hero into his strange marriage, the conclusion of the fourth volume resolves things with a rush; everything in between is essentially filler. The only question is whether the narrative will ultimately vindicate the romantic relationship at its heart, or whether its moral will turn out to be, “That’s what you get for marrying a foreigner, or at any rate a Catholic.”

Perhaps more revealingly, however, the style of writing here is quite different. Grammatical errors are not uncommon, while the author favours a rather tortuous form of prose involving lengthy run-on sentences strung together with a seemingly endless supply of semi-colons. The shift in topic between the beginning and the end of any given paragraph is often quite remarkable.

The Mysterious Wife opens in France, Some years before the fatal epoch of the French Revolution – in-text allusions later place the action about 1775 – and is the story of a young man whom we first know as Henry Westhorpe, the unwanted poor relation of an English family which has moved for economic reasons to the town of St Omers; quite the English conclave for people in the same sad situation. As a child, Henry is firmly discouraged from asking questions about his parents. He is led to understand that his mother made a disgraceful marriage, and that his uncle, her brother, has permitted him out of generosity to use the name “Westhorpe”. This is as far as Mr Westhorpe’s generosity extends, however. As an infant, Henry is put out to nurse; at the age of six he is sent away to an inexpensive school, and stays there for the next ten years. He is in some respects fortunate in this: though the school is not one of high reputation, its master, Mr Parker, is a good and well-educated man, who recognises Henry’s academic abilities and nurtures them; while Mrs Parker is a kind-hearted, motherly woman. It is to the deep regret of all three when, at the age of sixteen, Mr Westhorpe sends for Henry and places him in a college near St Omers to finish his education.

Henry’s education completed, Mr Westhorpe disposes of him by arranging for an army commission. The main consequence of Henry’s career move, rather to the chagrin of his relatives, though Mr Westhorpe is glad to have him off his purse, is that he acquires two powerful friends: the “Chevalier Macharty”, a Scotsman in the French army, arranges Henry’s commission in a Swiss Protestant regiment via his friendship with the Marquis D’Orcy, a colonel in a French regiment, who despite the difference in their ages takes such a shine to Henry that he adopts him as a sort of unofficial younger brother.

One of the most tiresome aspects of The Mysterious Wife is its constant harping upon Henry’s perfections—few of which we see in practice—and its insistence upon his limitless popularity with “the best people”; this short early passage sets the tone for the rest:

Henry’s elegant, manly figure, and rare accomplishments, soon made him a welcome visitor every where. The Chevalier was never invited to any party, without being entreated to bring his protégée in his hand, to the no small delight of the good old man, who soon became strongly attached to his young friend…

Prior to Henry setting out to join his regiment, the grovelling Mr Westhorpe tries to recommend himself to the Marquis by boasting of all he has done for Henry. In doing so, he not only says more about Henry’s parents than he has done before, but hints that Henry’s background is not what the boy was previously led to believe. Henry now discovers that his father was of good family, a soldier killed at the siege of Quebec. An unguarded remark discouraging him from “making any claim” upon his relatives suggests the existence of wealth, at least, making his difficult childhood even more difficult to understand. Mr Westhorpe refuses to be more explicit, however.

Though regretting his separation from the Marquis, Henry soon adjusts to his new surroundings:

…Henry, now equipped en militaire, was the next morning presented to all the officers of the regiment; one only excepted, who was a North-Briton, they were all Swiss, and received their new comrade with the greatest politeness, particularly Captain Beattie, his countryman; and Henry was excessively pleased to find himself not the only Englishman in the corps, and in less than a month he was quite at home among his new companions, and soon found he was infinitely better off than he would have been in a national regiment, as the inferior French officers are generally low-bred, illiterate coxcombs; the younger sons of the provincial nobility, who depend chiefly upon their pay for a livelihood…

Good GOD!! What kind of miserable excuse for a human being depends upon his pay for a livelihood!!?? Amusingly enough, at this stage of the novel the answer to that question would be “Henry Westhorpe”, although we are in little doubt that his kind creator will soon enough relieve him from his state of shameful income-earning.

Evidently being in the army imposes very little restraint upon a young man, nor does it require from him anything more arduous than wearing becoming regimentals, doing the occasional “exercise”, or acquiring many “brother officers” as friends. (Presumably there are soldiers who are not officers, but they never intrude upon the narrative.) Thus, Henry is soon able to arrange an extended leave, and goes off to Spa with the Marquis for a holiday. While there, Henry is powerfully attracted to a young fellow-visitor:

The one in the middle…now afforded him a full view of as fine a set of features as ever graced a female face; she was leaning upon an arm of each of her companions, and appeared to be in very high spirits; she was elegantly dressed, for a morning, in a sort of slight mourning, did not seem more than one or two and twenty, was rather tall, but possessed sufficient embonpoint to prevent her looking awkward. Her blooming complexion convinced the Marquis and Henry she had not come to Spa in search of Hygeia’s blessings; a pair of bright blue eyes expressed very strongly the natural vivacity of her disposition, though they beamed with mildness and sensibility…

It soon becomes apparent that there is a mystery attached to this beautiful young woman: no-one seems to know who she is, and it takes Henry and the Marquis some time to discover that she lives retired from the public eye in a rented house outside of the town. She does, however, walk at the spa most mornings, and the two men take every opportunity to improve their acquaintance with her—such as it is, considering their ignorance, which she does nothing to relieve. It is soon evident to the experienced Marquis that the two young people are falling in love, and he worries about what the mystery of the woman’s identity might imply. The two most likely explanations that occur to him is that either the young wife of an elderly and jealous husband, who forces her to live out of the world in an effort to keep her from the gaze of more attractive men, or that she is a kept mistress. Neither of these explanations appeal to Henry, who cannot believe her guilty of sin and deceit. He counters with a suggestion that she is in mourning for a dead husband, and living retired until the expiry of the usual period.

However, the mystery with which the young woman surrounds herself convinces Henry that there is something untoward, something that puts her beyond the pale, and he tries to get the better of his feelings for her. During one of his deliberate absences from the morning walk, the Marquis encounters the young woman, and the two have a frank conversation. The Marquis emphasises Henry’s apparent low birth and penniless condition in an effort to discourage her, but if anything she seems pleased—particularly since, at the same time, the Marquis cannot help but expatiate upon his young friend’s personal excellence.

In the wake of this conversation, Henry receives a letter:

“…you have, no doubt, often, during our acquaintance, thought me a strange mortal, therefore you will not so much wonder at my endeavouring to act up to the character I have adopted; I chuse to be a riddle, and am not inclined in the present instance to regulate my behaviour by form or rule, so must entreat you would candidly answer the following question:—Dare you venture, knowing as little of me as you do at present, and without making any further inquiries, (which I must acknowledge would prove absolutely fruitless) to unite your fate to mine. If you are so inclined, I offer you my hand; my heart you have possessed for some time, and I do not wish to separate them. Still don’t presume too much upon my weakness; my passion shall be always subservient to my will, and my situation is such, that should you comply with my wishes, our marriage must remain a profound secret for a time, the reason shall be hereafter explained fully to your satisfaction; upon this point I pledge my honour, but at present neither your prayers nor entreaties, even were you to bind yourself by an oath to secrecy, (though I would as soon trust to your honour) should induce me to declare why this mystery is required? who I really am? nor what are the motives of my strange behaviour?”

The conditions attached to this proposal are startling. On one hand, the young woman – “Josephine”; we learn no more – assures Henry that there is no disgraceful secret connected with the mystery of her identity, and that she is both high-born and wealthy. However, there are cogent reasons why she cannot be more explicit at the moment and, if he accepts her proposal, he must accept also that he will not yet learn her real name and that the two of them must subsequently live apart until her situation alters.

Henry is tempted by this offer – too tempted. He consults the Marquis, who warns him against succumbing. Yet it is also the Marquis who subsequently removes the barrier of Henry’s suspicions, reporting to him that although he still does not know who the young woman is, he has accidentally discovered that she is acquainted with a certain Archduchess known for her high principles and the selectivity of her friendship, and must therefore be as spotless as she has asserted herself to be.

At this discovery, Henry’s resistance crumbles. He agrees to all of Josephine’s conditions, even though she warns him that the period of their separation may be months, if not years, and that it must begin only a fortnight after their marriage.

The modern reader may be amused by the financial arrangements associated with this strange marriage. In the context of the narrative, Josephine’s generosity is meant to be an expression of her boundless faith in Henry, but as every repeated refusal to reveal her identity or her situation comes accompanied by a wad of bills, it is hard not to feel that Henry is being bought off.

Amusing, too, is the sudden shift from love and romance to cold hard cash; a not-uncommon touch in English novels of this time, as we saw with respect to Munster Abbey:

“You are a soldier, and I have commenced heroine of a romance, you very probably think; but this necessary separation will merely be a mutual trial of our love and fortitude, and we will each endeavour to encourage the other during the painful interval which must elapse ere we meet again. I will have proper settlements drawn immediately according to my own instructions, and which I am unreasonable enough to hope you will sign without hearing them read; depend upon my attention to your future interest, and I will make you immediately independent. I read the wishes of your generous heart in your countenance; but  I desire your want of fortune may never occasion you a moment’s uneasiness, I am quite rich enough for both. You shall have a hundred thousand Livres Tournois down on or before our wedding-day, and I will insure you a like sum annually…”

And so they two are married – Josephine bearing for the occasion the title of “Madame la Baronne de Belville”, though Henry knows that isn’t her name – and enjoy a brief honeymoon. Then one day Henry comes home to find that Josephine has departed in his absence, choosing that there will be no difficult parting scene. Subsequently, the two communicate only by letter, their correspondence being facilitated by the Marquis and Josephine’s bankers.

Now—the separation of Henry and Josephine occurs on page 141 of a 1145 page novel, and the situation is not resolved until page 1137; so as you would appreciate, the author has to find some way of filling up the intervening three-and-a-half volumes.

In the first and most important ploy, the truth of Henry’s background is revealed. He is really Henry Cleveland, the grandson of Sir William Cleveland, “one of the wealthiest men in England”; his father was a younger son who quarrelled violently with his own father after marrying without his consent, and in opposition to his ambition. However, he was well-liked and respected in his own right, and died heroically in battle. Henry’s mother dying in childbirth, and Sir William Cleveland’s anger persisting, the infant boy was given to his mother’s relatives.

All this is discovered when Sir William’s agent comes looking for his long-lost grandson. Henry learns that his uncle and cousin have both died, and that he is now Sir William’s heir—Sir William being, we are reminded again and again—“one of the wealthiest men in England”. Henry is therefore summoned to England to take up his new position, thus ending his brief foray in the Swiss army. His grandfather, whose ambition is still his ruling passion, buys his grandson a title, and so humble Henry Westhorpe becomes Earl Fitz-Osborne.

The change in Henry’s circumstances also has the effect of revealing the real reason for Mr Westhorpe’s behaviour. It turns out that he embezzled the trust fund left to his care by Henry’s father, and lost the lot in bad investments. There were more reasons than one for the Westhorpes’ flight to France.

But even this drastic alteration in Henry’s situation takes up only a portion of the remaining pages. The rest of them are filled by:

  • Henry trying to hold at bay his grandfather’s attempts to arrange a “good” marriage for him, without revealing (i) he’s already married, (ii) his wife is a French Catholic, and (iii) he doesn’t know her name.
  • Henry embarrassing people who were mean to him when he was Mr Westhorpe’s unwanted poor relation
  • Henry making a lot of rich and titled friends, and visiting them
  • Henry exposing various blackguards and frauds
  • Henry participating in various pointless activities, in scenes that are supposed to be funny, but really aren’t. (One of these involves a horse being literally spurred and beaten to death.)

So it all becomes rather an endurance test. The only subplot that really means anything involves Henry’s attempts to discover Josephine’s identity, and even these usually turn into one of the other dot-points. For example: Henry learns of a woman who not only fits his wife’s description, but is called Josephine; she has married a nasty old man for his money. Meaning to expose her in his righteous fury, he encounters a complete stranger and ends up hiding from her jealous spouse in a cupboard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as time drags on and Henry continues to be put off with excuses, his patience begins to wear thin, and disillusionment sets in. When at length he resorts to making ultimatums, he receives an answer that both stuns and dismays him…

Now—assuming that he or she didn’t just zone out during the preceding 1000 pages, not that you would blame anyone who did, the reader should be aware of Josephine’s identity and the reasons for her reticence, even if Henry is not. About midway through The Mysterious Wife, Henry’s health begins to be affected by his constant lack of peace of mind, and he lapses into a fever. As he lies ill at an inn, he is visited by a woman calling herself Madame de Verneuil, who claims to be a cousin of the Marquis D’Orcy; she is a member of a nearby religious order, famed for its care of the sick and poor, and she insists upon Henry being transported to the Abbey. He is won over by her citing of his friend’s name, and allows the woman to have her way.

Pains are taken to assure the reader that the members of this particular religious order are not nuns, as such, and that they have no difficulty obtaining dispensation from their vows, should they choose to marry. We also hear much about the head of the order, the beautiful Princess de Beaufremont, “an angel upon earth”, though we do not see her. When it is subsequently revealed that Madame de Verneuil is not the Marquis’s cousin at all, Henry is puzzled, but thinks little more of it.

It is, however, “Madame de Verneuil” who responds to his final ultimatum to Josephine, spiriting him away in the middle of a masquerade and taking him to a mansion outside of Paris. Someone waits for him there, although it is not Josephine:

…a second little bustle induced him to seize one of the lights, and advance with cautious steps. He put by a silk curtain , which half concealed the object he was come in search of, and discovered a child, wide awake, who instantly put out its little hands to be taken up…

There is also a letter from Josephine, bidding Henry farewell forever…

Josephine is indeed the Princess de Beaufremont, “one of the wealthiest women in France”. With the death of her brother she has inherited her family’s titles and vast estates and wealth, something her greedy and vindictive relatives have no intention of allowing her to dispose of via marriage, least of all to an English Protestant. By misrepresenting the circumstances to the Pope, Josephine’s family not only prevents her from receiving dispensation from her vows, but has her marriage declared invalid. In addition, Josephine is to be confined to the Abbey for a full year, and has been forbidden to receive visitors or to correspond.

With these revelations, all of Henry’s love for Josephine is reawakened—but there is nothing he can do. With deep reluctance, he makes preparations to leave France for England, taking with him the baby, also called Henry, and resolving to raise him openly as his son, though he cannot be his legal heir.

When Henry learns the truth about Josephine, there are only 44 pages left in The Mysterious Wife, so it is purely a matter of how things will be resolved, rather than “what happens next”. For some considerable time, indeed, the narrative seems to have been shaping itself into a dire warning against romantic love and marriage, and an even direr one about getting involved with Catholics. (When Josephine’s fate is put to him in terms of papal infallibility, Henry had nearly sent the Pope to the —-, but reflected just in time, in whose company he was…) As Henry turns towards England, though in his bitter disappointment he swears that he will remain faithful to Josephine’s memory, the reader is very well aware that a highly suitable alternative bride awaits him in the shape of the beautiful and accomplished young daughter of a Scotch nobleman.

So it was, I admit, quite a surprise when it was revealed, only 4 pages from the end, that the Marquis D’Orcy had been very busy indeed since learning the truth about Josephine—petitioning the King, making sure that the true version of events reaches the Pope, negotiating Josephine’s release in exchange for her surrender of her title and one-half of her possessions, and having the legality of the marriage restored.

Though perhaps my surprise didn’t quite equal Henry’s:

    Unable to utter a single word, he flung himself upon his knees by the side of the sofa, and in this posture caught the lovely Josephine in his arms. His transports greatly accelerated her recovery; and, when perfectly sensible, her looks were infinitely more expressive than words could have been.
    Henry was half wild; his surprise almost equalled his joy, while a violent flood of tears relieved the bursting heart of his Josephine; and at last enabled her to say, “My Henry, we meet to part no more.”

03/08/2014

If I might Meekely interject…

Sigh…

I wonder if you guys are as tired of me starting my blog posts with an apology for my absence and/or unanswered comments as I am of starting them that way? But here we are again… I have an ambition, which is rapidly escalating into the realm of delusion, that at some stage I will be able to settle into a posting routine and be updating here about once a fortnight; but every time it begins to look like I might approach that particular asymptote, ill health, work horrors and/or computer issues start to interfere. I don’t know why the blogging gods hate me so; I only know they do… [*sniff*]

Anyway—after a more than usually painful period of cosmic intervention (involving ill health, work horrors and computer issues), I set myself to the task of getting things rolling again by resurrecting one of the more neglected corners of this blog, Authors In Depth, and by returning to the first author to feature in that category, the Minerva Press mainstay, Mrs Meeke…only to discover that in the interim, something in the nature of a revolution had occurred.

Early in 2013, academic Simon Macdonald published an essay in which he challenged the longstanding identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke, the wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke, a minor poet. Macdonald contends that the Minerva Press novelist was in fact one Elizabeth Meeke, whose full name appears in a catalogue for the publisher from 1798.

The fact that there was an “Elizabeth Meeke” on the Minerva Press’s roster of novelists is not a new discovery. This point was raised in a 1946 issue of that wonderfully peculiar journal, Notes And Queries, with the contributor referencing that same piece of Minerva Press publicity. What Simon Macdonald has done is identify and trace the life of the woman who could be the elusive Mrs Meeke. If Macdonald’s scholarship concerned only the identity of a minor 18th century novelist, perhaps only people who share my arcane tastes would be interested; but the academic community sat up and paid attention when it was revealed that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-sister of Fanny Burney.

Briefly, according to Macdonald’s account, the woman in question was born Elizabeth Allen; she became a de facto member of the Burney family when her widowed mother married Dr Charles Burney. When she was only fifteen, Elizabeth ran away with the much-older Samuel Meeke and, after an awkward delay, finally acquired the right to call herself “Mrs Meeke”. The marriage was not happy, and after various episodes of separation and reconciliation (and hints of the wife’s involvement with another man), there was a permanent break. Burney family letters suggest ongoing misbehaviour on the part of Elizabeth, who for a time seems to have gone under the assumed name of “Mrs Bruce”. She later married again, to a man called Rawlings, but this marriage was no more successful than her first.

Between 1795 and 1823 there appeared a remarkable number of novels, translations and children’s books which have been attributed to “Mrs Meeke”. Most of the novels carried the name “Mrs Meeke” (no first name) on the title page; others appeared under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, still others were published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that “Gabrielli” was a reference to the Italian opera singer, Catarina Gabrielli, whose London Performance was attended by the Burney family, as their letters attest. He also points out that the first “Gabrielli” novel, The Mysterious Wife, is dedicated to Mrs Arthur Young (Arthur Young was an agricultural economist, active in the area of agricultural workers’ rights); Martha Young, e Allen, was Elizabeth Allen’s maternal aunt.

Now—if all of this is so, it begs the question of where the alternative identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke came from: a question not at all easy to answer. Those modern writers who have taken notice of Mrs Meeke (and they are not numerous) draw upon three sources:

Published in 1812, Robert Watt’s Bibliotheca Britannica; or, A General Index Of British And Foreign Literature has only this to say upon the subject:

MEEKE, Mrs, a prolific Writer of Novels…

Four years later, A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland offered a slightly more expansive (and rather tongue-in-cheek) listing:

MEEKE, Mrs, one of the numerous family of novelists whose prolific genius is always labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries. Her performances are— [list follows]

In 1885, the Dictionary Of National Biography (edited first by Sir Leslie Stephen, later by Sidney Lee) has rather more to say about Mrs Meeke, and is in fact the source of almost everything we thought we knew about her:

    MEEKE, Mrs MARY (d. 1816?), novelist, seems to have been the wife of the Rev. Francis Meeke (B. A. Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1773, and M. A., 1776), who published a volume of poems in 1782 (Notes And Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 229). She began her prolific career as a novelist in 1795, when she published ‘Count St. Blancard‘ in 3 vols., and continued her labours for more than twenty years. In October 1816 there died, at Johnson Hall, Staffordshire, Mary, the widow of the Rev. Francis Meeke, who may perhaps be identified with the novelist.
    Mrs Meeke naively recommends novelists, before planning a work, to consult their publisher as to how they may best satisfy the prevailing public taste
(Midnight Weddings, pref.). Personally, she apparently followed this plan with some success. Although her plots are commonplace, and her literary style poor, and her characters only faintly reflect contemporary manners, she had some distinguished readers. Macaulay ‘all but knew’, Lady Trevelyan writes, ‘Mrs Meeke’s romances by heart’, but, despite his liking for them, he relegated Mrs Meeke to the position of his favourite among the bad novel-writers, and agreed in his sister’s criticism that ‘that they were one just like another, turning on the fortunes of some young man in a very low rank in life who eventually proves to be the son of a duke.’ (TREVELYAN, Life Of Macaulay, vol. i.) Miss Mitford was also a reader of Mrs Meeke’s works in her youth, and in her old age re-read at least six of them (Notes And Queries, 7th ser. vii. 405).
    The titles of the novels published under her own name (all in 3 vols. unless otherwise stated) are— [list follows] Probably posthumously published were— [list follows]
    Mrs Meeke also translated from the French— [list follows] In 1811 she completed the translation by Mrs Collyer (q. v.) of Klopstock’s ‘Messiah‘ (another edition 1821).
    Mrs Meeke has been identified with the writer who assumed the pseudonym of Gabrielli (Notes And Queries, 2nd ser. i. 133) and published— [list follows] 

I’ve said this before, but it bears stressing— Pegging Mrs Meeke as a “bad novel-writer” on the strength of Lord Macaulay’s comments is misinterpreting what he meant. In the first place he was clearly sharing a joke with his sister, Lady Treveleyan, when he remarked that, “My tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.” When that remark is read in context, however, Macaulay is actually comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels to a satisfying, old-fashioned English dinner; he condemned his own tastes as “vulgar” because he was unable to enjoy the prevailing fashion for dinners comprised of elaborate but unsatisfying dishes. Furthermore, in another letter Macaulay comments that when he read a novel he didn’t enjoy, he would then re-read one of Mrs Meeke’s as a palette-cleanser. None of this proves she was a good writer, of course, but at least it indicates that she was entertaining.

But to return to the question of attribution— Note the hesitation in the Dictionary Of National Biography‘s identification of Mrs Meeke as Mary Meeke, wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke: she ‘seems to have been’ and ‘may perhaps be identified’ as such. Clearly, this was no more than someone’s best guess which, in the absence of any suggestion to the contrary, was allowed to pass unchallenged (that question in Notes And Queries excepted), and to become accepted as fact.

Simon Macdonald’s research does seem to establish that Elizabeth Meeke was at least the author of the “Gabrielli” novels. My remaining doubts focus on the question of why some of the novels attributed to Mrs Meeke were published under a pseudonym in the first place, and why others seem to have been published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that the “Gabrielli” pseudonym was adopted to avoid oversaturating the marketplace with novels by “Mrs Meeke”, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded by that argument. Consider the implications of that remark from A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland, about novelists “labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries”: given the Minerva Press’s position as a leading supplier of such fodder, would the publisher really have been concerned about producing too many novels?

It was my hunt for a copy of 1797’s The Mysterious Wife, the first of the “Gabrielli” novels, that led me into these murky waters in the first place. This is the fourth of the novels attributed to “Mrs Meeke”, after Count St. Blancard (1795), The Abbey Of Clugny (1796) and Palmira And Ermance (1797); it doesn’t seem likely to me that after three novels in three years, William Lane would have started worrying about “saturation”. What’s more, having now read The Mysterious Wife, I have to say that I’m not convinced that it was written by the same person. In fact, I found myself wondering whether the root of the confusion could possibly be that the Minerva Press had ended up with two authors on its hands called “Mrs Meeke”, and had allowed one to keep her name while the other published anonymously or pseudonymously.

Now—I admit that I was very conscious of this controversy while I was reading, and that it is entirely possible I was consequently reading with a bias. And there are certain points of comparison between this work and the earlier ones, chiefly that it is set partly in France, and that it separates its hero and heroine for a very long stretch of the narrative. It does not feature a baby substitution per se, but it does have a young man raised under a false name (the better to facilitate a little trust-fund embezzlement) who later succeeds to a title. It also has a strong streak of anti-Catholicism, but that, in English novels of the late 18th century, is hardly diagnostic.

On the other hand, whereas the earlier novels doggedly refuse to acknowledge that the French Revolution ever happened, The Mysterious Wife opens with a statement placing its action “some years” before that epoch. Its action is divided between France and England, with both good people and bad people representing each nation. Most significantly, the novel focuses upon a marriage contracted for wholly “romantic” reasons, and – after, admittedly, looking for some time like it was going to do the opposite – it ultimately vindicates romantic love (in conjunction with “virtue”) as a basis for marriage over prudential motives; as opposed to the stance of Palmira And Ermance, which supported arranged marriages and severely punished a young woman led astray by romantic yearnings. The Mysterious Wife also features a French Marquis, the last of his name, who has never married because he has never fallen in love.

However, the main reason I feel that The Mysterious Wife may have been written by a different author from the earlier novels is its style—or lack thereof. Put simply, The Mysterious Wife is poorly written, being full of grammatical errors, whereas the earlier novels were not. It is also rather dull, with very little happening over the course of its four volumes. The previous three novels by “Mrs Meeke”, in contrast, though no-one would ever mistake them for great literature, are if anything absurdly over-plotted, with much of their entertainment value lying in their constant twists and turns and the various revelations of secret identity. I can imagine re-reading the first three novels and enjoying them again; once I’ve reviewed The Mysterious Wife, I’ll be putting it aside for good.

Of course, none of this proves anything. The Mysterious Wife may just be a bad novel because it’s a bad novel; perhaps because it was written in haste, not because it was written by a different person (although that argues against the “oversaturation” theory). And perhaps its different philosophy simply reflects the greater freedom of a pseudonym. Certainly I have no real evidence one way or the other—but I will be keeping all this in mind as I move forward through the novels of “Mrs Meeke”, “Gabrielli”, and that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”.

14/07/2013

The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana

octoroon1b     “Why did you not tell Mrs Montressor the truth?” asked Gilbert.
     “What would have been the use, since I cannot tell it to Miss Leslie? That is what seals my lips. Her father has concealed from her her real origin. She thinks she is of the European race—I discovered that in my interview with her—and I dare not reveal a secret which is not mine to tell.”
     “And you fear that her return to New Orleans will cause sorrow to herself,” said Gilbert.
     “I do,” replied the young South American; “every door at which she dares to knock will be closed against her. Even my cousin, her friend, will turn from her in pity, perhaps, but with contempt. You, who dwell in a land where the lowest beggar, crawling in his loathsome rags, is as free as your mightiest nobleman, can never guess the terrors of Slavery. Genius, beauty, wealth, these cannot was out the stain; the fatal taint of African blood still remains; and though a man were the greatest and noblest upon earth, the curse clings to him to the last. He is still—a slave!”

When it comes to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, I find myself in the uneasy position of being inclined to disagree with the experts. In her introduction to the novel (which was reissued by the marvellous Sensation Press), Jennifer Carnell asserts confidently that, “Braddon began The Octoroon in November 1861…”—after, that is, the success of The Trail Of The Serpent. Yet in every respect, The Octoroon feels like an earlier effort than The Trail Of The Serpent, even allowing for the significant revision of that novel after its first release and failure as Three Times Dead. The jaunty confidence and outrageous streak of humour that characterise The Trail Of The Serpent are nowhere to be found in The Octoroon, which is a very po-faced melodrama indeed.

Possibly Braddon felt that outrageous humour, at least, would have been out of place in a novel about the horrors of slavery; but in any event there is a certain tentative quality to The Octoroon, an inclination to make big dramatic gestures instead of truly engaging with its subject matter, that seems like the mark of an inexperienced writer. I know there is a scholarly group out there that lists The Octoroon as Braddon’s first novel, tagging it as 1859 rather than 1861, and that feels about right to me. Perhaps she wrote a version of it first, but it wasn’t published until later? Or perhaps it was serialised to no effect in 1859, and then reissued in 1861? Or was it indeed a case of the notorious sophomore-effort syndrome? Whatever the truth, after the many and varied pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent, The Octoroon was a bit of a let-down, if not without a certain charm of its own.

This is the third novel considered at this blog to deal significantly with slavery, after The Rebel’s Daughter and Retribution, and all three of them have resorted to exactly the same ploy: focusing upon a beautiful young woman of mixed blood, who is able to pass for white. (In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether, other than the seminal Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there was any novel of the time addressing slavery that didn’t pull this stunt.) The main difference between Braddon’s novel and its fellows is that it is, of course, British. Blithely ignoring Britain’s own slave-trafficking past, and certain grim realities of its present, Braddon presents her homeland as the bastion of personal freedom, a sanctuary for the oppressed, and a realm free of race prejudice. In fact, she pours on the British virtue with such a heavy hand, takes it so very much for granted that the British are to an individual morally pure and upright, clean-living and right-thinking, that it would take a very brave person indeed to – per the little iconoclast of The Life Of Brian – put up their hand and say, “I’m not.” It is difficult to decide whether all this jingoism is just melodramatic exaggeration and extremism, Braddon stroking her audience’s ego, or a deliberate tactic to spike the guns of those inclined to criticise her thesis; most likely, a healthy mix of all three.

We do notice, however, that Braddon’s position on race relations isn’t quite as steadfast as her assertion of general British superiority. She seems to have taken on board the fact that someone could strongly oppose slavery and yet have no truck with the idea of race equality. Her way of avoiding turning off her potential audience by taking *a* stance on the subject is not to take one. Instead, she draws her line in the sand—slavery is bad, mmm’kay?—and then scatters through her text just about every possible attitude towards the subject of race relations; everything, that is, from:

The slave—the negro—the thick-lipped and woolly-haired African—the lowest type of a despised and abhorred race—

—to—

Enthusiastic and hopeful, the young student looked forward to a day when, from the ranks of these despised people, great men should arise to elevate the African race, and to declare aloud in the Senate, and before the assembled nations, the EQUAL RIGHTS OF THE GREAT BROTHERHOOD OF MAN.

—and all points in between, and then allows each reader to find their own level. It’s a tactic that makes Braddon’s own views exceedingly difficult to pin down; although I like to think that those capital letters are indicative.

In Gilbert Margrave, The Octoroon‘s hero, we have the very personification of British perfection; one described upon first introduction – and with a straight face – as “artist, engineer, philanthropist, poet”. He is “handsome and accomplished”, with “flashing black eyes” and a “superb forehead”, besides positively bristling with “manly energy”. He is also wealthy, courtesy of an invention adopted by the cotton industry, and he dreams of technology that will make slavery redundant. Gilbert is attending a London ball with his friend, Mortimer Percy; a somewhat unlikely friend, we might think, given that Mortimer is an American slave-owner, but be that as it may. Mortimer is engaged to his cousin, Adelaide Horton, who is currently visiting England under the guardianship of her aunt, Mrs Montressor. Also present at the ball is Adelaide’s dear friend, the beautiful Cora Leslie, with whom Gilbert falls desperately in love at first sight. There’s just one problem:

     “Can you tell me who she is?”
     “No. But I can do more. I can tell you what she is.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “I mean that your angel, your nymph, your goddess, your syren is—a slave.”
     “A slave?” exclaimed Gilbert.
     “Yes. The African blood runs in those purple veins. The hereditary curse of slavery hovers over that graceful and queen-like head.”
     “But her skin is fairer than the lily.”
     “What of that? Had you been a planter, Gilbert, you would have been able to discover, as I did, when just now I stood close to that lovely girl, the fatal signs of her birth. At the extreme corner of the eye, and at the root of the finger nails, the South American can always discover the trace of slavery, though but one drop of the blood of the despised race tainted the object upon whom he looked.”

One of the most cherished beliefs of the 19th century is that you could tell what a person was just by looking at them. Mock-sciences like phrenology fed easily into the need felt by the upper classes, at a time when the world was changing and long-standing privileges under threat, for reassurance that they were indeed not just different, but better. “Birth” showed itself in certain physical traits, and so for that matter did “good” and “evil”; sin invariably left a mark. Sensation fiction generally went out of its way to challenge and undermine this assumption, and Braddon herself, over the course of her career, was one of the leading exponents of the unnerving counter-theory that you never can tell. Here, however, plot purposes demand that Cora Leslie be betrayed by her fingernails and “the extreme corner of her eye” (!?), and so this pernicious nonsense is allowed to stand (though I’m struggling against a Morbo-like cry of, Blood does not work that way!!).

Of course, the other thing that tends to leap out of this passage at the modern reader is its outrageous sweeping assumption that anyone of African blood is automatically a slave, rather than just…someone with African blood. And again, it turns out that with respect to Cora, Mortimer is quite right. Her father is a slave-owner, her mother was a “quadroon” slave with whom he {*cough*} fell in love. To his uneasy surprise, Gerald Leslie felt a deep affection for the white-skinned daughter born of this connection, and finally decided to save her from her otherwise inevitable fate by sending her to be raised and educated in England, sternly warning her throughout their subsequent correspondence not to return to Louisiana, but never telling her why. After many years of vacillation, Leslie resolves to sell up his plantation and move to England to be with Cora, but before he can do so, events intervenes.

At the ball, Cora presses Mortimer for news of her father, and he reveals that Leslie was injured during a slave revolt provoked by the brutality of his overseer—allowing the characters to air their various views. Still more reluctantly, Mortimer adds that he believes Leslie to be in severe financial difficulties, and about to lose his property.

Cora, whose boring perfection quite matches Gilbert’s, turns out to be one of those exasperating 19th century daughters whose only response to parental neglect and mistreatment is to grovel still more abjectly, and immediately determines to ignore her father’s prohibition and return to New Orleans, to “comfort and sustain him”.

(On the other hand— Although she never reproaches him for his treatment of herself, I am pleased to be able to report that Cora angrily confronts and shames her father upon learning her mother’s history. It turns out that Leslie, unable to bear the silent misery and reproachful looks of his mistress after her daughter was taken from her, sold her to a man who desired her for the same position in his own household. Threatened with rape, Francilia committed suicide.)

Mortimer is appalled by Cora’s decision to return to Louisiana, knowing full well what will happen to her if she sets foot on Southern soil, but decides that the secret is not his to tell. Cora ends up travelling to New Orleans in company with Mortimer, Gilbert, Adelaide and Mrs Montressor, a situation that leads to a tangle of thwarted passions, violent outbursts and mixed motives.

Mortimer and his cousin Adelaide are indifferently engaged, fond of each other but marrying mostly to keep the family money and property together. However, Adelaide falls in love with Gilbert, who falls in love with Cora. This is hard enough for Adelaide to take when she and Cora are best friends, but when Cora’s real identity is revealed—and when it makes no difference at all to Gilbert’s feelings—his preference for Cora and his complete indifference to her become an insult that Adelaide cannot bear:

     “I insinuate nothing, Mr Margrave,” answered Adelaide. “I simply tell you that the—the person of whom you speak is no companion for me. Whatever friendship once existed between us is henceforth forever at an end—Cora Leslie is a slave!… African blood flows in her veins. She has never been emancipated; she is, therefore, as much a slave as the negroes upon her father’s plantation.”
     “I was led to believe something to this effect on the very night of your aunt’s ball in Grosvenor Square, Miss Horton. So far from this circumstance lessening my respect for Miss Leslie, I feel that it is rather exalted into a sentiment of reverence. She is no longer simply a beautiful woman; she henceforth becomes the lovely representative of an oppressed people.”

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s brother, Augustus, one of the novel’s two main villains and a real moustache-twirler if ever there was one, becomes sexually fixated upon Cora. When she spurns him in outrage and disgust, he becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing and degrading her. He gets his chance when Villain #2, Silas Craig, a career plotter with a chip on his shoulder whose financial machinations are extremely numerous and generally illegal, pulls the rug out from under Gerald Leslie. (It was Craig to whom Leslie sold Francilia, who killed herself rather than let him touch her.) Leslie’s financial ruin is the outcome of a deep-laid scheme by Craig, who hates the plantation owner with a passion, and which climaxes in Leslie’s forced eviction and the sale of all his property:

     For some moments there was a pause. Several amongst the crowd asked what the next lot was to be. The voice of the auctioneer responded from his rostrum, “The Octoroon girl, Cora!”
     Again there was a pause. There were few there who did not know the story of Gerald Leslie and his daughter, and every one present seemed to draw a long breath. The Octoroon emerged from a group of slaves, behind whom she had been hidden, and slowly ascended the platform.
     Never in her happiest day—never when surrounded by luxury, when surfeited by adulation and respect, had Cora Leslie looked more lovely than to-day. Her face was whiter than marble, her large dark eyes were shrouded beneath their drooping lids, fringed with long and silken lashes; her rich wealth of raven hair had been loosened by the rude hands of an overseer, and fell in heavy masses far below her waist; her slender yet rounded figure was set off by the soft folds of her simple cambric dress, which displayed her shoulders and arms in all their statuesque beauty…

A bidding war erupts between Gilbert and Augustus Horton, but Gilbert is hampered by the necessity for immediate payment: he goes to his limit of $30,000, only for the obsessed Augustus to buy Cora for the sum of $50,000.

The resolution of Cora’s plot is one of the weaknesses of The Octoroon (though it does include one neat and unexpected twist), which is perhaps not entirely Braddon’s fault. At the time this novel was written there were limits to what an author could get away with, particularly a female author (and unlike The Trail Of The Serpent, The Octoroon has a distinctly female “voice”). Braddon clearly found it necessary not only to dance around the specifics of Cora’s situation, but to have the girl simultaneously “aware” and “unaware” of the nature of her danger, presumably by way of properly preserving her purity, mental as well as physical. Consequently, those passages dealing with Augustus’s intentions towards Cora are exceedingly mealy-mouthed.

Thus we can have Cora asking herself, Could there be any doubt as to his motive in choosing this lonely villa for the retreat of the Octoroon?, and recognising that she is doomed to be no more than, A profligate’s hour of pleasure, to be trampled beneath his feet when the whim has passed; and yet as she sits and waits for Augustus to appear in her room, she can worry that, “Again I may hear those words which are poison to my soul; and this time he may force me to listen to his infamous proposals.”

“Force me to listen to his infamous proposals”— I suppose that’s one way of putting it.

Cora wards off her fate by climbing out of a window and making a break for it, but she runs straight into Augustus, who seems genuinely surprised at her objections to their arrangement:

     “So, Cora,” he said, “this is how you repay me for my foolish indulgence. This is how you show your gratitude for being received at Hortonville like a princess! Do you know how we treat runaway slaves in the South?… I’m afraid they neglected your education in England.”
     “They did,” replied the Octoroon; “the free citizens of that land of liberty forgot to teach me that beneath God’s bounteous Heaven, there live a race of men who traffic in the bodies and souls of their fellow-creatures!”

This confrontation ends with Cora unexpectedly rescued by Gilbert and her father, although not before she has defied Augustus and humiliated him by threatening to strike him across the face as he would strike a slave. Augustus has the law on his side now, so his main concern is preventing Gilbert and Cora from “escaping to the Free States of America”. And Augustus is indeed so mortified that his love for her (or whatever you want to call it) immediately turns to hate, and he entirely changes his plans for Cora:

“They have,” answered Augustus with an oath, “but they shall not long escape me. Listen to me, Adelaide; you may wonder at the passion I feel upon this subject, but my pride has been humiliated by the cool insolence of the Octoroon, and whatever motive I may had had for my conduct at the slave-sale yesterday, I have now no purpose but that of bringing Cora Leslie’s haughty spirit to the dust. I will have her found and brought back to New Orleans, and I will give her to you as your lady’s-maid. I know there is little love lost between you, and that I could not easily inflict a greater humiliation upon my fine lady.”

Of course not; because being a lady’s-maid is so much more humiliating than BEING RAPED EVERY NIGHT.

Dearie me.

In addition to internal struggles such as this (this one being merely the most pronounced), The Octoroon‘s main flaw is its structure—or rather, its lack thereof. There is an entire, major B-plot in this novel that I haven’t even touched upon here, for the simple reason that Plot A and Plot B barely touch. Rather, Plot B exists as a strange sort of independent outgrowth, with the only real point of intersection being Silas Craig, who also does plenty of machinating over in that section of the novel. Of course, The Octoroon was serialised, and it is easy enough to see that Plot B is as much about Braddon’s word count as anything else. Her difficulties in integrating her separate plot-threads in a meaningful way, which was so much better handled in The Trail Of The Serpent, is another reason why The Octoroon feels like the work of a less experienced writer.

The main characters of The Octoroon, Cora and Gilbert on one hand, and Augustus and Silas Craig on the other, are disappointingly lacking in shading; but amongst her supporting cast, Braddon does a better job of showing what she’s capable of when working in shades of grey. In many ways, the most interesting character in this novel is Mortimer Percy, introduced to us as a bored, blasé young man-of-the-world, a slave-owner who lets his business partner do all the dirty work while he lives comfortably on the profits, a man prepared to marry a woman on no more than tepid liking if it means inheriting a fortune and not rocking the boat. The impression we eventually get of Mortimer is that he has never stopped to think about the way things are—because he’s never had to. It is not until he is a spectator at close range of the relationship between Cora and Gilbert—until Adelaide, sick with jealousy, turns viciously upon the girl who was once her best friend—that Mortimer begins to ask himself some hard questions. It turns out he doesn’t much care for the answers:

     “I understand. As a worthy member of society, then, as a Christian and a gentleman—in the sense in which we regard these things—he may send his daughter to toil sixteen hours a day on his plantation; he may hand her to his overseer to be flogged, if she is too weak (or too lazy, as it will most likely be called) to work; he may sell her, if he will, no matter to what degradation—no matter to what infamy; but let him dare to love her—let him dare to look upon her with one thrill of fatherly affection—let him attempt to elevate her mind by education, to teach her that there is a free heaven above her, where slavery cannot be—let him do this, and he has committed a crime against society and the laws of Louisiana.”
     “Exactly so,” replied Silas Craig.

Note that parenthetical interjection: this is not so very many pages after Mortimer excuses the brutal behaviour of certain overseers by saying unconcernedly, “The planter finds himself between the horns of a terrible dilemma; he must either beat his slaves or suffer from their laziness…” As the battle-lines are drawn, the newly inspired Mortimer sides against his fellow plantation-owners and lends his support and assistance to Gilbert. He also breaks his engagement to Adelaide, in disgust with her behaviour towards Cora—though he recognises that she is driven by jealousy rather than prejudice, which he considers some excuse, if not enough. Adelaide, too, develops shading over the course of the story. She repents her treatment of Cora and seeks for a way to redeem herself, in Mortimer’s eyes as well as in her own. She eventually finds one, too, in one of the novel’s best touches.

And though I don’t want to get into Plot B in any detail, it is there we find The Octoroon‘s most typically Braddon-esque touch, as well as its other most interesting supporting character. Briefly, Pauline Corsi grows up thinking she is born of the French nobility, only for it to be revealed that her barren mother, in desperation, passed off a peasant’s baby as her own—prompting Pauline’s outraged “father” to turn her out on the streets. Unfortunately, this occurs not long after Pauline’s lover, a talented but poor young artist, is likewise thrown out of the house for daring to raise his eyes to her. Pauline follows her lover to America, but is unable to find him. After suffering poverty and deprivation, she secures a thankless position as a governess-companion and begins to brood over her wrongs, growing hard and bitter and swearing to herself she will win a secure position in life no matter what she has to do. At length she tries to “buy” the hero of Plot B, who has been framed for theft and imprisoned, offering him his freedom in exchange for marriage, though she knows he loves another woman—and that woman her own trusting friend. When he spurns her, she resorts to literally blackmailing her noble employer into a betrothal by threatening him with her knowledge of his guilty secret.

Then, the day before the wedding, Pauline’s long-lost lover turns up—

—and Pauline undergoes instant reformation. And the text, in effect, pats her on the head and says cheerfully, “Well, off you go, then!”

The other fascinating thing about Plot B is its hero who, it eventually turns out, is also an “Octoroon”. His mother was “a favourite Quadroon slave” of his noble father, who actually did marry her, but hushed it up. Upon making this discovery, the young man thanks Providence: “Humble though my mother may have been, her son has no cause to blush for her.”

So there.

The curious thing is, no-one over in Plot B seems to care about the boy’s mixed blood. Perhaps these things are less important in men than in women? Or perhaps Braddon just really needed to get her novel wrapped up…

15/07/2012

The Trail Of The Serpent

…her reign as heroine-in-chief of this dark romance in real life was only put an end to by the appearance of Mr Peters, the hero, who came home by-and-by, hot and dusty, to announce to the world of Little Gulliver Street, by means of the alphabet, very grimy after his exertions, that the dead man had been recognised as the principal usher of a great school up at the other end of the town, and that his name was, or had been, Jabez North… Mr Peters, whose business it was to pry about the confines of this shadowy land, though powerless to penetrate the interior, could only discover some faint rumour of an ambitious love for his master’s daughter as being the cause of the young usher’s untimely end. What secrets this dead man had carried with him into the shadow-land, who shall say? There might be one, perhaps, which even Mr Peters, with his utmost acuteness, could not discover.

For this, my first examination of one of the many, many novels of the remarkable Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I am planning on taking a different approach from my usual blogging—for the reason that, in stark contrast to most of the novels examined at this site, The Trail Of The Serpent has been fairly recently reissued and is still in print. Instead of the usual detailed synopsis that I usually feel compelled to provide, on the assumption that no-one but me ever has or ever will read the work in question, I’m going to concentrate on the features that make this such a surprising and enjoyable book, while encouraging everyone to track down a copy and read it for themselves. Probably I won’t be able to entirely avoid spoilers in this piece, but so numerous are the pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent that there will still be plenty left for you to discover by yourselves.

The first point to be made about The Trail Of The Serpent is that it is not a mystery novel: although it deals with the commission of crimes, and the investigation of some of those crimes, the reader is aware from the outset of the identity of the guilty party. On the other hand, although in structure it bears little resemblance to the kind of novel to which we would apply the term today, The Trail Of The Serpent is a detective novel—perhaps the very first English detective novel—inasmuch as it opens with a crime, follows the pursuit of the criminal by a detective, first in a professional, then in an amateur capacity, and closes when the criminal has been apprehended, the innocent vindicated, and the truth made public.

Whatever else The Trail Of The Serpent is or is not, however, there is no disputing that it falls into that strange and wonderful category of Victorian literature known as “the sensation novel”, which attracted critical outrage even while delighting an audience surfeited upon moral and improving tales. Moral and improving this is not: it is a story of dreadful crimes, of guilt and innocence, of secrets kept and revealed. It is wildly melodramatic, full of outrageous coincidences and contrivances, frequently humorous and sometimes quite shocking—and always enormous fun. A great deal of the pleasure involved in reading The Trail Of The Serpent comes from an unmistakable sense of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s own enjoyment in her work. You almost get the feeling that she down to write this novel with a checklist before her of taboos she meant to shatter, and conventions she meant to toy with. This is a youthful work—and a fearless one; a story told with remarkable assurance and an energy that carries it over its more improbable moments—which are not few in number.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about The Trail Of The Serpent is Braddon’s willingness to rush in where most female Victorian novelists feared to tread. We have spoken in other contexts of the gendered authorial voice, how sometimes it is evident that a book is written by a woman or by a man, and how sometimes you can’t tell. My feeling about this novel is that, if you didn’t know it was written by a woman, you wouldn’t necessarily guess—although it isn’t so much that Braddon’s voice is “unfeminine”, as that so many scenes in this book take place in rather dubious localities, and display a knowledge of the masculine world that nice women weren’t supposed to have.

Not content with a plot featuring crimal activities of all varieties, Braddon also carries her readers from the ugliest of slums into disreputable taverns and dingy shops, and the tobacco-wreathed, brandy-soaked world of feckless young men; even giving us a vivid word-picture of the morning after a strictly bachelor dinner thrown to celebrate the achievements of a pugilist known to the public as The Left-Handed Smasher.

But while all this deliberate shock-value is certainly one of this its major attractions, I don’t want to give the impression that there is no substance to this novel. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of The Trail Of The Serpent is that along with its outrageous central tale we are offered some sincere and bitter commentary upon some of the less savoury aspects of Victorian life:

But of course bad influences can only come to bad men; and of course he must be a very bad man whose spirits go up and down with every fluctuation of the weather-glass. Virtuous people no doubt are virtuous always; and by no chance, or change, or trial, or temptation, can they ever become other than virtuous. Therefore why should a wet day or a dark day depress them? No; they look out of the windows at houseless men and women and fatherless and motherless children wet through to the skin, and thank Heaven that they are not as other men: like good Christians, punctual rate-payers, and unflinching church-goers as they are.

We know that in her youth, Braddon was a voracious reader of novels. Like many writers, we find her in her own work reacting to her reading, putting what she has absorbed to her own purposes. In The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon quite explicitly echoes the work of Charles Dickens—and manages (at least in my opinion) to beat him at his own game.

Furthermore—I have the impression that this influence wasn’t a one-way street. By coincidence, I have recently re-read Our Mutual Friend; and if (as we shall see) The Trail Of The Serpent references Dickens’ earlier works, his final completed novel, which began serialisation in May 1864, seems to me to bear, in outline if not in central plot, a surprising resemblance to Braddon’s breakthrough work. Both tales are centred about a river, and dwell upon its power of life and death; both draw upon the proverbial dichotomy between hanging and drowning; both weave water imagery and themes of death and rebirth through their text. Both novels open with a murder, and deal with assumed identities; the correct social “placing” of a central character is a significant aspect of each plot’s resolution. Both of them feature a foundling with a single, improbable (and suspiciously similar) name. And both of them, while touching occasionally upon the higher reaches of society, deal predominantly with a world stretching from the fringes of gentility down into depths of poverty.

Braddon’s description of life amongst the lowest is one one the most striking and memorable aspects of The Trail Of The Serpent. She expresses no less anger than Dickens over the misery and degradation suffered by the poor, and no less disgust at the capacity of “nice” people simply to ignore it—or blame the victims:

Jabez soon leaves this square behind him, and strolls through two or three narrow, dingy, old-fashioned streets, till he comes to a labyrinth of tumble-down houses, pigstyes, and dog-kennels, known as Blind Peter’s Alley. Who Blind Peter was, or how he came to have this alley—nobody living knew. But if Blind Peter was a myth, the alley was a reality, and a dirty loathsome fetid reality, with regard to which the Board of Health seemed as if smitten with the aforesaid Peter’s own infirmity, ignoring the horror of the place with fatal blindness. So Peter’s was the Alsatia of Slopperton, a refuge for crime and destitution—since destitution cannot pick its company, but must be content often, for the sake of shelter, to jog cheek by jowl with crime. And thus no doubt it is on the strength of that golden adage about birds of a feather that destitution and crime are thought by numerous wise and benevolent persons to mean one and the same thing…

The significant difference between the two is that Braddon never falls into the trap of sentimentalising. Instead, she tends to go to the other extreme, adopting a casual, shrugging tone that is absolutely chilling and, to my mind, far more effective than Dickens’ over-insistence.

Braddon’s poor, left with no choice, live by the banks of her river, the Sloshy, which winds through her novel like an indifferent god, sometimes giving life, more often taking it away:

The Sloshy is not a beautiful river, unless indeed mud is beautiful, for it is very muddy. The Sloshy is a disagreeable kind of compromise between a river and a canal. It is like a canal which (after the manner of the mythic frog that wanted to be an ox) had seen a river, and swelled itself to bursting in imitation thereof. It has quite a knack of swelling and bursting, this Sloshy; it overflows its banks and swallows up a house ot two, or takes an impromptu snack off a few outbuildings, once or twice a year. It is inimical to children, and has been known to suck into its muddy bosom the hopes of divers families; and has afterwards gone down to the distant sea, flaunting on its breast Billy’s straw hat or Johnny’s pinafore, as a flag of triumph for having done a little amateur business for the gentleman on the pale horse…

The Sloshy assists “the gentleman” in another manner, too, being the site of so many suicides—generally of young women, with or without child in arms—that a publican who operates a tavern on its dismal banks has difficulty keeping them all straight in his memory, or even calling to mind one specific suicide, when he is questioned about it.

Braddon’s lack of sentimentality is perhaps also responsible for one of the most curious aspects of The Trail Of The Serpent: it has no heroine. There are female characters, certainly, and several marriages, including those eventually made by the novel’s dual protagonists; but these never become its focus in the way we might expect.

The love-relationship we see most closely is conducted in one of the foullest corners of Slopperton, between a dying young man called Jim Lomax and a factory girl known as Sillikins (she has another name, but no-one uses it). We can imagine what Dickens might have done with such a situation, but Braddon is made of sterner stuff. She does marvel briefly that such a love should have flowered on the dunghill of Slopperton; but when she loses her Jim, Sillinkins does nothing so predicatably romantic as dying of a broken heart. Instead, she does what real people do: she goes on with her life, be it ever so weary. We meet the girl again, a few years later, still dragging through an existence of grinding misery, and worse off than ever, having made herself responsible for Jim’s grandmother, a frightful, drunken harridan. These moments of pragmatism embedded in the overall extravagance of this novel’s plot invariably catch and hold the attention.

But in one of The Trail Of The Serpent‘s central characters, Jabez North, Braddon raises anti-sentimentality to the level of an artform. Jabez is a rare survivor of the Sloshy, being pulled from its mud as a baby; his mother wasn’t so fortunate. Jabez is first seen as a respectable young man employed as an usher in a school in the town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy; an individual offered up as proof of the wisdom and effectiveness of Slopperton’s approach to dealing with the poor. The more we see of Jabez, however, the more apparent it becomes that if, at the back-end of his career, Charles Dickens did find himself borrowing from a rising young novelist, then that the rising young novelist returned the favour in spades—but did so with what I’m tempted to call malice aforethought.

It seems impossible to interpret Jabez North as anything other than a deliberately conceived anti-Oliver Twist. The background and experience of the two are almost identical, right down to the odd name bestowed by “charitable” officialdom; but while Dickens insists upon Oliver emerging from his childhood ordeal unscathed in his essentials, Braddon contends that this is not possible.

Now there are many natures (God-created though they be) of so black and vile a tendency as to be soured by workhouse treatment; by constant keeping down; by days and days which grow into years and years, in which to hear a kind word is to hear a strange language… Some natures too may be so weak and sentimental as to sicken at a life without one human tie; a boyhood without father or mother; a youth without sister or brother. Not such the excellent nature of Jabez North. Tyranny found him meek, it is true, but it left him much meeker. Insult found him mild, but it left him lamb-like. Scornful speeches glanced away from him; cruel words seemed drops of water on marble, so powerless were they to strike or wound… He was a good young man; a benelovent young man; giving in secret, and generally getting his reward openly. His left hand scarcely knew what his right hand did…

Such is the public face of Jabez North, soon revealed to the reader as an angry and damaged individual; a practised liar and hypocrite; a career criminal in the making. The very first chapter of The Trail Of The Serpent – titled “The Good Schoolmaster” – confronts us with just how daring Mary Elizabeth Braddon could be. After our ironic introduction to Jabez, we watch him slip secretly from his schoolhouse bedroom after dark…and return some time later with bloody hands, muttering furiously that, “It was all for nothing!” There is a witness to Jabez’s return, a small, sick boy left in his care, who cries out in terror at the sight of the blood. It is true that the boy is feverish and delirious, and probably would not be believed; but Jabez isn’t a man who leaves loose ends. He mixes a does of opium—a very strong dose—and having administered it to the boy by force, sets about destroying the evidence of his night-time excursion:

Then Jabez North sets to work to wash his hands. A curious young man, with curious fashions for doing things—above all, a curious fashion of washing his hands. He washes them very carefully in a small quantity of water, and when they are quite clean, and the water has become a dark and ghastly colour, he drinks it…

Jabez’s victim is Montague Harding, recently returned from India to relieve his sister from the financial woes brought on by the selfishness and irresponsibility of her son, Richard Marwood. As it happens, a chastened Richard, physically ill and with barely a penny left to his name, has chosen this very night to return, prodigal-like, to his mother’s roof. A combination of circumstances—including Richard being found some distance from his home the next morning, in possession of his uncle’s money—point to him as the murderer, and he is arrested and brought to trial. Indeed, so convinced are the police—the senior police—of Richard’s guilt that they investigate no further. We learn, much later, that if they had looked, they would have found evidence to support his story, and point to the real killer.

Slopperton is all agog over the matter; not that violent death is all that rare an event in those charming environs:

There had not been since the last general election, when George Augustus Slashington, the Liberal member, had been returned against strong Conservative opposition, in a blaze of triumph and a shower of rotten eggs and cabbage-stumps—there had not been since that day such excitement in Slopperton as there was on the discovery of the murder of Mr Montague Harding. A murder was always a great thing for Slopperton. When John Boggins, weaver, beat out the brains of Sarah his wife, first with the heel of his clog and ultimately with a poker, Slopperton had a great deal to say about it—though, of course, the slaughter of one “hand” by another was no great thing…

The circumstantial evidence is strong against Richard, and he is convicted of the murder; but (for reasons we shall return to presently) he is not condemned to be hanged, but confined in a lunatic asylum—where the novel leaves him for eight soul-scarring years. He survives partly through sheer grim endurance, and partly because he feels he deserves punishment. Richard is no innocent: if not guilty of murder, he is guilty of making his unoffending mother’s life miserable, and one of financial hardship, over a period of years. (We note in passing that his period of imprisonment is almost exactly the same length as his career of prodigality.)

The excitement of the trial over, the world at large promptly forgets about Richard Marwood; all except for his long-suffering mother, a handful of loyal friends—and a single, powerful ally.

With his unjust conviction and subsequent incarceration, Richard is the sympathy figure in The Trail Of The Serpent, but he is certainly not its hero. This title rightly belongs to Mr Joseph Peters, Joe to his friends, who is not only in all likelihood Victorian literature’s first working-class hero, but also its first hero with a disability: for Joe is mute, capable of communicating directly with only the few individuals who understand his particular form of sign language, in which he uses his fingers to spell out the letters of the alphabet.

One of those who can understand him is Richard, who learned the language as a child’s game (and used it to communicate with the girl next door); and when he sees Joe, a lowly policeman, signing to his detective-superior the words N-O-T G-U-I-L-T-Y—and when Joe realises that he is understood—it forges a bond between the two that will, ultimately, see Richard a vindicated man, and Montague Harding’s true murderer brought to justice.

Braddon’s handling of Joe’s communications is cleverly done. At first she makes it painstakingly clear that Joe needs an interpretor, that he can only “talk” directly if someone understands his signing and can translate for him; but as the novel proceeds she lets these moments fade away, secure that the reader understands the situation and her use of the expression “said Joe”.

Joe’s disability cuts both ways. At the time when we meet him is nothing more than a minor functionary, the dogsbody of a detective who treats him with contempt for his supposed stupidity (rather in the spirit of raising your voice when speaking to “a foreigner”), and kept down because of it. Sometimes, however, his muteness works in Joe’s favour—as, for instance, when Jabez North makes the fatal assumption that because Joe is dumb, he is also deaf, and on that assumption, utters in his presence some careless words that fix him in Joe’s mind as the likely murderer of Montague Harding.

This encounter takes place in that pub on the Sloshy, known as “The Bargeman’s Delight” (the narrative pauses for a bewildered moment to ponder what “the” bargeman’s delight could possibly be), where Jabez is reluctantly meeting with his discarded mistress—and his bastard son. The unfortunate woman has given up on Jabez’s promises of marriage, and by the end of an ugly scene has literally thrown his money back in his face. When she leaves she is heading for the river. Joe, torn between his desire to pursue Jabez and his fear of the woman’s intentions, follows her out but loses her in the fog. He reaches the banks of the Sloshy too late to save the woman, but (in one of this novel’s many ironic instances of history repeating) pulls the baby from the river’s muddy grasp.

There will be no workhouse for this child, however: Joe takes him home, hiring a housekeeper-nanny, a local girl called Kuppins, to help care for him, and bestowing upon him the sobriquet “Sloshy”. As this, or as simply “Slosh”, he is known for the duration.

Mute himself, Joe takes great joy and pride in his adopted son’s powerful lungs (just as well, as it turns out). Fatherhood also breeds ambition in our Joe, who sees that he must “get on” in his chosen career, in order to provide properly for the child:

    Mr Peters has risen in his profession since last February. He has assisted at the discovery of two or three robberies, and has evinced on those occasions such a degree of tact, triumphing so completely over the difficulties he labours under from his infirmity, as to have won for himself a better place in the police force of Slopperton—and of course a better salary. But business has been dull lately, and Mr Joseph Peters, who is ambitious, has found no proper field for his abilities as yet.
    “I should like an iron-safe case, a regular out-and-out burglary,” he muses, “or a good forgery, say to the tune of a thousand or so. Or a bit of bigamy; that would be something new. But a jolly good poisoning case might make my fortune…”

(What we have here is one of Braddon’s little jokes: in the course of his spectacular career, Jabez North will be guilty of robbery, forgery, bigamy and poisoning…among other things.)

From the moment of Richard Marwood’s arrest, Joe is doubtful of his guilt. For one thing, when apprehended, Richard showed no fear or even concern (he later explains that he thought he was being arrested for debt, an all-too-familiar experience); indeed, he showed no strong emotion of any kind, until his uncle’s violent death was mentioned—which, as Joe sees clearly enough, comes as a terrible shock to him. Unable to get anyone to listen to him, Joe does all he can for Richard by advising him and his barrister to take a particular course of action, one conveyed in the courtroom via Joe’s busy fingers. At the time we learn only that there is a message of “seven letters”, though we infer from the outcome what those letters suggested: S-H-A-M M-A-D.

With Richard’s life secure, albeit at the cost of his incarceration, Joe is free to follow his suspicions of Jabez—but this line of inquiry comes to a shocking and unexpected conclusion when, on the way home after an outing with Kuppins and Sloshy, Joe finds the body of a man sprawled dead upon the heath, a vial of opium clasped in one hand… Inquiry confirms that this is Jabez North; and although he has gone to his ultimate judgement, his doing so leaves Richard in limbo.

But Joe Peters is not a man to give up on his friends. It takes a full eight years, but finally circumstances allow him to mastermind Richard’s escape from the lunatic asylum, and in a manner that prevents official pursuit, since it seems that Richard has become one of the Sloshy’s many victims. Reunited with his loyal mother, and the band of friends who were Joe’s co-conspirators, Richard is profoundly grateful for his freedom but bitter that Jabez’s death means that he will never be able fully to clear his name—and must indeed go through life behind an assumed identity.

As a reward for his rescuing of—and belief in—Richard, Mrs Marwood settles upon Joe an annuity of one hundred pounds. Now a man of means, Joe moves his household to London and resigns from the police force—but never for a moment does he stop being a detective. Joe is showing young Sloshy the many sights in their new home when he happens to catch a glimpse of a man leaving his palatial mansion: a glimpse that rocks the generally imperturbable Joe to his very core. The world may say of this man that he is Raymond, the Count de Marolles, a Parisian nobleman and nephew-by-marriage of the fabulously wealthy Marquis de Cervannes, but to Joe’s eyes he is none other than Jabez North—Jabez North, who Joe last saw lying dead upon a heath outside Slopperton…

And he is, of course, even more than that:

At last, to the considerable inconvenience of the passers-by, the detective makes a dead stop, and says, “I’m glad you think him han’some, Slosh; and I’m glad you thinks him easy, which, all things considered, he is, uncommon. In fact, I’m glad he meets your views as far as personal appearance goes, because, between you and me, Slosh, that man’s your father.”

Many and varied, and generally successful, have been the schemes of Jabez North; and he has reached the very peak of his ambition when he is confronted by Nemesis in the unlikely shape of Joe Peters…

Many and varied, as I say, are the schemes of Jabez North; many and varied too the pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent, of which I have (honestly!) touched on only a few; enough to encourage people to hunt a copy down, I hope. In spite of all I’ve said, there are at least two other major subplots that I’ve barely alluded to here—and that’s not even counting perhaps the most disturbing subplot of all (at least to modern sensibilities), that of the boy Sloshy who, with his disconcertingly handsome face, his slight, underdeveloped body, and his preternatural intelligence, represents a fierce and ongoing battle between nature and nurture…

The Trail Of The Serpent, as we now know it, began life in another form—as a novel serialised early in 1860 under the title Three Times Dead. Although it was not a success, it caught the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who encouraged and helped Mary Elizabeth Braddon to re-work it into the form in which it was reissued later the same year. How great were the changes made, and how much John Maxwell contributed, we do not know for certain. What we do know is that, no doubt assisted by canny promotion by Maxwell, The Trail Of The Serpent sold one thousand copies in the first week of its release, and launched its author upon a long and successful, if controversial, career.