Archive for ‘Books in brief’

08/03/2014

Speaking of evangelicalism…

I always enjoy it when my reading threads accidentally cross.

Having completed my post on Bernard Leslie, I relaxed with my current read, Vineta Colby’s Yesterday’s Woman: Domestic Realism In The English Novel. Although I have my problems with Colby’s style, I like the fact that she gets off the beaten track when examining the 19th century novel. In this particular study she examines the novel’s shift from romanticism to reality during the first half of the century.

After discussing “the fashionable novel” and “the novel of education”, Colby gives us a lengthy chapter on “the evangelical novel”, which in the context of Bernard Leslie and William Gresley’s use of “Evangelical” offers yet another way of thinking about this most fluid of terms. She uses it, most deliberately, with a small ‘e’ – “evangelical” – to indicate not a form of religious belief or practice, or even a religious party, but an attitude, an approach to religion:

The English church of the Victorian period was Protestant. Beyond that simple declarative statement it is impossible to make any generalisation about Victorian religion that cannot be seriously challenged. The stability, tranquillity, and homogeneity so often and so wrongly attributed to the Victorian age was nowhere more vulnerable and tenuous than in matters of religious belief. The half century from 1800 to 1850 that saw the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act and the first Reform Bill, the flourishing of the Claphamite sect and the Oxford Movement, the evolution of Evangelicalism and Dissent from the status of radical fringe to solid respectability, the emergence of textual criticism and revisionism in biblical study, and open expression of scepticism and even atheism, was a period of religious ferment and turmoil less violent but no less dramatic than the Reformation…

The strongest religious force in nineteenth-century English life was evangelicalism. This term is to be understood in its broadest sense, referring not merely to that school of Protestantism which, by dictionary definition, maintains that “the essence of the Gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning work of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy,” but to the many movements of religious enthusiasm and reform that swept through every Christian denomination. Victorian evangelicalism…was all but ecumenical in spirit if not in fact…

Evangelicalism embraced not only the entire spectrum of Protestant belief but also the widest social scene. It cut across class divisions and barriers that no political revolution could have trampled. Emphasising practical morality and philanthropy rather than theology, directed primarily to the emotions rather than to reason, it appealed to all ages and all classes…

The nineteenth century began with revolution in France, a tired and debauched monarchy in England, a starved and exploited working class both in the farms and in the industrial towns, massive drunkenness, prostitution, and crime. By the middle of the century, social and moral reform had swept England. No historian of the period underestimates the importance of evangelicalism in that reform movement…

Take THAT, William Gresley!

Of course, Gresley himself would no doubt argue that all this is quite irrelevant beside the Evangelical rejection of the sacraments; that all the people helped by reform and perhaps converted by Evangelical zeal are going to hell anyway, because they’re being taught the wrong doctrine. (I keep getting a mental image of an exasperated individual stamping his foot and saying crossly, “No, no, no! – that’s not how you do religion!”)

But as Vineta Colby makes clear in her introduction, we are talking here about emotional evangelicalism: a definition that allows her to classify together the novels of an amazingly disparate group of writers. Colby is uninterested in straight doctrinal “novels” like Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, whether they be for or against Evangelicalism, focusing instead upon the increasingly popular domestic-evangelical school of writing, a female dominated sub-genre of the religious novel:

We may therefore stretch the designation “evangelical novel” to embrace the extremes from Low Church to High, from Charlotte Elizabeth (Mrs Tonna), whose passionate anti-Catholicism made her positively regret her missed chance for Protestant martyrdom (as a child inspired by “that magic book” Foxe’s Acts And Monuments, she asked her father if she might someday hope to become a martyr; “Why, Charlotte,” he replied, “if the government ever gives power to the Papists again, as they talk of doing, you may probably live to be a martyr”), to Charlotte Yonge, whose Anglo-Catholicism inspired her to translate the intellectual issues of the Oxford Movement into romances of daily life that enchanted several generations of readers. In between we may include novelists of every variety and sect—Methodist, Presbyterian, Low-Broad-High Church. Even Roman Catholic converts like Lady Georgiana Fullerton and John Henry Newman wrote novels with the same zeal and fervour though for a different faith. And a Jewish novelist, Grace Aguilar, was evangelical, affirming in her Preface to Home Influence: A Tale For Mothers And Daughters that Christian readers need not fear: “…as a simple domestic story, the characters in which are all Christians, believing in and practising that religion, all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided, the author seeking only to illustrate the spirit of true piety and the virtues always designated as the Christian virtues hence proceeding. Her sole aim with regard to Religion has been to incite a train of serious and loving thought toward God and man, especially toward those with whom he has linked us in the precious ties of parent and child, brother and sister, master and pupil…”

Call me crazy, but right now a religious novel in which “all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided” seems strangely attractive…

06/12/2013

Haw, haw

conway1I’ve been reading Alison Conway’s The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative And Religious Controversy In England, 1680-1750. The book’s title comes, of course, from the famous anecdote about Nell Gwyn, which tells how she placated an angry mob that attacked her coach in mistake for that of Louise de Kéroualle by calling out, “Good people, pray be civil – I am the Protestant whore!” (We were given a version of this incident in The Power And The Passion.)

Conway’s study traces the history of “courtesan narrative” from the Restoration to the second Jacobite Rebellion, showing the many ways in which the word “whore” was employed in political and religious discourse in relation to the Stuarts. Conway believes the Nell Gwyn story to be apocryphal, because while it was widely repeated no-one ever provided (or has since identified) an original source for it. However, she argues, if the story is fictional, the disclaimer “Protestant” carries even greater weight.

The dismay and anger felt in the face of Charles’ perceived neglect of his duties while he dallied with his mistresses, or worse, the possibility of “petticoat government”, provoked an outpouring of writing that was deeply critical of the amorous monarch, and often frankly obscene. Perhaps the most striking feature of this particular form of literature is the almost invariable distinction drawn between Nell Gwyn and the other mistresses: there is full appreciation of the fact that she was the only one who was neither French nor Catholic; not just a whore, but a Protestant whore. As a consequence the criticism of her is rarely worse than unkind, and in fact most of what looks like an attack upon her is in reality an attack upon Charles.

Take, for example, this extract from Robert Lacy’s 1677 poem, Satyr (the contemporary spelling of “satire”, albeit with an entirely appropriate secondary meaning in context), a lengthy diatribe on Charles’ neglect of his duties and his prodigal sexuality, on which Lacy blames his failure to produce a legitimate heir:

    How poorly squander’st thou thy seed away,
    Which should get Kings for nations to obey;
    But thou, poor Prince, so uselessly hast sown it,
    That the Creation is ashamed to own it:
    Witness the Royal Line sprung from the Belly
    Of the Anointed Princess, Madam Nelly…

In sharp contrast, the attacks made upon the other mistresses are direct and deeply hostile – particularly those aimed at Louise de Kéroualle, who was not only French and Catholic, but widely believed to be a spy in the pay of Louis XIV. The following is from The Whore Of Babylon, a (not surprisingly) unattributed work from 1678:

    You treach’rous Whore of France, may Rabble’s rage
    Seize thee, & not till thou’rt destroy’d aswage.
    The People’s Cross, misfortune, constant Pest,
    The Milstone whelm’d upon this Nation’s breast;
    Brittain’s impairer of her honour & Fame,
    The Festring Soar of Majesty, the Shame
    Of English Councils; the Crowns costly load,
    And Prince’s thriving Infamy abroad;
    The Commons hater, & false France’s friend.
    Lord, from this Basilisk Loyalty defend!
    Permit a change, our ruins to confront,
    Let us be govern’d by an English C–t;
    The kingdom can’t by whoring suffer want
    If princes swives concubines that’s Protestant.

Charming. And yet by no means the nastiest of the anti-de Kéroualle works.

One of the strangest aspects of this period was the emergence in the literature of a wildly idealised Nell Gwyn, who was portrayed of standing up for England’s rights and liberties while Charles was falling down on the job, and who became, perversely enough, a symbol of monarchical and religious loyalty. There is a whole subset of writing that has Nell telling off the other mistresses, usually Louise de Kéroualle, sometimes Barbara de Villiers, in conversations that are really between England and France, Protestantism and Catholicism. And beyond that, there is at least one example of Nell telling off Monmouth, berating him for his disloyalty and ingratitude.

Anyway—

It was my original intention to write a full review of The Protestant Whore, but circumstances have intervened: I have a ‘community borrower’ card at an academic library, one of the conditions of which is that if anyone attached to the university wants a book I have on loan, I have to return it regardless of loan date. So perhaps I’ll return to it at a later date, when my journey meets up with the later subject matter of the book, which includes chapters on Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (though I don’t think I need to say any more on that subject!), the literature dealing with the relationship between Queen Anne and her “favourites”, Sarah Churchill and Mrs Masham, Defoe’s Roxana, and finally Clarissa and Tom Jones. I may say that it warmed my heart to find Alison Conway including Tom Jones in her list of Protestant whores.

Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure that Conway has done me any favours, inasmuch as she has me reconsidering my intention  to skip over the rest of the romans à clef that appeared in the post-James era. I’ve been puzzled by the fact that this period saw yet another set of attacks on Louise de Kéroualle, who by this time, having had much of the property bestowed upon her by Charles confiscated, had returned to France. However, I’ve found a source (emphasis on found: do think I can find it again?) which contends that, in the wake of the Rye House Plot, the formerly easy-going Charles finally did crack down on the print market, and that a great deal of what was written in 1683 and 1684 consequently went unpublished, finally seeing the light of day across 1689 / 1690, when it sat comfortably amongst the various pro-Williamite writing and served to remind people what England had rid itself of, even if the specifics were no longer so relevant.

So I’m currently resigning myself to taking a look at The Court Secret by Peter Belon (who we have met here before, as one of the translators of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise), and The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary, by that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”, both of which are Louise de Kéroualle-focused romans à clef. The latter, in addition, is suggested to have had some influence upon the writings of Delariviere Manley, so it may assume greater importance going forward.

If  I ever get to go forward.

And indeed, James is still clutching at my skirts with exasperating tenacity. (If only he’d held onto the throne that tightly – !) Recently, for instance, I randomly picked up Alicia Deane, by the Australian writer E. V. Timms, only to discover that it is an historical novel dealing with characters caught up in the consequences of the Monmouth Rebellion. The central romantic conflict is between the eponymous heroine, who is a passionate believer in Monmouth (not too bright, in other words), and her would-be lover, who is anti-James, but anti-Monmouth too, remarking presciently that, “‘Tis not Monmouth Englishmen want—’tis William of Orange who be, with Mary his Queen, the King and Queen for us.”

The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of Charles’ death, when England is adjusting itself to James:

The glittering palace of Whitehall was now a house of gloom; no merry, uncaring, pleasure-loving monarch now filled its halls, rooms, and galleries with the laughter of licence and the flippant freedom of unrestrained sensuality. Charles was dead, and dead also was the love, the life, and the laughter that he and his brilliant court had made synonymous with the name of Whitehall. James was King, and over London the dark clouds of distrust and suspicion  were already casting their sable shadows. James! James the stern, the gloomy, the bigot, the cruel! The man whose heart was stony ground, and whose lips were strangers to laughter.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

And in fact, I did once feel sorry for him, not while reading this novel (in which his relationship with George Jeffreys is given full weight), but when I stumbled over the following in my internet wanderings. And since I started this post with a probably-apocryphal anecdote, it seems appropriate to close with another one.

Charles, or so the story goes, was in the habit of going for walks in St James’s Park with what his retinue considered grossly inadequate protection, until James was moved to remonstrate with him for placing himself in danger.

To which Charles responded:

“No man in England will raise a hand to me as long as you are my heir.”

nellgwyn1b

Madam Nelly, by Sir Peter Lely

22/01/2013

It’s just a jump to the left…

So after bringing in the New Year with a viewing of Captain Blood, I got hold of a copy of the novel by Rafael Sabatini, in order to find out how much they had in common. Not too unexpectedly, the film – although a rousing swashbuckler – bears only a general resemblance to the book upon which it is based.

The change that leapt out at me was naturally one of dialogue: much to my surprise, it turns out that neither of the slurs against James II that I so fondly quoted emanate from the novel, but were rather the invention of screenwriter Casey Robinson.

    CB35-4b    CB35-5b

(On the other hand, one of my other favourite lines from the film – “He’s chivalrous to the point of idiocy” – is a direct lift from the novel.)

However, despite this specific lack, the novel has scattered throughout its pages enough anti-James sentiment to warm the cockles of my resentful heart. It would be fair, I think, to say that the novel Captain Blood has two different villains: Spain as a nation, and James as an individual.

As for the film— Well, put simply, it’s been cleaned up into an emotionally shallow, albeit thoroughly entertaining, adventure story. It is full of bloodless violence, and entirely lacking the novel’s blunt depiction of the brutalities of the age. Its main villains, Colonel Bishop and Levasseur the pirate, though bad enough in context, are shadows of their vicious novel-selves.

Much of the novel’s focus is upon the shifting sands of European politics at this time, the making and breaking of allegiances, and their impact upon the New World; perhaps a third of its story concerns Peter’s escalating, and escalatingly personal, warfare against an admiral in the Spanish navy.

The film discards nearly all of this, maintaining only such references to James and the Monmouth Rebellion as it needs to emphasise the brutality of the existing regime and the injustice of Peter’s conviction. It also manages to completely miss the point of the novel, in which Peter and his men attack only Spanish ships, by having the pirates attack all ships indiscriminatingly.

    CB35-6b    CB35-7b

Inevitably, in place of politics the film places a much greater emphasis upon the romance between Peter and Arabella Bishop, the beautiful niece of Peter’s deadliest enemy; although it does earn some points in this respect by having Arabella personally buy Peter at the slave-auction rather than just convincing her uncle to do so, thus upping the ante between them. Curiously, the film omits the novel’s single most romantic touch, Peter re-naming his first captured ship the Arabella. (He cries when it sinks; the film omits that, too.)

Conversely, in keeping with Sabatini’s “Boy’s Own” approach to his story, Arabella is present in the novel far less often in the flesh than as an ideal, with the lovesick Peter trying to live up to his image of her and so holding his men to a course of “chivalrous piracy”, which does in fact do them some good in the long run (although not with Arabella herself, who hears a garbled version of Peter’s rescue of Mlle d’Ogeron, the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga, from Levasseur that does him no favours whatsoever).

Likewise, although he never entirely loses the ability to laugh at himself, the novel’s Peter is an older, much more cynical and emotionally damaged individual than the laughing rogue portrayed by Errol Flynn. Although early qualified in medicine, an adventurous spirit saw  the young Peter Blood meddling in Europe’s many wars: learning naval tactics under the famous Admiral de Ruyter for the Dutch against the French; serving the French in the Spanish Netherlands; and spending two years in a Spanish prison – emerging from these experiences with a grasp of both “vile” French and “pure” Castilian,  a deep hatred of the Spanish, and a great desire for a quiet life which is destined to remain unfulfilled.

CB35-10b    CB35-11b

CB35-12b     CB35-13b

The opening of the novel plunges us deeply into precisely the reason I was reading it in the first place. Of all places in the world, Peter Blood has hung up his shingle in Bridgewater, and in July 1865 finds himself a minority of one when the rest of the town’s population is swept up in an enthusiastic fervour over the imminent arrival of the Duke of Monmouth. Peter’s refusal to have anything to do with the matter gets him branded a coward and an outcast, but the issue is simply that he knows too much:

    To him they were fools rushing in wicked frenzy upon their ruin. You see, he knew too much about this fellow Monmouth and the pretty brown slut who had borne him, to be deceived by the legend of legitimacy, on the strength of which this standard of rebellion had been raised. He had read the absurd proclamation posted at the Cross at Bridgewater – as it had been posted also at Taunton and elsewhere – setting forth that “upon the decease of our Sovereign Lord Charles the Second, the right of succession to the Crown of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, with the dominions and territories thereunto belonging, did legally descend and devolve upon the most illustrious and high-born Prince James, Duke of Monmouth, son and heir apparent to the said King Charles the Second.”
    It had moved him to laughter, as had the further announcement that “James Duke of York did first cause the said late King to be poysoned, and immediately thereupon did usurp and invade the Crown.”
    He knew not which was the greater lie. For Mr. Blood had spent a third of his life in the Netherlands, where this same James Scott – who now proclaimed himself James the Second, by the grace of God, King, et cetera – first saw the light some six-and-thirty years ago, and he was acquainted with the story current there of the fellow’s real paternity. Far from being legitimate – by virtue of a pretended secret marriage between Charles Stuart and Lucy Walter – it was possible that this Monmouth who now proclaimed himself King of England was not even the illegitimate child of the late sovereign. What but ruin and disaster could be the end of this grotesque pretension? How could it be hoped that England would ever swallow such a Perkin? And it was on his behalf, to uphold his fantastic claim, that these West Country clods, led by a few armigerous Whigs, had been seduced into rebellion!

The rebellion, of course, goes exactly as Peter predicts it will, but his intention of staying out of it is shattered when his neighbour, Jeremiah Pitt, drags him out to attend the wounded Lord Gildoy: a rebel, yes, but someone who has been a good friend to Peter and done him many favours, so that as neither a man nor a doctor can Peter honestly refuse to give his assistance. He is, at this point, sufficiently unacquainted with the incumbent monarch to assume that his merely providing medical treatment to a possibly dying man will not be be the cause of any particular trouble. He is soon disabused, and finds himself imprisoned awaiting trial for his life. If this was not enough to alter his political opinions, other events are…

…and you may imagine the evil joy I felt, when I found the finger of scorn being pointed in a third, equally deserving direction:

    Mr. Blood heard that tale with the same indifference with which he had received the news of Monmouth’s death. But one shameful thing he heard in connection with this which left him not quite so unmoved, and served to nourish the contempt he was forming for King James. His Majesty had consented to see Monmouth. To have done so unless he intended to pardon him was a thing execrable and damnable beyond belief; for the only other object in granting that interview could be the evilly mean satisfaction of spurning the abject penitence of his unfortunate nephew.
   Later they heard that Lord Grey, who after the Duke – indeed, perhaps, before him – was the main leader of the rebellion, had purchased his own pardon for forty thousand pounds. Peter Blood found this of a piece with the rest. His contempt for King James blazed out at last. “Why, here’s a filthy mean creature to sit on a throne. If I had known as much of him before as I know to-day, I don’t doubt I should have given cause to be where I am now.”

And that’s before he meets Judge George Jeffreys.

(In another clean-up moment, the film has Jeffreys dying of tuberculosis, rather than the excruciating kidney disease that actually did kill him. Also, the convicted rebels are merely to be hanged, rather than hanged, drawn and quartered, as in reality.)

 CB35-16b    CB35-18b

 CB35-17b    CB35-19b

The lives of Peter Blood and some of his fellow convicted rebels are saved when James is convinced that transportation and slavery would be a more profitable way of proceeding – and just as fatal in the long run. On the nightmare journey to Jamaica, Peter’s medical skill is called upon, and he arrives in Jamaica with a reputation as a skilled physician. He is bought by the brutal Colonel Bishop – catching the interested eye of Miss Arabella Bishop, the Colonel’s niece and ward, in the process – but is soon worth more to his owner as a doctor than as a slave. His success goes over like a lead balloon with Jamaica’s incumbent doctors, who enter into a conspiracy with Peter to buy a boat in which he and a handful of fellow-slaves can escape. Circumstances both hinder and favour the breakout, with Peter and the others finally making their escape under the cover of an attack upon Port Royal by the Spanish.

From there the book and the film part company for quite some time, with the former concentrating on Peter’s individual war with the Spanish admiral – the older brother of the man in charge of the illegal attack on Port Royal, who is captured by Peter and his men (along with his ship, the soon-to-be Arabella) and dies in their custody, although not really through any fault of theirs.

However, in spite of how busy the pirates are kept, there’s always time to insult James Stuart:

Both Esteban and Blood made haste to agree with him, and then Blood raised his glass, and drank to the glory of Spain and the damnation of the besotted James who occupied the throne of England. The latter part of his toast was at least sincere…

So you may imagine my horror when, in another plot twist omitted from the film, Peter Blood finds himself accepting a commission in the navy of King James…

This nightmare volte-face comes about when Peter rescues from the Spanish Arabella herself and Lord Julian Wade, a relative of the Secretary of State, Lord Sunderland, who has been sent to the West Indies to try and “solve” the pirate situation by offering Peter a pardon and a commission. At first, Peter’s reaction is everything we might expect, and hope:

    “Ye’re my guest aboard this ship,” said he, “and I still have some notion of decent behaviour left me from other days, thief and pirate though I may be. So I’ll not be telling you what I think of you for daring to bring me this offer, or of my Lord Sunderland – since he’s your kinsman – for having the impudence to send it. But it does not surprise me at all that one who is a minister of James Stuart’s should conceive that every man is to be seduced by bribes into betraying those who trust him.” He flung out an arm in the direction of the waist, whence came the half-melancholy chant of the lounging buccaneers.
    “Again you misapprehend me,” cried Lord Julian, between concern and indignation. “That is not intended. Your followers will be included in your commission.”
    “And d’ ye think they’ll go with me to hunt their brethren – the Brethren of the Coast? On my soul, Lord Julian, it is yourself does the misapprehending. Are there not even notions of honour left in England? Oh, and there’s more to it than that, even. D’ye think I could take a commission of King James’s? I tell you I wouldn’t be soiling my hands with it – thief and pirate’s hands though they be. Thief and pirate is what you heard Miss Bishop call me to-day – a thing of scorn, an outcast. And who made me that? Who made me thief and pirate?”

As you will have gathered, Peter and Arabella – who is struggling with her own confused emotions, and still smarting from the story of Mlle d’Ogeron – have already exchanged pleasantries. Between that, and her mere presence, and his growing conviction that Arabella is in love with Lord Julian, as he certainly is with her, Peter completely loses his head, and blunders straight into the British navy and Colonel Bishop. With escape impossible, and the lives of all his men at stake, Peter makes a deal with the devil – but insists that those of his men who do not wish to accept a commission or a pardon (which is most of them) should be given a ship and a head-start.

And afterwards—well, he doesn’t quite go about flagellating himself and howling, “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!”, but that’s what it amounts to. It is left to Arabella to put James Stuart in his place:

    “Your resolve delivered me from a horrible danger,” she admitted. And she shivered at the memory of it. “But I do not understand why you should have hesitated when first it was proposed to you. It is an honourable service.”
    “King James’s?” he sneered.
    “England’s,” she corrected him in reproof. “The country is all, sir; the sovereign naught. King James will pass; others will come and pass; England remains, to be honourably served by her sons, whatever rancour they may hold against the man who rules her in their time.”

In spite of this intended comfort, Peter’s service for James goes just as well – and lasts just as long – as you might anticipate, and in short time he is headed back to Tortuga. However, Peter’s self-disgust runs deep; he feels that he can no longer – no longer honourably – be a pirate. He cannot serve England. He will not serve Spain. What is left but to sell his sword and his boats to the French? (They didn’t have a Foreign Legion back then, but the principal is the same.)

To Peter’s horror, he soon finds himself, in the name of honourable warfare, involved in acts of piracy worst than any he committed as an actual pirate. His remonstrances and protests outrage and offend his commanders, who take the first opportunity to sever the connection between themselves and these skilful but tiresome buccaneers. They have, in any case, other fish to fry – now that France and England are at war…

 CB35-20b    CB35-21b

Those “fish” are nothing less than an attack upon Port Royal: an attack made frighteningly easy by the absence of Colonel Bishop, now Deputy-Governor of Jamaica, who has deserted his post and taken the fleet with him to hunt his personal nemesis, Peter Blood (and in company with Lord Julian Wade, who by this time has his own reasons for hating Peter).

Peter and his men are on their way to French Hispaniola in pursuit of their former colleagues when they hear guns, and see an attack upon a single English ship. Upon rescuing the survivors, Peter finds himself confronted by a choleric Englishman named Lord Willoughby, and the Dutch Admiral van der Kuylen, whose ship was sunk. While the Dutchman seems amused at being rescued by a notorious pirate, Willoughby is furious and aggressive, insulting Peter who responds with a quiet courtesy that the Englishman takes for sarcasm:

    The fierce little gentleman stared at him. “Damme! Do you permit yourself to be ironical?” he disapproved him, and possibly with a view to correcting any such tendency, proceeded to introduce himself. “I am Lord Willoughby, King William’s Governor-General of the West Indies, and this is Admiral van der Kuylen, commander of His Majesty’s West Indian fleet, at present mislaid somewhere in this damned Caribbean Sea.”
    “King William?” quoth Blood, and he was conscious that Pitt and Dyke, who were behind him, now came edging nearer, sharing his own wonder. “And who may be King William, and of what may he be King?”
    “What’s that?” In a wonder greater than his own, Lord Willoughby stared back at him. At last: “I am alluding to His Majesty King William III – William of Orange – who, with Queen Mary, has been ruling England for two months and more.”
    There was a moment’s silence, until Blood realised what he was being told…

And from here, the long-severed book and film finally reunite, with Peter and his men falling upon the superior French forces and defeating them in grim and bloody battle, saving Port Royal and redeeming themselves in the process. Afterwards, Peter is appointed the new Governor of Jamaica and – after finally coming to an understanding with Arabella – is left to deal with his future uncle-in-law…

Though it is undoubtedly a Hollywoodisation of its source novel, the film version of Captain Blood is, as I have indicated, a perfectly entertaining adventure film, with all the usual Warner Bros. benefits: direction by Michael Curtiz, a score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a clever, frequently funny screenplay by Casey Robinson, the match-made-in-heaven co-casting of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland, and poor Basil Rathbone dying on the point of Flynn’s most undeserving sword, for the first but certainly not the last time.

The novel, however, is an altogether darker and more complex work—while for the James Stuart haters amongst us, well, it’s all good.

CB35-22

26/05/2012

Related ramblings

A while ago, in the comments thread for The Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, we were discussing the short fictions published posthumously under Aphra Behn’s name, and whether they were in fact written by her. I’ve finally managed to track down a copy of A Genius For Letters: Booksellers And Bookselling From The 16th To The 20th Century, edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris, which contains an essay by Germaine Greer which touches upon this subject.

Greer’s essay, ironically titled Honest Sam. Briscoe, opens by saying:

Among the many problems confronting the student of women’s literature the sheer difficulty of establishing the provenance, authenticity and reliability of the texts has not been sufficiently emphasised. The shakiness of the Aphra Behn canon, to cite the best-known example, is in a large measure due to the role played by the mysterious collapsing bookseller, Samuel Briscoe.

Greer’s tracing of the ups and downs – mostly down – of Honest Sam’s publishing career concerns us only as far as he played a part in the posthumous career of Aphra Behn.

In 1696, Charles Gildon edited and provided a dedication for a compilation work that Briscoe released under the title The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn. This volume contained Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt, Agnes de Castro, The Lover’s Watch, The Ladies Looking-Glass and The Lucky Mistake, works all written or translated and previously published before Behn’s death. In addition, it offered Love Letters To A Gentleman: Never Before Printed, written to “Lycidas” from “Astrea” (Behn’s well-known code-name), and purporting to be genuine letters from Behn to John Hoyle, who according to gossip was at one time her lover and possibly her “keeper”. (That Hoyle was bisexual at least, and at one time stood trial accused of homosexual acts, seems to have had no impact upon this particular rumour.)

By 1696, letters, and the more salacious the better, were Sam Briscoe’s stock-in-trade. One of his early publishing successes was Letters Of Love And Gallantry And Several Other Subjects. All Written By Ladies by “Olinda” (Catherine Trotter), and from that time Briscoe persistently advertised for correspondence to publish—writing it himself, or hiring others to do so, if none was forthcoming. He became notorious for the bait-and-switch, promising the public the full correspondence of a celebrity and then padding out a handful of previously published letters with new ones by no-one in particular. The authenticity of the Lycidas / Astrea correspondence is therefore doubtful; although a number of scholars have been beguiled into analysing them as if their authorship was certain. Furthermore, whatever its significance, several analysts have pointed out the similarity in tone between these letters and The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun.

Like Letters Of Love And Gallantry, Histories And Novels was a financial success for Sam Briscoe; and again, we find him following up with a second release of far more dubious provenance. In 1698, he published All The Histories And Novels Written By The Late Ingenious Mrs Behn, also edited by Charles Gildon. This volume reproduced the earlier collection but added to it three more, previously unpublished short fictions: Memoirs Of The Court Of The King Of Bantam, The Nun and The Adventure Of The Black Lady. Then, in 1700, Briscoe issued a second volume called Histories, Novels And Translations, which bragged “the greatest part never before printed“, and added three more translations and five more pieces of short fiction: The Blind Lady A Beauty, The Dumb Virgin, The Unhappy Fortunate Lady, The Wand’ring Beauty and The Unhappy Mistake.

The authenticity of these posthumous works have been challenged since the time of their publication, although no-one has a definitive answer one way or another. Sam Briscoe himself seems to have been aware that people were likely to be sceptical: to the 1698 volume he appended an “Advertisement to the Reader”, which declared:

The stile of the Court of the King of Bantam being so very different from Mrs. Behn’s usual way of Writing it may perhaps call its being genuine into Question; to obviate which Objection, I must inform the Reader, That it was a Trial of Skill, upon a Wager, to shew that she was able to write in the Style of the celebrated Scarron, in imitation of whom ’tis writ, tho’ the Story be true. I need not say anything of the other Two, they evidently confessing their admirable Author.

Unfortunately, though she makes her own scepticism clear in her essay in A Genius For Letters, Germaine Greer has no more solid information for us touching the authenticity or otherwise of these posthumous works. She does, however, give more credence to The Court Of The King Of Bantam than to the other works, on the grounds that if it were a forgery, it would certainly be more in Behn’s usual style. Her main objection to the claim of Behn’s authorship is a purely pragmatic one: if two eternally cash-strapped individuals like Sam Briscoe and Charles Gildon had possession of Aphra’s Behn’s unpublished writings, why did it take them eight, ten and even twelve years to publish them?

Then, of course, there’s the question of how they would have come into possession. Charles Gildon, who we’ve met before at this blog (albeit playing the unlikely role of the denouncer of dishonesty), is another of the anomalous literary figures that proliferated in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, working variously as an editor, a publisher and a hack-for hire, his name cropping up again and again with reference to scams and cheats of all kinds. (He was also another of the coffee-house crowd, which is where Briscoe met him.) He was a friend of Behn’s, and is often referred to vaguely as her ” literary executor”, which really does nothing to answer the overriding questions. Over the decades that followed, Gildon made a steady income re-issuing Behn’s works – and “works” – at regular intervals.

Gildon’s most important historical role is not as Behn’s executor, nor even as her editor, but as her biographer. In 1696 (there’s that year again!), Gildon staged a previously unperformed play of Behn’s, The Younger Brother. It was not a success. Nevertheless, Gildon published the text – “with some alterations” – and prefixed to it a short memoir of Behn, An Account Of The Brief Life Of The Incomparable Mrs. Behn, in which he gives her maiden name as Johnson, her birth-place as Canterbury, asserts that her husband was “an eminent merchant” and makes mention of both the journey to Surinam and the spying in Flanders.

The 1696 release of Histories And Novels carries, in addition to the works purportedly by Behn, a biographical sketch called The History Of The Life And Memoirs Of Mrs. Behn, Written By One Of The Fair Sex. This elaborates but essentially repeats the earlier information, and it is generally believed that Gildon wrote it himself. So far the underlying details are only what a friend of Behn’s might have known; but it is presented here like one of Behn’s own tales, while exaggeration and misinformation are rife. The emphasis is very much upon Oroonoko, here reissued for the first time since its initial publication: Aphra is given a gentleman-father who was “governor of Surinam”, and Oroonoko is asserted to be a true story. There are even hints of a scandalous relationship between Behn and her slave-hero, with the author indignantly refuting “some unjust aspersions” that have allegedly been made—which of course had the effect of establishing the relationship as fact in many readers’ minds. There are many allusions to Behn’s beauty and charm, and the section dealing with her visit to Antwerp suggests amorous adventures rather than espionage. This “biography” was reissued with each reissuing of Behn’s works, undergoing expansion and elaboration until it became quite a lengthy tale; although it is noticeable that it gains most details at those points where Behn’s fiction and her life are supposed to be in parallel.

Whatever his motive, Gildon’s biographical accounts of Behn’s life did her no favours in the long run. Firstly, as Gildon’s own reputation sank, the association dragged Behn down, too. Secondly, these sketches are the origin of Behn as “the passionate Astrea”, a woman dominated by her emotions, who wrote purely to express them. In the various responses to her memoirs we see Behn’s reputation as a writer being overtaken by her reputation as a scandalous woman: the first stirrings of the moral condemnation that was to bury her for literally centuries, and remove her from the literary timeline. And finally, when it was belatedly realised that certain “biographical” details of Behn’s life and various narrative assertions in Behn’s fiction were virtually indistinguishable, it had the peculiar effect of seeing Behn condemned as a shameless liar. As a result, they effectively threw out the baby with the bath-water, with both the journey to Surinam and the mission to Flanders for many years dismissed as just more fiction; and it is only recent scholarship that has managed to extract the real Aphra from behind the fictionalised “Astrea”.

Which is a great deal more than I intended to say upon this subject. Just for a change.

Another essay in A Genius For Letters that caught my eye was From the warehouse to the counting-house: booksellers and bookshops in late 17th-century London by Giles Mandelbrote. Not only does this piece obviously deal with matters pertinent to this blog’s pursuit of the rise of the novel, but we find within its pages a couple of old friends:

Contemporary satire was not kind to shopkeepers. Some of the most lively descriptions of bookselling in the later 17th century come from the pens of two writers who themselves had chequered careers as booksellers. Richard Head (1637? – 1686?), after apprenticeship in the book trade, set up as a bookseller in his own right in the 1660s, but was soon ruined by gambling debts and earned a living thereafter as a hack writer. Francis Kirkman (1632 – 1683?), who was a member of the Blacksmiths’ Company, had a bookshop in various parts of London between about 1657 and 1680, was an active publisher of plays and light literature, and published his own fictionalised memoirs, The Unlucky Citizen, in 1673. Kirkman is usually credited with writing, as well as publishing, the continuation to Head’s The English Rogue (1668), which includes several chapters where the narrator is a bookseller’s apprentice.

Several lengthy quotes of the relevant passages of The English Rogue and The Unlucky Citizen then follow. Hilariously, however, even while using Francis Kirkman so extensively as a source, Mandelbrote adds a footnote in which the reader is warned to treat the veracity of anything said by Kirkman with “extreme caution”.

The other relevant essay in A Genius For Letters is Simon Elliot’s Bookselling by the backdoor: circulating libraries, booksellers and book clubs 1876 – 1966, which traces the history of the book trade during the demise of the circulating libraries in the late 19th century and the rise of various new entities that competed with the full-time booksellers during the early 20th century, including public libraries and book clubs. While the essay is wide-ranging, the section most relevant here deals with the collapse of the “three-volume novel” and of the two great competitive circulating libraries, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, towards the end of the 19th century. 

Before this time, the libraries were already struggling, under threat from inexpensive reissues of novels too close to the original release date of the first edition (a situation comparable to the cinema / DVD release dichotomy for new movies today). Consequently, on 27th June 1894, Mudie’s and Smith issued a joint declaration, in which they demanded that the price of three-volume novels be reduced to no more than four shillings per volume, and that there be a gap of at least a year between the publishing of first editions and the appearance of cheaper reprints. The publishing houses’ response was effectively to stop issuing multi-volume novels at all, experimenting instead with single-volume editions that cost less than the combined-volume prices of the multi-volume works. They also began to rely less upon the circulating libraries as an outlet for their books, and more upon advertising directly to the public, who at the new, reduced priced were willing to buy rather than borrow first editions. Effectively, the long-standing publishing approach of small editions at high prices had been replaced by large editions at low prices; while from an artistic viewpoint, authors were no longer constrained to produce works of a pre-defined length, and the circulating libraries’ long-standing threat of censorship was gone for good.

Finally—yes, finally, I promise—I have yet again stumbled over those blasted Stuarts in my off-blog reading, and the same person is to blame. Following on from the part played by a portrait of James II in R. Austin Freeman’s short story, The Great Portrait Mystery, his 1923 novel The Cat’s Eye features an extensive subplot about a boy who has been excluded from the inheritance of the family property because the marriage of a direct ancestor cannot be proved. Certain documents from the 18th century dealing with the situation are still extant, however, from which we learn the following:

Like his father, Percival Blake was an ardent supporter of the Stuarts, and it is believed that he took an active part in the various Jacobite plots that were heard of about this time; and when, in 1745, the great rising took place, Percival was one of those who hastened to join the forces of the young Pretender, a disastrous act, to which all the subsequent misfortunes of the family are due…

Sounds about right.

Later in the novel, John Thorndyke and his sidekick-narrator du jour, the lawyer Robert Anstey, pay a visit to the ancestral halls of the Blake family, and find in the local village an ancient pub:

    But the most singular feature of the house was the sign, which swung at the top of a tall post by a horse-trough in the little forecourt, on which was the head of a gentleman wearing a crown and a full-bottomed wig, apparently suspended in mid-air over a brown stone pitcher.
    “It seems to me,” said I, as we approached the inn, “that the sign needs an explanatory inscription. The association of a king and a brown jug may be natural enough, but it is unusual as an inn-sign.”
    “Now, Anstey,” Thorndyke exclaimed protestingly, “don’t tell me that that ancient joke has missed its mark on your superlative intellect. The inscription on the parlour window tells us that the sign is the King’s Head, and the pitcher under the portrait explains that the king is James the Second or Third—His Majesty over the water.”

I have no idea whether this recurrence of Stuart themes in Freeman’s writing indicates a particular historical interest or political sympathy (as the reference to “James the Third” might suggest), or whether it is simply that the machinations and conflicts of the era provide a delightfully wide scope for stories involving long-standing family secrets, hidden documents, and houses full of concealed passage-ways and priest-holes.

28/02/2012

Three stones

There’s a preface to The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled in Spiro Peterson’s anthology of 17th century criminal fiction, and while the bulk of it references Ernest Bernbaum’s The Mary Carleton Narratives, it also makes a few points of its own that made me smile.

Here is Peterson’s account of how Francis Kirkman got his hands on The English Rogue – which perhaps also offers a hint of why Kirkman always seemed such a believer in the necessity of there being honour amongst thieves:

Kirkman’s discovery of rogue biography was probably a happty accident. Overly ambitious as a bookseller, he had got into legal troubles in a plot to pirate “the best plays then extant”. On two occasions he had been cheated by Henry Marsh, one of his partners in the pirating venture. After the Plague, burdened with debts and poor relations, Kirkman was trying to recoup his his fortunes. He took over the estate of Marsh, who had died, and here, among many liabilities, he found some assets. Chief among these were the rights to the first part of Richard Head’s The English Rogue, a book so obscene that it had to be expurgated before it could be licensed for publication by Marsh in 1665…

I was amused to discover that Peterson seemed to have come away from his researches with more or less the same impression of Francis Kirkman as I did – basically a nice guy, if not the world’s most honest man, with a genuine love of literature:

Like the true Restoration man that he was, Francis Kirkman emphatically approved of the new freedom that Charles II brought with him. Especially important to him were the signs of the revival in literature. In 1661, as he launched one of his first publications, The Thracian Wonder, Kirkman the bookseller bemoaned the sad effects of the recent tyranny. As long as readers would buy books, he promised to print them, “since ingenuity is so likely to be encouraged by reason of the happy restoration of our liberties.” He never lost his confidence that ingenuity would bring its own rewards. In a long career as translator, author, and publisher, he aimed to please.

Even more amusing, at least to me, was Peterson’s ready acceptance of Richard Head’s involvement in Part 3 and Part 4 of The English Rogue; a conclusion very much against the prevailing dogma, and one I reached only after the shedding of much blood, sweat and tears. Mostly tears:

Of the five books which Kirkman produced as an author, three were picaresque or criminal narratives. He wrote a second part (1668) of The English Rogue and with the original author, Richard Head, “clubbed” harmoniously to produce a third and fourth parts (1671)…

Of The Counterfeit Lady herself, though he does not draw quite so long a bow as Ernest Bernbaum, Peterson is equally impressed with Kirkman’s handling of his material – and with his occasional denials of omniscience:

The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled may serve, according to its preface, “as a looking glass wherein we may see the vices of this age epitomized.” Besides its sociological value, the book should interest readers today for its realistic techniques. Of the criminal biographers who disguise their fiction as fact, Kirkman is the most talented. Instinctively he knows when to hasten the story and when to expand an incident into a brilliantly detailed scene. In his technique he glimpses – sketchily, to be sure – the modern idea of point of view, as, for example, when he interrupts his account of Mary’s affair with the two young lovers “that I may not seem to romance by telling you all their private discourses, which would be impossible”…

But there is one mention of Daniel Defoe; one that keeps it all the family, as it were:

As many as twenty-four books, published between 1663 and 1673, sensationalized her adventures. Samuel Pepys saw the German Princess on display at the Gatehouse Prison, and at the end of her trial for bigamy, stoutly cheered her victory. News of the Lady reached the royal court. In ballads, newspapers, and pamphlets, writers made comparisons with “the German Princess.” To whet the appetite of readers, a criminal biographer claimed, in  1692, that his subject was “a rarity beyond…a Clancie, a Morrell, a German Princess, or any of our most famous imposters.” In the next century Daniel Defoe made the heroine of his Roxana (1724) reflect, “I might as well have been the German Princess”…

03/01/2012

1688, and all that

I realise it’s probably only because I’m sensitised to it these days, but sometimes it seems as if those blasted Stuarts are everywhere.

Case in point: off-blog, I’ve been reading some of the works of R. Austin Freeman, creator of Dr John Thorndyke (the first medical detective), and I’m currently in the middle of The Great Portrait Mystery, a collection of short stories from 1918.

The title story involves strange doings at the National Gallery, with a certain painting stolen using a clever ruse, but then returned apparently unharmed. Close examination reveals that it isn’t quite the same: the portrait has been detached from the lower bar of its stretcher, and the bar itself removed and replaced. The story’s hero, on whose watch all this happened, feels compelled to get to the bottom of the mystery.

And the painting?

    The original was a portrait of James the Second by Sir Godfrey Kneller… “The picture has quite an interesting history,” said Fittleworth. “It was painted by Kneller in 1688, and the story goes that the king was actually sitting to the painter when a messenger arrived with the news that the Prince of Orange had landed in Torbay. The portrait was intended as a gift to Samuel Pepys to whom the king was greatly attached, and in spite of the agitation that the bad tidings naturally produced, he commanded Kneller to proceed and get the portrait finished so that his old friend and loyal servant should not be disappointed.”
    “And did Pepys get the picture?” Katharine asked.
    “Yes; and what’s more, it remains in the possession of the family to this day…”

It subsequently turns out that the story’s heroine, Miss Katharine Hyde, is a remote connection of Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, and his daughter, Anne—James’ first wife—and that the key to the mystery is hidden in her inherited family house.

Kneller certainly painted James at least once (there seems some debate about whether the second portrait is actually Kneller’s own work), but this particular portrait is a figment of Austin Freeman’s imagination.

14/12/2011

Be still, my heart

Last year I obtained a copy of James R. Foster’s 1949 work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England (a library discard – shame on you, Ohio University!); and, while I did go through it, it would be too much to say that I read it: the book is a dizzying compendium of forgotten novelists and obscure novels, and what time I gave to it was spent transferring information from the printed page to The Wishlist.

This time around, however, I sat down to take it all in properly, and was immediately overcome by a case of the warm fuzzies. While there are few things so difficult as working through a non-fiction book whose viewpoint is at severe odds with your own, when the reverse is true – when you stumble over an unexpected kindred spirit – it’s like being given a hug.

So you can imagine how I felt when in his preface, James R. Foster stated his position thus:

    In general the attitude toward the bulk of pre-romantic novels has been rather depreciatory. Admittedly, they cannot compete with the wit and verve of the realistic novel, yet in their day they entertained and even charmed their readers. Besides, they helped shape the novelistic genre in its formative years. They preached the religion of the tender heart, stirred the emotions and the imaginations, and planted in many a breast the desire for higher ideals, tolerance, and benevolence.
    The scholar, who must admit the importance of minor works, cannot afford to ignore these pre-romantic novels, even though few of their authors were geniuses. Nor can he, like those Victorian critics who strongly disapproved of certain trends of the “Godless” eighteenth century, refuse to free himself from his own fashion of thinking and feeling and so measure by arbitrary standards. Without a sympathetic understanding of what the eighteenth-century novelists were trying to say, the critic cannot judge whether what they said was said well or not.

Amen, brother.

The only slightly worrying thing I’ve encountered in this book so far is a rather antagonistic reference to the early 20th century critic George Saintsbury, who, as you might remember, caught my attention a while back by simultaneously saying nice things about Aphra Behn and extremely rude things about Richard Head; and whose 1913 work, The English Novel, is next cab off my reading rank. Foster essentially accuses Saintsbury of elitism, which may mean (in spite of his apparent credentials) that he’s not a critic after my own heart after all. Not that I’m not an elitist, I just tend to be one in the opposite direction.

Anyway – as I always seem to end up saying at the end of these short pieces – we’ll see.

24/09/2011

For whom the book tolls…

Life being inconvenient, as it so often is, I’ve been trying not to dwell upon the fact that I’ve slipped behind in my review writing again. But no matter where I turn – or at least, no matter to which book I turn – I find an uncomfortable reminder of my unmet obligations. 

Outside the goalposts, I’ve been reading John Buchan’s Leithen Stories, a series of five novels connected by the presence of the character of Sir Edward Leithen. In the second volume, John Macnab, published in 1925, an aspiring politician is asked to make his first public appearance, and after freezing and forgetting every word of his conned speech, he blunders into an emotional and unrehearsed declaration of his feelings about things in general and England in particular:

It was a strange, inconsequent speech, but it had a curious appeal in it–the appeal of youth and candour and courage.  It was philosophy rather than politics, and ragged but arresting philosophy. He began by confessing that the war had left the world in a muddle, a muddle which affected his own mind.  The only cure was to be honest with oneself, and to refuse to accept specious nonsense and conventional jargon.  He told the story from Andersen of the Emperor’s New Suit.  “Our opponents call us Tories,” he said; “they can call us anything they jolly well please.  I am proud to be called a Tory.  I understand that the name was first given by Titus Oates to those who disbelieved in his Popish Plot. What we want to-day is Toryism–the courage to give the lie to impudent rogues.”

That was a bolt from the blue.

However, this passage was merely a teaser compared to the full-on assault on my guilt complex offered by Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris, the second volume in his “Herries Chronicles”, which is less like a hint that I should be catching up my blog reviews than it is a bizarre kind of family reunion.

Published in 1931 and set from 1774 – 1820, this novel is amazingly literary, if we use that word in its broadest sense. It teems with readers, and there are any number of references to hot-off-the-press works of non-fiction such as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Paine’s Age Of Reason, Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France and Rousseau’s Contrat Social. One character writes for the Gentleman’s Magazine; another has his life changed by the The Life Of John Wesley; while the appearance of a professional actress gives us a whirlwind tour of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But ultimately, novels and poetry predominate. A fit of righteous rage is described in the words of Ann Radcliffe: To speak in the terms of The Italian, he was ‘cold fury nobly seething’. Mrs Radcliffe wins a second mention when the heroine wakes from a strange dream with her mind in a bookish jumble: With confused notions of Mrs Radcliffe, a novel that the night before she had been reading, The Last Step; or The History Of Mrs Brudenal, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Isabella; or The Rewards Of Good Nature

We are introduced to the young John Herries, who at the age of fourteen…could read tales and poetry to himself by the hour. He would sit curled up in a corner somewhere and pray he would not be noticed. He had always detested Mangnall’s Questions, and Butler’s Guide To Useful Knowledge—for such things he had no use whatever, but Goldsmith’s History Of England he devoured in all its four volumes because of the thrilling detail in it. Then there was Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts In Prose And Verse, then Marmion, The Lay, the Waverleys, The Parents’ Assistant, The Fairchild Family and, secretly, obtained from some of the Forresters who lived in Bassenthwaite, many volumes of the Minerva Press, The Mysterious Hand, The Demon Of Society and the rest…

That’s my boy.

We also meet John’s mother, Jennifer, who keeps her children’s grotesquely unqualified tutor around because, among other reasons, he’s willing to entertain her by reading Minerva Press novels to her.

All sorts of literary figures flit across the pages of this novel. Robert Southey and Walter Scott appear in person, as do Sarah and Hartley Coleridge, although not their husband and father; while there are mentions of Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron. Francis Herries, while trying to support himself as a writer, becomes acquainted with Charles Lamb and Samuel Rogers; and it is the latter who introduces Francis to a young man destined to make his mark in the world:

    “This is Mr Macaulay, who is at Cambridge and will soon be having the world at his feet. Come, come, Macaulay. You know you will. You are as confident of it as I am.”
    The thick-set untidy youth raised a pair of very remarkable piercing eyes and began to talk with great eloquence and volubility. It was clear that he did not suffer from shyness… The loquacious youth had already forgotten him and was talking eagerly to Sumner about a book he held in his hand…

We are not made privy to the volume that has won the enthusiasm of the future Lord Macaulay, but I just know it was one of Mary Meeke’s novels…

But the crowning moment comes when Judith Paris calls upon some friends of hers, a tacitly lesbian middle-aged couple. She finds one of them sewing while the other reads a novel out loud:

    She knocked on the door, was admitted by their little maid Betty, and found them by the fire in the parlour, Miss West reading to Miss Pennyfeather from one of the novels of Mrs Cuthbertson.
    They were enchanted to see Judith.
    Miss West threw Mrs Cuthbertson on to the floor, crying in a deep bass voice: “This is Stuff!”

Oh, hey!!

So where did Hugh Walpole learn about the novels of Kitty Cuthbertson, which were long out of print by 1931? Possibly he found some old volumes in his family’s library—although all things considered, my best guess would be that he’d been reading The Life And Letters Of Macaulay, and thus learned about Cuthbertson – and Meeke – exactly the same way that we did.

Or, I suppose, he could have been reading Jane Austen’s letters

So there you have it: a sign from the ether that the universe is Not Best Pleased with my slackness, that I should be knuckling down to my exceedingly overdue review of Mary Meeke’s 1797 novel, Palmira And Ermance – and that it intends to keep pestering me until I do.

And furthermore that, having done so, I will be able to move on to the next novel in line for Authors In Depth—Kitty Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector.

Footnote:  The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterreanean Horrours!: A Romance by Augustus Jacob Crandolph and The Fairchild Family by Martha Sherwood were already on The List; but of The Demon Of Society, The Last Step and Isabella I can, alas, find no sign.

18/05/2011

Senseless sensibility

Ah, the rewards of virtue!

I was doing some housework over the weekend – no, really – and as part of that I started culling my old, endless piles of photocopies, clippings, notes: all the detritus of the pre-electronic communication age; and in the middle of this process, I unearthed something I had been hunting for for literally years; something I knew I’d photocopied, but could never find again.

The bad news is, there’s no indication at all what I photocopied it from; no header, no footer; no scribble. Uncharacteristically slack of me, I must say. The good news, however, is that The Thing I Was Looking For is just as wonderful as I remembered.

Even back then I was reading books on books, although not at that time inflicting them on others. The book in question – whatever it is – wraps up one chapter with a lengthy quote from a novel called Munster Abbey, by Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, published in 1797. The author could not bring himself / herself to cut this masterpiece, and neither can I:

    At length arriving at the garden-gate, which, with equal precipitation, they entered, Mrs Belford, who was seated on a bench by her husband, at the foot of a sheet of water which parted them from the house, suddenly beheld her mother.
   Elated with joy at the unexpected visit, which hurried innumerable hopes and reflections over her tender mind in an instant, and forgetting all thought but that of flying swiftly to the embraces of a beloved parent, she rushed directly forward, pursuing as she fancied at the time, from the straightness of her course, the readiest road; and with her eyes fixed on Mrs Melville, whose appearance had thrown aside the usual caution of her footsteps, she plunged into the centre of the pond. Oh, Heavens!—what a moment!—Belford attempted to fly to her assistance; but he had not proceeded many steps before horror overwhelmed him, and he fell senseless to the ground: Mrs Melville and Julia, swooned in the same state of insensibility.
    The servant, unacquainted with the art of swimming, and apprehensive of his own fate, should he venture into water of such considerable depth, hurried with all imaginable swiftness to the house for assistance. What an awful moment was this!—what was to be hoped!—all aid for a time suspended, and yet not an instant to be lost!—The mind prone to vice would have despaired: but the soul endowed with morality and confidence in the mercy of Him whom we are justified in believing is all merciful, can never cherish hopeless reflections. All help was still suspended—the struggling fair, unable any longer to contend for life, yielded to her fate with that composure, which the virtuous only can experience in the moments of departing life.—She cast her eyes towards Heaven, where her mind and soul surely were directed. In this moment of serious meditation, she was perfectly sensible of her danger, but the blessings of a pure conscience constituted her a stranger to every fear; and, when she had reason to believe her dissolution was near at hand, it was with pleasure she reflected that soon she would be relieved of her dying agonies.
    At length, when on the verge of closing her eyes from the dim light of this world, to open them in a pure and perfect atmosphere, the kind and liberal hand of Providence waved its influence o’er the dismal scene, and cast away the gloom.
    How was it contrived?—Next to a miracle were the means by which the amiable Mrs Belford was restored to her distracted and disconsolate friends.
    Faithful Munster, an old favourite Newfoundland dog of Belford’s, named after the place, was the welcome instrument of deliverance.
    Approaching the pond in the critical moment, and viewing his mistress helpless in the humid space, he sagaciously plunged into the pool, and, seizing the end of her sash which floated, drew her cautiously to the side of the bank, where he contrived to raise her head above the surface of the water, by quitting the sash, and with anxious care holding her hat in his teeth, until more assistance could be procured.

It appears that this passage comes at the end of a consideration of the sublime and the ridiculous in the novels of the late 18th century. We get the feeling that the latter had come to predominate, and that our author had had enough. “Thirty-three pages of ladies and gentlemen, twelve hundred and fifty or more of them,” s/he comments in mingled exasperation and disbelief, “suscribed to this nonsense in 1797 because they thought it was written by a gentleman. They could tell he was a gentleman because he called a pond ‘a humid space’, and because when one of his characters wanted to say of another, ‘if he had died I should have known it’, the nearest he can come to it is:

“…had the well constructed organs of life ceased to play within his callous bosom, and had his heart, which never fluttered with compassion, yielded its long exerted pulse of the chill embraces of death, I should, doubtless, through some channel, have been apprised of the event.”

As for me, naturally my first thought was to make it twelve hundred and fifty-one…but as it turned out, I had already, and quite independently, added Munster Abbey to The List. (I think I may have been adding novels with “Abbey” in the title.) So instead of that, I sat down and came up with a new reviewing category: Novels I Have To Read RIGHT!! NOW!!!!

30/12/2010

Upholding the proud traditions of Oxford

From Oxford, by Christopher Hobhouse, published in 1946:

    Though their numbers are so small, a casual visitor to Oxford might well gain the impression that the women form an actual majority. They are perpetually awheel. They bicycle in droves from lecture to lecture, capped and gowned, handle-bars laden with note-books, and note-books crammed with notes. Relatively few men go to lectures, the usefulness of which was superseded some while ago by the invention of the printing press. The women, docile and literal, continue to flock to lectures with mediaeval zeal, and record in an hour of longhand scribbling what could have been assimilated in ten minutes in an armchair…
     The assiduity of women undergraduates is stupefying. After the long morning’s round of lectures they swarm to the Bodleian. Radcliffe Square is dark with their bicycles. After dark, in their own college libraries or in their own comfortless little college rooms, they huddle for hours on end, stooping and peering over standard text books…
     The women have a truly Teutonic respect for their own dons, who in their turn take full advantage of it. Spinsters almost to a woman, the female dons present a terrifying caricature of the mediaeval tutor… Very few of the women take the least pains to be attractive or even mature…
     Their domestic background is equally repellent. Instead of a quiet pair of rooms, guarded by an impenetrable ‘oak’, upon a secluded staircase, each girl has a minute green-and-yellow bedsitter opening off an echoing shiny corridor. Instead of deep sofas and coal fires, they have convertible divans and gas stoves. Instead of claret and port, they drink cocoa and Kia-Ora. Instead of the lordly breakfasts and lunches which a man can command in his own rooms, they are fed on warm cutlets and gravy off cold plates at a long table decked with daffodils…
     In this setting the mind of an Oxford woman grows narrower day by day…

The above passages – and more of a similar ilk – are quoted in Mortimer Proctor’s The English University Novel, published in 1957 – that is, 78 years after women were first permitted to attend lectures and sit certain examinations at Oxford, and 37 years after being admitted to full membership of the university.

“Discussing modern Oxford, Christopher Hobhouse has written of its women students with the instinctive, unyielding revulsion of the man who sees his ancient university overrun by a race of bedraggled intruders,” comments Proctor with obvious sympathy. He then quotes Max Beerbohm’s assertion that, “Beauty and the lust for learning have yet to be allied”, before going on to remark on his own behalf:

Women, although they have been admitted to, have clearly never been fully assimilated by, the still predominantly male societies of Oxford and Cambridge. They have enjoyed at best a doubtful welcome there. The ‘undergraduette’, though she has her own colleges, is nevertheless suspect as a collegienne and is rather cruelly assumed to belong to a group that is plainly unattractive and fearsome in its devotion to learning…

Evidently, the ‘undergraduettes’ of 1946 weren’t the only ones to have their minds narrowed by Oxford.

What I find most puzzling about all this is that it comes on the back of seven chapters of Proctor’s book that are devoted (in a literary context) to, one one hand, a celebration of the Oxford experience as a character-building, life-changing rite of passage for young men; and, on the other, to praise and admiration of those men who suffered personal deprivation and hardships of all kinds to gain an Oxford education. We are left to ponder the mystery of why the same ambitions and sacrifices that evoke respect and approval in men should, in women, attract ridicule and abuse; and why experiences that open a man’s mind should close a woman’s.

Mind you… In the end, it’s not the big stuff that flummoxes me so much as the implications of that passage about “lordly breakfasts and lunches” and drinking “claret and port”. I get the distinct impression that for Mr Hobhouse, the Oxford experience had precious little to do with his education.

It was once said that youth was wasted on the young. On the basis of this tosh, I’m tempted to add that, Oxford is wasted on the Oxonian.