Posts tagged ‘20th century’

17/12/2016

The Holy Lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Wesley chooses to misinterpret this:

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

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

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

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

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

The blow is almost more than John Wesley can stand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

07/08/2015

Bellamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31/01/2015

A Duchess And Her Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20/09/2014

Three Men And A Maid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29/08/2014

Pamela’s Daughters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03/02/2013

…and then a step to the right.

QueenAfterDeath1The plan, nebulous at first, gradually assumed clearer shape. Pedro resolved that as there had been a spiritual and legal rehabilitation of Inez’s shattered reputation, he would give her poor murdered body a physical recognition of the memory in which he held her. He decided that he would give the dead Inez the honor that Fate had denied her in life. Through love for him she forfeited the respect of his country, and he had as far as he could purged the remembrance in which it held her, but that was not enough. Now he made his plans to compel to kneel at her dead feet that Portugal which had even denied her any deference while she lived. He was not satisfied that she should coldly sleep as other dead women slept. She was his heart’s princess during life, and without her even asking, he promised that she should some day be his wife. Now he would make her Portugal’s queen after death…

My visitors will have noticed that my escape from 1688, over which I gloated at the end of last year, has not been quite so clean-cut as I hoped. Apart from the fact that I still have two outstanding posts to get written (neither of them Chronobibliography, granted), I wasn’t immediately able to shake off the dust of 2012, with my talent for over-complication rearing its ugly head once again and holding me back.

In fact, the very act of gloating over escaping 1688 stopped me from actually doing it, my New Year’s viewing of Captain Blood leading me to compare and contrast the film with the novel upon which it was based. Meanwhile, I also succumbed to temptation in another direction and tracked down a copy of A Queen After Death by William Harman Black, which to the best of my knowledge is the only English-language work of fiction to deal with the story of Inés de Castro. The title of this 1933 novel gave me hopes that its author had bought into the colourfully gruesome alternative version of events. He did—but that’s about all it has going for it.

The overwhelming problem with A Queen After Death is one of style: Black doesn’t seem to be quite sure whether he wants to be writing history or whether he wants to be writing fiction, and so falls between two stools, writing fiction in a plodding, this-happened-then-that-happened sort of way that almost manages to make this outré story boring. I have no knowledge of the author beyond the existence of this novel, but on the evidence before me I feel I can safely surmise that he was unacquainted with the principle of composition generally rendered as Show, don’t tell.

In fact, A Queen After Death offers surprisingly little to the casual reader; while its main interest for me turned out to be the resources that Black drew upon in his writing, several of which, after my brief but comprehensive plunge into the Inés mythos, were a bit too obvious for comfort.

Only two aspects of this novel as a novel really struck me. The first is its emphasis upon the ages of Pedro and Inés, only twenty and seventeen respectively at the beginning of their affair—in other words, not much older than those perennial poster-children for reckless and ultimate fatal teenage passion, Romeo and Juliet. Mostly with a focus upon Constança but also with reference to Pedro, both of whom were engaged and unengaged and engaged again by their ambitious parents with no thought beyond political expediency, the novel does consider, although not in the depth we would prefer, the inevitable consequences of emotional young people being treated like trading-cards.

The other notable point is that on those rare occasions that William Black manages a genuinely striking bit of writing, it is usually a sideline to his main narrative; he seems to have been hampered by the facts even when he wasn’t strictly sticking to them. I did enjoy his portrait of Afonso IV, who is depicted as a staunch adherent of marital fidelity and whose anger with his son is as much about Pedro’s broken vows as it is about his disobedience and the potential political consequences. Intriguingly, however, Afonso’s rigidly practised fidelity to his wife is presented as a perverse way of thumbing his nose at the memory of his father, Denis, who was a a man of peace, a lover of nature and a poet at a time when such things were all but unheard of, and so managed to win a reputation for saintliness in spite of producing a swarm of illegitimate children. There is also a clear suggestion that Afonso’s long-suffering queen, Beatrice, would have preferred it if her husband had found some other way of rebelling against his father.

(And of course, he did: one of the ironies of this whole sorry story is that in his youth Afonso waged war against his father, exactly as Pedro would end up doing to him.)

This is not to say, however, that the novel’s two big set-pieces, the torture-deaths of two of Inés’ assassins and her coronation, are not “striking bits of writing”, merely that no novelist, whatever his limitations, could really fail to make an impression with the material at his disposal.

The post-mortem coronation aside, A Queen After Death sticks close enough in a general way  to the facts of the Inés story to obviate the need for a synopsis. The novel opens with the offer of a marital alliance between Pedro and Costanza (Constança) being sent from Alphonso (Afonso) IV of Portugal to Don Juan Manuel, Duke of Valeña, one of the most powerful noblemen in Castile. After some hesitation, Costanza accepts, attracted by the vision of herself as Queen of Portugal. She makes it a condition of her acceptance that she should be accompanied to Lisbon by her cousin and friend, Inez (Inés) de Castro.

In Black’s telling, Pedro and Costanza simply have no spark between them. In contrast, the attraction between Pedro and Inez is immediate and powerful – and obvious to most onlookers at court, who think the worst prematurely. The two struggle against their feelings for a year, avoiding one another as much as possible, until one day when for no specific reason they give in to their mutual passion. Subsequently, they separately and jointly defy church, crown and public opinion in pursuit of their love affair.

Around the bare bones of the story, Black weaves aspects of the various renderings of the Inés story – mostly the various fictional renderings (which strikes me as rather unethical). His choice for the villain of the piece was the first thing to properly catch my attention – in two different ways. Firstly, I realised that the character of Don Alvares de Goncales  in Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise and its English translations is supposed to be Álvaro Gonçalves, one of the three real-life executioners of Inés, and one of those later tortured and executed by Pedro. (Confusingly enough, Gonçalves is called Goncalvo here.) Secondly, Black tells the story exactly the same way as Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac but recasts the villain role, making it Diogo Lopes Pacheco whose love for Inez turns to hate when she spurns his advances and makes it clear that she prefers an illicit relationship with Pedro to honourable marriage with him. Given this, I was not exactly surprised to find Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise in Black’s bibiography – about which I shall have more to say presently – although he spells de Brilhac’s name incorrectly.

In the novel, it is her growing fear of Pacheco that prompts Inez to send for her half-brothers, Fernando and Alvarez Perez de Castro, hoping for their protection. As in reality, the friendship between the brothers and Pedro is perceived as a Castilian threat to Portugal; here, however, is is equally because the brothers encourage Pedro to neglect his duties for drinking and carousing when he must be away from Inez. Meeting anger and disapproval everywhere else he turns, Pedro finds the dissolute brothers a relief and does permit them to influence his behaviour for the worst.

Another slice of reality, and perhaps the aspect of the true history that most puzzles me, is that Black fudges the timeline of the story, compressing the events or evading the issue of how much time actually passed. Thus he never engages with the curious fact that the relationship between Pedro and Inés – and, you’d think, any concomitant political fallout – was fifteen years old when it was decided that Inés had to die. No-one to my knowledge has ever identified a specific reason why she was suddenly condemned to death. Not even Afonso’s desire for Pedro’s remarriage seems a sufficient explanation: Constança had been dead, and Pedro had been refusing another alliance, for ten years when Inés was so brutally removed from the picture. Perhaps something was going on in Castile at that time that made it seem imperative; or perhaps the precarious health of the Infante Ferdinand made Inés’ children look like more than a threat to the throne than usual. (But in that case, why kill her but not them?) The whole thing seems to me bewilderingly unmotivated.

Be that as it may, the novel’s account of the execution of Inés is one of the things that most caught my attention—inasmuch as its depiction of events is lifted wholesale from António Ferreira’s play The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro; although I imagine that the immediate source was the 1825 English translation of the play by T. M. Musgrave (condemned by John R. C. Martyn in the introduction of his translation as “an archaic and verbose rendering”). Thus we have a reluctant Alphonso being persuaded by Pacheco, Gonçalves and Pêro Coelho that Inez has to die for the good of Portugal; the only original (or rather, non-Ferreira-derived) touch is that Pacheco is clearly pursuing his own vengeance against Inez and Pedro. (Again, after fifteen years?) Alphonso and the courtiers ride to the palace at Coimbra (not mentioned in the text prior to this), but when confronted by the sight of the beautiful Inez with her children – his grandchildren, albeit illegitimate – Alphonso cannot go through with it. He and the others ride away, but they have not gotten far before Pacheco manages to change Alphonso’s mind back again. Alphonso washes his hands of the matter in the approved Pilate-esque manner, leaving the others to do as they will. They hurry back to the palace before the vacillating king can have second, or rather third, thoughts (which he does, but too late), and together stab Inez to death.

Which brings me back to a point I made in passing in my original post: if you want a post-mortem coronation, you cannot have Inés beheaded.

Pedro’s rebellion against his father follows, as well as his ascension to the throne in 1357. As you would expect, the novel picks up at this point, depicting Pedro’s obsession with the memory of Inez becoming a slow slide into madness. He broods over all the possible ways he might rehabilitate her reputation, and suddenly produces witnesses who swear to a gathering that includes the highest-ranking clerics in Portugal that they were present at the marriage of Pedro and Inez. This accomplished, and overtly accepted whatever the country’s private doubts, Pedro’s thoughts then turn to his revenge against the men who killed Inez. He enters into negotiations with Castile, and exchanges several Castilian prisoners for Goncalvo and Coelho; tipped off in time, Pacheco manages to get away, and lives in exile in France until Pedro’s death. (In-text, this is a frustrating turn of events given Pacheco’s casting as Inez’s deadly enemy.)

As far as A Queen After Death ever garnered any critical attention, it was not the coronation scene but the lengthy and gruesomely detailed account of the torture and execution of Goncalvo and Coelho that provoked a reaction:

As the effects of their free wine wore off, both Pedro and the executioner, with whom the king kept in touch by signals, saw that the crowd was sickening of this exhibition of inhumanity. Pedro resolved to end it with a combination of unparalleled hellishness… From the brazier the executioner took the red hot pincers and plucked off the ears of Coelho and the lips of Goncalvo. Goncalvo howled wild a wildcat, and again every blood vessel in his face seemed red and bursting. The muscles in his arms and across his chest twitched and swelled, but the man lived on. The blood spurted from  his mouth, and where his lips had been pulled out by the hot pincers there was a thick swollen piece of raw, bloody meat, smoking and smelling like flesh burning over hot, slow embers… As the executioner reached for one of the keen knives, Coelho regained consciousness for a moment. Lifting his head as high as the choking garotte would allow, he had just strength enough to say in a voice that was below the pitch of a whisper, but firm and masculine: “Here you will find a heart that is truer than a horse’s and stronger than a bullock’s.” As he said this he pointed to his left side and died with the fortitude of a soldier. In a moment the knife slit his skin like a thin piece of silk, and with the still smoking pincers his heart was plucked out and held aloft…

But even this doesn’t entirely sate Pedro:

His stormy heart raced and quivered at the thought of the loveliness that had been Inez, struck down by cowards’ blows with never a hand raised in her defense. When the full realization would sweep over him that he had indeed lost her forever, that never again would those lovely eyes be raised, brimming with love, to his, that he would never again hear her voice, never feel the touch of her hands, then the wild thing that leaped and coursed and yet was Pedro’s heart slowed down, almost ceased to beat, became a leaden thing, cold, like a heavy stone in his breast. Brooding and silent, he sat or walked alone, and out of the blackness of his despair, out of a loneliness and longing that carried him close to the vague line of madness, was born the idea that first struck his listeners with superstitious terror…

Pedro accordingly rounds up Portugal’s “masters of pageantry” and sets them to work planning the most elaborate and costly coronation the country has ever seen. He, meanwhile, travels to Coimbra to oversee the exhumation; although it is the unfortunate nuns of the convent next door to whom the task of dressing Inez falls. Placed back in her coffin, Inez forms the centrepiece of a procession that rolls slowly from Coimbra to Alcobaça, passing through numerous villages and attracting crowds of disbelieving peasants. The priests of the abbey at Alcobaça have followed their orders, and the coronation begins:

The loving hands of the sweet sisters again arranged the royal robe and tried to push the golden hair over the most revolting part of the features of Inez and strong soldiers bore her to a room in the monastery that was turned into a temporary reception hall. Under a canopy of flaming blue silk, two chairs of state were placed side by side, and into one of them the pitiful form of Inez was propped. After infinite trouble, the crown of Portugal, burnished for the occasion, which had not been worn since Pedro’s mother died, was placed on the toppling head of Pedro’s love. There stood at the back and at the side of the inert form two grandees who made certain that the body did not slip from the throne… Then, beginning with the Grand Seneschal, grandees, churchmen, soldiers, nobles, in a long procession passed the stiff form, and each with courtly bow made low obeisance by kissing the dead hand of Inez…

The carving of the elaborate marble tombs of Pedro and Inez follows; after which there is nothing much left for Pedro to do but lie down and die, which he does with a minimum of fuss.

All very romantic, I’m sure, provided you like your romance spiced up with torture and necrophilia (and who doesn’t?); yet for all of it, what stayed with me most about A Queen After Death was another, far more subtle tampering with the facts, a single betraying detail, which the novel tries to slide past in its early stages:

Pedro loved hawking, the chase, music, drinking, and the usual companions who attached themselves to a man who will someday be king. He could ride like a centaur; his bow was true, and his sword was strong. Indeed, his life already showed that his entire make-up was essentially Portuguese. He had boasted the Portuguese Doña Theresa Lourenco as his “official” mistress, and by him she had a son, afterwards King John I…

Except that John was born in 1357, two years after the execution of Inés.

Nothing ruins a good story like the facts, does it?

“The facts” bring me to the final telling aspect of this novel: it carries both extensive historical notes and a lengthy bibliography. It is not endnoted as such, but the notes do refer back to specific pages in the novel, reporting their various sources as they go. They begin enthusiastically, filling in historical details of Portugal and Castile and their many alliances and even more numerous conflicts. Curiously, however, as we get to the meat of A Queen After Death, they begin to trail away, with encyclopaedias and histories giving way to more populist texts—and when it comes to the all-important coronation scene, we find ourselves left with a single source:

George W. Young, Portugal Old And New. Clarendon Press, 1917.

Damn you, facts!

24/09/2011

For whom the book tolls…

Life being inconvenient, as it so often is, I’ve been trying not to dwell upon the fact that I’ve slipped behind in my review writing again. But no matter where I turn – or at least, no matter to which book I turn – I find an uncomfortable reminder of my unmet obligations. 

Outside the goalposts, I’ve been reading John Buchan’s Leithen Stories, a series of five novels connected by the presence of the character of Sir Edward Leithen. In the second volume, John Macnab, published in 1925, an aspiring politician is asked to make his first public appearance, and after freezing and forgetting every word of his conned speech, he blunders into an emotional and unrehearsed declaration of his feelings about things in general and England in particular:

It was a strange, inconsequent speech, but it had a curious appeal in it–the appeal of youth and candour and courage.  It was philosophy rather than politics, and ragged but arresting philosophy. He began by confessing that the war had left the world in a muddle, a muddle which affected his own mind.  The only cure was to be honest with oneself, and to refuse to accept specious nonsense and conventional jargon.  He told the story from Andersen of the Emperor’s New Suit.  “Our opponents call us Tories,” he said; “they can call us anything they jolly well please.  I am proud to be called a Tory.  I understand that the name was first given by Titus Oates to those who disbelieved in his Popish Plot. What we want to-day is Toryism–the courage to give the lie to impudent rogues.”

That was a bolt from the blue.

However, this passage was merely a teaser compared to the full-on assault on my guilt complex offered by Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris, the second volume in his “Herries Chronicles”, which is less like a hint that I should be catching up my blog reviews than it is a bizarre kind of family reunion.

Published in 1931 and set from 1774 – 1820, this novel is amazingly literary, if we use that word in its broadest sense. It teems with readers, and there are any number of references to hot-off-the-press works of non-fiction such as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Paine’s Age Of Reason, Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France and Rousseau’s Contrat Social. One character writes for the Gentleman’s Magazine; another has his life changed by the The Life Of John Wesley; while the appearance of a professional actress gives us a whirlwind tour of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But ultimately, novels and poetry predominate. A fit of righteous rage is described in the words of Ann Radcliffe: To speak in the terms of The Italian, he was ‘cold fury nobly seething’. Mrs Radcliffe wins a second mention when the heroine wakes from a strange dream with her mind in a bookish jumble: With confused notions of Mrs Radcliffe, a novel that the night before she had been reading, The Last Step; or The History Of Mrs Brudenal, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Isabella; or The Rewards Of Good Nature

We are introduced to the young John Herries, who at the age of fourteen…could read tales and poetry to himself by the hour. He would sit curled up in a corner somewhere and pray he would not be noticed. He had always detested Mangnall’s Questions, and Butler’s Guide To Useful Knowledge—for such things he had no use whatever, but Goldsmith’s History Of England he devoured in all its four volumes because of the thrilling detail in it. Then there was Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts In Prose And Verse, then Marmion, The Lay, the Waverleys, The Parents’ Assistant, The Fairchild Family and, secretly, obtained from some of the Forresters who lived in Bassenthwaite, many volumes of the Minerva Press, The Mysterious Hand, The Demon Of Society and the rest…

That’s my boy.

We also meet John’s mother, Jennifer, who keeps her children’s grotesquely unqualified tutor around because, among other reasons, he’s willing to entertain her by reading Minerva Press novels to her.

All sorts of literary figures flit across the pages of this novel. Robert Southey and Walter Scott appear in person, as do Sarah and Hartley Coleridge, although not their husband and father; while there are mentions of Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron. Francis Herries, while trying to support himself as a writer, becomes acquainted with Charles Lamb and Samuel Rogers; and it is the latter who introduces Francis to a young man destined to make his mark in the world:

    “This is Mr Macaulay, who is at Cambridge and will soon be having the world at his feet. Come, come, Macaulay. You know you will. You are as confident of it as I am.”
    The thick-set untidy youth raised a pair of very remarkable piercing eyes and began to talk with great eloquence and volubility. It was clear that he did not suffer from shyness… The loquacious youth had already forgotten him and was talking eagerly to Sumner about a book he held in his hand…

We are not made privy to the volume that has won the enthusiasm of the future Lord Macaulay, but I just know it was one of Mary Meeke’s novels…

But the crowning moment comes when Judith Paris calls upon some friends of hers, a tacitly lesbian middle-aged couple. She finds one of them sewing while the other reads a novel out loud:

    She knocked on the door, was admitted by their little maid Betty, and found them by the fire in the parlour, Miss West reading to Miss Pennyfeather from one of the novels of Mrs Cuthbertson.
    They were enchanted to see Judith.
    Miss West threw Mrs Cuthbertson on to the floor, crying in a deep bass voice: “This is Stuff!”

Oh, hey!!

So where did Hugh Walpole learn about the novels of Kitty Cuthbertson, which were long out of print by 1931? Possibly he found some old volumes in his family’s library—although all things considered, my best guess would be that he’d been reading The Life And Letters Of Macaulay, and thus learned about Cuthbertson – and Meeke – exactly the same way that we did.

Or, I suppose, he could have been reading Jane Austen’s letters

So there you have it: a sign from the ether that the universe is Not Best Pleased with my slackness, that I should be knuckling down to my exceedingly overdue review of Mary Meeke’s 1797 novel, Palmira And Ermance – and that it intends to keep pestering me until I do.

And furthermore that, having done so, I will be able to move on to the next novel in line for Authors In Depth—Kitty Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector.

Footnote:  The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterreanean Horrours!: A Romance by Augustus Jacob Crandolph and The Fairchild Family by Martha Sherwood were already on The List; but of The Demon Of Society, The Last Step and Isabella I can, alas, find no sign.

09/04/2011

Madame Margot: A Grotesque Legend Of Old Charleston

“Crouched in a high-backed chair sat a shriveled, dead-alive, mummy-like figure, as thin and fleshless as a skeleton,—an apparition, sinister, white, and wasted as a corpse new-risen from the grave. Its chin upon its folded hands, its hands about one knee, the knee upheld by the heel crooked at the chair-seat’s edge, the other gaunt leg dangling across the upraised foot, the spector smiled on Margot a bleak Saturnine smile. Its face was greatly wasted; all the life of it seemed gathered into the brilliant, terrible eyes, which blazed with infernal light, in a splendid scorn, without remorse, sardonical; a countenance such as God alone endures to look upon unmoved…”

The circumstances surrounding John Bennett’s 1921 retelling of the legend of Madame Margot are at least as interesting as the story itself, and as informative. Bennett, a native of Ohio, moved to Charleston in 1898 and not only fell in love with his new home but, most rarely in those days, fell in love with the reality he saw about him and not with the myth of “the Old South”.

Fascinated by the black culture of Charleston – and this at a time when to the vast majority of white people the notion that there could be such a thing as “black culture” was ridiculous, outrageous and even insulting – Bennett began to study the Gullah language spoken by the local black population and to collect spirituals and folk-tales, some of which emanated from Africa, and some which had grown up over the decades of slavery.

Immersed in his studies and entranced by the richness and beauty of the material he was gathering, Bennett evidently failed to perceive how far he was wandering from the realm of acceptable behaviour, or how infinitely differently the “nice” people of Charleston felt about such matters. Early in 1908, he found out. Having earned an early reputation for his writing on more mainstream topics, Bennett was invited to speak before the Federation of Women’s Clubs. He accepted, giving his talk the title of “Old and Grotesque Legends of Charleston”. It is fair to say that both the audience and John Bennett got more than they bargained for.

The centrepiece of Bennett’s talk was a recitation of the legend of Madame Margot, a story not only of illicit love, but of love across the colour barrier. Bennett saw only the passion and the beauty of the tale; the ladies of Charleston, however, saw a calculated insult, in which the guest speaker’s use of the scandalous word “chemise” was the final straw. And so John Bennett awoke the next day to find himself an outcast in his adopted home.

Several miserable years followed for Bennett, and he did not regain something of his standing until after America’s entry into WWI. This was a time of growing racial tension in Charleston, and after an outbreak of rioting local officials appealed to Bennett for help, as a white man who could “talk to the blacks”. Whatever Bennett may have thought of owing his invitation back into society to the same perceived transgression that saw him exiled in the first place, he did as he was asked; and in fact, Bennett’s reputation amongst the black population as an honest and unprejudiced individual allowed him to help resolve the conflict.

In the years immediately following the war, Charleston underwent great and rapid change. “Old Charleston”, as John Bennett saw, was disappearing fast, and this compelled him to try once more to preserve the old legends and folk-tales. Of all of them, however, it was still the story of Madame Margot that held him in thrall; and in 1921 John Bennett submitted his version of the tale for publication. Madame Margot: A Romance Of Old Charleston (Bennett’s publishers disliked his original subtitle) was praised by critics everywhere, and a commercial success in the northern states – but in the south it was déjà vu all over again, as Bennett’s tale was dismissed as “obviously the work of a Northerner” and Bennett himself as “no gentleman”.

Madame Margot is a strange and often disturbing work. John Bennett’s use of language is closer to poetry than prose, as he piles adjectives and descriptors on top of one another in an evocative rush that is sometimes intoxicating, sometimes frankly suffocating. Bennett may not have bought into the revisionism of “the Old South”, but his vision of Charleston is equally mythic. His tale takes place in a never-never land of endless summer, of flowers perpetually in bloom, and of young people chastely in love:

“Those were charmed days indeed. The town has changed since then. The world seems to have grown weary and gray, and the hearts of men bitter. The young were younger then; the old not so sorry for everything as they have been since. Then, someow, it seemed to be always summer morning, morning before the sun had burned the world to a dun crisp with his meridian heat, scorching bitter and blinding bright; before the advent of gasping afternoon with its languid leafage and evaporated sap. The calendar seemed to have paused among the daffodils, between the jessamine and the June, in that paradise of the year. The delicate and virginal camelia bloomed then, untarnished by rough wind or rain; its petals were sweet, which since then have grown so bitter…”

Everything is beautiful; everyone is beautiful; but most beautiful of all, with perhaps one exception, is Marguerite Lagoux, Charleston’s leading milliner and a woman of mystery…

“Her passionate, rich-colored, handsome face was like a line from an old enchantment, which took men’s souls captive, then cast them away without the least regret, or with a Circean spell that turned men into beasts. Her neck was a deep-colored, ivory tower poised perfectly over her breast. The dazzling orange-tawny skin of her broad bust turned to golden-russet before it reached her cheeks, and was there flushed to dusky rose, like the skin of a ruddy-gold peach. In the burnt splendor of her cheek the darkly eloquent blood in her veins made its golden proclamation…”

While it still upset Charleston, it is evident in the light of the novella’s history that the written version of Madame Margot is not quite the same story as John Bennett told to his shocked audience on that fatal afternoon in 1908. For one thing, the racial aspect is played down to the point of being almost unobservable, unless the reader is already aware of it. Madame Margot herself is known by a variety of names to her various classes of acquaintance – Marguerite, Rita, Margoton – evidence of her ultimate “unknowability”. She is a tawny beauty, but no clear reference is made to her mixed blood; except perhaps in that deliberately contradictory description of her neck as “deep-colored ivory”. In a passion, Margot breaks not into Gullah, but into French. The word “creole”, used to describe the community in which she dwells, is ambiguous, as indeed is Margot’s “darkly eloquent blood”.

Still more extreme, and more misleading, is Bennett’s description of Margot’s daughter, Gabrielle, whose golden beauty is so rapturous that it takes a full five pages to describe (Margot’s own takes three and a half). In this dizzying word-picture, the original significance of Gabrielle is quite lost. The tale that offended John Bennett’s audience was one of a love affair between a white man and a woman of mixed blood; their daughter, although like her mother condemned as “coloured” by the world outside, is a vision of golden perfection able, and with ease, to pass as white.

Or at least, she could if her mother ever allowed her to be seen. As it is, Margot and Gabrielle inhabit a tiny, enclosed cottage in a secret corner of Charleston, a house surrounded by high walls and thick vegetation, where Gabrielle matures and blossoms in secret, hidden from the world by her terrified mother, who can foresee none but a tragic fate for such transcendent beauty: “Ever before her imagining was Gabrielle, dishonored and betrayed, abandoned to scorn and poverty…”

And so Gabrielle lives a life of lonely innocence behind the barriers, the “cloistral hedges”, of her mother’s creation. Moved beyond words or understanding by the burgeoning loveliness of early spring, Gabrielle discovers a great yearning in her heart for something she does not understand and can barely give a name to, until the day when the inevitable happens:

“As she stood thus, brooding on life’s inexplicable theme, she was aware of a sudden shadow which fell on the grass beside her, and turned in voiceless terror. There was a face in the green hedge, smiling, two butterflies hovering over it,—a lad’s face, laughing and debonair, with yellow hair curling around it like crisp little golden flames… Gabrielle, startled and terrified, shrank back against the magnolia’s black bole, one trembling, hesitant hand extended in doubt. Speechless she stared at that bright, boyish face with its nimbus of sunlit, yellow hair, until her dry eyes gushed tears, dimming her sight,—stared in wonder and adoration…”

There is a shy reaching out, an embrace, a tender kiss, a promise of a further meeting… For Margot, one glance at her enraptured daughter is enough to tell the tale; the cloak of happiness that envelops Gabrielle repels her mother’s despairing railing against love as folly, as a lie, as the source of all wretchedness: “God keep you from it. Two parts are pain, two sorrow, and the other two parts are death…”

Margot has already prayed that Gabrielle be saved from this fate – “she prayed for her daughter as she had never prayed for herself” – and that night, as a violent storm builds, she throws herself down before her crucifix and implores heavenly intervention, first begging, then demanding, a sign from God that He has heard her prayer and will answer it. Hour after hour she prays, but no sign comes:

“Margot clung to the foot of the crucifix. ‘Pourquoi, O Dieu, rejettes-tu?’ she asked in a voice grown shriveled and thin. She crouched a moment, motionless, her head on one side, listening. There was no reply. Heaven maintained its brassy silence. Her face went gray; her eyes were hard as stones; she turned her back on the crucifix, saying, ‘I will call upon You no more.'”

And with that, Margot directs her prayers in another direction, towards someone terrifyingly prompt to answer them…and who does so in person…

We are left, in Madame Margot, to draw our own inferences about the life-history that drives Margot to this desperate pass; and here too there is a sense that John Bennett’s renovation of the story has interfered somewhat with its original intent. Clearly, Margot’s terror is rooted in her belief that her own sins are to be visited upon her daughter, her knowledge that Gabrielle, however immaculately innocent herself, is a child of sin. Yet this is contradicted somewhat in the text itself, where Margot’s cry to God that, “You breathed into her life; by your law she was made”, implies that Gabrielle was indeed born within wedlock, albeit a marriage kept secret, brief and unhappy.

This uncertainty about Gabrielle’s standing, along with the omission of any detail about the identity of her father, leads to an unsettling ambiguity. Margot’s anguished prayers finally settle into a mantra – “Plus blanche que la neige! Gabrielle, ma fille, mon Dieu! plus blanche que la neige!” – in which it is disturbingly unclear whether she is asking that Gabrielle be kept pure, “whiter than snow” – or that Gabrielle literally be turned white.

“Forgive in her my transgression; pardon in her my sins; deliver her from her inheritance…O my God!…let her be white!” she first prays to God; and then, when her re-directed prayers are answered, she begs for her “heart’s desire”: “That my daughter, Gabrielle, should be white to all eternity.”

At the time of John Bennett’s writing, the word “white” was used – by white people, of course – to imply not only purity, but honour; to “be white” was to behave in an honourable fashion. This jumbling of racial, social and linguistic issues and the triple-loading of the word “white” within the text makes it impossible to dissect out Bennett’s meaning here, or to be quite certain what it is that Margot is asking. Is Gabrielle’s “inheritance” her mother’s sin, or her mother’s blood? Or are the two inseparable? Does one signify the other? – and conversely, is to be white to be without sin?

With frightening promptitude, Margot’s prayers are answered. Gabrielle is whisked away to “a convent-school for orphaned girls kept by the nuns in New Orleans”, and there she remains until the memory of the golden boy has faded: “God made memory cruel, that men might know remorse; but the Devil devised forgetfulness, anodyne of regret.” She is in time married to a wealthy planter’s only son, and, “Secure in a faithful man’s unaltering love, she dwelt serene, in a country where the fruits of the earth and the flowers of the forest spread natural loveliness about fields of unsurpassed fertility. She never knew winter, want, nor war…”

(Given what we know or suspect of Gabrielle’s heritage, however, there is something singularly disturbing, in the midst of the account of her life of perfect happiness, about hearing that, “A thousand slaves were happy, being hers…”)

Margot’s bargain with her midnight visitor, then, yields the desired result; the promises made were kept. But there was another aspect to that dark agreement, and in due course, Margot must pay her outstanding debts. And if we are in doubt about how to interpret the language in which the bargain was struck in the first place, those doubts are perhaps resolved by the fact that, even as Gabrielle is kept whiter than snow, white to all eternity, her mother begins to change colour

“As unbleached muslin sallows to dingy isabella, as metal tarnishes from neglect, as white paper dulls in the sun, as the spot on bruised fruit turns brown, Margot Lagoux was changing; she was becoming tawny, swart, bisblanc as the Creoles say. Her golden-ruddy cheeks had turned a morbid olive-brown as if a somber fountain were playing in her blood… She changed like a portrait whose shadows, painted in bitumen, have struck through and distempered the rest. Like a strange, nocturnal creature she seemed to absorb the gloom. Her glorious eyes grew jaundiced; her rose-brown lips grew dun; the delicate webs that joined her fingers grew yellow as bakers’ saffron. Malice laughed at her thickening lips…”

26/12/2010

Prudence Of The Parsonage

      “It seems to me,” said Mrs. Adams, “that I know more about your sisters than I do about you. I feel more acquainted with them at present, than with you.”
     
“That’s so, too,” said Prudence, nodding. “But they are the ones that really count, you know. I’m just little Prudence of the Parsonage—but the others!”

The small town of Mount Mark, Iowa, looks on with interest as the new Methodist minister, the Reverend Mr Starr, moves into the parsonage with his brood of daughters. It is five years since Mrs Starr died, and the combined duties of mother and housekeeper have fallen to the eldest daughter, Prudence, who is now nineteen. Following her are sixteen-year-old Fairy, the clever one of the family; the thirteen-year-old twins, Lark and Carol, who specialise in stories and jokes; and solemn, nine-year-old Constance.

Delighted with their new posting, which comes with a large, rambling old house with a barn attached just made for games, the Starr family tries to settle into its new life, as the people of Mount Mark try in turn to adapt to this rambunctious brood, and a minister who likes jumping fences and romping with his family. The members of the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society shake their heads over Prudence and her unconventional household methods, but have to concede that she discharges her various duties with aplomb – except, perhaps, for certain episodes involving the twins, who have a talent for trouble.

Prudence has long since made up her mind that raising her sisters and getting them settled in life is her particular sacred trust, and that helping them to achieve their dreams must be the focus of her life, even at the cost of her own. Although Mr Starr expresses his misgivings over her selfless scheme, Prudence remains serenely committed to it until a bicycling accident throws her unexpectedly into acquaintanceship with a young man named Jerrold Harmer. Jerry has no doubt about his own feelings for Prudence, but she in her innocence is for some time unaware of hers for him – and when realisation dawns, Prudence finds herself, for the first time in her life, caught in a bitter struggle between her inclination and her duty…

Even though I feel rather churlish saying so, I have to admit that Prudence Of The Parsonage didn’t really work for me – although the fact that it didn’t probably says a lot more about me than it does about the novel. This story’s success depends very much upon the reader’s identification with its cheerfully self-effacing heroine, and I never managed to reach that point, mostly because I kept finding myself in disagreement with Prudence’s viewpoint and  methods.

(Of course, disagreeing with Prudence is tantamount to agreeing with the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society…which in the context of this novel is tantamount to being WRONG.)

Oh, heck. I suppose I’d better ‘fess up. Midway through the novel, Prudence catches the romantic interest of the young professor of entomology from the local college – much to her horror. She is repulsed by his profession generally, and not least when, while out on a walk, he tucks an interesting specimen into his pocket: she spends the rest of the ramble manoeuvring away from her escort and avoiding being touched by him. The reader is clearly supposed to consider Prudence’s reaction a demonstration of her proper femininity, but— Well, here’s the problem: I find insects fascinating – and I would very much enjoy being courted by a “buggy professor” with caterpillars in his pockets. Prudence and I had already had our differences by this point in the novel, and with this episode it became clear that she and I were never really going to see eye to eye.

But my own peculiar prejudices aside— Prudence Of The Parsonage was Ethel Hueston’s first novel, and it does show at various points in the book. Early on in particular, the good-humour of the Starr family is several times illustrated by them collapsing en masse into laughter, or reducing others to a similar state with their sayings and doings, but these scenes feel rather forced. A more serious problem is the presentation of Prudence, which similarly suffers from over-insistence on Hueston’s part. We can well believe that the modest Prudence considers herself the uninteresting and unimportant member of the family; the problem is her tendency to describe herself so to others. What was needed here was a course of show, don’t tell: Prudence’s repeated assertion of her own inferiority begins to feel like an exercise in fishing for compliments.

There is also – at least to me – an uncomfortable narrowness to the religious belief evinced by the various Starrs: they display very little tolerance or understanding towards anyone who does not share their particular view of life, but calmly condemn them as simply wrong. That said, the novel has an encouraging take on religious practice. Despite Mr Starr’s position, we never venture inside his church. Rather, there is an insistence upon the weaving of faith into all aspects of life, and not merely confining it to a few hours on Sunday. Prudence herself is much given to spontaneous prayer, regardless of time and place. Her first visitor from the Ladies’ Aid is taken aback when, dropping in to offer her assistance to the newcomers, she finds Prudence on her knees in the barn – offering fervent thanks for the barn:

“…As they walked slowly toward the house, Mrs Adam looked at this parsonage girl in frank curiosity and some dismay, which she strongly endeavoured to conceal from the bright-eyed Prudence. The Ladies had said it would be so nice to have a grown girl in the parsonage! Prudence was nineteen from all accounts, but she looked like a child and, well, it was not exactly proper for a grown-up to give thanks for a barn, to say the very least! Yet this girl had full charge of four younger children, and was further burdened with the entire care of a minister-father!

As the Starrs try to find their feet in Mount Mark, the town looks on, sometimes with amusement, often with consternation. Many of the incidents described reflect, I suspect, episodes in Ethel Hueston’s own early life. Prudence Of The Parsonage is heavily autobiographical, drawing on Hueston’s experiences as one of the numerous children of a Methodist minister – although from the novel’s dedication, we gather that there was a devoted mother in charge of the brood. Various passages in the novel have an unmistakeable authenticity. It is impossible, for instance, not to sympathise with Prudence’s rapturous response to the discovery that, for the first time, the Starr family will have both a proper bathroom and electricity:

“…Oh, father, the night after you wrote there was a bathroom, Constance thanked God for it when she said her prayers. And I couldn’t reprove her, for I felt the same way about it myself. It’ll be so splendid to have a whole tub to bathe in!…And electric lights!…I’m sure we’ll all feel much more religious in a parsonage that has a bathroom and electric lights! Oh, father!

Ethel Hueston’s alter-ego here is Lark, one of the twins, whose imagination leads her sisters into fun and adventure – and occasionally trouble. Lark plans a career as a novelist and is constantly on the look-out for “material”, spinning tales at the drop of a hat and using her story-telling ability to enliven – and sometimes avoid – the housework. Entirely credible is the dark and dangerous secret society, “Skull and Crossbones”, founded by the twins, which carries out its nefarious schemes in the depths of the Starrs’ barn, and to which the youngest child, Connie, is absolutely desperate to gain admission. Who could really blame the society’s ruling members for taking advantage of such an opportunity..?

Also amusingly believable is the sequence of events that brings Prudence to the crisis of her life. Reminded of her early passion for bicycling, Prudence borrows a machine from a neighbour. However, worried that her indulgence might be regarded as too undignified for a daughter of the parsonage, she sneaks out early one morning to have her fun unseen. A long sloping hill tempts her to some freestyle coasting – only for disaster to strike:

“…but as she neared the bottom, a disastrous and totally unexpected thing happened. The placid mule, which had been righteously grazing beside the fence, suddenly stalked into the middle of the road. Prudence screamed, jerked the handle-bar to the right, then to the left, and then, with a sickening thud, she landed head first upon some part of the mule’s anatomy…

The resulting tangle of girl, bike and mule leaves Prudence stranded, her means of transport badly damaged and her ankle sprained. (The mule is uninjured, I am happy to report.) Unable to help herself, and with her family unaware of her intentions, it is with overwhelming relief that Prudence hears the approach of a stranger, a young man out for an early walk. He first offers to go for help, but the distraught Prudence begs him not to leave her, but to wait with her until some means of transport happens by. He does so, and by the time a local farmer with a cart enters their vicinity, the lives of both young people have changed forever.

But of course, for Prudence it’s not that simple. For almost seven years her every waking thought has been devoted to the care of her father and sisters, and the idea that she might now pursue her own happiness at the expense of theirs is intolerable to her. Determined to keep her pledge to her family, Prudence sends Jerry away, at bitter emotional cost to herself. The struggle with herself has a serious affect upon her health, so that when a subsequent accident leaves her weak, bedridden and feverish, her family begins to fear that she may have sacrificed much more for them than just her happiness…

Prudence Of The Parsonage was a success for Ethel Hueston, and even though I have my issues with the novel, it is not hard to see why. It’s a perfectly sincere work, a deeply heartfelt tribute to Ethel Hueston’s parents and their way of life. The depiction of small-town life with its various pleasures and conflicts, and the attractions of the surrounding countryside, is entirely persuasive. Perhaps more significantly, however, the book was published in 1915, and it captures a world, that of pre-WWI America, that would soon be gone forever. The various naive references to the seemingly remote possibility of war, and the twins’ entirely unrealistic plans for a romantic career as war nurses, have a terrible poignancy about them. It is easy to imagine that, given the events of the following three years, many people found solace in this novel’s view of the world and its overtones of simple and abiding faith.

05/12/2010

It isn’t really cheating…

Again with the high numbers, Reading Gods??

You know…given the beautifully Gaussian distribution of The List, it is rather remarkable how much trouble I’m having not merely landing anywhere near its median publication date, but even in the same century!

While this apparent determination of the Reading Gods to keep me reading outside the declared timeframe of this blog is somewhat exasperating (I know – it’s my own fault for moving the goalposts), I have to say that this zig-zagging between Restoration politics and the lighter literature of the early 20th century is starting to do some rather interesting things to my brain.

But to return to the point— If it is a case of again with the high numbers, it is also a case of again with a refusal on the part of Yours Truly to read what the Reading Gods were trying to make me read – although I think for a good reason. This trip to the random number generator sent me to Ethel Hueston’s 1924 novel, Prudence’s Daughter. However, a little searching and investigation, and it soon became evident that there was a series of “Prudence” novels, and that the one I’d hit was the last of them. That seemed a little self-defeating, so I decided to read instead the first of them, Prudence Of The Parsonage, which was published in 1915. This turned out to be Hueston’s first novel, which suited my “in order” sensibilities very well. It also meant that I could borrow a copy from my academic library, instead of having to buy one – yay!

In her day, Ethel Hueston was both a prolific and a popular novelist. She was born in Iowa, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Charles Wesley Powelson, and a number of her novels, including the “Prudence” series, have strong autobiographical elements. She was a graduate of Iowa Wesleyan College, and was married three times. She began writing during her first marriage, and always retained the professional name of Hueston. From 1915 into the 1950s, she published more than 50 novels in a variety of genres, although her more personal ones seem also to have been the most popular. Searching for this information, it became evident that many people have fond memories of Ethel Hueston’s novels, particularly those individuals who read them in their childhood or teenage years.

We shall see.

In other news, this week my arch-enemy, Whoever-It-Was, finally returned the third volume of Mary Meeke’s Count St. Blancard. Take THAT, Reading Gods!!