Posts tagged ‘Charles II’

23/09/2014

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary

amourssultanabarbary

Acmat, who was the most amorous of all Princes, and who had Grandeur enough to maintain those Inclinations, now indulged himself. Indamora had for him a thousand Charms; and contrary to that wretched custom which makes the Grand Signior’s Passion the sole Reward of her he favoured, and that they were confined to a Seraglio, without the Liberty to see any but the Sultan and the Eunuchs that attended him; I say, contrary to this observed Custom, Acmat gave the Title of Sultana of Barbary to Indamora, and restrained her in nothing but in the Point of Amour and Gallantry. None of his Predecessors had ever indulged the fair Sex so much as he. The Sultana Queen had a great Liberty allowed her: He was much condemned for his tendency for the Women, and his very enemies acknowledged he had no other weakness…

As those of you kind enough and brave enough to follow along would know, I’ve read some difficult things in my attempt to put together a “Chronobibliography” of the early English novel—ugly stories, violent stories, scatological stories—yet I’m not sure that in its own peculiar way The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary isn’t the worst of the lot. At least ugly / violent / scatological tends to hold the attention; while this short novel commits the twin sins of being boring and pointless. Pointless, above all.

In The Protestant Whore, Alison Conway discusses the subset of literature dealing with Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the most hated and despised of all the royal mistresses. She suggests that the sudden flurry of romans à clef still mired in the era of Charles that appeared across 1689 / 1690 were actually written much earlier but deemed too dangerous to publish in the wake of the Rye House Plot, only to be rushed into print with the coming of William as forming, however vaguely, part of the ongoing literary push to legitimise the new monarchy. Thus, various publications attacking de Kéroualle continued to appear well past the point where, you would imagine, she had become an irrelevance.

However, the weird thing about The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary is that it isn’t an attack—not really—at least, not until its very last pages. Despite its overt focus on the much-despised Louise de Kéroualle, it is hardest on Barbara Villiers, surely an even greater irrelevance by that time than her successor. Moreover, though it is almost entirely concerned with the amorous doings at the court of Charles, it is content to simply relate them without resorting to more of a smidgeon of the usual justification of Catholic plots against England and the king. Instead, its narrative is made up almost entirely of who loved who, who was cheating on who, who was pursuing who, who was seeking vengeance for (romantic) betrayal on who; all reported fairly matter-of-factly, and with very little malice. When you consider that by the time this publication appeared, Charles had been dead for nearly five years, James had come and gone, and William and Mary had been on the throne for a good six months, it is hard to imagine that anyone reacted to it other than with an impatient cry of, “Oh, who cares!?”

“Oh, who cares!?” was certainly my main response, along with numerous sighs and stubborn re-reading of certain paragraphs whose sense I missed the first time because my eyes kept glazing over. However, “stubborn” being the operative word…

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary resorts to the same tactics we’ve seen many times before, with “Turky” standing in for England and Charles being represented by “the Sultan Acmat”; while Turky’s great enemy is “Germany”:

Acmat (the Grand Signior) who succeeded Mahomet III was the best-made Man in the whole Empire. He was tall, had a goodly Meen, full of majesty and Grandeur; his eyes were black, large, and roll’d with a sparkling Fire: The Air of his Face was noble and commanding and whenever he spoke, it softned into a thousand Sweetnesses; His Soul was much more agreeable than his Person, though it was a receiv’d opinion, it was not to his Quality he owed the number of those that called him the goodliest Man that had been formed. He was exactly made for a great Lover and a fine Gentleman…

Acmat’s heir is his brother:

Mustapha, brother to the Sultan, (matchless for Valour and Conduct) returned from gaining a glorious Victory. His success was alone derived from his Governing; and never was a great Prince a better Soldier: He had early all the experience of a brave General, and never could the great Acmat commit the Safety and the Glory of his Empires to a better Manager. Success constantly followed all his Designs, and it was said of him, He was the best of Soldiers and the best of Subjects; nor did his warlike humour render him unfit for other things, he was a great Courtier and a great Statesman…

Doesn’t read much like an attack on the previous monarchies, does it? But then, it doesn’t really support them, either. It just kind of—sits there.

So far as Charles is ever criticised in this narrative, it is for his tendency towards “petticoat government”, and even this is excused as resulting from a nature that is simultaneously peaceful and amorous—he’s a lover, not a fighter. And since “Acmat”’s susceptibilities are the basis of the few imperfections he does possess, the narrative then switches its focus to the women in his life. “The Sultana Queen” is given short shrift, as indeed poor Catherine of Braganza was in reality; and instead we pass over her to “Homira”, our stand-in for Barbara Villiers, skipping the majority of her time as royal favourite and going straight to the exposure of her affair with the young John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. The old scandals are dug up again, so that not only does Acmat catch Homira and Amurath together, but we hear how Amurath, always strapped for cash, took money from Homira in exchange for his services.

What’s more, Homira doesn’t confine her infidelities to one object; while her outrageous example is beginning to have a bad influence across Turky:

The Sultana Homira had studied all his Weaknesses, and was perfectly acquainted with his inclinations. Jealousie was never apt to disturb him, which she easily saw, and procured first for her self, and then for the Sultana Queen, that Liberty they possessed. Gallantry reigned here incessantly, and all manner of Pleasures, with a great deal of Luxury, which notwithstanding was believ’d to please the Sultan, since he never reprov’d it. It was this Licentiousness ruined Homira; she fell at last into a habitual Debauchery, and was a principal Advancer, being the great Example of all the Liberties taken by Women of Quality. Love and Intrigue was no more so secretly confined to the walls of the Seraglio, and if People were discreet, it was what they were not at all obliged to be…

Agreeing that Acmat cannot continue to be made a fool of by Homira, who even now this easy-going Sultan declines to banish, though he does not love her any more, Mustapha and “Mahomet Bassa, the Grand Vizier” (of whom, more below) conspire to provide him with a replacement mistress, one that they can control.

Mahomet Bassa bears a grudge against Homira, who promised him her favours if he could arrange the title of “Sultana” (Duchess of Cleveland) for her, but then reneged on the deal. He has recently seen a Christian slave who is beautiful enough to turn the head of Acmat; and who, in gratitude for her release from slavery, will certainly do as she is told. He ransoms her, brings her to court, and—as you do—demands to hear her entire life story.

I don’t know how much of the potted history of “Indamora” that follows is true; I do know it is mostly irrelevant. Its one point of interest is that it posits a secret romance between Louise de Kéroualle and Philippe de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, Grand Prior of France, who appears as “Tiridate Agustus”. We get a lengthy recapitulation of Indamora’s various romantic travails, most of which is – you guessed it – irrelevant, except that Indamora is still in love with Tiridate when she manoeuvred (rather than manoeuvring herself) into the position of royal mistress:

It is a Truth, replied the Grand Vizier, That I have those Orders from the Sultan; I do not at all doubt but that you have Wit enough to make your advantage of the favourable Sentiments he has for you; Is it not better to live gloriously, full of splendour and magnificence, (as you will do then, if you are wise) than continue in a miserable Slavery? You must flatter the Sultan in an Opinion you love him, it will not fail of pleasing him, which if once you can be so happy as to do, there is nothing in the whole Ottoman Empire but will be disposed of as you shall advise. The Sultan lets himself be governed by the Woman he loves…

And so Indamora is installed as Acmat’s mistress, much to the rage and jealousy of Homira; gets raised to the title of “Sultana of Barbary”; and actually starts to fall for Acmat—at least until Tiridate Agustus arrives unexpectedly in Turky. The old love rekindles and the two try to find a way to be together, while Homira plots to expose them to Acmat.

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary then takes an odd turn. Mustapha, having already contracted one marriage contrary to Acmat’s desire (to Anne Hyde, though she is not mentioned), is now revealed as being on the brink of another, to “Zayda, Relique of a Noble Turk and Son to Mahomet Bassa”. Acmat is furious when he finds out, and intervenes; a contrite Mustapha begs pardon and meekly marries the bride selected for him by Acmat—“the Daughter of the King of Tunis”—in other words, Mary of Modena: a marriage that, far from being arranged by Charles, ticked him off mightily.

William Musgrave, the original owner and annotator of the copy of The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary now held by the Bodleian Library, changed his mind over the identity of the Grand Vizier. He starts out suggesting that Mahomet Bassa is George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, then later identifies him as Henry Bennett, the Earl of Arlington. I agree with the latter suggestion. By the time of Louise de Kéroualle’s arrival on the scene, Buckingham had fallen out of favour. On the other hand, Arlington was a Catholic who was heavily involved in Charles’ behind-the-scenes negotiations with Louis XIV, which resulted in the Treaty of Dover. It is much easier to picture him as the “sponsor” of Louise de Kéroualle.

When it comes to the identity of “Zayda”, however, Musgrave and I agree to disagree. He suggests that “Zayda” is Susan, Lady Belasyse, who was no connection of Buckingham or Arlington, and whose real father-in-law never got any closer to court than being elected an M. P. None of this seems to make much sense— and even less so since Zayda’s real identity is (in my opinion) perfectly plain. Furthermore, in light of future historical events, the intrusion into the narrative of “Zayda” is by far the most interesting thing about it.

When Zayda declares her passion for Amurath, we may recognise her as Sarah Jennings, the future Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah was indeed taken into the royal household in the position of maid of honour, but that was after James’ marriage to Mary of Modena. (The two frightened fifteen-year-olds quickly became close friends.) The suggestion that James wanted to marry Sarah seems bizarre. In any event, she subsequently married John Churchill while still holding her position at court, though the marriage was not made public until she fell pregnant.

However, none of this stops The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary diverting into an interpolated narrative, “The Amours Of Mustapha And Zayda”, which concludes with Zayda—in spite of her passion for Amurath—plotting vengeance against Mustapha for breaking his promise of marriage to her and thwarting her ambition. Zayda’s story is told to Homira, who has dark thoughts of her own:

Thus did Zayda finish her relation. The Sultana Homira, in another time, would have died with Rage at the Confession she made of being in Love with Amurath; but he had used the Sultana too barbarously to merit any thing of Tender from her: He had exposed her letters, and basely rendered her as ill Offices as possible; though it was by her he was first made considerable…

Anyway, the narrative then reverts to Indamora’s attempts to get herself free of Acmat so that she can be with Tiridate. One of her schemes is to fake a near-death illness, which has the double benefit of allowing her to plead for the attendance of Tiridate, “Chief of the Religious” (not that his being a priest interferes with his intrigues, of course) and to “recover” with a conscience awakened to the sin of her relationship with Acmat, which she uses as an excuse to beg her release from his court. Homira gets wind of what’s going on between Indamora and Tiridate, and tries to ruin Indamora with Acmat out of spite.

And then on the back end of all this tiresome manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring, we get the following astonishing assertion:

But whil’st [Homira] has thus disposed of her self, and that the whole Ottoman Empire enjoy’d a Tranquility beyond all example, the Sultana of Barbary will disturb it; and having got a slow Poyson, she conveys it into a Glass where the Sultan was to drink, he supped with her that fatal night, and whil’st he is more admired than ever by all the World, he falls by the extreme malice of a Woman…

That Charles’ sudden death was murder was a frequent, anti-Catholic accusation (you could take your pick of guilty party). You might expect to find something along those lines here, but no: instead we get a woman resorting to murder for the prosaic reason of not being able to rid herself of her unwanted lover by any less drastic means:

Mustapha (now the Sultan,) had not long possess’d the Crowns and Title, then that his Nephew Osmen rebels against him; but that not being my business…

Ouch! Poor old Monmouth!

…I must pass it over to come to the Sultana of Barbary, she mourned strictly for Acmat, and was very well pleased, she was no manner of way suspected (nor, in a word, any else,) for the murdering of him. After her first mourning, she implored, and received, Permission of Mustapha to retire from Turky, which, in effect, she did, not long after, with those designs which we have already related, in her Orders to the Prince Tiridate Agustus at his departure from Constantinople.

The End.

“Oh,” I said blankly.

So—yeah. The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary does finally get around to slandering Louise de Kéroualle; but frankly, I doubt by that time anyone less obstinate than me would have been awake to know it.

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06/12/2013

Haw, haw

conway1I’ve been reading Alison Conway’s The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative And Religious Controversy In England, 1680-1750. The book’s title comes, of course, from the famous anecdote about Nell Gwyn, which tells how she placated an angry mob that attacked her coach in mistake for that of Louise de Kéroualle by calling out, “Good people, pray be civil – I am the Protestant whore!” (We were given a version of this incident in The Power And The Passion.)

Conway’s study traces the history of “courtesan narrative” from the Restoration to the second Jacobite Rebellion, showing the many ways in which the word “whore” was employed in political and religious discourse in relation to the Stuarts. Conway believes the Nell Gwyn story to be apocryphal, because while it was widely repeated no-one ever provided (or has since identified) an original source for it. However, she argues, if the story is fictional, the disclaimer “Protestant” carries even greater weight.

The dismay and anger felt in the face of Charles’ perceived neglect of his duties while he dallied with his mistresses, or worse, the possibility of “petticoat government”, provoked an outpouring of writing that was deeply critical of the amorous monarch, and often frankly obscene. Perhaps the most striking feature of this particular form of literature is the almost invariable distinction drawn between Nell Gwyn and the other mistresses: there is full appreciation of the fact that she was the only one who was neither French nor Catholic; not just a whore, but a Protestant whore. As a consequence the criticism of her is rarely worse than unkind, and in fact most of what looks like an attack upon her is in reality an attack upon Charles.

Take, for example, this extract from Robert Lacy’s 1677 poem, Satyr (the contemporary spelling of “satire”, albeit with an entirely appropriate secondary meaning in context), a lengthy diatribe on Charles’ neglect of his duties and his prodigal sexuality, on which Lacy blames his failure to produce a legitimate heir:

    How poorly squander’st thou thy seed away,
    Which should get Kings for nations to obey;
    But thou, poor Prince, so uselessly hast sown it,
    That the Creation is ashamed to own it:
    Witness the Royal Line sprung from the Belly
    Of the Anointed Princess, Madam Nelly…

In sharp contrast, the attacks made upon the other mistresses are direct and deeply hostile – particularly those aimed at Louise de Kéroualle, who was not only French and Catholic, but widely believed to be a spy in the pay of Louis XIV. The following is from The Whore Of Babylon, a (not surprisingly) unattributed work from 1678:

    You treach’rous Whore of France, may Rabble’s rage
    Seize thee, & not till thou’rt destroy’d aswage.
    The People’s Cross, misfortune, constant Pest,
    The Milstone whelm’d upon this Nation’s breast;
    Brittain’s impairer of her honour & Fame,
    The Festring Soar of Majesty, the Shame
    Of English Councils; the Crowns costly load,
    And Prince’s thriving Infamy abroad;
    The Commons hater, & false France’s friend.
    Lord, from this Basilisk Loyalty defend!
    Permit a change, our ruins to confront,
    Let us be govern’d by an English C–t;
    The kingdom can’t by whoring suffer want
    If princes swives concubines that’s Protestant.

Charming. And yet by no means the nastiest of the anti-de Kéroualle works.

One of the strangest aspects of this period was the emergence in the literature of a wildly idealised Nell Gwyn, who was portrayed of standing up for England’s rights and liberties while Charles was falling down on the job, and who became, perversely enough, a symbol of monarchical and religious loyalty. There is a whole subset of writing that has Nell telling off the other mistresses, usually Louise de Kéroualle, sometimes Barbara de Villiers, in conversations that are really between England and France, Protestantism and Catholicism. And beyond that, there is at least one example of Nell telling off Monmouth, berating him for his disloyalty and ingratitude.

Anyway—

It was my original intention to write a full review of The Protestant Whore, but circumstances have intervened: I have a ‘community borrower’ card at an academic library, one of the conditions of which is that if anyone attached to the university wants a book I have on loan, I have to return it regardless of loan date. So perhaps I’ll return to it at a later date, when my journey meets up with the later subject matter of the book, which includes chapters on Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (though I don’t think I need to say any more on that subject!), the literature dealing with the relationship between Queen Anne and her “favourites”, Sarah Churchill and Mrs Masham, Defoe’s Roxana, and finally Clarissa and Tom Jones. I may say that it warmed my heart to find Alison Conway including Tom Jones in her list of Protestant whores.

Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure that Conway has done me any favours, inasmuch as she has me reconsidering my intention  to skip over the rest of the romans à clef that appeared in the post-James era. I’ve been puzzled by the fact that this period saw yet another set of attacks on Louise de Kéroualle, who by this time, having had much of the property bestowed upon her by Charles confiscated, had returned to France. However, I’ve found a source (emphasis on found: do think I can find it again?) which contends that, in the wake of the Rye House Plot, the formerly easy-going Charles finally did crack down on the print market, and that a great deal of what was written in 1683 and 1684 consequently went unpublished, finally seeing the light of day across 1689 / 1690, when it sat comfortably amongst the various pro-Williamite writing and served to remind people what England had rid itself of, even if the specifics were no longer so relevant.

So I’m currently resigning myself to taking a look at The Court Secret by Peter Belon (who we have met here before, as one of the translators of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise), and The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary, by that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”, both of which are Louise de Kéroualle-focused romans à clef. The latter, in addition, is suggested to have had some influence upon the writings of Delariviere Manley, so it may assume greater importance going forward.

If  I ever get to go forward.

And indeed, James is still clutching at my skirts with exasperating tenacity. (If only he’d held onto the throne that tightly – !) Recently, for instance, I randomly picked up Alicia Deane, by the Australian writer E. V. Timms, only to discover that it is an historical novel dealing with characters caught up in the consequences of the Monmouth Rebellion. The central romantic conflict is between the eponymous heroine, who is a passionate believer in Monmouth (not too bright, in other words), and her would-be lover, who is anti-James, but anti-Monmouth too, remarking presciently that, “‘Tis not Monmouth Englishmen want—’tis William of Orange who be, with Mary his Queen, the King and Queen for us.”

The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of Charles’ death, when England is adjusting itself to James:

The glittering palace of Whitehall was now a house of gloom; no merry, uncaring, pleasure-loving monarch now filled its halls, rooms, and galleries with the laughter of licence and the flippant freedom of unrestrained sensuality. Charles was dead, and dead also was the love, the life, and the laughter that he and his brilliant court had made synonymous with the name of Whitehall. James was King, and over London the dark clouds of distrust and suspicion  were already casting their sable shadows. James! James the stern, the gloomy, the bigot, the cruel! The man whose heart was stony ground, and whose lips were strangers to laughter.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

And in fact, I did once feel sorry for him, not while reading this novel (in which his relationship with George Jeffreys is given full weight), but when I stumbled over the following in my internet wanderings. And since I started this post with a probably-apocryphal anecdote, it seems appropriate to close with another one.

Charles, or so the story goes, was in the habit of going for walks in St James’s Park with what his retinue considered grossly inadequate protection, until James was moved to remonstrate with him for placing himself in danger.

To which Charles responded:

“No man in England will raise a hand to me as long as you are my heir.”

nellgwyn1b

Madam Nelly, by Sir Peter Lely

17/11/2012

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 4)

…he no sooner came to the houses of the slaves, which are like a little town by itself, the Negroes all having left work, but they all came forth to behold him…and, from a veneration they pay to great men, especially if they know ’em, and from the surprise and awe they had at the sight of him, they all cast themselves at his feet, crying out in their language: “Live, O King, live long, O King!”, and kissing his feet, paid him even divine homage…

While there is certainly some validity to the long-standing interpretations of Oroonoko  as an anti-slavery tract and as an early example of “noble savage” literature, I have to say that, this time around, the reading that leapt off the page at me was that which places it as an allegory of the Stuarts. While I am hardly the first person to draw this conclusion, it is not, to say the least, the most popular way of “seeing” Oroonoko; nor is it the easiest one to reach, without the kind of immersion in Restoration politics and literature that I have just been through (and which I have inflicted upon you). Yet I think that it is ultimately the correct one. Furthermore, I think that without a proper understanding of when and why Oroonoko was written, the reader cannot grasp its full implications.

As we have touched upon in the previous posts, Aphra Behn published Oroonoko in the second half of 1688. She was ill and in debt; plays were not being commissioned, and her poetry and translations were not paying the bills. Needing money urgently, she understandably turned to the increasingly popular literary form, fiction, to supplement her dangerously slender income. Behn turned out a clutch of short works at this time, but Oroonoko distinguishes itself from the others in several significant ways.

Firstly, over the previous twenty years Aphra Behn apparently told the story, or versions of it, to her friends – suggesting that there was a real incident in Surinam that burned itself on her memory, however little it might have resembled what she finally put on paper. For all the later attempts to conflate Behn’s life with her fiction, this would seem to be the only point at which the two clearly crossed paths. Secondly, and further to that point, this is the only piece of Behn’s fiction to be told in the first person, in which she deliberately inserts a version of herself into her narrative. Behn’s other fictions may have been nothing more to her than an effort to raise some money in a hurry, but it seems clear enough that when it comes to Oroonoko, there was a more complex relationship between author and text.

Oroonoko was, as I say, published in the second half of 1688; we know it was, because it was advertised in the re-release of some of Aphra’s Behn’s Royalist poetry, which we examined in an earlier post. Having written one lengthy poem upon the announcement of Mary of Modena’s pregnancy early in the year, Behn followed up with another after the birth of the Prince of Wales on 10th June 1688; the two works were subsequently bundled together and reissued. Before this happened, however, one of the most significant events in English history had taken place, with the issuing of the invitation to William of Orange by the “Immortal Seven” on 18th June.

(The “seven” were: William Cavendish, then the Earl of Devonshire; Charles Talbot, then the Earl of Shrewsbury; Thomas Osborne, then the Earl of Danby; Richard Lumley, then Viscount and Baron Lumley; Henry Compton, the Bishop of London; Edward Russell; and Henry Sidney. The “thens” foreshadow the honours which the men predictably received under William and Mary, with a generous bestowal of dukedoms. Russell, a former high-ranking naval officer who was stripped of his command after his relative, Lord Russell, was executed in the wake of the Rye House Plot, became First Lord of the Admiralty and the 1st Earl of Orford; while Henry Sidney was created 1st Earl of Romney. It was Sidney who actually wrote the letter to William. Lord Lumley, later created the 1st Earl of Scarborough, was – ironically enough – the man who had captured Monmouth after his disastrous rebellion.)

By the time Aphra Behn put pen to paper to tell the story of her “royal slave”, everyone knew that William was coming; what they did not know was what would happen when he did. Would James, by some miracle (perhaps via Divine intervention), hold onto his throne?—or would he follow his father to the block? That James would simply pack up quietly and leave was not, I imagine, very high on the list of anyone’s guesses, and least of all Aphra Behn’s.

Aphra sat down to write Oroonoko, then, in an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty; at a time when, as a Royalist and one of James’s most loyal adherents, she must have been suffering agonies of fear and doubt. What appeared on her sheets of paper was a story of the betrayal and murder of a royal prince, set against a backdrop of England ceding its territories to the Dutch.

While it is, as I say, quite easy to understand why people prefer the anti-slavery reading of Oroonoko to one that positions it as an allegory mourning the imminent downfall of the Stuarts, if we do accept Oroonoko as a literary stand-in for James, it seems to me that most of the pieces of the puzzle fall fairly easily into place. This a Royalist piece par excellence: much of its first half is devoted to the extolling the superiority of Oroonoko to his fellow slaves and his English captors alike; an innate superiority that shows itself unmistakably in his physical perfections, his mental attainments, and the beauties of his character:

Nor did the perfections of his mind come short of those of his person, for his discourse was admirable upon almost every subject , and whoever had heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors, that all fine wit is confined to the white men, especially to those of Christendom, and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politic maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civilised in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts.

James Trefry, who buys Oroonoko as a slave for the plantation belonging to Lord Willoughby, is struck at first glance by a certain  je ne sais quoi, which sets this newcomer apart from his fellow slaves:

He…no sooner came into the boat but he fixed his eyes on him, and finding something so extraordinary in his face, his shape, his mien, a greatness of look and haughtiness in his air, and finding he spoke English, had a great mind to be inquiring into his quality and fortune; which, though Oroonoko endeavoured to hide by only confessing he was above the rank of common slaves, Trefry soon found he was yet something greater than he confessed…

Not even shackles and rags can disguise Oroonoko’s royal blood, and everyone in Surinam who comes into contact with him instinctively pays him the homage due to a prince:

When he found his habit made him liable, as he thought, to be gazed at more, he begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes. Nevertheless, he shone through all…and he had no less admirers than when he had his dazzling habit on; the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it. As soon as they approached him, they venerated and esteemed him; his eyes insensibly commanded respect, and his behaviour insinuated it into every soul, so that there was nothing to be talked of but this young and gallant slave, even by those who yet knew not that he was a prince…

Oroonoko’s fame spreads quickly, and the English begin to tussle amongst themselves for the privilege of this unexpected celebrity’s company:

But if the King himself (God bless him) had come ashore, there could not have been greater expectations by all the the plantation…and he was received more like a governor than a slave.

That quick “God bless him” is, by the way, the only direct reference to James to be found in the pages of Oroonoko, although his brother wanders by at certain points, as we shall see.

But Oroonoko’s very perfections breed jealousy and fear—particularly a fear that he might have the power to rouse the other slaves to violent rebellion against their captors. It is at this point that The Narrator begins her Quisling-like interaction with Oroonoko, soothing him with promises about his future liberty, if only he will be patient for just a little longer…

The carrot dangled before the increasingly frustrated prince is the arrival of Surinam’s new governor, who does not in fact arrive within the confines of the story. The previous governor—he who is summarily dismissed by the natives as “a liar”—is, we are told, later “drowned in a hurricane”. This incident prompts the appointment of The Narrator’s father, but he dies on the journey to Surinam, leading to yet another delay as news of his demise is sent back to England and a second replacement governor despatched. During this time, Surinam is necessarily without proper leadership—or, if you prefer, is a country without a king.

The deputy-governor of Surinam is one William Byam, another real historical figure, and one for whom Aphra expresses a loathing that may be personal, or may represent her feelings against those Englishmen who were plotting James’s downfall—or both:

The deputy-governor, of whom I have had no great occasion to speak, and who was the most fawning, fair-tongued fellow in the world, and one that pretended the most friendship to Caesar, was now the only violent man against him, and though he had nothing, and so need fear nothing, yet talked and looked bigger than any man. He was a fellow whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves…

Ouch. It seems to me that, twenty-five years on, there’s too much venom in this lack-of-character sketch for it to be entirely a portrait of William Byam, although Aphra clearly brought no friendly memories of him back from Surinam. More likely, I think, it is mixed with her views on someone close to James, someone she considered guilty of a particularly personal betrayal.

In any event, it is Byam who is responsible for Oroonoko’s fate. Again and again, he makes promises, which Oroonoko is persuaded by his English “friends” to believe; again and again, he breaks them. The entirely honourable Oroonoko has no defence against a man who can tell such lies, and commit such dishonourable acts:

But Trefry and Byam pleaded and protested together so much, that Trefry, believing the governor to mean what he said, and speaking very cordially himself, generously put himself into Caesar’s hands, and took him aside, and persuaded him, even with tears, to live by surrendering himself, and to name his conditions. Caesar was overcome by his wit and reasons, and in consideration of Imoinda, and demanding what he desired, and that it should be ratified by their hands in writing, because he had perceived that was the common way of contract between man and man amongst the whites. All this was performed, and Tuscan’s pardon was put in, and they surrender to the governor, who walked peaceably down into the plantation with ’em… But they were no sooner arrived at the place where all the slaves receive their punishments of whipping, but they laid hands on Caesar and Tuscan, faint with heat and toil, and, surprising them, bound them to two several stakes, and whipped them in a most deplorable and inhumane manner, rending the very flesh from the bones…

Byam is supported in his governorship of Surinam, such as it is, by a council of Englishmen; and it does not take too much imagination to read into Aphra’s presentation of these “gentlemen” her opinion of the Immortal Seven:

The governor was no sooner recovered and had heard of the menaces of Caesar but he called his council who (not to disgrace them, or burlesque the government there) consisted of such notorious villains as Newgate never transported, and possibly originally were such, who understood neither the laws of God or man, and had no sort of principles to make ’em worthy the name of men…

Oroonoko is, in fact, betrayed on all sides: by Byam and his lies; by his “friends”, Trefry and The Narrator, and their empty promises; and even by his fellow-slaves, who follow him when he offers to lead them to their freedom, only to turn tail and abandon him when it comes to a confrontation with the English—“Yield and live; yield and be pardoned!”

This final betrayal is the most bitter of all for Oroonoko, who responds that:

…he was ashamed of what he had done, in endeavouring to make those free who were by nature slaves, poor, wretched rogues, fit to be used as Christians’ tools, dogs treacherous and cowardly fit for such masters, and they wanted only but to be whipped into the knowledge of the Christian gods to be the vilest of all creeping things…

And here we see the problem with trying to read Oroonoko as a simple anti-slavery pact, namely that all the other slaves – the non-royal slaves, that is – are exactly what the pro-slavery faction so often argued: cowardly, weak and stupid; inferior.

However—this should not to be taken to mean that Aphra was in fact pro-slavery, but rather that she wasn’t thinking here of real slavery, or real slaves, at all. Instead, it was simply a matter of her allegory requiring the slaves of Surinam to stand in for the English people: too stupid to realise what they had in James Stuart; too weak to rise up in his defence, as they should; too cowardly to do anything but hunker down and protect their own skins, even as seven treacherous men almost openly plotted their king’s downfall.

Betrayal is the overriding theme of Oroonoko, from the King of Coramantien’s siezing of Imoinda and his later selling of her into slavery, to the tricking of Oroonoko into slavery by the ship’s captain, to Oroonoko’s treatment at the hands of the English; but it is not the only one. This short tale also functions as a warning to the English people, as to what exactly they will be letting themselves in for should they allow the coming of William. And in pursuit of this particular end, Aphra does something I have not seen in any other of her writings: she openly criticises Charles II.

At the time of Aphra’s visit, Surinam was an English colony. However, in 1667, under the Treaty of Breda, which brought to an end the second Anglo-Dutch War, the colony was given up to the Dutch. This surrender of a land rich in natural resources, including gold, was in Aphra’s opinion a major blunder on Charles’s part, and she says so twice—albeit tempering her complaint by referring to Charles as “his late Majesty of sacred memory”:

Though, in a word, I must say this much of it, that certainly had his late Majesty of sacred memory but seen and known what a vast and charming world he had been master of in that continent, he would never have parted so easily with it to the Dutch…

The loss of gold, discovered in the interior of Surinam not long before Aphra’s departure, was clearly a particular bug-bear:

…but we going off for England before the project was further prosecuted, and the governor being drowned in a hurricance, either the design died, or the Dutch have the advantage of it, and ’tis to be bemoaned what His Majesty lost by losing that part of America...

Of course, Aphra is being just a tad disingenous here. Under the terms of the Treaty of Breda, the English did not simply “give up” Surinam to the Dutch—they received New York in exchange for it. Then again—by the time Aphra wrote Oroonoko she had visited North as well as South America; perhaps she genuinely believed that the Dutch had got the better part of the bargain.

While Oroonoko is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a humourous work, it is hard not to smile at the number of times Aphra manages to drag the Dutch into the story—always as a grim portent of Things To Come. If the English are bad, the Dutch are infinitely worse; and Aphra, in her guise as The Narrator, takes pains to let her readers know just how rapidly Surinam went to hell in hand-basket, once the country had changed ownership:

About this time we were in many mortal fears about some disputes the English had with the Indians, so that we could scarce trust ourselves without great numbers to go to any of the Indian towns or places where they abode, for fear they should fall upon us, as they did immediately after my coming away, and that it was in the possession of the Dutch, who used ’em not so civilly as the English…

It is even the fault of the Dutch that the telling of Oroonoko’s story is left to the feeble powers of a “female pen” (disingenuous again, Aphra!):

But his misfortune was to fall in an obscure world, that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame; though I doubt not but it had lived from others’ endeavours, if the Dutch who, immediately after this time, took that country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the world this great man’s life better than I have done…

Mind you—even the Dutch have their uses. After sharing with us her opinion of the council that assisted William Byam in his misdeeds, The Narrator adds parenthetically:

Some of ’em were afterwards hanged when the Dutch took possession of the place…

Be that as it may, the subtext of Oroonoko is clear enough: Pay attention, English people—do you REALLY want the Dutch in charge??

Perhaps because she was speaking allegorically, in Oroonoko Aphra Behn allows herself to be as critical of the Stuarts as she ever was, even apart from those cracks at Charles. Oroonoko’s indecisiveness towards the end of the story, the constant gap between what he says he’s going to do, and what he actually does, is particularly telling. Recognising at last that the English are never going to let them go, Oroonoko makes another escape with Imoinda, carrying out his drastic plan so far as killing his pregnant wife so as to prevent her subsequent “despoiling” and their child being born a slave. Having done so, however, instead of carrying out the next part of his plan, a bloody revenge on William Byam, Oroonoko collapses, remaining passively by Imoinda’s rotting body until he is recaptured by his enemies.

It is suggestive, too, that there is a second layer to this criticism, inasmuch as most of Oroonoko’s problems stem from his interaction with women.  It is the sexual struggle between Oroonoko and his grandfather over possession of Imoinda that starts all the trouble in the first place, after all, while once in Surinam Oroonoko’s feet are set on the road to disaster chiefly because, again and again, he allows himself to be over-persuaded by a woman. Even the slave rebellion fails because, when it comes to the crunch, the male slaves give into the pleading of their wives to save their own lives by surrendering.

Is this Aphra Behn having a dig at the notorious weakness of the Stuart men? Perhaps. She does make a point of excluding Imoinda herself from her criticism, lauding her for the way she stands by her man—as indeed, for all her faults, Mary of Modena did James. That said, Mary’s own talent for making enemies almost matched her husband’s, and in that respect she was no help to him at all.

And if we do follow this line of argument, it begs the tantalising question of who The Narrator, with her disastrous influence upon Oroonoko’s affairs, might be meant to be? I don’t think there is an easy, or even a definite, answer to that, although it’s fun to play with. It’s possible, for instance, to see her as the other Mary in James’s life, his daughter, who would finally replace him on the throne; a treacherous figure, and yet a royal Stuart. However, my own preferred reading sees The Narrator not as any contemporary woman, but as a kind of Henrietta Maria—constantly interfering in Stuart affairs, until she finally helps to get one of them killed.

The shadow of Charles I lies long and dark across Oroonoko; Aphra Behn’s fear that James would go the way of his father is clear throughout the text, which from the start dwells morbidly upon the various physical injuries suffered by Oroonoko, until the story reaches its climax in his grotesque execution:

…so inhumane were the justices, who stood by to see the execution, who after paid dearly enough for their insolence. They cut Caesar in quarters and sent them to several of the chief plantations. One quarter was sent to Colonel Martin, who refused it, and swore he had rather see the quarters of Banister and the governor himself, than those of Caesar, on his plantations, and that he could govern his Negroes without terrifying and grieving them with frightful spectacles of a mangled king.

When The Narrator describes Oroonoko’s re-christening as “Caesar”, she concentrates on the applicability of the name to this brave and glorious warrior (with the Roman nose), who…wanted no part of the personal courage of that Caesar, and acted things as memorable. Not for a second, however, should we forget the ultimate fate of the original Caesar – nor who was responsible for it.

Nor should we overlook the poignant significance of the fact that, at the very last, while his mangled remains are being distributed amongst the “nobility” of Surinam, The Narrator refers to Oroonoko not as he is, as a prince, but as a king. It is not hard to tell that the “frightful spectacle” of a “mangled king” was vividly before the eyes of Aphra Behn’s imagination as she was writing the closing lines of her tragedy.

Nevertheless, in the latter stages of the story there is also an unmistakeable sense of exasperation about Aphra’s handling of her hero, particularly with respect to his helpless vacillation in the aftermath of Imoinda’s death. The impression given by these passages is that Aphra couldn’t understand why James was just sitting there, when everyone knew that William was on his way. Why didn’t he summon the army?—appeal to his people?—draw his sword—anything?

It is easy to imagine that after so many years of loyal service, James’s tame surrender of his throne must have come as a bitter blow to Aphra Behn—yet in Oroonoko, she all but predicts it. Perhaps, with the end of the struggle in sight, and under cover of allegory, Aphra finally allowed herself to admit about the Stuarts everything she had been closing her eyes to for more than twenty years.

25/04/2012

The case for the defence…

There seems little doubt that Aphra Behn’s first love was poetry and that, had it been possible, she would have confined herself to this acceptably dignified form of literary expression. However, it was no easier in the 1670s and 1680s to support yourself by writing poetry alone than it is in 2012, and in order to earn a living Behn was compelled to write plays and, eventually, fiction. Though they paid much better, these “lower” forms of writing also laid their author open to vicious personal attacks.

But Behn never stopped writing poetry, gradually producing an impressive body of work that, at its best, is notable for its wit, its deft command of language and imagery, and its daring sexuality – as we have already seen. There is, however, a subset of Behn’s poetry that can make even her most devoted admirers squirm: the frankly political poems through which she declared her ongoing allegiance to the Stuart cause and (unavailingly, it need hardly be said) tried to win royal notice and, more importantly, patronage.

Although political themes became more common in Behn’s writing from the time of the Popish Plot onwards, the death of Charles II in February 1685 prompted Behn to write the first of a series of royalist poems that continued through – and past – the reign of James. Completely without subtlety in their imagery and politically embarrassing, the only redeeming feature of these lengthy odes and “pindaricks” is a sense that Behn herself did not take them entirely seriously—or at least, had accepted that if she was to have any hope of being recognised for her work, it would be necessary to shout. Lurking in most of these poems is a moment of self-portraiture, in which we glimpse Behn jumping up and down, waving her arms and calling out, “HELL-OOO, LOYAL STARVING ARTIST OVER HERE!!”

Behn’s first royalist poem was A Pindarick On Death Of Our Late Sovereign; With An Ancient Prophecy On His Present Majesty; and if, in Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, we winced at her references to Charles as “…this god-like King…”, we can only cringe at her recasting of him, in the wake of his death, as nothing less than Jesus on the cross:

    Again I heard, and yet I thought it Dream;
              Impossible! (I raving cry)
    That such a Monarch! such a God should die!…

    They did the Deity, and Man adore;
    What must they pay, when He confirm’d the God;
    Who having finisht all His wonders here,
              And full Instructions given,
    To make His Bright Divinity more Clear;
    Transfigur’d all to Glory, Mounts to Heav’n!

    So fell our Earthy God! so Lov’d, so Mourn’d,
              So like a God again return’d…

Behn then goes on to give us her version of, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – before taking consolation (as did Charles, we gather) in the fact that this “Earthly God” will be immediately succeeded by another:

    And blest His Stars that in an Age so Vain,
    Where Zealous Mischiefs, Frauds, Rebellions, Reign:
    Like Moses, he had led the Murm’ring Crowd,
Beneath the Peaceful Rule of his Almighty Wand;
    Pull’d down the Golden Calf to which they bow’d,
    And left ’em safe, entr’ing the Promised Land;
    And to good JOSHUA, now resigns his sway;
JOSHUA, by Heaven and Nature pointed out to lead the way.

    Full of the Wisdom and the Pow’r of God;
    The Royal PROPHET now before him stood
    On whom his Hands the Dying MONARCH laid
   And wept with tender Joy and Blest…

This poem was accompanied by another addressed to Catherine of Braganza, A Poem Humbly Dedicated To The Great Pattern Of Piety And Virtue Catherine Queen Dowager. On The Death Of Her Dear Lord And Husband King Charles II, which, although paying due tribute to Catherine’s loyalty and steadfastness through the accusations and humiliations of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, unfortunately does so by a continuance of the uncomfortable religious imagery:

    Witness the Steddy Graces of your Soul
    When charg’d by Perjuries so black and foul,
    As did all Laws, both Humane and Divine controul.
    When Heaven (to make the Heroin understood;
    And Hell it self permitted loose abroad)
    Gave you the Patience of a Suffering God.
    So our blest Saviour his Reproaches bore
    When Piercing Thorns His Sacred Temples wore;
    And stripes compell’d the Rich Redeeming Gore.
   
Your precious Life alone the fiends disdain’d
    To murder home; your Vertue they prophan’d;
    By Plots so rude; so Hellish a Pretence
    As ev’n would call in question Providence…

Although Catherine does indeed seem to have grieved more for Charles than we might feel he deserved, Behn’s casting of her as the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross does seem just a tad over the top:

    Princes we more than Humane do allow,
    You must have been above an Angel too;
    Had You resisted this sad Scene of Woe;
    So the Blest Virgin at the Worlds great loss,
    Came, and beheld, then Fainted at the Cross…

    So She bewail’d Her God! so sigh’d, so Mourn’d;
    So His blest Image in Her Heart remain’d,
    So His blest Memory o’re Her Soul still Reign’d!…

(It is perhaps worth mentioning that the actual parting between Charles and Catherine was much more dignified and, I think, much more touching than this. Although she did not enter his death chamber, Catherine sent her husband a final message begging for his pardon if she had ever offended him, to which he responded: “Alas, poor woman! She asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.”)

But Behn was only getting warmed up. Although her loyalty to Charles and the Stuart cause was real and profound, her deepest devotion, as we have seen, was to James; and she greeted his accession with A Pindarick Poem On The Happy Coronation Of His Most Sacred Majesty King James II. And His Illustrious Consort Queen Mary, a work of almost 1000 lines in length.

The gap between theory and reality in this poem is, if anything, even wider than that in its predecessors:

    So on Olympus top the GOD appears,
          When of his Thunder he disarms,
    And all his attributes of mercy wears
    The sweetness of Divine forgiving Charms.
    With Smiles he casts His Gracious Eyes around,
    Inspiring FAITH from ev’ry look and Grace,
           No Soul so dull to humane sense was found
    As not to read its safety in His Face.
           Where FORTITUDE and BRAVERY sate
          In solemn Triumph over Fate,
    Where TRUTH in all her honest Glory shin’d,
    That darling vertue of His Godlike mind…

We eventually get all sorts of James-es in this poem – an earthly god, a military hero, a stern but just ruler, a passionate lover and a thoroughly domesticated husband and father – along with an amusingly unrecognisable Mary of Modena:

    And no soft Venus could his Soul subdue;
    All bent for nobler spoil than Beauties Charms,
    And loos’d a while from Sacred LAURA’S Arms.
    LAURA! the Chast! the Pious! and the Fair!
    Glorious, and kind as Guardian-Angels are,
    Earths darling Goddess! and Heav’ns tend’rest care!

James’ rise to the throne is seen as the decisive blow to the traitorous Whigs and their collaborators:

    None bow beneath the Pressure of a thought,
    Unless where ENVY has her vipers hurl’d,
    And raging MALICE even to MADNESS wrought,
    They hate the Light that guides the work Divine;
And how’l and gnash their Teeth, and suffer Hell before their time.
    The Brave are glad, and gay, the young rejoyce,
    The old in Prayers and Blessings lift the Voice…

The second half of the poem describes the coronation processions, and pays tribute by name to those men who stayed loyal to James and the Stuart line through the upheavals of Charles’ reign:

    And now the ravisht People shout a new!
    Their KING! their dear-lov’d MONARCH is in view;
    The constant AYLESBURY and the Loyal GRAY,
          Prepare the mighy Way.

Yes—she does mean THAT Lord Grey.

Aphra herself is more visible in this poem than the earlier ones, openly mourning the unkind fate that has excluded her from the privileged circle of her beloved royals:

    Oh Blest are they that may at distance gaze,
    And Inspirations from Your looks may take,
    But how much more their happier Stars they Praise,
          Who wait, and listen when you speak!
    Mine for no scanted bliss so much I blame,
    (Though they the humblest Portion destin’d me)
          As when they stint my noblest Aim,
          And by a silent dull obscurity
          Set me at distance, much too far
The Deity to view, or Divine Oracle to hear!

It is uncomfortably clear in this poem that Aphra had real hope that James might finally recognise her efforts for the cause in a concrete way—but she was, as always, doomed to disappointment. Her loyalty remained unshaken, nevertheless; although possibly it would have been better for almost all concerned if at this point she had given up on the Stuarts in disgust.

When Mary of Modena’s pregnancy was publicly announced in January 1688 there was, as we have seen, a rush on the part of the loyalists to voice their belief that the child would be a boy, a mark of Divine favour, a sign that God was on James’ side. One of those who prepared to put their faith on paper was Aphra Behn, who early in the year published A Congratulatory Poem To Her Most Sacred Majesty, On The Universal Hopes Of All Loyal Persons For A Prince Of Wales; and while the poem’s title spoke of “hopes” that the baby would be a boy, the text declared it to be a certainty—a godlike son born to godlike parents, whose coming would defeat James’ enemies once and for all, and bring about a unified Britain:

    Like the first sacred Infant, this will come
    With Promise laden from the Blessed Womb,
    To call the wand’ring, scatter’d Nations home.
    Adoring PRINCES shall arrive from far,
    Inform’d by ANGELS, guided by his Star,
    The new-born Wonder to behold, and greet;
    And Kings shall offer Incense at his Feet.
          Hail, Royal BOY!…

    O Happy KING! to whom a Son is born!
    What more can Fortune, Heaven, and You perform?

    Behold, with Joy three prostrate Nations come:
    ALBION, HIBERNIA and old CALEDON
    Now join their Int’rests, and no more dispute
    With sawcy Murmurs, who is Absolute;
    Since, from the wonders of your Life, ’tis plain,
   You will, you shall, you must for ever reign.

The lady protesting too much? It’s hard to know how seriously we are to take these effusions. Certainly, at a time when James’ grip on his throne was already shaky, those “universal hopes” of the poem’s title look like irony; although perhaps the operative word is “loyal”.

And while you may think that after this outpouring there was nothing left for Aphra to say on the subject, when the child in question did turn out to be a boy, she took up her pen once more, with A Congratulatory Poem To The Kings Most Sacred Majesty On The Happy Birth Of The Prince Of Wales, which goes even further over the top in its religious imagery, being peppered with biblical allusions, and then dwells with unabashed Schadenfreude on the disappointment of William of Orange:

    No MONARCH’s birth was ever Usher’d in
    With Signs so Fortunate as this has been.
    The Holy Trinity his BIRTH-DAY claims,
    Who to the World their best Lov’d Blessing sends.
    Guarded he comes, in Triumph over FATE,
    And all the Shining HOST around him wait.
    Angels and Saints, that do his Train Adorn,
    In Hallelujahs Sing, A KING IS BORN!…

    Methinks I hear the Belgick LION Roar,
    And Lash his Angry Tail against the Shoar.
    Inrag’d to hear A PRINCE OF WALES is Born:
    Whose BROWS his Boasted Laurels shall Adorn.
    Whose Angel FACE already does express
    His Foreign CONQUESTS , and Domestick PEACE.
    While in his Awful little EYES we Fin’d
    He’s of the Brave, and the Forgiving KIND.

Or not.

Originally released separately, these two poems were bundled together and reissued quite late in 1688; during the time, as it happened, that William of Orange was waiting for a break in the weather; and, well, we all know how that story ended…

While these poems hardly represent Aphra Behn at her best, the painful mix of devotion and desperation that they express is terribly moving, particularly when we reflect that they were written at a time of great personal hardship and failing health. Although, also in 1688, James overcame his previous scorn of the literary support that Charles had encouraged and began commissioning plays in support of his cause, he never did deign to notice the efforts of one of the few people in England whose loyalty to him was unwavering.

And don’t think that Aphra’s writing didn’t have an impact at the time, or that efforts weren’t made to shake her loyalty. On the contrary: almost at the last, an open effort to buy her services was made on behalf of the pro-Williamites by the Reverend Gilbert Burnet.

Famous as an historian and a linguist as well as a theologian, Burnet managed to stay in favour with Charles II in spite of his association with the Whigs. He earned notoriety in 1680 by attending the deathbed of the Earl of Rochester at his mother’s request, and later publishing an account of Rochester’s last-minute denunciation of libertinism and religious conversion: an account vigorously disputed by those who knew the Earl best, although certain of his papers seem to confirm his conversion, at least.

After the death of her close friend, Aphra Behn published On The Death Of The Late Earl Of Rochester, which caught the attention of Anne Lee Wharton, Rochester’s niece and a member of his household. Wharton had herself gained some fame as a writer of verse-dramas and poetry, and she expressed her gratitude to Behn in a poem entitled To Mrs A. Behn, On What She Writ Of The Earl Of Rochester.  Behn, who genuinely admired Wharton’s writing, was pleased and touched, and responded in turn with To Mrs W., On Her Excellent Verses. A real friendship began to grow between the two women, one doubly important to Aphra because she had so few female friends, and none who were conventionally respectable. However, before it could blossom, the friendship died—or rather, was killed off by Doctor Burnet. 

Behn and Burnet had already crossed paths, and swords, Burnet denouncing Behn publicly for the “bawdiness” of her writing. When he got wind of Anne Wharton’s friendly reception of Behn’s overtures Burnet immediately intervened, writing her a letter in which he warned her that associating with Behn would damage her reputation, and insisting that she sever the connection at once:

“…She is so abominably vile a woman, that I am as heartily sorry she has writ any thing in your commendation as I am glad, (I had almost said proud) that you have honoured me as you have done…”

Albeit reluctantly, Wharton obeyed. It was a blow Behn never forgot or forgave.

By the end of 1688, Aphra Behn was in debt and seriously ill, and no-one could have blamed her if, in this extremity, she had allowed pragmatism to override loyalty and sold her pen to the faction trying to build up support for William and excusing the removal of James. If nothing else, the Whigs always paid well for the services they bought—unlike the Tories, who considered that the honour of serving ought to be enough. And perhaps, at the last, Behn might have given in and served her enemies for the money, if only their agent had not been Gilbert Burnet, who courted her with praise of the very literary powers which before he had reviled and condemned. As it was, Behn rejected the Whigs’ overtures and set her pen to paper one last time, publishing early in 1689 A Pindaric Poem To The Reverend Doctor Burnet, On The Honour He Did Me Of Enquiring After Me And My Muse.

Much superior to the royalist poems that preceded it, this work is one of many moods. There is a great deal of sadness, as well as understandable regret for what its author is passing up; an acknowledgement that she would be personally better off if she did sell out, as many others had done, mixed with condemnation of the rats that had deserted the sinking ship; while towards Gilbert Burnet himself we detect more than a little sarcasm. It was, in any event, her parting shot: within weeks of its publication, William and Mary had been crowned, and Aphra was dead.

        But oh! if from your Praise I feel
        A Joy that has no Parallel!
    What must I suffer when I cannot pay
        Your Goodness, your own generous way?
And make my stubborn Muse your Just Commands obey.
        My Muse that would endeavour fain to glide
With the fair prosperous Gale, and the full driving Tide.
But Loyalty Commands with Pious Force,
        That stops me in the thriving Course,
The Brieze that wafts the Crowding Nations o’re,
        Leaves me unpity’d far behind
        On the forsaken barren shore,
To sigh with Echo, and the Murmuring Wind,
While all the Inviting Prospect I survey,
With melancholy eyes I view the Plains,
Where all I see is Ravishing and Gay,
And all I hear is Mirth in loudest Strains;
Thus while the Chosen Seed possess the Promis’d Land
        I like the Excluded Prophet stand,
        The Fruitful Happy Soil can only see,
        But am forbid by Fates Decree
To share the Triumph of the joyful Victory…


 

09/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 7)

“Some bills Philander left her, and was so plain with her, and open-hearted, he told her that he went indeed with Cesario, but it was in order to serve the King; that he was weary of their actions, and foresaw nothing but ruin would attend them; that he never repented him of any thing so much, as his being drawn in to that faction; in which he found himself so greatly involved, he could not retire with any credit…”

The concluding stages of The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia – and of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister – finds Aphra Behn returning to the roman à clef format of her first volume, in order to deal with the events of June and July, 1685. First, however, like Behn herself, we must consider the fate of Sylvia, deserted once again by Philander who has left her to join Cesario and the other rebels.

In the wake of Philander’s departure, he and she between them having used up the bulk of what they filched from Octavio, Sylvia is thrown back upon her only remaining support: Brilliard, still fixated upon her, still biding his time and waiting for the chance that has finally come. Here we get a perverse kind of inversion of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, as now it is Sylvia who tries to create a fantasy world where she is still the great lady, Brilliard still her servant, her tool –  and Brilliard who plays along for his own purposes.

His tactics finally yield the desired result. Alone and with her resources dwindling, Sylvia begins to rely on Brilliard more and more, taking him into her confidence and at length allowing him to become increasing familiar with her, until, “Sylvia no longer resisted, or if she did, it was very feebly, and with a sort of wish that he would pursue his boldness yet farther; which at last he did, from one degree of softness and gentle force to another, and made himself the happiest man in the world.” Sylvia suffers reaction, naturally, but Brilliard has learned how to manage her: “He redoubled his submission in so cunning a manner, that he soon brought her to a good humour; and after that, he used the kind authority of a husband whenever he had an opportunity, and found her not displeased at his services.”

At this point, it seems likely that we are to be witness to Sylvia’s downward spiral; her growing dependence upon Brilliard; her inability to survive without a man; her final, abject destruction. Then something extraordinary happens: Sylvia shakes off her funk and pulls herself together. She cannot indeed survive without a man – in the sense that they have the money she needs – but that’s not to say she must submit to their terms.

The remainder of Sylvia’s story finds her increasingly taking charge of her own life. First she detatches herself temporarily from Brilliard, dons her boy’s clothes, and sets out on adventures of her own. She encounters a Spanish nobleman, Don Alonzo, who is young, handsome and wealthy – and finds herself sharing a bed with him, still in her man’s disguise. She sets herself to win him, and succeeds so well that Alonzo, “…was not seen in Brussels for eight days and nights after.”

Behn’s choice of language here is remarkable. We hear how Sylvia, “…gained that evening a thousand conquests; but those were not the trophies she aimed at, it was Alonzo was the marked-out victim, that she destined for the sacrifice of love.” Conquest…trophies…victim…sacrifice… We’ve heard all this before, but in another context: this is the language of Philander, from the beginning of our story. And most significantly of all, we hear that Sylvia is dying for Alonzo…

In short, Sylvia has become Philander – but a more successful Philander – a Philander who, absorbing the lessons of her botched affair with Octavio, has learned to keep her eyes on the prize. At length we find her juggling four men at once – conducting her affair with Alonzo; from time to time seeing Philander who, smugly convinced she still loves him, gives her money when he can; keeping Brilliard (“…she knew she could make him her slave, her pimp, her anything…”) on a string; and most incredibly of all, taking money from the still besotted Octavio, under promises of reformation and a retired, decent life – and successfully keeping all four balls in the air at once.

It is impossible to read Sylvia’s story and not feel how it influenced Daniel Defoe; but whereas Defoe’s anti-heroines tell their tales from a late-life vantage point of reformation (however unconvincing), Behn saw no need to reform Sylvia. On the contrary: Sylvia’s “reward” at the end of her journey is the profitable ability to keep her emotions in check, and to use and discard other people to her own advantage; in short, to behave like a man. It is a peculiar and disturbing triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. In a world where it is destroy or be destroyed, we know that Sylvia will survive. Our last glimpse of her in the novel is her enforced departure from Brussels, Brilliard in her train and the wreck of Alonzo in her wake: “…of whom they made so considerable advantages, that in a short time they ruined the fortune of that young nobleman and became the talk of the town; insomuch that the Governor not permitting their stay there, she was forced to remove for new prey; and daily makes considerable conquests wherever she shows the charmer…”

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

The last thing I want here (or, I’m sure, you want) is to get lost in a lengthy retelling of the Monmouth Rebellion. So I’ll try to keep this brief, touching only upon the main points, and those moments where our old friend Lord Grey comes to prominence.

After years of vacillation and plots that came to nothing, Monmouth was finally brought to the point of rebellion by the combined efforts of Grey and Robert Ferguson, “the Plotter”. Ferguson was a former Presbyterian minister who was active in pamphleteering and conspiracy all the way through the years of the Exclusion Crisis and, like Grey and Monmouth, implicated in the Rye House Plot. It was Ferguson who drafted Monmouth’s “manifesto”, the document that spelled out the grounds upon which Monmouth rebelled against James, which instead of focusing upon “acceptable” grounds of rebellion such as defence of Protestantism, accused James of every crime imaginable, including murdering his brother. It was probably this document as much as the rebellion itself that sealed Monmouth’s fate.

Monouth and his army landed in Dorset, a Protestant stronghold, and at first many among the local population did flock to him enthusiastically; but an extended period of  fruitless marching and manoeuvring saw the spirits of most begin to evaporate. The failure of a planned simultaneous rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyle was a severe blow. Indeed, Monmouth was at this point willing to call the whole thing off, and tried to slip away from his forces. He might have done so had he not been dissuaded by a passionate speech from Lord Grey, who convinced him that, “To leave the army now would be an act so base that it would never be forgiven by the people.”

Grey, by necessity, had been put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry – an arrangement on which some historians place much of the blame for the failure of the rebellion. The cavalry was twice completely routed by James’s forces, once literally turning tail and fleeing the battle, leaving Monmouth and the infantry unsupported. While our view of Grey’s conduct is now inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the outcome of his story, whether this was really cowardice or incompetence, as is often asserted, or whether Grey simply wasn’t qualified for the job, it is impossible to say. Only the damage done to Monmouth’s cause is indisputable.

The Monmouth Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. Around a thousand men were killed, most of them Monmouth’s, but the leaders of the rebellion survived. Robert Ferguson got away and escaped to Holland, but both Grey and Monmouth were captured. The latter, who had fled the battlefield, was discovered hiding in a ditch disguised as a shepherd. As soon as Monmouth found himself in enemy hands, he went to pieces. Grey, however, remained calm and composed. Possibly he was one of those who are at their best when things are at their worst. Or, possibly, he knew something…

Brought before James, Monmouth literally grovelled, sobbing and pleading for his life, and throwing the blame onto everyone else. He was soon brought to understand he wasn’t facing his soft-hearted father any more: James was inflexible and vengeful even under normal circumstances, and these were not exactly normal circumstances. In his last extemity, Monmouth – defender of the Protestant faith – promised to convert to Catholicism if James would spare his life. James met him halfway – which is to say, he offered to facilitate Monmouth’s conversion. Knowing himself doomed, Monmouth managed to pull himself together. He was comparatively calm during his final moments, making neither the defiant speech James feared, nor the public apology James wanted. “I come to die, not to talk,” was all he said; final words variously reported as stoic or sullen.

Indeed, Monmouth’s last thoughts and last words were not of his ambitions, or his rebellion, but of his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who he had loved for many years, and whose personal fortune paid for most of Monmouth’s activities. At the last, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, begging him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, before submitting to his execution – which was, by the way, nightmarishly botched. Legend has it that James made sure the axe was blunt…

Aphra Behn’s account of the rebellion runs in parallel with the ongoing story of Philander and Sylvia throughout the third volume of her novel. She also introduces a new character, Count Tomaso, who is one of the prime movers in the rebellion…and in whom we may recognise the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, of course, died in 1683, two years before James’s succession, and so played no part in the real story of Monmouth’s rebellion. However, aside from his role during the Exclusion Crisis, Shaftesbury did spend the final year of his life trying to argue, provoke and cajole Monmouth into revolt against Charles, so Behn’s resurrection of him in her novel isn’t as gratuitous or as spiteful as it might at first appear. (In case anyone was in doubt about Tomaso’s identity, Behn makes use of a piece of embarrassing gossip about Shaftesbury that was popular with his enemies, and has Tomaso avoiding arrest by scrambling naked up onto the canopy of his mistress’s bed and hiding there.)

Shaftesbury, as we may recall, was one of the five ministers forced by Charles to sign the Treaty of Dover. Those five became subsequently known as “the Cabal”, a word constructed from the first initials of their names or titles (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, Lauderdale), with the acronym subsequently entering the vernacular with its current meaning of a secret gathering, or a sinister conspiracy. As with the word “philander”, it was Aphra Behn who popularised the term, via her repeated use of it in her novel to signify the underhanded nature of Cesario’s doings. Cesario and his followers do not  meet to discuss things, they “cabal”; they are “caballists”, who are always “caballing”. The word is used from time to time prior to this point, although always with connection with Cesario; but with the arrival in the story of Tomaso, its use in the novel becomes almost obsessive.

But Tomaso is only a supporting character in Behn’s account of the events of 1685. Her focus is upon Monmouth / Cesario, who she turns into a figure of ridicule, entirely under the control of Robert Ferguson / Fergusano and Lady Henrietta / Hermione, the latter of whom dreams of being queen of “France”. Monmouth was known to be deeply superstitious; when he was caught, he was carrying a notebook full of supposed charms for warding off death in battle and opening prison doors. What’s more, Monmouth’s devotion to his Henrietta, a woman condemned in her day for being “old and ugly” (that is, she was twenty-five and no beauty), was often attributed to his being literally bewitched. The gold toothpick-case, given by Henrietta to Monmouth and which occupied the last thoughts of his life, was supposed to hold the charm by which she controlled him.

Behn, of course, has a field day with all this. Playing on Monmouth’s apparent belief in magic, she casts Robert Ferguson as a literal magician, a master of the dark arts, whose hold over Cesario rests largely on his mysterious powers; as if Monmouth’s rebellion against James could only be explained in terms of black magic. She also makes much of the toothpick-case, having Hermione keep in it a love-philtre received from Fergusano to use against Cesario. Cesario himself emerges as a fool, a buffoon, a puppet – until the moment of his death, when Behn backs off. She doesn’t reference the horrors of Monmouth’s execution, but neither does she ridicule him further; she allows Cesario to die with dignity, even to be mourned. She retreats even further when describing the fate of “Hermione”. Henrietta Wentworth herself died not long after Monmouth. Most commentators greeted the event with sneers and bad jokes; Behn, almost alone, is quite kind with her memory. Perhaps she was startled, even awed, to find that someone actually could “die of love”.

And where, in all this, is Philander? Not where you might expect. Lord Grey’s conduct during the rebellion and afterwards remains a matter for debate. I myself turned for guidance on this point to my dear friend Thomas Macaulay – who I find I prefer as a literary critic than as an historian; the political bias is just a bit too obvious. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, spends much of his detailed and otherwise very interesting account of the rebellion making excuses for Grey.

And oddly, by the end of her novel, Aphra Behn is also making excuses for “Philander”. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. But while Macaulay defended Grey as a Whig, Behn did so for quite opposite reasons. In her view, the rebellion was so entirely wrong and immoral that to desert it for any reason, at any time and under any circumstances, was the right thing to do – even if it meant behaving in a way that by normal standards was disgraceful and cowardly.

As the likelihood of open rebellion grows, so do Philander’s doubts. He confesses to Sylvia his fervent wish he’d never gotten involved, or that he could see a way out. He even speaks publicly against the venture, much to Cesario’s displeasure, and although he finally takes his place on the battlefield, his reluctance is apparent:

“Some Authors in the relation of this Battle affirm, That Philander quitted his Post as soon as the Charge was given, and sheer’d off from that Wing he commanded… He disliked the Cause, disapproved of all their Pretensions, and look’d upon the whole Affair and Proceedings to be most unjust and ungenerous; And all the fault his greatest Enemies could charge him with, was, That he did not deal so gratefully with a Prince that loved him and trusted him…”

Behn’s own discomfort here is evident, even as she tries to whitewash Philander; note the involuntary flicker of sympathy for Cesario, otherwise her whipping-boy. She does succeed somewhat in painting the impossible position of a man who no longer believes in his own cause. The problem is, we know Philander never did believe in the cause; that he was out for himself from the start, using Cesario, whom he despised, to further his own ends. Consequently, his belated moral qualms provoke, not understanding, but a curl of the lip.

In reality, debate about Lord Grey has centred on whether he was incompetent, or a coward – or whether, as Behn almost unconsciously (or even unavoidably) suggests, he was in fact a Quisling within Monmouth’s ranks all along. Whatever the truth, in the end Lord Grey did what Lord Grey always did: he found a way to wriggle out of a tight situation.

Brought before James, Grey was composed. In the wake of Monmouth’s embarrassing self-debasement, his behaviour probably looked more heroic than it was. However, nothing he did from that point on can be remotely classified as “heroic”.

First, he penned a long, rambling, self-exculpatory confession, throwing all the blame of the rebellion onto Ferguson and Shaftesbury, playing down his own influence over Monmouth as much as possible, and painting himself as a poor, lonely, friendless exile from England, who in his desperation fell into bad company, and was led into bad ways. (Not surprisingly, the reason Grey was an exile in the first place isn’t mentioned – and nor, for that matter, is Henrietta Berkeley.) Second, he ratted out his friends, providing voluntary testimony against many others captured after Sedgemoor, many of whom were condemned and executed. And last – yet hardly, one imagines, least – he paid a “fine” of forty thousand pounds into the always ravenous royal coffers.

And on the strength of these three gestures, while others only a fraction as guilty as he, men and women, aristocrat and commoner, were being sentenced to death, Lord Grey was forgiven; and not just forgiven, but eventually welcomed back at court.

There is a limit to everything – even to Aphra Behn’s inclination to make excuses for a man swearing new loyalty to James. When Behn picked up her pen in 1684 to begin what would eventually become Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, not in her very wildest imaginings could she have invented a conclusion to her story such as reality provided. Nevertheless, being given such an opportunity, she made the most of it. This most improbable denouement to a most improbable sequence of events allowed Aphra Behn to write one of English literature’s great closing paragraphs, an ending to her story none the less viciously satirical for being absolutely true:

“Philander lay sometime in the Bastille, visited by all the Persons of great Quality about the Court; he behaved himself very Gallantly all the way he came, after his being taken, and to the last Minute of his Imprisonment; and was at last pardon’d, kiss’d the King’s Hand, and came to Court in as much Splendour as ever, being very well understood by all good Men.”

After a decade of persistent and increasing ill-health, Aphra Behn died at the age of forty-nine on the 16th of April, 1689 – five days after the coronation of William and Mary. Although we must mourn her loss at such a relatively young age, it does seem somehow fitting that this woman so distinctly, so uniquely of the Restoration should not have outlived the age that created her. Then, too, perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t live to see the “real” end to her novel.

In June of 1688, a group of English noblemen, subsequently dubbed “the Immortal Seven”, sent a formal invitation to William of Orange, requesting his intervention in the English succession: the initial plan was to force James to disinherit his new-born son in favour of his daughter, Mary, William’s wife. It was November when William landed with his army, but his plans to do so had been known for at least two months, forcing not only James to decide upon a course of action, but also the dwindling numbers of statesmen who still publicly supported him – like Lord Grey.

It will come, I am sure, as no great surprise to anyone who has followed this story so far to hear that Grey’s choice was to betray the king to whom he owed his life, and to whom he swore oaths of fidelity after being received at court. His first thought as always his own skin, he abandoned James for William at the first opportunity.

And, sad to say, Grey did not merely survive under William: he thrived. Becoming a fixture at court, he was made Privy Councillor in 1695, the same year he was created Viscount Glendale and Earl of Tankerville. He subsequently served as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal and (in perhaps the sickest irony of all) Lord Justice of the Realm. The successful statesman died in 1701…remaining to the end, no doubt, well understood by all good men.

06/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 6)

“Thus he flatters and she believes, because she has a mind to believe; and thus by degrees he softens the listening Sylvia; swears his faith with sighs, and confirms it with his tears, which bedewed her fair bosom, as they fell from his bright dissembling eyes; and yet so well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so: and such effects it wrought on Sylvia, that in spite of all her honour and vows engaged to Octavio, and horrid protestations never to receive again the fugitive to her arms, she suffers all he asks, gives herself up again to love, and is a second time undone…”

So where was Aphra Behn between 1685 and 1687? Writing, of course. It was quite a good time to be a Tory writer, the very events that had so shaken the country opening up fertile ground for the monarchists. Behn had done her Tory duty early in 1685, producing an elegy for the departed Charles, and another for the widowed Catherine (who did a bunk back to Portugal as soon as she could organise it – and who can blame her?); although neither of these can hold a candle to the 800 line “pindarick” she wrote to celebrate the coronation of James. Around the same time, Roger L’Estrange received a knighthood and returned to his old position of Licensor Of The Press, John Dryden was confirmed as Poet Laureate – and Thomas Shadwell was blacklisted.

But for the most part the theatre was still stagnant; it was not until towards the end of his reign that James, all too late, began commissioning plays in the hope of using them to win some public support. Aphra Behn would not get another play produced until 1687, when both The Luckey Chance and The Emperor Of The Moon brought her dramatic success; the last of her lifetime. Also during 1687, Behn published the third part of her first venture into fiction as The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia. This is easily the longest of the three volumes, which may in part account for the delay in its appearance. It also finds Behn using a third different form of prose writing in as many volumes. While a few letters are interpolated, this work is worlds away from the epistolary style of the first, or even the “half-and-half” approach of the second, and presents as what we would now view as a conventional piece of third-person narration; although the narrator does make personal comments and additions from time to time, as we shall see.

This third volume is, I imagine, by far the most difficult for most modern readers to absorb. It consists of two overlapping yet distinct stories, the second being Behn’s account of the Monmouth Rebellion of June, 1685, in which her old friend Lord Grey suddenly reappeared on the public stage. It may even be that Behn had begun her third volume before that, then had to scrap it and start over when reality suddenly intervened. From the reader’s point of view, the difficulty here is that Behn not only describes the rebellion and its aftermath, but includes any amount of insulting minutiae about the Duke of Monmouth which, while it would have been perfectly familiar to a contemporary audience swamped by accounts of Monmouth’s life and death, means very little to the reader of today.

First, however, we rejoin our pairs of lovers. Sylvia has promised to marry Octavio (Brilliard notwithstanding) if he will take revenge on Philander for her, while Philander is still indulging in his dangerous affair with Calista, in spite of the growing suspicions of her husband, Clarineau, and Dormina, the servant set to spy upon her. Ironically, Clarineau’s way of showing his displeasure, namely, failing to visit Calista’s bed, which would have been more than welcome to her at any other time in their marriage, is now a matter of urgency: Calista is pregnant, but cannot bring about the encounter with her husband that she needs to cover her infidelity.

As her condition begins to show, Calista begs Philander to run away with her. This escapade finds Calista, too, in drag: a guise that brings out her (to Philander) strange resemblance to Octavio…and, perhaps, also makes clear the basis of her attraction for her lover:

“I own I never saw anything so beautiful all over, from head to foot: and viewing her thus, (carrying my lanthorn all about her) but more especially her face, her wondrous, charming face—(pardon me, if I say, what does but look like flattery)—I never saw anything more resembling my dear Octavio, than the lovely Calista. Your very feature, your very smile and air; so that, if possible, that increased my adoration and esteem for her…”

Remembering the fate of Clarineau’s first wife, both Philander and Calista carry weapons as they try to make their escape. They are caught by Clarineau, his nephew and his servants. As the latter engage Philander, Clarineau draws a poniard and stabs Calista, who fires her pistol at him, wounding him. Philander fights off the others, and manages to escape with the injured Calista. However, the two are soon caught and imprisoned – their jailers not realising Calista’s sex. She is terrified of being returned to Clarineau and his vengeance, while Philander knows that he himself will suffer nothing worse than a spell in prison and a fine for the cuckoldry. Calista having her jewels with her, Philander is able to pull his usual stunt – “The master of the prison was very civil and poor” – and Calista is allowed to escape, fleeing to Brussels and taking refuge in a convent where the Abbess is her aunt.

All this Philander recounts in a letter to Octavio, concluding with a request that Octavio write on his behalf to the magistrates of Cologne – sending to Sylvia at the same time another letter filled with the usual excuses. Having already broken his oath to Philander, Octavio shows her both. It doesn’t quite go as he expected. The outraged Sylvia insists upon travelling to Brussels, so that she can confront Calista – only to find herself so personally affected by Calista’s beauty (and, of course, by her resemblance to Octavio), that she almost finds it in herself to forgive her perfidious lover. Almost. On departing, Sylvia takes her revenge by giving to Calista the letter that Octavio gave to her; and Calista discovers that the man she believed loved her so honourably and tenderly has given a boastful, blow-by-blow account of their affair to another man…and that man her own brother. Sylvia, meanwhile, swears that she has cut Philander from her heart forever, and is entirely Octavio’s…

In her handling of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, and then again in the eventual reuniting of Sylvia and Philander, Aphra Behn displays a frank fascination with the masochistic potentiality of love – and an even greater one with the capacity of lovers for self-deception. Although we here a lot about “the brave, the generous, the amorous” Octavio, Behn’s language is belied by her action. Octavio’s obsession with Sylvia is an exercise in delusion and denial. To us, the onlookers, his passion for Sylvia is clearly a kind of physical addiction, a habit that he cannot kick, one that manifests as a total refusal to see reality.

When Brilliard hears of Sylvia’s promise to marry Octavio, he appeals to the local authorities, declaring himself her husband. Octavio is connected, however, and Brilliard’s attempt to claim his rights ends in failure. Although Octavio is at first horrified by Brilliard’s declaration, Sylvia manages to convince him that at the time she “married” Brilliard, he already had a wife and children, as she later discovered. At this time, Sylvia gives Octavio her own account of her relationship with Philander; and in an hilarious touch, Aphra Behn reveals that she and Sylvia were both readers of the London Gazette:

“…but all search, all hue-and-cries were vain; at last, they put me into the weekly Gazette, describing me to the very features of my face, my hair, my breast, my stature…”

The apparent barrier to their relationship removed, Octavio’s passion for Sylvia returns with redoubled force: “…he was given over to his wish of possessing of Sylvia, and could not live without her; he loved too much, and thought and considered too little…” Octavio renews his promises of marriage to Sylvia, and begins to lavish extravagant gifts upon her, his obsession with her growing uncontrollable…and in context, more than a little creepy.

Although his acquaintance with Sylvia begins when she is another man’s mistress, although he hears from both Philander and Sylvia the full truth of their relationship, Octavio insists upon courting Sylvia as if she were still the innocent girl she once was – not out of generosity, or kindness, or tact, but because this is the only way he can justify himself to himself. Sylvia is entranced by the fantasy world Octavio creates for them, which allows her to pretend that she has regained the position in life that she threw away for Philander, and intoxicated by her sense of power; she eagerly plays the part Octavio has tacitly written for her. When their mutual role-playing game ends, inevitably, in sex, Sylvia reacts not as an experienced woman, but like a ruined girl: “At first he found her weeping in his arms, raving on what she had inconsiderately done, and with her soft reproaches chiding her ravished lover…”

And perhaps here I should mention that while she lies in Octavio’s arms, weeping for an honour and a virginity long since departed, as Octavio swears to repair the great wrong he has done to her by making her his wife…Sylvia is at least five month’s pregnant with Philander’s child.

One of the most difficult things for modern readers to come to terms with in the literature of this period is its attitude to pregnancy, which is generally treated as just an inconvenience, a nuisance, but nothing that should be allowed to interfere with the business of life. It is certainly never considered a reason why two people shouldn’t have an affair. (If anything, on the contrary: you know the old saying…) In this respect, Love Letters is entirely representative. Remember that Calista, too, is pregnant when she finds refuge in the convent. There, taking stock, she is overwhelmed with shame and remorse. When her child is born, she has it taken away, before giving up the world and becoming a nun. Meanwhile, Sylvia also bears her baby…which is never mentioned again. We are given no hint of its fate; it simply disappears; and except for one or two passing references to Sylvia getting her figure back, there is no indication that she was ever pregnant, or that she ever thinks about it again. Nor is the double father remotely interested in his children’s fates.

Several decades after this, Daniel Defoe would be using his anti-heroines’ attititude to their children as a yardstick of their characters; here, Sylvia’s pregnancy is nothing more than a measure of the depth of Octavio’s delusion. As his obsession grows, Octavio rains money and jewels upon Sylvia, and sets her up in a mansion, swearing that he will marry her, “As soon as Sylvia should be delivered from that part of Philander, of which she was possessed.” But before Octavio can make good on his promise, Philander reappears on the scene…

Released from prison, Philander travels to Brussels, to the convent, where he hears quite a few home-truths from the Abbess before the door is slammed in his face. This encounter reveals to Philander that Octavio has betrayed him to Sylvia; and here Aphra Behn gives us another glimpse of the ugly reality of her world; woman’s world. Behn offers excuses for women’s perfidy in love, arguing that the world as it is hardly allows women to be honest if they would (and note the revealing slip into the first person):

“Thus she spoke, without reminding that this most contemptible quality she herself was equally guilty of, though infinitely more excusable in her sex, there being a thousand little actions of their lives, liable to censure and reproach, which they would willingly excuse and colour over with little falsities; but in a man, whose most inconstant actions pass oftentimes for innocent gallantries, and to whom it is no infamy to own a thousand amours, but rather a glory to his fame and merit; I say, in him, (whom custom has favoured with an allowance to commit any vices and boast of it) it is not so brave.”

But as with Behn’s railing against “interested” marriage and the selling of young girls to old men, this denouncing of the double standard is a cry in the wilderness. Despite Philander’s breaking of his vows to his wife, his seduction of Sylvia, and his months of bald-faced lies to her as he seduces and ruins another woman, we are given to understand that the only crime committed against honour in all this is Octavio’s breaking of his promise to Philander, the betrayal of man by man; that in fact, it is Philander who is the injured party:

“…he no longer doubted, but that his confidante had betrayed him every way. He rails on false friendship, curses the Lady Abbess, himself, his fortune, and his birth; but finds it all in vain: nor was he so infinitely afflicted with the thought of the loss of Calista (because he had possessed her) as he was to find himself betrayed to her, and doubtless to Sylvia, by Octavio.”

Philander and Octavio will later fight a duel on this point; later still, Octavio will concede to Philander that he was the one who committed the real breach of honour. And it is Octavio, the obsessive lover Octavio, who will finally put Woman firmly in her place – unearthing the novel’s subtext again in the process:

“‘These vows cannot hinder me from conserving entirely that friendship in my heart, which your good qualities and beauties at first sight engaged there, and esteeming you more than perhaps I ought to do; the man whom I must yet own my rival, and the undoer of my sister’s honour. But oh—no more of that; a friend is above a sister, or a mistress.’ At this he hung down his eyes and sighed—“

But Octavio still has some distance to travel before he can set aside his passion for Sylvia and become “a real man” – a man’s man, as it were. Although she has, to all appearances, got Octavio exactly where she wants him – has the prospect of a life so far beyond what she might expect in her circumstances as to almost boggle the mind – Sylvia is finally, fatally, betrayed by her vanity. Her absolute power over Octavio she credits to her own irresistible charm and beauty, not to Octavio’s consitutional blindness; and so abject is he in his devotion, she begins to take him just a little for granted…

Although Philander’s behaviour has killed her love for him, Sylvia realises that his betrayal of her, his finding another woman more beautiful, more desirable, than she, still rankles. She begins to toy with the notion of bringing him back to her feet, just to show that she can. As for Philander, Sylvia vanished from his thoughts the moment he set eyes on Calista; yet when he receives a letter from her declaring that she doesn’t want him any more, he instantly discovers that he wants her – and swears that he will have her again.

The resulting mutual exercise in emotionless manoeuvring and jockeying for the position of power evolves into a sick recapitulation of their original encounter – both of them falling back into their original roles without even recognising it (or as Behn puts it, “So well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so…”) – and ends, sure enough, in Sylvia’s bed…where Octavio finds them. And even this he forgives…but in a seemingly contradictory yet psychologically convincing touch, this for Sylvia is the final straw. She has demonstrated the limitlessness of her power over Octavio; he no longer holds any challenge for her. Instead, bundling up the jewels and money and other portables that he has given her, Sylvia elopes again with Philander.

What follows is one of this novel’s strangest passages – indeed, one of the strangest things Behn ever wrote – as Octavio, his eyes opened at long last, retreats from the world as his sister did, entering a monastery. Here, the narration suddenly switches to the first person, as we hear that, I myself went to this ceremony, having, in all the time I lived in Flanders, never been so curious to see any such thing…

The evolution of the narrative voice across these three volumes is intriguing, and a fairly clear indication that initially Behn intended to write only the first of the three. The letters that make up Part 1, as you may remember, were supposed to have been found in a closet after Philander and Sylvia left the house where they had been living together between the time of their original elopement and Philander’s arrest, escape and flight from France. Presumably, then, the writer of the first volume’s preface is not the same person who supplies the narrative voice for the later ones. This third part contains some interesting experimentation with narrative possibilities, as Behn shifts back-and-forth between third-person-omniscient and first-person-onlooker – sometimes within the same passage.

Although she was not, as I have said, at all religious, Aphra Behn had a life-long fascination with the external aspects of Catholicism, its rituals, its art, its exoticism, its public display…all the things, in other words, that good Protestants were supposed to despise. There are various bits of erotica through this third volume of Behn’s story, but perversely, nothing that matches the sensuality of her description of Octavio’s withdrawal from the world:

“For my part , I confess, I thought myself no longer on earth; and sure there is nothing gives an idea of real heaven, like a church all adorned with rare pictures, and the other ornaments of it, with whatever can charm the eyes; and music, and voices, to ravish the ear…But, for his face and eyes, I am not able to describe the charms that adorned them; no fancy, no imagination, can paint the beauties there: he looked indeed, as if he were made for heaven; no mortal ever had such grace… Ten thousand sighs, from all sides, were sent him, as he passed along, which, mixed with the soft music, made such a murmuring, as gentle breezes moving yielding boughs… All I could see around me, all I heard, was ravishing and heavenly; the scene of glory, and the dazzling altar… The Bishop turned and blessed him; and while an anthem was singing, Octavio, who was still kneeling, submitted his head to the hands of a Father, who, with a pair of scissors, cut off his delicate hair; at which a soft murmur of pity and grief filled the place…”

As for Philander and Sylvia, they’re in pretty much the state you’d expect of two people held together only by their equal determination not to be the one who is discarded:

“Philander, whose head was running on Calista, grudged every moment he was not about that affair, and grew as peevish as she; she recovers to new beauty, but he grows colder and colder by possession; love decayed, and ill humour increased: they grew uneasy on both sides, and not a day passed wherein they did not break into open and violent quarrels, upbraiding each other with those faults, which both wished that either would again commit, that they might be fairly rid of one another…”

And from this state of mutual torment they are at long last delivered by a summons to Philander from Cesario: the rebellion of the Huguenots against the king of France is finally to take place…

[Aww, I really thought this would be the last of it. Curse you, Aphra Behn, and your infinitely discussable novel! Just one more piece, that’s all, I swear…]

21/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 3)

“Let us, oh let us, my brother, sit down here, and pursue the crime of loving on no farther. Call me sister—swear I am so, and nothing but your sister: and forbear, oh forbear, my charming brother, to pursue me farther with your soft bewitching passion; let me alone, let me be ruin’d with honour, if I must be ruin’d.—For oh! ’twere much happier I were no more, than that I should be more than Philander’s sister; or he than Sylvia’s brother: oh let me ever call you by that cold name, ’till that of lover be forgotten.”

On top of publishing anonymously and resorting to the roman à clef format, the opening of Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister finds Aphra Behn providing for herself a third layer of protection against the possible consequences of her tale of sex and politics: the age-old pretence of the “found manuscript”. The volume’s preface asserts that the letters were discovered, “…in their cabinets, at their house at St Denis, where they both lived together, for the space of a year; and they are as exactly as possible placed in the order they were sent.”

The preface also spells out for us the nature of the roman à clef. The story is set during the Fronde, the French civil war that took place in the middle of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 – 1659. The Fronde had two phases, and it is the second, the Fronde des nobles, with which we are concerned: “The time of the rebellion of the true Protestant Huguenot in Paris, under the conduct of the Prince of Condé (whom we will call Cesario)…”

The preface then goes on to give us a sketch of one of Cesario’s followers, a young man given the sobriquet Philander, who achieved notoriety by eloping with Sylvia, the sister of his wife, Myrtilla. In this version of events, Myrtilla is not only Cesario’s mistress, but was in love with him at the time she married Philander, which she did purely for interest’s sake. We hear of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, their affair, its discovery and their flight. We hear also that, as a consequence of his involvement with Cesario, Philander was one of the rebels defeated by the king’s forces; that he was imprisoned, but escaped; and that he then fled the country in Sylvia’s company.

It is unlikely that anyone in England reading this far could fail to guess the true identities of the major players of this tale. Whether they believed that the letters were actually real is debatable, but either way, they could be certain that a scandalous story was to follow.

A word about the names here. All of the characters are given pastoral pseudonyms in place of their “real” (that is, fictional) names, which was a common practice at the time in both literature and literary circles, a hangover from the days of the classical romance. These days we might be inclined to snicker at our anti-hero’s name – what, we’re supposed to be surprised that someone called “Philander” behaves like this? – but in fact, it is because of the success of this tale that the word “philander” took on its modern meaning, “to behave like Philander” eventually becoming simply “to philander”. And there is a second word in this book that Aphra Behn, not invented, but helped to entrench in common parlance; but we’ll deal with that later on.

When the story opens, Philander and Sylvia have admitted their feelings for one another, and immediately, we see how skilfully Aphra Behn builds upon her model, the Lettres Portugueses. In place of the single voice, here we have two; and the reader is invited to decode the language of each to get at the motives beyond. Sylvia is understandably torn, her passionate desire for Philander at odds with her fear of discovery, the thought of her lost honour, the shame that she would bring upon her parents should the affair be discovered, and above all her consciousness that she would be betraying her own sister. Meanwhile, despite the increasing extravagence of Philander’s language, the reader is able to see what the inexperienced Sylvia cannot, the selfish single-mindedness of his passion. She vacillates, thinking of others; he relentlessly pursues his aim.

To contemporary readers, the language of Love Letters is frequently overripe and hard to swallow; but it is important to realise that it is an accurate reflection of its time, when verbal flamboyance was commonly used to disguise brutal reality, like putting a clean dress on a dirty body. So it is throughout this book, as it becomes dismayingly apparent that for all the pleading and the protestation, all the agonies and desperation, all the languishing and dying, there is nothing in this story that we might in modern usage call “love”; not a moment when it is ever about anything other than sex. And the more apparent that becomes, the less willing are the characters to admit it – and the more excessive becomes the language.

Furthermore, increasingly over the length of the story, there is a tendency to parallel the relations between man and woman with warfare: by the end, the phrase “the battle of the sexes” is barely even a metaphor. This is, undoubtedly, Aphra Behn’s own view of her world; and to a large extent the subsequent volumes of Love Letters are questioning whether in such a world it is ever possible that the woman might be victorious, or whether she must inevitably be conquered…and then ransacked and abandoned. Anything other than defeat for one party or the other is, however, quite out the question: it is destroy or be destroyed.

Language, then, is not so much a means of communication as on one hand a weapon, on the other a form of disguise. Philander, clearly, has already learned the power of the word before he turns his batteries upon Sylvia. In their exchange of letters, her language grows more and more like his, more heated, more exaggerated: words become a substitute for sex. Increasingly, Sylvia uses in her letters the words “brother” and “sister”, ostensibly to kill their mutual passion, in fact because the forbidden nature of the relationship adds to its fire. Consciously or unconsciously, Sylvia has absorbed Philander’s lesson: how to use language to conceal an ugly truth.

Having established the nature of her characters’ passion, it is then time for Aphra Behn to move onto politics. We must remember that the story’s “rebellion of the Hugenots” is a cover for the events leading up to the Rye House Plot. As in reality, Philander and Sylvia are on opposite sides of the political divide. Sylvia’s family is loyal to the throne, while Philander has thrown in his lot with Cesario in his intended revolt against his father, the king. It is Sylvia who broaches the subject in their letters, first uttering the standard female grievance that while she thinks of nothing but him, she knows that for all his protestations, Philander often has things other than love on his mind. From an early warning about the danger to his life if he persists in following Cesario, she initiates a frank political debate, demanding to know on what grounds the rebels are taking action?—

“What is it, oh my charming brother then, that you set up for? Is it glory? Oh mistaken, lovely youth, that glory is but a glittering light, that flashes for a moment, and then disappears; it is a false bravery, that will bring an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house; render your honourable name hated, detested and abominable in story to after ages; a traitor!”

Like Aphra Behn, Sylvia is a royalist; and like Behn again, there is an oddly sexual aspect to her devotion to her monarch: “I swear to you, Philander, I never approach his sacred person, but my heart beats, my blood runs cold about me, and my eyes overflow with tears of joy, while an awful confusion seizes me all over.”

However, Behn’s insistence upon the physical glamour of the Stuarts is far easier to take than her subsequent attempt forcibly to remodel Charles to fit the royalist vision of what a divinely-annointed monarch should be. In the literature of the time, we’ve seen any number of hilariously inaccurate descriptions of Charles by Tory writers, and Aphra Behn’s is among the most extreme; and when you consider that she probably had James as much as Charles in her mind when she wrote it, it becomes even more ludicrous:

“What has the King, our good, our gracious monarch, done to Philander?… But all his life has been one continued miracle; all good, all gracious, calm and merciful: and this good, this god-like King… His eyes have something so fierce, so majestic, commanding, and yet so good and merciful, as would soften rebellion itself into repenting loyalty… Oh! what pity it is, unhappy young man, thy education was not near the King!”

Sylvia here launches into a lengthy reproof of Philander’s intentions, and indeed his political principles – or the lack thereof. She should have heeded her own words: from the Tory perspective, as a man was in his politics, so he was in his personal life. Philander’s willingness to betray his king should have been a clear warning to Sylvia that he was not otherwise to be trusted. Sylvia’s speech here hits all the major heads of Tory attacks upon the Whigs: that their protests against “absolutism” and their claim to be acting “for the good of the people” were nothing more than a shoddy excuse for their own selfish actions; that their motives were pure self-interest and the hope of self-aggrandisement; that to oppose the will of the king was to be guilty of treason.

In all this, Philander is the very model of a Whig, particularly in his willingness to align himself with Cesario in spite of being cuckolded by him: to a Whig, we understand, lost honour is a minor consideration beside the opportunity for personal advancement. Philander admits openly that he has no respect for Cesario, and indeed, nothing but scorn for “the rabble”, in whose name he is supposed to be acting; and that it is entirely of himself that he is thinking. In doing so, he highlights one of the major debating points of the day: if it were possible to interfere with the natural line of succession (as the Whigs tried to do during the Exclusion Crisis); if it was acceptable to substitute one king for another, to, in effect, elect a king; if being king was not a matter of Divine Will, but of the strongest arm— When no man had a right to be king, then any man had the right to be king. It was the Tories’ worst nightmare.

And this is exactly Philander’s intention. He is merely using Cesario to jockey himself into a position of power. However dangerous the rebellion, however slim the chances of victory, if the rebels do prevail, why should not Philander be king?—“When three kingdoms shall lie unpossess’d…who knows but the chance may be mine… If the strongest sword must do it, (as that must do it) why not mine still? Why may not mine be that fortunate one? Cesario has no more right to it than Philander…”

Aphra Behn’s presentation of the Duke of Monmouth in this story, in the guise of Cesario, is marked by a venomous contempt for his ambition, his ingratitude to his father (and uncle) and above all his stupidity. At the same time, there is a certain disingenuity about Behn’s telling of the story, inasmuch as the religious division at the root of the crisis goes unacknowledged: the rebellion here is unmotivated by anything but greed. However, she is right in her assertion that while Monmouth supposedly had “followers” in his attempt to dislodge the Duke of York from the succession, what he really had were users: that he was never anything more to the Exclusionists than a means to an end.

Piling on the abuse, Behn first lets Sylvia loose upon the character of Cesario: here is Monmouth as seen by the Tories, his attraction for the Exclusionists laid bare—

“What is it bewitches you so? Is it his beauty? Then Philander has a greater title than Cesario; and not one other merit has he, since in piety, chastity, sobriety, charity and honour, he as little excels, as in gratitude, obedience and loyalty. What then, my dear Philander? Is it his weakness? Ah, there’s the argument you all propose, and think to govern so soft a king: but believe me, oh unhappy Philander! Nothing is more ungovernable than a fool; nothing more obstinate, wilful, conceited, and cunning…”

Not only does Philander not dispute this summation, he has a worse opinion of Cesario than Sylvia; and if this is how his “followers” feel, how must the rest of the country despise him?—

“They use him for a tool to work with, he being the only great man that wants sense enough to find out the cheat which they dare impose upon. Can any body of reason believe, if they had design’d him good, they would let him bare-fac’d have own’d a party so opposite to all laws of nature, religion, humanity, and common gratitude?… The world knows Cesario renders himself the worst of criminals by it, and has abandon’d an interest more glorious and easy than empire, to side with and aid people that never did, or ever can oblige him; and he is so dull as to imagine that for his sake, who never did us service or good, (unless cuckolding us be good) we should venture life and fame to pull down a true monarch, to set up his bastard over us.”

This political debate is merely an interlude, however, and soon Philander is ramping up his attempt to manoeuvre himself into Sylvia’s bed, using the fact that he has confided his secret, and therefore his life, to her as a measure of his love. At this point, Sylvia’s own desire is almost beyond restraint, except that she is haunted by the thought of her sister: “Myrtilla, my sister, and Philander’s wife? Oh God! that cruel thought will put me into ravings…”

These exclamations form part of one of the story’s most remarkable letters, in which Sylvia’s attempt to wean herself from her passion by harping on the marriage evolves into a tirade against the sister who is unable to appreciate what she has, which in turn becomes an erotic fantasy in which Sylvia dwells upon Philander’s physical perfections – only to conclude abruptly with the bitter realisation that Philander did not marry Myrtilla under compulsion, or for money or position, but for love.

Sylvia then tears up the letter…but Philander receives it anyway, delivered in pieces by Sylvia’s maid and confidante, Melinda, who brings also a warning that Syvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—

“My heart beats still, and heaves with the sensible remains of the late dangerous tempest of my mind, and nothing can absolutely calm me but the approach of the all-powerful Philander… Bring me then that kind cessation, bring me my Philander, and set me above the thoughts of cares, frights, or any other thoughts but those of tender love; haste then, thou charming object of my eternal wishes, and of my new desires; haste to my arms, my eyes, my soul,—but oh, be wondrous careful there, do not betray the easy maid that trusts thee amidst all her sacred store…”

[To be continued…]

17/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 2)

“Whereas the Lady Henrietta Berkeley has been absent from her Fathers house since the 20th of August last past, and is not yet known where she is, nor whether she is alive or dead; These are to give notice, That whoever shall find her, so that she may be brought back to her Father, the Earl of Berkeley, they shall have 200 Pounds Reward. She is a young Lady of a fair Complexion, fair Haired, full Breasted, and indifferent tall.”
— The London Gazette, September, 1682

The scandal that forms the basis of Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister was the illicit affair, and subsequent elopement, of Ford, Lord Grey of Werke, and the Lady Henrietta Berkeley, the younger sister of his wife. Although there were rumours about the affair, it became public knowledge when the above advertisement was placed, one of a series that ran across September and October of 1682.

Lord Grey was subsequently arrested and stood trial, along with various servant-accomplices, charged that they, “…did conspire the ruin and utter destruction of the lady Henrietta Berkeley, daughter of the right honourable George earl of Berkeley…and solicited her to commit whoredom and adultery with my lord Grey, who was before married to the lady Mary, another daughter of the earl of Berkeley, and sister to the lady Henrietta…” The already sensational trial took another turn when Henrietta, though as a woman and a minor not permitted to speak in court, nevertheless stood up and declared herself to be the wife of one William Turner and therefore no longer subject to her father’s authority. In spite of this, Grey was found guilty, only for the whole business then to mysteriously fade away – at least for him: the servants charged weren’t so fortunate. It is supposed that Grey bought his way out of trouble; something he had quite a talent for, as we shall see.

Although this scandal on its own merits would have been more than enough for a novelist like Aphra Behn to build on, the trial was neither the beginning nor the end of the business. For one thing, the matter fell squarely into the political division of the day: the Berkeleys were committed Tories, while Grey was not only a prominent Whig, but an open supporter of the Duke of Monmouth in his campaign to replace the Duke of York as heir to the throne.

(Oh, fun fact! – remember my mentioning that the only piece of legislation that Parliament managed to pass during the period of the Exclusion Crisis was the Habeus Corpus Act? Well, it turns out they wouldn’t have passed that, either, except that Lord Grey pulled off the 1679 equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. I’m not quite clear about how he managed it, but there were certainly shenanigans.)

Grey had first come to prominence during Monmouth’s “tour of the provinces”, the journey around England intended to build his popularity with the people. If the Earl of Shaftesbury was managing the business from London, as it was claimed, then Grey was the puppetmaster on the spot. However, after Charles prevented the passing of the Exclusion Bill by proroguing the Oxford Parliament in March, 1681, both Grey and Monmouth temporarily withdrew from the public eye, at least in the political sense.

The relationship between the two men was, and would remain, a peculiar one. For one thing, it was common gossip that Grey’s wife, Lady Mary, was Monmouth’s mistress. Opinions differed on the surrounding circumstances. Some held that Grey had pimped his wife to Monmouth in order to give himself a hold over the facile would-be king; others that he was genuinely deceived and, upon discovery, genuinely outraged. A third party suggested that there was no affair, and that Grey himself had started the rumours in order to give himself an excuse to banish his wife to the country, as he did late in 1680. Whatever the truth of the matter, what is indisputable is that the absence from the scene of Lady Mary paved the way for Grey’s pursuit and seduction of her seventeen-year-old sister, Henrietta.

While there’s little doubt that Aphra Behn was deliberately increasing the titilation quotient of her work by using the word “sister” in its title, she was within her rights to do so: under 17th-century law, the relationship between Grey and Henrietta was incestuous. The affair was carried on for a year before Lady Henrietta’s family discovered it. Her outraged parents then removed her from Berkeley House in London to Durdans, their country house near Epsom, but this attempt to keep her away from Grey failed. In another delightfully scandalising touch, one night Henrietta managed to escape from the house and elope with Grey, dressed only – or so it is said – in her nightgown.

The two returned to London and hid themselves in lodgings. If the marriage between William Turner and Henrietta was real (and there is some question about that), it must have happened around this time. Either way, it is believed that Turner was a manservant of Grey’s, who allowed himself to be used to facilitate his master’s affair. And in the wake of Henrietta’s disappearance, Lord Berkeley began advertising for his daughter in the London newspapers.

(The remark about Henrietta’s breasts disappeared from subsequent ads, by the way.)

The events that followed the trial are obscure, but when Lord Grey came into public view again, it was as a party to the Rye House Plot. After the Oxford Parliament, the Exclusionists essentially fell apart. The next two years were comparatively quiet, but political violence erupted again in the middle of 1683, when – or so it is alleged – a Whig / republican plot to assassinate both Charles and James was uncovered. The brothers were visiting Newmarket for the races and were supposed to return to London, passing Rye House, from where the attack was to be launched, on the 1st of April. However, a fire at Newmarket sent them home early, and so the plot was thwarted. As with all such plots, which don’t actually happen, it’s impossible to know the full truth. Some historians believe in the reality of the plot, while others contend that it was an invention, or at least a beat-up, by Charles and James to rid themselves of their remaining Whig opponents. Quite probably, it was “a little from Column A, a little from Column B”.

In any event, there was a round of arrests and convictions. Monmouth, who was implicated, got away to the United Provinces (we assume he was allowed to go), but William, Lord Russell, Sir Thomas Armstrong and Algernon Sidney were executed, while the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the Tower of London. Another of the condemned, our old friend Lord Grey, managed to escape from the Tower before his execution: an event involving guards who just happened to fall asleep or be looking the other way, and a boat that just happened to be on the Thames; Grey’s extremely deep pockets strike again. However it was contrived, when Grey fled to the Continent in July of 1683, he took Henrietta Berkeley with him.

It is not at all clear what happened to Henrietta after that, although at some point she seems to have crept back to her family, to live out her life in obscurity and disgrace. Curiously, when she died in 1710, it was declared that she was never married. Possibly the Turner story was a lie to help protect Grey, or possibly there was an annulment. Or possibly the Berkeleys simply preferred to pretend that the whole thing never happened.

In complete contrast to his former lover, Lord Grey returned spectacularly to the public scene during the long-anticipated and ultimately futile Monmouth Rebellion, which finally took place in June, 1685, four months after James succeeded his brother. It was an abysmal failure, an outcome that many blame upon the incompetence, or the cowardice, or even the treachery of Grey, who was put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry. Monmouth was convicted and executed as a traitor, along with many of his followers, after the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge George Jeffreys. During the autumn of 1685, some 200 people were executed for their involvement in the Rebellion, and a further 800 transported for life.

Lord Grey, however, was not among them…

[To be continued…]

13/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 1)

“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)

“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)

“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)

“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)

There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.

Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.

I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.

I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.

When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.

Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.

Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.

It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.

This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.

Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.

Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.

But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.

While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.

And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1863, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

[To be continued…]

18/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 3&4)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, Mélanie Thierry, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten, Cyrille Thouvenin, Robert Kavanah, Simon Woods, Robert East, Dorian Lough, Rob Jarvis

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Part 3 of Charles II: The Power & The Passion opens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, with the anti-Catholic rumblings that formed a background for much of the earlier drama coming to the fore: while there are some who see the fire as a judgement upon Charles and his court, far more are lending an ear to the story of the “Papist” who was seen running through Pudding Lane with a torch. As a weary Charles comments later, when people have lost everything, it’s no use trying to tell them it was just an accident. It is the end of any hope for religious tolerance, and he knows it.

In Versailles, Charles’s mother is dying. Her last words to her daughter, Henrietta Anne (Ann-Marie Duff), known as “Minette”, are of Charles: that he must be made to see how Louis XIV (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) can help him, and that he must die a Catholic. Afterwards, Minette is approached by Louis, who is also her brother-in-law. He, too, speaks of Charles, in bitter reference to the Triple Alliance, England’s pact with Sweden and Holland. Minette argues that the pact was Parliament’s doing, not Charles’s, and Louis responds by ordering her to England, with an offer of his friendship – a very generous friendship – should he convert to Catholicism.

There are only the vaguest allusions here, mostly through the mutterings of the eternally sneering Buckingham, to the rumours that Minette and Louis were lovers (some claim he was the real father of her eldest child), but it does make her husband, the Duc D’Orleans (Cyrille Thouvenin), known as “Monsieur”, not only openly homosexual but violently abusive.

Back in England, Charles has things other than religion on his mind. Well, not his mind, exactly: a young actress called Nell Gwynn (Emma Pierson) has caught his attention, which is just too bad for Barbara Villiers, whose star begins to fade as Nell’s rises, and whose latest baby is disclaimed by its putative father. Barbara’s spiralling debauchery and extravagance have Charles’s ministers and followers baying for her blood, although her final eviction does not come until Charles catches her in bed with a young John Churchill (Simon Woods). The series chooses a slightly more dignified encounter with Charles for the future Duke of Marlborough than history usually allows, which generally has him either hiding from his king in a cupboard, or jumping out of the window to avoid him. This version has him admitting he took money from an “insistent” Barbara in exchange for his services. (Come to think of it, is that more dignified?)

Meanwhile, Nell is going from strength to strength: Charles buys her a house, Sir Peter Lely paints her portrait, and as she lolls about in the company of Charles, Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester (Robert Cavanah), the latter composes his famous (and much re-written) epigram on Charles, who gives his equally famous retort.

In the face of Charles’s general intransigence, Parliament begins to tighten the financial screws on him, meaning that when Minette makes her visit, she finds her brother in a receptive mood. Charles’s ministers look on apprehensively, interpreting this “family visit”, this “visit for her health”, quite correctly. When the terms of Louis’ cash offer to Charles are made known – to recognise his sovereignty over the Netherlands, to support him against the Dutch, to declare war against the Dutch themselves, as soon as an excuse is found – the ministers, Shaftesbury in particular, are outraged, demanding to know what Parliament will think of Charles taking French money to rule alone?

Charles responds coolly that Parliament will know nothing of the situation, because no-one in the room will speak of it – and what’s more, each of his ministers will sign his name to the treaty. Slowly, with shame and reluctance, they do. It is Shaftesbury who hesitates the longest, but in the end even he does as he is told. Buckingham, meanwhile, is disturbed and angry at the realisation that Charles trusted the Earl of Danby (Shaun Dingwall) with his decision, rather than himself, and begins his drift towards opposition.

But Shaftesbury & Co. don’t know the half of it. In a private meeting, Charles and Minette discuss the other part of Louis’ offer: enough money to rule without Parliament, in exchange for Charles’s conversion to Catholicism. In one of his ugliest manoeuvres, Charles does not sign the secret treaty himself, but maintains plausible deniability by compelling his two Catholic ministers, Lord Arlington (Robert East) and Sir Thomas Clifford (Dorian Lough) to sign it instead. It is only Minette who dares voice the truth of the situation: that Charles has no intention of converting, but every intention of taking Louis’ money.

Minette’s visit to England may not have been for her health, as contended, but she is ill – for the simple reason that she is being poisoned. She dies shortly after her return to France. Although the official verdict on Minette’s sudden death was peritonitis, there has always been a strong belief that she was murdered, probably by her husband. This is how her death is presented here, with perhaps just a faint underlying  implication that, having served her purpose in getting the treaties signed, she is then disposed of.

Minette’s lady-in-waiting during her visit to England was the young and beautiful Louise de Kéroualle (Mélanie Thierry), who instantly caught Charles’s eye – although with Minette guarding her, nothing happened. Now, Louise is recruited by Louis and given the mission of returning to England, where she will share Charles’s bed (share being the operative word, I guess) and act as Louis’s spy. The carrot dangled is the prospect of Catherine’s premature death and Charles’s subsequent need for a new queen…although as it turned out, Catherine not surprisingly outlived her profligate husband by some twenty years. Louise is soon revealed as a very clumsy spy, and Charles isn’t fooled for a moment – but what the hey, he sleeps with her anyway.

And the visitors just keep coming, as Charles affectionately embraces his nephew, William of Orange (Jochum ten Haaf). William himself is less kindly intentioned, accusing Charles openly of being either bribed or tricked by Louis, and on that basis declaring war on the Dutch. Assuming that William has come to make terms, Charles turns the other cheek to this, but he is soon disabused. Declaring that Holland has not surrendered and will not surrender, William adds that if England wants to offer terms, he will listen; that England cannot afford to fight indefinitely; that, after all, it is only a matter of time before Parliament cuts Charles’s supply. “When you are ready to talk sensibly, you will not find me unreasonable,” he says calmly. As William bows himself out, Charles gives a half-smile, obviously impressed with his nephew’s cojones – and, perhaps, his grasp of English politics.

The Duchess of York dies, and almost before her body is cold, James announces to Charles his intention of marrying Mary of Modena. Charles begins with dissuasion and progresses to forbidding the match – and is ignored. Here, for the first time, is mooted the possibility of James’s exclusion from the line of succession. A meeting of Charles and James with the ministry rapidly turns violent, with accusations of loyalty to the Pope on one hand provoking an explosion against the bastard usurper, Elizabeth from James. “The sooner the country should be brought back to the path of righteousness, the better for us all!”

And that, of course, is that. As Charles closes his eyes in silent pain and Buckingham drops his head into his hands, the battle-lines are drawn. The Protestant ministers insist upon the Test Act being enforced, the first consequence of which is the resignation of Arlington. Soon afterwards, Buckingham makes his way to a certain coffee-house, where he meets with Shaftesbury. Buckingham begins by protesting that he is Charles’s friend and loyal subject, but soon learns that it is he who has been betrayed, when Shaftesbury reveals what he has discovered about the second secret treaty: “One which bound King Charles to take the Catholic faith, in exchange for French gold and a Papist army to suppress his own people.” As Buckingham chews this over, Shaftesbury proposes two possible courses of action: Charles can divorce Catherine and re-marry; or if not, well, he already has a Protestant son…

So we stand at the conclusion of Part 3 of this series, which is, as we have seen, crammed with incident and quite compelling. Part 4, however, is—well, actually, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with Part 4. This series came to me as a two-disc set, with the first three episodes on Disc 1. When I put in Disc 2, I expected there to be another three episodes. There was one.

It’s only a personal irony, of course, but given that it was the events of the following years, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, that led me to watch this series in the first place, I couldn’t help feeling rather let down that it was exactly those events, of all things, that it chose to skimp on. Even the bloodbath brought on by the Popish Plot is skimped! And yes, I suppose the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis did consist predominantly of a great deal of arguing in the House of Commons, and of pamphlets in the bookstores, rather than anything “dramatic” – but really, this whole episode feels rushed and unsatisfying, particularly in the way in which it concludes.

The other striking thing about this episode is that, having kept a fair balance to this point, from here it increasingly asks the viewer to sympathise with Charles. It emphasises his growing isolation, both emotionally and politically (irony of ironies, he really only has Catherine to rely on – in both capacities), and the ultimate futility of his determination to hold on to the crown and the succession. On the back of his various mistakes, stupidities and duplicities, the sudden emergence towards the end of an all-wise and all-seeing Charles (even though it is only for the sake of dramatic convenience) is particularly discomforting. So too is the tone of the final parliamentary scene, when Charles confronts his enemies in full monarchical regalia: Ooh, look, isn’t he handsome in his robes and crown? He must be right after all!

We open in the earliest days of the Popish Plot, with Christopher Kirkby (Rob Jarvis) bringing the “found” written proof of the conspiracy to Lord Danby, and accusing the Jesuits in general, and Sir George Wakeman, Catherine’s physician, in particular, of plotting to assassinate Charles. He tells Danby that he got the papers from one Israel Tonge, who in turn received them from a man called Titus Oates (Eddie Marsan). These two are summoned to Whitehall, where Oates insists that the Pope and Louis XIV are behind the conspiracy, and that Catherine and James are both privy to it. This is enough to bring Charles, who has been listening secretly to the interrogation, into the room, where he demands the names of the Catholic conspirators. After only a slight hesitation, Oates names all of England’s most prominent Catholic noblemen, along with Sir George Wakeman and Edward Coleman, Mary of Modena’s secretary.

Having listened to all this with an unconcealed scepticism amounting almost to amusement, Charles fastens upon Oates’ insistence that he originally became aware of the plot by overhearing details of it within the queen’s household during one of his visits to the palace on business. Reasoning that Oates must, therefore, know his way around Whitehall very well, Charles asks him to lead the way to the spot where he overheard the plot – a test that ends with an embarrassing encounter with the Royal Water Closet. For Charles, this says it all.

Now, oddly enough, we get the one point in this episode in which it is profoundly unjust to Charles, and where I am prepared to defend him. We can criticise him for many, many things, but he certainly did not just turn his back upon events at this juncture and leave Parliament to “deal with it”, and expect it to be done – while he, mind you, went off to the races! On the contrary, Charles tried repeatedly to expose the plot as false and prevent the rush of events, but was out-manoeuvred and finally backed into a corner by a Parliament that had no intention of letting such an opportunity slip, no matter how much innocent blood might be spilled as a result. Here, we get a crude shorthand of these events when Buckingham beats the real story out of Oates – that the plot was his revenge upon the Catholics for his expulsion from a Jesuit seminary under accusations of attempted sodomy – and then warns him to keep his mouth shut, or else. Before long, “the truth” is all over England.

Strangely, the extent of the Catholic massacre is very much played down here, with only the executions of Edward Coleman and, eventually, that of  Viscount Stafford, one of the Catholic nobles, foregrounded. These events prompt Charles to send a seething and mistrustful James into exile, so that “the people’s grievance” may be kept out of their sight for a while. Meanwhile, Shaftesbury’s health is failing, and with his time running out, he ups the ante and begins taking dangerous action against Charles.

First, he and Buckingham lure Monmouth into their own plots with the prospect of the crown. (These scenes make it very clear that Monmouth’s attraction for Parliament lie as much in his vanity and weakness, which make him easy to manipulate, as in his Protestantism.) Shaftesbury then reveals to Parliament copies of letters written by Lord Danby, which make reference to the secret treaty with France, and introduces the Exclusion Bill. All this leads to another scene of Charles averting his eyes from his most loyal supporter, in this case Danby, and then throwing him to the wolves…

…but he does save Danby’s life, when Shaftesbury and Buckingham are clamouring for his execution; although it is evident that Danby’s head is their bargaining chip, which they intend to exchange for James’s exclusion from the succession. Thwarted in this, the pair arrange instead for the conviction and condemning of Lord Stafford – an act that requires Charles either to acquiesce to the judicial murder of a loyal and innocent man, or to spare him and damn himself with the English people. Charles is fully aware that if he pardons Stafford, he will give Parliament exactly the weapon it wants. He tries to make Stafford “confess”, arguing that he can then save his life, but Stafford won’t buy his life with a false oath. Still Charles hesitates. It is Catherine who convinces him that he must proceed, or he will lose everything he has fought for – and proceed he does…

In the middle of all this, the series pauses to give us Nell Gwynn’s moment of transcendant glory when, having been taken for that of “that Papist whore”, meaning Louise de Kéroualle, her coach is violently attacked by the London mob: “Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore!”

Meanwhile, Monmouth has been on a “publicity tour”, travelling the country and gaining the affection and support of the people – which doesn’t exactly endear him to his father. It is here that the series begins to give us a Charles who is mysteriously prescient about future events, in this case telling Monmouth that he will never be king, and that if he kicks against this fate, he will die a traitor’s death. He then sends Monmouth, too, into exile, telling him on no account to return until summoned. But come back he does, on Shaftesbury’s command…

And here we jump abruptly to the dissolution of Parliament at Oxford, Charles’s supreme moment of individual defiance, and the final defeat of the Exclusionists. In the wake of this, a bewildered Monmouth is sent into permanent exile, a cynical Buckingham simply shrugs and withdraws from politics, while for Shaftesbury, his own mortality staring him in the face, it is the end of everything.

And then we jump again to the series’ uncomfortably awkward final scenes, which has all of the remaining characters (those not in exile) passing their time together, while the suddenly all-knowing Charles predicts each and every one of the various events that will transpire over the next four or five years. Frankly, I find the potted-history approach used here rather irritating. We could have had the Rye House Plot instead of this. Anyway, the series proper concludes when Charles suffers a stroke, but staggers out to his father’s portrait and appeals desperately for his approval before collapsing. In the wake of Charles’s death, we get still more potted history, with each character reciting his or her own fate, which in the case of William of Orange means ascending to the English throne – but it is Charles in voiceover who gets the final word. These closing moments carry far more of a sense of what England lost with the passing of Charles, than of what it gained.