Archive for ‘Reading Roulette’

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:

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sydneystaubyn2

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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:

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sydneystaubyn3

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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?

27/01/2015

A life in piecemeal

Hey, it’s Reading Roulette! Remember Reading Roulette?

Wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. The latest selection, A Duchess And Her Daughter by Alfred Bishop Mason, from 1929, proved frustratingly hard to get hold of, albeit that copies were out there. (And a big shout-out to my friend Will, for facilitating my belated acquisition.) The author of A Duchess And Her Daughter is also proving a bit elusive—likewise out there, but not in any comprehensive way.

Alfred Bishop Mason was born in 1851, the son of Roswell B. Mason, who was mayor of Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. He attended Yale Law School (and was a member of Skull and Bones), and subsequently wrote and translated various works on law, political economy and history. Otherwise, Mason is best known for his “Tom Strong” series, historical stories written for boys, in which a namesake representative of each succeeding generation of the Strong family manages to be present for the most important events in America’s history. A Duchess And Her Daughter seems to be Mason’s only other work of fiction.

In 1893 Mason pops up in the case of Harriet Hubbard Ayer, the cosmetics entrepreneur whose family took advantage of her depression to have her institutionalised. At that time people were compelled to pay for their own incarceration (even if it was involuntary), and Mason was court-appointed to manage the sale of Ayer’s assets. In 1889 he was the guest of Grover Cleveland at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St Augustine, Florida. He must have enjoyed his trip to Florida, because according to the New York Herald Tribune he returned to the Ponce de Leon four years later: “At St. Augustine the weather has been perfect and there have been innumerable sailing parties and picnics besides the usual round of receptions and dances. Mr and Mrs Alfred Bishop Mason recently arrived with a party of guests aboard their private car…”

The same 1889 article refers to Mason as “Vice-President of the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad”; by 1895, he was President of the company. In 1903 we hear of him in association with the Vera Cruz and Pacific Railway. Mason was granted a concession by the Mexican government for the building of a railway line between Cordoba and Santa Lucretia. In an article published by Mason himself on “Mexico And Its People“, he speaks paternally of “my railway”. Evidently the project came to grief, however: William Schell’s study, Integral Outsiders: The American Colony In Mexico City, 1876-1911 reports that, “In 1904, when his road ran into financial difficulties and was taken over by the government, Mason became a promoter of coffee and rubber plantations.” It also refers to Mason as a member of, “This tropical mafia camarilla.”

Mason was married twice. His first wife – who annoyingly I can only find referred to as “Mrs Alfred Bishop Mason” – sounds like a bit of a firecracker. Towards the end of the 19th century she was active in anti-Tammany politics in New York, urging women to use their “influence” on their menfolk and working to galvanise the immigrant population into political action. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Call reports that, having always been interested in machinery, in 1895 she took advantage of her husband’s presidency of the Florida railroad company and learned how to drive a steam train. Eventually, “She could take an engine from the Atlantic to the gulf of Mexico as well as an old engineer.” Mason’s second wife – who earned recognition in her own right and therefore got to keep her name – was Mary Knight Wood, a pianist, composer and song-writer.

And – to bring this blather back to something resembling “the point” – it was Mary to whom Mason dedicated A Duchess And Her Daughter

20/09/2014

Three Men And A Maid

fraser1    Philip, unnerved and horrified, scared at himself, at the eruption of his own rage, at the tarnishing of his honour, leapt across the slab across the entrance, and was running wild, plunging through the bracken, over the boundary-stone, down to the water-side and along it, as if flying from death, his hair lifting on the winds, his eyes agaze with suffering. By the time he reached the bridge he was quite breathless, but still at a mechanical trot he went on, over the bridge, up the steep of the village street, and the three or four boys and girls still playing at that hour out of doors gaped at the sight of the distracted man who rushed past them. On to the Greyhound on his left he went, and past it to the arcade on its south wall stretching down the alley, under which, all alone, stood Marjorie awaiting him: Marjorie, gloved and hatted, ready to go with him, wondering why he was late, her trunks already smuggled out of the hotel to the station by connivance of Hannah and her aunt.
    By a sideward look down the alley Philip saw her. In her sudden distress it seemed to her that he had forgotten her. He seemed hardly to recognise her for a moment, his stare was so fixed and glassy. Nor did he stop. When she, in her awe and surprise, made a step to follow him, he stretched out his left hand backward at her to stop her with such as aspect of gloomy warning in his look as her heart likened to the gaze of lost mortals, nor ever forgot to her dying day. In spite of herself she was struck rigid by it, for that forbidding hand was as peremptory as a law of fate…

Having succeeded in reviving Authors In Depth with The Mysterious Wife (and its associated investigation into The Mysterious Author), next cab off the rank was the equally long-neglected Reading Roulette.

The last spin of the random number generator landed me upon a short work from 1907, Three Men And A Maid by Robert Fraser—except that “Robert Fraser” turned out to be a pseudonym concealing two unlikely collaborators. Louis Tracy was a one-time army officer who then went into journalism, and who began in the late 19th century to supplement his income by writing fiction. In fact, “supplement” is a bit of an understatement: Tracy was a prolific writer who turned out novels and serialised stories for the magazines at quite a ferocious clip. He specialised in crime and adventure stories, although his greatest success came with The Final War, a paranoid fantasy in which Great Britain is betrayed and attacked by an allied French-German force. Tracy’s work was always jingoistic to the point of xenophobia, and the novel is a perverse kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy, one equally convinced of Britain’s unassailable position as the greatest country in the world and of the innate treachery of “foreigners” (ad infinitum) who, though vicious, deceitful and homicidal, are also craven at heart and therefore easily defeated.

Another prolific writer of popular fiction around the dawn of the 20th century was M. P. Shiel, who specialised in science fiction and the supernatural, but was also known for crime fiction featuring various master-criminals. His most successful work was The Purple Cloud, an apocalyptic fantasy in which an explorer returns from the North Pole to discover that a cataclysmic disaster has left him the last man on earth. Shiel had high ambitions for his writing that sorely conflicted with his constant need for money, the latter driving him to turn out what he dismissively called “hack-work”, though it was usually entertaining. The failure of some of his more experimental work prompted him to form a writing partnership with Louis Tracy with whom, other than the pace of their commercial work, he had little if anything in common. The two had first collaborated, sort of, when Tracy fell ill during the serialisation of his novel, The American Emperor, and Shiel was brought in to write one the instalments. After that the two men co-authored several works under the pseudonyms “Gordon Holmes” and “Robert Fraser”.

Three Men And A Maid (published first in the US, then in the UK as Fennell’s Tower) does not begin too promisingly, it must be said. What we seem—stress, seem—to have on our hands at the outset is a rather over-turgid romance, with a beautiful village lass being pursued by three very different but equally determined – not to say obsessive – suitors.

The lass is Marjorie Neyland: she is only the daughter of a local inn-keeper, but her artistic ability and the sympathy of an aunt with an independent income sees her whisked away to London for a time to study. Marjorie is both beautiful and good-natured, and by the time she returns to her family she has acquired too a certain air of refinement. She has also learned to despise her family—or at least, she is accused of doing so by her older sister Hannah, who sees the effect of Marjorie upon the local gentleman, and conceives for her a deep and bitter hatred:

    “She has only come here to upset the whole place,” said she, viciously stabbing a hole in the turf with her umbrella-tip. “She might have stayed where she was in London, studying her ‘Art’, and not been missed, I’m sure! But from the day she put her foot back in Hudston, everybody seems to have taken leave of their senses…”
    “Did you ever happen to hear of a certain Helen of Troy?” asked James Courthope, fingering the end of his blonde beard.
    “I’ve heard the name, I think,” answered the frowning Hannah. “Who was she?”
    “A young lady with a classic nose, and no doubt a naughty little fire in the corner of her eye; and because of these a city was sacked, and many souls of heroes were sent down to you know where. It isn’t an unusual thing, but we don’t want it going on at Hudston…”

The first of the three men is Robert Courthope, the local squire: a hot-tempered, hard-living, hard-drinking individual oblivious to women until the day when he tries to trifle with the pretty inn-keeper’s daughter and in addition to being firmly repulsed receives a sharp lessen in respectful behaviour. Losing his heart in an instant to the unexpectedly ladylike Marjorie, the squire makes up his mind to marry her—and since, as squire, he holds the lease on the Greyhound Inn, the public house run by Marjorie’s father, it does not occur to him that there will be any obstacle to his plans.

The second man is James Courthope, the squire’s cousin and heir. Although he has been trifling with Hannah, even to the point of making vague promises of marriage, James too is smitten with Marjorie. The squire’s reckless way of life has damaged his health, though he is only a young man, and until now James has been serenely confident of inheriting all upon his cousin’s early death. However, Robert’s sudden passion for Marjorie poses an unexpected danger, and James determines that a marriage between them must be prevented at all cost. His sharp eyes have seen that a romance is developing between Marjorie and another visitor to the area, Philip Warren, the nephew of the local vicar. Confident that if the squire does not marry Marjorie he will not marry anyone, James concludes that a hasty marriage between Marjorie and Philip would best serve his purpose. He finds an eager collaborator in Hannah, to whom the thought of Marjorie becoming the lady of the manor is torment.

An odd mixture of the scholar and the athlete, Philip Warren has a passion for antiquities and is an expert on the history of his ancestors, the de Warrenes; he is also deeply superstitious about the signet ring he wears, an inheritance of the de Warrenes, which traditionally brings good fortune to the wearer, while its loss would mean disaster. The vagaries of Philip’s life have left him dependent upon his uncle, the aesthete Mr Isambard, whose profound pride of family is at odds with his calling. Philip knows very well how his uncle would react to the thought of his marriage to Marjorie, who despite her personal qualities is anything but a lady by birth, and realises he must devote some time to carving his own way in the world and earning enough to support a wife—even if it means being separated from Marjorie for a time.

As anticipated, Robert Courthope calls upon the Neylands to ask Marjorie to marry him—but Marjorie, forewarned, slips away and hides in the tangled garden behind the Greyhound. While there, she receives a message, carried by the “simple” boy Felix, to meet Philip Warren at an ancient, isolated structure known as Fennell’s Tower. Marjorie is puzzled and apprehensive, but finally decides to go. Sure enough, Philip is there—and by the time the two realise that neither of them sent for the other, the door of the structure, long wedged open, has been slammed shut and locked…

Even the sure knowledge that Marjorie is compromised and disgraced, that she will never be the wife of the squire, cannot hold Hannah entirely silent, despite James’ warning to let events play themselves out. The squire, already furious and humiliated by Marjorie’s evasion of his proposal, is driven nearly to madness when Hannah hints at her whereabouts—and who she is with:

The moon was moving wildly in and out among flying masses of cloud, lighting them here and there to the whiteness of lunatic countenances, so Robert Courthope could see the two prisoners. Little he dreamed that they were not there of their own free will, and, indeed, he might well be forgiven his unhappy error at that moment. They were standing on the roof, and the battlement coping hid them no higher than Marjorie’s waist. The clean, high-headed profile of Philip, bending over Marjorie, looked almost elfin in the moonshine, while Marjorie’s arms cast about Philip’s neck had, in the maddened eyes of the man beneath, a certain wildness of abandonment. He could see, but because he could not see nearly and clearly, the scene up there on the tower-top was touched for him with something of strangeness and glamour, which poisoned his jealousy with a drop of mere mortal gall. That same redness and shaking of the face with which he had lately glared at Hannah in the hotel overcame him now, and he glared at them in their heaven, until finally there gushed from his throat one loud, long bellow of uncouth laughter, which the storm and the moor flung far in echoes down the valley…

Marjorie and Philip are eventually released by a passing doctor on a house-call, but the damage has been done. Robert has dripped poison in the ears of Mr Isambard, who is every bit as disgusted about his nephew’s involvement with a woman of “that class” as Philip anticipated. His way of speaking of Marjorie prompts a quarrel that ends with Philip being turned out of the vicarage, almost literally penniless. When he later tries to explain to Marjorie why he cannot marry her immediately, as he wishes to do even regardless of his need to make reparation to her, she won’t hear a word of it, finally persuading him to live on what her Aunt Margaret can give and she earn with her painting until he can support them both. The two make plans to leave Hudston and marry in London, but circumstances intervene…

Having recognised Robert Courthope’s laugh, Philip believes it was he who locked the door to Fennell’s Tower. A furious confrontation between the two ends in an extraordinary proposition. Robert and Philip have often fenced together; now, Robert challenges to Philip to an old-fashioned duel, the loser – should he still be alive – to have nothing to do with Marjorie in any way for a period of five years. Goaded beyond endurance, Philip accepts. The two men agree to meet that evening at a nearby ruined church. Both write letters explaining the circumstances, in case of misadventure, while Robert makes a will leaving everything to Marjorie.

It is from the site of the duel that Philip flees, repulsing Marjorie as she waits to take the train with him to London, and vanishing from the eyes of men. The next morning the dead body of Robert Courthope is found in the ruined church. There is only one sword at the scene—and its point is buried deeply in the squire’s heart…

The death of Robert Courthope brings upon the scene Inspector Webster of Scotland Yard, and all of a sudden the narrative of Three Men And A Maid—to this point a straight-faced and rather purple-prosed romantic melodrama—suddenly takes on a new lease of life. The story itself suddenly transforms into a murder mystery with a courtroom scene climax (one of its two climaxes, anyway), in the process acquiring a welcome albeit somewhat mordant note of humour. Inspector Webster is quite an original, and I am disappointed to have to report that while Louis Tracy did write a few crime series with recurring characters, this seems to be the only appearance of the “plump, bullet-headed, bullet-eyed” police detective:

    After bidding the local police disperse the villagers to bed by spreading the news that Philip Warren was under arrest, he went to the inn where he lodged, wrote several letters, posted them, built up a good fire, obtained a fresh supply of cigars, and locked the door of his sitting-room. Then he took from a drawer a rough map of Hudston, embracing Fennell’s Tower, Netherend Hill, Edenhurst Court, and Lancault. On the map he staged a number of small leaden figures, types of soldiers and army nurses which had served many purposes in their day. For these were Webster’s puppets when he tied to reconstruct a crime, and every little mannikin had been labelled with names famous in the annals of Scotland Yard…
    “How many people knew that Warren was in Lancault, and how many that Courthope meant to meet him there?” asked Webster. “James knew, and Hannah, and Marjorie, and Bennett, and Archibald, the groom, and Felix, the idiot. Some knew only of the one man’s presence, others knew of both. James knew everything, because he rode like a madman to Nutworth to warn Bennett of Robert’s intention to make the will which would disinherit him. What did those two precious rascals plan? They could not be sure of Robert’s death, because accidents may happen, and an accident did happen in this case, whereby the better fencer was beaten… Obviously, the one man who, next to Warren, had a mortal interest in the fight was James. Come on, Jimmie! Hunt ball or no, you must have been peeping into Lancault at 9.15 pm…”

The involvement of Inspector Webster in the investigation of Courthope’s death has the further benefit of bringing out the best in Marjorie, until then rather too much given to tears and collapses, although understandably so. Although he is presumably there to find and arrest the missing Philip Warren, Marjorie gets a trustworthy sense from Webster, and carries to him her knowledge and discoveries. The suspicion that he is only humouring her puts Marjorie on her mettle, and a partnership of sorts develops between the two, which on Webster’s part becomes increasingly respectful and sympathetic. Marjorie believes passionately that whatever happened between Philip Warren and Robert Courthope, the squire’s death was not murder; while Webster has seen and heard enough during the inquest to convince him that there is far more to Courthope’s death than meets the eye.

Indeed, mystery begins to pile upon mystery—one being why the squire would have summoned Hannah Neyland to witness what turns out to be nothing more important than a document pertaining to a land sale; another, why (as James testifies) the squire told his cousin that he locked Philip and Marjorie in, when he clearly did not; and yet another the origin of the crumpled, bloodstained letter that Marjorie finds among Hannah’s things while looking for a handkerchief (and of which she gains possession only after a spirited and surprisingly physical cat-fight). And above all, of course, we have the question of why, since two swords were evidently taken to the scene, Phillip Warren (if it were he) would have carried away his opponent’s weapon while leaving his own, identifiable as his, in the dead man’s body…

    “Proofs? Innocence?” asked the Inspector with a fine assumption of wonder. “Innocence of what?”
    “Of murder at least? Doesn’t this thing prove that there was a duel?”
    “If one man kills another in a duel, isn’t that murder? Not a very ugly murder, perhaps, but still murder in England. And why do you suppose that this letter and envelope constitute a proof that there was a duel? They don’t.”
    “They do to me.”
    “To you, no doubt. Others may be harder to convince. Suppose that Warren did assassinate the Squire, what was to prevent him, after the deed, from scribbling in pencil that there had been a duel, then enclosing it in an envelope out of the dead man’s pocket?”
    “But what marvellous luck to find in the dead man’s pocket an envelope in his own writing!” said Marjorie, “and an envelope directed to, of all appropriate people, the County Coroner!”
    “Queer, isn’t it?” said the Inspector, smiling.

Given the nature of Three Men And A Maid, it would be unfair to reveal too much about the true circumstances of Robert Courthope’s death; though more crimes than one must be solved before the matter is elucidated, and another, equally serious, averted.

A bonus for the reader offered by this short novel is its sense of the early 20th century. The fact that Hudston is “on the post-office telephone system” and may therefore be contacted directly by telegram is an important advantage at various points of Webster’s investigation. Meanwhile, in London at least, a young woman may live alone in a studio apartment and dine at a restaurant with a man without attracting notice or criticism; and while hansom cabs are still the most common form of public transport, more advanced institutions, such as expensive hotels and even Scotland Yard itself, are beginning to rely upon the “electric brougham”.

Speaking of Scotland Yard, one of the most interesting short passages in this novel gives us a glimpse into the dawn of forensic science:

    As Philip had assured him most positively that the sword found in Robert’s body was his, Philip’s, it followed that this sword, discovered by Webster himself, on the third day after the murder, plunged up to the hilt in the clay of the river bank quite a hundred yards from Lancault Church, was the weapon which had fallen he lifeless hand of the unfortunate Squire.
    The detective’s trained art had stopped him from withdrawing the rapier at once from its earthy sheath. He obtained a spade, and disinterred it, taking infinite pains to secure every particle of soil that adhered  the steel. As a result, a report from the Government analyst was now in his pocket. The laboratory had revealed that the point of the blade and some few grains of earth bore chemical traces of the blood of a mammal. Beyond that the expert could not go, but Webster knew that he held in his hand the sword which had wounded Warren and snapped his ring.

All in all, then, Three Men And A Maid is an enjoyable read—though you need to be able to accept its more melodramatic aspects, like the duel and its consequences, and Philip’s belief in the fate associated with his ring, and its emphasis on the Philip-Marjorie romance. It is most successful as a mystery, being consistently entertaining and offering some surprises along the way—such as the revelation that, intelligent, imaginative and resourceful though he is, Inspector Webster is not quite infallible…

    The second alternative was so staggering that he refused to permit it to take form in his brain. Nevertheless, as the homely phrase declares, he went hot and cold all over, a somewhat difficult and complex operation which, in the present instance, demanded the immediate swallowing of a tonic.
    “By gad!” he said again, when he dared to think. But he managed to smile at the monster his imagination had created. He was vain of his professional skill. Not willingly would he admit that he had blundered…

07/03/2014

Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years

gresley1“Depend upon it, we cannot too closely conform to the direction of the Church. Nothing can be so preposterous as the custom of the present day, to preach against ordinances, when they are so lamentably neglected. It almost looks as if clergymen wished to drive away their congregation on the festivals, in order that they may not have the trouble of performing the service. And then to enlarge on spiritual worship, as if the two were adverse, or incompatible one with the other; whereas the express object of Christian ordinances is to raise the soul to spiritual things. For what do we commemorate the deeds of saints and martyrs, but that, by the contemplation of their zeal, and faith, and holiness, a spirit of emulation may be kindled in our own dull souls? For what do we follow the steps of our blessed Saviour and the prophets and apostles, in frequent fasting and prayer, but that we may inure our souls to self-denial, and raise them above the carnal vanities of life? Have the Christians of the nineteenth century any right to think that they can safely dispense with aids to devotion which the holiest of men in all ages have employed? I am convinced,” continued Mr Manwaring, rising from his seat and speaking with more than usual energy, “I am convinced that our people are perishing by thousands, from the neglect of the means of godliness prepared for them in the Church. This is the grand stumbling-block of the Evangelicals, and is the cause of the comparatively small effect of their exertions upon the masses of the people. Much as I respect the zeal with which they have brought forward many vital and peculiar doctrines, I must freely say, that, practically, they have entirely failed in accomplishing any great amount of good. Their work is hollow and insubstantial, and will not endure the fiery trial.”

It’s my own fault, of course.

When I realised in the course of Stephen Jenner’s Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church that the novel had been written in response to an earlier, factionally-opposed work, it seemed to me that in the interests of fair play I was obliged to give that earlier work equal air-time. The work in question, Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years, is a Tractarian manifesto by one of the first people to recognise that the novel could be powerful and far-reaching vehicle for the dissemination of doctrinal positions. William Gresley was already the author of several successful non-fiction works on church history and practice when he turned to fiction as a way of broadening his audience. A number of his works were intended for a younger audience (what we would today call “young adult”), and use tales from history to entertain and preach, but his Bernard Leslie is an unapologetic polemic intended to explain, on one hand, not merely the content of the controversial Tracts For The Times, but their essential rightness, and on the other the many doctrinal and practical failings of the faction that Gresley chooses to call “Evangelical”.

Having struggled through both Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, I have to say that my sympathies are with the Low Church faction. At least Stephen Jenner pretended to be writing a novel for about 50% of his work, before dropping the façade of fiction and lecturing me unmercifully about the treacherous proceedings of the Tractarians and, conversely, the doctrinal soundness of the Low Church. William Gresley, on the other hand, is not even a quarter of the way into his 300-page work before he strips off the gloves.

Bernard Leslie and Steepleton are written on almost exactly the same scheme; a deliberate move on the part of Stephen Jenner, no doubt. Both novels follow a young man through his early education (the only thing that Gresley and Jenner agree on is that education at the time was grossly inadequate, both generally and particularly as a preparation for ordination), his first church appointments, and his subsequent rise to prominence as an advocate for his doctrines. Both start out with their protagonist declaring that he belongs to no faction; after joining a clerical society, eye-opening encounters with various fellow-clergymen, and much reading and reflection, the young ministers eventually come down on one side of the factional fence, though of course Bernard Leslie and Frank Faithful end up on opposite sides. Both works depict their minister-heroes as the personification of correct doctrinal practice. Both devolve into a series of long, hectoring lectures intended to support one position and undermine the other.

(The other thing these novels have in common is their attitude to women, who are essentially invisible in both. Like Frank Faithful, Bernard Leslie marries—and her bare existence is all we ever hear of Mrs Leslie, although her husband takes the opportunity to expound for a full chapter upon the question of whether clergymen should marry.)

It is unclear how much of Stephen Jenner ended up in Steepleton, but Bernard Leslie is clearly a semi-autobiographical work. Ironically, neither William Gresley nor his literary counterpart set out for a career in the church. Here, we are offered only the cryptic comment, Owing to circumstances which need not be detailed, the plan originally laid out for me by my father was abandoned; in reality, Gresley suffered an injury which damaged his eyesight and compelled him to give up his plans to become a barrister: the church was his second choice.

Since Gresley did not condescend to anything as prosaic and unnecessary as “a plot”, his Bernard Leslie is not really a reviewable work. That said, several things did leap off its pages at me, in addition to those issues which Stephen Jenner specifically highlighted in Steepleton—or, more correctly, wrote Steepleton in order to highlight. I think all I can do here is point out what particularly struck me on the way through.

The first thing, perhaps the most significant thing, is William Gresley’s choice to designate his opponents under the title “Evangelical”. Here immediately I stumble into difficulties, because – heaven knows! – I’m no expert in the finer points of the hair-splitting 19th century religious vocabulary. (For example, I’m still trying to figure out why “Puseyism” is a derogatory term.) However mistakenly, I was under the impression that “Low Church” and “Evangelical” were not necessarily interchangeable terms, though there was certainly overlap; although the difference was perhaps one of attitude rather than doctrine.

It seemed to me that by his blanket use of “Evangelical”, William Gresley was unfairly bundling some disparate factions together under a single heading in order to dispose of them collectively with a sometimes misapplied but sweeping condemnation—and I received some support for my uncertain views from some unexpected quarters, in the first place from William Gresley himself, in what struck me as a piece of revealing disingenuousness.

The contentious question of the correct response to the Tracts For The Times raises its head in the district in which Bernard Leslie’s first curacy is situated. The Evangelicals want them denounced, but a High Church clergyman named Mr Manwaring, who becomes Leslie’s doctrinal mentor and the novel’s voice of High Church reason, compels the Tracts’ enemies to admit publically that they haven’t read them. (I don’t have any trouble believing that was frequently the case.) This admission shocks the still-naïve Leslie, who responds by obtaining and studying the Tracts under Mr Manwaring’s tutorage—on the whole embracing them, occasionally pointing out passages which seem to go too far, or act as the expression of a personal opinion rather than church opinion. The first of several chapters devoted to the contents of the Tracts is also where the word “Evangelical” begins to intrude upon the narrative, and concludes with the following footnote:

There is an obvious objection to use a word of so excellent a meaning as “Evangelical” to designate a mere party. There seems, however, no alternative but the substitution of some offensive nickname. I have thought it better, therefore, to employ a word which conveys to all persons the notion which is meant to be expressed, and is not offensive to the party to whom it is applied: though of course I should maintain that High Churchmen are the most truly evangelical, in the right sense of the word,—that is, they keep to Gospel-truth more strictly than others.

Presumably the “offensive nickname” that Bernard Leslie chose not to use was “Low Church”: we may recall that in Steepleton, in all likelihood provoked by this very quote, Stephen Jenner has his Frank Faithful take to himself the term “Low Church” as a badge of honour: Now it is an undeniable fact, which is of great moment in this inquiry, that the appellation “High Church” is assumed—the designation “Low Church” imposed: the one is arrogantly claimed—the other meekly borne.

We might dismiss all this as a fairly childish exchange of name-calling except that, most tellingly, two contemporary publications that embraced Bernard Leslie, both of them unabashedly High Church, to say the least, each expressed unease at the novel’s use of “Evangelical”—indicating that the substitution was indeed a misapplication of the term.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a publication that lasted for almost 200 years, appearing in monthly issues from 1731 to 1922. During that time it changed content and approach several times, and in the first half of the 19th century was openly a Tory / High Church publication that campaigned against reform and “liberalism” and supported the Tractarians during the controversies of the Oxford Movement. Indeed, so devoted was it to its cause that in its review of Bernard Leslie, which appeared in the August 1843 issue (and must have been of the second edition), it finds itself capable of praising the author in the following terms: He understands the art of composition, and can impart his knowledge in a lively, dramatic form, without weakening its effect, or impairing the dignity of its subject…

If I were to make a list of words that do not describe Bernard Leslie, “lively” and “dramatic” would be somewhere near the top of it. However, doctrine is the real issue. The magazine’s praise is almost unstinting, but even so, evidently a squirm of conscience prompted the reviewer to observe in a footnote: The term “Evangelical,” it has been by some observed, is a misnomer…

And footnotes also intrude in a far more surprising context: The Christian Remembrancer was a High Church magazine that ran from 1819 to 1868, and a prominent vehicle for the leading Tractarians. In the July 1842 issue, Bernard Leslie is one of the works considered at length as part of an examination of “the great movement”: lengthy quotations are included, and Gresley is praised for his clarity of argument and his handling of the Tracts, in particular his ability to distinguish issues, and to separate doctrine from opinion. Yet even here, a caveat suddenly appears: The truth of this remark of course depends upon the sense in which the party term “Evangelical” is used…

Startlingly in some respects, the article in which Bernard Leslie is examined is titled “The Progress Of Anglo-Catholicism”—and startling, too, at least from certain perspectives, is the novel’s attitude to Catholicism, which is declared to be correct in its essentials: it is the Evangelicals who are the enemy, not the Catholics, who have simply, and rather foolishly, allowed a crust of human arrogance to overgrow correct doctrine and appropriate submission to church authority. “Dissenters—Wesleyans, for instance, or Socinians, or Papists, who as we believe, are born and educated in an erroneous system,” declares Mr Manwaring, and so are not to be blamed for their errors, which are circumstantial. The Evangelicals, on the other hand, have with eyes wide open chosen to reject many of the church’s traditional beliefs and practices, and are consequently damned.

My own use of the word “traditional” evokes an involuntary shudder. Even as in Steepleton Stephen Jenner devoted pages to the implications of “hereby” and “thereby”, here William Gresley, via Mr Manwaring, gives us a painfully lengthy and detailed explanation of why “tradition”, often a term of abuse applied to Catholicism and a way of summing up everything wrong with that religion, is actually a good and right thing:

    Mr L. “I begin to think that no satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at, unless we have a regular logical definition of tradition, or at least a mutual understanding as to what it means. Will you tell me, dear sir, what tradition really is?”
    Mr M. “I will endeavour to do so. You are quite right as to the importance of settling the meaning of the term. To have done so would have saved the controversialists a great deal of unnecessary trouble:—To begin, then, secundum artem. Tradition, as I need scarcely remind you, is derived from the Latin word trado, which signifies ‘to hand down’. But it is important to observe, that the English word tradition answers to two Latin words, traditio and traditum. Tradition (traditio) is the act of handing down; a tradition (traditum) is a thing handed down. Now the modes of handing down are various. A thing may possibly be handed down from generation to generation by mere word of mouth, and never committed to writing; or it may be handed down in writing; or it may be handed down for two or three generations by word of mouth, and then committed to writing…”

And so on.

Of course, within the context of the Oxford Movement this stance towards Catholicism is not surprising at all: at the very heart of the movement was a revival of traditional practices, and the propagation of the idea of the Established Church as a truly “catholic” body. However, when you have become accustomed to the bitterly hostile anti-Catholic voice that marks so much English literature over a period of some three hundred years, this sudden apparent embrace of Catholicism is jolting, to say the least. On the basis of Bernard Leslie, it is certainly not difficult to understand why the enemies of the Tractarians declared them to be, in truth, “backdoor Catholics”.

In addition to its examination of the Tracts, much of the narrative of this novel concerns the young minister’s efforts to revive various traditional church practices that have been allowed to fall to the wayside under the wicked influence of the Evangelicals. When he is appointed as rector of a parish, Leslie finds things in a deplorable state:

My two predecessors had been, the one, I am sorry to say, negligent in his duties, and the other, who succeeded him, not possessed of a zeal according to knowledge, but one who considered the feelings of the times, rather than the ordinances of the Church, to be the ground of his operation. Many of the practices which he had introduced into the parish were directly opposed to the rubrics and canons…

Deciding that he might as well start as he means to continue, Leslie revives in his parish various discarded practices including fasting, the observance of feast days and daily prayer, re-orders his services with respect to the sermon, psalms and prayers, and introduces a weekly lecture which he uses to explain himself to his bemused parishioners; who, once they understand why these things have been done, embrace them wholeheartedly. (Even The Gentleman’s Magazine found this instantaneous conversion somewhat improbable.) For a while Leslie has things all his own way:

Fortunately, there had not then arisen that wicked newspaper-agitation, which represents conformity to the ordinances of the Church as popery, and the minds of my parishioners had not been poisoned. At the present time, in consequence of the ignorant prejudices of some, and sinful misrepresentation of others, it is very doubtful whether a clergyman who conscientiously acted upon the established order of the Church would not be in danger of offending, or even driving from the Church, many unstable and ill-instructed persons…

But there is one group looking on in deep disapproval—

These were the Dissenters, who abounded in the parish when I arrived there, but, I am thankful to say, have since much diminished in numbers. Manifold were the expedients to which they resorted in order to prejudice me in the eyes of the congregation. Of course, the principal charge against me was, that I was an abettor of popery. What could be so popish as to keep fasts and festivals? What so uncharitable as to revive the Anathasian Creed? What so monstrous as the doctrine of apostolic succession, which unchurched all those who did not belong to the Establishment? Then there was the soul-destroying heresy of baptismal regeneration…

(I have been re-reading The Last Chronicle Of Barset, in which it is observed of the fiercely Evangelical Mrs Proudie – no problem with designating her an Evangelical – that, Services on saints’ days she regarded as rank papacy, and had been known to accuse a clergyman’s wife, to her face, of idolatry, because the poor lady had dated a letter, St. John’s Eve.)

Ah, yes—baptismal regeneration. You might recall that Steepleton devoted three whole chapters to arguing the Low Church stance on baptismal regeneration, clearly in response to what had been said on the High Church position in Bernard Leslie. This was one of the critical divisions between the factions, which (to put it simply and superficially) disagreed on the necessity of baptism, or rather upon whether or not the ceremony did in fact confer “regeneration”. Leslie’s own researches lead him to conclude that baptism is absolutely necessary, that the ceremony cleanses the child of original sin, and that, in suggesting that, “Our Church, in calling baptised children regenerate, speaks the language of charity…she expresses her hope and trust that the baptised person possesses, or, through God’s grace, at some future time may possess, the requisite qualification”, Mr Flavel, an Evangelical who has had great influence upon Leslie up to this point, is either misinterpreting the text or guilty of deliberate sophism. It is upon this point that Leslie turns his back upon Flavel and his followers:

I verily believe it was this discussion about the doctrine of regeneration that saved me from Evangelicalism, into which I was fast descending. I had  been struck with the usefulness and apparent zeal of Mr. Flavel, and others of his way of thinking,—had made him my counsellor, and adopted many of his views. But this discussion staggered me. I did not for a moment consider Mr. Flavel as dishonest; but I thought there must be some strange perversion of the understanding which could explain away the scriptural doctrine held by the Church of baptismal regeneration. If Mr. Flavel could so palpably distort the language of our formularies, supported as they were by Scripture, in one instance, how could I trust his advice in other matters?

And henceforth Leslie studies at the feet of the High Church Mr Manwaring.

The suggestion that the Evangelical Mr Flavel had been guilty of “palpably distort[ing] the language of our formularies” was another thing pounced upon by Stephen Jenner in Steepleton, who retaliated by accusing William Gresley of misunderstanding – or misquoting – the Catechism, in order to support his views on baptismal regeneration; arguing – at great length – that the substitution of “thereby” for “hereby” alters the entire thrust of the very passage he is quoting to make his case.

Be that as it may— We left Bernard Leslie about to have a smackdown with the Dissenters in his parish, who accuse him of “popery” when he reintroduces what he considers to be sound High Church practices:

But the principal cause of their anger was the progress which Church-opinions made, and the secession of some of their own members from the meeting-house. All these things gave ample scope for discussion in a small community like that of High Kirkstall. I was attacked several times, with some bitterness and scurrility, in the radical papers; but of this I took no notice. Tracts and handbills were spread profusely amongst my congregation, though without much effect. I might well have declined to answer them. But as I believed the Dissenters themselves to he a portion of that flock over which, as parochial minister, I was by the providence of God appointed, I thought it a good opportunity, in preference to preaching in the church, where the Dissenters would not hear me, to draw up my views on the subject in the form of a tract or pamphlet, which I circulated amongst them.

What follows is a sixteen-page-long argument against the dissenting stance, which attracted enormous attention at the time of Bernard Leslie‘s publication, to the extent that it was finally reprinted and disseminated as a tract in its own right.

Meanwhile, we also get an illustration of William Gresley’s indulgent view of Catholicism. A new curate arrives in the parish, a Mr Monkton (subtle!), who is devout and hardworking, granted, but who horrifies the congregation and dismays Bernard Leslie by wearing a cassock-like coat, making the sign of the cross, shaving his head to produce a tonsure, and substituting wafers for the wheaten bread generally used during communion. All of these things, however dangerously Papist at first glance, turn out to be some of those silly human additions of which the Catholics are guilty, not wicked but unnecessary and confusing for the congregation. Between scolding and argument, a chastened Mr Monkton is shown the error of his ways, and as a consequence settles down to become a good churchman. (It is, it is clearly implied, just that easy to convert Catholics, if only someone would take the job on!)

Having won over both the Dissenters and the Catholics to his way of thinking, Bernard Leslie then takes on his chief enemies: the conclusion of this novel is a diatribe against the Evangelicals. Many and varied are the ways in which they err, we learn, and somewhat curiously, given the stereotype of the joyless, hectoring, hard-line Evangelical (see also: Mrs Proudie), it seems that their main sin is that they leave their parishioners too much to themselves, and allow too much to depend upon the experience of the individual. Their faith is placed, literally, in personal conversion; it is in conjunction with this that the importance of baptismal regeneration is downplayed. All of this, in Bernard Leslie’s view, is not just wrong but deeply sinful: the Evangelicals are leading their followers into damnation by not “claiming” them at the time they are born, and holding them hard to a single way of proceeding from there. (And if that sounds very much like the Jesuit aphorism, Give me a child until he is seven—, well, I’m sure it’s only a coincidence.)

And here, I think, the problem with the dodgy definition of “Evangelical” rears its head in earnest:

I maintain, therefore, that the unsound and defective views, which I have specified as characteristics of the Evangelical party, are shared by all who belong to that party. All Evangelicals are unsound in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church. Not one only here and there, but all. All confound the doctrine of the visible Church with the communion of saints; and all refuse to receive, in its true and natural sense, the doctrines of the Church respecting baptism. All, more or less, exalt the doctrine of justification by faith, to the disparagement of other great doctrines,—though some more than others. All cry down ordinances, and more or less neglect the fasts and festivals appointed by the Church. It is these characteristics which constitute the Evangelical party. Those who do not hold these views are not Evangelicals.

But our friend Bernard is only getting warmed up:

    In a word, it is to be feared that Evangelicalism has so obscured the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and so unscripturally smoothed the way of repentance, that multitudes have been beguiled to their destruction. Multitudes have been destroyed, not so much by what the Evangelicals teach, as by what they leave untaught…
    They are unsound in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, confounding it with that of the communion of saints, or the invisible Church, holding it in a different manner from that in which it has been held by the Church universal from the beginning, and adopting the doctrines of the Dissenters.
    They associate with schismatics on the platform and elsewhere, contrary to the express command of Scripture; and by so doing, and by the near approach
which they make to the doctrine and practices of the Dissenters, they have confused the minds of the common people as to the duty and necessity of union with the Church, and the sin and danger of schism. This conduct has been the main cause of the lamentable state of schism and religious discord to which the nation has been reduced,—schism which, alas, has been communicated to our colonies in distant lands, and spread by our influence through the world, so as to impede the advance of Gospel-truth, and render the union of the Church more hopeless than ever…

Fortunately, however, a breath of fresh air is currently blowing through the church—causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters:

    They have now stood forward in a new light. They are no longer contending for the souls of men, but struggling to maintain a waning popularity. They see growing up around them, perhaps settling in their own parishes or neighbourhood, a zealous and laborious body of men who have devoted themselves to restore the ancient energy and purity of the Church. These men are gradually gaining an influence over the public mind, to the prejudice and annoyance of the Evangelicals. Hence their rage against them; and because these men blame as defective the effete Evangelicalism of the day, they are accused of being enemies to the Reformation; and because they endeavour to restore the ancient usages of the Church, which have been sinfully neglected, they are accused of popery and held up as departers from the Church’s discipline by men who err themselves in a tenfold greater and more dangerous degree. The effrontery with which these men accuse their brethren is marvellous. The daily newspapers and monthly magazines have been filled with false charges and injurious reports against those who are endeavouring to raise the tone of religion. Instead of that generous rivalry which ought to influence men engaged in the same great cause of winning souls to Christ, there has sprung up amongst the Evangelicals a bitter hostility and ungenerous jealousy; they bar the kingdom of heaven against men; they neither go in themselves, nor suffer those that are entering to go in…
    Under these circumstances, my feeling with regard to this party is changed. I no longer respect them as I used. They have assumed the attitude, not only of violent partisans of a defective system, but they stand forth as opponents of those who would raise the Church to her true position; and thus are fast approaching the sin of antichrist…

And having thus unburdened himself, William Gresley stops to draw breath:

It may appear to some that these accusations are penned in a spirit of harshness…

Heavens, no, William!—heavens, no…

17/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 3)

leigh3O ye great ones of this world! how frivolous, how insignificant are all the combined joys and fleeting pleasures which are the offspring of never ceasing bustle and dissipation, compared with that solid satisfaction which flows in upon the soul from the consciousness of a regular discharge of the many relative duties of elevated station, or of superior affluence! The feeling experienced by this blessed family, when leaving Munster Abbey, must have exceeded all power of expression.Yet it is in the power of every family of distinction in the kingdom, (if dissipation and folly have not brought them into despised circumstances,) to experience the same pleasures, or at least some degrees of these pleasures, every day, which we have now seen Belford and his family reaping as the reward of their most exemplary virtue.

The departure of the Belfords brings about a crisis for Altamont, who wants nothing more than to keep tagging along with them; but unfortunately for him, he has:

…given his honour to his former guardians and professors at Oxford, that he would visit Switzerland… So sacred he had held, and he trusted he ever should hold, his honour, that he was resolved to spend a few weeks in visiting Geneva… While Altamont thus addressed himself to his ever revered friend, he could not conceal the internal emotions, which agitated his whole frame: For, in fact, he was now engaged in a very serious warfare; no less than whether love or honour should prevail. Heaven strengthened the native virtue of his soul: he was enabled to preserve his honour, without forsaking his love…

Welcome to the wonderfully batty world of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, where changing your travel plans while on holiday can bring on a major crisis of conscience, and not doing so is evidence of an “exalted” character.

However, before they separate, Altamont declares himself to Belford, and receives his permission to address Aurelia. He does so in entirely characteristic fashion:

But, recollecting himself for a short while, before he approached her sacred presence, delicacy, modesty, and every grace and virtue were the ornaments of her character,—he determined to collect all his force of mind, and from respect to his fair one’s dignity, as well as to his own, to address her in strains far different from the mad, intemperate jargon of modern lovers.

I find myself feeling sorry for Lady Leigh.

But of course, Aurelia’s response is every bit as characteristic:

Aurelia, animated by the noble principles of honour and truth, after a moment’s hesitation, began with a voice that would have allayed the most savage breast, and charmed the wildest discord, into calm attention;—every accent breathed the soft emotions of her spotless mind… Thus did the happy couple, with the full consent of Belford, bring to a happy issue the great object of both their wishes, without foolish precipitancy, or those tedious delays occasioned by sordid and interested views of settlements, jointures, pin-money, &c. No:—The parties placed confidence, and they had every reason to place unbounded confidence in each others integrity and worth:—hence it was resolved, on both sides, to reserve all that unpleasant, (though necessary) business, till they should meet at Munster Abbey.

Ah, yes…”sordid” and “unpleasant”…but necessary

Mind you—I imagine it’s a bit easier to have “unbounded confidence” when both parties to the transaction are STINKING RICH.

So they separate, Altamont to preen himself upon his exalted honour in Geneva, and to write Aurelia letters more redolent with politics than love; not that she sees anything wrong with them:

As Aurelia was educated with singular attention by the best of parents, she was of course acquainted intimately with the geography of Europe, and, indeed, of all the globe. She relished therefore a minute account of this celebrated city,—but could not help lamenting to her father, that spirit of folly and absurdity which Altamont took notice of in the close of his epistle, which marked the political sentiments of the Genovese,—democratic, to a degree inconsistent with that subordination which is the very bond and cement of society:—Hence, he observed, the insolence of mechanics and the rabble,—who all erected themselves judges in matters of state; while every man of wisdom and of modesty knows, that there is not one of a thousand in any, even the freest state in Europe, who is entitled to converse on the subject either of political or religious government. Altamont sagaciously remarked, that politics is a science, and a profound science,—which the ignorant of the half-learned should not presume to give their sentiments on,—much less dare to violate the public order by attempting to take a share in administration.

Hence those stirring words that open the glorious British constitution: Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.

The Belfords travel to Leghorn, where they go through the emotionally wracking business of reuniting with Charles. The three take a boat for England, the journey being enlivened by the life-history of a fellow-traveller, Mr Piercy, who of course reveals every intimate detail of his unhappy and difficult life to them upon first request. (The company, though much entertained by Piercy’s interesting story, were, at the same time, exhausted by the length of it… Given that Piercy’s monologue is by far the shortest we’ve encountered so far, that is both unfair and unkind!) After landing at Plymouth, the Belfords return to their “terrestrial paradise”:

A transaction was now to take place at Munster Abbey, which puts to shame a very large portion of the human race…

Oh, good! Thank you for that! The transaction turns out to be Belford marking his reconciliation with Charles by bestowing on him an estate and a fortune (which, as we know, can’t possibly bring him happiness): an occasion marked by perhaps Munster Abbey‘s most crunching bit of gear-shifting, from exalted sentiments to cold hard cash:

But as delicacy marked every part of his conduct when he conferred any favour, he was resolved to observe this nice virtue on the present occasion, with the most scrupulous attention. The idea of laying his brother under an obligation was too gross for his pure and generous soul. He determined that the annual sum which he should settle on Charles should be held by him as an evidence of brotherly love, by the acceptance of it… This good man had early this morning cast his eye on the state of his affairs, and found them in the most flourishing condition.—He saw himself possessed of a clear landed estate of twelve thousand pounds per an. and eighty thousand pounds in the funds… “Charles, (says he) my fortune is overgrown:—it is far more than I was born ever to expect. I have found this morning, by glancing over my books, that I have a vast estate in land, unencumbered by a single shilling of debt, and a very considerable sum in the funds…”

I’d have given anything if Charles had responded to this by robbing his brother for a third time, but instead he girds his loins and nobly steels himself to accept at his brother’s hands:

…one of the finest places in England, not above nine or ten miles from Munster Abbey… An estate of three thousand a-year, highly cultivated,—most enchantingly situated,—and adorned by a mansion-house built in the Gothic Stile.

Even more self-sacrificingly, Charles accedes to his brother’s hints about a suitable bride, his own inclinations tending in the same direction having nothing to do with it. The lady is a Miss Louisa Draper, the daughter of a neighbouring family to the Abbey. Here we get either a delicious continuity error, or unexpected proof that dissipation and criminal conduct slow the ageing process. Weighing up Charles as a potential bridegroom, the narrative remarks that, Charles was but a young man, not yet more than thirty-five years of age; it also explicitly declared that he was twenty-seven at the time of Belford’s marriage. (Belford himself, meanwhile, manages to be only a few years older than his brother and about thirty at the time of his marriage. So perhaps it’s a family peculiarity.)

Munster Abbey goes into filler-mode for a while here, with Belford doing yet another tour of his estates (in much the same language as the first), and with the life-histories of various minor characters rendered for our, uh, delectation. Belford and Aurelia then go for an extended stay with a new friend (who happens to be an earl, although of course that’s quite irrelevant), and find themselves agreeably surrounded by kindred spirits. They enjoy some private theatricals, before a memorable meal – during which, Belford has “an episode”:

Much conviviality, as naturally must be imagined, prevailed in the circle of gaiety, and Aurelia partook of every lively joke of innocence, with much spirit, until a dejection in the countenance of her father suddenly attracted her attention. It was enough that he looked grave, to cast every smile at once from her delicate cheek: She was on the verge of exclaiming, “Are you not well, sir,” when the attention of Lord Denfeir was likewise directed towards him, who perceiving his gravity, immediately addressed him, “Good sir, is anything the matter.” Belford could not utter a word in reply, he let fall a tear, descriptive of some tender emotion, and, rising from his seat, precipitately left the room.

The explanation?

“I have this day,” returned Belford, “reflected on the pleasure of your innocent pastime,—looked round me, and reflected likewise on the independence of your Lordship’s friends, who formed the agreeable party. When I had reason to believe, from various observations which  had made, that many of them could boast of independence, even to an excess of wealth,—I could not help conceiving, that some plan might be readily adopted, from the nature of your diversions, to relieve those who are sorely oppressed by misfortune, in the same moments that you were erasing from your own minds the recollection of troubles or disappointments. As I pondered on this newly imbibed fancy, a happy thought suddenly occurred, which induced me to believe, that I could offer a plan, which, if adopted, would, while it was producing the wished for effects I anticipated, tend likewise in a great degree to augment the conviviality of your own circle. From the tenor of the general conversation of the day, and the liberality of sentiment, which, from unobserved remarks, I had reason to believe each individual possessed. I felt confident, that to propose a benevolent scheme, would prove at once sufficient to favour its immediate adoption. Still a degree of diffidence hankered about my mind, and, from my recent introduction, I feared that even in a good cause, I might give offence by discovering too suddenly an unreserved degree of freedom: It was a desire to unload my bosom of what I doubted not would prove the effect of much cheerfulness, if distributed to the company at large, that cast on my countenance the look of dejection at the supper-table;—and I was seriously meditating on the great benefits that would arise from the private theatrical performances of the higher classes of society, if but the small sum of half a guinea was exacted from each individual who attended, to be applied to the relief of any class of persons whom penury had involved into that state of misery which never fails to excite the compassion of the merciful. When roused from my reverie from your Lordship’s kind address, in consequence of noticing my air of gravity,—I could not suppress a tear which fell in testimony of my emotion,—and anxious to conceal from observation my suffering, which I feared might throw a damp on the entertainment, I precipitately left the room, which I now have reason to suspect rendered my situation more conspicuous than it otherwise would have been, had I remained true to my seat,—and braved the inquiry.”

But then we would have missed that speech. And what a tragedy that would have been.

But enough! Benevolent though Belford’s intentions are, his scheme to raise money to help the poor unwitting unleashes THE MOST PROFOUNDLY SHOCKING MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL!!!!!!

    The lovely Aurelia, equally alive to the feelings of humanity with her father, and forgetting, for a moment, the diffidence a young lady should observe in every society, in which she was by no means deficient, but which a sudden thought of kindness had for the moment dispelled, hastily exclaimed,— “Oh I have it! pray let me point out a method to dispose of the money.”
    As she concluded the last word, a recollection of her misconduct occurred,—a deep blush betrayed her sufferings…

You dare speak unbidden!? GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN.

Once urged to speak, however, Aurelia proposes that they use the money raised to free deserving individuals from debtors’ prisons. This, naturally, leads to yet another of those peculiarly embarrassing 18th century scenes, in which other people’s private moments are turned into a form of entertainment: the “benevolent” friends gather near the gates of the prison to watch the objects of their charity achieve freedom. When the ex-debtors kneel to pray, Aurelia is yet again (unreproached this time) provoked to spontaneous speech:

    “There,” exclaimed Aurelia in a tone denoting extacy, when they were engaged in their devotions, “does that scene favour the account given us by the worthy Solicitor Sordidus? Does it not prove, that, within the remote walls of a jail, virtues lie concealed?—Oh! I’ve been justly informed,—else would religion never so deeply engage their attention. They are worthy of their release!—Oh! blessed be the moment for ever, that first favoured so happy a thought as directing this charity to a prison. I am enchanted beyond my power to support myself!”
    The lovely Aurelia exhausted, could not utter another word,—and, weakened with excessive delight, leaned upon her father’s arm for support…

But the lovely Aurelia has not yet begun to be exhausted by her emotion. A letter from Altamont lets her know that he has been indisposed, though he is careful not to tell her anything until he is fully recovered. This discomposes her to a degree that prompts Mr I-Could-Not-Suppress-A-Tear to lecture her about the distrust in heavenly dispensation shown by letting anything bother her, ever, under any circumstances:

    Though Aurelia was possessed of a degree of self-command, which is too rarely the gift of youth, though her prudence and reserve (still mingled with benignity and cheerfulness) were above the ordinary display of those qualities in the greater part of mankind;—yet it was visible to the eye of discernment, that, at times, she discovered a certain pensiveness which imported some hidden emotions which the most guarded cannot conceal… Her affectionate father also remarked this temporary gravity or absence. With his never-failing candour and good sense, and with all the endearing softness of parental partiality, he called his Aurelia aside one morning, and mentioned to her his suspicions, that she had permitted some anxieties to take hold of her spirits, which was unlike to her well-principled mind.— “My dearest child, (he pathetically said) distrust in that superintending power which governs all the concerns of man, I well know you consider as an offence against the duty which dependent mortals owe to him who acts by the laws of unerring wisdom and goodness. I know also the cause of your present internal agitations. But, rouse up your reason,—collect your mind,—cherish these principles concerning the divine benignity, which have hitherto been the solace of your soul…”
    Aurelia, with a benignant smile, received her parent’s affectionate and salutary counsel; expressed the highest reverence for his sentiments,—and bid him rest assured, she would exert the utmost of her power to shew forth every degree of cheerfulness…

Shortly afterwards, the Belfords set out for Dover, where Altamont is soon expected. Note how sedulously Aurelia works to display her faith in the divine benignity:

Every vessel which arrived from Calais was instantly announced; but their patience was now to be put to the severest test:—A second, a third, and a fourth day past, and no sight of their dear Altamont,—till at length the lovely delicate Aurelia began to feel those indescribable sensations, attendant only on a truly refined being, whose whole soul is wound up in the beloved object of its affection and regard. Belford saw, with the most bitter sorrow, the health and spirits of his incomparable child fast declining, at the same time endeavouring to assume a cheerfulness foreign to her heart, fearing to alarm the most indulgent of fathers:—But alas! all would not do;—grief had taken too full possession on her delicate frame:—She struggled, but struggled in vain, to conceal her distracting thoughts from the best of parents: he saw the agitation of her spotless mind, but hoped to be blessed every hour with the sight of the dear object of her sufferings; and flattered himself, that a very short period would restore her to her usual health and spirits: But judge, reader, what must have been the feelings of this fond parent, when, on entering her room, one morning, he found her, as he imagined, a cold, lifeless corps!

Ummm…he found it hilarious, like I did? No? Okay, I give up.

Alas, indeed, dear reader, we are not in fact able to add, Dying because 18th century transport is less than totally reliable to, Dying from sighing too much, but for quite a while it’s touch-and-go:

    She now began to breathe with difficulty, and to discover much inward pain; frequently a deep sigh would escape her, and her entire frame seemed agitated by strong convulsions… The physician was again arrived, and every means used within the power of human art to restore her to some recollection; but to no purpose:—she became considerably worse,—few hopes were entertained for her life.
    During this melancholy distressing transaction, arrived in perfect health the happy Altamont…

And where have YOU been, might we inquire? Stopped to inspect some fortifications, did we?? And in fact, we never do find out why he was late, chiefly I suppose because he finds himself with a bit of a crisis on his hands:

Altamont approached near his Aurelia;—pressed her burning hand a thousand times to his lips, and discovered every symptom of madness. Nothing could prevail on him to leave her, even for a moment. Belford likewise sat by the side of his darling amiable daughter, in the utmost anxiety and misery, for many days. She continued in a state of the most imminent danger;—no hope could be entertained for her recovery. Belford himself became ill. Nature seemed exhausted, and he was forced to leave his dear charge, and retire to his bed; and, in a few hours after, it seemed difficult to decide which was in the most danger, the incomparable Belford,—or his lovely daughter.

What, it’s a contest? If so, Altamont’s not one to reject a challenge!—

What an awful trying scene!—every moment expecting to be deprived of all his soul held dear on earth,—his divine Aurelia and worthy friend,—required more than manly fortitude to support; and he began to sink under his load of affliction…

…but then they all get better. Pity. Simultaneous dying of emotional collapse would have been even more impressive than the simultaneous swooning of Volume 1. The news that Altamont is not in fact dead has to be broken to Aurelia over the course of several days, in case joy should prove even more fatal than grief, but once that’s taken care of:

Suffice it to say, Altamont and Aurelia met with the mutual expression of celestial spirits…

And then they hit the road:

The happy party set off for Munster Abbey, and after a short and delightful journey, hailed this mansion of sublunary bliss.

However, certain grim duties lie before Belford and Altamont:

It is utterly impossible to convey the most distant idea to a vulgar soul, of any rank, of what is perfectly delicate and purely refined, either in sentiment or manners. Altamont’s feelings, in the prospect of the necessity of entering on the business of settlements, and of holding conversation with men, many of whom he had been taught to believe were not governed by the strictest regard for integrity,—experienced all that derangement which is natural to a mind of superior honour and sensibility.

And yet somehow he grits his teeth and goes through with it.

Sordid business out of the way, the marriage takes place. Lord and Lady Altamont, accompanied by Belford and the still-Miss Draper, set out for Altamont House, famous for its two-hundred-foot frontage, not even counting the colonades. As we know, money cannot bring happiness, possessions are no more than a vulgar necessity, and meals merely the means of sustaining existence; so it is quite beside the point that:

Altamont’s fortune was ample. It was superior to Belford’s. And his establishment was befitting his noble rank. His servants, his equipage, and his table, displayed elegance, without extravagance… The side-board presented a rich service of plate, a royal present to his father, when he was ambassador at the Imperial Court. The courses were served up in the first stile. The wines were the first Europe could produce.

Marriage, of course, compels Aurelia to self-exile herself from that “mansion of sublunary bliss” known as Munster Abbey; although the vulgar amongst us might be inclined to observe that she hasn’t done too badly for herself in securing Altamont House as a replacement. She need not suffer too much through her sacrifice, however:

Before leaving Munster Abbey, it had been agreed between Belford and Lord Altamont, (as they had resolved to live and die together) to spend their time alternately at Altamont’s house, and on the beautiful banks of the Ex.

Aurelia’s future secure, Belford turns his attention back to Charles, who is married off to Miss Draper. The newlyweds spend time at Munster Abbey. And then they spend time at Altamont House. And then everyone goes to Bennington Castle, the estate that Charles was forced – forced, I say! – to accept from his brother. We’re halfway through the third volume now, and struggling to the finish-line. Some time is wasted on a peculiar interlude, in which a young woman turns up on Belford’s doorstep claiming sanctuary (well, it is an Abbey), and protection from the wicked uncle who is persecuting her for her fortune. Her life history fills out another nine pages. Belford unofficially adopts her, and eventually marries her off to a brother of Miss Draper, in a sequence that fills out another fifteen pages. Aurelia gives birth to a baby boy (George Frederick Augustus, like a good little royalist). Various schemes of benevolence are executed, with or without unsuppressed tears and unbidden speech.

And then, on page 549 of this exactly 600-page novel, Sir Samuel remembers he forgot something:

We deem it proper to offer some apology to our readers, that good Mrs Melville, Belford’s mother-in-law, and the amiable Julia, Mrs Belford’s sister, have never again appeared in the course of the history of Mr Belford, since their first visit to Munster Abbey…

Another eleven pages are spent catching up (short version: they moved to Copenhagen, and died and married respectively), before we hop back to England for another thirty pages of Belford and his schemes of benevolence, with which he fills his “declining years” (so I guess he’s stopped getting younger):

Belford had now arrived at the zenith of sublunary honour and glory,—a species of adoration was paid to him by all orders of society. Of no man in the kingdom could it be said, with equal justice, that he had completely answered the end of his existence in this world. From his youth he had learned the invaluable lessons of piety and virtue, ever mingled with moderation and benevolence;—he never lost one moment of his life in dissipation;—he knew the incalculable value of time,—his fortune was chiefly devoted to acts of public or private beneficence; yet (such was his economy) Munster Abbey was, at this time, the mansion of all affluence…

The narrative then goes on to praise Belford’s mother for her role in turning out such a pattern of perfection (poor Charles mysteriously fails to rate a mention here), until, suddenly realising that its words might be misinterpreted, it hastens to clarify:

    It is a fact which every one the least versed in the history of mankind is perfectly acquainted, that the world has been indebted, in every age, for the far greater number of illustrious men, in every department and profession of life, to the early education they have received from mothers of superior worth and intelligence. Antiquity and modern times record the names of thousands of these angelic characters. But let it not be rashly and weakly imagined, that these distinguished women were celebrated chiefly for their learning, their eloquence, or their taste for the fine arts.—No: these are not the provinces in which the great superintending Power has called the fairer part of the creation to immortalise their names;—though a certain degree of knowledge and lesser literary accomplishments are in all ages necessary to women of genteel rank in life…
    What signify all the frivolous accomplishments and acquisitions of common education?—of what consequence is a little smattering in some species of polite literature, in comparison of those virtues which are the ornament of the soul, which alone enable a mother to rear up her offspring to immortal fame?

So put down that novel right now, ladies! Yes, THAT novel!!

Belford’s immortality looms up rather quicker than we might have expected. Without much warning, he feels that he will soon die; and, recognising that there’s not much he can say to either Altamont or Aurelia that they don’t already know, he contents himself with requesting that they carry on with various schemes of benevolence not yet completed, before blessing them and dying.

And then we pass onto the passages that made me almost certain that Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was the anonymous author of Valentine, which likewise builds to a dramatic climactic death (in that case tragic, rather than serene and pious), and also likewise, instead of leaving it at that, then goes on to examine the contents of the will in minute detail:

    It is almost superfluous to observe, that Belford’s will must necessarily be every thing that was natural, parental, wise, and good. Indeed it was perfectly entitled to all those epithets.
    The marriage-contract between Lord and Lady Altamont settled the estate of Munster Abbey, and his grandfather’s other estates, on their Lordship’s second son.—Handsome provisions were also made for his other children at the same time. Belford’s economy was such, amidst his many expensive schemes, and his uniform hospitality, that each of Lord Altamont’s younger children were possessed of handsome fortunes; and the lovely family were now four sons and two daughters.
    He bequeathed a thousand pounds to each of his hospitals, (for they may be said in some measure to be of his own creation) and fifty pounds to each of the poor curates whose salaries he had procured to be doubled, but who were still far from comfortable in their stations.
    To each domestic, an annuity in proportion to their services, to none less than ten pounds.—To his butler, who had lived with him forty years, fifty pounds a year,—and to his faithful steward, two hundred, for life. A great many mourning rings he had ordered, as testimonies of regard for those characters, of both sexes, whom he had approved and admired on account of their virtues and happiness in their several stations and professions in life.
    Lord Altamont, with the excellent men we have just mentioned, Mr Charles Belford, Draper and Hammond, were nominated guardians to the younger children. The heir of Munster Abbey was declared, by the will, not to be arrived at the age of majority until he completed his twenty-fourth year,—a wise and judicious destination! Happy had it been for millions over Europe in the past ages, and in the present, that the period of majority had been prolonged by will still farther,—many an estate might have been preserved,—many a constitution saved from disease and debility,—and many a character indefaced from infamy.

I must say, I admire his—well, what shall we call it? – egregious benevolence? – in appointing guardians for children that (1) aren’t his, and (2) have living parents.

But anyway, this about brings us to the end of things:

Lord and Lady Altamont were now at the head of a beautiful family, and two large estates…

Not that they think anything of THAT. Or expect their perfect happiness to go on being perfect:

Such is the fleeting pleasures of this life,—the moment we are, as we imagine, experiencing all the blessings of the world, our enjoyments are suddenly dashed from our fond embrace, and we are instantly plunged into an ocean of wretchedness…

Except when we aren’t:

Lord and Lady Altamont continued to enjoy years of uninterrupted felicity… They spent their time alternately at Munster Abbey and at Altamont’s house, in Kent; but the peaceful shades of Munster Abbey were their favourite place of residence. Indeed, this charming scene of innocent retirement was enough to incline the minds of its blessed inhabitants, to expect a life of serenity, peace, and happiness, which they continued to enjoy many, many years:—And in this endearing situation we leave them, to experience that uninterrupted felicity they are so justly entitled to.

.

Footnote: Here is an excerpt from the 33-page-long list of subscribers that opens Volume 1 of Munster Abbey. The fact that they all have titles has absolutely nothing to do with anything:

leigh4

16/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 2)

leigh2“To condemn him for his offences, would be at once declaring hostilities against those principles which my instructors ardently strove to imprint upon my heart. As they took pains to sow the seeds of charity within my bosom, it is undubitably my duty to be as ardent in my endeavours to cherish and bring them to perfection,—not from selfish desires alone to derive ensuing benefits, but that I may at a future period, should I be blessed with a family of my own, graft sprigs of the tree I have carefully nurtured upon the hearts of my offspring, who shall ever gratefully acknowledge the bounteous prize obtained through the piety of their ancestors, and who may as liberally tender branches of the invaluable plant to others, who, with equal caution and perseverance, may be the instruments of establishing groves of rectitude, from one pure seed of mercy and benevolence.”

Oh, undubitably.

Ah, dear. I had delusions of getting through Munster Abbey in two parts, but the more I flick through it and re-read the quotes I’ve marked, the more I feel that it would be an act of monstrous selfishness to deprive you of any of them, when to share with you more of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s deathless prose may plant in your hearts the seeds of desire for more terrible sentimental novels, and graft upon your consciousnesses that no matter how bad the last book you read was, it could hardly compete with this tangled weed-patch of a novel, in which tortuous metaphors encompass and asphyxiate all pretensions to quality writing like the treacherous strangler fig barbarously destroying the very host that has nurtured and sustained it, and the treacly exudate of maudlin and bathetic pseudo-emotion eats away at the tremulous buds of literary style like a boll-weevil with pretensions to a major award in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Damn. It’s catching.

Anyway— What I meant to say is, it’s all too good not to share, so I’m just going to let it be as long as it needs to be.

When we left the Belfords, she was having her soul harrowed up by the tale of her brother-in-law, Charles, not seen since he – for a second time – robbed his brother and ran away. This cloud passes over, however, and the Belfords spend their lives in benevolence (him) and domestic pursuits (her). In time, a daughter, Aurelia, is born to them; she will prove to be their only child. The Belfords devote all their energies to raising her as a true daughter of Munster Abbey. Do they succeed?

    Her mind was artless in the extreme:—She acknowledged the many blessings bestowed upon her by Providence, by a just sense of gratitude, connected with her continued exertions in the fair and unpolluted path of virtue. She never discovered anxiety or depression, but when the sufferings of others claimed her commiseration. The expression of her countenance described her internal emotions. When she smiled, there was some true cause for her apparent approbation; and, when an air of gravity gave a check to her vivacity, there were substantial reasons for her discomposure.
    In short, at a very early period of life, she promised fairly for approaching as near to perfection as human nature could aspire.

As a young lady, Aurelia is in the habit of walking by the river in the evenings. On one occasion, a galloping horse dramatically disturbs her solitude; it is evident that the rider is in trouble, and Aurelia shortly hears sounds indicating that he has been violently thrown. She follows his groans and discovers him unconscious and bloody. It is the first crisis of Aurelia’s serenely privileged life:

“Oh Heaven!” exclaimed Aurelia, as she fell on her knees, “I cannot support this scene of wretchedness,—despair will predominate over my exertions. Ha!” she exclaimed again, more wretched than before, “what have I rashly said? have I perfidiously flown into the face of Heaven, and for a moment encouraged a vice which has cost my parents years of labour to urge me to execrate!—Oh! what ingratitude have I discovered!—forbid it, that same heaven which I have so grossly offended, that I should ever again fall into an error so detrimental to the human mind,—and let my fortitude, in the present scene of misery, compensate for the guilt I have brought upon my head.”

Meanwhile, the injured man is STILL BLEEDING.

Aurelia finally brings the stranger around, but as he is too weak to walk immediately, she stays with him while he recovers. He wishes to offer her a reward for her assistance, but he knows not to whom he speaks:

    But the lovely Aurelia, who was purity itself,—exclaimed, with tears streaming from her eyes, expressive of her gratitude to heaven.— “Alas! good sir! I have been some time rewarded for the trifling attention I have shewn you on this occasion, rewarded beyond my most sanguine expectations.”
    “How?” replied the stranger, with an air of surprise, “how are you rewarded for all you have done for me; you have yet received no money.”
    “Money,” returned Aurelia, with a significant smile, and shaking her head, “Ha! that is but a paltry recompense to a compassionate mind, even when the possession of it is much needed; it is the secret gratification the heart experiences in performing an act of benevolence, that proves the grand reward, and the return of pleasure, for having alleviated another’s pain, never fails to more than compensate for any trouble that may be incurred in a case of distress.”
    “Indeed!” rejoined the astonished stranger, “I am a Frenchman, and have never yet made this discovery!”

Boom-tish.

Aurelia being five minutes late back from her walk for the first time ever has thrown the inhabitants of Munster Abbey into a total panic. Indeed, it is not too much to say that they are encouraging a vice that they spent the last eighteen years urging Aurelia to execrate. Belford goes out to search for her – leav[ing] his beloved wife in a state little short of insanity – but though he follows her favourite path and calls for her, there is no reply…

“Ah me!” he cried pathetically, as he cast his eyes towards the Heavens, “Alas! pale moon! I fear Aurelia’s loss will for the future place me under thy influence and direction, for lunacy must doubtless prove my wretched fate,—the loss of her is more than I can bear.”

Then he hears Aurelia nearby, speaking to someone she addresses as “sir”, urging that person to lean on her arm and consider her his servant, and without missing a beat, we get THIS:

    “Ha! what do I hear!” said Belford faultering,— “my senses surely are impaired! for I heard the voice of Aurelia breathe forth expressions in the strain of love!—and the sounds must certainly have been the effect of wild imagination!—yet they were very plain, and I feel that I yet know myself,—let me attend again.”
    “Indeed, Sir, ’twill be better for you,” she rejoined, “permit me to conduct you for the present to a more retired spot, where not even the chilling breeze of night can offend or discompose you.”
    “Oh! merciful Heaven,” sighed Belford in a languid tone, “it is indeed her voice. Her expressions have confounded me, and I am more wretched than ever. The anguish which her dissolution would have created within my bosom, would have proved sensations of delight in comparison to what I now experience. Alas! I never thought she could have thus deceived me;—but her tongue gives proof of her perfidiousness, and what clearer testimony need I look for.—Oh! it must be so,—Ah! my once loved daughter, who from the cradle I reared with the fondest affection, and in whom my every hope was centred; what have you brought upon yourself by this duplicity? and what misery have you in secret nurtured for your once joyous but now distracted parents. Farewell to happiness,—farewell to the long boasted respectability of Munster, whose sweet sequestered bounds, time immemorial, bore the enviable appellation of the seat of quiet.—Adieu to peace,—the Abbey is polluted from having fostered an unworthy being, and Munster can no longer boast of virtue. I now to my sorrow see the cause of your attachment to this your favourite walk. Artless as I thought you were, to find you involved in all the guilt of cunning, is too much,—too piercing to my afflicted heart.—I can no longer refrain from openly avowing my indignation,—patience is exhausted, and fortitude has forsaken me,—I am no longer armed against the frowns of fate.”—As he concluded this sentence, he exclaimed in a loud voice, indicating rage, “Aurelia, thy father approaches, prepare to meet him”—

Feh! – men.

Belford at least has the grace to be thoroughly ashamed of himself when the situation is explained – I should think so! – and Aurelia is too practically perfect in every way to resent his outrageous accusations. If I was her, I’d’ve told him to shove it and run off to live with my Uncle Charles. After robbing the house, of course.

(Mind you— “Expressions in the strain of love”? Really? All this gives me a very odd idea of the kind of love-making that goes on the Belford household. “So, big boy, wanna lean on my arm while we find a spot out of the wind?” “Oh-hh-hh, baby!”)

A weird interlude follows, in which the stranger, who turns out to be the Marquis de la Ville Neuve, is at first enchanted and moved by the Belfords and their philosophy of benevolence, but then (just like a foreigner!) it all wears off, he seems to forget he owes them anything, and finally takes himself off in a state of great indifference. This passage illustrates another of this novel’s strange, internal contradictions, along with, This world is a vale of tears, but the Belfords are blissfully happy and Money can’t bring happiness, but the wealthy Belfords are blissfully happy and much more comfortable than poor people and You should follow the example of superior people, but you’ll never be remotely as superior as Belford and there’s no point in you even trying and You should have total faith in the dispensations of Providence, but go into a complete emotional collapse at the first sign of trouble – namely, The gratitude and love of those who are the beneficiaries of your benevolence is its own reward, but people are nasty, selfish things so don’t expect them to thank you for it.

And having just shown that you won’t get thanked, it proceeds to prove you will get thanked by a lengthy passage showing Belford in benevolent landlord mode, touring his vast property (which doesn’t bring him happiness, except when it does), and relieving the wants of his tenants (who don’t thank him, except when they do). In preparation for this venture, Belford resolves:

…to leave at each house or cottage, a small treatise, of a few pages, composed with perfect simplicity, by himself, which should contain plain rules for sober and virtuous living,—for a sacred regard to rational piety,—for hating all strife and division about any subject relating to religion and government,—for peaceable and quiet dispositions,—and for faithful attachment to their King, Country, and Constitution.

Munster Abbey expiates at great length upon the superiority and perfection of the British constitution, and how much better off everyone would be if they would just accept that and stop pointing out things that might look like horrible flaws and profound injustices, but which aren’t, honestly! Meanwhile, that reference to “rational piety” prepares us for further expiation upon correct religious practice.

However—here I must stop and give this novel a surprised pat on the back. Though inevitably it expresses an anti-Catholic sentiment, it does so without virulence, taking an almost kindly “Oh, well, poor things, they can’t help it” attitude. What’s more, when Belford and Aurelia are later travelling on the Continent, they actually attend Catholic services in preference to not going to church at all:

Belford and his accomplished daughter carried their observations much farther than  our ordinary itinerants; and they displayed a spirit superior to those vulgar prejudices, which in every country flow from the sources of a weak understanding, or a narrow and bigoted education. They assembled every Sunday, and sometimes on other days, with their fellow-christians, to pay homage to their Creator: They perceived external forms and ceremonies to which they had not been accustomed in their own country, and they perceived these rites in a spirit of rational toleration. Perhaps they secretly lamented that so much superstition should be mingled with devotion: Yet both Belford and Aurelia have often declared, with visible emotions of joy, descriptive of the charity of their heart, that they have often, at Rome, and in other parts both of Italy and France, beheld, with the highest satisfaction, such symptoms of genuine manly devotion, as might put to shame many of high profession among those who call themselves the Reformed Church. They frequently saw priests of various ranks, from the highest of the Hierarchy to a humble curate, perform the sacred offices of religion with every degree of becoming gravity and apparent sincerity, and heard them pronounce discourses, as sound in doctrine, and as pure in morality, as ever were delivered by any priest or presbyter of Britain.

I can’t say I’ve ever come across such a radical thing before. It’s absurdly out of place in a novel that otherwise expends much energy sneering at things not English.

The trip to the Continent comes about when Mrs Belford’s health starts failing, and she is ordered to a gentler climate. Although consumed by concern for his wife, such that the entire expedition is accomplished by means of short journeys interspersed by long rests (so that it takes them quite some time to get out of England, which was actually the point of the venture), Belford never misses and opportunity for “improvement”:

Belford was not only a man of consummate moral excellence, but an accomplished gentleman, which no man can ever be, without having received a polished education, and been also careful, after the period appointed for education is over, studiously improve his mind. He was perfectly acquainted with the history of his country, both civil and ecclesiastic,—and he was equally able and disposed to mention with reverence, to the ladies, many of the names of those illustrious men who adorned the chapter of Canterbury. If there were, among those names, any who, by weakness or folly, had dishonoured their rank, or who, in rude ages, had been transported into acts of violence, by the influence of bigotry and superstition, the benignity of his soul either concealed their names, or he threw a charitable veil over their imperfections. Belford’s elegant, refined mind, however strong his internal disapprobation of characters living or departed, never permitted him to descend to the plebeian practice of abusive expression, coarse epithet, or malignant expression. Many departed heroes, in the cause of religion, he mentioned with rapture to his daughter, though his narrative, from the shortness of time, was necessarily very laconic.

Unlike some narratives I could mention.

(Yes, yes – and some blog posts…)

(He started it…)

While Belford and Aurelia are having a cheerful stroll through the cemetery, they come across a young man mourning by his sister’s grave. As people in the 18th century always did, it seems, they treat his manifestations of grief as a variety of performance art and move in close to hear what he is saying:

At this moment he perceived Belford and Aurelia slowly advancing:—He appeared in some degree of confusion:—The tone to which his soul had been wrought up by grief and solemn reflection, did not admit of a rapid transition to observe ordinary objects: But no ordinary object presented itself: The moment his eyes beheld Aurelia, he seemed enchanted,—his looks betrayed the emotions of his soul,—it had a mixture of the wild with the affectionate:—no wonder!—for all who ever beheld his lovely sister, and the daughter of Belford, agreed in observing the most striking similarity in form, in features, and in expression, between Louisa and Aurelia.

Ew.

We are not introduced for some time, but this is the first appearance of the Earl of Altamont, Aurelia’s soul-mate and future husband, who will presently sweep her off her feet with his boring perfections. (And because he reminds her of her father – ew.)

This brief encounter occurs early in the second volume of Munster Abbey, most of which is devoted to the travels of the Belfords across France and Italy, with much rumination upon history, art, forms of governance, comparative religion and the general inferiority of everything found in Europe to what might be found in Britain. Except for the fortifications. Belford, or at least Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, has an unhealthy fixation upon fortifications, and everywhere the Belfords go we have to stop to hear a description of the particular fortifications in question, and get a short résumé of their history. Otherwise— Credit is given where it’s due, of course, but that is rarely necessary:

    We are here, however, speaking only of those pleasures, or the sources of those pleasures, which are of a secondary nature, where only taste, elegance, fine-breeding, or splendour, present themselves. Of the fountains from whence more refined delights flow in upon the mind, few, alas! is the number to be discovered by the most inquisitive, or charitably minded traveller. The morality of France and Italy have been for centuries past regulated by a very low standard: Though, as has been mentioned above, many individuals in both kingdoms have shone conspicuous for every quality which adorns humanity; yet, from the nature of the religion and government of both countries, morals, in the higher and lower orders, have been relaxed to a most lamentable degree.
    The reader will forgive this apparent digression. The author humbly presumes it may be attended with some benefit to unexperienced and modest young men, who travel into foreign parts in quest of knowledge, and to make observations.

And who are keen to know where the most lamentably relaxed morals are to be found?

The narrative has at least admitted that there are “individuals” in each country who are up to Belford’s lofty personal standards, and in each city visited for any length of time he seeks out people distinguished by their high character, impeccable morals, deep piety, extensive learning and cultured mind. It’s pure coincidence that every single one of them also has a title, and an enormous fortune.

Meanwhile, Mrs Belford’s health has continued to deteriorate, and to the profound grief of her husband and daughter, she dies. They are, however, supported by their faith. And they need to be:

Heaven graciously conferred on Belford and Aurelia that composure of mind, and tranquillity of spirits, which enabled them to regulate, with propriety, every circumstance respecting the last honours to be paid to the memory of her who was no more. The generous and enlarged mind of the British Protestant, pitied the miserable and contracted spirit of ecclesiastical domination, which forbade christian burial to any Huguenot; or, at least, forbade that any Protestant should be buried in the same cemetery with a Roman Catholic.—This was a matter of no moment to Belford:—His principles were too exalted, and his understanding too enlarged, to regard in what spot of this globe the ashes of his beloved were deposited.

Belford and Aurelia continue their travels through Italy. In Milan, Belford must rescue from the consequences of his folly a young Englishman called Spencer, who “commits an outrage against religion and decency”. (It’s not that outrageous.) Asked to account for himself, as with the innkeeper in Volume 1, Spencer proves incapable of anything as briefly honest as, “I got drunk and did something stupid”, and instead responds with a 24-page-long recapitulation of his upbringing and education. This incident also brings to Belford’s attention a much more proper young man called Walpole, who becomes a part of his extended family of kindred spirits, and the elderly Father Contini, who despite being a Catholic priest proves “generous-minded”, with “liberality of sentiment”, probably because “he was not bred for the church”. The friends enjoy many pleasant hours. “of which a rude and illiterate mind can form no conception, and for which he has no more relish than a Hottentot”; but alas, it cannot go on forever:

The father of the convent and his beloved children must now part,—never more to meet in these realms of woe:—It was an interesting parting:—The venerable sage could not conceal his inward agitation:—He dropt the tear of philanthropy…

And so Belford and Aurelia press on again, passing through Mantua – The fortifications of Mantua are reckoned equal in strength, if not superior, to any in Europe – Parma, Modena and Lucca – I did tell you this doesn’t have a plot, didn’t I? – with a longer stop in Florence before they head to Rome. It is here that Belford gets wind of his brother, Charles, who turns out to have reformed all on his own (I was surprised at that) and gone into business in Leghorn. Belford is so overcome by this news:

…he could not resist the powerful propensity of his soul, but instantly…in a tone of voice more loud than delicacy and good-breeding would have warranted on any other occasion, he cries, “O my child, my Aurelia, rejoice with thy transported father!—My brother Charles lives!—he is in good health!—he is as happy as he can be on earth, removed far from Munster Abbey…”

Belford opens a correspondence with his brother and they agree to meet. Another meeting also awaits them: they encounter the love-sick Lord Altamont, who is travelling in order to try and restore his spirits, which have been overcome with “gloom and melancholy” since he glimpsed, but then lost sight of, Aurelia:

But, alas! travelling and variety cannot always banish that nameless something which agitates the soul that is pierced by the fatal dart. Altamont’s love was love at first sight,—an idea ridiculed by the soul of insensibility in all ages:—But an insensible soul is seldom blessed with a sound judgement:—Thousands, and tens of thousands, of the most wise, the most prudent, and the most worthy of men, have confessed the force and truth of this adage.

Oh, yeah? Name them.

It turns out that Altamont has been following Belford and Aurelia around, just missing them at practically every stage (if only he’d had the clue of the fortification fetish!) before tracking them to Rome:

To attempt to describe, or convey any adequate idea of the joy and happiness of Lord Altamont, and also of Aurelia (for Aurelia, too, acknowledged the truth and force of the adage just mentioned) would require a pencil which has not been hitherto formed by any mortal artist! The joys and raptures of the human soul never have been, nor never can be, described.—Here, as in numberless other instances, the Divine Fiat is pronounced, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther.”

“Also, I’m a lousy writer.”

Altamont becomes a frequent visitor to the Belfords’ lodgings, and is introduced into the usual cultured, elegant, high-minded, virtuous, distinguished crowd that naturally gravitates towards the father and daughter. The fact that they all have titles has nothing whatsoever to do with it, of course, but since they do, they are all aware of their duty to set a good example for their inferiors with respect to all the really vital aspects of life:

As every lady and gentleman present observed the laws of temperance and moderation in all their pleasures and scenes of festivity,—so, of course, very late hours were their utter aversion. By 11 o’clock they broke up, superiorly happy on reflecting on the rational joys of the day. As they were just about to depart, and the Countess of Castel Bianco observing it was not yet late, the Prince de Pignatelli gently addressed her, by remarking that 11 o’clock was a late hour at Rome;—and that no person in that city was more exemplary than the Countess, in order and regularity of every kind:—that he well knew, from his own present feelings, that it was an effort to leave such pleasant society; but as the example of persons of their order was of moral importance to society, he hoped and entreated that the liberty he had taken would be forgiven. The Countess bowed assent;—and, in a very polite return, thanked him for his observations and his candour.

A letter arrives from Charles, proposing that Belford and Aurelia head for Leghorn while he wraps up his business there before accompanying them back to England. They make their plans accordingly, and more heart-wrenching leave-takings occur; although to my profound regret, this time around no-one drops the tear of philanthropy:

Belford began now to prepare for his journey to Leghorn:—He and Aurelia employed some days in taking leave of the families who had paid them so many polite attentions, and even shewed them instances of the most genuine hospitality:—And in this business was not actuated by the vulgar and dishonourable idea of too many unfeeling strangers or travellers in every country, namely, even after receiving the highest favours, is a matter of mere good-breeding or ceremony, where the heart has no concern. No:—The sentiments of this amiable man were far more exalted. There was not a plebeian idea durst enter his honourable mind. He was fair, candid, and honest, in all his professions, and in all his actions.

Particularly when saying goodbye.

[To be continued…]

08/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 1)

MunsterAbbey1    And now the day dawned when two hearts and minds were to be united in the bonds of the purest love. Nothing, in this world, has ever been known to surpass the refinement of principle, and the excellence of moral conduct, of Altamont and Aurelia,—and, by consequence, their characters and their feelings must have soared far above the generality of imperfect mortals.
    At length the long-wished event took place, not only to the transporting joy of the revered Belford, but to the universal delight of all the county for many miles around.
    The second day after the celebration of the marriage, Belford, Altamont, and Aurelia, (accompanied by her dear companion Miss Draper,) set out for Altamont’s house. A palace opened to their view at the distance of eight miles from the place. It was situated on a rising ground, and watered by a beautiful stream not half a mile distant. Cascades, and fine pieces of water, embellished the scene:—And the venerable oak, and other lofty trees, added to the magnificence of this charming seat. The approach was by a gentle winding avenue, nearly two miles in length;—and, at once, the front of the house presented an extent which, to the eye, could not be less than two hundred feet, without the colonades.

So! – we meet again, Munster Abbey!

And by “we” I mean not just myself, but anyone who might have been around in the early days of this blog. Way back when, I posted a short piece highlighting one of the more absurd examples of “sentimentalism” that existed in the novels of the late 18th century, which had been brought to my attention by a work on the development of the English novel (the title of which, alas, eluded me then and still does now; though I’m confident I’ll stumble across it again one day). The author of that work held up Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s 1797 novel, Munster Abbey, as a prime example of everything that was wrong with the English novel during that period, and provided evidence in the form of a deliriously hilarious passage from the novel in question. The author further growled that:

Thirty-three pages of ladies and gentlemen, twelve hundred and fifty or more of them, subscribed to this nonsense in 1797 because they thought it was written by a gentleman. They could tell he was a gentleman because he called a pond ‘a humid space’…

The full title of this novel is Munster Abbey, A Romance: Interspersed With Reflections On Virtue And Morality. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that a more honest description would have been Reflections On Virtue And Morality: Interspersed With Munster Abbey, A Romance. I’m not sure I can actually review this book, because frankly, not much happens over its 600-and-something pages. Rather, an occasional mild incident occurs, and provokes a dozen or so pages of moralising. Repeat ad infinitum.

As for the way in which those incidents are described, and the language in which the moralising couched— You might fairly describe this post by saying, A brief description of the action occurs, and provokes reams of quotation. Repeat ad infinitum.

Coming on the heels of The Court Secret Part II, here we have another work in which what comes before the text proves intriguing in its own right, not to mention lengthy: it takes the reader quite some time to actually get to the novel. It transpires that this was a posthumously published work. Sadly, Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh died at the age of only 26, leaving behind a widow and a month-old son. Evidently Lady Leigh was responsible for getting her young husband’s work published; she may, indeed, have completed it herself; though who wrote what remains tantalisingly uncertain. Volume 1 opens with the usual female deprecation of critical wrath, although this time not wholly on the lady’s own behalf:

Immerged in the afflictions attendant on her unfortunate situation, every step she took in collecting and connecting the late Sir Samuel’s scattered papers, was traversed by sorrow, and impeded by inexperience;—and, in consequence, produced more delay than she had foreseen.—To embrace and accomplish every idea of her departed Husband, was difficult, and nearly impossible to her:—Pains, however, and anxiety have not been spared:—and, though Lady Leigh is conscious, that accurracy in execution, and brilliancy in composition, may not at all times have been attendant on her wishes, yet, she trusts that the refined and sympathetic Reader will find some touches of feeling in the Work, which may induce him to repel the shaft of censure from the unprotected Female, who has the honour to address him these lines.

(And yes, she does spell it “accurracy”.)

This passage is followed by two inserts by Sir Samuel himself, the first a dedication to the Duchess of Marlborough, which, though brief, gives a good indication of the baronet’s literary style:

Permit me, Madam, to express my warmest gratitude for a countenance which honours this production with an encouragement, greatly above what I can persuade myself it merits:—I can but hope, with sincerity, my REAL INTENTIONS MAY BE DISCOVERED:—Under such circumstances only, can I expect forgiveness, for intruding on Your Grace, and a liberal Public, by ushering a Work into the world, which, from its conscious burden of innumerable faults, trembles like a criminal on trial, who doubts the possibility of an acquittal…

This, in turn, is followed by a lengthy preface, in which Sir Samuel excuses his presumption in putting forth his ideas about virtue and morality—sorry, I mean Virtue and Morality—in the first place, let alone in the despised and dubious form of a romance:

I have offered this book under the title of a Romance, and such I have made it, by forming a story entirely from imagination, which constitutes it a work of that nature:—My contract is subsequently fulfilled.—I have, however, endeavoured to avoid what is but too often a fault in this species of writing, all extravagant descriptions of supernatural scenes and events…

Indeed. Trust me, nothing so interesting as a ghost will happen along in this novel; although there will be “extravagant descriptions” of numerous other things.

A painstaking explanation of how a romance can be a vehicle of instruction if properly conceived and executed follows, along with many apologies for his audacity in forcing his ideas upon the reading public; wrapping up as follows:

Should it be condemned, I shall rest content that, from the judgement of so many persons of superior talents and understanding, it merits condemnation:—should it be approved,—I shall feel highly flattered and gratified; not from simply gaining public applause,—but that I shall have the satisfaction and peculiar happiness in reflecting some trifling compensation is made, as an humble return for the very liberal and unexampled countenance bestowed on this undertaking;—for a proof of which, a reference is offered to the List of Subscribers.

It was not an uncommon practice at this time for novels to be published by subscription; less so for the list of financial backers to be included in the book itself, but it did happen. Having discovered this novel’s sad back-story, my first thought was that this particular “subscription” was a covert charity to support the widowed Lady Leigh, but clearly Sir Samuel was still with us while that list of subscribers was being compiled – and if he knew he was dying, there’s no sign of it either in the novel itself, or in the way he anticipates its public reception in his preface. It’s all very mysterious.

Be that as it may, as the author of the work mentioned above points out, the subscription list runs for no less than 33 pages, and consists of some 1250 people. It is astonishing to reflect that so many people could have wanted to read Munster Abbey badly enough to pay for it.

Ah, dear. After discovering the story of Sir Samuel, I confess there’s a part of me that feels bad about ragging on his novel. Yet it is impossible to get away from the fact that Munster Abbey is complete and unadulterated tosh.

What’s more—as I worked my way through it, it seemed to me strangely familiar unadulterated tosh. Munster Abbey is the only novel of which Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh is the declared author, but to my judgement there is a striking similarity between the style of this work and that of Valentine, an equally hilarious sentimental novel published in 1790, which I reviewed some time ago. The two share the same exaggerated style, the same tendency to moralise about everything and everything, the same equating of fragile nerves and health with moral superiority, and the same inability to say anything straightforwardly. The example above, in which a pond is called a humid space, is a very minor instance of this tendency indeed. Try this description of an evening scene; one of dozens such:

The evening was serene,—the whistling breeze of Boreas was no longer heard,—and the cheering beams of Sol cast but another glow of warmth upon the earth, when the stupendous western mountain obscured it from farther observation, and detained, for a while, only those golden streaks in the Heavens, which inform mankind of the sun’s recent departure. The birds had ceased to sing, and rustling their little bodies in the trees, were hopping to the rural abodes, allotted by Nature to favour their repose.

Above all, however, Munster Abbbey and Valentine share the most endearingly contradictory set of values—loudly extolling the “simple life” and insisting that money doesn’t bring happiness, while at the same time endowing every single character with fabulous wealth and a spectacular estate. See the quote at the beginning of this post for a typical example: note the abrupt lurch from “the refinement of principle, and the excellence of moral conduct” of Altamont and Aurelia, to the description of Altamont’s two-hundred-foot frontage (even without the colonades!). It’s exactly that sort of thing that makes these novels so absurdly entertaining.

Well— That, and Sir Samuel’s very real gift for the startlingly infelicitous phrase. There are any number of them scatted throughout pages of this novel, but this one, I think, would have to be my favourite:

Our ejaculations concluded, he raised me from the ground…

[*snicker*]

Munster Abbey wastes absolutely no time in setting the tone for the entire novel (and observe the very first thing we learn about Mr Belford):

    Mr Belford was a man happily possessed of a fortune, ample as his wishes, and independent as his spirit. Munster Abbey fell to him by inheritance, and was delightfully situated on the romantic banks of the river Ex in the county of Devon. He inherited, too, the virtues of his Ancestors: in him they were all combined; and that they might be perpetuated by an honourable connection, was the unceasing wish of his true friends.
    Munster Abbey and its environs abounded in beauties: on one hand, an expansive and richly cultivated country, raised the admiration of every beholder; and the flourishing state of its commercial territories was an unfailing object of pleasure. On the other hand,—the distant hamlet,—the village spire,—the rustic minstrels,—and rural gambols, all united their advantages to embellish the scene, while its majestic head aspired to the skies, and seemed to hailed a kindred Paradise! It had borne the appellation Munster, time out of mind; and from tradition was so called, in honour of some part of Belford’s family who were its founders: Much taste was displayed in the structure, and judgement in its site. The charms by “Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on,” left scarcely an improvement to bestow,—yet all was tried to make it peerless, and tried with so much skill, that a judicious observer might have been deceived, and have given Nature credit for the offspring of Art, in points that were no inconsiderable steps towards perfection. The winding river,—the variegated foliage,—the scattered cottages,—and their unruffled tenants, were grateful objects to the mind of the Philosopher and Moralist:—the Poet too, might have there fixed his temple, a retreat the muses must have gloried in:—there might every rapturous flight have been indulged, extended, and improved.

(Apparently this particular Abbey is called “Abbey” just to be romantic; not because, you know—it used to be an Abbey.)

Anyway—as we all know, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife; and sure enough, during his yearly trip to Exeter to visit friends Belford meets a certain Miss Melville, who is of course the embodiment of every possible perfection. The two paragons fall in love with each other at once, though for a time Miss Melville strives to hide her feelings, and indeed rejects Belford’s proposal the first time of asking: because, alas! – she has no fortune. However, Belford isn’t the kind of man to let a detail like that sway him – besides, of course, being stinking rich himself – and he overcomes Miss Melville’s generous scruples.

Overcomes them to a surprising degree: she being of age, he persuades her into an immediate marriage, before she has told her mother of her situation, and without Belford asking Mrs Melville’s consent. This is the most unexpected thing about Munster Abbey and, it being the kind of novel it is, led me to expect a 600-page diatribe on the inevitably disastrous and fatal consequences of this sort of filial disregard. Imagine my astonishment when the most serious side-effect turns out to be that Mrs Melville is miffed for a time. Granted, when her daughter (who never gets a first name; nor does Belford) writes to her, Mrs Melville goes into a panic and assumes that she has made a dreadful mistake, or been taken advantage of; but as she and her other daughter, Julia, draw near Munster Abbey, they are deluged with tales of Belford’s generosity and benevolence (and money). In particular, they encounter the owner of an inn who, when asked what he knows of Belford, instead of responding simply, “He helped me when I was in financial difficulties”, insists upon telling his entire life story in excruciating and irrelevant detail – 21 pages of it, people!

Meanwhile, the newlyweds have arrived at the Abbey, to be greeted by Belford’s tenants:

    As soon as they reached the majestic gate, they discovered the poor assembled from many miles around, prepared to congratulate them in their stile of uncultivated sincerity:—there wanted not the blandishments of words to evince their raptures:—the language of the heart is simple,—and flattery, which too universally pervades the bosom of the wordling, is a stranger to the honest bosom of the unlettered peasant.—Belford was the first that alighted from the carriage.—It was in vain that he attempted to enter the gate;—for the multitude that encompassed him would not suffer him to pass, until each of them, upon their knees, had kissed the hand that had so frequently been extended to their succour. Who, in so exulting a moment, could deny that virtue and benevolence are their own reward?
    All Nature bore the face of triumph.—The very infant offspring of the grateful throng, struggled with officiousness to quit their leading strings, that they might bend to their benefactor, as if by intuition taught that each had individually experienced their bounty. Mrs Belford’s eyes were riveted on the scene with rapture and admiration: As an indifferent spectator she must have been charmed,—then, what must have been her sensations to behold the man, on whom her fate depended, so idolized! Nor were their endearments confined to him,—for, independent of her own merits, which were easily discovered, she was entitled to their love, they warmly protested, as the wife of their adored patron;—nor would they allow her progress through the hall, without entreating to impress on her hand the same tribute of respect they had shewn her husband. The request was too flattering to be denied:—She granted it with and air of affability and condescension, which at once evinced the exalted character of her spotless mind…

600 pages of it, people!—and yes, I’d really better get on with it, because if I stop to quote everything I could quote, we’ll be here for, well, 600 pages.

BUT—of course, before I do speed it up, it is necessary that we all stop to admire Possibly The Greatest Piece Of Writing In The History Of The English Novel.

Mrs Melville and Julia finally make it to the Abbey (“Bless me!” exclaimed Mrs Melville with an air of astonishment, “with what injustice did I stile this noble mansion an inconsiderable cottage!”), where they find Mr and Mrs Belford out in the grounds, sitting together on the far side of a pond humid space. And, well—

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

[*snicker*]

Munster Abbey is, as I say, a hard novel to review because it has no discernible plot. Mrs Belford’s filial disrespect having been punished with a quick, refreshing plunge, that part of the story is disposed of. So, too, are Mrs Melville and Julia, who are subsequently banished from the story with surprising thoroughness: clearly as an afterthought, some 300 pages and a number of years on we are informed that, oh, ah, yeah, right, Mrs Melville died and Julia got married. I for one was terribly sorry to see the back of Julia, given the way she is described during her few early appearances:

The lovely Julia was not exempt from reflecting with pleasure on the beauties of this scene:—The trembling tear of tenderness,—which in its usual form tottered down her cheek, evinced the soft emotion of her spotless mind…

A trembling tear of tenderness that tottered!? Oh, we DEFINITELY needed to see more of Julia!

But alas, it is not to be. She and her mother depart our pages, and the Belfords settle down to a life of uninterrupted happiness, despite this being a vale of tears where all pleasures are short-lived and misery is certain. Except when it isn’t. The only cloud on their horizon is the shocking revelation that Belford has an estranged brother. This being the kind of book it is, Belford can’t just tell his wife, “I’ve got a black-sheep younger brother”; he has to spell out in minute detail every single associated action, thought and emotion.

Likewise, Mrs Belford can’t just be told that she has a black-sheep brother-in-law: she has to be prepared over a period of days for the overpowering revelation that there’s a Belford in the world who is less than completely perfect:

    In order to prepare her mind to receive a shock, which the feeling and benevolent heart only can experience, he frequently, in a delicate and distant manner, threw out hints, insinuating his wishes to unfold a moving narrative.—He continued this judicious plan for a number of days, to habituate her to expect a doleful account, that the unwelcomed intelligence might be received with more composure than a precipitate and abrupt recital would naturally occasion.
    At length she expressed so much uneasiness at being so long kept in suspence, and entreated he would not further hesitate, but at once describe the particulars of all that pressed so heavily on his mind.—“Perhaps,” said she with a bewitching softness of expression, enticing him to begin the narrative, “your trouble may, in some degree, abate, when I am constituted a partaker of the pain: and should my becoming a sharer of your affliction, assist in the smallest degree to dissipate your dejection, I will cheerfully submit to any suffering, that may be the cause of producing effects so salutary and congenial to my desires; and the fortitude with which I will conduct myself through the trial, shall prove an additional effort to dispel the gloom which hangs on your oppressed bosom.”

After several pages of this guff, Belford finally tells steels himself to tell The Awful Truth.

It’s awful, all right:

    “Born!” exclaimed Mrs Belford, in great agitation, “where was he born, my love, not at Munster!”
    “No, my life, he was not born at Munster,” returned Belford. “Ah, no, I am sure he was not,” rejoined the incomparable Mrs Belford exultingly: “for Munster ne’er gave birth to any one to pine in wretchedness: the offspring of this peaceful place were reared for better fate.”
    “Your observation,” said Belford, as he heaved a sigh, “forcibly strikes me with a superstitious kind of idea, that my unhappy brother, Charles, was doomed to misery from his birth: for my mother being on a journey at the time she discovered symptoms threatening his appearance into the world, used every exertion to expedite her arrival at Munster,—from a conviction that home was the place best adapted to afford necessary comforts for the invalid,—but her indisposition increased with such rapidity, when she approached within twenty miles of this our happy seat of retirement, that it was deemed dangerous for her to proceed further; and, after the delay of another day, she was delivered of this unfortunate votary of prodigality. Thus was he excluded from the pleasing reflection of looking on Munster as his native place…”
    When he recovered from his pensiveness, he exclaimed, in a voice truly pathetic and affecting,— “Ah! cruel remembrance.—how oft I’ve heard my tender mother say, that at the time unhappy Charles was born, the sullen gloom of lowering clouds darkened the country for many miles around; and, very strange to tell, that in the moment when the boy first wafted his first breath u[on the atmosphere, from the high vaulted heavens issued, in awful peals claps of tremendous thunder, such as the oldest shepherd in the county, who with his flock had often been exposed to tempests, ne’er before had heard;—and the lightnings which ensued, flashed so vehemently from the skies, that many hapless beings were deprived of sight:—the rain in torrents poured upon the earth, and, joined by powerful northern blasts of Boreas, laid waste innumerable fields and mounds, whence the industrious farmers had hoped to reap a liberal harvest, as a reward and tribute for their labours. Thus seemed the elements combined, as if in anger roused to execrate the birth of one, whose foreseen vices and pursuits would kindle the just resentment of the Deity. The scene, I’ve frequently been told,—was marked with every cast and sign of horror.—It is reported, e’en to the present day, that not a bosomed heart was known throughout the land that still could exercise its throb, but worked a double tide of pulse,—and every hand shook like trembling aspin leaf:—not even those escaped, whose owners long had boasted of strong nerves.”

And I bet hearing THAT story every five minutes while he was growing up was an enormous help in moulding Charles into an emotionally well-adjusted individual.

Now—after a spectacular introduction like that, you’re probably expecting to find in Charles some supreme villain, raping and pillaging and plundering as he twirls his moustache and laughs maniacally. Perhaps you’re even hoping that his spectacular career features prominently in this novel? Alas, it pains me to have to report that Charles is never anything more than a petty crim; and while we do eventually meet him, it isn’t until his inevitable repentance and reconciliation with his brother, after which he becomes every bit as boringly perfect as any other Belford.

(Meaning that you aren’t cursed for life if you’re not born at Munster Abbey? Good to know.)

As for Charles’ actual crimes, they’re nothing more than the usual reckless round of drinking, gambling and debts; except that he caps it by robbing his sibling on two different occasions. The high point of his career is when he steals a small portrait of his own mother for the jewels set into the frame; allowing his brother to go into a spiel about how foolish it was to create such a temptation when the real jewel was the portrait itself, blah-blah.

The loss of the portrait, however, is a bitter blow to Belford, because his mother, as is only fitting considering her incredible selfishness in going into labour away from home, has been driven by her guilt and remorse into an early grave.

And here I have to stop and give Munster Abbey all the credit that is its due. I’ve read a lot of ridiculous sentimental novels in my time, and a lot of ridiculous things have happened in them; but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever before come across an instance of a character dying of SIGHING TOO MUCH:

“Ah, my love, my poor mother often heaved a sigh, when she reflected on that awful day:— ‘twas an event which doubtless expedited her dissolution; for though she lasted many years after, and made her family happy in her endearing society, yet she at best but lingered:—Her frequent sighs failed not to impair her constitution, which led her into a gradual decline of health, when at length, exhausted nature, too feeble any longer to keep in play the organs, which when motionless, deprive the body of life, sunk into a sleep, when, fearless embracing death, with a serene smile on her countenance, descriptive of her composure, she yielded every earthly claim, to seek in purer climes an happier fare…”

You will, I’m sure, be disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, to hear that Munster Abbey does not manage to maintain over its full length the standard of sublime idiocy established in these first 100 pages. I’m not saying the rest of it isn’t funny; just that it never again reaches quite the same heights of staggering absurdity.

Then again— After suggesting that the arrival in the world of a painfully ordinary sinner is enough to provoke a cataclysmic storm (a system that seems rather hard on the farmers and sighted people, I must say), and killing off a character with a fatal dose of hyperventilation, where could there be for this novel to go but downhill?

[To be continued…]