Posts tagged ‘17th century’

14/09/2016

Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy (Part 2)

lisarda1bExtreamly pleased was the Melancholy Gentleman, with the courteous offers of Ricardo, who desir’d not to wonder that he of himself should relate a misfortune, that ought to be for his honour kept private from all the World, but his Civilities had such influence over him, that he had not Power to refuse him any thing; besides he thought the stillness of the night requir’d a Companion to Discourse with to pass away those tedious hours; so that Ricardo began, and related the whole story of his Misfortunes; and having ended, the Gentleman confest his Misfortunes were great, but those he should relate were far exceeding his, in as much as he had not only lost a Mistress that he lov’d, but a Wife, whom he admir’d above all Worldly things; and his Honour, a thing that ought to be dearer than Life…

Whatever the Criticks made of the first part of Lisarda, it seems that its author’s overriding ambition for it –  that “the Book sells” – was sufficiently fulfilled to satisfy Mr Cox’s publisher, since the concluding part of the short novel appeared in due course; with the two being reissued together in September of 1690.

Not that the author’s opinion of himself, or his opinion of his readers’ opinions, seem to have altered as a result of his apparent success. The second part of Lisarda opens with another address to “The Reader” wherein Mr Cox expresses his dismal conviction that they probably followed his advice, tendered at the beginning of the first part, and bought his book chiefly to abuse it; with more to come:

Now do not I know whether with truth begin with Gentle, Courteous, or Kind Reader; for perhaps you deserve none of these Epithets; examine your Conscience, and if you find yourself clear of having abus’d either Book or Author, send me but word of it, and I have left sufficient to have any of those to begin with: But if you had rather show your Wit, and exercise your Talent in Criticism; perhaps I shall give you subject enough to work on in this second Part, so that you would really be at a loss, if you had spent all your Satyrical Phrases on the first, and prodigally thrown away the last Jear your Mistress sent you on an odd expression you preferr’d from the Academy of Complements to your Heroick Love Epistle; and for a further advancement made it the ridicul’d Interpreter of your Incomprehensible thoughts; your Lovely Cælia, Aminta, or what other fine Romantick Names you have bestow’d on the sweet Lady. I protest, Sir, if so, you must change your Company, and there wait a fit occasion to put if off a second time: Or else continue saying every now and then, with a bonne Grace, But Damn me, Madam, if it ben’t very Silly. This will do; for without doubt, Sir, the Ladies will credit you; and the unknown Author hath but lost his labour, in thinking to forestall you, and be satyrical first; he’ll bemoan the loss of so much pains; and ten to one the next Novel he writes, you will read in the Preface that he hath either hang’d or drown’d himself to put the thoughts of it out of his mind…

(For what it’s worth, I can’t find that Cox ever did publish a second novel…)

The second part of Lisarda opens with the unhappy Ricardo slowly recovering from his wounds, but much tormented by his kinsman, the Corregidor, and other friends who keep trying to cheer him up. Finally, when he is able, Ricardo decides to go travelling. He heads first to Barcelona, and from there embarks; his ultimate destination being Rome.

On board the ship on which he is travelling, Ricardo meets another gentleman as miserable as he is; and since misery truly does love company, the two of them immediately fall into a “My Sufferings Are Worse Than Yours” contest; while the reader is presented with a clear indication that Lisarda has shifted into the realm of the picaresque with the appearance of our old friend, or at least acquaintance, the Interpolated Narrative:

My name is Enrique Thomas de Guanches Fernandez Ysugo, my Country Barcelona, the Metropolitan of the noble Principality of Cattalonna, my Quality of the Most Illustrious in that State; my Estate, though not of the largest, yet enough; and my Age thirty four years: There dwelt in the very next House to my Fathers a young Lady, whom I lov’d as I grew in sense and years, beginning from my Childhood: I mistake, I should say ador’d…

Don Enrique and Donna Estefania marry young, with the blessing of their respective parents, and at first all is well; very well indeed:

Whoever says that Marriage gluts, and consequently impairs Love, certainly must be such dull Souls, who more like Brutes than Men, are but satisfying their sensual Appetite, while I’m sure all refin’d Spirits, who by the continual Enjoyment, have daily the Experiments of the Wit, the Modesty, the pleasing Behaviour, affording daily fresh supplies to edge his Appetite…

But alas for our Refin’d Spirit, disaster was looming:

…but who would think it, Don Ricardo, that with all these visible signs of Love, (I am asham’d to say it) that Estefania should offend my Honour, that she should defile my Bed, rejoicing in a Strangers Arms; at least in desire if not in deed; and who would think, that I being who I am, should live to own it, and that grief for the loss of my Honour should not deprive me of Life: I will not, my Dear Friend, nor will my Honour permit me to speak ill of that Sex, since we owe our Births to them, with the dangers of their own lives; but laying these natural Obligations aside, and to speak how firm they ought to be, and how constant: Tell me what trust can a Man put in that Sex, or who can sleep secure of their Treasons, since Estefania could be false?

My sex thanks you for the sour persimmons, Don Enrique, while also noting that little loophole about in desire if not in deed: could this by any wild, improbable chance be another instance of an over-emotional Spaniard jumping the gun on flimsy-to-non-existent evidence??

Enrique and Estefania have a son, and because he cannot bequeath the boy as large an estate as he would wish, Enrique begins manoeuvring to acquire him a title. Esefania throws herself into the plan with enthusiasm, pressing Enrique to travel to Madrid, to the Court, to pursue the matter. Though he expects to encounter many difficulties, in fact the king is very gracious, and Enrique achieves his purpose very swiftly and hurries home ahead of the expected time. Not far out, however, he is caught in a violent storm and takes refuge at an inn, where he finds himself sharing quarters with another gentleman, a certain Don Federico, who also has cause to bemoan the delay, as he was in eager expectation of having his pursuit of a certain lovely lady come that night to fruition.

Once the servants have gone, Enrique asks Federico for more of his story—merely to pass the time, and never dreaming of the shock in store. Federico has mentioned that his would-be lover’s name is “unfortunate”, and Enrique picks up this point:

…but no sooner did I see our selves alone, but with as impertinent a Curiosity, as malicious, and designedly to know the Lady’s Name, I told him, I thought no Name in Spain unfortunate, because they are Names of Saints that are always given in Spain. To this he answer’d, That ever since in Castile there was a Lady named Estefania, who was Kill’d by her Husband, without ever offending him, only by the deceit of a Servant, That it was a vulgar Attribute of the Estefania’s to be Unfortunate. According to this your Lady is called Estefania said I, a little alter’d: And he answer’d, Having told you the Story first, it would be a folly to think to hide her Name now: So craving leave to sleep, he turn’d himself, and left me not altogether free from a villainous suspicion of being Horn’d…

…and to dwell on one detail in that story to the exclusion of another.

The next day, Enrique rushes on his fate, pressing Federico for all the details of his amour: the accidental meeting, the pursuit, the encouragement, the lady’s fear for her reputation, and finally a capitulation to the point of allowing Federico into her house. Federico explains how, by questioning some chair-men about a certain livery, he learns that the servants he described belonged to Donna Estefania de Arcosty Fuentes; while his further description of the lady’s house seems to settle the point. From that moment there is only one thought on Enrique’s mind:

At the crossing of a very thick Wood, where for many Years the Branches of the Trees hid the Roots from the heat of the Sun, I drew my Sword and gave him so strong a thrust through the Breast, that without speaking he fell on the Ground, where lighting from my Horse I gave him many Blows, that in a short time I put him past offending me, or defending himself; he begg’d me not to kill him, but to give him time to confess, not knowing me, nor why I used him so cruelly: I then thinking it would be too much Rigour, not to spare him so much time, since in it though his Body was beyond the Art of Chirurgery to heal, his Soul might be cured; I left him alive; for one thing it is to revenge my Honour as a Gentleman, and another thing to be a Christian…

Enrique’s first thought is to serve Estefania the same way, except that this would make his dishonour known to the world; finally he decides that he will never see her again. He tells his servants that he and Federico had a falling out and fought a duel, and that as a consequence he must leave the country—gaining their assistance to disguise himself and to cover up when he left Madrid. Without looking back, he embarks upon a galley to Naples…and loses no time in blurting out the whole thing to Ricardo.

The two bereft men decide to travel on together, and after seeing Rome and the Vatican, they move on to “Loretta” (Loreto) to see the Basilica. There Ricardo is suddenly accosted by a man in a state of emotional collapse and, after a moment, realises who it is…

(Ricardo remembers; our author, Mr Cox, not so much: first he misspells Fulgencio’s name as “Fulgentio”, then he renders the duplicated part of his name as Antonio, instead of Ricardo!)

Then of course it’s time for another Interpolated Narrative, as Fulgencio catches us up on his various misfortunes—which we might well consider he deserves, since it turns out that it was he (with a band of paid bravos) who engineered the abduction of Lisarda!—after first, of course, ridding himself of the unfortunate Clara:

…giving Clara a thousand sweet words lest she obstruct my Design, I left her in the Village…

This seems to be a recurrent theme for poor Clara.

Fulgencio and his goons then ride off with Lisarda’s coach:

I hoping by this to confirm her in the Belief of your Infidelity; and if not to get my own Ends at least, to dispose her never to make you happy. While we were on the way I used my Rhetorick, with all the Vows and Protestations imaginable, after my endeavours of disswading her from you; then I told her that ’twas in my power whither I carried her, and how I’d dispose of her; and therefore she had better comply than venture the Displeasure of a cholerick Man: But all this produc’d nothing but Scorns and Slights from her, telling me no Man should ever have her, save Ricardo, who, however the Misfortune happen’d that Night, she was sensible he lov’d her, and was one deserving her love. I told her you were kill’d in the Skirmish…

The effect of this upon Lisarda isn’t quite what Fulgencio expects. Sure, there’s a Flood of Tears, but then—

…he is dead, said she, and the Cause so near me yet lives! Snatching my Dagger from my side, gave me a Wound in my Breast, that had certainly kill’d me had her Arm had but a little more Strength…

Fulgencio then carries Lisarda to an isolated country house of his, where he imprisons her—

—to see if I possibly could gain her by all the Endeavours that Love and Kindness could invent.

So I guess it’s true what they say: hope springs eternal in the human breast that has just had a dagger stuck into it.

More sensibly, Fulgencio absents himself for a while to let Lisarda cool down; and, with nothing else to do, he passes the time dallying with Clara—with surprising results:

…Clara, who daily so endeavoured to make me love her; and considering I was married, and that I had best to make my Life as easie as I could: In two Months time seeing no hope of prevailing on Lisarda, Clara had so far gain’d me, that I really felt Motions of the greatest Tenderness for her; and as they say, Love begets Love, so was it with me; I left plying Lisarda with Letters, and began to forget her…

But at least – at least – Fulgencio gets around to telling Lisarda the truth about Ricardo: that he did recover, and then went travelling; and this off his conscience, he has her conveyed back to her father’s house.

Ricardo and Enrique dine with Fulgencio, and afterwards he tells them the rest of his story.

Fulgencio and Clara were very happy for a time—though not as happy as her family, with their erring daughter achieving respectable wifehood—but then…well, you know those Spaniards!

But as I lov’d her, so did I grow Jealous of her, remembering she had been faulty, and leaving one Night stay’d out, the next Morning a Servant told me he had seen a Man enter into my House, that was but just gone before my coming, who with all their Privacy in bringing him in and out, could not escape his Eyes: I without any further assurance, thought it must be Clara that was faulty, and there-withal going to her, though she lay asleep, wak’d her with a thousand Reproaches, upbraiding her with her former Life; and maugre all the Assurances and Protestations she made, to such a height my Choler grew, that I struck her… At last putting on her Night-Gown, she came near a Table where a Pen-knife lay, and taking it up, gave herself several Stabs…

At this rather critical moment, Clara’s maid enters the room; and, inevitably—

‘Twas I brought in the Man last night, who is my Husband…

It’s too late for poor Clara, however, though at least she dies vindicated; and in the wake of what he likes to call “the Misfortune”, Fulgencio sets out on a pilgrimage to Loretta.

Leaving Fulgencio to do his penance, Ricardo and Enrique set out for Andalusia; though they go a longer way, via Monserrat, so that Enrique will not be endangered by passing through Barcelona. The city is crowded due to a large influx of pilgrims to an image of the Virgin Mary known as Our Lady Of Monserrat. The two men are watching events from the window of their room when Enrique sees a familiar face—none other than Federico, not dead after all. It is clear, too, that there is a lady in his coach; and it takes all of Ricardo’s tact and persuasions to stop Enrique doing – yet again – something stupid. Finally he promises to look into it himself and goes out to investigate; sensibly locking Enrique in their room first.

Sure enough, Federico and Estefania it is; but they are not alone: Estefania’s sister, Donna Angela, is with them; and it does not take Ricardo long to establish that (i) Estefania is innocent; (ii) she has done nothing for the past two years but search for her missing husband; and (iii) it was Angela whom Federico was pursuing, and to whom he is now married. Moreover, discovering after he had recovered that the story of Enrique’s attack upon himself and Estefania’s supposed adultery was being gossiped about, Federico took pains to make sure everyone knew the truth, and that Estefania’s honour was re-established.

And so Enrique and Estefania are reunited. Meanwhile, Ricardo gets his reward from Angela:

Then Donna Angela desired to know if she might be acquainted with his Mistresses Name, which he told her was Lisarda, O then, Sir, saith she, you may safely depend on your Marriage, for by her name I guess yours to be Don Ricardo Antonio, the only person she hath told me should be her Husband; for about three Months ago I came acquainted with her here, she having vowed the Romery for your Prosperity; we became so intimately acquainted lodging in the same Inne together, that she told me the whole Story of your Loves…

Ricardo immediately sets out for Andalusia, where we discover than some people never learn anything:

…perceiving some Gentlemen at the Door of Donna Clara Lisarda’s House, tuning their Instruments, by which he knew they had a mind to Divert some Lady; he at a distance alighted off his Horse, desirous, if it was possible, to know who these were, serendaing, as he thought, his Mistress… No sooner ended, but he heard the Lady shut her Window; the Company took leave of one another, and one who seemed to be the Master of this Treat, mounted a Horseback: Don Ricardo, though tired with a long Journey, and very desirous to see Don Pedro de Vargas the Corregidor, was yet more desirous to see his supposed Rival…

Seriously, Ricardo? SERIOUSLY!?

Following his, sigh, rival, Ricardo is attacked by bandits, from whom his, sigh, rival rescues him—turning out to be none other than Don Pedro, who is delighted to see his cousin and takes him home for the night. The delight isn’t entirely mutual, but I’ll spare you Ricardo’s tossings and turnings and torments (at least he refrains from trying to kill anyone!), and cut to the chase: even more inevitably that poor Clara’s “lover” being nothing of the kind, Don Pedro is courting Lisarda’s cousin, Donna Maria, who happens to be staying with her.

Perversely enough, it turns out that the band of goons hired by Fulgencio were from amongst Donna Maria’s vassals; but between the letter which Fulgencio wrote to the Corregidor, taking all the blame onto himself, and Maria’s pleading for her people, they got off lightly. Don Pedro was immediately captivated by Maria, but soon discovered that he had, sigh, a rival: a story that of course requires an Interpolated Narrative.

The, sigh, rival is Don Roderido Vasques, a man who has acquired a reputation for courage and daring without doing anything to earn it—much to the annoyance of Don Pedro, who has earned the same reputation the hard way. The two men get put to the test when Maria’s house catches fire. It is Pedro who saves her, but Roderigo who manages to be there when Maria recovers from her inevitable swoon.

Wow! That chestnut’s even older than I imagined!

The grateful Maria promises to marry Roderigo:

    He with a feigned Modesty, said, That truly he had done nothing for their Service, at least, it was so little, as did not deserve Thanks from her Mouth, much less so great a Blessing as her self; but it was too Good to be refused, and that he now trusted to her Word.
    The next day it was all about the Town that Don Roderigo had ventur’d through the Fire, and rescu’d Donna Maria: This was every bodies story which did not a little vex me. I affirm’d the Action to be mine, and said that he ly’d who said the contrary. Don Roderigo said, Yes it was I did it; but that with such a false Smile, such a feigned Dissimulation, and with such Equivocating words, that he own’d the Action more in his Denial, than I in all my Affirmatives.

Luckily for Pedro, and for Maria, during his rescue of her he took a ring from her finger, which he could not have gained possession of at any other time. This backs up his claims, and Roderigo retires, as they say, disconsolate.

Which sorts out all our immediate romantic problems; and allows Mr Cox to wrap up his story of insanely jealous foreigners in a one brisk paragraph of happy-ever-afters:

…the Joy Lisarda had at the sight of Ricardo, cannot be exprest, no more than his at the sight of her. But to be short with you, and to make an end, both his Marriage with Lisarda, and his cousins with Donna Maria were concluded, and to be Celebrated both the following Sunday; on the day before the Marriage, Don Enrique and Don Federico, with their Ladies Arrived, so that they had a full House, great Entertainment, and a long continued Feast for Joy, and living very lovingly and happily all the Days of their Lives.

…or at least until some poor SOB looks the wrong way at Lisarda…

08/09/2016

Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy (Part 1)

lisarda1b“I find it hard to marry a Man who woos not me but my Estate; and yet could I bear with this, (for Ambition is so grown into the World, that there must be a new Creation to find disinteress’d men:) who can assure their selves of their manners, where there are so many Cheats. In the time of wooing the most vicious appears a Saint, and detests all Vice: with what protestations doth the inconstant at that time avouch his Constancy? and how assured of his Mistress’s Vertue is the Gallant, who many times afterwards, he proves murderously troublesome with his Jealousy; and all, how false soever, call Heaven to witness the sincerity of their Love: O! how they Adore, Admire, Esteem, with many other such like terms, till they have got their aim. His friend stiles him vertuous, good, &c. His Relations will say that for him, He is good-natured, and given to no remarkable Vice; another as a gallant young Gentleman; Nay the Maid, the young Ladies Confident, hath had the itching of her Palms answer’d, to give her good word, and all this to her cost, who takes him for better or for worse; and gives her hand and heart to an Enemy…”

So I made it to 1690.

{Insert slow, sarcastic hand-clapping.}

We’ve touched previously upon some of the events of 1690, and I imagine they’ll be cropping up in the Chronobibliography in due course; but our current work, Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy by one “H. Cox” (a gentleman, his title page reassures us) has nothing to do with politics, or indeed with anything serious. Despite its title (and noting that “travels” is an archaic rendering of “travails”), this is a mostly humorous short work about various young Spaniards at romantic cross-purposes that serves as another illustration of the shifting position of fiction in England as the country entered the final decade of the 17th century.

The Puritan resistance to fiction, which retarded the development of the English novel, saw local writers frequently compromise by setting their stories in foreign countries—whether they were writing actual fiction, or political allegories disguised as such, as per the numerous romans à clef which we have already considered. In the former case, it was a way of dodging criticism, since the works in question could be pitched as cautionary tales about foreigners and how lucky everyone was to be English.

What is chiefly interesting about Lisarda is that, while it is set in Spain, there is no sense at all of this being a defensive tactic: rather, it simply suited Mr Cox to take advantage of the differences (real and perceived) between Spanish customs and those prevailing in England: another “cautionary tale” if you like, but one with its tongue tucked into its cheek.

This attitude is made clear from the very outset, in the book’s dedication to The Honourable James Levinston, Esq., wherein Cox speaks for his anxious heroine:

That, Sir, I hope will excuse my Presumption of Introducing Lisarda to you; A Lady, who though Vertuous to a Superlative, yet Unfortunate, till the Consummation of her Marriage with Don Ricardo, and the greater Happiness of attaining the Honour to be Presented to you; fearful least her Misfortunes might follow her here into England, and that many might blame that here, for want of knowing the Customs of Spain, which there is not felt a fault, no not a venial one: She fears our Ladies might be offended with so much Forwardness in Spanish Women, which for want of a Spanish Confinement, they are not Guilty of themselves: These thoughts are what troubled her, till now that I assur’d her, You were too Courteous to refuse your Patronage to a Lady…

Cox then moves on to address the reader directly, offering an amusingly clear overview of the state of the English novel, and the English novel-writer, circa 1690.

This may, in fact, be the most important aspect of this short novel. We are so accustomed to pointed dedications, to writers with political intent declaring their allegiances and/or showing that they have friends in high places, that the absence here of any such addendum – or rather, the substitution of a bit of prosaic reality – acts as a measure of how completely things had changed in England during the comparatively brief period between the “Glorious Revolution” and the publication of Cox’s work: fiction is longer necessarily about a political agenda, but about entertainment; it is also about the serious business of making a living, one opposed by the emergence of a new enemy. The main thing that writers of fiction had to fear was no longer The Law, but—The Criticks:

I have offer’d you this Book without the Commands of any Person of Quality, or the urgent desires of any friend, only for my own Pleasure, and perhaps a little for my Profit; besides, I think it a pleasant thing, though I shall no impose this Opinion on any one, nor think myself oblig’d to him who favours it; do but buy it, and let the Bookseller take your money; then Curse it, Damn it, and the Author, and throw it away, or what you please. Nor have I omitted my Name for fear of the Criticks, who I desire to have no more mercy on the Book, when once bought, than they have of their own unpitied Souls, who likely they may damn, by way of affirming the poor ignorant Author for a Blockhead, a Dunce, and Fool, with a long Et cætera of their ironical Titles; a thing that he’ll but smile to bear, so that his Expectations are but answer’d, and the Book sells…

Though Cox is clearly joking, the inference that it is no longer necessary for writers of fiction to publish anonymously is also significant.

The reader is then introduced to Clara Lisarda, a beautiful and virtuous sixteen-year-old with an equally attractive fortune. Naturally such a prize is much courted; but although eager for love and marriage, she hangs back, only too aware that she must be the target of fortune-hunters as well as honourable gentleman, and that courtship is often a matter of flowery falsehoods. The matter is becoming one of urgency for Lisarda, since among the throng of her admirers, her fancy has lighted upon one Don Ricardo.

Among many other public events to mark a new alliance between Spain and France, a bull-fight (sigh) is arranged to allow the gentlemen of Seville to display their courage. A certain Don Fulgencio nearly loses his life when he and his horse are attacked by a bull and, at this appalling sight, Lisarda faints. Thus she misses Don Ricardo rushing bravely to the rescue, dispatching the bull and saving Fulgencio’s life.

When the dust settles, Ricardo looks up at the spectators’ boxes to see how his actions have impressed Lisarda:

Ricardo lighting from his Horse, lookt up to the Window where Lisarda sate; but his Servants telling him that they saw her carried away in a swound when the Bull so fiercely attacqued Fulgencio, he concluded he was the Chosen from among the Crowd of her Adorers, and running to help him up, taking him by the Arm, said, Sir, Your fall to you is like that of Saul, for it hath made known your Election; and so retir’d extreamly discontented to his Lodging: where we’ll leave him complaining of his hard Fate…

…because, after all, who could get sick over a little thing like a horse getting disembowelled?

This moment sets the tone for an entire comedy of misunderstanding, wherein Cox’s characters are constantly leaping to ridiculous conclusions and taking drastic (and I mean drastic) action on the strength of evidence so flimsy it can scarcely be called “evidence”—and sometimes on the strength of no evidence at all.

Recovering at home, the dismayed Lisarda learns that Ricardo intends that afternoon to fight a bull on his own account. After struggling with herself, she decides to send him a letter begging him not to risk himself again, though she can only justify her action by admitting to him that she loves him.

When Ricardo – whose full name, we now learn, is Don Ricardo Antonio – receives Lisarda’s letter, however, the outcome is not exactly what she intended, though not through any fault of hers:

…he knew not what to make of the Letter; the Directions he knew to be Lisarda’s writing, but never having receiv’d, nor heard that she had ever writ to any of her Lovers before, he conjectur’d it was to discard him: since she had made her choice of Fulgencio, least she might give him Ombrage, or cause Jealousy, by entertaining still her old Suitors, she had writ to them all to forbear their vain Endeavours. This now past for granted, and he was resolv’d not to open the Letter, least it might draw Effeminate tears into his Eyes, therefore retaking his Poniard, he said, Come welcome steel, thy sharpness is much easier to be endur’d, than to see the happiness of my Rival; end my Misery; and as he was going to strike, says he, No. Though thy Charms hath made me miserable to that degree, that to avoid that succeeding Chain of Miseries that must needs follow, I will end my life. Yet in my last hour such is my Constancy, I will kiss thy Name, paying my last devoir to the sign of my cruel Sentence, submitting— More he would have said, but having open’d the Letter to kiss the name, he could not so confine his sight…

Yyyyeah: I generally find it is a good idea to find out what the contents of a letter are before killing yourself over them…

Having answered Lisarda’s letter, Ricardo does as she asks and refrains from participating further in the bull-fights. He attends, however, and Fulgencio invites him to sit in his box—which happens to be next to that occupied by Lisarda. The two spend the afternoon making goo-goo eyes at each other, so openly that Fulgencio can’t avoid noticing:

…at this he was in so great a Passion, that with much difficulty could he contain himself within the compass of Discretion, Envy, Jealousy, Anger, and a thousand other Passions tore his Breast; in short, he found them prevailing over his Reason, and least by seeing more it should be overpower’d, and that not being a fit place for a quarrel or disturbance, he slunk away…

With marriage to Lisarda on his horizon, Ricardo’s thoughts turn to how best to rid himself of his mistress—whose name, uncomfortably enough, is also Clara—Donna Clara Euphegenia. We learn that she is of good birth, but was seduced and abandoned by another man, and turned to elegant prostitution after being cast off by her family. She sincerely loves Ricardo, and it is soon clear to him that she isn’t going to go quietly:

nor would she hear him speak, but threatened to tear Lisarda to pieces; this urg’d Ricardo to think of another course, so that saying nothing, he went Streight to the Corregidors, or Governour of the Town who was his kinsman, and one that really lov’d him, to him he told the whole, and desir’d his assistance to get rid of her, which he promis’d; then they agreed; that the ensuing night, about eleven a Clock, the Corregidor should come with a Coach and Guards, and with a feign’d Warrant seize her, and send her in a Coach to Madrid, where the Guards should leave her…

Ricardo is on his way home from this highly honourable mission when he runs into Fulgencio, who by now has worked himself into a real state, and insists that they fight. Ricardo tells him, in essence, that he’s too busy just now, but he’ll be happy to fight him later, when he’s finished getting his mistress deported on trumped-up charges. A busy boy, Ricardo then calls upon Lisarda and makes his vows and proposals to her, before returning to Clara Euphegenia and dissembling his intentions, in order to keep her placated until the Guards arrive. He does it very thoroughly:

…he din’d with her, and staid with her till near four of the Clock, in which time he show’d so much love, and Caress’d her so handsomely, that she could not doubt but he was sincere…

—a little too thoroughly: Lisarda’s parents are away (thus she has been able to meet with Ricardo and answer him directly), and now, as she spots Ricardo, returning to the celebrations as she thinks, but in fact going back to Clara’s house for a second round of, ahem, placating, she follows him, meaning to join him, but finds herself outside a house which her servant is able to tell her belongs to him:

…she went in, but being in the first room, the door of the second stood half open, from whence our Lady heard these words; Ah, my dear Clara, Don’t imagine or think, that I can be false to thee; It is to have little Confidence in thine own Charms; Knowing this voice to be Ricardo’s, she carefully lookt the opening of the door, and saw her Lover lying on Clara’s Lap: O, Ye juste Powers! said she to herself, Is this possible! Could silly, easy Lisarda have believ’d it, had not her Eyes and Ears been Witnesses of his Ingratitude: Here she stopt hearing Ricardo speaking thus: My dear Clara, I don’t deny, that for my Friends satisfaction I gave out, and pretended to love Lisarda, but that was, that I might with secrecy give a full scope to my wishes, and thy Dear Embraces. What is Lisarda comparable to thee, but as a False Glass to a Diamond…

Lisarda can’t take any more, and rushes into the room—telling her startled rival that she’s welcome to Ricardo:

…I assure you, I have no design, if I could, which would be impossible, he being withheld by your all-powerful Charms, to rob you of the Gallant, who so justly enjoys your good will, that you ought to love him for his many good Parts, I mean as to his Body, for as to the rest, Heaven never fram’d a man so False, so ungrateful a Creature…

And in the middle of this scene, Ricardo hears the signal from Fulgencio, reminding of their appointment to fight. Worried about what might happens in his absence, he bundles Clara into another room and locks her in, then hurries downstairs to ask Fulgencio if they can put it off for an hour or two, as he has rather a lot on his plate; but Fulgencio isn’t in a mood to be put off, so they go off to duel. Meanwhile, hearing voices and now calm enough to worry about consequences, Lisarda throws on her veils to conceal herself from any newcomers—and thus finds herself under arrest and being carried off to Madrid…

The real Clara, meanwhile, escapes out of a window with her maid, and in the darkness encounters Fulgencio returning from the duel. He mistakes her for Lisarda and begins upbraiding her:

Madam, Might I never be so happy in any other Woman, I would not exchange the Hell wherein you have put me, not for that happiness: And she mistaking him for Antonio, I thought you would not have been in pain while you possest my heart; at least you have often told me so: He perceiving she mistook him for t’other was overjoy’d, not knowing he himself was mistaken , but on the contrary, by having seen her in the street go into Antonio’s; her discourse of having seen him that night, and his seeing Antonio go in just before her, had not any scruple, but really thought it was the Person he took her for; and since she took him for his Rival, not being able to worst Antonio by the Sword, he thought now to revenge himself by a trick, and so proceeded.
Well, Madam, said he, Since we love sincerely, let me beg of you, before we go further, to give me the assurance, you’ll ever be mine: How shall I do that, replied Clara? Why, Madam, for several urgent reasons, for your advantage as well as mine, we may be married now, and keep it private till— Here cutting off his words, not having power to contain her self for Joy, said, Ay, my Antonio, I Consent, You know I can refuse you nothing. So presently they went to a Priest, who was at Fulgencio’s Devotion, or rather was devoted to the gold he expected, who married them by the light of one single Lamp that hung i’ the church, so that neither perceived their mistake…

Amusingly enough, our author feels obliged to interject here—having reached levels of ridiculousness that, evidently, he considered too great even for a bunch of Spaniards. He has, of course, already made it clear that our ladies’ names overlaps; now he clarifies:

What cover’d extreamly the mistake was, as in all Foreign Countries, having two Names, Fulgencio could answer by that of Ricardo, and designedly did so, Clara was the first Name of Lisarda’s as well as hers, whom we call by that Name…

Meanwhile, Ricardo – whose disarming of Fulgencio in the duel is mentioned only in passing – returns to Clara’s house and there learns what has befallen Lisarda. He dashes off to the Corregidor, gets an order rescinding the warrant, and rides off after the coach, calling upon it to stop. Instead it goes faster, which prompts Ricardo to start firing his pistols after it. Someone fires back, and they keep it up until both are out of bullets—at which point, Fulgencio calls out to Ricardo, and before we know it, the two are in the middle of another duel, which ends exactly as the first did, much to Fulgencio’s mortification:

…when he came to examine the business, it was the discovery of a double deceit: First instead of Lisarda, whom both thought was in the Coach, they found Clara Ricardo’s late Mistress, and to Fulgencio’s great perplexity, his now Wife; he no sooner knew who t’was but he would have disown’d her, but in vain, for he had told Ricardo in his Capitulation, that on Condition he would not meddle with a Lady in the Coach, who he had that Night Married, he would surrender, but without that Promise, Disarm’d as he was, the Dispute should continue, and assuring him it was no Person sent by Command of the Corregidor, and consequently not the Person he sought for; Ricardo had granted his Request, deliver’d him his Sword, and went to wish the Lady Joy; when, Gods! what a surprise was it to him to see Clara; had he been capable to have receiv’d any Pleasure amidst that throng of Vexations, undoubtedly this would have been a great one to see himself rid of so troublesome a Mistress…

Washing his hands of that mess, Ricardo returns to the chase, and finally overtakes the government coach. The guards acknowledge their new orders and obligingly offer Ricardo a seat in the coach, inviting him to stay wherever they put up for the night. He accepts, although there is still a deathly silence within the coach, as both parties try to figure out what to say to one another, when the coach is suddenly held up by a band of men, who shoot three of the guards before Ricardo can finish making a speech:

Madam, I am far from being sorry for this occasion, of shewing how tenderly I love you; if I live I hope to clear my self of what things have happen’d to night; but if it is my misfortune to be kill’d, let me beg you to entertain a Charitable Opinion for me…

Ricardo manages to kill one of the band, but is shot and injured himself as the carriage is driven away. He expends what he honestly believes to be his dying breath on making yet another speech, a distinctly self-pitying one, only to be rescued by some locals—Cowardly Bores, we are assured—who heard the shots but kept well clear until the fight was over, and in fact only show up now to rob the corpses. They get a shock when one of the dead men starts resisting them, and Ricardo in danger of his life yet again when more guards show up, these dispatched from the nearest town where word of the fight and abduction was also carried.

Ricardo survives his ordeal, but is left in complete ignorance of Lisarda’s fate and can only fear the worst.

Meanwhile, we discover that this town has a short way with boring people:

…the Bores were carried before the Corregidor, who committed them to Gaol…innumerable were the imprecations laid on the Bores…the poor Bores were loaded with Irons, and laid in a Dungeon…

[To be continued…]

03/01/2016

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton

1689, and all that…

Fairly early last year I exasperated myself by stumbling across another work from the year I thought done and dusted: I was exasperated most of all because I couldn’t convince myself that it could legitimately be ignored.

The full title of this work is:

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton: giving an account of his birth, education, heroick exploits, and enterprises, his fights with giants, monsters, wild-beasts, and armies, his conquering kings and kingdoms, his love and marriage, fortunes and misfortunes, and many other famous and memorable things and actions, worthy of wonder: with the adventures of other knights, kings and princes, exceeding pleasant and delightful to read

There are two copies of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton accessible electronically, via the Early English Books Online project, the indirect source of most of my 17th century material. Ordinarily I download these early works in PDF form and read them on my eReader, but it soon became apparent that I would not be able to do so in this instance.

To my dismay, both copies of Sir Bevis exhibited a deadly combination of bleed-through and fade-out:

bevis5b

 

bevis6b

 

The fact that the entire book was printed in an almost-indecipherable Gothic font was merely the punchline to a bad joke.

However—by reading online, with the image blown up so as to give me some chance of dealing with the font, and by toggling between Copy A and Copy B as their individual idiosyncrasies demanded, I was finally able to decipher the text—and all for the low, low price of a splitting headache!

Imagine my “exceeding pleasure and delight”, then, when Sir Bevis turned out to be a Crusade-y sort of story, wherein Muslims who trick and deceive Christians are an evil scourge, while Christians who trick and deceive Muslims are pure and immaculate heroes; and Muslims who kill Christians are the tool of the devil, while Christians who kill Muslims are glorifying their God.

And let’s just say there was a whole lotta glorifying God going on.

After pondering the question, I’ve decided that I don’t want or need to go any further into the content of Sir Bevis: there’s nothing at all remarkable about it in a literary sense. It’s the bigger picture, the existence of Sir Bevis in this format in the first place, that is the important point, and the reason I couldn’t bring myself to just skip over it.

The story of Bevis of Hampton is much, much older than its 1689 rendering. For once, I think it’s easiest just to quote Wikipedia:

Bevis of Hampton (Old French: Beuve(s) or Bueve or Beavis de Hanton(n)e; Anglo-Norman: Boeve de Haumtone; Italian: Buovo d’Antona) or Sir Bevois, is a legendary English hero and the subject of Anglo-Norman, Dutch, French, English, Venetian and other medieval metrical romances that bear his name. The tale also exists in medieval prose versions, was transmitted to Romania and Russia, and was adapted into Dutch, Irish, Welsh, Old Norse and Yiddish… The oldest extant version, Boeve de Haumtone, an Anglo-Norman text, dates from the first half of the 13th century. It comprises 3,850 verses written in alexandrines.

(3,850 verses!? Apparently I should be counting my blessings…)

The story of this story is remarkable, and worth a read in full – here – particularly the assertion, one hard to argue with, that some version of this story was influential in the creation of Hamlet. (Long story short, Bevis’s mother conspires with her lover to murder her husband and son; the husband is killed but Bevis is saved and hidden by his maternal uncle, and later comes back for revenge—he’s a lot less indecisive about it than his descendent.)

Historically, the tale of Sir Bevis was astonishingly popular (which makes me feel a little bad for hating the 1689 version so very much). However, the aspect of it that I want to focus on is the shifting formats of the re-telling of the legend. As noted, this story was most often told in the form of an epic poem, either the English metrical romance or the French chanson de geste; with translations and adaptations toggling back and forth between the two nations before spreading to other countries and languages. Remarkably, the story of Sir Bevis became the first non-religious work to be printed in Yiddish, albeit in a somewhat de-Christianised version. (I’m curious how that might have worked, given the traditional plot…)

In England, meanwhile, version after version of Sir Bevis appeared in Middle English, all apparently descended from a single, earlier, now-lost work, but all of them telling the story in their own way and each varying significantly from the other. Modern scholars, attempting to reissue “the” story of Bevis in Middle English, were confronted with six manuscripts telling four or five different stories. That most commonly reprinted now is that taken from the so-called “Auchinleck manuscript” held by the National Library of Scotland, a codex dating from the 14th century. However, modern editors are at pains to acknowledge that this choice was made purely on the relative completeness of the available text, and should not be taken as privileging one version of the story over the others.

Versions of Bevis continued to appear in England over the following centuries: that by William Copland, which first appeared around 1560, is the oldest surviving complete edition; and this eventually became the “standard” version, being reissued regularly well into the 17th century. In fact, as the Spanish romances grew enormously in popularity in England, the story of Sir Bevis was the only local production to keep its audience; although it did eventually fall out of favour in the late 17th century, at least as a poem.

And THIS, my friends, is the real significance of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton. Other countries had gone in the same direction literally centuries before (Russia seems to have gotten there first), but in England, where the Puritan resistance to fiction was a significant factor in the late emergence of the novel, it was not until 1689 that someone – we don’t know who – had the bright idea of taking William Copland’s epic poem and re-telling the legend in prose.

This, to me, is further evidence that during the closing years of the 17th century, the novel was becoming the dominant form of literary entertainment in England. It was no longer necessary to pretend to be telling a true story; it was no longer necessary to say “history” when you really meant “novel”. And it was perfectly okay to take a 350-year-old poem and turn it into a work of fiction, because that is what the English people wanted to read.

bevis7

 

 

29/12/2014

Vale, Aphra

epitaph1In her dedication of The Lucky Mistake to “George Greenveil” (George Granville, Baron Lansdowne), published the year of her death, Aphra Behn comments:

…the Obligations I have to you, deserves a greater testimony of my respect, then this little peice, too trivial to bear the honour of your Name, but my increasing Indisposition makes me fear I shall not have many opportunities of this Kind…

The last years of Aphra Behn’s life were a constant struggle against increasing ill-health. Most cruelly, it seems that she suffered from an arthritic complaint that made it painful, if not impossible, for her to write, and thus to earn an income. It is also easy to imagine that the overthrow of James II in 1688 took a simultaneous toll on Behn’s spirits. It is sad yet strangely fitting that her death almost coincided with the coronation of William and Mary in April of 1689.

Whatever her public reputation, Behn had friends and admirers who organised for her burial in Westminster Abbey; and while the epitaph on her gravestone is often taken as an expression of public disapproval, there are many who believe that Aphra wrote it herself—one last joke at her own expense.

Despite the increasingly punitive morality that would see Aphra Behn expunged from the English literary canon from the mid-18th century until her revival in the early 20th, in her lifetime and the decades that followed her writing was extremely popular – and profitable, for her publishers if not so much for herself. It has been pointed out that Behn was the first English writer of fiction to have her works collected and reissued, with William Canning publishing Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro together in 1688 as “Three Histories“. Then, in 1696, Charles Gildon issued another collection under the title, The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn—following this two years later with, All The Histories And Novels Written By The Late Ingenious Mrs Behn, and two years after that with, Histories, Novels And Translations.

And this is where things get awkward. The last volume was sold under the assertion that its contents were, “The greatest part never before printed.” It certainly offered under Aphra Behn’s name various short works not published before…but where did they come from? Charles Gildon, who declared himself to be Behn’s “literary executor”, insisted that they had fallen to his lot after her death; but this hardly explains why he waited eleven years to publish them, particularly given Gildon’s perpetual hand-to-mouth existence and his frequent forays into debt.

Not surprisingly, debate about the origin of these works still continues. There seems to be strong scepticism about their authenticity amongst the experts on Aphra Behn, with most prepared to go no further than to suggest that Behn may have left certain writings unfinished at the time of her death, and that Gildon, or someone paid by him, completed them and published them under her name. Others reject altogether the assertion of her authorship.

And on this basis, I have finally decided not to include these posthumous publications in my consideration of the oeuvre of Aphra Behn…which means that with The Lucky Mistake, we have reached the end of our journey through her works of fiction.

Furthermore, we have also finished our examination of the fiction of 1689—a point I hoped to reach by the end of this year (though for once I had more sense than to jinx myself by saying so out loud). The beginning of 2015 will see us tackling the works of 1690: a year in which I would expect at least a measure of politics to re-emerge, given the events that culminated in the Battle of the Boyne; but which, at least on the basis of a superficial glance, seems to have been a period of consolidation for the English novel.

I’m likewise hoping (ever hopeful, me!) that 2015 will be a year of consolidation for this blog. I did try to get back on track recently with “Authors In Depth”, but ended up lengthening the list rather than making significant headway with our established writers; while “Reading Roulette” came to a halt when a certain book took some dogged tracking down. (It’s on its way now, though!)

Now, between those categories of reviewing, plus my examinations of the roots of the Gothic novel and early detective fiction, you might think I had quite enough to be going on with; yet as I sit here in the waning days of 2014, I find myself in anticipation of founding yet another category of reviews; even though I need more things to write about like I need…um…

29/12/2014

The Lucky Mistake

LuckyMistake1Atlante was now arriv’d to her thirteenth Year, when her Beauty, which every day increas’d, became the discourse of the whole Town; which had already gain’d her as many Lovers as had beheld her, for none saw her without Languishing for her, or at least but what were in very great Admiration of her, every body talkt of the young and charming Atlante, and all the Noble Men who had Sons (knowing the smallness of her Fortune and the lustre of her Beauty) would send them for fear of their being Charm’d with her, or to some other part of the World, or exhorted them, by way of precaution, to keep out of her sight: Old Bellyuard was one of these Wise Parents, and by a timely prevention as he thought of Rinaldo’s falling in Love with Atlante, perhaps was the occasion of his being so; he had before heard of Atlante and of her Beauty; but it had made no impressions on his Heart, but his Father no sooner forbid him Loving, than he felt a new desire Tormenting him, of seeing this lovely and dangerous Young Person…

The Lucky Mistake was published in 1689, the year that Aphra Behn died at the age of only forty-nine. The tragedy of her early death is exacerbated when we consider that this short fiction seemed intended to mark a new phase in her extraordinary literary career. In her study on Behn, Aphra Behn’s Afterlife, Jane Spencer points out that the actual text of this work is sub-headed “The First Novel”, and suggests that Behn had entered into an agreement with the publisher Richard Bentley for a series of such fictions. If such a plan there was, it ended upon the 16th April that year.

Whatever may have been the larger plans for Behn’s fiction, in its own right The Lucky Mistake is clearly a transitional work. It is, for one thing, the first of Behn’s fictions that she announces as “a novel”. Up to this point, as we have seen, Behn tended to call her fictions “histories”, reflecting the fact that they were either based upon true stories, as was the case with Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt, or claimed to be so, as with The History Of The Nun. Neither the dedication nor the text of The Lucky Mistake makes any such claim; in the former Behn says simply:

…all I shall say for it, is, that ’tis not a Translation but an Original…

As I commented with respect to The Rival Princesses, 1689 was apparently a watershed year for the English novel, the point at which writers ceased to fret over the moral implications of “fiction” and began writing stories for the stories’ sake. (Of course, if Behn had been aware that 250 years later her “histories” would lead to her being publicly denounced as a shameless liar, she probably would have started writing “novels” a little earlier.) And in addition to categorising her work as “a novel”, Behn sets it in a country other than England, another common tendency amongst English writers of the time; although in fact, all of Behn’s fictions are set in other countries, possibly as a side-effect of her reading fiction in other languages in her quest to find suitable publications to translate.

Whether it was a conscious act on its author’s part or not, Behn’s “novel” separates itself from her earlier “histories” with respect to both its content and its tone. A fairly straightforward love story, The Lucky Mistake is by far the gentlest of Behn’s works, lacking the cynicism and black humour that mark the earlier short fictions; it even has a happy ending. The tension of the story lies in the conflict between the self-interested and mercenary views of the older generation, and the honest feelings of the younger. One of Behn’s enduring concerns, namely, young girls being forced into either a convent or a marriage against their wills, is a significant plot-point, but without editorialisation on her part and for once without a tragic outcome.

Set in France, evidently in contemporary times, The Lucky Mistake introduces two noble families of contrasting fortunes. Count Bellyuard has retired from court voluntarily, tired of the intrigue and the constant bustle; he gives himself over to the tranquillity of country life and focuses his energies upon his only son:

…call’d Rinaldo now grown to the Age of Fifteen, who having all the Excellent Qualities and Grace of Youth, by Nature; he would bring him up in all the Vertues and Noble Sciences, which he believed the Gayety and Lustre of the Court might divert: he therefore in this retirement spar’d no Cost, to those that could instruct and accomplish him, and he had the best Tutors and Masters that could be purchased at Court: Bellyuard making far less account of Riches than of Fine parts…

Which is easily said when you have riches. In the estate next door is the Count De Pais, of an old and distinguished family, but without the means of maintaining what he feels to be his proper place in the world. He has, therefore, also retired to the country, but not in the same spirit as Count Bellyuard:

And as it is most Natural for great Souls to be most proud, (if I may call a handsome Disdain by that Vulgar Name) when they are most deprest, so De Pais was more retir’d, more estrang’d from his Neighbours, and kept a greater distance, than if he had Enjoy’d all he had lost at Court, and took more Solemnity and State upon him, because he would not be subject to the reproaches of the World, by making himself familiar with it. So that he rarely visited, and was as rarely visited; and contrary to the Custom of those in France, who are easy of excess, and free of conversation, he kept his family retir’d so close, that ’twas rare to see any of ’em…

As with Count Bellyuard, most of Count De Pais’ attention is focused upon his children, although again, not exactly in the same spirit:

The old Count had two only Daughters, of exceeding Beauty, who gave the Generous Father ten thousand Torments, as often as he beheld them, when he consider’d their Extream Beauty, their fine Wit, their innocence, Modesty, and above all, their Birth; and that he had not the Fortune to marry them according to their Quality; and below it he had rather see ’em laid in their silent Graves, than consent to…

Behn’s use of the word “generous” to describe Count De Pais is a rare note of overt sarcasm in The Lucky Mistake, in which the representatives of the older generation progressively show themselves as monsters of selfishness, uninterested in their children’s happiness, and seeing them only as the means to their own aggrandisement.

The Count De Pais has one friend in the country:

…Count Vernole; A man of about forty Years of Age, of low Stature, Complexion very black and swarthy, lean, lame, extream proud and haughty; extracting of a Descent from the Blood Royal, not extremely brave, but very glorious; he had no very great Estate, but was in Election of a greater, and of an Addition of Honour from the King, his Father having done most worthy Services against the Hugonots, and by the high Favour of Cardinal Mazarine was represented to his Majesty, as a man related to the Crown, of great Name but small Estate; so that there was now nothing but great Expectations and Preparations in the Family of Count Vernole to go to Court, to which he dayly hop’d an invitation or Command.

In the meantime, Count De Pais and Count Vernole discover that they have things in common:

…whenever they went abroad, they club’d their Train, to make one great Show, and were always together, bemoaning each others Fortune; that from so high a Descent, as one from Monarchs, by the Mothers side, and the other from Dukes of his side, they were reduc’d by Fate, to the degree of Private Gentlemen.

Count Vernole spends much of his time with Count De Pais’ family, and finds himself drawn to Atlante…even though she is at that time only eight years old.

The extreme youth of the heroine of The Lucky Mistake is likely to cause modern readers some squirms, although it reflects the reality of Behn’s world, in which girls were considered marriageable as soon as they began to menstruate. It is not Atlante’s age per se that bothers Behn, but the age gap between herself and Count Vernole, who begins to think of the girl as his future wife when he is forty and she is barely out of the nursery.

Atlante herself very naturally has no such thought. Her feelings towards Vernole are mixed. She does not like him personally, but learns to appreciate some of his qualities. Vernole has no idea how to talk to children, and so addresses Atlante as a young woman; likewise conversing with her as if she were much older, and on the only subjects he knows: Vernole is no mean scholar. This odd approach actually does Vernole more good than any other could have. It appeals to Atlante’s precocious intellectualism, and wins him her respect and gratitude. In his vanity, Vernole takes her interest in his conversation as a sign of a budding affection—this evidence of her good taste giving him an even higher opinion of her:

Sir, I find the Seeds of great and profound Matter in the Soul of this Young Maid, which ought to be nourish, now while she was Young, and they will grow up to very great Perfection; I find Atlante capable of all the Noble Vertues of the Mind, , and am infinitely mistaken in my Observations, and Art of Physiognomy, if Atlante be not born for greater things than her Fortune does now promise…

By which he means, of course, she will become his wife. Considering Count Vernole’s “descent” and his expectation of being recalled to Court any day, Count De Pais looks upon him as infinitely superior to anything the family’s ruined fortunes entitles him to expect for his daughters; his age and his lack of physical attractions are, or course, irrelevant, as are Atlante’s feelings. Still, Count De Pais is uncomfortable at being unable to provide Atlante with a suitable dowry. He therefore decides to force his younger daughter, Charlot, into a convent, so that he may strip her of the moiety she is entitled to and concentrate what fortune he has in Atlante.

The two men are not so lost in their plans for the future, however, that they do not realise some time will first have to pass. Atlante is allowed to live unmolested until she is thirteen, at which time her fortunes take a dramatic turn…

In spite of the retirement in which she lives, Atlante’s transcendent beauty becomes the talk of her neighbourhood, and either because they have caught a glimpse of her at church or have heard the ravings of someone who has, the young men of the district become obsessed with the thought of her, spending their time scheming to gain access to the reclusive beauty. But while the young men think only of Atlante’s physical attractions, their alarmed elders see no further than her lack of fortune. Appalled at the mere thought of a daughter-in-law without a dowry, however splendid her other qualities—which in this case are mental and moral as well as physical—the fathers of the neighbourhood begin despatching their sons to other parts of the globe on a variety of pretexts.

And among the panicky parents is Count Bellyuard who, although Rinaldo is the apple of his eye, has no intention of allowing the boy any free will in the matter of his marriage, but is already calculating various suitable alliances for him according to the birth and fortune of the respective parties. As it happens, Rinaldo is perhaps the only young man in the neighbourhood who has not fallen under the distant spell of Atlante; but of course, as soon as his father tells him he is forbidden to approach her, approaching her becomes the only thing in the world he wants to do…

Which is easier said than done. One of the few reasons for which Atlante and Charlot are permitted to leave the house is to attend services. Rinaldo begins to haunt the local church, keeping watch on all the young women who come their to worship, certain that he will know the transcendent Atlante when he sees her. And he is right:

…one day he saw a young Beauty, who at first glimps made his Heart leap into his Mouth, and fell trembling again into its wonted place, for it immediately told him that the young Maid was Atlante, she was with her Sister Charlot, who was very handsom, but not comparable to Atlante. He fixt his Eyes upon her, as she kneel’d at the Altar, which he never remov’d from that charming face as long as she remain’d there, he forgot all Devotion, but what he paid to her, he Ador’d her, he Burnt and Languish’d already for her, and found he must possess Atlante or Dye…

Certainly later on, but perhaps even by the time of The Lucky Mistake, one the most useful conventions of English fiction and drama was the pair of contrasting sisters—usually an older, more beautiful, more saintly one, and a younger, less beautiful, less rigidly moral one, the latter often blessed or cursed with that most awkward of female acquirements, a sense of humour. Very often the younger will, in effect, act as her sister’s proxy, saying and doing things that the “good” girl cannot, and encouraging her to listen to her heart rather than her conscience.

So it is here. Atlante notices Rinaldo, but immediately avoids his eye and tries to focus on her religious duties. Charlot, meanwhile, takes a long, appreciative look at the handsome young man, observes his fixation upon Atlante, and immediately begins scheming to bring the two together. Rinaldo starts following the sisters home, but is shy and tongue-tied and unable to take advantage of the situation until Charlot intervenes. It is she who makes most of the conversation, and who, upon recognising the livery of Rinaldo’s servants, declares them to be neighbours and asks the young man to see them home. Along the way, Rinaldo works up the nerve to make a passionate declaration of his feelings. Atlante is simultaneously moved, embarrassed, and angry with herself for giving him encouragement, but feels that he is sincere.

From here, with Charlot acting as their go-between, the two begin a secret correspondence. They do not meet again in person for some time, until at length Rinaldo contrives to carry the sisters away from a supposed visit to church, and takes them out upon the river in his private boat. Rinaldo begs Atlante to marry him secretly, so that whatever happens they cannot in the future be wholly separated. She is sorely tempted but cannot bring herself to agree to marry without her father’s consent. She also fears, should the marriage result in Rinaldo being disinherited, that he will come to blame and resent her. In the end the two settle for exchanging solemn vows never to marry anyone else.

The sisters cover their extended absence with a story about being invited on a short pleasure trip by a lady of their acquaintance, met at church, but Count Verlone’s jealousy is awakened and he decides it is time to secure Atlante as his bride. Suspicious of Charlot’s influence, he first presses De Pais to go ahead with his plan to place her in a convent, which he does. It is a measure of how Atlante’s priorities have shifted that, while she misses her sister, her thoughts are focused on how she will now correspond with Rinaldo. In the end the two resort to the time-honoured tactics of Romeo and Juliet: not only are their parents’ estates contiguous, but Atlante’s rooms have a balcony opposite the balcony of an attic room in Rinaldo’s house. The two begin to meet, spending the nights talking or, when talk isn’t safe, passing letters back and forth across the gap by means of a pole with a split in the end.

The Lucky Mistake here offers something very rare indeed in fiction of this era, in that, after being drawn together initially purely on the strength of their personal attractions, Rinaldo and Atlante are then kept physically separated, their relationship subsequently developing emotionally and intellectually over a period of time.

Unfortunately for our young lovers, it eventually occurs to Count Bellyuard to wonder what Rinaldo finds to occupy him in the upper rooms of their house. When he discovers the truth he is absolutely furious but, learning from the outcome of his last attempt to forbid Rinaldo anything, he pretends ignorance and makes arrangements to send the boy away to finish his education in Paris. This request is too reasonable for Rinaldo to disobey, though he is struck with dismay at being separated from Atlante. In their mutual desperation, Atlante agrees to allow Rinaldo to climb up into her room:

…he throws himself at her Feet, as unable to speak as she, who nothing but blusht and bent down her Eyes, hardly daring to glance ’em towards the dear Object of her desires, the Lord of all her vows, she was asham’d to see a Man in her Chamber, where yet none had ever been alone, and by Night too; he saw her fear, and felt her trembling, and after a thousand sighs of Love had made way for Speech, he besought her to fear nothing from him, for his Flame was too sacred, and his passion too Holy to offer any thing, but what Honour with Love might afford him…

And the night is passed chastely in declarations of love and promises of fidelity. Come the dawn the two can still hardly bear to part, and are so tardy that Vernole – on the alert since the boat incident – convinces himself that he hears a man’s voice in Atlante’s room, and charges to the scene. Fortunately, what he has heard is Rinaldo leaving:

…the Count turning the Latch, entered halting into her Chamber, in his Night Gown clapt close about him, which betray’d an ill favour’d shape, his Night-cap on, without a Periwig, which discovered all his lean wither’d Jaws, his Face pale, and his Eyes staring, and making altogether so dreadful a Figure, that Atlante who no more dreams of him, then of a Devil, had possibly rather have seen the last, she gave a great shreek…

Atlante is able to take the high ground here, violently berating Vernole for daring to intrude upon her, and for the insult offered to her honour by the suggestion there was a man in her room. He is so cowed by her that for a time he withdraws into himself, changing his mind about formally proposing for her to Count De Pais; but only for a time:

‘Twas now that Atlante, arriv’d to her Fifteenth Year, shon out with a lustre of Beauty greater than ever, and in this Year of the absence of Rinaldo, had carry’d her self with that severity of Life, without the youthful desire of going abroad, or desiring any Diversion, but what she found in her own retir’d thoughts, that Vernole wholly unable, longer to conceal his Passion, resolv’d to make a publication of it, first to the Father and then to the lovely Daughter, of whom he had some hope, because she had carried her self very well towards him for this year past, which she would never have done, if she had imagin’d he would ever have been her Lover…

Atlante is overcome with horror and disgust when the marriage is proposed to her. Her father, surprised by the violence of her reaction, is at first dismayed and then infuriated by her refusal, threatening her with various reprisals if she will not obey. Atlante is forced to play for time, asking for some days to consider the matter, which her father allows. He then has to report to Vernole, who he knows is not expecting a refusal:

De Pais after some consideration resolv’d to tell him, she receiv’d the offer, very well; but that he must expect a little Maiden Nicety in the case…

In the meantime, word of the “engagement” is broadcast through the neighbourhood, Count De Pais hoping that the pressure of public expectation will help bring Atlante into a compliant state of mind.

Here the narrative of The Lucky Mistake pulls back a bit, showing us that there is no real reason in the world why Rinaldo and Atlante should not be married. Her birth is excellent, even if she has no fortune; while he certainly has sufficient fortune to make her lack unimportant. But both fathers refuse to budge, Count De Pais because he has sworn that Vernole will marry Atlante, Count Bellyuard because he has sworn that Rinaldo will not:

…and thereupon he told his Father all his passion, for that lovely Maid: and assur’d him if he would not see him laid in his Grave, he must consent to this Match: Bellyuard rose in a fury, and told him he had rather see him in the Grave then in the arms of Atlante, not continued he, so much for any dislike  I have to the Young Lady, or the smallness of her Fortune, but because I have so long warn’d you from such a passion…

Meanwhile, next door, Atlante is also revealing her secret; though in desperation she tells her father she is Rinaldo’s wife, rather than merely promised to him:

…if her Father storm’d before, he grew like a Man distracted at this Confession, and Vernole hearing them lowd, ran to the Chamber to learn the Cause, where just as he entered, he found Count De Pais Sword drawn and ready to kill his Daughter…

Vernole’s fury distracts De Pais from his own. Too much of a coward to do his own dirty work, Vernole hires a band of bravos to murder Rinaldo, who holds his own in the running battles, but is finally badly wounded. Ironically, the person who intervenes to save his life, and has him carried into his house, is Count De Pais, who from this incident learns to admire Rinaldo’s courage and honesty, while acquiring a feeling of contempt towards Vernole. Nevertheless, he still can’t bring himself to go back on his promise, considering that a worse breach of honour than forcing his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love and who he doesn’t respect. After some awkward conversation, De Pais reiterates that Rinaldo cannot marry Atlante, but (with his eye on Rinaldo’s fortune) adds that, well, there is another sister…

De Pais decides to place Atlante in the convent, partly to keep her safe until things cool down and partly to (as he perceives it) bring her to her senses. He does not do this openly, but sends her to “visit her sister”, sending also a secret message to have her confined. Count Bellyuard, for one, is thrilled with this development, while Rinaldo, confident that Atlante will never consent to becoming a nun, begins to plot ways to carry her off. It occurs to him that he has a conspirator already in place in the form of Charlot, and that he might be able to use Count De Pais’ proposal of his marrying the younger sister to gain access to Atlante.

There’s just one problem…

Actually, there’s two. Her probationary year has been more than sufficient to teach Charlot that she was not, repeat NOT, cut out to be a nun; and during her time acting as go-between for Rinaldo and Atlante, she developed her own passion for the young man. When she learns that her father has suggested a match between them she is delighted, and sees no reason why she should sacrifice herself for her sister’s benefit.

Not that she tells Rinaldo and Atlante that…

On the basis of Aphra Behn’s other fictions, we tend to expect an unhappy outcome here, if not a full-on tragedy; but for whatever reason – quite possibly her own situation at the time of writing – this final “novel” finds Behn in a more generous and forgiving mood; and she takes pity on her young lovers. Her story concludes with flurry of plots and counterplots and people acting at cross-purposes, all of which creates a smokescreen of confusion that leads two of the characters into making a mistake that not only determines their own futures, but those of the other parties involved.

All things considered, I think we might call it a “lucky mistake”…

It must only be guest by Lovers, the perfect joy these two received in the sight of each other, Bellyuard received her as his Daughter, and the next day made her so with very great solemnity, at which were Vernole and Charlot; between Rinaldo and him was concluded a perfect Peace, and all thought themselves happy in this double Union…

27/12/2014

The Rival Princesses: or, The Colchian Court

RivalPrincesses1    Levan was very young when he ascended the Throne, and left to the care of George, Sovereign Prince of Libardian, his Uncle, Protector of the State, who observed religiously to acquit himself of that high Trust with all imaginable Honour, meriting the highest Praise for his generous Conduct to him; he honoured him with as tender an Affection, as if he had been his own Child, and always made his Advancement and Glory his chiefest study. He read him early Lessons of Glory, gave him to know, that nothing was so admirable in a Prince as Justice and Clemency; and that on the contrary, nothing was so blameable as Cruelty or Lenity. He led him to Wars, taught him to Conquer his first Fields, and always Crown’d him with Success and Glory: He learn’d to be couragious, martial, and fierce from his generous President: He began to be indefatigable in all his Undertakings; so that it was with a great deal of Pleasure the Protector saw all his Care so well rewarded, in the advantage the Prince of Colchis made of his Instructions.
    But as a Cloud to these excellent Qualities, he was unfortunately inspired with a Passion Incestuous and Criminal at once; he became Amorous of the Wife of the Prince his Uncle; all the ties of Blood and Gratitude were here of no other force but to engage him the more strongly: For our Appetites are often so depraved, as nothing has power to fix them but what is not allowable in us to gratifie them with; and the abhorrence which every reasonable man would have had for so injurious a Passion, was the motive that drew Levan the more strongly to it…

The year 1689 seems to have found English fiction in a state of transition. On one hand, this would appear to be the point at which the word “novel” finally put down roots in England, and writers stopped worrying so much about selling their fiction to the public as “a true story”. It is not hard to imagine that, in the wake of so much political turmoil, and so much propaganda, English readers began to find relief in stories that were just stories. At the same time, however, it is noticeable that nearly all the overt fiction published in 1689 by English writers was set either in the past, or in another country—and often both. Perhaps it was felt necessary that writing not only be apolitical, but be seen to be apolitical.

But with the receding of politics, alas!—the amatory intrigue returned to the forefront of fiction. While many of those that appeared in England in 1689 were of foreign origin – often, though not exclusively, French – an example of home-grown amatory fiction was the anonymous The Rival Princesses: or, The Colchian Court, which tells of destructive sexual passions amongst the ruling classes of Colchis. Though of little merit in itself, this rather ugly little fiction has won itself a tiny place in history by being the unacknowledged source for Mary Delarivier Manley’s successful 1696 play, The Royal Mischief. While Manley admitted to drawing upon Jean Chardin’s 1686 non-fiction work, Journal du Voiage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse (published in England as The Travels Of Sir John Chardin Into Persia) – a much more respectable model – later scholarship has demonstrated that The Royal Mischief is unquestionably an adaptation of The Rival Princesses. The main alteration made by Manley is a shift of emphasis towards the title characters, Homais and Bassima, who represent the two extremes of female conduct. The play retains the unjust fate of the virtuous Bassima (in fact restoring a worse fate that is threatened but forestalled in the novel), but also metes out justice to the licentious, ambitious Homais. The conclusion of The Rival Princesses is far more cynical.

Its setting is one of the more interesting things about The Rival Princesses, which opens with a description of the land and people; the author excusing himself (and I’m pretty sure it is *him*self) by commenting that not much is known about this area on the Black Sea, at least aside from its mythological significance. However, the setting is effectively irrelevant to the tale of illicit passion and sexual manoeuvring that follows. In a jerky bit of narrative, The Rival Princesses starts out by declaring the desire of Levan, Prince of Colchis, for Homais, the wife of his uncle, then takes a leap backwards and sideways:

George, Prince of Libardian, had espoused Homais Dorejan, of the great Family of the Chickalites, a princess more wicked, and more ambitious than any ever was: She is guilty of all the Passions a Lover’s Breast can be capable of; for such are the regards of her passionate, tender, and languishing Eyes, that she never looks but to command Love, and inspire Hope. The Character of her Soul is ambitious, deceitful, cruel, and unconstant; her inclinations are obscene, and often transports her to the excess of Debauch. But before we proceed, it may be necessary to give some account of the Life of a Person who has so considerable a share in the following Narrative…

Actually, it isn’t necessary at all; nor does the narrative describe her life. Instead it steps back no further than a few months to inform us of Homais’ abortive non-affair with Osman, brother-in-law of George of Libardian, “first Lord and Bassa” to the Court of Libardian, and later Vizier at the Court of Colchis.

This non-event sets the tone for too much of The Rival Princesses which, for a story about illicit passions on the rampage, offers very little sex but an astonishing amount of talk. There is passion, there is lust, there is pleading, there is negotiation, plotting and manoeuvring—pages and pages and pages of it—yet with the exception of a single encounter between Homais and a young nobleman called Ismeal, all other sex in this novel occurs within the confines of marriage. It’s all very odd, and frankly rather tiresome.

Otherwise, the one cogent fact that emerges during the early stages of The Rival Princesses is that Homais is sixteen years old. As for how exactly how a girl of her age and position ended up with “obscene inclinations” that “transports her to the excess of Debauch”, the narrator offers the following:

In Colchis the Women have an entire Liberty, and not at all after the manner of the Persians and the Turks their Neighbours: They carry themselves after their own inclinations, and never submit to the capriciousness of a Husband: Jealousie is there less absolute than in any other place, and it is not always that a Husband talks of Poysons and Poyniards, when his Wife plays him false…

…a statement which the narrative then goes out of its way to contradict.

Anyway—Homais and Osman fall in lust, but never manage to get it together. They are still in the negotiation phase when Homais falls equally in lust with Ismeal. She then decides she isn’t that interested in Osman, who retaliates with a display of indifference that he knows will fire her up again, as it does. The two of them are still playing power games when Homais and Ismeal do manage to get it together, after which Homais  – “having satisfied her curiosity at that point” – loses interest in him.

While Homais is still juggling Osman and Ismeal, she attracts the attention of George of Libardian; and since the only thing stronger than her “obscene inclinations” is her ambition for a crown, Homais begins working on her elderly admirer. This leads to a farcical sequence strangely out of step with the tone of the rest of The Rival Princesses, in which Homais’s three lovers call upon her one after the other. Osman ends up locked in the closet in her dressing-room, Ismeal ends up in the dressing-room, and George – escorted by Homais’ father – is presented to her as her future husband out in her reception-room. Having agreed to the marriage, Homais gets rid of her father and her fiancé and returns to Ismeal:

But it is time to return to the Bassa, whom we left in the Closet of Homais: How did he accuse Heaven and his hard Fate, for taking him from the Arms of this charming Woman! He remain’d in that cruel constraint for some moments, without any other use of Reason; and all his sense was employ’d in reproaching his irreconcilable Stars; at length his Resentments gave place to his Curiosity, and the desire he had of rejoining those Conversations which had been so cruelly interrupted; he listened attentively to hear if the Person was gone, whom he mistook for the Father of Homais, and heard sighs which could not proceed from any but passionate Lovers…

But in spite of the jokiness here, Homais, Osman and Ismeal eventually emerge from this tangle as sworn enemies, a situation with literally deadly consequences.

Homais marries George, who carries her away to his own territories where – not being so blindly infatuated as all that – he keeps her more or less imprisoned in solitude; she eventually gives birth to a son, Alexander. Meanwhile, the neighbouring territory of Abcas breaks its treaty with Colchis and sends an invading army. Osman ends up at the head of one section of the Colchian army, and is sent into Abcas. In the woods, he and his men find an isolated estate, occupied by a single noblewoman and her train. He falls instantly in love with the beautiful stranger, who is also strongly drawn to him, and leaves her free in violation of his duty.

Unfortunately for Osman, the beautiful stranger turns out to be Bassima, daughter of the king of Abcas—who is proposed as a bride for Levan, as a way of restoring the truce between Abcas and Colchis. And if this isn’t painful enough for Osman, he is sent to Abcas to act as Levan’s proxy in a ceremony of marriage. Much of the rest of The Rival Princesses is taken up with – are we detecting a theme here? – the abortive non-affair between Osman and Bassima; although in this case it is Bassima’s high sense of virtue and duty that keeps her faithful to Levan in spite of her feelings for Osman.

Meanwhile, Homais is not taking her virtual imprisonment lying down. She tries to persuade George to allow her to travel to the Court of Colchis to attend the celebrations of Levan’s marriage, but he will not allow it—ironically enough, because his sister has awakened his jealous suspicions of Osman. And, by the way, we should not lose sight of the fact, either through Osman’s lust for Homais or his (supposedly) sincere love for Bassima, that he is a married man. Osman does lose sight of it…and pays the price…

Homais’ determination to escape her husband gains even more momentum thanks to her growing obsession with Levan:

The Prince of Colchis had been represented to her, as the Prince in the World, the best made, and the most gallant. She began, upon these Reports, to entertain a great deal of Curiosity to see him; but that being impossible, she desired of the Prince her Husband, that he would send her the Pictures of the Prince and Princess of Colchis: He fail’d not to oblige her in this, not suspecting the fatal Consequence… She had both these Pictures in Miniature; and her Husband, seeing she affected them so much, caused that to be brought to her, which in great, represented the Prince of Colchis Victorious over the Abcas: She so excessively indulged the inclination she had to love him, that in a few days she felt all the pain that arises from the greatest passions; and she learnt with incredible joy, that Levan no longer lov’d the Princess, but to say better, was grown weary of her: She thought this a fit conjunction of time for her Designs; the Prince of Libardian she abhorred, and wicked, as I have described her, it is not to be wondred, that she engaged so forcibly in a passion incestuous and abominable…

Levan goes along with the proposed political marriage to Bassima, and is sufficiently physically attracted to her to be an attentive husband for a time; but he soon grows bored with her. He is looking around for a new interest when he receives a mysterious plea for help, along with the portrait of the most beautiful woman he has ever seen…

Although he discovers that the woman in the portrait is his aunt by marriage, this does nothing to abate Levan’s growing passion for her. He manages to get himself smuggled into the Castle of Phasia, where he and Homais finally meet:

The interview between two persons who had never seen each other, and yet were passionately in love, upon the sight of a Picture, must sure have something extraordinary. We confess it to you, Reader, that for our part we find it impossible to express to you the emotions of these two amiable people…

(“Amiable”?)

Homais’ ambition now extending far beyond merely escaping her husband, she turns her full battery upon Levan, confessing that she loves him but insisting that she is too virtuous to show him how much. The inflamed Levan immediately loses his head. His first action is to carry Homais off to Colchis, in the teeth of his uncle’s orders that she not leave his castle. There, he pursues her almost openly, to the grief and humiliation of Bassima and the outrage of George. Osman again throws himself at Bassima’s feet and swears his undying love for her, pleading with her to run away with him, but she again rejects his advances.

Unfortunately for all concerned, however, Osman’s passionate pleas to Bassima have been overheard by his wife—and never mind that she also heard Bassima saying “no”. Unable to see further than Osman’s love for Bassima, the Sultaness carries her tale of woe to Homais…who carries it (or at least, a version of it) to Levan:

…I would deny you to the Gods, should they ask you of me. I hate my Wife, since I found out her incommodious humour. Ah, my Lord, interrupted Homais, if your Majesty knew all, you would hate her for being too commodious; but the Protector has forbidden me to you that which I think in Honour you should know; and if your Highness commands me, I will tell it to you. If it be heinous enough to destroy her, returned the Prince, I would not be ignorant of it; for I am resolved to make use of the first pretence to ruine her; I desire nothing more than to get rid of her, that I may enjoy my charming Homais at liberty… My Uncle shall know I stand not in need any longer of his Government; he shall yield you to me, or I will dispeople Colchis as well as Libardian, and leave not a person alive in either Kingdom to dispute our Felicities…

Osman again tries to persuade Bassima to run away with him. She refuses, but agrees to put herself under the protection of the Prince of Libardian, who arranges to have Homais seized and transported with Bassima back to the Castle of Phasia. However, this arrangement suits Homais from every perspective: once more up close and personal with him, she manages to convince the still-besotted George that her relationship with Levan has been misrepresented to him; she sends a note to Levan, begging him to rescue her from her “tyrannical” husband; and she gets to spend quality time with Bassima…

She was now to visit the Princess, and eat with her; and her wicked Spirit carrying her very far, she imagined it easie to Poison her; the Prince of Colchis, she thought, would not dare to put her to Death, and till she was removed, her Ambition would never be gratify’d: Consulting then nothing but what that suggested, she took a large Diamond, and pounding it very small, called to her a trusty Confidant, who was to give the Princess her Drink…

Perversely enough, it could be argued that Homais does Bassima a favour. The literally spiked drink is slow-acting, and there is time for Levan to send troops to the Castle of Phasia to capture both Bassima and Osman. Osman by this time has resigned himself to dying either for or with Bassima, and yet hope springs eternal… Even as the troops batter upon the doors of the castle, he gives it one last college try:

Let us employ, my Princess, the time we have left, in revenging our selves by the highest Joys; send me not unblest to the shades: They have five Doors to force, which I took care to shut after me, before they enter this; we have leisure for a taste of Happiness; prevent the cruel Death my Enemies design me, by a more pleasing one; I promise my self, my Princess, in enjoying you, though it be amidst all this Tumult and Horror, so much delight, that if I survive the Minute to suffer the effects of my Enemy’s Sword, it will be without feeling the smart; the extasie will possess all my faculties; and if you love me, as you have said, you ought to prevent the pains of Death, or, which is worse, those I shall find by your denyl: Then kissing her mouth with all the eagerness of a passionate Adorer, They conclude me happy, my Princess, why will you not make me so? After Ages will not know our Innocence; and is it not the same thing to be culpable, as to be thought so? We have no time to lose, we hear them already forcing the Door that leads to this Apartment…

Bassima stands firm on the desirability of immaculate virtue, however – “Let us die Happy, for we die Innocent.” It is too much to say that Osman is convinced  by her arguments, rather, she gets the last word: Levan and his troops finally force that final locked door:

Carry him to the Dungeon of the Castle, cry’d Levan; load him with Irons, let not the Villain have Meat or Rest, till the hour of his Death. And for you, Madam, turning to Bassima, my Council shall determine your fate; if I considered my just Resentments, and not your being Daughter to a King, you should die this moment, to clear my Honour. Here he commanded her to be taken away, and would not hear her speak. Not long after, he assembled his Council, and decreed, She should be sent home to the King her Father, with her Hands and Nose cut off, and her eyes put out…

However, Homais’ spiked drink intervenes. Meanwhile, well, perhaps Bassima was a little overly optimistic in suggesting that Osman might “die happy”:

She…died that day, (of the Poison Homais had given her) the moment after she had heard the discharge of that Cannon, in which, by the cruel Order of the Prince of Colchis, Osman was cramm’d alive, and shot off into the Air, so that his Carkass shatter’d into a thousand pieces…

The Prince of Libardian escapes this bloodbath and raises an army to march against his nephew; but his real aim is not to conquer but to die honourably in battle, which he does—freeing Homais to marry Levan.

And, do you mind, the narrative then has the gall to express sympathy for Levan!?—because none of that was HIS fault, right!? Of course not!—not when any transgression on a woman’s part is inevitably the prelude to an orgy of betrayal, deception and murder:

…ungratefully repaying the Kindness and Fondness of that poor Prince, whom she had ruined. Ought not ladies then, to preserve their Vertue with care, for that once violated, what Crimes are they not guilty of? Whereas on the other side, it is very difficult for a Woman to be Criminal and Chaste.

Actually, it’s remarkably easy.

But let’s not fixate on this nonsense, but instead conclude with what, in context, almost amounts to a happy ending:

The wicked Homais was not long unmarried, and being the source of all the Injustice committed by Levan, she likewise revenged them upon him; he died by Poison, which she administred, to make room for the Coronation of her Son Alexander, and her own Regency…

23/09/2014

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary

amourssultanabarbary

Acmat, who was the most amorous of all Princes, and who had Grandeur enough to maintain those Inclinations, now indulged himself. Indamora had for him a thousand Charms; and contrary to that wretched custom which makes the Grand Signior’s Passion the sole Reward of her he favoured, and that they were confined to a Seraglio, without the Liberty to see any but the Sultan and the Eunuchs that attended him; I say, contrary to this observed Custom, Acmat gave the Title of Sultana of Barbary to Indamora, and restrained her in nothing but in the Point of Amour and Gallantry. None of his Predecessors had ever indulged the fair Sex so much as he. The Sultana Queen had a great Liberty allowed her: He was much condemned for his tendency for the Women, and his very enemies acknowledged he had no other weakness…

As those of you kind enough and brave enough to follow along would know, I’ve read some difficult things in my attempt to put together a “Chronobibliography” of the early English novel—ugly stories, violent stories, scatological stories—yet I’m not sure that in its own peculiar way The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary isn’t the worst of the lot. At least ugly / violent / scatological tends to hold the attention; while this short novel commits the twin sins of being boring and pointless. Pointless, above all.

In The Protestant Whore, Alison Conway discusses the subset of literature dealing with Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the most hated and despised of all the royal mistresses. She suggests that the sudden flurry of romans à clef still mired in the era of Charles that appeared across 1689 / 1690 were actually written much earlier but deemed too dangerous to publish in the wake of the Rye House Plot, only to be rushed into print with the coming of William as forming, however vaguely, part of the ongoing literary push to legitimise the new monarchy. Thus, various publications attacking de Kéroualle continued to appear well past the point where, you would imagine, she had become an irrelevance.

However, the weird thing about The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary is that it isn’t an attack—not really—at least, not until its very last pages. Despite its overt focus on the much-despised Louise de Kéroualle, it is hardest on Barbara Villiers, surely an even greater irrelevance by that time than her successor. Moreover, though it is almost entirely concerned with the amorous doings at the court of Charles, it is content to simply relate them without resorting to more of a smidgeon of the usual justification of Catholic plots against England and the king. Instead, its narrative is made up almost entirely of who loved who, who was cheating on who, who was pursuing who, who was seeking vengeance for (romantic) betrayal on who; all reported fairly matter-of-factly, and with very little malice. When you consider that by the time this publication appeared, Charles had been dead for nearly five years, James had come and gone, and William and Mary had been on the throne for a good six months, it is hard to imagine that anyone reacted to it other than with an impatient cry of, “Oh, who cares!?”

“Oh, who cares!?” was certainly my main response, along with numerous sighs and stubborn re-reading of certain paragraphs whose sense I missed the first time because my eyes kept glazing over. However, “stubborn” being the operative word…

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary resorts to the same tactics we’ve seen many times before, with “Turky” standing in for England and Charles being represented by “the Sultan Acmat”; while Turky’s great enemy is “Germany”:

Acmat (the Grand Signior) who succeeded Mahomet III was the best-made Man in the whole Empire. He was tall, had a goodly Meen, full of majesty and Grandeur; his eyes were black, large, and roll’d with a sparkling Fire: The Air of his Face was noble and commanding and whenever he spoke, it softned into a thousand Sweetnesses; His Soul was much more agreeable than his Person, though it was a receiv’d opinion, it was not to his Quality he owed the number of those that called him the goodliest Man that had been formed. He was exactly made for a great Lover and a fine Gentleman…

Acmat’s heir is his brother:

Mustapha, brother to the Sultan, (matchless for Valour and Conduct) returned from gaining a glorious Victory. His success was alone derived from his Governing; and never was a great Prince a better Soldier: He had early all the experience of a brave General, and never could the great Acmat commit the Safety and the Glory of his Empires to a better Manager. Success constantly followed all his Designs, and it was said of him, He was the best of Soldiers and the best of Subjects; nor did his warlike humour render him unfit for other things, he was a great Courtier and a great Statesman…

Doesn’t read much like an attack on the previous monarchies, does it? But then, it doesn’t really support them, either. It just kind of—sits there.

So far as Charles is ever criticised in this narrative, it is for his tendency towards “petticoat government”, and even this is excused as resulting from a nature that is simultaneously peaceful and amorous—he’s a lover, not a fighter. And since “Acmat”’s susceptibilities are the basis of the few imperfections he does possess, the narrative then switches its focus to the women in his life. “The Sultana Queen” is given short shrift, as indeed poor Catherine of Braganza was in reality; and instead we pass over her to “Homira”, our stand-in for Barbara Villiers, skipping the majority of her time as royal favourite and going straight to the exposure of her affair with the young John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. The old scandals are dug up again, so that not only does Acmat catch Homira and Amurath together, but we hear how Amurath, always strapped for cash, took money from Homira in exchange for his services.

What’s more, Homira doesn’t confine her infidelities to one object; while her outrageous example is beginning to have a bad influence across Turky:

The Sultana Homira had studied all his Weaknesses, and was perfectly acquainted with his inclinations. Jealousie was never apt to disturb him, which she easily saw, and procured first for her self, and then for the Sultana Queen, that Liberty they possessed. Gallantry reigned here incessantly, and all manner of Pleasures, with a great deal of Luxury, which notwithstanding was believ’d to please the Sultan, since he never reprov’d it. It was this Licentiousness ruined Homira; she fell at last into a habitual Debauchery, and was a principal Advancer, being the great Example of all the Liberties taken by Women of Quality. Love and Intrigue was no more so secretly confined to the walls of the Seraglio, and if People were discreet, it was what they were not at all obliged to be…

Agreeing that Acmat cannot continue to be made a fool of by Homira, who even now this easy-going Sultan declines to banish, though he does not love her any more, Mustapha and “Mahomet Bassa, the Grand Vizier” (of whom, more below) conspire to provide him with a replacement mistress, one that they can control.

Mahomet Bassa bears a grudge against Homira, who promised him her favours if he could arrange the title of “Sultana” (Duchess of Cleveland) for her, but then reneged on the deal. He has recently seen a Christian slave who is beautiful enough to turn the head of Acmat; and who, in gratitude for her release from slavery, will certainly do as she is told. He ransoms her, brings her to court, and—as you do—demands to hear her entire life story.

I don’t know how much of the potted history of “Indamora” that follows is true; I do know it is mostly irrelevant. Its one point of interest is that it posits a secret romance between Louise de Kéroualle and Philippe de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, Grand Prior of France, who appears as “Tiridate Agustus”. We get a lengthy recapitulation of Indamora’s various romantic travails, most of which is – you guessed it – irrelevant, except that Indamora is still in love with Tiridate when she manoeuvred (rather than manoeuvring herself) into the position of royal mistress:

It is a Truth, replied the Grand Vizier, That I have those Orders from the Sultan; I do not at all doubt but that you have Wit enough to make your advantage of the favourable Sentiments he has for you; Is it not better to live gloriously, full of splendour and magnificence, (as you will do then, if you are wise) than continue in a miserable Slavery? You must flatter the Sultan in an Opinion you love him, it will not fail of pleasing him, which if once you can be so happy as to do, there is nothing in the whole Ottoman Empire but will be disposed of as you shall advise. The Sultan lets himself be governed by the Woman he loves…

And so Indamora is installed as Acmat’s mistress, much to the rage and jealousy of Homira; gets raised to the title of “Sultana of Barbary”; and actually starts to fall for Acmat—at least until Tiridate Agustus arrives unexpectedly in Turky. The old love rekindles and the two try to find a way to be together, while Homira plots to expose them to Acmat.

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary then takes an odd turn. Mustapha, having already contracted one marriage contrary to Acmat’s desire (to Anne Hyde, though she is not mentioned), is now revealed as being on the brink of another, to “Zayda, Relique of a Noble Turk and Son to Mahomet Bassa”. Acmat is furious when he finds out, and intervenes; a contrite Mustapha begs pardon and meekly marries the bride selected for him by Acmat—“the Daughter of the King of Tunis”—in other words, Mary of Modena: a marriage that, far from being arranged by Charles, ticked him off mightily.

William Musgrave, the original owner and annotator of the copy of The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary now held by the Bodleian Library, changed his mind over the identity of the Grand Vizier. He starts out suggesting that Mahomet Bassa is George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, then later identifies him as Henry Bennett, the Earl of Arlington. I agree with the latter suggestion. By the time of Louise de Kéroualle’s arrival on the scene, Buckingham had fallen out of favour. On the other hand, Arlington was a Catholic who was heavily involved in Charles’ behind-the-scenes negotiations with Louis XIV, which resulted in the Treaty of Dover. It is much easier to picture him as the “sponsor” of Louise de Kéroualle.

When it comes to the identity of “Zayda”, however, Musgrave and I agree to disagree. He suggests that “Zayda” is Susan, Lady Belasyse, who was no connection of Buckingham or Arlington, and whose real father-in-law never got any closer to court than being elected an M. P. None of this seems to make much sense— and even less so since Zayda’s real identity is (in my opinion) perfectly plain. Furthermore, in light of future historical events, the intrusion into the narrative of “Zayda” is by far the most interesting thing about it.

When Zayda declares her passion for Amurath, we may recognise her as Sarah Jennings, the future Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah was indeed taken into the royal household in the position of maid of honour, but that was after James’ marriage to Mary of Modena. (The two frightened fifteen-year-olds quickly became close friends.) The suggestion that James wanted to marry Sarah seems bizarre. In any event, she subsequently married John Churchill while still holding her position at court, though the marriage was not made public until she fell pregnant.

However, none of this stops The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary diverting into an interpolated narrative, “The Amours Of Mustapha And Zayda”, which concludes with Zayda—in spite of her passion for Amurath—plotting vengeance against Mustapha for breaking his promise of marriage to her and thwarting her ambition. Zayda’s story is told to Homira, who has dark thoughts of her own:

Thus did Zayda finish her relation. The Sultana Homira, in another time, would have died with Rage at the Confession she made of being in Love with Amurath; but he had used the Sultana too barbarously to merit any thing of Tender from her: He had exposed her letters, and basely rendered her as ill Offices as possible; though it was by her he was first made considerable…

Anyway, the narrative then reverts to Indamora’s attempts to get herself free of Acmat so that she can be with Tiridate. One of her schemes is to fake a near-death illness, which has the double benefit of allowing her to plead for the attendance of Tiridate, “Chief of the Religious” (not that his being a priest interferes with his intrigues, of course) and to “recover” with a conscience awakened to the sin of her relationship with Acmat, which she uses as an excuse to beg her release from his court. Homira gets wind of what’s going on between Indamora and Tiridate, and tries to ruin Indamora with Acmat out of spite.

And then on the back end of all this tiresome manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring, we get the following astonishing assertion:

But whil’st [Homira] has thus disposed of her self, and that the whole Ottoman Empire enjoy’d a Tranquility beyond all example, the Sultana of Barbary will disturb it; and having got a slow Poyson, she conveys it into a Glass where the Sultan was to drink, he supped with her that fatal night, and whil’st he is more admired than ever by all the World, he falls by the extreme malice of a Woman…

That Charles’ sudden death was murder was a frequent, anti-Catholic accusation (you could take your pick of guilty party). You might expect to find something along those lines here, but no: instead we get a woman resorting to murder for the prosaic reason of not being able to rid herself of her unwanted lover by any less drastic means:

Mustapha (now the Sultan,) had not long possess’d the Crowns and Title, then that his Nephew Osmen rebels against him; but that not being my business…

Ouch! Poor old Monmouth!

…I must pass it over to come to the Sultana of Barbary, she mourned strictly for Acmat, and was very well pleased, she was no manner of way suspected (nor, in a word, any else,) for the murdering of him. After her first mourning, she implored, and received, Permission of Mustapha to retire from Turky, which, in effect, she did, not long after, with those designs which we have already related, in her Orders to the Prince Tiridate Agustus at his departure from Constantinople.

The End.

“Oh,” I said blankly.

So—yeah. The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary does finally get around to slandering Louise de Kéroualle; but frankly, I doubt by that time anyone less obstinate than me would have been awake to know it.

29/08/2014

Pamela’s Daughters

PamelasDaughters1bThus for nearly two hundred years Pamela has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case for the psychiatrist, a noble woman, a Shavian superman, the glory of her sex, a disgrace to womanhood, a saint, a pervert, a martyr, an entirely normal girl. In so far as she is human and normal, she is so because she has many traits and qualities, no one of which adequately represents her without the others. Her daughters, the heroines of later fiction, too often have to get along with one trait apiece—as if the heritage had to be divided among the heiresses. Hence come the type-form heroines who may be more or less safely classified according to the traits they inherit, and we have the Prude, the Weeper, the Fainter, “The Lass With The Delicate Air” , the “fallen” heroine and the poor working girl. One or two others there are who show relationship in collateral branches. Without defining here the exact degree of cousinship we may claim them as members of the family, include them in the sorority, and discuss them all as Pamela’s daughters.

I mentioned while reviewing Munster Abbey that it had been brought to my attention in the first place by a study of the English novel, which held it up as an example of the heights of absurdity reached by the 18th century sentimental novel—and which supported its argument by quoting the marvellous passage in which a character almost drowns because all the other characters are too busy demonstrating their “sensibility” by fainting to help her. I also mentioned that I had forgotten the title of the book in question, but expected, given my predilection for books-on-books, that I would sooner or later encounter it again.

I can now tell you that the book in question, to which I am deeply indebted, is Pamela’s Daughters by Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham. The explanation for this work’s genesis is amusing, though its conclusion is very sad. This impressive work, over 500 pages in length, began life in 1920 as an idea for a magazine article—in fact, as an article for the Women’s Home Companion—on “Fashions in Heroines”. Almost immediately, however, the project got out of hand. Robert Utter, an academic at the University of California, worked at it on and off for the next eight years, at which point he began collaborating with Gwendolyn Needham. The two of them carried on the enterprise for a further eight years, trying to mould their exponentially multiplying and unwieldy material into a coherent volume. Sixteen years after its conception, the manuscript of Pamela’s Daughters was handed to the publisher…and a month later, Robert Utter was killed in a freak accident.

It’s been mentioned before, but—you bite, Reality.

The 1930s was an interesting period in literary scholarship; quite a number of studies published during that time show an admirable willingness to get off the beaten path and to use “lesser” literature as a reflection of the times that produced it. (Sadly, over the three subsequent decades academic research focused upon anything other than a short list of canonical works was sternly discouraged.) Pamela’s Daughters is an excellent example of this variety of study. Unhindered by academic expectation, this examination of the development of the English heroine from the mid-18th century into the 1920s is solid and insightful, yet also freewheeling and good-humoured; though that said, Robert Utter’s 1930s-ish views with respect to “correct” female behaviour do occasionally intrude.

Pamela’s Daughters starts, of course, with Pamela herself, discussing the reception of Richardson’s novel and the widely varying reactions to the fifteen-year-old girl who would become the progenitor-figure of generations of sentimental heroines.

Utter and Needham then briefly outline the changing position of women over the course of the 18th century, during which time, due to increasing industrialisation and its consequent financial and social alterations, women were progressively stripped of their autonomy, rendered entirely financially dependent, and even relieved of their domestic duties—with the leisured woman becoming increasingly a status symbol, a reflection of the success of her husband or father. Financial dependency made marriage the only acceptable way of life for a woman, whose single imperative duty was to free her family of her support by securing a husband. At the same time, autonomy of thought and action were not merely discouraged but prevented by a relentless narrowing of the definition of proper conduct. The literature of the late 18th century illustrates the irreconcilable outcome of these pressures:

The Helpless Female was shaped by the forces that were shaping civilisation. Just as inevitably as selection and environment mould biological characteristics, so the forces we have been tracing moulded the legacy of Pamela to her daughters and granddaughters, the sentimental heroines of the eighteenth century, and the Victorian ones of the nineteenth. Certain physical, mental and moral traits become artificially female, others, more or less antithetical, are male. Delicacy, sensibility, chastity, these three (and the greatest of these is chastity), such are the canonical virtues of Pamela’s daughter for a century and a half after Pamela… Delicacy, physical, mental and moral, becomes so essentially female that it develops into feebleness in all three categories. Mental delicacy points to spelling and punctuation as intellectual achievement and dictates the concealment of any higher powers if they exist. Moral delicacy prevents a girl from receiving money if she has so far transgressed as to earn it. With this powerful equipment of feebleness she must defend her priceless chastity. If the villain tries to violate it, she must not violate her delicacy by slapping his face; if the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma, good for five volumes of sorrows in the hands of any delicate authoress…

In “The Importance Of Being A Prude”, Utter and Needham devote a chapter to a consideration of “delicacy”, its false twin, “prudery”, and all the shadings of behaviour in between, arguing that many of the behaviours usually summed up under the heading of “Victorianism” were in fact alive and thriving a hundred years earlier. In particular, authors (usually female, but not always) devoted pages to stressing that their heroines had not just delicacy, but true delicacy.

But if this heroine was born in the 18th century, she reached her apotheosis in the 19th:

Of all Pamela’s daughters, the one most moulded by prudery is the god-daughter of Victoria… In the beginning, before her lover comes, she is unawakened, virginal as virginity itself. She is at one and the same time as sexless as a china doll and as feminine as a practised coquette. Her innocence is really abysmal ignorance, but the effect of it is the same as that of the completest sophistication and circumspection. She is perpetually on guard against evils of which she cannot know anything, alertly sensitive to acts, words, implications which could not conceivably have any significance to her; their danger she is supposed to recognise by instinct… There is no evidence that she is anything but a head and a pair of hands attached to a costume… In her ball dress she may show us that her “bosom is faultlessly moulded”, but the rest is silence. We infer that she might nourish children, but know no possibility of her conceiving or bearing them. That she might have any sexual feeling is unthinkable. That even in married life she has any sexual experience is not hinted. It is true that between the last two chapters she has managed to produce three or four fine children, but no-one could guess how she did it…

Intriguingly, though the authors are discussing heroines rather than real women, what the find in the novels they are examining reflects the real-world pressures that we examined in Martha Vicinus’s Suffer And Be Still (rendered most vividly in Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s hair-raising contention that a truly “good” girl was one with the capacity to sense evil without recognising it):

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the history in the novel of the first principle of prudery, that where innocence is ignorance ’tis criminal to be wise, or what you don’t know won’t hurt you. When this was the guiding principle, the best armour for the protection of maiden purity was supposed to be a stout pair of stays and complete ignorance of the nature of chastity and its enemies. Virginity seemed no less of the mind than of the body. Its delicacy was such that if a girl so much as knew she had it, it was tarnished, and if she knew more, it was gone…

In “Liquid Sorrow”, Utter and Needham trace the rise of the cult of “sensibility” in the 18th century, examining its birth and evolution as a counter-force to the cool, emotionless tenets of the Age of Reason in the broader context of the historical significance of emotion in the development of European literature. They point out that tears have held an important place in literature since its very inception, and that for centuries it was male tears that directed the reader’s response; a man crying was a shorthand signifier of extreme circumstances. However, male crying went out of fashion during the pragmatic age that followed the Glorious Revolution. When tears returned as an important literary signifier, it was in an entirely different social context.

The evolution of the sentimental novel is then examined, from the earliest appearances of those definitive counterforces, corrupting civilisation and the untouched natural world populated by noble savages. By the 1740s, sentiment had taken root in the English novel, and the crying hero made a reappearance. For those who like to make a simple, masculine / feminine divide between the novels of Fielding and Richardson, it is pointed out that Fielding’s heroes are some of the most persistent criers of the era. Novels became less about the hero’s adventures, and more about his feelings, with Henry Brooke’s The Fool Of Quality and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It was at this time that the heroine came into her own: with the focus on feelings rather than events, a woman’s heart became sufficient subject matter for an entire novel. New ideas about “nature” also became an important aspect of literature. Eventually these various threads were melded into a new literary form called the Gothic novel.

The sentimental novel is treated fairly here. It is pointed out, for example, that these books were an important vehicle for concepts like sympathy, compassion, and charity, and played a part in instigating reforms in both prison conditions and the treatment of the mentally ill. However, in the long run this variety of novel became exaggerated beyond the point when anything about them could be taken seriously. What in the 1740s was an expression of honest emotion became, by the 1770s, a perverse variety of performance art, with crying, fainting and even dying of grief intended as a measure of an individual’s “sensibility”; while by the 1790s, expressing the appropriate emotion was all but a fulltime occupation.

The authors spend some considerable time gleefully attacking the absurdities of this literary era—and lo! – if the novel most held up for ridicule is not our old friend, Munster Abbey!!

AND—a second masterpiece of sentimentality is also brought to our attention:

In sentimental fiction, tears are by this time a bottomless ocean raging with storms of passion… On it we ship with Charlotte Palmer in Female Stability, 1780, five volumes of unmitigated misery whence comes the pearl of price which adorns the head of this chapter. (“She stopped and wiped her gentle eyes, that swam with liquid sorrow.”) We have met the heroine, Adeline, who exhibits female stability by a ceaseless flow of tears for a dead lover and unwavering refusal of a series of high-voltage suitors. The plot of this thanatopsis is contrived for the sole purpose of turning up tearful situations in rapid succession… [Tears] flow on and on, from page to page, from paroxysm to paroxysm, from volume to volume. At the end Adeline subsides into a middle-aged routine of weeping, a mere daily dozen at the tomb of the lost Augustus, which we may imagine keeps her happy for the rest of her life…

Naturally enough, this chapter on crying is followed by one on fainting (“Cut My Lace, Charmian”), which in turn yields to a consideration of evolving female fashion, and from there to a much more detailed examination of physical fashions—that is, of how woman were depicted in both word-pictures and visually, in novels and in art (“The Lass With The Delicate Air”). The traditional dichotomies are examined – blonde / brunette, Snow White / Rose Red – as are the seemingly limitless examples of stories featuring physically contrasting heroines, who meet contrasting fates apparently pre-determined by nature. Walter Scott, a leading exponent of this trope (Rebecca / Rowena, Rose Bradwardine / Flora MacIvor), is given a thorough airing—as is George Eliot’s passionate cry, courtesy of Maggie Tulliver, in defence of “the dark, unhappy ones”.

(My own observation here is to note the significance of Rebecca being invariably listed first—the only instance I know of in this context, of the brunette being given “billing”.)

A prime example of the kind of unexpected digressions that punctuate Pamela’s Daughters appears in “The Lass With The Delicate Air”, wherein the authors suddenly divert from the their consideration of the female body in art to give a brief history of depilation—offering such factoids as that the so-called “Brazilian” has a much longer history than we might imagine, and that leg-shaving was a consequence of a push-back against stockings, which in turn was linked to a greater emphasis on female exercise, and therefore upon clothing facilitating freedom of movement, and the rise of the “beach culture”. I was mildly disappointed that not much was said about underarm shaving; I often find myself, while watching period dramas, wondering to what degree modern fashions are incorrectly imposed upon the characters.

A consideration of women who never married (“Aunt Tabitha”) segues into one of those novels dealing with women who decided that marriage wasn’t necessary and the consequences (almost invariably disastrous) of that decision (“Some Do”); and from there into an examination of the endless depictions of young women staunchly defending their virtue against wicked men of all descriptions (“Some Don’t”). The shifting view of female virginity over the centuries, from a mere accident of nature not important in itself, to the be-all and end-all of female existence, is examined, as is the changing face of “the woman who did”. It is stressed that during the 18th century, virginity became a commodity to be sold—in marriage as well as in brothels; a woman who “did” on her own account, robbed not herself but her family or her pimp, and that in the crudest financial sense. By the 19th century, however, these bald economic facts had become obscured by a dense mist of sentimentality and pseudo-moral hand-wringing. By the end of the 19th century, although the burgeoning women’s rights movement was making all sorts of previously unthinkable suggestions, for the most part novels remained strictly conservative; it was a rare and brave novelist indeed who suggested that a girl’s loss of virginity might not be the end of the world.

Most novelists went to the other extreme, showing how it was absolutely the end of the world, or near enough. The 19th century’s prevailing view on the issue is illustrated via reference to its very first work on the subject: Amelia Opie’s Father And Daughter, published in 1800, which features in its opening paragraph the primal scene of the erring daughter, illegitimate baby in arms, fighting her way through a storm back to the parental home from which she was seduced:

If this is, as it seems to be, the first appearance of this famous necessary scene, Mrs Opie deserves a monument from the writers of melodrama of the nineteenth century. We who were brought up on it scarcely need, as Mrs Opie’s readers perhaps did, to read the next seventy pages in order to learn that “Agnes Fitzhenry was the only child of a respectable merchant in a country town…” and so on to page seventy where we read, “But to return to Agnes, who, when she beheld in her insane companion her injured father, the victim probably of her guilt, let fall her sleeping child, and, sinking on the ground, extended her arms towards Fitzhenry, articulating in a faint voice, “O God! My father!” then prostrating herself at his feet, she clasped his knees in an agony too great for utterance.” This tale is worth citing because it is true melodrama growing directly out of Puritan moralising… It is melodrama because the author is bold enough to impose a major catastrophe on her heroine, but not brave enough to enforce the full penalty. It shows the weakening of tragedy by sentimentality…

Conversely, girls defending their virginity until marriage remained a perennially popular novel-plot, and by the end of the century they were even defending it actively, and not passively through sheer ignorance. In fact, this plot became more popular as options for women opened up and they began to venture out into the world on their own account, into colleges and into the workforce. Very little had changed is essence, however: merely, marauding rakes had been replaced by marauding employers.

The highlight of this section of Pamela’s Daughters is its examination of “working girl” fiction. The heroines of these novels, Utter and Needham contend, were in truth “Pamela’s daughters”, since just like Pamela herself they were virtuous working girls clinging to a moral code in a world full of dangers and temptations. In most (again like Pamela), it was economic necessity rather than choice than launched the heroine into the world, and by the end of the novel she was relieved and happy to surrender all ideas of autonomy and make a conventional marriage. And most like Pamela of all, many of these heroines were truly working-class, not the “distressed gentlewomen” who populated the progenitor of this form of literature, the “governess novel”. In this branch of popular fiction, “mill girls” and “shop girls” abound; “office girls” came a little later. George Gissing’s Thyrza is the most serious and literary example of this sort of fiction, though the sub-genre is better represented by Geraldine Fleming’s Only A Working Girl. The danger of physical attractiveness in a working girl is a recurrent, even obsessive, theme:

Pamela’s father and mother feared lest Pamela’s beauty should lead to her downfall. So in the nineteenth century it is less often the heroine herself who thinks of beauty as a curse than her family and friends. The sister of “the little beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills”, Hazel Easterbrook, had “one earnest prayer to Heaven”; it was that “little Gay’s rare beauty would not prove a curse to her, for no man ever looked twice at that saucy, roguish, irresistible face whose heart was not conquered by it She was only sixteen, yet she could count admirers by the score.” Only by the score? There must have been hundreds, then, who looked but once. The mother and sister of Elsie Brandon “prayed fervently that her beauty would not be a curse to her”. The idea is explicit in the title of The Curse Of Beauty; or, The Cloakmaker’s Model.

As early as the late 19th century there were books in which the heroine was allowed to enjoy her work, and even to display a degree of ambition. However, in most cases this ambition fulfilled itself via marriage to the boss. Alternatively, the working-class heroine improves herself through her aspirations to be “a lady”; although sometimes her efforts in this respect also pave the way for a rapid rise up the social ladder via marriage. In light of all this, a special mention should be given to The Typewriter Girl by Grant Allen (the progressive, not to say radical, author of the scandalous – and hugely popular – The Woman Who Did), which concludes with its Girton Girl heroine stepping out of a love triangle (involving, yup, her boss) and devoting herself to her career instead: she does so partly because her romantic rival, in stark contrast to her intelligent, competent self, is traditionally “feminine” to the point of being completely helpless. It is wryly noted that Juliet, Allen’s heroine, is a brunette, her romantic rival a blonde:

The authors of these novels think that their readers prefer blondes. A check of many working-girl novels of the nineteenth century indicates that in every hundred heroines we have eighty blondes, ten brunes, and ten red-heads. The authors have little skill [and] for the most part their heroines appear only through raptures and ravings… In general, too, these authors follow the age-old tradition of behaviour patterns, at least to the extent that the brunettes take a more active part in the action of the tale…

Though Pamela’s Daughters has by now wended its way well into the 20th century, at this point its authors step back to take a look at the changing face of the heroine across the 19th century (“New Girls For Old”). On the whole the trend is positive: “the lass with the delicate air” with her crying and fainting begins to give way to a more grounded type of girl; physical fragility is no longer so prized; and though there is still plenty of sentimentality around, displays of strong emotion are now indicative of a lack of well-bred self-control, and frowned upon accordingly. But alas, few novelists are capable of giving the reader a thoroughly nice, thoroughly believable heroine. We are not exactly surprised when Utter and Needham jump back across the century for a visit with Jane Austen:

It is this refusal of Jane Austen to go to extremes in either direction that brings her to her supreme achievement. The best of heroines before her time, Clarissa Harlowe, Sophia Western, Emilia Gauntlet, are fine upstanding girls of whom any age might be proud, but their main attraction is that of their sex; they are men’s women, created to express the charm that women have for men. They do not exhibit what Jane Austen seems to give us for the first time, the best of womanhood, as endearing to women as to men, shining through any and all colours of fashion and undimmed by the changes of time… Meredith shows this figure at its best. Dickens was not up to it. Scott and Thackeray show it, but not until Jane Austen had shown it to them. Trollope has it more often than any other.

Heroines, like the young women who inspired them, became more active over the 19th century—and here the chapter diverts into a consideration of the changing silhouette, in a discussion of the battles waged progressively over stays, corsets, and eventually bloomers and bathing-suits. From this distance it can be hard to grasp just how deadly seriously these matters were taken, and the degree of outrage that attempts to popularise women’s clothes that allowed for greater freedom of movement provoked: the battle raged both in the streets themselves, and even more so in the letters pages of the daily newspapers. Ludicrous as this fashion war now seems, make no mistake: the battle over women’s clothing was a hugely important aspect of female emancipation. In fact, as the authors point out, underwear in novels becomes a marker of passing time:

In the novel we see in retrospect a girl’s graduation from waists to girdles in Ruth Suckow’s Odyssey Of A Nice Girl, 1926, and in Una Hunt’s Young In The Nineties, 1927, though in the novels of the nineties underclothes were kept out of sight. In these books also we see the reaction toward lighter clothing on the part of women who were forced as girls to wear prickly flannels and starched drawers, heavy waterproofs and winter coats, rubbers and galoshes…

By now, we are well into the 20th century. Victoria is long gone, and so is much of what she represented (justly or otherwise). The final chapter of Pamela’s Daughters, “Victoria, Where Is Thy Victory?”, considers how novelists dealt with rapid shifts in social mores and the dreaded topic of S-E-X. I may say that I was quite startled to learn that during the 1920s there was a significant sub-genre of novels dealing bluntly with, ahem, “girls who did”; although we should note that these books were more common in the US than in Britain. Shedding both their corsets and the expectation of ignorance, the heroines of these novels were only too eager to experiment with sexual experience – and perhaps most surprisingly of all, this experimentation does not always end in death or even in pregnancy. Quite often, having found out what she wanted to know, and learned to give sex its proper weight, the heroine settles down with an equally advanced young man, who is sometimes her erstwhile lover, sometimes not, but who either way considers her neither “sinful” nor “damaged”.

It is, by the way, quite clear from the tone of Pamela’s Daughters at this point that Robert Utter (if not necessarily Gwendolyn Needham) did not entirely approve of this particular turn in the history of heroines—and of real girls—though the role of WWI in bringing about this drastic shift is given fair weight. Another swing of the pendulum was in progress, however, by the time Utter and Needham drew a line under their history of heroines; and they close with some reflections upon what they consider this particular era’s exemplar novel, Nalbro Bartley’s The Premeditated Virgin, and by comparing Bartley’s Mary Ann Plowden with her great-great-great-grandmother, Pamela:

Pamela and Mary Ann Plowden are both premeditated virgins, but they wear their premeditation with a difference, and we may gauge the difference as a measure of progress. Pamela’s choice was a narrow one; she was held pretty helpless by the society of her time. In her game against fate her scope is restricted, her moves are sharply limited. She wins not only because she moves shrewdly but because luck is with her. Hers is a sort of poker game in which all the skill and intelligence she can bring to bear are, when the game is legitimately played, subordinate to luck. Mary Ann Plowden plays a different game, one in which skill, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, may have much more scope… Mary Ann does not lean on authority, on social order, or on God. She does not seek a verdict from society. She does not pray, or “invoke the protection of Heaven” for herself or her virginity. For any protection that she must have she invokes her own brain and summons her own powers. She “stands unshook” upon such truth as she can find, and she finds it in herself…

30/05/2014

“A. Rogers” is “a young lady”

Wandering about in the realm of obscure 18th and 19th century fiction as I do, I often stumble over interesting cross-currents and odd coincidences. (On that subject, remind me to tell you sometime about The Two Lizzie Bates-es.) Not infrequently a factoid I’ve picked up in one context proves to have a bearing in another, or I’ll notice the same name cropping up in a number of seemingly unrelated places. Generally none of this is of the least actual importance, but in terms of my hunt for forgotten fiction, it adds another layer of enjoyment, like sprinkles on ice-cream.

When I turn up one of these writers who has, to all intents and purposes, vanished into oblivion, I like to see if I can find out anything about them. As you would appreciate, research such as this is a lot easier if the person in question is called, say, “Wilhemina Adelina de Vere Loftington”, than it is if they’re called “Anne Smith”. In this respect, a writer I’ve had a vague curiosity about since I first noticed her, but have been unable to discover anything concrete regarding, is one “A. Rogers”. If attributions are to be believed – and they are not necessarily so – “A. Rogers” wrote approximately ten novels, in addition to some miscellanea, during the second half of the 18th century. None of her works carried her name on their title page, but were all published as by “a young lady”.

There were a couple of reasons why this obscure novelist with a common name stuck in my memory.

The first is that although, to the best of my knowledge, she published spasmodically over a twenty-seven year period, “A. Rogers” never stopped referring to herself as “a young lady”.

The second reason is that, having started to publish novels in 1773 (perhaps; I’ll be coming back to that point in a minute), in the years 1787 and 1792, respectively, we find in the bibliography of “A. Rogers” the following works:

  • Lumley-House: A Novel. The First Attempt Of A Young Lady. In Three Volumes
  • Fanny; or, The Deserted Daughter. A Novel. Being The First Literary Attempt Of A Young Lady

Hmm…

So, simply because her discovery gave me a couple of giggles, I have always remembered “A. Rogers”.

Of course, attribution can be a tricky thing; and as I say, none of these novels carry an author’s name on the title page. However, “A. Rogers” comes up as the author of the works in question using a search of the Oxford University library system, which is good enough for me…

…usually.

Imagine my surprise when my research into the background of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley turned up this:

rogers1

 

 

 

 

This particular attribution does not come up searching through the Oxford University system, or through the Amazon system (a surprisingly good source for lost works), but only via Overcat, a search engine associated with the cataloguing site LibraryThing, which consists of “32 million library records…assembled from over 700 sources…” Boston College, as we see, happens to be the source of this particular search result.

I’m not quite sure what to think about this. My first impulse was to reject the attribution, chiefly because in spite of the spate of recent research into the origins of the Gothic novel and the Irish Gothic, academics in this area continue to refer to The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley as an anonymous novel. It seems to me that if it were possible to confidently assign authorship of the novel, someone would have done it.

In addition, this attribution puts a thirteen-year gap in the bibliography of “A. Rogers”, which doesn’t seem very likely.

On the other hand, if I arbitrarily reject this attribution, why should I believe any of the others? This confusion also throws a new light on those “first attempt[s] of a young lady”. Perhaps we’re not talking about the same person? Or perhaps “A. Rogers” was a very early example of the “house name”, the practice of concealing a variety of writers behind a single pseudonym, as with the Nancy Drew books by “Carolyn Keane”. Or perhaps an over-zealous cataloguing system simply decided that anything by “a young lady” was also by “A. Rogers”?

After pondering this for a ridiculous amount of time in the lead-up to my last spate of blogging, I finally decided to put the bigger problem to one side, and for the moment to stick with “If A. Rogers wrote The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, someone else would know it”. I was further confirmed in this line of argument by accessing the works of “A. Rogers” which are available online and noting their publication details. The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, as we have seen, was published in Dublin; whereas all the other novels attributed to “A. Rogers” were published in London; some of them (including one of the “first attempts”) by the Minerva Press.

All of them, that is, except 1786’s The History Of Jessy Evelinwhich was published in Dublin.

The mystery deepens…

 

 

27/04/2014

The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker

nun1

    But, as there are degrees of Vows, so there are degrees of Punishments for Vows, there are solemn Matrimonial Vows, such as contract and are the most effectual Marriage, and have the most reason to be so; there are a thousand Vows and Friendships, that pass between Man and Man, on a thousand Occasions; but there is another Vow, call’d a Sacred Vow, made to God only; and, by which, we oblige our selves eternally to serve him with all Chastity and Devotion: This Vow is only taken, and made, by those that enter into Holy Orders, and, of all broken Vows, these are those, that receive the most severe and notorious Revenges of God; and I am almost certain, there is not one Example to be produc’d in the World, where Perjuries of this nature have past unpunish’d, nay, that have not been persu’d with the greatest and most rigorous of Punishments. I could my self, of my own knowledge, give an hundred Examples of the fatal Consequences of the Violation of Sacred Vows; and who ever make it their business, and are curious in the search of such Misfortunes, shall find, as I say, that they never go unregarded.
    The young Beauty therefore, who dedicates her self to Heaven, and weds her self for ever to the service of God, ought, first, very well to consider the Self-denial she is going to put upon her youth, her fickle faithless deceiving Youth, of one Opinion to day, and of another to morrow; like Flowers, which never remain in one state or fashion, but bud to day, and blow by insensible degrees, and decay as imperceptibly. The Resolution, we promise, and believe we shall maintain, is not in our power, and nothing is so deceitful as human Hearts.

Written late in 1688 but not published until the early part of 1689, Aphra Behn’s The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker is an unexpected piece of short fiction in several ways. Most immediately, the text carries another of Aphra’s rather curious dedications, this one to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarin, whose history had long been intertwined with that of the Stuarts. Charles had actually proposed to her (or rather, for her) during his exile, but was rejected, the lady’s family seeing then no prospect of his restoration. Hortense was eventually married off to Armand de la Meilleraye, one of the wealthiest men in Europe, who was then created Duc Marazin. The marriage was bitterly unhappy due to the Duc’s numerous peculiarities and Hortense’s reckless disregard of convention.

Eventually Hortense fled both her husband and her country, finding a protector first in Louis XIV before being given a place at the English court while officially visiting her cousin, Mary of Modena. Ironically, she ended up as Charles’s mistress, effectively supplanting the much-despised Duchess of Portsmouth, but herself fell out of favour when she refused to curb her reckless behaviour. Hortense was bisexual, often cross-dressed, and had numerous affairs with people of both sexes—including the Duchess of Sussex, one of Charles’s illegitimate daughters. It was not this, however, but her affair with Louis I of Monaco that caused Charles to end their relationship. The two nevertheless remained friends, and first Charles and then James continued to support her. Remarkably, Hortense held onto her place at court even after the arrival of William and Mary, albeit on a reduced pension. During this time she established a salon which attracted many intellectuals, artists and writers, and gained a reputation as a patron of the arts.

The dedication to Hortense that precedes The History Of The Nun is fulsome enough to have caused some academics to ponder a possible relationship between the two women; Aphra herself being often been read as bisexual:

I assure you, Madam, there is neither Compliment nor Poetry, in this humble Declaration, but a Truth, which has cost me a great deal of Inquietude, for that Fortune has not set me in such a Station, as might justifie my Pretence to the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and hear that surprizing Wit; what can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty? A Beauty that is heighten’d, if possible, with an air of Negligence, in Dress, wholly Charming, as if your Beauty disdain’d those little Arts of your Sex, whose Nicety alone is their greatest Charm, while yours, Madam, even without the Assistance of your exalted Birth, begets an Awe and Reverence in all that do approach you, and every one is proud, and pleas’d, in paying you Homage their several ways, according to their Capacities and Talents; mine, Madam, can only be exprest by my Pen, which would be infinitely honour’d, in being permitted to celebrate your great Name for ever…

However, I see in this dedication something more significant, if not quite so titillating: Aphra Behn’s belated abandonment of the Stuarts—or at least, her abandonment of the hope clung to for so many years, that she would be recognised by them for her talent and her loyalty. William of Orange did not arrive in England until November 1688, and James did not abdicate (if we can agree to call it that) until December, yet here in a work licensed in October we find Aphra striving to attract the attention of a potential new patron. Of course, we can never know if she might have succeeded at long last in winning the financial support she so desperately needed, since by the time The History Of The Nun was published, Aphra was dying.

Another interesting thing about The History Of The Nun is Aphra’s use of the word “history”, which to this point has been employed deliberately to indicate, if not a true story, at least a story founded on truth: we have seen it used so in the omnibus Three Histories, which collects Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro, short fictions which all contain a demonstrable measure of historical fact. The History Of The Nun conforms to this convention inasmuch as the dedication concludes with the assertion, The Story is true, as it is on the Records of the Town, where it was transacted; but as far as I am aware, no equivalent “true story” has been identified. Nor does The History Of The Nun contain any professions of being an eyewitness account, or even of having been told to Aphra. While the short opening section in which Aphra ruminates on the consequences of broken vows is written in the first person, when the story proper begins, the narrative voice switches to the third person. The only “personal” detail in The History Of The Nun comes near the beginning—a remark which may or may not be true, but which doubtless has added fuel to the fire of the long-running academic argument over whether or not Aphra was Catholic:

I once was design’d an humble Votary in the House of Devotion, but fancying my self not endu’d with an obstinacy of Mind, great enough to secure me from the Efforts and Vanities of the World, I rather chose to deny my self that Content I could not certainly promise my self, than to languish (as I have seen some do) in a certain Affliction; tho’ possibly, since, I have sufficiently bewailed that mistaken and inconsiderate Approbation and Preference of the false ungrateful World, (full of nothing but Nonsense, Noise, false Notions, and Contradiction) before the Innocence and Quiet of a Cloyster; nevertheless, I could wish, for the prevention of abundance of Mischiefs and Miseries, that Nunneries and Marriages were not to be enter’d into, ’till the Maid, so destin’d, were of a mature Age to make her own Choice; and that Parents would not make use of their justly assum’d Authority to compel their Children, neither to the one or the other; but since I cannot alter Custom, nor shall ever be allow’d to make new Laws, or rectify the old ones, I must leave the Young Nuns inclos’d to their best Endeavours, of making a Virtue of Necessity; and the young Wives, to make the best of a bad Market.

Amongst a certain school of literary scholars, Aphra Behn has a quite unfounded reputation as an author of “amatory fiction”: a categorisation often used to legitimise her dismissal from the timeline of the English novel. It gives me a certain evil pleasure to envisage the profound disappointment of those individuals when, upon perusing The History Of The Nun: or, The Fair Vow-Breaker – which, I grant you, is a title that seems to indicate salacious goings-on – they discovered it to be, not an account of wickedness behind convent walls, but an ironic tale of a woman so desperate to maintain her reputation for respectability, she eventually resorts to murder. Furthermore, as this previous quote indicates, The History Of The Nun is also a rather wry rumination upon the distance between the image of the ideal woman as envisaged by society, and the flawed reality stemming from a very human nature.

The anti-heroine of The History Of The Nun is Isabella, daughter of a Spanish nobleman. When his wife dies, the Count de Vallary is so grief-stricken that he decides to retire from the world by entering a monastery; resolving too that when she is old enough, Isabella will take the veil. The count’s sister is abbess of a convent: he bequeaths half his fortune to her in trust for Isabella, making clear his preference that his daughter should become a nun, but instructing that should she show a preference for the world, she should be permitted to marry and properly dowered.

At the age of only two, therefore, Isabella is taken into the convent to be raised amongst the nuns, proving as she grows to be as virtuous and accomplished as she is beautiful. She is, in fact, regarded as something of a prodigy:

…so that at the Age of eight or nine Years, she was thought fit to receive and entertain all the great Men and Ladies, and the Strangers of any Nation, at the Grate; and that with so admirable a Grace, so quick and piercing a Wit, and so delightful and sweet a Conversation, that she became the whole Discourse of the Town, and Strangers spread her Fame, as prodigious, throughout the Christian World; for Strangers came daily to hear her talk, and sing, and play, and to admire her Beauty; and Ladies brought their Children, to shame ’em into good Fashion and Manners, with looking on the lovely young Isabella.

Isabella’s aunt, meanwhile, is caught between her own desire to see Isabella become a nun, both for the fame and credit of the convent and for the sake of her fortune, and her promise to her brother. She fulfils the latter by speaking to her niece of the pleasures of the world and what her fortune can bring her, and by allowing her occasionally to go out in public with fashionable relatives. Isabella’s emergence from the convent, her reputation preceding her, sets the town of Iper in an uproar:

Isabella arriving at her Thirteenth Year of Age, and being pretty tall of Stature, with the finest Shape that Fancy can create, with all the Adornment of a perfect brown-hair’d Beauty, Eyes black and lovely, Complexion fair; to a Miracle, all her Features of the rarest proportion, the Mouth red, the Teeth white, and a thousand Graces in her Meen and Air; she came no sooner abroad, but she had a thousand Persons fighting for love of her; the Reputation her Wit had acquir’d, got her Adorers without seeing her, but when they saw her, they found themselves conquer’d and undone; all were glad she was come into the World, of whom they had heard so much, and all the Youth of the Town dress’d only for Isabella de Vallary, that rose like a new Star that Eclips’d all the rest, and which set the World a-gazing. Some hop’d, and some despair’d, but all lov’d… And now it was, that, young as she was, her Conduct and Discretion appear’d equal to her Wit and Beauty, and she encreas’d daily in Reputation, insomuch, that the Parents of abundance of young Noble Men, made it their business to endeavour to marry their Sons to so admirable and noble a Maid, and one, whose Virtues were the Discourse of all the World…

In spite of all this adulation, however, Isabella sees nothing in the world that draws her to choose it over a life of religious retreat, and nor do the conscientious counterarguments of her father and aunt, who urge the advantages of one and the disadvantages of the other upon her, have any effect upon her resolution. Seeing her determined, they withdraw all opposition; the Count de Vallary, indeed, then admits that he would have been very unhappy had she done anything else.

To one person above all others, Isabella’s resolution is a shattering disappointment: a young nobleman called Villenoys has fallen desperately in love with her, and done everything he can think of to persuade her to change her mind. His persistence lures Isabella into a correspondence, but although she pities the young man, her letters only reiterate her decision and urge him to seek his reward in the world. As the time for Isabella to take the veil draws near, Villenoys collapses in a dangerous fever. His despairing relatives plead with Isabella to relent and save his life. Her response is not quite what they hoped:

She believ’d, it was for her Sins of Curiosity, and going beyond the Walls of the Monastery, to wander after the Vanities of the foolish World, that had occasion’d this Misfortune to the young Count of Villenoys, and she would put a severe Penance on her Body, for the Mischiefs her Eyes had done him; she fears she might, by something in her looks, have intic’d his Heart, for she own’d she saw him, with wonder at his Beauty, and much more she admir’d him, when she found the Beauties of his Mind; she confess’d, she had given him hope, by answering his Letters; and that when she found her Heart grow a little more than usually tender, when she thought on him, she believ’d it a Crime, that ought to be check’d by a Virtue, such as she pretended to profess, and hop’d she should ever carry to her Grave; and she desired his Relations to implore him, in her Name, to rest contented, in knowing he was the first, and should be the last, that should ever make an impression on her Heart…

Small beer as this is, it serves to check Villenoys’ decline; though his family keep Isabella’s assumption of the veil from him until he is strong enough to hear the news. He then rejoins the military career from which he was diverted.

Isabella, meanwhile, gives no-one reason to suppose she repents her choice of a religious life. For two years she devotes herself to the demands of her order:

…there was never seen any one, who led so Austere and Pious a Life, as this young Votress; she was a Saint in the Chapel, and an Angel at the Grate: She there laid by all her severe Looks, and mortify’d Discourse, and being at perfect peace and tranquility within, she was outwardly all gay, sprightly, and entertaining, being satisfy’d, no Sights, no Freedoms, could give any temptations to worldly desires… But however Diverting she was at the Grate, she was most exemplary Devout in the Cloister, doing more Penance, and imposing a more rigid Severity and Task on her self, than was requir’d, giving such rare Examples to all the Nuns that were less Devout, that her Life was a Proverb, and a President, and when they would express a very Holy Woman indeed, they would say, “She was a very ISABELLA.”

Isabella’s close friend within the convent is Sister Katteriena, whose brother, Bernardo Henault, visits her regularly—and who as a matter of course sees much of Isabella. And suddenly, the serenely devoted Isabella finds herself confronted by a temptation of which previously she had no conception…

Katteriena is quick enough to discover what ails her friend, and confesses that her own presence in the convent is due to her enraged father discovering a secret passion between herself and a young man of lower social standing. Isabella begs her friend to tell her how she can regain mastery over herself, since for the first time in her life her thoughts and feelings are not under her control:

“Alas! (reply’d Katteriena) tho’ there’s but one Disease, there’s many Remedies: They say, possession’s one, but that to me seems a Riddle; Absence, they say, another, and that was mine; for Arnaldo having by chance lost one of my Billets, discover’d the Amour, and was sent to travel, and my self forc’d into this Monastery, where at last, Time convinc’d me, I had lov’d below my Quality, and that sham’d me into Holy Orders.” “And is it a Disease, (reply’d Isabella) that People often recover?” “Most frequently, (said Katteriena) and yet some dye of the Disease, but very rarely.” “Nay then, (said Isabella) I fear, you will find me one of these Martyrs; for I have already oppos’d it with the most severe Devotion in the World: But all my Prayers are vain, your lovely Brother persues me into the greatest Solitude; he meets me at my very Midnight Devotions, and interrupts my Prayers; he gives me a thousand Thoughts, that ought not to enter into a Soul dedicated to Heaven; he ruins all the Glory I have achiev’d, even above my Sex, for Piety of Life, and the Observation of all Virtues. Oh Katteriena! he has a Power in his Eyes, that transcends all the World besides: And, to shew the weakness of Human Nature, and how vain all our Boastings are, he has done that in one fatal Hour, that the persuasions of all my Relations and Friends, Glory, Honour, Pleasure, and all that can tempt, could not perform in Years…”

And here, of course, we find Aphra Behn’s underlying point that the dangers of forcing life-changing decisions upon girls too young and too inexperienced to understand themselves or what temptations the world might hold. Note, however, that Isabella’s trial has a double face. Most obviously she is frightened that her passion for Henault is coming between herself and God, tempting her to forsake her holy vows. Yet beyond that, even at these very earliest moments, is Isabella’s painful consciousness that what is at stake is not just her private dedication to God, but her public reputation: The Glory I have achiev’d, even above my Sex, for Piety of Life, and the Observation of all Virtues…

Isabella struggles against her passion for Henault; but not all the prayers and mortifications she puts herself through have the slightest effect. The death-blow to her hopes of conquering herself is delivered when she succumbs to temptation to the point of creeping near the grate to see Henault and listen to his conversation with Katteriena: she hears not only her friend’s angry scolding of her brother for daring to suppose that anyone as saintly and immaculate as Isabella could give a thought to earthly passion, but, fatally, Henault’s returning declaration of love and his plea that Katteriena do what she can to turn Isabella thoughts towards him. Knowing that she is loved gives Isabella power over herself—not to banish her forbidden passion, but to hide it from Katteriena; the saintly young woman teaches herself to dissemble and prevaricate, and succeeds in deceiving her friend. Believing she speaks for Isabella, Katteriena continues to scold and shame her brother for his wish to lure a nun from her vows; warning him that, even should he succeed, their father would consider it a blight upon the family honour and doubtless disinherit him.

Finding Katteriena opposed to him, Henault also begins to dissemble, convincing his sister that her arguments have swayed him. Both he and Isabella resume their previous behaviours—until one day, during Henault’s visit to the grate, he and Isabella find an opportunity for private conversation. Their mutual declaration leaves Isabella more bewildered and enflamed than ever, and she spends a sleepless night devoted to the age-old art of sophistry:

She had try’d Fasting long, Praying fervently, rigid Penances and Pains, severe Disciplines, all the Mortification, almost to the destruction of Life it self, to conquer the unruly Flame; but still it burnt and rag’d but the more; so, at last, she was forc’d to permit that to conquer her, she could not conquer, and submitted to her Fate, as a thing destin’d her by Heaven it self; and after all this opposition, she fancy’d it was resisting even Divine Providence, to struggle any longer with her Heart; and this being her real Belief, she the more patiently gave way to all the Thoughts that pleas’d her… She…was resolv’d to conclude the Matter, between her Heart, and her Vow of Devotion, that Night, and she, having no more to determine, might end the Affair accordingly, the first opportunity she should have to speak to Henault, which was, to fly, and marry him; or, to remain for ever fix’d to her Vow of Chastity. This was the Debate; she brings Reason on both sides: Against the first, she sets the Shame of a Violated Vow, and considers, where she shall shew her Face after such an Action; to the Vow, she argues, that she was born in Sin, and could not live without it; that she was Human, and no Angel, and that, possibly, that Sin might be as soon forgiven, as another… Some times, she thought, it would be more Brave and Pious to dye, than to break her Vow; but she soon answer’d that, as false Arguing, for Self-Murder was the worst of Sins, and in the Deadly Number. She could, after such an Action, live to repent, and, of two Evils, she ought to chuse the least; she dreads to think, since she had so great a Reputation for Virtue and Piety, both in the Monastery, and in the World, what they both would say, when she should commit an Action so contrary to both these, she posest; but, after a whole Night’s Debate, Love was strongest, and gain’d the Victory…

But matters having come to a head, it is Henault who perceives the enormity of the step, and who hesitates – not least because he knows that he will indeed be disinherited. Isabella manages to convince him, however, although in terms that remind us that she is both young and inexperienced:

I thought of living in some loanly Cottage, far from the noise of crowded busie Cities, to walk with thee in Groves, and silent Shades, where I might hear no Voice but thine; and when we had been tir’d, to sit us done by some cool murmuring Rivulet, and be to each a World, my Monarch thou, and I thy Sovereign Queen, while Wreaths of Flowers shall crown our happy Heads, some fragrant Bank our Throne, and Heaven our Canopy: Thus we might laugh at Fortune…

Isabella’s reputation makes the elopement almost comically easy. For one thing, she is trusted with the keys to the convent; for another—

Isabella’s dead Mother had left Jewels, of the value of 2000l. to her Daughter, at her Decease, which Jewels were in the possession, now, of the Lady Abbess, and were upon Sale, to be added to the Revenue of the Monastery; and as Isabella was the most Prudent of her Sex, at least, had hitherto been so esteem’d, she was intrusted with all that was in possession of the Lady Abbess, and ’twas not difficult to make her self Mistress of all her own Jewels; as also, some 3 or 400l. in Gold, that was hoarded up in her Ladyship’s Cabinet, against any Accidents that might arrive to the Monastery; these Isabella also made her own…

Making their escape, the two flee the country. They are married, and take a farm near a small village under the assumed name of Beroone. They do not neglect to attempt to obtain a variety of pardons, but without much success: Henault is indeed disinherited; and although he adores Isabella, he has been raised in luxury, and the thought of future poverty begins to fret him. His worries are exacerbated by the continuous difficulties that beset him as he tries to make the farm a going concern—until he, like Isabella before him, becomes proverbial:

…so that it became a Proverb all over the all over the Country, if any ill Luck had arriv’d to any body, they would say, “They had Monsieur BEROONE’S Luck.”

However, Isabella manages to win pardon from her aunt and, in time, from the church authorities, which allows the two of them to return home. The Abbess gives them what financial assistance she can, but Henault’s father goes no further than promising to equip him if he will leave Isabella and enter the army; while various interested parties likewise argue that he should enter the service of his country as a step towards expiating his sin of inducing a nun to break her vows. Henault is finally won over, but the first consequence of his decision is tragedy: when she hears that he will be leaving her, Isabella collapses and miscarries. Henault remains with her another month, while she recovers, but then forces himself to go.

Once in the army, Henault finds himself stationed with a certain Villenoys, whose name he knows… In spite of, or because of, their mutual passion for Isabella, the two become fast friends. The two serve together—and it is Villenoys who must break to Isabella the news of her husband’s death…

Isabella’s tragedy has the effect of restoring her public reputation, forsaken upon her elopement:

She continu’d thus Mourning, and thus inclos’d, the space of a whole Year, never suffering the Visit of any Man, but of a near Relation; so that she acquir’d a Reputation, such as never any young Beauty had, for she was now but Nineteen, and her Face and Shape more excellent than ever; she daily increas’d in Beauty, which, joyn’d to her Exemplary Piety, Charity, and all other excellent Qualities, gain’d her a wonderous Fame, and begat an Awe and Reverence in all that heard of her, and there was no Man of any Quality, that did not Adore her. After her Year was up, she went to the Churches, but would never be seen any where else abroad, but that was enough to procure her a thousand Lovers; and some, who had the boldness to send her Letters, which, if she receiv’d, she gave no Answer to, and many she sent back unread and unseal’d: So that she would encourage none, tho’ their Quality was far beyond what she could hope; but she was resolv’d to marry no more, however her Fortune might require it.

Villenoys continues to visit Isabella, and his love for her reawakens. Though she admits his friendship, she resists his courtship for two years, until her aunt dies and with her Isabella’s slender financial support. Confronted by grim reality, Isabella contemplates re-entering a convent, but finally shies away from the idea: not only did she promise Henault she would not, but, Her Heart deceiv’d her once, and she durst not trust it again, whatever it promis’d. Realistically, her only option is to marry; and so she brings herself to listen to Villenoys—after the usual delusionary arguments, of course:

…’twas for Interest she married again, tho’ she lik’d the Person very well; and since she was forc’d to submit her self to be a second time a Wife, she thought, she could live better with Villenoys, than any other, since for him she ever had a great Esteem; and fancy’d the Hand of Heaven had pointed out her Destiny, which she could not avoid, without a Crime.

She manages to hold Villenoys off for another year, but finally the two are married; and as time passes, Isabella develops a genuine affection for her husband. In contrast to her struggles when married to Henault, Villenoys lavishes upon her all that money can buy, while Isabella dedicates herself to regaining the favour of heaven:

She had no Discontent, but because she was not bless’d with a Child; but she submits to the pleasure of Heaven, and endeavour’d, by her good Works, and her Charity, to make the Poor her Children, and was ever doing Acts of Virtue, to make the Proverb good, That more are the Children of the Barren, than the Fruitful Woman.

Villenoys is away from home on a hunting trip when Isabella receives a most unexpected visitor:

And pulling off a small Ring, with Isabella’s Name and Hair in it, he gave it Maria, who, shutting the Gate upon him, went in with the Ring; as soon as Isabella saw it, she was ready to swound on the Chair where she sate, and cry’d, Where had you this? Maria reply’d, An old rusty Fellow at the Gate gave it me, and desired, it might be his Pasport to you; I ask’d his Name, but he said, You knew him not, but he had great News to tell you. Isabella reply’d, (almost swounding again) Oh, Maria! I am ruin’d.

It is indeed Henault; a Henault with hair and beard long and wildly tangled, so worn down and prematurely aged, so ragged and thin, as to be almost unrecognisable. He tells Isabella that he was wounded almost to death, but saved by his captors, who recovered him for ransom. Writing several times to his father but getting no response, he was consequently sold into slavery, from which he finally managed to escape.

By this time Henault has had a chance to absorb the signs of wealth in Isabella’s home, and finds himself gripped by a terrible fear… Isabella, meanwhile, is gripped by some fears of her own:

Shame and Confusion fill’d her Soul, and she was not able to lift her Eyes up, to consider the Face of him, whose Voice she knew so perfectly well. In one moment, she run over a thousand Thoughts. She finds, by his Return, she is not only expos’d to all the Shame imaginable; to all the Upbraiding, on his part, when he shall know she is marry’d to another; but all the Fury and Rage of Villenoys, and the Scorn of the Town, who will look on her as an Adulteress: She sees Henault poor, and knew, she must fall from all the Glory and Tranquility she had for five happy Years triumph’d in…

However, she dissembles, speaking gently and welcomingly to Henault and leading him to a bedchamber—although she manages to put off being compelled to join him in bed, by pleading her usual evening prayers. This is so entirely in character that Henault’s suspicions are lulled; and, exhausted by his travails, he falls asleep before Isabella returns.

Prayers, indeed:

’Tis true, Isabella essay’d to Pray, but alas! it was in vain, she was distracted with a thousand Thoughts what to do, which the more she thought, the more it distracted her; she was a thousand times about to end her Life, and, at one stroke, rid her self of the Infamy, that, she saw, must inevitably fall upon her; but Nature was frail, and the Tempter strong: And after a thousand Convulsions, even worse than Death it self, she resolv’d upon the Murder of Henault, as the only means of removing all the obstacles to her future Happiness; she resolv’d on this, but after she had done so, she was seiz’d with so great Horror, that she imagin’d, if she perform’d it, she should run Mad; and yet, if she did not, she should be also Frantick, with the Shames and Miseries that would befal her; and believing the Murder the least Evil, since she could never live with him, she fix’d her Heart on that; and causing her self to be put immediately to Bed, in her own Bed, she made Maria go to hers, and when all was still, she softly rose, and taking a Candle with her, only in her Night-Gown and Slippers, she goes to the Bed of the Unfortunate Henault, with a Penknife in her hand; but considering, she knew not how to conceal the Blood, should she cut his Throat, she resolves to Strangle him, or Smother him with a Pillow; that last thought was no sooner borne, but put in Execution; and, as he soundly slept, she smother’d him without any Noise, or so much as his Struglin…

Barely has the deed been done, however, than Villenoys unexpectedly returns home. The distracted Isabella is almost overcome, but finally realises she has to tell him the truth—or at least some of it. She does tell him of Henault’s return, but convinces him that Henault died of the shock of hearing that she was married to Villenoys. Her hysterical pleading sways her adoring husband who, learning that only Maria knows of the visitor, and that she does not know his identity, makes a grim resolution: he will carry Henault’s body to a nearby bridge, and throw it into the river below, which will carry it to the sea. He is reassured by his own examination of the body that Henault has indeed changed so much that, even if discovered, he will not be identified. Villenoys redresses the body, ordering Isabella to fetch a sack and some needle and thread. She does so…

Isabella all this while said but little, but, fill’d with Thoughts all Black and Hellish, she ponder’d within, while the Fond and Passionate Villenoys was endeavouring to hide her Shame, and to make this an absolute Secret: She imagin’d, that could she live after a Deed so black, Villenoys would be eternal reproaching her, if not with his Tongue, at least with his Heart, and embolden’d by one Wickedness, she was the readier for another, and another of such a Nature, as has, in my Opinion, far less Excuse, than the first; but when Fate begins to afflict, she goes through stitch with her Black Work… When he had the Sack on his Back, and ready to go with it, she cry’d, Stay, my Dear, some of his Clothes hang out, which I will put in; and with that, taking the Pack-needle with the Thread, sew’d the Sack, with several strong Stitches, to the Collar of Villenoy’s Coat, without his perceiving it, and bid him go now; and when you come to the Bridge, (said she) and that you are throwing him over the Rail, (which is not above Breast high) be sure you give him a good swing…

Irony is the prevailing key-note of The History Of The Nun, in which, not actual piety, but the reputation for piety, becomes the motivation for murder. While it does operate as a commentary upon the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed upon “good” women, ultimately this short tale works best as an examination of a complicated psychology, with Isabella’s vision of herself as a model of purity and religious devotion driving her to unspeakable crimes. It is difficult to know what message, if any, Behn wanted the reader to take away from this perversely amusing horror story. Certainly it is difficult to believe that she intended it taken seriously as a warning against the perils of vow-breaking; although her early remarks upon the dangers of premature vow-taking, whether marital or religious, are evidently sincere.

In the end, it is hard to shake the feeling that Behn was so taken with the blackly comic aspects of her story, her message became obscured by its delivery. She even gives us what might be considered, at least from Isabella’s warped perspective, a happy ending: her crimes exposed, Isabella is tried, condemned and executed, and in the process wins a fame far beyond mere reputation—that of martyrdom:

…as soon as she was accus’d, she confess’d the whole Matter of Fact, and, without any Disorder, deliver’d her self in the Hands of Justice, as the Murderess of two Husbands (both belov’d) in one Night: The whole World stood amaz’d at this; who knew her Life a Holy and Charitable Life, and how dearly and well she had liv’d with her Husbands, and every one bewail’d her Misfortune, and she alone was the only Person, that was not afflicted for her self… While she was in Prison, she was always at Prayers, and very Chearful and Easie, distributing all she had amongst, and for the Use of, the Poor of the Town, especially to the Poor Widows; exhorting daily, the Young, and the Fair, that came perpetually to visit her, never to break a Vow: for that was first the Ruine of her, and she never since prosper’d, do whatever other good Deeds she could… She made a Speech of half an Hour long, so Eloquent, so admirable a warning to the Vow-Breakers, that it was as amazing to hear her, as it was to behold her… She was generally Lamented, and Honourably Bury’d.