Archive for ‘Authors In Depth’

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…

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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.

13/07/2012

The sensational Miss Braddon

Off-blog, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately; not merely Golden Age, but Silver and Bronze as well. And since I’m apparently genetically incapable of simply reading anything, this side-hobby has turned into an investigation into the evolution of the detective novel. The fact that the majority of mystery novelists took pride in the accuracy of their stories makes these early novels a fascinating repository of information about the process of law and the state of criminal investigation in both Britain and the States at the time of their publication. Did you know, for example, that although the technique was officially adopted at the turn of the century in England, it was well into the 1920s before fingerprints were widely employed as an investigative tool in America?

Inevitably, this course of steady-ish reading has also found me creeping ever further backwards, trying to determine “the first” detective novel on both sides of the Atlantic—an exercise in wading in intriguingly muddy waters. It is evident that the detective story, that is, the short story that dominated this school of fiction through the second half of the 19th century, and the detective novel evolved down two quite distinct pathways; and while the latter was necessarily influenced by the former, it did not grow out of it. Instead, the detective novel was an offshoot of the sensation novel, which appeared as a recognisable genre during the 1850s.

It is easy enough to see how this came about: the sensation novel was often about a central mystery, the unravelling of a dark secret by circumstances; all that was required was for an individual, either amateur or professional, to devote himself—or herself—to the deliberate pursuit of a secret. Understandably, then, in the early days the line between “the mystery novel” and “the detective novel” is drawn in shades of grey. “Detectives”, as a recognisable real-life entity, were still becoming established; and the ambivalence of the public towards these professional investigators is very clear in the literature of the day, where they tend to be viewed as a necessary but distasteful phenomenon. This is particularly reflected in the tendency of early detective novels to be set amongst the middle- and upper-classees, with the investigation itself often regarded as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and in which the identity of the guilty party is as likely to be hushed up to avoid a scandal as exposed in open court. (Climactic suicide is popular.)

In America, the first detective novel was long held to be Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, from 1878, in which a police detective recruits a gentlemanly young lawyer as his assistant specifically because, as a gentleman, he has access to people and places that the working-class policeman does not. However, while it might rightly be regarded as the first modern detective novel, The Leavenworth Case is not the first per se, an honour held by Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. This murder mystery does indeed feature a professional private detective, who is associated with the police but not of the police, but betrays its sensation novel roots by having the detective assisted by his clairvoyant young daughter. Victor followed The Dead Letter with The Figure Eight, which has a young man turning amateur detective in order to clear his own name, after being accused of the robbery-homicide of his uncle. He eventually succeeds in solving the robbery, while the murderer is exposed in sensation novel terms, via a subplot involving somnambulism.

Meanwhile, over the pond, the dogma is wrong again (as dogma is with remarkable regularity). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published in 1868 and featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, has long been considered “the first English detective novel” (even though the detective doesn’t solve the crime). Recently, however, the good people at the British Library have unearthed and reprinted The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (aka Charles Warren Adams), which was serialised in 1862 and then published in book form in 1863, and features a startling number of the features we associate with modern detective fiction, including the use of chemical analysis.

Of course, no sooner was this rediscovered novel trumpeted as “the first” than a number of still earlier contenders for the title were offered up by interested parties—the most cogent challenge, or so it seems to me, coming from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail Of The Serpent, published in 1860.

M. E. Braddon is a novelist for whom I have enormous affection and admiration; a talented novelist whose choice of the sensation novel as her preferred vehicle has tended to overshadow her very real abilities. And while I need another reading-thread like a hole in the head, I have taken her appearance at this critical juncture in my off-blog reading as a sign that I should promote her to Authors In Depth.

So!—I will be starting with The Trail Of The Serpent, before (at some point) stepping back to look at her first, long-forgotten novel, The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana.

Behind the sensation novelist who attracted both praise and outrage for her choice of material was a woman who, in Victorian terms, lived a life still more outrageous and shocking. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s parents separated when she was still a child, she and her brother and sister remaining with their mother. (Braddon’s brother, Edward, who possibly deserves a biography of his own, was Premier of Tasmania from 1894 – 1899.) The separation was amicable, and for some years Henry Braddon continued to support his family; but the Braddon finances had always been rocky, and finally the money stopped coming.

To help support her family, Mary Braddon began to write short stories. At the same time, at the age of only seventeen, she began a career on the stage under the name “Mary Seyton”, and found some success, albeit mostly in provincial companies. While touring, she continued to write and publish, trying her hand at plays and poetry as well as fiction. In 1859, her first attempt at a novel, The Octoroon, was serialised, and she gave up acting to concentrate on writing.

In 1860, a second novel, Three Times Dead, was serialised. It was not a success with the public, but it brought Braddon to the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who had already published several of Braddon’s short stories in his magazines. Inspite of its flaws, in Three Times Dead Maxwell recognised a talent worth cultivating, and he offered to help her revise the text. Reworked as The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon’s second novel found an appreciative audience and some critical attention. She continued with her novel-writing, and 1862 published Lady Audley’s Secret, a cause célèbre of the first order. From that notorious pinnacle, she never looked back. In 1866, using her own profits and with John Maxwell’s encouragement, she founded the Belgravia Magazine, an affordable vehicle for serialised novels, poems, travel narratives, biographies, and essays on fashion, history and science.

Meanwhile, Braddon’s private life was following a path every bit as scandalous as her novels.

The attraction between Mary Elizabeth Braddon and John Maxwell was almost instantaneous, but Maxwell was already married—in a manner of speaking: his first wife (also Mary, uncomfortably enough) had suffered a severe mental breakdown some years earlier, and as a consequence had been institutionalised for a period of time, leaving Maxwell with the care of their six children. Under the laws of the day, a divorce was out of the question. In 1861, Braddon and Maxwell began living together unmarried.

I like to think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as the sensation novel’s answer to George Eliot. Only George Eliot didn’t write better than eighty novels while raising twelve children.

As soon as she moved into his house, Braddon took over the care of Maxwell’s existing family (disproving all the step-motherly myths in the process, it seems), and over the following years bore seven children of her own, of which six survived. One of them, William Babbington Maxwell, born in 1866, would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a prolific and popular novelist. In 1874, the tragic Mary Maxwell died in Dublin. As soon as they decently could, Braddon and Maxwell got married—and the former’s novels began to be trumpeted as “—by MRS MAXWELL.” Amusingly, it didn’t stick: Braddon was by then far too famous, not to say infamous, under her maiden name.

For all of her success, there is still some uncertainty over exactly how many novels Braddon did write. Remarkably, in spite of her popular and financial success amongst the middle- and upper-classes, with Maxwell’s encouragement Braddon continued to write (albeit pseudonymously) for magazines aimed at the working-classes. In recent years a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into unearthing and preserving these hitherto unrecognised works, and is still ongoing.

There are, however, plenty of novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon for us to be going on with in the meantime.

10/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 3)

Days passed. Raymond now only too surely, terribly felt that his love for Rosalia was no longer pure brotherly affection. It was an intense and absorbing passion. He began to struggle against its nearly overwhelming power—he began to avoid the charming girl. Now could Hagar have trusted him; could she have believed in the power of redeeming qualities that really existed in his heart; the solid substratum of good that lay beneath this superficial alluvium of wilfulness and effeminacy; her faith might yet have saved him; saved herself from much anguish. As it was, Raymond struggled on alone against the advancing power of his great temptation. He might have struggled longer, he might have struggled successfully, but that the very means he took accelerated the crisis, the catastrophe. He began to avoid Rosalia; declined her music; evaded her questions; repulsed her gentle attentions, until the guileless girl, utterly unable to comprehend her position, grew wretched, more wretched every day, in the thought that her last friend, her only present friend, as in her heart she began to style Raymond, had fallen from her; and by the fatality that makes us set a higher value upon a possession that is passing away, Rosalia began to prize his affection exzceedingly—to desire its continuance more than all things—to lament its seeming loss passionately—to strive to win it back.


The Deserted Wife
, as I remarked at the outset, is a terribly uncomfortable book—uncomfortable in many different ways. As was the case in Retribution—as may well be the case in all of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels—there is a kernel of hard emotional truth behind all the melodrama and exaggeration and contrivance that makes it impossible to dismiss this novel as “just” an entertainment or a cheap thrill. The emotional abuse of Hagar by Raymond, like Ernest Dent’s transferance of his own guilt onto his innocent wife in the earlier novel, is convincing in a way that suggests only too clearly that Southworth is writing from her own experience; and while this is bad enough, hard enough for the reader to take, the discomforting power of this story is amplified by the impossibility of pinning down the novel’s attitude towards its beleagured heroine.

On the surface, at least, The Deserted Wife takes no issue with the prevailing 19th century view of marriage, which demanded of the wife that she subsume her own desires, wants and preferences in her husband’s, and which placed the entire responsibility for the success or failure of a marriage upon the woman: if it failed, it was because she had not done her duty. Taken to its extreme, it was a convention that essentially resulted in the woman ceasing to have any meaningful individual identity. There are plenty of Victorian novels that do indeed accept this convention without question, and are pretty hard to swallow as a consequence; but I’m not sure that The Deserted Wife isn’t harder for its smothered note of rebellion, which suggests that E.D.E.N. Southworth was caught between feelings of resentment and guilt, her anger at being blamed for the failure of her marriage battling with her fear that it was indeed all her fault.

It is Southworth’s use of this novel as a vehicle for working through her feelings that is behind its extremely peculiar tone—and for what amounts to a distressing lack of sympathy for Hagar, upon whom her creator bestows all of her own least desirable traits and emotions, and whose unhappiness is repeatedly declared to be her own fault, for her inability to control her passions, and for her struggle against the absolute necessity of submitting in all things to her husband. So far, Southworth seems entirely in sympathy with society’s judgement against herself.

And yet—and yet— What are we to make of the fact that “society’s judgement” is invariably conveyed via Sophie?—Sophie, whose idea of a good time is subjecting her will to that of a dangerous lunatic for the better part of ten years; Sophie, thrilled by the prospect of demonstrating her love for her second husband by a complete spiritual prostration:

    “I love my husband so much, so much, so much, with a fulness of tenderness that it seems to me could not be expressed, except by suffering something—sacrificing something for his sake. I am sure sometimes I wish me would ask me to do something naturally repugnant to my feelings, that I might have one opportunity of showing how much I do love; to give up my dearest wish for his pleasure would give me exquisite joy—a joy that I crave. I do not compehend this, dear, but it is so.”
    “Oh, I comprehend it, Sophie, perfectly; it is the very same principle that led the saints ages ago to scourge and starve themselves to testify their love to God—God forgive them the blasphemy! You, Sophie, have a propensity to worship, and a very decided vocation for martyrdom, which, unfortunately, under existing circumstances, I have not!” sneered the scornful girl.

One does wonder who 19th century readers sympathised with here.

This is only one of many clashes between Sophie and Hagar on the subject of marital duty, in which Sophie is unshakably on the side of Raymond. One long lecture on Hagar’s unavoidable duties, and her myriad of failings (Hagar’s involuntary protest, that Raymond knew all that before he married her, is waved away as irrelevant), bad enough at first reading, becomes increasingly chilling in retrospect, as we come to an ever deeper understanding of just what submission to Raymond entails:

“I see,” said she, “it is your pride, Hagar…it is your pride, love, that rebels against a rule every way gentle, just, and reasonable. Subdue it, Hagar. Your husband has been educated among the refinements of cultivated city society. He, himself, perhaps, among the most fastidious of that class. His taste is offended, his delicacy shocked by your wildness… He loves you, Hagar—has loved you long… He loved you—let me speak plainly, Hagar, for your sake and his—he loved you when you were a very unlovely child—at least to every one but me.—Well, he loved you, and sought and gained your love. You gave yourself away to him, and now he naturally expects you to conform your manners to his taste… Your pride must be subdued—it must: If you do not subdue it yourself, he will, with cruel pain to you. Raymond’s demands are all reasonable; such requirements are usual—in your case any man would make them…”

The reader, unlike Sophie, is given a good, long, clear-eyed look at Raymond’s “reasonable” demands and his “gentle, just and reasonable rule”. The marriage, indeed, quickly settles into a series of ugly skirmishes in which Raymond seeks out and invariably finds the points at which Hagar is most vulnerable, striking with merciless accuracy, forcing her to give way to him in matters that cause her the greatest possible pain. Most cruelly of all, perhaps, Raymond takes it into his head that it is “degrading” to have to share Hagar’s affections with her beloved horse and dogs—Hagar is understandably astonished, since not a word of these offended feelings did Raymond breathe before their marriage; she should have interpreted his silence, he tells her in all seriousness—and sells them behind her back. Small wonder that Hagar is unable to hide her bewildered misery from interested eyes; another affront to her husband:

    Hagar felt her arm grasped tightly from behind, and Raymond’s voice in her ear, muttering low and quickly, “You are making your well-merited wretchedness apparent to Sophie—be more natural; for as God in heaven hears me, if by word, look or gesture you reveal your miseries, making me a subject of speculation to these people—you shall suffer for it in every nerve in your body to the last day of your life,” and he let go her arm.
    “Dearest Raymond, how could you think that I would willingly betray uneasiness—have I been gloomy? I will be so no longer—you shall see—dear Raymond, smile on me—say one gentle word to me; my heart has been starving—even the bitter bread was welcome—give me a sweet word, Raymond!”
    “Don’t be ridiculous,” were the sweet words granted to her prayer…

By this time great changes have taken place in the lives of our characters. Sophie has married Augustus Wilde and lives with him on board the store ship under his command; Gusty May and Rosalia are engaged, although in respect of her youth (and, perhaps, her aunt’s doubts of the true nature of her feelings), no early marriage will be permitted. To Gusty’s dismay, his manoeuvring fails to secure him duty on the Rainbow, and he receives orders for a three-year cruise on another ship. In increasing desperation, Gusty spends his last days of leave trying to win some sign from Rosalia that she does, in fact, love him above all others, and is nearly driven to distraction by her calm serenity and her failure to understand his importunities. A good friend of Gusty’s, Midshipman Murphy, sympathising, uses his connections to get their postings swapped; he takes the three-year duty in the Mediterranean, and Gusty gets the Rainbow after all. In the full flow of his gratitude, Gusty (as he is wont to do) blurts out his troubles:

“Love me? Yes, she does. She loves her old, poor blind nurse Cumbo—uncle’s Newfoundland dog, Juno, and me in about the same proportions, and in the same manner… She will caress me right before her aunt’s face, freely and calmly as though I were her grandmother… Yet she tells me she loves me! Oh, yes, she loves me! and the next minute she will throw her arms around Juno’s neck and tell her she loves her! and with equal fervour. And if I ever complain to her that she does not love me, she weeps as though I did her an injury. Nearly three months here have I spent trying to kindle one spark, to touch one chord of responsive passion in her bosom. I have poured my whole sould firth at her feet, and she looks at me with her calm, sweet eyes and wonders at me…”

For all Gusty’s forthcomingness, one thing he does keep to himself: an uncomfortable belief, real or conjured up by his jealous fears, that the one time her ever did see a different light in Rosalia’s blank calm, sweet eyes, they were resting on Raymond…

Meanwhile, Heath Hall has been closed up, and Raymond and Hagar have moved to his villa on the banks of the Hudson River, three days’ travel from New York City; an inheritance from his paternal grandfather, General Raymond. To her dismay, Hagar finds it stiflingly over-decorated and, if anything, overstocked with servants; she is left with nothing to do all day but, as Raymond puts it, to “cultivate her beauty”. It soon becomes clear that the household is run on a scale far beyond the couple’s slender means, which are supplemented by Raymond accepting, albeit reluctantly, a teaching position at a nearby college. Hagar tries to remonstrate, arguing that all this display is unnecessary—indeed, she finds it personally distasteful—but of course Raymond is uninterested in her feelings. He has, he insists, “a constitutional love and necessity of luxury.”

And Hagar submits—not only because she must, but because her thoughts are concentrated elsewhere: she gives birth to twin girls, Agatha and Agnes; black-haired like their mother, beautiful like their father. Motherhood opens up in Hagar new and unexpected depths of emotion—feelings much gentler, although no less passionate, than she has experienced before. And in Hagar’s absolute devotion to her babies, Raymond is quick to recognise a much greater threat to his dominance over his wife than any posed before. His jealousy and resentment of Hagar’s absorption in her children are, we realise, of the same nature but upon a different scale from that he felt towards her pets. In this case, of course, he can’t sell the babies behind Hagar’s back (we occasionally get the feeling he would if he dared); instead, he decides that Hagar is ruining her health and her looks—not necessarily in that order—by nursing the children herself, and that it must stop. Holding over Hagar’s head the threat of sending the children away altogether by “putting them out to nurse”, Raymond manages to impose upon her a hired wet-nurse and restricted access each day to the babies, which are removed from the master-bedroom to a distant nursery.

(Translation: Raymond wants sexual access to his wife again.)

This war is still being fought and lost when a letter arrives for Hagar (which Raymond opens, as is mentioned in passing) announcing that Sophie, Augustus, Gusty and Rosalia will be coming for a visit. Augustus has himself been ordered to the Mediterranean, and Sophie is to accompany him—but Rosalia, never quite having gotten over her terrors of the sea, is to be left behind with either Raymond and Hagar, or Emily Buncombe. Raymond insists upon the former…

Here, too, we must wrestle with this novel’s tendency to put the bulk of the blame upon its heroine—or to look as if it is doing so. I can’t quite believe that Southworth intends us to take all this at face value, or perhaps I just don’t want to. She does, in fact, spread the blame around to an extent. Raymond is criticised for the self-indulgence that has become a habit, almost an addiction, the “moral lethargy” that robs him of the strength to put right before desire; and even Rosalia comes in for her share—her tenderness unsupported by strength of principle, heart unprotected by mind.

But finally the finger points at Hagar who, confronted by the nightmare vision that has blighted her whole life, the sight of Rosalia stealing love away from her, gives in to a bitter, uncontrolled, uncontrollable jealousy, which springs into being and shows itself before there is any concrete cause, and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, frightening Rosalia and driving her to Raymond for comfort and, in and of itself—or so we are told—putting the idea of Rosalia into Raymond’s head.

This is, indeed, the final conclusion: Hagar is to blame for what happens, because she does not really trust her husband as a wife should. After all—husbands don’t cheat on wives who trust them – right?

(While debating within myself just how far Southworth actually intends this sincerely, I can’t help remembering that in Retribution, Hester Dent trusted her husband and her best friend absolutely – and look what happened to her.)

Raymond does, in fact, struggle against the tide, albeit feebly; while Rosalia doesn’t even realise what’s happening until the crisis point is reached:

    “Tell me! just tell me how I have offended you all, Raymond! Oh! I am so unhappy! so lonesome—no one loves me now! tell me why?” She laid her soft hand upon her arm, and, bending forward, looked up in his face with her tender and coaxing gaze.
    The effect was electrical! Turning, he suddenly caught and strained her to his bosom, exclaiming, “My flower! my dove! my lamb! my angel! Rose! oh, Rose!” and pressing burning kisses upon her brow and lips between every breath and word. “Love you! I love you; more than life, sould, Heaven, God! Love you! my joy, my destiny! love you! let me have you and die! give yourself to me, and the next hour let me die, die!”

Rosalia is horrified and frightened by what has happened and tries to evade the consequences by leaving , but her will is nothing compared to Raymond’s, and she finds herself a party to an illicit elopement almost against her own volition. A concurrence of circumstances favours the joint disappearance: Rosalia is supposed to be travelling to stay with Emily Buncombe, where Gusty eagerly awaits her; Raymond has accepted an appointment to a consulate in Europe (a three-year appointment, as he calmly announces to an hysterical Hagar, explaining that she and the children will naturally stay where they are). The two are gone before anyone realises it. Raymond does indeed write to both Hagar and to Mrs Buncombe, blowing smoke in both directions; but he fails to deceive Gusty, seeing with the hawk-like eyes of jealousy (not, apparently, such a terrible thing in a man as it is in a woman). Without a word of explanation to his bewildered mother, who has not absorbed a single hint of the truth of the situation, he sets out to see Hagar—and finds devastation.

For Hagar has not only been deserted by her husband, she has been left without any means of support; not merely destitute, but deeply in debt, thanks to Raymond’s extravagance; with no prospect of an income, and two babies to care for, and pregnant…

An exchange of letters then takes place between Gusty and his mother, which are offered without editorialisation:

From Gusty:

“Mother, come quickly to Hagar. The servants are all leaving the house, because there is no money to pay them their wages. I have exceeded my furlough. I do not know what will be the consequence, and cannot help it. I am cited to appear before a court martial—cannot do it, of course. The devil himself would not leave Hagar in her present situation. Thank God! I have a few thousand dollars in bank, and that will keep the wolf from Hagar’s door for some years to come, any how! Oh, mother! do come quickly. Hagar is still confined to her bed—she wants a lady with her—a friend with her…”

From Mrs Buncombe:

    “Gusty! Is this the way in which you repay all my care of you? Return immediately to your post, as you value my blessing. Do you not know, wretched boy, that you run the risk of having your commission taken away from you? Do you not know, oh! dolt of a child, that you will be scandalized to death, if you remain a day where you are? and all the servants leaving the house, too! Oh, Heavens, Gusty! am I who never risked the chance of a breath of calumny, am I now to suffer through the imprudence of my son?…
    “As to my coming to Hagar, it is not possible just now; Buncombe has the rheumatism, and baby is cutting her eye-teeth; besides which Kitty has scalded her hand so badly as to be nearly useless—so that you see I am the sole dependence of the family.
    “This unhappy Hagar had ever possessed the uneviable gift of drawing down upon her head the ban of society—but she must not pull others down with her…”

Gusty—dear Gusty, I can only say along with his creator—looks both professional ruin and his mother’s horror square in the face and stays where he is. When Hagar is able to travel, he escorts her and the babies back to Heath Hall, the only place she now has the right or the will to call home. The journey takes place in brutal mid-winter, and after disembarking from their boat the travellers are unable to reach the house, but are forced to pass a night in a fishing-hut near the river: an involuntary impropriety that will have evil consequences in the future. In the morning Gusty hires horses, and the party reaches the Hall safely—where Hagar is greeted by Starlight, her horse, and Romulus and Remus, her pointers, who collectively made life so miserable for their new owners – the Gardiner Greens – that they turned the dogs loose, and sold Starlight back to Gusty. Having seen Hagar settled and safe with the servants who were left to care for the Hall, old Cumbo and Tarquin (or “Tarquinius Superbus”, to give him his correct title), Gusty departs to face the music. And there—solitary and neglected, the fodder for neighbourhood gossip—Hagar gives birth to her third child, a son.

In the long term Hagar must, of course, find some way of earning a living for herself and her children—and no, she doesn’t do it as a writer—what made you think that? Hagar’s one “indoor gift” is her music, her singing; and she plots a careful, stepwise course to a career as a concert performer, assuming a false name, and winning a reputation both for the power of her voice and the strict morality of her conduct, which attracts almost as much attention. Indeed, there is no-one in her new life that has the privilege of saying they “know” this intriguing celebrity: she appears, she performs, she retreats behind high walls, she sees no callers, she admits no admirers…

And where are our other characters in the meantime?

Frankly, I’d like nothing better than to be able to tell you that the boat carrying Raymond and Rosalia sank with all hands lost, and that after a suitable period Gusty and Hagar got married and lived happily ever after; but in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, we do not really expect anything so simple—or convenient—or pleasant.

Instead, we find our cast scattered about the world, trying to stay in contact via an uncertain mail service. For Augustus and Sophie, this means trying to make sense at a great distance of ambiguous letters from Raymond, which at one time seem to be promising to escort Rosalia back to them, at another, that he is in search of Rosalia, who has vanished… Augustus is away on duty, and Sophie alone, when she receives a still more staggering letter from a lawyer in America, who used to represent Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law. The occasion is Rosalia’s eighteenth birthday; the letter is to reveal a long-held secret: that Rosalia was not, in fact, the biological child of the Aguilars, but was adopted; her mother was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, who called herself Fanny Raymond…

Ah, the incest card!—where would sensation novelists be without it?

Well…

I am compelled, at this point, although not without certain feelings of admiration, to accuse E.D.E.N. Southworth of disingenous conduct.

The fact of the matter is that, although she delays the revelation for as long as possible, Southworth is finally forced to come clean, and admit to the reader that the affair between Raymond and Rosalia never goes any further than that first passionate embrace. She accounts for this well enough in terms of Rosalia’s remorse and fear (combined, though she does not say so outright, with the cramped shipboard accommodations, which hardly lend themselves to adulterous seduction); yet in a corner of my mind I have a vision of her opening her eyes wide in mock-shock at her readers and their dirty minds: “Good heavens, no! I never meant any such thing!”

It is to her credit, I suppose, that she resisted the temptation of playing with her readers even more, and separates her illicit lovers altogether before further dropping the incest bombshell.

Though Rosalia’s consciousness of wrongdoing make her equally fearful of facing Hagar or Emily Buncombe, which in turn makes her give in weakly to Raymond’s persuasions, she spends the entire journey to Europe facing what she has done, and working up sufficient courage to run away from her would-be seducer. Her flight being facilitated by the fact that Raymond hardly expects either determination or careful plotting from her, Rosalia succeeds in escaping both him and Genoa, where they land, and where he has his consular appointment. She has, of course, no money and nowhere in particular to go; her only thought is away, and she goes away as far and as long as she can before collapsing at the side of the road and being discovered, and taken in, by (in the novel’s one really outrageous twist) no less a person than—as it is spelled out for us—Her Royal Highness, Maria Louisa, Grand Duchess of Parma. Delighted with the girl’s beauty and gentle manners, the Duchess makes a companion out of her; and so it is that some time later, Rosalia just happens to be a member of a concert party that gathers to hear a new, celebrated singer, touring Europe after winning her reputation in America…

And Raymond? At first, unused to being thwarted, unable to bear being so, he takes Rosalia’s flight as an affront that he cannot and will not tolerate. He becomes obsessed with finding her, plotting ways and means of discarding Hagar and making Rosalia his wife. He is in this state of mind when he receives a letter from Hagar, who after having had time to reflect chooses to treat his behaviour as an outbreak of insanity—moral insanity, as opposed to his father’s mental derangement—and to behave as if nothing were really wrong. Her first letter, received during the darkest period of Raymond’s obsession, places a weapon in his hands: in it she recounts their child’s birth, her return to Heath Hall under Gusty’s protection, and her subsequent removel to Washington (for reasons undeclared). All this Raymond – who knew that Hagar was pregnant when he left her – twists into a confession of adultery and desertion, the easy means to a divorce.

Hagar’s second letter, however, written in response to his, is something else: a lengthy, detailed, painfully considered dissection of Raymond’s character, mind and behaviour – including his infatuation with Rosalia – that contains so much truth that even Raymond at his worst cannot gainsay it. This naked exposure of himself to himself is a shock to Raymond; he sees his pursuit of Rosalia for what it is, and also his marriage, and his treatment of Hagar. He is still in this rare chastened state of mind when he receives the frantic communication from Sophie informing him that Rosalia is his sister… The result is a breakdown – and “brain fever” (of course) – during which “his life was despaired of” – but no such luck. He recovers—he is recalled to America—but before leaving Genoa, he attends the concert of the celebrated new American singer…

I hardly know what to make of the conclusion of The Deserted Wife. Perhaps it’s just me, but here, as in Retribution, while I find the emotional violence and scenes of conflict and unhappiness convincing, I also find Southworth’s “happy endings” false to the point of being dishonest. After all that has happened, how can there be anything between Hagar and Raymond that you would dignify by calling “a marriage”? How can we believe, as the text insists, that the two of them were and are properly in love? Yet the novel concludes with the reconciliation of the two, offered up as if the reader is supposed to be glad: The beautiful family were all now united in love and joy.

And yet—perhaps the dishonesty is intentional? Perhaps, by paying this sort of lip-service, E.D.E.N. Southworth fully intended to expose not just the dishomesty but the cruelty of social convention, which demands that women love once and regardless, and that marriage is necessarily forever? I don’t know—but I look forward to reading more of her novels and trying to find out.

07/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 2)

It was so strange! queer—a few words had been pattered over by a fat old gentleman in a gown; and, lo! all their relations were changed. It was curious; her very name and title were gone, and the girl, two minutes since a wild, free maiden, was now little better than a bondwoman; and the gentle youth who two minutes since might have sued humbly to raise the tips of her little dark fingers to his lips, was now invested with a life-long authority over her. Yes, it was so curious! and the spirited girl was in doubt whether to laugh or cry; and the expression of mingled emotions on her face blended into one of intense interest and inquiry as she met his gaze and smile, which she could not help fancying patronizing and condescending, as well as protective and loving! A new, extremely provoking feature in his smile! but perhaps she only fancied it…

From the beginning of her acquaintance with Withers, Sophie is haunted by a strange, spectral figure: a woman, pale and gaunt, with long, fair hair, who appears from nowhere, lurking at the edge of the surrounding forest and by the road. At the figure’s first appearance it points towards Withers, uttering the words Shun him! in a voice that only Sophie can hear…

On the evening of Sophie’s capitulation to Mrs Gardiner Green, on which her doom—her wedding-day—is fixed, the figure appears again:

    She looked up, and the phantom of the forest dell stood before her, the same wan, spectral face—the same large, intense, blue eyes, blazing in their hollow sockets, surrounded by their livid, blueish circle—the same streaming yellow hair, with its streaks of grey—the same emaciated claw-like fingers. Her intense gaze sought into Sophie’s eyes, and she knew that her visitor was a denizen of earth. She remained gazing into Sophie’s eyes a minute, and then she broke forth with terrible energy:
    “Do not marry him!—risk—suffer anything but that. Do not marry him! Be true to your instincts—they warned you at your first meeting, they warn you now! Be true to your instincts! They were given to you of God for your protection; it is a sin—it is a sin to disregard them, and the punishment will be more than you can bear!—a broken heart!—a maddened brain!—at least—a blighted life! Look at me!”
    She tore the mantle from her breast and displayed a skeleton form, to which the tight skin clung.
    “Who are you, in the name of Heaven?”
    “I am a shadow—a memory—a warning! I was his wife!”

With Withers’ appearance on the scene the spectre vanishes into the shadows, and is next seen a pathetic corpse, found floating in the bay. At the inquest, Sophie—clinging to the thought that Withers has always spoken of losing his first wife, never that his wife died—gathers together the last remnants of her strength and courage and testifies, telling all she knows of the dead woman. This compels Withers to respond. He testifies that he did know the woman, had known her all her life; that for the past year she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, from where she escaped; but swears solemnly that she was not his wife. His word is taken, and the inquest closed.

With that, Sophie gives up her faint struggle for freedom, and goes to her marriage as to her execution.

After the ceremony, Sophie is summoned from the house by an unexpected arrival. At first glance she thinks that the suicide has returned to haunt her literally—the fair hair, the blue eyes, are the same—but the visitor is a young man, hardly more than a boy. His name is Frank Raymond Withers, and he has come to warn Sophie not to marry his father, because his father is insane…

A reeling Sophie then hears of the fits which gradually consumed the intellect of John Withers, causing him shame as well as terror, but which with the help of his son, he managed to conceal from the world; and of his marriage to Fanny Raymond—so much for the word of honour of a man of God—although when the boy is asked about his mother’s fate, he recoils. Raymond – so the boy is called – tells Sophie that she can have her marriage annulled, but upon being pressed, agrees that this would make Withers’ malady public knowledge and, in all likelihood, cost him his tenuous grip on his sanity.

Absorbing this story, Sophie—who has repeatedly been described to us as visionary, as seeking a higher calling—does not, as we might expect and even hope, flee her husband. Instead, she goes to the other extreme:

During the interview, a revolution had taken place in Sophie’s soul; all her deep religious feeling, her latent passion for self-devotion, her enthusiasm, her benevolence, had been called forth. Thus softened by pity, and inspired by her own lofty ideal of duty, she determined to devote herself to the tranquility of his shrunken and tortured life, with one purpose—his restoration to mental and physical health… An hour before, she had seemed a trembling, shrinking, suffering victim, offered in useless, objectless sacrifice; now she was a cheerful, self-possessed human soul, who had solved the problem of her life, and held the answer in her hands.

Intriguingly, from the first Sophie’s willing self-immolation is presented to us in ambiguous terms. Southworth starts out musing on the impulse of self-sacrifice, and the great works so achieved by noble souls—and then drifts into a reflection of the nature of fanaticism, and the damage that can be caused by enthusiasm unchecked by reason. So, we are to understand, is Sophie’s devotion to her husband, a duty which she pursues while neglecting all other duties.

And with this, the focus of The Deserted Wife begins to shift from Sophie to the most important duty she is neglecting: the child Hagar, who in a stroke of fate goes from being Sophie’s constant companion and the cynosure of her life, to a mere afterthought, neglected and ignored; something underfoot, and generally in the way.

Here, too, this novel takes on an ambivalent tone that will persist throughout its remaining pages. The positioning of Hagar as Southworth’s alter-ego could not be more nakedly evident as she struggles to aportion blame: constantly, bitterly critical of the girl for her inability to control her passions—her anger, her resentment, her jealousy—yet time and again, almost involuntarily, it seems, tracing her faults back to this moment in her childhood when Hagar is simply pushed aside.

Sophie had fallen into that dangerous error so common to enthusiasts—the exclusive absorption in one duty, to the neglect of others… Even religion, piety, which is most excellent, stretched beyond the line of moderation becomes fanaticism, superstition—which is anything but worship and honour to the Creator. For Scripture saith, “Be not righteous over much.” Poor Sophie was “over much,” and hence her self-sacrifice was not, as it might have been, productive of unmingled good. To Hagar it brought great evil…

From Hagar’s point of view, worse is to come than even her abrupt relegation in her aunt’s priorities. Word is received that Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law have fallen victim to a fever epidemic in Baltimore, and so Sophie finds herself guardian to her second niece, Rosalia, orphaned at the age of three. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, gentle and timid, wanting only to love and be loved, Rosalia is everything that Hagar is not. The older girl’s resentment manifests as contempt, while Rosalia conceives a fear of Hagar which she never quite gets over.

Rosalia’s arrival brings Hagar into temporary alliance with Withers—the two are otherwise mutually antagonistic. In her fair loveliness, Rosalia seems to Withers’ disordered gaze the unfortunate Fanny Raymond reincarnated, and he must be petted and soothed into acceptance of the girl by Sophie. However, everyone else in the household takes the beautiful child to their hearts in an instant—and before much time has passed, Hagar finds herself being told repeatedly that she will never be pretty like Rosalia, but she could at least try to be good like her.

And then they’re surprised that Hagar goes through life with a permanent scowl on her face, while behaving as badly as possible.

Upon Hagar, too, these influences were producing the worst effects. Jealousy and suspicion of the few she loved, scorn and contempt for the opinions of others—neglect of her person as little worth attention, and a morbid desire to be loved exclusively—these were some of the evil fruits of her wretched bringing-up…

The one consolation in Hagar’s life are those times when Raymond Withers is a member of the household, in between his college terms. The two become acquainted on the night of the wedding, when Hagar—in a fore-taste of things to come—is sitting by herself, the sole child amongst a crowd of indifferent adults. Raymond is drawn to the lonely little girl, plying her with cakes and sweetmeats while he investigates the source of her evident grief; and from the moment of this first encounter, he becomes the object of Hagar’s passionate devotion, her adopted brother:

    “She used to keep me always by her side, or on her lap; for two or three days she has left me here with Mrs May, and now that she has come, she scarcely speaks to me!” exclaimed the child, and her black eyes flashed under her sharp brows, and her white teeth gleamed under her up-turned lip as she spoke.
    A soft smile hovered an instant around the beautiful lips and under the golden eye-lashes of the youth as he said—“You look so like a little playful, spiteful black kitten, that I am almost afraid of your teeth and claws—however—” and stooping down he daintily lifted the child and set her on his lap. Then he said, “I think you are a jealous little girl.”
    “I don’t know what ‘jealous’ is, but I don’t like to be robbed of what is mine.”
    “You are selfish, I am afraid, my little one—who has robbed you?”
    “Mr Withers has got Sophie, and now he may have her, for I don’t care…”

In his time in the household of his father and step-mother, Raymond does indeed share with Sophie the care of Withers, and the job of concealing his illness from the community. It is no easy task, and becomes still less so as Withers’ malady grows upon him, and his fits, for the first time, threaten violence. Raymond, more familiar with the phases of his father’s illness than Sophie, becomes worried that she will no longer be able to soothe and calm him; that in fact, he poses a genuine threat to her. Finally, Raymond tells Sophie that they must think of a retreat for her, some place where she will be safe. Withers overhears—and, in his madness, misunderstands; his response is to seize Raymond by the throat…

E.D.E.N. Southworth was, as we have seen, an enormously successful and popular novelist; and the more I see of her writing, the more I’m inclined to think that the basis for her appeal may have been willingness to break taboos—to speak of unspeakable things, both in a broad, social sense and more intimately, domestically—using the unrealistic mask of the sensation novel as an excuse. In any event, critics of the time, some admiring, some horrified, were quick to single out this scene of familial violence, which we may say put Southworth on the map as a novelist:

    “Perfidous son of a perfidous mother!” he exclaimed, shaking him violently, “her image in heart and mind, as well as in person—traitor and reprobate! would you wile the love of my bride away from me? would you teach her your vile mother’s sin?”
    The youth was but as a reed in his grasp. Sophie sank pale and helpless into a chair. Now another figure appeared upon the scene—little Hagar stamping and screaming.
    “Let Raymond! let my brother alone! Let him go, I say! you old Satan, you. I—I’ll kill you—I’ll scratch your eyes out,” and clambering upon a chair, and then a table, she sprang upon the back of his neck. He was obliged to drop his hold of Raymond a moment to shake off the little wild-cat—he seized her, and pulling her off, hurled her flying through the open window…

Fortunately, this occurs on the ground floor…

The young Jane Eyre is probably the 19th century’s most famous poster child for violence and wilfulness, but she meets her match in Hagar—each of the girls both suffering and inflicting physical abuse. It is disturbing, although not, I suppose, altogether surprising that these twin shatterers of 19th century childhood myths should both be self-portraits by their creators.

(There’s an evil part of me that would love to give Jane and Hagar ten minutes alone in a room with Little Nell and the young Florence Dombey…)

This outbreak of violence on the part of John Withers represents the peak of his illness. From this point, he retreats into long periods of morose silence, and his general health begins gradually to fail. With the slow approach of death, ironically his mind clears. A new gentleness, and a deep remorse, are evident. Almost at the last, Withers steels himself for the task of confessing the entire truth about Fanny Raymond: a subject that, once recognising that this, above all else, would precipitate an attack—that it was Raymond’s resemblance to his mother that triggered Withers’ assault of his son—Sophie has scrupulously avoided. We hear of Withers’ reluctant embrace of the church, to which he was recociled by the adulation his impassioned sermons won him; of his introduction to the young Fanny, beautiful only child of an elderly father; and of the twisted nature of their relationship (in describing which, Southworth struggles, as she did in Retribution, with the necessity of saying “love” when she means “sex”):

“I wooed Fanny Raymond—did I love her? No; but her extreme youth, her beauty and graceful shyness strongly attracted me—through that idiosyncrasy that lured me to the pursuit of such. I wooed her, but she avoided me. That added zest to the chase. I had her father’s interest, and I married her. I married her, despite her reluctance, or rather because of her reluctance, and despite of tears, prayers and resistance… The wild shy creature, full of emotion as a harp is of music, was in my power—in my grasp. Oh! the wild beating of my heart, when I had caught and held the fluttering bird! Did I love her now? Yes! as the fire loves the fuel it consumes. And then she loved me, Sophie! or rather no, I will not profane the word that expresses your pure affection for me, Sophie. But she grew passionately, insanely fond of me—she loved me as the drunkard loves the bowl he feels is his destruction—as the moth loves the flame that must consume it. And then, Sophie! then, she lost all attractions for me! From indifference I grew almost to loath her. I struggled against this growing disgust, but it overmastered me…”

Unhappiness—estrangement—and finally, infidelity, betrayal and madness, as Fanny’s slighted and banked up passions finally break out in another direction, attaching to yet another unworthy object and precipitating disaster. As Withers succumbs to his first fit, Fanny flees the house. The young Raymond nurses his father back to comprehension, and is then sent in pursuit of his mother, who he eventually locates in a lunatic asylum; while a recovering Withers is left to confront a parish that knows every detail of his domestic disgrace. His fits return, periodically, and it is Raymond who bears the brunt, caring for his father and defending his secret against prying eyes. In one of his fits, Withers strikes Raymond a vicious blow, which injures his chest and leaves him with impaired health and permanent damage to his lungs.

Withers does at last recover – or at least, the fits became more infrequent – until Raymond feels secure enough to give in to his father’s prompting and return to his neglected education. At this time Withers resumes his correspondence with an old friend, Mr May, who has seen the notice of his resignation from the pulpit—which Withers attributes to grief over “the loss of my wife”. And from this correspondence springs the offer of a new parish, upon the death of Mr May…and Withers’ meeting with Sophie…and the reappearance and death of Fanny…

Changes have come to the quiet valley over the years of Sophie’s marriage, and her widowhood. The children have, perforce, grown up. Gusty May is preparing for a career in the navy, under the patronage of his uncle, which frees his mother to at long last become Mrs Buncombe. Rosalia is away at school in Baltimore, and Hagar—is Hagar.

Having contracted, in her lonely childhood, solitary habits, as a young woman Hagar scandalises the neighbourhood with her reckless habits and her indifference to public opinion. She is an intrepid horsewoman, a crack shot, an expert archer and an enthusiastic hunter, and can handle a boat with skill and ease; her overflowing emotions find an outlet in her devotion to her horse and her dogs, who are her constant companions in her wanderings. Hagar is, it almost goes without saying, an object of horror to the painfully conventional Emily Buncombe—and all the more so because Gusty, Hagar’s childhood friend, is rather obstinately in love with her, in spite of his mother’s limitless objections – and her fear of what the neighbours will say:

    “I have a worse fear for you than that, Gusty, a far worse fear for you than that. This Hagar, she is the talk of the whole neighbourhood; her eccentricity, her improprieties, expose her to severe animadversions.”
    “Her originality you mean; her independence; her free, strong, glorious spirit! Oh! Hagar is a chamois! you cannot expect her to trot demurely to the music of her own grunting, from trough to straw, like any pig! Hagar is an eagle! you must not look to find her waddling lazily and feeding fatly with barnyard ducks and geese.”
    “A pretty way to speak of your neighbours, Mr May.”
    “Well, then, let them leave Hagar alone!”

Hagar’s affection for Gusty is real enough, but thoroughly sisterly, and she holds him at a determined distance. For Hagar’s heart is gone, long gone; given to Raymond without hesitation—yet not without a qualm. The two of them become engaged, are so for some time. For all Hagar’s love for Raymond, some instinct makes her shrink from taking the final, fatal step. There is, at last, a final tussle of two strong wills – and in spite of the text’s insistence upon Raymond’s “gentleness”, of which we hear from his first appearance, there is no doubt of the steel behind it. Since completing his education, Raymond has been building a career for himself, and now he tells Hagar that he has been offered an appointment at the Court of Madrid—which he will accept if she does not agree to an immediate marriage. Still the battle goes on, Raymond insisting and Hagar resisting. They part—he goes—but before he can get any further than New York, a letter calls him back…

Hagar’s marriage has consequences for people other than herself and Raymond. Poor Gusty, in his desolation and in his need for someone to love, makes a fool of himself by asking Sophie to marry him (she is, as he points out, only eight years older than himself), and is refused with both tact and affection. Gusty is then sent away, under the guise of making himself useful, to fetch Rosalia from Baltimore so that she can attend the wedding; and by the time the two appear – having travelled by land rather than water, due to Rosalia’s terrors – Gusty’s pliable affections have taken yet another turn—and this time, they stick.

Meanwhile, word comes that Emily Buncombe is expecting a visit from her brother. The first meeting between Augustus and Sophie is awkward in the extreme, full of “Captain Wilde” and Mrs Withers” – until an involuntary shower of tears from Sophie finds her in her lover’s arms and, his leave being brief, agreeing to an immediate marriage on the single condition that when they depart, Rosalia goes with them—the alternative being to leave her with Hagar:

“Hagar is dangerous to one so tender as Rosalia. Would you put a dove in the guardianship of a young eagle? Hagar has a fine, high spirit—she would go through fire or flood to serve one she loved—but, mark you! she would cast that one she loved back into the fire or flood if they should offend her.”

As for Hagar, she watches from a distance the effect of Rosalia: Sophie’s rapturous greeting of the girl, and Captain Wilde’s unconcealed admiration; that Gusty, such a short time ago at her own feet, is utterly entranced by her; and that Raymond gazes upon her with the eyes of a connoisseur – and perhaps something more. The demon jealousy is awake in an instant, precipitating a skirmish between Hagar and her husband, a battle of the wills that is a disturbing portent of worse to come…

It is, perversely, Raymond’s very gentleness that frightens his wife; his command over himself, which gives him a strange power over her. She recognises this, although she has no way of combatting it. Her passions are all fire and tempest; his, ice and steel behind a face like a mask—at least in front of outsiders. Raymond is an immovable object against which Hagar’s force proves anything but irresistable, but instead batters itself into helpless submission:

She stopped short, and gazed in surprise at him. How changed his aspect! was it the same Raymond that an hour ago was smiling, bowing, glancing, gliding through the lighted drawing-rooms? He stood with folded arms and curling lip; his cold eye crawling over her from head to foot, yet so fascinating in his beautiful scorn, that she could have uttered a death-cry of anguish, as love and pride tugged at her…

We might be inclined to think, during the early stages of this nove , that John Withers’ obsession with pursuing women who do not want him, are in fact frightened of him, is a manifestation of his insanity—until the text takes pains to tell us otherwise. And here we find Raymond pursuing the same course—Raymond, whose father’s malady is explicitly characterised as not hereditary—the eminently sane Raymond—marrying a woman with the declared intention (declared after the event, of course, not before) of dominating her will and compelling her to submit and obey. In fact, Raymond goes his father one better by choosing a woman not weak and gentle, but passionate and wilful: a woman whose spirit is fully worth a man’s trouble in breaking it:

    “Come, come!—come, come! be still, Hagar, no phrensy,” said he, smilingly, tauntingly caressing her, while a gentle, cruel strength struck out from the pressure of the soft arms that held her in a fast embrace; “if your eagle flaps its wings and beats its cage so violently, I am afraid clipping its pinions and claws will not be enough—I am afraid I will have to crush it altogether,” said he, looking down into her eyes.
    She ceased to struggle, and letting fall her hands clasped upon her lap—dropped her head upon her chest, while the colour all faded from her cheeks, and the light from her eyes.
    “Come, love, you are a spirited little thing, but you will be docile by and by…”

[To be continued…]

16/06/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 1)

A murmur of admiration ran through the crowded parlours as Sophie was led in by Mr Withers, and the bridal party took their stand in the centre of the room. The bishop of the diocese, summoned from Baltimore, was in attendance to perform the ceremony. He wore the usual full wide black gown of an Episcopalian clergyman. The bridal party stood before him cheerily; the young bridesmaids and groomsmen stood in reverent attitude, their eyes bent upon the ground, but the corners of their lips full of dimples, scarcely suppressing their smiles—stern and solemn stood the tall thin figure of the dark bridegroom, and cold, pale, and quiet, Sophie waited. Once she raised her eyelids, but her glance fell on the black gown and solemn countenance of the clergyman before her, and she quickly dropped them again. He seemed to her the incarnation of darkest doom. She felt a dreary sinking of the heart as the first words of the ritual fell upon her ear, as the sentence of death falls upon the criminal hearing…

Our acquaintance with Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth, brief as it has been, has already taught us that the lady was capable of writing some very peculiar books (as evidenced here and here). Her second novel, The Deserted Wife, which was first published in 1850, is peculiar as well, but it is something else besides—namely, one of the most uncomfortable books I’ve ever read.

I don’t quite know how to approach The Deserted Wife. It is, like the other works of Southworth we have considered, a strange blending of the sensation novel and—something else. For most 19th century writers, the sensation novel itself, with its reliance on extravagant plots, dark passions, deadly secrets and social transgressions, was quite extreme enough. For E.D.E.N. Southworth, however, the sensation novel was merely the vehicle for the story she was really trying to tell. In Retribution she blended its conventions with an abolitionist tale; in Vivia, with religious didacticism. Here, in The Deserted Wife, she uses the sensation novel as a backdrop to a portrait of an emotionally abusive marriage so convincing as to be utterly chilling—and all the more so because this tale is, only too obviously, largely autobiographical.

The details we know of Emma Southworth’s life are painfully significant. After her father died when she was young from complications of injuries sustained in the War of 1812 – and having, as a last request, had his daughter rechristened to add the names “Dorothy Eliza”, so that her initials would spell “E.D.E.N.” – Emma Nevitte was raised in Washington D.C. by her mother and her step-father, Joseph Henshawe, the latter of whom she found cold and unsympathetic. He was the head of an academy for girls, from which she graduated at the age of 16 before finding employment as a schoolteacher. In 1840, Nevitte married Frederick Southworth and left Washington for Wisconsin. Four years later, at the age of 25, the mother of one child and pregnant with a second, she returned alone: her husband had deserted his family and fled to South America. Sources vary on the specifics of the split, but not the underlying motivation: some say that an expected legacy from Mrs Southworth’s grandparents was not forthcoming; others that, in disapproval of the marriage, Joseph Henshawe refused the young couple any financial aid. Either way, Frederick Southworth clearly did not get out of the marriage what he went into it anticipating and left to chase his fortune elsewhere.

After recovering from the birth of her second child, Emma Southworth went back to work, supporting herself and her son and daughter on a slender teacher’s salary that was barely sufficient, but which was strained to the utmost by the children’s frequent bouts of ill-health and escalating doctor’s bills. (In many of her novels, including The Deserted Wife, Southworth speaks of the poor salary and long hours of the teaching profession with great bitterness.) In 1845, in an attempt to supplement her income, she began writing short stories, and by this means found a little relief from her difficulties. Then, in 1849, everything changed almost overnight: Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or The Vale Of Shadows was first serialised in the National Era and then published in book form early in 1850. It was a huge success, so much so that Southworth was able to give up teaching and write full-time. Her popularity only grew over the succeeding years, until by 1856 she had an exclusive contract for her work with Robert Bonner of the New York Ledger, and by 1860 she was earning an unprecendented $10,000 a year.

It must be assumed that news of Southworth’s triumphs did not penetrate into the wilds of Brazil, as Frederick Southworth never reappeared to batten upon his deserted wife – as he was still legally entitled to do. It is known that, when the statutes on desertion permitted it, E.D.E.N. Southworth did begin divorce proceedings against her husband – but then chose not to go through with it. We can only speculate about the reason for her hesitation. Was being a wife, even a publicly deserted wife, better than being a divorced woman? Did she think that perhaps divorce was exactly what Southworth wanted, and therefore denied it to him? – or did she, conversely, look upon divorce as an admission of her own defeat?

Southworth rarely spoke of her situation, so we cannot know for sure. Nor do we know whether another woman was involved in Frederick Southworth’s flight, although the recurrent theme of the betrayed wife in the early novels might suggest so. What we do know is that, in spite of the luxury and plenty that came with success, it was the years of loneliness and privation that fueled Southworth’s novel-writing. Again and again in her novels, a young woman is left to fend for herself in a world that would rather judge and condemn than help, and where social convention has a terrifying power which is exerted without pity.

Even with no more knowledge of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s body of work than can be gained by a reading of Vivia and Retribution, we have already absorbed a vital lesson: always watch out for the black-haired woman, who is trouble personified. In Vivia she is Helen Wildman, who coldly plots to divide the young lovers, Austin Malmaison and Theodora Shelley, and then draws Austin into a marriage that ends disastrously. In Retribution she is Juliette Summers, who repays the kindness and generosity of the gentle, trusting Hester Dent by seducing her husband. This kind of moral colour-coding can be tiresome in the extreme, but in Southworth’s case a new light is thrown upon it by The Deserted Wife, which is not only autobiographical in detail, but in which the black-haired woman is an explicit self-portrait.

Like her contemporary, Louisa May Alcott, Southworth struggled all her life with feelings of inadequacy rooted in her inability to be what society told her a girl “should” be, either in appearance or conduct. In an interview, she once recalled of herself:

“At the age of six, I was a little, thin, dark, wild-eyed elf, shy, awkward and unattractive, and in consequence was very much—let alone. I spent much time in solitude, reverie, or mischief…”

This novel’s heroine, Agatha Churchill, is likewise little, thin, dark and wild – but grows up beautiful, as Southworth did not; something which she clearly felt as another inadequacy. Through this girl—Agatha—or, as from her wild, dark beauty, she was called Hagar—Southworth explores the unhappinesses of her own life. There is a painful nakedness about this self-examination, and all the more so because of Southworth’s obvious ambivalence about the social code that placed all the blame squarely on her shoulders. There is—I don’t want to misuse this term, but it conveys what I mean better than any other—there is a bi-polar quality to this novel, with Southworth swinging wildy between abject self-excoriation, with Hagar’s misery brought on entirely by her inability to control her passions, and moments where she all but shakes her clenched fists at the world and screams, “IT IS NOT MY HAGAR’S FAULT, DAMMIT!!”

Like the other of Southworth’s works we have examined, The Deserted Wife is a hugely complicated, multi-generational story with multiple subplots that wanders over both time and distance, and is as a consequence exceedingly difficult to address without numerous pauses to re-set the scene. It is likely to run across several posts. I apologise in advance.

This novel opens—or at least, did in its original form—with a completely tone-setting moment of weirdness: the 1850 American edition is prefaced by an introduction in which Southworth lets fly on the subject of how girls are raised, in which she targets not only that perpetual favourite, an inadequate education, but also idiotic fashions that restrict a girl’s movements and a prevailing code that discourages girls from getting a decent amount of exercise. As a consequence, Southworth argues, American girls grow up physically weak. Then they are permitted, if not actively encouraged, to marry very young, with immediate and repeated pregnancies and childbirths often ruining their health and reducing them to invalidism. As a consequence, the marriage – certainly the physical side of it – all but comes to an end. The wife is incapable of an active, useful life, and the husband, if he is a decent man, can only put up with being tied to a sickly, immobile wife who can be no real companion or helpmate for him; or if not, will in all probability seek consolation elsewhere, perhaps finally abandoning his family.

(Frederick Southworth, we recall, didn’t even stay around long enough for this to be an account of Southworth’s own marriage.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the British edition of The Deserted Wife, published in 1856, deletes this airing of Southworth’s views, and substitutes the novel’s original first chapter, in which she no less angrily compares the settlers of Maryland and Virginia to their New England counterparts, the latter caring for and preserving the land so that future generations can also benefit from it, the former wrenching from the earth everything it will give in the short term without any consideration for the consequences.

The novel proper begins with an account of one such family, left to struggle along on in their neglected and crumbling house, and on their depleted acres:

Down on the western shore of Maryland is a heath containing about five hundred acres—upon which stands an old mansion-house, in ruins. It is bounded on the North by the river P., on the South by Satchem’s Creek, on the West by a deep, dense forest, and on the East by the Chesapeake Bay…

The family that settled the land still occupies it, now consisting only of a brother and two sisters. The two eldest marry; neither prosper. Of Ignatius Churchill, the text comments:

His poverty and his encumbrances did not prevent him from loving and marrying a beautiful girl in his neighbourhood, Agatha Gormon, who left a luxurious home to share his poverty in the ruined Hall at the Heath; nor could his love save her from death, when in the second year of her marriage, she passed away, leaving an infant daughter a day old…

This is our heroine, Hagar, who falls to her aunts’ care after Ignatius pines away; although she does not become the focus of the novel for some considerable time. The older Churchill sister, Rosalie, then marries a merchant who carries her off to Baltimore, leaving the seventeen-year-old Sophie in sole charge of the baby and completely alone in the world except for an elderly slave, who seventy years before, in her childhood, had been torn from her native coast, brought to this country, and sold.

Southworth permits herself this slap at slavery in passing, before her real target in this novel makes its appearance:

After the death of her brother, and the marriage of her sister, she had, in pure ignorance of the world, kept up exactly the same manner of life as before. Instead of engaging some respectable elderly female as housekeeper and companion (which indeed her limited resources did not allow), she preferred remaining alone, and continued to receive the visits not only of ladies, but of gentlemen—that is to say, of her own and father’s familiar friends—who testified their remembrance of the dead, and their respect for the living, by sometimes calling to see Sophie and her little charge, and by sometimes bringing her a brace of wild fowl, a pair of pigeons, or some other such game from their morning sport upon the moor: until at last they found that their well meant kindness to the young and pretty orphan was subjecting her to the invidious remarks of all the thoughtless or malicious gossips of the neighbourhood…

Thus, The World, fumes Southworth: always more eager to condemn than to help, and always, always ready to think the worst.

Cut off from both company and supplies, the tiny household struggles through a bitter winter suffering relentless cold and hunger. They all survive, however, and in the spring comes a belated visit from the local minister, the elderly Mr May, and his young wife, Emily, who at least have the fact that they live on the other side of the river, impassable in winter, as an excuse for their neglect. Mr May is shocked and grieved by Sophie’s story, and he invites her to bring Hagar and make a home with his wife and himself—but before this generous plan can be put into effect, Mr May’s heart condition intervenes. His successor, the Reverend John Huss Withers, arrives in time to perform the funeral service, and then takes up residence as Mrs May’s boarder. Sophie does bring Hagar for a visit, and so is introduced to the new minister—for whom she conceives an immediate and profound antipathy:

Sophie, attracted by one of those strange spells exercised by objects of terror over us, could not keep her large startled eyes off him: at last he raised his head and looked her full in the face, her eyes fell, and a visible shudder shook her frame; a just perceptible smile writhed the corner of his mouth as he withdrew his gaze from her…

At the first opportunity, Sophie bolts back to Heath Hall. She finds no refuge, however: as minister, Withers takes it upon himself to call upon her regularly, often staying for the entire evening. Sophie is torn by her conflicting emotions, her ideas about the duty and veneration owed to a man of the cloth as a man of the cloth compelling her to suffer Withers’ visits without protest, while every instinct in her is shrieking at her to get as far away from him as possible, and stay away. However, unable to think of a way to prevent the minister’s visits without a degree of rudeness she cannot bring herself to commit, she endures them.

If Withers is aware of her distaste, he shows no sign. On the contrary: he appoints Sophie teacher of the new small school set up in the neighbourhood, and supplements her admittedly scanty education by giving her – forcing upon her, it might be more accurately said – lessions in Greek and mathematics; spending even more time with her in the process:

Sophie felt so little “vocation” for these severe studies that only the implacable will of her minister could have kept her to it. Worse than anything in her experience she dreaded his frown and his stern and sure rebuke when she had not accomplished her task—worse than anything except the steady searching gaze of his coldly brilliant green-grey eyes. This froze the blood in her heart. And yet she felt grateful towards him; she blamed herself for her antipathy—her reason assured her that the fault was not in him, but the folly in herself. Her reason approved the pastor, the philosopher, the teacher—her instincts shrank from the man…

However, another new acquaintance promises better. Mrs May receives another visitor in the welcome form of her brother, Augustus Wilde, a naval officer whose duties separate him from his sister for many months at a time. Augustus is prepared to like Sophie as his sister’s friend, but even from their introduction is aware of something much warmer than liking. As for Sophie, this first meeting of the eyes could not be more different from the last:

He approached, addressed her freely and cheerfully as his sister’s familiar friend, and in lifting her off the pillion their eyes met, their souls met. The soul more or less plainly speaks through the eyes, and the truest, pursest, strongest, and most lasting love begins with the first meeting of the eyes, in a sort of mutual recognition…

Though no premature word is spoken, neither one of them is in doubt about their feelings. Both young and inexperienced, each innocent in their own own way, neither Sophie nor Augustus is able to conceal from the interested gaze of the neighbourhood the wondrous thing that has happened to them.

And then Sophie’s world comes crashing down. Withers calls upon her as usual, and begins what Sophie at first takes to be a lecture on her too-obvious happiness. She also assumes, confusedly, that he is scolding her because she has behaved in a manner unfitting for a school mistress. She could not be more wrong—he is lecturing her on behaviour unbecoming in a young woman about to be married…

“All the county”, he tells her, has been fully aware of their engagement for two months at least. It subsequently transpires that it is so because he has made it so, enlisting the assistance of Mrs Gardiner Green, the social leader of the neighbourhood (and the worst gossip), and asking her, as Sophie has no family, to host the wedding. Of course, it never crosses Mrs Gardiner Green’s mind that the minister is speaking anything other than the simple truth, and she immediately sets to work preparing her house and spreading the news. Sophie herself, it turns out, is almost literally the last person to know.

Here, finally, in her horror and desperation, Sophie does voice her utter aversion of Withers—and it makes no difference to him. Far from it:

    He closed his eyes and smiled; he stretched forth his hand, and taking hers, drew her to her seat, and passed his arm around her waist and whispered—
    “My little Sophie, my little fawn, you shall be Mrs Withers in three weeks, just as sure as you live!”
    She shrank from the clasp of his arm, as though it had been the clammy coil of a serpent.
    “I will not! cannot! durst not! Mr Withers, why don’t you marry Rose Green? She would have you; or Mrs Somerville, or Mrs Slye, or Mrs Joshua Eversham, or Miss Polly Mortimer—any of them would have, would be proud to have the minister of the parish… And any of these ladies would make you a good wife… Why don’t you marry one of them?”
    “Because they are each ready to fall into my arms.”
    “In the name of reason and of mercy, why seek to marry a girl…who hates—no, does not hate, but who fears and recoils from you?”
   “Precisely because she does fear and recoil from me…”

Left stunned almost beyond the ability to think by this confrontation, Sophie must then suffer the definitive blow of a visit from the bustling Mrs Gardiner Green, who arrives full of schemes for dresses, bridesmaids and decorations, and is anything but prepared for what Sophie tries to tell her. Full of Withers’ version of events, she scolds Sophie for her fickleness and selfishness, and warns her that scandalous playing of fast and loose with a man of God will damage not merely her own reputation, but Hagar’s also. Sophie’s desperate attempt to explain herself she barely listens to, still less has the capacity to understand:

She continued to talk, using all the arguments of a hard woman of the world, with a nervous, sensitive, and somewhat visionary young girl, and at the end of two hours more, left Sophie very well prepared to receive, or rather, very incapable of resisting her destiny and her master…

And where, in all this, is Sophie’s dear friend, Emily May?

Emily May is, in a perverse sort of way, one of the most interesting characters in this novel: Convention personified. A woman of limited intelligence and ability, although quite kindly intentioned, she has never in her life felt, thought or wanted anything but what she was assured it was proper for her to feel, think and want—and is quite incapable of sympathising with anyone who does, or whose life experience is different from her own calm waters. Indeed, she seems to be quite without any strong emotion of any kind. Her first marriage is to a man old enough to be her father out of “feelings of veneration”; she will later marry a second time—but having decided that she cannot do so until the son of her first marriage comes of age, she embarks upon a seven-years’ engagement without a qualm or a struggle.

It is, indeed, only in relation to her son – named Augustus for his uncle, but known to one and all as “Gusty” – that Emily shows any real feeling. Gusty himself, a far more compassionate individual, often frightens and bewilders his mother with his displays of distressed empathy on behalf of others—even those individuals who are unhappy as a result of their passions and desires and therefore, in Emily’s opinion, deserve to be so. As he grows into manhood, Gusty becomes fully aware of his mother’s narrow and judgemental view of the world and at one point, although an almost achingly dutiful son, is provoked into calling her on it:

    “Hagar has given room for talk for getting into an anomalous position; why should people find themselves in inconceivable situations? I never did, yet I was an unprotected girl.”
    Gusty looked at her in sad perplexity, divided between his wish to defend Hagar and his reverence for her; and at last he said, smiling sadly—
    “Dear mother, Lewis Stephens, poor fellow! was drowned last summer, in a gale of wind!—Now, why should people be drowned in a gale of wind?
I never was, and I have been in a gale of wind!”

But in these early days, Gusty is no more than a sturdy, good-natured little boy, and there is no-one to defend Sophie against the inexorable pressure of public expectation. Learning of Sophie’s “engagement” from Mrs Gardiner Green, Emily is surprised, but doesn’t question it; everyone says Sophie and Withers are to be married, and if everyone says it, it must be so. That her brother is in love with Sophie—that Sophie is in love with him—that Sophie is being forced into marriage with a man who terrifies and revolts her—that two of the three people she loves best in the world are profoundly unhappy—all this means little to Emily May. Social convention speaks, and she looks the other way. Besides, they’ll get over it.

As for Augustus Wilde, oblivious to the social machinery so busy about him and the girl he loves, by the time he has worked up the nerve to propose to Sophie, it is too late: he is sent away, broken-hearted, to begin a three-years’ voyage. And Sophie, having utterly given up the struggle, is swept in a state of unprotesting apathy towards her marriage—never for a moment suspecting how close she comes to avoiding her fate.

Yet there comes a moment, later on, when John Withers is finally brought to give an account of himself, when he confesses to Sophie that the very abjectness of her surrender made him lose all desire for her, even contemplate not marrying her after all—because there is no pleasure in the game of domination if the victim doesn’t fight back…

[To be continued…]

06/01/2012

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 3)

She was conscious she had blushed, and that consciousness but heightened her confusion. “Why could she be such a fool to blush at hearing of St. Orville’s long talked of marriage alluded to?” was her mental question. She was not, could not, be in love with Lord St. Orville.—Indeed, was it a year or two after her late attachment, it might be so, and very probably; but now, it was an utter impossibility…

Recovering from the shock of her discovery, Julia at length decides that she has been unjust to Lady Storamond, whose principles she is well-acquainted with, and whose love for her husband is well-known; that St. Orville either found the locket or obtained it by some subterfuge; and that his open unhappiness is due to his guilt over loving his friend’s wife. Mingled gratitude and sympathy dominate Julia’s attitude towards St. Orville, both of which escalate when he is responsible once again for saving her life at significant risk to her own.

On her journey to Delamore Castle, Julia’s coach was followed by a man on horseback doing his best to disguise his appearance. Later, he called upon her, confirming her dismayed suspicion that her dogged pursuer had caught up with her again. The young man is Louis Laroche, whose passion for Julia will later be revealed as literal madness. Despite this, Mrs St. Clair once tried to arrange a marriage between him and Julia, only for Laroche’s outraged father to step in – later punishing Mrs St. Clair by having her twice arrested for debt. It was the obsessed Laroche who tried to abduct Julia by boat, and who finally decides that if he can’t have her, nobody can…

The Lady Selina Southerland is engaged to be married to Sir Charles Stratton, the older half-brother of Fitzroy, who was only six weeks old when his mother eloped. The outraged Sir William Stratton, convinced that the baby was none of his (although Lady Stratton leaving him behind would suggest otherwise), disinherited the child to the utmost of his ability, leaving him a penniless baronet; and we can judge how desperate he is for money by his willingness to marry Selina.

The wedding takes place; and as the party prepares to leave the church there is a sudden uproar. Laroche, who has taken it into his head that the wedding in the Southerland family is that of Julia and Fitzroy, springs towards her, pistol in hand. St. Orville, who is escorting her, instantly seizes and grapples with him; and saves Julia’s life at the cost of a bullet in the side, although the wound is not serious. Laroche flees the scene, and later takes his own life.

The triple shock – the attempt on her life, St. Orville’s injury, and Laroche’s suicide – is too much for Julia, who collapses into an illness during which her friends despair of her life, but from which she slowly recovers…only to then be almost as dangerously assailed in an emotional sense.

Since his departure from Delamore Castle, Fitzroy – now Marquis of Penmorva, following the death of his great-uncle – has been assiduous in his correspondence with Julia, with tender epistles arriving on a regular basis and assuring her of his enduring love; against which we have the revelation of how Fitzroy passed his time prior to his departure, when Julia voluntarily retired from the family circle to nurse Lady Delamore through a dangerous cold – namely, that his “flirtation” with Mrs Wellford escalated to a point where (having just freed himself from Lady Enderfield) he stands in danger of being named as the co-respondent in a divorce suit. Mrs Wellford’s mortified relatives, the Beaumonts, do succeed in averting this threat and hushing the whole thing up, but it reaches Julia anyway, via the usual channel, Lady Theodosia:

    “Fitzroy must have known all this yesterday; and this I naturally imagine to be the cause of his gloom and evident inquietude. He must tremble at this affair being known to you, whose spotless purity he cannot but be convinced will recoil from such misconduct; nor can he feel very comfortable in the idea of having this disgraceful divorce brought before the public, at the moment of his breaking off an honourable engagement with one woman, and entering into one with another.”
    “That makes, not much of flattery for me, certainly,” said Julia; “and deeply forms, wound for my affection:—but that is not the wound, which rankles direfully, and pains my heart, for deep-felt agony.— Oh! no, no! I had the thought, I had the fear, Fitzroy was the libertine; but did not, did not make imagination, that he would crime commit—the crime, so much for turpitude, that it is forbidden of commision, so expressly, by our much sacred religion’s laws.”

But even this pales beside the revelation of how Fitzroy occupied his time while Julia was on what her grieving friends believed would be her deathbed.

A recovered Julia makes a charitable call upon the elderly Dame Banks, finding her alone and stricken – and learns to her overwhelming horror that the pretty young Fanny Banks has fled from her grandmother’s house and protection. Some time after her disappearance, the girl sends home a letter of explanation :

“…I have not exhibited at the operar yet, it not being open; but I have been to a masquerade, and there my dear lord markis attended me. I was greatly delighted, we had such a gay party: and all would have been well, only they made me drink too much shampain… I never lived till now. I am as happy as a queen: and my dear markis is such an adoring lover, he spends all the time he can spare from parliament business with me; and quite sickens at the thoughts of leaving me, to go (which he must soon do) to Delamore castle, to save appearances…”

It transpires that Fitzroy has been pursuing the girl, off and on, for two years, first of all simply for the pleasure of stealing her affections from his half-brother, who first “discovered” her (although that relationship went no further than some mild flirtation). After making the girl’s acquaintance by warning her grandmother about his libertine relative and getting Sir Charles barred from the house, Fitzroy became a regular caller – and remained so under the pretence of instructing Fanny in the Bible…using these lessons, it is implied, to put his own interpretation upon the scriptures, and succeeding, by these means, in thoroughly undermining both the girl’s religious faith and her principles.

Mrs Banks gives to the shattered Julia a bundle of letters written by Fitzroy to Fanny; a glance at one is enough to confirm the worst. Stunned beyond belief, Julia is staggering back to Delamore when she slips and falls, injurying her ankle – and, unable to move, is an involuntary auditor of a violent quarrel between St. Orville and Fitzroy, newly returned, during which the latter hammers the final nail into his own coffin:

   “O Heaven! and could it be, while those whom Julia did not love were torn with agonising affliction…and found consolation only in the hope that in a better world they might again— You, Horatio, found alleviation in the gratification of your vanity!”
    “I grant it was an inexcusable profanation of my ardent affection for Julia, but it was natural to my character: I hate grief, and part with it whenever in my power. Fanny was a substantial consolation; that one of meeting in a better world, a shadow. My principles have long been undisguised to you… I live only for this world, where chance threw me; and had I lost my Julia, I had been a distracted mourner, without the credulous believer’s consolation…”

With great pain, but without hesitation, Julia steels herself to the task of cutting Fitzroy from her heart; and with the support of her faith, is soon serene if not happy. Lady Delamore having summoned Dr Sydenham to her, Julia delegates to him the task of dismissing Fitzroy, which he does simply by giving back to him his own letters to Fanny. Recognising that the jig is up, Fitzroy flees – where else? – to the Continent.

In the wake of Fitzroy’s departure, it may be seen that St. Orville is in considerably better spirits, which Julia happily puts down to him winning the battle with himself and subduing his guilty passion for Lady Storamond; although an alternative explanation occurs to all the other inhabitants of the castle.

Julia is not so caught up in her own problems as to lose her desire to bring about the reconciliation of Lord and Lady Delamore. Circumstances, however, are against her. It was intended that the Delamores should pay a lengthy visit to the newlyweds, Sir Charles and Lady Selina Stratton; but first Julia’s slow recovery from her illness, then her final break from Fitzroy, made Lady Delamore reluctant to leave her; so that Lord Delamore went alone. As she recovers her equanimity, Julia urges Lady Delamore to leave her and go to her husband, fearing the damage Selina having unhindered access to Lord Delamore for so long may have done. Lady Delamore takes her advice and leaves for Stratton Abbey. Julia declines accompanying her, instead paying a visit to a friend, Mrs Fermor, who earlier took charge of a young protégée of Lady Delamore’s, a girl called – or going by the name of – Mary Mildmay.

Santo Sebastiano is a tale filled with strange resemblances – including, of course, that of Lady Storamond to the Southerland family, to whom (as it turns out) she is not in fact related. Julia is surprised but accepting of this, as she herself bears a closer resemblance to her father’s first wife, the Lady Adelaide Montrose, than to her own mother; so close, indeed, that while visiting the Vatican one day with her grandmother, when she encountered a man she discovered to be Lord Glenbrook, Lady Adelaide’s brother-in-law, the shock of it made him faint—which he later explained as being due to Julia’s resemblance to a daughter of his, who died young. But having seen Julia once doesn’t preserve him from the shock inherent in seeing her a second time, under the roof of a relative of Mrs Fermor; upon which he collapses again, this time recovering delerious, and muttering about murders and ghosts…

The strange resemblance most prominently featured in the novel, however, is that borne by a girl called Mary Dungate, who belongs to that section of society which Lord Delamore politely calls “the scum of the earth”, and who as a child arrested the attention of Lady Delamore by being the spitting image of her husband.

It is, as it happens, a resemblance that Lord Delamore himself has no explanation for: he flatly denies the obvious one—and nobody believes him. Not his half-sister, Lady Frances Harcourt (another of the novel’s amusing supporting characters, infamous for her blunt tongue), who waves away his protestations of innocence with a snort of contempt—

    “That is, a most extraordinary, a most wonderful resemblance!” returned Lord Delamore.
    “Extraordinary and wonderful! Do not talk nonsense, Theodosius!”

—and certainly not his wife, who not only makes the child the object of her care (giving her the less “plebeian” surname of Mildmay), but reveals her belief in the girl’s paternity to Mary herself, and also to her children, meaning on one hand to encourage them to be kind to their half-sibling, while discouraging any feeling warmer than fraternal between Mary and St. Orville.

One of Julia’s charitable enterprises is the adoption of a small boy, Edward, who after the death of his mother is treated with great cruelty by his father and his father’s mistress. The boy’s sailor-uncle eventually comes looking for him, and reveals that he has recently married one Moll Dungate, Mary’s supposed mother, who he has discovered not only once received a healthy sum in exchange for agreeing to raise a certain baby as her own, but to this day, in exchange for her continued silence, receives a regular annuity paid by—the Lady Selina Southerland.

That’s right, my friends! – say it with me! – BABY SUBSTITUTION!!

And in fact, I think we’ve reached the point where I can legitimately start using “baby substitution” as one of my regular tags.

The malicious Mrs Monk is at the bottom of this, taking advantage of Lady Delamore’s enforced absence from her infant daughter during her father’s final illness to steal the child away, and leave her servant’s illegitimate baby as a substitute (a bout of scarlet fever accounting for the baby’s altered appearance)—mostly as an act of sheer bastardry, the birth of their first child having brought the new parents close together, but also – later taking the spurious Selina into her confidence – in order to have a weapon to use against the family, as needed; “Selina”‘s terror of losing her luxurious life making her willing to stoop to anything to maintain her position. (With this revelation, one particularly violent quarrel between Theodosia and Selina, during which the latter became hysterical upon being called “a changeling”, takes on a new significance.)

Of course, the real victim in all this is Sir Charles Stratton: as if being married to the Lady Selina Southerland isn’t bad enough in itself, now she turns out to be—what was that expression again? oh, yeah—the scum of the earth. This being a sentimental novel, possibly we’re supposed to say, “Serves you right for marrying money”—although it can’t be said that the text evinces anything but sympathy for his situation.

But it is quite some time before this revelation occurs. In the meantime, Julia’s fears prove only too well-founded: upon joining her husband, Lady Delamore discovers that Selina has indeed been busy poisoning his mind not just against her, but also Julia, who he now believes was involved in a secret relationship with Fitzroy from the time of their first meeting. In this attack, Selina is assisted by a young widow, Lady Hollowell, who Selina believes to be merely her tool, but who has a plan to take Mrs Monk’s place in Lord Delamore’s affections—and bank account.

When they return home, the Delamores receive a large number of houseguests, including one Sir Robert Bolton, who Lord Delamore is lured into believing is the object of Lady Delamore’s affections. (She is interested in him, but it stems from her concern for her sister, Lady Ennerdale, who is indulging in an indiscreet flirtation with the baronet.) Furthermore, Lord Delamore’s new dislike of Julia has led him, much to his son’s distress and exasperation, to press for the marriage of St. Orville with Lady Fontsevern, who is an heiress and a baroness in her own right, as well as the heir to the titles and honours of Montalvan, which were once held by the Southerland family but lost during the Wars of the Roses.

In Lady Fontsevern we have this novel’s other comic supporting character; although here the humour is woven into the text, rather than being merely a digression. Beautiful and rich, the young baroness is accustomed to hearing herself praised for her most trivial gestures and opinions, and works diligently to create situations in which the incense may be offered:

    “I am sure,” said her ladyship, with pretty meekness, “if his lordship can be happier near any one but me, I wish him to go; for I would not be the means of making anyone uncomfortable, or unhappy. I am sure every one, in all the world, would be happy, if I could make them so.”
    “Dear, amiable creature!” exclaimed her father.
    “What excellence of heart!” said Lord Delamore.
   “What fascinating philanthropy!”—“What a heavenly disposition!”—and “What an angel!”—were the ejaculations of Mr Primrose, Sir Charles, and Sir Lucius; but not one eulogium fell from the lips of Lord St. Orville.

It is Lady Fontsevern’s practice to adopt an attitude of fluttery childishness, posing as too young and innocent to understand the customs of the world and thus free to say and do whatever she likes—including declaring her passion for St. Orville, and openly pursuing him. And in fact, in her determined, almost professional, infantilism, Lady Fontsevern often seems like a forerunner to Dickens’ Harold Skimpole.

Lady Fontsevern’s arrival at Delamore brings her into conflict with Julia, whose genuine simplicity and openness throws her artifice into unflattering relief, and whose fascination for St. Orville is only too obvious. Provoked, the young baroness resorts to her other favourite tactic, used whenever she is thwarted in the slightest degree, of bursting into loud, crowd-drawing sobs:

    Here Julia was interrupted, by the violent sobs of Lady Fontsevern. Lords Delamore and Westbourn were now all-tender inquirers, Lady Delamore (drawn from her card-table by the sound), Julia and Lord St. Orville, all polite and humane ones.
    “Oh!” she sobbed out, “I am not so happy as Miss De Clifford! I possess not the power of interesting dear, dear Lord Delamore; yet he thinks (I know, he does) that I strive to do it. I am sure, I never affect any thing I do not feel. I am sure, my great affection for him is no counterfeit; and I am quite heart-broken to think that I could not interest him even sufficiently to play out one little game of chess with me. I am sure, it is not my fault. I did my best to interest him; but—I—I am a poor child of nature, very, very young, and from the retirement I have lived in, quite inexperienced in the trick of the world; and great allowances ought to be made for me. I am sure, I wish I was a foreigner too; for all foreigners have the gift to interest, and fascinate, all mankind.”

This section of the novel also reintroduces the Lady Isabella Harville, the daughter of Lady Ennerdale, who (due to her vain mother’s dislike of having a grown-up child) has been kept back in the schoolroom, and is rather young for her years—meaning that, being able to see through Lady Fontsevern, she is far too unsophisticated to pretend that she can’t:

    “Me! put in for compliments!” exclaimed Lady Fontsevern, in a soft tone of amazement: “me! who never wish to hear compliments! nay, I absolutely hate them.”
    Lady Isabella burst into a laugh of so much naïveté, that Lord St. Orville found it so infectious, he was compelled almost to smother poor Edward with kisses, to conceal his strong propensity to excessive risibility.

Back under the direct influence of Julia’s personality, Lord Delamore finds it hard to go on believing that she has been guilty of duplicitous and immoral conduct; although he is unable to entirely shake off the fear that she is deceiving him, that she is in league with Lady Delamore and St. Orville against him. A near-tragedy then gives Julia a way back into Lord Delamore’s heart, as a skating party ends in disaster. Lord Delamore falls through the ice, putting not only his but also St. Orville’s life in deadly danger, as he struggles to keep his father above water. It is Julia, of all those gathered, who keeps her head, first bending a branch towards St. Orville to give him temporary support, then bringing a rope to offer him a more secure anchorage, before running off to get assistance.

Which brings us to THE worst moment in the book, as Catherine Cuthbertson take a rare tumble out of the realm of the amusingly entertaining, into that of the simply ludicrous.

Note to writers of sentimental novels—dog rescues DO NOT WORK…no matter how “sagacious” the animal in question:

    “Neptune!” she cried again, and the dog, seeming fascinated by her voice, bounded with her, as she rapidly mounted the style into the park, when, through a vista, was the lake plainly seen, and the emperilled father and son.
    In this moment, the faculties of Lord Delamore (now completely up to his chin in water) were quite subdued, by fatigue and the agonies of his mind;—thus in the fangs of death himself, and causing the destruction of his fondly-adored son, and ever-lasting misery to his idolised Emily;—he fainted, and, as his senses fled, his hat, before disturbed from its station, fell into the water. This Neptune saw, and rushed forward to dive for; but it went under the ice; and mistaking Lord Delamore’s head for what had fallen, he seised him by the hair. Lord St. Orville now, in full faith of his father’s preservation, gave him up, in joy and gratitude, to the succouring animal; and, fearing that his additional weight might prove too much for the powers of this providential friend, let his father go; when Neptune skilfully navigated, through the now much-widened chasm, his lifeless burthen safely to the bank: and whilst in drawing Lord Delamore gently out of the water after him, this astonishing sagacious animal was employed, the almost-breathless fishermen arrived…

Question: what would they have done if Lord Delamore’s hat HADN’T fallen off?

I’m quite able to believe, of course, that Catherine Cuthbertson might have read Munster Abbey; but the thought that she might have been influenced by it…

Believe it or not, that isn’t even what made me laugh hardest about this book, which was instead this random paragraph, which occurs when Julia realises that Selina has drawn her into a trap. I don’t quite know why—perhaps it’s the use of the exaggerated word “palsied”; or the fact that Julia is so upset, it takes lemonade rather than water to help; or that crying and fainting occurs so frequently in this household, Lord St. Orville has apparently taken to walking around with a glass of something in his hand, just in case:

Horror and amazement at such monstrous duplicity, such barbarous malice, changed the tint of Julia’s cheeks to the paleness of death. Her solemn promise to Lady Selina, never to betray the occurrences of that particular morning to any of her family, she considered too sacred to violate. A visible tremor soon pervaded her whole frame; she was sick at heart; and hastily snatched at a glass of lemonade now offered to her by Lord St. Orville, to save herself from fainting, and, with a palsied hand, she raised it to her lips.

Anyway—

Lady Frances Harcourt arrives at the castle to visit the family, and immediately sets about putting everyone in their place (particularly Lady Fontsevern). Lady Frances has never made a secret of her disapproval of her brother, and conversely her love and sympathy for her sister-in-law; but seeing that a reconciliation is occurring between the Delamores, there is another between her and her brother.

We learn that in the wake of her disastrous elopement (boasting a body count of three), Lady Theodosia has been under the care of Lady Frances, and that although she is not yet up to facing her parents, she has been asking for Julia, who is now given permission to go to her—under, after some manoeuvring, the escort of St. Orville. And it is at the evocatively named Black Tower Abbey that Julia and her long-silent lover come to an understanding.

Self-control is not, it must be said, one of the more common attributes of the sentimental hero; so we can only admire the unusual wisdom of St. Orville’s proceedings—and his understanding of Julia. Recognising that she must work through her relationship with Fitzroy, that she is, in a sense, in mourning, not even Fitzroy’s departure can provoke St. Orville into a premature declaration, which he knows would only offend her and frighten her away. Instead, he devotes himself to her service, and lets his actions speak for themselves; a process greatly assisted when, though an adding up of random details, the penny finally drops for Julia:

But that was a question that Julia could by no means answer, so overwhelmed was she with amazement and agitation. At this moment, Edward was summoned to his breakfast; and Julia, now alone, reviewed the whole of Edward’s intelligence.—“Lord St. Orville love her, so long! How could it be? What could it mean?” For a moment she paused; when suddenly articulating her thoughts, with an almost audible shriek of surprise and joy from her heart— “That he, Lord St. Orville,” she cried, “is my young protector! the stranger! the stranger!”

Here the narrative devotes itself to filling in the gaps in this section of the back story – including the detail that, called back to the Mediterranean shortly after discovering Julia at the Goodwins’, St. Orville asked Fitzroy to keep a brotherly eye on her for him – and an overwhelmed Julia  learns that St. Orville has known her, and loved her, and watched over her, even longer than she could have imagined…

But while this would seem to wrap up this novel, in fact we have a whole other plot (and some 250 pages) to go, which abruptly makes its presence felt when Julia is one morning abducted by a band of masked men.

The person responsible is Lord Westbourn, the father of Lady Fontsevern, who has made up his mind that Julia is to be his wife—partly from desire for her, mostly because he has penetrated the secret that has enveloped her entire life: that she is, in fact, the daughter of Lady Adelaide De Clifford, and consequently not only the granddaughter of the Duke of Avondale but (through her maternal grandmother) the real heiress of Montalvan—and filthy rich, to boot.

The secret history of Santo Sebastiano is hardly less complicated than that revealed in Romance Of The Pyrenees, although in this case Catherine Cuthbertson gives herself only about a fifth of the space to get through it all, meaning that at this point the novel explodes into a convoluted tale of greed, hatred, murder, elopement, abduction, revenge, unrequited love, secret identities, oaths of silence, broken hearts, press-ganging, shipwreck, and early death. However, for the purposes of this summary, there are only two things that we really need to know.

The first is that the lead villain here is Lord Glenbrook, whose insane avarice led him to murder his brother-in-law in order to secure a greater inheritance to his wife (and then talked about it in his sleep – so much for that marriage); and, having gotten away with that, that he then took advantage of his father-in-law’s anger at his daughter Adelaide for her runaway marriage to try and dispose of her, too.

The second thing is that it was Lady Adelaide, knowing herself dying, who arranged the marriage between Frederick De Clifford and Ismena St. Clair (in whose character she was entirely mistaken), in order to conceal her daughter’s true identity and protect her from her murderous uncle. Granting his wife’s last request, De Clifford was nevertheless unable to conceal his undying love for Adelaide and his indifference towards, and then resentment of, Ismena, which was the basis of Mrs St. Clair’s hatred and subsequent tormenting of her supposed granddaughter.

Phew!

A variety of circumstances conspire to rescue Julia from Lord Westbourn, reunite her with her grandfather, and bring this history to light; and a great gathering of characters takes place at Valincourt Abbey, which the Duke of Avondale cedes to his newly enobled granddaughter, who shortly afterwards takes on a second title:

 “Indeed,” said his grace, putting Julia’s hand into Lord St. Orville’s, “the heiress of Montalvan must be your wife, or I shall not more know happiness myself. So pray take her, my good boy, from the hand of her grandfather; and will you not join me, my Lords Delamore and Ashgrove, in invoking Heaven to shower down every blessing upon these our children, Alfred Southerland, commonly called Lord St. Orville, and Julia Adelaide De Clifford, Countess of Montalvan!”

Our last glimpse of Julia and St. Orville finds them happily esconced at Valincourt and the parents of a baby boy. Meanwhile, Lord and Lady Delamore come together at last; the real Lady Selina Southerland is re-established (and marries Julia’s cousin, the Earl of Castlehaven, also called Frederick De Clifford); Lady Theodosia recovers from her unhappy first love and marries with her parents’ approbation; and Mrs Monk and Mary Dungate get what’s coming to them.

Which I guess only leaves the mystery of St. Orville’s strange reaction to every mention of Lady Storamond.

And you know?—I think I’m going to leave you guys to figure that one out for yourselves. I’ll just say this about it: that there was never any possibility of a guilty relationship between the two of them, since their principles were absolutely identical…

.

See also:

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage
Romance Of The Pyrenees
Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 1)

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 2)

03/01/2012

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 2)

“My brother has brought home no heart to lose:—this was legibly told, in every line of his sadly altered countenance and dejected air, yesterday; but the evening disclosed the magnitude of his misery, by proclaiming the object of his unfortunate love. Oh, Julia! had you been looking at him while you were talking of Lady Storamond, had your heart been formed of adamant it must have melted in pity for him.—Oh! my brother! my brother! my amiable, inestimable, brother! doomed to the misery of inauspicious love; torn with remorse, as well as disappointment:—for well I know his upright principles will ever direfully upbraid him for loving the wife of his friend.—Oh! my brother! my brother! my amiable, now wretched, brother!”

Lord Ashgrove needn’t have worried. Although Julia was only four when her father died, before that time he managed to drum into her head the tenets not just of religion, not just of Christianity, but of Protestantism; or at any rate, he taught her that she should never, ever, ever listen to or believe a single word that a nun or a priest said to her, which is after all (as far as we can judge from this novel) one of the main Protestant beliefs. This was enough to guard Julia from contamination until, in her early teens, she was left for two years in a convent in Florence, where she met an Englishwoman, a Mrs Waldegrave, who not only completed her religious instruction but gave Julia the general education that Mrs St. Clair (intent only on training her granddaughter to be a public singer and musician, presumably with the long-term goal of selling her to the highest bidder) had previously denied her.

And in fact, it is one of this novel’s little ironies (quite possibly an unintentional one) that the two most significant friendships of Julia’s formative years were both conducted entirely within convent walls. There is a distinct tendency here to treat convents less like houses of religion than as if they were some sort of strange combination of hotel and prison: Mrs Waldegrave retires into one, in spite of being a Protestant; Julia is left in one whenever she becomes an incumbrance to her peripatetic grandmother; and the Lady Cecilia Hume is detained in one until the arrival of her angry guardian, after the frustration of her attempted elopement with the man who will eventually become her husband anyway, Lord Storamond.

And it is in the convent of Santo Sebastiano, in Naples, that the meeting of Julia De Clifford and Cecilia Hume takes place. Starved for love, and having never had a friend near her own age (her scruples having caused her to hold the nuns and novitiates at arm’s length), Julia conceives for Cecilia a passionate affection. Cecilia, who is some years older than Julia, acts as a mentor to her as well as a companion, guiding her studies both secular and spiritual; and while their time together is comparatively short, Julia’s devotion to her friend remains steadfast throughout their subsequent separation.

It is Fitzroy’s resemblance to Cecilia that first gives him a foothold in Julia’s heart, while her later relationships with  Lady Delamore, her son, the Viscount St. Orville, and the Lady Theodosia Southerland have a similar basis—while the fact that Cecilia also taught Julia to play a mean game of chess gives her, conversely, a way into the erratic affections of Lord Delamore, who hasn’t had a decent opponent since he banished his son from beneath his roof.

With the adoption of Julia into the Southerland family, Santo Sebastiano opens up. There is a sudden in-rush of supporting characters, and we begin in earnest the task of trying to keep a grip on the myriad histories and relationships presented. And it is also at this point that we are forced to consider, and not for the first time, the question of just how seriously Catherine Cuthbertson took her own novels.

Although, no doubt, there were novelists at this time capable of writing five volumes of overwrought sentimentalism with a straight face, I don’t think Cuthberston was one of them. My impression of her is, rather, that like Mary Meeke (although without the accompanying declaration of pure commercial intent), she wrote what she thought would sell. This suspicion is based partly on remarks such as the one that pops up near the end of this novel’s third volume—

Julia now, affectionately kissing Lady Delamore, departed, leaving her ladyship and Lord St. Orville overpowered by feelings we have not talents to describe, but may be easily conceived by our readers, when they have waded through our subsequent pages.

—but mostly on the recurrent appearance of minor characters who seem to exist for no reason but to amuse their creator. For one thing, Cuthberston has a propensity for comic relief Irishwomen – although to give her her due, these potentially tiresome additions are never just comic, but tend to be shrewd and loyal individuals as well, and of great help to the heroine. (Biddy O’Neil, the servant rescued by Fitzroy in Volume 1, fits this category.) More illustrative is Mrs Beaumont, a neighbour of the Delamores, who adds nothing to the plot of Santo Sebastiano but befuddlement.

Briefly, Mrs Beaumont married “up”, to the extent that her husband, in order to justify his choice, then gave her a classical education. The lady, puffed up in her achievements, took to spouting Latin and Greek at every opportunity, until her embarrassed husband finally forbade her to speak either, even again. Obedient but unwilling to give up her accomplishment, Mrs Beaumont then set about learning a rather unique version of English, which she speaks with great pride (and to the mortification of her family):

“I was too anxious to enquire after the state of your ladyship’s brindice,” said Mrs Beaumont, courtesying profoundly, “to practise much longanimity; but have festinately come, to gratify my exoptation, of hearing the redintegration of it enunciated by yourself, and not by compurgation. Your ladyship’s œcumenically desiderated return occurring sooner than was expected, has proved an inopinate oblection to me. You look admirably, madam: and your complexion quite diaphanic, considering the nocent air of that veneficial metropolis, to which your symposaick evagation led you. Son George! are you elinguid? Why so amort? Why this obmutescence? Require no further increpation from me. Do not for ever appear so acephalous; but, without despection, or nolition, do yourself the honour of entering into an enterparlance with her ladyship; and, for once in your life, be multiloquous.”

Now obviously, this too could get tiresome if overused; but Cuthbertson is sparing of Mrs Beaumont’s appearances; and my suspicion is that she brings her back whenever she starts to get bored herself with all the crying and the fainting; the material that – in her own words – must be “waded through”.

The usual response to Mrs Beaumont is a stunned silence. Amusingly, the only person who doesn’t hesitate to reply to her is Julia, who assumes that her incomprehension is due, not to Mrs Beaumont’s impenetrability, but her own shaky grasp of English. Brought up – gasp! – “on the Continent”, Julia’s native language is Italian; she reads and understands English well enough, but has only spoken it consistently since arriving in the country a year or so earlier with her grandmother, and does so in a broken idiom that her auditors find charming:

“Oh!” repled Julia with animation, “and even then, dear sir, friends do surely hope to meet again; and so shall we, Mrs Goodwin, often, and very much, often yet, I do trust me, even in this world, for thorns and flowers.—And dear Doctor Sydenham, pray excuse for me, when deeply feeling, the very much, strong, kindness, of your self, and Mr and Mrs Goodwin for me, I did lose all my stock, of firmness, when I did think, to part from you; and found, it would be much grief, for me.”

Disconcerting as this is at the outset, the reader, like Julia’s friends, eventually grows accustomed to it – which is just as well, since her English does not improve at any point in the story; and while it may be in character for her heroine to speak this way, there is nevertheless a sense that the task of constructing sentences in Julia’s idiosyncratic diction was one of the ways that Cuthbertson kept herself interested for the full 2000 pages.

(There’s a third character with whom Cuthbertson plays this sort of game; but since she is, far more than Mrs Beaumont, a “character”, we will deal with her later on.)

From the point of sheer writing, the best section of Santo Sebastiano is that which follows Julia’s entry into the Southerland household, during which, with the introduction of Lord Delamore, Catherine Cuthbertson gives us something extremely unusual in a novel of this period: a genuine attempt at psychological characterisation.

All his life, the Earl has suffered equally from a desperate need to be loved and an acute lack of self-esteem that prevents him from believing that people can and do love him. His wife and his son, who want nothing more in life than to live happily with him, find their overtures received with cold suspicion: if they do as Lord Delamore wishes, it’s only because of their sense of duty; if they do not, it’s because they don’t love him. The Earl’s constant misinterpretation of his family’s actions leads him into a self-defeating mire wherein he behaves as a domestic tyrant – which drives his family even further away – which makes him so wretchedly unhappy, he becomes even more tyrannical. His crowning misery is that he  knows he’s doing it—he simply cannot stop himself.

Along with his willingness to believe the worst, Lord Delamore’s self-affliction is compounded by his tendency to believe whoever he has last been listening to: a habit that leaves him open to manipulation by anyone with a selfish agenda—like Selina, who in the hope of making herself the chief beneficiery of her father’s mostly unentailed fortune, works tirelessly at denigrating her mother and siblings, and finding ugly explanations for what they do. Lady Delamore and St. Orville, though aware of this, will not stoop to Selina’s tactics, or to justifying themselves against her insinuations—which leaves them at a perpetual disadvantage.

When Julia arrives at Delamore Castle, she finds herself in the midst of a family in disarray: Lord and Lady Delamore are estranged; St. Orville has been banished by his father; Lady Theodosia is caught between her parents; while Lady Selina spends most of her time making a bad situation worse. Julia is a reluctant witness of a series of embarrassing family scenes, for which her hosts feel compelled to account and apologise for, with the result that the reader is offered three different versions of the family situation from three very different perspectives.

The facts, briefly, are these: in his youth, Lord Delamore became fascinated by a temptress called Mrs Monk, and set her up as his mistress. His family, worried that his infatuation might lead him to marriage, took pains to introduce him to the Lady Emily Stanmore, then not quite fifteen, and (due to her father’s notions of proper female education) having been raised in isolation to the point of having never spoken to anyone outside of her own family. Though marriage to Mrs Monk was, in fact, never a danger, due to Delamore’s pride, he was sufficiently entranced by the beautiful, innocent girl to marry her – she agreeing in obedience to her father’s commands. And although he had made no effort at all to court his bride, Lord Delamore was fool enough to ask her if she loved him? – and unreasonable enough to recoil from her, his self-esteen suffering an intolerable wound, when she simply told him the truth.

And at this vulnerable moment, the ever-hopeful Mrs Monk made her move, poisoning Delamore’s mind against his bride, and leading him to his supreme folly: establishing her in her own house, on the grounds of his estate, almost under his wife’s eyes; and with his mistress insinuating that Lady Delamore’s indifference can only mean another man, the Earl was finally brought to desert his young family and live openly with his mistress – where else? – on the Continent.

And even after their return, Lord Delamore’s madness led him to attempt to sever his children’s affections from their mother, and teach them to love Mrs Monk instead. With Selina he succeeded only too well; while his ongoing alienation from his son began with the young St. Orville’s denunciation of Mrs Monk (after one of his maternal relations had a word in his ear), from which stance even regular beatings could not move him. As the boy grew older, he became the object of his father’s resentment and jealousy when it was borne upon him that the family’s tenants adored him, while evincing indifference towards the Earl himself. Finally, the thwarting of his son becoming almost automatic, Lord Delamore refused him the naval career he desired, with the result that St. Orville took a civilian-volunteer position under his uncle, Lord Ashgrove; while the Viscount’s banishment was the result of an attempt to obtain for his mother a more generous settlement, which (since his will was necessarily mentioned) Lord Delamore inevitably interpreted as his son’s desire for his death.

Most of this, with much empassioned annotation, is conveyed to Julia by Lady Theodosia, who in many respects is the novel’s most credible character. While both Lady Delamore and St. Orville are examples of the kind of impossibly perfect characters that too often populate sentimental novels, inasmuch as they feel no anger or resentment towards their husband and father, but want only to be reconciled to him and are able to love him no matter what he does (which, as we’ve seen, covers some considerable ground), Theodosia is a bundle of believable flaws. Although she, too, wishes for a loving relationship with her father, at the the same time she burns with resentment against him for his treatment of her mother and brother, disobeys him unhesitatingly if she thinks his commands are unreasonable, and frequently talks back to him. Later, this antagonistic relationship will reach a crisis when Theodosia falls in love with a man who, although he has built a distinguished military career, has “no family” (i.e. they’re in trade). The outraged Lord Delamore responds by literally locking his daughter in her room, which provokes her into violating her own principles by agreeing to an elopement—and it all ends in worse than tears.

Intriguingly, although the text criticises Theodosia for washing her family’s dirty linen in public, her version of her father’s story is never contradicted. What we do get, however, is, first, Lady Delamore’s version of the same events, given briefly, in which she extenuates her husband’s faults as much as possible and begs Julia to look beyond his treatment of her to what is admirable in his character; and then Lord Delamore’s own version, in which he is, from first to last, a victim:

“In defiance of my mental sufferings, I enjoyed… No, I cannot say—enjoyed, for I had no joy through life: misery has been my portion!…But I had excellent, uninterrupted health; until about two years ago, when, in consequence of his dreadful risk to save the fishermen, I nearly lost my Alfred:—then, then my constitution suffered… I beheld the anguish of my Emily; but she considered me not the partner of her sorrows;—I was not to aim at soothing them, nor was considered their participator. I saw the grief, and despair, of every one; but I was left, to feel my own. I had no commiseration;—no one, to unburthen my anguish to:—I had no friend!… O God in heaven! what misery was mine! yet no bosom felt compassion for me. Like the aggressor Cain, I wandered up and down, detested, abhorred, by all… I fell ill—very ill…but Emily came not near me!—she, she whom I had seen, in distracted, tender, affection, watching by the pillow of her child, came not near her sick husband!—but that husband she abhorred! Well, well, it pleased Heaven, that I should annoy the world a little longer with my hated life…”

And so on.

One very interesting detail that emerges from all this is that during Lord Delamore’s absence in Italy with Mrs Monk, he had become obsessed with the idea that his wife loved another man. Lady Delamore was, at that time, although a mother of three, only nineteen years old. Her indignant brother, Lord Ashgrove, came to visit her during this lonely, unhappy time, bringing with him his best friend, Frederick De Clifford—and had to suffer the shock and mortification of having his sister beg him, if he valued her peace and honour, to take his fascinating friend away again.

In love with the Lady Adelaide Montrose, De Clifford remained oblivious to the young Lady Delamore’s feelings; and, left to herself, she succeeded in conquering her guilty passion – almost. A certain tenderness for him lingered in the heart of this otherwise dutiful wife, and contributed to the eagerness with which she welcomed Julia De Clifford to her home.

As a stranger and an outsider, Julia initially has more influence with Lord Delamore than anyone else, as even he cannot believe she has a selfish axe to grind; and for a time she allows heself to hope that she might succeed in bringing this unhappy family together. Ultimately, however, she succeeds a little too well; well enough that Lord Delamore begins to plan a marriage between her and St. Orville; only to collapse into another fit of monumental sulks when he finds out about Fitzroy.

Of course, given the many and varied transgressions of the two men, it is impossible not to reflect on the sympathy gap in the text between its handling of Lord Delamore and its attitude towards Fitzroy, who is (for reasons we shall get around to) finally banished from the novel, even as the neurotic Earl finds happiness in his family circle. One of the nicest and most unexpected things about Santo Sebastiano is – amongst all the misery and suffering – its subplot about the eventual reconciliation between Lord and Lady Delamore who, after being at cross-purposes for no less than twenty-five years, finally fall sincerely in love with one another: a denouement signalled by the moment in which, for the very first time in their marriage, Lady Delamore calls her husband by his first name…

    “My dear Theodosius!” said Lady Delamore, with affectionate anxiety, and tenderly taking his hand.
    The tenderness of Lady Delamore’s voice and action; the expression of interest conveyed in her short sentence; the calling him by his christian name, an appellation he remembered not to have ever fallen from her before;—inspired such sudden hope and joy, they almost overwhelmed him…

Unseen since his failure to keep his appointment with Julia at the Hargraves’, Fitzroy makes a spectacular re-entry when he saves Julia from abduction by a party that comes ashore by boat while Julia is walking on the beach near Delamore Castle. At this time he is still engaged to Lady Enderfield, and the meeting between himself and Julia is awkward, to say the least, neither one of them betraying that they are not meeting for the first time. (Selina, of course, knows they have, but has her reasons for keeping it quiet.) Not long after this, Fitzroy declares himself in a position to break with Lady Enderfield—honourably, he emphasises, although we are never told what she has done—and immediately resumes his pursuit of Julia, who allows herself to hope again; at least until Fitzroy’s unreasonable jealousy of one Lord Lindore, who proposes to her, provokes him into a flirtation with a relative of the Beaumonts, a Mrs Wellford. Julia’s distress betrays her to Theodosia, who wisely counsels her to confide in Lady Delamore, where she finds comfort but no joy:

    “And, now I have your confidence, still I am grieved; for though bright are the prospects which open for my sweet Julia, yet, yet I tremble, and fear that happiness is not very near for you. I will be candid with you; because it may prepare your mind for many troubles I see in store for you—
    “You have not, Julia (I grieve to tell you), given your affections to a mind congenial to your own. Yet Fitzroy has many, and great, virtues; and had he not been a spoiled—a darling child, educated in foreign and licentious courts, he would, I firmly believe, have been an ornament to human nature:—but I hope, I trust, nay, I am sanguine enough to believe, that Heaven has fated you to be the blessed instrument to weed from his heart every error ungenial to it, and lead it back to what it was formed to be. In doing this, my child, you will have many trials to encounter—many a grief to bear…”

Meanwhile, Theodosia goes her own way about trying to convince Julia that Fitzroy is not the man for her – although unfortunately, Julia is too innocent to catch her drift:

    “Pray,” said Julia, timidly, and wishing to change the subject— “I hope, you did pass, an exceedingly pleasant, day.”
    “As delightful a day as I could spend, away from her I love,” he replied, looking tenderly at the blushing Julia. “Lady Sophia is a woman of superior talents; and, in her own house, is always irresistibly fascinating.”
   “You have found her so,” said Lady Theodosia, drily.
    “All mankind do,” replied Fitzroy, chagrined.
    “I believe it,” said her ladyship.— “Pray, does her son, your god-son, retain his extraordinary resemblance to you?”

And even Lord Delamore, although at this time oblivious to the currents swirling about him, inadvertently adds his two cents:

“And so, this age-honouring Goody Wellford is a new flame of yours, Fitzroy!” said Lord Delamore. “Upon my word, yours is a most surprisingly-commodious heart!—its formation must be curious! Were we to analyse it, we should certainly find in its anatomy innumerable tubes, so constructed, as to hold and contain separate flames, detached and unmingled.”

Freed from Lady Enderfield, Fitzroy immediately begs Julia to marry him, but now a barrier exists in the form of Lord Ashgrove: Julia insists that his consent must be obtained before she can contract any engagement; while the concerned Lady Delamore, to the disgust of her fuming nephew, suggests a year’s trial of the couple’s mutual affection. Again and again Fitzroy assails Julia, begging her to consent to a runaway marriage, but he cannot shake her principles; and the matter still hangs in the balance when Fitzroy is summoned away from Delamore Castle by the news that his great-uncle, the Duke, is dying.

Meanwhile, summoned home by his impulsively relenting father after covering himself with glory during a naval engagement, St. Orville returns to Delamore Castle, much to the joy of his mother and younger sister and – once Julia has brokered a heartfelt reunion – his father. But their happiness is shortlived, as it is soon evident that St. Orville has something preying on his mind; something which his mother concludes is inauspicious love, its object none other than Julia’s friend, Lady Storamond:

“Well, well do I now remember the strong emotion St. Orville has ever evinced, when Lady Storamond has been accidentally mentioned before him: he always had some prompt excuse, founded on local circumstances, to account for his change of countenance, and I believed him; but now, alas! the real fatal cause is disclosed!— You, who have seen her, who knew her so well, dear Julia! tell me, if you think her affection to her husband can be shaken;—tell me, in pity, she is worthy your regard, and that, dreadful as the pang is, I shall have only to lament the destruction of my child’s peace, and not his soul-harrowing lapse from rectitude.”

Julia, convinced of Lady Storamond’s own rectitude, can give Lady Delamore the assurances for which she pleads; but it is not long before her own faith is shaken. She is out riding one morning and, a novice in the saddle, is unable to control her horse when it bolts, putting her in imminent danger of her life as it plunges towards a cliff-top. St. Orville, who with Theodosia has been one of Julia’s companions, instantly rides after her, and manages to grab hold of her horse’s bridle and turn it back to safe ground, the effort pulling him from his own saddle and severely wrenching his arm. Almost overcome by the shock of her narrow escape and her remorse for St. Orville’s injury, Julia can barely speak—while St. Orville himself is in little better condition:

    “Oh, Lord St. Orville! but for Heaven and you”… Her oppressed sensibility allowed her to add no more, for an abundant flow of tears suspended her power of articulation; but, even in this short sentence, her voice recalled his amazed senses, and restored his utterance.
    “You—you, are safe!” he exclaimed.
    “Safe, and unhurt,” she said.
    One of the sweetest smiles that ever animated the face of mortal, now diffused itself over the countenance of Lord St. Orville, as he fell at the feet of Julia, in a death-like swoon.

Of course he did.

Crying out for help, Julia kneels beside the insensible St. Orville and loosens his neckcloth and collar—only to recoil from him in horror when she sees that, suspended about his neck on a black ribbon, he wears a gold locket; a locket once given by Julia to her friend Cecilia, and which he could only have obtained from Lady Storamond herself…

[To be continued…]

29/12/2011

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 1)

Every moment this day, which Julia could obtain for reflection, was now dedicated to Fitzroy; and not, as Mrs Goodwin apprehended, to painful, unavailing retrospections.—She had been, most unexpectedly, told by Fitzroy,—the amiable Fitzroy!—that he aimed at her affections, and wished to present her to his father as the wife his heart had chosen; and the mournful tone of his voice, when he said—“If you send me from you, I shall be miserable,” still vibrated on her ear. From the idea of making him miserable, her grateful heart recoiled… And then, too, he was so generous, and disinterested, to think of making her his wife, when, with his expectations and attractions, he might, she thought, command the affections of almost any woman in existence.—and she was portionless, deserted, unclaimed by her father’s family…

When an enemy of the elderly Mrs St. Clair sends the bailiffs to arrest her for debt, the shock kills her—upon which, they try to sieze her body instead. The ensuing confrontation draws a crowd which blocks traffic in the street, including the carriage of a young man who, when the reason for the delay is explained to him, immediately goes to see if he can help. The young man is profoundly affected when he learns from a servant that Mrs St. Clair’s death has left her granddaughter, Julia De Clifford, all alone in the world. Leaving a sum of money sufficient to pay the debts and support the orphaned girl, he then slips away without revealing his name…

Although the Goodwins, the family with whom Julia and Mrs St. Clair were boarding, express their willingness to help the girl, she knows that cannot afford to support her and is determined to find a position. Mr Goodwin, a bookseller and stationer, sees an advertisement for a companion to the Countess of Delamore and immediately calls to inquire. Told that Lady Delamore is too ill to see him, he writes a letter in which he declares all he knows of Julia’s history and character; and later that day, Julia receives a summons to Grosvenor Square.

However, when she calls as ordered, the bewildered Julia finds herself the target of ridicule and insult by the Lady Selina Southerland and her satellites who, as she later discovers, placed the advertisement in order to amuse themselves by sporting with those who came in answer to it. Mortified, Julia is about to leave when she is unexpectedly rescued by Mr Horatio Fitzroy, who berates his heartless cousin Selina for playing such a prank while her mother lies ill. Fitzroy leads Julia to the family’s housekeeper, Mrs Beville, and asks her to escort Julia back to the Goodwins’. Julia is startled when she realises that Fitzroy bears a strong resemblance to her dearest friend, the former Cecilia Hume, now Lady Storamond, and concludes that the two must be related.

Although they hear nothing more from the Delamores, over the next few weeks the Goodwins’ fortunes mysteriously improve: Mr Goodwin suddenly has more business than he can manage on his own, and an offer is made of a place for the eldest boy, Charles, provided he is willing to go to India. A relieved Mr Goodwin expresses to Julia his belief that her anonymous rescuer is responsible. Soon afterwards, Mrs Goodwin receives an invitation from her sister, Mrs Hargrave, for herself and Julia to visit her home in the country and observe an upcoming election. As the travellers draw near their destination, Mrs Goodwin and Biddy, the maid, who share a fear of carriages on steep hills, choose to walk some way, but find themselves surrounded and accosted by a rowdy and intoxicated group of men. Another man comes to their rescue. From the carriage, Julia recognises Fitzroy, who is one of the candidates in the election; although he does not see her.

At the Hargraves’, Julia finds a friend in the person of the elderly Dr Sydenham, a benevolent clergyman, who is drawn by her beauty, simplicity of manner and openness of temperament. Less congenial are Dr and Mrs Hargrave, who are affected and condescending; while the daughter of the house plays a cruel trick that leaves Julia and another young guest, Miss Penrose, unprotected in the main street of the village. They are extricated from their predicament by Fitzroy and his friend Lord Francis Loraine, who accept the grateful Julia’s invitation to call at the rectory.

Over the next few days, Julia and Mrs Goodwin are invited to several entertainments in the neighbourhood, at which Fitzroy’s attentions become marked; and Mrs Goodwin begins to indulge splendid visions of her young friend’s future when she learns that Fitzroy is heir-presumptive to his great-uncle, the Duke of Bridgetower. It is revealed that, earlier, Fitzroy offered himself as a boarder at the Goodwins’, and that although at the time the family were in great need, in the role of Julia’s guardian Mr Goodwin cautiously rejected the offer. Furthermore, the young man becomes visably confused when Mrs Goodwin suggests that he is the family’s anonymous benefactor. At this juncture, Fitzroy makes an unguarded declaration of his hope of gaining Julia’s affections, and from this moment makes no attempt to conceal from the world his feelings for her.

Fitzroy is successful in the election, and a public ball is held to celebrate the outcome. When Julia arrives, Fitzroy joins her instantly, explaining that as the “lion” of the evening, he will not dance after opening the ball with his hostess, Lady Gaythorn, for fear of giving offence by singling certain ladies out. Julia assures him that she understands, confessing blushingly that she has never been at a ball before and has no idea of the forms to be observed. Impatiently, Fitzroy declares his intention of returning to her as soon as the opening dance is finished, but Julia insists that he must do his duty.

Having gained a seat upon an elevated bench with Dr Sydenham, from where she can see all that goes on, Julia is shocked by the arrival of a beautiful young woman who is covered in jewels and scandalously dressed in a diaphanous gown that reveals almost all of her figure. Worse, it is soon discovered that the young woman is Lady Enderfield, whose husband has only recently died. Julia is summoned away from the ballroom when Lady Gaythorn is taken ill, and from that lady learns to her horror that Lady Enderfield was Fitzroy’s first love, and once betrothed to him; but that, Fitzroy’s cousin then standing between himself and his great-uncle’s dukedom, she jilted him to marry the elderly but wealthy Lord Enderfield. Lady Gaythorn also admits that out of jealousy of this woman, once her friend, she herself was lured into jilting the man she loved, a second son with a moderate fortune, and marrying instead—his father, Lord Gaythorn. Lady Gaythorn warns Julia that Lady Enderfield can have come for one purpose only, and urges her to save Fitzroy from imminent danger. Julia, however, is unable to believe that Fitzroy could now feel anything for Lady Enderfield but contempt.

But to Julia’s profound sorrow and mortification, when she returns to the ballroom it is to find Fitzroy dancing with Lady Enderfield, and seemingly oblivious to the shocked attention of those around them. Later, however, having parted from his former love, Fitzroy seems as if awakened from a dream; and when both Julia and Lady Enderfield narrowly escape injury when a chandelier falls, it is Julia to whom he flies. He apologises for what he calls his “infatuated desertion” of her, and begs her to walk with him the following morning, at which time he promises to explain everything.

That night, Julia reflects upon the events of the evening, and from the tumult of her emotions, finally admits to herself that she loves Fitzroy. The next morning finds her ascending a swell of ground near the Hargraves’ rectory, which commands a view of the road—and from where she sees the approaching Fitzroy accosted by Lady Enderfield. As she rushes towards him, she trips, clutching at her ankle, compelling Fitzroy to help her away. Conceding that he had no choice but to assist, Julia turns away, pacing around as she waits for Fitzroy to return and keep his appointment with her—and waits—and waits…

[SPOILERS]

Published in 1806, Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector is a real “Catherine Cuthbertson Experience” – by which I mean it is entertaining, surprising and exasperating in about equal measure. In structure it resembles its sister-novels, being untenably lengthy, with half a dozen wandering plots woven loosely about one another and a dizzying cast of characters whose names, titles, relationships and marriages are almost impossible to keep straight. In spite of its commercially astute title, with its suggestion of monastic horrors, in reality this is a domestic novel much closer in spirit and content to Rosabella than to Romance Of The Pyrenees, confirming my suspicion that Cuthbertson was no real devotee of the Gothic; and like Rosabella it has a young, innocent, “insulated” heroine who spends the novel moving from household to household, being buffeted by fortune and winning both unshakably devoted friends and dangerously jealous enemies, before a momentous secret about her true identity is revealed.

What is most exasperating about this novel – and we might as well get “exasperating” out of the way at the outset – is also one of the things that is rather interesting about it, at least in an historical context. In this course of reading we’ve already come across the curious phenomenon of the novel of sentimentalism, of which Valentine is a particularly amusing example. In novels of that school, it was always a simple matter of emotion for the sake of emotion, with the characters’ sufferings an end unto themselves. Santo Sebastiano, published some two decades later, belongs to the next generation of sentimental novels, and what we find here is something rather different: emotion in the service of didacticism, with the “sensibility” of the characters used as a moral yardstick. The better the character – the higher and more refined their sense of duty – the more frequently they suffer emotional collapses.

And what collapses! As you may recall, it was while reading Santo Sebastiano that Thomas Macaulay was inspired to keep a tally of just how often in the novel someone fainted – 27 times in total – including one or two appearances from our old friend, the death-like swoon. But those were only the actual faints; the Compleat Faints, if you like. If Macaulay had included in his survey the almost faints—the times that someone felt faint, or was taken faint, or had to sit down to avoid fainting—well, I shudder to think what the total would have been; certainly into three figures.

And then there’s the crying, which is of a frequency and volume that truly boggles the mind. It’s not so much a case of “cry me a river” as “cry me an inland sea”. No wonder the characters in this novel are always calling for glasses of water: they must go through life in a state of chronic dehydration. 

And even beyond all this, we have repeated instances of characters falling ill, contracting “dangerous fevers”, almost dying of the strength of their own emotions. And they don’t just do all this on their own account, but in sympathy with other people’s suffering—a single upsetting event thus being sufficient to set off a chain reaction of emotional breakdowns.

Of course, from a novel-reading perspective, what this means is, the more the author intends us to like and admire a character, the more thoroughly tiresome we are likely to find them; and really, we can only sympathise with Jane Austen’s impulse to hold this sort of thing up to mockery—and be grateful to her for helping to kill this particular trend by imbuing the concept of “sensibility” with a permanent sting in its tail.

So, yes—as I said of Rosabella, it is necessary to do a lot of “wading” to get to the good parts of this novel; but there are many good parts – some clever plot turns, and some extremely interesting treatments of novelistic conventions. It is true enough that Cuthbertson’s ideas are stronger than her writing – that she is not quite talented enough to do justice to her own concepts, besides having an unfortunate tendency to write her plot-points into the ground. My feeling is that if she had been held by her publishers to three volumes only, compelled to rein herself in, she would have been a better novelist; but as it is, over the course of the five meandering volumes of Santo Sebastiano she still expresses enough unexpected or unconventional opinions – particularly within the framework of the sentimental novel – to hold the reader’s interest, and to incline us to forgive her various excesses.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Santo Sebastiano is its treatment of the relationship between Julia De Clifford and Horatio Fitzroy. At the outset of the novel, nothing could appear more thoroughly conventional. Fitzroy, handsome, high-born, emotional, given to extravagant gestures and declarations, appears in every respect the model of a sentimental hero, and it seems merely a matter of how the author will manage to keep perfect hero and perfect heroine apart for five volumes. I think it’s safe to say that when the cracks start to appear in the character of Fitzroy – when he is at length revealed as having feet not merely of clay, but of something very like manure – it is as great a shock to the reader as it is to Julia. This is not the way things usually go in the sentimental novel:

“My good sir, what is it you can expect? I fear, by this most premature despondence, the women have spoiled you; and that it has hitherto been, ‘Ask, and you shall have;’ not, ‘Seek, and perchance you may find.’ Can you expect, the moment you feel an inclination for the affections of such a woman as Miss De Clifford, that she is at your nod, to throw them to you? If such was your hope, you lightly estimated her. She will give her heart with caution, believe me; for where she gives, the gift will be for ever.”

One the the most cherished tropes of the sentimental novel was that of “first love, last love”. It was a convention that spilled out from the realm of the strictly sentimental, where a disappointment invariably meant a broken heart and then death, into the more mainstream works, where it was not infrequently implied that a woman who could love a second time, or who ceased to love the first object of her affections, whatever the circumstances, was not quite “nice”.

There are any number of novels I could use to illustrate the point I’m making here, but the one that keeps coming to mind is Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds in which, after becoming engaged at the outset to the heroine – who is, like Julia, poor and obscure and forced to work to support herself – the alleged hero then neglects her for the rest of the book, exposing her to all sorts of unpleasantness, while he dallies with a wealthy widow and contemplates marrying her for her money. In the end, the widow’s bad behaviour frightens him into scurrying back home, where he is received with open arms by his fiancée, his mother and his sister, who not only refrain from uttering a word of criticism, but doggedly pretend that he’s done nothing wrong – all of which is presented, quite without irony, as “correct” female behaviour.

Not surprisingly, opinions on the subject of first and second love, and of the proper response to a disappointment, tend to split down gender lines; and I am pleased to be able to report that here we find Catherine Cuthbertson following on from so-called “radical” novelists like Charlotte Smith, and suggesting that the correct way for a woman to react to serious wrongdoing on the part of a man is not to look the other way, but to kick his ass to the kerb.

Although perhaps they don’t phrase it quite like that.

(Charlotte Smith, by the way, is a very interesting novelist, and one I intend to take a proper look at…one of these years…)

Indeed, the resemblance between Fitzroy and the anti-hero of Smith’s Emmeline; or, The Orphan Of The Castle may be more than just coincidental. In any event, both novels have their young heroines outgrowing an early, unhappy experience and finding enduring love with a man who has proven himself both honourable and steadfast. However, while Fitzroy’s behaviour does eventually kill Julia’s love for him, and while she does at last find another, true love, her journey is slow, painful, and full of self-doubt. No less than the average mainstream novelist does Julia feel that she has a duty to stay loyal to her first love – they are never, by the way, formally engaged – and for a long, worrying phase of the novel, even after she has faced the fact that she no longer loves him, Julia cannot free herself of the feeling that it is her duty to marry Fitzroy anyway, and to try and reclaim him. It takes Fitzroy committing a truly unforgiveable sin before Julia washes her hands of him once and for all, and admits her feelings for another man.

The slow reveal of Fitzroy’s real character is cleverly done by Cuthbertson. At first it is merely a matter of behaviour which, however wounding to Julia’s sensibilities, might stem from the kind of extravagant love that delights in making a spectacle of itself, but which over time looks to the reader more and more like selfishness, and a lack of proper regard for Julia’s reputation. His defection to the side of Lady Enderfield might be mere weakness, and indeed is explained and excused by his friend, Lord Francis Loraine, as due to “the siren”‘s knowledge of the vulnerable points in his character; and even when, Julia and Mrs Goodwin having ended their visit to the Hargraves without hearing one more word from Fitzroy, the newspapers carry an announcement of his engagement to Lady Enderfield, he is generally perceived as a victim:

“If this Mr Fitzroy is a worthy man, I most sincerely pity him: if an undeserving one, he will, even in this life, meet with ample punishment, in the wife he has chosen, for every crime he may or can commit. I knew this Circe well; I was at Venice when her husband died: was murdered, I scruple not to say, by the agent of a ruined Venetian count, a favourite of this vile woman’s, with whom I afterwards saw her at Paris, under the auspices of that licentious court, where her conduct could only be equalled by those who countenanced her.”

But it is clear to the reader long before it is to Julia or his relatives that Fitzroy is a real piece of work, and the fact that Cuthbertson’s novel was written in the early years of the 19th century allows her to be frank about his various misdeeds in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades later. Cuthbertson tries to make Fitzroy a tragic character, a potentially great man who becomes a victim of his bad upbringing and (above all) his lack of religion; and while it doesn’t entirely work, it’s never less than interesting.

One detail I’ve never seen before, even in a novel of these comparatively lax times, is that Fitzroy is the child of sinning parents: his mother and father had an affair while the former was married to another man and finally ran away together. Cuthbertson even allows herself to be sardonic rather than outraged in her telling of this tale, as the narrative remarks that if the adulterers had kept it all a secret just a little while longer, they could have had their cake and eaten it: the cuckolded husband broke his neck fox-hunting not long after his wife’s elopement.

(We are given another salutary reminder that this is a Regency novel, not a Victorian novel, when it is the young Lady Theodosia Southerland, second daughter of the Earl and Countess of Delamore, who recounts to Julia all the scandalous details about Fitzroy’s parents. Who told her, I should like to know!?)

As it was, with the scandal an open one, even though the sinners subsequently married they were no longer “received”, and were therefore forced to reside “on the Continent”, where their son was raised; the root, we are solemnly told, of all his evil. (Note that earlier reference to the “licentious” Paris court.) We are repeatedly assured that Fitzroy’s love for Julia is quite genuine, and that when he is with her, her influence is absolute; but for Fitzroy it is out of sight, out of mind, and whenever he is away from Julia he invariably passes the time in another dalliance – or another seduction.

But then, what can you expect from a man brought up amongst Catholics and atheists?

Santo Sebastiano is, it must be said, an incredibly bigoted novel, in a way that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so funny. Cuthbertson gets herself into quite a tangle trying to explain away the fact that her heroine is delicate and refined and profoundly religious in spite of the fact that she was – just like Fitzroy – raised in a thoroughly immoral household “on the Continent”. Unlike many English novels, for Cuthbertson the problem is not that “the Continent” is Catholic, but that it hasn’t much religion of any kind; and again and again, France and Italy, the scenes of Julia’s upbringing, are sketched as a moral cesspool, from which only the truly religious (i.e. Protestants) have a chance of escaping with soul intact.

The general tone of this aspect of the novel is best illustrated in a letter from the Earl of Ashgrove to his sister, Lady Delamore. In his youth, Ashgrove’s dearest friend was Frederick De Clifford; and while the friendship survived De Clifford’s marriage to the girl that Ashgrove also loved, the Lady Adelaide Montrose, when De Clifford remarried only a short time after his wife’s horrifying death in a fire, Ashgrove was so deeply offended that he turned his back upon his friend. However, belatedly becoming aware that De Clifford left a daughter from this second marriage, the embers of his boyhood friendship inspire the Earl to appoint himself the orphaned girl’s guardian. Detained in the Mediterranean on naval duties, Ashgrove asks Lady Delamore to take charge of Julia – but not without warning her that of the potential dangers:

“But now to the cause, my Emily, of this late confidence. De Clifford left a child, a daughter, by his second, and to me obnoxious marriage. His widow did not long survive him; and the unfortunate child fell to the care of the diabolical beldam, Mrs St. Clair… The poor child has been thrown upon the protection of strangers, in some gloomy sepulchre of the living—a dreary monastery, where neglect she has always experienced, and too often unkind treatment; and, even more dreadfully still, my sister, has, I fear, that terrible woman injured the child of poor De Clifford; an injury most direful. This woman—no, no, I insult the sex by classing her amongst them—this monster was—aye, shudder, Emily, for well you may—an avowed atheist; and this poor, pretty babe in her clutches; and, bred amongst ignorant and superstitious priests and nuns, is either a rank Catholic, or, oh! horror of horrors! has no religion at all!”

[To be continued…]

16/10/2011

Palmira And Ermance (Part 2)

As soon as the Duke was alone, his thoughts reverted to Ermance, he wished he had first been introduced to Palmira: she might, and he had been led to believe was, be as handsome as Ermance; but if she did not possess an equal share of vivacity, her countenance could not be so animated; Palmira was taller, Madame de l’Ecluse had told him; but Ermance had not done growing, and was far from short for her age… Such were his reflections before he went to sleep, and he found it rather difficult to forget himself; Ermance presented herself to him under so many different aspects; she became the subject of his sleeping as well as waking reveries: yet he was convinced he was only interested in her future welfare…

[SPOILERS]

Several positives stem from Mary Meeke’s non-substitution plot in Palmira And Ermance, the most significant being the way it allows her to have her cake and eat it. Most pleasingly, in this novel we are light-years away from the noxious “birth is everything” attitude of Count St. Blancard, in which a supposed apothecary’s son is mysteriously superior to his position in life and sure enough proves to be a long-lost aristocrat. Here, character is allowed to predominate. The man we know as M. de Melac is the same man, whether he is the Duke de St. Piene, the bastard child of a servant and a prostitute, or a successful merchant; and while, inevitably in the overall scheme of things, it is at length established that he is aristocratic by birth as well as breeding, there is no sense here of, Oh, well, that explains it.

Conversely, it is the undoubted aristocrat, the Marquis de St. Firnim, who attracts the sneers of his creator, as she recounts how, upon hearing his son-in-law’s confession, it seems to him that all the virtues for which the Duke had hitherto been celebrated, “Vanished the moment he became acquainted with the lowness of his origin”, and how the Marquis suddenly remembered, “That he had always been overly familiar with his inferiors…” And let us not forget the Dowager Duchess, more than ready to commit criminal fraud in order to hang onto her fortune and position. Like the Marquis, her morals are no match for her ambition. These characters are starkly contrasted with the various individuals we meet in Dunkirk and its surrounding villages, whose lack of birth and education are unimportant beside their honesty and wholeheartedness.

But of course, the novel’s point is most forcibly made in the character of its young hero. Part of the fallout from the disastrous end to her marriage is that the Duchess de St. Piene raises her son on liberal principles, while simultaneously erecting barriers between her child and her father. (As the Duke recounts to M. de Melac, his mother’s intention in restricting his grandfather’s access to him was to prevent the Marquis from “spoiling” him; as the story progresses, we begin to appreciate that the Duchess meant that in more senses than one.) It is as a result of this that the Duke, although himself a beneficiary of the established order, reacts with spontaneous anger upon hearing how M. de Melac was forced to resign his military commission because of, “The lowness of my origin”, condemning a system more concerned with a man’s family than with his conduct and abilities

It is evident throughout Palmira And Ermance that Adolphus—and I think, like Meeke herself, we will just call him “Adolphus” from this point on, now that we have two Dukes to contend with—that Adolphus is modelled upon that paragon to end all paragons of the 18th century, Sir Charles Grandison; but in a welcome surprise (and all the more so since character drawing really isn’t Mary Meeke’s strong point), he is actually a lot more likeable than his prototype. For one thing, he has a sense of humour; for another, he doesn’t go around lecturing people on how they, too, could be perfect like him, with just a little effort.

Nor is there any sense of noblesse oblige about Adolphus, any hint that his behaviour is part of some elaborate “theory of correctness”, painstakingly enacted, rather than just a reflection of who he is. It is one of his most pleasing qualities that he is never above his company, but willing and able to adapt himself to, for example, the simple hospitality and amusements offered by villagers, upon his first appearance in the story. That all this is not merely for show is evidenced by the frequency of his voluntary calls upon Madame des Ormes, M. de Melac’s elderly mother-in-law, who at her son-in-law’s expense has been established in a comfortable cottage in the village outside Dunkirk, through which Adolphus passes on a regular basis. This mark of respect from the Duke is starkly contrasted with the behaviour of Bazile, who considers his grandmother a “low connection” and avoids her whenever he can.

And of course, as we progressively understand, much of this is about the contrast between Adolphus and Bazile, those unacknowledged half-brothers—and about the situation of M. de Melac, caught between the perfect son he is unable to claim and the imperfect son he’d probably like to disown. Bazile is, indeed, a thoroughly exasperating individual, and we can only admire the patience that Adolphus displays when dealing with his various presumptions and idiocies, even as we sympathise with the frustration and disappointment of his father, which grows proportionately with M. de Melac’s closer acquaintance with Adolphus—leading, finally, to a moment of startling emotional honesty.

Mary Meeke was in many ways an anomalous writer for her time, making her success as a novelist all the more interesting. The late 18th century, as we have seen, was a period in which the popular novel was shaped by a prevailing taste for extreme sentimentality—giving rise to ludicrous works such as Valentine. In sharp contrast, Meeke is if anything an anti-sentimentalist; and although there have been hints of this in her earlier novels, it declares itself without disguise in Palmira And Ermance.

During the journey to Ypres, Bazile, Ernestine and Clemence travel in M. de Melac’s heavy coach with the girls’ governess and M. Vanval, while Adolphus and M. de Melac share the former’s light chaise. As they are passing through Roesbrugge, “the last town in the empire”, an unruly post-horse causes an accident in which the chaise is overturned. M. de Melac is uninjured, but Adolphus suffers a head-wound and is knocked unconscious.

As Adolphus is pulled from the chaise, bleeding and motionless, M. de Melac’s extreme emotion is evident to everyone present, which by now includes M. Vanval, who hurries to tend the young man’s injuries, and his travelling companions. As he regains consciousness, Adolphus himself is deeply struck by it; and it is obvious even to the self-absorbed Bazile, who however sees nothing in the situation beyond an opportunity to curry favour with his father by expressing some loud if insincere concern for the Duke:

    His Grace opened his eyes for some seconds before he was able to speak. Bazile, seeing him so likely to do well, went to examine the fragments of the shattered carriage: when he returned he gave the company a most exaggerated account of the damage it had sustained; and then asked his father if he was in it when it was overturned?—“To be sure I was, fool!” said M. de Melac.
    “I only wish I had been with you instead of the Duke.”
    “Would to God you had!” said de Melac, hastily.

Ouch.

As I mentioned earlier, in Palmira And Ermance Mary Meeke offers a more complex story than in her previous novels, which were really only concerned with the solution to their overt mysteries. Here, although the story is still intended chiefly just to entertain, the interwoven secrets and misapprehensions give her tale all sorts of subtextual touches that help to enrich it—and upon which Meeke, much to her credit, sees no need to editorialise.

My favourite of these unspoken points, I think, is the sharp contrast that lies at the very heart of the story. On one hand, we have the fact that the Duchess de St. Piene has had the sole care and education of her son, a situation that has produced a model young man, a verray, parfit, gentil knyght; while on the other, M. de Melac has had the sole care and education of his son, a situation that has produced—well, Bazile. Likewise, we know that after the shattering end to her brief marriage, the Duchess buried her heart in her husband’s grave, all but withdrawing from the world and devoting herself to her child; while in the same situation, M. de Melac, before three years had passed, had remarried and begun a second family.

Men, you can almost hear Mary Meeke sniff.

(To be fair, as frequently happens in Meeke’s novel, M. de Melac more or less inherits a wife, finding himself, after the death of his business partner, with the man’s young widow on his hands; the fact that she has inherited her husband’s share of the business makes marriage sensible as well as convenient. There is, as you might imagine, some embarrassment attending the restored Duke de St. Piene’s eventual reunion with his long-estranged wife. The Duchess, however, perfect as always, offers no reproach, and is thrilled to find herself with three more children.

It’s interesting how often bigamous marriages occur in the literature of this time – although this one is, of course, inadvertent. It’s curious, too, that no-one ever seems very upset about it, and nor do there ever seem to be any particular repercussions for the children of such marriages. On the contrary, here the de Melac children benefit from the French system that allows legitimacy to be purchased.)

Now—by this point in the proceedings, you might well be asking yourselves (as indeed I was, while reading this book) just where the hell, in a novel called “Palmira And Ermance“, are Palmira and Ermance? 

It is one of the many quirks of Mary Meeke’s novels that what we might consider the “main” plot tends to resolve itself by half to two-thirds of the way through the story, with some other plot emerging to flesh out the rest of the text—as with the detour into the Gothic in The Abbey Of Clugny. And it is in this respect, in Palmira And Ermance, that Meeke’s lack of sentimentality really comes to the fore. While both of her earlier novels were notable for the perfunctory nature of their love-plots, with the young heroes falling in love at the outset, being separated from the objects of their affection for the length of the book, and then married off at the end, Meeke outdoes herself here, not only—and in spite of naming the novel after them!—relegating her dual heroines to the realm of the subplot, but resolving their story in the most unexpected manner possible.

It is during the eventful journey to Ypres that Adolphus reveals that he is engaged to a girl he has never seen; and while M. de Melac expresses concern over this arranged marriage, Adolphus himself is quite cheerful about the prospect. The girl, Palmira de Moncove, has been chosen for him by his mother, and educated both for the social position she is to occupy and to be a suitable companion for her husband. And while, as Adolphus frankly admits, the mere fact that his mother wants the marriage would be enough for him, a lifetime’s experience of the Duchess has taught him how implicitly he may rely upon her judgement. He fully anticipates, therefore, finding Palmira everything that he could desire in his wife.

But, as they say, the best-laid plans…

Arriving in Ypres, the disappointed Adolphus finds that Palmira is not there, as he had been led to believe she might be, the girl’s mother, the Marquise de Neufpont, having been prevented by her duties at the Court of Versailles from bringing Palmira to the dedication of the church as she intended. Instead, Adolphus is introduced to his “sister elect”, Ermance:

Ermance de Moncove had been a cannoness for a year or more, and had constantly resided with her aunt at Bourbourg since she became a member of that society: she was just turned of sixteen, and in every respect a regular beauty; but her animated pleasing countenance was far more fascinating than her fine features and sparkling blue eyes, which expressed very forcibly the vivacity of a disposition no monastic rules could repress. Her natural colour was heightened during her introduction to the Duke; upon whom she smiled excessively, while she paid her compliments with the most unaffected gaiety—laughed at his disappointment, which she assured him she read in his countenance the moment he caught sight of her cross, and wished her sister supplied her place.

Presuming upon their almost-relationship, and addressing one another as “ma petite soeur” and “mon frere“, Adolphus and Ermance instantly form a fast friendship, not scrupling to spend much of their spare time together—and before long, Adolphus finds the vivacious girl occupying his thoughts rather more than is quite consistent with his engagement to Palmira…

At this point, you might think that you can safely predict how this novel will work itself out, with Adolphus caught between his pledge to Palmira and his feeling for Ermance, his honour and his heart, with the heart allowed to win out at last. Well—you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, and once again, wrong; because in defiance of literally centuries of novel-writing convention, and having spent two and a half novels criticising every French institution she can lay her pen on, from the country’s religion and its practitioners to its judicial system to its military preferments to the behaviour of its aristocracy, Mary Meeke here comes down upon the side of—of all things—the arranged marriage.

For all that Sir Charles Grandison is held up by his author as a pattern of correct conduct, I’ve always doubted that anyone ever really admired him for his ability to turn his emotions on and off like a light-switch. His calm. circumstantial toggling between the perfect English rose, Harriet Byron, and that personificaton of Italian Roman Catholic emotional instability, Lady Clementina, is disturbing in ways his creator can hardly have intended. Here, Adolphus is never more like his model—which is to say, never more unlikeable—than in the wake of his visit to Ypres, when he coolly dissects his mind and heart:

“I had promised Ermance to visit her at Bourbourg; she will soon learn what prevented me from keeping my word. I must own the discovery I fancied I made, on the morning I left Ypres, did not tend to eradicate the strong impression her artless, nay almost infantine, sweetness of manners had made upon my heart: I am sorry to say I think we parted with equal regret;—but no more of the subject;—I neither like to reflect nor reason upon it at present—reason will, I hope, soon reassume her empire over my mind; the sight of Palmira will very probably restore me to my senses—for love certainly is a species of madness, and lovers in general, it is observed, are always either melancholy or raving.”

The now-Duke de St. Piene is not quite happy about these sentiments, nor indeed about the idea of arranged marriage in general; but lest we mistake him for the novel’s voice of reason, it is revealed to us that his perfect marriage to the perfect Duchess was itself an arrangement, with the subsequently blissful couple meeting for the first time at the altar. “There certainly are exceptions to every general rule,” he concedes, when his son points out the contradiction. However, as the Duke counters, he felt no preference for any other woman when he was married; and he counsels Adolphus to study carefully Palmira’s temper and inclination, as well as his own feelings, and above all not to rush into anything.

But as it turns out, the decision is taken out of Adolphus’s hands. On the road, there is an unexpected meeting with the Duchess de St. Piene and her friend, the Marquise de Neufpont, both of them dismayed and disappointed—for Palmira has suddenly declared that she does not wish to marry Adolphus but intends instead to enter a convent; and all the pleadings, persuasions and arguments of her parents and the Duchess have been unable to sway her determination.

Adolphus, though startled, is not hurt by this revelation; still less so when the Marquise adds that she and the Duchess had been on their way to Bourbourg, to explore whether Ermance might not make a suitable substitute for her sister. The Duke (by now reunited with his wife) gives away his son’s secret, and to the satisfaction of all, the matter seems to have settled itself:

Adolphus was very happy when he found himself alone, and at liberty to reflect upon the occurrences of the evening: how sincerely did he rejoice to think his father and mother were thus happily restored to each other: Ermance next came across him;—with what pleasure did he reflect upon all that had passed at Ypres;—he could not doubt the sincerity of Palmira’s vocation, since it had produced so agreeable and unexpected a change in his matrimonial prospects; he should be at liberty to speak the language of his heart when he next addressed Ermance!—with what raptures did he anticipate their meeting!—their love was reciprocal, he was convinced.

But although this is the standard language of the romance, it is difficult, in retrospect, not to feel that Mary Meeke is in fact being sarcastic here; because when Adolphus does next meet Ermance, he finds her elusive, cold in her manner to him, and no more inclined to become his wife than is her sister.

It’s enough to make even a paragon of virtue swear.

It probably goes without saying that a great deal has been going on out of the sight of the characters and the reader alike, which is progressively revealed to the reader, at least. A chain of events was set into motion at Ypres, when the artless Ermance wrote a letter to her sister full of rapturous praises of Adolphus, and without intention or even her knowledge, completely revealed to Palmira the state of her heart. It is this that determined Palmira to sacrifice herself by entering a convent, thus freeing Adolphus for Ermance.

But when the Marquise travels to Bourbourg to fetch her younger daughter, she is escorted by a relative, a hanger-on of her family, the Count de Selincourt, who while possessing a superficial charm and an adaptability that makes him a welcome addition to most gatherings, is a wholly self-interested individual with a great love of mischief for its own sake. Ill-charactered enough to dislike Adolphus on principle, as soon as he understands the situation he makes it his business to convince Ermance, firstly, of Adolphus’s indifference to her—since he can move so easily from Palmira to herself; secondly, that it is Palmira’s knowledge of Adolphus’s true moral character (or lack thereof) that has made her retreat into a convent rather than marry him; and finally, of his own desperate passion for her.

The bewildered and inexperienced Ermance has no defence against the Count’s wiles. She is horrified by what he reveals to her of Adolphus’s character, and soon lured into believing herself as devoted to the Count as he professes to be to her. The Count has, of course, no genuine feeling at all for the unfortunate girl; but his vanity is greatly gratified by his success in stealing her away from the immaculate and popular Adolphus. More to the point, however, Palmira’s retirement into the cloister means that Ermance will become her parents’ heiress, and a marital prize of the first order:

There is not a more dangerous companion for a young inexperienced girl, than a man who has designs on her fortune without caring for her person; self-gratification being his only aim, he is able to dive into every recess of her heart, and to discover every weakness of her disposition; and his own indifference enables him to form his plans infinitely better than the most ardent lover; her predominant passion seems transfused into his mind; he accommodates himself to her most unreasonable caprices, undermines every tie of duty, if it clashes with his separate interests, and conceals his deep and dark design under the veil of love, a word so fascinating in the vocabulary of youth.

Mary Meeke’s handling of Ermance makes her thoroughgoing scepticism about romantic love perfectly clear. Although she concedes the girl’s “youth” and “inexperience”, the words that linger from this passage are, rather, “weakness” and “caprice”. The attraction between Adolphus and Ermance is emotional, and therefore (in Meeke’s opinion) by definition unstable and transient; merely an infatuation; and while Adolphus is hurt by Ermance’s behaviour, it is made clear to us that his pride has suffered just as much as his heart. His father’s exasperated observation, that the girl who could care for Selincourt over him is not worth worrying about, is enough to cauterise the wound.

And when, in the wake of Ermance’s extraordinary about-face and her declaration that she will marry Selincourt or no-one, Palmira finally, finally, appears in person (on page 658 of a 759-page novel), having been convinced by the Duchess that she is free to act as she wishes, the original engagement – based upon “esteem” – is calmly resumed, and the wedding arranged without delay. Adolphus and the lovely Palmira were as happy as they deserved to be, reports Meeke placidly, what more can be said of their mutual felicity?

Not much, apparently.

But Meeke is not quite finished yet, and she sets about disposing of her remaining characters with no little ruthlessness. Palmira’s emergence from the convent has, of course, restored her position as elder sister and heiress—just as the Count de Selincourt is declaring his disinterested love for Ermance. But although the unavoidable marriage is presented to us as his punishment, a case of the Count being hoist with his own petard, there’s very little doubt about who will end up being the greatest sufferer: a disturbing fate for poor Ermance, and one disproportionately harsh for someone whose only real crime was being a credulous and inexperienced sixteen-year-old.

And then there’s Bazile, who is of course stunned and thrilled to find himself the son of a Duke and, in fact, a Count in his own right. But the implacable Meeke isn’t about to let him get away, either:

As for Bazile, he found people might be unhappy though blest with a title, and allowed to wear red heels; he was placed in a German regiment, under a very severe colonel…

Ouch. Just—ouch.