Posts tagged ‘Anthony Trollope’

11/05/2011

The church in a state

The Victorian English left us, in the form of fiction, a picture of themselves more complete than any we possess for other nations or other generations. But historians have almost ignored this vast mine of humane knowledge, a source of insight, if not indeed of fact. The view of the intellectual movement presented by men of unquestioned honesty to a public too well acquainted with the subject to accept obvious misrepresentation, should be valuable—not only for what is stated, but also for what is unconsciously revealed of bias, assumption, of the spiritual atmosphere of the time. Moreover, the Victorians were tremendously concerned with religion, lest it vanish, and their chief instrument of propaganda (in fact, their favorite means of presenting serious psychological or social study) was the novel.

Those of us who love the Victorian novel nevertheless face certain challenges in absorbing from it all that it has to offer. For the modern reader, one of the greatest of these may well be coming to terms with not merely the religious content, which is almost ubiquitous, but the terminology that goes along with it. In Victorian Britain, religion was a very public thing: this was a time of strife, not only between the church and its enemies – or at least its disputants – but between the various factions within the church itself. One of the pleasures for me of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement is that it allowed me finally, seriously, to begin to get my head around the vocabulary of the age, and to understand the allusions that for the Victorian reader were clear and self-explanatory: High Church, Low Church, Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Puseyism, High Anglicanism, High And Dry, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism— AAACCKK!!!!

Grateful as I am to Joseph Ellis Baker, I have, nevertheless, certain qualms about trying to review this book. As he declares in his preface, Baker was himself Catholic – or as I should say in this context, Roman Catholic – and even with my limited knowledge, I can see how this tends to skews his presentation of his material. Another issue is that, writing in 1932, Baker makes certain assumptions, and takes certain things for granted, that some eighty-odd years later we might not be inclined to accept. This presents a problem – one I don’t intend to try and overcome. Call it tolerance or call it cowardice, but I’ve decided not to engage with Baker at that level.

Instead, I’ll stick to talking about what I most took out of this book, a better understanding of the various religious movements of 19th-century Britain, and an awareness of some now extremely obscure novelists. And,  well, you know me: obscure novels, and obscure novelists, are my stock-in-trade; and I confess that these peculiar, clumsy, ponderously sincere, ephemeral texts hold a strange fascination for me.

(While I can say I have a better understanding of this subject, that’s certainly not to say it’s flawless. So if I get anything wrong here, or misuse any of the terminology, please feel free to set me straight.)

By Baker’s account, the so-called Oxford Movement grew out of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1830s, which saw various reforms passed giving greater rights and opportunities to the lower and middle classes, and an increasing distance placed between Church and State. A key moment came in 1833, with a Bill introduced in parliament to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Although this was part of a reform under which the money saved would be applied to other church business, the Bill was preceived in some quarters as an outrageous secular meddling in religious matters. The most notable reaction came from John Keble, the author of The Christian Year and, from 1831, the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. In 1833, Keble’s Assize Sermon was entitled “National Apostasy”. In it he denounced both the Irish Bill and the interference by the state in church affairs. This sermon is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Following Keble’s sermon, a group of English clerics banded together and produced a series of papers that they called Tracts For Our Times, which expounded upon the principles of what they called “the English branch of the Holy Catholic Church”. These Tracts became the focus of a move away from the Low Church, or Evangelical, form of worship, which then dominated England, and towards what would be known as Anglo-Catholicism: a stricter, more traditional approach that, while not recognising the authority of the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy, or incorporating confession and absolution, adopted Catholic procedures and rituals. It was Anglican, but not Protestant.

This movement was and for a decade remained based around Oxford. In the first instance it was often called “Tractarianism”, in reference to the publications which the Anglo-Catholics used to fire the first barrages in what would become a decades-long conflict. In line with their horror of liberalism and reform, the Tractarians advocated a return to an England under the joint paternalistic rule of the church and the aristocracy: a realm where everyone was content to stay where God had seen fit to place them; where the poor were  “looked after”, in the feudal sense, and thus kept passive and obedient, and where an uppity middle-class was to learn submission to God’s will whether it liked it or not.

Even as it is generally accepted that civil war is the most internecine, this battle not between different religions, but between degrees of the same religion, was a bitter if bloodless conflict, a war fought from the pulpit, and in the newspapers – and in the novel. By the time of the birth of the Oxford Movement, the novel was an accepted although not entirely approved form of recreation. While in general novels were still held to be a threat to the weak-minded of society – women, servants, the working-class – it was nevertheless recognised that if written with strict purpose, the novel could be a powerful weapon. So it was that during the 1840s, the religious novel was born, as each of the various factions tried to reach, to educate, to sway the English public through its favourite form of entertainment – not, however, without certain qualms.

It is to these qualms that we owe the most peculiar characteristics of the novels of this time. Many writers, uneasy at adopting a form often denounced for its pernicious influence to favour their cause, actually took pains to make their novels as unentertaining as possible. (Or at least, that’s the story they’re sticking with.) It became a matter of pride, for instance, not to include anything resembling a love-story: a convention perhaps easier for the Anglo-Catholics, one of whose tenets was the celibacy of the ministry. Indeed, many of the earliest religious novels are essentially sermons in prose. But over time, it was conceded that the power of the novel lay in its ability to engage the imagination and the emotions; that soapbox shouting defeated its own purpose. Finally, the more talented of the religious novelists began weaving their themes and their arguments into stories that carried conviction through their grounding in a recognisable reality.

Most readers today, I imagine, if asked to name a religious 19th century English novelist, would probably nominate Anthony Trollope, specifically his Barchester books. Ironically, although he gives Trollope his own section in his book, Joseph Ellis Baker essentially dismisses him as a religious novelist, arguing that his clergymen are predominantly creatures of society and not the church. This is, of course, to a large extent true, as Trollope himself admitted; it is not private religion but public duty with which he mostly concerned himself. Baker also points out that in Trollope’s novels, the Oxford Movement seems almost not to have happened – that he spends most of his time satirising the Evangelicals from a High (but not too High) Church perspective, exactly as his mother, Frances Trollope, was doing in her novels of the 1830s. This, however, Baker subscribes largely to the fact that Trollope was writing his novels after the first great wave of religious controversy had subsided, during a period of greater tolerance and reduced disputation.

Nevertheless, for the modern reader, Trollope is still a good place to start – and quite complicated enough, with his Proudie / Grantley – Low Church / High Church brawling. We do in fact find in his novels a few references to the earlier religious controversies, including the unanticipated and most unwanted climax of the Oxford Movement, which saw several of its leading exponents, most notoriously John Henry Newman, convert to Roman Catholicism: exactly what the Movement’s Lower Church enemies had warned would be its natural consequence.

Thus in Barchester Towers, Francis Arabin is described as “an ardent disciple” of Newman, and, So high, indeed, that at one period of his career, he had all but toppled over into the cesspool of Rome. In Doctor Thorne we have Caleb Oriel, who represents a mild form of another frequent accusation made against Catholicism: that it was a religion of the senses and not of the spirit. Caleb’s initial calling was, we learn, Rather to the outward and visible signs of religion than to its inward and spiritual graces. He is also an advocate of celibacy in the church: a belief which scarcely outlasts his first meeting with Beatrice Gresham. Trollope is indulgent with those who go a little too “High”, believing that this is something they will simply grow out of; but he has little patience with those who go Low. For Trollope, Evangelicalism is the refuge of the ungentlemanly.

That Anthony Trollope is an enduringly popular novelist, and that Anthony Trollope was not, in Joseph Ellis Baker’s opinion, a religious novelist, are probably not unrelated. Most of the propagandistic novels produced during this time were so narrow in scope, so humourless in execution, so specific in respect to time and place – and, let’s face it, so poor in quality – that very few of them outlived the brief period of their initial release.

A few good – or at least, interesting – novelists, albeit ones not much read these days, did emerge from this controversy. Benjamin Disraeli’s works reflect his “Young Englishism”, a form of Toryism than looked yearningly back at the forms of Old English tradition, and thus found some parallels with the conservatism of the Oxford Movement. Significantly, Disraeli’s novels came in two waves, matching the two great outbreaks of religious controversy, during the 1840s and the 1870s.

On the other side of the fence, Charles Kingsley used the novel to launch scathing attacks upon the Tractarians, but from a rather unique perspective. Kingsley took issue with the notion that human nature was inherently sinful, believing that what was “natural” was “good” – including sex. While decrying celibacy and asceticism, Kingsley finds God equally in nature and in science. On the other hand, he held grave views about the possibility of rebellion by the lower classes, which like his religious enemies, the Anglo-Catholics, he viewed as defiance of God’s will.

But it was the Anglo-Catholics who first seized upon the novel as a means of propaganda, their leading lights in this respect during the 1840s being William Gresley and Francis Edward Paget. Both of these men were exponents of the dissertation school of novel-writing, avoiding love interest and concentrating instead on topics such as church restoration and the removal of pews. Stories of individuals who inherit estates and make them over in religious / feudal terms were also popular.

Another recurrent theme was the pernicious influence of the Mechanics’ Institutes and the like, which not only educated the poor and the working-class, but educated them in science; thus moving from being merely foolish to the outright sinful. In her 1855 novel, S. Alban’s; or, The Prisoners Of Hope, Felicia Skene offers a dire warning about what was going on in these Institutes, giving an example of the kind of lecture the lower classes were listening to: They were all equal, and men were not to be bought and sold like slaves, whose labour was to be made use of; and all this wicked sophistry [was] remarkably palatable to the proud unchastened spirit of the man…

But as the fight heated up, the novels became more and more thunderous against democracy or liberalism in any form; against reform; against social progress; and above all against anything that questioned the “natural authority” of the church in the first instance, but also of the aristocracy. This attitude is illustrated in William Gresley’s Clement Walton, wherein the English Church – i.e. the Anglo-Catholic Church – is praised for producing men who are “loyal, faithful, peaceable, and intelligent”; while conversely, in those who follow other tenets there is, An absence of that humble submission to authority, which is so amiable a feature of the Christian character… Corresponding with this spiritual defect there is a political disaffection to civil government; a democratic, arrogant temper; an anxiety to maintain rights rather than to perform duties.

Most of the early Tractarian novels were written by men about men; but later in the century, the novel of domestic manners became prominent, and gave women writers an acceptable framework within which to tackle religious matters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these novels is their profound anti-intellectualism. The same advocacy of submission is present in these novels, but it goes hand-in-hand with an overt suspicion of the intellect. “Thinking”, generally, is viewed as a form of wicked wilfullness that will inevitable lead to sin: to think is to question; to question is to doubt; to doubt is to disbelieve. And “thinking” is doubly sinful when it is done by women, who along with the church will usually have an array of fathers, brothers and husbands to whom they should be submitting without hesitation or reflection.

Perhaps the most well-known, and indeed the most talented, of this particular school of novel-writing is Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman Of The Family, as we might guess from its title – the 19th century produced no more damning term for a woman than “clever” – is the story of a woman who has the temerity to think for herself, and who must suffer a proper and thorough humiliation as a consequence and thus learn her place. Meanwhile, Yonge’s Hopes And Fears has a young woman who has learned to be deeply suspicious of her own intelligence, which she fears will lead her into sin, looking wistfully at her mentally disabled sister and praying to be, As silly as she.

It is, however, Elizabeth Missing Sewell who represents the most extreme form of this stance, embracing a creed of absolute, unthinking obedience to authority. Obstacles are sent by God not to be striven against, but as a sign that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing and sit still: in Margaret Percival, when a character cannot afford to go to university and become a clergyman because of his brother’s gambling debts, it does not mean that he should work and strive and overcome these difficulties, but a sign that God does not want him to be a clergyman.

Also in Margaret Percival, we find the heroine hesitating over donating money for church restoration, as to do so would give her pleasure and is thus in all likelihood a sin. When she wavers towards Rome she is lectured bluntly about, “The duty of remaining where God has placed you, unless you have absolute demonstration, which you never can have, that the English Church is no true Church…” – and further warned that doing what is right “in her own eyes” will likely land her in Hell. “Thinking” is a form of self-will, and therefore a sin. “Conscience”, likewise, is setting our own judgement against that of a proper authority and a sin of pride. Acts such as these are dangerous for anyone, but unforgiveable in a woman, for whom the safest way is to fill her life entirely with religion – the right religion – so that she is in no danger of thinking about anything else, and therefore in no danger of thinking at all. In Ursula, a woman who has suffered an illness that leaves her “weak-minded” finds that obedience to authority now comes much more easily to her, and recognises that what she at first viewed as an affliction is a gift from God.

After all this, it was, I confess, with some relief that I turned to Baker’s account of the opposing Evangelical novels. It is a given in these novels that Anglo-Catholicism is all about the externals – of the senses, not the spirit, as we have said. As a religion, it leads people away from inner grace to a fixation on forms and ceremonies; while the decoration of churches reflects a sinful adherence to worldly pleasures. Evangelical novels do not generally express the same kind of suspicion of the intellect per se as the Tractarian novels, but what we find instead is a dismissal of art and literature as having any value in and of themselves.

That the Tractarians are, one way or another, deluded is the catch-cry of these novels. Girls are shown to be at particular risk of being drawn in: it is, we are told gravely, a short step from embroidering an altar-cloth to “going over to Rome”. Unlike the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals tended to make a point of including a love-story in their novels. A number of Evangelical novels, including Emma Jane Worboise’s Overdale; or, The Story Of A Pervert, suggest that the attraction of Catholicism (Anglo or Roman) to young women is that its public display affords them – ahem – an outlet for their emotions. Once a nice young man turns up, all that nonsense is quickly forgotten. Another danger is celibate churchmen, who amusingly enough are sketched as being like catnip for their female parishioners. Celibacy is viewed with great suspicion, as evidence of the fundamental “unnaturalness” of Catholicism; and as it leads women away from love and marriage, it becomes not just wrong but wicked.

Despite all this, however, the Evangelical novels tend to be more generous to the Anglo-Catholics than vice-versa: they admit the good intentions of their spiritual enemies, even that they do much good amongst the poor; but all of this is as nothing beside such transgressions as encouraging amusements on Sundays – or frequenting theatres and other such places at any time. Thus, in Experience; or, The Young Church-Woman, an anonymous novel from 1854, we have the heroine refusing an invitation to the opera, her rule being, “Never to go anywhere to which I would not take my Saviour.”

The controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement died away during the 1850s, giving us a period of comparative calm and tolerance in the 1860s, in which religious novelists of all camps, although holding their ground, became more willing to present both sides of an argument, and to allow that their enemies, however misguided, were sincere. It was during this period that Anthony Trollope flourished. Things changed during the 1870s, however, on the back of a severe agricultural depression that put enormous pressure on the traditional landowners and brought about widespread unemployment. Life was hard for many, and it is perhaps because of this that the second wave of the Oxford Movement manifested itself as Ritualism, with an emphasis not only on ceremony, but on the emotional aspects of worship, including belief in supernatural manifestations and an embrace of mysticism.

When the Evangelicals hit back, as they inevitably did, against these “Catholic extravagances”, their retaliation was in its own way just as extravagant: whereas once religious novelists had shied away from the conventions of the form, this second wave found them using the scandalous framework of the sensation novel to make their case, telling lurid stories about religiously mixed marriages and scheming priests. Oddly, this movement produced, or at least attracted, a talented novelist in the form of Eliza Linn Lynton; perhaps she was just glad of an excuse to write a sensation novel. In any case, her Under Which Lord? is the definitive study of an Anglo-Catholic wife torn between her duty to her husband and her duty to her church. The scheming priest in this case is an advanced Ritualist, and condemned by the narrator as, A Roman Catholic in all save name and obedience…one who was contemptuous of modern science, sceptical of modern progress, and opposed to all forms of mental freedom. The distance between Lynton’s creed and that of Elizabeth Missing Sewell is staggering to contemplate.

Amusingly, this new form of Evangelical attack brought the Victorian religious novel full circle, as Francis Edward Paget, one of the pioneering Tracterian novelists of the 1840s, reacted by publishing in 1868 Lucretia; or, The Heroine Of The Nineteenth Century, a bitter and heavy-handed satire of the sensation novel, which is accused of not merely exploiting, but actively promoting all manner of sin – chiefly adultery and murder. Paget has no doubt where this novelistic trend was leading: France is not the only country in the annals of the world in which a reign of lust has been followed by a reign of terror.

The most horrifying aspect of the sensation novel, however, is that so many of them are written by – gasp! – women:

—and the worst of them, UNMARRIED WOMEN!

Emphasis his.

But this wave, too, died away. In the 1880s, novels were still dealing with religious matters, but those themes were being woven into the story instead of being the story: the era of the overt propaganda vehicle was gone. Not surprisingly, many of the novelists who had entered this particular battle subsequently sank into oblivion. Their works, equally crude and sincere, are the very definition of “an acquired taste”…yet some of us have acquired it. I shudder to reflect what The Novel And The Oxford Movement – in combination with Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, which I read shortly pre-blog – has done to my wishlist. All the novels mentioned here are in there, people – it’s only a matter of time…

29/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 5)

“But oh, it is fancy sets the rate on beauty, and he may as well love a third time as he has a second. For in love, those that once break the rules and laws of that deity, set no bounds to their treasons and disobedience. Yes, yes,— He that could leave Myrtilla, the fair, the young, the noble, chaste and fond Myrtilla, what after that may he not do to Sylvia, on whom he has less ties, less obligations? Oh wretched maid—what has thy fondness done…”

Reading Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister today as most of us do read it, via the Virago edition of 1987 (and really, has there ever been a more entirely fitting Virago publication?), the second part tends to feel a bit out of place. Shedding the classic epistolary structure of Part 1, Part 2 presents as a more familiar piece of fiction with a third-person, essentially omniscient narrator; and unlike both other parts, it is almost apolitical, having very little to do with the real events that shape its companions, to the extent that it sometimes feels that Aphra Behn was merely marking time when she wrote it.

However, much of this is artificial. It is important to realise that while today we think of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister as “a novel”, it was never planned or intended to be a unified work, but was written and published as three separate stories. The three volumes were not joined together until 1693, five years after Behn’s death. To do justice to Part 2, it needs to be considered more or less in isolation. It is, in its own right, an important piece of writing.

Although it was published in 1685, this volume must have been written in 1684, as there is no reference in it, not the vaguest allusion, to the momentous events that shook the whole of England in February, 1685: the sudden death of Charles II, and the succession of his brother as James II. No doubt writing quickly to cash in on the success of her first prose venture, Aphra Behn was immediately confronted by a significant problem – namely, that she had no material. Part 1 had ended with the escape of Philander and Sylvia from France, an event paralleling that of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley from England in June of 1683. Lord Grey, at least, would reappear on the public stage in the middle of 1685, but Behn wasn’t to know that. Part 2, therefore, while maintaining the pretence of being “about” Grey and Henrietta, is a work of pure fiction.

The other difficulty for Behn was that, Philander and Sylvia being together, there was no longer any need for them to correspond – at least, not at the outset. Having pioneered the epistolary novel in Part 1, Behn here responded by pioneering another form of novel-writing, one whose greatest ever exponent is probably Anthony Trollope.

Although he never wrote a true epistolary novel,  Trollope possessed an extraordinary facility for exploiting letter-writing in his works, which overflow with full or excerpted correspondence that reveals or conceals, and with acute analyses, in which the characters’ reactions to the letters in question are often juxtaposed with observations, expansive or ironic, made by the narrator. Aphra Behn does something similar here, albeit rather more crudely and tentatively; more than one-half of this novel consists of letters between the characters, which are linked with third-person narration and direct conversation. While via her narrator Behn keeps us fully informed of the characters’ real thoughts and motivations, we see simultaneously their use of letters to deceive, manipulate and misrepresent. There is a real understanding shown here of what Behn, as a political writer, must have known only too well: the gap between what people think and believe, and what they put on paper; what they are, and what they choose to appear.

And that’s probably the only time I’ll ever compare Anthony Trollope to Aphra Behn.

The story that eventually reached the public under the title Love Letters From A Noble Man To His Sister. Mixt With The History Of Their Adventures is as follows: Philander and Sylvia, with Sylvia’s husband of convenience, Brilliard, in tow, flee France for Holland. On the journey, they encounter a young Dutch nobleman, Octavio, with whom they become fast friends, Octavio not realising that Sylvia, still in her boy’s clothes, is a woman. Shortly after their arrival in Holland, Sylvia falls seriously ill, which compels Philander to confide to Octavio not only Sylvia’s secret, but their history. Before Sylvia recovers her health, an agreement between Holland and France compels the former to issue a warrant for Philander’s arrest and deportation, forcing him to fly the country. Philander leaves Sylvia in Octavio’s care; he falls in love with her, but his loyalty to his friend keeps him silent. Meanwhile, the tone of Philander’s letters to Sylvia make her fear that his passion for her is cooling.

She’s right: in Germany, Philander encounters, and instantly falls passionately in love with, Calista, the beautiful and innocent young wife of a Spanish nobleman. While still maintaining his protestations of love to Sylvia, Philander confides the truth to Octavio, who discovers to his horror that the object of Philander’s new pursuit is his own sister. Torn now between his love for Sylvia, his promises to Philander, and his sense that Philander has (albeit unknowingly) freed him from any obligation, Octavio is drawn to reveal Philander’s secret to Sylvia, who begins to plot revenge, with Octavio as her weapon, Meanwhile, Brilliard has also fallen in love with Sylvia, and begins to reflect darkly that he ought to be entitled to a husband’s privilege…

Not having any particular story to tell in this volume, Aphra Behn divides her time here between a serious and rather depressing analysis of women’s place in society, and some elaborate game-playing involving sexual hijinks and gender roles. In the latter respect in particular, this piece of prose has a quite a lot in common with Behn’s plays and poetry. There was a certain sexual ambiguity about Aphra Behn herself, with showed itself most frequently in her poetry (To The Fair Clarinda… being the most obvious example, as we have already seen); while Behn’s only serious love affair was with a known bisexual who was later arrested for committing homosexual acts.

Here, following on from Philander’s adventure while dressed as Sylvia’s maid in Part 1, Sylvia is frequently in drag; and not only is this beautiful women found more beautiful in that guise, she more than once becomes the object of a man’s affection while he believes her to be a man. For example, this  is Octavio, first encountering the young “Fillmond”, as Sylvia calls herself: “He felt a secret joy and pleasure play about his soul, he knew not why, and was almost angry, that he felt such an emotion for a youth, though the most lovely he ever saw…”

And this, too, comes on top of Behn’s descriptions of the growing friendship between Octavio and Philander, which has more than a touch of the homoerotic about it: “Octavio entered with an address so graceful and obliging, that at first sight he inclined Philander’s heart to a friendship with him; and on the other side the lovely person of Philander, the quality that appeared in his face and mien, obliged Octavio to become no less an admirer.” There are passages in this book where it seems that Sylvia is simply the vehicle via which these two men can work out their feelings for one another.

The climax of this volume – and believe me, I wish I could think of an alternative word to use there – is an extended sexual farce of cross-purposes and misidentification. Octavio has received two letters from Philander, one containing a graphic description of his affair with Calista (who is, let me remind you, Octavio’s sister), the other a placating letter to Sylvia intended to keep that particular iron in the fire, just in case. Sylvia begins negotiations for possession of the other letter; a process complicated by the interference of Brilliard who, as part of his own campaign to worm his way into Sylvia’s bed, has begun intercepting Octavio’s letters and sometimes substituting forgeries of his own. Thus, Sylvia is made to believe that Octavio will give up Philander’s incriminating letter in exchange for a night in her bed. She agrees, but plans to substitute her maid, Antonet, who is eager enough for sex with the handsome Octavio. Octavio, growing suspicious, lurks near Sylvia’s house, where (as he thinks) he sees another man being led to Sylvia’s bed. He waits in the darkness, his sword drawn and vengeance in his heart. And Brilliard, determined to make the absolute most of his night with his wife, not only doses himself with Spanish fly, but overdoses…with dire consequences.

As I have said, Part 2 is the closest in spirit of the three to Behn’s non-prose work, and it is easy enough to imagine how this complicated piece of physical comedy would have played out on the stage. At the same time, though, this is the one point in Behn’s short fiction career to date where you can really feel her struggling with the limitations of the form. There are some incoherent aspects to this twisted tale, and Behn is forced at the end to go back over her ground to clear up a couple of points that she must have felt were otherwise just a bit too obscure. Nevertheless, the jaunty sexual humour, in particular Brilliard’s painful comeuppance, is still perfectly enjoyable.

On the other hand, the way in which Behn handles the characters of Sylvia and Calista across this volume and the one following, and their contrasting fates, is not funny at all. Much of Behn’s writing concerned itself with woman’s place, woman’s destiny, and the question of whether a woman could really ever “win”…to which the answer was, in most instances, a dismal “no”. Hindered equally by the nature of her feelings and by society’s rules, the best a woman could hope for, it seems, was the briefest triumph, those moments preceding the sexual surrender. Beyond that point, there lies compromise at best, more often abandonment and despair.

We’ve already lived every second of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, his determination, her doubts and fears. Wrought up by the excitement and danger of their flight, by Sylvia’s masquerade, and even by her illness, the emotions of the two stay at a high pitch until the instant of their enforced separation. When finally off the boat and settled in Holland, they resume their sexual relationship: “It was not hard for the lover to steal into the longing arms of the expecting Sylvia; no fatigues of tedious journeys, and little voyages, had abated her fondness, or his vigour; the night was like the first, all joy! All transport!”

But Sylvia’s serious illness soon interrupts their congress. Calling upon his friends, the concerned Octavio, “…found Philander the most deplorable object that despair and love could render him, who lay eternally weeping on her bed, and no counsel or persuasion could remove him thence; but if by chance they made him sensible it was for her repose, he would depart to ease his mind by new torments, he would rave and tear his delicate hair, sigh and weep upon Octavio’s bosom…”

Likewise, when Philander learns he must leave Holland or be arrested, and Sylvia is too weak to travel: “He sighed and cried,—‘Why—farewell trifling life—if of the two extremes one must be chosen, rather than I’ll abandon Sylvia, I’ll stay and be delivered up a victim to incensed France— It is but a life’…”

Yes, very noble – if that were the end of it: “…’but by my stay I ruin both Sylvia and myself, her life depends on mine… By staying I resign myself poorly to be made a public scorn to France, and the cruel murderer of Sylvia.’ Now, it was after an hundred turns and pauses, intermixed with sighs and ravings, that he resolved for both their safeties to retire…”

We can only admire the depth and sincerity of Philander’s conviction that Sylvia couldn’t possibly survive his own death. Otherwise—well, perhaps we’re not quite as convinced by all this as Octavio is – or, for that matter, as Philander is, whose determination to rave over Sylvia in spite of her need for rest perhaps reminds us just a touch too much of his determination to fight Foscario, despite the betrayal of Sylvia’s secret inherent in that act.

But Philander does not leave Sylvia without certain qualms: “He fancied absence might make her cold, and abate her passion to him; that her powerful beauty might attract adorers, and she being but a woman, and no part angel but her form, ’twas not expected she should want her sex’s frailties…”

A fortnight after all this, Sylvia receives Philander’s first letter from Cologne, and recoils from it in horror:“It is all cold—short—short and cold as a dead winter’s day. It chilled my blood, it shivered every vein… Has thy industrious passion gathered all the sweets, and left the rifled flower to hang its withered head, and die in shades neglected?…”

Meanwhile, we have also Philander’s first letter to Octavio: “Perhaps, my friend, you are wondering now, what this discourse, this odd discovery of my own inconstancy tends to? Then since I cannot better pay you back the secret you had told me of your love, than by another of my own; take this confession from thy friend—I love!—languish! And am dying,—for a new beauty.”

Here, running in parallel with Behn’s caustic view of irregular sexual relations, we have Behn’s even more caustic view of marriage. The object of Philander’s new passion is Calista, the Countess of Clarineau, who was raised from early childhood in a convent in utter seclusion from the world, and then married off to a man some forty years her senior. The Count, a Spaniard, is living in exile in Germany because he murdered his first wife – a detail that apparently bothered Calista’s parents not one whit, while they were negotiating to sell their young and naïve daughter to him.

Indeed, so entirely ignorant and unworldly is Calista, that she takes her first glimpse of the physically beautiful Philander to be a vision – and unfortunately exclaims so in Philander’s hearing, giving him all the ammunition he needs to plot his way into her affections, and then her bed. If Sylvia, raised in and fairly knowledgeable about the world, had no defence against Philander’s strategies, what hope has poor Calista? She falls a willing victim with deadly swiftness.

It is not only the tragic certainty of Calista’s ultimate fate that makes this section of the novel so difficult for the reader, but the fact that we have to hear about all this in Philander’s own words…and after having already suffered through his languishing and dying for Sylvia and, indirectly, his languishing and dying for Myrtilla, this third serving of languishing and dying is very stale leftovers indeed. Mind you— None of this latest dying stops Philander dallying with the housemaid at the inn over the way from the Clarineaus’ house, while he figures out how to get to the guarded Calista.

The fundamental problem, in Aphra Behn’s opinion, is that there is simply no such thing as “a good man”. Octavio is often categorised as such, granted, but that’s mostly because he eventually ends up ranged amongst the novel’s victims. In practice, he’s not all that much different from Philander, his passion for Sylvia being progressively revealed as a purely physical obsession. When Philander’s letter informs him that his own sister is the object of his latest fixation, Octavio is horrified but makes no attempt to warn her. Perhaps a letter couldn’t have reached her in time – but you’d think he might at least make the gesture. Instead, he uses his certainty that Philander will seduce Calista to excuse his breaking of his own promises to Philander, and his pursuit of Sylvia:

“‘Well,’ cried he— ‘If thou be’st lost, Calista, at least thy ruin has laid a foundation for my happiness, and every triumph Philander makes of thy virtue, it the more secures my empire over Sylvia; and since the brother cannot be happy, but by the sister’s being undone, yield thou, O faithless fair one, yield to Philander, and make me blest in Sylvia!'”

Octavio’s fears – or hopes – are confirmed soon enough; and here Behn treats her more prurient readers to a large dose of the kind of erotica that helped to make her first volume so popular (not that I’m accusing you guys of prurience, or anything…):

“I who knew my advantage, lost no time, but put each minute to the properest use; now I embrace, clasp her fair lovely body close to mine, which nothing parted but her shift and gown; my busy hands finds passage to her breasts, and give and take a thousand nameless joys; all but the last I reaped; that heaven was still denied… I soothed the thought, and urged the laws of nature, the power of love, necessity of youth—and the wonder that was yet behind, that ravishing something, which not love or kisses could make her guess at; so beyond all soft imagination, that nothing but a trial could convince her… I dare not tell you more; let it suffice she was all that luxurious man could wish, and all that renders woman fine and ravishing. About two hours thus was my soul in rapture…”

 This is the letter that, at long last, seeing, “…her pain and irresolution, and being absolutely undone with love…”, Octavio delivers up to Sylvia, along with the letter he was directed to give to her in the first place: “…I have met with some affairs since my arrival to this place, that wholly take up my time; affairs of State, whose fatigues have put my heart extremely out of tune…so that I have not an hour in a day to spare for Sylvia; which, believe me, is the greatest affliction of my life…”

“Affairs of State”? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

One of the main threads running through this novel, all three volumes together, is the evolution of Sylvia’s character – particularly in contrast to that of the helplessly feminine Calista. In Aphra Behn’s writing, “good” women usually end up abandoned and alone – or dead. “Bad” women tend to fare a little better, but they pay a terrible price. Here, absorbing Philander’s lessons of deceit, manipulation and concealment, Sylvia gradually grows more and more like him – becomes, as it were, more masculine – while retaining both the female beauty and wiles that make her so dangerous, and the overweening vanity that threatens to destroy her.

Upon reading these letters both sides of her are roused. Octavio, seeing the effect of her reading upon Sylvia, presses his advantage, pleading his passion, Philander’s perfidy, Sylvia’s wounded pride. He offers to wreak vengeance upon Philander on Sylvia’s behalf…and then has the temerity to paint himself as equally Philander’s victim, swearing, “…to go and revenge himself and her on the false friend and lover, and confessed the second motive, which was his sister’s fame, ‘For,’ cried he, ‘that foul adultress, that false Calista, is so allied to me.'”

And Sylvia accepts his offer, swearing in turn that if he will do as he promises, she will marry him…Brilliard being no more than a minor inconvenience, you understand…

And so Part 2 closes, with an accompanying promise from Aphra Behn that, “The third and last part of this history, shall most faithfully relate”, the various fates of all our characters. And so it did…but not for another two-and-a-half years.

[To be continued…]

17/11/2010

The Eternal Woman

On whom a flawless, well-grown specimen of the divine ‘rose of womanhood’ has been bestowed has been granted the greatest gift on earth, and although Clara did not know it, she was one of the fortunate ones.
— Dorothea Gerard (1903)

In spite of the involuntary, and rather violent, exclamation of, Blecchh!! that escaped me upon reading the above and similar passages in Dorothea Gerard’s The Eternal Woman, I did try to give this novel a fair shake; although it was evident from its earliest chapters that it and I were operating from, to put it mildly, opposing philosophies. Written and set at the turn of the last century, The Eternal Woman is a determined attempt to turn the tide of female emancipation, chiefly by convincing young women that not only is marriage their true destiny, but a realm of female power and control.

Orphaned at an early age, Clara Wood, an English girl, is taken in on an impulse by the Viennese widow Baroness Sieffert. Shallow and self-absorbed, the Baroness loses interest in Clara as she grows older, although she always means to provide for her. However, when she dies suddenly, it is discovered that the Baroness has not made a will, and at the age of twenty Clara finds herself alone in the world and almost destitute. Turning for advice to the feminist magazine editor Fraulein Pohl, Clara is offered the chance to attend university, but decides that what she wants is marriage and a home, and as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  Becoming a governess, Clara passes three years moving from position to position without finding what she seeks, before manoeuvring herself into the household of Philip Aikman in the position of companion-nurse to his senile mother. Aikman is single, lives in near solitude in a small coastal village in Scotland, and is heir to his uncle’s substantial fortune. He is, in other words, exactly what Clara has been looking for, and she sets to work at the task of becoming Mrs Aikman, and with success – provided that her conscience doesn’t intervene…

It is clear in The Eternal Woman that Dorothea Gerard did not like the changes that were happening in her world, and that she set herself to counteract what she regarded as feminist propaganda with some propaganda of her own. She starts by showing her readers the face of the enemy, in the rather paper-tigery form of Fraulein Pohl; at which point we discover that some stereotypes have very deep roots. The Fraulein is, to no-one’s surprise, “masculine”; she is “stout”, with “a pug-dog nose”; she wears glasses, and not only has a slight moustache, she actively cultivates it. Amongst a myriad of foolish notions, the Fraulein dreams of a world where women will be free to have short hair and wear pants – quelle horreur!

Informed of Clara’s situation, the Fraulein, with hopes of winning Clara to “her side”, offers her the chance to attend university on a scholarship. This is really where The Eternal Woman disappointed me. It was fairly obvious that Clara would ultimately choose to “be a woman” rather than “have a career” (naturally, you can’t do both), but I did hope that this novel would first offer a look at what higher education was like for young women at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, however, Clara decides to reject the Fraulein’s offer – and you’ll never believe what makes up her mind for her.

As Clara ponders the Fraulein’s words and contemplates her destiny, we are given the passage from which this novel takes its title:

And yet, for all the plausible arguments used, for all the grain of truth which undoubtedly lay buried under the mountains of the editress’s rhetoric, there was something in it all which failed to satisfy some part of her inner self, and she was far too inexperienced to know that this part was nothing less than the eternal woman within her, who is neither ‘New’ nor ‘Old’, since she belongs to yesterday as well as to to-morrow…

Still undecided, Clara tries to read herself to sleep. Instead, she stumbles across the personal philosophy which will in future shape her actions:

And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once; old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth: A woman with fair opportunities and without an absolute hump may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

Incredibly, Dorothea Gerard seems to have taken this passage at face value; Clara certainly does. Personally, I’ve always read it as a typical Victorian example of a comprehensive insult being offered in the guise of a compliment. I must be as stupid as Thackery thinks.

(I may also say that I find it highly significant that we are never made privy to Clara’s opinion of Amelia Sedley, that dear little clinging parasite.)

Anyway, Clara is inspired by this passage with a belief in “the power of her womanhood”, and decides to set about about life as a moral Becky Sharp, if you please: that is, she will conquer the world with her wits and womanhood alone, adapting herself to circumstances and making herself useful, thus creating opportunities, while staying within the bounds of conscience; and as soon as she finds “a decently marriageable man”, she will make him her slave.

And it works. As she goes from position to position, demonstrating how “clever” and “resourceful” she is, Clara finds every available man at her feet, and has to keep moving on because they’re not what she wants, one way or another. Three years on, however, Clara is beginning to get a little desperate; desperate enough to resort to some tactics that are a little too Becky-like for comfort in order to manoeuvre herself into a position in the household of the extremely eligible Philip Aikman.

The world that Dorothea Gerard creates in The Eternal Woman is one I find creepy and depressing. Gerard is so intent on turning young women away from work and self-sufficiency and into marriage with her vision of feminine dominance that – although I rather doubt this was her intention – I ended up feeling profoundly sorry for the male of the species. I wouldn’t wish Clara Wood on anyone.

Gerard seems to have no real notion of a companionate marriage. Her thesis is that any woman who understands her own “womanliness” can get any man she wants to marry her; and that having done so, she will control the situation from there on in. The only unhappy marriages in Gerard’s world are those where the wives do not grasp the true power of their womanhood, or where the wife wields her power in an insufficiently feminine way. Men, confronted by this dread force, are mere playthings, putty in their wives’ hands, who will work and slave and fall over themselves to provide these “queenly” creatures with everything they desire, asking nothing in return but the opportunity to worship at their feet. There’s an underlying implication in this novel that what women really want out of marriage is a roof over their head and children and, that being the case, it doesn’t much matter who they marry. And in fact, husbands are rather like children – just a little stupider, and easier to manage.

And if the promise of power is Gerard’s carrot, she provides a stick also, in her inferences about women who do want a career, or at least don’t particularly want marriage. Here she resorts to a form of language that became increasingly common in conservative novels throughout the second half of the 19th century, as the rumblings of female discontent grew louder, and as new opportunities began to open up. It was no longer sufficient to say, It simply isn’t done! – since, obviously, it was being done, and more often all the time. The implication then became that ambitions apart from marriage and motherhood were nothing less than a form of sickness. Anthony Trollope, that most Victorian of novelists, so generous in some respects, yet narrow to the point of being cruel on this particular subject, was very fond of telling his readers how healthy his marriage-minded young women were – and how unhealthy any woman who made the slightest effort to jump the extremely narrow tracks laid down for her life. Dorothea Gerard uses the same tactic: Whenever she had thought of the future she had thought of matrimony almost as a matter of course (as every healthy-minded young woman does, however furiously she may deny it). And backing this position up is the eternal threat: sure, you can have an education and a career if you want one; but if you do, no man will ever really love you.

It is true that Clara’s feelings finally prevent her from going through with her plan to manipulate Philip Aikman into marriage – but just the same, her tactics work on him as they have on every other man; the novel never really recants its central thesis. Rather, it finally argues that a love-marriage is best, if you can manage one; but failing that, any marriage will do; while beyond that lies a drab and difficult life as a governess, a teacher or a nurse; and beyond that

Actually, there’s nothing beyond that. No, no! – don’t look over there at the figure beckoning to you from the doorway to the university! Move along now – there’s nothing to see here.

Dismayed as I was by most of The Eternal Woman, there was one thing about it that I liked very much. Philip Aikman lives in a small Scottish fishing village called Rathbeggie, and his house is situated on a very cliff edge. We are given quite a number of word-pictures of Clara’s surroundings during the various extremes of local weather: the violent breaking of the waves, the power of the wind, the seaweed tossed upon the beach, the rock-pools and their scuttling crabs, the smell of salt in the air… In her physical descriptions of Rathbeggie, Dorothea Gerard’s writing contains a passion and a sincerity that are quite absent from her ruminations upon the relations between the sexes, and these passages are easily the best and most enjoyable part of this novel.