Posts tagged ‘American’

16/03/2017

Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge

    Herbert called late in the afternoon. When he entered the room, by invitation, Madeline was supported by some pillows, in a half-reclining position, looking through the window at the setting sun, and the soft rays lingered upon her faded cheek, and cast a delicately beautiful, but melancholy, glow over her face.
    “Are you better?” tenderly asked Herbert.
    “I do not know, Mr. Leslie,” answered Madeline.
    “I was just thinking,” she continued, “that I should not mind to die if I could sink to rest as quietly as yonder sun glides away in its beautiful vermillion shroud. I love to look upon the serene face of nature, and imagine that I can see God smiling with goodness, mercy and love; and that I can see bright angels standing upon the craggy points of the snow-white little clouds that float dreamily in the blue sea: that I can see harps in their hands, and diadems upon their brows. Yes, I love nature. There is no dissimulation in the works of our Father. There is no deceit ‘graven upon Jehovah’s heart.'”
    Herbert’s head dropped upon his bosom. These words found their way to his heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 
I’ll say this for James Summerfield Slaughter: he wastes no time whatsoever letting us know exactly what’s in store for us during a reading of his 1859 novel, Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge. Allow me to quote in full his preface:

    We will not detain you, reader, with a long Preface. The author indulges the hope, that our first meeting in the relations of reader and writer may not be disagreeable. He will not disguise that it is with feelings of parental solicitude for a kindly greeting from generous hearts, that his little ideal “MADELINE” is sent abroad to distant home circles.
    The present work is no candidate for fame. If the views and sentiments it presents, shall gladden the hearts of a single wayward fellow-being, or whispers consolation to a mourner of earth, or give encouragement to one struggling for the cause of virtue, then the author will have sufficient recompense in knowing that he has contributed something to the noble and good influences that redeem the world from the thraldom of sin, and invest life with beauty, unequaled by those glittering stars in the purple throne of night, and a fragrance more grateful than the bright flowers of earth.

Slaughter is dead on the mark when he calls his novel “no candidate for fame”. Though at this time Americans had a great appetite for sensation novels, they had also had sufficient exposure to enough well-written ones to be able to discriminate; and despite the preening that lurks behind the mock humility of this preface, and the lofty claims made for the novel in its advertisements, I am unable to believe that the first readers of Madeline greeted it with anything other than guffaws, despite its impeccable Southern credentials.

I give the eponymous Madeline star-billing in the quote up above, but the sad truth is that for most of the narrative she is an almost entirely passive figure, sitting alone in her antebellum mansion and twiddling her thumbs while the plot – or “plot” – plays out elsewhere in the country. It is only towards the end, when the machinations of the wicked Herbert reach their climax, that she is given much to do in the story that bears her name.

The book opens with Madeline Lindsey being deserted by her brother, Albinus, who (without a hint of authorial criticism) has decided that exploring in the north-west is a lot more interesting than staying at home to care for his orphaned young sister and run their plantation, even if he gets killed in the process, which he seems fully to expect; and not content with this, he takes with him both his friend Douglas Hardy, who is secretly in love with Madeline but considers himself ineligible, and the plantation’s mainstay, a devoted old black servant called – I kid you not – “Uncle Tom”.

I’m sure you can imagine the tenor of Uncle Tom’s discourse and his general conduct, but just to make sure, here’s a sample:

    It was in one of these musings in his office, late one evening, as he was sitting by his desk arranging his affairs to leave for the North-West, that Uncle Tom entered with a message.
    “Is that you, Uncle Tom?” spoke Douglas kindly, “and what can I do for you? I suppose I must not forget to leave you some keep-sake to repay you, in part, for your kindness to me, and to take a pledge from you, that you will never forget to favour your young mistress.”
    Here Uncle Tom began to draw out his large cotton ‘kerchief, for the tears were already gushing in his eyes.
    “God bless you, massa Douglas! poor old Tom goin’ too. Just to think! he stay home and let massa Binus go way off, and be killed by the Injuns, and no body to nuss him and take care of him! Old Tom ‘tends to go with the darling. He’s de berry pictur ob old Massa.”

So, basically, the hell with Madeline: the three go off without arranging any sort of company or assistance for her. She manages to locate and hire a middle-aged couple, the Carsons, he to act as overseer, she as companion-housekeeper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its heroine’s isolated situation, we have progressed no further than page 8 before we get the first of the novel’s interpolated narratives, as Madeline asks Aunt Phebe, as she is known, for her life story. We learn that she was a native of Havana, and that while she was rescued from a fire at a theatre, her father was killed, leaving her an orphan—and an heiress. Her rescuer was a Mr Carson, with whom she promptly fell in love. An amusing recapitulation of Madeline’s own situation then occurs, with Phebe left alone at her father’s plantation and hiring a couple to work for her and keep her company. Also like Madeline (as it will later turn out), Phebe became subject to romantic persecution, with a fiery young Spaniard, Don Pedro Montie, whom she had already rejected, renewing his attentions. She rejects him again, with immediate consequences: she finds in her carriage a bullet dyed red, and attached to it a note reading, Beware the Spaniard’s revenge! She then learns that Mr Carson has been arrested:

I…told him that I desired him to find out the facts—the charge, and especially by whom preferred—and to report to me, enjoining him to keep the whole affair profoundly secret. He departed on his mission, and returned in a few hours. The charge, he stated to be conspiracy against the Government, preferred by Pedro Montie!

Duh, we might think. Turns out ol’ Pedro’s messing with the wrong woman, though: learning that Carson has been condemned to the chain-gang, Phebe sends her servant out again to find where he is held at night. Meanwhile, she makes her own preparations:

I drew the Red Bullet from my pocket, and retired to my father’s old desk and got a pistol that I knew to be there. When a girl, my father learned me to shoot with great accuracy. The pistol was loaded. I drew from the draw an ace of hearts—stepped back twenty paces—fired, and drove out the heart! The shot restored my confidence that I had not lost the skill with which I used to shoot. I returned to my room—charged the pistol—put in the Red Bullet

Phebe and her servant devise a scheme to break Carson out, but are surprised in the middle of the enterprise:

    “Ha, ha! Beware of a Spaniard’s revenge!”
    I recognised Pedro Montie by the first gleam of the lantern. In a moment, I replied—
    “Yes! and BEWARE OF THE RED BULLET!”
    My pistol was discharged. I saw the figure reel in the dim, gloomy light and heard a groan. Mr Carson was by my side. We leaped into the carriage and dashed away…

Now both fugitives, Phebe and Carson are forced to take refuge in a haunted castle…leading to an interpolated nattative within an interpolated narrative, and the story of a lovely young noblewoman being forced into a hateful marriage, and the brave but foolhardy page whom she really loved. On her marriage-day the bride chose rather to kill herself; lamentations over her body were startlingly interrupted:

    The sharp report of a pistol, followed by a stream of blood, sent a thrill of terror through the crowd of spectators. The father fell down upon the floor and cried wildly:
    “Retribution! Retribution!
    Don Leon staggered back, fell and expired.
    “Ha, ha! They thought to rob me of my lady love. I see her now!” His eyes was fixed wildly upon the ceiling. “I am coming, Adelaide!” and, as he spoke, he stabbed himself…

By the way, if you don’t come away from a reading of this blog post the same way I came away from a reading of this novel, namely, crying, “Ha, ha!” upon the flimsiest of pretexts, I shall be very disappointed in you.

Of course (as Madeline actually points out), this has nothing to do with anything, so instead Phebe recounts her own terrifying night in the haunted castle, where she encountered a madwoman believing herself to be the Prophetess of Fire and a chained up “man-monster”. As you do. The madwoman turned out be be an old friend of Phebe’s who was seduced and abandoned, and then lost her mind. (But don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation of the man-monster.)

Phebe and Carson – “Ben” to us now – find an American minister to marry them, and then flee Cuba, leaving all their worldly goods behind and taking with them Phebe’s own faithful servant, “Old Juan”. (Sigh.) Then three of them hop into a boat and set out to sail from Cuba to Florida—but of course get shipwrecked on a desert island on the way. They are rescued, make it eventually to New Orleans, and find work. Old Juan dies without lacerating our sensibilities any more; and then there is only one more incident to recount before Phebe wraps up her life-story:

“The other event was the loss of our child. We were blessed with a child, who gave us more pleasure than all the world besides.
Percy—that was his name—attained the age of twelve, was merry as a song-bird, and as sportive as the lambkin. One morning he went to the beach, drawn I suppose, by idle curiosity or pleasure; but never returned. We have no doubt that he was drowned…”

That, or he ran away upon discovering that his mother was in the habit of describing him to random strangers as “sportive as the lambkin”.

So, we’re about 30% of our way through Madeline now without its heroine doing much more than listening to stories, and since that’s not about to change any time soon, we (like her own brother) now abandon Madeline for the middle of nowhere, and are introduced to a young woman in every way more interesting than she is—even if she does have what I’m inclined to call “an obvious character flaw”:

White Fawn was the daughter of an Indian chief. She was just blooming into woman-hood—an intelligent, beautiful girl. You would hardly believe that she was an Indian. True, her cheeks were slightly bronzed—and very slightly—but her forehead and chin was perfectly fair; her face possessed a peculiar attraction; the contour was bold and well-marked; her eyes first drew your attention; her nose, you would admit, was beautiful; but when you beheld her hair float back from a broad, snowy forehead, you at once felt the magic of the beauty of an Indian girl…

…who within a single page of her introduction is spurning her would-be native husband for the attractions of a wandering white man and having oblique conversations with Chief Radiola about her paternity. Sigh.

Discovering that the spurned Hawk is plotting bloody revenge, White Fawn slips away through the snowy woods to where Albinus Lindsey, Douglas Hardy, Uncle Tom and a third white man to whom we are not immediately introduced are camped. The latter is the object of White Fawn’s passion. Upon receiving White Fawn’s warning, the men break camp and try to slip away, but are ambushed by Hawk and his followers, and White Fawn and her lover carried away. The others follow and manage an ambush of their own. They carry White Fawn back to her father, who immediately goes on the war-path against Hawk. The others agree to fight with him, but only after White Fawn’s still-nameless lover has, with her father’s consent, placed her with a family living at safe distance—and who, Could not readily believe, that she was an Indiansigh.

The conflict begins, and at the last moment Radiola’s men are reinforced:

He did not make his appearance until the silent moment that precedes the dreadful battle-shock. His equipage was very handsome, even dazzling. He wore a dark velvet frock-coat, beautifully and ingeniously inwrought with beads—bright military buttons and a red scarf—yellow buff pants and light, well formed boots that came to the knee; a beautiful belt encircled the waist, and a light, straightsword hung glittering by his side. The form was slender and extremely graceful. A mask concealed the face. He rode a wild, spirited black horse that stamped the earth and danced, while the rein fell carelessly upon the flowing mane…

In the middle of the ongoing war, the unnamed man is decoyed away and imprisoned. At this point the narrative lurches once again, and we are finally informed of his identity—and, oh surprise!—

    He is Percy Carson—the lost child. Wandering down to the beach on a beautiful spring morning, to view the many objects of attraction to be seen along the “sounding shore,” he met with a man who seemed to be selecting shells.
    “What is your name ?” asked the stranger.
    “Percy Carson, sir,” replied the lad, raising his bright eyes to the questioner’s face.
    The man started back as if an apparition was before him, and then recovering his self-possesion from the shock, assumed an air of perfect indifference. Like Lucifer, in the shape of a toad, to whisper in the ear of Eve while she reposed beneath the fragrant bower in the Garden—while the silver stars glittered above Paradise and trembled upon the four rivers, and the angel watchers winged through the mystic light—this man had assumed a shape, a countenance, not his own, and to beguile, like a lurking demon, an innocent child…

It is soon revealed that the Red Bullet didn’t finish its work:

This man is Don Montie. The infernal spirit of revenge has possessed him, as the unclean spirit possessed the man “who had his dwelling among the tombs” in the days of Christ. It has been his accursed incentive ever since his overtures to Phebe Laniz. He has now followed her to America to get another opportunity of glutting his terrible passion—to rob a mother’s heart of its dearest object. All of life’s aims and purposes, were swallowed up in the one thought—Revenge!

Despite what we might fear from all this, Don Pedro’s plan is merely to, Bind the noble-spirited boy with dark chains of dissipation, and then send him back to his doating mother—a captive of the Evil One: a process slow enough to allow for his rescue by another stranger, this one well-intentioned, who turns out to be Percy’s uncle-by-marriage.

We then hear the history of Mr Shelley and Aurelia Laniz, the latter of whom bore the brunt of Don Pedro’s anger after Ben and Phebe escaped. Using his influence, Don Pedro arrived at the Laniz estate to confiscate the family’s property, only to be thoroughly cowed by a lecture from the spirited Aurelia:

“It is false that my brother fled for the commission of a crime. It is meanly false that I have had any complicity in a conspiracy against the government of this Island. We were both, however, born too free, upon the soil of America, not to despise, upon the one hand, the grinding tyranny of the government, and, upon the other hand, the cowardly submission and servility of a large portion of the population; and had I power commensurate with my desire, I would drag down the regal fabric upon the heads of both tyrant and willing submission. There breathes not an American, animated by the genius of the free institutions of his native land, who does not abhor the vile vassalage imposed by the bloody minded mother government, and old Moro Castle with her bristling cannons, may one day yield as readily to American arms as the famed Castle of San Juan de Ulla did.”

Mr Shelley, a spectator of this scene, is swept off his feet by this patriotic eloquence—though he expresses his passion in practical terms, determining by law what part of the estate has been secured to Aurelia, and holding that when the rest is confiscated. The two are married, and for a time blissfully happy, until one day Aurelia dies suddenly—poisoned. The grieving Mr Shelley learns that he has had a narrow escape:

Mr Shelley would have met the same fate, but for the fact that he was perusing the daily journals, as was his custom, while his cup of tea was cooling. For years he had read the daily papers while sitting at the table by a smoking breakfast. To this habit he owed his life, in this instance.

Mr Shelley and Percy throw in their lots together and set off to make a new life for themselves.

(“What!?” I said out loud at this point. “Didn’t they even try to find his parents!?”—a question not answered for some considerable time, and as an obvious afterthought: “Oh, yeah! We, uh, we looked for them but they weren’t there. Sure, that’s what happened…”)

Anyway, somewhat surprisingly, Percy becomes an actor—and, At the age of twenty, he became what is called in theatrical parlance, “a star.”

But not everyone is a fan, and one night Percy has his performance interrupted by hissing, issuing from none other than Don Pedro—who seems to have moderated somewhat his ideas on “revenge”.

Percy, like his Aunt Aurelia, is undaunted:

“I can brook insults from so great a villain as Don Montie. It is a serpentine hiss, and I am willing that he shall roll in the slime and eat the dust of his own degradation.”

Percy goes on to denounce Don Pedro’s villainy and cowardice, until, with all eyes in the theatre upon him, Don Pedro cannot do other than respond with a challenge. To his dismay, Percy leaps at this:

    “I trust this large and respectable audience will remain perfectly quiet. I need not affirm that I have not been the cause of this uninteresting quarrel, but I wish you to witness its end. I accept your challenge,” he said, as he fixed his eyes fiercely upon Don Montie, “which was thrown out with the vain expectation that the time would be set in the future; but I prefer this moment—upon this stage, the place—repeaters, the weapons—across a pocket-handkerchief, the distance—we will need no seconds.”
    “Rash youth!” exclaimed one.
    “He’s a brave one!” answered the second.
    “He’ll do to let alone,” observed the third.
    In a moment suggestions ceased, and every one awaited, with breathless interest, to see the result.
    Don Montie sank down upon his seat, turning pale, and great drops of perspiration gathering upon his forehead. He essayed not to utter a word.
    “Coward! Coward!” ran through the audience.
    Percy bowed gracefully to the crowd, and retired under a shower of boquets…

The narrative then wrenches again, and we catch up with Don Pedro some months later. Another interpolated narrative, this one the life-story of Don Pedro and how he came to be eaten up by—Revenge!—a story peppered with vague references to various crimes committed in his past, some of which sound familiar to us. However, the centrepiece of the tale is Don Pedro’s repeated, La Belle Dame Sans Merci encounters with a strange woman (who we sort-of recognise as the Prophetess of Fire), who again and again ambushed him while he was riding, leaping up behind his saddle and forcing him to ride wildly by holding a knife to his throat.

And in the very midst of Don Pedro’s reflections, the woman appears to him again—this time forcing him into the burial vault of an old and noble Spanish family:

    The view was at once awful—they were in a charnal-house—a Golgotha. Human bones lay profusely about, while in the centre there was a heap of bones some two or three feet high.
    “Now, sir,” spoke the woman, as they came to the vault, “I have brought you hither to show you the place where your bones will soon be piled. No grave yard shall be your resting place, but here your body shall remain until the day of final accounts. Do you know
me?”
    Don Montie shook his head solemnly in reply to the interrogation.
    “Ah! you feign forgetfulness of one whom you injured—victimised—robbed of her chastity,” continued the woman, and there was a fearful emphasis in her expression… “You have lived only to persecute—to blast the happiness of others—to lurk about and accomplish mischief—to war upon women and children! You are a murderer—a forger—and—and—”
    The woman paused for a moment, and laughed frantically, and then continued—
    “A seducer! You turned me loose upon the world, covered with shame and scorn and misery; blasted—robbed of hope—debarred from virtuous society—with no claim for sympathy, while you mingled in the festive throng, and was admitted in society—and all the while you laughed at the credulity of woman. You shall now realise that a woman, weak though she may be, is yet strong enough and capable of avenging herself…”

And so Don Pedro meets an appropriately gruesome end.

The narrative (some 50% passed) then jumps back to—gasp!—the story of Madeline Lindsey. Remember her? Her author finally did:

This scene is going on at Woodland. Madeline and Douglas Hardy have been engaged over twelve months. He has been in the North-west, with his friends, nearly two years.

Thanks for sharing; this is the first we’ve heard about it.

But all is not well between Madeline and the man who prefers wandering around pointlessly in the snow to spending time with her. His letters complain (ironically enough) of her coldness, and demand that they break their engagement. Madeline is angry and indignant, as well as miserable and confused: she endures a state of suffering relieved only by the friendship of a young man called Herbert Leslie, who likes to read poetry with her.

That old ploy.

It is soon revealed to us that between desire for Madeline and desire for her property and fortune, Herbert has launched upon an elaborate scheme to break up her relationship (such as it is) with Douglas, intercepting their letters and getting a useful forger-friend to substitute some of his own composition. The forger, Tom Martin, is (fittingly enough) getting cold feet, but Herbert scoffs at his scruples:

“I will undeceive her when I have succeeded, and the joke has gone far enough for all practical purposes. By that time I will have established my claims as a good husband, and we will laugh it all over as a clever bit of pleasantry. It will no doubt divert her, that you could so successfully counterfeit Douglas Hardy’s handwriting.”

Madeline is deceived by Herbert’s insinuating demeanour; Aunt Phebe is glad of anything that can cheer her up these days; but Ben Carson has suspicions that receive support from an anonymous letter denouncing Herbert as “a monster” and warning of a plot against Madeline. Until now Ben has not been informed of the situation with Douglas, but when an anguished Madeline reveals it he puts two and two together and decides that Herbert has somehow had a hand in things. Madeline rejects this idea, but the suggestion that she has a false friend as well as a false lover is too much for her, and her health begins to fail. It is not long before Herbert has reason to fear he has seriously overreached himself…

In a moment of overwhelming guilt, Herbert confesses. The revelation is a blow that Madeline cannot withstand in her already enfeebled condition. Soon the household is gathered about what they expect to be her death-bed…

…and the narrative jumps back to the North-West, where in the middle of bemoaning Madeline’s conduct towards him, Douglas receives a letter alerting him to the truth, and sets out at once for Woodland…

…and the narrative abandons both of them to follow the adventures of Albinus Lindsey, who we shall give the benefit of the doubt for the moment and assume doesn’t know about his sister’s situation, since the text never bothers to verify that point. He encounters an old friend of the family and accepts an invitation to his home, Clifton Hill.

Mr Wolsey, a year earlier, married a widow with four children; he has since learned not only to resent his step-children, but to be actively cruel to them: among other things, using their money, of which he is trustee, for his own children’s advantage:

Mr Wolsey had cherished a secret prejudice against the Leighton orphans, and all because they elicited more attention from the public than his own children. How revolting, that a man should have prejudice against an innocent, fatherless child! How terrible must be the curse that awaits such a being. Alone in the world, untaught in the great business of life, with no great throbbing heart of sympathy to lean upon when fever racks the brain and gives hot eye-balls! Vile man! to feel no kindly impulse for the orphan in your charge!

(Unexpectedly, and one of the few genuinely interesting things in this silly novel, the narrative will later contend that Mrs Wolsey’s first duty was to her children, and that she should have left her husband when she saw his attitude towards them.)

Almost immediately, Wolsey begins making plans for Albinus and his daughter, Louise. Albinus, however, has rediscovered a childhood friend in the youngest of the Leightons (although given what must be the age gap between them, the subsequent description of how they used to “romp together in the woods” has an uncomfortable edge; however—):

Nannie was a simple child of nature. Her heart knew no guile. She never knew the artfulness of society—the cunning and address of the world, but her heart and hands were as pure as the riven snow of the mountains. Her face was full and fair, and tinged with the healthful life-current that bounded through vein and artery; her wavy, tressy hair was as dark as a raven’s; her lips soft and delicate, and her form was perfect and graceful. She deserved to be called “Pretty Nannie.” She was known far away for her beauty, gentleness and intelligence. Her life was as quiet and even as the little brook that flows along its smooth channel, and murmurs its pleasing, rippling song, and kisses the flowers that bow their delicate faces to the stream for a grateful drop. But in the hidden depths of her heart were glorious sentiments—worthy, noble, pure, holy sentiments!

Sorry—I’m with Mr Wolsey on this one.

Albinus and Nannie go walking together and, when Albinus expresses admiration of a “grand peak” in the district, Nannie is moved to offer an interpolated narrative—that of “The Man Of The Rock”, a wanderer who, in his youth, fell in love with the same girl as his brother, and killed him in a jealous rage. After many years of bitter repentance, the man fell in love with a pretty Italian flower-seller (as you do), and finally overcame both her mother’s doubts and his own feeling that he deserved no happiness in life, and married her. The two had a daughter, but Gabriella died. After placing his child—somewhere—the man returned to the mountains where he and his wife had been happy, and jumped off a cliff…

The narrative then lurches back to Woodland—where Douglas Hardy arrives in time only to hold Madeline’s dead body in his arms…and promptly loses his mind. He is locked up for his own safety while her burial is conducted, but no sooner has he been freed than he undertakes a little body-snatching…

Just as well, too:

    There was the verification—a figure before them, in burial habiliments sitting up and possessed of life.
    “This is a strange world!” began the ghostly figure. “How strange!”
    “It’s Madeline Lindsey!” exclaimed several…
    The dead’s alive! She had been lowered into the silent grave as dead, was resurrected to life—for she moves and breathes and speaks…

It turns out that Herbert Leslie drugged Madeline with something that brought on the appearance of death, that Tom Martin warned everyone frantically that she wasn’t dead, only drugged, and that the doctors and undertakers went ahead anyway, in spite of everyone agreeing that “she did not look dead”, and a corpse that “retained something of a perspiration, and the colour of life”—yike!

Douglas (whose resurrection-work goes politely unremarked) hunts down Herbert and is about to murder him when a mysterious old man intervenes, arguing that he should allow Herbert to be “blasted by God’s vengeance” instead.

As for our undead heroine—

One month from the occurrences just narrated, she was completely restored to her wonted vivacity of feeling and vigorous, blooming health; so entirely that Douglas Hardy again took his leave of Woodland to return to the North-West…

To be fair, this time there’s some excuse for him: he doesn’t know what has happened to either Albinus or Percy. Surprisingly, the narrative stays with Madeline, who gets lost while out riding. With a violent storm coming, she finds herself in a steep, rocky ravine, and makes her way into a winding, secret cave—which turns out to be a bandit’s hideout. While she (and her horse) are hiding in a narrow tunnel, she overhears two of the bandits discussing their latest recruit—none other than Herbert Leslie. She learns to her horror of another plot against herself, when the bandits express doubts about “warring on women”, and hears to her confusion a reference to her father:

“I think—I know that my father died at sea, when I was a child. So I have always heard, and had it not been true, he would certainly have appeared in the interim of fifteen years…”

Oh, certainly! Madeline tries to convince herself that some other girl, lucky enough to have a father, is the target of the plot. She also starts looking for an escape route from the cave, carefully eluding the bandits as she (and her horse) try to find another way out. She glimpses a distant ray of light—hears strange music—and eventually finds herself confronted by a woman who, having been seduced and abandoned by one of the bandits, chose to stay in the cave rather than face the world again. The miserable woman tells Madeline that there are other ways out, but she doesn’t know where they are; so Madeline (and her horse) press on, only to be confronted by—a bear! Madeline has a pistol with her, and arms herself, but before she can take action—her horse springs into action!

You wondered why her horse was being dragged through all this, didn’t you??

Madeline and Snow Ball between them manage to overcome the bear, but their troubles are hardly over:

    “Ha! we have met!” exclaimed a voice near.
    Madeline started up with affright and turned to see who it was that spoke. It was Herbert Leslie!

Snow Ball again intervenes, and this time, sadly, gets a bullet in the chest for her pains. But before Herbert can carry out his nefarious intentions towards Madeline, he gets a bullet in his chest:

    Madeline raised her head to discover from whence her deliverance came. Upon the bank above, just on the verge of the channel stood an old man with a rifle in his hand, apparently as collected as if nothing had occurred.
    “I will draw you up in a basket,” spoke the man above.

Herbert dies, but not before confessing that (i) he already has a wife, and (ii) he was the one who seduced the woman in the cave. The old man, meanwhile, as he helps Madeline out, admits that he is the one who intervened to save Herbert from Douglas, but won’t say any more.

We then lurch back to Douglas, who is talking to a no-longer-captive Percy. The two men exchange stories, the latter explaining that he owes both his own preservation and the conclusion of the conflict to the mysterious masked warrior—and that, oh gosh, no-one’s seen or heard anything of White Fawn since Percy left her with his friends. Funny, that.

Percy does find her again, though, with Radiola, who gives his consent to their marriage; which is to happen at Woodland due to the insistence of Albinus—last seen on a mountain with Pretty Nannie. Douglas now thinks to mention that there are two people called “Carson” at Woodland, though Percy doesn’t think they can be anything to do with him, despite the fact that the woman exactly matches the description of his mother and her name is “Phebe”.

We then catch up with Albinus—or rather Nannie, on whose behalf a couple of cousins have intervened, taking her away from Wolsey on a visit, and then facilitating her elopement. She, White Fawn and the three young men set out together:

Merrily the party conversed—wit and humour passed around. As they were thus rattling away, they were suddenly aroused by a band of highwaymen.

It happens, right? Percy is slightly injured in the ensuing fight, and White Fawn is abducted. Albinus and Nannie continue the journey to Woodland, while Percy and Douglas set out in pursuit; falling in with a small band of trappers, who join with them in their rescue attempt.

White Fawn is carried to the isolated villa of a Spaniard called Gonzoles, for no apparent reason (except that our author is clearly struggling to meet his word count; this was written for serialisation, remember?). We roll our eyes through a lot of highwayman blather, Percy demands White Fawn of Gonzoles, and he hands her over.

Percy, White Fawn and Douglas catch up with Albinus and Nannie at St Louis, and they all set out again together. They make another friend upon the way, one LeRoy Pennance, an elderly man travelling south, and invite him to join them at Woodland. There, Percy and the Carsons rediscover each other; while two more elderly men turn up from nowhere and are invited to stay for no reason.

We are now two pages from the end of Madeline, and from here I think I’ll let the text speak for itself:

*******************

    “LeRoy Pennance!?” exclaimed one of the strangers.
    “Ay! why?” was the answer.
    “And who is this ?” inquired the first speaker, evincing great agitation.
    “I cannot tell,” answered Mr Pennance—“who are you?”
    “Hampton Lindsey,” he answered.
    “What! Hampton Lindsey?” exclaimed the other.
    “Hampton Lindsey!” exclaimed the third stranger.

*******************

    “My Father !” exclaimed Madeline, and she rushed into the arms of Lindsey. He sustained her for some minutes, and then, looking earnestly into her face, said:
    “No, Madeline! I am not your father; but he is here;” and the speaker turned and pointed to Mr. Pennance. “Here is your father. Your name is not Lindsey, as you have supposed, but Pennance!”

*******************

    “Who was my mother?” enquired Madeline.

*******************

    “Hampton, do you not know me?”
    “Jerrald! thank God, the reunion is perfect.”
    “Forgive me, Hampton !”
    “In the name of God, I do.”
    The brothers embraced.
    “De Lord knows! here’s massa Jerrald—after jumping off ob de rock at Clifton—”
    “Clifton Height!”” exclaimed Nannie.
    “Clifton Height!” joined White Fawn and Albinus Lindsey.
    “How’s this?” asked Douglas Hardy.
    “Wonders will never cease,” remarked Percy Carson.
    “What of my child?” asked Jerrald Lindsey of Uncle Tom.    
    “Here she is !” replied the old servant gathering White Fawn in his arms. “Dis is de child, Gabriella,” and he bore her to her real father, Jerrald Lindsey.

*******************

    “And what of—of—what of—Mary?” asked Jerrald of his brother.
    “Ah! that is a painful question,” answered Hampton, “but this is the proper time to answer it,” and as he spoke he regarded LeRoy Pennance earnestly. “She became the wife of my friend, Pennance, and he was an affectionate, kind, indulgent husband, and their union was blessed with the birth of Madeline—but distrusting and jealous by nature, she doubted her trust-worthy husband. She left him, fled to disgrace and infamy. Madeline was left to my charge. By her father’s request she was to pass as my daughter until she became old enough to know and consider properly the facts connected with her unfortunate mother. But let us pass them now, since Mary has long since paid the great debt of nature which, sooner or later, all of us must discharge.”

*******************

    The evening following, witnessed the marriage of the three happy couples.
    Our story is finished.

*******************

And so bewildering is this rush of revelations, enough to sustain any self-respecting soap opera through about five seasons, that we might well think so; but a moment’s reflection informs us that:

(1) We don’t know who the chained-up man-monster was;
(2) We don’t know what happened to Mr Shelley;
(3) We don’t know how Percy came to be wandering around in the north-west;
(4) We have no fricking idea how Gabriella Lindsey became White Fawn, daughter of Chief Radiola;
(5) We never get confirmation that White Fawn and the Masked Warrior are one and the same;
(6) We never find out which of the three elderly men was the person who intervened to stop Douglas killing Herbert, subsequently killed Herbert himself, and rescued Madeline; or if it was someone else altogether.

And yet we get to sit through three pages of highwayman blather

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15/03/2017

Spoilers. Literally.

I’ve noticed a dismaying trend emerging in my random reading for this blog—namely, the worse and/or more gigglesome a novel is, the sadder the story behind it. Whether this is the universe punishing me for laughing at things that were intended to be taken seriously or just an odd coincidence I couldn’t say, but it sure is starting to spoil my fun.

Most obvious case in point? The hilarious Munster Abbey, whose mind-boggling blending of sentiment and cold hard cash and myriad absurdities were enough to fill out three lengthy blog posts—and which turned out to be a posthumous work, the only novel of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, who died at the age of twenty-six, leaving his young widow to oversee the publication of his manuscript

And even the last novel I examined here, Ermina Montrose, had a story of fraud, suicide and poverty lurking behind its literary failings.

This time the work in question is an American novel from 1859: Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge by James Summerfield Slaughter. The novel itself is both absurdly plotted and poorly written, lurching from improbability to improbability. I snickered my way through it, sat down to try and find out something about its author—and immediately learned that he had committed suicide at a fairly early age.

Thanks, Universe.

There isn’t a lot on the record about the life of James Summerfield Slaughter, who tends to be alluded to in the context of other people rather than spoken about in his own right. He worked chiefly as an editor for various newspapers and periodicals, and wrote for the latter himself, mostly short stories. We gather he underwent something of a revolution in his political convictions: he is first mentioned as a “Know-Nothing”, a party which was anti-slavery inasmuch as its adherents believed that slavery undercut the rights of white workers; but when he next surfaced, Slaughter was hand-in-glove with the Alabama Fire-Eaters, a radical pro-slavery faction that fought to reopen the international slave trade, and which hid secessionist plans behind a facade of “states’ rights”—or at least, they did until James Summerfield Slaughter entered the picture.

At some point Slaughter had become friends with William Lowndes Yancey, a former Alabama Congressman. Both men were natives of Georgia, both had relocated to Alabama; Yancey, one of the Fire-Eaters, apparently saw Slaughter as a useful tool in the recruitment of new members to his “League of United Southerners”. However, he reckoned without his young friend’s capacity for indiscretion. In June 1858, Yancey wrote to Slaughter, stating his political views with alarming frankness; Slaughter, in a fit of enthusiasm, allowed the letter to be published:

No National Party can save us; no Sectional Party can do it. But if we could do as our fathers did, organise “Committees of Safety” all over the cotton states (and it is only in them that we can hope of any effective movement) we shall fire the Southern heart—instruct the Southern mind—give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organised, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into a revolution.

This passage was leapt upon by all factions in the growing political maelstrom, lauded in some quarters, held up as a dire warning in others. Horace Greeley, in the New York Tribune, dubbed the document “The Scarlet Letter”. As such it has gone down in history, with James Summerfield Slaughter achieving a tiny slice of immortality not for his literary accomplishments, but as the recipient of Yancey’s letter.

Both men suffered in the subsequent fall-out, Yancey – though not regretting the spotlight – asserting that he had dashed the letter off in a hurry and implied more than he meant, Slaughter excusing his indiscretion and denying in a series of letters to the newspapers that he held secessionist views.

Having made Alabama too hot to hold him, Slaughter soon returned to Georgia. The next concrete information I have been able to discover about him comes apropos of his brief connection with Mary Edwards Bryan, the journalist and author, who was appointed editor-in-chief of the magazine, the Georgia Literary and Temperance Crusader, in 1858, before she was twenty years old. Bryan arrived in Atlanta at around the time that Slaughter began working for a local newspaper, the National American—and that he married a local beauty bearing the fabulous name of Taccoah Badger.

It was in the Georgia Literary and Temperance Crusader that Slaughter’s only novel was serialised, early in 1859, before being published in book form shortly afterwards. While we can find assertions (or at least, an assertion) of its success and popularity, it is clear that these were not attributable to any literary merit. As this advertisement from the magazine, the Virginia Index, makes amusingly clear, the crux of the matter was that Slaughter’s Madeline was the first novel to be written and published in Atlanta:

(We note that despite the bland subtitle used in this ad, in both serial and novel form Madeline carried the far more enticing one, Love, Treachery And Revenge.)

After this, however, Slaughter drops out of the public record—until the Atlanta Confederacy of 9th August 1860 carried a report of his death. The news was picked up and reprinted around the country, invariably including the original item’s reference to “The Scarlet Letter”, and sometimes with the suggestion that the scandal was responsible for the “fit of melancholy” to which his death was attributed. It was only the New York Times that was unkindly moved to add the rider, As far as he is remembered…although we cannot say that history has not proven them correct:


(Original notice, reprinted in the Newbern Daily Progress of North Carolina, 18th August 1860)

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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…

.

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?

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…

13/07/2012

The sensational Miss Braddon

Off-blog, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately; not merely Golden Age, but Silver and Bronze as well. And since I’m apparently genetically incapable of simply reading anything, this side-hobby has turned into an investigation into the evolution of the detective novel. The fact that the majority of mystery novelists took pride in the accuracy of their stories makes these early novels a fascinating repository of information about the process of law and the state of criminal investigation in both Britain and the States at the time of their publication. Did you know, for example, that although the technique was officially adopted at the turn of the century in England, it was well into the 1920s before fingerprints were widely employed as an investigative tool in America?

Inevitably, this course of steady-ish reading has also found me creeping ever further backwards, trying to determine “the first” detective novel on both sides of the Atlantic—an exercise in wading in intriguingly muddy waters. It is evident that the detective story, that is, the short story that dominated this school of fiction through the second half of the 19th century, and the detective novel evolved down two quite distinct pathways; and while the latter was necessarily influenced by the former, it did not grow out of it. Instead, the detective novel was an offshoot of the sensation novel, which appeared as a recognisable genre during the 1850s.

It is easy enough to see how this came about: the sensation novel was often about a central mystery, the unravelling of a dark secret by circumstances; all that was required was for an individual, either amateur or professional, to devote himself—or herself—to the deliberate pursuit of a secret. Understandably, then, in the early days the line between “the mystery novel” and “the detective novel” is drawn in shades of grey. “Detectives”, as a recognisable real-life entity, were still becoming established; and the ambivalence of the public towards these professional investigators is very clear in the literature of the day, where they tend to be viewed as a necessary but distasteful phenomenon. This is particularly reflected in the tendency of early detective novels to be set amongst the middle- and upper-classees, with the investigation itself often regarded as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and in which the identity of the guilty party is as likely to be hushed up to avoid a scandal as exposed in open court. (Climactic suicide is popular.)

In America, the first detective novel was long held to be Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, from 1878, in which a police detective recruits a gentlemanly young lawyer as his assistant specifically because, as a gentleman, he has access to people and places that the working-class policeman does not. However, while it might rightly be regarded as the first modern detective novel, The Leavenworth Case is not the first per se, an honour held by Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. This murder mystery does indeed feature a professional private detective, who is associated with the police but not of the police, but betrays its sensation novel roots by having the detective assisted by his clairvoyant young daughter. Victor followed The Dead Letter with The Figure Eight, which has a young man turning amateur detective in order to clear his own name, after being accused of the robbery-homicide of his uncle. He eventually succeeds in solving the robbery, while the murderer is exposed in sensation novel terms, via a subplot involving somnambulism.

Meanwhile, over the pond, the dogma is wrong again (as dogma is with remarkable regularity). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published in 1868 and featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, has long been considered “the first English detective novel” (even though the detective doesn’t solve the crime). Recently, however, the good people at the British Library have unearthed and reprinted The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (aka Charles Warren Adams), which was serialised in 1862 and then published in book form in 1863, and features a startling number of the features we associate with modern detective fiction, including the use of chemical analysis.

Of course, no sooner was this rediscovered novel trumpeted as “the first” than a number of still earlier contenders for the title were offered up by interested parties—the most cogent challenge, or so it seems to me, coming from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail Of The Serpent, published in 1860.

M. E. Braddon is a novelist for whom I have enormous affection and admiration; a talented novelist whose choice of the sensation novel as her preferred vehicle has tended to overshadow her very real abilities. And while I need another reading-thread like a hole in the head, I have taken her appearance at this critical juncture in my off-blog reading as a sign that I should promote her to Authors In Depth.

So!—I will be starting with The Trail Of The Serpent, before (at some point) stepping back to look at her first, long-forgotten novel, The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana.

Behind the sensation novelist who attracted both praise and outrage for her choice of material was a woman who, in Victorian terms, lived a life still more outrageous and shocking. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s parents separated when she was still a child, she and her brother and sister remaining with their mother. (Braddon’s brother, Edward, who possibly deserves a biography of his own, was Premier of Tasmania from 1894 – 1899.) The separation was amicable, and for some years Henry Braddon continued to support his family; but the Braddon finances had always been rocky, and finally the money stopped coming.

To help support her family, Mary Braddon began to write short stories. At the same time, at the age of only seventeen, she began a career on the stage under the name “Mary Seyton”, and found some success, albeit mostly in provincial companies. While touring, she continued to write and publish, trying her hand at plays and poetry as well as fiction. In 1859, her first attempt at a novel, The Octoroon, was serialised, and she gave up acting to concentrate on writing.

In 1860, a second novel, Three Times Dead, was serialised. It was not a success with the public, but it brought Braddon to the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who had already published several of Braddon’s short stories in his magazines. Inspite of its flaws, in Three Times Dead Maxwell recognised a talent worth cultivating, and he offered to help her revise the text. Reworked as The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon’s second novel found an appreciative audience and some critical attention. She continued with her novel-writing, and 1862 published Lady Audley’s Secret, a cause célèbre of the first order. From that notorious pinnacle, she never looked back. In 1866, using her own profits and with John Maxwell’s encouragement, she founded the Belgravia Magazine, an affordable vehicle for serialised novels, poems, travel narratives, biographies, and essays on fashion, history and science.

Meanwhile, Braddon’s private life was following a path every bit as scandalous as her novels.

The attraction between Mary Elizabeth Braddon and John Maxwell was almost instantaneous, but Maxwell was already married—in a manner of speaking: his first wife (also Mary, uncomfortably enough) had suffered a severe mental breakdown some years earlier, and as a consequence had been institutionalised for a period of time, leaving Maxwell with the care of their six children. Under the laws of the day, a divorce was out of the question. In 1861, Braddon and Maxwell began living together unmarried.

I like to think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as the sensation novel’s answer to George Eliot. Only George Eliot didn’t write better than eighty novels while raising twelve children.

As soon as she moved into his house, Braddon took over the care of Maxwell’s existing family (disproving all the step-motherly myths in the process, it seems), and over the following years bore seven children of her own, of which six survived. One of them, William Babbington Maxwell, born in 1866, would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a prolific and popular novelist. In 1874, the tragic Mary Maxwell died in Dublin. As soon as they decently could, Braddon and Maxwell got married—and the former’s novels began to be trumpeted as “—by MRS MAXWELL.” Amusingly, it didn’t stick: Braddon was by then far too famous, not to say infamous, under her maiden name.

For all of her success, there is still some uncertainty over exactly how many novels Braddon did write. Remarkably, in spite of her popular and financial success amongst the middle- and upper-classes, with Maxwell’s encouragement Braddon continued to write (albeit pseudonymously) for magazines aimed at the working-classes. In recent years a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into unearthing and preserving these hitherto unrecognised works, and is still ongoing.

There are, however, plenty of novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon for us to be going on with in the meantime.

10/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 3)

Days passed. Raymond now only too surely, terribly felt that his love for Rosalia was no longer pure brotherly affection. It was an intense and absorbing passion. He began to struggle against its nearly overwhelming power—he began to avoid the charming girl. Now could Hagar have trusted him; could she have believed in the power of redeeming qualities that really existed in his heart; the solid substratum of good that lay beneath this superficial alluvium of wilfulness and effeminacy; her faith might yet have saved him; saved herself from much anguish. As it was, Raymond struggled on alone against the advancing power of his great temptation. He might have struggled longer, he might have struggled successfully, but that the very means he took accelerated the crisis, the catastrophe. He began to avoid Rosalia; declined her music; evaded her questions; repulsed her gentle attentions, until the guileless girl, utterly unable to comprehend her position, grew wretched, more wretched every day, in the thought that her last friend, her only present friend, as in her heart she began to style Raymond, had fallen from her; and by the fatality that makes us set a higher value upon a possession that is passing away, Rosalia began to prize his affection exzceedingly—to desire its continuance more than all things—to lament its seeming loss passionately—to strive to win it back.


The Deserted Wife
, as I remarked at the outset, is a terribly uncomfortable book—uncomfortable in many different ways. As was the case in Retribution—as may well be the case in all of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels—there is a kernel of hard emotional truth behind all the melodrama and exaggeration and contrivance that makes it impossible to dismiss this novel as “just” an entertainment or a cheap thrill. The emotional abuse of Hagar by Raymond, like Ernest Dent’s transferance of his own guilt onto his innocent wife in the earlier novel, is convincing in a way that suggests only too clearly that Southworth is writing from her own experience; and while this is bad enough, hard enough for the reader to take, the discomforting power of this story is amplified by the impossibility of pinning down the novel’s attitude towards its beleagured heroine.

On the surface, at least, The Deserted Wife takes no issue with the prevailing 19th century view of marriage, which demanded of the wife that she subsume her own desires, wants and preferences in her husband’s, and which placed the entire responsibility for the success or failure of a marriage upon the woman: if it failed, it was because she had not done her duty. Taken to its extreme, it was a convention that essentially resulted in the woman ceasing to have any meaningful individual identity. There are plenty of Victorian novels that do indeed accept this convention without question, and are pretty hard to swallow as a consequence; but I’m not sure that The Deserted Wife isn’t harder for its smothered note of rebellion, which suggests that E.D.E.N. Southworth was caught between feelings of resentment and guilt, her anger at being blamed for the failure of her marriage battling with her fear that it was indeed all her fault.

It is Southworth’s use of this novel as a vehicle for working through her feelings that is behind its extremely peculiar tone—and for what amounts to a distressing lack of sympathy for Hagar, upon whom her creator bestows all of her own least desirable traits and emotions, and whose unhappiness is repeatedly declared to be her own fault, for her inability to control her passions, and for her struggle against the absolute necessity of submitting in all things to her husband. So far, Southworth seems entirely in sympathy with society’s judgement against herself.

And yet—and yet— What are we to make of the fact that “society’s judgement” is invariably conveyed via Sophie?—Sophie, whose idea of a good time is subjecting her will to that of a dangerous lunatic for the better part of ten years; Sophie, thrilled by the prospect of demonstrating her love for her second husband by a complete spiritual prostration:

    “I love my husband so much, so much, so much, with a fulness of tenderness that it seems to me could not be expressed, except by suffering something—sacrificing something for his sake. I am sure sometimes I wish me would ask me to do something naturally repugnant to my feelings, that I might have one opportunity of showing how much I do love; to give up my dearest wish for his pleasure would give me exquisite joy—a joy that I crave. I do not compehend this, dear, but it is so.”
    “Oh, I comprehend it, Sophie, perfectly; it is the very same principle that led the saints ages ago to scourge and starve themselves to testify their love to God—God forgive them the blasphemy! You, Sophie, have a propensity to worship, and a very decided vocation for martyrdom, which, unfortunately, under existing circumstances, I have not!” sneered the scornful girl.

One does wonder who 19th century readers sympathised with here.

This is only one of many clashes between Sophie and Hagar on the subject of marital duty, in which Sophie is unshakably on the side of Raymond. One long lecture on Hagar’s unavoidable duties, and her myriad of failings (Hagar’s involuntary protest, that Raymond knew all that before he married her, is waved away as irrelevant), bad enough at first reading, becomes increasingly chilling in retrospect, as we come to an ever deeper understanding of just what submission to Raymond entails:

“I see,” said she, “it is your pride, Hagar…it is your pride, love, that rebels against a rule every way gentle, just, and reasonable. Subdue it, Hagar. Your husband has been educated among the refinements of cultivated city society. He, himself, perhaps, among the most fastidious of that class. His taste is offended, his delicacy shocked by your wildness… He loves you, Hagar—has loved you long… He loved you—let me speak plainly, Hagar, for your sake and his—he loved you when you were a very unlovely child—at least to every one but me.—Well, he loved you, and sought and gained your love. You gave yourself away to him, and now he naturally expects you to conform your manners to his taste… Your pride must be subdued—it must: If you do not subdue it yourself, he will, with cruel pain to you. Raymond’s demands are all reasonable; such requirements are usual—in your case any man would make them…”

The reader, unlike Sophie, is given a good, long, clear-eyed look at Raymond’s “reasonable” demands and his “gentle, just and reasonable rule”. The marriage, indeed, quickly settles into a series of ugly skirmishes in which Raymond seeks out and invariably finds the points at which Hagar is most vulnerable, striking with merciless accuracy, forcing her to give way to him in matters that cause her the greatest possible pain. Most cruelly of all, perhaps, Raymond takes it into his head that it is “degrading” to have to share Hagar’s affections with her beloved horse and dogs—Hagar is understandably astonished, since not a word of these offended feelings did Raymond breathe before their marriage; she should have interpreted his silence, he tells her in all seriousness—and sells them behind her back. Small wonder that Hagar is unable to hide her bewildered misery from interested eyes; another affront to her husband:

    Hagar felt her arm grasped tightly from behind, and Raymond’s voice in her ear, muttering low and quickly, “You are making your well-merited wretchedness apparent to Sophie—be more natural; for as God in heaven hears me, if by word, look or gesture you reveal your miseries, making me a subject of speculation to these people—you shall suffer for it in every nerve in your body to the last day of your life,” and he let go her arm.
    “Dearest Raymond, how could you think that I would willingly betray uneasiness—have I been gloomy? I will be so no longer—you shall see—dear Raymond, smile on me—say one gentle word to me; my heart has been starving—even the bitter bread was welcome—give me a sweet word, Raymond!”
    “Don’t be ridiculous,” were the sweet words granted to her prayer…

By this time great changes have taken place in the lives of our characters. Sophie has married Augustus Wilde and lives with him on board the store ship under his command; Gusty May and Rosalia are engaged, although in respect of her youth (and, perhaps, her aunt’s doubts of the true nature of her feelings), no early marriage will be permitted. To Gusty’s dismay, his manoeuvring fails to secure him duty on the Rainbow, and he receives orders for a three-year cruise on another ship. In increasing desperation, Gusty spends his last days of leave trying to win some sign from Rosalia that she does, in fact, love him above all others, and is nearly driven to distraction by her calm serenity and her failure to understand his importunities. A good friend of Gusty’s, Midshipman Murphy, sympathising, uses his connections to get their postings swapped; he takes the three-year duty in the Mediterranean, and Gusty gets the Rainbow after all. In the full flow of his gratitude, Gusty (as he is wont to do) blurts out his troubles:

“Love me? Yes, she does. She loves her old, poor blind nurse Cumbo—uncle’s Newfoundland dog, Juno, and me in about the same proportions, and in the same manner… She will caress me right before her aunt’s face, freely and calmly as though I were her grandmother… Yet she tells me she loves me! Oh, yes, she loves me! and the next minute she will throw her arms around Juno’s neck and tell her she loves her! and with equal fervour. And if I ever complain to her that she does not love me, she weeps as though I did her an injury. Nearly three months here have I spent trying to kindle one spark, to touch one chord of responsive passion in her bosom. I have poured my whole sould firth at her feet, and she looks at me with her calm, sweet eyes and wonders at me…”

For all Gusty’s forthcomingness, one thing he does keep to himself: an uncomfortable belief, real or conjured up by his jealous fears, that the one time her ever did see a different light in Rosalia’s blank calm, sweet eyes, they were resting on Raymond…

Meanwhile, Heath Hall has been closed up, and Raymond and Hagar have moved to his villa on the banks of the Hudson River, three days’ travel from New York City; an inheritance from his paternal grandfather, General Raymond. To her dismay, Hagar finds it stiflingly over-decorated and, if anything, overstocked with servants; she is left with nothing to do all day but, as Raymond puts it, to “cultivate her beauty”. It soon becomes clear that the household is run on a scale far beyond the couple’s slender means, which are supplemented by Raymond accepting, albeit reluctantly, a teaching position at a nearby college. Hagar tries to remonstrate, arguing that all this display is unnecessary—indeed, she finds it personally distasteful—but of course Raymond is uninterested in her feelings. He has, he insists, “a constitutional love and necessity of luxury.”

And Hagar submits—not only because she must, but because her thoughts are concentrated elsewhere: she gives birth to twin girls, Agatha and Agnes; black-haired like their mother, beautiful like their father. Motherhood opens up in Hagar new and unexpected depths of emotion—feelings much gentler, although no less passionate, than she has experienced before. And in Hagar’s absolute devotion to her babies, Raymond is quick to recognise a much greater threat to his dominance over his wife than any posed before. His jealousy and resentment of Hagar’s absorption in her children are, we realise, of the same nature but upon a different scale from that he felt towards her pets. In this case, of course, he can’t sell the babies behind Hagar’s back (we occasionally get the feeling he would if he dared); instead, he decides that Hagar is ruining her health and her looks—not necessarily in that order—by nursing the children herself, and that it must stop. Holding over Hagar’s head the threat of sending the children away altogether by “putting them out to nurse”, Raymond manages to impose upon her a hired wet-nurse and restricted access each day to the babies, which are removed from the master-bedroom to a distant nursery.

(Translation: Raymond wants sexual access to his wife again.)

This war is still being fought and lost when a letter arrives for Hagar (which Raymond opens, as is mentioned in passing) announcing that Sophie, Augustus, Gusty and Rosalia will be coming for a visit. Augustus has himself been ordered to the Mediterranean, and Sophie is to accompany him—but Rosalia, never quite having gotten over her terrors of the sea, is to be left behind with either Raymond and Hagar, or Emily Buncombe. Raymond insists upon the former…

Here, too, we must wrestle with this novel’s tendency to put the bulk of the blame upon its heroine—or to look as if it is doing so. I can’t quite believe that Southworth intends us to take all this at face value, or perhaps I just don’t want to. She does, in fact, spread the blame around to an extent. Raymond is criticised for the self-indulgence that has become a habit, almost an addiction, the “moral lethargy” that robs him of the strength to put right before desire; and even Rosalia comes in for her share—her tenderness unsupported by strength of principle, heart unprotected by mind.

But finally the finger points at Hagar who, confronted by the nightmare vision that has blighted her whole life, the sight of Rosalia stealing love away from her, gives in to a bitter, uncontrolled, uncontrollable jealousy, which springs into being and shows itself before there is any concrete cause, and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, frightening Rosalia and driving her to Raymond for comfort and, in and of itself—or so we are told—putting the idea of Rosalia into Raymond’s head.

This is, indeed, the final conclusion: Hagar is to blame for what happens, because she does not really trust her husband as a wife should. After all—husbands don’t cheat on wives who trust them – right?

(While debating within myself just how far Southworth actually intends this sincerely, I can’t help remembering that in Retribution, Hester Dent trusted her husband and her best friend absolutely – and look what happened to her.)

Raymond does, in fact, struggle against the tide, albeit feebly; while Rosalia doesn’t even realise what’s happening until the crisis point is reached:

    “Tell me! just tell me how I have offended you all, Raymond! Oh! I am so unhappy! so lonesome—no one loves me now! tell me why?” She laid her soft hand upon her arm, and, bending forward, looked up in his face with her tender and coaxing gaze.
    The effect was electrical! Turning, he suddenly caught and strained her to his bosom, exclaiming, “My flower! my dove! my lamb! my angel! Rose! oh, Rose!” and pressing burning kisses upon her brow and lips between every breath and word. “Love you! I love you; more than life, sould, Heaven, God! Love you! my joy, my destiny! love you! let me have you and die! give yourself to me, and the next hour let me die, die!”

Rosalia is horrified and frightened by what has happened and tries to evade the consequences by leaving , but her will is nothing compared to Raymond’s, and she finds herself a party to an illicit elopement almost against her own volition. A concurrence of circumstances favours the joint disappearance: Rosalia is supposed to be travelling to stay with Emily Buncombe, where Gusty eagerly awaits her; Raymond has accepted an appointment to a consulate in Europe (a three-year appointment, as he calmly announces to an hysterical Hagar, explaining that she and the children will naturally stay where they are). The two are gone before anyone realises it. Raymond does indeed write to both Hagar and to Mrs Buncombe, blowing smoke in both directions; but he fails to deceive Gusty, seeing with the hawk-like eyes of jealousy (not, apparently, such a terrible thing in a man as it is in a woman). Without a word of explanation to his bewildered mother, who has not absorbed a single hint of the truth of the situation, he sets out to see Hagar—and finds devastation.

For Hagar has not only been deserted by her husband, she has been left without any means of support; not merely destitute, but deeply in debt, thanks to Raymond’s extravagance; with no prospect of an income, and two babies to care for, and pregnant…

An exchange of letters then takes place between Gusty and his mother, which are offered without editorialisation:

From Gusty:

“Mother, come quickly to Hagar. The servants are all leaving the house, because there is no money to pay them their wages. I have exceeded my furlough. I do not know what will be the consequence, and cannot help it. I am cited to appear before a court martial—cannot do it, of course. The devil himself would not leave Hagar in her present situation. Thank God! I have a few thousand dollars in bank, and that will keep the wolf from Hagar’s door for some years to come, any how! Oh, mother! do come quickly. Hagar is still confined to her bed—she wants a lady with her—a friend with her…”

From Mrs Buncombe:

    “Gusty! Is this the way in which you repay all my care of you? Return immediately to your post, as you value my blessing. Do you not know, wretched boy, that you run the risk of having your commission taken away from you? Do you not know, oh! dolt of a child, that you will be scandalized to death, if you remain a day where you are? and all the servants leaving the house, too! Oh, Heavens, Gusty! am I who never risked the chance of a breath of calumny, am I now to suffer through the imprudence of my son?…
    “As to my coming to Hagar, it is not possible just now; Buncombe has the rheumatism, and baby is cutting her eye-teeth; besides which Kitty has scalded her hand so badly as to be nearly useless—so that you see I am the sole dependence of the family.
    “This unhappy Hagar had ever possessed the uneviable gift of drawing down upon her head the ban of society—but she must not pull others down with her…”

Gusty—dear Gusty, I can only say along with his creator—looks both professional ruin and his mother’s horror square in the face and stays where he is. When Hagar is able to travel, he escorts her and the babies back to Heath Hall, the only place she now has the right or the will to call home. The journey takes place in brutal mid-winter, and after disembarking from their boat the travellers are unable to reach the house, but are forced to pass a night in a fishing-hut near the river: an involuntary impropriety that will have evil consequences in the future. In the morning Gusty hires horses, and the party reaches the Hall safely—where Hagar is greeted by Starlight, her horse, and Romulus and Remus, her pointers, who collectively made life so miserable for their new owners – the Gardiner Greens – that they turned the dogs loose, and sold Starlight back to Gusty. Having seen Hagar settled and safe with the servants who were left to care for the Hall, old Cumbo and Tarquin (or “Tarquinius Superbus”, to give him his correct title), Gusty departs to face the music. And there—solitary and neglected, the fodder for neighbourhood gossip—Hagar gives birth to her third child, a son.

In the long term Hagar must, of course, find some way of earning a living for herself and her children—and no, she doesn’t do it as a writer—what made you think that? Hagar’s one “indoor gift” is her music, her singing; and she plots a careful, stepwise course to a career as a concert performer, assuming a false name, and winning a reputation both for the power of her voice and the strict morality of her conduct, which attracts almost as much attention. Indeed, there is no-one in her new life that has the privilege of saying they “know” this intriguing celebrity: she appears, she performs, she retreats behind high walls, she sees no callers, she admits no admirers…

And where are our other characters in the meantime?

Frankly, I’d like nothing better than to be able to tell you that the boat carrying Raymond and Rosalia sank with all hands lost, and that after a suitable period Gusty and Hagar got married and lived happily ever after; but in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, we do not really expect anything so simple—or convenient—or pleasant.

Instead, we find our cast scattered about the world, trying to stay in contact via an uncertain mail service. For Augustus and Sophie, this means trying to make sense at a great distance of ambiguous letters from Raymond, which at one time seem to be promising to escort Rosalia back to them, at another, that he is in search of Rosalia, who has vanished… Augustus is away on duty, and Sophie alone, when she receives a still more staggering letter from a lawyer in America, who used to represent Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law. The occasion is Rosalia’s eighteenth birthday; the letter is to reveal a long-held secret: that Rosalia was not, in fact, the biological child of the Aguilars, but was adopted; her mother was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, who called herself Fanny Raymond…

Ah, the incest card!—where would sensation novelists be without it?

Well…

I am compelled, at this point, although not without certain feelings of admiration, to accuse E.D.E.N. Southworth of disingenous conduct.

The fact of the matter is that, although she delays the revelation for as long as possible, Southworth is finally forced to come clean, and admit to the reader that the affair between Raymond and Rosalia never goes any further than that first passionate embrace. She accounts for this well enough in terms of Rosalia’s remorse and fear (combined, though she does not say so outright, with the cramped shipboard accommodations, which hardly lend themselves to adulterous seduction); yet in a corner of my mind I have a vision of her opening her eyes wide in mock-shock at her readers and their dirty minds: “Good heavens, no! I never meant any such thing!”

It is to her credit, I suppose, that she resisted the temptation of playing with her readers even more, and separates her illicit lovers altogether before further dropping the incest bombshell.

Though Rosalia’s consciousness of wrongdoing make her equally fearful of facing Hagar or Emily Buncombe, which in turn makes her give in weakly to Raymond’s persuasions, she spends the entire journey to Europe facing what she has done, and working up sufficient courage to run away from her would-be seducer. Her flight being facilitated by the fact that Raymond hardly expects either determination or careful plotting from her, Rosalia succeeds in escaping both him and Genoa, where they land, and where he has his consular appointment. She has, of course, no money and nowhere in particular to go; her only thought is away, and she goes away as far and as long as she can before collapsing at the side of the road and being discovered, and taken in, by (in the novel’s one really outrageous twist) no less a person than—as it is spelled out for us—Her Royal Highness, Maria Louisa, Grand Duchess of Parma. Delighted with the girl’s beauty and gentle manners, the Duchess makes a companion out of her; and so it is that some time later, Rosalia just happens to be a member of a concert party that gathers to hear a new, celebrated singer, touring Europe after winning her reputation in America…

And Raymond? At first, unused to being thwarted, unable to bear being so, he takes Rosalia’s flight as an affront that he cannot and will not tolerate. He becomes obsessed with finding her, plotting ways and means of discarding Hagar and making Rosalia his wife. He is in this state of mind when he receives a letter from Hagar, who after having had time to reflect chooses to treat his behaviour as an outbreak of insanity—moral insanity, as opposed to his father’s mental derangement—and to behave as if nothing were really wrong. Her first letter, received during the darkest period of Raymond’s obsession, places a weapon in his hands: in it she recounts their child’s birth, her return to Heath Hall under Gusty’s protection, and her subsequent removel to Washington (for reasons undeclared). All this Raymond – who knew that Hagar was pregnant when he left her – twists into a confession of adultery and desertion, the easy means to a divorce.

Hagar’s second letter, however, written in response to his, is something else: a lengthy, detailed, painfully considered dissection of Raymond’s character, mind and behaviour – including his infatuation with Rosalia – that contains so much truth that even Raymond at his worst cannot gainsay it. This naked exposure of himself to himself is a shock to Raymond; he sees his pursuit of Rosalia for what it is, and also his marriage, and his treatment of Hagar. He is still in this rare chastened state of mind when he receives the frantic communication from Sophie informing him that Rosalia is his sister… The result is a breakdown – and “brain fever” (of course) – during which “his life was despaired of” – but no such luck. He recovers—he is recalled to America—but before leaving Genoa, he attends the concert of the celebrated new American singer…

I hardly know what to make of the conclusion of The Deserted Wife. Perhaps it’s just me, but here, as in Retribution, while I find the emotional violence and scenes of conflict and unhappiness convincing, I also find Southworth’s “happy endings” false to the point of being dishonest. After all that has happened, how can there be anything between Hagar and Raymond that you would dignify by calling “a marriage”? How can we believe, as the text insists, that the two of them were and are properly in love? Yet the novel concludes with the reconciliation of the two, offered up as if the reader is supposed to be glad: The beautiful family were all now united in love and joy.

And yet—perhaps the dishonesty is intentional? Perhaps, by paying this sort of lip-service, E.D.E.N. Southworth fully intended to expose not just the dishomesty but the cruelty of social convention, which demands that women love once and regardless, and that marriage is necessarily forever? I don’t know—but I look forward to reading more of her novels and trying to find out.

07/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 2)

It was so strange! queer—a few words had been pattered over by a fat old gentleman in a gown; and, lo! all their relations were changed. It was curious; her very name and title were gone, and the girl, two minutes since a wild, free maiden, was now little better than a bondwoman; and the gentle youth who two minutes since might have sued humbly to raise the tips of her little dark fingers to his lips, was now invested with a life-long authority over her. Yes, it was so curious! and the spirited girl was in doubt whether to laugh or cry; and the expression of mingled emotions on her face blended into one of intense interest and inquiry as she met his gaze and smile, which she could not help fancying patronizing and condescending, as well as protective and loving! A new, extremely provoking feature in his smile! but perhaps she only fancied it…

From the beginning of her acquaintance with Withers, Sophie is haunted by a strange, spectral figure: a woman, pale and gaunt, with long, fair hair, who appears from nowhere, lurking at the edge of the surrounding forest and by the road. At the figure’s first appearance it points towards Withers, uttering the words Shun him! in a voice that only Sophie can hear…

On the evening of Sophie’s capitulation to Mrs Gardiner Green, on which her doom—her wedding-day—is fixed, the figure appears again:

    She looked up, and the phantom of the forest dell stood before her, the same wan, spectral face—the same large, intense, blue eyes, blazing in their hollow sockets, surrounded by their livid, blueish circle—the same streaming yellow hair, with its streaks of grey—the same emaciated claw-like fingers. Her intense gaze sought into Sophie’s eyes, and she knew that her visitor was a denizen of earth. She remained gazing into Sophie’s eyes a minute, and then she broke forth with terrible energy:
    “Do not marry him!—risk—suffer anything but that. Do not marry him! Be true to your instincts—they warned you at your first meeting, they warn you now! Be true to your instincts! They were given to you of God for your protection; it is a sin—it is a sin to disregard them, and the punishment will be more than you can bear!—a broken heart!—a maddened brain!—at least—a blighted life! Look at me!”
    She tore the mantle from her breast and displayed a skeleton form, to which the tight skin clung.
    “Who are you, in the name of Heaven?”
    “I am a shadow—a memory—a warning! I was his wife!”

With Withers’ appearance on the scene the spectre vanishes into the shadows, and is next seen a pathetic corpse, found floating in the bay. At the inquest, Sophie—clinging to the thought that Withers has always spoken of losing his first wife, never that his wife died—gathers together the last remnants of her strength and courage and testifies, telling all she knows of the dead woman. This compels Withers to respond. He testifies that he did know the woman, had known her all her life; that for the past year she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, from where she escaped; but swears solemnly that she was not his wife. His word is taken, and the inquest closed.

With that, Sophie gives up her faint struggle for freedom, and goes to her marriage as to her execution.

After the ceremony, Sophie is summoned from the house by an unexpected arrival. At first glance she thinks that the suicide has returned to haunt her literally—the fair hair, the blue eyes, are the same—but the visitor is a young man, hardly more than a boy. His name is Frank Raymond Withers, and he has come to warn Sophie not to marry his father, because his father is insane…

A reeling Sophie then hears of the fits which gradually consumed the intellect of John Withers, causing him shame as well as terror, but which with the help of his son, he managed to conceal from the world; and of his marriage to Fanny Raymond—so much for the word of honour of a man of God—although when the boy is asked about his mother’s fate, he recoils. Raymond – so the boy is called – tells Sophie that she can have her marriage annulled, but upon being pressed, agrees that this would make Withers’ malady public knowledge and, in all likelihood, cost him his tenuous grip on his sanity.

Absorbing this story, Sophie—who has repeatedly been described to us as visionary, as seeking a higher calling—does not, as we might expect and even hope, flee her husband. Instead, she goes to the other extreme:

During the interview, a revolution had taken place in Sophie’s soul; all her deep religious feeling, her latent passion for self-devotion, her enthusiasm, her benevolence, had been called forth. Thus softened by pity, and inspired by her own lofty ideal of duty, she determined to devote herself to the tranquility of his shrunken and tortured life, with one purpose—his restoration to mental and physical health… An hour before, she had seemed a trembling, shrinking, suffering victim, offered in useless, objectless sacrifice; now she was a cheerful, self-possessed human soul, who had solved the problem of her life, and held the answer in her hands.

Intriguingly, from the first Sophie’s willing self-immolation is presented to us in ambiguous terms. Southworth starts out musing on the impulse of self-sacrifice, and the great works so achieved by noble souls—and then drifts into a reflection of the nature of fanaticism, and the damage that can be caused by enthusiasm unchecked by reason. So, we are to understand, is Sophie’s devotion to her husband, a duty which she pursues while neglecting all other duties.

And with this, the focus of The Deserted Wife begins to shift from Sophie to the most important duty she is neglecting: the child Hagar, who in a stroke of fate goes from being Sophie’s constant companion and the cynosure of her life, to a mere afterthought, neglected and ignored; something underfoot, and generally in the way.

Here, too, this novel takes on an ambivalent tone that will persist throughout its remaining pages. The positioning of Hagar as Southworth’s alter-ego could not be more nakedly evident as she struggles to aportion blame: constantly, bitterly critical of the girl for her inability to control her passions—her anger, her resentment, her jealousy—yet time and again, almost involuntarily, it seems, tracing her faults back to this moment in her childhood when Hagar is simply pushed aside.

Sophie had fallen into that dangerous error so common to enthusiasts—the exclusive absorption in one duty, to the neglect of others… Even religion, piety, which is most excellent, stretched beyond the line of moderation becomes fanaticism, superstition—which is anything but worship and honour to the Creator. For Scripture saith, “Be not righteous over much.” Poor Sophie was “over much,” and hence her self-sacrifice was not, as it might have been, productive of unmingled good. To Hagar it brought great evil…

From Hagar’s point of view, worse is to come than even her abrupt relegation in her aunt’s priorities. Word is received that Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law have fallen victim to a fever epidemic in Baltimore, and so Sophie finds herself guardian to her second niece, Rosalia, orphaned at the age of three. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, gentle and timid, wanting only to love and be loved, Rosalia is everything that Hagar is not. The older girl’s resentment manifests as contempt, while Rosalia conceives a fear of Hagar which she never quite gets over.

Rosalia’s arrival brings Hagar into temporary alliance with Withers—the two are otherwise mutually antagonistic. In her fair loveliness, Rosalia seems to Withers’ disordered gaze the unfortunate Fanny Raymond reincarnated, and he must be petted and soothed into acceptance of the girl by Sophie. However, everyone else in the household takes the beautiful child to their hearts in an instant—and before much time has passed, Hagar finds herself being told repeatedly that she will never be pretty like Rosalia, but she could at least try to be good like her.

And then they’re surprised that Hagar goes through life with a permanent scowl on her face, while behaving as badly as possible.

Upon Hagar, too, these influences were producing the worst effects. Jealousy and suspicion of the few she loved, scorn and contempt for the opinions of others—neglect of her person as little worth attention, and a morbid desire to be loved exclusively—these were some of the evil fruits of her wretched bringing-up…

The one consolation in Hagar’s life are those times when Raymond Withers is a member of the household, in between his college terms. The two become acquainted on the night of the wedding, when Hagar—in a fore-taste of things to come—is sitting by herself, the sole child amongst a crowd of indifferent adults. Raymond is drawn to the lonely little girl, plying her with cakes and sweetmeats while he investigates the source of her evident grief; and from the moment of this first encounter, he becomes the object of Hagar’s passionate devotion, her adopted brother:

    “She used to keep me always by her side, or on her lap; for two or three days she has left me here with Mrs May, and now that she has come, she scarcely speaks to me!” exclaimed the child, and her black eyes flashed under her sharp brows, and her white teeth gleamed under her up-turned lip as she spoke.
    A soft smile hovered an instant around the beautiful lips and under the golden eye-lashes of the youth as he said—“You look so like a little playful, spiteful black kitten, that I am almost afraid of your teeth and claws—however—” and stooping down he daintily lifted the child and set her on his lap. Then he said, “I think you are a jealous little girl.”
    “I don’t know what ‘jealous’ is, but I don’t like to be robbed of what is mine.”
    “You are selfish, I am afraid, my little one—who has robbed you?”
    “Mr Withers has got Sophie, and now he may have her, for I don’t care…”

In his time in the household of his father and step-mother, Raymond does indeed share with Sophie the care of Withers, and the job of concealing his illness from the community. It is no easy task, and becomes still less so as Withers’ malady grows upon him, and his fits, for the first time, threaten violence. Raymond, more familiar with the phases of his father’s illness than Sophie, becomes worried that she will no longer be able to soothe and calm him; that in fact, he poses a genuine threat to her. Finally, Raymond tells Sophie that they must think of a retreat for her, some place where she will be safe. Withers overhears—and, in his madness, misunderstands; his response is to seize Raymond by the throat…

E.D.E.N. Southworth was, as we have seen, an enormously successful and popular novelist; and the more I see of her writing, the more I’m inclined to think that the basis for her appeal may have been willingness to break taboos—to speak of unspeakable things, both in a broad, social sense and more intimately, domestically—using the unrealistic mask of the sensation novel as an excuse. In any event, critics of the time, some admiring, some horrified, were quick to single out this scene of familial violence, which we may say put Southworth on the map as a novelist:

    “Perfidous son of a perfidous mother!” he exclaimed, shaking him violently, “her image in heart and mind, as well as in person—traitor and reprobate! would you wile the love of my bride away from me? would you teach her your vile mother’s sin?”
    The youth was but as a reed in his grasp. Sophie sank pale and helpless into a chair. Now another figure appeared upon the scene—little Hagar stamping and screaming.
    “Let Raymond! let my brother alone! Let him go, I say! you old Satan, you. I—I’ll kill you—I’ll scratch your eyes out,” and clambering upon a chair, and then a table, she sprang upon the back of his neck. He was obliged to drop his hold of Raymond a moment to shake off the little wild-cat—he seized her, and pulling her off, hurled her flying through the open window…

Fortunately, this occurs on the ground floor…

The young Jane Eyre is probably the 19th century’s most famous poster child for violence and wilfulness, but she meets her match in Hagar—each of the girls both suffering and inflicting physical abuse. It is disturbing, although not, I suppose, altogether surprising that these twin shatterers of 19th century childhood myths should both be self-portraits by their creators.

(There’s an evil part of me that would love to give Jane and Hagar ten minutes alone in a room with Little Nell and the young Florence Dombey…)

This outbreak of violence on the part of John Withers represents the peak of his illness. From this point, he retreats into long periods of morose silence, and his general health begins gradually to fail. With the slow approach of death, ironically his mind clears. A new gentleness, and a deep remorse, are evident. Almost at the last, Withers steels himself for the task of confessing the entire truth about Fanny Raymond: a subject that, once recognising that this, above all else, would precipitate an attack—that it was Raymond’s resemblance to his mother that triggered Withers’ assault of his son—Sophie has scrupulously avoided. We hear of Withers’ reluctant embrace of the church, to which he was recociled by the adulation his impassioned sermons won him; of his introduction to the young Fanny, beautiful only child of an elderly father; and of the twisted nature of their relationship (in describing which, Southworth struggles, as she did in Retribution, with the necessity of saying “love” when she means “sex”):

“I wooed Fanny Raymond—did I love her? No; but her extreme youth, her beauty and graceful shyness strongly attracted me—through that idiosyncrasy that lured me to the pursuit of such. I wooed her, but she avoided me. That added zest to the chase. I had her father’s interest, and I married her. I married her, despite her reluctance, or rather because of her reluctance, and despite of tears, prayers and resistance… The wild shy creature, full of emotion as a harp is of music, was in my power—in my grasp. Oh! the wild beating of my heart, when I had caught and held the fluttering bird! Did I love her now? Yes! as the fire loves the fuel it consumes. And then she loved me, Sophie! or rather no, I will not profane the word that expresses your pure affection for me, Sophie. But she grew passionately, insanely fond of me—she loved me as the drunkard loves the bowl he feels is his destruction—as the moth loves the flame that must consume it. And then, Sophie! then, she lost all attractions for me! From indifference I grew almost to loath her. I struggled against this growing disgust, but it overmastered me…”

Unhappiness—estrangement—and finally, infidelity, betrayal and madness, as Fanny’s slighted and banked up passions finally break out in another direction, attaching to yet another unworthy object and precipitating disaster. As Withers succumbs to his first fit, Fanny flees the house. The young Raymond nurses his father back to comprehension, and is then sent in pursuit of his mother, who he eventually locates in a lunatic asylum; while a recovering Withers is left to confront a parish that knows every detail of his domestic disgrace. His fits return, periodically, and it is Raymond who bears the brunt, caring for his father and defending his secret against prying eyes. In one of his fits, Withers strikes Raymond a vicious blow, which injures his chest and leaves him with impaired health and permanent damage to his lungs.

Withers does at last recover – or at least, the fits became more infrequent – until Raymond feels secure enough to give in to his father’s prompting and return to his neglected education. At this time Withers resumes his correspondence with an old friend, Mr May, who has seen the notice of his resignation from the pulpit—which Withers attributes to grief over “the loss of my wife”. And from this correspondence springs the offer of a new parish, upon the death of Mr May…and Withers’ meeting with Sophie…and the reappearance and death of Fanny…

Changes have come to the quiet valley over the years of Sophie’s marriage, and her widowhood. The children have, perforce, grown up. Gusty May is preparing for a career in the navy, under the patronage of his uncle, which frees his mother to at long last become Mrs Buncombe. Rosalia is away at school in Baltimore, and Hagar—is Hagar.

Having contracted, in her lonely childhood, solitary habits, as a young woman Hagar scandalises the neighbourhood with her reckless habits and her indifference to public opinion. She is an intrepid horsewoman, a crack shot, an expert archer and an enthusiastic hunter, and can handle a boat with skill and ease; her overflowing emotions find an outlet in her devotion to her horse and her dogs, who are her constant companions in her wanderings. Hagar is, it almost goes without saying, an object of horror to the painfully conventional Emily Buncombe—and all the more so because Gusty, Hagar’s childhood friend, is rather obstinately in love with her, in spite of his mother’s limitless objections – and her fear of what the neighbours will say:

    “I have a worse fear for you than that, Gusty, a far worse fear for you than that. This Hagar, she is the talk of the whole neighbourhood; her eccentricity, her improprieties, expose her to severe animadversions.”
    “Her originality you mean; her independence; her free, strong, glorious spirit! Oh! Hagar is a chamois! you cannot expect her to trot demurely to the music of her own grunting, from trough to straw, like any pig! Hagar is an eagle! you must not look to find her waddling lazily and feeding fatly with barnyard ducks and geese.”
    “A pretty way to speak of your neighbours, Mr May.”
    “Well, then, let them leave Hagar alone!”

Hagar’s affection for Gusty is real enough, but thoroughly sisterly, and she holds him at a determined distance. For Hagar’s heart is gone, long gone; given to Raymond without hesitation—yet not without a qualm. The two of them become engaged, are so for some time. For all Hagar’s love for Raymond, some instinct makes her shrink from taking the final, fatal step. There is, at last, a final tussle of two strong wills – and in spite of the text’s insistence upon Raymond’s “gentleness”, of which we hear from his first appearance, there is no doubt of the steel behind it. Since completing his education, Raymond has been building a career for himself, and now he tells Hagar that he has been offered an appointment at the Court of Madrid—which he will accept if she does not agree to an immediate marriage. Still the battle goes on, Raymond insisting and Hagar resisting. They part—he goes—but before he can get any further than New York, a letter calls him back…

Hagar’s marriage has consequences for people other than herself and Raymond. Poor Gusty, in his desolation and in his need for someone to love, makes a fool of himself by asking Sophie to marry him (she is, as he points out, only eight years older than himself), and is refused with both tact and affection. Gusty is then sent away, under the guise of making himself useful, to fetch Rosalia from Baltimore so that she can attend the wedding; and by the time the two appear – having travelled by land rather than water, due to Rosalia’s terrors – Gusty’s pliable affections have taken yet another turn—and this time, they stick.

Meanwhile, word comes that Emily Buncombe is expecting a visit from her brother. The first meeting between Augustus and Sophie is awkward in the extreme, full of “Captain Wilde” and Mrs Withers” – until an involuntary shower of tears from Sophie finds her in her lover’s arms and, his leave being brief, agreeing to an immediate marriage on the single condition that when they depart, Rosalia goes with them—the alternative being to leave her with Hagar:

“Hagar is dangerous to one so tender as Rosalia. Would you put a dove in the guardianship of a young eagle? Hagar has a fine, high spirit—she would go through fire or flood to serve one she loved—but, mark you! she would cast that one she loved back into the fire or flood if they should offend her.”

As for Hagar, she watches from a distance the effect of Rosalia: Sophie’s rapturous greeting of the girl, and Captain Wilde’s unconcealed admiration; that Gusty, such a short time ago at her own feet, is utterly entranced by her; and that Raymond gazes upon her with the eyes of a connoisseur – and perhaps something more. The demon jealousy is awake in an instant, precipitating a skirmish between Hagar and her husband, a battle of the wills that is a disturbing portent of worse to come…

It is, perversely, Raymond’s very gentleness that frightens his wife; his command over himself, which gives him a strange power over her. She recognises this, although she has no way of combatting it. Her passions are all fire and tempest; his, ice and steel behind a face like a mask—at least in front of outsiders. Raymond is an immovable object against which Hagar’s force proves anything but irresistable, but instead batters itself into helpless submission:

She stopped short, and gazed in surprise at him. How changed his aspect! was it the same Raymond that an hour ago was smiling, bowing, glancing, gliding through the lighted drawing-rooms? He stood with folded arms and curling lip; his cold eye crawling over her from head to foot, yet so fascinating in his beautiful scorn, that she could have uttered a death-cry of anguish, as love and pride tugged at her…

We might be inclined to think, during the early stages of this nove , that John Withers’ obsession with pursuing women who do not want him, are in fact frightened of him, is a manifestation of his insanity—until the text takes pains to tell us otherwise. And here we find Raymond pursuing the same course—Raymond, whose father’s malady is explicitly characterised as not hereditary—the eminently sane Raymond—marrying a woman with the declared intention (declared after the event, of course, not before) of dominating her will and compelling her to submit and obey. In fact, Raymond goes his father one better by choosing a woman not weak and gentle, but passionate and wilful: a woman whose spirit is fully worth a man’s trouble in breaking it:

    “Come, come!—come, come! be still, Hagar, no phrensy,” said he, smilingly, tauntingly caressing her, while a gentle, cruel strength struck out from the pressure of the soft arms that held her in a fast embrace; “if your eagle flaps its wings and beats its cage so violently, I am afraid clipping its pinions and claws will not be enough—I am afraid I will have to crush it altogether,” said he, looking down into her eyes.
    She ceased to struggle, and letting fall her hands clasped upon her lap—dropped her head upon her chest, while the colour all faded from her cheeks, and the light from her eyes.
    “Come, love, you are a spirited little thing, but you will be docile by and by…”

[To be continued…]

16/06/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 1)

A murmur of admiration ran through the crowded parlours as Sophie was led in by Mr Withers, and the bridal party took their stand in the centre of the room. The bishop of the diocese, summoned from Baltimore, was in attendance to perform the ceremony. He wore the usual full wide black gown of an Episcopalian clergyman. The bridal party stood before him cheerily; the young bridesmaids and groomsmen stood in reverent attitude, their eyes bent upon the ground, but the corners of their lips full of dimples, scarcely suppressing their smiles—stern and solemn stood the tall thin figure of the dark bridegroom, and cold, pale, and quiet, Sophie waited. Once she raised her eyelids, but her glance fell on the black gown and solemn countenance of the clergyman before her, and she quickly dropped them again. He seemed to her the incarnation of darkest doom. She felt a dreary sinking of the heart as the first words of the ritual fell upon her ear, as the sentence of death falls upon the criminal hearing…

Our acquaintance with Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth, brief as it has been, has already taught us that the lady was capable of writing some very peculiar books (as evidenced here and here). Her second novel, The Deserted Wife, which was first published in 1850, is peculiar as well, but it is something else besides—namely, one of the most uncomfortable books I’ve ever read.

I don’t quite know how to approach The Deserted Wife. It is, like the other works of Southworth we have considered, a strange blending of the sensation novel and—something else. For most 19th century writers, the sensation novel itself, with its reliance on extravagant plots, dark passions, deadly secrets and social transgressions, was quite extreme enough. For E.D.E.N. Southworth, however, the sensation novel was merely the vehicle for the story she was really trying to tell. In Retribution she blended its conventions with an abolitionist tale; in Vivia, with religious didacticism. Here, in The Deserted Wife, she uses the sensation novel as a backdrop to a portrait of an emotionally abusive marriage so convincing as to be utterly chilling—and all the more so because this tale is, only too obviously, largely autobiographical.

The details we know of Emma Southworth’s life are painfully significant. After her father died when she was young from complications of injuries sustained in the War of 1812 – and having, as a last request, had his daughter rechristened to add the names “Dorothy Eliza”, so that her initials would spell “E.D.E.N.” – Emma Nevitte was raised in Washington D.C. by her mother and her step-father, Joseph Henshawe, the latter of whom she found cold and unsympathetic. He was the head of an academy for girls, from which she graduated at the age of 16 before finding employment as a schoolteacher. In 1840, Nevitte married Frederick Southworth and left Washington for Wisconsin. Four years later, at the age of 25, the mother of one child and pregnant with a second, she returned alone: her husband had deserted his family and fled to South America. Sources vary on the specifics of the split, but not the underlying motivation: some say that an expected legacy from Mrs Southworth’s grandparents was not forthcoming; others that, in disapproval of the marriage, Joseph Henshawe refused the young couple any financial aid. Either way, Frederick Southworth clearly did not get out of the marriage what he went into it anticipating and left to chase his fortune elsewhere.

After recovering from the birth of her second child, Emma Southworth went back to work, supporting herself and her son and daughter on a slender teacher’s salary that was barely sufficient, but which was strained to the utmost by the children’s frequent bouts of ill-health and escalating doctor’s bills. (In many of her novels, including The Deserted Wife, Southworth speaks of the poor salary and long hours of the teaching profession with great bitterness.) In 1845, in an attempt to supplement her income, she began writing short stories, and by this means found a little relief from her difficulties. Then, in 1849, everything changed almost overnight: Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or The Vale Of Shadows was first serialised in the National Era and then published in book form early in 1850. It was a huge success, so much so that Southworth was able to give up teaching and write full-time. Her popularity only grew over the succeeding years, until by 1856 she had an exclusive contract for her work with Robert Bonner of the New York Ledger, and by 1860 she was earning an unprecendented $10,000 a year.

It must be assumed that news of Southworth’s triumphs did not penetrate into the wilds of Brazil, as Frederick Southworth never reappeared to batten upon his deserted wife – as he was still legally entitled to do. It is known that, when the statutes on desertion permitted it, E.D.E.N. Southworth did begin divorce proceedings against her husband – but then chose not to go through with it. We can only speculate about the reason for her hesitation. Was being a wife, even a publicly deserted wife, better than being a divorced woman? Did she think that perhaps divorce was exactly what Southworth wanted, and therefore denied it to him? – or did she, conversely, look upon divorce as an admission of her own defeat?

Southworth rarely spoke of her situation, so we cannot know for sure. Nor do we know whether another woman was involved in Frederick Southworth’s flight, although the recurrent theme of the betrayed wife in the early novels might suggest so. What we do know is that, in spite of the luxury and plenty that came with success, it was the years of loneliness and privation that fueled Southworth’s novel-writing. Again and again in her novels, a young woman is left to fend for herself in a world that would rather judge and condemn than help, and where social convention has a terrifying power which is exerted without pity.

Even with no more knowledge of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s body of work than can be gained by a reading of Vivia and Retribution, we have already absorbed a vital lesson: always watch out for the black-haired woman, who is trouble personified. In Vivia she is Helen Wildman, who coldly plots to divide the young lovers, Austin Malmaison and Theodora Shelley, and then draws Austin into a marriage that ends disastrously. In Retribution she is Juliette Summers, who repays the kindness and generosity of the gentle, trusting Hester Dent by seducing her husband. This kind of moral colour-coding can be tiresome in the extreme, but in Southworth’s case a new light is thrown upon it by The Deserted Wife, which is not only autobiographical in detail, but in which the black-haired woman is an explicit self-portrait.

Like her contemporary, Louisa May Alcott, Southworth struggled all her life with feelings of inadequacy rooted in her inability to be what society told her a girl “should” be, either in appearance or conduct. In an interview, she once recalled of herself:

“At the age of six, I was a little, thin, dark, wild-eyed elf, shy, awkward and unattractive, and in consequence was very much—let alone. I spent much time in solitude, reverie, or mischief…”

This novel’s heroine, Agatha Churchill, is likewise little, thin, dark and wild – but grows up beautiful, as Southworth did not; something which she clearly felt as another inadequacy. Through this girl—Agatha—or, as from her wild, dark beauty, she was called Hagar—Southworth explores the unhappinesses of her own life. There is a painful nakedness about this self-examination, and all the more so because of Southworth’s obvious ambivalence about the social code that placed all the blame squarely on her shoulders. There is—I don’t want to misuse this term, but it conveys what I mean better than any other—there is a bi-polar quality to this novel, with Southworth swinging wildy between abject self-excoriation, with Hagar’s misery brought on entirely by her inability to control her passions, and moments where she all but shakes her clenched fists at the world and screams, “IT IS NOT MY HAGAR’S FAULT, DAMMIT!!”

Like the other of Southworth’s works we have examined, The Deserted Wife is a hugely complicated, multi-generational story with multiple subplots that wanders over both time and distance, and is as a consequence exceedingly difficult to address without numerous pauses to re-set the scene. It is likely to run across several posts. I apologise in advance.

This novel opens—or at least, did in its original form—with a completely tone-setting moment of weirdness: the 1850 American edition is prefaced by an introduction in which Southworth lets fly on the subject of how girls are raised, in which she targets not only that perpetual favourite, an inadequate education, but also idiotic fashions that restrict a girl’s movements and a prevailing code that discourages girls from getting a decent amount of exercise. As a consequence, Southworth argues, American girls grow up physically weak. Then they are permitted, if not actively encouraged, to marry very young, with immediate and repeated pregnancies and childbirths often ruining their health and reducing them to invalidism. As a consequence, the marriage – certainly the physical side of it – all but comes to an end. The wife is incapable of an active, useful life, and the husband, if he is a decent man, can only put up with being tied to a sickly, immobile wife who can be no real companion or helpmate for him; or if not, will in all probability seek consolation elsewhere, perhaps finally abandoning his family.

(Frederick Southworth, we recall, didn’t even stay around long enough for this to be an account of Southworth’s own marriage.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the British edition of The Deserted Wife, published in 1856, deletes this airing of Southworth’s views, and substitutes the novel’s original first chapter, in which she no less angrily compares the settlers of Maryland and Virginia to their New England counterparts, the latter caring for and preserving the land so that future generations can also benefit from it, the former wrenching from the earth everything it will give in the short term without any consideration for the consequences.

The novel proper begins with an account of one such family, left to struggle along on in their neglected and crumbling house, and on their depleted acres:

Down on the western shore of Maryland is a heath containing about five hundred acres—upon which stands an old mansion-house, in ruins. It is bounded on the North by the river P., on the South by Satchem’s Creek, on the West by a deep, dense forest, and on the East by the Chesapeake Bay…

The family that settled the land still occupies it, now consisting only of a brother and two sisters. The two eldest marry; neither prosper. Of Ignatius Churchill, the text comments:

His poverty and his encumbrances did not prevent him from loving and marrying a beautiful girl in his neighbourhood, Agatha Gormon, who left a luxurious home to share his poverty in the ruined Hall at the Heath; nor could his love save her from death, when in the second year of her marriage, she passed away, leaving an infant daughter a day old…

This is our heroine, Hagar, who falls to her aunts’ care after Ignatius pines away; although she does not become the focus of the novel for some considerable time. The older Churchill sister, Rosalie, then marries a merchant who carries her off to Baltimore, leaving the seventeen-year-old Sophie in sole charge of the baby and completely alone in the world except for an elderly slave, who seventy years before, in her childhood, had been torn from her native coast, brought to this country, and sold.

Southworth permits herself this slap at slavery in passing, before her real target in this novel makes its appearance:

After the death of her brother, and the marriage of her sister, she had, in pure ignorance of the world, kept up exactly the same manner of life as before. Instead of engaging some respectable elderly female as housekeeper and companion (which indeed her limited resources did not allow), she preferred remaining alone, and continued to receive the visits not only of ladies, but of gentlemen—that is to say, of her own and father’s familiar friends—who testified their remembrance of the dead, and their respect for the living, by sometimes calling to see Sophie and her little charge, and by sometimes bringing her a brace of wild fowl, a pair of pigeons, or some other such game from their morning sport upon the moor: until at last they found that their well meant kindness to the young and pretty orphan was subjecting her to the invidious remarks of all the thoughtless or malicious gossips of the neighbourhood…

Thus, The World, fumes Southworth: always more eager to condemn than to help, and always, always ready to think the worst.

Cut off from both company and supplies, the tiny household struggles through a bitter winter suffering relentless cold and hunger. They all survive, however, and in the spring comes a belated visit from the local minister, the elderly Mr May, and his young wife, Emily, who at least have the fact that they live on the other side of the river, impassable in winter, as an excuse for their neglect. Mr May is shocked and grieved by Sophie’s story, and he invites her to bring Hagar and make a home with his wife and himself—but before this generous plan can be put into effect, Mr May’s heart condition intervenes. His successor, the Reverend John Huss Withers, arrives in time to perform the funeral service, and then takes up residence as Mrs May’s boarder. Sophie does bring Hagar for a visit, and so is introduced to the new minister—for whom she conceives an immediate and profound antipathy:

Sophie, attracted by one of those strange spells exercised by objects of terror over us, could not keep her large startled eyes off him: at last he raised his head and looked her full in the face, her eyes fell, and a visible shudder shook her frame; a just perceptible smile writhed the corner of his mouth as he withdrew his gaze from her…

At the first opportunity, Sophie bolts back to Heath Hall. She finds no refuge, however: as minister, Withers takes it upon himself to call upon her regularly, often staying for the entire evening. Sophie is torn by her conflicting emotions, her ideas about the duty and veneration owed to a man of the cloth as a man of the cloth compelling her to suffer Withers’ visits without protest, while every instinct in her is shrieking at her to get as far away from him as possible, and stay away. However, unable to think of a way to prevent the minister’s visits without a degree of rudeness she cannot bring herself to commit, she endures them.

If Withers is aware of her distaste, he shows no sign. On the contrary: he appoints Sophie teacher of the new small school set up in the neighbourhood, and supplements her admittedly scanty education by giving her – forcing upon her, it might be more accurately said – lessions in Greek and mathematics; spending even more time with her in the process:

Sophie felt so little “vocation” for these severe studies that only the implacable will of her minister could have kept her to it. Worse than anything in her experience she dreaded his frown and his stern and sure rebuke when she had not accomplished her task—worse than anything except the steady searching gaze of his coldly brilliant green-grey eyes. This froze the blood in her heart. And yet she felt grateful towards him; she blamed herself for her antipathy—her reason assured her that the fault was not in him, but the folly in herself. Her reason approved the pastor, the philosopher, the teacher—her instincts shrank from the man…

However, another new acquaintance promises better. Mrs May receives another visitor in the welcome form of her brother, Augustus Wilde, a naval officer whose duties separate him from his sister for many months at a time. Augustus is prepared to like Sophie as his sister’s friend, but even from their introduction is aware of something much warmer than liking. As for Sophie, this first meeting of the eyes could not be more different from the last:

He approached, addressed her freely and cheerfully as his sister’s familiar friend, and in lifting her off the pillion their eyes met, their souls met. The soul more or less plainly speaks through the eyes, and the truest, pursest, strongest, and most lasting love begins with the first meeting of the eyes, in a sort of mutual recognition…

Though no premature word is spoken, neither one of them is in doubt about their feelings. Both young and inexperienced, each innocent in their own own way, neither Sophie nor Augustus is able to conceal from the interested gaze of the neighbourhood the wondrous thing that has happened to them.

And then Sophie’s world comes crashing down. Withers calls upon her as usual, and begins what Sophie at first takes to be a lecture on her too-obvious happiness. She also assumes, confusedly, that he is scolding her because she has behaved in a manner unfitting for a school mistress. She could not be more wrong—he is lecturing her on behaviour unbecoming in a young woman about to be married…

“All the county”, he tells her, has been fully aware of their engagement for two months at least. It subsequently transpires that it is so because he has made it so, enlisting the assistance of Mrs Gardiner Green, the social leader of the neighbourhood (and the worst gossip), and asking her, as Sophie has no family, to host the wedding. Of course, it never crosses Mrs Gardiner Green’s mind that the minister is speaking anything other than the simple truth, and she immediately sets to work preparing her house and spreading the news. Sophie herself, it turns out, is almost literally the last person to know.

Here, finally, in her horror and desperation, Sophie does voice her utter aversion of Withers—and it makes no difference to him. Far from it:

    He closed his eyes and smiled; he stretched forth his hand, and taking hers, drew her to her seat, and passed his arm around her waist and whispered—
    “My little Sophie, my little fawn, you shall be Mrs Withers in three weeks, just as sure as you live!”
    She shrank from the clasp of his arm, as though it had been the clammy coil of a serpent.
    “I will not! cannot! durst not! Mr Withers, why don’t you marry Rose Green? She would have you; or Mrs Somerville, or Mrs Slye, or Mrs Joshua Eversham, or Miss Polly Mortimer—any of them would have, would be proud to have the minister of the parish… And any of these ladies would make you a good wife… Why don’t you marry one of them?”
    “Because they are each ready to fall into my arms.”
    “In the name of reason and of mercy, why seek to marry a girl…who hates—no, does not hate, but who fears and recoils from you?”
   “Precisely because she does fear and recoil from me…”

Left stunned almost beyond the ability to think by this confrontation, Sophie must then suffer the definitive blow of a visit from the bustling Mrs Gardiner Green, who arrives full of schemes for dresses, bridesmaids and decorations, and is anything but prepared for what Sophie tries to tell her. Full of Withers’ version of events, she scolds Sophie for her fickleness and selfishness, and warns her that scandalous playing of fast and loose with a man of God will damage not merely her own reputation, but Hagar’s also. Sophie’s desperate attempt to explain herself she barely listens to, still less has the capacity to understand:

She continued to talk, using all the arguments of a hard woman of the world, with a nervous, sensitive, and somewhat visionary young girl, and at the end of two hours more, left Sophie very well prepared to receive, or rather, very incapable of resisting her destiny and her master…

And where, in all this, is Sophie’s dear friend, Emily May?

Emily May is, in a perverse sort of way, one of the most interesting characters in this novel: Convention personified. A woman of limited intelligence and ability, although quite kindly intentioned, she has never in her life felt, thought or wanted anything but what she was assured it was proper for her to feel, think and want—and is quite incapable of sympathising with anyone who does, or whose life experience is different from her own calm waters. Indeed, she seems to be quite without any strong emotion of any kind. Her first marriage is to a man old enough to be her father out of “feelings of veneration”; she will later marry a second time—but having decided that she cannot do so until the son of her first marriage comes of age, she embarks upon a seven-years’ engagement without a qualm or a struggle.

It is, indeed, only in relation to her son – named Augustus for his uncle, but known to one and all as “Gusty” – that Emily shows any real feeling. Gusty himself, a far more compassionate individual, often frightens and bewilders his mother with his displays of distressed empathy on behalf of others—even those individuals who are unhappy as a result of their passions and desires and therefore, in Emily’s opinion, deserve to be so. As he grows into manhood, Gusty becomes fully aware of his mother’s narrow and judgemental view of the world and at one point, although an almost achingly dutiful son, is provoked into calling her on it:

    “Hagar has given room for talk for getting into an anomalous position; why should people find themselves in inconceivable situations? I never did, yet I was an unprotected girl.”
    Gusty looked at her in sad perplexity, divided between his wish to defend Hagar and his reverence for her; and at last he said, smiling sadly—
    “Dear mother, Lewis Stephens, poor fellow! was drowned last summer, in a gale of wind!—Now, why should people be drowned in a gale of wind?
I never was, and I have been in a gale of wind!”

But in these early days, Gusty is no more than a sturdy, good-natured little boy, and there is no-one to defend Sophie against the inexorable pressure of public expectation. Learning of Sophie’s “engagement” from Mrs Gardiner Green, Emily is surprised, but doesn’t question it; everyone says Sophie and Withers are to be married, and if everyone says it, it must be so. That her brother is in love with Sophie—that Sophie is in love with him—that Sophie is being forced into marriage with a man who terrifies and revolts her—that two of the three people she loves best in the world are profoundly unhappy—all this means little to Emily May. Social convention speaks, and she looks the other way. Besides, they’ll get over it.

As for Augustus Wilde, oblivious to the social machinery so busy about him and the girl he loves, by the time he has worked up the nerve to propose to Sophie, it is too late: he is sent away, broken-hearted, to begin a three-years’ voyage. And Sophie, having utterly given up the struggle, is swept in a state of unprotesting apathy towards her marriage—never for a moment suspecting how close she comes to avoiding her fate.

Yet there comes a moment, later on, when John Withers is finally brought to give an account of himself, when he confesses to Sophie that the very abjectness of her surrender made him lose all desire for her, even contemplate not marrying her after all—because there is no pleasure in the game of domination if the victim doesn’t fight back…

[To be continued…]

25/06/2011

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 2)

…plans of emancipation, elaborated from the brain of the patriot, found their way through his brother-son to the Senate hall of the Commonwealth. These were then freely admitted and discussed; but, as the years went by, opposition rose against them. The season had gone by; the enthusiasm for the cause of general emancipation, raised by their recent glorious victories in the cause of Liberty, had subsided. Like that of self-deceived converts to Christianity, they had become false to their first love, recreant to their first faith, lukewarm to the cause of universal liberty. And projects for the emancipation of mankind were fast giving way before selfish (miscalled patriotic) plans of national glory…

[SPOILERS]

To begin frankly— I am perfectly ignorant when it comes to the way slavery was addressed in novels of the 19th century. Like most people, I suspect, when it comes to abolitionist literature, I think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and that’s about it. Retribution is the first time I’ve come across abolition as a plot thread in what we might call an “ordinary novel”, a novel of entertainment; and while here again E.D.E.N. Southworth is not entirely successful in her presentation of her material, the fact that, at a time when she was writing to earn a living for her family, she nevertheless had the courage to tackle such a controversial theme to any degree seems to me admirable. I gather that, later on, when she was more established as a writer, Southworth wrote at least one more novel that dealt more forthrightly with slavery than does Retribution.

(I should probably mention here that Emma Southworth and Harriet Beecher Stowe were good friends.)

Although written in 1849, Retribution is set from the late 1790s through the first decades of the next century. This distancing of the story is not merely a safety mechanism for its author, divorcing the novel’s events from contemporary attitudes; it also allows Southworth to vent her frustration and disappointment with her countrymen. The two Ernest Dents and Hester’s father were all veterans of the War of Independence; and we hear, through Hester, her creator’s dismay at the way that the high ideals on which a nation was founded, the dreams of the equality of man and inalienable rights, were so swiftly compromised, reinterpreted and set aside.

One of those guilty of this is Hester’s own father, a Virginian and a slave-owner. Although the friendship forged at Yorktown leads him to name his comrade Ernest Dent as his daughter’s guardian, politically the two men could not be more divided. Thus an active abolitionist finds himself entrusted with a plantation of some three hundred slaves. General Dent’s compromise is, using his own money in the first instance, to begin running the property on a principle of wage-labour, with the slaves paid a percentage of its earnings. The experiment is a success; and General Dent further introduces an education program, under which the slaves are taught to read and write. All this is explained to Hester when her soon-to-be husband removes her from school. She is as enthusiastic about the scheme as the Dents could wish:

I have aims and objects now that occupy all my thoughts and employ all my faculties. I told you that Colonel Dent’s plan was a progressive one. Our final object in wishing to make this farm the very best and most beautiful in the state, is that, first, our nearest neighbours, who have seen every stage of this improvement, and then others, may perceive its benefits, and be induced to adopt it—thus paving the way to an emancipation that shall be agreeable and profitable to all parties. We wish to demonstrate on this farm the practicability of this plan.

One of the perpetual arguments against abolition was the question of what would happen if there was a blanket emancipation under which countless former slaves found themselves homeless and with no way to support themselves. I imagine that schemes such as the one Southworth articulates here in her novel, a graduated move from slave-labour to paid-labour, was one of the mooted alternatives – at least before history overwhelmed the situation.

Soon after her arrival at her family home, Hester learns that the property, known as The Vale, has a strange and bloody history, one which impacts upon her inheritance of it and her subsequent actions. Out riding with Ernest, Hester hears how her ancestor, determined to have the rich valley for his own, arranged the slaughter of its native inhabitants; and how the last survivor of the tribe, a woman, put a curse upon the land and those who would subsequently occupy it – a curse which in part threatened, that he who had murdered her sons before her face, be sonless to the end of time; he and his children. Ernest, of course, scoffs at this as nonsense, and sharply scolds Hester for the emotion she betrays; but he cannot get away from the fact that there has never been a son born to the owners of The Vale; that, in a strange sort of reverse entail, the property, destined to pass to the direct heir, has been handed down from mother to daughter over many generations. Men marry into it; they never own it.

(There are other aspects to this comprehensive curse, all of which also come true over the course of the story – including the threat of domestic treachery and misery: When they most fondly loved and trusted, might they still be most darkly betrayed…)

Although married at eighteen, Hester nevertheless will not control her property until she turns twenty-one. She is bitterly disappointed, but must resign herself to the legal ruling. In the meantime, promising the slaves that they will be free as soon as she comes of age, she continues the wage system and the education programs initiated by the Dents.

But by the time her coming-of-age is imminent, Hester is dying. Even in this extremity, her thoughts are upon the solemn promises she made. Ernest, between his political commitments and his secret, sickening guilt, is away from home. Hester summons a lawyer and has the deeds of manumission drawn up. Having done so, she must then cling to life through two days and two nights, holding desperately to the last fibres of her existence until the clock strikes midnight and she may set a wavering signature to the papers. By seven the next morning, she is dead.

And then Ernest, good old Ernest, points out that Hester was born at 10.00 pm; that she was strictly twenty-two hours short of her majority when she signed the papers, which are therefore invalid.

I may say that I have no idea whether Ernest’s objection would in fact be legally binding. The bigger question seems to be why he said anything at all. Possibly this hair-splitting was meant to illustrate the height of his principles, but it is more likely to strike us as a case of narrowness of the soul. It should, however, be pointed out that Ernest does not profit directly by his actions: Hester’s property descends to her daughter, the infant Julie, to be held in trust until she is of age; and the slaves, having waited so many years, must wait again:

    “But I hope to persuade you, Colonel Dent, to leave Minny with your daughter. Believe me, she will need a younger pair of feet than mine to follow her little steps about.”
    “Then take one of the girls from the plantation; take Kitty or Harriet.”
    “Oh! sir, Kitty or Harriet won’t do. They dislike the child; all the colored people do; although it is not like colored people to do so; but they have been so bitter, and grumbled so much, since their young mistress’s death.”
    “Grumbled?”
    “Yes, sir, grumbled. They say that Mrs. Dent loved her child better than she loved right and justice. They complain that she broke her promise; and, instead of setting them free, has left them all, with their children, and their children’s children, forever and hopelessly enslaved. And they dislike the child, as the supposed cause of their misfortune. It is very unjust, but you must allow for their disappointment, Colonel Dent.”

It is a valid criticism of Retribution that it tends to look at slavery from a safe distance. The slaves, with one exception, are never characters; they are more like a theory being worked out. But this might only be a reflection of the fact that, as a young woman and a non-slave owner, Southworth was lacking first-hand knowledge, and preferred to stick with what she did know. Her argument here, which allows her to stay with Ernest and Juliette, is that slavery degrades all parties to it, slave owners and slaves alike.

Juliette’s attitude to the institution is another black strike on her character: she enjoys not just the leisured existence, but the feeling of power that comes with “ownership”; and for a time the besotted Ernest indulges her. Ernest himself, whose political career continues to flourish, is appointed Ambassador to France. The newlyweds arrive just after the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (if you pay attention, there’s a careful timeline in this novel), and Juliette, La Circe Americaine, soon becomes the cynosure of the court. The revenues from The Vale, which belong to the child Julie, are squandered on jewels, gowns and other extravagances.

It is belatedly made quite clear that Juliette herself is also the child of slave owners, with a sudden and shocking account of the uprising in St Domingo (that is, Saint-Domingue, Haiti) from which the young Giullietta so narrowly escaped with her life. It is also made clear that slavery is a form of violence that can only beget vilence; and that Juliette’s heritage has left her tainted – marked for retribution almost from her cradle:

“A burning homestead, smoke, flames, falling roofs, glowing beams and blazing rafters hurled through the air before the furious blast, and hundreds of dark demons leaping, capering, and exulting in frantic orgies through the scene. These were the sights. The reverberation of the thunder—the roaring of the sea—the noise of the cataracts—the howls and shrieks of the wind—the groans of the wounded and dying—the screams of the women and children, and the triumphant shouts of the blacks. These were the sounds. Yes, Ippolyto! borne in a pair of strong, rugged arms, rested against a coarse, rough chest, through this scene of night and tempest, of flame and massacre, of shouts and groans, I was hurried, whirled. Yes, Ippolyto! that is the first thing I recollect of life. And the scene lives before me now, not as a retrospect, but as a vision—not as a memory, but as a prophecy.”

And indeed, by this stage of the novel, night and tempest, flame and massacre essentially describes Juliette’s character; while she is doomed in the reader’s eyes long before this sense of foreboding grips her. There is a second plot thread in this novel that addresses slavery, apart from Juliette’s and Hester’s relative backgrounds and their attitudes; and the two collide when Juliette, in a sick jealous rage, become convinced that the Dents’ single house slave, Minny, is Ernest’s mistress. Her vengeance is swift:

“Mrs. Wimset, I have sent for you to request you to send Minny Dozier to the quarters—to the quarters of the field negroes—with a note to the overseer, directing him to set her to work tomorrow with the others.”

Mrs. Wimset, the housekeeper, instead goes directly to Ernest, who as she anticipates intervenes. This both confirms Juliette’s suspicions and pushes her over the edge; and when Ernest, the root of the matter made clear to him, makes the mistake of laughing at his wife, Juliette’s response is to pick up a pistol…

Early in the novel, in one of his few uncompromised acts, Ernest Dent purchases a female slave, to rescue her from the fate that her youth and beauty would otherwise seem to make inevitable. At first, the girl’s erratic behaviour makes Hester worry that she is slightly unbalanced; but her entire devotion to the Dents is very clear. She becomes the baby Julie’s nurse; and as the two girls draw together over their love for the child, Hester extracts from Minny the terrible secret of her life—that young as she is, she too is a wife and a mother…

The story of Minny is one of Retribution‘s most frustrating aspects – but perhaps we need to blame the marketplace, not the author. Here is Hester’s description of Minny, in a letter to Juliette:

She is gentle and docile, but not quick in intellect. The child delights what you term my artistic love of beauty. Her frame is slight, but rounded and graceful; her hands and feet beautifully delicate; her head small; her forehead low, but shaded with a quantity of shining purplish black hair; her complexion is of that opaque white usually seen in quadroons, and sets into stronger relief the straight black eyebrows and long black eyelashes; her eyes are large and soft, tender and still. I have never seen her eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow…

Now, we’ve seen this tactic before, in The Rebel’s Daughter – which was written fifty years after Retribution, remember – the implication that readers, white readers, can only be expected to sympathise with a slave who is beautiful, who is in some other way remarkable, and above all who is herself – and it always is a girl, it seems – essentially white. And whether society or her own sensibilities dictated it, in the end Southworth’s portrait of Minny manages to be both ridiculously idealised and extremely moving.

Minny is the child of a white father and a half-caste mother; and while her father, Alphonse Dozier, a French West Indian, did sincerely love the woman he took as his mistress, the fact that she was his slave, that she had no choice, broke her heart and her spirit. She died young, leaving behind a quarter-blood child, Erminie – Minny – who became her stricken father’s constant companion. It barely occured to either of them that Minny, as well as being her father’s beloved daughter, was his slave, his property.

As she grew, the child proved to have an extraordinary gift for music, her favourite pasttime being to learn from, and to sing back to, the birds; and it is while she is doing this that she attracts and captivates a young man, Guillieme La Chappelle, himself a singer, and the son of a great maestro engaged to perform in Havana. And so Guillieme and Minny were married. Even then it did not cross Alphonse Dozier’s mind to reveal Minny’s history, or to make arrangements for her future. Of course, he meant to, some day

In the meantime, Guillieme lived with his wife and her father, teaching her to read and write, to draw, and to play musical instruments – until being summoned to Paris by news of his own father’s illness. His departure triggers two great shocks – Minny gives birth prematurely to a daughter, and Alphonse dies of apoplexy. In Guillieme’s absence, Dozier’s property falls into the hands of his cousins, who are swift to put Minny in her place:

    “Ole massa never offered for to give your free papers, did he?”
    “Free papers?”
    “Dem’s dey—have you got dem?”
    “I don’t know what you mean, aunty.”
    “Sorry for you; dis is what I mean. You ‘longed to ole massa jes’ as much as any of us; all de same you hadn’t been his darter; mudder slave woman—darter slave too.”
    “But my husband will return.”
    “Ef he does he can’t do nuffin’ ‘t all; you don’t ‘long to him. Property is property, and you anoder man’s property.”

The shellshocked Minny is promptly separated from her daughter – having a baby with her will lower her market price – and sold off to a slave merchant. She first ends up in New Orleans, where she is sold again to a plantation-owner from Richmond. She is rescued from life as her new owner’s whore in the first instance due to her hysterical grief, which ruins both her looks and her constitution, but ultimately only because of the death of her master. She is then returned to the auction block – and catches the eye of Ernest Dent.

This is the story that Minny tells to Hester – who, sickened and distressed by it, is still more deeply moved by knowing the end of it, which Minnie does not know: of a terrible tragedy, of a fire aboard a ship in which, after saving numerous lives himself, the young opera singer Guillieme La Chappelle is presumed to have perished. But this Hester does not reveal…

The abolitionist plot recedes in Retribution while it concentrates upon the spiralling misery of Ernest and Juliette; but after Juliette’s attempt on her husband’s life, it returns to the fore. It is Minny’s story which is first resolved. It is in Ernest’s power, he having bought Minny in the first place, to free her – and this he does. At first Ernest offers Minny the choice between retaining her place in the household at a fair salary or having her way paved for a career as a singer, but both options are forestalled when, in town, Ernest is confronted by a grave young man leading a lovely little child by the hand; a man whose long search has finally borne fruit.

Guillieme explains to Ernest that not only was he seriously injured in the maritime disaster on his way back to Havana, but that he had the further misfortune afterwards to be picked up by a ship heading in the wrong direction – back to Europe. At length returning, he discovered to his horror Minny’s fate, and managed to trace her to New Orleans – but no further. The child, however, contrary to what Minny had been told, was still at her grandfather’s former plantation. Here, too, Guillieme reveals that Alphonse Dozier did, at the last minute, do the right thing: not only granting his daughter her freedom, but making her the legal heir to his property…only he gave the papers to Guillieme, just before he left for Paris…

Why prolong this scene? Who can not follow, in imagination, the little, reunited, joyful family, through the hours, too blissful for eating or sleeping, that immediately followed their meeting? The next morning…they set out for Norfolk, whence in a few days, they sailed for Havana, they reached the Dell, where, reader, they still live prosperous and happy…

Oh, they do, do they? The French opera singer – and his quadroon wife – and their octoroon children? In the early 1800s? I’d love to think so; I really would.

Still, let’s not criticise Southworth for her optimism, but rather, let’s see how she wraps up her other plot. Following the final implosion of the second Dent marriage, Ernest crawls back to The Vale, broken in spirit and older than his sixty years. He finds his own situation and state of mind reflected back at him by his daughter’s neglected property, left to him in trust:

The fences and out-houses are in a miserably delapidated condition; the fields have been wretchedly tended, and the crop is nought; the trees in the orchard are, some of them, for the want of props, broken down with fruit, some of them covered with cobwebs and caterpillars, and some infested with worms; the grape vines in the vineyards,broken down by the storm of years, have been left untrained and unbound, trailling on the ground—dead—the caterpillars have woven over them a shroud of gossamer; the garden has grown up in weeds, and the cattle have trampled down the flowers; the apiary is a ruin. What had wrought this change? When the soul departs, the body falls into dissolution. The soul of liberty and hope had departed from the model farm…

And yet there is hope – but it lies in the next generation: in Julie Dent, long-neglected like her inheritance, who combines her father’s strength with her mother’s spirit and ideals. Ernest spells out to his daughter exactly what her sacrifice will involve – not only the surrender of any prospect of a leisured life, but the loss of the man she loves, who has already made it clear that if Julie proceeds, if she deliberately divests herself of her inheritance, it will mean the end of their engagement. She hesitates, but only for a moment:

Julie carried out her purpose of emancipation. Every man, woman, and child, to the number of three hundred, were freed…

It is often the case, I gather, in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, that a young woman is left to carry the torch of progress, in spite of the many obstacles placed in her way by the law, by male expectation and demand, and by social convention. Optimistic? Ideallistic? Unrealistic? Perhaps—but not to be depised on that account.