Posts tagged ‘American’

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 exceedingly—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 transference of his own guilt onto his innocent wife in the earlier novel, is convincing in a way that suggests only too clearly that Southworth was 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 beleaguered 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 fullness 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 comprehend 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 soul forth 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, soul, 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 unenviable 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 and condemnation 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, step-wise 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 disingenuous 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 removal 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 dishonesty 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 apportion 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:

    “Perfidious son of a perfidious 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 reconciled 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, Joshua Laurens Henshaw, 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, Henshaw 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 unprecedented $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 wildly 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, purest, 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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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 occurred 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 past-time 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 shell-shocked 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 octaroon 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 dilapidated 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? Idealistic? Unrealistic? Perhaps—but not to be depised on that account.

 

24/06/2011

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 1)

 

They were happy. Their reconciliation was complete…for the time. Well had it been for them had this been their only quarrel. Reader, it was only their first. The cause that produced this quarrel was not removed. The ulcer was scarred over, not healed, liable to break out again at the least irritation. It was a latent, deep-seated distrust in each other’s fidelity, but too well-founded on their knowledge of each other’s treachery. This voice of distrust, audible even amidst the full-toned music of love, became awfully distinct in the silence of cool reflection. There was no lasting peace or happiness for them. A love sown in treason could not possibly flourish in trust. Sin is its own retribution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte was born in Washington D.C. in 1819, and spent her early years in the rural areas of Maryland and Virginia. As a young woman she attended the small college of which her step-father was president, and subsequently became a teacher. In 1840, she met and married Frederick Hamilton Southworth, an inventor. The couple moved to Wisconsin and lived there until 1844, when Frederick Southworth abandoned his family, leaving his young wife pregnant with their second child. Returning to Washington, where her mother and step-father still lived, Mrs Southworth resumed teaching in order to support herself and her children. However, this earned her only $250 a year, and in order to supplement this slender income, she began submitting short stories and novellas to the magazines.

Emboldened by her early literary successes, Mrs Southworth then embarked upon her first novel. Retribution was serialised in the National Era, appearing in 14 chapters across 1849 before being republished in book form in 1850. The novel was an enormous commercial success, selling over 200,000 copies – and as a result its author, now known to the public as E.D.E.N. Southworth, was able to retire from teaching and write fulltime, producing more than sixty novels over the following fifty years. By 1857, she was earning an extraordinary $10,000 a year through her writing and is, by most reckonings, the best-selling American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.

Retribution is – at least at its outset – the story of Hester Grey. Shy, gentle and serious-minded, the orphaned Hester is unpopular at her boarding-school, where the other girls plot and dream of romantic conquests and lives of wealth and luxury and sneer at Hester’s solemn ideas of life and its duties. Taking pity on the lonely girl, one of the teachers tries to bring her out of herself by asking her to take under her wing a new pupil who is like herself an orphan.

When she was only a baby, Guillietta Nozzalina was, with her mother, a survivor of a violent slave uprising in St Domingo, in which the other members of her family were killed. Arriving in Alexandria upon an American ship, the near-catatonic woman and her infant daughter were received into the family of a local merchant. Signora Nozzalina died within a year, but the child – her name changed to Juliette Summers – was raised within the family. However, the Summers’ business failing, at sixteen Juliette found herself faced with the necessity to earn her own living, and has been sent to the school to complete her education and prepare for life as a governess.

Tall, dark and beautiful, with a rebellious and calculating nature carefully concealed from those about her, Juliette could not be more different from the shrinking Hester, who nevertheless, in her aching need for someone to love, immediately takes the newcomer to her heart. Juliette does grow fond of Hester, but her eyes are firmly fixed on the prospect of a comfortable and leisured future, when Hester comes of age and takes possession of the fortune and property currently held in trust for her.

At eighteen, Hester is taken away from school by Colonel Ernest Dent, to whom the care of herself and her property have devolved following the death of his father, General Dent. The guardianship of Hester has created a most unusual situation, with the abolitionist Dents left to manage a large, slave-based estate in Virginia. As Hester recounts in a letter to Juliette, with no legal right to free Hester’s slaves, the Dents instead put them in charge of the neglected farm attached to Hester’s house, known as The Vale, paying them wages in the form of a percentage of the farm’s subsequent earnings: the currently thriving concern becoming a practical demonstration to the surrounding plantations of the increased effectiveness and dignity of paid labour. Hester adds that it is her intention to emancipate her slaves as soon as she turns twenty-one.

In spite of the difference in their ages, Hester soon conceives a deep and worshipful love for her guardian. However, believing that so great and good a man could never care for someone so plain and insignificant as herself, Hester nurses her feelings in secret, only revealing them in her regular letters to Juliette. However, one day Colonel Dent catches her at her letter-writing—and from the depths of humiliation Hester is lifted into disbelieving joy when a proposal of marriage follows…

For Hester, her marriage represents the very pinnacle of human happiness. However, she continues to fret over her unworthiness and weakness, an attitude which increasingly draws from her complacent husband criticism and expressions of disappointment, rather than appreciation for Hester’s many virtues and abiding love. A daughter is born to the Dents, named Julie for her mother’s dearest friend. Hester’s legal attempt to use the occasion of her marriage to bring forward the date at which she may emancipate her slaves is frustrated when it is ruled that she must still wait for her coming of age, but her despondency over this outcome is tempered when Colonel Dent agrees to her request to have Juliette Summers, who has completed her schooling, come to The Vale for a visit.

Juliette, her disinclination to earn her own living having grown in parallel with her conviction that beauty like hers deserves a splendid marriage and a privileged existence, has through the years carefully nursed her relationship with Hester, fully intending that her wealthy but unassuming friend will be the means to her ends. Hester’s marriage is, therefore, something of a blow: Juliette, who has extracted from Hester’s letters an idea of Ernest Dent’s character that would horrify his wife, recognises that the Colonel may be a serious obstacle to her plans. When Hester’s invitation to The Vale arrives, Juliette accepts it avidly, conscious that while Hester herself will be easy enough to deceive and manipulate, she must tread carefully around Colonel Dent, and win his admiration at all cost.

To her surprise and secret glee, Juliette finds the task before her simpler than she could have imagined. Colonel Dent travels from The Vale into the city to collect Juliette, and is struck at first glance by her dark, imperious beauty. By the end of a week in her company, passed in shopping and in introducing Juliette to some of the pleasures of the city such as art galleries and a concert, seeds of discontent have taken root in Ernest Dent’s heart – as Juliette, although feigning obliviousness, is very well aware.

It is with great joy that Hester welcomes her dear friend into her home, marvelling at the way her presence seems to light up the house. Even Ernest seems quite changed! But Juliette has not been long under Hester’s roof before her personal plans undergo a dramatic change—for she, unlike the self-absorbed Ernest, has seen in Hester Dent the early signs of a serious illness…

I commented about Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, my first encounter with one of Southworth’s novels, that its most striking feature was its bizarre blending of genres, in that case the sensation novel with the religious / didactic tale. It seems that this approach was indeed typical of Southworth’s writing style, as we also find it here in her very first novel, which mixes the sensation novel with the abolitionist tract. Perhaps not surprisingly, Retribution is ultimately something of a failure as a novel—but a failure in ways that are intensely interesting.

The most significant failure here is the character of Ernest Dent. He is clearly conceived as something of a tragic figure, and indeed he dominates the second half of the novel in that capacity; but although all the pieces are there they never quite come together. Our initial sketch of Ernest is quite intriguing. He is the son of another Ernest, who married young and had a child immediately: the two go through life more like brothers than father and son. They enlist in the army together, and fight together at Yorktown; later, they enter the political arena together, both eventually becoming senators, and campaigning for the abolition of slavery.

But as is progressively revealed, it is only the elder Ernest who is a truly great man – “Patriot, philanthropist, and martyr”, as Hester describes him in a letter to Juliette. The second Ernest has, as it were, ridden to greatness on his father’s coattails, achieving success and acclaim without effort, and without sacrifice, and smugly taking himself at the world’s mistaken estimation:

There was much in the circumstances and character of Colonel Dent that the partial eyes of his young wife failed to observe. Colonel Dent was undoubtedly a man of high honor, of sincere philanthropy, and of fervent piety; the country said it—all men gave credence to it—and Colonel Dent believed it most implicitly of all.

It is Ernest Dent’s peculiar destiny to be sequentially involved with two women who bring out the very worst in his nature, although in very different ways: the innocent Hester feeding his egotism and self-satisfaction with her abject love; and the anything-but-innocent Juliette rousing dark passions that, before her arrival, had laid comfortably dormant, so that their owner barely knew of their existence.

The relationship between Hester and Juliette is – and perhaps not entirely accidentally, given this novel’s publication date – rather reminiscent of that between Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp; although unlike Thackeray in his attitude to Amelia, there is little irony about Southworth’s characterisation of Hester—except, perhaps, when she, like Amelia, exhibits a tendency to dwell upon her husband’s non-existent virtues. In this case, however, it is not the unsatisfactory husband who dies.

One of the most unexpected strokes in Retribution is that Southworth “pulls a Psycho“, killing off her unfortunate young heroine less than halfway through the novel. By this time, a dangerous passion has grown up between Ernest Dent and Juliette Summers; although at the time of Hester’s death they are innocent in deed, if not in thought.

The second half of the novel is given over to the disastrous marriage of Ernest and Juliette, as they become one another’s torment, one another’s punishment for their mutual treachery to Hester, who loved them both so dearly. This grande passione is not entirely credible, but perhaps in this case we need not judge it an artistic failure. In 1849, a novel focused squarely on an uncontrollable sexual attraction would hardly have found its way into the magazines—or even into publication, except, perhaps, in France.  As it builds to its climax, Retribution descends into melodrama of the most unabashed kind, with Southworth arranging for her anti-heroine a fate so horrifying that it supports my growing theory of 19th century novel-writing: that it took a really nice woman to write a really shocking novel.

There’s a deeply curious aspect to the pattern of this story, one made clear in the quotation that heads this review: the sense that Southworth wasn’t prepared to “leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her”. Instead, Southworth seems rather annoyed with God, and his tendency to forgive; she wants her sinners thoroughly punished on earth. It is, inevitably I suppose, Juliette who pays the ultimate price; Ernest, suffering miseries, pulls back from the brink, his proud spirit finally broken and, in his new humility, with some prospect of finally achieving true greatness.

While doubtless we’re intended to be glad of Ernest’s belated reformation, I have to say I found it singularly unconvincing. The problem, I suspect, is that his creator’s heart just wasn’t in this section of her novel the way it was in many of its earlier scenes. There’s a real – and, frankly, fascinating – sense here of Southworth writing to a theoretical plan, rather than with sincerity; because try as she might to make him a genuinely tragic figure, the plain fact is that Ernest Dent is never so believable as a character as when he’s being a selfish, self-absorbed jackass of a husband.

I have no idea whether Frederick Southworth ran off with another woman or not, but be that as it may, it is impossible to read of the Hester-Ernest-Juliette triangle without feeling that Southworth’s own marital experiences were fueling her writing. There is a simmering resentment underlying these scenes, one that imbues them with an aching reality that just isn’t evident in the more melodramatic parts of the novel.

Frankly, we fear for Hester from her first introduction to Ernest Dent. Criticising Hester soon becomes Ernest’s favourite hobby; and so desperate is she to love and be loved, she receives his unwearying strictures with pathetic gratitude, taking them as a sign of his moral superiority:

    “Am I so very unlovely then, Colonel Dent?”
    “No. Oh, no, Hester. But you are not the girl to attract a young man’s admiration. You are aware that I never flatter, Hester.”
    Yet I should like to have been flattered and petted a little just then. With his keen penetration, he must have perceived my foolish thought, for he answered it.
    “This is childish and puerile, Hester, and unworthy of you and me. It springs from an incipient self-love and vanity that you must root out and cut off.”
    Now, this was worse than before. There was nothing good in me, within or without. I felt provoked to bid him to go about his business, and marry a cast-iron woman, if it pleased him; but I looked up in his face—his unclouded, truthful, glorious face—the countenance of an archangel reproving folly—and my spirit fell at his feet again.

Of course, the consequence of all this is that, just as he estimates himself by the world’s opinion of him, Ernest begins to take Hester at her own estimation: she believes herself not good enough for him, and before too long he agrees with her. Into this situation walks Juliette, who is everything that Hester is not: beautiful, poised, self-respecting—and a challenge.

It is the sharp-eyed Juliette who first sees in Hester the warning signs of the illness that will end her young life, and from that moment she embarks upon a dangerous game of inflaming Ernest’s passion for her while righteously scorning him for it…although at the same time managing to hint that she secretly returns his love. But even Juliette herself is startled by the demons that these tactics arouse:

    “Colonel Dent, you should blush for yourself,” said Miss Summers, in a tone of withering scorn. “This is ungenerous, unmanly, cruel!”
    “And my love is cruel! exacting, fierce, and cruel! If I were about to die this moment, Juliette, I should kill you, lest anyone else should have you. If I were condemned to eternal misery, I should try to draw your spirit down to perdition with mine, from the love I bear you!” exclaimed he, passing his arm around her waist.
    Juliette darted her head down quick as lightning, and, setting her teeth in the flesh of his hand, bit it to the bone, exclaiming, as the blood spouted from the little semi-circle of wounds—
    “Now, lunatic! will you release me?”
    “Beautiful Vixen!—no. Bite again, Juliette. I like it!”

This violent scene takes place on the very night of Hester’s collapse, when it becomes clear to all parties that she is dying of consumption. The Dents and their guest are in Philadelphia (at this time still the national capital), where Ernest has gone to take his seat in the Senate. They are, of course, invited to all the most desirable and glittering social affairs; and upon Ernest Dent’s appearance with two women upon his arms, a mistake – perhaps a natural one – is made by the other guests, who assume that the tall, beautiful woman is “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”, and the small, plain one, “Oh! that!—that is Miss—Miss—Wint—no, Summer. A poor relation, or a governess, or something; I don’t know what, exactly.”

This error gets around, eventually reaching the ears of the three people most concerned in it. It fires Juliette’s ambition to actually be “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”; it enrages Ernest against his unassuming wife, demonstrably unworthy of so great a man as he; while Hester—Hester thinks it’s funny.

She ceases to do so, however, over the course of an evening recorded with painful minuteness by Southworth. The lovely Juliette attracts a swarm of interested men as Ernest looks on in a jealous rage, taking out his anger and frustration on the unfortunate Hester who, her illness and her husband’s unkindness overcoming her simultaneously, collapses—but not before signaling the extremity of her condition by, for the first and only time, talking back:

    “Dear Ernest, I am sick; feel my fingers, how cold they are; and put your hand on my forehead—see how hot it is.”
    “Sick! Why, I never saw you looking better in my life. Your cheeks are glowing. Sick! You can’t be with that color, unless, indeed, you rouge. I hope you don’t rouge, Hester.”
    His wife replied by taking his hand and placing it against her burning cheek.
    “Yes, I see it is very hot. Well, no wonder. You are every way unfit for such a scene as this, Hester. Indeed, I don’t know why you should have wished to come. I should have supposed that you would have preferred staying at home with your child.”
    “Why, colonel,” said Hester, in a manner slightly petulant, from feverish and nervous irritability, “don’t you know I did want to stay at home, but you wouldn’t consent to it? Don’t you know that you insisted on my coming to chaperone Juliette, because she was anxious to be here?”
    “So I did. Very well; then I will not insist upon your coming again, since it puts you in such a bad humor as to make you forget the commonest respect due me.”
    “Dear Ernest, forgive me if you think I spoke petulantly. I am not in a bad humor, but I am faint, and feverish, and every nerve in my body seems quivering; my eyes are dim, and my head swims. Please let me go home.”
    “Heavens!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, with startling energy, “if there is not Juliette tête-à-tête with Murray in the alcove. Hester! no languishing and whining now; take my arm, and come and join them.”

The subsequent confirmation that Hester is fatally ill produces a certain reaction in Ernest of guilt and shame, but his obsession with Juliette is not one whit abated. Indeed, the knowledge that Hester is dying, that it is only a matter of time, grips both parties to this illicit passion, who silently, separately, watch and wait…

So Hester Dent, the loving, but unloved; the gentle, yet oppressed; the confiding, though deceived, was dead at last. The low, sweet voice, whose tones were never heard but in words of sincerity and affection, was hushed; the gentle eyes, whose mild beams ever shone with the light of truth and love, were closed; the little hands, ever so busy in the service of them—the treacherous, who neglected and deceived her—were cold, stiff, and useless. Hester was dead—and out of the way.

But wait! – didn’t I say that Retribution is an abolitionist tract? Yes, so it is; and so important, and so interesting, is that aspect of this novel, that it really deserves its own post; so—

[To be continued…]

 

09/04/2011

Madame Margot: A Grotesque Legend Of Old Charleston


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever before her imagining was Gabrielle, dishonored and betrayed, abandoned to scorn and poverty…

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

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

There is a shy reaching out, an embrace, a tender kiss, a promise of a further meeting… For Margot, one glance at her enraptured daughter is enough to tell the tale; the cloak of happiness that envelops Gabrielle repels her mother’s despairing railing against love as folly, as a lie, as the source of all wretchedness:

“God keep you from it. Two parts are pain, two sorrow, and the other two parts are death…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

19/03/2011

Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power

 

It was better still for him, that when, from severe toll, depressed and morbid, he was inclined to forget the goods and magnify the ills of his position, he had Vivia with her divine alchemy to transmute his discontent to rejoicing, by convincing him that the inconveniences that disturbed, were also the blessings that saved him. Vivia was the sun of his world. And when her visible presence was not with him, her spirit still possessed, animated his soul, a living spring of inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Published in 1857 and set chiefly in a remote corner of Maryland during an unspecified time in the 19th century, Vivia; or,The Secret Of Power opens with the birth of its heroine in Paris; an event that leaves her orphaned. Ten years later, Genevieve Laglorieuse – or Vivia, as she is generally known – travels from the convent school in Ireland where she has been raised to America in company with her uncle and guardian, the Abbe Francois. Their journey is the result of an urgent summons from the dying Colonel Malmaison of Maryland, who has been given reason to believe that Vivia may be the child of the son from whom he was bitterly estranged more than a decade earlier; although this the girl herself does not know.

As the travellers draw near their destination, the grand house known as Mount Storm, the Abbe falls ill and must stop to recover in a small village. Given the precarious state of the Colonel’s health and the short distance involved, Vivia sets out to complete the journey on foot, but is overtaken by a violent storm. She struggles on, and finds refuge in a convent, where her name and her story have a strange effect upon the young Abbess, Mother Agatha. Vivia is anxious to press on, but learns that her destination is across a dangerous river which cannot possibly be forded until the storm dies away. She spends the night at the convent, unknowingly watched over by Mother Agatha, for whom prayer brings little relief from the anguish in her heart…

Meanwhile, at Mount Storm, the dying Colonel Malmaison frets the few remaining hours of his life away, cursing the inflexibility that saw him cast out both a son and a daughter, and calling repeatedly for the expected child. The Colonel’s only companion in these dark hours is his daughter-in-law, Ada, the widow of his younger son; Ada, whose own son, Austin, is presently the Colonel’s sole heir; Ada, who has charge of the Colonel’s drugs…

The next day, one of the nuns, Sister Angela, takes Vivia to Mount Storm, where they learn of Colonel Malmaison’s death and present Ada with a letter written by the Abbe Francois to the Colonel – a letter which, having absorbed its contents, Ada promptly burns. After the Colonel’s funeral, Ada calls upon Mother Agatha, and a bitter scene ensues. The Abbess pleads for Ada to release her from a promise made many years before and allow her, not to speak to, but merely to see the Abbe Francois; but Ada is inexorable. As a result of their confrontation and the young Abbess’s unguarded exclamations, Ada suddenly realises that Mother Agatha is unaware of Vivia’s true identity. She explains smoothly that Vivia was summoned to Mount Storm to be given a home only in the character of her own orphaned niece; adding that as long as the Abbess abides by her promises, Vivia will be provided for. Mother Agatha has no choice but to acquiesce.

Having thus disposed of one-half of her difficulties, Ada visits the still invalid Abbe Francois, telling him regretfully that Colonel Malmaison died before being able to make provision for Vivia, but assuring him also that she will give the girl a home and, upon Austin attaining his majority and coming into his inheritance, see her properly established. The conversation then turns to the painful subject of the Colonel’s long-missing daughter, Eustacia. The Abbe begs for news, and Ada tells him that his worst fears are true: that Eustacia was last seen living a life of careless sin. In grave personal sorrow, but assured of Vivia’s security, the Abbe prepares to return to Ireland.

And Ada, having achieved her dual goals of disguising Vivia’s identity and preventing a meeting between Mother Agatha and the Abbe, returns to Mount Storm to begin her life as the great lady of the neighbourhood, leaving Vivia at the convent to complete her education.

As the years pass, Vivia forms friendships with the other children of the tiny community: the wealthy but ideallistic young Austin Malmaison; Helen and Basil Wildman, the selfish, careless scions of a once wealthy family brought to ruin by gambling and excess; Theodora Shelley, the shy, unwanted, orphaned niece of another of the valley’s prominent families, with her unexpected gift for art; and Wakefield Brunton, a mere boy carrying the burden of his desperately poor farming family, who dreams of an education and a life of the intellect. Together, these young people will face love, tragedy, hardship and triumph…

Vivia; or The Secret Of Power is the first I have read of Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth‘s better than sixty novels, so I have no idea if its rather peculiar blending of intense religiosity and extreme melodrama is representative of her writing or not. It certainly manages never to be quite the book you expect it to be. For a considerable distance into its story, you would certainly be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a pure sensation novel; not only the incredible string of incidents and coincidences, but the extravagance of the language would support that classification. However, unexpectedly it is only halfway through the whole that the scheming, conscienceless Ada Malmaison is exposed as a multiple murderess, and the identities of the various characters revealed: Vivia as the true heiress of Mount Storm; Austin as the son of Eustacia Malmaison and Francois Laglorieuse, secretly married but then separated by Ada’s cruel manoeuvring, their child raised as Ada’s own after the mysterious (although ultimately not inexplicable) death of her husband.

But it is also from this point in the novel, and in spite of the sudden rush of confessions and revelations, and an accompanying eruption of violence, that E.D.E.N. Southworth’s true purpose begins to emerge, and we enter into an examination of the powers of religious faith, and the dangers inherent in its lack.

This is not to say, however, that following the readjustment of the positions of Vivia and Austin, the melodrama goes away. On the contrary. Austin and Theodora fall in love but, while they are separated for a time, Theodora falls victim to the parallel plotting of Helen Wildman, who wants Austin for herself, and her own family who, unaware of the greater prospects before their penniless niece, selfishly enter into a conspiracy with the merciless Helen. The defenceless Theodora is, finally, not merely tricked but drugged into submitting to marriage with the oblivious Basil Wildman. His own hopes shattered, Austin becomes easy prey for Helen; but built upon such shaky foundations, it is not long before their marriage begins to crumble. Meanwhile, Wakefield’s childhood dreams become reality when he achieves a worldwide literary success at his first venture with the pen, but his sudden, extreme celebrity puts the greatest of strains upon his character.

And through it all, only Vivia remains unwavering—although not untested…

How readers of this novel react to Vivia and her near-miraculous ability to influence, to uplift, to inspire will, I suspect, be a very individual thing. Personally, I found it slightly uncomfortable; although I don’t doubt for a moment Southworth’s sincerity in creating a character whose religious faith is so profound as to be almost mystical. Vivia herself is set within a larger consideration of faith generally and the right way of thinking and acting, and here, beyond the novel’s sensational surface, we find some issues worth pondering.

Although Southworth finally manages to contrive happy endings for her dual heroines, there is no suggestion in this novel – and this is true, I find, within the works of a number of female novelists of serious religious tendencies – that marriage is a woman’s only destiny, her only sphere. All people, Southworth contends, whether man or woman, must live in a way that is pleasing to God, and marriage is only one option for doing so.

On the basis of their steady faith, Southworth’s women (those of them that have faith) are able to call upon reserves of strength and endurance when required to do so. Unexpectedly, this is most clearly illustrated via the normally fragile and retiring Theodora, and her reaction to her shocking discovery of herself as Basil Wildman’s wife, and of her new position in the world. Up to this point in her life, Theodora has always had Vivia to rely upon in her troubles; but with Vivia and Austin away travelling, she now has no-one but herself to depend on; and not only does she find it within herself to forgive her relatives for their role in her unwanted marriage, but also brings herself to accept her situation and to take upon her own shoulders the running of the neglected Wildman farm, as well as the care of Basil’s dependent female relatives.

But while these various illustrations and implications of female strength and capacity are rather refreshing, it is disappointing that ultimately, the novel’s women are not allowed truly to carve out lives of their own, but rather are presented in a way that suggests that (married or not) a woman’s main duty in life, after her duty to God, is to inspire a man. Thus, the besotted and remorseful Basil reforms under the combined influence of Theodora’s gentle and forgiving character, her stoic example, and his own guilt, and accepts true responsibility for the first time in his life. Meanwhile, Theodora’s artistic gifts, while considerable, ultimately do more for others than for herself: she has an unconscious trick of “idealised” portraiture, showing people to themselves as they could be, and thus inspiring them to be so; and it is invariably men who are so inspired, most significantly Austin Malmaison, who in the wake of the disastrous end to his marriage has given himself up to sensual gratification and to a political career in which he has no real belief beyond the desirability of power.

As for Wakefield, his boyish adoration of Vivia has grown with him into a profound and enduring love; but in Vivia’s sorrowful but clear-sighted  judgement, Wakefield loves her too much. In doing so, he has lost sight of God – has made her his God. Wakefield lays his professional success at Vivia’s feet like a trophy; but having watched in silent disappointment as, mistakenly believing that greater fame will bring him closer to his goal and gradually succumbing to the hollow temptations of celebrity, Wakefield compromises his talents by writing for popularity alone, Vivia has no hesitation in rejecting him. It is an emotional lifetime later, after a journey through love and hate, loneliness and suffering; after regaining the courage to speak the truth in spite of scorn and rejection by a world that doesn’t want to hear it; and after learning to see past earthly love to the spiritual beyond, before Wakefield again allows himself to dream…

Vivia is, then, a rather odd piece of fiction: a sensation novel that sternly refuses to let itself be enjoyed simply on that level; or a religious novel filled with implausible plot twists, convoluted schemes, secret identities, and a surprisingly high body count; whichever way you prefer to look at it. It is, at the very least, never less than interesting and surprising; and it has inspired me with a desire to take a look at some of its creator’s other novels and discover whether this is a typical example or an aberration.

On that basis, I am tentatively moving Mrs Southworth over to “Authors In Depth” – recognising as I do so the extremely intimidating dimensions of the lady’s oeuvre, and retaining for myself the right to reclassify her right back again, should it turn out that Vivia is indeed entirely typical. As a one-off, it is entertaining; multiplied by sixty, however, I suspect I’d find it rather overpowering…

08/01/2011

The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War


 
Memorable, too, was the election of 1860 to politicians; even to statesmen. Memorable, because Democracy, triumphant hitherto in the Federal elections, had been hurled from power. Not by the verdict of the people in their original capacity: a majority of them had cast their votes against the man who would be President of the United States by choice of the electoral college. A large majority had been cast against those who would represent the people in the Congress. But Democracy had been dethroned, because a house divided against itself cannot stand…

 

 

 

 

 

 
First, a disclaimer of sorts: I’m a rank amateur when it comes to the Civil War. I’ve seen, and very much enjoyed, Ken Burns’ documentary series, but apart from that my knowledge is confined to viewings of the usual dramas, which use the conflict chiefly as a backdrop for their romance. Although there may be other novels that take this approach, and while I’m quite sure there are any number of non-fiction works on the subject, The Rebel’s Daughter is quite unlike anything I’ve previously come across. Published in 1899, a year before its author’s death, the novel is an acute and profoundly knowledgeable examination of the politics that led to the Civil War: the legality, or otherwise, of slavery and secession; the factionalising of the Democrats that paved the way for the election of Abraham Lincoln; and the bitter and bloody division of the border states, forced not merely to take sides but to do so internally, person by person, neighbour against neighbour. I found this novel fascinating.

We’ve already taken a quick look at the life of John Gabriel Woerner, and from that it is evident that The Rebel’s Daughter is heavily autobiographical. Clearly, many of the places and people in this novel are sketches of the real thing, but I am insufficiently well-informed to recognise most of them. The novel begins with Victor Waldhorst, a young German-American, travelling from St Louis, Missouri, to the town of Brookfield, where he is to take up a position of shopman in a general store. On the way, Victor rescues a girl when her carriage horses bolt. She is Eleonora May – Nellie to her friends. The Mays, former Virginians, are one of the most prominent and wealthy local families. They are gracious, charming and hospitable – and slave-owners.

At first, Victor is profoundly shocked by this realisation, and unable to reconcile the warmth and generosity of the Mays with their involvement in what he considers an abhorrant institution. In his ignorance of local laws and conventions, Victor intrudes one night into one of the poor cottages of the Mays’ slaves, where he finds Nellie May’s own slave, Lucretia, known as Cressie, teaching the other occupants to read out of the Bible. Victor is caught in the cottage by the Mays’ overseer, Jeffreys, who has designs upon Cressie and immediately assumes that Victor is there for the same purpose. An ugly scene follows, in which Colonel May takes Victor’s side, and Jeffreys is dismissed. The overseer conceives a bitter hatred and resentment against the Mays and Victor, which will pursue them for many years. Almost immediately, Victor finds himself under arrest and charged with abolitionist activities, but thanks to a defence guided by Leslie May, the son of the household, who is studying law, he is triumphantly exonerated.

This outcome seals the bonds of affection between Victor and the Mays. He is, in a sense, adopted by the Colonel; becomes Leslie’s bosom friend; and is teased, laughed at and imposed upon by the imperious young Nellie. Under the Colonel’s political tutelage, Victor becomes a passionate adherent of the United States Constitution and all that it stands for…although he does puzzle over why, in a land priding itself on its guaranteed freedoms, including that of freedom of speech, the Colonel should warn him to keep his opinions on slavery to himself, if he knows what’s good for him. However, thanks to the Colonel’s teachings, Victor feelings on this point are somewhat softened, as he comes to accept that slavery is, if not right, at least constitutional.

Over time, Victor’s personal fortunes greatly improve. He moves from the general store to the offices of a successful German-language newspaper, first as a printer, later as its editor. Meanwhile, Colonel May is elected to Congress, and later receives a nomination for the Senate; a success in which Victor plays a significant part. With Leslie May’s encouragement and backing, Victor himself runs for Congress, and is elected. His entry into the legislature of Missouri occurs in 1860, the year also of a Federal election: an election in which the growing schism within the Democratic party allows the triumph of the Republicans and the inaugeration of Abraham Lincoln; events that bring with them the threat of secession of the southern states and even of civil war.

For Victor, the situation is one fraught with horror in a personal, as well as a political, sense. The incumbent Senator for Missouri, General Hart, is like Victor himself an upholder of the Constitution and sternly opposed to Missouri’s secession. In opposing Hart in his run for the Senate, Colonel May, the man who infused Victor with his own belief in the Constitution, begins a pragmatic drift towards the secessionist faction. Leslie and Nellie, unshakably devoted to their father and fiercely protective of their state’s rights, go with him – and expect Victor to do likewise.

But Victor, in conscience, cannot. In spite of his profound feelings of affection and gratitude for the Mays, in spite of his standing promise to support the Colonel, and above all in spite of the fact that he is desperately in love with Nellie, now grown from a sprite of a girl into the reigning belle of Missouri, he casts his lot with General Hart and the Constitutionalists, knowing that in doing so he has at a stroke severed himself from everything in life that he holds most dear – except his principles. When war comes, it finds Leslie May in southern grey, and Victor in the blue of the Missourian militia…

As a Civil War novel, The Rebel’s Daughter is rather unusual, inasmuch as the war itself remains at all times tangential to the main story. We get a description of the firing of Fort Sumter, and an account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (here called Winslo’s Creek), which marked Missouri’s entry into the war proper; but otherwise, the story remains solidly within the personal and political boundaries it has drawn for itself. I didn’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I found the careful, logical descriptions of the step-by-political-step journey towards war absolutely rivetting: an answer, at least to an extent, to the eternal, post-war cry of dismay, How can these things happen? This novel also makes very clear the profound reluctance of the Lincoln administration to move against the rebelling states, and the misinterpretation of this reluctance by the South, which grew bolder and increasingly provocative upon the tragic misapprehension that, “The North would not fight.”

And if a Civil War novel in which the war itself barely appears seems unusual, what are we to make of a Civil War novel that does not deal in any significant way with slavery? This is an aspect of the story that possibly strikes readers today more forcibly than it did its contemporary audience, given the modern tendency to view slavery rather simply as what the Civil War was “about”.

(I’m reminded here of the episode of The Simpsons in which Apu gets his citizenship: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” “Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter—” “Just say ‘slavery’.”)

According to the biography written by his son, William, J.G. Woerner was strongly opposed to slavery. That may be so, but if it was so, you wouldn’t know it from reading this novel. Possibly this was a deliberate choice, in keeping with the overarching political framework of the story. From J.G. Woerner’s own strictly legalistic point of view, and with Victor Waldhorst acting as his alter-ego, there is a definite implication throughout the novel that since slavery is constitutional, that is all there is to be said upon the subject. Various characters do debate the issue, but again, almost invariably from a legal standpoint: arguments that highlight the inherently self-defeating nature of the course of action pursued by the South, and the pragmatic view of the situation of many in the North:

Reverence for the constitution is, to this day, so deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, both North and South, that they will tolerate no tampering with it, either by Northern or Southern fanatics. Break it, as secession must do, and slavery is doomed. For it has no hold on the majority of the people, save as it is guaranteed by the constitution. In the war that must follow secession, the forcible emancipation of slaves will be too powerful a weapon against the South to be neglected by the Federal government. There will be nothing, then, to save this fated institution from annihilation; and when once extinct, it will be no more forever, on the North American continent at least. I am thoroughly sure, Colonel, that the immediate abolition of slavery is impossible in this country, unless the way be paved for it by the attempt to destroy the national government…”

As for Victor, his moral qualms never quite go away, but after his first naive forays, he makes no further attempt to argue the point. Only one character, Victor’s cousin, Woldemar Auf den Busch, ever really opposes the institution on the grounds of morality – yet there is no sense that we are supposed to admire him for it. Far from it: his stance is tainted by the echo of the word, fanatic. Not only are we not encouraged to like Woldemar as a person – although he does grow and improve over the course of the novel – but whenever he tries to raise a moral objection to slavery, he is immediately and sharply slapped down. Furthermore, there is an implicit comparison in this plot-thread of actual slavery to life under monarchy that, personally, I found both disingenuous and distasteful.

Only about half a dozen slaves in total appear in this novel, all of them owned by the Mays, and only one who can rightly be called a character. This is Cressie, Nellie May’s own slave, who is referred to throughout as “the Octoroon”, on account of skin so pale, she is often mistaken for white; who is so beautiful, so graceful in her behaviour, so proper in her speech, that she is sometimes taken for a guest in the Mays’ house. When, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Mays’ other slaves depart in an instant, Cressie stays behind: the thought of leaving her former owners never crosses her mind.

This, then is the face of slavery in The Rebel’s Daughter; and we remember, too, that J.G. Woerner once wrote an anti-slavery play called Amanda, The Slave, in which the title character is white. How do we interpret this pattern? Perhaps Woerner believed that many white people could only understand the horrors of slavery if they saw them being inflicted on other white people; or perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, he felt that slavery became more wrong as the people enslaved were more white. It is impossible to say. While the oblique, to-one-side treatment of slavery in this novel is never less than intriguing, and quite in keeping with its political focus, I have to admit that the handling of this aspect of the story made me rather uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the relationship between Victor and Nellie is entirely conventional Civil War drama stuff, their romance acting as usual as a symbol of the relationship between North and South. Ever noticed how it nearly always is a Northern man and a Southern woman in these things? – or that when it is Southern man / Northern woman, it’s more likely to end unhappily? All sorts of implications in that, of course, including the North being coded “masculine” and the South “feminine”; the ensuing romance involving her being brought to the “right” way of looking at things, and her “rebellion” inevitably ending in “submission” – and absorption. I suppose, too, it’s a consequence of the convention that a proper woman adopts her man’s beliefs, and to have it the other way around would either mean her adopting beliefs that were wrong, or holding opinions different from her husband’s – and we couldn’t have that, now, could we?

The almost-not-quite romance of Victor and Nellie, which begins when they are little more than children, with his calf-love and her blithe acceptance of his homage, winds itself around the novel’s political content. Nellie is passionate in all her feelings: in her devotion to her father, to her state, and to the southern cause; so that Victor’s adherence to his constitutional principles, and his necessary separation from Colonel May, strikes her as an act of vile dishonour and betrayal. Victor himself is introverted and often self-doubting, though equally passionate when roused; and ironically, it is only in the face of Victor’s agonised renunciation of her that Nellie comes truly to understand and appreciate his character. By then it is too late, of course: the next time they see each other, Victor is wearing a blue uniform.

Back when I reviewed Philip And Philippa I asked the question, When did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? Well, The Rebel’s Daughter was published two years earlier, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find J.G. Woerner using extravagant and deeply sentimental language to tell his love story. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to a love story, or even to happy-ever-after; but while I don’t for an instant doubt Woerner’s sincerity, I have to admit that I found his verbal torrents rather hard to swallow. Here, for example, is Victor saying goodbye to Nellie. Can you actually imagine a man under extreme emotional duress making a speech like this?—

“My glorious paradise, like some resplendent, sun-painted image in the clouds, has vanished into somber gloom. The bright ideal, that but now refulgently lit up my pathway, is intercepted by destiny’s mighty arm, snatching from me my soul’s crowning desire. Should ever, in the future, your thoughts recur to me, then, Nellie May, think of me as one, whose love for you, was so unbounded and unselfish, that he elected rather to be worthy of you, than to possess you unworthily…”

Too rich for my blood, I’m afraid. I prefer Woerner’s cool, reasoned politicking. Not very “feminine” of me, I suppose, but there we are. And truly, in the end it is the politicking that makes The Rebel’s Daughter such an interesting novel; one which deserves to be a great deal better known than it is.

(And our Word Of The Week, people? Refulgently. RE-FUL-GENT-LY. Try to use it in a sentence!)

 

27/12/2010

Well, it’s a start…

The Reading Gods must have been listening when I was complaining about my inability to hit anywhere near the novels I was most interested in while playing Reading Roulette: this time around they dropped me in the right century, at least – just. My latest random selection is The Rebel’s Daughter by John Gabriel Woerner, which was published in 1899.

It’s a start.

For the following information we have to thank Woerner’s own son, William, who published his John Gabriel Woerner: A Biographical Sketch in 1912. A German immigrant, Woerner spent his early years in Philadelphia, but grew up in Missouri, in St Louis and the (then) small towns of Springfield, Belle Font and Waynesville. Initially acquiring only a patchy education along the way due to his need to earn a living to help support his family, Woerner took every opportunity that presented to improve himself in this respect. Beginning in trade, Woerner became a printer and then a newspaper editor, but his ambition was for the law. Obtaining a legal clerkship, he studied in his spare time and was admitted to the bar. He found great success as a lawyer, but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Missouri was a bitterly divided “border state”; Woerner served on the Union side in the militia, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

In parallel with his legal career, Woerner entered politics on the Democratic ticket, repeatedly elected as a Councilman before being elected to the Senate in 1866. Before this, however, he was forced to confront the political division of his state. During the war years, despite his affiliation with the Democrats, Woerner not only served in the Union forces but became a supporter of Lincoln; afterwards, however, he fought against what he considered the self-defeatingly punitive measures of the Reconstruction. In 1870, Woerner was elected to the position of Judge of Probate, an appointment that would shape the rest of his life. Apart from an unblemished career on the bench, Woerner won professional fame for his legal treatises, in particular for one dealing with probate law – on which subject, I gather, he quite literally wrote the book.

But law books were not Woerner’s only literary output. From an early age he had written and published poetry and short stories. He also wrote a novel, which was serialised in a German-language newspaper and then published to strong sales amongst the German-speaking community. Also in German, he wrote a play that was completed in 1873: it was Anglicised and produced as Amanda, The Slave, and became a success. After this, Woerner wrote another play, which was also produced, but which he later evolved into a fully-fledged novel: The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War, which in its author’s words was intended to illustrate, “An ideal of a Southern woman, purified and chastened by the fierce war of rebellion and representing the triumph of Truth and Freedom over the negative phases through which American civilization has passed.”

Appropriately enough, I have had to obtain a copy of this novel from Missouri – thank you to Patten Books of St Louis.

26/12/2010

Prudence Of The Parsonage


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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