Posts tagged ‘18th century’

19/07/2019

The Sicilian


 
 
    His Lordship would have liked to have travelled with the Duke; but as his Grace did not make the proposal, he did not chuse to mention his wishes, as he found he could not take the same liberties with the Duke di Ferrara as he could with the Viscount and Mellifont, to whom he chose to expatiate in the most pompous terms upon his Grace’s consequence, and to hint he expected them both to pay him the utmost respect.
    “Sole heir, you find, to two of the most noble, most illustrious houses in Sicily: his immense fortune is his least boast. He is also a grandee of Spain, Prince of the Roman Empire, &c. therefore far superior to many sovereign princes, and may truly be ranked among the first subjects in Europe…”

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
The only good thing about The Sicilian is that it essentially confirms my theory that the Minerva Press novelists known as “Mrs Meeke” and “Gabrielli” were indeed two different people.

As you might recall, recent research has determined that the real name of the writer who published as “Gabrielli” was Elizabeth Meeke; and there was some contention too that this was the actual name of the the author known simply as “Mrs Meeke”, whose first name is usually given as “Mary”.

My counter-suggestion was that the Minerva Press imposed a pseudonym upon Elizabeth Meeke to avoid having two different authors of the same name on its roster: a belief strengthened by the fact that – and I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this – I’ve read at least one book by each of the two Mrs Meekes.

While there were certain points of similarity between the works I had read attributed to “Mrs Meeke” and The Mysterious Wife, the first novel by “Gabrielli”, my overall impression was that the latter was by a less competent writer (I hesitate to say “talented” in either case). Moreover, while Mrs Meeke’s books tend to be overcrowded with incident, that by “Gabrielli”, other than a flourish of events at beginning and end, was mostly just padding.

The latter tendency is even more pronounced in the second novel attributed to “Gabrielli”, 1798’s The Sicilian, which – not to put too fine a point on it – is a whole lot of nothing.

Four volumes of nothing; 1158 pages of nothing.

While its title might suggest rather Gothicky goings-on – at the very least, banditti, and vendettas, and poignards a-flashing – The Sicilian is, for the most part, an intensely dull domestic novel about an immaculate young man (from, yes, Sicily) visiting his English relatives.

In order to fill out her four volumes, therefore, the author resorts to describing everything that happens in the most minute detail, with every incident, no matter how small or unimportant, dragged out to untenable length and relentlessly flogged to death. Quite often nothing happens at all—with large chunks of this book consisting of seemingly endless dialogue scenes in which half-a-dozen different characters give their opinion about something, and then the protagonist is proven correct.

The former quickly becomes excruciating; while the latter offers some interest, but mostly from the outside, as it were: the research mentioned above also uncovered that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-daughter of Dr Charles Burney, and therefore through her mother’s second marriage connected with the infinitely more talented Frances Burney. Among their many other qualities, Burney’s novels were celebrated for their dialogue: she had a knack for rendering idiosyncratic though believable speech, and using it to reveal character. It occurred to me while reading The Sicilian that Elizabeth Meeke was striving for something similar in her dialogue scenes, but since most of her characters are two-dimensional at best, their dialogue has nothing to reveal—but instead just drones on and on…

What minor entertainment is offered by this book is almost entirely inadvertent, being found chiefly in the author’s serene belief that people with titles are better than the rest of us, and the more titles, the better; which, coupled by her evident ignorance of the society she was trying to depict, does make for some laughs. There are one or two other eyebrow-raising and/or gigglesome touches, but otherwise The Sicilian is something of a grim endurance test.

That said—two of the novel’s accidental points of interest occur at the outset. The Sicilian opens during the early phase of the French Revolution, in a Belgium overrun by emigrants. Amusingly, though also somewhat horrifyingly, considering that this novel was written well after the events depicted and with a full knowledge of their outcome, the author has no sympathy whatsoever for these displaced persons, saving all of her concern for the non-French people inconvenienced by them—including her hero; who, by the way, observes:

“…I think most of them had much better have staid in France; as I have been assured, by people whose authority was unquestionable, that the greater number of them were not of sufficient consequence to have excited the attention of the democrats: but it is fashionable to emigrate, and every chevalier wishes to be thought a nobleman.”

And this is in 1792, mind you! To be clear, there’s no irony intended here, nor any hint that the hero might be (heaven forfend!) wrong.

That hero creates something of a dilemma for his author, inasmuch as he is Catholic. The Sicilian opens with a young Englishman called Francis Neville becoming stranded in a small Belgium town due to lack of accommodation and horses, and visiting the church for want of anything else to do. Shown around by the sexton, Neville is subjected to a harangue about the various miracles performed in the district by the Virgin Mary, at which he can barely refrain from laughing out loud. This companion in his tour of the shrine is a gentleman about his own age, accompanied by a small boy: the latter—

…expressed [his] doubts as to the authenticity of the miracles [the sexton] was descanting upon… Before he had enumerated half the surprising deeds she had performed, the child exclaimed, “Pray, papa, how many Virgin Mary’s are there?” This question quite overset Neville’s gravity; and the stranger, without entering into a discussion upon the subject, joined him in a very hearty laugh…

Yeah, sound like a couple of devout Catholics, don’t they? – particularly the five-year-old; though of course, as her hero is his creator’s idea of a veray parfit gentil knight, he has to be devout…just not too devout…or at least, not too Catholicky in his devotion. Particularly he can’t believe too much in all that saints-and-miracles stuff, which as any sensible person must realise (Catholic or not) is just silly:

    As Mr Neville had been the first to give way to his mirth, he made his excuses to the stranger, adding, “I think it would be excusable in the most rigid Catholic not to give credit to such absurd fabrications.”
    “Else I should be very deserving of censure, sir,” said the stranger. “Yet, though I profess that religion, I do not place implicit faith in the doctrine of miracles.”

And so it is throughout the novel: the hero is shown as steady in the practise of his faith and his attendance at Mass, yet always with some sort of disclaimer tacked on.

The conversation continues, with the stranger eventually revealing that he is on his way to England to visit his friend, Lord Fortrose…who happens to be Mr Neville’s father. Neville then rightly surmises that the stranger is the Duke di Ferrara, who once assisted his father when the latter feel ill while travelling. It is further revealed that the young duke is a widower, and that the boy is his eldest son, Alfred.

The two young men journey on together, but are forced to spend the night in an an overcrowded town where they secure the last hotel room, dirty and inadequate as it is. The duke offers to share their accommodation with an elderly Englishman who, being a nobleman of some sort, is aggrieved to be obliged to (as he supposes) a couple of commoners, but accepts the offer and takes over their room. He is tired and cranky, unused to “putting up” with anything inferior, and is as rude, petulant and condescending as possible to everyone who comes near him…until Neville uses the phrase, “Your Grace.”

The elderly nobleman, meanwhile, is travelling with two young men, one of whom refers to the other as, “Lord Gowrie”, which in turn attracts the duke’s full attention. The nobleman is revealed as the Earl of Merton before he finds out his companions’ names…and titles. Neville eventually introduces himself, but the duke is subjected to the equivalent of a game of twenty questions, which makes it clear that the earl suspects the latter’s identity, and has some unpleasant personal knowledge related to it. Eventually we get this:

    “Pray is your Grace acquainted with any part of the St. Severino family?”
    The Duke fixed his eyes upon the Peer, while he replied, “I was intimately so during their life-time, my Lord. The late Duke of that name died about two years ago; his title and estates centred in my family; my eldest son, who sleeps there, bears that name.”
    The Earl shrunk from the Duke’s scrutinising looks, and was for a few seconds lost in astonishment; but speedily rousing himself, fearful of being remarked, he said, with some hesitation, “A very great family I always understood, though I can’t say I was acquainted with every branch of it; but pray, your Grace, was not there once, or have I been misinformed, a Count (Italian Counts, I know, are mere nominal titles), but I understood there was a Count Mondovi, a relation of the St. Severino family?”
    The Duke, who secretly enjoyed the Earl’s perplexity, knowing full well from whence it arose, said very coolly, “I presume your Lordship means the late Duke; he was fourth son to the former one, and did bear the title you allude to.”
    “Oh! the fourth son,” said the Earl: then, having taken a few moments for reflection, he proceeded, “Pray did he leave any daughters behind him? I presume he had no sons, from his title and estates having devolved to your Grace.”
    “He had but one daughter, my Lord, who married against his consent, and preceded him to the grave…”

This little interlude is an excellent example of The Sicilian‘s style (or lack thereof): the conversation is interrupted at this point, and about another 100 pages have passed before the complicated family relationships – and, more importantly (at least in the author’s view), inheritances – are spelled out, confirming for us that: (i) the duke is Lord Melton’s grandson; (ii) his father was Lord Melton’s third son, Alfred; (iii) Alfred married the only daughter of the Count Mondovi against both their fathers’ wills; (iv) Count Mondovi later became the Duke di St. Severino after most of his family was wiped out in the Calabrian earthquakes of 1783; and (iv) the Duke di Ferrara bears his title courtesy of his marriage to the heiress of that family, as a royal bequest…

…thus allowing him and his young son to both be dukes simultaneously.

There is eventually a reconciliation between Lord Melton and his newly discovered relatives – of course there is: his grandson and great-grandson are both dukes!! – and most of remaining three-and-a-half volumes of The Sicilian are devoted to the duke meeting his English relatives, and those relatives discovering how immensely superior he is to pretty much everyone, what with his multiple titles and everything…

The latter straightfaced attitude is also picked up in the material concerning Lord Melton himself, who is forgiven his overweening pride and arrogance, and the fact that he allowed his son Alfred to remain an outcast and suffer many difficulties after his marriage, on account of the fact that, Aw c’mon, he’s an Earl! – cut him some slack!!

And yet—the novel also devotes a tedious number of pages to mocking the subsuming family pride of the Earl’s spinster-niece, Miss (or as she calls herself, “Mistress”, Mrs) Rachel de Studeville, who spends most of her time dwelling on her inherited magnificence as the daughter and heiress of Sir Yelverton de Studeville, and who also conceives a passionate affection for her new relative mostly (though not entirely) on account of his multiple titles.

This seems unnecessarily cruel inasmuch as Mrs Rachel has a few more good qualities than her uncle. She was also unkindly treated by the duke’s father, who reacted to being pressured into marrying his much-older cousin (and thus keeping all the property in the family) by eloping with another woman. Rachel at that time nursed an unrequited affection for the ungrateful Alfred, and when he later fell into poverty and struggle due to his impulsive marriage, it was she who displayed forgiveness and generosity by sending him some relieving money.

Despite its length, there are really only two subplots of any real interest in The Sicilian, the first of which involves the rather dubious relationship between Lord Melton and his heir, his eldest grandson, Viscount Gowrie.

As noted, when the duke and Lord Melton first encounter each other, the latter is travelling with Lord Gowrie and another grandson, Captain Mellifont. The two parties end up merging for an extremely rough passage across the Channel, which they are required to complete by oar. The conditions are still difficult, and the passengers frequently splashed by breaking waves, particularly Lord Melton:

The Viscount, by way of appeasing him, protested he had no intention to take the best place, and entreated the Earl would change with him, which at last the old man agreed to; and nothing would have been more easy than for Lord Gowrie to have stood up, and thus let the Earl slide himself into his seat, instead of which he chose to assist the old Peer in rising as he sat, meaning to take the advantage he ought to have allowed him to have done. A moment’s reflection would doubtless have made the Earl object to rising; however, he was half upon his legs when the Captain, who saw a large wave coming, called out “For God’s sake take care, we shall overset!” He had not time to finish his sentence before Lord Gowrie started up, as he said, to let the Earl take his place, when he fell against the poor old man, already upon a totter, and fairly sent him backwards over the side of the boat…

But of course—

The idea of self-preservation induced everyone but the Duke to obey, who the moment the accident happened, had thrown off his great coat, and in ten seconds, having disencumbered himself of the greatest part of his clothes, seeing the Earl rise at some distance from the boat, just said, before anyone had remarked what he was about, “Lie quietly on your oars,” and plunged into the sea…

The duke succeeds in rescuing his grandfather, although this incident is nearly the end of them both, and particularly of the latter. Fortunately, however, they chose just the right country almost to drown in—

His Grace called to his valet, and gave him orders what to prepare the moment he reached the shore; being, as he had observed, particularly fond of the water, and very often upon it, his Grace had frequently been a witness of similar scenes to the one he had now been so principal an actor in, and had, out of a motive of benevolence, made a particular study of the rules laid down by the English Humane Society; he was therefore perfectly competent to prescribe in such cases…

When everyone has had a chance to rest and recover, it becomes apparent that all those involved have come to the same conclusion regarding Lord Gowrie’s part in the near-tragedy:

    “Upon my soul,” said Neville, “I don’t think your Grace has done his tender-hearted grandson a favour as it is.”
    “I am afraid not; his bombastic expressions of grief and joy confirm me in that opinion.”
    “I protest I think they were merely assumed to exculpate himself in our eyes,” continued Neville; “for upon my honour I think he was, if not purposely, in a great measure accessory to the accident.”
    “I am perfectly of your opinion. God forgive him if he is guilty, or me if I judge him wrongfully! but as I sat opposite, I had them both perfectly in view; I positively thought—(the Duke paused)—he might at all events have saved the poor old man: however, let us hope he only wanted presence of mind.”
    “I wish the Earl may not have imbibed a few of my suspicions,” said Neville; “he don’t seem to treat the stupid being with much cordiality…”

It is the wake of this incident that the relationship between the duke and Lord Melton is revealed and announced. The chastened earl laments his past cruelty, and wishes aloud that he was in a position to testify his remorse and gratitude via something more solid than his “esteem” and “affection”:

    “I never wished for more believe me, my Lord,” replied the Duke; “and I am very happy my maternal grandfather put it out of my power to accept anything else… I did as he desired; and then solemnly swore that, admitting I should ever, by the same chance which constituted me his, become also your heir, I would renounce all claims to your title and estates; continue all my life to profess the religion in which I had been brought up, and remain a subject of the King of Naples. I farther bound myself to educate my sons in the same principle…”
    The Earl was evidently hurt, though he tried to conceal his vexation: he looked at his Grace—“I find the Duke di St. Severino neither imitated nor approved my conduct:” then, after a pause, “All my children gone before me!—Well, I am justly punished (casting a disdainful glance at Lord Gowrie;)…”

Nevertheless, Lord Melton is all over the duke from this point; though the latter both refuses an invitation to stay at his house in London – he is already committed to Lord Fortrose – and ignores his hints about travelling on together, leaving the earl with the cold comfort of bragging about to his other two grandsons about the duke’s endless titles (civil and military), and his family connections.

We get one of the novel’s few glimmerings of humour and perspective here, as Captain Mellifont reflects silently that:

…[he] would have enjoyed asking the old man why he found himself so grievously offended with his son for marrying into one of these illustrious houses…

…but this is quickly drowned out by our very similar awareness that for the vast majority of its narrative, this novel is itself guilty of precisely the same kind of bragging.

Once in London, Lord Melton does everything he can to introduce the duke around and advertise their relationship. The latter takes this in his stride, and gratifies his grandfather by a wish to attend a parliamentary debate, in which the earl is to take a leading role. The two, in company with Lord Fortrose and Neville, leave the House in the early hours of the morning; and as Lord Melton steps into his carriage, danger suddenly threatens him again:

…some mischievous person had watched opportunity…to tie upon the end of the pole, just under the horses’ noses, a large bunch of squibs, which were lighted at the moment the carriage stopped, by some person who held a flambeau in his hand, which he instantly extinguished, and ran away full speed… By the time the Duke had advanced near enough to see what was the matter, it was in full blaze, and the horses plunging most dreadfully; in a minute more they sprung forward with the utmost rapidity, as the coachman had no longer any power over them. The Duke snatching his great coat out of his servant’s hand, who was waiting for him, darted so quickly as to catch hold of one of the horses’ heads, by which means he was able to keep up with, and prevent them from running against any other carriage they passed, while with his other hand he flung the great coat over the fire, and thus smothered it by degrees…

Comparing notes with Neville and his father, the duke finds them seized by the same suspicion as himself; and they decide to call at Lord Gowrie’s house under the pretence of informing him of his grandfather’s close call. However, they find Gowrie not only there but in his nightclothes, which argues in his favour and makes them conclude that perhaps the earl was simply the victim of a dangerous prank. Nevertheless, Mellifont continues to hint at his suspicions whenever he gets an opportunity, while the earl himself becomes coldly hostile and withdrawn—leaving his panicky heir to conclude that, while he cannot be kept out of the inheritance of the title, there is every chance he will soon be cut out of his grandfather’s will otherwise.

The inevitable third act of this would-be tragedy does not play out until nearly a full volume more has ticked away, when the duke, after a lengthy sojourn in the country, finally gives in to his grandfather’s insistence and agrees to stay a fortnight with him at his London house. The earl, without saying anything, gives up his own suite to the duke, as they are the best rooms he has to offer; meaning that it is a strong and healthy young man, not an elderly one, who subsequently encounters as intruder.

In the struggle the duke takes a pistol-shot to the shoulder. The wound is not deadly; and as the ball is being extracted by a surgeon, he offers his views upon the injury:

…he did not perceive the slightest danger at present; presumed the pistol was held close to the Duke—a fortunate circumstance, as it had prevented the ball from having its full force.

There is plenty of evidence that this was an inside job, including a pre-arranged rope-ladder and a dropped hat; and though the duke succeeds in keeping his grandfather quiet until they are alone, he then tells him frankly the whole story:

“What was my astonishment, when behind the curtain, to meet the eyes of Lord Gowrie!—I started back, and at the same moment he levelled a pistol at my breast: in my effort to ward it off I received its contents in my shoulder, and instantly fell. Could I have recovered my legs, he had already made his escape by a rope, which, on examination you will find had been previously fastened for that purpose…”

Though the fiction of a housebreaker is maintained for the benefit of the rest of the household, the next morning the earl and the duke take counsel with Captain Mellifont, who agrees to call at Lord Gowrie’s residence to learn whether he has, as they suppose, and hope, fled for the Continent. However, Mellifont reports to the others, via his lordship’s valet, that he is at home and asleep. The three conclude that Gowrie must believe the duke dead, without realising how much damning evidence he left behind. On this basis, Mellifont is sent to fetch Lord Gowrie to the earl, but finds him still asleep; and as it turns out, permanently:

The Captain perceived a written sheet undoubled, that had been placed under the other paper; he folded, and put it in his pocket, as the beginning informed him it was intended for Lord Melton, and again approached the bed, turned down the clothes, and perceived a small vial laying by his side: he was going to take it up, but checked himself, and flung the clothes over again, desiring the valet, who stood on the other side, to run of send for his Lordship’s apothecary, who lived in the same street. The man left the room; during his absence the Captain took away the vial, and searched his Lordship’s pockets, in which he found a brace of pistols, one of them still loaded, and a little powder screwed in a bit of paper;—these he removed into his own pockets; in a few minutes the apothecary came, and pronounced his Lordship quite dead, supposing of an apoplexy…

The cover-up is successful, though Mellifont tells his grandfather and the duke the truth; while Gowrie’s largely unrepentant suicide note confirms everyone’s suspicions regarding the boat and the carriage; as well as explaining that it was only hearing the earl calling out for help as he ran away, and knowing that the duke survived, that made him kill himself.

News of Lord Gowrie’s death does not precisely wrack anyone with grief; while the earl even warms himself on one consequence, albeit briefly:

During the Captain’s absence, the Earl had been using every argument his love for the Duke inspired him with, to induce his Grace (now become his legal heir) to permit him to acknowledge him as such. The Duke, with a firmness that did him the utmost honour in the eyes of the Earl, entreated his grandfather to wave the subject, adding, if British laws made such a step necessary, he would formally renounce every claim his birth might give to his Lordship’s title and estates, in favour of Captain Mellifont…

So much for that.

Prior to all this, however, we have followed the duke as he becomes acquainted with Mrs Rachel de Studeville, who turns out to be a country-neighbour of Lord Fortrose, near Bath.

This is where the novel-as-endurance-test aspect of The Sicilian begins in earnest.

In immediate terms, the pain begins with an all-but blow-by-blow repetition, in the duke’s meeting with Mrs Rachel, of his meeting with the earl: he ends up rescuing her from peril, in this case a carriage-accident, and then goes through exactly the same routine of jerking her around about his identity and their relationship—with exactly the same outcome.

However, the lasting impact comes from the fact that, when Mrs Rachel finally persuades the duke to begin what turns out to an almost interminable visit to Studeville Court, she already has a houseful of guests.

We learn that while Mrs Rachel buried her heart in Alfred St. Aubyn’s grave, her two younger sisters both married, and both unwisely: one to an impecunious clergyman, the other to a man she was deceived into believing a “merchant prince”, but who was certainly not one and barely the other. Sir Yelverton de Studeville followed the lead of his brother-in-law, the Earl of Melton, by cutting off his children without a shilling; leaving the younger generation – and, in the latter case, the widowed Mr Chambers – to hang upon Mrs Rachel’s sleeve in the desperate hope of becoming her heir: she having inherited her sisters’ portions as well as her own.

Thus we find Mrs Rachel entertaining – or at least, failing to persuade to leave her house – Mr Chambers, a draper by trade; his son, Robert, and Robert’s new wife, whose marriage was the initial excuse for their visit; his daughter, Rachel; and James and Grace Vernon, the children of the poor clergyman. These two are a different proposition from the Chambers, or at least Grace is: James is a gentleman without the money necessary to be one, and a gambling habit that has already found him deeply in debt; so he must grit his teeth and court Mrs Rachel like the rest.

This is where, as I suggested, “Gabrielli” seems to have been trying to imitate her step-sister, Frances Burney, who loved to create unlikely gatherings, and had a talent for amusing and distinctive dialogue. In this respect, Mr Chambers is certainly memorable enough, as a sample of his conversation will attest:

Mr Chambers soon began to harangue his family to the following effect:—“Now, was I not right, boys and girls? (Mr Vernon was present); was I not right when I said this here fellow would never be easy till his nose in amongst us? I dare say, for all what Grace said, he is as poor as Job, almost glad of a meal of victuals, perhaps, if one knew the truth of it; and this damned stinking snotty-nosed brat too—I will be hanged, drawn, and quartered, if the old cat would have laid out half the money upon any of us, or ever will while she lives, (and pray God her mouth was full of earth to-morrow!) she has already squandered away upon that shock-pated rude little urchin, and all, forsooth, because his name is Alfred, and he is grandson to her false lover! The Duke is no fool, though knave enough I warrant me; and he means to take advantage of this silly old woman’s folly; depend upon it he will try to make her provide for this boy, and the other too, whose name is no more Roger than mine is. I wonder, when the fellow was cracking, he did not say at once it was Yelverton; but that would have been too barefaced, I suppose, he thought, and t’other tickled her fancy just as well…”

Not that there isn’t any humour in this, or in Chambers’ hard-dying conviction that the duke is a rival con-artist; but his creator just doesn’t know when to quit: imagine this speech dragged out to about 200 pages, and you’ll have a fair idea how she fills her second and third volumes; that, along with an endless series of scenes in which Mrs Rachel, the duke and Neville are compelled to go amongst the Chambers family and their ilk, just so we can all appreciate how comical and/or crass working-folk are, and how infinitely superior anyone with a title.

Still—there is one aspect of Mr Chambers’ conversation that I want to bring to your attention, to which that description of the saintly and precocious young Alfred as a damned stinking snotty-nosed brat is merely a forerunner. As I have frequently said, part of the fun of this project, if not always in reading the novels themselves, is watching their evolution—in this case, in terms of acceptable language.

As you may (but probably don’t) remember, 1767’s The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Bart. did give us a passing reference to toilet paper and its use; but this is as late as 1798, and a book by a female author; so if I raised my eyebrows at that description of Alfred, I may even have blinked in surprise at this:

“…how came this here outlandish Duke to I have heard about the old girl be the old woman’s cousin? and how came he to be so damned handy? I have heard the old girl talk about some of the tribes coming over to England, from the Devil’s A—e-a-Peak, when Adam was a little boy…”

And I’m pretty certain I gasped at this:

“…though it is hardly worth while going to law about such nonsense, for what is it to you if he calls himself Jack of Nokes, or Tom of Styles? You know the old saying, Madam, the more you stir a t—d, the more it stinks!”

Anyway—

The duke’s wounding and subsequent recovery give rise – eventually – to The Sicilian‘s only other point of interest, and allows the author to – eventually – tie up her plot.

Mrs Rachel is another of the guests at Lord Melton’s London house, a rare visit to the capital to which she agrees in exchange for her uncle and the duke afterwards accompanying her to Newnham Hall, her other country residence, where she intends to pass the summer. The movements of her other guests are delayed by the duke’s injury, but Mrs Rachel not only sets out for Newnham Hall anyway, she persuades his father to allow her to take Alfred with her, having conceived a warm affection for the boy. She is also accompanied by the welcome Grace Vernon, and the very unwelcome Mr Chambers and Robert Chambers, still clinging like limpets.

The party has barely settled in when the damned stinking snotty-nosed brat saintly and precocious young Alfred is kidnapped right out of the grounds. There is some evidence is found that the child has been carried away by boat, and the footprints of both a man and a woman are found at the river’s edge. As wide a search as can be organised is immediately instituted, the authorities in all directions are notified, and an enormous reward is offered, but no trace of the boy is found.

What the shock might do to the duke in his state of ill-health is everyone’s first thought, and in fact the others conspire to keep him in ignorance of what has happened for as long as they dare. However, it is Mrs Rachel who is the main sufferer from the situation: her health collapses under the weight of her grief and guilt, and she becomes bed-ridden, blaming herself for Alfred’s fate and refusing to be comforted or even to believe that the child is still alive. Finally, knowing herself dying, Mrs Rachel organises to rewrite her will; and is sufficiently compos mentis to have herself attended by several doctors able subsequently to testify to the fact, to prevent any chance of it being contested.

This is also the cue for the bad news finally to be broken to the duke, as Mrs Rachel’s last wish is to have the chance to beg his forgiveness.

With no attempt made to ransom Alfred, and the duke himself dismissing suggestions of political enemies from Italy, only one suspect has presented herself – herself – to the minds of the interested parties. While staying at Studeville Court, Alfred was often taken out by a servant for a run upon the Downs, where visitors to Bath also exercised on horseback. There he attracted the attention of a mysterious woman, nearly always veiled, who expressed great kindness for him, asked him many questions about himself and his father, and allowed him to ride gently on her horse. However, when the curiosity of the duke and Neville sent them out to catch a glimpse of Alfred’s “beautiful lady”, she proved extremely elusive:

    The Earl and Neville continued with the Duke, who paced the room in silence for some minutes, and neither chose to interrupt his reverie; till stopping suddenly opposite to Neville, he said, “There is a lady—”
    “She is still at Clifton, I believe,” said Neville. “My father’s first suspicions were similar to those I can presume your Grace may entertain. He was therefore particularly minute in his enquiries. She is really a woman of family he tells me, and Countess of Glenalvon.”
    “What, the young widow?” said Lord Melton, “the Earl of Orcan’s daughter?”
    The Duke, who had resumed his walk, made a sort of instantaneous stop, while his colour heightened so much and so visibly, as induced the Earl, with some surprise, to enquire, “Did your Grace ever see Lady Roxana Charleville during her residence abroad with her father?”
    The Duke approached one of the windows. “I thought I recollected the name of Orcan, my Lord; the Earl was some time Ambassador at Vienna if I remember right?”
    “He was,” said Lord Melton, “for near three years—let me see—aye, it must have been much about the same time your Grace was in the Austrian service…”

You think?

About 500 pages before this, there is a suspiciously brief allusion to an unhappy love affair that preceded the duke’s marriage to the Duchess di Ferrara. In fact he and Lady Roxana faced as many objections to their marriage as did his own parents: he was then only an impecunious young officer, though titled; Lord Orcan having in addition an insurmountable prejudice against his daughter marrying “a foreigner”, and the Duke di St. Severino an equal one to his heir marrying a Protestant. The two were ruthlessly separated; Lady Roxana was forced into marriage with the much-older, rather dissolute Lord Glenalvon; and the then-Count Mondovi gave in to his grandfather’s wishes and agreed to an alliance with the Ferrara family.

So—it is certainly not Lady Roxana who has kidnapped Alfred, to whom she was drawn by his resemblance to his father; but it is her who is finally instrumental in his rescue, thus paving the way for our happy ending.

To cut a long story (and an overlong blog-post) short, it is of course the Chambers family who are behind Alfred’s kidnapping—masterminded by Senior and carried out by Junior, with the help of the latter’s mistress and her (unwitting) sister. Once exposed, they confess that their motive was partly the reward offered, and partly the hope of causing a total breach between Mrs Rachel and the duke, who they had come to view, and rightly, as their main rival to the lady’s property and fortune: having realised belatedly that he was more of a threat in his own persona than as the con-artist they initially took him for, inasmuch as (as the saying goes), Them that has, gets. They are less forthcoming as to whether they hoped the shock of Alfred’s abduction would have the effect upon Mrs Rachel’s health that, in fact, it did.

All this comes to light when a response to one of the widely-distributed reward-posters finally evokes a response, from an innkeeper in Wales, and sends the duke flying to Swansea, where he finds a crowd gathered in an uproar before a certain house:

    His Grace made but a few steps across the room, shoved in between the assembly, as he had done only a moment before to get into the room; and at the same moment met the eye of his lovely boy, seated upon the knee, and encircled by the arms of the Countess of Glenalvon.
    The child starting down from her lap, sprang forward, exclaiming, “Oh, Papa, Papa, Papa!” and burst into tears before the Duke could catch him in his arms.
    Having given way for a few moments to his own emotion upon so rapturous a meeting, and repeatedly embraced his beloved Alfred, who cried and laughed in a breath, the Duke raised his eyes upon his darling son’s deliverer…

Awww…

In fact, Alfred more or less saved himself—spotting Lady Roxana on horseback in the street below, and managing to attract her attention through an uncovered window high up in the house in which he was being held; after which she and her servants forced their way in and secured the two women involved.

So! – little now remains – by which I mean the best part of an entire other volume, in which I swear to God nothing whatsoever happens worth mentioning – but to wrap things up and pack the duke and his new duchess off to Sicily; once, that is, the duke has managed to divest himself of all the unwanted property bequeathed to him by the unfortunate Mrs Rachel…who at least gets the last laugh, both in giving Chambers and his son very short shrift in her will, and in the same document appointing her executors in the following terms:

“I do hereby appoint the Right Honourable Alfred Alexander (St. Aubyn) Earl of Melton, Viscount Gowrie, Baron Lovel, &c., and the Right Honourable Ferdinand Rinaldo (St. Aubyn) Duke di Ferrara, and St. Severino, Count Mondovi, &c. &c., my joint and sole executors…”

 

07/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 3)

    How this man had come to be here and who he might be was a complete mystery to Wilhelm.— “If so many people have taken an interest in me, why did they not guide me more strictly and earnestly? Why did they favour my playing, instead of leading me away from it?”
    “Don’t remonstrate with us!” a voice called; “you have been saved, and are on your way to the goal. You will not regret any of your follies nor wish for any of them back; no happier fate can befall anyone.” The curtain separated, and the old King of Denmark in full armour was standing in the opening. “I am your father’s ghost,” the figure said, “and I go away comforted since my wishes for you have been fulfilled more completely than I conceived them even. Steep places can only be climbed by means of detours, in the plains straight paths lead from one place to another. Farewell and remember me when you are enjoying what I have prepared for you!”
    Wilhelm was extremely taken aback, he believed he was hearing his father’s voice, and yet again it was not his voice; he found himself in the most confused situation because of his present position and his memories.
    He did not have long to reflect before the Abbé appeared and placed himself behind the green table. “Come along here,” he called to his surprised friend. On the table-cloth was a little scroll. “Here is your certificate of apprenticeship,” the Abbé said, “consider it well, its contents are important…”

 

 
Book Six, Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, closes the second volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The third volume, though it does deal with the final phase of Wilhelm’s “education”, and explains at least some of what has puzzled him and us along the way, is oddly structured: what we might tend to consider the novel’s climax occurs quite early on; it is followed by a lengthy stretch of narrative occupied not only with the breaking of old relationships and the forging of new ones, but with various passages that argue with, and in some ways undermine, what we have been led to believe is “the point” of the novel.

(And if you think that sounds like another a priori apology, give yourself a gold star.)

Overall, however, this section of the novel clearly represents Wilhelm “putting away childish things”, albeit not all at once; and that the theatre is one of those childish things is interesting in light of the fact that Goethe himself never made such a separation: even as he was writing about Wilhelm’s severance from his childhood / childish ambition, Goethe became the artistic director of the court theatre at Weimar, a position he held until 1817. (He produced Hamlet in 1792.)

Presumably, therefore, we are to take Wilhelm’s turning away from the theatre in a symbolic rather than literal spirit: it has rescued him from the soul-starving mercantile life for which his birth intended him, but it is not his ultimate life-goal.

That severance takes some time, however, and happens in fits and starts throughout Volume II. One critical event occurs when the troupe hesitates over undertaking a particular journey, having heard that bandits are roaming the district in question. Wilhelm persuades them to go on, resulting in the troupe being attacked, plundered, and scattered; Wilhelm himself, who does his best to defend his companions, is seriously injured. His life is saved when he is discovered by a beautiful woman on horseback, who brings a doctor to him. In his confused state, Wilhelm takes the woman to be some quasi-supernatural being:

…the vivid impression of her presence had such a strange effect upon his already strained senses that all at once it appeared to him as if her head were encircled by rays and as if a gleaming light were gradually suffusing her whole person…

Furthermore, Wilhelm sees in her, or thinks he sees, a strong resemblance to the young Countess; but this woman’s more forceful personality leads him to think of her as “the Amazon”. Though uncertain of how accurate his memories are of this interlude, the woman continues to haunt his dreams…

Wilhelm’s connection with the theatre also develops an almost-relationship between himself and Aurelia, the actress-sister of the troupe’s professional manager. She has never gotten over a broken love affair, and her thwarted passions have undermined her health. As it fails, she is attended by a clergyman and his doctor-friend, the same who are caring for the old harpist; and it is the doctor who, in trying to address Aurelia’s stormy discontent, lends to her the manuscript written by a friend of his, which came into his hands after her death.

Wilhelm’s reading of this manuscript to Aurelia occupies the entirety of Book Six and divides completely the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. As with so much of this novel, this interlude is not always easy to interpret—either in itself, or with respect to its specific references.

The most important of the latter (because it also impinges the story of the Count and Countess) is to the Moravian Brotherhood, a Protestant sect which originated in what is now the Czech Republic. Among its beliefs are that Christ cannot be fully comprehended by any human mind, that the Scriptures do not contain any doctrinal system, and that the formation of congregations is not necessary to worship. In the early 18th century, a colony of Moravians, who had suffered persecution in Bohemia, were invited by the Count von Zinzendorf to settle upon his estate in Saxony. They remained something of a “secret society”, however, separate from and disapproved by the mainstream church.

(Pardon an interruption to this interruption: I had a, Hey, wait a minute -! moment while writing this; and yes, we have encountered the Moravian Brotherhood before. The Moravians were the first Protestants to begin missionary work; and in this guise we met them in our reading of The Holy Lover, where there is an important shipboard encounter between the young John Wesley and a representative of Moravians while they are both on their way to America. [Although I see now that I incorrectly used the word ‘congregation’ in this context.])

Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul recounts the anonymous author’s life, in particular describing her passionate religious faith and her exposure to the Moravians; but also the inner convictions that lead her, in effect, to separate herself from the tenets of society, the church and even the Moravians, in order to pursue her own way. In fact—she comes to believe that the early religious teaching which she received was mistaken, and interfered with development of true faith: another instance within the novel of faulty childhood education setting someone on the wrong path.

Throughout this intensely personal account of one woman’s inner life, there are also external references to her family situation and connections. Most importantly in the first instance, there is a wealthy, unattached uncle, who uses his position to influence (if not indeed dictate) family affairs. The uncle arranges an advantageous marriage to “a young man of rank and wealth” for one of the author’s sisters; the associated festivities take place at his estate, a castle in the countryside, where the author is exposed for the first time to the power of art. There are familiar arguments here, although meant more literally than hitherto:

He directed my attention to the various pictures which were on the wall; my eye was caught by those whose aspect was attractive or whose subject was significant; he let this happen for a time, and then he said: “Do now pay some attention also to the skilful spirit that brought forth these works. Good minds like so much to see the hand of God in nature; why should be not also give some consideration to the hand of His imitator?” He then drew my attention to pictures that were not of an arresting quality, and tried to explain to me that in fact only the history of art could give us understanding of the value and dignity of a work of art, and that in the first place we must know about the difficult stages of mechanism and craft, by means of which gifted men have been working themselves upwards over the centuries…

This visit is likewise the author’s first experience of the full capabilities of music and song:

I now heard music which had originated from the deepest imagination of the finest characters and which by means of particular and practised voices in harmonic unity again spoke to man’s most profound and outstanding faculty and caused him really to feel vividly at this moment his likeness to God…

The author suffers bereavements: one of her sisters, her father, her brother-in-law, and then her other sister, after having given birth to her fourth child. The author is by this time an invalid herself, at the outset of her slow slide to death, and she does not feel able to take upon herself the full care of her nieces and nephews. Instead the uncle takes them in and raises them.

We hear about the oldest boy, apparently made to be a soldier, though, “Anything but rough in his actions and his whole character, in fact rather gentle and cautious.”

The eldest girl is her aunt’s favourite: “It would not be easy to find a nobler figure nor a calmer disposition… From childhood onwards her behaviour towards those who were suffering and in need of help was matchless…” This paragon even has a name! – Natalie.

The younger girl is, “Very dainty and attractive…she is much concerned with her outward appearance…”

The youngest boy, at this time, is only a baby.

We then hear about the unusual way in which the children are being educated:

    The supervision of all the children, who are educated at different places and are lodged now here, now there, is in the hands of a strange man who is taken to be a French clergyman, but without there being any real information about his origins.
    At first I could see no plan in this education, until my doctor finally revealed to me that the Uncle had let himself be convinced by the Abbé that if one wished to do something about a person’s education, one would need to see in which directions his inclinations and wishes would move. Then one would have to put him in a position where he could satisfy his inclinations and fulfil his wishes as soon as possible, so that if he should have made a mistake, he should be aware of his error in good time, and if he had found what suited him, he should hold to it all the more keenly and continue his training it all the more industriously…

We do not learn how this “strange experiment” turns out, as the author died shortly afterwards.

Prior to all this, Aurelia told her story of her ill treatment by her lover to Wilhelm, exacting from him a promise that he would travel to the estate of the unfaithful Lothario (and yes, that really is his name!), inform him of her death, and deliver a letter full of angry reproaches. Now, softened by the author’s story, Aurelia instead sends to Lothario a message of forgiveness. Wilhelm promises to deliver it, albeit he still intends to give Lothario a piece of his own mind. He even – old habits die hard – composes and rehearses a speech…

Wilhelm’s departure for Lothario’s estate does in effect mark his break from the theatre, although not from all his acquaintances there. His journey and its immediate aftermath comprise one disconcerting event after another. First he falls in again with the apparent clergyman (he still looks like one, although, as Wilhelm comments, now a like Catholic rather than a Lutheran, as he did before); then, Lothario greets him with such hospitality and politeness, it throws him off his stride. The next thing, Lothario goes off to fight a duel and is wounded, and Wilhelm finds himself helping to ease his convalescence—in company with Lothario’s friend and “second”, and his old acquaintance, Jarno—who like most people Wilhelm meets seems to know as much or more about his doings as he does himself…

It is Jarno who begins to put some of the pieces together:

    “For heaven’s sake,” cried Wilhelm, when they were alone in the room, “what’s this about the Count? Which Count is it who is taking up with the Moravian community?”
    “Someone you know very well,” Jarno replied. “You are the ghost that is chasing him into the arms of piety, you are the villain who is putting his nice wife into a position where she finds it tolerable to follow her husband.”
    “And she is Lothario’s sister?” cried Wilhelm.
    “No other.”
    “And Lothario knows—?”
    “Everything.”
    “Oh, let me disappear!” Wilhelm exclaimed, “how can I appear before him? What can he say?”
    “That nobody should pick up a stone to cast at another, and that nobody should prepare long speeches in order to put other people to shame, unless he wants to deliver the speeches in front of a mirror.”
    “You know that too?”
    “Like many other things,” Jarno replied with a smile…

During his stay with Lothario, Wilhelm becomes aware that certain sections of his castle – including an ancient tower – are blocked off; that there are many locked doors, and hints of secret passages; and notices how many conversations between Lothario and Jarno break off upon his entrance.

Finally, Wilhelm is initiated into the associated secrets. One day, before dawn, Jarno leads him through the previously inaccessible section of the castle, into the tower, and into one particular room:

    The room where he now was appeared to have previously been a chapel; instead of an altar there was a large table covered with a green cloth at the top of some steps, and above this it seemed that a closed curtain was concealing a picture; at the sides there were beautifully fashioned bookcases which were sealed off by fine wire grating, as normally seen in libraries, only instead of books he saw many scrolls stacked up. There was nobody in the room; the rising sun shone through the stained glass windows just in Wilhelm’s direction and gave him a friendly greeting.
    “Do sit down!” a voice called which seemed to be sounding from the altar. Wilhelm sat in a small arm-chair which was placed against the entrance; there was no other seat in the whole room, and he had to be resigned to this one although the morning sunlight dazzled him; the seat was fixed, all he could do was to shade his eyes with his hand.
    In the meantime the curtain above the altar opened with a slight noise and revealed a dark, empty aperture within a frame…

Various people whom Wilhelm met during his journey – the stranger who spoke to him of his grandfather’s art collection; the apparent clergyman; a soldier whom he met with Jarno; the ghost of Hamlet’s father – step one after the other into the frame, making of themselves a picture for Wilhelm’s benefit, and speak to him of fate and self-determination and education…

At the conclusion of this ceremony, Wilhelm is given his “Certificate of Apprenticeship”:

“Art is long, life short, judgement difficult, opportunity fleeting. Acting is easy, thinking difficult, acting according to one’s thoughts uncomfortable. Every beginning is cheerful, the threshold is the place of expectation. The boy is astonished, impressions form him, he learns in play, he is surprised by seriousness. What is excellent is seldom found, more rarely esteemed. It is the height that stimulates us, not the steps; we gladly walk in the plain with our eyes on the peak. Only a part of art can be taught, the artist needs it complete. Whoever half-knows art is always in error and talks a lot; whoever possesses it fully likes only to act and talks rarely or at most late. The former have no secrets and no strength, their teaching is tasty like bread that has been baked, and is satiating for one day; but flour cannot be sown, and seed-corn should not be ground. Words are good, but they are not what is best. The best is not made clear through words. The spirit in which we act is the highest. Action is only understood and reproduced by the spirit…”

And so on.

Wilhelm’s main guide through all this is Lothario’s resident clergyman, the Abbé…who may or may not be the “apparent clergyman”…among other people:

    “And so you have seen me on the stage?”
    “Oh, certainly!”
    “And who took the part of the Ghost?”
    “I don’t know, either the Abbé or his twin-brother, but I think it was the latter, he’s just a little bit taller…”

In any event, it is definitely the Abbé who directs Wilhelm’s initiation, and grants him his Certificate; though he interrupts his reading of it:

    “Enough!” the Abbé cried, “the rest in due course. Now take a look at those cases.”
    Wilhelm went over and read the inscriptions on the scrolls. He was surprised to find Lothario’s, Jarno’s and his own ‘years of apprenticeship’ set up there, among many others whose names were unknown to him.
    “May I hope to be able to cast an eye upon the scrolls?”
    “Nothing in this room is now under lock and key as far as you are concerned…”

Though nothing supernatural occurs throughout this novel, including during these passages, there is often a deep sense of strangeness about its unfolding of events – unheimlich is, I suppose, the word I’m looking for – so that it is not hard to understand how it influenced later writers who did deal in the unnatural, including Franz Kafka.

However—

It is, I think, significant that when Thomas Carlyle published his two-volume translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (as he called it), he chose to end his first volume here, at the end of Book Seven, which concludes with the Abbé exclaiming:

“May you be blessed, young man! Your years of apprenticeship are over; nature has absolved you.”

A natural break-point, indeed, we might think; but it isn’t Goethe’s. Of all the strange things that happen here, among the strangest is that having set up this situation, the author devotes a fair chunk of Book Eight to—if not outright undermining it, at least presenting counter-arguments to this complicated plan of “education” for promising young men.

In fact, in conversation with Jarno, Wilhelm learns that this enterprise is now only a remnant of its former self. Wilhelm has by this point suffered some personal difficulties (to which we will return) and is, in effect, resentful that the Society of the Tower (as it is usually called; although H. M. Waidson does not use that exact phrase in his translation) has not smoothed his path in life for him, but seems, rather, to be just jerking him around:

    “…perhaps you will be more inclined to this if I tell you rightaway that everything you saw in the Tower consists in fact only of relics of a youthful venture which at first was a matter of great seriousness for most of the initiated and which now they all only smile at from time to time.”
    “So it’s only a game as far as these noble signs and words are concerned,” Wilhelm cried out, “we are led with solemnity to a place which induces reverence in us, we are shown the strangest phenomena, we are given scrolls of magnificent, secret words of wisdom, most of which, it is true, we don’t understand, it is revealed to us that up to now we have been apprentices, we are absolved, and we are no wiser than before…”

We learn – eventually – that this “Society” was a venture between Lothario’s uncle (who has just died, which seems to have triggered Wilhelm’s initiation) and the Abbé; and that even at the time of the founding of their venture, there was disagreement over the best way of conducting “education”, a disagreement which has carried to the next generation: whether it is more useful to allow errors to play out to their natural conclusion, so that their full force is felt (as was done with Wilhelm and the theatre), or whether time should be saved by turning those in error away from their mistakes and onto their true path, with the risk of the error retaining its attractiveness through not, perhaps, being seen to be an error.

There is much quoting from the scrolls and the certificates, through much of which we may well be as confused as Wilhelm; although Jarno persists in quoting those passages he believes most thoroughly reflect the personality and thinking of the Abbé, and of translating the text into terms that Wilhelm (and we) may better understand:

“You will hear the Abbé speaking about this text often enough still, so let us just see and grasp in a truly clear way what there is about ourselves and what we can develop concerning ourselves; let us be fair to others, for we only deserve respect inasmuch as we know how to esteem others… Man is not happy until his unrestricted striving determines for itself its own limits. Don’t hold onto me, but to the Abbé; don’t think of yourself, but of what is around you. For example, learn to appreciate Lothario’s excellence, how his general view and his activity are indissolubly linked together, how he is always moving onwards, and how he extends and expands, and carries everyone along with him. Wherever he may be, he takes a world along too, his presence is invigorating and inspiring. On the other hand consider the good medicus; his temperament seems to be exactly the opposite. If the former is effective only with regard to the whole and to what is distant, the latter directs his clear glance only to what is nearest, he produces the means to activity rather than bringing forth and giving life to activity itself; his behaviour fully resembles good housekeeping, his is a quiet effectiveness, as he assists everyone in his vicinity…”

(“The good medicus” is the doctor in possession of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, and who has partial care of the old harpist.)

For personal reasons Wilhelm is not in a mood to absorb any of this. He has, previously, reacted in much the same way to a reading of his own scroll, in which he finds not only much more of the Abbé’s philosophy, but a full account of his own unwitting interactions with the members of the Society, as well as numerous, rather unwelcome home-truths about himself. His circumstances must undergo a drastic change before he allows himself to be influenced by the teachings of those around him…

Book Eight of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is lengthy, blending these passages dealing with the purposes of the Society with others in which Wilhelm crosses something of a personal Rubicon: a great deal of the narrative here is concerned with severing Wilhelm from most of the connections of his “apprenticeship”, and his forging of new, more adult bonds. The severance is often as painful for us as for him—including, among other things, the revelation of the tragic personal histories of both Mignon and the harpist.

In this, we may see how Carlyle’s impulse to bring Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to a premature conclusion, while understandable, very much misrepresented Goethe’s intentions.

It is the forging of one particular bond by Wilhelm that ultimately dictates all the rest. As we may surmise from all the former, Wilhelm’s initial plan of taking Lothario to task for his treatment of Aurelia did not exactly pan out. He does, however, eventually discuss Aurelia with Lothario (gaining a less exaggerated idea of their failed relationship); and does indeed take him to task for his neglect of the young child, Felix, whom he assumed to be the result of the affair. That said, he knows that neglect is nothing new for Felix: Aurelia was a careless mother at best, with the boy being cared for chiefly by Mignon.

Wilhelm is surprised when Lothario not only denies having a child with Aurelia, but doubts whether she had a child at all: a suggestion which sets Wilhelm on the path of discovering that Felix is his own son by Marianne. His joyful astonishment is, however, offset by the misery and self-reproach of also learning that Marianne was, in fact, never unfaithful to him; that she was turned away from her acting troupe because of her condition; and that she died destitute only days after giving birth.

(Wilhelm is largely absolved here, both because of the circumstances of his initial suspicions, and because, while he was so ill, Werner ruthlessly ran interference between him and the desperate Marianne.)

Subsequently, Marianne’s old servant, Barbara, managed to impose the baby on Aurelia (and get herself hired) by telling her that he was Lothario’s child: the always-melodramatic Aurelia took Felix in as a “memento” of her own affair with Lothario.

Wilhelm is naturally suspicious of all this, and resists an impulse to take Felix to his heart. He is later given strong evidence of the truth of all this, however; while upon being invited, during his initiation into the Society, to ask any question he likes, in spite of everything only one comes to mind:

    “…and you can expect a decisive answer if it concerns a matter which is, and should be, close to your heart.”
    “Very well then! You strange, wise men whose glance penetrates into so many secrets, can you tell me whether Felix really is my son?”
    “Blessings upon you for this question!” the Abbé cried, clapping his hands for joy…

And it is Wilhelm’s acceptance of paternity, and his subsequent reordering of his life around the boy, which is considered the real end to his “apprenticeship”.

Wilhelm’s first action is to remove both Felix and Mignon from the theatre people (he was only supposed to be visiting Lothario briefly, remember!), and to place them in the care of a new acquaintance, Theresa, another friend of the Society (albeit not an approving one). Generous and honest, Theresa is a domestic goddess who trains young girls whose inclinations lie than way in housekeeping—and who, more unexpectedly, has a rare talent for estate management, in which capacity she is often consulted by her neighbours in the district.

And she was also once betrothed to Lothario, who broke their engagement for no reason Theresa understands. (The reader learns, as Theresa does not, that Lothario discovered to his horror and shame that the woman he had been dallying with in Paris, prior to meeting Theresa, was Theresa’s mother!)

Wilhelm’s first thought in his new role as father is to provide Felix with a mother. He and Theresa become friends at once: he soon hears her life history, and promises her his own (something he undertakes only after giving proper thought to the painful contents of his scroll). Though he knows that Theresa still loves Lothario, he accepts her insistence that all is at an end between them; and he decides to propose marriage to her, which he does via a lengthy letter.

However—

In the course of his conversation with Theresa, the latter makes reference to a close friend of hers who, like herself, teaches young girls—but in that case, those who show artistic inclinations. Theresa refers to her friend as “Lothario’s excellent sister”, and Wilhelm assumes she means the Countess…

…only to find, at long last, his Amazon, the woman (literally and figuratively) of his dreams; that Natalie of the manuscript, Lothario’s other sister, who takes charge of Mignon and her “artistic inclinations”, and who hails with delight Theresa’s acceptance of Wilhelm’s marriage proposal.

Oops.

And here at last the final pieces do fall into place: the author of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul was aunt to Lothario, Natalie, the Countess (who never gets a name) and a fourth sibling, Friedrich, who has been weaving himself into the narrative, appearing and disappearing, attaching himself to Wilhelm’s acting troupe (and one actress in particular), and generally making a nuisance of himself. The “uncle” of the manuscript is therefore the co-founder of the Society (and strictly speaking, great-uncle to the rest), who has just died.

Moreover—it is Natalie who has inherited the uncle’s estate and all the works of art we heard about in the manuscript…including the art collection purchased from Wilhelm’s grandfather…

There is enough romantic shuffling in this section of the novel to fill a contemporary four-volume effort, but Goethe rushes through it in a minimum of pages—and I’ll try to do even better:

Realising that he is in love with Natalie, Wilhelm hopes desperately that Theresa will reject his proposal, but she does not. However, Jarno then turns up to announce that Lothario has discovered that Theresa’s mother is actually her step-mother, and that he (Lothario) wants her back, now that the perceived barrier between them has been removed. And though he doesn’t actually want to marry Theresa, Wilhelm is deeply aggrieved at being brushed aside, particularly when he has, at this time, no hope of Natalie; and even more so at losing the mother he hoped to give Felix—which together account for his pissy mood and his resistance of the Society’s tenets. He becomes even more morose, even ill, when a plan is concerted to send him away altogether, in company with an Italian nobleman, an old friend of the uncle’s, who needs a translator on his travels.

All this makes it awkward and embarrassing when something does begin to develop between Wilhelm and Natalie; and it requires the shameless interference of Friedrich, who casts himself as Deus ex machina, before they can come to an understanding—interference via reference to that painting of “the sick prince”, which is of course in Natalie’s possession, and which finds Friedrich casting Wilhelm as Antiochus, Natalie as Stratonice, and “the good medicus” as Erasistratus:

    He did not seem to believe in his friend’s illness at all. Once, when they were all together, he called out: “Doctor, what do you call the affliction which has beset our friend? Does none of the three thousand names with which you deck out your ignorance apply here? At least there has not been a lack of similar examples. An example of this type,” he continued with an enigmatic smile, “can be found in Egyptian or Babylonian history.”
    The company looked at each other and smiled.
    “What was the king’s name?” he called out and paused for a moment. “If you don’t want to help me, I shall be able to help myself.” He pulled open the doors and pointed to the big picture in the entrance-hall. “What’s the name of the goatee-bearded one with the crown over there who is pining away at the foot of the bed because of his sick son? What’s the name of the beauty who is coming in and whose roguish eyes contain both poison and antidote? What’s the name of the clumsy doctor who only sees the point at this very moment and who for the first time in his life has the opportunity to make out a sensible prescription and to hand over a medicament which provides a complete cure and which is as palatable as it is salutary?”
    He went on showing off in this style. The company controlled themselves as well as possible and concealed their embarrassment with forced smiles. Natalie’s cheeks reddened a little and betrayed the sensibility of her heart…

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does not, however, end with wedding-bells and happy-ever-after, but finds Wilhelm agreeing to go as requested with the Marchese, on condition that he can take Felix along too.

Presumably these travels form the first part of Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years – “years” not sounding so good for Natalie – which begs the question of whether I will feel compelled to tackle the sequel to this novel or not.

In terms of the base reason for examining Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship at all, that is, its influence upon the progenitor works of the silver-fork genre, I consider myself (to use the novel’s own word) absolved. It was another twenty-five years before Goethe published his sequel to this novel; and while that first version was what Thomas Carlyle translated – and which, presumably, influenced the young Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton – in 1829 Goethe significantly revised his text; and it is this later version that is now considered the “standard” version of the book.

So while I may get around to tackling the sequel, I am not going to consider myself bound to hold off on beginning my examination of the silver-fork novel proper until I do.

(Preliminary investigation suggests that this sequel is shorter but weirder…)

And despite these three posts on the subject, rest assured that this remains a fairly superficial examination of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I could certainly have written more – a LOT more – to take only the most obvious point of omission, I could (as others have) write as much again just about Mignon and her significance as a character and a symbol – but I hope I’ve done enough to give a fair idea of the novel and what it is trying to achieve, and to let others decide whether they might want to investigate it on their own.

 

04/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 2)


 
    “…perhaps the man to whom genius is ascribed is in a worse way than someone who possesses only ordinary capabilities; for the former can more easily be badly educated and more abruptly urged along false paths than the latter.”
    “But will not genius save itself,” replied Wilhelm, “and itself heal the wounds that it has inflicted on itself?”
    “Not at all,” the other answered, “or at least only in a makeshift manner; for nobody should believe that they can get over first childhood impressions. If someone has grown up in commendable freedom, surrounded by beautiful and noble objects, in the company of good people, if his masters have taught him the things he had to learn first, in order that the rest might be understood the more easily, if what he has learnt he never needs to unlearn, if his first actions were so directed that he can in future do good more easily and more conveniently, without his having to break himself of anything, this person will lead a purer, more perfect and happier life than someone who has misplaced the first energies of his youth in opposition and error. There is so much said and written about education, and I see only a few people who can grasp the simple but great idea that includes all else in itself…”

 

 

Put simply – far too simply – Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the story of a young man’s rejection of his bourgeois upbringing and his attempt to find meaning in his life through art. Wilhelm is the son of a hard-headed, unimaginative merchant, who expects him to carry on the family business. Wilhelm, however, has been fascinated from an early age with art, and in particular the theatre; and he finds an opportunity to break away and pursue his dream—which, indeed, turns out in many ways to be no more than a dream, forcing him to reassess his choices.

The novel opens in a manner both confounding to those accustomed to the English habit of beginning such a novel with the protagonist’s childhood, if not his birth, and shocking to those accustomed to novels of this period built upon English morality (and/or hypocrisy): when we meet Wilhelm, he is an adult – physically if not emotionally mature – and he is in the throes not merely of his first love affair, but his first sexual affair. His mistress is an actress, Marianne; and Wilhelm’s passion for her and his pre-existing passion for the theatre have become so entwined, each intensifies the other; but to the reader there is a clear note of warning in the descriptions of Wilhelm’s dazzled state:

How often he stood behind the scenes in the theatre, having been given the manager’s permission as a privilege! It was true that the magic of perspective was then lost, but the much more potent enchantment of love could now start to have its effect. He could stand for hours by the dirty light-carrier, breathing in the fumes of the tallow lamps, looking out for his beloved, and when she appeared again and looked at him in a friendly way, be lost in rapture and, when close to the structure of joists and boards, feel as if transported into a paradisaic state. The stuffed lambs, the taffeta waterfalls, the pasteboard rose bushes and the one-sided straw huts evoked in him fond poetic visions of an ancient pastoral world…

The first five books of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship put the theatre, and Wilhelm’s devotion to it, to a variety of uses that are complicated and increasingly difficult to pick apart. The earliest stages of the novel alone can be read in a straightforward manner. Here we discover that Wilhelm’s passion is not for the theatre merely as a form of entertainment, as his parents suppose, but reflective of an early fascination with art and the act of creation. This, in his adulthood, will become intermixed with his belief in the capabilities of art, including the theatre, for moral instruction and inspiration.

Increasingly, however, Goethe also uses the theatre as a framework within which to examine the state of the German drama (with which he himself was heavily involved) per se; to compare German, French and English drama; and to analyse German drama as a reflection of the German character. Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s belief in art-as-morality is both examined seriously as a philosophy of life, and treated with irony, as his lofty ideals come to grief on the rocks of the prosaic, hand-to-mouth existence of most of those actually in the theatre. These multiple intentions create a complicated scenario in which the theatre is simultaneously reality, artifice, and metaphor.

(And you may take this as my explanation / apology for not getting too deeply into this novel’s meanings!)

Having surprised us at the outset with Wilhelm’s affair with Marianne, Goethe then gives us what is, in context, an almost more shocking piece of evidence that we are far from the world of English literature.

An early conversation between Wilhelm and his mother reveals that she blames herself for his obsession, having, some twelve years before, arranged as a Christmas gift for her son the performance of a puppet-theatre. Wilhelm fires up at once in defence of his beloved puppers, revealing a startlingly clear memory of the occasion; we learn, too, that subsequently the entire theatre and its puppets were bought for Wilhelm: a decision which proved the pivotal moment of his childhood.

The puppet-theatre will be frequently referenced throughout the narrative. Now, we find that Wilhelm has already told Marianne about it; he carries to her some of the puppets, and recounts to her the story of his own artistic awakening; how he began to write and plan “productions” for his little theatre, how he found himself “directing” his siblings and friends, how even he found himself more and more concerned with accuracy of detail and (in effect) the artistic integrity of his “performances”; the successes and failures of his various little “performances”, his own not-infrequent embarrassments as something overlooked made itself felt. (Later, we will see most of these passages recapitulating themselves as a frustrated Wilhelm wrestles with controlling a professional troupe and the artistic compromises necessary to please a paying audience.)

This is a lengthy section of the novel, occupying five chapters as Wilhelm recounts in vivid detail these critical, character-forming childhood passages. Of course, we are accustomed to this sort of thing in protagonist-focused novels; and accustomed, too, the protagonist’s listeners hanging on his every word and, indeed, assuring him that he cannot go into too much detail. But that isn’t what happens here. Instead, as an oblivious Wilhelm loses himself in his story, Marianne falls asleep. Granted, she is tired after her evening’s performance; but she is also very bored…

(It is to be wished that our hero may find in future more attentive listeners to his favourite stories, observes Goethe wryly.)

It is this sort of touch that makes Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship so disconcerting, and so difficult to interpret. There is constantly a sort of split-vision around Wilhelm: at various other points he will burst into impassioned speech, only to have his listeners laugh at him, change the subject, or just leave; yet there are also scenes in which his opinions are treated with grave consideration, albeit the conclusion is generally that his opinions are misguided.

Aside from Wilhelm’s puppet-theatre reminiscences, the other critical detail of his childhood is revealed when he falls into conversation with a random stranger. Having introduced himself, Wilhelm is asked whether he is not the grandson of a man who once owned a beautiful and valuable collection of art? – a collection, we learn, that Wilhelm’s father sold to set himself up in business, leaving his young son scarred by the loss of these familiar and beautiful objects. Here, too, Wilhelm’s memories are vivid and his emotions fully engaged. He also learns to his surprise that he and the stranger are old acquaintances: he, the stranger, was sent by the collection’s eventual purchaser to inspect it and give his advice; he and the young Wilhelm had a number of conversations about the objets d’arte:

    “If I remember aright, you had a favourite picture among the paintings, and you did not want to let me get away from it.”
    “Quite right! It portrayed the story of how the sick prince consumes himself in love for his father’s bride-to-be.”
    “It wasn’t in fact the best of paintings, not well composed, of no particular colouring, and the execution was completely mannered.”
    “I didn’t understand that, and still don’t understand it; it is the subject-matter that attracts me about a painting, not the art…”

The “sick prince” with whom Wilhelm obviously identifies is Antiochus, son of Seleucus, the king of Syria, who fell in love with his young step-mother, Stratonice. The reason for his illness was discovered by his physician, Erasistratus, and, fearing that he would otherwise literally die of love, Seleuchus surrendered his young bride to his son, thus saving his life.

So the story goes, anyway—a story that seems to have fascinated a wide variety of artists, who produced a whole clutch of paintings showing the sufferings of Antiochus. It isn’t clear whether Goethe is referring here to a specific painting (given his strictures, possibly not), but it is clear he expected his readers to get the allusion.

The actual painting that Wilhelm remembers from his childhood will reappear towards the end of the novel; but there will be other references to it, and to Wilhelm’s fascination with it, along the way. This I have found one of the hardest parts of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to interpret: one of several instances where it is easier to grasp that something is intended to be significant, than what the significance actually is.
 

 
Two of the numerous paintings depicting the story of Antiochus and Stratonice: on the left is Theodoor van Thulden’s Antiochus und Stratonike, from the 1660s; on the right is Jean-Louis David’s Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease, from 1774.

 
In addition to their mutual reminiscences about the art collection, Wilhelm and the stranger have the first of what will be many conversations in this novel about fate and self-determination. Wilhelm is, at this time, a great believer in predetermined destiny; the stranger, conversely, argues that men are what they make of themselves, and that to believe in fate is to allow random chance to dictate the course of one’s life, possibly to wasteful and destructive ends:

    “We delude ourselves that we are pious by sauntering along without reflection, letting ourselves be determined by pleasant chance factors, and finally giving the result of such a precarious life the name of divine guidance.”
    “Did it never happen to you that a small circumstance caused you to follow a certain path, on which an agreeable opportunity soon offered itself, and a series of unexpected events finally brought you to a goal which you yourself had as yet scarcely envisaged? Should not this instil resignation to fate and confidence in such guidance?”
    “With those opinions no maiden could keep her virtue, and nobody could keep his money in his purse; for their are inducements enough to get rid of both. I can only be happy about the man who knows what is useful to him and to others and labours to limit the element of caprice in his life. Everyone has his fortune in his hands, just as the artist has the raw material which he wishes to re-shape into a figure. But with this art it is with the same as with all; only the capacity for it is innate, the art has to be learnt and carefully practised…”

This last paragraph is as close as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship goes to stating clearly its manifesto. Wilhelm, who understands the “subject-matter”but not “the art”, who allows “small circumstances” and “a series of unexpected events” to dictate the course of his life, must learn to take charge and shape his own fortune.

The first real crisis in Wilhelm’s life occurs when he has reason to believe that Marianne has been unfaithful. He responds to this shock as any character in a late-18th century novel would, collapsing and nearly dying of his grief. His recovery is slow, and when he is better, he does something truly horrifying:

    Up to now he had carefully preserved everything that he had written, from the earliest period of his mind’s development onward. His writings still lay in bundles at the bottom of the trunk where he had packed them at the time when he was hoping to take them with him on his flight. In how different a mood did he open them now from the time he had tied them together!
    If we open at some time later a letter, which we wrote and sealed up in particular circumstances, but which does not reach the friend to whom it was directed and is returned to us, a strange emotion overcomes us when we break open our own seal and converse with our changed self as with a third person. A similar feeling seized hold of our friend with intensity when he opened the first package and threw on the fire the copy-books after they had been split up…

Wilhelm is interrupted in the middle of this literary auto-da-fé by Werner, the son of Meister Sr’s business partner, who has embraced the merchant life with enthusiasm and whose friendship with Wilhelm consists mostly of arguments of their relative positions. He was also one of those involved in the childhood puppet-productions; and though he now has little sympathy with, or understanding of, Wilhelm’s artistic passions, he is truly shocked by this destruction of his early effusions, and tries unavailingly to stop him.

Wilhelm then bursts into a lengthy and passionate speech in which his shattered faith in Marianne and his loss of faith in his own “genius” are bundled up together; and although there is no question of Wilhelm’s sincerity, Goethe again undermines him—observing that, Werner stood by in the greatest embarrassment…

The upshot of all this is that Wilhelm resigns himself to to his father’s wishes: as a first taste of business he is sent out on a lengthy journey, visiting numerous people with whom his father is in business, checking on their enterprises and/or receiving loan repayments. He proves quite successful at the tasks assigned him; though it is travelling and meeting new people that does him the most good.

One of these people is described rather ambiguously – from his clothing and his venerable appearance he might well have been taken for a clergyman – and he is afterwards referred to as “the clergyman” in spite of the implied doubt. Wilhelm has many interesting conversations with him, which somehow again veer around to the question of fate, self-determination and education, and the necessary conditions for the emergence of genius, which Wilhelm, along with his belief in “fate”, tends to believe must necessarily “just happen”. He is startled by the terms in which his new friend states his counter-argument, that genius must have the opportunity to grow and be nurtured under certain conditions, and that from childhood, or it will likely come to nothing:

    “Do not many undertakings show great significance in the first place, and do not most of them peter out in something trivial?… And isn’t it the same in the case of what happens to individual persons?” the other continued. “Supposing that fate had destined someone to be a good actor (and why should not fate also provide us with good actors?), but unfortunately chance led the young man to a puppet-theatre, where in his youth he could not restrain himself from participating in something tasteless, from finding something silly tolerable, even interesting, and thus receiving in a wrong way those youthful impressions which never disappear and from which we can never remove a certain attachment.”
    “What makes you mention the puppet-theatre?” Wilhelm interpolated with some consternation.
    “It was only an arbitrary example; if you don’t like it, we will take another…”

The next violent lurch in Wilhelm’s life comes when he enters a certain country town to find in residence a troupe of acrobats; he has already fallen in with several out-of-work actors, who are travelling around in the hope of finding employment. Long story short—Wilhelm is completely diverted from his business (to the extent of simply keeping the money he has collected for his father!), and succumbs again to the first passion of his life.

Books Two to Five of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship deal with Wilhelm’s involvement with a company of actors, during which he progresses from fan-boy to hanger-on to writer to actor to manager. Much, though not all, of this material can be taken straight, as Goethe’s examination of the state of the theatre generally, and the German theatre in particular; and of the inevitable and perhaps irreconcilable tension between theatre-as-art, theatre-as-a-job, and theatre-as-a-money-making-venture.

The most accessible and striking aspect of this section of the novel (also the most amusing) is Wilhelm’s attempt to stage a production of Hamlet. To modern eyes, the book’s gosh-wow-Shakespeare! attitude may be a bit bemusing, but it must be understood that Shakespeare really did not reach Germany until the mid-18th century – the insularity of German drama is one of the dissected topics here – and that the translation of Shakespeare’s plays that so dazzles Wilhelm is the same one by which Goethe himself was introduced to the playwright.

This is often compelling stuff; although (as with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead) it will work best for those with a thoroughly detailed knowledge of Hamlet. In particular, much against his will, Wilhelm is forced to cut the play, in order to make it more appealing to the audience (plus ça change); and his struggle to find a way to trim it without compromising it is oddly gripping. The overall analysis he offers of Hamlet, as he tries to convince the others of its greatness, is also fascinating (whether you agree with his conclusions or not).

The crowning joke here is that Wilhelm himself ends up playing Hamlet. Of course he does: his identification with the procrastinating prince of the play is even greater than his identification with the lovesick prince of his grandfather’s painting. There is also a very strange bit of business surrounding the ghost of Hamlet’s father: Wilhelm is persuaded to leave the role uncast, promised by anonymous letter that an actor will show up to fill it on opening night. A mysterious figure in armour does turn up – exactly on his cue and not before – plays the role brilliantly, and vanishes…

(Not literally.)

Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s falling in with the troupe of performers also marks the point at which Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship opens up, introducing a plethora of new characters, and adding a second focus in Wilhelm’s relationship with several women. The troupe is hired to live and perform for a time at the castle home of a Count and Countess, who are entertaining a Prince; arrangements are made by another inmate of the castle, the Baron. There is much theatre-business here, as the Baron’s enthusiasm for actors, the Count’s mistaken ideas about the staging of plays and the demand that the troupe pay tribute in their play to the Prince must all be diplomatically managed. Many long debates about the relative merits of German, French and English drama, take place; and Wilhelm is introduced to William by the Count’s Master of Horse, a former soldier named Jarno:

    Wilhelm had scarcely read some plays by Shakespeare when their effect on him was so great that he was not able to continue further. His whole spirit came into a turmoil. He sought an opportunity to talk to Jarno, and could not thank him enough for the happiness procured him.
    “I indeed foresaw,” said Jarno, “that you would not remain unreceptive to the excellences of the most extraordinary and amazing of all writers.”
    “Yes, indeed,” Wilhelm cried, “I don’t remember that a book, a person or any happening in life produced such great effects upon me as the wonderful plays which I have got to know as a result of your kindness… They are not literary works! You believe that you are standing before the huge, open books of fate in which the high wind of life at its most agitated storms, turning the pages back and forth rapidly and with violence. I am so astonished and disconcerted by the strength and delicacy, the violence and calm… In Shakespeare’s plays I find the fulfillment and development of all premonitory feelings that I have ever had about mankind and its destiny…”

By which we may conclude that, at this point (towards the end of Book Three), Wilhelm has not yet relinquished his belief in “fate”, despite all the lectures to the contrary.

(Christoph Martin Wieland’s translation of twenty-two of Shakespeare’s plays was published across 1762 – 1766. His 1767 autobiographical novel, Geschichte des Agathon [The History Of Agathon], is considered by some to be the first Blidungsroman, rather than Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.)

While all this is going on, Wilhelm finds himself much drawn to the beautiful young Countess, whose conscious behaviour reveals that she is also attracted to the handsome young man. The two get as far as farewell kisses but these occur after Wilhelm is, more or less accidentally, involved in a practical joke that involves him masquerading as the Count—who comes away convinced that he has seen his Doppelgänger (an incident with significant consequences for the Count and those connected with him, although we do not learn this for some time). Forced to part, there is a painful scene which yet points forward, as Wilhelm is given a signet-ring with Countess’ arms on it as a parting gift, and sees what at first he takes to be his own initials engraved into the Countess’s bracelet—although she insists, “It is the cipher of a woman friend of mine…”

The opening up of the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship when Wilhelm embarks upon his travels also brings about the introduction of two supporting characters who were, at the time of the book’s first appearance, of most passionate interest to the reading public and considered its greatest success; and who also indirectly ensured this book a lasting fame that its literary merits have perhaps not secured on their own.

When Wilhelm arrives at the market town where he encounters the acrobats, his attention is caught and riveted by one of them:

…a young creature who drew his attention leapt towards him. A short silk waistcoat with slit Spanish-style sleeves and long close-fitting trousers with puffs looked very well on the child. Long black hair had been set in curls and plaits and wound round the head. He looked at the figure in astonishment and could not make up his mind whether he should declare it to be a boy or a girl…

A girl it is, though she will insist upon retaining her boys’ clothes for most of the book. Androgynous and enigmatic, Mignon weaves herself through the narrative, becoming – like the theatre itself – simultaneously real and symbolic. She is quick and intelligent, though Wilhelm’s efforts to educate her fail completely; she speaks vaguely of a childhood in Italy and longs to return there, but has no memory of how she came to be with the street-performers; she is a prey to her own sensitivity, her health fluctuating with her spirits; she rarely speaks, but expresses herself through song and dance.

Finding the child being mistreated, Wilhelm rescues her and promises to care for her always; and she responds with passionate loyalty and devotion.

But Mignon is not the only strange figure to make a call upon Wilhelm’s compassion. Not long after his adoption of Mignon, Wilhelm’s attention is likewise drawn to an elderly, wandering harpist, whose skill with his instrument is remarkable and who, like the child, prefers to communicate through his music. This second adoption of Wilhelm’s is more contentious, as the harpist is mentally unbalanced, and given to outbreaks of literally insane rage that include violence against children and arson. Wilhelm is fortunate to find a refuge for him in the care of a clergyman, who has undertaken a number of such cases and eventually gets to the root of the old man’s mental state.

Both Mignon and the harpist proved to have a strange appeal, and to an audience beyond the readers of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: they became the focus of most of the various illustrated editions of the book, particularly Mignon, most of whose appearances in the narrative involve a set-piece performance—most notably one where she is dressed as an angel. Separately and together they became the subjects of paintings; while in 1866, an opera written by Ambroise Thomas, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, premiered in Paris: it was called simply, Mignon. (It eventually ran for over 1500 performances!)

Above all, though, the songs which Goethe provides for Mignon and the harpist within his text were repeatedly set to music by some of Europe’s most famous composers.

This is not – to put it mildly – my area of expertise, but fortunately there are those who know what they are talking about and are willing to share.

The music blog Liederabend did a series of posts on the songs in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as providing online recordings of them; while two years ago the Australian arts magazine, Limelight, offered an essay on the history of Mignon and music.

Please note: Both of these sources offer explicit spoilers for the rest of the novel, so you may or may not want to put off any visit until after I’ve finished blogging it. (Because spoiling books is my prerogative, dammit!)
 

   
An illustration by W. Friedrich from the 1885 edition of Goethe’s works, showing Wilhelm, the harpist and Mignon; Paul Léveré’s Mignon and the Harper from 1923; a poster for the premiere of the opera, Mignon, from 1866.

 
[To be continued…]
 

03/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 1)


    “So you don’t believe in any destiny? In any power that holds sway over us and guides everything for the best for us?
    “It is not a matter of my faith now, nor is this the place to analyse how I try to make the things which are incomprehensible to all of us appear to some extent capable of being conceived by myself; here the only question is which way of imagining is the most advantageous to us. The texture of this world is made up out of necessity and chance; man’s higher reason comes between the two and can dominate them; it can guide, lead and make use of chance factors, and only when it stands firm and unshakeable, does man deserve to be called a god of the earth. Unhappy is he who from early years becomes accustomed to trying to find something arbitrary in what is necessary, who would like to attribute to chance elements a kind of higher reason, the following of which would in fact be a matter of religion. Does that mean anything more than to renounce one’s inclinations? We delude ourselves that we are pious by sauntering along without reflection, letting ourselves be determined by pleasant chance factors, and finally giving the result of such a precarious life the name of divine guidance…”

 

 

 

Turns out that 18th century German philosophy is difficult to review; who knew?

Though it is one of the four novels written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the fourth being a belated sequel to this book), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre – usually translated as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship or Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Apprenticeship – is anything but a straightforward work of narrative and incident. It is, rather, an extended rumination upon the factors that shape the destiny of the individual man, set within a framework of reflections upon the German character and mindset.

I’ve spent some time pondering how best to approach a post on this book—and am rather inclined to admit defeat at the outset. While I’m fully aware of the importance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in the European literary canon, as well as its specific influence upon the development of the English novel, I don’t feel qualified to tackle its themes and arguments in any depth.

What I will try to do, however, is to place this novel in its historical context; and to give an idea of how Goethe goes about making his arguments—without going too deeply into what those arguments are. Hopefully in doing this, I will also convey at least some sense of this book as a whole.

Goethe’s first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows Of Young Werther), was published in 1774, when he was twenty-five; a revised edition appeared in 1787. This semi-autobiographical epistolary novel – “semi”, obviously, since it deals with a young man dying of hopeless love – was a critical work in Germany’s Sturm und Drang movement, the country’s push-back against the tenets of the Enlightenment: a rebellion in which emotions were privileged over the intellect. (We have already examined at some length the English equivalent, expressed via the sentimental, Deist and Gothic novels of the late 18th century.)

The first version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was written at around the same time of The Sorrows Of Young Werther, and was therefore like it the work of a young man in the first phase of his career. However, it was not until some twenty years later that, with the encouragement of his friend, the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller, Goethe resurrected, rewrote and published this novel—offering a far more maturely considered version of his themes.

(The manuscript of Goethe’s first draft, a fragment called Wilhelm Meisters theatralische SendungWilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Calling – was discovered and published about a hundred years later.)

The collaboration between Goethe and Schiller was an important one, part of the “Weimar Classicism” movement, generally considered at its outset a literary attempt to reconcile the thought / feeling dichotomy of the Enlightenment and the Sturm und Drang, and which eventually became an influential factor in 19th century German thinking about culture and politics (the latter in light of German unification, which likewise required the merging of seemingly irreconcilable elements).

Within the works of this period themselves, however, the dichotomy was approached, if not resolved, by allowing the full play of emotion associated with the Sturm und Drang—but simultaneously maintaining a detached, ironic view of both the emotion and its consequences. This split-vision approach, upon which Goethe insisted, represents one of the most significant alterations to the later version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which finds the author looking back at his own youthful effusions, rather than participating in them.

However, in broad literary terms, the overriding significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is that it represents a philosophical shift. In its outlines, the novel is that most familiar of literary forms, the picaresque tale: like so many novels in general, and English novels in particular, written during the 17th and 18th centuries, it centres upon a young man travelling, meeting a variety of people, and having adventures, pleasant and otherwise.

What differs here is the intention; the lessons to be learned. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is generally considered the first of a new genre, the Bildungsroman. The direct translation of this phrase is “novel of formation”, though “novel of education” is sometimes given. These terms carry a stricter meaning than the frequent English rendering of “coming-of-age story”, in their implication that the protagonist’s real journey of life is internal and not external; his (and until very recently, it was always “his”) conflicts are not so much with other individuals, as with society and its tenets as a whole. Usually, after much striving and many false starts, the protagonist reaches a new level of maturity that permits him to re-evaluate his theories of the world: he either reconciles with society and finds a place for himself within it, or he creates a place for himself that reconciles his individual needs with society’s demands. Occasionally, he may create an entirely new society, along with other like-minded individuals. Exile from society is rarely considered a viable choice.

The true Bildungsroman, then, is a work of ideas, of reflection, rather than of action, despite the constant movement within the narrative.

To understand this shift, it may be helpful to compare Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with one of the 18th century’s most popular and successful novels, Henry Fielding’s The Adventures Of Tom Jones, A Foundling. This picaresque novel begins with Tom being turned out of the only home he has known, due to conflicts of the most immediate and personal kind. The narrative then follows him through a wide variety of incidents, and his meetings with a wide variety of people, as he “sees the world” (or at least, parts of England). When Tom’s true history is discovered and he is able to return home at the end of the novel, he is older and – perhaps – a little wiser, but he is not fundamentally changed despite all of his adventures. Rather, the book suggests that Tom was right all along, rewarding his impulsive, generous approach to life (although it also brings him to grief at times), which throughout is presented in contradistinction to the self-interest and suspicion that drive most of the other characters.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, also does things on impulse; but these moments are chiefly just to move the plot along. Once in his new circumstances, Wilhelm devotes himself to analysing his decision and its consequences, his relations to the people around him, and whether or not he has yet found his place in the world. These ruminations generally expand to a comparison of views with other parties. At each stage of the novel, Wilhelm is found measuring his life and himself against his expectations and his desires. That he does not belong where his birth seems to have placed him is the only thing he is certain of; where he does belong is the book’s great question.

Self-consciousness, then, might be considered a hallmark of the Bildungsroman; not in an egotistical sense, but in the sense of striving for understanding of the self.

The literary and cultural significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does, however, go further even than the establishment of a new genre. This novel was a major influence upon the burgeoning Romantic movement not just for its validation of its protagonist’s emotions and his demands for self-actualisation, but for its larger themes addressing the place of art and the artist within society, and the moral component of art.

In both of these respects, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had a huge impact upon European literature, including in England. However, those there unable to read German were presented with a version of Goethe’s novel that was not quite what its author intended.

In 1824, under the simple title Wilhelm Meister, Thomas Carlyle published a translation of both Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and its sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years; or, The Renunciants, usually called Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Travel).

Carlyle’s intentions were admirable: he was prompted not merely by his sincere and profound admiration of the specific work, but as a corrective to the prevailing English idea that all German literature was of the Sturm und Drang variety (a misapprehension that might have been helped along the way by Jane Austen’s inclusion of Carl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries in her list of “Horrid Novels” in Northanger Abbey, which reached the English reading public in 1818).

However—it seems that Carlyle struggled with his translation, both in the immediate sense of conveying the nuance Goethe’s ideas, and in the more contentious sense of rendering parts of the novel “more appropriate” for an English audience.

How far Carlyle strayed from Goethe’s original text I am not in a position to say, although I do know that modern Goethe scholars tend to warn potential readers away from Carlyle…which is to say, from the translation of Wilhelm Meister that is most readily (indeed, freely) available.

Very recent years have seen the publication of a new translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Eric Blackall, released by the Princeton University Press, which is now considered the best English-language rendering of the novel. Unfortunately, this was not available here; and consequently I am working from the 1977 translation of the novel by H. M. Waidson, which is considered one of the better alternative attempts (and almost as importantly, the one most likely to be held by a library).

I may say that I did have some issues with Waidson’s text, which was on occasion frustratingly oblique—but I am not certain how far this reflects the original novel, or whether it represents translation artefacts. One difficult aspect of the novel that I am sure emanates from Goethe is his habit of giving his characters a descriptor rather than a name: a choice intended to reflect these characters’ roles as an influence upon, or an example to, Wilhelm, rather than as individuals in their own right. As you would appreciate, it is not always easy, some hundreds of pages on, to recall clearly who “the stranger” was, or what “the priest” might have said; and this aspect of the novel becomes even more difficult to deal with when it is eventually revealed that a number of these supporting characters were not, in any event, who they appeared to be at the time!

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship first appeared across 1795 – 1796, in three volumes divided into eight books. The first five books describe Wilhelm’s rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing and his attempts to follow his youthful passion for the theatre. The sixth book is that construct so beloved of the picaresque novel and its forerunner, the rogue’s biography, the interpolated narrative. Given its own title, The Confessions Of a Beautiful Soul, this interruption of the main plot is so complete, and seems at the time to have so little to do with it, that it has sometimes been considered and analysed as a standalone work. However, its significance is revealed over the seventh and eighth books, as Wilhelm embarks upon the next phase of his life.

[To be continued…]

09/05/2019

A silver fork in the road

I have a clutch of unwritten posts to catch up, so naturally I’m thinking about starting something new instead.

As I have mentioned previously, one of my areas of interest – which so far I haven’t gotten around to pursuing – is the so-called “silver-fork novel”. There are a couple of different though linked reasons for this interest. The first is that these novels occupy what tends to be regarded as a lacuna in the timeline of English literature: those years between the time of Jane Austen and Walter Scott, during the Regency, and the coming of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, more or less simultaneously with the ascension of Victoria. It is generally considered that there was an absence of great writers and writers during that period, that it was occupied instead with popular but ephemeral fiction of limited literary merit, and is therefore not worth studying.

Though this is a common viewpoint, it doesn’t happen to be my viewpoint. Though on the whole I don’t dispute the criticism of the fiction of the 1820s and 1830s on the grounds of its lack of artistry, I do dispute its worthlessness. As we have seen before, literature of this ephemeral nature is often extremely revealing of the society that produced it; and this is perhaps more the case with the silver-fork novel than with any other genre, as it was intended specifically to offer immediate, detailed portraits of the English upper classes.

However popular they were with the reading public, the critics savaged this branch of writing. In fact, it was the critic Walter Hazlitt who inadvertently gave the genre its enduring name, in an article attacking the novels of Theodore Hook, which (in Hazlitt’s view) were not only poorly written, but further marred by the self-evident fact that the author was not even of the society he purported to depict. If he had been, Hazlitt sneered, surely he would not have been so dazzled by a certain aristocratic dinner-table ritual:

Provided a few select persons eat fish with silver forks, he considers it a circumstance of no consequence if a whole country starves; but these privileged persons are surely not thinking all the time and every day of their lives of that which Mr Theodore Hook has never forgotten since he first witnessed it, viz. that they eat their fish with a silver fork

Nevertheless, for approximately twenty years, the English reading public devoured these vivid accounts of upper-class life. For the aristocracy, they were an amusing mirror; for those with social aspirations, a guidebook; for the rest, either a glimpse of a dazzlingly exclusive world to which they could not even dream of finding an entrance, a shocking exposé of aristocratic immorality, or a comforting reminder that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness.

Then, almost overnight, these most fashionable of novels became unfashionable; what had made them so popular in the easy-going days of the Regency and under the profligate rule of George IV put them beyond the pale in a society increasingly gripped by (in the mournful words of Alfred Doolittle) middle-class morality.

The death-blow was struck by Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which managed simultaneously to be the silver-fork novel to (literally) end all silver-fork novels, and a savage deconstruction of the genre. From the mid-1830s onwards, the silver-fork novels began to disappear from the shelves of the circulating libraries, to be replaced by more “improving” tomes; very few were reprinted, and even those tended to be bowdlerised. Within a surprisingly short space of time, it was if they had never existed.

And this subset of writing remained largely disregarded until almost 150 years had passed, when historians (social and literary) began to realise that these novels, whatever their shortcomings as fiction, offered an extraordinarily detailed window into early 19th century life. Moreover, those academics who didn’t let their preconceptions or their snobbery get in the way discovered that among the silver-fork novelists were several who, if not “great”, were clever and entertaining—in particular Catherine Gore, who almost made the genre her own.

Being myself of the opinion that the literary canon does not properly reflect what people were really reading – and disliking the critical tendency to simply leap over decades while supposedly tracing the history of the novel – I have always had it in mind to take a look at some of the silver-fork novels—but my usual impulse to do everything “in order” and “from the beginning” repeatedly got in the way; not least because this story has an unexpected and rather peculiar beginning.

While I was researching early 19th century crime novels, such as Frances Trollope’s Hargrave and Catherine Crowe’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights – which emerged in the same lacuna as the silver-fork novels, and were similarly critically attacked – a strange web of novelistic connections began to emerge.

In particular, it seems that a major influence upon Mrs Trollope and her tendency, not just to include crime-plots in her novels, but to blend together different genres, was the work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—and most of all his 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures Of A Gentleman. And this, in turn, was influenced by Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, which was published the year before.

And both of these had already come to my attention—being mentioned in dispatches, as it were, not as actual silver-fork novels but, with their upper-class settings and social self-consciousness, as progenitor novels for the genre.

(Disraeli, like Theodore Hook, was pilloried for pretending to a knowledge of aristocratic life that he did not possess. Of course, as the Earl of Beaconsfield, he eventually had the last laugh.)

However, this is still not the starting-point: both Bulwer-Lytton and Disraeli were influenced in the writing of their novels by Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and the first version (it was later revised) of its sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. Together, these novels are themselves considered to represent to birth of a new genre, the Bildungsroman.

So I’ve been pondering going back to Goethe for quite some time—and was finally prompted actually to do it by a coincidence. One of my off-blog reading projects (because, you know, I don’t have enough on-blog reading projects) is working through perhaps the first ever “Best 100 Novels” list to be compiled by a critic, that constructed by Clement King Shorter for The Bookman in 1898. Put together chronologically – and starting with Don Quixote – it’s an interesting if highly idiosyncratic list (which you may find here, if you’re interested) that I am using chiefly to plug some gaps in my reading.

(And because I just can’t get enough of lists.)

And at #28 on Shorter’s list we find Wilhelm Meister, the title given to Carlyle’s compiled translation.

What can I say? – I took it as A Sign…

 

20/12/2018

Very critical indeed…

While doing a little research with respect to my timeline for the development of the Gothic novel, I ended up – as frequently happens upon these occasions – slipping down a rabbit hole.

As was the case with The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley and Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, Reginald du Bray was brought to my attention via the writings of Christina Morin, who has made an argument for the Irish origins of the Gothic novel. I did a quick search for access and information about this work after wrapping up the previous entry in my timeline, Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose and, while not delving too deeply at the time, became aware that there was something odd about its publishing history.

The Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) listing for this work asserts that Reginald du Bray is:

A reprint of the second volume of ‘The rival friends, or the noble recluse’, London, 1776.

While we know that publishers at this time often did release novels volume by volume, rather than all at once, it seems unlikely that anyone would reprint just one volume out of a novel—particularly the middle one out of three.

Chasing up information about The Rival Friends; or, The Noble Recluse brought me to “Volume the Forty-First” of The Critical Review, a British magazine published between 1756 and 1817: it was initially edited by Tobias Smollett, and carried writings from some of this era’s most prominent literary figures, including Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and David Hume. Of more immediate interest, the magazine made a concerted effort to provide a short review of every novel released in Britain (!). Thus, as you can imagine, it is an invaluable source of information about the now-obscure literature of the time.

In fact, this 1776 issue of The Critical Review offers the only evidence that The Rival Friends ever existed, via the following dismissive paragraph—which, given what I just got through saying about the publishing practices of the time, as illustrated by Susannah and Margaret Minifie’s exceedingly flimsy novel, The Picture, made me laugh like a loon:

But funny as that paragraph struck me, it was distinctly unhelpful with regard to the subject matter of the novel in question, and the issue of its putative connection to Reginald du Bray.

Though Christina Morin does not seem to have been aware of this asserted connection, she is right that the earliest version as such of the work in question carries a Dublin imprint: it appeared in 1779 under the title Reginald du Bray: An Historick Tale, with the author given as, A late lord, greatly admired in the literary world. This particular publication also came to the attention of Montague Summers in his important work from 1938, The Gothic Quest: A History Of The Gothic Novel, wherein he comments that, “Little attention was excited by [it].” Importantly from the point of view of the current literary thread, however, Summers adds that Reginald du Bray, “Acknowledges itself ‘the literary offspring of Longsword'”, which both places it as an early attempt at historical fiction, and suggests that one edition of the tale, at least, carried a foreword by its unidentified author.

A second edition of Reginald du Bray was issued in Dublin in 1784, this time simply as by, A late nobleman (and having lost the ‘k’ in ‘historick’). This is the version available through ECCO, which links it to The Rival Friends—and as it turns out, out of all its different editions and sources, at the present time this is the only available copy.

Accessing it online, we immediately notice something odd about this edition: it carries what is listed as a “Preparatory Discourse”, by “A Celebrated Female Pen”. This, without identification or acknowledgement of any kind, turns out to be Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld’s essay, On The Pleasures Derived From Objects Of Terror, which first appeared in Miscellaneous Pieces by Barbauld and her brother, John Aikin. Furthermore, this odd preface to Reginald du Bray also appends, also without attribution, Sir Bertrand, A Fragment, Barbauld’s attempt to illustrate the principles of her essay.

This same version of Reginald du Bray subsequently received a London release, being published in 1786 by William Lane (although prior to his founding of the Minerva Press). At this time it came to the notice of The Critical Review where, while paying little attention to the novel itself, the reviewer took offence at the “Preparatory Discourse”:

Ahem. My conclusion was that “the greater part” belonged to the lady, but we won’t quibble.

Of course we don’t know who wrote either of the brief critical responses here highlighted, so we can’t know if the same person wrote both or not: the tone is similar, but that might simply reflect the Review‘s editorial policy. But there is certainly no indication that the person who rescued Reginald du Bray from “the vale of oblivion” in 1786 recognised in it any of The Rival Friends‘ one-too-many volumes from a decade earlier.

Perhaps a more important point, however, is that remark of Monague Summers’, in which he quotes the author of Reginald du Bray. While the 1784 Dublin edition, as far as a brief examination has revealed, carries no such quotation, Summers presumably found it somewhere, perhaps the 1779 edition. As noted, it sounds like an excerpt from a preface—which makes the unavailability of that edition a frustration, as surely the author’s own words would settle once and for all the question of Reginald du Bray‘s origins: whether it was a standalone work or, the second volume of a three-volume novel, a case of the interpolated narrative gone mad.

Footnote:

I was moved to look into the local availability of Christina Morin’s The Gothic Novel In Ireland, c. 1760 – 1829. Unfortunately it is not held by any library here; and while it is available on Kindle, well…

That’s pretty much the face I made, when I saw the price:

14/12/2018

The Picture


 

 
In this picture were two principal figures, the one a fine old man with silver locks, which seemed to inspire veneration; the other, a beautiful youth in whose arms he was supported.—Miss Stanley observed, that but for their position, they might have been taken for Mentor and Telemachus.—You say right, my dear, returned Mrs Berkley.—Observe, continued she, pointing to the young man,—what nobleness in his air! what majesty! what sweetness! what expression in his looks!—If the countenance be an index of the soul, in his I read every godlike virtue of that heroe. Mrs Stanley, turning to the housekeeper, begged to know for whom it was intended.—The woman replied, that it was occasioned by a very extraordinary accident, adding, if the ladies would please to repose themselves, she would readily relate the circumstances…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The insistence of booksellers and, increasingly, the circulating libraries upon multi-volume novels had a range of consequences for authors and publishers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of them is well-illustrated in this 1766 work by Susannah and Margaret Minifie.

It is not in the least uncommon to find novels which could, and should, have comfortably occupied two or even a single volume being dragged out to the necessary three via padding of sorts, including unnecessary subplots, overly circumstantial descriptions, repetitions, and our old friend, the interpolated narrative. That these tactics almost invariably resulted in a less effective work of fiction was, evidently, considered of less importance than the financial gains to be achieved by breaking a single novel into pieces for sale and hire.

And if this artificial inflation of a book’s length damaged an otherwise successful work, you can imagine the results when the same tactics were applied to a novel with a narrative so flimsy, it could barely have sustained a single volume.

Such is the case in The Picture, which is one of the most insubstantial works of 18th century fiction I have ever read, the era’s tendency to privilege emotion over plot notwithstanding. In fact, so lacking is this novel in any sort of real content, the publishers had to chip in with padding tactics of their own, achieving three volumes only by virtue of (i) narrow pages, (ii) wide margins, (iii) large font, and (iv) spaces between paragraphs.

To illustrate:

   

By 1766, the Minifie sisters had published one novel as a joint venture, The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, and one as a solo effort—with Family Pictures released only as “By a LADY”, but in all likelihood written by Margaret.

Though it carries the ladies’ original attribution, “By the Miss MINIFIES, of Fairwater in Somersetshire”, I’m inclined to suspect that this third novel out of the stable is chiefly Susannah’s work: it has a slightly different “voice” from the previous two novels, and also from that of Barford Abbey. In fact, its style is one of the many irritating things about The Picture, with its inadequate story rendered even more so via a twee, chatty tone which becomes increasingly grating. The novel is poorly written even by the rather laissez-faire literary standards of its day, marked by a constant shifting of tense and perspective, and it resorts repeatedly to non-cliffhangers—that is, it tends to end its chapters with a dramatic interruption or a promise of important revelations to follow, which then turn out to be of minor importance if any at all.

As did Family Pictures, The Picture opens rather confusingly, with a generational shift. It begins by introducing us to a certain Mr Howard, as he receives a letter from the (we gather) newly widowed Mrs Stanley begging for his assistance. It then quickly falshes back to when Mrs Stanley was a Miss Dormer—who, between her father’s wealth and her own “most attractive sweetness”, was expected to make a great marriage.

It speaks volumes for the conventions of the 18th century sentimental novel that at this point, the authors felt compelled to stop and explain at length why, all those years before, Mr Howard did not fall in love at first sight with Miss Dormer. This passage also offers an excellent example of this novel’s overall style of writing—imagine this stretched out to about 600 pages:

By help of a little familiar named Fancy, who flies invisible, and whose flights are boundless, we are informed our readers have adjudged the sentiment proposed to love. Sorry as we are to contradict our ingenious friends, and universal as we acknowledge the power of that deity, truth bids us declare Cupid was not present at this interview, the reason of which can only be accounted for by the following incident. Some twenty years before this æra, as he was one day sporting near the sacred temple, a group of heavenly inhabitants moved towards it, surrounding two mortal figures; one appeared to be Mr Howard, conducted by Honour, the other a female of pleasing aspect, supported by Virtue. Cupid recollected and saluted his votaries. Hymen honoured in the presence of so many divinities, entered the temple before them, and performed his office in the most harmonious spirits. Which being concluded, and each bestowing on the happy pair some mark of celestial favour, Cupid presented the bride one of his best darts, rendering her husband invulnerable to the attack of any other in his whole feathered collection. Since Cupid stands acquitted, what then is the sentiment by which Mr Howard was agitated at this interview with Miss Dormer? Was it admiration? Was it compassion? Was it tender apprehension? It was not one, but all those passions blended in one…

Apparently a man feeling sorry for a girl whose father has just been ruined was far too straightforward a concept for readers of this sort of literature to grasp.

Anyway—her father’s ruination is simply an opportunity for Miss Dormer to display a whole new series of perfections. Discovering that Mr Dormer’s main creditor is Sir Thomas Stanley, she calls at his house intending to offer her jewels in part-payment of his debt, and ends up pouring out her story to someone she assumes is Sir Thomas, but who turns out to be a relative of his only—held silent because he has (of course) fallen in love with her at first sight.

Long story short, Miss Dormer becomes Mrs Stanley. We then begin our generational hopping again, with the Stanley marriage disposed of in a single sentence:

Happy in each other the thirteenth year returned, in which time she buried her father, one Son, and two daughters, and at that period Mr Stanley was also torn from her…

But the Stanleys are not the only ones subjected to a ruthless hand. Hilariously, having gone to all the trouble of introducing a Mrs Howard in order to explain Mr Howard’s otherwise incredible behavior, the lady having served her purpose the authors whack her in one off-hand phrase:

…and Mr Howard having lost his lady some years before, was retired to Rose-Hill, the sweet retreat in which our reader may remember we first discovered him.

What the reader is, in fact, more likely to discover is that the preceding fifty pages of this novel could have been dispensed with, at no cost to the plot, which (such as it is) begins properly here.

But then—we’re not going to make it to 600 pages with an attitude like THAT, are we?

The Howards and the Stanleys remained close friends over the years; and now that she is a widow, Mrs Stanley turns to Mr Howard for advice. We learn that Providence (and the Miss Minifies) has left Mrs Stanley with one living child, a daughter, Emily. She is also raising her husband’s orphaned niece, Louisa Orey, who is about Emily’s age.

It is with regard to Emily that Mrs Stanley wishes to consult Mr Howard. The Stanleys are a wealthy family, and Emily is a significant heiress. However, remembering her own plunge from affluence into poverty, Mrs Stanley has conceived a plan to raise Emily in the assumption that the family are in limited circumstances, so that she learns simplicity and humility before she comes into her fortune. Her intention is to carry the two young girls into the country, where she can supervise their education and ensure they are kept away from the pernicious influences of town life. And in order to obtain for the girls all the benefits of fortune without seeming to be able to afford them herself, Mrs Stanley makes an arrangement with a friend, a Mrs Berkley, who is herself in straitened circumstances: she will pose as the girls’ benefactor.

This complicated arrangement put in place, the all-female household retires to a cottage in the vicinity of Mr Howard’s country home, Rose-Hill. Their surroundings are exactly what we might expect, in a novel of this sort:

From this rising ground let us behold the beauties by which we are surrounded. The meadows how chearful, their robes are green-enliven’d with flowers of gold and azure; that hanging wood, which rears its lofty head, as if to overlook the distant hills, appears the seat of contemplation; the banks of yonder river, how fertile! how enriched! surely the inhabitants are nature’s favourites, and this its most luxurious garden. Mark the houses! how neatly elegant! and scattered hamlets, how gaily ornamented! the pure jessamine, and sweeter woodbine, blooms on the humble roof, regailing with their spicy breath the honest labourer, when at his threshold he eats his evening morsel…

And so are the characters:

Amazement! what do we see! two lovely forms! their actions still more lovely! Turn thy eyes to the next cottage, mark them well, with what tenderness they relieve that sick wretch, who with blessings follows them to the door; with what amiable smiles are they this moment caressing the children of poverty? Can it be any other than Benevolence and Humility descended upon this happy spot, in their own transcendent loveliness. But, hold! a friendly zephyr bears away from the most graceful, the envious hate which hid the beauties of her face. Let us examine if these can equal her fine height, easy shape, and majestic movement. Heavens! that dazzling complection, eyes black, sparkling and full of sentiment, animated features, and neck whiter than the down of swans, convinces us these are the infant charms of Miss Stanley, ripened by the hand of time… Take thy eye from Miss Stanley, to admire the modest vivacity of Louisa’s looks, her sprightly air, the delicacy of her forehead, the glossy auburne hair which shades it, the joy, the youth, the innocence that revel on her countenance…

It is, frankly, a relief to escape from these outpourings into The Picture‘s main subplot, wherein dwell our contrasting wicked characters and their criminal and venial transgressions.

Lady Edmonton, the late Mr Stanley’s half-sister, is a foolish, vain woman who contracts a second marriage with the dissolute Sir James Hallifax, and repents it soon enough. It is actually Sir James who occupies centre-stage in this plot, and in a curious way that would hardly have been permissible some years later: the baronet’s one redeeming feature is his passionate love for his illegitimate son.

However, this love leads Sir James to defraud his own young brother, Charles. The baronet intends, upon his own death, both to acknowledge his son and to leave him a fortune to counterbalance the stain of his birth. To this end, Sir James suppresses his father’s will, convincing Charles that he, as the elder son, has inherited the entire property. This situation impacts our main plot via Sir James’ scheme to see his brother provided for via marriage to Emily Stanley. Though the two are only children when the scheme is conceived, sixteen and ten respectively (this is some years before the effusions quoted above), Sir James considers there is no time to waste, and bullies his wife into doing all she can to promote the match.

Back in the country, we hear at length how Mrs Stanley’s scheme for shaping the minds and characters of the girls have been carried out. Confident in the success of her venture, when Emily and Louisa are of an age to make their debuts, Mrs Stanley begins to plan for their removal to London. However, these plans are diverted when Mrs Berkley’s pretended fortune becomes real, upon her unexpected inheritance of an estate. Mrs Stanley and the girls accompany her on her tour of inspection, the ladies stopping along the way to visit any place of note. Among these is one recommended by Mr Howard, the country-house of a certain Lord Eastley. It is here that Emily Stanley encounters her fate—or at least a representation of him:

Mrs Stanley seeing the door of another room open, imagined she might be there, stept back, and found it a little library which had been passed over in surveying many other splendid apartments.—Here then she found her daughter,—but found her with her attention so profoundly fixed on a picture which stood over the chimney, that she might be said at that moment to have resembled a fine statue of the goddess Contemplation…

Lord Eastley’s housekeeper then recounts the incident depicted in the painting, in which the household’s venerable old butler would have drowned, had not a young visitor to the estate risked his own life to save him:

    This piece of humanity had like to cost him dear, for soon after he was taken ill of a dangerous fever;—and when my lord expressed his fear that it was owing to this accident,—he replied,—that man is not worthy of life who would not risque it in the preservation of a fellow creature.—
    Unperceived even by herself, tears of admiration filled the charming eyes of Emily…

The ladies then press on to Mrs Berkeley’s house, which is situated near the estate of a duke (unnamed). While walking one morning, Emily and Louisa overhear a conversation between two young men, whom they deduce to be young Lord Eastley and the gentleman of the picture, whose first name only they learn, Harry. The subject of their conversation startles the girls: evidently Harry is engaged to a certain Lady Lydia, with whom Lord Eastley is in love…

Yet when there is an accidental encounter between Harry and the ladies, when he secures them seats at the playhouse in a nearby town, it is apparent that he is much struck with Emily. A second encounter follows:

[She] began to sing and play with a grace most enchanting.—Her soul imperceptibly softened by the Poet’s masterly representation of distressed love,—music added to that softness,—her skill inimitable,—her complexion dazzling,—her voice naturally melodious, accompanied with a more than usual sweetness;—the dove-like mildness in her eye;—her air the most melting;—her notes, her words, were all adapted to the present tenderness of her sentiments.—In this ravishing attitude she thought herself free from observation, but was undeceived by this sudden exclamation from a voice not unwelcome—Ah! Eastley, take Lady Lydia, but give me, heaven, this most perfect of thy creatures:—She rose to leave the room, covered with confusion.—Transported with admiration the inraptured Harry Prayed, nay, even kneeled, to prevent her design.—A secret emotion, a tender inclination, would have betrayed her; but considering such an inclination as stepping from that amiable reserve which she had made her standard, she retired precipitately, and ran to hide her sensibility in the bosom of Louisa…

The one really interesting thing about The Picture is how thoroughly its central love-plot violates the conventions—or at least seems to do so: naturally the authors find a way out of its worst implications, such as Harry’s pre-commitment to Lady Lydia, at the time he falls in love with Emily. Still, to have its heroine fall in love at first sight, on her own (albeit with a painting rather than the real thing), is remarkable—one of the most cherished of all literary tropes, through this century and the next, being that a proper young woman must remain unawakened until the right man asks her to love him; simultaneous love at first sight being the only exception, and even then she either has to hide her feelings or be unaware of their significance.

Meanwhile, as you have no doubt already deduced, the authors do indeed try to make a mystery of sorts out the identity of “Harry”, to the extent of stretching their narrative in improbable directions to avoid telling us who he is.

Emily makes a bid to regain her immaculate heroine status by confessing all to her mother, who warns her that for a number of reasons, she should try to overcome her “inclination”. Emily resolves to do so, but she is immediately thrown back into Harry’s vicinity when the ladies suffer a carriage accident, and he is one of those on the spot to help.

In the wake of this several odd things happen. Mrs Stanley is summoned to the duke’s castle—to see an old friend who is staying there, she tells her daughters, though the reader might doubt it—and upon her return announces that they will be departing immediately for the home of Mr Howard, who she claims is in poor health. He has, ahem, recovered by the time they get there; and Mrs Stanley again begins planning to relocate the girls to London.

But before they set out, the girls find a letter that has been smuggled onto their dressing-table:

    Its contents are weighty, replied Miss Orey; open it, whatever they are I claim a moiety.—Agreed, returned she, breaking the seal, when out dropped,—guess O! reader! it was not money, it was not jewels, but a fine resemblance of the amiable Harry.—Letter, picture, all fell from the trembling hand of Miss Stanley.—Louisa quite aghast, could only exclaim,—Heavens! what do I see?—Where am I?—What enchantment brought it hither?—Her fair speechless motionless cousin, neither hearing or answering her interrogations, she put the picture again into her hand, and applied to the billet for information;—the contents of which still plunged them into greater amazement.
    Mrs Stanley deceives you,—she is not indigent,—neither are you dependent.—You owe no advantages to the bounty of a stranger;—your own fortunes are immense.—Tax Mrs Stanley with these truths;—she cannot, will not, deny them.—These instructions belong equally to both; but to miss Stanley, the picture of a man who adores her.—

The girls immediately show the letter to Mrs Stanley, who admits the indictment it contains; the girls agree that she had good and sufficient reason for the deception, and that wraps up that unnecessary complication. Mrs Stanley then requires Emily to hand over the picture, which she does without hesitation, if not without reluctance. Confident that both girls are by now mentally and morally strong enough to resist the vanities and flatteries of the world, Mrs Stanley finally does carry them off to London.

Some of The Picture‘s most egregious padding follows, as the Hallifax subplot expands to encompass various friends and acquaintances, and their romantic – and more usually, financial – manoeuvring, and in this way fills out the rest of Volume II. The only minor relevance here is that Sir James is still trying to bring about a marriage between his brother, Charles, and Emily.

This causes much angst for the young lady we may consider the novel’s third heroine, Lady Lucy Carew. She is the daughter of Lord and Lady Castledale, but spends much time with Sir Thomas and Lady Stanley, as her parents rarely leave their Dublin home. Lady Lucy is secretly in love with Charles Hallifax, and is at first thrown into dismay by Emily’s perfections. However, reassured by her own observation that Charles cares nothing for Emily, Lady Lucy tries to attract his attention to herself and arouse his jealousy by flirting with a certain Colonel Stanhope, which causes numerous complications and allows for much tut-tutting and head-shaking by the authors.

(I’ll say this for the Miss Minifies: even as, in Family Pictures, they had the nerve to condemn fox-hunting, here they make a mockery of duelling, with a planned encounter between Charles Hallifax and Colonel Stanhope over a perceived grievance ending in the two young men agreeing that there’s really nothing to fight about, and becoming friends instead.)

After lengthy passages of courtship (honest and otherwise) and persiflage, the narrative suddenly take a dark turn. There is a violent confrontation between the Hallifax brothers when Charles positively declines courting Emily, on the grounds of his feelings for Lady Lucy. The brothers’ next encounter, however, finds Sir James wracked with guilt and remorse and misery, and obliquely confessing to having deceived and defrauded Charles, though he does not tell him why. Charles responds with brotherly and Christian forgiveness, and many solemn pronunciations of his own faith, his belief in heavenly forgiveness and the efficacy of sincere repentance; all of which which has a rather unexpected result:

    My dear brother, examine the materials of which your heart is formed: Is not the innate character of God impressed on it, however choaked or obscured by false opinions?
    Enough, enough, I am satisfied; your arguments have convinced meL retire, that I may consider and digest them: when I am disposed to hear you further, I will desire your company.
    This he spoke with so much composure, that Mr Hallifax withdrew; but hardly had he gone from the door, when the sudden explosion of a pistol recalled him.
    He ran back: The first sight with which his eyes were saluted, was his miserable brother weltering in his blood, and his brains scattered on the floor…

We then learn that Sir James had given in to impulse and revealed his paternity to his illegitimate son, who until that moment believed himself the son of the foster parents paid to care for him. Sir James did not, however, reveal the various disgraceful transactions that brought about the boy’s birth (seduction, abandonment, death in miserable circumstances, etc.)—but not understanding the reticences with which the story was told, the foster-father, Delany, later blurts out the whole ugly story. The double shock is too much for the young man, who collapses in a raging fever. A frightened Delany sends for Sir James:

    Roused by the sound of his son’s voice, he started from his drousy posture, and mad with ungovernable joy, ran to the bed, opened the curtains, and made himself known with so little caution, that he drove reason a second time from her throne, just as she was beginning to resume her empire.
    The sight of Sir James made so strong an impression on his imagination, that the idea of his unfortunate mother returned, on whom he was incessantly calling, during his delirium, in the most pathetic, the most melting terms.
    In short, a scene of so great horror is hardly to be described; or if described, scarce to be supported. Death at length stepped in, to drive these dreadful phantoms from his imagination. The twelfth day of his illness he expired in the arms of his distracted father.

This diversion having reached its conclusion, The Picture settles down to the resolution of its romantic plots. Colonel Stanhope and Louisa Orey fall in love, while Sir Charles Hallifax declares himself to Lady Lucy, which brings Lord and Lady Castledale to London. The countess and Emily are immediately drawn to one another, with consequences the latter neither expects nor wants:

    My dear, said Mrs Stanley smiling, can you guess what has been the subject of my conference with Sir Thomas?
    Nothing that displeases you, madam, I presume—
    Displeases! no, my Emily, you will be convinced I am not displeased when I tell you Lord Richmond, the son of our amiable countess, who already loves you as her daughter, Lord Richmond, the honour of our nobility, offers my child an alliance: an alliance that, I am satisfied, will make her happy: an alliance, on which all my hopes are founded.
    The dreadful knell which summons the guilty criminal to his fate, sounds in his ear less terrible than these words did in Miss Stanley’s…

Guess where this is headed? – although not, of course, before Emily gets jerked around one last time.

I’ve remarked on The Picture‘s tampering with the prevailing conventions in its main love-plot, albeit that the plot in question finally works itself out in the most predictable of ways. The only other thing of real note in this novel is the course of non-stop lying to which the girls are subjected.

One of the most cherished tenets of 18th and 19th century literature was that there was nothing worse than a lie: that lying could never be excused, and that the end never justified the means. There are entire novels devoted to depicting the inevitably disastrous consequences of even the mildest white lie.

Yet in The Picture, the supposedly wise and upright Mrs Stanley does nothing from start to finish but tell lies in order to achieve her ends. She lies to Emily and Louisa about their situation in life and their obligations to Mrs Berkley; she lies to them constantly about her conversations with the Stanleys and Mr Howard; she even lies about Mr Howard’s state of health, when she wants an excuse to relocate the girls in a hurry. It turns out that it was she who planted the letter in the dressing-room, as an indirect way of revealing to the girls their true status, and of testing Emily’s obedience and moral fortitude—giving her the picture of Harry purely in order to ask her to give it up again. The novel’s climax involves her deliberately leading Emily to suppose that she is to be compelled to marry one man while she loves another.

What the hell?

It is impossible to know how to interpret this example of what we might call education-through-deceit: whether it represents an early literary example of realism superseding didacticism, or whether – in light of what we know of the Miss Minifies’ involvement in some highly questionable transactions (considered here and here) – this aspect of The Picture is, rather, an unconscious illustration of the ladies’ own moral blindness.

 

10/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 2)

 

    The good man opened the fatal epistle, therefore, with a trembling hand and a heart deeply agitated, and found this new calamity more insupportable than any he had before experienced. He blamed himself as a kind of accessory to the untimely blasting of this tender flower, was amazed at his own remissness in not immediately transplanting it to a more natural soil, and saving this tender pledge, this emblem of their beloved child, from being subject to the capricious flights and giddy management of young unthinking relations, who had not the same call, to watch with carefulness over her.
    Mrs Parker said in a heart-wounding accent, that her Eliza had exhausted all her tears, nor had she one left for poor Louisa; but, continued she, I hope, the measure of my affliction is now completed, and that it will not be long before we are all re-united in that glorious state, exempt from misfortunes, where sin and sorrow are no more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first volume of Family Pictures, as we have seen (and quoted), opens with a standard scree about the rewards of virtue—part of a preface declaiming the high moral purpose of the novel and its fitness for reading by the young and innocent.

This is how the second volume opens:

Mrs Bentley was so kind to her niece, as to suffer Arabella to beat and pinch her, without check or controul. The poor infant was uneasy for some time, at the great change she experienced, and would alternately call upon her Papa and Mamma to save her; but at length custom began to reconcile her even to the cruel usage…

We’re left to ponder whether the novel’s title was intended to be ironic, or just baldly honest.

The shift in tone and subject matter between the two volumes of Family Pictures, from the familiar sentimentalism of the romance / tragedy of Anthony and Eliza, to the cruelty and crime that set in motion the second half of the narrative, is jolting. We seem, suddenly, to have picked up a different book. Again, we can only wonder if the period’s volume-by-volume publishing style prompted authors to hide their more sinister lights under a bushel, until they were safely into the marketplace—and if readers knew to stick it out through a dull or soppy first volume, in expectation of something better.

Having lost both her parents (mostly, we have to say, through their own faults), poor Louisa emerges as the new focus of Family Pictures, with an all-new plot set in motion by her father’s incredibly stupid decision to leave her to the tender mercies of her uncle, aunt and cousins—who are, as we have seen, devoted to casual cruelty even without the added motivation of Louisa standing between them and the family property.

It is true that Anthony meant for Louisa to be left predominantly with her grandparents; but he took no steps to ensure that this happened—instead trusting the parties involved to take care of it. However – and with a distinct lack of submission to God’s will – Mrs Parker is so devastated by the death’s of her daughter and son-in-law, she isn’t fit for the task of caring for her granddaughter; and since Mr Parker is unfamiliar with the true characters of Daniel and Arabella, he sees no harm in leaving Louisa with her uncle and aunt, at least for the present.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

    [Daniel] judged it very hard to be kept out of seven hundred pounds a year by such a little child. This noble sentiment he frequently revolved in his own mind, before he was so far abandoned as to communicate it to his wife; nor did he abruptly open his heart even to her, but just insinuated that it was a mortifying circumstance, that his brother and sister had not been taken off three years sooner than they were, as Anthony would not then have been excluded from his right by a little snivelling girl…
    Daniel had so much artifice as to leave her to reflect upon what he had hinted, in hopes of drawing a proposal from her of some kind or other, which might bring his purposes to bear, as he chose to appear to follow in this respect rather than lead.

Nope: nothing immoral in THIS novel.

Much oblique back-and-forthing between Daniel and Arabella follows, the upshot of which is a sudden journey to London, the Parkers being left in ignorance of this step until it is too late for them to countermand it. The Bentleys take up residence with Arabella’s aunt, a Mrs Blackiston, a widow in dire financial straits, and without the means to protest the uses she is put to, even if she had the inclination.

It is Mrs Blackiston who proposes an alternative to the outright murder of Louisa. She suggests farming the child out—that they find a poor woman in low circumstances who is willing to take the child in and, effectively, raise her as her own. She further sketches a cover-story that makes Louisa the illegitimate child of an unnamed “great man”, such that the need for secrecy may be stressed without raising questions.

Mrs Blackiston even knows a suitable candidate; though here she perhaps does better than her co-conspirators would have preferred, in that Mrs Brisco is a kind and honest, if rather simple woman, who has suffered many personal misfortunes including the loss of her husband and child. She willingly takes in Louisa, swallowing the story fed to her, and obediently passing the girl – who is now known as “Susan” – off as her own. The two retire to a small cottage in Bedfordshire.

But of course, this is only half of the plot. In order for the Bentleys to gain the property, Louisa must die. They therefore concoct a serious illness, of which they inform the Parkers by letter, along with many expressions of fear and grief, and contrition for having carried such a young child to London. Then the terrified Parkers receive another letter announcing the death of their grandchild…

Here too Mrs Blackiston proves invaluable:

    She applyed…to a body-stealer, to furnish her with the body of a female infant of Louisa’s age… Accordingly the next evening a flag basket was provided for the conveyance of the departed babe, recently committed to the earth by its afflicted parents, but which was almost as speedily taken up by this disturber of the dead.
    The poor little sacrifice to their ambition and avarice had a gentle opiate administered to her that evening, which, taking effect at nine o’clock, they knew would continue in operation ’till twelve the next day… At length the hour of deliverance arrived, and the sleeping babe was successfully conveyed into the carriage, destined to remove her from the knowledge of her relations, friends and fortune. This great work completed, the basket was unpacked, and the lifeless imposition dressed, by the hardened Mrs Blackiston, in a cap and bed-gown of Louisa’s, reserved for the purpose, and being laid in the bed…

Okay. I know that this isn’t our usual scenario, but I’m calling it anyway:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

For Mrs Parker, this third blow is almost the end, and she sinks into a permanent stupor of grief; while Mr Parker, with a distinct lack of resignation, is in a condition little better.

Despite the violent upheavals in her circumstances, Louisa / Susan revives under the loving care of Mrs Brisco; and she begins to forget her past in her new life as a humble cottager.

Some eleven years are then skipped over, until the next significant landmark in Susan’s life: the coming to her neighbourhood of a wealthy family, the Banstons. The husband and wife have nothing in common and are bitterly estranged; while their peculiarities of temperament and constant warfare make life unpleasant for their children, a boy and a girl of around Susan’s own age. In particular, Mr Banston is a domestic tyrant: his abrupt passions, his instantaneous likes and dislikes and their violent consequences, impacting his entire household:

He was extremely ambitious, and from an anxious pride, that his children should surpass every other person’s, he sometimes led them an uneasy kind of life… He was so accustomed to disapprove of their behaviour and conversation, that when he was present, they acted under continual fear and constraint. It seems, his disposition had been early soured by disappointments, and the loss of a beloved friend, which he had never overcome, so that he, who at twenty was an easy and most amiable youth, now at fifty was become a capricious and intolerable old man.

Mrs Banston, meanwhile, is a kind if underbred woman, weak-minded and easily influenced by stronger wills, who prefers the company of her own servants to that of her husband’s social acquaintances. The family money is hers, though, which only increases the state of ongoing tension.

The mother of Dame Brisco was the the nurse of Mr Banston’s father, and a connection has always been maintained. With her quiet tact and willingness to serve, Dame Brisco makes herself useful to the Banstons in a variety of ways, not least in helping to manage a household where daily tasks are often neglected. Seeing the need for a sewing-woman, she ventures to recommend Susan who, with her neatness of person, steady habits and fine work, is soon a fixture in the house. She becomes, indeed, almost a companion to Caroline Banston, and shares some of her lessons; acquiring smatterings of both education and accomplishments.

Consequently, when Charles Banston returns home after an absence of some months on a visit to his grandmother, he finds his family rather startlingly supplemented:

Master Charles soon informed himself by his sister’s means of all the internal graces and valuable endowments of this young girl, whose person had so exceedingly engaged his admiration, and he secretly wished, that fortune had been more liberal in her favours, so as to have enabled this master-piece of Nature to have shone in a less humble light. In consequence of these impressions he treated her with the utmost respect and kindness on every occasion; for two years together that this brother and sister were inseparable, now in all these youthful pursuits and diversions Susan had a share along with them, nor, indeed, could they enjoy any pleasure without her, her modesty, humility, and good nature recommending her most irresistibly to their favour.

But of course this pastoral interlude cannot last; and after a visit to some old acquaintances in Worcestershire, where he spent his youth, Mr Banston comes home to announce that he has arranged an advantageous marriage for Charles—or at least, he has arranged it with her father; he expects Charles to seal the deal when the family comes for a visit.

With visions of Susan dancing in his head, Charles is anything but delighted; though under his father’s scowling gaze he manages to mumble something that might be compliance. Undeceived, his father reacts with one of his volcanic outbursts:

“Ungrateful and insensible wretch, cryed he, is this the utmost sensation thy groveling heart is capable of; this the return for my sollicitude for your advancement? Your veins, I find, are replete with the mean blood of your mother, not one spark of my spirit being in your whole composition; but mark me well, continued he, darting a furious look at the poor dismayed youth, you have but this one alternative in your power, viz. either to marry the lady whom I have chose for you, or to turn out, for I will harbour no disobedient children.”

Charles has little option but to play along. Caroline soon notices his disturbed state of mind and, when he explains to her his situation, tries to console him by suggesting he might like the chosen young lady—which of course prompts him to blurt out his feelings for Susan, much to his sister’s dismay, as she knows that any such connection is impossible.

But whatever apprehensions Charles might be experiencing, the reader has them one-hundred-fold—for there is little doubt about the identity of the young lady in question, given her first action upon arrival at the Banstons’:

…but, added she, this sick beast, turning about and hauling at the same time a poor little puppy out of the carriage by one leg, has made my journey very uncomfortable. Mr Banston would have relieved her of her charge, and expressed some obliging concern for her (as he supposed) little favourite; but she soon gave him to understand, that she was superior to every weak attachment of that kind, and only kept the poor animal for the pleasure of tormenting it.

Sure enough, the visitors are none other than the Bentleys; and the contrast between the attractive but brazen and unfeeling Arabella, and the gentle Susan, is almost too much for Charles—who sees with despair that Arabella is fully informed of the purpose of the visit, and expects his co-operation. His embarrassed shrinking and timid demeanour provoke Arabella, who takes a dislike to him; but she resolves to conceal her feelings until she can see if there is meat more to her taste in the neighbourhood.

Arabella and Caroline are likewise antipathetic; the latter longing for the companionship of Susan, who has been banished to Dame Brisco’s cottage to free up room at table for the visitors. The brother and sister count the minutes until the conclusion of the planned fortnight visit, only to learn that while the senior Bentleys must depart – Mrs Bentley expressing concern over the health of her only son, who (it is implied) is drinking himself into an early grave – Mr Banston persuades Arabella to stay for the entire summer.

The only compensatory aspect of this for the young Banstons is that Susan may now be recalled. Caroline drives over to collect her, in company with Arabella who, mostly out of spite and snobbery, but also having taken one look at Susan’s pretty face, refuses to have a servant admitted to the carriage and orders her to walk instead. The mortified Caroline hastily intervenes, telling Susan to stay at the cottage overnight and to come to the house in the morning, and to bring Dame Brisco with her.

From this incident an infinity of misery results. Recounting the matter to Mrs Banston, Arabella turns it around, complaining of Susan’s “sullen refusal” to walk when denied the carriage. The dull-witted Mrs Banston sees nothing odd in this assertion about a girl well-known for her retiring modesty; and when Susan does arrive, she is stunned to be rebuked for misbehaviour and pride:

She was as yet but a novice to the injustice and unkindness of the rich; nor did she imagine that they conceived themselves licenced to treat their inferiours with occasional contempt and disregard, (without being accountable for their actions) merely from their superior possessions; that the wind was not more uncertain than their favour; that they were out of reach of expostulation, and deaf to conviction; that from their determinations there was no appeal, however disgracefully or unjustly they might discard their favourites; and that the world was prepared to acquit the mighty and condemn the weak, even without a hearing; that in the single epithet rich was comprehended all merit, beauty, grace, and that consequently the horrid sound of poverty conveyed sentiments diametrically opposite…

Ouch! I wonder who Miss Minifie had in mind when penning that passage? – and if this is why she and her sister started writing: because they had to, after someone let them down?

From this point matters go from bad to worse. Arabella doesn’t want Charles, and in fact begins a secret liaison with Mr Banston’s steward, who is the kind of “man of spirit” she prefers (in other words, a coxcomb and a cad); but the fact that Charles doesn’t want her is mortifying; while his evident preference for a servant is intolerable. Consequently, she sets about destroying Susan: a task simple enough, between Mr Banston’s insane pride and Mrs Banston’s weak will; and she succeeds in the first instance in having her banished from the house altogether.

Meanwhile, the sneaking Mr Letcroft, who can barely believe his own luck, persuades Arabella first into correspondence and clandestine meetings, then into a secret marriage:

The ceremony over, the happy pair spent a short time together at a farm-house, and then returned to Mr Banston’s with as hardened a countenance, as if nothing had happened…

Soon afterwards, Arabella receives word of the death of her brother, Anthony. She is personally unmoved; and the main consequence is that she becomes, in Mr Banston’s eyes, an even more desirable daughter-in-law, since her brother’s fortune will now augment her own. Naturally he increases the pressure on Charles—who, however, has a secret weapon in his armoury. The local parish-clerk is a relative of Dame Brisco’s, and informs her of Arabella’s marriage; and she, in turn, lets Caroline know. Charles, therefore, is able for once to face his father with relative equanimity; replying coolly to his menaces:

“Time and reflection have removed all my objections, and I am ready to receive Miss Bentley’s hand, whenever she shall be disposed to bestow it upon me.”

Mr Banston is so pleased with this, he grants Charles a three-month stay of execution (so to speak). Charles makes prompt use of the time and, finally giving in to temptation, declares himself to Susan by letter. She is moved and touched by this but, in spite of her own secret feelings, she immediately declares that there can never be anything between them. When Caroline finds out, she is furious with her brother; but she knows she can rely upon Susan’s strength of character, if not Charles’, to prevent the matter going further.

And fate has another bitter blow in store for Susan, when Dame Brisco suddenly dies:

The old woman had got her relation, the parish-clerk, to scrawl out a kind of a will, by which she bequeathed to the poor girl all she was worth. This all, after everything was sold, (Mr Banston burying her at his expense) amounted to eight guineas…

Susan decides that she must leave the country for London, in order to find a way of supporting herself—and to put distance between herself and Charles. Her departure and its circumstances are widely discussed amongst the Banstons, in the course of which Mrs Banston makes reference to Dame Brisco “countenancing a bastard”, much to Arabella’s delight. Her sneering response provokes a furious outburst from Charles—also remarkable for 1764:

“Was the poor bastard, you mention with such detestation, in the smallest degree accessory or a partaker in her parents guilt? I think, added this gentleman, the world is not more cruel or unjustifiable in any one respect, than in its consideration of such unhappy beings. Is it not sufficient, that a poor child shall be brought into existence involuntarily; and, from the culpable behaviour of those who ought to protect and provide for it, not only be excluded from the comfort of relations, and every title to property or provision, but also that a considerable share of the contempt and shame, incurred by the authors of its being, should devolve upon its innocent and inoffensive head? Wickedness of heart is the same in marryed as unmarryed persons, and if the adulterers children are allowed to be uncontaminated by their parents guilt, why should the simple crime of fornication be hereditary?”

Nope: nothing in THIS novel that the moralists could object to…

We are then reminded that lawful sex, too, has its consequences:

    Six months had now elapsed since the marriage of Mr Letcroft, and Miss Arabella had evaded from time to time the importunities of her father and Mr Banston, to receive Mr Charles as a husband, when she suddenly became altered, to an uncommon degree, in her shape. The servants soon perceived it, and having easy access to the ear of their mistress, communicated their observations to her. She communicated them again to her son and daughter; but they were far from being either surprised or sorry at the event, as it would infallibly in a very short time deliver them from her disagreeable company.
    Mrs Banson was unable, long to conceal her suspicions from her husband, who resented them highly, and said, “that if he could fix upon the original authour of such a scandalous report, he would prosecute him at his own expense.” Miss Arabella, however, discovering by a hint, which, if she had been innocent, would have been perfectly unintelligible, that her condition was suspected in the family…retreated to the house of Mr Letcroft, whose marriage to her was then promulgated all over the country, to the inexpressible chagrin of Mr Banston, the diversion of his wife and servants, the satisfaction of his son and daughter, and the great disappointment and vexation of the lady’s own family.

No sooner has this departure occurred than another visitor arrives, the son of an old friend of Mr Banston and an acquaintance of Charles, who has come to invite the latter to accompany him to London. Mr Banston is persuaded, and gives Charles various commissions to carry out during his holiday, including delivering some letters for him. One of these in to a certain Mrs Blackiston, who Charles finds in extremely reduced circumstances, consumed by thoughts of vengeance against a party or parties who she blames for her miserable situation. Charles doesn’t really listen to her ravings, however: he just wants to get out of there and, having given the old woman some money, slips away as soon as he can.

He and his companion then set themselves to see all the sights of London.

Ahem. ALL the sights of London.

In the wake of a rather boozy dinner at a tavern, Charles allows himself to be led to “a certain house under Covent-garden-piazzas”:

    Their youth and genteel appearance soon gained them admittance, and a bottle of Burgundy being brought, Mr Rutland enquired, if they could not be introduced to some young ladies that were tolerably decent and not very old practitioners? The mother abbess who presided in this temple of Venus, after having presented two or three, without giving satisfaction, said, “she had one damsel under her roof, whom she feared they would find as objectionable for her coyness, as the others were for the opposite extreme; but as there were two of them, if they would make it worth their while, they should separately try what they could do with her.”
    The enflamed Mr Rutland emptied his pockets upon the table, and swore, if that was not sufficient, he would give his note for as much more; but the conscientious lady said, as he was a customer, she was satisfied with what was before her, and Mr Banston, consenting to be served after his friend, was accepted upon easier terms.

Nope: nothing in THIS novel you’d want to keep away from innocent young girls.

Wow. Seriously. I’ve encountered scenes like this before in novels by men, but I have never come across anything like it, let alone this explicitly rendered, in a novel by a woman—and that woman a clergyman’s daughter!?

Anyway—

The aptly named Mr Rutland, having paid for his privilege, tries his luck first. The lovely young girl, in ignorance of her true situation, is first shocked, then terrified and repulsed by his behaviour. Discovering to her horror that she is locked in, she can only weep and plead for mercy. Mr Rutland refuses to be dissuaded by what he perceives as “artifice”, driving his potential victim to extremes:

    “I must inform you, that you have a person to deal with, that is neither capable of being intimidated by threats, nor allured by promises, and that your triumph over her can never be completed whilst her power of resistance remains; nor will she survive such a calamity to become a prey again to avarice and prostitution, for this weapon, snatching his sword out of the scabbard, shall be more merciful than you…”
    “Well, Madam, said the half-vanquished hero, as I find I can do nothing with you by fair means, and detest a rape as much as you, I shall resign you to my friend…”

So saying, he retreats downstairs:

    The abandoned procuress, who was in the room, asked him, what success he had met with? “Why faith, said he, none at all; she is the most squeamish little b—h I ever met with: but come, Charles, continued he, she expects you, pray, do not make her wait.”
    Mr Banston was not in his nature a debauchee; but fearful of exposing himself to the laugh of his more hardened companion, he arose, and, with a reluctance and agitation he could not account for, suffered himself to be led in to the frighted prisoner…

Having sobered up, he has no intention of doing anything, though; and he tries to reassure the terrified girl he finds cringing away on the far side of the room, even promising her that he will be her protector if she needs one. This makes her turn around:

…to her unspeakable surprise, she discovered her young master Banston, and he his beloved Susan…

Yes, well. The reader is probably a little less unspeakably surprised.

Susan explains to Charles that she was betrayed by the wagoner who had conveyed her to London, who had told her that he was in a position to help her secure the assistance of “a good charitable lady”; that she had entered the lady’s house in all good faith, and spent a fortnight doing needlework there, in constant expectation of being recommended to a position; that the clothes she is wearing, she had been persuaded to don on being told that in London, even servants were expected to dress finely; and that this night had been the first time she received an inkling of her true situation.

Charles promptly proposes—pointing out that one month’s residence in any parish will enable them to marry, despite their both being under age. Susan resolutely refuses, insisting that the distance between them is too great, and that she must live single and earn her own living. However, she does accept Charles’ secondary offer of rescue—

(—a rescue, by the way, in which his drunken visit to a brothel and his participation in the purchase of a virgin go politely unremarked—)

—and a refuge under the roof of a respectable woman.

But as it turns out, Charles’ own acquaintance in London is so very limited, the only person he can think of to leave Susan with is Mrs Blackiston…

I think we can all see where this is headed.

The sudden resurrection of Louisa Bentley produces all sorts of fallout—including the belated revelation that “Mr Banston” is actually Anthony Bentley’s old friend, Frank Taylor, who changed his name as a condition of his mercenary marriage. Family Pictures then closes with the expected flourish of rewards and punishments; and while the former take up more space (a romance for Caroline Banston is hurriedly conjured up, for instance), the latter are more interesting for their sense of prosaic reality, in place of the expected speeches about the inscrutable ways of Providence, which generally close novels of this sort.

Despite her repentance and active assistance in exposing the cruel fraud, Mrs Blackiston is rather dismally killed off:

…vexation, disappointment, and the inconveniences that poverty exposed her to, in conjunction with her wounded pride, and turbulent and impatient spirit, brought a complication of disorders upon her, which kept her in a lingering state of misery and suffering, which continued for a whole twelve-month, and then put a period to her existence…

—while the Bentleys are allowed to get away with full restitution of their ill-gotten gains and a hasty retreat, their corporeal punishment consisting of having to share digs with the Letcrofts; with rather more focus given to the consequences of all this for Arabella:

Mr Letcroft and his lady, and Mr and Mrs Bentley, led a very uncomfortable life. The goddess Discord had established her seat under their roof. His being disappointed in obtaining the immense fortune he expected, notwithstanding Mrs Letcroft was likely to inherit some few thousand pounds, changed the meek, servile adorer into the morose, untractable husband. He contracted many improper intimacies, and when his weak brain was heated by a too frequent repetition of the social glass, he was wonted to bestow some rough compliment upon his lady’s delicate bones…

And sure, there is some speechifying; but even here we are struck by the matter-of-fact admission that life doesn’t usually work out as neatly – or as justly – as novels would have us believe:

Thus did the chain of events, derived upon this family, run. Agreeably to our limited notions of rewards and punishments, and though many instances in life are the reverse of this equitable distribution, it must nevertheless by acknowledged, that villainous practices are frequently discovered and detected, and that a perseverance in well-doing is productive of the most happy and agreeable consequences.

And as if this shruggingly half-hearted moralising isn’t odd enough, we are then offered this thoroughly unconvincing closing argument:

Mrs Banston was the only person who remained unchanged, uninterested, and consequently unaffected by these happy revolutions, though I really do her injustice when I say, she did not partake in some measure of the general satisfaction; for her house was clear of every imcumbrance for a long season, and she at liberty to pursue her particular inclinations without interruption, which self-enjoyment was derived from an insensibility of mind, neither to be envyed nor coveted, as surely, to a rational being it must be highly satisfactory to possess a heart capable of generous sympathy, and every humane and tender disposition; for whatever exemption from the participation of others calamities this selfish narrow principle may confer upon its possessor, it can be by no means adequate to the reflected joys of friendship and benevolence.

You know—I rather find myself in sympathy with Mrs Banston…

 

 

08/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 1)

 

Virtue is here its own reward, nor is it a deception or false colouring; for though success may not always be the attendant on well-doing and well-meriting, yet the peace and satisfaction that result from conscious virtue, are superiour to every other support or dependence: for however prosperous the villain may continue for a period, his prosperity is mere;y external. That worm, which never dies, preys perpetually upon his heart, nor can he either bribe or compel it to spare him, though but for a moment: whereat the meanest condition my be rendered truely great, by a perseverance in justice and integrity; for whosoever possesses an honest soul, capable of disdaining, and industriously shunning the paths of vice, is greatest, wisest, best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So having spent a ridiculous amount of time pondering the correct attribution of various 18th and early 19th century novels to Susannah Gunning, Margaret Minifie and Elizabeth Gunning, I picked up a copy of the next book in line for this section of Authors In Depth—and immediately concluded that I’d made a mistake.

Published in 1764, Family Pictures, A Novel. Containing Curious and Interesting Memoirs of several Persons of Fashion in W—re opens with one of those familiar, female-authored novel-prefaces, which simultaneously admits the pernicious qualities of some novels while protesting the moral value of this particular novel.

I had concluded previously that Family Pictures was probably written by Margaret Minifie; but all of a sudden I was confronted by this:

I myself have children, and unfeignedly lament the danger their morals are exposed to, from the trash and obscenity the Press is daily pouring forth for their amusement, as it is called…

…which unthinkingly led me to conclude that this novel must, perforce, have been written by Susannah Gunning…

…until it occurred to me that (i) Susannah didn’t marry until 1768; (ii) that in any event, she only had one child; and (iii) that this, consequently, was a big fat lie—and therefore quite in keeping with what we know of the Gunning / Minifie menage.

In any event, referring to the author as “Miss Minifie” is, given the novel’s 1764 publication date, correct regardless.

Family Pictures is a minor work, quite without literary value, but not uninteresting in some of what it has to say; and its preface is, oddly, one of the things worth noting. There is a significant gap between its the-lady-doth-protest opening and the content of the narrative—which in fact something I’m learning to look out for. That said, the questionable content doesn’t really appear until the second of the two volumes…when, presumably, the publisher had committed to that volume’s appearance. (As we have noted before, at the time novels were sometimes published a volume at a time, to test the waters, with the publisher retaining the right to pull the plug.)

At the outset the author states her position:

The tale is literally true; the morals and sentiments are very opposite to the generality of productions of this nature. I was induced to publish it from a tender regard to the female part of this Metropolis, whose more immediate province I apprehend Novel-reading to be.

Curiously, high-flown – and highly artificial – sentiment then becomes interwoven with some fairly shrewd observations on human nature: the fact that anything being “forbidden” makes it automatically more desirable, for example, and consequently the pointlessness of “banning” novel-reading, as young people will doubtless find a way; and that therefore the sensible thing is not less novels, but better novels. We also get a lengthy criticism of what passes for female education, and its ongoing consequences with regard to both individual women and society in general of a focus upon appearance and superficial “accomplishments”:

Should Miss have the misfortune to be handsome, she is early taught to hold her person in the greatest estimation… She must not learn to write, for fear of becoming round-shouldered, or work, lest she impair her fine eyes. Therefore a little imperfect French, an easy (and too frequently an insufferable) assurance, to tingle a harpsichord, and play quadrille, includes the whole of female education.

Mind you, she’s little more impressed with the nature of boys’ education (or, for that matter, boys per se); though in that respect, she does have an interesting theory about the origins of girls’ addiction to novel-reading:

Whereas the rougher bred boys, by having acquired a superficial knowledge of History and the Classicks, assume the privilege of laughing at their illiterate sisters, who instantly resolve to be upon an equality with the affected pedants. In consequence of this resolution, they get their Mamma’s waiting-woman to enroll them members of some circulating-library, where they obtain an easy and inexhaustible supply of such authours, as it had been better for them, (for the bad effects of their works,) they had never been born.

Present company excepted, of course, and our author – or “Editor”, as she styles herself, this being yet another novel to masquerade as a true story – says of her own work:

This performance has the single merit, (the Editor flatters herself,) that, at worst, it will prove inoffensive; a merit which the sensible and ingenuous will not deny it, whatever may be the opinions of some few over-nice cavillers…

How DARE you call me an over-nice caviller!? Hmmph!

It is interesting though, how sensible argument and misplaced self-congratulation are interwoven here. So that every time the author makes a reasonable point (however sarcastically)—

As long as the world continues to be distinguished into the learned and unlearned, male and female, young and old, performances in the Novel-way will never be unseasonable; for it is no less absurd to suppose pedants capable of dipping into so mean a work as a Novel, than ridiculous to imagine the larger part of Novel-readers capable of comprehending the Classicks: consequently, unless our capacities and educations could be reduced to one common lesson, amusements of this inferiour kind will be essential. The grand point, therefore, is to render them, if not improving, at least innocent.

—she undercuts it by making herself her own illustration:

The characters introduced to the readers acquaintance in this little work, are not fictitious ones, nor the several remarkable incidents of their lives merely the product of a fertile brain. I would, therefore, recommend the serious consideration of them to the young and inexperienced…

Family Pictures opens…confusingly…with a couple of potted histories that jump back-and-forth over generations and leave us momentarily confused about who we’re actually dealing with. When the fog clear, we are presented with two young men, Anthony Bentley and Frank Taylor, whose close friendship is disrupted when the latter is dispatched to India by his father, with orders, basically, to stay there until he has made his fortune, no matter how much he hates it. The two young men agree to maintain their friendship via the sort of minutely detailed correspondence usually associated with young women in epistolary novels.

Anthony, meanwhile, is a properly moral and principled individual, thanks chiefly to his tuition from the Reverend Mr Parker. The latter, a very good man, is also a very poor one, as he married for virtue instead of money. The Parkers have one child:

    The little Eliza, their daughter, had a person, which, though it could not come under the denomination of beautiful, was perfectly agreeable. In her countenance was displayed a most charming sensibility, every feature glowing with visible emanations of an intelligent and capacious mind. He eye spoke softness and love, but modesty sat enthroned on her brow, while meekness, gentleness, and simplicity of manners were her amiable characteristics.
    Besides the advantages of education before observed, she had in her father and mother the daily and striking examples of conjugal affection, universal philanthropy, and charity in all its loveliness and attendant graces…

However, what we think we see coming is prevented, or at least forestalled, when Mr Parker receives the gift of a new and better living, and the family moves to Herefordshire.

Some years later, Anthony’s father dies, and he inherits the family property. His loss is all the more severe since it leaves him with no relative but a brother with whom he has nothing in common, and who in turn resents him as the elder son:

The ruling passion of Daniel (such was the brother’s name) was an unbounded avarice; his nature was groveling, suspicious, and revengeful. Master of a deep cunning, he directed himself by that, and endowed with no inconsiderable share of low ambition, made use of his craft, as the means to rise… He, therefore, prudently resolved to make the utmost of his brother’s generosity, (which, in his heart, he deemed weakness) by living upon him, in many particulars, beyond what could be done with a good grace. This was his motive for treating his brother with an outward show of respect…

This passage is juxtaposed with one of Anthony’s letters to his friend, Frank Taylor, wherein he comments that, despite being an uncongenial companion due to his obsession with sport, Daniel is behaving better generally. This is supposed to illustrate for us Daniel’s “deep cunning” but, such are the various descriptions of his conduct, the reader comes away thinking, rather, that Anthony must be a bit thick. Since a major plot-turn later depends upon Anthony being completely deceived by his brother, this is all rather problematic.

Nevertheless, Daniel’s sporting habits make home unpleasant for Anthony, and he decides to visit the Parkers in their country retreat. This interlude (conveyed in more letters to Frank) is shot through with the by-now familiar sentimentalism of the period; albeit we’re more accustomed to hearing it from young ladies. Naturally Anthony falls in love with the perfect Eliza; although he does not recognise the state of his heart until she falls ill with smallpox.

In Barford Abbey, four years later, there is also a subplot in which the heroine contracts smallpox. This in itself is not an issue: the disease was endemic in England, and killed up to 10% of the population each year, leaving countless other sufferers scarred for life. What I do object to is the miraculous way in which, in these novels, the disease keeps refusing to disfigure attractive young women—Eliza escaping here as does Fanny Powis in the later novel.

At the same time, the plot takes an unexpected turn with respect to Anthony. When Eliza falls ill, and he realises he loves her, he keeps quiet about the fact that he has not had smallpox, preferring to remain in danger rather than be away from Eliza at this critical time. And sure enough, no sooner is Eliza on the mend than Anthony falls dangerously ill—and we discover that smallpox is less considerate when dealing with young men. We also get intimations of an exasperating but realistic double-standard:

    Eliza…was extremely shocked at the unhappy alteration in him, which had occasioned the poor lover himself an infinite share of chagrin. He had too much good sense, indeed, to suffer the least mortification from any value he set upon his person, but he was not sure, that it might not injure him in the eyes of the only woman he had ever been ambitious of being approved by; and as lovers are always tormenting themselves with unnecessary fears, he imagined she could not behold him without both horrour and disapprobation.
    He did the young lady, however, great injustice in his conjectures, for notwithstanding she really felt some concern at his sudden metamorphosis, yet she had a mind incapable of being very deeply affected by externals, and consequently whatever effect that alteration might have upon her with regard to her person, her esteem for his internal qualities still remained unshaken.
    These were the attractions that had wrought upon her, attractions whose lustre was not to be impaired by disease, and therefore she felt not the least abatement of that cordial approbation she had begun to entertain of him before her own and his illness. She secretly thanked heaven, however, that her face had not undergone the same fate…

Anthony soon declares himself to Eliza, and the two become engaged after many pages of high-flown speechifying, first between the young lovers, then between Anthony and Mr Parker.

The author is conscious that, in having Anthony speak to Eliza before her father, she has sacrificed propriety to romance; and she hurriedly interjects the following. The fact that this is supposed to be Anthony speaking – and that he has been meeting, not secretly, but certainly privately, with Eliza – gives an amusing edge to this display of Miss Minifie’s evidently low opinion of the male sex:

Were I writing for the press, I would here warn the tender, unexperienced maid from consenting to private interviews, even with the man whose intentions were truely honourable, as the dexterity, which clandestine meetings require, would but too probably rise in judgement against her, at a time, when she might least expect it; for life is subject to such and infinite variety of changes and chances, and the mind of man so frequently affected by them, that it is twenty to one but the same action, which was by the obliged lover magnified into the into the generous and meritorious, would by the reflecting husband be condemned, as the effect of a too fertile invention, and a mind turned for intrigue…

(This is a milder example of an infuriating scenario depressingly common in 18th century novels, wherein a man will relentlessly pursue a young woman in the name of his unalterable love, demand her sexual surrender as proof of her unalterable love—and then dump her because, if she surrenders to him, obviously she’s a whore who’ll have sex with anyone…)

Anthony is soon pouring out his happiness on paper (a typo has him announcing his engagement to “Louisa”, i.e. his prospective mother-in-law), and is disconcerted, to say the least, when he gets no response from his friend. He reminds himself that there have been lapses in his own correspondence, after his father’s death and during his illness; but eventually he begins to fret that either Frank so thoroughly disapproves his engagement, he won’t even respond, or that he too has fallen ill, or worse.

He finally does get a letter—one which severs their friendship, not because of anything Anthony has done, but because Frank has succumbed to temptation and his desperate desire to return to England (which his father will not permit him to do until he has made his fortune), and married a rich woman whom he despises; although not as much as he now despises himself. However, he promises Anthony an explanation when he does return to England…

Meanwhile, the announcement of his brother’s engagement does not exactly fill Daniel with fraternal joy:

Daniel was greatly chagrined at the unexpected news. He cursed his intended sister most heartily, and wished, his brother had had a taste for the pleasures of the chase, as that would have secured him from bringing home a pert minx to subvert all the ancient customs of Bentley-hall. The marriage, indeed, was a stroke he little expected. He had experienced during his brother’s absence what he called a full enjoyment of life, which amounted to an exemption from expense, a daily hazarding of his neck in the noble pursuit of a miserable defenceless animal, and closing the evening in a total subversion of reason. Anthony’s cellar (in the refined language of this sportsman) had bled freely; his horses had been harassed to death, and his servants had hourly trembled at oaths they were utterly unaccustomed to hear…

Anthony and Eliza are married, but spend their first weeks together with the Parkers. Daniel, therefore, has the opportunity to throw one last bash for his sporting friends—

—and we get a fabulous piece of accidental meta-humour, when Miss Minifie observes tartly of the debauched gathering:

Had Mr Hogarth been admitted to a view of these mid-night-revellers, the Publick might have been presented with a piece by no means inferiour to the greatest of that ingenious artist’s productions.

—recalling as we do that it was Hogarth’s chief pupil / competitor, James Gillray, who dragged the Gunning scandal out into the light of day.

On the other hand, I was interested and to a degree won over by the realisation that Family Pictures is one of those 18th century novels in which we can see the treatment of animals beginning to emerge as a social issue. Most commonly at this time, this was expressed with respect to dogs and horses (we saw the latter in the anonymous 1797 novel, Milistina). What we have here, however, is one of the earliest protests against fox-hunting that I have so far encountered.In fact, Miss Minifie makes a love of hunting a signifier for deficiency of heart and character. For 1764, that is remarkable.

When the newlyweds return home, Daniel does his best to seem pleased and to get along with Eliza, but he is incapable of regulating his behaviour. Indeed, he barely sees the need to; and tries to entertain his sister-in-law with a graphic description of his day’s hunting:

    When he came to [the fox’s] death, a savage ardour sparkled in his eyes, and the cries of the poor tortured animal but furnished him with witticisms.
    The tender-hearted Eliza was shocked to a very great degree at the inhumanity which displayed itself in every circumstance of this description. She was at first silent, but as he still continued his encomiums on the chase; “Can the worrying of a poor animal, said she, out of its existence deserve the commendations you bestow on it? Excuse me, Sir, if I take the liberty of saying, that there is rather barbarity in it. The exercise may, indeed, conduce to the bodily health, but the mind, I am afraid, is often hardened by it to a degree that renders it much less sensible of the feelings of humanity.”

Of course, as far as Daniel is concerned, she might as well be speaking Martian. The immediate consequence of this little scene is that he accepts that the good times are over, and that he needs to find somewhere else to live. He therefore courts and wins a Miss Bowling, who shares his views on hunting, and has five thousand pounds and a weak-willed brother, who Daniel duly persuades into letting him take up residence under his own roof. The marriage produces four children in as many years, three girls and then a boy; the latter named “Anthony” in the hope of a creating a financial as well as an emotional tie to his uncle. It is the eldest girl, however, named Arabella for her mother, who is closest to her parents’ hearts:

…notwithstanding her early time of life, [she] had betrayed such a complication in her nature of both father and mother, as promised to render her a most complete character. She was absolute master and mistress at home, had several unfortunate animals in her possession, which she tortured at her pleasure; fear, tenderness, and affection having the least share in her composition… She was accustomed to follow her father in the visitation of his hounds and horses, without either fear or dismay, and taught to examine the wounds of the various game, sent home weltering in gore, with all the transports of savage delight…

Meanwhile – without even pretending sorrow at Daniel’s departure – Anthony and Eliza settle down to a life of conjugal bliss.

However—this is an 18th century sentimental novel, after all, and – as we well know – they like dishing out absolute misery as much if not more than absolute happiness. That said, the misery in Family Pictures takes an odd form. Inevitably the novel is framed within the dictates of Christianity, and many solemn protestations of religious duty and submission to God’s will pepper the early stages of the narrative.

Yet the one thing all the characters share – even Mr Parker, the minister – is a complete inability to move on from a death. Instead, they either become almost permanently catatonic with grief, or outright die of it: the triumph of sentimentalism over conventional religion.

The novel’s shift in tone is announced with an almost hilariously perfect sentimental-novel “mission statement”:

The days of the happy pair were now one uninterrupted scene of happiness for some time, but fortune had only smiled to make her frowns more terrible…

Eliza falls pregnant (and the novel uses the p-word!), which after four childless years initially brings everyone great joy. However, when this first phase has passed, Anthony is seized with a terrible premonition—one marked by an unusual dwelling upon the contemporary dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, and by the pragmatic separation of Anthony’s roles:

Mr Bentley’s delight at the engaging name of father was checked and allayed by the apprehensions of the fond husband. The bare possibility of his exchanging for a dear infant his much dearer wife shook his very soul, and this painful reflection still continually intruding itself, as the time advanced that must determine the event, his anxieties were not a little augmented by it…

Eliza herself is in a state of mixed optimism and properly religious submission; and gently lectures her husband on his duty:

“Subdue then, my dear Anthony, these terrours so unbecoming a breast enlightened by a single ray of that religion we profess. Endeavour to acquire an implicit resignation to that power which bestowed, and consequently has a right to recall, if improperly used, every blessing you are now in possession of. Beware of that too frequent practice of idolatry, nor imagine, whilst you cherish in your heart a superiour affection to that of your great creatour, that you are innocent of a breach of the commandment, which so positively says, Thou shalt have no other God than me.”

As it turns out, Eliza survives the birth of her daughter, named Louisa for her own mother; and for three years, all is well—or so it seems. In fact, Eliza is in that mysterious condition known as “a decline”:

She had felt some inward decay, but forbore complaining, from a too tender consideration for her husband’s repose, until it was advanced beyond the power of medicine to remedy…

So Eliza dies; and, showing how deeply he took that pre-childbirth lecture to heart, Anthony reacts by going into a decline himself, and dying of grief.

Now— During the first four years of Anthony and Eliza’s marriage, Daniel and Arabella gradually taught themselves to look upon the family property as their own, or at least as ultimately belonging to their son. The advent of Louisa, therefore, in the absence of an entail, was a shock and a mortification.

The succeeding deaths of Eliza and Anthony, however—well, that’s a different matter. Daniel is summoned to his brother’s death-bed, where he is assured of a “generous” legacy, though the bulk of the property goes to Louisa. He also learns that – really, Anthony? REALLY!? – he has been appointed Louisa’s joint guardian, along with her grandfather.

The solemnity of the situation prompts a promise:

“Your child, said he, shall be considered by me as my own, and may God so deal with me and mine, as I shall acquit myself with respect to her.”

However—

Daniel was a little affected, but soon got the better of it…

 

[To be continued…]

 

 

26/08/2017

Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 2)


 
    The truth rises upon me, and every succeeding circumstance points to one conclusion. Lisette was to-day of a junketing party, which Lonquillez contrived for the entertainment of his friend Le Blanc. Mention was again made of old stories, and Savillon was a person of the drama. The wench is naturally talkative, and she was then in spirits from company and good cheer. Le Blanc and she recollected interviews of their young mistress and this handsome elève of her father. They were, it seems, nursed by the same woman, that old Lasune, for whom Julia procured a little dwelling, and a pension of four hundred livres, from her unsuspecting husband. “She loved them (said Le Blanc) like her own children, and they were like brother and sister to each other”—“Brother and sister, indeed!” (said Lisette.) She was more sagacious, and had observed things better.—“I know what I know, (said she) but to be sure, those things are all over now, and, I am persuaded, my mistress loves no man so well as her own husband. What signifies what happened so long ago, especially while M. de Montauban knows nothing about the matter?”
    These were her words: Lonquillez repeated them thrice to me.—Were I a fool, a driveller, I might be satisfied to doubt and be uneasy; it is Montauban’s to see his disgrace, and, seeing, to revenge it…

 

That Henry Mackenzie intended Julia de Roubigné as a criticism of the theories of sentimentalism is most evident by the mid-novel juxtapositioning of Julia receiving posthumous instructions from her mother, and Julia succumbing to irrational fears upon first setting foot in her husband’s house.

Before Julia sets out with de Montauban, her father gives her an unfinished letter from her mother, which is full of advice and admonitions about a wife’s duty. As with her earlier observation about Julia not listening, we get the impression that Mme de Roubigné is passing on hard lessons learned through bitter experience; that we saw her as an exemplary, self-sacrificing wife speaks for itself. The miserable idea passed on to the reader of 18th century marriage is, alas, no doubt accurate:

    “Sweetness of temper, affection to a husband, and attention to his interests, constitute the duties of a wife, and form the basis of matrimonial felicity. These are indeed the texts, from which every rule for attaining this felicity is drawn…
    “Never consider a trifle what may tend to please him. The great articles of duty he will set down as his own; but the lesser attentions he will mark as favours; and trust me, for I have experienced it, there is no feeling more delightful to one’s-self, than that of turning those little things to so precious a use.
    “If you marry a man of a certain sort, such as the romance of young minds generally paints for a husband, you will deride the supposition of any possible decrease in the ardour of your affections. But wedlock, even in its happiest lot, is not exempted from the common fate of all sublunary blessings; there is ever a delusion in hope which cannot abide with possession. The rapture of extravagant love will evaporate and waste; the conduct of the wife must substitute in its room other regards, as delicate, and more lasting. I say, the conduct of the wife; for marriage, be a husband what he may, reverses the prerogative of sex; his will expect to be pleased, and ours must be sedulous to please.
    “This privilege a good natured man may wave. He will feel it, however, due; and third persons will have penetration enough to see, and may have malice enough to remark, the want of it in his wife. He must be a husband unworthy of you, who could bear the degradation of suffering this in silence…
    “Above all, let a wife beware of communicating to others any want of duty or tenderness, she may think she has perceived in her husband. This untwists, at once, those delicate cords, which preserve the unity of the marriage-engagement…”

This (and much more) is transmitted in its entirety by Julia to Maria…yet Julia’s very next letter finds her not only reporting her doubts and unhappiness to her friend, but indulging in gloomy forebodings about the future. Here is only a short excerpt of the new wife’s feelings:

Why should I wish for long life? Why should so many wish for it? Did we sit down to number the calamities of this world; did we think how many wretches there are of disease, of poverty, of oppression, of vice, (alas! I fear there are some even of virtue) we should change one idea of evil, and learn to look on death as a friend…

So ends the first volume of Julia de Roubigné; the second starts with an interjection from our editor, explaining the difficulty he had working out how to organise his second batch of letters, since they clearly overlapped the first batch in date and in content. As always, “sentiment” is allowed to have the final word:

Many of the particulars they recount are anticipated by a perusal of the foregoing letters; but it is not so much on story, as sentiment, that their interest with the reader must depend…

The second batch of letters were written by Savillon, beginning at the time of his arrival in Martinique, and sent from there to his friend, Beauvaris, in Paris. Though he speaks of his duty to both M. de Roubigné and to his uncle, one theme dominates:

Julia de Roubigné!—Did you feel that name as I do!—Even traced with my own pen, what throbbing remembrances has it raised!—You are acquainted with my obligations to her father: You have heard me sometimes talk of her; but you know not, for I tremble to tell you, the power she has acquired over the heart of your friend…

Though Savillon feels himself unfitted for business, and in particular the business conducted by his uncle (of which, much more shortly), he knows his only hope of being considered a fit husband for Julia is to succeed and make his fortune, which might now weigh in the balance against his (relative) lack of birth. He therefore grits his teeth and knuckles down—but immediately finds himself confronting a barrier he cannot surmount, namely, that his uncle, a planter, runs his business on slavery.

As noted, Henry Mackenzie was in general a fairly conservative individual, who resisted the advanced social theories of his contemporaries; yet in Julia de Roubigné we find him espousing what would, in 1777, have been considered not merely “advanced”, but radical. This is one of the very earliest works of fiction not merely to protest slavery, but to suggest there was a better way; a way both more humane and more productive—and that it appeared more than one hundred years after Aphra Behn deplored the cruelty and mutual degradation of slavery in Oroonoko is a profoundly depressing thought. This time-gap is a chilling indication of the brutality that was the hallmark of the so-called “Age of Reason”. Conversely, we must keep in mind that whatever absurdity and self-indulgence may have belonged to the “cult of sensibility”, it also gave birth to the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

And whatever Mackenzie thought about sentimentalism in general, we have no reason to think he isn’t sincere about the words he puts in Savillon’s mouth:

To a man not callous from habit, the treatment of the negroes, in the plantations here, is shocking… I have been often tempted to doubt whether there is not an error in the whole plan to negro servitude, and whether whites, or creoles born in the West-Indies, or perhaps cattle, after the manner of European husbandry, would not do the business better and cheaper than the slaves do. The money which the latter cost at first, the sickness (often owing to despondency of mind) to which they are liable after their arrival, and the proportion that die in consequence of it, make the machine, if it may be so called, of a plantation extremely expensive in its operations. In the list of slaves belonging to a wealthy planter, it would astonish you to see the number unfit for service, pining under disease, a burden on their master.—I am talking only as a merchant: But as a man—good Heavens! when I think of the many thousands of my fellow creatures groaning under servitude and misery!—Great God! hast thou peopled those regions of thy world for the purpose of casting out their inhabitants to chains and torture?—No; thou gavest them a land teeming with good things, and lighted’st up thy sun to bring forth spontaneous plenty; but the refinements of man, ever at war with thy works, have changed this scene of profusion and luxuriance, into a theatre of repine, of slavery and of murder… Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason…stifles humanity, and debases the species—for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man.

In fact—the most radical part of that might be Savillon’s reference to the slaves as “my fellow creatures”: that black people were not fully human was the basic argument of the slavers; while the anti-slavery movement defiantly operated within a broader concept of “the brotherhood of man”.

Savillon persuades his uncle to let him try an experiment. He starts by forming a bond with an intelligent if understandably wary slave called Yambu, who was the former leader of a band of men captured together in Africa:

Next morning I called those negroes who had formerly been in his service together, and told them that, while they continued in the plantation, Yambu was to superintend their work; that, if they chose to leave him and me, they were at liberty to go; and that, if found idle or unworthy, they should not be allowed to stay. He has, accordingly, ever since had the command of his former subjects, and superintended their work in a particular quarter of the plantation; and, having been declared free, according to the mode prescribed by the laws of the island, has a certain portion of ground allotted him, the produce of which is his property. I have had the satisfaction of observing those men under the feeling of good treatment, and the idea of liberty, do more than almost double their number subject to the whip of an overseer. I am under no apprehension of desertion or mutiny; they work with the willingness of freedom, yet are mine with more than the obligation of slavery…

But while we must highlight and celebrate this interlude, it is only a diversion within the main narrative of Julia de Roubigné. Another comes in the form of a developing friendship between Savillon and an Englishman, William Herbert, which offers the reader both the inevitable “interpolated narrative”, as Savillon reports the details of Herbert’s life to Beauvaris, and the equally inevitable “tragedy we can all wallow in” as, after striving for years to support the wife and children he adores but is separated from, Herbert finally sends for them—and promptly loses them in a shipwreck.

This is somewhat curious, as it exactly the kind of thing that “real” novels of sentimentalism delight in, yet is presented straight in what we interpret as a critique of the genre.

Even more curious is that despite Savillon’s various outbursts of romantic agony about Julia, and about his ideas on friendship (most of which I’ve spared you), Mackenzie uses him from time to time as the novel’s voice of reason—which is to say, he puts into his mouth the frequent (and not unwarranted) rebuttal of “sensibility”, that it was simply a form of self-indulgence:

I begin to suspect that the sensibility, of which your minds are proud, from which they look down with contempt on the unfeeling multitude of ordinary men, is less a blessing than an inconvenience.—Why cannot I be as happy as my uncle, as Dorville, as all the other good people around me?—I eat, and drink, and sing, nay I can be merry, like them; but they close the account, and set down this mirth for happiness; I retire to the family of my own thoughts, and find them in weeds of sorrow…

We should note, however, that at another point Mackenzie is generous enough to make a distinction between “real” sensibility and “false” affectation; although we do come away with the impression that he felt most of it was affectation.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear of Savillon’s life in Martinique, and his affectionate but somewhat uneasy relationship with his business-hardened uncle, and of a new acquaintance:

At one of those dinners was a neighbour and intimate acquaintance of my uncle, a M. Dorville, with his wife and daughter. The young lady was seated next me, and my uncle seemed to incline that I should be particularly pleased with her. He addressed such discourse to her as might draw her forth to the greatest advantage; and, as he had heard me profess myself as lover of music, he made her sing, after dinner, till, I believe, some of the company began to be tired of their entertainment. After they were gone, he asked my opinion of Mademoiselle Dorville, in that particular style by which a man gives you to un|derstand, that his own is a very favourable one. To say truth, the lady’s appearance is in her favour; but there is a jealous sort of feeling, which arises in my mind, when I hear the praises of any woman but one; and, from that cause perhaps, I answered my uncle rather coldly… Her father, I am apt to believe, has something of what is commonly called a plot upon me; but as to him my conscience is easy, because, the coffers of my uncle being his quarry, it matters not much if he is disappointed…

Now—you might be struggling at this point to conceive of a marriage between Savillon and Mlle Dorville, and you’d be right:

    My uncle, who had staid some time behind me with Dorville, came in. He was very copious on the subject of Mademoiselle. I was perfectly of his opinion in every thing, and praised her in echo to what he said, but he had discernment enough to see an indifference in this, which I was sorry to find he did not like. I know not how far he meant to go, if we had been long together; but he found himself somewhat indisposed, and was obliged to go to bed.
    I sat down alone, and thought of Julia de Roubigné…

Like Mme de Roubigné, Savillon’s uncle goes to bed never to rise from it. Having inherited a fortune, Savillon himself embarks for France as soon as he can manage it, with only one thought on his mind. His correspondent at this point switches from M. Beauvaris to Mr Herbert, and for more reasons than one: when Savillon arrives in Paris, he discovers that Beauvaris has suddenly died. This shock is bad enough but, as we know, there is another in store…

While all this has been going on, there have been a few other interpolated letters—from Julia to Maria, and from de Montauban to Segarva: the former, trying to take her mother’s advice, has little say that isn’t superficial; the latter showing himself increasingly aware of the significant differences in temperament and character between himself and his wife. Guests, in the form of a M. de Rouillé and a Mme de Sancerre, drive the point home: de Montauban is often unable to enter into the spirit of their conversation, though his duty as a host requires him to at least seem pleased. He is particularly annoyed when he sees how the often “melancholy” Julia is brightened by de Rouillé’s cheerful and joking demeanour:

    Why should I allow this spleen of sense to disqualify me for society?—Once or twice I almost muttered things against my present situation.—Julia loves me; I know she does: She has that tenderness and gratitude, which will secure her affection to a husband, who loves her as I do; but she must often feel the difference of disposition between us. Had such a man as Rouillé been her husband—not Rouillé neither, though she seems often delighted with his good humour, when I cannot be pleased with it.—
    We are neither of us such a man as the writer of a romance would have made a husband for Julia.—There, is indeed, a pliability in the minds of women in this article, which frequently gains over opinion to the side of duty.—Duty is a cold word.—No matter, we will canvas it no farther. I know the purity of her bosom, and I think, I am not unworthy of its affection…

Perhaps not—but Julia’s “duty”, if not her “affection”, is about to be seriously challenged, and a new emotion reignite her correspondence:

    I have just now received a piece of intelligence, which I must beg my Maria instantly to satisfy me about. Le Blanc, my father’s servant, was here a few hours ago, and among other news, informed Lisette, that a nephew of his, who is just come with his master from Paris, met Savillon there, whom he perfectly remembered, from having seen him in his visits to his uncle at Belville. The lad had no time for enquiry, as his master’s carriage was just setting off, when he observed a chaise drive up to the door of the hotel, with a gentleman in it, whom he knew to be Savillon, accompanied by a valet de chambre, and two black servants on horseback.
    Think, Maria, what I feel at this intelligence!—Yet why should it alarm me?—Alas! you know this poor, weak, throbbing heart of mine! I cannot, if I would, hide it from you.—Find him out, for Heaven’s sake, Maria; tell me—yet what now is Savillon to your Julia?—No matter—do any thing your prudence may suggest; only satisfy me about the fate of this once dear—Again! I dare not trust myself on the subject—Mons. de Montauban! Farewell!

Maria and Savillon do meet in Paris; the outcome is reported to Mr Herbert:

    When I told you, my Beauvaris was no more, I thought I had exhausted the sum of distress, which this visit to Paris was to give me. I knew not then what fate had prepared for me—that Julia, on whom my doating heart had rested all its hopes of happiness;—that Julia is the wife of another!
    All but this I could have borne; the loss of fortune, the decay of health, the coldness of friends, might have admitted of hope; here only was despair to be found, and here I have found it!
    Oh! Herbert! she was so interwoven with my thoughts of futurity, that life now fades into a blank, and is not worth the keeping…

Maria, meanwhile, has the painful task of letting Julia know the truth:

    What do you tell me! Savillon in Paris! unmarried, unengaged, raving of Julia! Hide me from myself, Maria, hide me from myself—Am I not the wife of Montauban?—
    Yes, and I know that character which as the wife of Montauban, I have to support: Her husband’s honour and her own are in the breast of Julia. My heart swells, while I think of the station in which I am placed.—Relentless Honour! thou triest me to the uttermost; thou enjoinest me to think no more of such a being as Savillon.
    But can I think of him no more?—Cruel remembrances?—Thou too, my friend, betrayest me; you dare not trust me with the whole scene; but you tell me enough.—I see him, I see him now! He came, unconscious of what Fortune had made of me; he came, elate with the hopes of sharing with his Julia that wealth, which propitious Heaven had bestowed on him.—She is married to another!—I see him start back in amazement and despair; his eye wild and haggard, his voice lost in the throb of astonishment! He thinks on the shadows which his fond hopes had reared—the dreams of happiness!…

This passage is the most extravagant example of something that recurs throughout Julia de Roubigné, with the characters, Julia and de Montauban in particular – it’s the one thing they do have in common – able to summon up imaginary scenes more real to them than reality. For example, Julia’s early realisation of her love for Savillon came accompanied by a terrifying vision of confessing it to her father, to excuse her refusal of de Montauban: Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself…

This tendency that speaks back to the way in which the correspondence is organised within this epistolary novel, with the absence of responding letters making the emotional reality of Julia and de Montauban and Savillon its only reality. In Julia’s case, Mackenzie repeatedly places her outbursts against some piece of prosaic reality or unwelcome duty, in order to point out the growing distance between what she should be focused upon and what she is focused upon, and the danger inherent in her lack of emotional self-control. The warning conveyed when we were alerted to Julia’s habit of separating “thought” and “conduct” here comes to poisonous fruition.

Even before she learned that Savillon was not in fact married, Julia’s exact degree of success in driving him from her heart was conveyed to us in a letter from de Montauban:

I was last night abroad at supper: Julia was a-bed before my return. I found her lute lying on the table, and a music-book open by it. I could perceive the marks of tears shed on the paper, and the air was such as might encourage their falling: Sleep however had overcome her sadness, and she did not awake when I opened the curtains to look on her. When I had stood some moments, I heard her sigh strongly through her sleep, and presently she muttered some words, I know not of what import. I had sometimes heard her do so before, without regarding it much; but there was something that roused my attention now. I listened; she sighed again, and again spoke a few broken words; at last I heard her plainly pronounce the name Savillon, two or three times over, and each time it was accompanied with sighs so deep, that her heart seemed bursting as it heaved them…

Now, the fact that she could not bear to part with that miniature of Savillon comes back to bite her (and, by the way, we never do learn Maria’s thoughts on the subject):

    Segarva!—but it must be told—I blush even telling it to thee—have I lived to this?—that thou shouldst hear the name of Montauban coupled with dishonour!
    I came into my wife’s room yesterday morning, somewhat unexpectedly. I observed she had been weeping, though she put on her hat to conceal it and spoke in a tone of voice affectedly indifferent. Presently she went out on pretence of walking; I staid behind, not without surprise at her tears, though, I think, without suspicion; when turning over (in the careless way one does in musing) some loose papers on her dressing-table, I sound a picture of a young man in miniature, the glass of which was still wet with the tears she had shed on it. I have but a confused remembrance of my feelings at the time; there was a bewildered pause of thought, as if I had waked in another world…

His suspicions thoroughly awakened, de Montauban now sees guilt in every word and action of Julia; and (like so many 18th century male leads, though Henry Mackenzie at least has the grace not to call him “hero”) he seems to take a fierce pleasure in thinking the worst of the woman he is supposed to love. Here, de Montauban too shows his skill in conjuring up visions with which to torment himself:

    We dined alone, and I marked her closely; I saw, (by Heaven! I did) a fawning solicitude to please me, an attempt at the good-humour of innocence, to cover the embarrassment of guilt. I should have observed it, I am sure I should, even without a key; as it was, I could read her soul to the bottom.—Julia de Roubigné! the wife of Montauban!—Is it not so?
    I have had time to think.—You will recollect the circumstances of our marriage—her long unwillingness, her almost unconquerable reluctance.—Why did I marry her?
    Let me remember—I durst not trust the honest decision of my friend, but stole into this engagement without his knowledge; I purchased her consent, I bribed, I bought her; bought her, the leavings of another!—I will trace this line of infamy no further: There is madness in it!…

De Montauban’s Spanish upbringing now kicks in, at this perceived affront to his honour—an “honour” which doesn’t prevent him from setting his servant to spy on his wife, or from seeking intelligence about her amongst the other servants. Typically, though the vast majority of what he hears is capable (and rightly) of a perfectly innocent construction, it is the passing suggestion of Lisette that Julia once loved Savillon that de Montauban seizes upon; and from a childhood crush to the guilt of adultery is a small step in his disordered imagination. Lonquillez, the servant (Spanish, and therefore capable of stooping to anything in the name of his master’s honour), persuades de Montauban that Julia and Savillon must be corresponding, and that he should confirm his suspicions by intercepting their letters—

—a decision which coincides with the single exchange of letters between the two, with Savillon finally persuading Maria to send onto Julia a letter from himself begging for a single meeting, and Julia’s reply agreeing to it. The honourable de Montauban has no hesitation sending his discoveries to Segarva, in the name of self-justification:

    “I know not, Sir, how to answer the letter my friend Mademoiselle de Roncilles has just sent me from you. The intimacy of our former days I still recal, as one of the happiest periods of my life. The friendship of Julia you are certainly still entitled to, and might claim, without the suspicion of impropriety, though fate has now thrown her into the arms of another. There would then be no occasion for this secret interview, which, I confess, I cannot help dreading; but, as you urge the impossibility of your visiting Mons. de Montauban, without betraying emotions, which, you say, would be dangerous to the peace of us all, conjured as I am by these motives of compassion, which my heart is, perhaps, but too susceptible of for my own peace, I have at last, not without a feeling like remorse, resolved to meet you on Monday next, at the house of our old nurse Lasune, whom I shall prepare for the purpose, and on whose fidelity I can perfectly rely. I hope you will give me credit for that remembrance of Savillon, which your letter, rather unjustly, denies me, when you find me agreeing to this measure of imprudence, of danger, it may be of guilt, to mitigate the distress, which I have been unfortunate enough to give him.”
    I feel at this moment a sort of determined coolness, which the bending up of my mind to the revenge her crimes deserve, has confered upon me; I have therefore underlined some passages in this damned scroll, that my friend may see the weight of that proof on which I proceed. Mark the air of prudery that runs through it, the trick of voluptuous vice to give pleasure the zest of nicety and reluctance. “It may be of guilt.”—Mark with what coolness she invites him to participate it!—Is this the hand writing of Julia?—I am awake and see it.—Julia! my wife! damnation!

…all of which goes to show exactly how much de Montauban knows about the women he is married to. But then, we recall his low opinion of the female sex in general – the usual masculine self-fulfilling prophecy, which puts the worst possible construction upon everything on the flimsiest of evidence – and we see it in action when de Montauban calls upon the simple, kind-hearted old Lasune who (having nursed them both) thinks of Julia and Savillion both as her own children, and as brother and sister. But even here de Montauban sees only conscious guilt:

    Whether they have really imposed on the simplicity of this creature, I know not; but her answers to some distant questions of mine looked not like those of an accomplice of their guilt.—Or, rather, it is I who am deceived; the cunning of intrigue is the property of the meanest among the sex.—It matters not: I have proof without her.
    She conducted me into an inner room fitted up with a degree of nicety. On one side stood a bed, with curtains and a bed-cover of clean cotton. That bed, Segarva!… It looked as if the Beldame had trimmed it for their use—damn her! damn her! killing is poor—Canst thou not invent me some luxurious vengeance?

Segarva is, we gather, fully in sympathy with his friend’s homicidal rage; his only caution is that de Montauban should keep his revenge a secret, not in fear for himself, but so that general knowledge of Julia’s guilt should not posthumously tarnish his, ahem, “honour”:

I am less easily convinced, or rather I am less willing to be guided, by your opinion, as to the secrecy of her punishment. You tell me, that there is but one expiation of a wife’s infidelity.—I am resolved, she dies—but that the sacrifice should be secret. Were I even to upbraid her with her crime, you say, her tears, her protestations would outplead the conviction of sense itself, and I should become the dupe of that infamy I am bound to punish.—Is there not something like guilt in this secrecy? Should Montauban shrink, like a coward, from the vindication of his honour?—Should he not burst upon this strumpet and her lover—the picture is beastly—the sword of Montauban!—Thou art in the right, it would disgrace it…

Julia’s agreement to the meeting, however, has not come without agonies of doubt, and many changes of mind; her longing to see Savillon one last time battling with her painful consciousness that if she does so, she will no longer be able to draw that comforting if specious distinction between “thought” and “conduct”. At the last she accepts that she must not do it, and sends via Maria a message to Savillon telling him not to come.

The matter does not rest there, however: Maria, having been subjected to the full battery of Savillon’s own agonies, is overborne, and joins him in persuading Julia to a single meeting. Julia finds herself unable to resist temptation, when it comes from the person she is used to considering as the voice of reason:

    You intreat me, for pity’s sake, to meet him.—He hinted his design of soon leaving France to return to Martinique.—Why did he ever leave France? had he remained contented with love and Julia, instead of this stolen, this guilty meeting—What do I say?—I live but for Montauban!
    I will think no longer.—This one time I will silence the monitor within me…

The meeting, if impassioned, is of course innocent (despite the bed in the corner of the room):

I spoke of the duty I owed to Montauban, of the esteem which his virtues deserved.—“I have heard of his worth (said Savillon) I needed no proof to be convinced of it; he is the husband of Julia.”—There was something in the tone of these last words, that undid my resolution again.—I told him of the false intelligence I had received of his marriage, without which no argument of prudence, no paternal influence, could have made me the wife of another.—He put his hand to his heart, and threw his eyes wildly to Heaven.—I shrunk back at that look of despair, which his countenance assumed.—He took two or three hurried turns through the room; then, resuming his seat, and lowering his voice, “It is enough (said he) I am fated to be miserable! but the contagion of my destiny shall spread no farther.—This night I leave France forever!”

Overwhelmed by the emotion of their final parting (though not so much that she can’t write to Maria about it), Julia is again the victim of her imagination; and we reach the most thoroughly Gothicky bit of the novel:

    You know my presentiments of evil; never did I feel them so strong as at present. I tremble to go to bed—the taper that burns by me is dim, and methinks my bed looks like a grave!…
    My fears had given way to sleep; but their impression was on my fancy still. Methought I sat in our family monument at Belville, with a single glimmering lamp, that shewed the horrors of the place, when, on a sudden, a light like that of the morning, burst on the gloomy vault, and the venerable figures of my fathers, such as I had seen them in the pictures of our hall, stood smiling benignity upon me! The attitude of the foremost was that of attention, his finger resting upon his lip.—I listened—when sounds of more than terrestrial melody stole on my ear, borne, as it were on the distant wind, till they swelled at last to music so exquisite, that my ravished sense was stretched too far for delusion, and I awoke in the midst of the intrancement!…

…though of course, for once this may not be just imagination:

    Chance has been kind to me for the means. Once, in Andalusia, I met with a Venetian empiric, of whom, among other chymical curiosities, I bought a poisonous drug, the efficacy of which he shewed me on some animals to whom he administered it. The death it gave was easy, and altered not the appearance of the thing it killed.
    I have fetched it from my cabinet, and it stands before me. It is contained in a little square phial, marked with some hieroglyphic scrawls, which I do not understand. Methinks, while I look on it—I could be weak, very weak Segarva.—But an hour ago I saw her walk, and speak, and smile—yet these few drops!…

Julia de Roubigné is by no means—by NO means—the only novel of this period (not even amongst just those few we’ve examined in detail) to get its effects out of star-crossed lovers, misunderstanding and tragedy, or to wallow in the emotions of its own situations. The central premise, indeed, is very like that found in Elizabeth Griffith’s The History Of Lady Barton, which also has its heroine married to one man but in love with another. However, there seems to me to be a significant difference between this novel and most of its ilk, in its implicit condemnation of its characters and their behaviour. Most novels of “sensibility” seem to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that if you have “sensibility”, then the rules don’t apply to you: you’re “above” all that petty, day-to-day stuff. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find the heroes and heroines of such novels behaving with complete self-absorption, in a context exasperatingly free of criticism.

(Which is, of course, exactly the attitude that Jane Austen is attacking via Marianne Dashwood in Sense And Sensibility.)

It is this preening, and the accompanying tacit exemption from the ordinary obligations of life, that Henry Mackenzie takes issue with in Julia de Roubigné. Though he is by no means without sympathy for the way in which his characters have been trapped by circumstance, he obviously considers that they need to just bite the bullet. Julia’s privileging of her emotions is, in Mackenzie’s mind, a recipe for disaster; while her nursing of her feelings for Savillon after her marriage constitutes a real and serious violation of her duty. It is interesting, however, that Mackenzie does not consider Julia the only, or even the worst, offender. On the contrary, he clearly views de Montauban’s “honour” as another form of self-indulgent posturing—and one even more dangerous than the ordinary cultivation of “sensibility”. In this respect, the novel we have examined previously that is closest in spirit to Julia de Roubigné may be John Robinson’s Sydney St. Aubyn, which likewise casts a jaundiced eye over the hysterical self-pity of its misbehaving “hero”.

(In her introduction to the 1999 reissue of Julia de Roubigné, Susan Manning makes the wry point that the novel is, in effect, a version of Othello in which there is no Iago…because there is no need of an Iago.)

For all its effectiveness, there seems to me to be a flaw in Julia de Roubigné—which, ironically, concerns her flaw: it is not clear to me whether Mackenzie thinks that Julia’s “fatal flaw” lies in her marrying one man while loving another, or whether it is that, having done so, she is not able to smother her now-guilty love. Similarly, I’m not sure what to make of the silence that persists between Julia and Savillon prior to his departure for Martinique—his imposed by, sigh, “honour”, hers by “delicacy”. Whether or not Mackenzie intended a criticism of this prevailing societal norm, we cannot be other than painfully aware that if either of them had brought themselves to speak one single word at the time, then none of this would have happened.

(Mind you— Were Julia not so given to turning everything that might happen to her into some sort of dark fantasy, maybe she wouldn’t have been so quick to believe an unsubstantiated report from the other side of the world. I think we can interpret that with confidence.)

Nevertheless, within the context of the novel of sensibility, Julia de Roubigné is a fascinating anomaly; and even were it less successful than it is in offering didacticism in the guise of a familiar tear-jerker, it would still be a novel worth highlighting for its brave early stance on the subject of slavery: one of the first efforts indeed to carry the fight to that section of the public that preferred a novel to a pamphlet.