Posts tagged ‘didactic’

10/08/2017

Had You Been In His Place


 
    The voices of the men waxed louder. More bottles were uncorked—other tables were brought forth, cards were produced, and games went on. The small, hump-backed man behind the counter grew jubilant. His fingers pressed over the gold pieces in his palm, his black eyes sparkled and danced as he saw the piles on the different tables. Soon it would all be his. It was safe to count upon it. Rubbing his hands, he smiled up to the cut decanters standing in rows on the polished shelves. “You are handsome. You do your work well. It is impossible for these men to resist you.”
    It seemed to Fairfax that he heard the words. He ventured a look from under his hat. He saw the sparkle of the fiery fluid. There was a fascination that held him spellbound. Gradually the bottles enlarged, flames wrapped them in. Demons leaped from shelf to shelf, and from cork to cork. With airy sprightliness they filled tiny goblets with choice liquor. With charming grace
one of these approached him. He looked at the sparkling creature, bewitchingly beautiful. A gossamer veil enveloped her, but did not obscure her inimitable loveliness. Reaching forth her snowy hand, she held the jewelled cup. The fluid glowed and sparkled. and sparkled. “Drink !” said the beauty, in her most honeyed tones, “Drink, and grow strong. What is life without strength and enjoyment?”

 
 

“Temperance”, as a social issue, existed in the United States of America even before (as it has been put) there was a United States of America; but in the early 19th century something shifted. Though the concept of temperance was, in practice, chiefly economic – chiefly about control of the working-classes – there had always been a moral aspect too; and during the 19th century temperance became not merely a moral, but a specifically female-moral cause.

As the Temperance Movement gained strength, it manifested itself in all sorts of new ways, including temperance fiction. As with the movement itself, this was something that began with men but was progressively taken over by women; and while over time an explicitly feminist aspect emerged, with tales of men too weak to control themselves and the strong and saintly women who fought to redeem them becoming a popular sub-genre, stories set within a traditional religious framework remained the most common face of this branch of literature.

Though it suffered an understandable hiccup across the Civil War, the Temperance Movement regrouped in the later decades of the 19th century, and temperance fiction began to appear again. Short stories were the most popular form – they didn’t wear out their welcome in quite the same way – but some writers in this area managed to bang the drum for the length of an entire novel.

One of those who did so was Lizzie Bates (aka Lizzie-Bates-B ), who in addition to her work in the magazines published the novel, Had You Been In His Place, in 1873. This is in many ways a text-book example of temperance fiction, by which I mean that it is preachy, exasperating, dull and gigglesome in turns—although I do not for a moment suggest that Miss Bates was anything other than perfectly sincere in writing it.

As a novel, Had You Been In His Place is distinctly second-rate, full of repetitions and ridiculous coincidences as it moves towards its inevitable conclusion (which encompasses a cop-out likewise obvious from the beginning). It also suffers from its author’s refusal to admit the existence of any vice but drinking, so that every time we come across a scene of misery or a family in crisis, drink is invariably to blame; although whether we can consider that a shortcoming in the context of a piece of temperance fiction is debatable, I guess. It does, however, add yet another dollop of repetition and absurdity to the mix.

Our protagonist is Bertol Fairfax, a young man whose father died of his addiction to drink, leaving a widow and two children. Fairfax has always sworn to his mother and sister that the “demon” which consumed his father would never touch him, but we all know about good intentions… Fairfax’s ambition to excel at college has led him to take on an excessive workload, which in turn has placed him in the position of requiring “stimulants” to meet his own goals. Fairfax is unaware – or deliberately blind to – how far he is in the grip of the same addiction that destroyed his father until his lifelong friend, Terence Redford, confronts him about his weakness and, in particular, his broken promises to his family. The ensuing quarrel leads to a serious breach between the two.

Fairfax is still nursing his grievance when, on the verge of departure from his college, he is summoned to the office of its President. A guilty conscience makes him assume that Redford has ratted him out—and he lashes back, telling his other friends that Redford has done this out of jealousy because he, Fairfax, has taken the college prize they were both competing for.

One serious but kindly-intentioned lecture later, however, and Fairfax can no longer evade the truth about his own behaviour. He leaves the home of President Raffles sorrowful and chastened and full of new resolutions and—

really needing a drink.

And indeed, Fairfax’s latest promises last just as long as it takes him to walk past the nearest saloon, where some of his college friends are celebrating their emancipation. Redford’s supposed derelictions are the topic of conversation, and Fairfax broods upon them resentfully as he drinks…

Redford was not there. But, as Fairfax once more found himself in the street, he encountered his boyhood’s friend, waiting, it would seem, with no other purpose than to see him safely home. Stung by the memory of what had been, the calm, gentle face of Redford roused his passion into fury. Words followed. Blind with anger, frenzied with wine, Fairfax drew a revolver and fired. A groan, a stifled cry, and Redford fell!

Now with blood upon his hands, Fairfax flees, heading for the docks and the first ship out of the country. He finds one, but it is not to depart until the dawn—so, of course, he “wanders into a saloon”. He is desperately tempted (as described in the passage quoted above), but at the last moment he is saved by his guardian angel—or a reasonable facsimile thereof:

The vision of the child passed before Fairfax’s eyes. A small, half-clad figure, with a sweet, oval face, eyes of the deepest blue, and hair that rippled away from the torn gypsy hat in waves of soft, flossy brightness. A lovely face, but unmistakably sad; nothing of the child-face, but rather, the face of an angel fettered and hedged around with the sins of another, for whom she was to do penance all her life…

The girl, Lura, has come out into the night searching for her father; her mother is too sick to do it herself. The barman cannot help her there, but he offers the only form of assistance within his power—which brings Fairfax out of the state of stunned insensibility which has gripped him since his violent encounter with the man who was his best friend:

    “Hold, man!” exclaimed Fairfax, springing to his feet. “Not a drop for that child!” and the speaker clasped the brown hand and looked into the blue eyes. There was trust and confidence in the face, and instinctively Lura nestled to Fairfax’s side.
    “What is that child to you? Her father is here frequently, will be here again, a poor drunken devil that always manages to have enough for a drink; though I suspect his wife and child suffer for the want of it. Let her drink—it will do her good. And you too; let me fill a glass.”
    “Not a drop for either of us!”

So this time Fairfax resists temptation. He then walks the child to the squalid rooms where she lives with her parents, through ever-more horrifying scenes of poverty and filth:

    “Mamma used to be pretty, papa was good, and we had nice times; but now” – and here she hesitated a moment – ” it makes mamma sick. And last night she woke me up and whispered that she might die.”
    “Die!” gasped Fairfax. “And if she dies, what will become of you?”
    “Mamma said, if I could find papa in time he would be sorry, and if he was really sorry he would not drink any more. And when she was dead he would take me home. And God would care for us by the way.”
    “Drink—drink! your father drinks, child!”
    “He didn’t always, mamma says, that is, he didn’t take too much. You don’t take too much, do you, sir?”
    The small oval face was full of enthusiasm; the blue eyes misty…

Fairfax makes it soberly through the night and onto the Petrel, bound for Europe, where his physical and emotional suffering attracts the kind attention of a Professor Edelstein and his daughter, Amelia. There is also a clergyman on board, and Fairfax listens avidly to their many solemn conversations about God.

Here the religious aspect of Had You Been In His Place kicks in in earnest, with Bates arguing, reasonably enough, that Fairfax needs something stronger than himself to lean on. Fairfax, however, though he was given the proper religious upbringing by his mother, has since fallen away to become one of the social, lip-service, church-on-Sunday-then-forget-it kind, and now feels he has done that which cannot be forgiven. Over the course of the narrative, Fairfax is brought into contact with various manifestations of religious faith – one or two of which will distract Bates from her main plot, as we shall see – and experience an ongoing struggle between hope and despair.

Again, there is no question of Bates’ sincerity in all this; while Fairfax’s struggles are also believable; but having essentially the same set of arguments presented over and over, in almost the same words, becomes a significant test of the reader’s patience. (This is one of the main reasons that this is an unusually lengthy example of this kind of literature.) Also, though we understand that Fairfax may well feel that he has sinned beyond redemption, no-one of his upbringing should react to assurances of God’s forgiveness as though it were a new concept.

As the Petrel draws near its destination, it is caught in a violent and terrifying storm. At this point welcoming death, Fairfax meets the crisis calmly, and devotes himself to helping others into the life-boats. He is one of those still on board when the ship is engulfed…

…and is more than a little disappointed when he opens his eyes in the home of the Hatzfeld family, being nursed back to health by the two lovely daughters, Eudora and Ulrica.

Here Bates goes off on one of her tangents. This is too domestic a novel for a “Wicked Jesuit” to be found amongst its characters, but there is a lurking priest, who keeps a hopeful eye upon Fairfax and his obvious load of guilt. Fairfax is briefly tempted by Catholicism – at least, by the opportunity to confess – but finally pulls away. The main plot here, however, concerns the girls: Ulrica is a good Catholic, but Eudora has begun to think for herself—which, as always in Evangelical literature, means converting to Protestantism. In this Eudora is following the lead of her brother, Karl, and like him she has read the Bible… It was Evangelical dogma, often found in books of this sort, that no-one could read the Bible and stay a Catholic. Ulrica, meanwhile, is content to remain ignorant and to accept whatever Father Auberthal tells her.

Karl is away from home—not just away, but in America, which partly explains the girls’ excessive kindness to their American patient. Karl has gone to search for the family’s other brother, Paul, who left for America with his wife and young daughter looking for new opportunities, but who has fallen under the destructive influence of the demon drink.

Hmm…

While he is convalescent, Fairfax manages to avoid temptation, but as soon as he is on his feet, he is again placed in danger—mostly (in one of the book’s more credible touches) from social drinkers who won’t allow others to abstain. An afternoon out with Father Auberthal, for example, leads to an invitation to lunch and ends with Fairfax sleeping off a brandy bender. And later, when he finally leaves the Hatzfield house to make his own way in the world, Fairfax comes to the rescue of a Madam Von Sieberg and her niece, Frederica, whose carriage has broken down. It is Madam who suggests they crack a bottle…

It is also Madam who reveals a key detail of Fairfax’s future employment to him, Professor Edelstein having arranged for him the position of tutor in the household of the Countess Von Amburg. As they enter Detmold, Madam points out the Countess in a passing carriage, and she and Frederica comment on the lady’s unfortunate domestic issue:

    “I heard that her sons had promised to give her no farther uneasiness, provided she would dismiss Carncross, and employ a tutor, and that she had actually written to that famous professor, Edelstein, with regard to it,” observed Frederica.
    “In that case she will be sure of a worthy man; but I shall pity him. I do not think they care a straw for books.”
    “Indeed, auntie, if Countess Von Amburg would not allow of quite so much freedom at table. They spend so much time over their wine, that they cannot study.”
    “And if they are deprived of it they are full of wrath. Poor countess! I trust her new tutor will be a comfort to her,” returned Madam Von Sieberg.
    A deathly sensation passed over Fairfax. He felt like fainting, and only by the force of will did he keep from crying out, “Countess Von
Amburg’s terribly wild sons—too much time over their wine!” Had he heard rightly?

Escaping from his companions, Fairfax retreats to an inn, chiefly to debate with himself whether – from any perspective – he should fulfill his commitment to the Countess Von Amburg. Unfortunately, he immediately runs into a few choice spirits, whose idea of a good time is a bottle in the moonlight…

Finally Fairfax concludes that his only hope is to flee civilisation altogether, and shunning both the Countess Von Amburg (who can look after her alcoholic sons her own damn self) and his engagement with Madam Von Sieberg and Frederica (and their travelling wine collection), he heads into the mountains. Once there, however, he is confronted with a different temptation:

Overcome with fatigue, the fugitive crouched down on a shelf of rock and covered his eyes. A terrible temptation was in his heart. Why not throw himself down? Why offer further resistance? He had tried, tried faithfully; it was his nature, he could not help it, he was not responsible; he had received this nature, the love for strong drink was inherent. Would God crush him for doing the very thing that was in his nature to do?

(Fairfax spends a lot of time having these I-can’t-help-it arguments with himself, but Miss Bates isn’t having any of it; and indeed, amusingly enough, her rebuttal is almost exactly that of a certain Miss Rose Sayer: “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”)

A storm of such violence and cold then builds that Fairfax nearly gets his suicide whether he really wants it or not. However, he is discovered by a passing peasant, and carried to a small community nestled upon the high slopes of the mountain.

The pastoral interlude that follows occupies nearly half of Had You Been In His Place, and contains some of the novel’s strongest passages, as Fairfax falls under the influence of both the mountain scenery, and the straightforward (though by no means simple) people who make up the little farming community. Bates’ real feeling for nature, and even more, for its therapeutic qualities, is very evident. Yet again, she can’t help writing everything into the ground, with Fairfax going through the same struggles, and the same religious counter-arguments, presented again and again. After the first half-dozen times or so, your eyes do start to glaze over…

Worse still, we are soon in the presence of one of 19th century literature’s most repellent constructs, The Saintly Child Who Exists Only To Die Beautifully. Fairfax is persuaded to take on the teaching of the one small local school (after which he is referred to in-text as “the master”), a job he is surprised to find he is quite good at. He is drawn particularly to one child, an orphan boy called Direchlet. His father was a painter, and the boy too shows “genius”; the local minister has plans to send him away, to be properly trained. But Direchlet hesitates:

    “The pastor has a friend in Dresden, an artist of very great celebrity. When I am a few years older I am to go to him.”
    “For this reason you must keep well and strong—even now your hands are feverish.”
    “I know, I know,” said the child; “much as I would like to go to Dresden, sometimes I am afraid.”
    “Afraid of what?”
    “Afraid of temptation,” answered the child.
    “What put such an idea into your head?”
    “My father was a great painter. He could do wonders with his brush; but he loved strong drink, and he yielded to it.”

Surprise!

But of course, none of this ever comes to pass: Direchlet’s real destiny is evident to the reader almost from his first appearance on the scene.

Before that, however, Fairfax is in for a different kind of shock, while examining specimens of Direchlet’s art. One subject he seems to recognise:

    …the pastor entered, and with a charming grace began to talk of the pictures, giving bits of history, and showing a just appreciation of artist work and artist life. “And this,” he continued, looking into the haunting eyes, “is the exact likeness of Terence. He was a beautiful boy. His mother was my youngest sister, a gleeful, happy girl—and now she is a widow in a land remote from her old home.”
    “Terence, did you say?” stammered the master.
    “Terence Redford. Poor lad, we had high hopes of him,” and the pastor paused abruptly.
    Drops of perspiration stood on the master’s forehead…

After this, Fairfax has another terrible struggle with himself. Should he confess? Is this his punishment, to be welcomed and cared for by the people he has wronged? Could they possibly forgive him if they knew the truth? Could God? Luckily, Saintly Direchlet is there to set him right:

“I remember, a long time ago, I disobeyed the pastor. I saw the tears in his eyes, but I could not be sorry. I did not consider that I had behaved so very bad. At night he did not kiss me, and when we kneeled his arm was no longer around me. I could not sleep. Suddenly I awoke to feel the wrong was mine—that I had by my own obstinacy shut the door of his heart. Black, ugly forms hovered about me. I left my bed, and crept to the study door. The fire was smouldering on the hearth, and the pastor sat before it; his head drooped, and I knew that he was sad. I did not wait to knock. I put my arms around his neck, and my lips clung to his. He lifted me to his knees, he nestled my head on his bosom, he forgave me; and never did it seem that he loved me half as well. God deals with us after this manner when we do wrong. And when we cling to him and tell him we are sorry, he loves us all the better.”

Direchlet follows this up by meeting his Manifest Destiny:

With the world fading from his sight, the child grew in wisdom beyond his years; he lived and breathed and thought in a purer atmosphere. Instead of the pupil, he became the teacher. His words carried point by their very simplicity. His was no complex creed—to take God at his word, to lean upon, to love him. To do this required neither age nor experience. Never before had the way appeared so plain, the truth so direct and beautiful…

The faith of the villagers allows them to accept Direchlet’s death quietly, though they grieve. Fairfax’s struggle is harder; different. Between them, Pastor Nielander and the Saintly Direchlet have got the job done, and now Fairfax faces a new challenge: confessing not to God, but to man. He goes off to the rocky ledge where he was found and rescued, to commune with himself:

    How long ago it seemed! How heavy the burden he had carried! Now his heart was lightened. Was it right? There was crime—repented of, true, but that did not change the act. It was there—written down against him. Had God forgiven, blotted it out? But the life he had taken, he could not restore. Once more the image of that widowed mother came up before him. She leaned upon her boy; down the declivity of life she thought to find support in his love. What right had he to peace, when she was desolate?
    With all of this, there was nothing of the old, hard feeling. God knew it all. He must leave it there. God saw the deep dark stain, and still He had spoken words of comfort. The way to the university was not clear, however. He would return to the place where the deed was perpetrated, and offer his own life for the one he had taken…

His decision taken, Fairfax goes to tell the pastor, and finds him in a mood of great cheer:

    “Sit down. I have news that will delight thee. My cup is full, running over.” The master drew his chair still nearer. “Doubtless you remember the picture of which Dirichlet was so fond, the beautiful-faced boy. He is coming, and his mother. The intelligence quite overpowers me.”
    “Terence Redford and his mother!” gasped the master.
    “The same. I remember I told you the mother was my sister. But what is the matter. You are ill—faint…”

Like I said— COP-OUT.

Anyway—

    A groan escaped the master. He started up, his white face looking still ghastlier in the lamplight.
    “You say that Terence was wounded in a quarrel with his friend. Did your sister name the person? Could you forgive, if you knew—?”
    The excitement was too much. Again the poor youth fell back upon the pillows.
    “Do not distress yourself,” said the pastor, pressing the thin hand in his own. “I have known for months that you and Terence were once friends.”
    “Known it, and cared for me still?”
    “Does God desert his creatures, although they sin against him with a high hand? Nay, he calls them tenderly to repent, and put away the wrong.”
    “Had it not been for the love of strong drink. To what did it not lead me!”

(None of which explains why the pastor didn’t tell him that Redford wasn’t dead…or what that “We had great hopes of him” crap was about.)

With the burden of sin, or at least the worst of it, off his shoulders, Fairfax is able to pick up the threads of his former life. Sure of himself now, he makes plans to leave the village and attend the nearest university, to resume and extend his studies. However, before he can do so—

—the Franco-Prussian War breaks out.

Well. I can’t actually say I saw that coming.

Its strong pro-German tone is one of the oddities of Had You Been In His Place, and I don’t know enough to judge whether in this it was picking up a prevailing American attitude, or if this was more personal on the part of Miss Bates.

(Madam Von Sieberg’s insistent bottle-cracking followed on from angry references to “unavenged insults”, and involved toasts to “the Fatherland”, and the reverse to anyone called “Napoleon”.)

Even the remote mountain village is not immune from the demands of King and Country, and recruiters turn up soon enough. As a farming community, the village is not required to give up all of its men – not yet – and those to do are chosen by the drawing of lots. Fairfax’s host, Fritz, is one of those who must go, to the despair of his heavily pregnant wife, Madchen. But she fainted too soon—

    An earnest conversation was going on between the master and the lieutenant. Turning his face to the people, the master said, “The king demands men. Fritz is on the list, true; but, if he finds a substitute, it will be the same. You all know how I have been treated by this family, and now I must be allowed to go down to battle in Fritz’s place.”
    “Himmels Ruh!” exclaimed Leutzen. “Just what we might have expected of thee, and, if thou art to go in Fritz’s place, thou art to be our captain, as Fritz was to be.”
    “Captain Bertol!” chimed in Wilhelm, and the cheers rung out merrily.
    “Captain Bertol Fairfax,” answered the substitute, taking his place at the head of the line…

And so the slaughter begins. Many of the villagers are doomed to fall, and Fritz is conscripted anyway in due course, but Fairfax not only survives, but truly finds himself, earning rapid promotion up the ranks and an Iron Cross. Late in the conflict he is almost fatally wounded, and he is still in hospital when word comes of the conflict’s end.

The suffering of the recovering men is lightened a little by the efforts of a lovely young girl, who reads and sometimes sings to them:

    While he slept an angel floated into the room; the atmosphere was full of melody. On the wings of song he was borne into a region pure and bright; flowers were sweetly blooming; with clear running streams, and fountains sparkling in the sunlight. Birds warbled in every thicket, and remembered forms and faces looked smilingly upon him.
    It was not sadness, and still the tears came. At length the music ceased, the chain of thought was broken.
    “You do not like my singing, you weep,” said a sweet voice. At the same time a tender hand wiped away the silent tears.
    The invalid opened his eyes. A small, graceful girl, half-child, half-woman, sat beside the bed. Her blue violet eyes were full of a tender pity. The rounded outline of her cheek was touched with rose…

Something stirs in Fairfax’s memory, and a flurry of dot-joining follows:

    He was weary, and he leaned against the pillows and looked at the young face, as if he looked upon it for the first time in years. Suddenly he sprang forward and clasped his hands. “I have it!”
    The young girl closed her book, and gazed into the thin, pale face.
    “You had a father in America, and his name was Paul.”
    “Quite true,” answered Lettchen.
    “And you are not Lettchen—you are Lura!”
    “Tell me,” cried Lettchen, while a low, passionate sob escaped her, “how came you to know this?”
    It was some time before the invalid could go on, and several days elapsed before he could speak of their meeting. And then he had no need for Lura to tell him that her parents were no longer living.
    “Uncle Karl found us after mother died. And had father lived, he would have been a reformed man…”

So, yes—the first people Fairfax met in Germany were the relatives of the young girl he encountered just before leaving America; just as his wandering path through the mountains carried him to the uncle of the man he shot…

And we’re not done yet: the “uncle Karl” of Lettchen / Lura (whose shifting name is never adequately explained) turns out to be Fairfax’s ranking officer, General Eidermann, who just happens to have a young American adjutant…

    It was over—the two who had parted in strife and apparent death, stood face to face.
    “We were both to blame,” said Redford, as he held Fairfax in a close embrace. “I should have known your mood.”
    “And I— But you forgive me!” was all that Fairfax could say.
    “From this moment, let us forget all but our boyhood’s love. Let us henceforth be to each other all that we were in the old college days,” returned Redford…

 

 

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22/12/2013

Right And Wrong, Exhibited In The History Of Rosa And Agnes

budden1aWhat a pity that a girl who could think so well, should behave so ill! that one who knew so exactly how to do right, should almost always chuse to do wrong! When both lay before her, it was equally in her power to determine on either, right or wrong: with this advantage, that with the right, happiness always attended.

Little is known of the life of Maria Elizabeth Budden, but in the early years of the 19th century she gained a reputation as a writer for children, both via her didactic fiction, of which 1818’s Right And Wrong is a prime example, and her True Stories, a series of history books intended for the young. Her books hammer home precepts of obedience, industry, humility and striving for self-improvement, invariably insisting that these only are the way to virtue and therefore to happiness.

One would think that Mrs Budden more or less defined the expression “unexceptional”, but evidently in doing so one reckons without the literary critics of the time. We have seen before the seemingly ridiculous lengths to which female novelists went in an effort to turn away the wrath of the critics, deprecating their own efforts, insisting that writing was merely a way of filling their few – their very few – moments of leisure, and disclaiming in tones of horror any thought that they were seeking fame. Given its relentless determination to inculcate lessons, and the aphorisms which head every chapter in this thankfully slender volume – Chapter 1: Idleness and Industry—We can chuse either of these, but we must expect Vexation to attend Idleness, and Pleasure to follow Industry – it seems incredible to contemplate that anyone could nevertheless take exception to Mrs Budden’s literary endeavours; yet her preface clearly finds her expecting to be attacked for neglecting her motherly and household duties in order to write. One wonders what reception met her three earlier novels, that she felt compelled to head off criticism of her fourth with this?—

…the Author, who, superintending the claims of a numerous family, found little leisure for excursive employments. The earliest hours of morning, stolen from her pillow, and the seasons of relaxation when her children played around her and she directed their sports, or settled their differences whilst placed at her writing desk. These were the only moments she allowed herself to devote to her pen. That under such circumstances she wrote at all may be ground for censure, perhaps for sarcasm; but let the importance of her motives extenuate her from the charge of presumption.

Of course, to look at it the other way around, it was only the fact of Mrs Budden writing that could possibly be attacked; even the most determinedly hostile critic would struggle to find anything to condemn in the text of Right And Wrong, which devotes every page, every passage, every word to life-lessons for the young. Her argument, encapsulated in the quote up above, is that children are very well able to understand what is required of them and to behave accordingly; that virtue, although not always easy, is indeed its own reward; and that the neglect of duty must invariably lead to disaster:

Rosa and Agnes were twin sisters… Although receiving the same management from their excellent parents, and living constantly together, yet these two little girls grew up to be very different women. How could this happen? I will tell you. They managed themselves very differently: one scorned the advice of her friends, gave way to her passions, would not attend to her lessons, and fancied she should grow wise and good without trying to be either. The other always minded what was said to her, when she found herself beginning to behave ill, would stop, and behave better, patiently learnt her lessons, and by always trying, became in time a clever, amiable woman… It is only by constant endeavours, by patience, and by perseverance that knowledge and virtue are acquired. Is it not wonderful that every body does not try to improve themselves in learning and goodness, since, by being well informed and good, are the only chances of being happy?

At the outset of Right And Wrong, and in spite of that quotation, I had some hopes that “right” and “wrong” might be dispensed with an even hand between the sisters. The early phases favour Agnes, in a series of passages dealing with the small garden plots the girls have been given to tend on their own. Agnes works assiduously at hers, accepting her father’s maxim that, “Nothing is gained without industry”, and is rewarded with a fine crop of flowers; Rosa neglects hers, reaps weeds instead of flowers, and is mortified when a friend of her parents’ is brought out to see what the girls have done with their ground.

However, we are then given an interlude in which Agnes is guilty of idleness—or rather, in which she is distracted from her lessons in a manner after my own heart:

Agnes, unluckily, did not so well keep the resolution she had made. The butterfly indeed was gone, but a few flies were fluttering on the windowpanes. Agnes thought she would just look at them, and then return to her seat. It is better never to begin doing wrong. Agnes, from watching the flies, discovered a large spider, weaving its ensnaring web. Instead of copying the busy spider, she followed the silly example of the idle flies. The consequence was such as might have been expected…

No, alas, that does not mean that Agnes ends up a shrivelled, bloodless husk; rather, that she does not complete her lessons in time, and is therefore deprived of a promised treat, being left behind to finish her work while her mother and sister go out to pay a call on a neighbourhood friend. This brings on a fit of passionate crying, which earns her no sympathy at all from her father, but rather a scolding for foolishness. This brings Agnes up short; she knuckles down, finishes all her outstanding sewing, completes the neglected lesson, and can face her returning mother with a clear conscience. Likewise the spider:

“Ah!’ thought she, “I can now look at you, Mrs Spider, with an easy conscience, your industry does not reproach me for my idleness. I have done all I ought to have done, and my heart no longer keeps twitching me, as it did just now. I find we must finish business before we expect pleasure, or pleasure will only half please.”

And alas again, Agnes takes her lessons learned wholly on board: this is the only transgression of any sort committed by her over the course of Right And Wrong, although there are numerous instances of her finding herself on the brink of “doing wrong” and pulling up in time—usually by recalling some piece of wisdom imparted by her father.

Rosa, on the other hand, spends the entire novel lurching from indiscretion to indiscretion, falling into trouble on account of her laziness / temper / impatience / greediness / selfishness / vanity / envy. She goes through phases of trying harder and even of examining her own faults, occasional rising to what we might call Agnes-like heights, as when she sets out to improve her French:

Her own three extra mistakes all arose from one error: the neglect of a rule, which she now remembered the French-master had particularly explained. She smiled at having so easily discovered the cause of her deficiency. “All my own inattention,” thought she. The next consideration was, how the evil could be remedied: nothing could be more simple, by paying a more earnest attention in future. A pleasing sensation filled her breast on this conviction…

This resolution is rewarded when the French teacher commends Rosa’s “quickness of apprehension”:

Rosa was delighted with this praise, and turned with an air of triumph towards her sister and her friend. They smiled upon her with perfect kindness, unmixed with envy. Rosa half coveted them the well-regulated benevolence with which they heard another’s praise. “It would not have been so with me,” thought she; and why? “because I should have indulged my anger instead of my sympathy. I should have made that a torment which they consider a pleasure.”

But these moments of clarity are few and far between. Rosa’s tragedy, according to Mrs Budden, is that she does wrong in full knowledge of what is right. Rosa herself is inclined to put her shortcomings down to an ingrained character fault: she is just “like that”—“I cannot help it!” is her eternal cry. Mrs Budden’s inexorable reply, which comes courtesy of the girls’ mother, is that everyone can indeed “help it”, if they exert themselves and acquire good habits; and that to neglect these fundamental duties will invariably lead to grief, if not tragedy. Again and again she tries to impart these critical lessons to the resistant Rosa, whose dreams (possibly fuelled by – gasp! – novels, although she denies it when questioned) anticipate a life of great events, and leave her with little patience for day-to-day reality:

    “Those that are storing up their virtues for great occasions alone, and allow the petty incidents of life to pass unnoticed and unenjoyed, may be very fit to be heroes and heroines of romance, but are by no means calculated to make worthy and useful characters in human life.”
    “I have often thought, mamma, I should like to be a heroine; they are so superior, so faultless.”
    “You make me smile, Rosa. Would the bare title of heroine necessarily make you superior and faultless?”
    Rosa laughed at her mother’s questions. “I fear not, mamma.”
    “What would be necessary to make you a heroine then?”
    “Oh! I ought to bear pain without complaining, ought to return good for evil, love my enemies, be very kind to my friends, perhaps give up my rightful fortune to a younger sister, and refuse to marry the man I love, because my parents desire me…”
    “Suppose we put your heroics into plain English. To bear pain without complaining; that means to be patient: to return good for evil, to be a Christian; love our enemies, be kind to friends, prefer a sister’s interest to your own, means disinterestedness and generosity, and to refuse a man you love, because your parents desire you, is to be obedient. I congratulate you, Rosa; you can be a complete heroine whenever you please.”

The contrasting theories of Rosa and her mother are put to the test soon afterwards. Agnes injures her arm and must undergo a painful operation, which she bears with as much fortitude as she can muster, to avoid distressing her parents. Rosa, meanwhile, develops toothache, but flees in terror from the thought of an extraction, even while ceaselessly complaining about “the torture”.

Comments Mrs Budden tartly:

So much for heroines. Very fine people in travels and romances, but in real life, fantastic, worthless, miserable creatures; when, like Rosa, they talk of great things, but fail even in small ones.

And persistently scornful of “small things”, Rosa carries on down the path of neglect, even as Agnes strives to improve herself day by day, in each case with what Mrs Budden considers the inevitable outcome.

For Agnes:

She did not, like her sister, see her own faults, and not resolve to correct them. She remembered the satisfaction she had received from her labours in her garden. She therefore knew that “pleasure follows industry”. She determined in future to be industrious, and though she found it difficult at first, yet, by firmly persisting in her resolution, she became an active, skilful, useful woman. Her house was neat and comfortable, her servants copied their mistress, were clean, notable, and bustling. Every body treated her with respect, and whoever visited her, admired the comfort of her house, and the propriety of her table… With new virtues she gained new happiness. She lived beloved and happy, and died calm and regretted.

And for Rosa:

Many times, at different periods of her life, she plainly saw she was doing very wrong. How easily, therefore, could she have changed from wrong to right. But no—she would not. She was obstinate, she would not turn from her evil ways. What was the consequence? She went on from bad to worse, and the ill-nature and passion that made her destroy her sister’s garden, as she grew up, rendered her a perfect fury to her neighbours and a noisy scold to her servants… Always in a hurry and always doing things by halves, she was a sad slattern in her dress, and, though often buying handsome clothes, generally looked mean and untidy… Rosa would not condescend to do what was always in her power, and what every body ought to do. Thus she neglected all the best, though little duties of life… With her virtue, she lost her happiness. She lived despised, and died unlamented.

Yike!

(She lost her virtue!? I’m sure we must be talking “virtue” in the more general sense…)

The hard-core didacticism of Right And Wrong leaves little room in Mrs Budden’s narrative for anything else, though a couple of random passages do stand out. Early in the novel Budden launches into a sudden diatribe against chimney-sweeps; or rather, against the treatment of the sweeps’ boys, and those people who make it their business to decoy young children into this brutal profession. The sweeping trade itself is viewed as a necessary evil – for the present. The stance taken by the father of Rosa and Agnes is rather interesting:

“I only regret no thing has yet been discovered to supply the place of these poor suffering innocents; that no such contrivance has been effected, is a disgrace to human invention… I never will believe but, in this age of improvement and invention, something might be contrived to fully answer the purpose, and I think some public-spirited individual, or patriotic society, have only to offer a considerable reward, and this important contrivance would be effected: a contrivance not only important to humanity, but good morals, which at one stroke would snatch a thousand victims from misery and oppression, and for ever put a stop to the avarice, the tyranny, the cunning, that are ever at work to entrap and subdue them. Let us not say that, with the ‘slave trade’, we have abolished, all means of cruelty from the British dominions, whilst, in every village and town of this island, so many feeble, suffering victims hold up their hands for mercy in vain.”

While at the other end of the spectrum, we find this hilarious bit of class-obliviousness:

    The tolling bell now proclaimed the hour of worship. The smiling family, with eager haste, prepared to obey the welcome summons; the little ones walked before, the grateful parents followed, their hearts swelling with unutterable content.
    After service they enjoyed a short walk, and met crowds of well-dressed people indulging themselves in strolling through the beautiful fields and lanes that skirted the busy town. On their return home, they found a smoking dinner on the table…

—which must have appeared by magic. Because no good Christian family would keep its servants from attending church just to prepare their lunch – right?

budden2

06/01/2012

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 3)

She was conscious she had blushed, and that consciousness but heightened her confusion. “Why could she be such a fool to blush at hearing of St. Orville’s long talked of marriage alluded to?” was her mental question. She was not, could not, be in love with Lord St. Orville.—Indeed, was it a year or two after her late attachment, it might be so, and very probably; but now, it was an utter impossibility…

Recovering from the shock of her discovery, Julia at length decides that she has been unjust to Lady Storamond, whose principles she is well-acquainted with, and whose love for her husband is well-known; that St. Orville either found the locket or obtained it by some subterfuge; and that his open unhappiness is due to his guilt over loving his friend’s wife. Mingled gratitude and sympathy dominate Julia’s attitude towards St. Orville, both of which escalate when he is responsible once again for saving her life at significant risk to her own.

On her journey to Delamore Castle, Julia’s coach was followed by a man on horseback doing his best to disguise his appearance. Later, he called upon her, confirming her dismayed suspicion that her dogged pursuer had caught up with her again. The young man is Louis Laroche, whose passion for Julia will later be revealed as literal madness. Despite this, Mrs St. Clair once tried to arrange a marriage between him and Julia, only for Laroche’s outraged father to step in – later punishing Mrs St. Clair by having her twice arrested for debt. It was the obsessed Laroche who tried to abduct Julia by boat, and who finally decides that if he can’t have her, nobody can…

The Lady Selina Southerland is engaged to be married to Sir Charles Stratton, the older half-brother of Fitzroy, who was only six weeks old when his mother eloped. The outraged Sir William Stratton, convinced that the baby was none of his (although Lady Stratton leaving him behind would suggest otherwise), disinherited the child to the utmost of his ability, leaving him a penniless baronet; and we can judge how desperate he is for money by his willingness to marry Selina.

The wedding takes place; and as the party prepares to leave the church there is a sudden uproar. Laroche, who has taken it into his head that the wedding in the Southerland family is that of Julia and Fitzroy, springs towards her, pistol in hand. St. Orville, who is escorting her, instantly seizes and grapples with him; and saves Julia’s life at the cost of a bullet in the side, although the wound is not serious. Laroche flees the scene, and later takes his own life.

The triple shock – the attempt on her life, St. Orville’s injury, and Laroche’s suicide – is too much for Julia, who collapses into an illness during which her friends despair of her life, but from which she slowly recovers…only to then be almost as dangerously assailed in an emotional sense.

Since his departure from Delamore Castle, Fitzroy – now Marquis of Penmorva, following the death of his great-uncle – has been assiduous in his correspondence with Julia, with tender epistles arriving on a regular basis and assuring her of his enduring love; against which we have the revelation of how Fitzroy passed his time prior to his departure, when Julia voluntarily retired from the family circle to nurse Lady Delamore through a dangerous cold – namely, that his “flirtation” with Mrs Wellford escalated to a point where (having just freed himself from Lady Enderfield) he stands in danger of being named as the co-respondent in a divorce suit. Mrs Wellford’s mortified relatives, the Beaumonts, do succeed in averting this threat and hushing the whole thing up, but it reaches Julia anyway, via the usual channel, Lady Theodosia:

    “Fitzroy must have known all this yesterday; and this I naturally imagine to be the cause of his gloom and evident inquietude. He must tremble at this affair being known to you, whose spotless purity he cannot but be convinced will recoil from such misconduct; nor can he feel very comfortable in the idea of having this disgraceful divorce brought before the public, at the moment of his breaking off an honourable engagement with one woman, and entering into one with another.”
    “That makes, not much of flattery for me, certainly,” said Julia; “and deeply forms, wound for my affection:—but that is not the wound, which rankles direfully, and pains my heart, for deep-felt agony.— Oh! no, no! I had the thought, I had the fear, Fitzroy was the libertine; but did not, did not make imagination, that he would crime commit—the crime, so much for turpitude, that it is forbidden of commision, so expressly, by our much sacred religion’s laws.”

But even this pales beside the revelation of how Fitzroy occupied his time while Julia was on what her grieving friends believed would be her deathbed.

A recovered Julia makes a charitable call upon the elderly Dame Banks, finding her alone and stricken – and learns to her overwhelming horror that the pretty young Fanny Banks has fled from her grandmother’s house and protection. Some time after her disappearance, the girl sends home a letter of explanation :

“…I have not exhibited at the operar yet, it not being open; but I have been to a masquerade, and there my dear lord markis attended me. I was greatly delighted, we had such a gay party: and all would have been well, only they made me drink too much shampain… I never lived till now. I am as happy as a queen: and my dear markis is such an adoring lover, he spends all the time he can spare from parliament business with me; and quite sickens at the thoughts of leaving me, to go (which he must soon do) to Delamore castle, to save appearances…”

It transpires that Fitzroy has been pursuing the girl, off and on, for two years, first of all simply for the pleasure of stealing her affections from his half-brother, who first “discovered” her (although that relationship went no further than some mild flirtation). After making the girl’s acquaintance by warning her grandmother about his libertine relative and getting Sir Charles barred from the house, Fitzroy became a regular caller – and remained so under the pretence of instructing Fanny in the Bible…using these lessons, it is implied, to put his own interpretation upon the scriptures, and succeeding, by these means, in thoroughly undermining both the girl’s religious faith and her principles.

Mrs Banks gives to the shattered Julia a bundle of letters written by Fitzroy to Fanny; a glance at one is enough to confirm the worst. Stunned beyond belief, Julia is staggering back to Delamore when she slips and falls, injurying her ankle – and, unable to move, is an involuntary auditor of a violent quarrel between St. Orville and Fitzroy, newly returned, during which the latter hammers the final nail into his own coffin:

   “O Heaven! and could it be, while those whom Julia did not love were torn with agonising affliction…and found consolation only in the hope that in a better world they might again— You, Horatio, found alleviation in the gratification of your vanity!”
    “I grant it was an inexcusable profanation of my ardent affection for Julia, but it was natural to my character: I hate grief, and part with it whenever in my power. Fanny was a substantial consolation; that one of meeting in a better world, a shadow. My principles have long been undisguised to you… I live only for this world, where chance threw me; and had I lost my Julia, I had been a distracted mourner, without the credulous believer’s consolation…”

With great pain, but without hesitation, Julia steels herself to the task of cutting Fitzroy from her heart; and with the support of her faith, is soon serene if not happy. Lady Delamore having summoned Dr Sydenham to her, Julia delegates to him the task of dismissing Fitzroy, which he does simply by giving back to him his own letters to Fanny. Recognising that the jig is up, Fitzroy flees – where else? – to the Continent.

In the wake of Fitzroy’s departure, it may be seen that St. Orville is in considerably better spirits, which Julia happily puts down to him winning the battle with himself and subduing his guilty passion for Lady Storamond; although an alternative explanation occurs to all the other inhabitants of the castle.

Julia is not so caught up in her own problems as to lose her desire to bring about the reconciliation of Lord and Lady Delamore. Circumstances, however, are against her. It was intended that the Delamores should pay a lengthy visit to the newlyweds, Sir Charles and Lady Selina Stratton; but first Julia’s slow recovery from her illness, then her final break from Fitzroy, made Lady Delamore reluctant to leave her; so that Lord Delamore went alone. As she recovers her equanimity, Julia urges Lady Delamore to leave her and go to her husband, fearing the damage Selina having unhindered access to Lord Delamore for so long may have done. Lady Delamore takes her advice and leaves for Stratton Abbey. Julia declines accompanying her, instead paying a visit to a friend, Mrs Fermor, who earlier took charge of a young protégée of Lady Delamore’s, a girl called – or going by the name of – Mary Mildmay.

Santo Sebastiano is a tale filled with strange resemblances – including, of course, that of Lady Storamond to the Southerland family, to whom (as it turns out) she is not in fact related. Julia is surprised but accepting of this, as she herself bears a closer resemblance to her father’s first wife, the Lady Adelaide Montrose, than to her own mother; so close, indeed, that while visiting the Vatican one day with her grandmother, when she encountered a man she discovered to be Lord Glenbrook, Lady Adelaide’s brother-in-law, the shock of it made him faint—which he later explained as being due to Julia’s resemblance to a daughter of his, who died young. But having seen Julia once doesn’t preserve him from the shock inherent in seeing her a second time, under the roof of a relative of Mrs Fermor; upon which he collapses again, this time recovering delerious, and muttering about murders and ghosts…

The strange resemblance most prominently featured in the novel, however, is that borne by a girl called Mary Dungate, who belongs to that section of society which Lord Delamore politely calls “the scum of the earth”, and who as a child arrested the attention of Lady Delamore by being the spitting image of her husband.

It is, as it happens, a resemblance that Lord Delamore himself has no explanation for: he flatly denies the obvious one—and nobody believes him. Not his half-sister, Lady Frances Harcourt (another of the novel’s amusing supporting characters, infamous for her blunt tongue), who waves away his protestations of innocence with a snort of contempt—

    “That is, a most extraordinary, a most wonderful resemblance!” returned Lord Delamore.
    “Extraordinary and wonderful! Do not talk nonsense, Theodosius!”

—and certainly not his wife, who not only makes the child the object of her care (giving her the less “plebeian” surname of Mildmay), but reveals her belief in the girl’s paternity to Mary herself, and also to her children, meaning on one hand to encourage them to be kind to their half-sibling, while discouraging any feeling warmer than fraternal between Mary and St. Orville.

One of Julia’s charitable enterprises is the adoption of a small boy, Edward, who after the death of his mother is treated with great cruelty by his father and his father’s mistress. The boy’s sailor-uncle eventually comes looking for him, and reveals that he has recently married one Moll Dungate, Mary’s supposed mother, who he has discovered not only once received a healthy sum in exchange for agreeing to raise a certain baby as her own, but to this day, in exchange for her continued silence, receives a regular annuity paid by—the Lady Selina Southerland.

That’s right, my friends! – say it with me! – BABY SUBSTITUTION!!

And in fact, I think we’ve reached the point where I can legitimately start using “baby substitution” as one of my regular tags.

The malicious Mrs Monk is at the bottom of this, taking advantage of Lady Delamore’s enforced absence from her infant daughter during her father’s final illness to steal the child away, and leave her servant’s illegitimate baby as a substitute (a bout of scarlet fever accounting for the baby’s altered appearance)—mostly as an act of sheer bastardry, the birth of their first child having brought the new parents close together, but also – later taking the spurious Selina into her confidence – in order to have a weapon to use against the family, as needed; “Selina”‘s terror of losing her luxurious life making her willing to stoop to anything to maintain her position. (With this revelation, one particularly violent quarrel between Theodosia and Selina, during which the latter became hysterical upon being called “a changeling”, takes on a new significance.)

Of course, the real victim in all this is Sir Charles Stratton: as if being married to the Lady Selina Southerland isn’t bad enough in itself, now she turns out to be—what was that expression again? oh, yeah—the scum of the earth. This being a sentimental novel, possibly we’re supposed to say, “Serves you right for marrying money”—although it can’t be said that the text evinces anything but sympathy for his situation.

But it is quite some time before this revelation occurs. In the meantime, Julia’s fears prove only too well-founded: upon joining her husband, Lady Delamore discovers that Selina has indeed been busy poisoning his mind not just against her, but also Julia, who he now believes was involved in a secret relationship with Fitzroy from the time of their first meeting. In this attack, Selina is assisted by a young widow, Lady Hollowell, who Selina believes to be merely her tool, but who has a plan to take Mrs Monk’s place in Lord Delamore’s affections—and bank account.

When they return home, the Delamores receive a large number of houseguests, including one Sir Robert Bolton, who Lord Delamore is lured into believing is the object of Lady Delamore’s affections. (She is interested in him, but it stems from her concern for her sister, Lady Ennerdale, who is indulging in an indiscreet flirtation with the baronet.) Furthermore, Lord Delamore’s new dislike of Julia has led him, much to his son’s distress and exasperation, to press for the marriage of St. Orville with Lady Fontsevern, who is an heiress and a baroness in her own right, as well as the heir to the titles and honours of Montalvan, which were once held by the Southerland family but lost during the Wars of the Roses.

In Lady Fontsevern we have this novel’s other comic supporting character; although here the humour is woven into the text, rather than being merely a digression. Beautiful and rich, the young baroness is accustomed to hearing herself praised for her most trivial gestures and opinions, and works diligently to create situations in which the incense may be offered:

    “I am sure,” said her ladyship, with pretty meekness, “if his lordship can be happier near any one but me, I wish him to go; for I would not be the means of making anyone uncomfortable, or unhappy. I am sure every one, in all the world, would be happy, if I could make them so.”
    “Dear, amiable creature!” exclaimed her father.
    “What excellence of heart!” said Lord Delamore.
   “What fascinating philanthropy!”—“What a heavenly disposition!”—and “What an angel!”—were the ejaculations of Mr Primrose, Sir Charles, and Sir Lucius; but not one eulogium fell from the lips of Lord St. Orville.

It is Lady Fontsevern’s practice to adopt an attitude of fluttery childishness, posing as too young and innocent to understand the customs of the world and thus free to say and do whatever she likes—including declaring her passion for St. Orville, and openly pursuing him. And in fact, in her determined, almost professional, infantilism, Lady Fontsevern often seems like a forerunner to Dickens’ Harold Skimpole.

Lady Fontsevern’s arrival at Delamore brings her into conflict with Julia, whose genuine simplicity and openness throws her artifice into unflattering relief, and whose fascination for St. Orville is only too obvious. Provoked, the young baroness resorts to her other favourite tactic, used whenever she is thwarted in the slightest degree, of bursting into loud, crowd-drawing sobs:

    Here Julia was interrupted, by the violent sobs of Lady Fontsevern. Lords Delamore and Westbourn were now all-tender inquirers, Lady Delamore (drawn from her card-table by the sound), Julia and Lord St. Orville, all polite and humane ones.
    “Oh!” she sobbed out, “I am not so happy as Miss De Clifford! I possess not the power of interesting dear, dear Lord Delamore; yet he thinks (I know, he does) that I strive to do it. I am sure, I never affect any thing I do not feel. I am sure, my great affection for him is no counterfeit; and I am quite heart-broken to think that I could not interest him even sufficiently to play out one little game of chess with me. I am sure, it is not my fault. I did my best to interest him; but—I—I am a poor child of nature, very, very young, and from the retirement I have lived in, quite inexperienced in the trick of the world; and great allowances ought to be made for me. I am sure, I wish I was a foreigner too; for all foreigners have the gift to interest, and fascinate, all mankind.”

This section of the novel also reintroduces the Lady Isabella Harville, the daughter of Lady Ennerdale, who (due to her vain mother’s dislike of having a grown-up child) has been kept back in the schoolroom, and is rather young for her years—meaning that, being able to see through Lady Fontsevern, she is far too unsophisticated to pretend that she can’t:

    “Me! put in for compliments!” exclaimed Lady Fontsevern, in a soft tone of amazement: “me! who never wish to hear compliments! nay, I absolutely hate them.”
    Lady Isabella burst into a laugh of so much naïveté, that Lord St. Orville found it so infectious, he was compelled almost to smother poor Edward with kisses, to conceal his strong propensity to excessive risibility.

Back under the direct influence of Julia’s personality, Lord Delamore finds it hard to go on believing that she has been guilty of duplicitous and immoral conduct; although he is unable to entirely shake off the fear that she is deceiving him, that she is in league with Lady Delamore and St. Orville against him. A near-tragedy then gives Julia a way back into Lord Delamore’s heart, as a skating party ends in disaster. Lord Delamore falls through the ice, putting not only his but also St. Orville’s life in deadly danger, as he struggles to keep his father above water. It is Julia, of all those gathered, who keeps her head, first bending a branch towards St. Orville to give him temporary support, then bringing a rope to offer him a more secure anchorage, before running off to get assistance.

Which brings us to THE worst moment in the book, as Catherine Cuthbertson take a rare tumble out of the realm of the amusingly entertaining, into that of the simply ludicrous.

Note to writers of sentimental novels—dog rescues DO NOT WORK…no matter how “sagacious” the animal in question:

    “Neptune!” she cried again, and the dog, seeming fascinated by her voice, bounded with her, as she rapidly mounted the style into the park, when, through a vista, was the lake plainly seen, and the emperilled father and son.
    In this moment, the faculties of Lord Delamore (now completely up to his chin in water) were quite subdued, by fatigue and the agonies of his mind;—thus in the fangs of death himself, and causing the destruction of his fondly-adored son, and ever-lasting misery to his idolised Emily;—he fainted, and, as his senses fled, his hat, before disturbed from its station, fell into the water. This Neptune saw, and rushed forward to dive for; but it went under the ice; and mistaking Lord Delamore’s head for what had fallen, he seised him by the hair. Lord St. Orville now, in full faith of his father’s preservation, gave him up, in joy and gratitude, to the succouring animal; and, fearing that his additional weight might prove too much for the powers of this providential friend, let his father go; when Neptune skilfully navigated, through the now much-widened chasm, his lifeless burthen safely to the bank: and whilst in drawing Lord Delamore gently out of the water after him, this astonishing sagacious animal was employed, the almost-breathless fishermen arrived…

Question: what would they have done if Lord Delamore’s hat HADN’T fallen off?

I’m quite able to believe, of course, that Catherine Cuthbertson might have read Munster Abbey; but the thought that she might have been influenced by it…

Believe it or not, that isn’t even what made me laugh hardest about this book, which was instead this random paragraph, which occurs when Julia realises that Selina has drawn her into a trap. I don’t quite know why—perhaps it’s the use of the exaggerated word “palsied”; or the fact that Julia is so upset, it takes lemonade rather than water to help; or that crying and fainting occurs so frequently in this household, Lord St. Orville has apparently taken to walking around with a glass of something in his hand, just in case:

Horror and amazement at such monstrous duplicity, such barbarous malice, changed the tint of Julia’s cheeks to the paleness of death. Her solemn promise to Lady Selina, never to betray the occurrences of that particular morning to any of her family, she considered too sacred to violate. A visible tremor soon pervaded her whole frame; she was sick at heart; and hastily snatched at a glass of lemonade now offered to her by Lord St. Orville, to save herself from fainting, and, with a palsied hand, she raised it to her lips.

Anyway—

Lady Frances Harcourt arrives at the castle to visit the family, and immediately sets about putting everyone in their place (particularly Lady Fontsevern). Lady Frances has never made a secret of her disapproval of her brother, and conversely her love and sympathy for her sister-in-law; but seeing that a reconciliation is occurring between the Delamores, there is another between her and her brother.

We learn that in the wake of her disastrous elopement (boasting a body count of three), Lady Theodosia has been under the care of Lady Frances, and that although she is not yet up to facing her parents, she has been asking for Julia, who is now given permission to go to her—under, after some manoeuvring, the escort of St. Orville. And it is at the evocatively named Black Tower Abbey that Julia and her long-silent lover come to an understanding.

Self-control is not, it must be said, one of the more common attributes of the sentimental hero; so we can only admire the unusual wisdom of St. Orville’s proceedings—and his understanding of Julia. Recognising that she must work through her relationship with Fitzroy, that she is, in a sense, in mourning, not even Fitzroy’s departure can provoke St. Orville into a premature declaration, which he knows would only offend her and frighten her away. Instead, he devotes himself to her service, and lets his actions speak for themselves; a process greatly assisted when, though an adding up of random details, the penny finally drops for Julia:

But that was a question that Julia could by no means answer, so overwhelmed was she with amazement and agitation. At this moment, Edward was summoned to his breakfast; and Julia, now alone, reviewed the whole of Edward’s intelligence.—“Lord St. Orville love her, so long! How could it be? What could it mean?” For a moment she paused; when suddenly articulating her thoughts, with an almost audible shriek of surprise and joy from her heart— “That he, Lord St. Orville,” she cried, “is my young protector! the stranger! the stranger!”

Here the narrative devotes itself to filling in the gaps in this section of the back story – including the detail that, called back to the Mediterranean shortly after discovering Julia at the Goodwins’, St. Orville asked Fitzroy to keep a brotherly eye on her for him – and an overwhelmed Julia  learns that St. Orville has known her, and loved her, and watched over her, even longer than she could have imagined…

But while this would seem to wrap up this novel, in fact we have a whole other plot (and some 250 pages) to go, which abruptly makes its presence felt when Julia is one morning abducted by a band of masked men.

The person responsible is Lord Westbourn, the father of Lady Fontsevern, who has made up his mind that Julia is to be his wife—partly from desire for her, mostly because he has penetrated the secret that has enveloped her entire life: that she is, in fact, the daughter of Lady Adelaide De Clifford, and consequently not only the granddaughter of the Duke of Avondale but (through her maternal grandmother) the real heiress of Montalvan—and filthy rich, to boot.

The secret history of Santo Sebastiano is hardly less complicated than that revealed in Romance Of The Pyrenees, although in this case Catherine Cuthbertson gives herself only about a fifth of the space to get through it all, meaning that at this point the novel explodes into a convoluted tale of greed, hatred, murder, elopement, abduction, revenge, unrequited love, secret identities, oaths of silence, broken hearts, press-ganging, shipwreck, and early death. However, for the purposes of this summary, there are only two things that we really need to know.

The first is that the lead villain here is Lord Glenbrook, whose insane avarice led him to murder his brother-in-law in order to secure a greater inheritance to his wife (and then talked about it in his sleep – so much for that marriage); and, having gotten away with that, that he then took advantage of his father-in-law’s anger at his daughter Adelaide for her runaway marriage to try and dispose of her, too.

The second thing is that it was Lady Adelaide, knowing herself dying, who arranged the marriage between Frederick De Clifford and Ismena St. Clair (in whose character she was entirely mistaken), in order to conceal her daughter’s true identity and protect her from her murderous uncle. Granting his wife’s last request, De Clifford was nevertheless unable to conceal his undying love for Adelaide and his indifference towards, and then resentment of, Ismena, which was the basis of Mrs St. Clair’s hatred and subsequent tormenting of her supposed granddaughter.

Phew!

A variety of circumstances conspire to rescue Julia from Lord Westbourn, reunite her with her grandfather, and bring this history to light; and a great gathering of characters takes place at Valincourt Abbey, which the Duke of Avondale cedes to his newly enobled granddaughter, who shortly afterwards takes on a second title:

 “Indeed,” said his grace, putting Julia’s hand into Lord St. Orville’s, “the heiress of Montalvan must be your wife, or I shall not more know happiness myself. So pray take her, my good boy, from the hand of her grandfather; and will you not join me, my Lords Delamore and Ashgrove, in invoking Heaven to shower down every blessing upon these our children, Alfred Southerland, commonly called Lord St. Orville, and Julia Adelaide De Clifford, Countess of Montalvan!”

Our last glimpse of Julia and St. Orville finds them happily esconced at Valincourt and the parents of a baby boy. Meanwhile, Lord and Lady Delamore come together at last; the real Lady Selina Southerland is re-established (and marries Julia’s cousin, the Earl of Castlehaven, also called Frederick De Clifford); Lady Theodosia recovers from her unhappy first love and marries with her parents’ approbation; and Mrs Monk and Mary Dungate get what’s coming to them.

Which I guess only leaves the mystery of St. Orville’s strange reaction to every mention of Lady Storamond.

And you know?—I think I’m going to leave you guys to figure that one out for yourselves. I’ll just say this about it: that there was never any possibility of a guilty relationship between the two of them, since their principles were absolutely identical…

.

See also:

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage
Romance Of The Pyrenees
Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 1)

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 2)

03/01/2012

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 2)

“My brother has brought home no heart to lose:—this was legibly told, in every line of his sadly altered countenance and dejected air, yesterday; but the evening disclosed the magnitude of his misery, by proclaiming the object of his unfortunate love. Oh, Julia! had you been looking at him while you were talking of Lady Storamond, had your heart been formed of adamant it must have melted in pity for him.—Oh! my brother! my brother! my amiable, inestimable, brother! doomed to the misery of inauspicious love; torn with remorse, as well as disappointment:—for well I know his upright principles will ever direfully upbraid him for loving the wife of his friend.—Oh! my brother! my brother! my amiable, now wretched, brother!”

Lord Ashgrove needn’t have worried. Although Julia was only four when her father died, before that time he managed to drum into her head the tenets not just of religion, not just of Christianity, but of Protestantism; or at any rate, he taught her that she should never, ever, ever listen to or believe a single word that a nun or a priest said to her, which is after all (as far as we can judge from this novel) one of the main Protestant beliefs. This was enough to guard Julia from contamination until, in her early teens, she was left for two years in a convent in Florence, where she met an Englishwoman, a Mrs Waldegrave, who not only completed her religious instruction but gave Julia the general education that Mrs St. Clair (intent only on training her granddaughter to be a public singer and musician, presumably with the long-term goal of selling her to the highest bidder) had previously denied her.

And in fact, it is one of this novel’s little ironies (quite possibly an unintentional one) that the two most significant friendships of Julia’s formative years were both conducted entirely within convent walls. There is a distinct tendency here to treat convents less like houses of religion than as if they were some sort of strange combination of hotel and prison: Mrs Waldegrave retires into one, in spite of being a Protestant; Julia is left in one whenever she becomes an incumbrance to her peripatetic grandmother; and the Lady Cecilia Hume is detained in one until the arrival of her angry guardian, after the frustration of her attempted elopement with the man who will eventually become her husband anyway, Lord Storamond.

And it is in the convent of Santo Sebastiano, in Naples, that the meeting of Julia De Clifford and Cecilia Hume takes place. Starved for love, and having never had a friend near her own age (her scruples having caused her to hold the nuns and novitiates at arm’s length), Julia conceives for Cecilia a passionate affection. Cecilia, who is some years older than Julia, acts as a mentor to her as well as a companion, guiding her studies both secular and spiritual; and while their time together is comparatively short, Julia’s devotion to her friend remains steadfast throughout their subsequent separation.

It is Fitzroy’s resemblance to Cecilia that first gives him a foothold in Julia’s heart, while her later relationships with  Lady Delamore, her son, the Viscount St. Orville, and the Lady Theodosia Southerland have a similar basis—while the fact that Cecilia also taught Julia to play a mean game of chess gives her, conversely, a way into the erratic affections of Lord Delamore, who hasn’t had a decent opponent since he banished his son from beneath his roof.

With the adoption of Julia into the Southerland family, Santo Sebastiano opens up. There is a sudden in-rush of supporting characters, and we begin in earnest the task of trying to keep a grip on the myriad histories and relationships presented. And it is also at this point that we are forced to consider, and not for the first time, the question of just how seriously Catherine Cuthbertson took her own novels.

Although, no doubt, there were novelists at this time capable of writing five volumes of overwrought sentimentalism with a straight face, I don’t think Cuthberston was one of them. My impression of her is, rather, that like Mary Meeke (although without the accompanying declaration of pure commercial intent), she wrote what she thought would sell. This suspicion is based partly on remarks such as the one that pops up near the end of this novel’s third volume—

Julia now, affectionately kissing Lady Delamore, departed, leaving her ladyship and Lord St. Orville overpowered by feelings we have not talents to describe, but may be easily conceived by our readers, when they have waded through our subsequent pages.

—but mostly on the recurrent appearance of minor characters who seem to exist for no reason but to amuse their creator. For one thing, Cuthberston has a propensity for comic relief Irishwomen – although to give her her due, these potentially tiresome additions are never just comic, but tend to be shrewd and loyal individuals as well, and of great help to the heroine. (Biddy O’Neil, the servant rescued by Fitzroy in Volume 1, fits this category.) More illustrative is Mrs Beaumont, a neighbour of the Delamores, who adds nothing to the plot of Santo Sebastiano but befuddlement.

Briefly, Mrs Beaumont married “up”, to the extent that her husband, in order to justify his choice, then gave her a classical education. The lady, puffed up in her achievements, took to spouting Latin and Greek at every opportunity, until her embarrassed husband finally forbade her to speak either, even again. Obedient but unwilling to give up her accomplishment, Mrs Beaumont then set about learning a rather unique version of English, which she speaks with great pride (and to the mortification of her family):

“I was too anxious to enquire after the state of your ladyship’s brindice,” said Mrs Beaumont, courtesying profoundly, “to practise much longanimity; but have festinately come, to gratify my exoptation, of hearing the redintegration of it enunciated by yourself, and not by compurgation. Your ladyship’s œcumenically desiderated return occurring sooner than was expected, has proved an inopinate oblection to me. You look admirably, madam: and your complexion quite diaphanic, considering the nocent air of that veneficial metropolis, to which your symposaick evagation led you. Son George! are you elinguid? Why so amort? Why this obmutescence? Require no further increpation from me. Do not for ever appear so acephalous; but, without despection, or nolition, do yourself the honour of entering into an enterparlance with her ladyship; and, for once in your life, be multiloquous.”

Now obviously, this too could get tiresome if overused; but Cuthbertson is sparing of Mrs Beaumont’s appearances; and my suspicion is that she brings her back whenever she starts to get bored herself with all the crying and the fainting; the material that – in her own words – must be “waded through”.

The usual response to Mrs Beaumont is a stunned silence. Amusingly, the only person who doesn’t hesitate to reply to her is Julia, who assumes that her incomprehension is due, not to Mrs Beaumont’s impenetrability, but her own shaky grasp of English. Brought up – gasp! – “on the Continent”, Julia’s native language is Italian; she reads and understands English well enough, but has only spoken it consistently since arriving in the country a year or so earlier with her grandmother, and does so in a broken idiom that her auditors find charming:

“Oh!” repled Julia with animation, “and even then, dear sir, friends do surely hope to meet again; and so shall we, Mrs Goodwin, often, and very much, often yet, I do trust me, even in this world, for thorns and flowers.—And dear Doctor Sydenham, pray excuse for me, when deeply feeling, the very much, strong, kindness, of your self, and Mr and Mrs Goodwin for me, I did lose all my stock, of firmness, when I did think, to part from you; and found, it would be much grief, for me.”

Disconcerting as this is at the outset, the reader, like Julia’s friends, eventually grows accustomed to it – which is just as well, since her English does not improve at any point in the story; and while it may be in character for her heroine to speak this way, there is nevertheless a sense that the task of constructing sentences in Julia’s idiosyncratic diction was one of the ways that Cuthbertson kept herself interested for the full 2000 pages.

(There’s a third character with whom Cuthbertson plays this sort of game; but since she is, far more than Mrs Beaumont, a “character”, we will deal with her later on.)

From the point of sheer writing, the best section of Santo Sebastiano is that which follows Julia’s entry into the Southerland household, during which, with the introduction of Lord Delamore, Catherine Cuthbertson gives us something extremely unusual in a novel of this period: a genuine attempt at psychological characterisation.

All his life, the Earl has suffered equally from a desperate need to be loved and an acute lack of self-esteem that prevents him from believing that people can and do love him. His wife and his son, who want nothing more in life than to live happily with him, find their overtures received with cold suspicion: if they do as Lord Delamore wishes, it’s only because of their sense of duty; if they do not, it’s because they don’t love him. The Earl’s constant misinterpretation of his family’s actions leads him into a self-defeating mire wherein he behaves as a domestic tyrant – which drives his family even further away – which makes him so wretchedly unhappy, he becomes even more tyrannical. His crowning misery is that he  knows he’s doing it—he simply cannot stop himself.

Along with his willingness to believe the worst, Lord Delamore’s self-affliction is compounded by his tendency to believe whoever he has last been listening to: a habit that leaves him open to manipulation by anyone with a selfish agenda—like Selina, who in the hope of making herself the chief beneficiery of her father’s mostly unentailed fortune, works tirelessly at denigrating her mother and siblings, and finding ugly explanations for what they do. Lady Delamore and St. Orville, though aware of this, will not stoop to Selina’s tactics, or to justifying themselves against her insinuations—which leaves them at a perpetual disadvantage.

When Julia arrives at Delamore Castle, she finds herself in the midst of a family in disarray: Lord and Lady Delamore are estranged; St. Orville has been banished by his father; Lady Theodosia is caught between her parents; while Lady Selina spends most of her time making a bad situation worse. Julia is a reluctant witness of a series of embarrassing family scenes, for which her hosts feel compelled to account and apologise for, with the result that the reader is offered three different versions of the family situation from three very different perspectives.

The facts, briefly, are these: in his youth, Lord Delamore became fascinated by a temptress called Mrs Monk, and set her up as his mistress. His family, worried that his infatuation might lead him to marriage, took pains to introduce him to the Lady Emily Stanmore, then not quite fifteen, and (due to her father’s notions of proper female education) having been raised in isolation to the point of having never spoken to anyone outside of her own family. Though marriage to Mrs Monk was, in fact, never a danger, due to Delamore’s pride, he was sufficiently entranced by the beautiful, innocent girl to marry her – she agreeing in obedience to her father’s commands. And although he had made no effort at all to court his bride, Lord Delamore was fool enough to ask her if she loved him? – and unreasonable enough to recoil from her, his self-esteen suffering an intolerable wound, when she simply told him the truth.

And at this vulnerable moment, the ever-hopeful Mrs Monk made her move, poisoning Delamore’s mind against his bride, and leading him to his supreme folly: establishing her in her own house, on the grounds of his estate, almost under his wife’s eyes; and with his mistress insinuating that Lady Delamore’s indifference can only mean another man, the Earl was finally brought to desert his young family and live openly with his mistress – where else? – on the Continent.

And even after their return, Lord Delamore’s madness led him to attempt to sever his children’s affections from their mother, and teach them to love Mrs Monk instead. With Selina he succeeded only too well; while his ongoing alienation from his son began with the young St. Orville’s denunciation of Mrs Monk (after one of his maternal relations had a word in his ear), from which stance even regular beatings could not move him. As the boy grew older, he became the object of his father’s resentment and jealousy when it was borne upon him that the family’s tenants adored him, while evincing indifference towards the Earl himself. Finally, the thwarting of his son becoming almost automatic, Lord Delamore refused him the naval career he desired, with the result that St. Orville took a civilian-volunteer position under his uncle, Lord Ashgrove; while the Viscount’s banishment was the result of an attempt to obtain for his mother a more generous settlement, which (since his will was necessarily mentioned) Lord Delamore inevitably interpreted as his son’s desire for his death.

Most of this, with much empassioned annotation, is conveyed to Julia by Lady Theodosia, who in many respects is the novel’s most credible character. While both Lady Delamore and St. Orville are examples of the kind of impossibly perfect characters that too often populate sentimental novels, inasmuch as they feel no anger or resentment towards their husband and father, but want only to be reconciled to him and are able to love him no matter what he does (which, as we’ve seen, covers some considerable ground), Theodosia is a bundle of believable flaws. Although she, too, wishes for a loving relationship with her father, at the the same time she burns with resentment against him for his treatment of her mother and brother, disobeys him unhesitatingly if she thinks his commands are unreasonable, and frequently talks back to him. Later, this antagonistic relationship will reach a crisis when Theodosia falls in love with a man who, although he has built a distinguished military career, has “no family” (i.e. they’re in trade). The outraged Lord Delamore responds by literally locking his daughter in her room, which provokes her into violating her own principles by agreeing to an elopement—and it all ends in worse than tears.

Intriguingly, although the text criticises Theodosia for washing her family’s dirty linen in public, her version of her father’s story is never contradicted. What we do get, however, is, first, Lady Delamore’s version of the same events, given briefly, in which she extenuates her husband’s faults as much as possible and begs Julia to look beyond his treatment of her to what is admirable in his character; and then Lord Delamore’s own version, in which he is, from first to last, a victim:

“In defiance of my mental sufferings, I enjoyed… No, I cannot say—enjoyed, for I had no joy through life: misery has been my portion!…But I had excellent, uninterrupted health; until about two years ago, when, in consequence of his dreadful risk to save the fishermen, I nearly lost my Alfred:—then, then my constitution suffered… I beheld the anguish of my Emily; but she considered me not the partner of her sorrows;—I was not to aim at soothing them, nor was considered their participator. I saw the grief, and despair, of every one; but I was left, to feel my own. I had no commiseration;—no one, to unburthen my anguish to:—I had no friend!… O God in heaven! what misery was mine! yet no bosom felt compassion for me. Like the aggressor Cain, I wandered up and down, detested, abhorred, by all… I fell ill—very ill…but Emily came not near me!—she, she whom I had seen, in distracted, tender, affection, watching by the pillow of her child, came not near her sick husband!—but that husband she abhorred! Well, well, it pleased Heaven, that I should annoy the world a little longer with my hated life…”

And so on.

One very interesting detail that emerges from all this is that during Lord Delamore’s absence in Italy with Mrs Monk, he had become obsessed with the idea that his wife loved another man. Lady Delamore was, at that time, although a mother of three, only nineteen years old. Her indignant brother, Lord Ashgrove, came to visit her during this lonely, unhappy time, bringing with him his best friend, Frederick De Clifford—and had to suffer the shock and mortification of having his sister beg him, if he valued her peace and honour, to take his fascinating friend away again.

In love with the Lady Adelaide Montrose, De Clifford remained oblivious to the young Lady Delamore’s feelings; and, left to herself, she succeeded in conquering her guilty passion – almost. A certain tenderness for him lingered in the heart of this otherwise dutiful wife, and contributed to the eagerness with which she welcomed Julia De Clifford to her home.

As a stranger and an outsider, Julia initially has more influence with Lord Delamore than anyone else, as even he cannot believe she has a selfish axe to grind; and for a time she allows heself to hope that she might succeed in bringing this unhappy family together. Ultimately, however, she succeeds a little too well; well enough that Lord Delamore begins to plan a marriage between her and St. Orville; only to collapse into another fit of monumental sulks when he finds out about Fitzroy.

Of course, given the many and varied transgressions of the two men, it is impossible not to reflect on the sympathy gap in the text between its handling of Lord Delamore and its attitude towards Fitzroy, who is (for reasons we shall get around to) finally banished from the novel, even as the neurotic Earl finds happiness in his family circle. One of the nicest and most unexpected things about Santo Sebastiano is – amongst all the misery and suffering – its subplot about the eventual reconciliation between Lord and Lady Delamore who, after being at cross-purposes for no less than twenty-five years, finally fall sincerely in love with one another: a denouement signalled by the moment in which, for the very first time in their marriage, Lady Delamore calls her husband by his first name…

    “My dear Theodosius!” said Lady Delamore, with affectionate anxiety, and tenderly taking his hand.
    The tenderness of Lady Delamore’s voice and action; the expression of interest conveyed in her short sentence; the calling him by his christian name, an appellation he remembered not to have ever fallen from her before;—inspired such sudden hope and joy, they almost overwhelmed him…

Unseen since his failure to keep his appointment with Julia at the Hargraves’, Fitzroy makes a spectacular re-entry when he saves Julia from abduction by a party that comes ashore by boat while Julia is walking on the beach near Delamore Castle. At this time he is still engaged to Lady Enderfield, and the meeting between himself and Julia is awkward, to say the least, neither one of them betraying that they are not meeting for the first time. (Selina, of course, knows they have, but has her reasons for keeping it quiet.) Not long after this, Fitzroy declares himself in a position to break with Lady Enderfield—honourably, he emphasises, although we are never told what she has done—and immediately resumes his pursuit of Julia, who allows herself to hope again; at least until Fitzroy’s unreasonable jealousy of one Lord Lindore, who proposes to her, provokes him into a flirtation with a relative of the Beaumonts, a Mrs Wellford. Julia’s distress betrays her to Theodosia, who wisely counsels her to confide in Lady Delamore, where she finds comfort but no joy:

    “And, now I have your confidence, still I am grieved; for though bright are the prospects which open for my sweet Julia, yet, yet I tremble, and fear that happiness is not very near for you. I will be candid with you; because it may prepare your mind for many troubles I see in store for you—
    “You have not, Julia (I grieve to tell you), given your affections to a mind congenial to your own. Yet Fitzroy has many, and great, virtues; and had he not been a spoiled—a darling child, educated in foreign and licentious courts, he would, I firmly believe, have been an ornament to human nature:—but I hope, I trust, nay, I am sanguine enough to believe, that Heaven has fated you to be the blessed instrument to weed from his heart every error ungenial to it, and lead it back to what it was formed to be. In doing this, my child, you will have many trials to encounter—many a grief to bear…”

Meanwhile, Theodosia goes her own way about trying to convince Julia that Fitzroy is not the man for her – although unfortunately, Julia is too innocent to catch her drift:

    “Pray,” said Julia, timidly, and wishing to change the subject— “I hope, you did pass, an exceedingly pleasant, day.”
    “As delightful a day as I could spend, away from her I love,” he replied, looking tenderly at the blushing Julia. “Lady Sophia is a woman of superior talents; and, in her own house, is always irresistibly fascinating.”
   “You have found her so,” said Lady Theodosia, drily.
    “All mankind do,” replied Fitzroy, chagrined.
    “I believe it,” said her ladyship.— “Pray, does her son, your god-son, retain his extraordinary resemblance to you?”

And even Lord Delamore, although at this time oblivious to the currents swirling about him, inadvertently adds his two cents:

“And so, this age-honouring Goody Wellford is a new flame of yours, Fitzroy!” said Lord Delamore. “Upon my word, yours is a most surprisingly-commodious heart!—its formation must be curious! Were we to analyse it, we should certainly find in its anatomy innumerable tubes, so constructed, as to hold and contain separate flames, detached and unmingled.”

Freed from Lady Enderfield, Fitzroy immediately begs Julia to marry him, but now a barrier exists in the form of Lord Ashgrove: Julia insists that his consent must be obtained before she can contract any engagement; while the concerned Lady Delamore, to the disgust of her fuming nephew, suggests a year’s trial of the couple’s mutual affection. Again and again Fitzroy assails Julia, begging her to consent to a runaway marriage, but he cannot shake her principles; and the matter still hangs in the balance when Fitzroy is summoned away from Delamore Castle by the news that his great-uncle, the Duke, is dying.

Meanwhile, summoned home by his impulsively relenting father after covering himself with glory during a naval engagement, St. Orville returns to Delamore Castle, much to the joy of his mother and younger sister and – once Julia has brokered a heartfelt reunion – his father. But their happiness is shortlived, as it is soon evident that St. Orville has something preying on his mind; something which his mother concludes is inauspicious love, its object none other than Julia’s friend, Lady Storamond:

“Well, well do I now remember the strong emotion St. Orville has ever evinced, when Lady Storamond has been accidentally mentioned before him: he always had some prompt excuse, founded on local circumstances, to account for his change of countenance, and I believed him; but now, alas! the real fatal cause is disclosed!— You, who have seen her, who knew her so well, dear Julia! tell me, if you think her affection to her husband can be shaken;—tell me, in pity, she is worthy your regard, and that, dreadful as the pang is, I shall have only to lament the destruction of my child’s peace, and not his soul-harrowing lapse from rectitude.”

Julia, convinced of Lady Storamond’s own rectitude, can give Lady Delamore the assurances for which she pleads; but it is not long before her own faith is shaken. She is out riding one morning and, a novice in the saddle, is unable to control her horse when it bolts, putting her in imminent danger of her life as it plunges towards a cliff-top. St. Orville, who with Theodosia has been one of Julia’s companions, instantly rides after her, and manages to grab hold of her horse’s bridle and turn it back to safe ground, the effort pulling him from his own saddle and severely wrenching his arm. Almost overcome by the shock of her narrow escape and her remorse for St. Orville’s injury, Julia can barely speak—while St. Orville himself is in little better condition:

    “Oh, Lord St. Orville! but for Heaven and you”… Her oppressed sensibility allowed her to add no more, for an abundant flow of tears suspended her power of articulation; but, even in this short sentence, her voice recalled his amazed senses, and restored his utterance.
    “You—you, are safe!” he exclaimed.
    “Safe, and unhurt,” she said.
    One of the sweetest smiles that ever animated the face of mortal, now diffused itself over the countenance of Lord St. Orville, as he fell at the feet of Julia, in a death-like swoon.

Of course he did.

Crying out for help, Julia kneels beside the insensible St. Orville and loosens his neckcloth and collar—only to recoil from him in horror when she sees that, suspended about his neck on a black ribbon, he wears a gold locket; a locket once given by Julia to her friend Cecilia, and which he could only have obtained from Lady Storamond herself…

[To be continued…]

29/12/2011

Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector (Part 1)

Every moment this day, which Julia could obtain for reflection, was now dedicated to Fitzroy; and not, as Mrs Goodwin apprehended, to painful, unavailing retrospections.—She had been, most unexpectedly, told by Fitzroy,—the amiable Fitzroy!—that he aimed at her affections, and wished to present her to his father as the wife his heart had chosen; and the mournful tone of his voice, when he said—“If you send me from you, I shall be miserable,” still vibrated on her ear. From the idea of making him miserable, her grateful heart recoiled… And then, too, he was so generous, and disinterested, to think of making her his wife, when, with his expectations and attractions, he might, she thought, command the affections of almost any woman in existence.—and she was portionless, deserted, unclaimed by her father’s family…

When an enemy of the elderly Mrs St. Clair sends the bailiffs to arrest her for debt, the shock kills her—upon which, they try to sieze her body instead. The ensuing confrontation draws a crowd which blocks traffic in the street, including the carriage of a young man who, when the reason for the delay is explained to him, immediately goes to see if he can help. The young man is profoundly affected when he learns from a servant that Mrs St. Clair’s death has left her granddaughter, Julia De Clifford, all alone in the world. Leaving a sum of money sufficient to pay the debts and support the orphaned girl, he then slips away without revealing his name…

Although the Goodwins, the family with whom Julia and Mrs St. Clair were boarding, express their willingness to help the girl, she knows that cannot afford to support her and is determined to find a position. Mr Goodwin, a bookseller and stationer, sees an advertisement for a companion to the Countess of Delamore and immediately calls to inquire. Told that Lady Delamore is too ill to see him, he writes a letter in which he declares all he knows of Julia’s history and character; and later that day, Julia receives a summons to Grosvenor Square.

However, when she calls as ordered, the bewildered Julia finds herself the target of ridicule and insult by the Lady Selina Southerland and her satellites who, as she later discovers, placed the advertisement in order to amuse themselves by sporting with those who came in answer to it. Mortified, Julia is about to leave when she is unexpectedly rescued by Mr Horatio Fitzroy, who berates his heartless cousin Selina for playing such a prank while her mother lies ill. Fitzroy leads Julia to the family’s housekeeper, Mrs Beville, and asks her to escort Julia back to the Goodwins’. Julia is startled when she realises that Fitzroy bears a strong resemblance to her dearest friend, the former Cecilia Hume, now Lady Storamond, and concludes that the two must be related.

Although they hear nothing more from the Delamores, over the next few weeks the Goodwins’ fortunes mysteriously improve: Mr Goodwin suddenly has more business than he can manage on his own, and an offer is made of a place for the eldest boy, Charles, provided he is willing to go to India. A relieved Mr Goodwin expresses to Julia his belief that her anonymous rescuer is responsible. Soon afterwards, Mrs Goodwin receives an invitation from her sister, Mrs Hargrave, for herself and Julia to visit her home in the country and observe an upcoming election. As the travellers draw near their destination, Mrs Goodwin and Biddy, the maid, who share a fear of carriages on steep hills, choose to walk some way, but find themselves surrounded and accosted by a rowdy and intoxicated group of men. Another man comes to their rescue. From the carriage, Julia recognises Fitzroy, who is one of the candidates in the election; although he does not see her.

At the Hargraves’, Julia finds a friend in the person of the elderly Dr Sydenham, a benevolent clergyman, who is drawn by her beauty, simplicity of manner and openness of temperament. Less congenial are Dr and Mrs Hargrave, who are affected and condescending; while the daughter of the house plays a cruel trick that leaves Julia and another young guest, Miss Penrose, unprotected in the main street of the village. They are extricated from their predicament by Fitzroy and his friend Lord Francis Loraine, who accept the grateful Julia’s invitation to call at the rectory.

Over the next few days, Julia and Mrs Goodwin are invited to several entertainments in the neighbourhood, at which Fitzroy’s attentions become marked; and Mrs Goodwin begins to indulge splendid visions of her young friend’s future when she learns that Fitzroy is heir-presumptive to his great-uncle, the Duke of Bridgetower. It is revealed that, earlier, Fitzroy offered himself as a boarder at the Goodwins’, and that although at the time the family were in great need, in the role of Julia’s guardian Mr Goodwin cautiously rejected the offer. Furthermore, the young man becomes visably confused when Mrs Goodwin suggests that he is the family’s anonymous benefactor. At this juncture, Fitzroy makes an unguarded declaration of his hope of gaining Julia’s affections, and from this moment makes no attempt to conceal from the world his feelings for her.

Fitzroy is successful in the election, and a public ball is held to celebrate the outcome. When Julia arrives, Fitzroy joins her instantly, explaining that as the “lion” of the evening, he will not dance after opening the ball with his hostess, Lady Gaythorn, for fear of giving offence by singling certain ladies out. Julia assures him that she understands, confessing blushingly that she has never been at a ball before and has no idea of the forms to be observed. Impatiently, Fitzroy declares his intention of returning to her as soon as the opening dance is finished, but Julia insists that he must do his duty.

Having gained a seat upon an elevated bench with Dr Sydenham, from where she can see all that goes on, Julia is shocked by the arrival of a beautiful young woman who is covered in jewels and scandalously dressed in a diaphanous gown that reveals almost all of her figure. Worse, it is soon discovered that the young woman is Lady Enderfield, whose husband has only recently died. Julia is summoned away from the ballroom when Lady Gaythorn is taken ill, and from that lady learns to her horror that Lady Enderfield was Fitzroy’s first love, and once betrothed to him; but that, Fitzroy’s cousin then standing between himself and his great-uncle’s dukedom, she jilted him to marry the elderly but wealthy Lord Enderfield. Lady Gaythorn also admits that out of jealousy of this woman, once her friend, she herself was lured into jilting the man she loved, a second son with a moderate fortune, and marrying instead—his father, Lord Gaythorn. Lady Gaythorn warns Julia that Lady Enderfield can have come for one purpose only, and urges her to save Fitzroy from imminent danger. Julia, however, is unable to believe that Fitzroy could now feel anything for Lady Enderfield but contempt.

But to Julia’s profound sorrow and mortification, when she returns to the ballroom it is to find Fitzroy dancing with Lady Enderfield, and seemingly oblivious to the shocked attention of those around them. Later, however, having parted from his former love, Fitzroy seems as if awakened from a dream; and when both Julia and Lady Enderfield narrowly escape injury when a chandelier falls, it is Julia to whom he flies. He apologises for what he calls his “infatuated desertion” of her, and begs her to walk with him the following morning, at which time he promises to explain everything.

That night, Julia reflects upon the events of the evening, and from the tumult of her emotions, finally admits to herself that she loves Fitzroy. The next morning finds her ascending a swell of ground near the Hargraves’ rectory, which commands a view of the road—and from where she sees the approaching Fitzroy accosted by Lady Enderfield. As she rushes towards him, she trips, clutching at her ankle, compelling Fitzroy to help her away. Conceding that he had no choice but to assist, Julia turns away, pacing around as she waits for Fitzroy to return and keep his appointment with her—and waits—and waits…

[SPOILERS]

Published in 1806, Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector is a real “Catherine Cuthbertson Experience” – by which I mean it is entertaining, surprising and exasperating in about equal measure. In structure it resembles its sister-novels, being untenably lengthy, with half a dozen wandering plots woven loosely about one another and a dizzying cast of characters whose names, titles, relationships and marriages are almost impossible to keep straight. In spite of its commercially astute title, with its suggestion of monastic horrors, in reality this is a domestic novel much closer in spirit and content to Rosabella than to Romance Of The Pyrenees, confirming my suspicion that Cuthbertson was no real devotee of the Gothic; and like Rosabella it has a young, innocent, “insulated” heroine who spends the novel moving from household to household, being buffeted by fortune and winning both unshakably devoted friends and dangerously jealous enemies, before a momentous secret about her true identity is revealed.

What is most exasperating about this novel – and we might as well get “exasperating” out of the way at the outset – is also one of the things that is rather interesting about it, at least in an historical context. In this course of reading we’ve already come across the curious phenomenon of the novel of sentimentalism, of which Valentine is a particularly amusing example. In novels of that school, it was always a simple matter of emotion for the sake of emotion, with the characters’ sufferings an end unto themselves. Santo Sebastiano, published some two decades later, belongs to the next generation of sentimental novels, and what we find here is something rather different: emotion in the service of didacticism, with the “sensibility” of the characters used as a moral yardstick. The better the character – the higher and more refined their sense of duty – the more frequently they suffer emotional collapses.

And what collapses! As you may recall, it was while reading Santo Sebastiano that Thomas Macaulay was inspired to keep a tally of just how often in the novel someone fainted – 27 times in total – including one or two appearances from our old friend, the death-like swoon. But those were only the actual faints; the Compleat Faints, if you like. If Macaulay had included in his survey the almost faints—the times that someone felt faint, or was taken faint, or had to sit down to avoid fainting—well, I shudder to think what the total would have been; certainly into three figures.

And then there’s the crying, which is of a frequency and volume that truly boggles the mind. It’s not so much a case of “cry me a river” as “cry me an inland sea”. No wonder the characters in this novel are always calling for glasses of water: they must go through life in a state of chronic dehydration. 

And even beyond all this, we have repeated instances of characters falling ill, contracting “dangerous fevers”, almost dying of the strength of their own emotions. And they don’t just do all this on their own account, but in sympathy with other people’s suffering—a single upsetting event thus being sufficient to set off a chain reaction of emotional breakdowns.

Of course, from a novel-reading perspective, what this means is, the more the author intends us to like and admire a character, the more thoroughly tiresome we are likely to find them; and really, we can only sympathise with Jane Austen’s impulse to hold this sort of thing up to mockery—and be grateful to her for helping to kill this particular trend by imbuing the concept of “sensibility” with a permanent sting in its tail.

So, yes—as I said of Rosabella, it is necessary to do a lot of “wading” to get to the good parts of this novel; but there are many good parts – some clever plot turns, and some extremely interesting treatments of novelistic conventions. It is true enough that Cuthbertson’s ideas are stronger than her writing – that she is not quite talented enough to do justice to her own concepts, besides having an unfortunate tendency to write her plot-points into the ground. My feeling is that if she had been held by her publishers to three volumes only, compelled to rein herself in, she would have been a better novelist; but as it is, over the course of the five meandering volumes of Santo Sebastiano she still expresses enough unexpected or unconventional opinions – particularly within the framework of the sentimental novel – to hold the reader’s interest, and to incline us to forgive her various excesses.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Santo Sebastiano is its treatment of the relationship between Julia De Clifford and Horatio Fitzroy. At the outset of the novel, nothing could appear more thoroughly conventional. Fitzroy, handsome, high-born, emotional, given to extravagant gestures and declarations, appears in every respect the model of a sentimental hero, and it seems merely a matter of how the author will manage to keep perfect hero and perfect heroine apart for five volumes. I think it’s safe to say that when the cracks start to appear in the character of Fitzroy – when he is at length revealed as having feet not merely of clay, but of something very like manure – it is as great a shock to the reader as it is to Julia. This is not the way things usually go in the sentimental novel:

“My good sir, what is it you can expect? I fear, by this most premature despondence, the women have spoiled you; and that it has hitherto been, ‘Ask, and you shall have;’ not, ‘Seek, and perchance you may find.’ Can you expect, the moment you feel an inclination for the affections of such a woman as Miss De Clifford, that she is at your nod, to throw them to you? If such was your hope, you lightly estimated her. She will give her heart with caution, believe me; for where she gives, the gift will be for ever.”

One the the most cherished tropes of the sentimental novel was that of “first love, last love”. It was a convention that spilled out from the realm of the strictly sentimental, where a disappointment invariably meant a broken heart and then death, into the more mainstream works, where it was not infrequently implied that a woman who could love a second time, or who ceased to love the first object of her affections, whatever the circumstances, was not quite “nice”.

There are any number of novels I could use to illustrate the point I’m making here, but the one that keeps coming to mind is Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds in which, after becoming engaged at the outset to the heroine – who is, like Julia, poor and obscure and forced to work to support herself – the alleged hero then neglects her for the rest of the book, exposing her to all sorts of unpleasantness, while he dallies with a wealthy widow and contemplates marrying her for her money. In the end, the widow’s bad behaviour frightens him into scurrying back home, where he is received with open arms by his fiancée, his mother and his sister, who not only refrain from uttering a word of criticism, but doggedly pretend that he’s done nothing wrong – all of which is presented, quite without irony, as “correct” female behaviour.

Not surprisingly, opinions on the subject of first and second love, and of the proper response to a disappointment, tend to split down gender lines; and I am pleased to be able to report that here we find Catherine Cuthbertson following on from so-called “radical” novelists like Charlotte Smith, and suggesting that the correct way for a woman to react to serious wrongdoing on the part of a man is not to look the other way, but to kick his ass to the kerb.

Although perhaps they don’t phrase it quite like that.

(Charlotte Smith, by the way, is a very interesting novelist, and one I intend to take a proper look at…one of these years…)

Indeed, the resemblance between Fitzroy and the anti-hero of Smith’s Emmeline; or, The Orphan Of The Castle may be more than just coincidental. In any event, both novels have their young heroines outgrowing an early, unhappy experience and finding enduring love with a man who has proven himself both honourable and steadfast. However, while Fitzroy’s behaviour does eventually kill Julia’s love for him, and while she does at last find another, true love, her journey is slow, painful, and full of self-doubt. No less than the average mainstream novelist does Julia feel that she has a duty to stay loyal to her first love – they are never, by the way, formally engaged – and for a long, worrying phase of the novel, even after she has faced the fact that she no longer loves him, Julia cannot free herself of the feeling that it is her duty to marry Fitzroy anyway, and to try and reclaim him. It takes Fitzroy committing a truly unforgiveable sin before Julia washes her hands of him once and for all, and admits her feelings for another man.

The slow reveal of Fitzroy’s real character is cleverly done by Cuthbertson. At first it is merely a matter of behaviour which, however wounding to Julia’s sensibilities, might stem from the kind of extravagant love that delights in making a spectacle of itself, but which over time looks to the reader more and more like selfishness, and a lack of proper regard for Julia’s reputation. His defection to the side of Lady Enderfield might be mere weakness, and indeed is explained and excused by his friend, Lord Francis Loraine, as due to “the siren”‘s knowledge of the vulnerable points in his character; and even when, Julia and Mrs Goodwin having ended their visit to the Hargraves without hearing one more word from Fitzroy, the newspapers carry an announcement of his engagement to Lady Enderfield, he is generally perceived as a victim:

“If this Mr Fitzroy is a worthy man, I most sincerely pity him: if an undeserving one, he will, even in this life, meet with ample punishment, in the wife he has chosen, for every crime he may or can commit. I knew this Circe well; I was at Venice when her husband died: was murdered, I scruple not to say, by the agent of a ruined Venetian count, a favourite of this vile woman’s, with whom I afterwards saw her at Paris, under the auspices of that licentious court, where her conduct could only be equalled by those who countenanced her.”

But it is clear to the reader long before it is to Julia or his relatives that Fitzroy is a real piece of work, and the fact that Cuthbertson’s novel was written in the early years of the 19th century allows her to be frank about his various misdeeds in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades later. Cuthbertson tries to make Fitzroy a tragic character, a potentially great man who becomes a victim of his bad upbringing and (above all) his lack of religion; and while it doesn’t entirely work, it’s never less than interesting.

One detail I’ve never seen before, even in a novel of these comparatively lax times, is that Fitzroy is the child of sinning parents: his mother and father had an affair while the former was married to another man and finally ran away together. Cuthbertson even allows herself to be sardonic rather than outraged in her telling of this tale, as the narrative remarks that if the adulterers had kept it all a secret just a little while longer, they could have had their cake and eaten it: the cuckolded husband broke his neck fox-hunting not long after his wife’s elopement.

(We are given another salutary reminder that this is a Regency novel, not a Victorian novel, when it is the young Lady Theodosia Southerland, second daughter of the Earl and Countess of Delamore, who recounts to Julia all the scandalous details about Fitzroy’s parents. Who told her, I should like to know!?)

As it was, with the scandal an open one, even though the sinners subsequently married they were no longer “received”, and were therefore forced to reside “on the Continent”, where their son was raised; the root, we are solemnly told, of all his evil. (Note that earlier reference to the “licentious” Paris court.) We are repeatedly assured that Fitzroy’s love for Julia is quite genuine, and that when he is with her, her influence is absolute; but for Fitzroy it is out of sight, out of mind, and whenever he is away from Julia he invariably passes the time in another dalliance – or another seduction.

But then, what can you expect from a man brought up amongst Catholics and atheists?

Santo Sebastiano is, it must be said, an incredibly bigoted novel, in a way that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so funny. Cuthbertson gets herself into quite a tangle trying to explain away the fact that her heroine is delicate and refined and profoundly religious in spite of the fact that she was – just like Fitzroy – raised in a thoroughly immoral household “on the Continent”. Unlike many English novels, for Cuthbertson the problem is not that “the Continent” is Catholic, but that it hasn’t much religion of any kind; and again and again, France and Italy, the scenes of Julia’s upbringing, are sketched as a moral cesspool, from which only the truly religious (i.e. Protestants) have a chance of escaping with soul intact.

The general tone of this aspect of the novel is best illustrated in a letter from the Earl of Ashgrove to his sister, Lady Delamore. In his youth, Ashgrove’s dearest friend was Frederick De Clifford; and while the friendship survived De Clifford’s marriage to the girl that Ashgrove also loved, the Lady Adelaide Montrose, when De Clifford remarried only a short time after his wife’s horrifying death in a fire, Ashgrove was so deeply offended that he turned his back upon his friend. However, belatedly becoming aware that De Clifford left a daughter from this second marriage, the embers of his boyhood friendship inspire the Earl to appoint himself the orphaned girl’s guardian. Detained in the Mediterranean on naval duties, Ashgrove asks Lady Delamore to take charge of Julia – but not without warning her that of the potential dangers:

“But now to the cause, my Emily, of this late confidence. De Clifford left a child, a daughter, by his second, and to me obnoxious marriage. His widow did not long survive him; and the unfortunate child fell to the care of the diabolical beldam, Mrs St. Clair… The poor child has been thrown upon the protection of strangers, in some gloomy sepulchre of the living—a dreary monastery, where neglect she has always experienced, and too often unkind treatment; and, even more dreadfully still, my sister, has, I fear, that terrible woman injured the child of poor De Clifford; an injury most direful. This woman—no, no, I insult the sex by classing her amongst them—this monster was—aye, shudder, Emily, for well you may—an avowed atheist; and this poor, pretty babe in her clutches; and, bred amongst ignorant and superstitious priests and nuns, is either a rank Catholic, or, oh! horror of horrors! has no religion at all!”

[To be continued…]

11/06/2011

The Haunted Room

“I have been tracing a parallel in my mind,” he observed, “between the human soul and the so-called haunted dwelling. Most persons have in the deepest recess of the spiritual man some secret chamber, where prejudice shuts out the light, where self-deception bricks up the door. Into this chamber the possesser himself in some cases never enters to search out and expel the besetting sin, which, unrecognised, perhaps lurks there in the darkness.”

Upon the death of her husband from hydrophobia only weeks after their marriage, the young widow Mrs Myers has his room bricked up. For the next fifty years, she does not leave the house…and over that time, not only the room itself but the whole estate of Myst Court gains a reputation for being haunted… Upon the death of Mrs Myers, Myst Court descends to her nephew, the widower Mr Trevor. In company with his eldest son, nineteen-year-old Bruce, Mr Trevor travels to Wiltshire to inspect his inheritance, to decide whether to move his family there, or lease the estate and continue on in the pleasant villa near to London that the Trevors currently occupy. In their absence, Mr Trevor’s brother-in-law, Captains Arrows, a naval officer, concludes a long cruise and arrives at Summer Villa to visit his relatives. Arrows’ niece, Emmie, reports to her uncle all she and her younger brother, Vibert, know of the inheritance – including its ill reputation, and the fact that Mrs Myers’ will specfied that the bricked-up room was not to be entered. Arrows laughs off the thought of a haunted house, but sees that Emmie is more disturbed than she cares to admit.

When Mr Trevor and Bruce return, the former reports that the house and estate alike are in poor repair. He adds that not only would a tenant be impossible to find, but that the necessary improvements require the oversight of an owner, not an agent; and that consequently, he has decided that Summer Villa must be given up. Although she strives to hide it, Emmie in particular is dismayed by this news, not only because of the prospect of leaving a pleasant neighbourhood and goods friends for an old house in disarray, but because, as her uncle has observed, the thought of Myst Court being haunted has taken possession of her imagination.

Captain Arrows is recalled to active duty. During his visit, he has become concerned about certain aspects of the characters of his niece and nephews; and before he leaves, he tries to warn each of them of what he fears lurks in their own “haunted room”, that dark chamber in the heart where sins and weaknesses hide even from their owner. Bruce, although level-headed and dependable beyond his years, possesses an overweening pride that gives him too high an opinion of his own powers, making him reluctant to admit a fault, resentful of criticism and scornful of advice and assistance. Vibert, meanwhile, is thoughtless to the point of being selfish, disregarding the feelings and needs of others while he pursues his own pleasures. As for Emmie, she is puzzled when her uncle accuses her of mistrust. Captain Arrows explains that Emmie does not truly have faith in God, but rather allows herself to be ruled by her fears in everything from her terror of thunderstorms – and ghosts – to her neglect of her duties: failing, for example, to succour the poor for fear of encountering sickness. Unlike her brothers, who are offended and angry with Captain Arrows, Emmie is willing enough to admit her chief failing – but no less loath to try and overcome it.

Poor Emmie’s first experiences at Myst Court are not happy ones. As a prank on Bruce, Vibert drives off without him from the station, but then gets lost in the dark, overturning the small carriage and Emmie with it just as a storm breaks. The pair are rescued by passers-by, one a Colonel Standish, an American, the other a local man, Harper, who crowns Emmie’s misery by asking whether they are, “Some of the new folk as are coming to the haunted house.” At the house itself, Emmie is settled into the largest and most comfortable room, which Bruce has been at pains to furnish and decorate for her. However, when the housekeeper, Mrs Jessel, informs her darkly that it is adjacent to the haunted room, describing also her own ghostly encounters during her employment at Myst Court, Emmie’s terror overcomes her and she begs Bruce to swap accommodation with her – even though his room is small and stark. Bruce is hurt by her disregard of his efforts and disgusted by her cowardice, but agrees.

Nor do Emmie’s efforts to fulfil her obligations to her father’s tenants go well. After literally fleeing the field in a panic during her first attempt to help, a series of humiliating blunders sees Emmie giving money to the least deserving, neglecting to provide promised aid for the sick, and finally relinquishing her duties to Mrs Jessel – who is only too happy to have the family bounty in her charge.

But Emmie has not come to the end of her trials; and before much longer, the courage and endurance of all the Trevors will be tested to the utmost, as the dark and deadly secret of the haunted room is finally revealed…

[SPOILERS]

Charlotte Maria Tucker, who usually published under the sobriquet “A.L.O.E.” – “A Lady Of England” – was one of the most prolific of all 19th-century authors – even after giving her competitors a head start. Miss Tucker’s father, an important official in the notorious British East India Company, disapproved of women working; and it was not until after his death in 1851 that his thirty-year-old daughter felt she could devote herself to the two great passions of her life, missionary work and literature. For more than twenty years, Miss Tucker published stories intended for young people, which covered a wide range of topics from the strictly historical to the frankly allegorical, but always with overt moral and religious themes. Miss Tucker’s stories were successful and very popular; if her work was always didactic, it was also entertaining, and showed an understanding often missing from tales intended for the young. The considerable earnings of her efforts were donated almost in their entirety to charity.

The Haunted Room (in some editions, “Haunted Rooms“) was published in 1876. It carries a preface stating:

It is under peculiar circumstances that A.L.O.E. sends forth this little volume. As it is passing through the press its author is preparing to enter on a new field of labour in the East, as an honorary member of the Zenana Mission in India. Of the fact that the missionary cause has been dear to A.L.O.E. her readers may be aware from her former writings. She now hopes to be permitted to devote an evening hour of her life to that cause…

At the age of fifty-four, Charlotte Maria Tucker left England for India to work as a missionary, and spent the rest of her life there. The Reverend Worthington Jukes later recalled in his memoirs, She proved an inspiration to many, not the least, to the younger generation of Missionaries, men and women, who found in her the link which they had lost on leaving their dear ones in England. They found in her a sympathy and geniality born of the deepest spirituality and intellectual cheerfulness, and they were always happy in her company. Many of these Missionaries were deeply honoured by being allowed to call her “Auntie”, and I was one of the fortunate Nephews; of the nieces there were many…

Miss Tucker continued to write during her years in India – and to donate all the proceeds. Her stories often had Indian themes, and some were translated into local dialects. Miss Tucker died in 1893; tributes are paid to her memory in the form of plaques upon both the church in Batala, where she did much of her work and where she is buried, and Lahore Cathedral.  In 1895, the novelist Agnes Giberne published a biography of her entitled A Lady Of England: The Life And Letters Of Charlotte Maria Tucker.

While most of Miss Tucker’s stories were intended for children, The Haunted Room is aimed more at an audience that today we would call “young adult”. It is an extremely hardcore religious / didactic work. Miss Tucker is uncompromising in her ideas of religious duty. To her way of thinking, Bruce’s pride, Vibert’s selfishness and Emmie’s cowardice are not mere venal transgressions, but sins of the deepest order that a good Christian must fight against and subdue.

However, although much of The Haunted Room is given to considerations of duty and faith, these reflections are set within a realistic family dynamic, and a framework of the relations between the sexes, that any reader will recognise – and either smile or wince at:

“Come, come, there’s nothing to be terrified at now; the danger is over. You’re not hurt, are you?” asked Vibert, with some anxiety, for he loved his sister next to himself, though, it must be confessed, with a considerable space between.

“Of course I will change rooms with you if you really wish it,” said Bruce, willing to humour his sister, but making mental reflections on the fickleness and unreasonableness of the female sex, of which Emmie was the only representative with whom he was well acquainted.

   “You are the last person from whom I should have expected such a taunt,” said the spendthrift bitterly. “I thought that if I had no other friend in the world I should find one, Emmie, in you.”
   “Always! always!'”cried his sister eagerly: “I would do anything for you, dear Vibert!”
   “Will you lend me that five-pound note?”

While it would be incorrect to say that Miss Tucker sympathises with her young transgressors, there is certainly a sense of wry understanding in her presentation of them, particularly of the way in which family relationships tend to trap people in certain behaviour patterns.

Thus we have Vibert emotionally blackmailing the weak-willed Emmie into lending him money, even though (i) it’s all she has; (ii) she has earmarked it for charitable works; and (iii) she knows full well from past experience that despite Vibert’s protestations and expressions of hurt at her lack of trust in him, she’ll never see a penny of it again. Emmie’s chief desire is to be a mediator between her brothers, but somehow she always manages to put herself in the wrong just before attempting it, which gives her reluctant auditors an excuse to wave her gentle criticisms away. Vibert, in his resentment of Mr Trevor’s open reliance upon Bruce’s judgement, makes a point of defying his brother at every opportunity, no matter how foolish or hurtful to others his actions might be; while Bruce, in turn, equally resentful of what he views as his father’s over-indulgence of Vibert, consoles himself with the thought of how much better a person he is than his brother – hugging the very pride and self-satisfaction that his uncle has warned him against. And then there’s Mr Trevor himself, who never seems to be around when Vibert is jeering at and goading his older brother, but always manages to enter the room just as Bruce is losing his temper in retaliation.

Speaking of Mr Trevor, it is interesting that his main contribution to this story is his repeated absence from it for one reason or another, his children frequently left to their own control. While at first glance this may be seen as an “explanation” for their failings, in fact it becomes clear that Miss Tucker does not intend this interpretation. On the contrary, in her opinion, at the ages of 19, 18 and 17, Bruce, Emmie and Vibert are quite old enough to understand and execute their duties, without the need for adult supervision.

That said, Miss Tucker does admit that the children’s early loss of their mother has been damaging, and for Emmie in particular. There is a sense that, the world – and female education – being what it is, girls do need more guidance than boys, being given less chance to learn through experience and thus more susceptible to poor influences…including the usual suspects:

…the images of Harper and Jael Jessel mixed themselves up with the phantoms which their weird stories had raised in the imaginative mind of the girl. Emmie, early deprived of the guidance of a sensible mother, had often made an unprofitable use of her leisure; she had read much of the literature which is called sensational; she had pondered over tales of horror; her mind had been fed on unwholesome food. Emmie had let fancy lead her where it list, and it would be no easy task to undo the mischief wrought in idle hours in the name of amusement.

And I doubt we’ll find a clearer declaration of Miss Tucker’s own literary manifesto anywhere in her extensive oeuvre.

Of the three Trevor children, Miss Tucker is hardest upon Emmie. Although she admits the peculiar difficulties of being a girl, it is evident that she also feels that as a girl, Emmie has the best chance to be a true Christian. From the beginning of this story, however, it is made clear how very long and thorny is the path before her. The description of Emmie’s various blunders and shrinkings and retreats during her abortive attempts at charity work is unflinching and painful, a graphic account of the consequences of what this story calls Emmie’s “mistrust”, her lack of real, practical faith in God, which leads on to other failures little less serious:

It was not the love of God, but the dread of incurring His displeasure, which made the poor, hesitating, unwilling girl combat the fear of man. And if Emmie was not impelled forwards by a loving desire to please a loving Master, still less was she influenced by tender concern for the souls of those whom she felt that she ought to visit. The child of luxury, in her pleasant home, had scarcely regarded the poor as being of the same class of beings as herself. They were creatures to be pitied, to be helped, to be taught by those trained for the work; but as beings to be objects of sympathy and love, as children of the one Great Father, Emmie could not regard them. Charity was thus to her but a cold dry duty…

Although at times I found Miss Tucker’s attitude towards Emmie perhaps a little too unrelenting, I do have to say that reading a work in which a girl being weak, timorous and helpless was treated with scorn and derision, rather than being regarded as proper female behaviour, was remarkably refreshing.

And the haunted room? The real haunted room, that is, not those figurative dark chambers within the human heart, against which the concerned Captain Arrows warns his niece and nephews at the outset of our tale, for so long to no good effect. Well, the sealed-up room at Myst Court does in fact have a terrible secret, but as you’ve probably concluded by now, given the nature of the tale in question – and Miss Tucker’s opinion of horror stories and other sensational literarure – that secret isn’t a ghost. The secret is revealed, separately, to Emmie and to Bruce, with dire consequences. By the conclusion of The Haunted Room, the entire Trevor family will have suffered through an ordeal of the most dangerous and terrifying nature, a test by fire – in Bruce’s case, almost literally – with all three of the children confronted by and compelled to overcome their worst individual failings, finally emerging tempered in both body and soul…

Not in the least degree doubting that the woman had addressed one of the household, and eager to find herself once more amongst familiar faces, out of the darkness and chilly night air, Emmie quickly followed Mrs Jessel into the room. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than she stopped short in surprise and alarm, gazing in motionless terror at the unexpected sight which met her eyes.—for Emmie stood in the haunted chamber!

.

Footnote:  Even in the didactic literature of the 19th century, it seems I cannot quite escape the political turmoil of the late 17th and early 18th centuries:

“Let’s imagine ourselves as we would have appeared some hundred and fifty years ago. I’m a young Tory gallant (of course, I’m a Jacobite at heart, and drink to the king over the water); Bruce is a decided Whig.—I’m not sure that he is not a Dutchman, and has come over from Holland in the train of the Prince of Orange.”
—Vibert Trevor, 1876.

22/04/2011

Milistina; or, The Double Interest

“Milistina opened the paper, and the first article that met her eye was an account, dated from St. Vincent’s, relating the melancholy effects of the climate, which, in a short time, had taken off several of its inhabitants, and been fatal to many of the privates in our different regiments—several of the officers of which had fallen a sacrifice, with a list of the several names. One of the number mentioned was Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill.—Milistina read it, and involuntarily exclaimed—“My God! support me!” and fainted.”

Milistina Berrel is the beautiful young daughter of Sir George and Lady Berrel, who live a life of quiet contentment in the country, devoted to one another and to their two children. The Berrels, however, are not the pre-eminent family of the neighbourhood, which is dominated by the Earl and Countess of Farnborough, whose only son, the Viscount Severn, is selfish and dissolute, but nevertheless considered a marital prize of the first order – should the Earl in his pride ever consider any woman a suitable match.

Hearing of Milistina’s beauty, the Viscount persuades his parents to host a grand ball, to which the Berrels are invited. During the evening, the dancing is disrupted when a young woman called Harriet Sheffield faints. Milistina and her brother, Henry, both hurry to Mrs Sheffield’s assistance, but must reluctantly resign her to the care of her brusque and impatient husband, who shocks them both with his callous attitude towards his delicate wife.

As soon as her health permits, Mrs Sheffield calls upon the Berrels to express her gratitude for their kindness to her at the ball. A warm friendship soon develops between Milistina and Mrs Sheffield, but for Henry, already attracted by their neighbour’s beauty and gentleness, a closer acquaintance induces a dangerous emotional state that only deepens with his increasing knowledge of Mrs Sheffield’s fine character. Observing these signs in her brother, Milistina warns him that he must fight against his feelings. Only too aware of the forbidden nature of his love – and, given the principles of both parties, its futility – Henry promises his sister that in order to conquer himself, he will in future avoid the company of Mrs Sheffield; but in a restricted neighbourhood, this is not always an easy task.

Nor is Henry’s situation made any easier by a better knowledge of Mr Sheffield. Entirely indifferent to his wife and worried by her ill-health only inasmuch as it interferes with his own comfort, Sheffield thinks of little other than dogs, horses, fox-hunting and drinking-parties. Mrs Sheffield’s only consolation in her lonely existence are the occasional visits of her brother, William Churchill, who spends as much time with his sister as his military duties will allow. Churchill is delighted to discover that Harriet has found so congenial a friend as Milistina – and if he is stunned at first glance by Milistina’s beauty, it is not long before admiration becomes something warmer.

Her doctor insisting upon a removal to Bath, Mrs Sheffield begs that Milistina might accompany her. Milistina has never been away from home before, but placing their faith in their young daughter’s principles, Sir George and Lady Berrel reluctantly give permission. To the relief of everyone except, perhaps, Mr Sheffield, who has accompanied his wife on her journey in a most ungracious spirit, the sojourn in Bath greatly improves Mrs Sheffield’s health. During this time, Mr Churchill and Milistina grow very close – and when his regiment is ordered to the West Indies, Churchill sends to Milistina a letter in which he avows his love to her. Milistina is at first thrilled by this, but then grows unhappy at the reflection that she has received her lover’s declaration without the knowledge or sanction of her parents. However, when she writes an circumstantial account of the situation, enclosing Churchill’s letter in her own, the Berrels are so delighted with this evidence of Milistina’s steadiness and the character of Churchill as revealed to them, that they give the desired permission.

Fortified by her parents’ approval, Milistina prepares to endure the long separation from her lover that his duty demands – only to be confronted, upon opening a newspaper, with an account of the rampant fever sweeping through St. Vincent’s, and by Churchill’s name amongst the fatalities…

[SPOILERS]

Milistina is an oddly interesting little novel – something, granted, that is not immediately apparent from that synopsis – which is exactly the point. While on the surface this is the most straightforward of didactic novels, with virtue automatically rewarded and vice automatically punished, there’s a deeper purpose here, one for which the didacticism provides a convenient cover. It isn’t always easy to guess the sex of the author of an anonymous novel – Valentine being a case in point – but I haven’t any doubt that Milistina was written by a woman, and a woman with an agenda; a woman who, after placing her predictably perfect and, frankly, not very interesting heroine in the extreme foreground, then spends her novel quietly bitching away in the background.

Our author’s chief concern is marriage, specifically interested marriage, and girls’ lack of control over their own destiny. The Berrels, as a family, are the exception that proves the rule. Sir George and Lady Berrel have one of this novel’s few happy marriages, and offer to their children an example of a mutually loving and respectful relationship. As for Milistina, she has not only been inculcated with her parents’ principles, but given a thorough (although not, of course, unfeminine) education with which to support them.

The first few chapters of Milistina are actually rather dismal – at least until we realise that this is merely the means by which the author lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Sir George’s rearing of his lovely daughter has apparently consisted of instilling into her a series of ponderous platitudes, which are reproduced for us paragraph after paragraph; rather as if Sir George were a second Polonius, but a Polonius we are asked to take seriously:

    “Give ear, fair daughter of love, to the instructions of prudence, and let the precepts of truth sink deep in thy heart; so shall the charms of thy mind add lustre to the elegance of thy form, and thy beauty, like the rose it resembleth, shall retain its sweetness when its bloom is withered.
    “Who is she that winneth the heart of man, that subdueth him to love, and reigneth in his breast? Lo! yonder she walketh in maiden sweetness, with innocence in her mind, and modesty in her cheek. Her hand seeketh employment, her foot delighteth not in gadding abroad. She is cloathed with neatness, she is fed with temperance; humility and meekness are as a crown of glory circling her head.
    “Submission and obedience are the lessons of her life, and peace and happiness are her reward…”

And so on—and on—and on—

Now—you’d hardly blame any reader who turned tail at this point and fled Milistina with a shriek of horror; but in fact, as this novel goes on the contrast between this opening explosion of purple nonsense and the sotto voce snarkiness with which the author says what she really thinks becomes increasingly amusing.

For all that this novel is named for her, very little in it actually happens to Milistina herself; certainly nothing much out of the ordinary way. As a young lady would, she attends parties; she makes friends; she leaves her parents’ home for the first time; and she falls in love. The one real disruption to the ordered nature of Milistina’s life is the newspaper report that declares William Churchill dead of fever in the West Indies – but even here, she, and we, are given good reason to believe this may be a false report, as indeed quickly – or as quickly as 17th-century communication allows – proves to be the case. Finally reunited with her lover, Milistina sails forward into a future of serene happiness.

Very rarely is Milistina troubled by doubts or temptations; her principles are so deeply engrained as to be reflexes, guiding her in every contingency – almost. Milistina’s over-scrupulous fretting at receiving her lover’s unsanctioned declaration may strike us as rather absurd, particularly in light of William Churchill’s imminent departure on dangerous and indefinite military duty, but it leads to an interesting outcome. Having mentally condemned both Churchill and herself, Milistina does penance by sending to her parents a circumstantial account of her situation, in which she confesses – and apologises for – her love, and encloses Churchill’s own letter. Sir George and Lady Berrel’s response is to praise Milistina’s conduct, and to sanction her engagement despite not having met the young man in question. They have raised their daughter carefully, they understand her character, and they trust her judgement – even in the most crucial matter of the choice of a husband.

Which brings us to the true, albeit hidden, purpose of this novel, the real interest of which lies lurking in its subplots. Surrounding Milistina and her happy love affair are a handful of contrasting relationships, marriages entered into for what the author considers all the wrong reasons. Significantly, the women involved in these marriages have, unlike Milistina, been given no say in their own disposal, but have been compelled by their parents for reasons of interest. The subsequent unhappiness of these wives is profound and constant – and commonplace.

In light of these subplots, that early declaration of Sir George’s about humility and meekness and submission and obedience, and the peace and happiness they bring, takes on a new and ironic significance. Wifely submission and obedience was taken very much for granted at the time of this novel’s composition, of course: religious duty supported by social convention. The theory was that a wife’s submission would evoke her husband’s chivalry; that the less she considered her own feelings, the more grateful and generous he would become towards her.

You can almost hear the author’s lip curl, as she sits down to deal with that one.

Our first unhappy wife is the Countess of Farnsborough, married without love or even regard because of her suitable birth. For a quarter of a century she has been the perfect English wife – with what the author clearly considers the natural result:

“His gentle wife had not been absolutely wretched in her alliance to this pompous Peer: she owed her exemption from this state to her own submissive obedience to her haughty Lord:—when she differed in sentiments (which, alas! was too often the case), she was always silent, which he considered as her acquiescence to his superior knowledge on all points: this strengthened him in self-conceit…”

And again:

“Lady Farnborough had been too long in the school of passive submission and obedience to venture even a contrary opinion on indifferent subjects, and though her feelings were sensibly hurt by the implacable hatred and unforgiving menace denounced by her husband against her son, she remained silent…”

Amongst the many trials and tribulations of her marriage, perhaps the greatest for Lady Farnborough is that her beloved only son is removed by his father from her care when just a child, and given over to be raised by servants and tutors: professional sycophants, with a great deal more interest in currying favour and feathering their own nests, than in building character. An explicit contrast is drawn here between Milistina’s scrupulous upbringing under her mother’s watchful eye and the destructive road which Lord Severn travels from a disastrously early age.

But Lady Farnborough is not the only unhappy wife in the neighbourhood. There is also Harriet Sheffield:

“…who, contrary to the suggestions of her own heart or inclination, was united to a man of good fortune, a foxhunter, and not so formed as to estimate the value of the gem he was in possession of. He had seen her at the country races; had danced with her; and wishing for some time, as he expressed it, ‘the convenience of having a wife to save him some trouble,’ he proposed to the lady, to the joy of her family…”

The thick-headed, thick-skinned Mr Sheffield is interested in little except hunting, and compels his fine-natured and delicately-constituted wife to act as hostess to his habitually drunken friends:

“The party that were then assembled at Oak Cover drank very hard, which made them very unfit society for the gentle Mrs Sheffield, who felt a great comfort in having the protection of such a brother at those times.—She made her appearance—he that should have been the guardian of the delicate sensibility of his wife, alas! too often wounded it by the coarseness and familiarity of a husband, which…gave him, he conceived, a privilege of being the rudest of the company…”

Unlike the perpetually silent Lady Farnborough, Mrs Sheffield occasionally steels herself to voice a mild protest – for all the good it does her:

“Mrs. Sheffield always took the earliest opportunity of withdrawing herself from the noisy mirth of the dinner, and had often prayed her husband to permit her wholly to absent herself on the days his jolly friends joined him; but this favour was sought in vain—his coarse reply was always—‘What the Devil did I marry you for? you want to have your own way in every thing.'”

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the author’s attitude towards Henry Berrel. Far from being horrified at the very idea of a man, let alone a “good” man, falling in love with a married woman, she takes a pragmatic, Oh, well, these things happen view of the matter, contending, in effect, that we cannot control our feelings, only our behaviour. Interesting, too, is that the innocent Milistina so quickly grasps her brother’s situation; and while she is implacable in her assertion that Henry must avoid Mrs Sheffield whenever he can in their restricted society, she blames neither party. (Mrs Sheffield, I should say, remains rather unconvincingly oblivious to Henry’s passion for her.) As for Henry himself, far from displaying the back-and-white determination we might expect, he vacillates, tearing himself away from his Harriet on numerous occasions, but always giving in to temptation and finding an excuse to come back. In his repeated making and breaking of resolutions, Henry Berrel is a far more interesting character than his immaculate sister.

The third marriage examined here is that of Lord Severn, whose dissolute way of life ultimately proves ruinous, and then fatal. As his health begins to fail, his lordship, who has quarrelled with his father and whose “friends” begin to drop away in his time of need, conceives the idea of marrying, in order to acquire a permanent nurse. With this entirely selfish aim, he lights upon Hester Errold, a pretty, thoughtless, uneducated, fifteen-year-old girl, whose guardian aunt thinks no further that the prospect of a coronet for her niece and encourages the match. For three months, the new Lady Severn lives a giddy social whirl – and then finds herself chained to the side of a man slowly and painfully dying of consumption.

In many ways, this is the novel’s most interesting marriage. The young Lady Severn certainly does not love her husband, but she is genuinely grateful to him for her elevation and the brief luxury of their life together, and this engenders affection. When his health collapses, this young, untested girl reveals an unexpected strength of character, devoting herself to the care of the dying Viscount and being tempered, as it were, by her passage through the fire, emerging from her ordeal a wiser and better person.

Well! – this is only a novel, after all, where Fate can behave more obligingly than it generally does in reality; and it is with great zest that our anonymous author sets about killing off her array of profoundly unsatisfactory husbands. Thus, Lord Severn succumbs to his consumption, Lord Farnborough has a stroke when he hears of the death of his son and heir – and dies before knowing he’s going to be a grandfather – and Mr Sheffield— Well, that’s the one good thing about drunken, fox-hunting husbands: they’re not difficult to get rid of.

Now, I should stress here that our author is neither anti-man nor anti-marriage; on the contrary. The final third of Milistina devotes much of its time to the afterlives of our three merry widows, two of whom contract second marriages – happy marriages, of their own choosing, based upon love and compatibility of temperament. Mrs Sheffield marries the devoted Henry Berrel – becoming Milistina’s sister-in-law in a second capacity, the “double interest” of the title – while Lady Severn willingly surrenders her title to marry Mr Russel, a young protege of Sir George Berrel. As for Lady Farnborough, she settles down into a happy and useful widowhood, throwing herself into the charitable work her stingy husband disapproved of, enjoying the companionship of her gentle daughter-in-law, and playing a very hands-on role in the raising of her grandson.

The other point to be made is that, zealous in her cause as she is, our author is not so unreasonable so as to suggest that only women may be unhappy in their marriages. In fact, Milistina opens with an account of the unhappy marriage of the Reverend Mr Errold, tutor to the Berrel children and father of the future Lady Severn, who falls in love with a beautiful face and assumes a character to match, only to be bitterly disappointed. However, in the author’s opinion there is a significant difference between this unhappy marriage and the others under consideration. For one thing, Mr Errold had freedom of choice, something women at this time did not. An explicit contrast is drawn between Mr Errold’s rash and unthinking decision, and the behaviour of his future son-in-law, Mr Russel, who like him is at one time drawn to a beautiful face, but bothers to investigate further and retreats when he finds nothing behind the lovely surface. Then too, having been disappointed, Mr Errold is nevertheless able to get away; to leave the house when he feels like it; to devote himself to his work. In short, he still has options – whereas an unhappily married woman is simply trapped.

(Obviously impelled by a sense of fair play, the author kills off the unsatisfactory Mrs Errold, too.)

There’s one other interesting thing about Milistina, or at least I found it so. Early on, the author is shaking her head over Lord Severn’s many and varied shortcomings, when she suddenly launches into this tirade – jumping abruptly from the specific to the general:

“…he early took leave of the Earl and Countess, and returned to town as fast as four post-horses full gallop could convey him to the different stages which supply him with relays for that purpose. It is to be lamented, that the daily sufferings of this useful species of the animal creation, who are so necessary to the promotion and dispatch of our worldly interest and amusement, seldom calls forth the compassionate commiseration of even the feeling part of mankind, whose humanity would save those submissive animals the galling pains (in the most literal acceptation of the word) they suffer, by being pressed beyond their powers of speed, with every sinew extended, till they arrive almost breathless at the end of a long stage, to save only ten, or sometimes twenty minutes to the impatient traveller, in the imaginary consequence of their arrival…”

While it is too much to say that our author is an advocate of animal rights per se – she doesn’t seem to disapprove of fox-hunting, except inasmuch as it contributes to the unsatisfactoriness of husbands – she is certainly extremely concerned over the habitual mistreatment of horses, as is made abundantly and hilariously clear during her account of Mr Sheffield’s inevitable drunken riding accident, where in addition to matter-of-factly describing the victim’s fatal fracturing of his skull, she makes a point of telling us that the horse was uninjured.

We shall probably never know for certain who wrote Milistina, but we do know one thing about her: that she was a woman after my own heart.

19/03/2011

Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05/03/2011

The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia

“It is neither to catch the admiration of the ignorant, nor to make proselytes of the more sensible, that I now lift my pen. To wish for the former, below the dignity of common sense, and to hope for the latter, would be downright vanity. Merely to expose error and falsehood, and to stand votarist for the truth, are I trust the motives which induce me to write and publish these letters…”

As I sit down to write this review, I must first give myself an admonitory smack on the hand. Using reading challenges to random up my reading is all very well—but I have, I think, an obligation to at least try to meet the spirit of the challenge. The intent of my latest, “read a book by or about or featuring a doctor”, was clear enough; and it was hardly an invitation to dig up an obscure epistolary novel from 1788 whose only authorial attribution is to “A Doctor of Physic, M.A. &c.”.

I’ll try to do better in the future, I promise. In the meantime, let’s take a look at this very odd publication entitled The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia; Being A Rational And Philosophical Enquiry Into The Nature Of Things. In A Series Of Letters, and consider what might be the significance of that ominous frontispiece motto: If Fiction persuades, what should Facts do?

And indeed, though it masquerades as one, The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia is not a novel at all: it simply uses the epistolary form as a vehicle for a series of bizarre rants by its anonymous author. As such, it isn’t possible truly to review this publication: what I’ll do instead is simply give you a taste of it via a series of excerpts.

So—the framework. Edwin is the illegitimate son of a noble father, who at his death leaves his “real” family to decide on Edwin’s fate, and whether he is acknowledged and/or inherits any money. The family’s response is to shun Edwin and cut him off essentially penniless, a reaction that for some reason takes Edwin by total surprise.

Julia, meanwhile, is the daughter of a man who contracts religious mania and ends up confined; her mother withdraws from all society, including that of her daughter. Julia is taken in by her uncle who, despite being a clergyman, is simply intent on getting his hands on Julia’s money via this act of “kindness”.

At some point, Edwin and Julia met, fell in love, and were separated; the “novel” never gives us details. When the “interesting story” opens, the two of them have been apart for four years. Edwin is in Paris for reasons that are never made clear (although he may be studying medicine), while Julia is travelling around England with her uncle and his family, also for reasons that are never made clear. The two of them correspond, which seems an unlikely concession on the part of Julia’s uncle – unless he’s keeping her hopeless love for Edwin alive with the aim of preventing her from marrying someone else and therefore taking her fortune out of his control. Amusingly, as we also saw in the roughly contemporaneous Valentine, the anonymous author has his correspondents telling each other their life stories, despite the fact that they’ve known each other for years. And also like Valentine, we are favoured with some hilariously jolting shifts from high pathos to simple commonplaces, without any sense that the author was aware of the incongruity of his tone.

For the most part, The Interesting Story… works itself out as follows: Julia will write a letter to Edwin in which she will relate an anecdote, or repeat a conversation. Edwin will respond with a lengthy lecture on the subject in question. Julia will thank him solemnly for his interesting / enlightening / touching letter, and beg for more of the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. At length, Julia is so overcome by Edwin’s brilliance, she begs his permission to have his letters published – the world must hear of this! Edwin kindly gives her permission, being equally convinced of his own brilliance and the world’s desperate need for his wisdom. The fact that Edwin has trouble constructing a grammatical sentence and spelling correctly is, of course, irrelevant. (And let me assure you: anything italicised below that looks like a typo, isn’t.)

The main topic of conversation is religion: Edwin is a firm believer in God, but a firm disbeliever in the church, and also in hell. He despises atheists, deists and Catholics equally. He contends that the bible has been misinterpreted, accidentally (through ignorance) or intentionally (through malice), and that the church has been using these mis-readings to increase its own power and to keep mankind, particularly women, powerless. (There’s almost a feminist subtext in this, but it gets drowned out by the floodtide of bile.) Furthermore, Edwin doesn’t believe in original sin. This particular revelation prompts Julia to ask why, in that case, mankind needed a Saviour? – a question which I don’t believe Edwin ever gets around to answering.

However, the two of them find many other topics on which to give their opinions pro and con – although mostly con. It’s remarkable, really, how much Edwin and Julia have in common: the enormity of the chip each carries on their shoulder; their endless dislikes and prejudices; and above all, their profound conviction that everyone in the world is stupid and wicked except for them. The publication’s attribution to “a doctor of physic” becomes rather interesting in retrospect, as members of the medical profession and medical opinions of the time attract a significant proportion of whatever vitriol Edwin has left over after dealing with organised religion.

Let’s listen in on a few of the opinions of Edwin and Julia, shall we? This opening passage, in which Edwin airs his views on the state of the world, essentially sets the tone for everything that follows:

“My only friend is dead, which loss has pressed very heavy upon me; Heavens grant you and me the necessary fortitude, for two of the most unfortunate mortals that ever trode the stage of life; and may the faults which we have committed, be as barriers against us in future, when we would slide from the path of virtue. Let us rather than reproach our relations for their follies, learn to correct our own errors. You know the world is made up of caprice and vanity; the ignorant thinks the wise foolish, and the rich hold the poor in despite; the wife betrays her husband, the father often ushers the child to destruction, and the son frequently brings his parents and himself to a morsel of bread. Thus you see the inhabitants of the earth destroying one another, and doubtless will continue so doing till they are totally extirpated from it…”

And here’s Edwin on himself (a favourite topic):

“According to your request, I must now begin to give you a short but faithful account of myself. I believe you know that my pride and ambition may be put into a small circle. I am not very ill-natured, not very severe, although I have the misfortune to be sanguine. I hate flattery and lies; I detest the rogue and despise the villain, but have severely suffered by them. Ever since Nancy S*****, the midwife, whirled me into this ill-advised world, I have been treated not as one of my own species, but as a monster, and will probably not be  used as a human creature, till death whirl me out of it…”

And now Edwin on adultery, of which he has evidently made quite a study (I’m glad, by the way, that Edwin helpfully categorised himself as “not very severe” in his opening remarks on himself; otherwise, there might have been some confusion on that point):

“Adultry and seduction are two of the most heinous sins that man can be guilty of.—Moses both in his livitical and civil laws, rewarded the former by death, and the wisest among the ancients followed his example, and looked on the adulterer and seducer to be equally wicked. The Babylonians, Arabians, Tartars, Javans, Brazilians, and Mexicans, made adultry a capital offence. Among the Turks the offending woman is sentenced to be drowned, and the man still put to greater torture.—The Hungarians force their daughters, their husbands, their wives, their sisters, and their brothers to the place of execution, as soon as found in this abominable crime, or rather the crime of crimes, of which none will be guilty, but those who are actuated by satan, to destroy the peace and happiness of all around them…”

Edwin again, on how a dignified silence is the most powerful weapon:

“…yet I must own, it is below the dignity of Innocence to wage war, or even to defend herself against the unmanly attacks of her enemies; because she can quench the most malignant reproaches of the wicked, and is that good which cannot be taken away even in the time of torment. Silence is the most defensive weapon with which an injured man can defend himself, and is generally the child of innocence, keeping consolation and quiet in the breasts of the good, and an outward peace amongst the bad…”

It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that this paean to Silence comes at the beginning of 200 pages of Edwin’s ranting, and about 150 before he admits to Julia that he always intended publishing his “private reflections”. The publication of Edwin’s various pearls of wisdom will of course be of great benefit to the world, unlike most of what passes for literature and learning in this degenerate day and age; and as for the men who write it – !—

“How they rejoice in evil, and delight in folly; and how anxious they are to raise vice to the dignity of virtue. How they drink, how they blaspheme, how they consume the tobacco, and take away their neighbour’s good report. They have called your sex women, but they ought to have called themselves women-woe and their own! They have jumbled a parcel of lumber and worthless things together, which they call learning, but I would advise you Julia, not to meddle with it, because it is real nonsense; it can neither refine your imagination, nor elevate your understanding; and indeed you may be convinced of what I say, when ever you associate with those who deem themselves of the true literati. They are disagreeable in their manners and conversation, and are often at a loss what to do with their own legs and arms. They are diffident and mistrustful, and delight in saying ill-natured things…”

And could Edwin have had anyone in particular in mind? Like, oh, I don’t know…

“…the late Dr Johnson, whose harsh and rude manners proved him to be a mere pedantic churlish clown, in his heart and principles; altho’ he was stuffed up with verbs, nouns and pronouns, and a quantity of other such rubbish, which his disciples, especially Mrs P— and Mr. R— call learning!…Should education make us disagreeable, ill-natured and hoggish? Or can we deem a man who is so, properly educated?…”

And such is the blighted character generally of the men credited with “learning” that Edwin feels it is his duty to warn Julia away from anything resembling an “education”…among other things:

“The politics of men are such an effusion of nonsense, their philosophy such an unintelligible jargon, and their religious tenets so absurd and contradictory, that one would really think they had not a single grain of judgment or good sense left them. Therefore Julia, I earnestly entreat of you again, to study neither Latin or Greek; laugh at their politics, and scorn their philosophy; avoid the pedant and detest the fop, as also the rigidly religious, be sure to mark them down in your pocket-book…”

But Julia is, after all, just a girl, so much of this is too high-flown for her. But being just a girl, she is able to give her opinion on such topics as the “pernicious” effect of novel-reading on young women (not that this is a novel, heavens no!):

“…their minds are tainted by the pernicious, but insinuating poison of novels and romances.—The imagination heated, and the passions excited in the most pernicious of all schools, the Circulating Library, the man of gallantry makes an easy conquest; and perhaps it may be some extenuation of his guilt, that the object he has devoted to ruin, is ready to surrender on the first summons…”

And indeed, I don’t want to give you the impression that the perverse entertainment value of this thoroughly eccentric polemic lies entirely with Edwin and his ranting. Julia contributes too, as with this rather marvellous example of her habit of going abruptly from the sublime to the ridiculous:

“Do we think that the Son of God came down in vain, or that he ever wished to enforce laws and duties on his creatures, which they are unable to keep or perform? Surely, if we think so, we are mistaken: and I trust, nay, am confident, that the eternal and incomprehensible Being, who is the fountain of all goodness, and the source of love and mercy, can have no respect of persons, or desire for revenge.—But let me finish this letter, by giving you a short description of Southampton…”

Not that Julia has things all her own way in this respect. Here is how Edwin’s rant on adultery, which goes on quite some time after the conclusion of the quotation above – and which runs four full pages, beginning to end – actually finishes:

“…to live with an adulterous woman, is to live with the devil’s companion; and I should think it is much better for one to be happy than too be miserable, or at least I am of opinion that every man should leave his wife when she loves another better than himself. But if I go on in this way, I shall never give you a description of Paris…”

But a talent for anti-climax isn’t all that Edwin and Julia have in common. As it happens (no wonder the two of them fell in love!), Julia also shares Edwin’s opinion of Samuel Johnson…

“…the former of whom I have been repeatedly informed, was so loaded with ill-nature and sarcasm, that he could scarcely speak a good word even of his own poor father and mother… I have read the greatest part of Dr Johnson’s works, and must confess myself totally at a loss to see in what he surpassed the common class of authors. ‘Tis true, I am but a weak judge of literary productions, however, I am inclined to think, that the public, who too often judge wrong of things, have raised Mr Johnson to that dignity which his merit never justly entitled him to…”

And is there anything stupider than “the public”? Hardly. Just look at its habits

“Julia, although I have sent you the above lines on a tobacco-pipe*, be assured I do not wish you should carry a box, or call for a pipe. Snuff is not such a harmless thing as many take it to be, and I believe we owe a great number of of our disorders to it, and that cursed plant Tea, which you ought never to drink above twice a week, and then eat a great deal of bread with it… One half of the people in England are dead years before they are buried, and seldom or never enjoy life!—Gouts, rheumatisms, nervous complaints, scurvies, declines, consumptions, &c. &c. are their continual attendants, all which I attribute, with many more, to the irregularity of diet. They drink such quantities of tea…”

(*And yes, Edwin does send Julia a poem on tobacco – the romantic devil!)

But even more than in its general habits, just look how stupid the public is when it comes taking medical advice (and this is probably a good moment to remind you of this pseudo-novel’s attribution to “a doctor of physic”):

“Physic is surely the most difficult and intricate science under the sun… When I was at the colleges of Edinburgh and Paris, I knew numbers of dunces, especially students in physic…who ought to blush in putting any initial after their names, except F.R.S. which I believe may signify a fellow remarkably stupid, or the foolish remains of a simpleton… Our quack medicines, our brewers, our bakers, and a set of men who pretend to have arrived at a competent knowledge of physic, only from making pills, filling bottles, and running through the town with bladders and gallipots, send us to the grave in multitudes; and we composedly say, The will of the Lord Be done!…”

And if mankind’s willingness to trust these medical frauds with its health is criminally stupid, what are we to make of its religious practice? – in particular, how it allows itself to imposed upon by that set of scoundrels known as “the clergy”!—

“Man must be a stupid being indeed to suppose than the Almighty, who wanteth no counsel, hath established a parliament of popes, liars, arch bishops, arch rogues, bishops, villains, deans, drunkards, poor curates, whore-mongers, and other such imposters, as the judges of his creatures…”

BUT—I don’t want to send you away from this abbreviated version of Edwin and Julia’s Theories Of Why The World Sucks (and believe me, there are many, many more things that they despise, which I haven’t mentioned here) thinking that there is nothing whatsoever of which they do approve. There is one thing…and so I’ll leave you to ponder the following:

“I have not the honour of being personally acquainted with Mr. C—, and therefore I am not at liberty to say much about him; only tell you that I coincide with the greatest part of the sentiments laid down in his letter…especially that respecting woman’s milk, in which I believe there is a something divinely good, though very seldom prescribed by our physicians. It is the softest, the most light, and nourishing fluid that exists, and according to my humble opinion, the most sovereign balsam in the world, and the greatest restorative in nature…”

12/02/2011

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage

      “…And although in cruelty we are compelled to leave you, without explanations of the fatal cause that thus severs you from your great prospect of every mortal felicity, yet be assured it would be yet greater cruelty to reveal to you the source of separation, that blasts your lover’s hopes of happiness, I fear, for ever.”
      “Oh, Sir,” softly murmured out the tortured Rosabella, in a tone of pathos that thrilled through the seat of pity in his bosom, “answer me but one question;—yet answer it, I conjure you!—Is he—or is he not my brother?”

Published in five volumes in 1817, Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage was the fifth of Catherine Cuthbertson‘s seven novels. It opens in Ireland in 1814, where agents provocateurs are trying to rouse the local population to violent revolt against their landlords, the Earl of Montalbert and the Dowager Countess of Derville. Their plans to assassinate the nobles are thwarted, however, by the sudden appearance of Lord Montalbert himself, who daringly confronts the mob, demanding to know their grievances. Against himself the would-be assassins can say little; but their sufferings at the hands of Lady Derville’s agent are genuine enough. The gathering is finally broken up by the arrival of the startling news of the abdication of Napoleon, and the entry of the Allies into Paris.

Lady Derville has indeed left the management of the estate of Ravenswood to an unscrupulous agent, while the whole of her attention is focused upon her three orphaned grandchildren, Lord Derville, Charles Monson and the Lady Meliora Monson. The other members of the household are the Reverend Thourby Sternham, a middle-aged cleric who is Lady Derville’s advisor and her grandchildren’s tutor, and a girl called Rosabella Frederick, who has been raised with the others and acts as companion to Lady Derville and Lady Meliora.

Many years earlier, while visiting a small, seaside village on the west coast of Ireland for the benefit of the young Lord Derville’s health, the children formed a friendship with a lovely little girl who lived at the inn where they were staying, but who was clearly not the ladylady’s own child. The landlady, Mrs Cormack, was brought to reveal the strange history of Rosabella. Some time before, while in better circumstances and operating a far more successful inn, Mrs Cormack had received two visitors: a man, a wealthy foreigner of threatening aspect and a violent temper, and his unhappy wife, an Englishwoman. With them was a maidservant, who carried in her arms a beautiful baby, at the mere sight of which the husband became enraged.

From the servant, Antonia, Mrs Cormack learned that the baby was the child of the lady’s first marriage. Having been left destitute by the death of her soldier-husband in battle, and with two small children to care for, she had compelled herself to marry the Spanish nobleman who was passionately in love with her. She had not reckoned with the violent jealousy of her new husband, however, who upon catching her crying over a cameo of her lost love, tore her oldest child, a boy, from her and sent him away to be raised by paternal relatives. With respect to the baby, Rosabella, history was brutally repeated: after the couple had left the inn, Antonia abruptly reappeared, leaving there the baby, some money, and a few papers, including a letter addressed to someone called “Frederick”.

Fascinated by this story and charmed by the beautiful toddler, Lady Derville persuaded the landlady to give the child into her care, to be raised with her grandchildren. She had little cause to repent her impulse as Rosabella – dubbed “Miss Frederick” for want of a surname – grew to be sweet-tempered, hard-working and deeply attached to her benefactress.

Their father having gone to ruin and dissipation before his early death, Lady Derville has taken the extreme step of raising her grandchildren away from society and in almost total seclusion, thwarting equally their desire for amusement and Charles’s ambition for the army. However, as the children grew older, Lady Derville began to fear that Lord Derville or Charles might fall in love with Rosabella, an arrangement that did not in the least suit the Countess’s pride, in spite of her real affection for the girl. It became, therefore, Lady Derville’s constant occupation to instill in all four children a firm belief in Rosabella’s natural inferiority. Accepting this, and accepting also that she might one day need to earn her own living, Rosabella alone of the children studied diligently under Mr Sternham and acquired a thorough education.

Lady Derville need not have worried. Their isolation, and their grandmother’s mistaken efforts to inculcate them with the distance between themselves and Rosabella, has the effect of encouraging in each of the other three a dominant and negative passion. In Lord Derville, it is his avarice, which makes him dream of wealthy heiresses, and will not allow him to consider the penniless Rosabella as a wife. As for Charles, his all-consuming pride makes her lack of identity and uncertain status offensive. Nevertheless, both young men feel a genuine affection for the girl, as does Meliora, whose sisterly love for her companion remains steadfast as long as she is able to believe what she had always been told about her own incomparable beauty, and Rosabella’s complete inferiority…

However, to Lady Derville’s frightened eyes there are signs that the young Charles, in particular, is beginning to feel more than brotherly affection for his fair companion. Her response is to send Rosabella away for a period of residence in the household of Lady Anne Belmont, who lives with her brother, a bishop. Although this manoeuvre achieves Lady Derville’s purpose in the short-term, when Rosabella returns to Ravenswood upon the death of the bishop, the dismayed Countess finds that under the influence of Lady Anne, she has grown into a beautiful and accomplished young woman.

The siblings keep up a clamour to be allowed to go into society, but the most they succeed in wringing from their grandmother is a promise that they will make their debuts when there is peace in Europe; a promise she does not expect to have to keep. Consequently, the news of the Treaty of Fontainebleau and Napoleon’s exile to Elba leaves Lady Derville as appalled as it did the local rebels. Caught in her own trap, she agrees to a trip to London – although she has no intention of taking Rosabella along, and begins to look around for someone to leave her behind with.

As the preparations for their journey are being made, the young people are thrilled to learn that a grand celebration will be held locally to mark the declaration of peace, and that it will be attended by Lord Montalbert, who since his return home after being wounded in the war has lived in total isolation; a withdrawal ascribed by gossip not to a need to recover from his injuries, but to an unhappy love affair. To keep Rosabella from attending the fete, Lady Derville feigns an indisposition. Her grandchildren attend, however, and Meliora returns not only with news of Montalbert’s attendance, but a rapturous description of his charm and elegance, and of his obvious and instantaneous passion for herself – one which she has no doubt will result in a proposal of marriage at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile, Rosabella has been having a romantic adventure of her own. One of her duties is to dispense Lady Derville’s charity amongst her needier tenants. On her way to their poor cottages, she must climb over a rocky outcrop, an exercise that thanks to long years of practice holds no terrors for her. However, she finds herself under observation by a handsome stranger, who in his anxiety for her safety, slips and falls himself. Rosabella hurries to his aid, but her efforts to help are strangely interrupted by the abrupt intrusion of Mr Sternham, who in a fit of anger for which Rosabella cannot account, sends her home, threatening to tell Lady Derville that she has been making secret assignations if she argues with him.

It does not cross Rosabella’s mind that at the age of nearly sixty, the austere Sternham has fallen in love for the first time in his life – nor that this unexpected and unfamiliar passion will drive him to behaviour both frantic and dishonourable. Sternham’s impulse to intervene between Rosabella and the young stranger, who obviously admires her, leads him to tell Lady Derville that the stranger is a notorious fortune-hunter, and that he is probably looking for some means to make the acquaintance of Lady Meliora – and thus pretended a fall to scrape acquaintance with Rosabella.

Circumstances then conspire to increase Lady Derville’s fears that Charles is falling in love with Rosabella, and it is for more reason than one that she is thrilled when a letter unexpectedly arrives from Mrs Kilbride – the former Mrs Cormack – to tell Rosabella that the Spanish servant, Antonia, has reappeared; that she is desperately ill; and that she has begged for Rosabella to come to her, that she might clear her conscience by confession before dying. Rosabella sets out for the village of Myrtle’s Town, hoping to at last learn the truth of her identity. There she finds Antonia in a high fever and suffering fits, able to tell her only, and with difficulty, that her brother is alive and in the British army.

Rosabella undertakes the nursing of the dying woman, desperate to hear anything more that she might say. The local doctor, becoming worried about Rosabella’s own health, insists that she go for regular walks upon the beach. There, Rosabella is alarmed by the appearance of the stranger from Ravenswood – and confused to discover that he is in the company of the Reverend Mr Trench, a man of unimpeachable character whom she has long known by reputation. Vouching for his friend, Mr Trench introduces him to Rosabella as Mr Egremont.

Convinced that, for reasons she is unable to comprehend, Mr Sternham must have traduced the young man, Rosabella admits his acquaintance…and the two of them fall very deeply in love. Rosabella’s new happiness is, however, shattered by the death of Antonia, who reveals nothing more, and by the accidental loss of a small locked box which may have held the key to her identity. Regardless, Egremont declares his love for Rosabella and asks her to marry him. Overwhelmed by his generosity, Rosa holds him off, insisting that he must hear as much of the truth about her solitary and penniless state as she knows, before he commits himself.

And so she tells her story…and as she does so, Egremont becomes more and more overcome with emotion…until he flees from her in unconcealed horror…

Egremont’s reaction to her story implants an inescapable suspicion in Rosabella’s mind, and she steels herself to ask Mr Trench whether what she fears is true?—whether the man she loves is in fact her long-lost brother..? Mr Trench, almost as affected by her story as Egremont, tells her emphatically that this is not so; that Egremont is not her brother; but that who he is, may separate them forever no less surely…

And that’s not even a full summation of the FIRST VOLUME!!

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that could be more aptly described as a typical 19th-century sentimental novel as Rosabella. All the ingredients are there: the perfect heroine, the inordinate length, the convoluted plot, the array of characters who pop up volumes apart yet have to be remembered, the didacticism, the purple prose, the unreasonable behaviour, the weeping, fainting and collapsing at the slightest provocation, and perhaps above all the long arm of coincidence, which reaches into every single corner of this story and gives it a good hard shake.

How the individual reader will react to this novel will, I think, be determined by his or her levels of tolerance for these conventions; my own, I find, is quite high; your mileage may vary. Miss Cuthbertson also exhibits another stylistic quirk common to novelists of this era, an obsession with a particular word or phrase, which is used repeatedly throughout the text…and remember, we’re talking about something like 1800 pages here!

To be fair, this was a common phenomenon at the time. Readers of Frances Burney’s novels, for example, might recall how none of her characters ever just felt something: they were always penetrated; penetrated by sorrow, penetrated with gratitude… Similarly, one of Miss Cuthbertson’s particular words is “transcendent”: no-one is merely beautiful or handsome; they are always trancendently beautiful or handsome. This one isn’t so bad, although you do end up wishing she’d occasionally used a thesaurus. More problematic is “insulation”, which she uses to indicate Rosabella’s solitary condition. The usage is technically correct, but between the repetition and the other meaning of that term, all the sad references to “Rosabella’s state of insulation” do conjure up some amusing mental images; not quite what our author was striving for.

As for the weeping / fainting / collapsing, be warned, there is a LOT of it. Indeed, Miss Cuthbertson’s characters faint so often, she was forced to invent a scale of faints, to distinguish your ordinary, everyday faint from a really serious one—or as she calls it, a death-seeming swoon. There are at least three of those, while I lost count of the other kind.

And yes, it is Rosabella who does most of the weeping / fainting / collapsing, which if not unexpected is annoying, because there’s more to her than that: she’s also intelligent, has a sense of humour, and upon occasion can be sarcastic and satirical; we don’t see nearly enough of that side of her.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s no genuine entertainment value in Rosabella, along with the inadvertent stuff; I’m merely warning you about what you’ll have to wade through to get to it, if you dare venture in.

Although not particularly deep, Cuthbertson’s characterisations aren’t without merit, particularly in the delineation of the various idées fixes that drive the members of the Monson family, and lead then to acts of harshness, even cruelty, against the unfortunate Rosabella, who they should know, must know, would never do anything to hurt them, or even to thwart their most selfish desires. Of course, this being a didactic novel, each of the Monsons finally gets his or her comeuppance.

Thus, Lord Derville’s avarice lures him into the pursuit of a rather dodgy “heiress”; Charles’s unfounded confidence in his powers of judgement makes him the perfect target for a pair of con-artists; Meliora’s overweening vanity and ever-increasing hunger for flattery lead her into dubious and ultimately dangerous company; and Lady Derville finally discovers the truth about the penniless, possibly low-born girl she’s been moving heaven and earth to keep out of her family… Meanwhile, in the appalling Mr Sternham, the austere cleric suddenly and belatedly gripped by a passion for a lovely young girl, we have a character sketch that occasionally foreshadows Mr Casaubon…although without any of that gentleman’s complexity or pitiable self-delusion (or any of Eliot’s subtlety).

Also interesting is the story’s setting against a defined period in history: from the abdication of Napoleon in April, 1814,  to the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. The characters’ visit to London coincides with that of the Allied sovereigns, most notably King Frederick of Prussia, Czar Alexander and his sister, the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg, and Field Marshall Blucher; the Monsons’ mad dashing around trying to get a good look at these notables at their various public appearances (or, as it often turned out, rumoured public appearances) occupies much of the second volume. By the final volume, circumstances have moved the characters to Brussels. We are accustomed, I suppose, to thinking of Vanity Fair as “the” novelistic depiction of this time and place, and it is interesting to read a different account of the same events, from a very different perspective; one rendered quite poignant by the fact that Rosabella and the others have by now become closely associated with a number of soldiers who are engaged in the battle.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect of Cuthbertson’s novel is her exploitation of the disjunction between private knowledge and public perception. The Monsons, of course, know where they got Rosabella from; they don’t think twice about it. What they don’t realise is that it is generally assumed that Rosabella is the illegitimate daughter of the late Lord Derville, and thus the siblings’ half-sister. Of course, no-one talks about any of this, so the mistake is never corrected. The result, however, is that when Lady Derville begins manoeuvring to separate Charles and Rosabella, it is perceived as being for good and, indeed, necessary reasons – instead of being what it actually is, a case of pure snobbery. When Rosabella decides she must flee the Monsons and find a way to support herself, she turns for help to her friends, Lord and Lady Flowerdew, who assume her motive is her illicit passion for her half-brother – and help her to hide herself on that basis. When Charles, who is in trouble, tries to turn to Rosabella for help, he finds himself blocked at every turn by a conspiracy of silence, everyone believing they are doing the right thing by keeping “the lovers” apart…when in fact they are doing a great deal of harm…

Rosabella certainly isn’t a sensation novel in the later 19th century sense of the expression, but Cuthbertson manages any number of plot twists and revelations over the course of her story. While some of these are guessable, at other times she succeeds in cleverly leading the reader astray. From the summary above, you can see how it is hinted that Egremont is in fact Rosabella’s missing brother; but no sooner have we, like she, come to that conclusion than Cuthbertson has Mr Trench pull the rug out from under us by declaring, no, it isn’t that…it’s something even worse…a secret whose revelation doesn’t occur for another three-and-a-half volumes! (I’m pleased to be able to report that the explanation for Egremont’s appalled reaction to Rosabella’s story, when it eventually comes, is actually fairly reasonable.)

Simultaneously with this, another revelation is in the making, one where the reader is probably more likely to guess correctly: namely, that the elusive Lord Montalbert and the devoted Mr Egremont are one and the same person. (If you think I shouldn’t be giving away this particular surprise, don’t worry, there are plenty more where that came from!) As you might imagine, the discovery that Lady Meliora’s great conquest is in fact pursuing her humble, nameless companion goes over like a lead balloon with the Monsons, driving a wedge between Rosabella and her adoptive family and setting in train a sequence of events that will eventually reveal the true identity of many more characters than just Rosabella…

How can I best sum up Rosabella? Perhaps by saying that for all its faults, its extravagances, its coincidences and its absurdities, I devoured all five volumes of this novel in under four days. I had the Christmas / New Year week off work last year, and that’s how I spent it. I’m not going to insult Miss Cuthbertson by resorting to the “fast food” analogy here, but I will concede to the box of chocolates / bag of chips comparison: just one more chapter, just a few more pages…

This kind of novel is certainly not for every reader, but I imagine I’ve said enough – more than enough – to let you know whether it might be for you. As for myself, I find I am once again in complete sympathy with Thomas Macaulay and his degenerate literary taste, and deeply regretting that Catherine Cuthbertson only wrote seven novels (although the reflection that most of them are five volumes long does help). If the others are as ridiculously entertaining as this one, bring ’em on!