Archive for ‘Reading Roulette’

16/03/2017

Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge

    Herbert called late in the afternoon. When he entered the room, by invitation, Madeline was supported by some pillows, in a half-reclining position, looking through the window at the setting sun, and the soft rays lingered upon her faded cheek, and cast a delicately beautiful, but melancholy, glow over her face.
    “Are you better?” tenderly asked Herbert.
    “I do not know, Mr. Leslie,” answered Madeline.
    “I was just thinking,” she continued, “that I should not mind to die if I could sink to rest as quietly as yonder sun glides away in its beautiful vermillion shroud. I love to look upon the serene face of nature, and imagine that I can see God smiling with goodness, mercy and love; and that I can see bright angels standing upon the craggy points of the snow-white little clouds that float dreamily in the blue sea: that I can see harps in their hands, and diadems upon their brows. Yes, I love nature. There is no dissimulation in the works of our Father. There is no deceit ‘graven upon Jehovah’s heart.'”
    Herbert’s head dropped upon his bosom. These words found their way to his heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 
I’ll say this for James Summerfield Slaughter: he wastes no time whatsoever letting us know exactly what’s in store for us during a reading of his 1859 novel, Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge. Allow me to quote in full his preface:

    We will not detain you, reader, with a long Preface. The author indulges the hope, that our first meeting in the relations of reader and writer may not be disagreeable. He will not disguise that it is with feelings of parental solicitude for a kindly greeting from generous hearts, that his little ideal “MADELINE” is sent abroad to distant home circles.
    The present work is no candidate for fame. If the views and sentiments it presents, shall gladden the hearts of a single wayward fellow-being, or whispers consolation to a mourner of earth, or give encouragement to one struggling for the cause of virtue, then the author will have sufficient recompense in knowing that he has contributed something to the noble and good influences that redeem the world from the thraldom of sin, and invest life with beauty, unequaled by those glittering stars in the purple throne of night, and a fragrance more grateful than the bright flowers of earth.

Slaughter is dead on the mark when he calls his novel “no candidate for fame”. Though at this time Americans had a great appetite for sensation novels, they had also had sufficient exposure to enough well-written ones to be able to discriminate; and despite the preening that lurks behind the mock humility of this preface, and the lofty claims made for the novel in its advertisements, I am unable to believe that the first readers of Madeline greeted it with anything other than guffaws, despite its impeccable Southern credentials.

I give the eponymous Madeline star-billing in the quote up above, but the sad truth is that for most of the narrative she is an almost entirely passive figure, sitting alone in her antebellum mansion and twiddling her thumbs while the plot – or “plot” – plays out elsewhere in the country. It is only towards the end, when the machinations of the wicked Herbert reach their climax, that she is given much to do in the story that bears her name.

The book opens with Madeline Lindsey being deserted by her brother, Albinus, who (without a hint of authorial criticism) has decided that exploring in the north-west is a lot more interesting than staying at home to care for his orphaned young sister and run their plantation, even if he gets killed in the process, which he seems fully to expect; and not content with this, he takes with him both his friend Douglas Hardy, who is secretly in love with Madeline but considers himself ineligible, and the plantation’s mainstay, a devoted old black servant called – I kid you not – “Uncle Tom”.

I’m sure you can imagine the tenor of Uncle Tom’s discourse and his general conduct, but just to make sure, here’s a sample:

    It was in one of these musings in his office, late one evening, as he was sitting by his desk arranging his affairs to leave for the North-West, that Uncle Tom entered with a message.
    “Is that you, Uncle Tom?” spoke Douglas kindly, “and what can I do for you? I suppose I must not forget to leave you some keep-sake to repay you, in part, for your kindness to me, and to take a pledge from you, that you will never forget to favour your young mistress.”
    Here Uncle Tom began to draw out his large cotton ‘kerchief, for the tears were already gushing in his eyes.
    “God bless you, massa Douglas! poor old Tom goin’ too. Just to think! he stay home and let massa Binus go way off, and be killed by the Injuns, and no body to nuss him and take care of him! Old Tom ‘tends to go with the darling. He’s de berry pictur ob old Massa.”

So, basically, the hell with Madeline: the three go off without arranging any sort of company or assistance for her. She manages to locate and hire a middle-aged couple, the Carsons, he to act as overseer, she as companion-housekeeper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its heroine’s isolated situation, we have progressed no further than page 8 before we get the first of the novel’s interpolated narratives, as Madeline asks Aunt Phebe, as she is known, for her life story. We learn that she was a native of Havana, and that while she was rescued from a fire at a theatre, her father was killed, leaving her an orphan—and an heiress. Her rescuer was a Mr Carson, with whom she promptly fell in love. An amusing recapitulation of Madeline’s own situation then occurs, with Phebe left alone at her father’s plantation and hiring a couple to work for her and keep her company. Also like Madeline (as it will later turn out), Phebe became subject to romantic persecution, with a fiery young Spaniard, Don Pedro Montie, whom she had already rejected, renewing his attentions. She rejects him again, with immediate consequences: she finds in her carriage a bullet dyed red, and attached to it a note reading, Beware the Spaniard’s revenge! She then learns that Mr Carson has been arrested:

I…told him that I desired him to find out the facts—the charge, and especially by whom preferred—and to report to me, enjoining him to keep the whole affair profoundly secret. He departed on his mission, and returned in a few hours. The charge, he stated to be conspiracy against the Government, preferred by Pedro Montie!

Duh, we might think. Turns out ol’ Pedro’s messing with the wrong woman, though: learning that Carson has been condemned to the chain-gang, Phebe sends her servant out again to find where he is held at night. Meanwhile, she makes her own preparations:

I drew the Red Bullet from my pocket, and retired to my father’s old desk and got a pistol that I knew to be there. When a girl, my father learned me to shoot with great accuracy. The pistol was loaded. I drew from the draw an ace of hearts—stepped back twenty paces—fired, and drove out the heart! The shot restored my confidence that I had not lost the skill with which I used to shoot. I returned to my room—charged the pistol—put in the Red Bullet

Phebe and her servant devise a scheme to break Carson out, but are surprised in the middle of the enterprise:

    “Ha, ha! Beware of a Spaniard’s revenge!”
    I recognised Pedro Montie by the first gleam of the lantern. In a moment, I replied—
    “Yes! and BEWARE OF THE RED BULLET!”
    My pistol was discharged. I saw the figure reel in the dim, gloomy light and heard a groan. Mr Carson was by my side. We leaped into the carriage and dashed away…

Now both fugitives, Phebe and Carson are forced to take refuge in a haunted castle…leading to an interpolated nattative within an interpolated narrative, and the story of a lovely young noblewoman being forced into a hateful marriage, and the brave but foolhardy page whom she really loved. On her marriage-day the bride chose rather to kill herself; lamentations over her body were startlingly interrupted:

    The sharp report of a pistol, followed by a stream of blood, sent a thrill of terror through the crowd of spectators. The father fell down upon the floor and cried wildly:
    “Retribution! Retribution!
    Don Leon staggered back, fell and expired.
    “Ha, ha! They thought to rob me of my lady love. I see her now!” His eyes was fixed wildly upon the ceiling. “I am coming, Adelaide!” and, as he spoke, he stabbed himself…

By the way, if you don’t come away from a reading of this blog post the same way I came away from a reading of this novel, namely, crying, “Ha, ha!” upon the flimsiest of pretexts, I shall be very disappointed in you.

Of course (as Madeline actually points out), this has nothing to do with anything, so instead Phebe recounts her own terrifying night in the haunted castle, where she encountered a madwoman believing herself to be the Prophetess of Fire and a chained up “man-monster”. As you do. The madwoman turned out be be an old friend of Phebe’s who was seduced and abandoned, and then lost her mind. (But don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation of the man-monster.)

Phebe and Carson – “Ben” to us now – find an American minister to marry them, and then flee Cuba, leaving all their worldly goods behind and taking with them Phebe’s own faithful servant, “Old Juan”. (Sigh.) Then three of them hop into a boat and set out to sail from Cuba to Florida—but of course get shipwrecked on a desert island on the way. They are rescued, make it eventually to New Orleans, and find work. Old Juan dies without lacerating our sensibilities any more; and then there is only one more incident to recount before Phebe wraps up her life-story:

“The other event was the loss of our child. We were blessed with a child, who gave us more pleasure than all the world besides.
Percy—that was his name—attained the age of twelve, was merry as a song-bird, and as sportive as the lambkin. One morning he went to the beach, drawn I suppose, by idle curiosity or pleasure; but never returned. We have no doubt that he was drowned…”

That, or he ran away upon discovering that his mother was in the habit of describing him to random strangers as “sportive as the lambkin”.

So, we’re about 30% of our way through Madeline now without its heroine doing much more than listening to stories, and since that’s not about to change any time soon, we (like her own brother) now abandon Madeline for the middle of nowhere, and are introduced to a young woman in every way more interesting than she is—even if she does have what I’m inclined to call “an obvious character flaw”:

White Fawn was the daughter of an Indian chief. She was just blooming into woman-hood—an intelligent, beautiful girl. You would hardly believe that she was an Indian. True, her cheeks were slightly bronzed—and very slightly—but her forehead and chin was perfectly fair; her face possessed a peculiar attraction; the contour was bold and well-marked; her eyes first drew your attention; her nose, you would admit, was beautiful; but when you beheld her hair float back from a broad, snowy forehead, you at once felt the magic of the beauty of an Indian girl…

…who within a single page of her introduction is spurning her would-be native husband for the attractions of a wandering white man and having oblique conversations with Chief Radiola about her paternity. Sigh.

Discovering that the spurned Hawk is plotting bloody revenge, White Fawn slips away through the snowy woods to where Albinus Lindsey, Douglas Hardy, Uncle Tom and a third white man to whom we are not immediately introduced are camped. The latter is the object of White Fawn’s passion. Upon receiving White Fawn’s warning, the men break camp and try to slip away, but are ambushed by Hawk and his followers, and White Fawn and her lover carried away. The others follow and manage an ambush of their own. They carry White Fawn back to her father, who immediately goes on the war-path against Hawk. The others agree to fight with him, but only after White Fawn’s still-nameless lover has, with her father’s consent, placed her with a family living at safe distance—and who, Could not readily believe, that she was an Indiansigh.

The conflict begins, and at the last moment Radiola’s men are reinforced:

He did not make his appearance until the silent moment that precedes the dreadful battle-shock. His equipage was very handsome, even dazzling. He wore a dark velvet frock-coat, beautifully and ingeniously inwrought with beads—bright military buttons and a red scarf—yellow buff pants and light, well formed boots that came to the knee; a beautiful belt encircled the waist, and a light, straightsword hung glittering by his side. The form was slender and extremely graceful. A mask concealed the face. He rode a wild, spirited black horse that stamped the earth and danced, while the rein fell carelessly upon the flowing mane…

In the middle of the ongoing war, the unnamed man is decoyed away and imprisoned. At this point the narrative lurches once again, and we are finally informed of his identity—and, oh surprise!—

    He is Percy Carson—the lost child. Wandering down to the beach on a beautiful spring morning, to view the many objects of attraction to be seen along the “sounding shore,” he met with a man who seemed to be selecting shells.
    “What is your name ?” asked the stranger.
    “Percy Carson, sir,” replied the lad, raising his bright eyes to the questioner’s face.
    The man started back as if an apparition was before him, and then recovering his self-possesion from the shock, assumed an air of perfect indifference. Like Lucifer, in the shape of a toad, to whisper in the ear of Eve while she reposed beneath the fragrant bower in the Garden—while the silver stars glittered above Paradise and trembled upon the four rivers, and the angel watchers winged through the mystic light—this man had assumed a shape, a countenance, not his own, and to beguile, like a lurking demon, an innocent child…

It is soon revealed that the Red Bullet didn’t finish its work:

This man is Don Montie. The infernal spirit of revenge has possessed him, as the unclean spirit possessed the man “who had his dwelling among the tombs” in the days of Christ. It has been his accursed incentive ever since his overtures to Phebe Laniz. He has now followed her to America to get another opportunity of glutting his terrible passion—to rob a mother’s heart of its dearest object. All of life’s aims and purposes, were swallowed up in the one thought—Revenge!

Despite what we might fear from all this, Don Pedro’s plan is merely to, Bind the noble-spirited boy with dark chains of dissipation, and then send him back to his doating mother—a captive of the Evil One: a process slow enough to allow for his rescue by another stranger, this one well-intentioned, who turns out to be Percy’s uncle-by-marriage.

We then hear the history of Mr Shelley and Aurelia Laniz, the latter of whom bore the brunt of Don Pedro’s anger after Ben and Phebe escaped. Using his influence, Don Pedro arrived at the Laniz estate to confiscate the family’s property, only to be thoroughly cowed by a lecture from the spirited Aurelia:

“It is false that my brother fled for the commission of a crime. It is meanly false that I have had any complicity in a conspiracy against the government of this Island. We were both, however, born too free, upon the soil of America, not to despise, upon the one hand, the grinding tyranny of the government, and, upon the other hand, the cowardly submission and servility of a large portion of the population; and had I power commensurate with my desire, I would drag down the regal fabric upon the heads of both tyrant and willing submission. There breathes not an American, animated by the genius of the free institutions of his native land, who does not abhor the vile vassalage imposed by the bloody minded mother government, and old Moro Castle with her bristling cannons, may one day yield as readily to American arms as the famed Castle of San Juan de Ulla did.”

Mr Shelley, a spectator of this scene, is swept off his feet by this patriotic eloquence—though he expresses his passion in practical terms, determining by law what part of the estate has been secured to Aurelia, and holding that when the rest is confiscated. The two are married, and for a time blissfully happy, until one day Aurelia dies suddenly—poisoned. The grieving Mr Shelley learns that he has had a narrow escape:

Mr Shelley would have met the same fate, but for the fact that he was perusing the daily journals, as was his custom, while his cup of tea was cooling. For years he had read the daily papers while sitting at the table by a smoking breakfast. To this habit he owed his life, in this instance.

Mr Shelley and Percy throw in their lots together and set off to make a new life for themselves.

(“What!?” I said out loud at this point. “Didn’t they even try to find his parents!?”—a question not answered for some considerable time, and as an obvious afterthought: “Oh, yeah! We, uh, we looked for them but they weren’t there. Sure, that’s what happened…”)

Anyway, somewhat surprisingly, Percy becomes an actor—and, At the age of twenty, he became what is called in theatrical parlance, “a star.”

But not everyone is a fan, and one night Percy has his performance interrupted by hissing, issuing from none other than Don Pedro—who seems to have moderated somewhat his ideas on “revenge”.

Percy, like his Aunt Aurelia, is undaunted:

“I can brook insults from so great a villain as Don Montie. It is a serpentine hiss, and I am willing that he shall roll in the slime and eat the dust of his own degradation.”

Percy goes on to denounce Don Pedro’s villainy and cowardice, until, with all eyes in the theatre upon him, Don Pedro cannot do other than respond with a challenge. To his dismay, Percy leaps at this:

    “I trust this large and respectable audience will remain perfectly quiet. I need not affirm that I have not been the cause of this uninteresting quarrel, but I wish you to witness its end. I accept your challenge,” he said, as he fixed his eyes fiercely upon Don Montie, “which was thrown out with the vain expectation that the time would be set in the future; but I prefer this moment—upon this stage, the place—repeaters, the weapons—across a pocket-handkerchief, the distance—we will need no seconds.”
    “Rash youth!” exclaimed one.
    “He’s a brave one!” answered the second.
    “He’ll do to let alone,” observed the third.
    In a moment suggestions ceased, and every one awaited, with breathless interest, to see the result.
    Don Montie sank down upon his seat, turning pale, and great drops of perspiration gathering upon his forehead. He essayed not to utter a word.
    “Coward! Coward!” ran through the audience.
    Percy bowed gracefully to the crowd, and retired under a shower of boquets…

The narrative then wrenches again, and we catch up with Don Pedro some months later. Another interpolated narrative, this one the life-story of Don Pedro and how he came to be eaten up by—Revenge!—a story peppered with vague references to various crimes committed in his past, some of which sound familiar to us. However, the centrepiece of the tale is Don Pedro’s repeated, La Belle Dame Sans Merci encounters with a strange woman (who we sort-of recognise as the Prophetess of Fire), who again and again ambushed him while he was riding, leaping up behind his saddle and forcing him to ride wildly by holding a knife to his throat.

And in the very midst of Don Pedro’s reflections, the woman appears to him again—this time forcing him into the burial vault of an old and noble Spanish family:

    The view was at once awful—they were in a charnal-house—a Golgotha. Human bones lay profusely about, while in the centre there was a heap of bones some two or three feet high.
    “Now, sir,” spoke the woman, as they came to the vault, “I have brought you hither to show you the place where your bones will soon be piled. No grave yard shall be your resting place, but here your body shall remain until the day of final accounts. Do you know
me?”
    Don Montie shook his head solemnly in reply to the interrogation.
    “Ah! you feign forgetfulness of one whom you injured—victimised—robbed of her chastity,” continued the woman, and there was a fearful emphasis in her expression… “You have lived only to persecute—to blast the happiness of others—to lurk about and accomplish mischief—to war upon women and children! You are a murderer—a forger—and—and—”
    The woman paused for a moment, and laughed frantically, and then continued—
    “A seducer! You turned me loose upon the world, covered with shame and scorn and misery; blasted—robbed of hope—debarred from virtuous society—with no claim for sympathy, while you mingled in the festive throng, and was admitted in society—and all the while you laughed at the credulity of woman. You shall now realise that a woman, weak though she may be, is yet strong enough and capable of avenging herself…”

And so Don Pedro meets an appropriately gruesome end.

The narrative (some 50% passed) then jumps back to—gasp!—the story of Madeline Lindsey. Remember her? Her author finally did:

This scene is going on at Woodland. Madeline and Douglas Hardy have been engaged over twelve months. He has been in the North-west, with his friends, nearly two years.

Thanks for sharing; this is the first we’ve heard about it.

But all is not well between Madeline and the man who prefers wandering around pointlessly in the snow to spending time with her. His letters complain (ironically enough) of her coldness, and demand that they break their engagement. Madeline is angry and indignant, as well as miserable and confused: she endures a state of suffering relieved only by the friendship of a young man called Herbert Leslie, who likes to read poetry with her.

That old ploy.

It is soon revealed to us that between desire for Madeline and desire for her property and fortune, Herbert has launched upon an elaborate scheme to break up her relationship (such as it is) with Douglas, intercepting their letters and getting a useful forger-friend to substitute some of his own composition. The forger, Tom Martin, is (fittingly enough) getting cold feet, but Herbert scoffs at his scruples:

“I will undeceive her when I have succeeded, and the joke has gone far enough for all practical purposes. By that time I will have established my claims as a good husband, and we will laugh it all over as a clever bit of pleasantry. It will no doubt divert her, that you could so successfully counterfeit Douglas Hardy’s handwriting.”

Madeline is deceived by Herbert’s insinuating demeanour; Aunt Phebe is glad of anything that can cheer her up these days; but Ben Carson has suspicions that receive support from an anonymous letter denouncing Herbert as “a monster” and warning of a plot against Madeline. Until now Ben has not been informed of the situation with Douglas, but when an anguished Madeline reveals it he puts two and two together and decides that Herbert has somehow had a hand in things. Madeline rejects this idea, but the suggestion that she has a false friend as well as a false lover is too much for her, and her health begins to fail. It is not long before Herbert has reason to fear he has seriously overreached himself…

In a moment of overwhelming guilt, Herbert confesses. The revelation is a blow that Madeline cannot withstand in her already enfeebled condition. Soon the household is gathered about what they expect to be her death-bed…

…and the narrative jumps back to the North-West, where in the middle of bemoaning Madeline’s conduct towards him, Douglas receives a letter alerting him to the truth, and sets out at once for Woodland…

…and the narrative abandons both of them to follow the adventures of Albinus Lindsey, who we shall give the benefit of the doubt for the moment and assume doesn’t know about his sister’s situation, since the text never bothers to verify that point. He encounters an old friend of the family and accepts an invitation to his home, Clifton Hill.

Mr Wolsey, a year earlier, married a widow with four children; he has since learned not only to resent his step-children, but to be actively cruel to them: among other things, using their money, of which he is trustee, for his own children’s advantage:

Mr Wolsey had cherished a secret prejudice against the Leighton orphans, and all because they elicited more attention from the public than his own children. How revolting, that a man should have prejudice against an innocent, fatherless child! How terrible must be the curse that awaits such a being. Alone in the world, untaught in the great business of life, with no great throbbing heart of sympathy to lean upon when fever racks the brain and gives hot eye-balls! Vile man! to feel no kindly impulse for the orphan in your charge!

(Unexpectedly, and one of the few genuinely interesting things in this silly novel, the narrative will later contend that Mrs Wolsey’s first duty was to her children, and that she should have left her husband when she saw his attitude towards them.)

Almost immediately, Wolsey begins making plans for Albinus and his daughter, Louise. Albinus, however, has rediscovered a childhood friend in the youngest of the Leightons (although given what must be the age gap between them, the subsequent description of how they used to “romp together in the woods” has an uncomfortable edge; however—):

Nannie was a simple child of nature. Her heart knew no guile. She never knew the artfulness of society—the cunning and address of the world, but her heart and hands were as pure as the riven snow of the mountains. Her face was full and fair, and tinged with the healthful life-current that bounded through vein and artery; her wavy, tressy hair was as dark as a raven’s; her lips soft and delicate, and her form was perfect and graceful. She deserved to be called “Pretty Nannie.” She was known far away for her beauty, gentleness and intelligence. Her life was as quiet and even as the little brook that flows along its smooth channel, and murmurs its pleasing, rippling song, and kisses the flowers that bow their delicate faces to the stream for a grateful drop. But in the hidden depths of her heart were glorious sentiments—worthy, noble, pure, holy sentiments!

Sorry—I’m with Mr Wolsey on this one.

Albinus and Nannie go walking together and, when Albinus expresses admiration of a “grand peak” in the district, Nannie is moved to offer an interpolated narrative—that of “The Man Of The Rock”, a wanderer who, in his youth, fell in love with the same girl as his brother, and killed him in a jealous rage. After many years of bitter repentance, the man fell in love with a pretty Italian flower-seller (as you do), and finally overcame both her mother’s doubts and his own feeling that he deserved no happiness in life, and married her. The two had a daughter, but Gabriella died. After placing his child—somewhere—the man returned to the mountains where he and his wife had been happy, and jumped off a cliff…

The narrative then lurches back to Woodland—where Douglas Hardy arrives in time only to hold Madeline’s dead body in his arms…and promptly loses his mind. He is locked up for his own safety while her burial is conducted, but no sooner has he been freed than he undertakes a little body-snatching…

Just as well, too:

    There was the verification—a figure before them, in burial habiliments sitting up and possessed of life.
    “This is a strange world!” began the ghostly figure. “How strange!”
    “It’s Madeline Lindsey!” exclaimed several…
    The dead’s alive! She had been lowered into the silent grave as dead, was resurrected to life—for she moves and breathes and speaks…

It turns out that Herbert Leslie drugged Madeline with something that brought on the appearance of death, that Tom Martin warned everyone frantically that she wasn’t dead, only drugged, and that the doctors and undertakers went ahead anyway, in spite of everyone agreeing that “she did not look dead”, and a corpse that “retained something of a perspiration, and the colour of life”—yike!

Douglas (whose resurrection-work goes politely unremarked) hunts down Herbert and is about to murder him when a mysterious old man intervenes, arguing that he should allow Herbert to be “blasted by God’s vengeance” instead.

As for our undead heroine—

One month from the occurrences just narrated, she was completely restored to her wonted vivacity of feeling and vigorous, blooming health; so entirely that Douglas Hardy again took his leave of Woodland to return to the North-West…

To be fair, this time there’s some excuse for him: he doesn’t know what has happened to either Albinus or Percy. Surprisingly, the narrative stays with Madeline, who gets lost while out riding. With a violent storm coming, she finds herself in a steep, rocky ravine, and makes her way into a winding, secret cave—which turns out to be a bandit’s hideout. While she (and her horse) are hiding in a narrow tunnel, she overhears two of the bandits discussing their latest recruit—none other than Herbert Leslie. She learns to her horror of another plot against herself, when the bandits express doubts about “warring on women”, and hears to her confusion a reference to her father:

“I think—I know that my father died at sea, when I was a child. So I have always heard, and had it not been true, he would certainly have appeared in the interim of fifteen years…”

Oh, certainly! Madeline tries to convince herself that some other girl, lucky enough to have a father, is the target of the plot. She also starts looking for an escape route from the cave, carefully eluding the bandits as she (and her horse) try to find another way out. She glimpses a distant ray of light—hears strange music—and eventually finds herself confronted by a woman who, having been seduced and abandoned by one of the bandits, chose to stay in the cave rather than face the world again. The miserable woman tells Madeline that there are other ways out, but she doesn’t know where they are; so Madeline (and her horse) press on, only to be confronted by—a bear! Madeline has a pistol with her, and arms herself, but before she can take action—her horse springs into action!

You wondered why her horse was being dragged through all this, didn’t you??

Madeline and Snow Ball between them manage to overcome the bear, but their troubles are hardly over:

    “Ha! we have met!” exclaimed a voice near.
    Madeline started up with affright and turned to see who it was that spoke. It was Herbert Leslie!

Snow Ball again intervenes, and this time, sadly, gets a bullet in the chest for her pains. But before Herbert can carry out his nefarious intentions towards Madeline, he gets a bullet in his chest:

    Madeline raised her head to discover from whence her deliverance came. Upon the bank above, just on the verge of the channel stood an old man with a rifle in his hand, apparently as collected as if nothing had occurred.
    “I will draw you up in a basket,” spoke the man above.

Herbert dies, but not before confessing that (i) he already has a wife, and (ii) he was the one who seduced the woman in the cave. The old man, meanwhile, as he helps Madeline out, admits that he is the one who intervened to save Herbert from Douglas, but won’t say any more.

We then lurch back to Douglas, who is talking to a no-longer-captive Percy. The two men exchange stories, the latter explaining that he owes both his own preservation and the conclusion of the conflict to the mysterious masked warrior—and that, oh gosh, no-one’s seen or heard anything of White Fawn since Percy left her with his friends. Funny, that.

Percy does find her again, though, with Radiola, who gives his consent to their marriage; which is to happen at Woodland due to the insistence of Albinus—last seen on a mountain with Pretty Nannie. Douglas now thinks to mention that there are two people called “Carson” at Woodland, though Percy doesn’t think they can be anything to do with him, despite the fact that the woman exactly matches the description of his mother and her name is “Phebe”.

We then catch up with Albinus—or rather Nannie, on whose behalf a couple of cousins have intervened, taking her away from Wolsey on a visit, and then facilitating her elopement. She, White Fawn and the three young men set out together:

Merrily the party conversed—wit and humour passed around. As they were thus rattling away, they were suddenly aroused by a band of highwaymen.

It happens, right? Percy is slightly injured in the ensuing fight, and White Fawn is abducted. Albinus and Nannie continue the journey to Woodland, while Percy and Douglas set out in pursuit; falling in with a small band of trappers, who join with them in their rescue attempt.

White Fawn is carried to the isolated villa of a Spaniard called Gonzoles, for no apparent reason (except that our author is clearly struggling to meet his word count; this was written for serialisation, remember?). We roll our eyes through a lot of highwayman blather, Percy demands White Fawn of Gonzoles, and he hands her over.

Percy, White Fawn and Douglas catch up with Albinus and Nannie at St Louis, and they all set out again together. They make another friend upon the way, one LeRoy Pennance, an elderly man travelling south, and invite him to join them at Woodland. There, Percy and the Carsons rediscover each other; while two more elderly men turn up from nowhere and are invited to stay for no reason.

We are now two pages from the end of Madeline, and from here I think I’ll let the text speak for itself:

*******************

    “LeRoy Pennance!?” exclaimed one of the strangers.
    “Ay! why?” was the answer.
    “And who is this ?” inquired the first speaker, evincing great agitation.
    “I cannot tell,” answered Mr Pennance—“who are you?”
    “Hampton Lindsey,” he answered.
    “What! Hampton Lindsey?” exclaimed the other.
    “Hampton Lindsey!” exclaimed the third stranger.

*******************

    “My Father !” exclaimed Madeline, and she rushed into the arms of Lindsey. He sustained her for some minutes, and then, looking earnestly into her face, said:
    “No, Madeline! I am not your father; but he is here;” and the speaker turned and pointed to Mr. Pennance. “Here is your father. Your name is not Lindsey, as you have supposed, but Pennance!”

*******************

    “Who was my mother?” enquired Madeline.

*******************

    “Hampton, do you not know me?”
    “Jerrald! thank God, the reunion is perfect.”
    “Forgive me, Hampton !”
    “In the name of God, I do.”
    The brothers embraced.
    “De Lord knows! here’s massa Jerrald—after jumping off ob de rock at Clifton—”
    “Clifton Height!”” exclaimed Nannie.
    “Clifton Height!” joined White Fawn and Albinus Lindsey.
    “How’s this?” asked Douglas Hardy.
    “Wonders will never cease,” remarked Percy Carson.
    “What of my child?” asked Jerrald Lindsey of Uncle Tom.    
    “Here she is !” replied the old servant gathering White Fawn in his arms. “Dis is de child, Gabriella,” and he bore her to her real father, Jerrald Lindsey.

*******************

    “And what of—of—what of—Mary?” asked Jerrald of his brother.
    “Ah! that is a painful question,” answered Hampton, “but this is the proper time to answer it,” and as he spoke he regarded LeRoy Pennance earnestly. “She became the wife of my friend, Pennance, and he was an affectionate, kind, indulgent husband, and their union was blessed with the birth of Madeline—but distrusting and jealous by nature, she doubted her trust-worthy husband. She left him, fled to disgrace and infamy. Madeline was left to my charge. By her father’s request she was to pass as my daughter until she became old enough to know and consider properly the facts connected with her unfortunate mother. But let us pass them now, since Mary has long since paid the great debt of nature which, sooner or later, all of us must discharge.”

*******************

    The evening following, witnessed the marriage of the three happy couples.
    Our story is finished.

*******************

And so bewildering is this rush of revelations, enough to sustain any self-respecting soap opera through about five seasons, that we might well think so; but a moment’s reflection informs us that:

(1) We don’t know who the chained-up man-monster was;
(2) We don’t know what happened to Mr Shelley;
(3) We don’t know how Percy came to be wandering around in the north-west;
(4) We have no fricking idea how Gabriella Lindsey became White Fawn, daughter of Chief Radiola;
(5) We never get confirmation that White Fawn and the Masked Warrior are one and the same;
(6) We never find out which of the three elderly men was the person who intervened to stop Douglas killing Herbert, subsequently killed Herbert himself, and rescued Madeline; or if it was someone else altogether.

And yet we get to sit through three pages of highwayman blather

.

15/03/2017

Spoilers. Literally.

I’ve noticed a dismaying trend emerging in my random reading for this blog—namely, the worse and/or more gigglesome a novel is, the sadder the story behind it. Whether this is the universe punishing me for laughing at things that were intended to be taken seriously or just an odd coincidence I couldn’t say, but it sure is starting to spoil my fun.

Most obvious case in point? The hilarious Munster Abbey, whose mind-boggling blending of sentiment and cold hard cash and myriad absurdities were enough to fill out three lengthy blog posts—and which turned out to be a posthumous work, the only novel of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, who died at the age of twenty-six, leaving his young widow to oversee the publication of his manuscript

And even the last novel I examined here, Ermina Montrose, had a story of fraud, suicide and poverty lurking behind its literary failings.

This time the work in question is an American novel from 1859: Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge by James Summerfield Slaughter. The novel itself is both absurdly plotted and poorly written, lurching from improbability to improbability. I snickered my way through it, sat down to try and find out something about its author—and immediately learned that he had committed suicide at a fairly early age.

Thanks, Universe.

There isn’t a lot on the record about the life of James Summerfield Slaughter, who tends to be alluded to in the context of other people rather than spoken about in his own right. He worked chiefly as an editor for various newspapers and periodicals, and wrote for the latter himself, mostly short stories. We gather he underwent something of a revolution in his political convictions: he is first mentioned as a “Know-Nothing”, a party which was anti-slavery inasmuch as its adherents believed that slavery undercut the rights of white workers; but when he next surfaced, Slaughter was hand-in-glove with the Alabama Fire-Eaters, a radical pro-slavery faction that fought to reopen the international slave trade, and which hid secessionist plans behind a facade of “states’ rights”—or at least, they did until James Summerfield Slaughter entered the picture.

At some point Slaughter had become friends with William Lowndes Yancey, a former Alabama Congressman. Both men were natives of Georgia, both had relocated to Alabama; Yancey, one of the Fire-Eaters, apparently saw Slaughter as a useful tool in the recruitment of new members to his “League of United Southerners”. However, he reckoned without his young friend’s capacity for indiscretion. In June 1858, Yancey wrote to Slaughter, stating his political views with alarming frankness; Slaughter, in a fit of enthusiasm, allowed the letter to be published:

No National Party can save us; no Sectional Party can do it. But if we could do as our fathers did, organise “Committees of Safety” all over the cotton states (and it is only in them that we can hope of any effective movement) we shall fire the Southern heart—instruct the Southern mind—give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organised, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into a revolution.

This passage was leapt upon by all factions in the growing political maelstrom, lauded in some quarters, held up as a dire warning in others. Horace Greeley, in the New York Tribune, dubbed the document “The Scarlet Letter”. As such it has gone down in history, with James Summerfield Slaughter achieving a tiny slice of immortality not for his literary accomplishments, but as the recipient of Yancey’s letter.

Both men suffered in the subsequent fall-out, Yancey – though not regretting the spotlight – asserting that he had dashed the letter off in a hurry and implied more than he meant, Slaughter excusing his indiscretion and denying in a series of letters to the newspapers that he held secessionist views.

Having made Alabama too hot to hold him, Slaughter soon returned to Georgia. The next concrete information I have been able to discover about him comes apropos of his brief connection with Mary Edwards Bryan, the journalist and author, who was appointed editor-in-chief of the magazine, the Georgia Literary and Temperance Crusader, in 1858, before she was twenty years old. Bryan arrived in Atlanta at around the time that Slaughter began working for a local newspaper, the National American—and that he married a local beauty bearing the fabulous name of Taccoah Badger.

It was in the Georgia Literary and Temperance Crusader that Slaughter’s only novel was serialised, early in 1859, before being published in book form shortly afterwards. While we can find assertions (or at least, an assertion) of its success and popularity, it is clear that these were not attributable to any literary merit. As this advertisement from the magazine, the Virginia Index, makes amusingly clear, the crux of the matter was that Slaughter’s Madeline was the first novel to be written and published in Atlanta:

(We note that despite the bland subtitle used in this ad, in both serial and novel form Madeline carried the far more enticing one, Love, Treachery And Revenge.)

After this, however, Slaughter drops out of the public record—until the Atlanta Confederacy of 9th August 1860 carried a report of his death. The news was picked up and reprinted around the country, invariably including the original item’s reference to “The Scarlet Letter”, and sometimes with the suggestion that the scandal was responsible for the “fit of melancholy” to which his death was attributed. It was only the New York Times that was unkindly moved to add the rider, As far as he is remembered…although we cannot say that history has not proven them correct:


(Original notice, reprinted in the Newbern Daily Progress of North Carolina, 18th August 1860)

.

 

18/01/2017

Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale

erminamontrose1b    One fine evening, when the children were retired to rest, Ermina stole gently down stairs, and crossing through the hall to her own apartment, opened the glass door which led into the shrubbery, which she walked, and passed lightly over the lawn to a favourite walk, which was a long avenue of trees by the side of a canal, at the end of which was an elegant alcove, where she frequently delighted to seat herself, as she now did. A pleasing languor stole over her senses…
    The dews of eve that bathed the various fragrant plants and odoriferous shrubs that surrounded the spot where she was, diffused a sweet refreshing perfume, which, added to the general stillness that reigned amidst the shades of night, lulled her mind into calm repose. The images of those she loved, and had so cruelly lost, presented themselves to her imagination in the most pleasing forms, and she pictured to herself that they beheld her conduct and sufferings with approbation. “Alas!” she mentally exclaimed, “though unrelenting fate persecute and tear from me all that my soul holds dear, yet have I the soothing consolation of preserving a heart unsullied with guilt, though not free from error, and this bosom can boast of moments of happiness which the conscience of those who injure me will not suffer them to enjoy, and of which they cannot deprive me, poor and dependent as I am.”

 

 

.

.

When your bosom starts boasting, it might be time to worry.

Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale is a fairly typical second- (or third-) tier novel of the turn of the 19th century, featuring a persecuted heroine and much high-flown sentiment, but with lingering flickers of the Gothic impulse (which, indeed, would not be fully extinguished for another two decades or so). Though the persecution persists, most of the Gothic touches are confined to the first of the novel’s three volumes; after which the narrative settles down and goes through essentially the same set of cyclic motions until the three volumes have been filled—viz. our orphan heroine finds a refuge where she can work and support herself, someone traduces her character, she flees secretly for some reason or another, she struggles with poverty until she finds a refuge where she can work and support herself…

But the repetition of the action is not the major shortcoming of Ermina Montrose, which is rather that Ermina suffers more at the hands of the people who are supposed to love her than she does through the machinations of her enemies. Indeed, this is one of a worrying number of novels I’ve read recently that turn on a man’s willingness (even eagerness) to believe the worst of the woman he loves. This novel features one of the most unlikeable “heroes” of a genre that rarely seems to recognise dickish behaviour when it sees it, and Ermina’s repeated forgiveness of her lover’s distrust, tantrum-throwing and selfishness grows ever more exasperating.

While it will turn out to play the most minor of roles in the story, aside from its symbolic value —“cottage” is a signifier for a sentimental novel in the same way that “abbey” is for a Gothic novel—Ermina Montrose does open at the titular cottage; while the language – and the occasionally infelicitous grammar – used in these opening paragraphs let us know clearly what we’re in for over the next 700 pages or so:

    Embosomed in the deep romantic valley of Riversdale, stood the habitation of Colonel Montrose. Simple was its structure, being little superior to the cottages of the neighbouring rustics. Yet, with all its simplicity, dear was this abode to his feeling heart; for it had sheltered his beloved Ermina from the storms of life, and witnessed her flight to those regions of happiness, which the superior virtues of her mind rendered her worthy of attaining. The soft harmony of her voice, the æthereal sweetness of her smile, all dwelt on his imagination with forcible and pained remembrance.
    Oh! souls of sympathy, cannot ye picture to yourselves the poignant anguish which overwhelms to agony a mind of sensibility, when it has lost a tenderly beloved friend and companion? What is the grief of common souls compared to theirs, who wear not only the semblance of sorrow, but its keenest shafts penetrate their lacerated bosoms; and objects that formerly created pleasure, serve only to bring the mournful recollection, that, alas! the chief source of delight is fled for ever?

If anything has the power to divert us from our attempts to make sense of that last sentence, it is the text’s apparent revelation that this novel’s heroine is dead—but of course, this turns out to be Ermina Montrose Sr. She and Colonel Montrose married without the permission of her father, Lord Belvidere, “a haughty, imperious nobleman”, who responded not merely by disinheriting her, but by actively persecuting the young couple, who finally fled to their isolated cottage to escape his vindictive wrath. Six years of happiness which included the birth of their only child followed, but now Colonel Montrose has been widowed and left the raise his daughter alone. The narrative skips lightly over this, content with observing matter-of-factly that, Each year, as it rolled away, brought some accomplishment in Ermina nearer to perfection, until she is fourteen, at which time the Colonel decides to place her in a convent in France for two years, so that she can perfect her French.

Like many sentimental novels of this period, Ermina Montrose chooses to behave as if the French Revolution never happened; though it goes its competition one better by forgetting, evidently, that its characters aren’t Catholic, and having Ermina decide to become a nun (it is clear later that she hasn’t converted). But while they occupy a fair chunk of the first volume, Ermina’s convent experiences and friendships – and hints at interesting back-stories for several of the nuns – ultimately turn out to have nothing to do with anything; except to make me suspect, in conjunction with what happens to her once she gets out of the convent, that Emily Clark originally intended writing a much more Gothicky novel, but for some reason changed her mind and instead sent her narrative in a domestic direction over the succeeding two volumes.

Neither Ermina’s sojourn in the convent nor her entering upon her novitiate prevents every man who sees her from falling in love with her. Victim #1 is the Count de Valcour, a volatile (to say the least) young Frenchman, who goes so far as to break into the convent in order to get up close and personal with her; Victim #2 is Father Eustache, a young Benedictine monk (!!), who starts repenting his vows the moment he lays eyes on her; and Victim #3 is Lord Henry Beauchamp, the son of the Earl of Darlington, who saves Colonel Montrose from bandits. The latter is invited to accompany the Colonel on one of his visits to the convent, and the damage is done. Here, however, we get damage in the other direction too:

…she was then as much charmed with his manners as with his appearance. She thought him learned without pedantry, sensible without affectation, and animated and witty without being frivolous or a coxcomb; and she admired him mostly for not being the least vain of his person (as handsome men in general are), but apparently unconscious of possessing more beauty than what falls to the usual lot of the male part of creation…

As it turns out, it’s just as well he’s got his looks to depend upon.

Lord Henry lays indirect siege to Ermina via poetry and then, as the time for her to take the veil draws near, declares himself in frantic smuggled letters, begging her to marry him. She is moved and confused, but still intends to take her vows when her father’s health collapses—because he can’t stand her becoming a nun, as he might have wanted to mention about a year ago. Ermina decides to leave the convent, and she, her father and Lord Henry become the guests of de Valcour.

The convent may be a thing of the past, but we’re not done being Gothicky just yet:

At supper the count introduced them to Father Anselmo, a monk, his friend and confessor. Ermina felt something repugnant to her feelings in his appearance; for though his sallow countenance was always dressed in smiles, yet under those smiles she fancied lurked cruelty and deceit… He easily perceived he was no favourite with her, as he had a great deal of penetration; and the glances he sometimes gave her from his yellow eye balls were replete with venom and ill-nature…

De Valcour regrets inviting Lord Henry to his chateau from the moment he gets a good look at him. His fears are well justified, as we learn with amusing casualness that—

…this animated party had been three weeks together at the chateau, which had passed on such silken wings that it appeared but as one. In this happy interval Lord Henry had again offered himself to Ermina, who, with the sanction of her father, had accepted his addresses…

…provisional upon Lord Henry receiving the approbation and consent of his father: this probably wasn’t intended as a pot-shot at her own parents, but it sure does read that way. Lord Henry is then abruptly called back to England, to the bedside of Lord Darlington, who is seriously ill, and must part from Ermina:

A cold shiver came over him…and his eyes were dimmed with tears as he entered the carriage… He could not shake off an uncommon depression of spirits, which he feared presaged some misfortune to himself, or (who was dearer to him) his innocent and beauteous Ermina.

He’s right about that, of course; although ironically he himself is the main misfortune which strikes her.

In Lord Henry’s absence, Ermina takes to wandering the grounds of the chateau alone, and on one of her expeditions comes across a lonely cottage occupied by a young Englishwoman and an elderly Frenchwoman. This, of course, is the cue for an interpolated narrative. Long story short, Adeliza’s intended marriage to de Valcour was prevented by the revelation of him being already married, so he abducted and eventually seduced her.

Shocked by her discovery of de Valcour’s true nature, Ermina begins to consider how to help Adeliza escape, but is diverted when Colonel Montrose’s health collapses. On his deathbed, he succeeds in extracting from de Valcour all sorts of promises about Ermina’s welfare; but no sooner is he dead than the count begins laying siege to her, intercepting her correspondence with Lord Henry, refusing to let her return to the convent, and finally imprisoning her, refusing to release her until she promises to marry him. Ermina withstands all this, and at length even persuades de Valcour to let her walk in the grounds, on the score that her health is suffering from confinement. On one of these expeditions she discovers a grotto, with a cave that has been turned into an apartment in its depths. Here she overhears a terrifying conversation between Father Anselmo and another monk:

    After something that Anselmo had said, the other monk replied in an agitated voice, “Hold, ’tis cowardly to assassinate a woman, poison would be better.”
    “No,” rejoined Anselmo, “she may then by some means escape, and suspicion be infused into her bosom. She shall no longer stand between me and my interest; for, were she disposed of, I could do whatever I pleased with de Valcour, and his fortune. Call it not murder.” Here he raised his voice, his countenance assuming a more diabolical expression, which she plainly perceived, as the cowl he wore concealed but half his face. “Is it not a religious act to stab an heretic, who, wedded to the count, will raise a brood of others? Here, mark me! take this dagger, steal to her chamber in the dead of night, and point it to her breast: for I’ve decreed it; ere three days more shall pass, she dies: France shall not another week contain alive the hated offspring of Colonel Montrose.”

At this point I had high hopes of Ermina Montrose, on the level of entertainment if not as literature, exactly; but sadly from here it’s downhill all the way. The present situation resolves itself when Adeliza’s outraged brother finally catches up with de Valcour and kills him; Adeliza dies of grief; Anselmo flees, never to be seen again (alas!); and Ermina returns to the convent to recover and sort out her life. There she becomes acquainted with Lady Julia Vernon, in retreat while mourning her husband (a short interlude that gives Ermina a completely false idea of her character), who offers to carry her back to England.

From here we settle into the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of the novel. Invited to stay with Lady Julia for a time, Ermina does in the hope of finding out why Lord Henry is not responding to the letters she is now certain he is receiving. Despite her disinclination, she feels obliged sometimes to accompany Lady Julia into society, and one night is taken to Ranelagh, where a certain Mr Devereaux becomes smitten with her.

From this point, Emily Clark strives in Ermina Montrose for the kind of social satire and character types with which Frances Burney’s novels abound, but her efforts are feeble, and occasionally embarrassing (as, for instance, when she stops to explain to us that any person with a disability or some sort of deformity, or is simply not physically attractive, will invariably prove to be “deformed” on the inside, too). All sorts of eccentrics wander in an out of the narrative, in scenes that are generally tiresome, rather than amusing as they are intended to be.

Clark is on firmer ground with the endless scenes of her heroine being persecuted; and we return to this dominating theme when, as Ermina walks with Devereaux, someone steps on the train of her gown:

The intended apology died away in confused murmurs on Lord Henry’s lips, the glow of surprise faded to an ashy paleness, and instead of returning the animated smile, he received from her, with the same look of pleasure, or accepting her proffered hand…he surveyed her with a repulsive gravity, uttered in a faultering voice, a few incoherent words of congratulations on seeing her in England, coldly bowed, and left her.

Get used to it, people: scenes like this comprise most of what this novel has to offer by way of “a love story”; when, that is, Lord Henry isn’t ranting at Ermina for being a whore. (My word, not his; but that’s the gist of it.)

When she can extricate herself from Lady Julia, Ermina returns to “the cottage of the vale” and is happy there for a time, reuniting with old acquaintances, until she receives word that the bank in which her small inheritance was placed has failed, and the banker fled. Forced to find work, Ermina requests her various friends to find her a position as governess, and is taken into the country house of Sir John and Lady Assop: near neighbours of the widowed Mrs Helderton, another person who, at this time, she considers a friend. For a time all seems well: the Assops are kind, Ermina’s young pupils well-behaved, the surrounding countryside beautiful. The first reversal of fortune comes when Mrs Helderton makes it very clear that her “friendship” for Ermina has altered with the girl’s circumstances.

But if Mrs Helderston dislikes Ermina as a governess, she positively hates her when she sees that her handsome cousin, Sir Charles Melrose, is immediately attracted to her. Mrs Helderton has no intention of remaining a widow, and Sir Charles is one of the two marital prospects she is assiduously pursuing, though only her second choice. The first happens to be Lord Henry Beauchamp…

By one of those capricious chances, in which fortune delights, a friend of Lord Henry’s and Mrs Helderton’s told her in confidence (unsuspecting her designs), of the hold Ermina still had on his affections, notwithstanding he was convinced of her unworthiness, though in what manner she had improperly acted Lord Henry would never tell his friend. Enraged, that she should be slighted for this insignificant girl (as she styled her), she vowed to do every thing in her power to mortify her…

And in this respect, at least, Mrs Helderton is a woman of her word; and her machinations and their consequences will b e at the root of much of what Ermina suffers over the following two volumes.

For a time Ermina is oblivious to the evil currents that are beginning to swirl around her; but one evening she overhears an enlightening conversation between Mrs Helderton’s maid and the Assops’ nursery-maid:

“Sir Charles may amuse himself with her as a mistress, but she will never be any thing more honourable to him. For my part,” continued Bridget, “if I was such a noble, handsome, rich gentleman as Sir Charles…I would never take up with other people’s hangers-on… Only to think now, that this wicked Miss Montrose enticed away my dear lady’s lover Lord Henry Beauchamp, when he was in France. She spent almost all his fortune, and then ran away with another gentleman, whom she intrigued with beforehand, which broke her poor father’s heart. There’s a wicked hussy for you, when she knew my lady was engaged to Lord Henry…and the poor gentleman, who was as beautiful a man as ever the sun shone on, is now wasting to a shadow: for nobody thinks he’ll live, it hurts him so, to think of her bad conduct; and I’m sure I wonder such a good woman as your mistress keeps the naughty creature in her house. Now you can’t be surprised that my lady hates her; and then to think, that she should make Sir Charles in love with her too! I do believe her to be a witch.”

This speech is a good example of the kind of talk that follows Ermina throughout the rest of the novel, always a framework of circumstantial truth surrounding the worst possible interpretation of events. But while it may be understandable that people who don’t really know Ermina may begin to lend an ear to the constant denigration of her character, there is no excuse for the people who are supposed to know and love her.

Annoyingly enough, the main thing that Ermina carries away from her enlightening eavesdropping (she does that a lot, though the narrative takes pains to find excuses) is the bulletin about Lord Henry’s failing health. This possibility preys upon her mind, affecting her spirits and her health so that everyone notices—including Sir Charles, who is so moved by her evident distress that he impulsively proposes marriage. Caught between her lingering feelings for Lord Henry, her awareness that he now despises her, and her gratitude for the generosity of Sir Charles, whom she likes and admires, Ermina wrestles with herself but finally accepts his proposal. News of the engagement spreads quickly, pleasing the Assops and causing everyone but Mrs Helderton to treat Ermina with increased respect.

Soon after this, however, Ermina is walking out when she is accosted by a gipsy—who turns out (for reasons not worth getting into) to be Lord Henry in disguise. She is taken so much by surprise that she stays to hear what he has to say for himself. As she suspected, their letters were intercepted; and Lord Henry knew nothing concrete until the news of Colonel Montrose’s death was reported. Shortly afterwards, still trying to bring his father (who objected to Ermina’s all-but-penniless state) to consent to their marriage, Lord Henry received further word of Ermina through a French friend of Lord Darlington’s, who mentioned to him a certain beautiful Englishwoman who was known by common report to be the mistress of the libertine Count de Valcour:

“I now attributed your neglect of me to a passion for my rival; and rage, jealousy, and contempt for your depraved conduct and infidelity, seized complete possession of my soul…”

Then the meeting at Ranelagh: he wondered at seeing her with Lady Julia—but assumed she had deceived her, too; he noted her mourning—and concluded it was for de Valcour… And so on. Finally he tore himself away from London and went wandering, ending up by pure chance at The Cottage Of The Vale, where Ermina’s maid, Therese, told him what had actually gone on in France:

“But, oh heavens! when she related in those simple unadorned terms, which so forcibly convey the truth, the various miseries and misfortunes in which you had been involved by the treachery and deceit of your worthless enemies, I execrated my credulity and unfeeling behaviour, reflecting with remorse that I ought, before I had condemned, to have heard your justification, and enable you to defend yourself against every calumnious aspersion.”

On the back of this, Lord Henry confronts the gossipy Baron de Belmont:

“…whom I brought to a confession that he had been instigated by Lord Darlington (whom de Valcour had treacherously informed of our attachment, and at the same time suppressed our letters) to invent those falsehoods of you, having himself never seen, or even heard of you and de Valcour, and would not for any consideration have aided such a scheme, if my father had not represented you as a girl of infamous character, who wished to seduce me to marry her.”

Now—you’d think an experience like this might have taught Lord Henry a thing or two, but you’d be very wrong: he spends the rest of the novel listening to anyone who has a bad word to say about Ermina; when, that is, he isn’t busy behaving like a dick of monumental proportions.

When telling Ermina’s story, Therese also informed Lord Henry of her engagement to Sir Charles Melrose; and now, though she forgives him for his distrust of her, Ermina insists that honour forbids her to break with the baronet. Lord Henry begs and pleads, but she is adamant; which produces this outburst:

Almost frantic at the idea of losing her, Lord Henry implored her compassion, intreating her not to sacrifice their happiness to a vain phantom of honour. This she steadily refused; and, irritated, abandoned to passion by the stings of disappointed affection, he exclaimed: “Then you have never loved me, deceitful girl, if I am to be resigned for the empty opinion of the world! You must prefer Sir Charles; but I swear by God, that I will not live to see you his wife—either one or other of us must fall. I will hasten instantly to him and demand satisfaction.”

Ah! – the always charming and by no means a sign that you are dealing with a narcissistic sociopath if-I-can’t-have-you-no-one-will gambit! (Which was last seen around these parts in Barford Abbey.) I must admit, though, to being intrigued by Lord Henry’s casual dismissal of “honour” as a mere excuse, given how many novels of this period have their characters tying themselves in knots over merely perceived demands of honour, let alone a case as clear as this one.

Ermina manages to calm Lord Henry down, admitting that she still loves him, and pleading with him neither to risk his own life nor Sir Charles’s. Finally they part—forever, as far as Ermina is concerned. Preparations for the wedding continue, and the entire party travels from the country to Sir John’s house in London, where the ceremony to to take place. All is well until a few days before, when Sir Charles’s behaviour towards Ermina suddenly changes. He offers no explanation, however (of course not!), and Ermina is at a loss until the party attends a play: so emotionally caught up in the miseries on stage that she nearly swoons, Ermina is just recovering when…

…the first object she saw was Lord Henry Beauchamp contemplating her with an air of the deepest dejection, apparently regardless of every one but herself, whilst Sir Charles surveyed him with a fierce and sullen countenance…

Sure enough, the threatened duel takes place, though at Sir Charles’s seeking, and on the morning of his wedding-day!—and it is Sir Charles who gets the worst of it, being carried back to the Assops’ covered in blood and not expected to live. Mrs Helderton has been in the mix lately, so we are not much surprised at this, even if Ermina is; and in a state of guilt and shock, contemplating Sir Charles’s death on one hand and Lord Henry either under arrest or fleeing the country, she flees herself, slipping out of the house unseen and making sure no-one knows where she has gone (and that no-one will be able to find her, should things prove not quite so grim as anticipated, sigh).

Under the name of “Miss Smith” (no really), Ermina finds lodgings – poor, but with a kind landlady – and work, being employed to do fancy needlework by a French modiste. Though tormented by not knowing whether Sir Charles is alive or dead, and Lord Henry consequently safe, under arrest or on the run (it doesn’t occur to her to buy a newspaper), Ermina settles into her new, narrow existence until discovered by the dissolute Sir Patrick O’Neil, to whom she was introduced at Lady Julia’s. He informs his good friend, Mr Glencarnock – “an ugly, little, hump-backed man” – and the two begin persecuting her, both determined to obtain her in one capacity or another. Glencarnock, indeed, finally proposes marriages—provided Ermina is willing to keep it a secret.

In the face of this harassment, Ermina starts regretfully making plans to change her lodgings; but this is forestalled by an offer of work as a live-in seamstress for a certain Colonel Rivers. She accepts this offer with relief, only to be shocked by the discovery that – duh! – she has been decoyed into a trap by Glencarnock. To her credit, Ermina shows some backbone and makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, failing narrowly only when she suffers a bad fall, before Glencarnock unwisely gets into a physical confrontation with her over the key to her room and is left sprawling with a head injury. Ermina takes to her heels and is fortunate enough to find someone willing to help her, one “Zemin Linmore”.

Here erupts one of Ermina Monstrose‘s most absurd subplots; though its absurdity cannot compensate for its bad taste. Linmore turns out to be the son of a Native American chief – no, really – who has been handed over to one Captain Linmore to be raised and educated as an English gentleman. The narrative goes on and on about how handsome Zemin is, how good, how generous, how high-principled, how accomplished…before shaking its head over how sad it is that he isn’t white, without which the rest means nothing. Zemin falls in love with Ermina, of course, and equally of course knows it’s futile, since he isn’t white. He finally leaves the country to try and get over his hopeless passion—and when a newspaper reports that his ship sank with all hands lost, it is accompanied by a straight-faced suggestion that an early death was a fate to be desired, considering that he wasn’t white, and therefore could never be happy. (Too bad for the rest of the passengers and crew…)

Anyway— Zemin cannot prevent Ermina being dragged back by Glencarnock’s servants, but he arranges her escape and places her with friends of his, Quakers called Mr and Mrs Fairfield. Here the wash-rinse-repeat cycle starts again: Ermina is safe and happy for a time, until the Fairfields carry her to London, on a visit to their far less unworldly son and daughter-in-law. Against her will, Ermina is taken out into society, usually under the chaperonage of a Mrs Ballenden, where she attracts the attention of an elderly nobleman, the Earl of Valency, to whom she is also drawn for reasons she cannot articulate. (Jane Austen alert!) Other consequences are less pleasant, and include an encounter with Mrs Helderton. Soon enough, the daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, is asking pointed questions about Sir Charles Melrose, and excoriating Ermina for abusing the trust of the Fairfields:

“I have already spoken to them,” replied the quaker, “and it has occasioned a misunderstanding between them, my husband, and myself; for thy arts, of which I have been fully informed, have blinded them to believe any thing thou doth choose to advance. Verily, it was not well done of Zemin Linmore to introduce his mistress under the roof of our respectable parents, whose ill-placed charity in protecting thee, must bring disgrace on all their family.”

In the wake of this, Ermina has an excruciating encounter with her former employer, the modiste, who in front of Elizabeth addresses her as “Miss Smith”—which leaves her with nothing to do but run away again. This time she cannot find employment, and sinks into real poverty before being discovered and rescued again, this time by the same Mr Devereaux whom she met at Ranelagh, before her first encounter with Lord Henry. Devereaux finds a position for her as companion to his aunt, the eccentric Mrs St Austin. Before she leaves London, he begs her to allow him to escort her to the theatre. She feels that she cannot refuse the invitation—but of course is made to regret her decision:

…she perceived to her extreme consternation, Mrs Helderton and another lady of a most unprepossessing appearance, looking at her with a sneer on their countenances, and talking at the same time, apparently about her, to a gentleman who seemed very much interested in what they said… Suddenly, however, he turned round to seat himself by Mrs Helderton, and, overcome with joy, surprise, and terror, Ermina felt ready to faint, when their eyes at the same moment meeting, she discovered the man whom she had so long regretted, whom she fancied to be wandering, forlorn, unhappy, and anxious for her fate, far from his native country, to be now before her; for it was indeed Lord Henry…

…who behaves towards her exactly as we expect; and for a few glorious moments, Ermina reacts to it as she should:

When at liberty to reflect on the conduct of Lord Henry, she felt keener resentment against him than she could ever have thought it possible for her to feel for any person, particularly one who had so often vowed his affection for her was interwoven with his existence…How sincerely did she regret the loss she had sustained in the alienated affections of Melrose, whose faith and truth were so much more valuable than the fickle passion of Lord Henry… She regretted bitterly, that he should have prevented an union in which the greatest felicity would most probably have been her lot… She even worked up her imagination to a belief, that the story he had told her at their last interview in Devonshire, was a fabrication to exculpate himself…

Well—it’s nice while it lasts, anyway.

Ermina travels to Mrs Austin’s country estate, where she is safe and happy for a time; until—

Do I really have to say it?

First, however, Ermina interests herself in the situation of a peasant family living on the estate. Long story short (again), the beautiful daughter became the object of the lustful interest of a Squire Brandon, who to pave his own way to her, had her soldier-fiancé transferred to a regiment about to be sent overseas on active duty, while forcing Helen and her grandmother off their farm in order to deprive them of their income. Ermina relieves the immediate wants of the unfortunate women, but worries that Helen’s illness may be fatal. She and Dame Primrose agree to present an account of the circumstances to Edward’s commanding officer, in the hope that he will undo the young soldier’s transfer if he knows why it was brought about. Ermina writes a letter, stating everything she knows and asseverating her belief in the good character of all three, and Dame Primrose carries it to Carlisle. She manages to see the regimental colonel, and he does indeed read the letter—and is so affected by it that even the hopeful grandmother is surprised.

And here we get the novel’s one successful touch of humour as, thanks to Dame Primorose’s extreme country accent, Ermina does not recognise who she means when she speaks of “Lord Bochon”.

Sure enough, Lord Henry soon rocks up. He is scrupulous in assisting Dame Primrose, Helen and Edward; but when he sees Ermina, we start all over again:

“Fool, mean-spirited madman that I am, not all your infidelity and ill usage can eradicate the fatal passion you inspired, which has been my ruin… Yes, wretched woman, you have been my destruction, blasted every prospect of my happiness, and forced me to seek in battle an oblivion of my sorrows; as the fatal remembrance of your cruelty has denied me peace in this world. In a few months I quit England for ever; and in far-distant Eastern climes will bury all recollection of the falseness and treachery with which you have required my faithful love.”

He then has the gall to promise “always to be her friend”, if she will “return to the paths of honour”; warning her however that “the loss of [her] innocence is never to be recovered”.

Ermina is not unnaturally stunned by this outpouring, but as he starts to leave she insists on being heard; and again she says exactly as she should—except for not sending him on his way with a hearty wish of a close encounter between himself and a cannon-ball:

    “That you should harbour suspicion after the explanation that took place between us in Devonshire, appears to me beyond belief; for having once made me suffer from your credulity, it is certainly unpardonable of you to err a second time. I have not much to say on the subject, because I feel myself perfectly undeserving of reproach, and know not who are my accusers; but in talking of injuries you totally mistake the affair, as it is myself, and not you, that is the injured person. I compassionate, however, the weak credulity of your disposition… Perhaps you will find a pleasure…in the reflection that you have insulted a woman you pretended to love with the most gross suspicions…”
    “I would fain believe you innocent,” replied Lord Henry, “and what you affirm overwhelms me with fresh doubt, but will listen no more; warned by those, who know you and your power over me, not to attend to your fascinating voice…”
    “Alas! I see but too plainly,” exclaimed Ermina, “the extent of my misfortunes. Not any assertions of mine will make you believe me innocent, and to combat with prejudices so rooted is quite useless. And now, Lord Henry, I take my leave; yet the time I hope will come…when you will repent your too easy belief, but it will then be too late, as from this moment I obliterate all traces of you from my remembrance; and be assured, that wounded pride and injured virtue will make the task far from difficult.”

And, oh!—if only she’d meant it! If only she had married Devereaux – who is in love with her, of course – or Charles Melrose – who isn’t dead, of course. I’d’ve quite liked this novel then, or at least liked it better. Buuuuuuuut, no; and sadly, Catherine Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano remains the only novel of this era I’ve yet discovered to have its heroine respond to mistreatment by breaking with a man who doesn’t deserve her and finding one who does.

Around this time we finally get some explanation of the chain of gossip which has pursued Ermina, and how Mrs Helderton managed to rope the Earl of Darlington, the Baron de Belmont, Mr Glencarnock and even Sir Charles into her plots against the girl; convincing the latter that she was Lord Henry’s cast-off mistress, and calling various “witnesses”, including her maid, Bridget, who overheard the conversation betweem Ermina and Lord Henry in Devonshire (translated into a “secret assignation”), to back up her story.

In the latter Mrs Helderton overreached herself, having certainly not meant for Sir Charles and Lord Henry to try and kill each other; and great was her exasperation upon discovering afterwards that although she had succeeded in ruining Ermina with both men, neither of them showed the slightest increase of partiality for her. Her malice then pursued Ermina to the Fairfields, where to the existing stories another involving Zemin Linmore was added; while later, applied to by Lord Henry, who knew her only as a connection of the various interested parties, after Ermina’s disappearance from the Assops’ house, she added to the mix the assertion that her reduced circumstances forced Ermina to become the mistress of Sir Patrick O’Neil; after which she taken under the protection of Mr Devereaux.

Mrs Helderton overreaches again, this time fatally, when she sends an anonymous letter denouncing Ermina to Mrs St Austin: the latter shows the ugly epistle to its subject, and Ermina recognises the handwriting. She tells as much as she understands of the sorry tale, which isn’t that much (as she knows nothing of Mrs Helderton’s personal plans for Lord Henry and/or Sir Charles), and Mrs St Austin persuades her (or orders her) to travel to London, to seek out those to whom she believes she has been calumniated by Mrs Helderton, and to show them the letter and the handwriting. Ermina obeys, but finds everyone she needs to talk to out of the country.

Forced, reluctantly, to wait in London for their return, Ermina is at least moved to send Mrs Helderton a satirical letter, thanking her for all her good offices (not that she knows the half of it!). This is a tremendous shock for Mrs Helderton, whose guilty conscience brings on hysterics, which eventually reduce her to a convenient state of shattered health, and put her into an even more convenient mood for confession.

But that is some time in the future. First (through circumstances too dumb to be dwelt upon), Ermina goes through one more round of lonely destitution; this time being rescued by the long-forgotten Earl of Valency, who turns out to be – surprise! – her grandfather, who inherited another title after he was introduced to us as the “haughty, imperious” Lord Belvidere. His lordship has long since repented his cruel treatment of his daughter and son-in-law, and wants to make amends of sorts by re-establishing Ermina.

After that, things fall into place pretty quickly, the process being greatly assisted by Bridget who, after being sacked by Mrs Helderton, retaliates by telling the truth to the Assops; while Mrs Helderton, literally dying of shame, as we are asked to believe, calls for Lord Henry and tells him the truth. This sends him flying to Ermina, and to her feet, to beg forgiveness.

So we would hope.

And yet there is still time for one more outbreak of dickishness from Our Hero, when the altogether too forgiving Ermina rightly “determine[s] to punish him just a little for what he had caused her to suffer”, by telling him:

    “…your present confession, though it cannot restore my love, which your ill treatment of me quickly effaced, yet gains you my esteen and friendship”; and as she uttered these last words, with an assumed coldness and indifference, she held out her hand to him.
    So well did she dissemble, that with an angry and mournful air mingled with surprise, Lord Henry rejected her proffered hand. “Cruel, insulting woman,” said he, “I will not accept your friendship; your love I require or nothing. Oh! had I ever been truly valued, you would not thus have wounded my feelings by such cold language, but would eagerly have forgiven errors for which I have been sufficiently punished.”

That’s right, folks—SHE has been cruel to HIM. And, yup, SHE ends up apologising:

Lord Henry now drew from the blushing Ermina a reluctant confession, that, notwithstanding the reasons she apparently had to detest him, he had always continued dear to her…

Woman—you ought to blush…

.

.

16/01/2017

A royal liar

erminamontrose3b

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

There’s a much more interesting story behind my latest Reading Roulette pick, Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale, than we find between its covers.

That reference on the title page of this sentimental novel from 1800 to “the late Colonel Frederick” is shorter and more discreet than that which graces the title page of Clark’s earlier novel, Ianthé; or, The Flower Of Caernarvon, where the author’s grandfather is boldly announced to be “son of Theodore, King of Corsica”: all in all, a statement which for all its brevity contains a considerable amount of misleading information.

Theodor Stephan Freiherr von Neuhoff was a German soldier of fortune who, in the course of a career dabbling in political intrigue all over Europe and the Mediterranean, convinced a group of Corsican rebels that he could help them overthrow the Genoese rule of their island—and promised to do so in exchange for being crowned king of Corsica. Somehow von Neuhoff managed to acquire military backing from the Bey of Tunis, and landed on the island in March, 1736. The locals held up their end of the bargain and had the adventurer crowned as Theodore I of Corsica, but the conflict against the Genoese forces was a failure. Theodore fled Corsica in November, ostensibly to raise more support and funds: a project which ended ignominiously when he was imprisoned for debt in Amsterdam.

Somewhat surprisingly, Theodore did not give up his efforts, but arranged to supply the rebels with arms, and himself returned to the conflict on several occasions; but the rebels made no headway against the incumbent forces. Theodore’s next stop was England, again with the aim of raising support—and where again he ended up in debtors’ prison, where he was confined for some six years. This time he did give up, freeing himself by declaring bankruptcy—and by making over his kingdom to his creditors (!). He died only a year later, in 1756, having been supported to the end by various friends, including Horace Walpole.

In 1750, shortly after King Theodore was imprisoned in London, a certain Colonel Frederick appeared upon the scene. He too was German, and had served in the army of Frederick II of Prussia, before entering the service of the Duke of Württemberg. When Theodore died, Colonel Frederick began publicly mourning his father and calling himself the Prince of Capera; establishing his position more firmly by publishing Memoirs of Corsica, Containing the Natural and Political History of that Important Island in 1768.

Over the following years, the Colonel managed to manoeuvre his way into high society, becoming an intimate of the royal princes (for whose benefit he tried, but failed, to raise loans on the Continent); but at length his life began to unravel. For many years he had been sustained – just – by a pension paid by the Duchess of Württemberg; and when this was stopped his situation became desperate. He began to show signs of mental instability and to talk of suicide—and in 1797 he acted on his threat, shooting himself outside Westminster Abbey. A kind coroner’s jury ruled that he had been of unsound mind, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Ann’s Church in Soho—next to his “father”. Friends who had failed to assist him while he was alive arranged for a plaque near his grave, declaring Colonel Frederick to be indeed the son of Theodore, and, A finished Gentleman; in honour, honesty, and truth, he was princely.

However, The European Magazine; and London Review, reporting the story, appended to it a statement from “a Gentleman who was for many years on terms of intimacy with him”, who declared his royal heritage a fabrication, but agreed that he was very like Theodore in being also a German adventurer:

“He arrived much about the same time that Theodore died, and finding the people take a kind of interest in the hapless fate of a man who they were told was a King, Mr Frederick hit upon the expedient of passing as his son, and it succeeded. The assertion could not easily be contradicted. The fact did not merit investigation, and it was everywhere believed that he was the son of Theodore… Excessive vanity was the weak point of Colonel Frederick’s character, but in almost every other point of view his qualities were of the most estimable kind.”

Aside from describing Colonel Frederick’s personal tragedy, the magazine report makes mention of the fact that he left behind, A daughter and, we believe, four grand-children. One of the latter was Emily Clark, already earning money as a painter of miniatures, and whose work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799. Like so many other women across the 18th and 19th centuries, Clark also tried to supplement her family’s slender income by writing. She published Ianthé in 1798, by subscription: the reviewers were kind, if not effusive, and subscribers – including the royal princes – were generous. When she tried the same expedient two years later, however, she was less successful; no doubt the story had worn a little thin. She continued to publish, writing poetry and three more novels over the following twenty years; but the truth is, she wasn’t a very good writer, and no-one took much notice.

Nothing much else is known about Emily Clark, although her situation and her attempt to address it via subscription publication was referenced in Peter Garside’s essay, Subscribing Fiction in Britain, 1780–1829, which brackets her with the unfortunate young widow, Lady Leigh, who published her husband’s Munster Abbey by subscription after his premature death.

Alas! – would that Ermina Montrose were half as entertaining as Sir Samuel Edgerton’s Leigh’s magnum opus

Though the subscriptions themselves dropped off, and princes and members of the aristocracy are largely conspicuous by their absence in spite of the novel’s dedication to the Countess of Shaftesbury, there is one name of interest on the list which prefaces Clark’s novel—though we may suspect it is there out of charity rather than judgement:

erminamontrose2c
(I’m guessing those are the same Dashwoods who subscribed to Munster Abbey.)

.

.

17/12/2016

The Holy Lover

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Wesley chooses to misinterpret this:

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

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

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

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

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

The blow is almost more than John Wesley can stand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

12/12/2016

Equal opportunity religious agony

I’m not sure what’s going on with Reading Roulette, but my random book picker seems determined to land me on works of fiction dealing with religion. First we took a look at Low Church doctrine with Steepleton: or, High Church And Low Church by Stephen Jenner, and then we balanced the ledger with William Gresley’s High Church polemic, Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years. Now, it seems, it’s time to visit with the Methodists.

Sort of.

Though she was a successful and popular writer in her day, there is little information available about the life and career of Marie Conway Oemler. She was born Mary Conway in Savannah, Georgia, in 1875, and did not take up writing until she was in her mid-thirties, after marrying and having two children. Once begun, however, she was quite prolific, publishing poems and short stories regularly before publishing her first full-length work, Slippy McGee (aka The Butterfly Man), in 1917. Her first novel was also her most successful, being widely praised and twice adapted into films, in 1923 and 1942. However, Oemler continued to write fiction until the early thirties, when her health failed.

By this time, Oemler and her husband were living in Delaware, but they returned to the South in the hope of her recovery. Unfortunately, her heart condition grew more serious, and Oemler died in 1932.

Oemler was a Catholic of Irish descent, which throws an interesting light upon our next Reading Roulette selection, The Holy Lover. Published in 1927, this biographical novel is an account of the early years of John Wesley, in particular the time he spent in Georgia during the 1730s, prior to his return to England where, at one of the lowest points in his life, he underwent the personal revelation that led eventually to his establishment of the Methodist Church. However, though the novel describes John Wesley’s religious development as a young man, its focus is on the conflict between Wesley’s austere, self-sacrifice based practice, with its basis in celibacy, and the temptation towards love and marriage represented by the lovely young Georgian settler, Sophia Hopkey.

07/08/2015

Bellamy

mordaunt1b    “It was a lark at first—really it was a lark, Gale, for all your long face! And I’ve made pots of money by it. But I’m sick to death of the whole thing—want to get my fingers on realities for a change. You know, I’m going out on some business in which I’ve associated myself with Sir George Curst.” For the life of him Bellamy could not resist a rolling emphasis on the ‘Sir’… “I’ve done with this sort of tommy-rot once and for all. It’s a real good thing that I’ve got on to. I believe, and Curst believes, we’ll pretty well make our fortunes, if it turns out as we expect.
    “I say!” suddenly he laughed—he had not brushed his hair since he changed his clothes, it was a little longer than usual, and there was a hint of the old rampant crest above his brows:—“life’s not so bad after all, is it?—To be starting off afresh in this fashion; like the little dicky-birds which begin all over again every spring. La joie de vie! You cold-blooded fish, Gale. You don’t even know what it means.”
    “There’s Hansen—and the two girls: you’ll have to pay them a month’s screw you know, Bellamy. I’m sorry to intrude on your poetical rhapsodies with anything so sordid, but still,” Gale shrugged his shoulders: after all he did not know why he interfered. But Bellamy seemed so horribly prosperous—he remembered the plea of Reynard the fox, that he could not resist eating the lamb because it looked so fat and contented, so well pleased with itself—if anyone ever murdered Walter Bellamy it would not be on account of his vices, but of his infinite self-satisfaction…

Elinor Mordaunt’s novel, Bellamy, was well-received  by the critics at the time of its initial release, but seems afterwards to have vanished almost without trace. Possibly it was a case of bad timing: the novel appeared during the closing months of 1914, by which time its overt sympathy with the working-classes and the union movement, its graphic descriptions of the appalling factory conditions and its criticism of “the bosses” may have seemed inappropriate, not to say unpatriotic. Certainly this is not a novel to provide comfort or lift the spirits, or to make people feel good about the might of England.

That said, these aspects of Bellamy are not the novel’s focus, but rather the backdrop and framework of its eponymous anti-hero. This novel is above all a character study, tracing the ups and downs of Walter Bonnet Bellamy from his deprived childhood in a manufacturing town in the north of England to a place at the pinnacle of English society—almost. Bellamy’s is a life lived in cycles: he does not crave success and fortune so much as achieving success and fortune; again and again, on the very brink of grabbing the brass ring of his current enterprise, he self-sabotages, dropping himself back to the bottom of ladder for the sheer pleasure of climbing it all over again. Never once does it cross his mind that the next time, he might fail—failure is not a possibility for Walter Bonnet Bellamy.

For the most part Elinor Mordaunt presents Bellamy to us in a tone of wry detachment; there is a sense that she shares the strange mingling of revulsion and involuntary admiration that comprises the attitude of those closest to Bellamy himself. However, we should note the sardonic double meaning in Mordaunt’s choice of epitaph for her novel: It is ill work endeavouring to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—the town which produces Walter Bellamy also produces artificial silk, a substance that functions as both the reality and the metaphor of his life: try as they might, neither one nor the other will ever be mistaken for the real thing.

The early chapters of Bellamy offer a vivid, shocking picture of life in a manufacturing town: the struggle for survival, the inadequate wages, the injuries and fatalities that unavoidably occur, the stunted, half-starved lives that most take for granted, the miseries of an extended strike. Walter Bellamy begins to combine work with his schooling from the edge of eight. He is eleven when his father dies; at twelve he begins full-time factory work. Initially he accepts a position as a “runner”: this is the best-paid work that someone of his age can attain, chiefly because it is also the most brutally demanding:

    Directly it is taut, as it is in a moment, the boy runs forward with the loop in turn. And the twister, still winding, runs the silk on to big spools, set on a horizontal rod before him.
    The boy must run very fast, just as fast as the twister can turn his wheel, and that is with a concentrated fierce rapidity. For it is only by doing this business at a tremendous rate that the silk will twist exactly as the best tailors like to have it.
    If the boy does not run as fast as the man winds, the thread tightens too quickly and breaks. If he stops the man at the wheel must stop too: then there are words.
    He runs with bare feet, for no one could run rapidly or surely enough with shoes. He runs in his shirt and trousers, because the work is terribly exhausting; and when it is hot he runs in his trousers only. From six o’clock in the morning till half-past five at night, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. Through all the long day he runs, panting like a dog.
    Occasionally, if there is a slack moment while the twister is fixing his stands, he flies at a frame over which tresses of silk are stretched, divides them up and ties them, all with an incredible quickness of touch.
    But there are not many such moments: he is there to run; and he runs. Ceaselessly to and fro: padding out the hours with his bare feet; the days, months, years, till at sixteen, or there abouts, he is an old man, with bent and distorted legs…

Years later, when Bellamy is preening himself on having transformed himself from an ill-educated, ignorant, working-class-accented urchin into a gentleman – or at least, an artificial gentleman – he goes to a tailor to order a suit fitted to his new position in life. Though he has not thought about his days as a runner for the majority of those years, all of a sudden he is overwhelmed by memories—overwhelmed to such an extent, he has a rare moment of untainted sincerity:

    But Walter Bellamy did not hear him: neither did he hear the sound of the traffic in the street outside.
    All he heard was the pad, pad, pad of bare feet, and the buzzing whirr of a wheel… Suddenly, at the feel of the smooth stuff between his fingers, his imagination was again let loose: so vividly that memory seemed vitalised to reality. The pale January sunshine, creeping languidly through the high window sickened him. He felt the sweat prick out upon his skin; while his heart was somewhere up in his throat; his breath came in short, thick gasps, and once more he was running…
    Unloosing the end of the silk from the nick which held it, he pulled it out a few inches and examined it closely. It was springy and smooth and tightly twisted.
    Suddenly Bellamy realised the other’s presence and turned to him. “This silk is hand twisted.”
    The tailor looked surprised. But he had been a journeyman before he was a master, and knew the details of his trade. “You’re right there, Sir,” he answered: “we make a rule of always using the best of everything.”
    “Do you know what it’s done with?—It’s done with boys’ guts; with the hearts and souls and life of them. Don’t ever use it for my clothes, that’s all. And if you’ve got any humanity, don’t use it at all…”

From his earliest childhood Bellamy is somehow different from his fellows: a quality that, as he grows, he chooses to assign to the French blood on his father’s side of the family; fantasies about high-born relatives follow in due course. Bellamy is by instinct a story-teller, a play-actor, a poseur—but one who buys so deeply into his own inventions that he convinces others almost by sheer force of will. He has, likewise, a tendency to measure everyone else in terms of their “performance”. Bellamy’s dissatisfaction with “the show” put on by the invited preacher at the Methodist church attended by his family prompts him to make a play for the congregation’s attention:

    “We’ve gotten all we wants, more than we wants o’ Thy bounty. We dwarn’t ask Thee for nwart dear Lord as th’ world can gie us.”
    “It’s a loy!”
    The children were crouched on the platform, bent forward like their elders… It had all been outward decorum till Walter Bellamy’s voice broke the silence with its amazing declaration: “It’s a loy!”
    “‘Ush, ‘ush! Yark at ‘im!” The white faces swung forward, each punctuated by an open mouth.
    Walter thrilled. Once more he held the stage. He flung out his hands almost into the faces of the two boys who still crouched at either side of him.
    “We ain’t got what we want, an’ we ain’t contented, else we wouldn’t not be tryin’ fur better jobs. Us wants great foine ‘ouses like Morrison’s, an’ motor-cars an’ foine clothes an’ ter go the picture pallises every noight. Gawd dwarn’t give us all we wants. ‘E don’t do ‘alf as it’s up ter Yim ter do, so there! Why ‘E even lets it rain a Sundays!”
    A sibilant hush swept through the chapel, broken by a subdued crackle of exclamations. “Lord a’ mercy. The lod’s daft. ‘Oo is it? Walter Bellamy—Walter Bellamy.” The high whisper of his name was like wine to Walter. “The lod’s daft! Turn ‘im out. Where’s ‘is mither? Oh, Lord, oh, Lord—it’s divil for sure. Divil’s in lod.”
    The excitement roused by the minister’s prayer had been merely mechanical to this…
    There was a clear still moment. Walter Bellamy stood on his tiptoes swinging joyously to and fro in his Sunday boots. “We ain’t got nothing we want for all our yowlin’ and prayin’. An’ we won’t get nothing we want. I’ve asked God scores upon scores o’ times fur a bike. An’ what der yer think ‘E said? ‘Go ter ‘Ell—go ter ‘Ell’.”
    The boy’s voice had risen to a triumphant chant, he was drunken with his own imagery…

Later on, granted, Walter allows the minister to have the public triumph of casting out his devil – devils – but only because he takes such a profound delight in his own exorcism:

    The bump had been Walter Bellamy dropping on his knees: bending to the powers that be. Generously, superlatively testifying; calling upon the Lord. Confessing to sins that made the minister’s hair stand on end. He had gloried in the “wrastling”. Into no other boy in Edge had seven devils ever entered; he could feel them all capering round inside him…
    He would have gone on “wrastling” if it had not been that he wanted his tea: while it seemed that the minister was getting things altogether too much his own way. So he dropped to his knees with a will—as he did everything else. Such a sudden drop that he fell forward upon his hands; and the last devil tore him and came out of him, and went up the chimney.
    No wonder that the ceiling of the room below, the very walls were shaken. In a couple of days his knees were black and blue with bruises. But when Mrs Bellamy proffered vinegar and brown paper, [he] shook his head bravely. “They don’t yurrt, thank yer, Mither,” he said, with a beautiful patience. And indeed if they had hurt ten times as much he could have borne it, for no other boy in Edge could show such bruises, such supernatural scars…

These scenes occur within the novel’s first couple of chapters, and Mordaunt wraps up this sequence as follows:

    Walter took after [his father], but with all the pregnant differences of the newer generation. Bellamy senior was cheerful because he made a best of a bad job, Walter because he was determined to rise above the bad job; to trample those who made it under his feet: to live and be happy. Not merely content, but joyously happy—by foul means if it were not possible by fair. He could not have put it into words; but this was really the secret of his declaration that he meant to ask Satan for a bike if God would not give him one…
    Not for a single moment had he any sense of self-reproach for having deceived everyone. To use his own expression he had “made them sit up”. They enjoyed the stir and animation: if anything he was a benefactor. For never, at any time of his life, was Walter consciously immoral. He was simply non-moral. Or, rather, he was like an actor who carries every detail of his art into his own life: with such completeness that often enough he was honestly unable to distinguish between the true and the false. If there could be a charlatan by birth, such was Walter Bonnet Bellamy.

Much later in the novel, Mordaunt picks up on that remark about Bellamy being “like an actor who carries every detail of his art into his own life”. Involved with a chorus girl, Bellamy briefly considers trying life as an actor – a natural choice, the reader might think – only to recoil from the idea of someone else putting words in his mouth; or, even worse, getting the credit for those words.

Beyond a few short passages such as these, Mordaunt refrains from editorialising, content instead to let Walter Bellamy unfold before our eyes. It is a masterful piece of characterisation: Bellamy is – make no mistake about it – an awful excuse for a human being; yet time and again Mordaunt manages to lure the reader into sympathy with him, either because the people he is interacting with are even worse, or (as with the church sequence) because of his sheer joy his own capacity for performance, his ability to put personalities on and off at whim. And time and again also, she pulls the rug out from under the reader with a reminder of just how cruel Bellamy can be in his monstrous self-absorption.

Leaving Edge as a young man, Bellamy effectively leaves behind his entire life-to-date there, too. The things he discards include his mother, who he leaves entirely to the care of others except for the occasional gift of money. He has not seen her for two years when she dies, and he does not bother to attend her funeral. His mother is one of the people must be reminded about when he suddenly abandons one business venture for another – that business venture referenced in the quote above, which has made him “pots of money” – tossing aside likewise his existing clients and employees:

    “My dear Belle-amie, I think nothing, excepting that you’re truer to type than any man or beast I ever met. That reminds me—though why I don’t know—” Gale spoke smoothly, his head a little bent; but his deep-set eyes, suddenly keen and watchful, were full on the other man’s face. “What about your mother and—and Miss Irwin?”
    “Jane—my pretty plain—Jane? Mon Dieu, I’d clean forgotten!” Bellamy had been giving his nails a last polish; but now he slipped the little pad into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out his note-book. “Better send her something—I suppose she had a lot of expense coming up here, when I was seedy, and all that.”
    He was flicking over his notes as he spoke: passed by several for ten pounds, found one for five and held it out to Gale. “Send her that, will you? Tell her its for her and my mother to get some new frocks with: give them my love.”
    But Gale making no attempt to take the note, had moved back a step with his hands behind his back…

Bellamy‘s central portrait is offset and balanced by two more, those of the only people who ever get close to Walter Bellamy: Jane Irwin, with whom he grows up in Edge, and Francis Gale, a chance acquaintance made upon Bellamy’s first arrival in London—a man down and out, living hand-to-mouth, an alcoholic…yet for all that immediately and unmistakeably a gentleman in a way that Walter Bellamy is not and never will be, no matter how hard he works at it, and no matter how otherwise convincing his play-acting might be:

    The friendship between these two was a strange one. Francis Gale had the faculty of making Bellamy feel like a country bumpkin, coarse and commonplace; while he realised that the other man saw through him as no one else, excepting Jane, had ever done. Only with this difference: that while Jane liked him despite his flamboyant posing and prevarications—“flim-flam” as she called it—Gale liked him because of it: for he was piquant as a new cocktail to the waster’s jaded appetite, a creature of infinite variety and amusement.
    Once having realised that it was no use pretending, Bellamy found a certain sort of relief in the presence of one person with whom he could let himself go; be perfectly natural. After all it was no good putting on airs with Gale if he really wished to learn from him, as he did. For his ardent desire for improvement in the things which he knew the world values overcame his vanity. You might pick a pocket and merely be called a kleptomaniac; but if you dropped an “h” you were lost; while seducing your neighbour’s wife was a minor sin compared to eating with your knife.
    As for Gale he regarded Bellamy with a species of joyous bitterness, as the very quintessence of his kind: without heart or conscience or morals, the prophet of the great religion of “getting on”. The only excuse for the elder man being, that—having sunk so low himself—he found a sort of comfort in the thought of another who—without any sinking at all—was lower still…

Thus the two men, one as consumed with self-loathing as the other is with self-satisfaction, develop what is not so much a friendship as a perverse kind of symbiotic relationship. As Bellamy rises in the world, he feels strangely compelled to drag Gale up with him; while Gale, despising himself, goes along for the ride. As far as Bellamy can admire anyone, he admires Gale; as far as he is ever honest with anyone, he is honest with Gale, albeit chiefly because he has nothing to gain from being anything else. Yet, like his mother and the woman he professes to love, Bellamy tosses Gale away without a second thought or a backward glance when another opportunity for a fresh start carries him out of the country.

The third point of the novel’s strange central triangle is its most problematic aspect. Since they were children together, Jane Irwin has functioned as Walter Bellamy’s displaced conscience. She is as immovably, as fundamentally honest as he is the reverse; and yet in spite of herself she is drawn to him as something strange and exotic, something wild and exciting in the midst of her grindingly hard and monotonous life.

Along with her mother and Mrs Bellamy, Jane is an auditor of Walter’s “exorcism”; unlike her elders, however, she isn’t fooled for a moment. Still…

    Walter was very pale; for his histrionic art took it out of him, as it will out of anyone who practices it with such abandonment. But he allowed himself to be coaxed to eat a good many slices of bread and butter and cake, and drank three cups of tea; while Mrs Irwin was tearfully tender over him, the minister visibly yearned, and all Mrs Bellamy’s scolding served to bring out the wonder of the whole affair. Only Mrs Clarke said nothing; while Jane sat on her little stool, gazing up at Walter with a sort of maternal indulgence.
    Walter was made like that. He must seem to be very much better or very much worse than anyone else. All men folk told lies. But Walter’s lies were beyond the ordinary; it was wonderful how he did it. She was his one accredited friend and very proud of the fact; but though she understood him to the very innermost source of his being, his cleverness never failed to amaze her.

As he pursues his various life-schemes, Walter keeps Jane in a corner of his mind and heart—though sometimes it is a very small corner indeed. Jane is always the first person he runs to when he is in trouble; and she is the first person he brushes aside and forgets when things are going well. He leaves the thankless task of caring for his mother to her – Mrs Bellamy has one gear only, and that is “complaining” – sending money when he can, and when he remembers. Despite any number of irregular relationships and two different engagements (both of which he intentionally wrecks, for different reasons), Bellamy never ceases to suppose vaguely that he will marry Jane “some day”. Naturally it never occurs to him that she will do anything other than wait on his convenience.

When Bellamy suffers a collapse and contracts a dangerous fever, he calls incessantly for Jane in his ravings. As much out of curiosity as for Bellamy’s good, Francis Gale sends for her: he has always been aware that somewhere, there is a person Bellamy actually cares about. By this time Gale is sure that nothing to do with Walter Bellamy could surprise him, but Jane is a revelation to him:

    “He’s very ill. Miss Irwin.”
    Jane—seated on the very edge of one of the chairs pulling on the slippers—raised her head, her small face white with fatigue; her eyes, circled with black, serene and tender. “Don’t ‘ee take on,” she said. “It wouldn’t be Wally if he wasn’t very much whatever he was, that’s certain. An’ I’ve known him since we could both walk. He won’t be took yet, won’t Wally,” and she shook her head with an odd little smile.
    “Why do you say that?”
    “Well, he ain’t not ready yet,” her tone was one of infinite simplicity and finality. “But tell me, what does it seem loike, the sickness as has took him. Not—not—” her voice wavered, the colour went out of his cheeks: suddenly she was afraid. For even Wally, the audacious and indomitable Wally, might not be proof against that insidious white plague which claims its victims by the hundreds in Edge. “It’s not—not decline?”
    “Decline?”
    “Consumption, they names it down south.”
    “No, no—it’s a sort of breakdown. He’s been off colour for some time—something to do with his brain. I think I ought to prepare you. He’s raving—slightly delirious—talking all the time.”
    “Aye, lod, but Wally always did that.”

Jane moves into Walter’s rooms, nursing him back to health, and slipping away as silently as she came as soon as she is certain that he will recover fully—although not before she has gently refused an offer of marriage from Gale. It is in the wake of this interlude that Gale recoils in incredulous disgust from Bellamy’s crass offer of five pounds.

Jane Irwin, then, functions as this novel’s moral touchstone—and that is exactly the problem. Jane, plain Jane, never changes, not all throughout her years of hardship and deprivation and loneliness, and not in the face of Walter Bellamy’s alternating neediness and neglect. Her immobility of thought and feeling grows increasingly unrealistic as the novel progresses, particularly when set against the shaded portraits of Walter Bellamy and Francis Gale, and it contributes significantly to the novel’s main weakness, which it its ending.

To my mind there were two ways that Elinor Mordaunt could have satisfactorily closed her character study. Unfortunately she chose a third, and in doing so introduced a false note into Walter Bellamy’s behaviour for the first time. It makes for a disappointing coda to what is otherwise an enjoyably caustic piece of writing.

01/08/2015

Another adopted Aussie

One of the manifestations of the social phenomenon known as “cultural cringe” is that anyone who wanders through this country, for any reason, tends to get categorised as “Australian”. When it comes to authors, this otherwise exasperating tendency has a positive consequence: it means it’s likely that their books will be available here.

And so it was that I was able to get my hands on a copy of Bellamy by Elinor Mordaunt, for the latest round of Reading Roulette.

With Ms Mordaunt, the grounds for the local adoption was less tenuous than was often the case. After the failure of her first marriage, to a planter living in Mauritius, Mordaunt arrived in Australia in the middle of 1902 and spent the following seven years living in Melbourne. She bore a child nine months after her arrival (not her husband’s, though the boy carried his name) and worked obsessively to support him, taking any job she could find in addition to writing a women’s fashion page for a magazine and publishing short stories and sketches, which were well-received and began to gain her a solid reputation. During this time, Mordaunt made a number of close friends who stood by her through her financial difficulties and bouts of serious ill-health; in her 1937 autobiography, Sinabada, Mordaunt spoke with gratitude about the support she received during those years, and in general recalled her time in the country with warmth. A number of her short stories draw upon her experiences and observations during her years in Melbourne; and although she did not take up novel-writing until after her departure in 1909, several of her early fiction efforts have passages set in Australia, while her 1913 novel, Lu Of The Ranges, is set in country Victoria.

Mordaunt’s 1911 publication, On The Wallaby Across Victoria, is a non-fiction work that describes her travels throughout the state. Travel-writing later became one of Mordaunt’s specialties: after leaving Australia, she journeyed through the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia and published extensively about her experiences. She also undertook an around-the-world expedition and recounted her adventures in the Daily Mail. She was in the Canary Islands when she met and married her second husband, but this marriage also failed. Afterwards Mordaunt returned to England, where she spent the remainder of her life.

Elinor Mordaunt was a woman of many identities—perhaps not surprisingly, given the vagaries of her life and when she lived it. She was born Evelyn May Clowes, but began writing her short stories as “Elenor Mordaunt”; while her non-fiction appeared as by “E. M. Clowes”. In 1915, she changed her legal name to Evelyn May Mordaunt; by which time she had begun to publish as “Elinor Mordaunt”. And she had one more pseudonym associated with an episode of legal and literary uproar…

Before the spin of the wheel that landed me on Bellamy, I had already read one work by Elinor Mordaunt—or at least by “A. Riposte”. When, in 1930, Somerset Maugham published Cakes And Ale, Mordaunt was one of many offended by what they perceived as cruel caricatures of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy, the latter of whom had recently died (although, for what it’s worth, Maugham denied the Hardy portrait). A close friend of the second Mrs Hardy, Mordaunt was angry enough to retaliate. When a novel called Gin And Bitters appeared in 1931, published in America as by “A. Riposte”, no-one had the slightest difficulty in recognising the original of its dreadful central character—including Maugham himself, which is…interesting. His legal team immediately went into action, and succeeded in having the English edition of the novel suppressed in the face of threats of an action for libel. The novel, as a novel, is sufficiently entertaining, but its satirical intentions are its main point of interest. To modern eyes, perhaps the most surprising thing about Gin And Bitters is that never at any point does Mordaunt so much as hint at Maugham’s homosexuality; evidently she felt she had enough material to work with without wading into those dangerous waters.

In a way, Elinor Mordaunt had already had a dry run for Gin And Bitters in her 1914 novel, Bellamy, which likewise is a character study of a pretty awful individual; although Mordaunt is a lot more sympathetic towards her entirely fictional creation than she was towards the not-entirely-fictional “Leverson Hurle”…

01/05/2015

Sydney St. Aubyn. In A Series Of Letters

sydneystaubyn1    The season of delusion is past, and the reign of reason restored—I turn back, ashamed to have sacrificed my youth to such fallacious pursuits, and to have vested so important a matter as my happiness on the fidelity of a woman who was unworthy of esteem—without doing myself the justice to consider the caprices of the sex. Blinded by my passion, I hurried on with heedless temerity, until the power of recovering myself was lost—
    Or if I saw at all, it was with the partial eye of generous affection, that eagerly magnified every trait of merit in my mistress; whilst she, cunningly conscious of the weakness of love, with subtle dissimulation, moulded me to her will; and when a series of lengthened unkindness, or rather cruelty, had loosened the attachment, I was simple enough to be lured by a siren smile, and suffer the momentary gratification which resulted from it, to counterbalance an age of lingering anxiety.
    Thus self-betrayed into the snare, I hugged my chains, and thought even captivity sweet…

I’m beginning to worry that I’m not giving the novelists of the late 18th century enough credit—or at least, I’ve noted a worrying tendency in myself, every time I come across something interesting in an obscure novel, to add a rider to the effect of, “It was probably accidental.”

But is it always accidental? This is the question raised in my mind by Sydney St. Aubyn, an epistolary novel from 1794, which on the surface is yet another tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but which gradually reveals itself as something rather different; different and, yes, interesting. Which is to say, it still is a tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but the message it leaves us with is not the one we are led to expect.

I don’t know much – in fact, I don’t really know anything – about John Robinson, the author of Sydney St. Aubyn, except that he wrote several novels in addition to some poetry. (As you would appreciate, the name “John Robinson” is not a great aid to research.) I can only say that I’m now tempted to try his other works of fiction, to see whether what struck me as so interesting about this novel might indeed have been a deliberate exercise in misleading the reader.

At any rate, my opinion of Sydney St. Aubyn differs from that of whoever originally owned the copy of the novel now held by the Houghton Library of Harvard University, who saw fit to express his feelings about the novel’s two leading female characters by way of marginalia.

Unusually, this work opens in the immediate wake of a broken engagement, with our eponymous hero – or at least, protagonist – pouring out his heart-break and his sense of betrayal in a letter to his friend, Stafford Sullivan. But although St. Aubyn swears to abjure any further thought of Augusta Conway, his love for her dies hard; so that subsequently he finds himself caught between his lingering passion for his former fiancée and a new attraction towards a girl called Emily Alderton. Both women are conveyed to the reader via the usual descriptors of the sentimental novel: Augusta is damned via words like “haughty”, “imperious” and “headstrong”, while we know all we need to about Emily when we hear about, A tear—which started into the lovely girl’s eye, and stood there a glistening monument of wounded sensibility.

Tempora mutantur, and all that: Augusta, with her moods and uncertainties, and the constant impression given of motives beyond the ones declared, is a far more interesting character than that bundle of boring perfections, Emily. So I say, but evidently the owner of this book disagreed with me. Here is his opinion of Emily, who declares her predilection for St. Aubyn in a letter to her sister, Harriet:

.

sydneystaubyn2

.

And here, conversely, is his opinion of Augusta, expressed at the conclusion of a letter to St. Aubyn, who, she believes, is revenging himself upon her by drawing from her a confession that she still cares for him, even as he courts Emily Alderton:

.

sydneystaubyn3

.

I haven’t quite been able to decipher the adjective – any suggestions? – but I don’t think there’s much doubt about the noun.

Sydney St. Aubyn opens with a flurry of letters between St. Aubyn and his friend, Sullivan, and between Augusta and her friend, Louisa Wentworth—the latter horrified that Augusta has broken such a long-standing engagement, and certain that she is at fault. Augusta’s letters are masterpieces of circumlocution, but it eventually emerges that she has come to believe that St. Aubyn is the father of an orphan they have both been providing for. The child is that of a young woman seduced and abandoned, who was taken in by a cottager, and who died after giving birth. Augusta does not believe St. Aubyn’s protestations of innocence, which he makes both to her outside the scope of the novel, and in his letters to Sullivan.

Moreover, Augusta has reacted to the breaking of her engagement by immediately contracting another, to a Colonel Alderton—much to Louisa’s doubt, Sullivan’s scorn, and St. Aubyn’s mingled misery and indignation. St. Aubyn’s health begins to suffer, and he takes himself off to the spa town of Matlock, in Derbyshire, where he finds a friend in a fellow-sufferer—a Colonel Alderton.

Long story short, Augusta’s betrothed – who has been pressing for an early marriage – is actually a penniless Irish adventurer called Douglas, who has been posing as a man known both as a military hero and as having a comfortable fortune of his own. The imposture is exposed by Sullivan, who makes it his business to inquire into this multiplicity of Aldertons, but actually recognises Douglas from an earlier encounter.

Douglas’s subplot is one of the stranger aspects of Sydney St. Aubyn. He starts out looking like the villain of the piece, but – after a series of largely comic experiences – undergoes repentence and redemption and allowed to have a happy ending. It turns out that (i) Douglas is the father of the illegitimate child, and (ii) the child’s mother faked her own death as a way of separating herself permanently from her lover, leaving her baby as part of her self-inflicted punishment. She and Douglas are eventually reunited and marry, and presumably live happily ever after. They’re about the only people in this novel who do.

Douglas, peculiarly enough, given the nature of his introduction into the plot, functions as the comic relief for much of Sydney St. Aubyn. Left without resources in the wake of the failure of his plan to marry Augusta’s fortune, he ends up joining an acting troupe—we are not surprised that he turns out to have a natural aptitude. What might surprise us – or at least, amuse us – is the role in which he has his first success:

    The play I fixed upon to make my entré in, was “Oroonoko”—and on the awful day appointed, it was announced with all the honours of a country play-bill—besides all other embellishments, it set forth “how this tragedy was a particular favourite on the London stage, and drew crouded audiences—representing a royal black prince in chains, and how his fair Imoinda, from whom he was separated when taken prisoner, afterwards came into the country where he was captive, and how she there met with her long-lost lord—and at last how they died for each other, &c. &c.”…
    Presently, Oroonoko was led forth in chains—my figure was striking, and I was welcomed with plaudits—this encouraged me, and I went thro’ my part tolerably well—but owing to the absence of one of our company, who was reported to be in a state of ebriety at a neighbouring ale-house, we were under the necessity of making free with the whole of the third act, and dividing the last into two—this was reckoned a harmless stratagem, and had often been practised.—The play was concluded, and Oroonoko retired with distinguished applause…

(Though intended as a joke, this interlude highlights the fact that, although Aphra Behn and her writing became increasingly unacceptable over time, dramatic adaptations of Oroonoko remained popular right through the 18th century and beyond.)

Meanwhile, our central characters are getting themselves into one hell of a mess. Determined to put his relationship with Augusta behind him, St. Aubyn begins courting Emily Alderton, when she comes to Matlock to be with her brother. Emily is immediately swept off her feet, as she confesses in a letter to her sister:

    A bold assertion this, Harriet, and will carry with it a sort of whisper that your Emily’s affections are in danger.—
    I despise the poor artifices of dissimulation—and were I to say that I could observe with indifference such a happy assemblage of amiable qualities in one form, I must have some motive—unworthy of myself.—Genuine merit commands the ready suffrage of sensibility, and on such an occasion, conscious innocence may chearfully stand forward to offer it…
    The resplendence of St. Aubyn’s character, bursting upon me at once, captivated my yielding senses—and I could love the man, were it only for his humble unaffected modesty, his mild unassuming delicacy, and in short for those endearing graces which he so evidently possesses, as the pure inheritance of nature.—
    I am only alluding to the accomplishments of his mind—his person deserves a separate panegyric.
    And when I tell you that it is everything I could wish for in a lover, you will conclude that nature has also been equally liberal there…

And St. Aubyn writes likewise to Sullivan:

    Emily Alderton came to Matlock, and won my affections.—I surrendered my heart, shattered as it had been by a former successless flame, whilst the lovely maid, unconscious of its imperfections, tenderly and fondly accepted it.
    Yes, Stafford, she heard the ingenuous avowal of my love with melting sensibility—and proved to me that her soul, all purity itself, suspected not the integrity of another.
    Then happiness spread forth her alluring blandishments, and I began to forget all I had suffered.
    The hours flew away on silken wings—and Emily and St. Aubyn lived only for each other—blest in the delicious confidence, the happy intercourse of Love…

And so matters stand – that is (just to be perfectly clear), St Aubyn has declared his love for Emily but not formally proposed marriage – when he learns that Augusta Conway is in Matlock…

In the wake of the exposure of the false “Colonel Alderton”, Augusta suffers a collapse that, we gather, has its basis in humiliated pride rather than wounded affections. She also makes a wild declaration to her friend, Louisa, that she will never marry—a declaration that she then spends a fair chunk of the novel trying to take back. (It is touches like this that, while they condemn Augusta utterly in terms of the genre that contains her, make her so much more real to the modern reader than the personality-less Emily.) To assist her convalescence, Augusta’s doctor orders her to a watering-place of her choice…

St. Aubyn is thrown into a panic by Augusta’s arrival, and more so when he receives a note from her requesting him to call upon her. Augusta is in the immediate wake of her pledge never to marry and tells him so, offering her friendship on that basis. She also explains her misapprehension about the paternity of the orphan and apologises for doubting him. Augusta’s unwonted humility and gentleness overset all of St. Aubyn’s good intentions, and he ends up all but renewing his vows to her, leaving her with an assurance that he sees her proffered friendship only as the first step to their reconciliation.

Once parted from Augusta, however, St. Aubyn can see nothing but his untenable situation with respect to Emily Alderton…a situation which is no secret to the other visitors to Matlock, and which very soon comes to Augusta’s ears. Concluding that St. Aubyn’s intention has been to lead her on and then spurn her, as revenge for her breaking of their engagement, she experiences torments of humiliation beside which her sufferings in the wake of Douglas’s exposure are nothing:

    At the moment  when, like another knight of the woeful countenance, he ventured into my presence, trembling with confusion, his brow overspread with a modest, mild complacency, artfully endeavouring to exact from me an engagement that amounted to a pledge of my affections, do you know, my dear, that he was absolutely betrothed to another?
    And your friend Augusta was to have been the mortified dupe to her credulity.— Oh yes, Mr St. Aubyn—undoubtedly you shall retaliate in this way, and take your own revenge on Augusta Conway!…
    He has absolutely descended into the commission of a mean falsehood, to gloss over his artful hypocrisy—for whilst I ingenuously acknowledged the impulse of that friendship I proffered him, (and which I declared was founded on a conviction of his superior merits) I regretted that he could not, from the gay circles of fashion and beauty, select some deserving fair one, who by returning his affection, might establish the means of forgetting his former unsuccessful attachment.
    But, no—if I would give him my friendship as a hostage for love, he would gratefully receive and preserve it.—
    —Yet but an hour before he had been at the feet of this melting damsel—this enchanting Miss Alderton, sighing out his passion, and doubtless confirming the sincerity of it with a profusion of oaths…

As, indeed, he was.

In his fretting over Augusta, St. Aubyn is stand-off-ish to Emily, and her distress alerts Colonel Alderton to the situation. Matlock gossip has been busy with St. Aubyn and Augusta, too, and it is an outraged brother who finally confronts St. Aubyn about his apparent perfidy. This elicits something at least approaching a full confession from St. Aubyn, and ends with him insisting there is nothing he wants more than to marry Emily. Alderton gives his consent and approval, and the three of them depart Matlock for Bath, where the wedding is to take place. St. Aubyn writes an account – or a version – of these events to Sullivan, in which he admits that he knows very well that his only chance of being happy with Emily is if he never sees Augusta again…

(It is St. Aubyn’s hurried departure with the Aldertons, in the wake of all this, that prompts Augusta to send an angry, scornful letter after him—and that letter in turn which prompted the owner of this book to call her a bitch and accuse her of “plaguing the poor man so”—!!)

Up to this stage of Sydney St. Aubyn, the reader has certainly been encouraged to sympathise with the eponymous Sydney; while his position as the novel’s main identification character lends authenticity to his feelings, his version of events. But at this point, with St. Aubyn caught between Augusta and Emily, the possibility of a second and very different reading of the text begins to creep in.

Overtly, the narrative of Sydney St. Aubyn positions the capricious Augusta as the villain of the piece, wreaking emotional destruction upon herself and others through her wilfulness; yet as the story progresses, it is, it seems to me, St. Aubyn himself who really occupies that position—not least because of his appalling mishandling of the emotional tangle in which he finds himself enmeshed. Though he keeps declaring himself a victim of circumstances, or of fate, for the disaster that ultimately befalls him he has nothing to blame but his own selfishness and stupidity.

Then, too, there is the matter of the broken engagement, which is never properly accounted for—Augusta’s professed belief in St. Aubyn’s paternity of the illegitimate child being clearly an excuse rather than a reason. Perhaps, over time, Augusta began to sense something a bit “off” about St. Aubyn—nothing she could put her finger on, or give a name to—nothing that would justify the breaking of an engagement—but which determined her not to marry him after all…

And, in fact, there’s something else peculiar about this novel. All throughout it everyone harps upon St. Aubyn’s perfections—his “superior merit”, his “resplendence”, his “brilliant character”—and the more the other characters go on like this, the harder it becomes to take any of it seriously. The novel, in its entirety, protests far too much. And the more it does so, the more it begins to feel not like an example, but a deconstruction of the tenets of “sentimentalism”…

This, anyway, is the reading that I finally took away from Sydney St. Aubyn. Whether it is the reading I was supposed to take away—I have absolutely no idea. If it is intentional, it’s an unusually subtle bit of writing for this literary period.

The second volume of Sydney St. Aubyn opens—oddly. It was the practice in the late 18th century for multi-volume novels to be released volume by volume, and I suspect that this one was so. At any rate, John Robinson – posing as the “editor” of the letters, as so often the case with epistolary novels – switches to third-person narrative for a time here, apparently in order to hurry the plot up. We get a brief tut-tut visit with Augusta via an excerpt of a letter from Louisa, in which she deprecates Augusta’s contemplated “revenge” upon St. Aubyn; we hear of the marriage of St. Aubyn and Emily, and their departure for Dublin; and we learn that Colonel Alderton has stayed behind in England for a very particular reason—nothing less than to pursue his sudden attraction towards Augusta:

    A few days previous to his sister’s departure for Dublin, he had invited St. Aubyn to a private interview, and with the confidence of friendship, unbosomed a secret that a good deal chagrined him—this was no other than a growing partiality for Augusta Conway…
    St. Aubyn, a good deal disconcerted, (tho’ he knew not why) at this unexpected discovery, could hardly resolve what to answer to make the Colonel.—We would fain hope, for the honour of St. Aubyn’s character, that he had renounced every lurking thought which threatened to remind him improperly of Miss Conway—certain it is, he did not receive the intelligence with that cordiality which the other expected—whether St. Aubyn foresaw danger in too close an alliance with the former disturber of his peace, or that a selfish motive (unworthy himself) prevailed for a moment, the future contents of these pages will best determine…

So.

Much of Volume II is devoted to the reclamation of Douglas and his reunion with Maria and their child; we needn’t get too much into that. Our A Plot finds Colonel Alderton pursuing a determined courtship of Augusta, who eventually capitulates—sending Louisa word that she will have her revenge upon St. Aubyn, after all:

I suppose, Louisa, I must marry him.—Well—St. Aubyn has had his whim that way, and my time must come—what think you my dear, will Mrs St. Aubyn’s husband be pleased with this family commutation?—Now, draw yourself up, my sober sentimental girl, and ask what right he has to be thought of?—Remember, Louisa, I told you I had  not done with my gentleman yet!—he shall see what I am capable of—he shall see what real love can accomplish—that Augusta Conway might shine as a spinster, but that she is unrivalled as a wife…

Louisa takes Augusta’s invitation literally, and sends her back a letter full to overflowing with criticisms, admonitions, warnings and forebodings. The Colonel, meanwhile, sends what sounds like a masterpiece of tactlessness to St. Aubyn—only we don’t get the letter itself, we get some commentary upon it by our “editor” instead:

He forgets not to tell him, that he expects, very shortly, to lead her to the altar—nor is he sparing in his description of Augusta’s charms, but with too prodigal a hand dwells on the fascinating subject.—He felt as a lover, and forgot that it was possible for him to be fanning the expiring embers of a flame which ought, by that time, to have been wholly extinguished—perhaps it was imprudent in the Colonel to do so…

You think?

The consequences of this self-absorbed epistle become evident in a hasty letter sent to Stafford Sullivan by Emily St. Aubyn:

    Ah, my God, Mr Sullivan—you are my St. Aubyn’s friend—will you not be a friend to me too?
    He has been delirious for some hours—and there is that on his mind, which I am convinced will for ever mar our happiness, even if it should please providence to restore him to health.
    He calls loudly on Augusta Conway—me he heeds not, but wildly declaims against the treachery of friendship, and swears, with ungovernable fury, that he will not live to see love’s
altar polluted…
    St. Aubyn has had a dreadful night.—She, the fatal she, has been the constant object of his thoughts, nor has there been a moment that his mind did not seem wholly occupied with a determination to punish some person’s perfidy, and abuse of confidence.—My God—surely he does not mean my brother!

St. Aubyn – unfortunately, we might be inclined to add – recovers, and sends Sullivan a letter full of mingled self-blame and self-pity:

    Ah, Stafford—I was not born to be happy—I told you so over and over.—
    Never did wedded love witness a brighter ornament than Emily St. Aubyn.—Nor did a purer, or more ardent affection ever glow in the bosom of virtuous love.—
    I—I am a wretch, Stafford—who have profaned its hallowed rites—who have wantonly trifled away every hope of happiness.
    What luckless agent of mischief brought the devoted Emily Alderton in my way, to be sacrificed to insensibility like mine—at a time, too, when fate seemed to be relenting—when AUGUSTA CONWAY herself, frank and unreserved, deigned to sue to St. Aubyn?
    Was it well done of the Colonel to fasten me so closely to the flimsy etiquette of honour, whilst he was projecting the plan of robbing he of the mistress that I find, Stafford, is still dearer to me than life?

And upon St. Aubyn hearing that Augusta and the Colonel are actually married, we get this:

    On my estate in Yorkshire, I have a small but elegant mansion, fitted exactly for a recluse.—
    There is a wilderness behind it.
    The first thing I have to do is to construct an hermitage in the most retired part of this wilderness—I shall have a lamp perpetually burning—and there I shall sojourn from morn to eve—my wife and I have agreed upon it—she says she won’t control me.—
    Here I shall cherish reflection, instead of flying from it.— You know I have been disappointed a good deal in life—but ’tis all over—I laugh now at what fate can do—yet your friend is no common philosopher.—
    Is not this an excellent scheme?

Sure—if you’re a pathetic, childish, self-indulgent wanker.

I think what makes Sydney St. Aubyn so difficult to gauge is the lack of editorialisation—novels of this period usually weren’t shy about telling the reader what to think, but John Robinson practices an unexpected degree of restraint. And while these days we might be inclined to conclude that there is no way the reader could be expected to sympathise with St. Aubyn, the fact is that there are plenty of sentimental novels in which the characters behave just as extravagantly and selfishly as St. Aubyn, and yet clearly do expect us to sympathise. So while we can give John Robinson the benefit of the doubt in this respect—doubt there still is.

And as for the conclusion of the narrative itself—from the moment he starts raving about hermitages, it’s pretty clear where Sydney St. Aubyn himself is headed. The only question is how many of the supporting cast he might manage to take down with him…

31/01/2015

A Duchess And Her Daughter

mason1b    Even in far off Spain, when the news of the Duke of Valenzuela’s death reached there, a year after the event, the King and the Spanish Cardinals tucked away in a corner of their minds the question of the future husband of the new Duchess. Now the question of the future husband had emerged from its corner and was beginning to occupy the centre of the stage. King and Cardinals weighed the merits—more often the demerits—of a score of young noblemen who burned with chivalric zeal to make the young heiress—and themselves—happy. Two or three of these young men slipped out of Cadiz and were already on the high seas bound for Caracas. Also on the high seas was the King’s order that the marriage of the Duchess should await the Royal decision. And then—
    And then a rumour, a fantastic story, an impossible tale, crept along the Orinoco in canoes, plodded over the plains and climbed the Andes on mules, galloped through the streets of Caracas on horses. It was first whispered, then said, then shouted that while King and Church and State were deciding who was to marry the Duchess of Valenzuela, that headstrong girl had decided the matter for herself; had married; and had married a nobody…

If I were “the best woman in the world, M. K. W. M.”, I don’t know that I would be particularly flattered by having Alfred Bishop Mason’s A Duchess And Her Daughter dedicated to me: this is a strange and rather unpleasant work of historical fiction; “historical” in that it is set in the past, anyway—predominantly in 18th century Venezuela, a choice unusual enough to make it somewhat disappointing that the novel is not really “about” that, with the Spanish colony simply providing an exotic backdrop for the characters. As for the characters themselves, as far as I have been able to determine they are entirely fictional, which makes the whole exercise seem a little—well, pointless.

This is, as its title suggests, the story of a mother and daughter; but not their lives together: A Duchess And Her Daughter is a novel of two halves. The first half is tough going indeed, partly because Dolores – the Duchess of the title – is such a nasty bit of work, and partly because of the degree of violence in the story, including sexual violence. The second half, focusing upon Alegra, the daughter, is more interesting in a number of ways – Alegra is a far more engaging individual than her mother – but just because we do like her, the direction of the narrative is difficult to take.

A Duchess And Her Daughter begins in the middle of the 18th century, when the Conde de Arcetri is banished from Spain to the wilds of Venezuela for the heinous sin of marrying a woman “as good as she is beautiful”—but not noble. The two have a child, the fair and lovely Dolores, who grows to young womanhood chiefly under the care of the servants, and puts her own spin on her mother’s character by being as selfish and wilful as she is beautiful. When she is sixteen her parents die as a result of a spotted fever epidemic, and Dolores falls into the clutches of the Duke of Valenzuela.

On the principal of it being better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, the Duke of Valenzuela chose to exile himself to Venezuela after being ruled against in a matter of court precedence, his family deemed to rank below that of Medina-Sidonia: “The heralds-at-arms had been bribed and bought.” (This is the Duke’s point of view: the real family of Medina-Sidonia holds the oldest dukedom in Spain, whereas the dukedom of “Valenzuela” is fictional; although the family name of the marquisate of Villasierra is “Valenzuela”.) The Duke is an unhappy man for many reasons, not least his wife’s failure to give him the son and heir he craves. His only minor consolation is that he has succeeded in acquiring “a younger son of a younger son” of the family of Medina-Sidonia as his chaplain, gaining a morose satisfaction out of Father Josè’s subordinate position in his household.

So far from the government seat in Caracas, the Duke’s power is absolute, and there is no-one capable of interfering when he takes an interest in a woman – with or without her consent; a father who tries is tortured to death. When the death of her parents leaves Dolores alone, the Duke turns up in the guise of a respectful mourner and potential guardian, bringing an invitation from his Duchess that Dolores should make her home with them. Longing to escape from her lonely existence and ugly surroundings, Dolores accepts—and soon realises that she has made a terrible mistake. The Duchess is not at home, nor is she expected for some days…

After the first shock, Dolores takes her rape surprisingly well; disturbingly well. She is more upset by having to confront the Duchess when she returns from her visiting. The Duke, however, has already had a word with his wife:

    “You were a fool to come here without knowing I was here. A man must have his diversions. Mother-of-God, what else could pay him for living in this dreary country? Make the best of it. He is mad for a son of his own. If I could have given him one , he would have been as good a husband as a great gentleman can be. Bear him a son. The boy will be baptised as mine. Then we will adopt you as our daughter. You can go back to Spain with us and I will make a great match for you there. It is hard to follow my advice? He will make you follow the first part of it. Stop your silly sobs. Remember your race. Be proud that you are to mother the next Duke of Valenzuela.”
    The great lady leaned back in her chair of state, languid and silent. The Duke had told her what to say and she had said it. She did not wish to be further bothered with the affair…

And so Dolores becomes the third point of a ménage à trois. The Duke grows increasingly obsessed with her, sexually and as the potential mother of his son; but as soon as his fixation upon her gives her the ascendancy, Dolores grows bored with him. Instead she turns her eyes in quite another direction:

    Amid all his flock, Don Josè felt akin only to this flower-like girl and his very soul was shaken by the thought of her sin. She had, indeed, been forced into it, but was she really repentant? She had confessed the sin, but in a strange way. She had asked for absolution. He had told her he must think it over. Outside the confessional she had pouted over the delay. She was really adorable when she pouted. At this point in his pastoral meditation, Don Josè made a gallant, but unsuccessful, attempt to remember that he was not a man, but a priest.
    The confession had been rather startling, not only in substance, but in detail. Priest and penitent were separated as usual in the confessional, but they saw each other many times a day and perforce knew each other well. Even with a pierced plank between them, they were acutely conscious of each other as man and woman, young man and young woman. And when the penitent seemed to assume that the priest was a sexless Methusaleh and went into amatory detail with a frankness that left nothing unsaid, Father Josè had had a terrible tussle with Don Josè…
    Dolores had much enjoyed that confession. It was piquant to talk to a man about such things, especially to a man as handsome and as well-born as Don Josè. If the Duke were only like Don Josè, she mused…

Father Josè is devoutly religious and committed to his calling. He is also a man of great courage, which earns him the respect – and more importantly, the restraint – of Juan Paez, the local bandit chief, the son of an Indian woman and a runaway slave, who encourages the practice of “the old religion” and leads period raids against the Spanish settlers. But in battle with Dolores, Father Josè stands no chance. The girl stalks him, teasing and tormenting him until he is almost driven mad with his desire for her. He tries to avoid her, praying constantly for strength and even locking himself in his cell; but the end is inevitable:

The third night—it was four days before the Duke and Duchess were due—she came softly into his sala, put her finger on her lip, held him back with her left hand, and turned into the chapel. He followed as if he had been her dog. The moonlight fell upon the altar and across the ledge of stone in front of it, the ledge with the rich Moorish rug. In front of the altar she kissed him. In front of the altar she let fall her outer garment. In front of the altar her glorious arms and her marvellous breasts gleamed. She lay herself prone of the altar-rug…

The affair continues for some weeks but finally the tortured Father Josè tears himself away, withdrawing  from the Valenzuela household, retreating to an isolated Dominican monastery. In answer to the Duke’s request for a new confessor, he sends Fray Federigo, “a fat and aged friar”—much to Dolores’s amusement. Already certain she is pregnant by the priest, she announces the glad tidings to the Duke and Duchess; glad tidings for both, he because of his yearning for a son, she because the end of her Venezuelan exile seems finally in sight. But fate has other things in store for both…

Upon entering the Valenzuela household, Dolores is reunited with her foster-sister, Maria, an Indian girl, who was sent away when Dolores was ten and taken into the service of the Duchess—whom she hates. She learns to hate her even more for Dolores’s sake. Maria’s grandmother was a medicine woman, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft, but not before passing on her knowledge. Just before Dolores is due to give birth, the Duchess is taken violently ill and dies. Torn between her horror of what Maria has done and her soaring ambition, Dolores insists upon the Duke marrying her immediately and legitimising their child. Almost before the cowed and frightened Fray Federico can complete the hurried ceremony, Dolores is in labour. The child is—a girl.

The Duke is not really disappointed: the title and estates of Valenzuela may be inherited directly by a daughter in her own right, and if the right husband is found the title of Duke can be bestowed upon him. The Duke, indeed, is devoted to the lovely Alegra. When the child is five, Sister Isabel of Santa Clara, a convent in the town of San Fernando, arrives bearing credentials from the Archbishop of Caracas. The warm-hearted Alegra soon loves her instructress, and begins calling her “tia”, “aunt”—to which Dolores takes exception, on the grounds that they know nothing of the nun’s antecedents:

    The sister picked up the gage of battle that had been flung at her feet. “Before I made my vows,” she said, “I was the Countess of Estramadura; I was born a Medina-Sidonia; I am the sister of a holy man, formerly a priest, now a Dominican monk, who used to be chaplain here. It was probably before Your Grace’s time. He was Father Josè when he was at San Fernando.”
    Sister Isabel said this with a placid saintliness of face and of manner. There was no suggestion in her beautiful eyes of any hidden knowledge of the past. But the Duchess changed colour…

For five years life continues placidly; too placidly for Dolores, who longs to be queening it in Caracas instead of trapped in the middle of nowhere; she is bored with her life and doubly bored with her husband. However, the Duke is an old man now and reluctant to take his beautiful young wife into society, as so keeps reneging on his promises about visiting Caracas. The Duchess is just beginning to lend a willing ear to Maria’s dark counsel regarding her marriage when all plans become redundant. Juan Paez and his followers are on the warpath, sweeping across the Spanish settlements in an orgy of bloodshed and torture. Before the raiders reach San Fernando, Alegra and Sister Isabel are successfully concealed in a secret room in the church; but after their resistance is overborne, both the Duke and Duchess meet a gruesome fate…

Juan Paez, too, is killed during this final confrontation, and subsequently there is peace in the district. Alegra, now Duchess of Valenzuela and owner of vast wealth and estates both in Venezuela and Spain, continues to live in her father’s house under the care of Sister Isabel. As she grows into womanhood, she takes upon herself the management of her property and of the many branches of her trading businesses, by which she sends her goods to all corners of the globe, and by which she becomes almost unimaginably rich. She also devotes herself to the welfare of her peons—although the church firmly dissuades her from schemes for their education.

Naturally, Alegra represents a marital prize of the first order. She is herself aware of this—and also that it is only a matter of time before a husband is forced upon her by the King of Spain, eager to keep a grip on her vast possessions. Unless, of course, she can find a way of forestalling her fate…

Alegra begins to make frequent visits to the tiny village of Yriarte, which is near to the river-port town of Angostura, one of the centres of Alegra’s business interests. Overtly she is calling upon a native of Yriarte, a woman called Juana who, though clumsy and unattractive, has a rare skill for embroidery. Sister Isabel grows suspicious of these visits, certain that Alegra is up to something but unable to imagine what—and what could she be up to in a muddy hole like Yriarte? Like everyone else at San Fernando, Sister Isabel is staggered and disbelieving when Alegra finally does return home—because she does not come alone:

The nun seized the wedding-certificate, read it, looked with amazed eyes at the winner of this matrimonial prize, tried to congratulate her ward, broke down and left the room. The groom, meanwhile, had stood in awkward silence. He was, thank God, of unmixed Spanish descent, but there all thankfulness ended. He was almost as plain as his wife was beautiful. Despite his size, he did not look at all manly. His tiny moustache was no larger than many Spanish women had then and have now. A peasant and a very lout.

Sister Isabel is so profoundly offended by the marriage, the fact of it and Alegra’s secrecy, that she makes it her excuse to withdraw and return to her convent, in spite of Alegra’s pleas that she stay:

    When she said good-bye, the Duchess clung to her and cried, but the nun’s chill aloofness never left her. So long a companionship between two noble souls ended. So the love between them seemed to end, at least on Sister Isabel’s side. But love has its “ashes of roses” and within those ashes embers may live long, and may sometimes be fanned into flame again.
    There is no record of the nun’s first meeting with her brother, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior of the Convent of St Dominic, at Caracas…

News of Alegra’s marriage to Juan de Mendoza travels across Venezuela like an earthquake, and explodes like a bomb at the Court of Spain—but what can they do? – a marriage is a marriage, no matter how scandalous. As for the happy couple— Alegra goes back to running her estates and her businesses, while Juan fills much of his time in hunting up in the mountains; an acceptable pursuit for a man in his position. Eyebrows are raised, however, and tongues begin to wag, when during his time at home, he takes up embroidery.

The main difference in Alegra’s life brought by her marriage is that she is able to receive many more guests into her home. The world outside is changing; more visitors come every day to Venezuela, and those that arrive in San Fernando and in Angostura inevitably call upon the beautiful and gracious Duchess. Some are invited to stay. One of these is John Winthrop, the owner of a thriving commercial concern based in Salem, who has decided to spend some time in command of one of his own trading sloops.

The attraction between the handsome young American and the beautiful Duchess is immediate and deep, but of course the entire situation is impossible, as they equally recognise: she is a married woman, and he is a heretic. Winthrop is well aware he should leave, but day by day – then month by month – he lingers in Angostura. Meanwhile, Winthrop’s second-in-command, Henry Lyman, strikes up an unexpected friendship with Juan de Mendoza; the two begin taking lengthy hunting trips together up into the mountains, staying away for weeks on end. From one of these trips, Lyman returns in a panic, urging Winthrop to leave Angostura—then revealing that he must leave, and not alone:

He hesitated a long time, then let out a torrent of words. “This Don Juan, the Duchess’s husband, as you think and as everybody thinks, isn’t her husband, or anybody’s husband. He couldn’t be anybody’s husband. He’s a woman. And he—she—is with child by me. I must take her home and marry her and make an honest woman of her. And to do that we must start straightaway.”

As Lyman’s urgency indicates, he has in fact delayed his departure with Juan – Juana – past the point where it is safe for anybody; and although Winthrop immediately arranges for the couple’s departure, Juana goes into labour before they are well clear of the territory and Lyman must dock the ship and go in search of a midwife. Naturally, the news gets out. And if the story of the Duchess’s scandalous marriage rocked both Venezuela and Spain, it was as nothing compared to the fallout from this belated revelation about her “husband”. But before anyone has even had a chance to absorb the implications of the situation, yet another shockwave emanates from Angostura: the Duchess of Valenzuela has married a heretic…

To John Winthrop’s way of thinking, the revelation about Juana clears his path to Alegra, but for her the matter is hardly so simple. Winthrop, though he cannot promise conversion, does promise that he will study the matter; further, that he will never interfere with Alegra’s own religious practice, and that their children may be raised in the Catholic faith. Even so, Father Felipe, Alegra’s confessor, refuses to marry them—at least at first. The headstrong Duchess, having already bullied one frightened priest into “marrying” her to Juana Godina, now resorts to blackmail: she will either be John Winthrop’s wife or his mistress—Father Felipe may choose. Knowing Alegra, the priest also knows this isn’t a bluff. Consoling himself with the reflection that, occasionally, exceptions have been made and such marriages permitted, he does as the Duchess demands:

A year passed by. The lovers knew well the recipe for a happy marriage, to go on making love after marriage as before it. They practiced the recipe. Only those few happy souls who have known a great love can imagine what that year was. Its joys were worth more than all the sorrows that followed it…

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with A Duchess And Her Daughter: twelve months of marital bliss are skipped over in five sentences, and then we return to our previously scheduled ugliness and violence.

Alegra and John get their year simply because both communication and decision-making are slow processes. While the Duchess’s first marriage was a scandal, and the circumstances of its subsequent dissolution grounds for ribald laughter and obscene jokes, her marriage to a heretic – and the danger of her vast property passing into the hands of that heretic – is an outrage not to be borne. Spain begins to make plans for dire retribution, and gets as far as having the marriage annulled via a papal decree; but before it can take further action it is forestalled by Caracas, where the Inquisition holds ultimate power. Without warning, John Winthrop is arrested and imprisoned; a token trial ends in a unanimous vote that he be burned at the stake during the upcoming auto-da-fè. The Grand Inquisitor at this time is none other than our old friend, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia.

Despite her many transgressions, Alegra maintains her standing as a Grandee of Spain, and on this basis she obtains a private interview with the Grand Inquisitor. She offers him a bargain: if he will save John Winthrop’s life, she will enter a convent and  donate her entire possessions to the Church. At length Don Josè accepts, conniving at Alegra’s scheme to fool Winthrop with the lie that she will join him in a few days: she knows he will not leave otherwise. By the time he learns the truth, she will be beyond his reach forever.

Of course, there’s just one problem with this plan: the people of Caracas have been promised the burning of a heretic. Not to worry:

    The chief role in the procession, a role that eclipsed even those of the Grand Inquisitor, the Archbishop and the Governor, that of John Winthrop, English heretic, was played by a man as amazed as he was scared, a certain low-class Spaniard, Juan Galapagos by name, who had been awakened that morning from a sound sleep and advised to dress quickly, breakfast quickly and confess quickly, because he was to be burned alive. As the offence imputed to him had been only that of presenting himself with unclean hands at the communion service, it had never occurred to him that he ran the slightest risk of such a fiery doom. In fact, it was another man whom the Grand Inquisitor had remembered as a truculent ruffian…
    When he realised from the maledictions showered upon him that he was supposed to be Winthrop, hope came back to him, poor fool that he was. It was all a mistake; he would explain it and be set free. His manacled hands forbade the tearing off of the yellow bonnet with a peaked top that hid his face, but he began shouting: “I’m not the Englishman! I’m Spanish! I’m Juan Galapagos! Let me out! It’s a mistake! I’m not the Englishman!”
    A lay-brother deftly gagged him with a long scarf. When he threw himself upon the ground, he was prodded to his feet by sword-pricks, while the crowd roared approval and cursed the English heretic for his cowardice. A moment later he was bound to the stake that had awaited Winthrop. It so happened, doubtless because the foreign heretic was the wickedest of all the victims, that when the tiny flames were but beginning to crackle at the feet of the others, they had crept to his shoulders. When the mounting fire licked away the scarf that had gagged him, his screams and blasphemies made the exit of the heretic Englishman to hell deeply gratifying to the pious folk of Caracas. “I did not know the Englishman knew so much Spanish,” said the Governor laughingly.

The circumstances of their separation are more easily borne by Alegra, who is sustained by her faith. Over the years that follow she becomes celebrated for her tireless work amongst the poor and the sick—“Santa Alegra”. She dies loved and mourned by multitudes. But she has one last shock in store, one final act of defiance:

    When she was being arrayed for the great function of her burial, her shocked sister nuns found affixed to the back of the crucifix she always wore the miniature of a man, of a man who had been condemned to the stake for heresy and who, they thought, had died at the stake. They sent in haste for Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior, bishop and Grand Inquisitor, and showed him the awful thing. “What shall we do with it, Reverend Father?” they asked.
    “Do with it? Leave it as it is and bury it with the saint who wore it.”

It is some time before John Winthrop can accept that he has lost his wife forever but, after several bouts of near-fatal illness, and some equally dangerous attempts to see Alegra, he finally tears himself away from Venezuela. He returns to his old life in Salem, but he is not the same man. His business thrives but emotional life he has none. His experiences have left something inside him crippled.

Many years later, Salem is startled by the arrival of a monk—and even more so when the monk takes up residence with John Winthrop.  Unable in his pride to keep the secret of his relationship to “Santa Alegra”, Don Josè has been stripped of everything and exiled. He carries to Winthrop the news of Alegra’s death, and her last message to him—her plea that he convert so that they might meet again. As he promised Alegra he would while begging her to marry him, Winthrop begins to study her faith.

It is very difficult to be sure how the concluding stages of A Duchess And Her Daughter are supposed to be taken. The novel is shot through with anti-Catholicism – the “narrow-mindedness” and “bigotry” of the characters is mentioned again and again, while the plot repeatedly turns on what is presented as the “moral flexibility” offered by confession and absolution; and that’s before we start dwelling on the horrors of the Inquisition – and yet the story concludes with its hero’s conversion; albeit that we get here one of the few glimmers of humour to be found in this grim tale:

Then came the event that startled Salem as the old town had never been startled before. John Winthrop made a public profession of his new faith in the little Roman Catholic chapel in a by-street of Salem. It was a thunder-clap. Friends of a lifetime fell away from him. Widows and maidens stared aghast upon this lost soul. It was suggested that the community should cease to do any business with him. The two banks of Salem, in the first flush of the shocked hostility, agreed not to lend him any money, but they did not tell him so, partly because he had not borrowed any money for years and partly because each feared the withdrawal of the ample funds that stood to his credit on its depositors’ ledger. He was a merchant prince who financed his own ventures. Moreover his Midas touch did not seem to have deserted him. The grim New England God seemed to hesitate about punishing a Winthrop…

And what are we to make of what we must assume to be John Winthrop’s vision of his reunion with Alegra?

In the chapel to the right of the great doorway of the cathedral at Caracas…John Winthrop lies in peace, his skeleton feet some eighteen inches from Alegra’s, awaiting the Last Trump, when he and she are again to spring up triumphant, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, throbbing with love, pulsating with joy…

Really? Granted, I’m no expert; but I always thought of the afterlife as being a lot less—well, fleshy. Then it occurred to me to wonder—is that what Don Josè told John Winthrop to get him to convert?