Posts tagged ‘didactic’

10/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 2)

 

    The good man opened the fatal epistle, therefore, with a trembling hand and a heart deeply agitated, and found this new calamity more insupportable than any he had before experienced. He blamed himself as a kind of accessory to the untimely blasting of this tender flower, was amazed at his own remissness in not immediately transplanting it to a more natural soil, and saving this tender pledge, this emblem of their beloved child, from being subject to the capricious flights and giddy management of young unthinking relations, who had not the same call, to watch with carefulness over her.
    Mrs Parker said in a heart-wounding accent, that her Eliza had exhausted all her tears, nor had she one left for poor Louisa; but, continued she, I hope, the measure of my affliction is now completed, and that it will not be long before we are all re-united in that glorious state, exempt from misfortunes, where sin and sorrow are no more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first volume of Family Pictures, as we have seen (and quoted), opens with a standard scree about the rewards of virtue—part of a preface declaiming the high moral purpose of the novel and its fitness for reading by the young and innocent.

This is how the second volume opens:

Mrs Bentley was so kind to her niece, as to suffer Arabella to beat and pinch her, without check or controul. The poor infant was uneasy for some time, at the great change she experienced, and would alternately call upon her Papa and Mamma to save her; but at length custom began to reconcile her even to the cruel usage…

We’re left to ponder whether the novel’s title was intended to be ironic, or just baldly honest.

The shift in tone and subject matter between the two volumes of Family Pictures, from the familiar sentimentalism of the romance / tragedy of Anthony and Eliza, to the cruelty and crime that set in motion the second half of the narrative, is jolting. We seem, suddenly, to have picked up a different book. Again, we can only wonder if the period’s volume-by-volume publishing style prompted authors to hide their more sinister lights under a bushel, until they were safely into the marketplace—and if readers knew to stick it out through a dull or soppy first volume, in expectation of something better.

Having lost both her parents (mostly, we have to say, through their own faults), poor Louisa emerges as the new focus of Family Pictures, with an all-new plot set in motion by her father’s incredibly stupid decision to leave her to the tender mercies of her uncle, aunt and cousins—who are, as we have seen, devoted to casual cruelty even without the added motivation of Louisa standing between them and the family property.

It is true that Anthony meant for Louisa to be left predominantly with her grandparents; but he took no steps to ensure that this happened—instead trusting the parties involved to take care of it. However – and with a distinct lack of submission to God’s will – Mrs Parker is so devastated by the death’s of her daughter and son-in-law, she isn’t fit for the task of caring for her granddaughter; and since Mr Parker is unfamiliar with the true characters of Daniel and Arabella, he sees no harm in leaving Louisa with her uncle and aunt, at least for the present.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

    [Daniel] judged it very hard to be kept out of seven hundred pounds a year by such a little child. This noble sentiment he frequently revolved in his own mind, before he was so far abandoned as to communicate it to his wife; nor did he abruptly open his heart even to her, but just insinuated that it was a mortifying circumstance, that his brother and sister had not been taken off three years sooner than they were, as Anthony would not then have been excluded from his right by a little snivelling girl…
    Daniel had so much artifice as to leave her to reflect upon what he had hinted, in hopes of drawing a proposal from her of some kind or other, which might bring his purposes to bear, as he chose to appear to follow in this respect rather than lead.

Nope: nothing immoral in THIS novel.

Much oblique back-and-forthing between Daniel and Arabella follows, the upshot of which is a sudden journey to London, the Parkers being left in ignorance of this step until it is too late for them to countermand it. The Bentleys take up residence with Arabella’s aunt, a Mrs Blackiston, a widow in dire financial straits, and without the means to protest the uses she is put to, even if she had the inclination.

It is Mrs Blackiston who proposes an alternative to the outright murder of Louisa. She suggests farming the child out—that they find a poor woman in low circumstances who is willing to take the child in and, effectively, raise her as her own. She further sketches a cover-story that makes Louisa the illegitimate child of an unnamed “great man”, such that the need for secrecy may be stressed without raising questions.

Mrs Blackiston even knows a suitable candidate; though here she perhaps does better than her co-conspirators would have preferred, in that Mrs Brisco is a kind and honest, if rather simple woman, who has suffered many personal misfortunes including the loss of her husband and child. She willingly takes in Louisa, swallowing the story fed to her, and obediently passing the girl – who is now known as “Susan” – off as her own. The two retire to a small cottage in Bedfordshire.

But of course, this is only half of the plot. In order for the Bentleys to gain the property, Louisa must die. They therefore concoct a serious illness, of which they inform the Parkers by letter, along with many expressions of fear and grief, and contrition for having carried such a young child to London. Then the terrified Parkers receive another letter announcing the death of their grandchild…

Here too Mrs Blackiston proves invaluable:

    She applyed…to a body-stealer, to furnish her with the body of a female infant of Louisa’s age… Accordingly the next evening a flag basket was provided for the conveyance of the departed babe, recently committed to the earth by its afflicted parents, but which was almost as speedily taken up by this disturber of the dead.
    The poor little sacrifice to their ambition and avarice had a gentle opiate administered to her that evening, which, taking effect at nine o’clock, they knew would continue in operation ’till twelve the next day… At length the hour of deliverance arrived, and the sleeping babe was successfully conveyed into the carriage, destined to remove her from the knowledge of her relations, friends and fortune. This great work completed, the basket was unpacked, and the lifeless imposition dressed, by the hardened Mrs Blackiston, in a cap and bed-gown of Louisa’s, reserved for the purpose, and being laid in the bed…

Okay. I know that this isn’t our usual scenario, but I’m calling it anyway:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

For Mrs Parker, this third blow is almost the end, and she sinks into a permanent stupor of grief; while Mr Parker, with a distinct lack of resignation, is in a condition little better.

Despite the violent upheavals in her circumstances, Louisa / Susan revives under the loving care of Mrs Brisco; and she begins to forget her past in her new life as a humble cottager.

Some eleven years are then skipped over, until the next significant landmark in Susan’s life: the coming to her neighbourhood of a wealthy family, the Banstons. The husband and wife have nothing in common and are bitterly estranged; while their peculiarities of temperament and constant warfare make life unpleasant for their children, a boy and a girl of around Susan’s own age. In particular, Mr Banston is a domestic tyrant: his abrupt passions, his instantaneous likes and dislikes and their violent consequences, impacting his entire household:

He was extremely ambitious, and from an anxious pride, that his children should surpass every other person’s, he sometimes led them an uneasy kind of life… He was so accustomed to disapprove of their behaviour and conversation, that when he was present, they acted under continual fear and constraint. It seems, his disposition had been early soured by disappointments, and the loss of a beloved friend, which he had never overcome, so that he, who at twenty was an easy and most amiable youth, now at fifty was become a capricious and intolerable old man.

Mrs Banston, meanwhile, is a kind if underbred woman, weak-minded and easily influenced by stronger wills, who prefers the company of her own servants to that of her husband’s social acquaintances. The family money is hers, though, which only increases the state of ongoing tension.

The mother of Dame Brisco was the the nurse of Mr Banston’s father, and a connection has always been maintained. With her quiet tact and willingness to serve, Dame Brisco makes herself useful to the Banstons in a variety of ways, not least in helping to manage a household where daily tasks are often neglected. Seeing the need for a sewing-woman, she ventures to recommend Susan who, with her neatness of person, steady habits and fine work, is soon a fixture in the house. She becomes, indeed, almost a companion to Caroline Banston, and shares some of her lessons; acquiring smatterings of both education and accomplishments.

Consequently, when Charles Banston returns home after an absence of some months on a visit to his grandmother, he finds his family rather startlingly supplemented:

Master Charles soon informed himself by his sister’s means of all the internal graces and valuable endowments of this young girl, whose person had so exceedingly engaged his admiration, and he secretly wished, that fortune had been more liberal in her favours, so as to have enabled this master-piece of Nature to have shone in a less humble light. In consequence of these impressions he treated her with the utmost respect and kindness on every occasion; for two years together that this brother and sister were inseparable, now in all these youthful pursuits and diversions Susan had a share along with them, nor, indeed, could they enjoy any pleasure without her, her modesty, humility, and good nature recommending her most irresistibly to their favour.

But of course this pastoral interlude cannot last; and after a visit to some old acquaintances in Worcestershire, where he spent his youth, Mr Banston comes home to announce that he has arranged an advantageous marriage for Charles—or at least, he has arranged it with her father; he expects Charles to seal the deal when the family comes for a visit.

With visions of Susan dancing in his head, Charles is anything but delighted; though under his father’s scowling gaze he manages to mumble something that might be compliance. Undeceived, his father reacts with one of his volcanic outbursts:

“Ungrateful and insensible wretch, cryed he, is this the utmost sensation thy groveling heart is capable of; this the return for my sollicitude for your advancement? Your veins, I find, are replete with the mean blood of your mother, not one spark of my spirit being in your whole composition; but mark me well, continued he, darting a furious look at the poor dismayed youth, you have but this one alternative in your power, viz. either to marry the lady whom I have chose for you, or to turn out, for I will harbour no disobedient children.”

Charles has little option but to play along. Caroline soon notices his disturbed state of mind and, when he explains to her his situation, tries to console him by suggesting he might like the chosen young lady—which of course prompts him to blurt out his feelings for Susan, much to his sister’s dismay, as she knows that any such connection is impossible.

But whatever apprehensions Charles might be experiencing, the reader has them one-hundred-fold—for there is little doubt about the identity of the young lady in question, given her first action upon arrival at the Banstons’:

…but, added she, this sick beast, turning about and hauling at the same time a poor little puppy out of the carriage by one leg, has made my journey very uncomfortable. Mr Banston would have relieved her of her charge, and expressed some obliging concern for her (as he supposed) little favourite; but she soon gave him to understand, that she was superior to every weak attachment of that kind, and only kept the poor animal for the pleasure of tormenting it.

Sure enough, the visitors are none other than the Bentleys; and the contrast between the attractive but brazen and unfeeling Arabella, and the gentle Susan, is almost too much for Charles—who sees with despair that Arabella is fully informed of the purpose of the visit, and expects his co-operation. His embarrassed shrinking and timid demeanour provoke Arabella, who takes a dislike to him; but she resolves to conceal her feelings until she can see if there is meat more to her taste in the neighbourhood.

Arabella and Caroline are likewise antipathetic; the latter longing for the companionship of Susan, who has been banished to Dame Brisco’s cottage to free up room at table for the visitors. The brother and sister count the minutes until the conclusion of the planned fortnight visit, only to learn that while the senior Bentleys must depart – Mrs Bentley expressing concern over the health of her only son, who (it is implied) is drinking himself into an early grave – Mr Banston persuades Arabella to stay for the entire summer.

The only compensatory aspect of this for the young Banstons is that Susan may now be recalled. Caroline drives over to collect her, in company with Arabella who, mostly out of spite and snobbery, but also having taken one look at Susan’s pretty face, refuses to have a servant admitted to the carriage and orders her to walk instead. The mortified Caroline hastily intervenes, telling Susan to stay at the cottage overnight and to come to the house in the morning, and to bring Dame Brisco with her.

From this incident an infinity of misery results. Recounting the matter to Mrs Banston, Arabella turns it around, complaining of Susan’s “sullen refusal” to walk when denied the carriage. The dull-witted Mrs Banston sees nothing odd in this assertion about a girl well-known for her retiring modesty; and when Susan does arrive, she is stunned to be rebuked for misbehaviour and pride:

She was as yet but a novice to the injustice and unkindness of the rich; nor did she imagine that they conceived themselves licenced to treat their inferiours with occasional contempt and disregard, (without being accountable for their actions) merely from their superior possessions; that the wind was not more uncertain than their favour; that they were out of reach of expostulation, and deaf to conviction; that from their determinations there was no appeal, however disgracefully or unjustly they might discard their favourites; and that the world was prepared to acquit the mighty and condemn the weak, even without a hearing; that in the single epithet rich was comprehended all merit, beauty, grace, and that consequently the horrid sound of poverty conveyed sentiments diametrically opposite…

Ouch! I wonder who Miss Minifie had in mind when penning that passage? – and if this is why she and her sister started writing: because they had to, after someone let them down?

From this point matters go from bad to worse. Arabella doesn’t want Charles, and in fact begins a secret liaison with Mr Banston’s steward, who is the kind of “man of spirit” she prefers (in other words, a coxcomb and a cad); but the fact that Charles doesn’t want her is mortifying; while his evident preference for a servant is intolerable. Consequently, she sets about destroying Susan: a task simple enough, between Mr Banston’s insane pride and Mrs Banston’s weak will; and she succeeds in the first instance in having her banished from the house altogether.

Meanwhile, the sneaking Mr Letcroft, who can barely believe his own luck, persuades Arabella first into correspondence and clandestine meetings, then into a secret marriage:

The ceremony over, the happy pair spent a short time together at a farm-house, and then returned to Mr Banston’s with as hardened a countenance, as if nothing had happened…

Soon afterwards, Arabella receives word of the death of her brother, Anthony. She is personally unmoved; and the main consequence is that she becomes, in Mr Banston’s eyes, an even more desirable daughter-in-law, since her brother’s fortune will now augment her own. Naturally he increases the pressure on Charles—who, however, has a secret weapon in his armoury. The local parish-clerk is a relative of Dame Brisco’s, and informs her of Arabella’s marriage; and she, in turn, lets Caroline know. Charles, therefore, is able for once to face his father with relative equanimity; replying coolly to his menaces:

“Time and reflection have removed all my objections, and I am ready to receive Miss Bentley’s hand, whenever she shall be disposed to bestow it upon me.”

Mr Banston is so pleased with this, he grants Charles a three-month stay of execution (so to speak). Charles makes prompt use of the time and, finally giving in to temptation, declares himself to Susan by letter. She is moved and touched by this but, in spite of her own secret feelings, she immediately declares that there can never be anything between them. When Caroline finds out, she is furious with her brother; but she knows she can rely upon Susan’s strength of character, if not Charles’, to prevent the matter going further.

And fate has another bitter blow in store for Susan, when Dame Brisco suddenly dies:

The old woman had got her relation, the parish-clerk, to scrawl out a kind of a will, by which she bequeathed to the poor girl all she was worth. This all, after everything was sold, (Mr Banston burying her at his expense) amounted to eight guineas…

Susan decides that she must leave the country for London, in order to find a way of supporting herself—and to put distance between herself and Charles. Her departure and its circumstances are widely discussed amongst the Banstons, in the course of which Mrs Banston makes reference to Dame Brisco “countenancing a bastard”, much to Arabella’s delight. Her sneering response provokes a furious outburst from Charles—also remarkable for 1764:

“Was the poor bastard, you mention with such detestation, in the smallest degree accessory or a partaker in her parents guilt? I think, added this gentleman, the world is not more cruel or unjustifiable in any one respect, than in its consideration of such unhappy beings. Is it not sufficient, that a poor child shall be brought into existence involuntarily; and, from the culpable behaviour of those who ought to protect and provide for it, not only be excluded from the comfort of relations, and every title to property or provision, but also that a considerable share of the contempt and shame, incurred by the authors of its being, should devolve upon its innocent and inoffensive head? Wickedness of heart is the same in marryed as unmarryed persons, and if the adulterers children are allowed to be uncontaminated by their parents guilt, why should the simple crime of fornication be hereditary?”

Nope: nothing in THIS novel that the moralists could object to…

We are then reminded that lawful sex, too, has its consequences:

    Six months had now elapsed since the marriage of Mr Letcroft, and Miss Arabella had evaded from time to time the importunities of her father and Mr Banston, to receive Mr Charles as a husband, when she suddenly became altered, to an uncommon degree, in her shape. The servants soon perceived it, and having easy access to the ear of their mistress, communicated their observations to her. She communicated them again to her son and daughter; but they were far from being either surprised or sorry at the event, as it would infallibly in a very short time deliver them from her disagreeable company.
    Mrs Banson was unable, long to conceal her suspicions from her husband, who resented them highly, and said, “that if he could fix upon the original authour of such a scandalous report, he would prosecute him at his own expense.” Miss Arabella, however, discovering by a hint, which, if she had been innocent, would have been perfectly unintelligible, that her condition was suspected in the family…retreated to the house of Mr Letcroft, whose marriage to her was then promulgated all over the country, to the inexpressible chagrin of Mr Banston, the diversion of his wife and servants, the satisfaction of his son and daughter, and the great disappointment and vexation of the lady’s own family.

No sooner has this departure occurred than another visitor arrives, the son of an old friend of Mr Banston and an acquaintance of Charles, who has come to invite the latter to accompany him to London. Mr Banston is persuaded, and gives Charles various commissions to carry out during his holiday, including delivering some letters for him. One of these in to a certain Mrs Blackiston, who Charles finds in extremely reduced circumstances, consumed by thoughts of vengeance against a party or parties who she blames for her miserable situation. Charles doesn’t really listen to her ravings, however: he just wants to get out of there and, having given the old woman some money, slips away as soon as he can.

He and his companion then set themselves to see all the sights of London.

Ahem. ALL the sights of London.

In the wake of a rather boozy dinner at a tavern, Charles allows himself to be led to “a certain house under Covent-garden-piazzas”:

    Their youth and genteel appearance soon gained them admittance, and a bottle of Burgundy being brought, Mr Rutland enquired, if they could not be introduced to some young ladies that were tolerably decent and not very old practitioners? The mother abbess who presided in this temple of Venus, after having presented two or three, without giving satisfaction, said, “she had one damsel under her roof, whom she feared they would find as objectionable for her coyness, as the others were for the opposite extreme; but as there were two of them, if they would make it worth their while, they should separately try what they could do with her.”
    The enflamed Mr Rutland emptied his pockets upon the table, and swore, if that was not sufficient, he would give his note for as much more; but the conscientious lady said, as he was a customer, she was satisfied with what was before her, and Mr Banston, consenting to be served after his friend, was accepted upon easier terms.

Nope: nothing in THIS novel you’d want to keep away from innocent young girls.

Wow. Seriously. I’ve encountered scenes like this before in novels by men, but I have never come across anything like it, let alone this explicitly rendered, in a novel by a woman—and that woman a clergyman’s daughter!?

Anyway—

The aptly named Mr Rutland, having paid for his privilege, tries his luck first. The lovely young girl, in ignorance of her true situation, is first shocked, then terrified and repulsed by his behaviour. Discovering to her horror that she is locked in, she can only weep and plead for mercy. Mr Rutland refuses to be dissuaded by what he perceives as “artifice”, driving his potential victim to extremes:

    “I must inform you, that you have a person to deal with, that is neither capable of being intimidated by threats, nor allured by promises, and that your triumph over her can never be completed whilst her power of resistance remains; nor will she survive such a calamity to become a prey again to avarice and prostitution, for this weapon, snatching his sword out of the scabbard, shall be more merciful than you…”
    “Well, Madam, said the half-vanquished hero, as I find I can do nothing with you by fair means, and detest a rape as much as you, I shall resign you to my friend…”

So saying, he retreats downstairs:

    The abandoned procuress, who was in the room, asked him, what success he had met with? “Why faith, said he, none at all; she is the most squeamish little b—h I ever met with: but come, Charles, continued he, she expects you, pray, do not make her wait.”
    Mr Banston was not in his nature a debauchee; but fearful of exposing himself to the laugh of his more hardened companion, he arose, and, with a reluctance and agitation he could not account for, suffered himself to be led in to the frighted prisoner…

Having sobered up, he has no intention of doing anything, though; and he tries to reassure the terrified girl he finds cringing away on the far side of the room, even promising her that he will be her protector if she needs one. This makes her turn around:

…to her unspeakable surprise, she discovered her young master Banston, and he his beloved Susan…

Yes, well. The reader is probably a little less unspeakably surprised.

Susan explains to Charles that she was betrayed by the wagoner who had conveyed her to London, who had told her that he was in a position to help her secure the assistance of “a good charitable lady”; that she had entered the lady’s house in all good faith, and spent a fortnight doing needlework there, in constant expectation of being recommended to a position; that the clothes she is wearing, she had been persuaded to don on being told that in London, even servants were expected to dress finely; and that this night had been the first time she received an inkling of her true situation.

Charles promptly proposes—pointing out that one month’s residence in any parish will enable them to marry, despite their both being under age. Susan resolutely refuses, insisting that the distance between them is too great, and that she must live single and earn her own living. However, she does accept Charles’ secondary offer of rescue—

(—a rescue, by the way, in which his drunken visit to a brothel and his participation in the purchase of a virgin go politely unremarked—)

—and a refuge under the roof of a respectable woman.

But as it turns out, Charles’ own acquaintance in London is so very limited, the only person he can think of to leave Susan with is Mrs Blackiston…

I think we can all see where this is headed.

The sudden resurrection of Louisa Bentley produces all sorts of fallout—including the belated revelation that “Mr Banston” is actually Anthony Bentley’s old friend, Frank Taylor, who changed his name as a condition of his mercenary marriage. Family Pictures then closes with the expected flourish of rewards and punishments; and while the former take up more space (a romance for Caroline Banston is hurriedly conjured up, for instance), the latter are more interesting for their sense of prosaic reality, in place of the expected speeches about the inscrutable ways of Providence, which generally close novels of this sort.

Despite her repentance and active assistance in exposing the cruel fraud, Mrs Blackiston is rather dismally killed off:

…vexation, disappointment, and the inconveniences that poverty exposed her to, in conjunction with her wounded pride, and turbulent and impatient spirit, brought a complication of disorders upon her, which kept her in a lingering state of misery and suffering, which continued for a whole twelve-month, and then put a period to her existence…

—while the Bentleys are allowed to get away with full restitution of their ill-gotten gains and a hasty retreat, their corporeal punishment consisting of having to share digs with the Letcrofts; with rather more focus given to the consequences of all this for Arabella:

Mr Letcroft and his lady, and Mr and Mrs Bentley, led a very uncomfortable life. The goddess Discord had established her seat under their roof. His being disappointed in obtaining the immense fortune he expected, notwithstanding Mrs Letcroft was likely to inherit some few thousand pounds, changed the meek, servile adorer into the morose, untractable husband. He contracted many improper intimacies, and when his weak brain was heated by a too frequent repetition of the social glass, he was wonted to bestow some rough compliment upon his lady’s delicate bones…

And sure, there is some speechifying; but even here we are struck by the matter-of-fact admission that life doesn’t usually work out as neatly – or as justly – as novels would have us believe:

Thus did the chain of events, derived upon this family, run. Agreeably to our limited notions of rewards and punishments, and though many instances in life are the reverse of this equitable distribution, it must nevertheless by acknowledged, that villainous practices are frequently discovered and detected, and that a perseverance in well-doing is productive of the most happy and agreeable consequences.

And as if this shruggingly half-hearted moralising isn’t odd enough, we are then offered this thoroughly unconvincing closing argument:

Mrs Banston was the only person who remained unchanged, uninterested, and consequently unaffected by these happy revolutions, though I really do her injustice when I say, she did not partake in some measure of the general satisfaction; for her house was clear of every imcumbrance for a long season, and she at liberty to pursue her particular inclinations without interruption, which self-enjoyment was derived from an insensibility of mind, neither to be envyed nor coveted, as surely, to a rational being it must be highly satisfactory to possess a heart capable of generous sympathy, and every humane and tender disposition; for whatever exemption from the participation of others calamities this selfish narrow principle may confer upon its possessor, it can be by no means adequate to the reflected joys of friendship and benevolence.

You know—I rather find myself in sympathy with Mrs Banston…

 

 

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08/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 1)

 

Virtue is here its own reward, nor is it a deception or false colouring; for though success may not always be the attendant on well-doing and well-meriting, yet the peace and satisfaction that result from conscious virtue, are superiour to every other support or dependence: for however prosperous the villain may continue for a period, his prosperity is mere;y external. That worm, which never dies, preys perpetually upon his heart, nor can he either bribe or compel it to spare him, though but for a moment: whereat the meanest condition my be rendered truely great, by a perseverance in justice and integrity; for whosoever possesses an honest soul, capable of disdaining, and industriously shunning the paths of vice, is greatest, wisest, best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So having spent a ridiculous amount of time pondering the correct attribution of various 18th and early 19th century novels to Susannah Gunning, Margaret Minifie and Elizabeth Gunning, I picked up a copy of the next book in line for this section of Authors In Depth—and immediately concluded that I’d made a mistake.

Published in 1764, Family Pictures, A Novel. Containing Curious and Interesting Memoirs of several Persons of Fashion in W—re opens with one of those familiar, female-authored novel-prefaces, which simultaneously admits the pernicious qualities of some novels while protesting the moral value of this particular novel.

I had concluded previously that Family Pictures was probably written by Margaret Minifie; but all of a sudden I was confronted by this:

I myself have children, and unfeignedly lament the danger their morals are exposed to, from the trash and obscenity the Press is daily pouring forth for their amusement, as it is called…

…which unthinkingly led me to conclude that this novel must, perforce, have been written by Susannah Gunning…

…until it occurred to me that (i) Susannah didn’t marry until 1768; (ii) that in any event, she only had one child; and (iii) that this, consequently, was a big fat lie—and therefore quite in keeping with what we know of the Gunning / Minifie menage.

In any event, referring to the author as “Miss Minifie” is, given the novel’s 1764 publication date, correct regardless.

Family Pictures is a minor work, quite without literary value, but not uninteresting in some of what it has to say; and its preface is, oddly, one of the things worth noting. There is a significant gap between its the-lady-doth-protest opening and the content of the narrative—which in fact something I’m learning to look out for. That said, the questionable content doesn’t really appear until the second of the two volumes…when, presumably, the publisher had committed to that volume’s appearance. (As we have noted before, at the time novels were sometimes published a volume at a time, to test the waters, with the publisher retaining the right to pull the plug.)

At the outset the author states her position:

The tale is literally true; the morals and sentiments are very opposite to the generality of productions of this nature. I was induced to publish it from a tender regard to the female part of this Metropolis, whose more immediate province I apprehend Novel-reading to be.

Curiously, high-flown – and highly artificial – sentiment then becomes interwoven with some fairly shrewd observations on human nature: the fact that anything being “forbidden” makes it automatically more desirable, for example, and consequently the pointlessness of “banning” novel-reading, as young people will doubtless find a way; and that therefore the sensible thing is not less novels, but better novels. We also get a lengthy criticism of what passes for female education, and its ongoing consequences with regard to both individual women and society in general of a focus upon appearance and superficial “accomplishments”:

Should Miss have the misfortune to be handsome, she is early taught to hold her person in the greatest estimation… She must not learn to write, for fear of becoming round-shouldered, or work, lest she impair her fine eyes. Therefore a little imperfect French, an easy (and too frequently an insufferable) assurance, to tingle a harpsichord, and play quadrille, includes the whole of female education.

Mind you, she’s little more impressed with the nature of boys’ education (or, for that matter, boys per se); though in that respect, she does have an interesting theory about the origins of girls’ addiction to novel-reading:

Whereas the rougher bred boys, by having acquired a superficial knowledge of History and the Classicks, assume the privilege of laughing at their illiterate sisters, who instantly resolve to be upon an equality with the affected pedants. In consequence of this resolution, they get their Mamma’s waiting-woman to enroll them members of some circulating-library, where they obtain an easy and inexhaustible supply of such authours, as it had been better for them, (for the bad effects of their works,) they had never been born.

Present company excepted, of course, and our author – or “Editor”, as she styles herself, this being yet another novel to masquerade as a true story – says of her own work:

This performance has the single merit, (the Editor flatters herself,) that, at worst, it will prove inoffensive; a merit which the sensible and ingenuous will not deny it, whatever may be the opinions of some few over-nice cavillers…

How DARE you call me an over-nice caviller!? Hmmph!

It is interesting though, how sensible argument and misplaced self-congratulation are interwoven here. So that every time the author makes a reasonable point (however sarcastically)—

As long as the world continues to be distinguished into the learned and unlearned, male and female, young and old, performances in the Novel-way will never be unseasonable; for it is no less absurd to suppose pedants capable of dipping into so mean a work as a Novel, than ridiculous to imagine the larger part of Novel-readers capable of comprehending the Classicks: consequently, unless our capacities and educations could be reduced to one common lesson, amusements of this inferiour kind will be essential. The grand point, therefore, is to render them, if not improving, at least innocent.

—she undercuts it by making herself her own illustration:

The characters introduced to the readers acquaintance in this little work, are not fictitious ones, nor the several remarkable incidents of their lives merely the product of a fertile brain. I would, therefore, recommend the serious consideration of them to the young and inexperienced…

Family Pictures opens…confusingly…with a couple of potted histories that jump back-and-forth over generations and leave us momentarily confused about who we’re actually dealing with. When the fog clear, we are presented with two young men, Anthony Bentley and Frank Taylor, whose close friendship is disrupted when the latter is dispatched to India by his father, with orders, basically, to stay there until he has made his fortune, no matter how much he hates it. The two young men agree to maintain their friendship via the sort of minutely detailed correspondence usually associated with young women in epistolary novels.

Anthony, meanwhile, is a properly moral and principled individual, thanks chiefly to his tuition from the Reverend Mr Parker. The latter, a very good man, is also a very poor one, as he married for virtue instead of money. The Parkers have one child:

    The little Eliza, their daughter, had a person, which, though it could not come under the denomination of beautiful, was perfectly agreeable. In her countenance was displayed a most charming sensibility, every feature glowing with visible emanations of an intelligent and capacious mind. He eye spoke softness and love, but modesty sat enthroned on her brow, while meekness, gentleness, and simplicity of manners were her amiable characteristics.
    Besides the advantages of education before observed, she had in her father and mother the daily and striking examples of conjugal affection, universal philanthropy, and charity in all its loveliness and attendant graces…

However, what we think we see coming is prevented, or at least forestalled, when Mr Parker receives the gift of a new and better living, and the family moves to Herefordshire.

Some years later, Anthony’s father dies, and he inherits the family property. His loss is all the more severe since it leaves him with no relative but a brother with whom he has nothing in common, and who in turn resents him as the elder son:

The ruling passion of Daniel (such was the brother’s name) was an unbounded avarice; his nature was groveling, suspicious, and revengeful. Master of a deep cunning, he directed himself by that, and endowed with no inconsiderable share of low ambition, made use of his craft, as the means to rise… He, therefore, prudently resolved to make the utmost of his brother’s generosity, (which, in his heart, he deemed weakness) by living upon him, in many particulars, beyond what could be done with a good grace. This was his motive for treating his brother with an outward show of respect…

This passage is juxtaposed with one of Anthony’s letters to his friend, Frank Taylor, wherein he comments that, despite being an uncongenial companion due to his obsession with sport, Daniel is behaving better generally. This is supposed to illustrate for us Daniel’s “deep cunning” but, such are the various descriptions of his conduct, the reader comes away thinking, rather, that Anthony must be a bit thick. Since a major plot-turn later depends upon Anthony being completely deceived by his brother, this is all rather problematic.

Nevertheless, Daniel’s sporting habits make home unpleasant for Anthony, and he decides to visit the Parkers in their country retreat. This interlude (conveyed in more letters to Frank) is shot through with the by-now familiar sentimentalism of the period; albeit we’re more accustomed to hearing it from young ladies. Naturally Anthony falls in love with the perfect Eliza; although he does not recognise the state of his heart until she falls ill with smallpox.

In Barford Abbey, four years later, there is also a subplot in which the heroine contracts smallpox. This in itself is not an issue: the disease was endemic in England, and killed up to 10% of the population each year, leaving countless other sufferers scarred for life. What I do object to is the miraculous way in which, in these novels, the disease keeps refusing to disfigure attractive young women—Eliza escaping here as does Fanny Powis in the later novel.

At the same time, the plot takes an unexpected turn with respect to Anthony. When Eliza falls ill, and he realises he loves her, he keeps quiet about the fact that he has not had smallpox, preferring to remain in danger rather than be away from Eliza at this critical time. And sure enough, no sooner is Eliza on the mend than Anthony falls dangerously ill—and we discover that smallpox is less considerate when dealing with young men. We also get intimations of an exasperating but realistic double-standard:

    Eliza…was extremely shocked at the unhappy alteration in him, which had occasioned the poor lover himself an infinite share of chagrin. He had too much good sense, indeed, to suffer the least mortification from any value he set upon his person, but he was not sure, that it might not injure him in the eyes of the only woman he had ever been ambitious of being approved by; and as lovers are always tormenting themselves with unnecessary fears, he imagined she could not behold him without both horrour and disapprobation.
    He did the young lady, however, great injustice in his conjectures, for notwithstanding she really felt some concern at his sudden metamorphosis, yet she had a mind incapable of being very deeply affected by externals, and consequently whatever effect that alteration might have upon her with regard to her person, her esteem for his internal qualities still remained unshaken.
    These were the attractions that had wrought upon her, attractions whose lustre was not to be impaired by disease, and therefore she felt not the least abatement of that cordial approbation she had begun to entertain of him before her own and his illness. She secretly thanked heaven, however, that her face had not undergone the same fate…

Anthony soon declares himself to Eliza, and the two become engaged after many pages of high-flown speechifying, first between the young lovers, then between Anthony and Mr Parker.

The author is conscious that, in having Anthony speak to Eliza before her father, she has sacrificed propriety to romance; and she hurriedly interjects the following. The fact that this is supposed to be Anthony speaking – and that he has been meeting, not secretly, but certainly privately, with Eliza – gives an amusing edge to this display of Miss Minifie’s evidently low opinion of the male sex:

Were I writing for the press, I would here warn the tender, unexperienced maid from consenting to private interviews, even with the man whose intentions were truely honourable, as the dexterity, which clandestine meetings require, would but too probably rise in judgement against her, at a time, when she might least expect it; for life is subject to such and infinite variety of changes and chances, and the mind of man so frequently affected by them, that it is twenty to one but the same action, which was by the obliged lover magnified into the into the generous and meritorious, would by the reflecting husband be condemned, as the effect of a too fertile invention, and a mind turned for intrigue…

(This is a milder example of an infuriating scenario depressingly common in 18th century novels, wherein a man will relentlessly pursue a young woman in the name of his unalterable love, demand her sexual surrender as proof of her unalterable love—and then dump her because, if she surrenders to him, obviously she’s a whore who’ll have sex with anyone…)

Anthony is soon pouring out his happiness on paper (a typo has him announcing his engagement to “Louisa”, i.e. his prospective mother-in-law), and is disconcerted, to say the least, when he gets no response from his friend. He reminds himself that there have been lapses in his own correspondence, after his father’s death and during his illness; but eventually he begins to fret that either Frank so thoroughly disapproves his engagement, he won’t even respond, or that he too has fallen ill, or worse.

He finally does get a letter—one which severs their friendship, not because of anything Anthony has done, but because Frank has succumbed to temptation and his desperate desire to return to England (which his father will not permit him to do until he has made his fortune), and married a rich woman whom he despises; although not as much as he now despises himself. However, he promises Anthony an explanation when he does return to England…

Meanwhile, the announcement of his brother’s engagement does not exactly fill Daniel with fraternal joy:

Daniel was greatly chagrined at the unexpected news. He cursed his intended sister most heartily, and wished, his brother had had a taste for the pleasures of the chase, as that would have secured him from bringing home a pert minx to subvert all the ancient customs of Bentley-hall. The marriage, indeed, was a stroke he little expected. He had experienced during his brother’s absence what he called a full enjoyment of life, which amounted to an exemption from expense, a daily hazarding of his neck in the noble pursuit of a miserable defenceless animal, and closing the evening in a total subversion of reason. Anthony’s cellar (in the refined language of this sportsman) had bled freely; his horses had been harassed to death, and his servants had hourly trembled at oaths they were utterly unaccustomed to hear…

Anthony and Eliza are married, but spend their first weeks together with the Parkers. Daniel, therefore, has the opportunity to throw one last bash for his sporting friends—

—and we get a fabulous piece of accidental meta-humour, when Miss Minifie observes tartly of the debauched gathering:

Had Mr Hogarth been admitted to a view of these mid-night-revellers, the Publick might have been presented with a piece by no means inferiour to the greatest of that ingenious artist’s productions.

—recalling as we do that it was Hogarth’s chief pupil / competitor, James Gillray, who dragged the Gunning scandal out into the light of day.

On the other hand, I was interested and to a degree won over by the realisation that Family Pictures is one of those 18th century novels in which we can see the treatment of animals beginning to emerge as a social issue. Most commonly at this time, this was expressed with respect to dogs and horses (we saw the latter in the anonymous 1797 novel, Milistina). What we have here, however, is one of the earliest protests against fox-hunting that I have so far encountered.In fact, Miss Minifie makes a love of hunting a signifier for deficiency of heart and character. For 1764, that is remarkable.

When the newlyweds return home, Daniel does his best to seem pleased and to get along with Eliza, but he is incapable of regulating his behaviour. Indeed, he barely sees the need to; and tries to entertain his sister-in-law with a graphic description of his day’s hunting:

    When he came to [the fox’s] death, a savage ardour sparkled in his eyes, and the cries of the poor tortured animal but furnished him with witticisms.
    The tender-hearted Eliza was shocked to a very great degree at the inhumanity which displayed itself in every circumstance of this description. She was at first silent, but as he still continued his encomiums on the chase; “Can the worrying of a poor animal, said she, out of its existence deserve the commendations you bestow on it? Excuse me, Sir, if I take the liberty of saying, that there is rather barbarity in it. The exercise may, indeed, conduce to the bodily health, but the mind, I am afraid, is often hardened by it to a degree that renders it much less sensible of the feelings of humanity.”

Of course, as far as Daniel is concerned, she might as well be speaking Martian. The immediate consequence of this little scene is that he accepts that the good times are over, and that he needs to find somewhere else to live. He therefore courts and wins a Miss Bowling, who shares his views on hunting, and has five thousand pounds and a weak-willed brother, who Daniel duly persuades into letting him take up residence under his own roof. The marriage produces four children in as many years, three girls and then a boy; the latter named “Anthony” in the hope of a creating a financial as well as an emotional tie to his uncle. It is the eldest girl, however, named Arabella for her mother, who is closest to her parents’ hearts:

…notwithstanding her early time of life, [she] had betrayed such a complication in her nature of both father and mother, as promised to render her a most complete character. She was absolute master and mistress at home, had several unfortunate animals in her possession, which she tortured at her pleasure; fear, tenderness, and affection having the least share in her composition… She was accustomed to follow her father in the visitation of his hounds and horses, without either fear or dismay, and taught to examine the wounds of the various game, sent home weltering in gore, with all the transports of savage delight…

Meanwhile – without even pretending sorrow at Daniel’s departure – Anthony and Eliza settle down to a life of conjugal bliss.

However—this is an 18th century sentimental novel, after all, and – as we well know – they like dishing out absolute misery as much if not more than absolute happiness. That said, the misery in Family Pictures takes an odd form. Inevitably the novel is framed within the dictates of Christianity, and many solemn protestations of religious duty and submission to God’s will pepper the early stages of the narrative.

Yet the one thing all the characters share – even Mr Parker, the minister – is a complete inability to move on from a death. Instead, they either become almost permanently catatonic with grief, or outright die of it: the triumph of sentimentalism over conventional religion.

The novel’s shift in tone is announced with an almost hilariously perfect sentimental-novel “mission statement”:

The days of the happy pair were now one uninterrupted scene of happiness for some time, but fortune had only smiled to make her frowns more terrible…

Eliza falls pregnant (and the novel uses the p-word!), which after four childless years initially brings everyone great joy. However, when this first phase has passed, Anthony is seized with a terrible premonition—one marked by an unusual dwelling upon the contemporary dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, and by the pragmatic separation of Anthony’s roles:

Mr Bentley’s delight at the engaging name of father was checked and allayed by the apprehensions of the fond husband. The bare possibility of his exchanging for a dear infant his much dearer wife shook his very soul, and this painful reflection still continually intruding itself, as the time advanced that must determine the event, his anxieties were not a little augmented by it…

Eliza herself is in a state of mixed optimism and properly religious submission; and gently lectures her husband on his duty:

“Subdue then, my dear Anthony, these terrours so unbecoming a breast enlightened by a single ray of that religion we profess. Endeavour to acquire an implicit resignation to that power which bestowed, and consequently has a right to recall, if improperly used, every blessing you are now in possession of. Beware of that too frequent practice of idolatry, nor imagine, whilst you cherish in your heart a superiour affection to that of your great creatour, that you are innocent of a breach of the commandment, which so positively says, Thou shalt have no other God than me.”

As it turns out, Eliza survives the birth of her daughter, named Louisa for her own mother; and for three years, all is well—or so it seems. In fact, Eliza is in that mysterious condition known as “a decline”:

She had felt some inward decay, but forbore complaining, from a too tender consideration for her husband’s repose, until it was advanced beyond the power of medicine to remedy…

So Eliza dies; and, showing how deeply he took that pre-childbirth lecture to heart, Anthony reacts by going into a decline himself, and dying of grief.

Now— During the first four years of Anthony and Eliza’s marriage, Daniel and Arabella gradually taught themselves to look upon the family property as their own, or at least as ultimately belonging to their son. The advent of Louisa, therefore, in the absence of an entail, was a shock and a mortification.

The succeeding deaths of Eliza and Anthony, however—well, that’s a different matter. Daniel is summoned to his brother’s death-bed, where he is assured of a “generous” legacy, though the bulk of the property goes to Louisa. He also learns that – really, Anthony? REALLY!? – he has been appointed Louisa’s joint guardian, along with her grandfather.

The solemnity of the situation prompts a promise:

“Your child, said he, shall be considered by me as my own, and may God so deal with me and mine, as I shall acquit myself with respect to her.”

However—

Daniel was a little affected, but soon got the better of it…

 

[To be continued…]

 

 

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…

 

 

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…

Milistina is an oddly interesting little novel – something, granted, that is not immediately apparent from the foregoing 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 ingrained 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…