Posts tagged ‘16th century’

29/12/2012

Three faces of Inés

Ines2bAn attempt will be made to distinguish between the facts and myths of the Inés tradition, tracing its development over two centuries or so of Portuguese history. The tragic story has been a favourite in Portuguese as well as in later English and Continental literature, and it is not hard to see why. As will be shown, the characters of Inés and of the King, and the interplay between State demands and personal love and loyalty, with alternating bursts of joy and of foreboding, ending with a brutal murder and Pedro’s oath of revenge, provide all the requirements of a powerful drama. Ferreira was the first to put it on the stage, and more successful than any contemporary or later imitators. In fact, the intellectual courage and inventiveness of Ferreira need to be stressed, in staging a play not only based on Portuguese history, rather than on the Bible or a Classical theme, but also written in Portuguese, a language as yet untried for high drama.

I was tempted to head this blog post “Much ado about nothing”, since I’ve ended up doing an enormous amount of reading and researching to, in the end, very little purpose. However, since reading and researching are two of my favourite things, and since I always like accumulating strange factoids, I’m not sorry I undertook this particular project, even if the final pay-off was something in the nature of a damp squib.

The third piece of fiction published in 1688 by Aphra Behn was Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love. As it turns out, this was not an original work, but a translation of a piece of French fiction, Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. Although this publication was presented on its title page as being by “Mlle. ******” (which Aphra evidently believed, asserting it to be “By a Lady of Quality” in her translation), it was the work of one Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac.

Curiously, Aphra’s was only one of two simultaneous translations into English: May of 1688 also saw Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise released as The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal, one of two renderings of French works into English comprising a short book titled simply Two Novels. This particular translation was by a Frenchman, Peter Belon.

It took me a while to sort all this out. After some initial confusion, I realised that there were in fact two different versions of this work in English, rather than Aphra having translated a work in French by Peter Belon, which is what I thought at first. Furthermore, it appeared that the original work was based upon a true story, which meant that it fitted thematically with Aphra Behn’s other prose works of 1688. Finally, in a completely unexpected touch, it turned out that the original text of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise was available on Google Books. All this being the case, I decided to look first into the story on which these works were based, and then to compare the two translations, to see which if either was “better”.

The first part of this plan led me to the remarkable history of Inés de Castro, a real figure from 14th century Portuguese history. (And before you ask, no, I don’t know why Inés was called Agnes in the later works; although the two names are essentially variants of one another, both meaning “lamb of God”.) It also led me into an experience both fascinating and frustrating as hell, the pursuit of yet another work on the subject called The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro, which turned out to be something entirely different from what I anticipated. It was while I was waiting for this particular interlibrary loan that I remarked, in an earlier post, that if I didn’t achieve my year’s ambition of escaping from 1688, “It will only be because I’ve chosen to make the final step in this journey far more complicated than there is any real need for it to be.”

I was expecting The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro to be a non-fiction work, which would provide me with the background knowledge I needed. It turned out to be a 16th century Portuguese play on the subject by the poet and dramatist António Ferreira, who (I now know) was the first important literary figure both to write in Portuguese rather than Latin, and to use local stories as the basis for much of his work, rather than classical themes.

I was surprised in the first place that the Australian National University held a copy of The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro. I was even more surprised when the item arrived: apparently a published thesis by one John R. C. Martyn, issued by the University of Coimbra in Portugal (where António Ferreira studied law) in 1987; one, moreover, which was not only printed on low-quality paper, but still had its pages uncut. I was, evidently, the first person in twenty-five years to access this particular item, and in order to read it I had to use a small knife to carefully slice open the top and/or side of most of the leaves in it. You can just imagine the looks that got me on the train. And having done so, I discovered inside the Portuguese text of the play, The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro, an English translation (the first, evidently, since an extremely poor one in 1825), and a lengthy biography of António Ferreira that told me a great deal more than I wanted to know about his life, writings, and influences, as well as the the history and politics of Portugal in the 14th and 16th centuries. What it did NOT tell me was what I wanted to know about Inés, offering instead oblique allusions that nearly drove me to screaming point.

But to begin at the beginning—

In 1340, Prince Pedro, the heir to King Afonso IV of Portugal, married Constança of Castile. When Constança came to Lisbon, she was accompanied by a train of ladies-in-waiting, including the beautiful, golden-haired Inés de Castro. Much to the outrage of all concerned, Pedro and Inés quickly became lovers, defying all attempts to separate them. Constança, cunningly, had Inés named godmother to her first child, which technically made the relationship between her and Pedro incestuous.  When that didn’t work, Afonso sent Inés back to Castile. Pedro journeyed repeatedly to visit her until 1345, when Constança died shortly after the birth of her son, Fernando, after which he brought her back. Pedro and Inés continued to live together more or less openly, with Inés bearing four children, of which three survived. Meanwhile, Pedro ignored his father’s attempts to arrange another political marriage for him, raising the spectre of his marriage to Inés.

Both in religious and secular terms, Inés de Castro represented a threat to the Portuguese throne. She was illegitimate, albeit of noble origin; she was a blood relation of Pedro to an extent that would have made a papal dispensation necessary for their marriage; and, as godmother to the deceased infant prince, she was persona non grata. Furthermore, upon her return from Castile, Pedro installed her in a minor royal palace bequeathed to a convent by Queen Isabel (aka Elizabeth of Aragon), Pedro’s grandmother, who was regarded in her lifetime as a saintly peacemaker and who was in fact canonised after her death as Saint Elizabeth. (She was the one who turned bread into roses.) In many people’s eyes, the relationship between Pedro and Inés was not just immoral, but sacriligious.

More pragmatically, Inés was Castilian. Her brothers had befriended Pedro, and he responded by gifting them positions at court. Many people near the throne feared the Castilian influence, and what would happen when Pedro succeeded his father. Particularly they feared that Portugal would end up embroiled in the endless politic turmoil of Castile. What triggered the belated final crisis we do not know, but in 1355 King Afonso and his counsellors tried Inés in absentia and found her guilty of treason. She was sentenced to summary execution, and decapitated in her own home – in front of her children.

Inés was not the only one “in absentia”: Afonso and his court waited until Pedro was away on a hunting-trip to make their move against Inés. When Pedro heard of her death, he responded with nothing less than an open rebellion, raising an army (many of his troops Castilian) and waging war against his father’s forces for some eighteen months, until a peace was finally brokered. In 1357, Afonso died, and Pedro took the throne.

And then things got weird…although how weird depends on who you listen to.

When Pedro became king, the three men responsible for Inés’ execution understandably fled the country. One got away; the other two were captured in Castile (which seems a stupid place for them to go). Pedro staged a hostage exchange with his counterpart, Peter of Castile, and then, in a tableau worthy of Vlad Tepes, had his prisoners executed by having their hearts cut out of their bodies while they were still alive, as he ate breakfast and enjoyed the show. These men, Pedro explained, had torn out his heart by killing Inés, so their fate was only fair.

Then, in 1361, Pedro announced that he and Inés had in fact been secretly married in 1354, and she was therefore his queen. (No solid evidence one way or the other has ever been uncovered.) He followed this declaration by having her body exhumed from its grave near her home and placed in an elaborately sculpted tomb, on which she was depicted wearing a crown. Pedro had a matching tomb carved for himself, and placed it nearby; both now lie within the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. On the evidence of at least one more illegitimate child, Pedro did have other relationships after Inés’ death, but he never remarried. He died and was succeeded in 1367 by Fernando, his son by Constança.

So that’s Version #1, and as much as we know for certain – which naturally doesn’t stop people telling Version #2, an even better story. The outline is the same, but instead of merely declaring Inés his queen, after exhuming her body Pedro holds a coronation ceremony for her – in which he crowns her, and then makes all the members of his court kiss the corpse’s hand and swear fealty to her.

There seems (she said, regretfully) no evidence that this actually happened, although many people clearly believe that it did and tell the story as fact, which of course propagates it even further. It’s also an obvious case of “print the legend”. Personally, I reject the tale on the basis of its logistics: Inés was, after all, decapitated…

The story of Inés de Castro has never lost its appeal for the artistic community, and an extraordinary number of people, Portuguese and otherwise, have told or depicted her life and death in plays, novels, films, poems, paintings and operas; particularly operas, of which there are at least twenty devoted to her story. Inevitably, the vast majority of these works include the macabre coronation; artists tend to depict a shrivelled corpse with its head mysteriously back on its shoulders. I suppose what I was hoping for in the background text provided by John Martyn as a preface to his translation of The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro was an indication of when this twist to the story first appeared, and who might have been responsible for it. Instead, most exasperatingly, Martyn contents himself with pointing out a few people who did not tell it that way. This omission was all the more annoying considering his declared intention (quoted above) of, Distinguish[ing] between the facts and myths of the Inés tradition.

Anyway, among this high-minded group who stuck to Version #1 we find António Ferreira. Granted, his dramatic approach to the story would hardly allow for Version #2. Ferreira walks a finely judged line in his play about Inés, writing in Portuguese and telling a story from Portuguese history, but otherwise following the rules of classical drama by offering a five-act tragedy in which all violence is kept strictly off-stage. A chorus offers an ongoing commentary on the actions and contradictions of the characters.

The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro opens with Inés happy to the point of being fey, since Pedro has finally promised to marry her. This joyful opening is balanced by Inés suffering a foreboding dream in which she finds herself threatened by lions, but is then torn apart by wolves. This dream comes true when King Afonso is persuaded by his counsellors that Inés must die. The men confront her together, but the king, already reluctant, is swayed by Inés’ beauty and innocence and commutes her sentence. However, as soon as they have him away from Inés’ influence, the counsellors resume their arguments and succeed in bringing the weak Afonso back to his original judgement. He refuses to have anything to do with it, however, effectively washing his hands of the business. The counsellors return to Inés (off-stage) and run her through with their swords. No sooner has he given his tacit permission for Inés’ death than Afonso regrets it, but by then it is too late. Meanwhile, word of the execution is carried to Pedro, who swears bloody vengeance against his father.

Two things about The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro struck me as particularly interesting. The first point, internally, is the text’s insistence upon Inés’ innocence: the love between herself and Pedro is presented as being blessed by God if not by man. It is her innocence that prompts Afonso to spare her life, while the counsellors agree that she must die in spite of it, presenting her as a martyr to Portugal’s good. The second point, externally, is that the play was written under royal patronage and first staged in the mid-1550s before the then-heir to the throne, Prince John. Evidently the Portuguese monarchy insisted on a lot less sucking up from its artists than most, since this story hardly shows royalty in a flattering light.

So! – after all that, I returned to the original point of the exercise (you remember that, right?), and read the two translations of Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac’s Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. You can imagine my surprise, and indeed my dismay, when it turned out that de Brilhac had offered the world a version of Inés’ story that was whitewashed to the point of unrecognisability.

Not that my French is brilliant, but as far as I could tell from a comparison of the texts of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise and The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal Peter Belon’s translation is basically literal: I identified a number of paragraphs that were translated word for word, so I’m prepared to assume that the majority of it was so. In this version, which bears so little resemblance to reality as to be inadvertently amusing, Pedro marries Constantia (Constança), but falls in love with Agnes (Inés). Instead of immediately pursuing and seducing her, he struggles against his feelings and manfully keeps his secret for a number of years. Constantia is in love with Pedro, but she is painfully aware that he does not love her. Her one consolation in her unhappiness is the friendship of Agnes.

The villains of the piece are two invented characters, Don Alvares de Goncales and his sister, Elvira. The latter had hopes of Pedro before his marriage to Constantia, the former is in love with Agnes. Elvira, a born schemer and plotter, discovers Pedro’s secret and tries to get rid of Agnes by revealing it to Constantia. Constantia is as shattered as Elvira could wish, but believes both Agnes’ protestations of complete innocence, and Pedro’s assertion that, although he does love Agnes, he has never breathed a word of it to her. Meanwhile, Don Alvares, a professional sycophant, lets King Alfonse (Afonso) know of Pedro’s secret passion. The outraged king, who blames Agnes, wants to banish the girl, but Constantia refuses to part with her, defending both her and Pedro to Alfonse. The king is exasperated, and only too glad to offer his assistance when Don Alvares asks permission to court Agnes – to court her in the first instance, anyway: should the girl persist in her scornful refusals, Don Alvares has Alfonse’s permission to see what force will achieve.

So things stay for some time, until Elvira provokes a crisis: she forges a letter, supposedly from Agnes, that convinces Constantia that she and Pedro are lovers, and that it is Agnes who has overcome Pedro’s scruples, rather than the other way around. This ploy is rather more successful than Elvira intended or desired: Constantia collapses and becomes dangerously ill. Initially shunning Agnes, as she feels death approaching she admits the girl to her bedchamber and is convinced by her that the letter is a forgery. At the last, Constantia blesses both Pedro and Agnes and tells them that she hopes they will marry. The widowed Pedro soon declares himself, but Agnes rejects him. Nevertheless, she begins to realise that she does care for him. A maddened Don Alvares finally has Agnes abducted, but his men encounter Pedro on the road and flee. This rescue breaks down Agnes’ defences and she admits she loves Pedro; he persuades her into a secret marriage.

From here The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro bears at least a passing likeness to the truth. Suspicions arise of the relationship between Pedro and Agnes, and finally Don Alvares discovers the truth. He runs with it to Alfonse, and not only persuades him to have Agnes assassinated, but volunteers for the job. They wait for a day when Pedro is away hunting, and then Don Alvares invades the couple’s home and murders Agnes in her bed. The shock of Agnes’ death nearly deprives Pedro of both his life and his reason, but he slowly recovers. His first act then is to to swear vengeance against her murderers, and to cut a bloody swathe across Portugal.

Thus was the end of the unfortunate Amours of Don Pedro of Portugal, and of the beautiful Agnes de Castro, concludes The Fatal Beauty, whose memory the Prince did faithfully preserve on his Throne, on which he set by Birth-right after the Death of Don Alfonse. And we realise that we have been offered a version of the story lacking ALL of reality’s highlights.

What, then, of Aphra Behn’s Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love? Sadly, not much. I was hoping Aphra might have done a number on the original text and turned it into something more her own, but in fact the two translations are very close. To my taste, Aphra’s is the better one: it’s slightly shorter, having had some bits of repetition and unnecessary verbiage pruned away, while there are spots where Aphra’s choice of an English word or phrase is more apt. Beyond that, however, there is little to distinguish the two.

One thing that Aphra’s Agnes de Castro does offer us, however, is another of her intriguing dedications. Its official target is Sir Roger Puleston, a late-converted Royalist, but its main interest lies in the tone of its text. This is one of Aphra’s defences of her art, but a far cry in attitude from most of her earlier ones, many of which declared in essence that she’d write like a man if she damn well felt like it. Here, she not only objects to the crudeness of much of the prevailing literature, but offers hints that she may finally have given up on trying to win the patronage of the Stuarts. It is the cry of a woman very near the end of her tether:

Virgil and Horace had a better Age; Augustus favoured the Muses, and the whole Court was Complaisant to the Humor of their Caesar. He was a great Judge, and a great Patron: But our Age, degenerated into dull Lewdness, can relish nothing but abusive Satyr, and obscene Lampoons; and he is the most admir’d Poet who can most vilely traduce Innocent Beauty, Women of Quality, and Great Men. Our deprav’d Nature can relish nothing but Scandal in Verse, and from Noble and Heroick Songs, we are debauch’d into Scurrilous and Sawcy Libels; and every Man’s a Wit, who can but Rail. In our Age the Noble Roman Poets wou’d have Starv’d…

And to conclude this exceedingly rambling post, we should take note of one subtle point of difference that does exist between Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love and The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro. By the end of 1688, the word “novel” was being used more widely and more frequently to describe prose writing. We find it here in both the original work – which translates directly as Agnes de Castro: A Portuguese Novel – and as a reference to Peter Belon’s translation, released as one of Two Novels. Aphra, however, avoids the word: both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt use instead the word “history” in their subtitles, and when Aphra’s prose work of 1688 was collected together and reissued, it was under the title Three Histories. It seems to me that the distinction was quite intentional. We have spent much time and energy debating the truth quotient of both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt, while we know that Agnes de Castro was based upon a true story – even if, ironically, there’s less actual truth in it than in either of the two. In calling her prose “history”, at a time when the word was becoming unfashionable, Aphra Behn was telling her readers something about the nature of her work, and the artistic choices that lay behind it.

30/10/2010

Sisters under the dust-jacket

“I propose to trace Romance to its Origin, to follow its progress through the different periods to its declension, to shew how the modern Novel sprung up out of its ruins, to examine and compare the merits of both, and to remark upon the effects of them.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

I have learned, over the years, to keep my hobbies to myself – at least out there in the real world. I’ve learned to dread the look; that combination of puzzlement, pity and discomfort that seems to accompany any public admission of how I spend my time. Its bad enough, it seems, that I read at all, without reading, you know, old stuff. I shudder to think what a confession of my chronobibliographical aspirations would get me.

So it was with feelings of pleasant surprise and some comfort that I read Clara Reeve’s The Progress Of Romance Through Times, Countries, and Manners; With Remarks On The Good And Bad Effects Of It, On Them Respectively; In A Course Of Evening Conversations, which seems to have been inspired by an impulse similar to that which led to this blog.

Clara Reeve turned to writing comparatively late in life: her first novel, The Champion Of Virtue, written is disapproving reaction to Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, was published in 1777, when she was forty-eight; it was reissued the following year under the title by which it is now much better known, The Old English Baron. Reeve subsequently wrote half a dozen more novels, none of which were anywhere near so successful as her first, and which today are virtually unknown. In between, Reeve also published some poetry, translations and non-fiction. (Like every other woman writer of the time, or so it seems, she had a plan for the education of the young.)

The Progress Of Romance, published in 1785, has a double purpose and a unique structure to go with it. The book is fashioned as a series of conversations between three friends, the well-read Euphrasia (Reeve’s alter-ego), Hortensius, her main antagonist, and Sophronia, who acts as an arbitrator between them. This was a clever move on Reeve’s part, turning what otherwise might have resembled a series of lectures into a more easily absorbable form. It also allows Reeve to argue against  many of the prevailing opinions of the day, most of which just happen to be Hortensius’s.

The premise of this work is that Hortensius has taken exception to, or at least been startled by, some remarks of Euphrasia’s in which she seemed to denigrate epic poetry. Euphrasia explains that, rather, she was merely expressing her opinion that romances are by no means necessarily inferior to “the works of the great Ancients”, as is usually asserted, but may be regarded as essentially the same works in a different format.

Hortensius is affronted by this comparison of the classics and a form of writing that he has no hesitation in condemning as “trash”. It turns out, of course, that he hasn’t actually read most of the works he condemns – plus ça change. Reeve’s response to this revelation, which she puts into the mouth of Sophronia – “I have generally observed that men of learning have spoken of them with the greatest disdain, especially collegians” – is, I suspect, an expression of her opinion of the narrowness and inutility of the classical male education. It is evident throughout this work that Reeve considers the results of her own autodidactism far more satisfactory, although she never says so outright. She does, however, while admitting the often pernicious effects of novel-reading on girls, take issue with basing the education of boys on the classics – thus familiarising them at a young age with the Ancients and, “Their Idolatry – their follies – their vices – and everything that is shocking to virtuous manners.”

Euphrasia then proceeds to make her case by examining the origins of epic poetry, romantic prose, and other related works such as ballads, tracing fiction of all kinds across countries and centuries, highlighting their handling of the same historical events and demonstrating how the same story-telling impulses underlie each.

We emerge from this section of her book with a mental picture of Clara Reeve as highly intelligent, astonishingly well-read and amusingly opinionated. She also strikes us as very much a woman of her time, a stern judge who condemns any work that seems to her to have an immoral tendency. Her main argument in favour of the old romances is that they were almost always aspirational works, which celebrated courage and fortitude, and featured heroes and heroines of unimpeachable virtue, and which therefore were appropriate works “to put into the hands of young people”. The same cannot always be said, alas, for the romance’s descendant, the novel.

One of the purposes of The Progress Of Romance is to tackle the question that so obviously greatly bothered so many analysts of the time – just what is the difference between “a romance” and “a novel”? The definitions offered here seem to have guided opinion on the subject for many years afterwards. At the outset, we have Hortensius (prior to his conversion to Euphrasia’s point of view) asserting that a romance is, “A wild, extravagant, fabulous story”, to which Sophronia adds the rider, “Those kind of stories that are built upon fiction, and have no foundation in truth.” The conversationalists return to the point following Euphrasia’s dissertation of the history of the romance, with Euphrasia giving her own definition:

“The romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that it is all real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.”

It is the “reality” of the novel that makes it such a double-edged sword. Its familiarity makes it a far more effective vehicle of “instruction” than the romance, but it also makes it more likely to do harm. We get the usual sketch here of “young persons”, particularly young women, being mindlessly influenced by what they read. The fear of what novel-reading could do to girls was so widely expressed at the time that I suppose people actually believed it – although we notice that “Euphrasia” seems to have emerged from the reading of the works she subsequently condemns without suffering any particular moral damage. Reeve must have been aware of this inherent contradiction in her stance, although she avoids engaging with it directly, merely having Euphrasia observe, not of her own but of Sophronia’s reading, that certain works are, “Apt to give a romantic turn to the reader’s mind, unless she has as much discretion as Sophronia.” Discretion, we gather, is a quality largely lacking in novel-readers.

The second section of The Progress Of Romance is one of the earliest serious studies of the novel, and a fascinating snapshot of the mindset of the time. To my infinite amusement, Euphrasia / Reeve starts out by expressing a doubt I know only too well, as she contemplates with obvious dismay, and possibly some feeling of panic, the magnitude of the task she has undertaken:

“At our last meeting, I mentioned some difficulties I apprehended in my progress…and I must now confess, upon relexion they increase… It is now that I begin to be sensible in how arduous an undertaking I have engaged, and to fear I shall leave it unfinished.”

Sister! I cried.

“I purpose in future to take notice only of such novels as are originals, or else of extraordinary merit… I will endeavour to go forward warily and circumspectly…”

Okay, I muttered, obviously one of us was adopted…

But even Reeve’s cut-down history of the novel is extensive and impressive. She starts out tracing its origins out of Italy and Spain, before discussing its flowering in France. Here she does something that many later critics are strangely loath to do (a point I’ll be returning to in a subsequent post), and admits candidly the strong influence of the French writers of that century and the preceding one upon the development of the English novel.

Of the English novelists, she starts, inevitably, with “the Fair Triumverate of Wit”, and offers an interesting perspective on the three ladies who would suffer so much abuse over the succeeding centuries. Poor Delariviere Manley comes off the worst, being dismissed as a mere scandalmonger. Reeve admits Aphra Behn’s “genius” but, striking the key-note of the rest of her analysis, argues that her genius does not make up for her immorality.

It is Reeve’s opinion of Eliza Haywood that is the most intriguing. As you might imagine, she condemns her early writings utterly – but then insists that Haywood be given a pass, “Because she repented of her faults, and employed the latter part of her life in expiating the offences of the former.” Haywood’s reinvention of herself in the 1750s as a didactic novelist is indeed one of the most remarkable phases of the lady’s serpentine career, regardless of whether it represents her “repentence” or merely her pragmatism; while The History Of Miss Betsy Thoughtless is one of the most important novels of its time, as I hope to be discussing at some unspecficied future date…

As you will have gathered, at all times in this review, it is less the quality of the novel that is considered important than its morality. Not surpringly, then, it is a discussion of the relative merits of Richardson and Fielding, those twin kings of the 18th-century novel, that shapes the rest. Reeve concedes that in Fielding’s novels, “Virtue has always the superiority she ought to have”, and that his books are superior to Richardson’s in terms of “wit and learning”. However, “As I consider wit only as a secondary merit”, Reeve contends that Fielding’s work is, “Much inferior to Richardson’s in morals and exemplary characters.” And indeed, “To praise the works of Mr. Richardson is to hold a candle to the sun.”

Reeve then goes on to consider most of the more successful novelists of the preceding fifty years. (She chooses discretion over valour, and refrains from giving an opinion of the writings of her immediate contemporaries.) Reeve praises Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Sarah Scott, Oliver Goldsmith and (with reservations) Tobias Smollett. The latter allows her to take another pot-shot at Hortensius: when he praises Humphry Clinker she marvels, “Then you do condescend to read novels sometimes, especially when they are written by men?” Hortensius also asks her opinion of Tristram Shandy, which she condemns – although not with as much certainty in her own judgement as she usually displays: “What value posterity will set upon [his writings] I presume not to give my opinion of, it is time that must decide upon them.” Sterne’s more sentimental works, however, she does approve.

From my own peculiar point of view, I was somewhat disappointed that Reeve did confine herself to the better-known novelists; I was hoping for a few more obscure works to add to The List, but for the most part it was not to be. The closest we get is some praise for Elizabeth Griffith, whose novels are allowed to be, “Moral and sentimental, though they do not rise to the first class of excellemce”; and on the other hand, a dismissal of “Miss Minifie’s novels”, which are tartly summed up as being, “In the class of mediocrity, if I were to mention such, it would make our talk too long and tedious.”

Given Reeve’s general reticence  in this respect, one does wonder why the unfortunate Margaret Minifie was chosen to represent “the class of mediocrity”. This probably wasn’t the reaction she wanted, but…I’m sorely tempted to go and find out…

19/09/2010

Bodies of evidence

“From the wombe comes convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseyes, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evill quality of it.”
—John Sadler (1636)

Women’s bodies are the stuff of history, declares Mary Elizabeth Fissell at the outset of Vernacular Bodies: The Politics Of Reproduction In Early Modern England, her study of the way in which English popular culture, or rather, the vernacular (Fissell prefers the somewhat different connotations of this term), imagined and reimagined the female body, female sexuality, pregancy and childbirth during the political, religious and social upheaval of the Reformation, the Civil War and the Interregnum, the Restoration and the Exclusion Crisis. Fissell sees the female body being used throughout these troubled times as a metaphor for the reshaping of society and its norms, as with increased access to cheap printing came an increased tendency – mostly, though not exclusively, male – to dissect, re-evaluate and reassemble the female form and function via the written word.

Fissell’s work covers a lot of fascinating ground. Her take on the Reformation is particularly interesting, for doing what too many such studies fail to do, namely, to consider the sweeping actions of the monarchy from the point of view of those on the receiving end. For centuries, pregnant women had been encouraged to identify with the Virgin Mary, to view the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth as a recapitulation in miniature of the miracle of the birth of Christ, to understand their labour pains as linking them directly to Mary’s sufferings, not during the birth, but during the crucifixion.

With the Reformation, all that stopped. Identification, the use of holy relics as supports and even prayer was outlawed; and instead of choosing to identify with Mary, women were ordered to identify with Eve – and to view childbirth not as something sanctified by God, but as a personal punishment from God. The single prayer issued by the new church to be used by women in labour amounted to “I’m a sinner and I deserve this”. Welcome to Protestantism, ladies. The enforcement of these dictums was taken very seriously indeed, with church representatives even  interrogating midwives to discover who women prayed to while giving birth. (Fancy being held accountable for anything you said during labour! I bet the mortality rate went up during this time, too…)

English society prior to the mid-17th century was based upon a series of strict recapitulations – the king as father of the nation, representing God; the husband/father as head of the family, representing the king – but with the execution of Charles I, everything changed. In the face of such an unprecedented act of revolt, it is little wonder that women began to rebel against their “kings”, and the assumption of submission and obedience. During this period, women became visible in English society as never before, preaching, protesting and publishing. The men who had committed the ultimate act of social rebellion had, however, no intention of putting up with being rebelled against. Something resembling a gender war broke out, one inevitably couched in terms of sexual abuse and accusation, where civil disobedience on the part of a woman was declared a clear sign of sexual licentiousness. This was the era, too, of the Adultery Act, wherein adultery ceased to be “a sin” and became instead “a crime” – and a capital crime, at that. Reading the Act, we find adultery defined as, Sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man not her husband. Conversely, a married man who had intercourse with a woman not his wife was guilty only of “fornication” – three months in jail, rather than death.

By examining the medical texts of the time, Fissell is able to demonstrate just how bizarre and extreme the need to control women, and women’s sexuality, became. Although the processes of conception and pregnancy were not understood, earlier texts envisaged the womb as the site of miracles, a warm, gentle environment that first gladly welcomed the man’s seed and then used it to shape and nurture new life. Across the 17th century this view changed, with the womb recast as the site of evil and sickness; something with a mind of its own, quite capable of attacking and even killing the body that contained it if it so desired.

Then we have the midwifery texts, from which we discover that the male impulse to remove women from the process of childbearing as much as possible, as discussed in Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals, was alive and well during this much earlier period. Nicholas Culpeper’s hugely influential A Directory For Midwives began the trend. In spite of its title, the book was all about denigrating midwives, privileging the male written word over the female spoken word. It begins by describing the reproductive physiology of both sexes, but in male terms: the male is declared “the norm”; the female is described only as far as it is different (i.e. inferior). Culpeper insists that women cannot really know or understand their own bodies: if childbirth is to be successful, it must therefore have male guidance. However, Culpeper’s condescending attitude to women pales besides that found in the extraordinary The Compleat Midwifes Practice, written by a team of four doctors, which reconfigures pregnancy and childbirth as a partnership between the father and the foetus, and barely mentions the mother at all – and then in no positive terms. The womb is here nothing more than a passive receptacle for the active male seed; while childbirth is envisaged as a process determined entirely by the foetus, which itself tears open the membranes and fights desperately to free itself from the female “container” that can no longer sustain it.

Over a century later, England was in the grip of another reproductive crisis. We are so accustomed these days to the cultural construct of the sexless Victorian woman that it always comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that in earlier times, women were held to be the lusty ones, their desires so strong as to be essentially uncontrollable. The second half of the 17th century was awash with dirty jokes and dirtier ballads about insatiable women and pathetic, cuckolded men – men who could never be sure that “their” children were really theirs. In the final section of her book, Mary Fissell ties this obsession with sexual incontinence and paternity to England’s own paternity crisis. The Restoration had not brought to the country the hoped-for stability. While littering England with his bastards, Charles II failed to produced a legitimate heir. Next in line was his brother, James, a situation that carried the threat of a Catholic monarchy. Having just recovered from one civil war, England shuddered at the prospect of another. Agitation began for the exclusion of James from the succession, possibly in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, whom some believed (or chose to believe) to be Charles’s legitimate son. However, James did succeed his brother; but when, after many years of reproductive failure, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, a Catholic heir, England exploded in conspiracy theories.

This was, as we touched upon with respect to Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, the time of the “sham prince”. Three theories were prevalent:

  1. That Mary had never been pregnant, and that another woman’s baby had been smuggled into the fake birthing-chamber in a warming-pan, and was being passed off as the Prince of Wales
  2. That Mary had given birth, but the child was stillborn; then as above
  3. That Mary had given birth, but James wasn’t the father – the most popular suspect being the papal nuncio, the unfortunately named Father d’Adda (and you’d better believe the wags had a field-day with that one)

How far anyone actually believed the rumours is moot, but in any event, they served their purpose of undermining the already shaky monarchy: James and Mary were eventually forced into exile, with the throne of England offered to the safely Protestant William of Orange and his wife, James’s daughter, Mary.

The sexually uncontrollable and deceitful woman had, by this time, become a standard metaphor for social upheaval, as Fissell shows; but surely no one woman was ever so branded in this respect as Mary of Modena, nor suffered so much personal humiliation. Every detail of the pregnancy and the birth became fodder for the pamphlet-writers and the balladeers; bloody bedsheets and lactation were topics of coffee-house gossip. In the pursuit of political and religious ends, what had once been a private act of mystery and wonder, a miracle even, had been transformed into something crude, ugly, and very, very public.

04/09/2010

Fertile ground for research

The preservation of children should become the care of men of sense, because this business has been too long fatally left to the management of women.
— Dr William Cadogan (1748)

Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals is an intriguing work that takes issue with the notion that in early modern England, fertility was largely uncontrolled and random, and uses a wide variety of sources, including medical papers, legal writings, advertisements, ballads and private letters, to investigate what people thought they knew about fertility and reproduction, and how they attempted, with various degrees of success, to control conception and childbearing.

McLaren starts by examining the shift in perception of the female sex and female sexuality from the 17th century onwards, where from being considered essentially the same as men (although a slightly inferior model), women gradually came to be viewed as a thing apart. Likewise, opinions on female sexual desire underwent significant renovation: from being considered natural and healthy and, indeed, necessary for conception in the 17th century, the notion of the “good”, sexless woman began to take hold, until by the middle of the 19th century it could be declared by a medical “expert” that, As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him.

The early chapters of this book consider the various ways, medical, magical and otherwise, that people in England attempted to prevent, or control the timing of, conception. It looks at early forms of contraception, from extended lactation, to certain diets, to primitive spermicidals, to biblically-condemned coitus interruptus, to the first rubber condoms (for the wealthy only). Of course, when all this failed, drastic measures were sometimes resorted to. The bulk of McLaren’s study examines the use of abortion as a means of birth control, and the laws that were finally introduced against it – which did not occur until the early 19th century. Fascinatingly, next to nothing of what we might assume to be the motivation for the introduction of the anti-abortion laws was in fact the case. We see that the laws were more interested in punishing abortionists than those who used their services, but that their main purpose was to punish sexual misconduct by unmarried women. Married women who resorted to abortion (or even to infanticide) were likely to be left unmolested.

The introduction of the laws, however, and the specific shape they took, turns out to be the result of the medical profession’s attempt to establish itself as a serious entity in the eyes of the law, which in turn was a result of the turf-war going on between male doctors and their professional rivals – namely, midwives, apothecaries, and anyone else who interested themselves in the business of reproduction – like mothers. How annoyed the doctors were at not being able to remove women from the process altogether can be judged from the quote up above.

In their efforts to seize control, the doctors of the time went about fighting for laws that, rather than making abortion illegal, made it so only if not performed by a doctor. Similarly, they fought to remove from the statutes the idea that life began with “quickening”, that is, foetal movement, which made abortion a crime only if performed after that. Quickening was subsequently replaced with a ruling that life began with conception – not because the doctors believed it, not out of any concern for the sanctity of life, but because only the mother could know for sure whether quickening had happened – and that legally, the courts were forced to take her word rather than a doctor’s.

(The medical profession’s campaign to establish itself as the ruling voice in matters of reproduction was, from its own point of view, finally a great success – although one with consequences that Angus McLaren strangely doesn’t mention, namely that the push for women to give birth in hospital, under medical supervision, rather than at home with a midwife and/or female relatives in attendance, led to a significant increase in the mortality rates amongst both babies and new mothers, since the standard of hygeine in hospitals at the time was much lower than that in the average home. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1935 film The Story Of Louis Pasteur in which Pasteur has to argue and plead with the doctors about to deliver his daughter’s baby, to get them to wash their hands first.)

However, despite the seeming triumph of the doctors during the 19th century in their efforts to marginalise women as much as possible in the business of breeding, out in the real world we find that the responsibility for conception, and contraception, was still pretty much where it it always had been (where it always has been?) – or at least so we judge from this 1848 letter from a husband to his wife, upon receiving one from her informing him of her unwanted pregnancy:

“…My dearest love, This last misfortune is indeed grievous & puts all others in the shade. What can you have been doing to account for so juvenile a proceeding…?”

.

“To read” additions:
Reproductive Rituals also discusses the early infanticide laws, under which the courts did not have to prove that the accused killed her baby: the burden of proof was on the woman – inevitably, the unmarried woman – who would be condemned to death if unable to prove that her baby was stillborn, or died of natural causes. A better understanding of these laws and their historical context makes me want to re-read Adam Bede, and gives me a good excuse to belatedly tackle The Heart Of Midlothian.

04/09/2010

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 2)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender

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Doing a little reading about the reign of James I prior to the Gunpowder Plot to support this review, I discovered that he became king of Scotland (as James VI) at the age of 13 months when his mother was forced to abdicate; that he spent some time imprisoned; that all four of his regents (including his half-uncle, James Stewart) died violently; that James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, created a court where literature, drama, art and music flourished; that he wrote two scholarly works himself; that he presided over a witchcraft trial; and that the Gunpowder Plot took shape only in the wake of two other failed plots to remove or kill him.

You’d know none of this from watching Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, however.  With all this fascinating and unfamiliar material at their disposal, one does wonder why the makers of this historical drama instead fell back on giving us yet another re-hash of Elizabeth vs Mary. Perhaps it was because the real story of James’s reign didn’t lend itself to a simplistic Protestant/Catholic schema. Or perhaps the choice was dictated by the same mindset that seems to have mandated the production of a new version of Jane Eyre every eighteen months. God forbid they should give us something we haven’t all seen before.

Even more contentious that this production’s selective use of facts, however, is its presentation of James himself, who is depicted as a weak, snivelling, easily manipulated, self-loathing homosexual. There was and still is debate over James’s sexuality, of course, but Gunpowder, Treason & Plot puts a particularly nasty spin upon it, with James only able to work himself up to sex with his wife after betraying or murdering someone, or watching executions, and fleeing his own brief and brutal wedding-night for the arms of his young male lover. (Screenwriter James McGovern seems unpleasantly addicted to scenes of violent defloration.) The story’s low point is reached when Sir Thomas Percy, sent to the Scottish court to plead tolerance for Catholics once James succeeds to the English throne, gets the desired promise only in exchange for performing forced oral sex on James. Apart from subsequently sinking into alcoholism, Percy is driven by this incident to involve himself in the Gunpowder Plot after James reneges on his promise. He does so declaring that, “It’s better to die than to live on one’s knees.”

So to speak.

Robert Carlyle does what he can with the character as written, but ends up relying more than he should upon James’s clubfoot (did James have a clubfoot?), until with his limping and tics and mannerisms, he begins to suggest Richard Dreyfuss doing Richard III in The Goodbye Girl – only that’s meant to be funny.

Both unable and unwilling to show us the royal marriage as it was (Anne was only fourteen when she and James married), this version ignores the real affection that existed between James and Anne during the early years of their joint reign, and instead makes Anne disgusted and repulsed by her weakling husband, even aside from his sexual orientation, only learning to respect (and even desire) him when he learns to be even more amoral, vicious, false and manipulative than the politicians who surround him. It also has her supporting and, indeed, insisting upon James’s betrayal of his promise of tolerance for the Catholics, over which he feels some guilt, even though there is good evidence that Anne herself converted to Catholicism late in her life.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has Anne arriving in England in the hours before the execution of James’s mother. This pretty much sets the tone of the historical accuracy of this production, as James and Anne were married in Denmark two years after Mary went to the block. Here, James is depicted as entering into a conspiracy with Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil, who promises him the throne of England in exchange for keeping Scotland passive in the wake of Mary’s execution. In order to achieve this, James must confront his own ministers, who are all for war. First he dissuades them from an immediate attack, on the grounds of needing a little time to grieve for his mother before he can join them, and then he has them all murdered the moment they turn their backs on him.

These early scenes also present us with this production’s most irritating aspect, as it has James addressing the camera directly. This “breaking of the wall” can work – the recent adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right used it to some effect – but it’s jarring here. For one thing, it is used spasmodically instead of with any consistency; and rather than serve a specific purpose, it seems to indicate only that James McGovern couldn’t think of a better way to convey his characters’ motives to the viewer. And really, we can only wince during the scene that introduces us to the man who will be the prime mover in the Gunpowder Plot, Sir Robert Catesby, who not only speaks to the camera, but in doing so denounces Protestantism as a faith, “Invented to help a king dump a wife.” I wasn’t aware that in 1601, women, let alone queens, got dumped.

While James and Anne are twiddling their thumbs in Scotland, waiting for Elizabeth to die, Sir Robert Cecil, is leading a violent campaign against the Catholics, breaking up masses, hanging the priests, and arresting the leaders of the Catholic community. It is at this time that Thomas Percy sees James to plead for tolerance – with what dual outcomes, we already know. However, when James becomes king of England, his first impulse is to keep his dubiously elicited promise, freeing the Catholic prisoners and stopping the persecution – until he learns that England’s coffers are almost bare, and that fines levied against recusant Catholics are all that’s keeping things afloat. So much for tolerance.

In the wake of this, the plot begins to come together. The main conspirators, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Sir Francis Tresham and Thomas Wintour, having tried and failed to secure Spanish backing for a Catholic rebellion, recruit Guy Fawkes, first seen fighting for the Spanish against the English in Holland. Here, the Catholic’s plan is to blow up both parliament and the entire royal family, then to cease control in the anarchy that follows. In fact, the plotters intended to install James and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, who for some reason was living apart from her family at the time, as a figurehead but legitimate Catholic queen.

I must say, one of the most successful aspects of this production is its quite subtle handling of the three children, who are simply always there, poor things: at executions, while their mother is in labour, while plots and double-crosses are in motion. We note, too, the camera’s habit of resting on the boy who will grow up to be Charles I. They are also the centre of one of the drama’s few gentle moments, when James finds himself strangely moved by the sight of Anne and the children lying on a bed together, her arms about them tenderly as she tells them stories of Denmark. I think we’re supposed to infer “mother issues”…understandably, I guess.

We will never know for certain the whole truth about the Gunpowder Plot and its discovery – confessions under torture notwithstanding. Here, as I complained about in Part 1 of this review, the failure of the conspiracy is due predominantly to the stupidity of those involved. First we have a major role in the plot assigned to Thomas Wintour, who has just embarked upon his first serious love-affair – with a girl who turns out to be one of Robert Cecil’s spies. Loose lips don’t only sink ships, it seems. Wintour also tries to recruit his brother, John, into the conspiracy in a public place, giving the man whose been following him plenty of chance to see their discord, overhear their quarrel – and mark the hitherto innocent John as one of the plotters.  Meanwhile, the responsibility for the purchasing of the gunpowder and the hiring of the room under the Parliament is given to Thomas Percy, despite his alcoholism – and he proceeds to fulfil both tasks using his own name.

Finally, although he has already been revealed as vacillating and likely to betray them during the debate on warning the Catholic parliamentarians, Sir Francis Tresham is given an opportunity to warn his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, of the plot, who immediately threatens to reveal all to the king. To cover himself, Tresham has his wife, Anne, write an “anonymous” letter, so that Monteagle need not reveal the actual source of his information. The true author of this famously ambiguous letter, which the real Monteagle received and promptly showed to Robert Cecil, has never been identified, although Francis Tresham was indeed the main suspect.

(Strangely, in the midst of all this self-destructive behaviour, omitted is the notorious true incident in which Robert Catesby and several of his fellow conspirators managed to set themselves on fire while trying to dry some gunpowder. Here, they go out instead like Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.)

Of course, given their failure to discover the truth on their own in spite of all this blundering, Robert Cecil and his people don’t exactly emerge looking like masterminds, either. Thomas Percy’s largely unconcealed activities come to light only when he is betrayed, while Cecil’s other main source of information is cut off, literally, when upon discovering the truth about his mistress, Thomas Wintour strangles her to death in the middle of sex. (Oh, goody – a third horribly violent sex scene!)

While the details of the uncovering of the plot, the discovery of the gunpowder and the arrest of Guy Fawkes do remain somewhat uncertain, it certainly didn’t happen as it happens here. Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has James seeing his opportunity, and taking credit not only for interpreting the letter correctly (which he may in fact have done: given the circumstances of his father’s death, a well-developed paranoia in James over the potential uses of gunpowder wouldn’t have been unlikely), but also for personally leading the search and arresting Fawkes. This version of events also has him delivering a climactic speech in which he reveals and denounces the conspirators, truly seizes power, and puts his unruly parliment in its place…before, for the first time, being invited to his wife’s bed. Of course, it was actually Sir Edward Coke who led the investigation into the conspiracy and who described to parliament the gruesome fate in store for the guilty parties – but why let facts get in the way of a good dramatic scene?

21/08/2010

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 1)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender

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History, as I have already mentioned, is not my strong suit (I was a science/geography girl). So when an historical drama tampers with the facts to such a degree that even I can spot it easily, it’s cause for concern.

Sometimes, of course, there are very good reasons for screenwriters to take historical liberties – particularly when the facts are in dispute and we don’t know for sure what happened anyway: such speculation is understandable and, dramatically speaking, essential. Sometimes, in adapting a true story, it is necessary to compress events just on practical grounds. And then there are the times when history is re-written for no good reason you can think of, which is the case with Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.

It’s hard to know what James McGovern was trying to do here. His extensive alterations suggests he had some particular agenda in mind, but the end product hardly supports this view. The story is built on a simple schema of Catholic vs Protestant. The Protestants are, one and all, depicted as lying, scheming murderers, which might suggest we’re supposed to side with, or at least sympathise with, the Catholics – except that counterbalancing this we have the fact that everything, and I mean everything, the Catholics do fails due to their own stupidity. Possibly we’re just supposed to curl our lips contemptuously at both factions.

For its DVD release, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has been compressed into two uneven chapters, the first, shorter part dealing with the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the second part with that of her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, leading up of course to the infamous failed plot of November 1605.

First the good news: this production is very well cast. Kevin McKidd gives us a romantic Bothwell (no wife-abandoning, possible rapist here), devoted to Mary, but ultimately too violently impulsive for his or anyone else’s good. Paul Nicholls as Darnley moves from superficially charming suitor to drunken, abusive husband with frightening conviction; and Catherine McCormack is a rather splendid Elizabeth I, although her appearances are disappointingly brief.

The French actress Clémence Poésy is not at all my idea of Mary, but she gives an interesting performance, although one somewhat hampered by the script’s desire to have Mary all things to all people. Essentially, what James McGovern does is declare Mary guilty of almost everything she’s ever been accused of, while providing her with excuses for her actions. I say “almost” because she is exonerated on the charge of an adulterous affair with her Italian advisor, David Rizzio…but then “wee David” is (rightly or wrongly) coded gay here, presumably by way of explanation of Mary’s failure to transgress.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot begins with the death of Mary of Guise, and the return of her daughter to Scotland to claim her throne. Curiously, the script ignores the fact that she had been “Mary, Queen of Scots” since the ripe old age of 6 days. It also ignores her first marriage, and her time as Queen Consort of France, partly so that it can show her development/corruption from her beginnings as “a wee girl, a silly young thing”, and partly so that she can be given an horrendous wedding night after her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

The description of Mary as “a silly young thing” issues from her illegimitate half-brother, James Stewart, here depicted as conspiring against Mary with Elizabeth from the outset, rather than turning against her after her marriage to an Englishman. Mary has already upset both religious factions by declaring her intention of allowing Scotland to remain Protestant, while continuing to practise her own faith, despite violent opposition to this from John Knox and his followers. James stirs the pot still further by goading the young Catholic Sir John Huntly into the murder of another prominent Protestant, Lord Gunn. Mary’s refusal to stay his execution turns the Catholics against her, too.

The Huntly episode is a fabrication. In fact, all the major events of Mary’s reign are jumbled and misordered here. We have Bothwell declaring his love for Mary and being rejected because of his “inferior” position, which is nonsense. There is, nevertheless, an odd attempt to depict Mary and Bothwell as star-crossed lovers,  their desires thwarted by Mary’s determination to bear a son who will be heir to the English throne. This possibility motivates her marriage to Darnley, whose conduct subsequent to the wedding justifies, in script terms, everything else that happens. Darnley soon degenerates into drunken violence, as Bothwell glowers from the sidelines.

James takes the opportunity to arrange, and involve Darnley in, the murder of David Rizzio, attempting to seize power in the wake of it. However, Bothwell manages to smuggle Mary out of the castle. The two of them raise an army, and drive James and his followers from Scotland. Bothwell again declares his feelings for Mary, who returns them, but rejects his advances on the grounds of her pregnancy. Bothwell is sent into a sort of exile after this, during which he works off his feelings by slaughtering the English, and by sending Elizabeth news of Mary’s pregnancy. The little detail of his own marriage, at which Mary was a guest, is never mentioned.

As with many such productions, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot does very well in its interior scenes, but fails in its exteriors due to a paucity of extras. This hurts the story at several points, but never so much as in the scene of “Mary’s army” and “James’s army”, in which there are rarely more than eight people in shot. Besides that, of course, there’s the fact that James had been driven out of Scotland a year before Rizzio’s murder, after leading a failed rebellion in the wake of Mary’s marriage. Darnley did arrange and participate in the murder, at which time Mary – in whose presence it was committed – was already seven months’ pregnant with the future King James.

In this storyline, a temporarily sober Darnley reappears from wherever after the birth of his son, and in his one decent action declares the child legitimate. Anything resembling reconciliation evaporates the next moment, however, as Mary tells Darnley bluntly that it is only for this that she has spared his life.

We get a rare bit of historical accuracy next, as Bothwell is seriously injured (an attempt on his life by James), and Mary rides to his camp to see him. The two become lovers (so much for “seriously injured”), and they continue their not-very-discreet affair after Bothwell’s resummons to Edinburgh. This is the last straw for Darnley, who has returned to his violent, drunken ways. Barred from Mary’s bedroom, one night he breaks in and tries to rape her. It is this that provokes Bothwell to propose his murder, to which Mary does not agree until Darnley threatens the baby – his reasoning being that if the child is dead, Mary will have to return to his bed to conceive another.

We make no bones here about Bothwell’s guilt, which I suppose is fair enough; but the depiction of the murder is fairly ridiculous. Having failed to kill Darnley by blowing him up with gunpowder (Subtle Foreshadowing!), Bothwell tracks him down and strangles him in front of witnesses. Friendly witnesses, but still… After this, it is not Bothwell’s mock-trial, acquittal, divorce and rapid marriage to Mary that turns Scotland against them – bad enough, you might have thought – but the fact that the two of them are openly living together! However, some time into the conflict (there’s never any sense here of the amount of time passed), Mary decides that enough men have died for her, and she turns herself over to the English, where she is imprisoned and her baby, literally torn from her arms, last seen in the ominous grasp of James…

[To be continued…]

18/08/2010

Fiction factions

I’ve found Factual Fictions a very useful addition to this course of historical/social reading: it has, for the most part, quite a different focus from most other studies looking at “the rise of the novel”, concentrating its first half upon print media generally, the evolution of news, and – even as early as mid-16th century – social concerns over the truth, or otherwise, of printed material and its possibly corrupt effects. (looking at this through contemporary eyes, we see that the concern was indeed focused upon the truthiness of news.) Lennard Davis’s study is wide-ranging, and addresses any number of critical watersheds, among them:

  • the infinite definitions of “novel” that existed across the 17th and 18th centuries
  • not just the development of printing, but the lessening of its cost during the 17th century, which put the dissemination of information within the reach of many, and took this prerogative away from church and state
  • the founding of regularly published journals during the conflict between the Royalists and the Roundheads for purely political reasons, which saw “truth” redefined in terms of political truth, party truth, and a shift in attitude by the ruling classes towards the population in general, which ceased to be viewed merely as a mob to be repressed and controlled, and became instead a force to be appealed to for support
  • the attempt to control the press in the early 18th century by taxing the publication of news, which forced a separation between “news” and “fiction” (which until then had generally been co-published if not blended, and were frequently both indistinguished and indistinguishable), and sent each entity on its own distinct evolutionary journey

Factual Fictions then considers the widespread and lingering habit of claiming a fictional work to be true, and the question of why, more than fifty years after Aphra Behn and with “the novel” an accepted and recognised form of writing, we still find Samuel Richardson insisting upon the literal truth of Pamela. The gradual shift towards a distinction between moral truth and literal truth that became the justification of the novel is examined, as well as the way this led to the eventual pruning away of the political/amatory writings of Behn, Manley and Haywood from the novel’s history. At the climax of his study, Davis tags as the key work, the first real novel, Tom Jones – citing Fielding’s habit of repeatedly reminding his readers that the work is entirely fictional (something that profoundly disturbed the critics of the day), his chatty, omniscient narrator, and the artistic breakthrough that saw real-life events threaded into a self-declared fictional narrative, with the closing stages of the story running in parallel with, and occasionally crossing paths with, the Jacobite Rebellion of November and December 1745.

The jewel in the crown here, however, is Davis’s chapter on Daniel Defoe, in which he highlights not only the incredible manoeuvrings to which Defoe resorted in order to avoid ever having to admit anything he wrote was fiction, but links this with Defoe’s, shall we say, malleability of political conviction, which saw him working for both parties simultaneously while repeatedly denying that he was working for either, and even uttering those denials to the people who were paying him to work for them! So convoluted were Defoe’s actions in this respect that I think I cannot do better than simply quote Lennard Davis’s summation of the situation, in which he declares—

“…the frames that are involved here are almost mind-boggling. Defoe, originally a Whig writer, was persuaded to write from the Tory point of view for Harley by insinuating himself into the control of a Whig paper. However, Defoe then secretly agreed to push the original Whig position while pretending to write as a Tory infiltrator… As if this were not enough, Defoe also agreed to infiltrate Dormer’s Newsletter, which was a Tory opposition paper, and to cause, The sting of that mischievous paper to be entirely taken out, though it was granted that the style should continue Tory, as it was, that the party might be amused and not set up another, which would have destroyed the design.  One has only to imagine the subtlety of style required to produce the Whig Flying Post that would allow the Tories to think they had infiltrated it while at the same time expressing the Whig hard-line point of view. And Defoe did all this while writing Dormer’s Newsletter in such a way that the Tories would believe he was writing from their viewpoint while in reality he was infusing Whig ideology…”

But he never wrote fiction! Let’s be quite clear about that!

Davis takes at face value the attack upon Defoe and Robinson Crusoe by his contemporary, the author, playwright and critic Charles Gildon (as Kate Loveman does not, arguing instead that Gildon’s response was an example of the faux-outrage with which Defoe’s various shams were punished), and in doing so highlights the fact that, whatever the motive for his outburst, Gildon may have stumbled onto a critical insight about Defoe: that he did, indeed, Think, that the manner of your telling a lie will make it a truth…

“To read” addition:

The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 – Lawrence Stone

14/08/2010

Tabloid journalism, circa 1640

Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions differs from most of the other studies of the rise of the novel that I have read in being much more interested in form than content. It asks, in essence, how did the novel get to be the novel? In one chapter, Davis deals with the role played by ballads in the 16th and 17th centuries, presenting them as an early form of news broadcast, a way in which word of various events was disseminated amongst the population at large with unprecedented rapidity and immediacy. Criminal lives and deaths were a particularly popular subject, and the more gruesome the details, the better. Here* is an account of the execution of a man convicted of treason:

    His Belly ripped open wide, his Bowel all he gat.
    And to the fire he straight
         them threwe which ready there was made:
    And there consumed all to dust, as is the fire’s trade.
    His head cut off, the Hangman then, did take it up
        in hand:
    And up alofte he did showe, to all that there did stand.
    And then his body in four parts was quartered in that
      place:
    More pity that his traitorous heart, could take no
      better grace.

It doesn’t seem that this particular branch of journalism has changed much in the last 400 years. You can almost hear the ballad-seller, can’t you? “Our ballads get you closer than ever before! As if YOU were one of those that there did stand!”

(*Davis reproduces this ballad from Ballads And Broadsides, edited by Herbert Collman [1912])