Posts tagged ‘domestic’

27/08/2021

Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (Part 2)


 
He had studied Louisa, as only the peculiar circumstances of her fortune could have permitted him to have done. He had seen her virtues, like the white blossom of the almond-tree, adorning the bare and leafless bough of withering poverty; he had seen her choose the path of difficulty, rather than accept the aids which would have made her way more easy, lest the breath of suspicion should sully any part of her conduct. He had seen her pass through the ordeal of distress, of insult, and of injury—and the sudden reverse of prosperity, of flattery, and of homage—unchanged through all;—in adversity undebased, in success uninflated; in suffering, meek and patient; in gratitude, deep and fervent; and hiding, under an apparent fortitude, the bleeding sensibility of her heart. No weak appeals, no permitted tears, sought to move interest and compassion; the convulsion that shook her soul, was only revealed by its influence on her frame; and her courage held her on her way, long after her strength was exhausted. Such a being comes not often from the hands of Nature—such a being was not easily resigned…

 

 

 

 

Be all this as it may, its provenance is the only Australian thing about Louisa Egerton…other than a tiny, throwaway detail towards the end, which we shall deal with in due course.

Set almost entirely amongst the English aristocracy, this is a rather serious, domestic / didactic novel: an improvement on The Beauty Of The British Alps in a literary sense, but generally a lot less fun. It is also overlong and frankly overwritten, full of moralising lectures and detailed descriptions and analyses of even minor characters; although its most exasperating touch is a lengthy – and unnecessary – interpolated narrative inserted right in the middle of its climax. (And there’s a second, shorter one only 50 pages from the end!)

In fact, it seems likely to me that the two-volume, 1830 edition of Louisa Egerton used Grimsone’s original, unedited (and already typeset) text, because this version of the novel is believably the work of a woman with a lot of time on her hands, but who hadn’t gotten around to doing any revision.

My suspicion is that while Grimstone’s first novel was popular with the public, it may have been criticised for its mixed characters and its general lack of didacticism: something which makes it appealing today, but would have been frowned upon in 1825. If so, Grimstone took the criticisms to heart: while she retains her penchant for mixed characters in Louisa Egerton, she does not this time go so far as having a hero and heroine who fit that description. On the contrary (as the quote above makes clear), Louisa is all but flawless; and so is the man who recognises her as his soulmate.

In such a long novel, this might have been hard to bear, particularly as Louisa’s perfections take the form of an absolute determination to immolate herself on the shrine of “duty” and “honour”. However, Grimstone leavens the dose in a number of ways, including the creation of an effective co-heroine in the Lady Alicia Herbert, whose outspokenness and force of character make a welcome contrast to Louisa’s sensitivity and shrinking silences. Furthermore, in what is a very crowded, multi-plotted story, Grimstone permits different characters to dominate the narrative at different times, with Louisa slipping into the background.

Now—what I don’t want is for this post to fall into the same trap as Louisa Egerton itself, and end up overlong and overwritten: this is a book whose importance in context is its background rather than its contents. So even at the risk of doing this novel some injustice – and despite my strictures, it is interesting and well-plotted – I’m going to try and keep to a single, summarising post.

(Yes, yes…I’m picturing the sceptical looks…)

For backstory, we are first given the history of Sir William Egerton, a man out of step with what Grimstone paints as a materialistic and rather licentious society by virtue of his benevolence and his interest in his fellow man. During one of his regular, incognito excursions to examine social conditions and help those who need it, Sir William encounters and befriends Lieutenant Wilton, a former soldier struggling with poverty, who lives in a tiny cottage with his devoted wife and two daughters. Sir William ends up falling in love with the younger daughter, Eva; and his proposal is viewed as a blessing from God by everyone but Eva herself: she does not love Sir William, and struggles to reconcile herself to what she is told is her duty to her family.

Not long before the wedding, Eva is thrown into the society of Sir William’s much-younger brother, Frederick, who is the baronet’s polar opposite: handsome, reckless and rather dissipated, and inclined to resent his brother’s authority—though he stays on terms with him, since he regularly needs his debts paid. Driven partly by real feeling, but partly also by a sense of satisfaction in cutting out the perfect Sir William, Frederick embarks upon a desperate secret courtship of Eva, which culminates in an elopement to the Continent.

The shock nearly destroys the Wiltons; it literally kills Mrs Wilton, whose dying injunction to her husband and Sir William is to forgive Eva and take her back, should she need it. However, much to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that Frederick has actually married her; and in his hurt and resentment, Sir William allows himself to interpret this as Eva being “all right”. He therefore takes no further steps to find the delinquents.

No real explanation is ever offered for the marriage that Sir William eventually does make to a beautiful and (again) much-younger woman, with whom he has little in common. Unlike her husband, Lady Egerton is worldly and ambitious, the latter becoming focused in the one child of the marriage, a daughter called Julia.

The one point upon which Sir William and Lady Egerton agree is their hope for Julia’s marriage to Eardley Herbert, the young Earl of Elville, though their motivations are quite different. With the former, it is a matter of friendship with the earl’s late father; with the latter, her dream of seeing her daughter at the heights of society. Lady Egerton having a fair grasp of her wilful daughter’s character, Julia has been kept in ignorance of her parents’ plans, so as not to put her off. However, we later learn that Lord Elville had Julia pressed upon him as his bride when his father was dying—which may or may not account for his subsequent dilatoriness in returning to England and taking up his new honours.

While being kept waiting in this manner, Lady Egerton has made it her business to court a friendship with the Lady Alicia Herbert, Elville’s sister and a relative of her own.

These two women are perhaps Grimstone’s most interesting characters, being almost mirror images of one another. Both are beautiful and aristocratic, and accustomed to leading their society and having their own way; but under pressure, different aspects of their personalities come to the fore. Lady Egerton has some good qualities, but her most prominent traits are her pride and her ambition, which finally subsume her better nature.

Lady Alicia, meanwhile, has a somewhat impatient, domineering nature and, in reaction to her disappointment in the very society in which she moves, she metes out fairly harsh treatment to anyone who earns her dislike or disapproval. She also does more damage than she knows or intends through her determination to be witty at others’ expense.

Here is Lady Alicia as seen by the susceptible Cecil Dudley and the misanthropic Major Selton:

    “Is she not a magnificent creature? What an air she has!—what intelligence in her large dark eye!—what archness in the expression of her beautiful mouth!”
    “All this I grant you,” cried the Major, “but she’s a devil for all that. She moves in society as Boadica in her war chariot through the Roman legion, armed at all points, and dealing wounds and death wherever she comes. At best she is a polished Amazon. Satire is the science of her life. She has all the arrogance of high rank, and all the insolence of superior intellect.”

And the Major is not wrong; though he fails to add (probably having had no experience of that side of her) that Lady Alicia also possesses a wealth of generosity, and is capable of great kindness. She is a shrewd judge of character, and her singling out of Louisa for her rare friendship says much about both young women—as does Alicia’s polite but determined avoidance of Julia, despite Lady Egerton’s efforts to create an intimacy between them. She is also devoted to her brother, Eardley.

At this early stage of the novel, however, we see more of Lady Alicia’s bad points, with the narrator both conceding and expanding upon Major Selton’s strictures: something which gives weight to his opinion when he and Cecil Dudley turn their attention to the Egerton girls:

    “They are now standing together, and we have the means of comparison. Is there not something in her countenance which speaks to the soul, and which Julia wants?”
    “Much of that is to be attributed to the circumstances in which she is placed,” said Cecil; “recent and true sorrow has yet left its traces on her cheek, and like a veil softens every charm it shades. She is new to the scene in which she is introduced, and that adds the sweetness of timidity to a form naturally graceful.”
    “There may be something in that,” cried Major Selton; “yet I cannot but perceive a distinction beyond what you have remarked. In height and figure they are almost the same, but, in countenance, Sir William’s niece has the advantage of his daughter. She has more sense, more sweetness, although, from her paleness and want of excitement, she is less striking.”
    “Brilliancy, I should say, was Julia’s characteristic,” said Cecil.
    “It is so,” replied his friend; “the consequence of a highly polished surface…”

Recently, Lady Egerton has acquired a parasite in the form of Emma Dickson, a connection of hers who, after much persistence and pushing, has managed to get a foot in the door at Sir William’s and is determined to keep it there no matter what. In pursuit of this end, Miss Dickson sets about making herself indispensable to Lady Egerton—and she is not slow to perceive that she can best do so by furthering her ambitions for Julia, and conversely by attacking the person who, all unwittingly, poses a threat to their accomplishment.

Louisa Egerton’s arrival in the narrative is low-key and indirect: the reader first hears of her during a nasty conversation between Emma Dickson and her own connections, the Browns (who she in turn patronises as Lady Egerton patronises her); and soon a whisper is abroad that Louisa is really Sir William’s illegitimate daughter: something that, though she never knows of it, will cause her great grief in the long run.

The rumour is perhaps bolstered by the warmth with which Sir William takes his niece to his heart. Much neglected by his worldly wife and daughter, remorseful over his dismissal of the erring Frederick and Eva, and the latter’s early death, and learning that Louisa has fled to him from solitude and destitution, Sir William finds her both a consolation and a means of making amends for past errors.

Accepted into the Egerton household and placed on an equal footing with her cousin Julia, Louisa is introduced to London high society and finds herself becoming involved in the tangled interactions of the Egertons’ circle.

Much of the interest of Louisa Egerton lies in the fact that it is a post-Regency or pre-Victorian novel – whichever term you prefer – Williamite? – and evinces a more pragmatic attitude than would be required of a later work, particularly one from a female author. Mary Leman Grimstone manages to have it both ways here: she presents Louisa Egerton and Lord Elville as examples of what should be, while filling her pages with a realistically variegated cast of characters moving in a society that, whatever lip-service it pays to convention, shows in practice a rather flexible morality.

For example— One of the most significant of this novel’s many subplots involves Sir Harry and Lady Arden. The latter, having been married for her money at the age of only fifteen, has since been cast adrift by a husband who evinces his dislike and contempt for her at every opportunity, while having a good time on her money and almost openly pursuing Julia Egerton—although to what end, no-one dares think. Sir Harry has in fact fallen sincerely in love with Julia, and his hatred of his wife rises in parallel with the growth of his illicit passion. He devotes much of his time to running interference between Julia and any man who seems a viable marital prospect: a fulltime job, as Julia’s own energies are devoted to attracting admiration and flattery.

Society shakes its head, but of course does nothing so forthright as closing its doors to Sir Harry – not even the Egertons forbid him their house – and in fact, if anything, sympathy is rather with him: the drooping, unhappy Lady Arden being viewed more or less as the skeleton at the feast.

An emotional support group eventually gathers around Lady Arden – rather belatedly, we might think – led by Louisa and Lady Alicia; and one of its members is Cecil Dudley, who is presented at the outset as a highly susceptible and rather feckless young man, but who proceeds to fall seriously in love with the neglected wife—and to an extent vice-versa, though Grimstone is more skittish about delineating the married woman’s state of mind. Their struggle to do the right thing is placed side-by-side with Sir Harry’s habitual libertinism and his manoeuvring pursuit of Julia, and presented not just without judgement, but with real understanding. The situation is even depicted as the making of Dudley, calling forth depths in his character that no-one knew he had.

But while subplots proliferate, the heart of Louisa Egerton remains the at-first unwitting and then acknowledged rivalry that develops between Julia and Louisa—or more correctly, the growing resentment of Julia and Lady Egerton at the threat posed by Louisa to their ambitions.

These do not take quite the same direction. Determined upon a marriage between Julia and Lord Elville, Lady Egerton does not, at first, consider Louisa any danger to her plans. When she first arrives in London, she is in mourning for her father and worn down by her struggles with poverty: subdued and retiring, she seems without any capacity to rival her cousin. However:

…the more she saw of Louisa, the more reason she discovered to fear her powers of attraction. Her beauty was of that dangerous kind, that grows upon the beholder; her artlessness, her unconsciousness, awakened no suspicion, and the unalarmed, unguarded heart found itself taken, ere it knew it had been touched. Her intellectual resources, the extent of which her ladyship did not, as yet, even pretend to guess, were to her beauty what the sun is to the world, giving it lustre and animation; and as the cloud of sorrow wore away, of course they would break forth with full spendour. Louisa was, evidently, the modest possessor of much intellectual treasure, and many natural advantages, which intimacy must inevitably elicit, and they would all come forth with the more powerful effect, from being unexpected. Julia, beautiful and brilliant as she was, had much to fear from such a competitor, especially as it was generally understood that the Earl of Elville was no man of fashion, but highly cultivated and a lover of the arts.

Lady Egerton is particularly concerned by Lady Alicia having attached herself to Louisa: she knows how close are the brother and sister, and fears that Alicia’s influence may turn Lord Elville from Julia to her cousin. She begins to interfere in the friendship, when she can, and her manner to Louisa becomes cold and repulsive, causing the sensitive girl to shrivel and withdraw—which serves her aunt’s purpose perfectly.

Lord Elville’s tardiness in returning to England has been a frustration to Lady Egerton, but now she welcomes it. It occurs to her that if she can get Louisa married off, or at least engaged, before the earl does arrive, it will be a danger circumvented. Immediately to hand for her purpose she finds Major Selton: though a misanthrope rather than a misogynist, the Major has no opinion of the female sex; but Louisa has become to him the exception that proves the rule; and he finds his awkward courtship being given far more assistance than he ever anticipated—much to its object’s dismay.

However, perhaps Lady Egerton’s scheming and cynicism are best illustrated in the way she tolerates the attentions of Sir Harry Arden to Julia:

It would appear strange to the eye of common observation, that Lady Egerton should be so regardless or indifferent to the Baronet’s devotion to to her daughter, and which, if paid by one likely to have interfered with her scheme of making her a Countess, would have called all her vigilance into play. But her ladyship looked upon it in no other light than the harmless gallantry natural to the Baronet’s character, and consequent of Julia’s beauty, while it acted as a sort of safeguard to the approach of admirers less safe, she thought, and more sincere; thus, so long as her own views were undisturbed she suffered her daughter to imbibe the poison of flattery from the unhallowed lips of a libertine…

But Grimstone isn’t done: she follows up this shocking glimpse into the workings of Lady Egerton’s mind by revealing that Julia is every bit her mother’s daughter:

This laxity of principle might have carried its own punishment, but Julia was as cold as she was vain, and, intent upon inspiring passion in all, she was incapable of feeling it for any…

The Egerton household acquires another member when Stafford Monteith is placed under Sir William’s guardianship for the final months of his minority. The young man is handsome, wealthy and high-principled, having been raised away from the pernicious influence of society; and Sir William, having taken his measure, begins plotting a marriage between him and Louisa.

Louisa, indeed, finds herself falling in love with the accomplished young man—and suffers the mortification of having her inclination become public property when Emma Dickson brazenly invades her room and her diary. Her awareness that her secret is in another’s keeping causes the hypersensitive Louisa to start avoiding Monteith, almost to the point of rudeness; and he, having initially been drawn to her, is offended by what he perceives as her fickleness—or coquetry. (He, too, has heard the circulating rumours about Louisa’s birth…)

Monteith’s misinterpretation of Louisa’s behaviour is perhaps not to be wondered at: for all his perfections, the very nature of his upbringing has left him inexperienced with women; and in the wake of Louisa’s apparent defection he proves it by falling in love with Julia.

She, of course, has automatically turned her batteries upon the handsome newcomer—only to end up hoist with her own petard when she discovers herself developing some real feeling for the first time in her career of vanity and ego-stoking. Monteith’s passionate sincerity, so different from the calculated flattery and game-playing she is accustomed to, catches Julia off-guard; and though her instinct is to draw the situation out, she is hurried into giving him a promise of sorts.

And more petard-hoisting follows, when Lady Alicia also finds herself falling for Monteith.

In expressing her low opinion of her society, Alicia has certainly never spared the opposite sex, to the point of openly declaring her intention never to marry. She maintains her position in vigorous argument against Louisa and Lady Arden, both of whom cherish a belief in an ideal of love:

    “Hush! hush!” cried Louisa, “we must not allow you to abuse one half of the world at this rate; it is not generous, as they are not here to defend themselves.”
    “Oh! believe me, I am no back-biter,” rejoined her ladyship; “I do not think there is one of the race can accuse me of ever having said a civil thing of or to them.”
    “Well, that is certainly meritorious,” replied Louisa, laughing.
    “It is consistent, at least,” said Lady Arden; “but I cannot subscribe to your opinions. You are robbing the world of its sunshine, if you destroy our faith in the existence of a confiding and devoted love—you are robbing life, at least youth, of its poetry, if you deprive it of romantic feeling.”

But Lady Alicia is having none of it. In particular, these views coming from Lady Arden, whose dutiful efforts to “love” her appalling husband she has witnessed, along with the constant humiliation that requite those efforts, rouses her to complete exasperation:

    “It is the folly of most women, and of none more than women of genius, to heighten, to quicken their feelings to a morbid excess—to lay both mental and physical strength prostrate at the shrine of emotion—and for what? For the fraction of a passion prostituted to hundreds—for a love, pure, original, and undivided, never warmed the tide that rushes through the heart of man…
    “And for whom do you make this sacrifice or moral and mental energy?—For a being, who has no superiority except in vice, and whose universal employment is to degrade you to his own level; who, with every weakness common to both natures, pretends a proud exemption in his own person, and has the impudence to pretend to pity their existence in yours. Colleges have been endowed, and some learning thrust into his dull head; exercises have been invented, and they have invigorated his robust limbs; in these, consist his triumph, and his means of triumph; while ye,” and, as she looked at Louisa and Lady Arden, she apostrophised the whole sex—
        “‘Ye would be dupes and slaves,
        ‘And so ye are.'”

But in Stafford Monteith, raised outside this system, high-principled, clean-handed and with the strength of character to avoid the lures and traps laid out for any young man of wealth, Lady Alicia finds her own exception that proves the rule. She nurses no hope for herself, however, having seen with her usual insight Monteith’s hesitation between the Egerton girls: sympathising with his initial attraction to Louisa, deploring his surrender to Julia—for him even more than for herself.

Alicia’s private disappointment has a curious effect upon her character. In conjunction with her shift to spending less time in general society, and more with Louisa, Lady Arden and her aunt, the Duchess of Ancaster, she begins to set aside her sarcastic and domineering manner, showing the better nature that lurks behind it and softening to a kinder, more generally pleasing manner that is both a surprise and a relief to those who come into contact with her.

Meanwhile, Sir William has confided to Lady Egerton his hopes for Louisa and Monteith. The latter, still determined to get Louisa married off as quickly as possible, but unfussed as to who serves her purpose, is content to have it so—although Sir William’s encomiums and his evident preference for Louisa over Julia – or at least, his higher opinion of Louisa’s character – arouses her resentment and, for the first time, some suspicion that those persistent rumours might be true. Nor does Louisa endear herself to her aunt by receiving – and rejecting – a proposal of marriage from Lord Harwell, the heir apparent to a dukedom: Lady Egerton is suddenly painfully aware that her own daughter has never received any comparable offer. Though she has so far done her duty as Louisa’s relative and hostess, from this point Lady Egerton’s heart hardens cruelly against her.

By this time the London season is over: the Egertons have withdrawn to a villa at Chiswick, and Lady Alicia and the Ancasters to her house at Windsor, within visiting distance: Alicia hardly acknowledges to herself the reason for her preference for Windsor over Herbert Castle, her brother’s seat in Devonshire, where she usually passes the summer.

It is Sir William who is summoned to Herbert Castle. Having accepted management of the estate when Lord Elville and his father left England for the benefit of the latter’s health (unavailing, as it turned out), with the young earl’s failure to return he has continued to oversee the estate; and now receives a letter from the steward that convinces him his presence is required.

His announcement of his intended departure prompts Stafford Monteith to request a private audience. The conversation that follows is mortifying to both, with Sir William’s own plans leading him to assume Monteith is referring to Louisa, and enthusiastically giving his consent—and Monteith learning that the Earl of Elville has (as it were) got dibs. In exchange from an assurance from Sir William that Julia will not be compelled, a promise is wrung from the anguished young man that he will say nothing of this arrangement. Unable to deal with his disappointment, he makes a long-intended visit to his mother and sister an excuse to withdraw from Chiswick.

Word of the situation has already reached Lady Egerton via Emma Dickson (who was eavesdropping when Monteith and Julia made their mutual declarations), and she takes steps of her own by encouraging Sir William to carry Julia away to Herbert Castle—partly to ensure her ongoing separation from Monteith, partly on the assumption that when Lord Elville does return, that will be his first destination. Sir William agrees, and suggests taking Louisa too: her struggle with her own emotions and the misery of her separate persecutions by Major Selton and Emma Dickson are undermining her health, as her uncle has seen without grasping the cause. Lady Egerton, however, has plans of her own for Louisa, and insists that she stay behind. There is, consequently, an unhappy parting between Louisa and Sir William, with the latter conscious that his own health is none too good.

In the absence of Sir William, matters go swiftly from bad to worse for Louisa—the first intimation of dreadful storms to come a wholly unexpected letter from her step-mother.

We get Louisa’s back-story here: her parents’ peripatetic, hand-to-mouth existence, her mother’s early death, and Frederick Egerton’s disastrous second marriage to a scheming widow, whose vicious enmity Louisa secured to herself by trying to open her infatuated father’s eyes before it was too late. Soon enough, the new Mrs Egerton showed her true colours, bleeding her husband dry and then leaving him to suffer the consequences of her actions in a French debtors’ prison, while she herself parlayed her new surname into a measure of social success.

Far from having any hope of freeing her father, in order to support both him and herself Louisa was driven to sell the few pieces of jewellery she inherited from her mother. She was fortunate, in finding a goldsmith both sympathetic and honest, and who gave her a fair price for her trinkets; and it was during one of these transactions that she caught the attention of a young Englishman who happened to be passing through Dieppe. Learning the details of the situation from the goldsmith, the young man visited the Egertons in their prison and, introducing himself as Mr Leslie, offered his assistance.

Overcoming the proud resistance of the Egertons, Leslie paid Frederick’s debts and had him removed to lodgings. However, it was soon clear that his physical and emotional sufferings had irreparably damaged his health.

Louisa’s subsequent nursing of her dying father was made only more difficult by the reappearance of Mrs Egerton, demanding her rights purely to supplant and hurt Louisa, and attempting to put an end to Leslie’s help via her sneering innuendos as to what he was getting in return for his money. Remorse setting the seal on his collapse, Frederick did the only thing he could do by way of reparation to his daughter, sending a last letter to his long-estranged brother and begging a refuge for her.

Frederick’s death was the signal for Mrs Egerton’s departure, with Louisa left to manage her father’s burial—and to find some way of keeping herself while waiting with trepidation for Sir William’s response. With her step-mother’s ugly taunts ringing in her ears, and now without even nominal chaperonage, Louisa shrank from any more of Leslie’s assistance, however delicately offered; and in the end accepted a loan instead from the elderly goldsmith to pay for her journey to England—slipping secretly away and leaving no trail for the dismayed Leslie.

Mrs Egerton, we now learn, is a connection of the wealthy but vulgar Stubbs family – who are connections of the Browns – who (you may remember) are connections of Emma Dickson: and so she learns that her much-hated step-daughter is living in luxury and rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy. Mrs Egerton sees in the situation a double opportunity: the chance for a little shoulder-rubbing of her own, while continuing to torment Louisa.

The arrival of her step-mother’s letter, in which Mrs Egerton declares her intention of exerting the authority of her position over her, is a blow that, in her weakened condition, Louisa cannot withstand: she collapses. Recognising that she is seriously, even dangerously, ill, Lady Egerton “acquits her conscience” by summoning the best medical attendance; however—

…Lady Egerton retired to mediate on the measures she should adopt as to Sir William, Immediate information on such a subject he would expect—yet such she had no intention of transmitting. She argued, with a great deal of philosophy, that, in the event of Louisa’s death, she might urge that she had not deemed the danger so imminent… The knowledge that Louisa was, in all human probability, on her death-bed, would, she felt convinced, call Sir William to her side, perhaps leaving Julia in the inefficient charge of other people; or, if bringing her along with him, at least it would be to the neglect of the Elville interest…

The situation is complicated by a series of letters intimating Sir William’s inability to deal with his wilful daughter, and urgently requiring the presence of his wife and niece. Lady Egerton is still pondering the matter when she meets her sister-in-law—recognising at once a likely co-conspirator.

Matters take another serious turn when a frantic message arrives from Herbert Castle, announcing that Sir William has suffered a paralytic stroke and is not expected to live. Lady Egerton makes immediate plans for departure, resigning Louisa to the tender mercies of her step-mother, to whom is confided the plan to force her into marriage with Major Selton. Mrs Egerton is also granted full authority in the Chiswick villa.

Louisa recovers from her own illness, though when confronted by the twin horrors that await her she sincerely regrets doing so:

    “Oh! you must shake off this melancholy,” rejoined Mrs Egerton, with offensive pleasantry; “we must talk of weddings, not burials. You will sleep with as much security, and less cold, in the arms of Major Selton, who is dying to throw himself once more at your feet.”
    Description can do little justice to the expression of Mrs Egerton’s eye.—There was cunning, malice, and a cast of levity…

Unexpectedly, though she is still very physically weak, the need to deal with her step-mother goes some way towards snapping Louisa out of her funk.

And something else happens at this point that, in terms of 19th century literature generally, is worth highlighting. We have spoken before, chiefly in the context of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano, of the reluctance – particularly on the part of male authors – to concede that a woman might love more than once. Female authors tended to be more realistic. In Cuthbertson’s novel, it is a matter of a young women getting over an unworthy man. Here we get something even more pragmatic: as she deals with her various physical and emotional crises, Louisa discovers that her inclination for Stafford Monteith has burnt itself out. Though the language used is much more high-flown, the implication is that she has had a first crush, and gotten over it: something that, despite its absolute naturalness, I can hardly recall from any other book of this period.

In practical terms, however, this leaves Louisa with one less weapon in her armoury, when it comes to holding off Major Selton—armed, conversely, with the approval and encouragement of Lady Egerton, Mrs Egerton and Emma Dickson, who between them have puffed him up to such an extent, Louisa’s coldness does nothing to dissuade him. Besides, once they are married— The major, as he tells Louisa ominously, is a great believer in “the husband’s prerogative”…

Louisa’s resistance is sorely tried by the receipt of a letter from Lady Egerton informing her of her uncle’s parlous condition, and tacitly reminding her that she is a destitute orphan living on her relatives’ charity: the implication is clear enough:

    There was then no refuge for her, but a marriage with one she did not love! No other alternative, to preserve her from her iniquitous step-mother! Lady Egerton had evinced a heartlessness—a determination to abandon her, which left her neither a hope or a desire to receive the smallest aid from her hands. Could she so far humble herself as to entreat her ladyship’s continued protection, she felt it would but be to meet repulse…
    To make up her mind to some decided plan of conduct, was now necessary. The conflict was great—the decision difficult. Whether to cast herself upon a yet untried world, or to accept the offer of Major Selton, equally presented ample field for apprehension…

Louisa is still hesitating painfully when the decision is made for her. During the night, the villa catches fire. Louisa has a chance to save herself, but she stops in a effort to wake and save her maid. This takes enough time that the two are all but trapped, and it is only through the efforts of Major Selton that the two are saved. After this, Louisa feels that she has no choice, and agrees to an engagement; though she never succeeds in disguising her indifference and reluctance. She also resists the demand for an immediate marriage, with which she is immediately assaulted.

Meanwhile, Sir William is making a recovery of sorts, although his intellect and his memory are impaired: Louisa, when they are at length reunited, understands that she has nothing to hope from his protection. Her father’s situation is more or less forcing a discontented Julia to behave, but she is pining for society. Seeing this, Miss Dickson sets to work on her—in the first place pointing out the likelihood of a permanent withdrawal from the great world as the wife of Stafford Monteith, who has even – quelle horreur! – mentioned the church as a possible future career.

Having sown her seed, Dickson then for the first time informs Julia of her parents’ intentions—following up with a word-picture of the endless glories that await the beautiful young Countess of Elville. Needless to say, her promise to Monteith slips rapidly from Julia’s memory…

Amusingly, Julia here turns out to be more of a pragmatist than even Lady Egerton ever realised: if only she’d known, she laments, she would have sucked up to Lady Alicia like her mother always wanted!

Speaking of Lady Alicia— She has been off the scene for some time, nursing and comforting the Duchess of Ancaster, who lost a baby; but now she comes roaring back. Lady Egerton made it her business to keep Louisa’s illness quiet; Alicia has heard of Sir William’s, but assumed, naturally enough, that Louisa was in Devonshire with the rest of the family. It is the news of the fire at the villa, however, that results in Alicia turning up at Castle Herbert. She is furious at Louisa’s abandonment in London, appalled by her engagement to Major Selton, and has knowledge of the true character of Mrs Egerton: and on all three counts she reads Lady Egerton the riot act.

The same conversation, unpleasant though it is in most respects, offers Lady Egerton a balm in the announcement of Lord Elville’s expected arrival. Lady Alicia’s passionate championing of Louisa still alarms her, however, and it is this that prompts her to try and force an immediate marriage.

Lady Alicia returns to London and carries Louisa off from under the nose of the furious Mrs Egerton, inviting her to stay with her at the Ancasters’, until the arrival of her brother: they may then travel to Castle Herbert together. This, as Alicia well knows, is in direct defiance of Lady Egerton’s own plans for Louisa: she intends sending Emma Dickson for her, and for the two to travel with Major Selton; further rivetting Louisa’s bonds with a public display of their connection.

And Eardley Herbert does indeed make his much-belated appearance upon the scene, to be greeted rapturously by his sister, and welcomed warmly by his uncle and his guests.

At this critical moment, Louisa enters the room—and all but faints:

    “What, my dear Louisa, my dear Eardley, is the meaning of this?” cried Lady Alicia, as soon as they were alone.
    “Spare me—spare Miss Egerton any inquiry now, my Alicia,” cried his lordship; “I have had the pleasure of knowing her long since, although, perhaps,” he added, taking Louisa’s hand, “she did not know me so well…”

Lord Elville is, of course, that “Mr Leslie” who came to Louisa’s rescue in Dieppe—and who then fell in love with her, despite the reluctant promise wrenched from him by his dying father, with regard to Julia. It is the latter that has kept him away; and, as he later confesses to Alicia, he has returned to England now only because word reached him through channels that Julia was engaged to Stafford Monteith, and he thought the coast was clear.

Instead of which, he finds Julia not only apparently free but pantingly eager—to be Countess of Erville, at least—and Louisa engaged to a man for whom she self-evidently cares nothing:

    “I must not listen to the dreams of your fancy,” he cried, smilingly.
    “No—trust to something better,: she rejoined, “trust to my agency, my ardent and devoted interest in your happiness. Give me, Eardley, that which I covet beyond all else—your confidence; repose in mine the secrets of your bosom, and see whether or not I can minister to your malady.”
    “Such a confidence,” replied his lordship, relapsing into gloom, “might make you a partner of my grief, of my regrets—no more. There is a valedictory decree gone out against me, and the seal of death has made it immutable.”
    “Eardley, you talk enigmas, which I vainly endeavour to expound. Hear me speak plainly and intelligibly, and, if wrong, contradict me. You love Louisa Egerton—and she is worthy of even your love—you find her engaged, by some fatuity, to one whom her heart abhors—you feel it a point of honour not to step in between the accepted lover and affianced bride. But this hateful marriage shall never be—so I have this very morning told Lady Egerton—Louisa shall be free—shall be yours.”
    Various and deep was the emotion expressed in Lord Elville’s countenance, as he listened to his passionate and ardent sister. When she became silent, he shook his head, and after a pause cried in a deep voice—
    “What shall it avail me that she is free—when I am not? When I arrived here, it was under the impression that Julia was on the point of marriage!”

But Julia, it turns out, is not the main stumbling-block. Having made a fatal misstep at the outset in her dealings with Elville, upon his arrival at Castle Herbert – showing herself in full dress regalia and turning upon him all her charms, flirting and laughing while her father is critically ill upstairs – Julia soon recognises both Elville’s indifference to her and his preference for Louisa, and recoils from him in mortified self-love.

Ultimately, it is Louisa – caught, as Alicia accuses her brother of being, “on a point of honour” – who is the real problem: she simply will not help herself, in spite of Elville’s pleading and Alicia’s arguments. She has given her word to Major Selton—and having done so, she has given up the struggle. Her health, never fully re-established, is failing again; and she has resigned herself to an early marriage and an early death; the one, we gather, to follow naturally from the other…

Well. Having gotten her characters into this appalling mess, Mary Leman Grimstone then spends another two hundred and fifty pages getting them out out of it again – some of them – dispensing catastrophe and retribution with a liberal hand, and happy endings a bit more sparingly.

None of which I intend to get into…with the exception of this revelation, which comes on the very last page of Louisa Egerton:

An Australian novel, remember?—

Mrs Egerton was suddenly arrested in an impudent career of successful imposition, by the appearance of her first husband, whom she had erroneously supposed dead; but who, having fulfilled his sentence of transportation, returned to his country, little amended by the discipline he had experienced…

 

19/07/2019

The Sicilian


 
 
    His Lordship would have liked to have travelled with the Duke; but as his Grace did not make the proposal, he did not chuse to mention his wishes, as he found he could not take the same liberties with the Duke di Ferrara as he could with the Viscount and Mellifont, to whom he chose to expatiate in the most pompous terms upon his Grace’s consequence, and to hint he expected them both to pay him the utmost respect.
    “Sole heir, you find, to two of the most noble, most illustrious houses in Sicily: his immense fortune is his least boast. He is also a grandee of Spain, Prince of the Roman Empire, &c. therefore far superior to many sovereign princes, and may truly be ranked among the first subjects in Europe…”

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
The only good thing about The Sicilian is that it essentially confirms my theory that the Minerva Press novelists known as “Mrs Meeke” and “Gabrielli” were indeed two different people.

As you might recall, recent research has determined that the real name of the writer who published as “Gabrielli” was Elizabeth Meeke; and there was some contention too that this was the actual name of the the author known simply as “Mrs Meeke”, whose first name is usually given as “Mary”.

My counter-suggestion was that the Minerva Press imposed a pseudonym upon Elizabeth Meeke to avoid having two different authors of the same name on its roster: a belief strengthened by the fact that – and I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this – I’ve read at least one book by each of the two Mrs Meekes.

While there were certain points of similarity between the works I had read attributed to “Mrs Meeke” and The Mysterious Wife, the first novel by “Gabrielli”, my overall impression was that the latter was by a less competent writer (I hesitate to say “talented” in either case). Moreover, while Mrs Meeke’s books tend to be overcrowded with incident, that by “Gabrielli”, other than a flourish of events at beginning and end, was mostly just padding.

The latter tendency is even more pronounced in the second novel attributed to “Gabrielli”, 1798’s The Sicilian, which – not to put too fine a point on it – is a whole lot of nothing.

Four volumes of nothing; 1158 pages of nothing.

While its title might suggest rather Gothicky goings-on – at the very least, banditti, and vendettas, and poignards a-flashing – The Sicilian is, for the most part, an intensely dull domestic novel about an immaculate young man (from, yes, Sicily) visiting his English relatives.

In order to fill out her four volumes, therefore, the author resorts to describing everything that happens in the most minute detail, with every incident, no matter how small or unimportant, dragged out to untenable length and relentlessly flogged to death. Quite often nothing happens at all—with large chunks of this book consisting of seemingly endless dialogue scenes in which half-a-dozen different characters give their opinion about something, and then the protagonist is proven correct.

The former quickly becomes excruciating; while the latter offers some interest, but mostly from the outside, as it were: the research mentioned above also uncovered that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-daughter of Dr Charles Burney, and therefore through her mother’s second marriage connected with the infinitely more talented Frances Burney. Among their many other qualities, Burney’s novels were celebrated for their dialogue: she had a knack for rendering idiosyncratic though believable speech, and using it to reveal character. It occurred to me while reading The Sicilian that Elizabeth Meeke was striving for something similar in her dialogue scenes, but since most of her characters are two-dimensional at best, their dialogue has nothing to reveal—but instead just drones on and on…

What minor entertainment is offered by this book is almost entirely inadvertent, being found chiefly in the author’s serene belief that people with titles are better than the rest of us, and the more titles, the better; which, coupled by her evident ignorance of the society she was trying to depict, does make for some laughs. There are one or two other eyebrow-raising and/or gigglesome touches, but otherwise The Sicilian is something of a grim endurance test.

That said—two of the novel’s accidental points of interest occur at the outset. The Sicilian opens during the early phase of the French Revolution, in a Belgium overrun by emigrants. Amusingly, though also somewhat horrifyingly, considering that this novel was written well after the events depicted and with a full knowledge of their outcome, the author has no sympathy whatsoever for these displaced persons, saving all of her concern for the non-French people inconvenienced by them—including her hero; who, by the way, observes:

“…I think most of them had much better have staid in France; as I have been assured, by people whose authority was unquestionable, that the greater number of them were not of sufficient consequence to have excited the attention of the democrats: but it is fashionable to emigrate, and every chevalier wishes to be thought a nobleman.”

And this is in 1792, mind you! To be clear, there’s no irony intended here, nor any hint that the hero might be (heaven forfend!) wrong.

That hero creates something of a dilemma for his author, inasmuch as he is Catholic. The Sicilian opens with a young Englishman called Francis Neville becoming stranded in a small Belgium town due to lack of accommodation and horses, and visiting the church for want of anything else to do. Shown around by the sexton, Neville is subjected to a harangue about the various miracles performed in the district by the Virgin Mary, at which he can barely refrain from laughing out loud. This companion in his tour of the shrine is a gentleman about his own age, accompanied by a small boy: the latter—

…expressed [his] doubts as to the authenticity of the miracles [the sexton] was descanting upon… Before he had enumerated half the surprising deeds she had performed, the child exclaimed, “Pray, papa, how many Virgin Mary’s are there?” This question quite overset Neville’s gravity; and the stranger, without entering into a discussion upon the subject, joined him in a very hearty laugh…

Yeah, sound like a couple of devout Catholics, don’t they? – particularly the five-year-old; though of course, as her hero is his creator’s idea of a veray parfit gentil knight, he has to be devout…just not too devout…or at least, not too Catholicky in his devotion. Particularly he can’t believe too much in all that saints-and-miracles stuff, which as any sensible person must realise (Catholic or not) is just silly:

    As Mr Neville had been the first to give way to his mirth, he made his excuses to the stranger, adding, “I think it would be excusable in the most rigid Catholic not to give credit to such absurd fabrications.”
    “Else I should be very deserving of censure, sir,” said the stranger. “Yet, though I profess that religion, I do not place implicit faith in the doctrine of miracles.”

And so it is throughout the novel: the hero is shown as steady in the practise of his faith and his attendance at Mass, yet always with some sort of disclaimer tacked on.

The conversation continues, with the stranger eventually revealing that he is on his way to England to visit his friend, Lord Fortrose…who happens to be Mr Neville’s father. Neville then rightly surmises that the stranger is the Duke di Ferrara, who once assisted his father when the latter feel ill while travelling. It is further revealed that the young duke is a widower, and that the boy is his eldest son, Alfred.

The two young men journey on together, but are forced to spend the night in an an overcrowded town where they secure the last hotel room, dirty and inadequate as it is. The duke offers to share their accommodation with an elderly Englishman who, being a nobleman of some sort, is aggrieved to be obliged to (as he supposes) a couple of commoners, but accepts the offer and takes over their room. He is tired and cranky, unused to “putting up” with anything inferior, and is as rude, petulant and condescending as possible to everyone who comes near him…until Neville uses the phrase, “Your Grace.”

The elderly nobleman, meanwhile, is travelling with two young men, one of whom refers to the other as, “Lord Gowrie”, which in turn attracts the duke’s full attention. The nobleman is revealed as the Earl of Merton before he finds out his companions’ names…and titles. Neville eventually introduces himself, but the duke is subjected to the equivalent of a game of twenty questions, which makes it clear that the earl suspects the latter’s identity, and has some unpleasant personal knowledge related to it. Eventually we get this:

    “Pray is your Grace acquainted with any part of the St. Severino family?”
    The Duke fixed his eyes upon the Peer, while he replied, “I was intimately so during their life-time, my Lord. The late Duke of that name died about two years ago; his title and estates centred in my family; my eldest son, who sleeps there, bears that name.”
    The Earl shrunk from the Duke’s scrutinising looks, and was for a few seconds lost in astonishment; but speedily rousing himself, fearful of being remarked, he said, with some hesitation, “A very great family I always understood, though I can’t say I was acquainted with every branch of it; but pray, your Grace, was not there once, or have I been misinformed, a Count (Italian Counts, I know, are mere nominal titles), but I understood there was a Count Mondovi, a relation of the St. Severino family?”
    The Duke, who secretly enjoyed the Earl’s perplexity, knowing full well from whence it arose, said very coolly, “I presume your Lordship means the late Duke; he was fourth son to the former one, and did bear the title you allude to.”
    “Oh! the fourth son,” said the Earl: then, having taken a few moments for reflection, he proceeded, “Pray did he leave any daughters behind him? I presume he had no sons, from his title and estates having devolved to your Grace.”
    “He had but one daughter, my Lord, who married against his consent, and preceded him to the grave…”

This little interlude is an excellent example of The Sicilian‘s style (or lack thereof): the conversation is interrupted at this point, and about another 100 pages have passed before the complicated family relationships – and, more importantly (at least in the author’s view), inheritances – are spelled out, confirming for us that: (i) the duke is Lord Melton’s grandson; (ii) his father was Lord Melton’s third son, Alfred; (iii) Alfred married the only daughter of the Count Mondovi against both their fathers’ wills; (iv) Count Mondovi later became the Duke di St. Severino after most of his family was wiped out in the Calabrian earthquakes of 1783; and (iv) the Duke di Ferrara bears his title courtesy of his marriage to the heiress of that family, as a royal bequest…

…thus allowing him and his young son to both be dukes simultaneously.

There is eventually a reconciliation between Lord Melton and his newly discovered relatives – of course there is: his grandson and great-grandson are both dukes!! – and most of remaining three-and-a-half volumes of The Sicilian are devoted to the duke meeting his English relatives, and those relatives discovering how immensely superior he is to pretty much everyone, what with his multiple titles and everything…

The latter straightfaced attitude is also picked up in the material concerning Lord Melton himself, who is forgiven his overweening pride and arrogance, and the fact that he allowed his son Alfred to remain an outcast and suffer many difficulties after his marriage, on account of the fact that, Aw c’mon, he’s an Earl! – cut him some slack!!

And yet—the novel also devotes a tedious number of pages to mocking the subsuming family pride of the Earl’s spinster-niece, Miss (or as she calls herself, “Mistress”, Mrs) Rachel de Studeville, who spends most of her time dwelling on her inherited magnificence as the daughter and heiress of Sir Yelverton de Studeville, and who also conceives a passionate affection for her new relative mostly (though not entirely) on account of his multiple titles.

This seems unnecessarily cruel inasmuch as Mrs Rachel has a few more good qualities than her uncle. She was also unkindly treated by the duke’s father, who reacted to being pressured into marrying his much-older cousin (and thus keeping all the property in the family) by eloping with another woman. Rachel at that time nursed an unrequited affection for the ungrateful Alfred, and when he later fell into poverty and struggle due to his impulsive marriage, it was she who displayed forgiveness and generosity by sending him some relieving money.

Despite its length, there are really only two subplots of any real interest in The Sicilian, the first of which involves the rather dubious relationship between Lord Melton and his heir, his eldest grandson, Viscount Gowrie.

As noted, when the duke and Lord Melton first encounter each other, the latter is travelling with Lord Gowrie and another grandson, Captain Mellifont. The two parties end up merging for an extremely rough passage across the Channel, which they are required to complete by oar. The conditions are still difficult, and the passengers frequently splashed by breaking waves, particularly Lord Melton:

The Viscount, by way of appeasing him, protested he had no intention to take the best place, and entreated the Earl would change with him, which at last the old man agreed to; and nothing would have been more easy than for Lord Gowrie to have stood up, and thus let the Earl slide himself into his seat, instead of which he chose to assist the old Peer in rising as he sat, meaning to take the advantage he ought to have allowed him to have done. A moment’s reflection would doubtless have made the Earl object to rising; however, he was half upon his legs when the Captain, who saw a large wave coming, called out “For God’s sake take care, we shall overset!” He had not time to finish his sentence before Lord Gowrie started up, as he said, to let the Earl take his place, when he fell against the poor old man, already upon a totter, and fairly sent him backwards over the side of the boat…

But of course—

The idea of self-preservation induced everyone but the Duke to obey, who the moment the accident happened, had thrown off his great coat, and in ten seconds, having disencumbered himself of the greatest part of his clothes, seeing the Earl rise at some distance from the boat, just said, before anyone had remarked what he was about, “Lie quietly on your oars,” and plunged into the sea…

The duke succeeds in rescuing his grandfather, although this incident is nearly the end of them both, and particularly of the latter. Fortunately, however, they chose just the right country almost to drown in—

His Grace called to his valet, and gave him orders what to prepare the moment he reached the shore; being, as he had observed, particularly fond of the water, and very often upon it, his Grace had frequently been a witness of similar scenes to the one he had now been so principal an actor in, and had, out of a motive of benevolence, made a particular study of the rules laid down by the English Humane Society; he was therefore perfectly competent to prescribe in such cases…

When everyone has had a chance to rest and recover, it becomes apparent that all those involved have come to the same conclusion regarding Lord Gowrie’s part in the near-tragedy:

    “Upon my soul,” said Neville, “I don’t think your Grace has done his tender-hearted grandson a favour as it is.”
    “I am afraid not; his bombastic expressions of grief and joy confirm me in that opinion.”
    “I protest I think they were merely assumed to exculpate himself in our eyes,” continued Neville; “for upon my honour I think he was, if not purposely, in a great measure accessory to the accident.”
    “I am perfectly of your opinion. God forgive him if he is guilty, or me if I judge him wrongfully! but as I sat opposite, I had them both perfectly in view; I positively thought—(the Duke paused)—he might at all events have saved the poor old man: however, let us hope he only wanted presence of mind.”
    “I wish the Earl may not have imbibed a few of my suspicions,” said Neville; “he don’t seem to treat the stupid being with much cordiality…”

It is the wake of this incident that the relationship between the duke and Lord Melton is revealed and announced. The chastened earl laments his past cruelty, and wishes aloud that he was in a position to testify his remorse and gratitude via something more solid than his “esteem” and “affection”:

    “I never wished for more believe me, my Lord,” replied the Duke; “and I am very happy my maternal grandfather put it out of my power to accept anything else… I did as he desired; and then solemnly swore that, admitting I should ever, by the same chance which constituted me his, become also your heir, I would renounce all claims to your title and estates; continue all my life to profess the religion in which I had been brought up, and remain a subject of the King of Naples. I farther bound myself to educate my sons in the same principle…”
    The Earl was evidently hurt, though he tried to conceal his vexation: he looked at his Grace—“I find the Duke di St. Severino neither imitated nor approved my conduct:” then, after a pause, “All my children gone before me!—Well, I am justly punished (casting a disdainful glance at Lord Gowrie;)…”

Nevertheless, Lord Melton is all over the duke from this point; though the latter both refuses an invitation to stay at his house in London – he is already committed to Lord Fortrose – and ignores his hints about travelling on together, leaving the earl with the cold comfort of bragging about to his other two grandsons about the duke’s endless titles (civil and military), and his family connections.

We get one of the novel’s few glimmerings of humour and perspective here, as Captain Mellifont reflects silently that:

…[he] would have enjoyed asking the old man why he found himself so grievously offended with his son for marrying into one of these illustrious houses…

…but this is quickly drowned out by our very similar awareness that for the vast majority of its narrative, this novel is itself guilty of precisely the same kind of bragging.

Once in London, Lord Melton does everything he can to introduce the duke around and advertise their relationship. The latter takes this in his stride, and gratifies his grandfather by a wish to attend a parliamentary debate, in which the earl is to take a leading role. The two, in company with Lord Fortrose and Neville, leave the House in the early hours of the morning; and as Lord Melton steps into his carriage, danger suddenly threatens him again:

…some mischievous person had watched opportunity…to tie upon the end of the pole, just under the horses’ noses, a large bunch of squibs, which were lighted at the moment the carriage stopped, by some person who held a flambeau in his hand, which he instantly extinguished, and ran away full speed… By the time the Duke had advanced near enough to see what was the matter, it was in full blaze, and the horses plunging most dreadfully; in a minute more they sprung forward with the utmost rapidity, as the coachman had no longer any power over them. The Duke snatching his great coat out of his servant’s hand, who was waiting for him, darted so quickly as to catch hold of one of the horses’ heads, by which means he was able to keep up with, and prevent them from running against any other carriage they passed, while with his other hand he flung the great coat over the fire, and thus smothered it by degrees…

Comparing notes with Neville and his father, the duke finds them seized by the same suspicion as himself; and they decide to call at Lord Gowrie’s house under the pretence of informing him of his grandfather’s close call. However, they find Gowrie not only there but in his nightclothes, which argues in his favour and makes them conclude that perhaps the earl was simply the victim of a dangerous prank. Nevertheless, Mellifont continues to hint at his suspicions whenever he gets an opportunity, while the earl himself becomes coldly hostile and withdrawn—leaving his panicky heir to conclude that, while he cannot be kept out of the inheritance of the title, there is every chance he will soon be cut out of his grandfather’s will otherwise.

The inevitable third act of this would-be tragedy does not play out until nearly a full volume more has ticked away, when the duke, after a lengthy sojourn in the country, finally gives in to his grandfather’s insistence and agrees to stay a fortnight with him at his London house. The earl, without saying anything, gives up his own suite to the duke, as they are the best rooms he has to offer; meaning that it is a strong and healthy young man, not an elderly one, who subsequently encounters as intruder.

In the struggle the duke takes a pistol-shot to the shoulder. The wound is not deadly; and as the ball is being extracted by a surgeon, he offers his views upon the injury:

…he did not perceive the slightest danger at present; presumed the pistol was held close to the Duke—a fortunate circumstance, as it had prevented the ball from having its full force.

There is plenty of evidence that this was an inside job, including a pre-arranged rope-ladder and a dropped hat; and though the duke succeeds in keeping his grandfather quiet until they are alone, he then tells him frankly the whole story:

“What was my astonishment, when behind the curtain, to meet the eyes of Lord Gowrie!—I started back, and at the same moment he levelled a pistol at my breast: in my effort to ward it off I received its contents in my shoulder, and instantly fell. Could I have recovered my legs, he had already made his escape by a rope, which, on examination you will find had been previously fastened for that purpose…”

Though the fiction of a housebreaker is maintained for the benefit of the rest of the household, the next morning the earl and the duke take counsel with Captain Mellifont, who agrees to call at Lord Gowrie’s residence to learn whether he has, as they suppose, and hope, fled for the Continent. However, Mellifont reports to the others, via his lordship’s valet, that he is at home and asleep. The three conclude that Gowrie must believe the duke dead, without realising how much damning evidence he left behind. On this basis, Mellifont is sent to fetch Lord Gowrie to the earl, but finds him still asleep; and as it turns out, permanently:

The Captain perceived a written sheet undoubled, that had been placed under the other paper; he folded, and put it in his pocket, as the beginning informed him it was intended for Lord Melton, and again approached the bed, turned down the clothes, and perceived a small vial laying by his side: he was going to take it up, but checked himself, and flung the clothes over again, desiring the valet, who stood on the other side, to run of send for his Lordship’s apothecary, who lived in the same street. The man left the room; during his absence the Captain took away the vial, and searched his Lordship’s pockets, in which he found a brace of pistols, one of them still loaded, and a little powder screwed in a bit of paper;—these he removed into his own pockets; in a few minutes the apothecary came, and pronounced his Lordship quite dead, supposing of an apoplexy…

The cover-up is successful, though Mellifont tells his grandfather and the duke the truth; while Gowrie’s largely unrepentant suicide note confirms everyone’s suspicions regarding the boat and the carriage; as well as explaining that it was only hearing the earl calling out for help as he ran away, and knowing that the duke survived, that made him kill himself.

News of Lord Gowrie’s death does not precisely wrack anyone with grief; while the earl even warms himself on one consequence, albeit briefly:

During the Captain’s absence, the Earl had been using every argument his love for the Duke inspired him with, to induce his Grace (now become his legal heir) to permit him to acknowledge him as such. The Duke, with a firmness that did him the utmost honour in the eyes of the Earl, entreated his grandfather to wave the subject, adding, if British laws made such a step necessary, he would formally renounce every claim his birth might give to his Lordship’s title and estates, in favour of Captain Mellifont…

So much for that.

Prior to all this, however, we have followed the duke as he becomes acquainted with Mrs Rachel de Studeville, who turns out to be a country-neighbour of Lord Fortrose, near Bath.

This is where the novel-as-endurance-test aspect of The Sicilian begins in earnest.

In immediate terms, the pain begins with an all-but blow-by-blow repetition, in the duke’s meeting with Mrs Rachel, of his meeting with the earl: he ends up rescuing her from peril, in this case a carriage-accident, and then goes through exactly the same routine of jerking her around about his identity and their relationship—with exactly the same outcome.

However, the lasting impact comes from the fact that, when Mrs Rachel finally persuades the duke to begin what turns out to an almost interminable visit to Studeville Court, she already has a houseful of guests.

We learn that while Mrs Rachel buried her heart in Alfred St. Aubyn’s grave, her two younger sisters both married, and both unwisely: one to an impecunious clergyman, the other to a man she was deceived into believing a “merchant prince”, but who was certainly not one and barely the other. Sir Yelverton de Studeville followed the lead of his brother-in-law, the Earl of Melton, by cutting off his children without a shilling; leaving the younger generation – and, in the latter case, the widowed Mr Chambers – to hang upon Mrs Rachel’s sleeve in the desperate hope of becoming her heir: she having inherited her sisters’ portions as well as her own.

Thus we find Mrs Rachel entertaining – or at least, failing to persuade to leave her house – Mr Chambers, a draper by trade; his son, Robert, and Robert’s new wife, whose marriage was the initial excuse for their visit; his daughter, Rachel; and James and Grace Vernon, the children of the poor clergyman. These two are a different proposition from the Chambers, or at least Grace is: James is a gentleman without the money necessary to be one, and a gambling habit that has already found him deeply in debt; so he must grit his teeth and court Mrs Rachel like the rest.

This is where, as I suggested, “Gabrielli” seems to have been trying to imitate her step-sister, Frances Burney, who loved to create unlikely gatherings, and had a talent for amusing and distinctive dialogue. In this respect, Mr Chambers is certainly memorable enough, as a sample of his conversation will attest:

Mr Chambers soon began to harangue his family to the following effect:—“Now, was I not right, boys and girls? (Mr Vernon was present); was I not right when I said this here fellow would never be easy till his nose in amongst us? I dare say, for all what Grace said, he is as poor as Job, almost glad of a meal of victuals, perhaps, if one knew the truth of it; and this damned stinking snotty-nosed brat too—I will be hanged, drawn, and quartered, if the old cat would have laid out half the money upon any of us, or ever will while she lives, (and pray God her mouth was full of earth to-morrow!) she has already squandered away upon that shock-pated rude little urchin, and all, forsooth, because his name is Alfred, and he is grandson to her false lover! The Duke is no fool, though knave enough I warrant me; and he means to take advantage of this silly old woman’s folly; depend upon it he will try to make her provide for this boy, and the other too, whose name is no more Roger than mine is. I wonder, when the fellow was cracking, he did not say at once it was Yelverton; but that would have been too barefaced, I suppose, he thought, and t’other tickled her fancy just as well…”

Not that there isn’t any humour in this, or in Chambers’ hard-dying conviction that the duke is a rival con-artist; but his creator just doesn’t know when to quit: imagine this speech dragged out to about 200 pages, and you’ll have a fair idea how she fills her second and third volumes; that, along with an endless series of scenes in which Mrs Rachel, the duke and Neville are compelled to go amongst the Chambers family and their ilk, just so we can all appreciate how comical and/or crass working-folk are, and how infinitely superior anyone with a title.

Still—there is one aspect of Mr Chambers’ conversation that I want to bring to your attention, to which that description of the saintly and precocious young Alfred as a damned stinking snotty-nosed brat is merely a forerunner. As I have frequently said, part of the fun of this project, if not always in reading the novels themselves, is watching their evolution—in this case, in terms of acceptable language.

As you may (but probably don’t) remember, 1767’s The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Bart. did give us a passing reference to toilet paper and its use; but this is as late as 1798, and a book by a female author; so if I raised my eyebrows at that description of Alfred, I may even have blinked in surprise at this:

“…how came this here outlandish Duke to I have heard about the old girl be the old woman’s cousin? and how came he to be so damned handy? I have heard the old girl talk about some of the tribes coming over to England, from the Devil’s A—e-a-Peak, when Adam was a little boy…”

And I’m pretty certain I gasped at this:

“…though it is hardly worth while going to law about such nonsense, for what is it to you if he calls himself Jack of Nokes, or Tom of Styles? You know the old saying, Madam, the more you stir a t—d, the more it stinks!”

Anyway—

The duke’s wounding and subsequent recovery give rise – eventually – to The Sicilian‘s only other point of interest, and allows the author to – eventually – tie up her plot.

Mrs Rachel is another of the guests at Lord Melton’s London house, a rare visit to the capital to which she agrees in exchange for her uncle and the duke afterwards accompanying her to Newnham Hall, her other country residence, where she intends to pass the summer. The movements of her other guests are delayed by the duke’s injury, but Mrs Rachel not only sets out for Newnham Hall anyway, she persuades his father to allow her to take Alfred with her, having conceived a warm affection for the boy. She is also accompanied by the welcome Grace Vernon, and the very unwelcome Mr Chambers and Robert Chambers, still clinging like limpets.

The party has barely settled in when the damned stinking snotty-nosed brat saintly and precocious young Alfred is kidnapped right out of the grounds. There is some evidence is found that the child has been carried away by boat, and the footprints of both a man and a woman are found at the river’s edge. As wide a search as can be organised is immediately instituted, the authorities in all directions are notified, and an enormous reward is offered, but no trace of the boy is found.

What the shock might do to the duke in his state of ill-health is everyone’s first thought, and in fact the others conspire to keep him in ignorance of what has happened for as long as they dare. However, it is Mrs Rachel who is the main sufferer from the situation: her health collapses under the weight of her grief and guilt, and she becomes bed-ridden, blaming herself for Alfred’s fate and refusing to be comforted or even to believe that the child is still alive. Finally, knowing herself dying, Mrs Rachel organises to rewrite her will; and is sufficiently compos mentis to have herself attended by several doctors able subsequently to testify to the fact, to prevent any chance of it being contested.

This is also the cue for the bad news finally to be broken to the duke, as Mrs Rachel’s last wish is to have the chance to beg his forgiveness.

With no attempt made to ransom Alfred, and the duke himself dismissing suggestions of political enemies from Italy, only one suspect has presented herself – herself – to the minds of the interested parties. While staying at Studeville Court, Alfred was often taken out by a servant for a run upon the Downs, where visitors to Bath also exercised on horseback. There he attracted the attention of a mysterious woman, nearly always veiled, who expressed great kindness for him, asked him many questions about himself and his father, and allowed him to ride gently on her horse. However, when the curiosity of the duke and Neville sent them out to catch a glimpse of Alfred’s “beautiful lady”, she proved extremely elusive:

    The Earl and Neville continued with the Duke, who paced the room in silence for some minutes, and neither chose to interrupt his reverie; till stopping suddenly opposite to Neville, he said, “There is a lady—”
    “She is still at Clifton, I believe,” said Neville. “My father’s first suspicions were similar to those I can presume your Grace may entertain. He was therefore particularly minute in his enquiries. She is really a woman of family he tells me, and Countess of Glenalvon.”
    “What, the young widow?” said Lord Melton, “the Earl of Orcan’s daughter?”
    The Duke, who had resumed his walk, made a sort of instantaneous stop, while his colour heightened so much and so visibly, as induced the Earl, with some surprise, to enquire, “Did your Grace ever see Lady Roxana Charleville during her residence abroad with her father?”
    The Duke approached one of the windows. “I thought I recollected the name of Orcan, my Lord; the Earl was some time Ambassador at Vienna if I remember right?”
    “He was,” said Lord Melton, “for near three years—let me see—aye, it must have been much about the same time your Grace was in the Austrian service…”

You think?

About 500 pages before this, there is a suspiciously brief allusion to an unhappy love affair that preceded the duke’s marriage to the Duchess di Ferrara. In fact he and Lady Roxana faced as many objections to their marriage as did his own parents: he was then only an impecunious young officer, though titled; Lord Orcan having in addition an insurmountable prejudice against his daughter marrying “a foreigner”, and the Duke di St. Severino an equal one to his heir marrying a Protestant. The two were ruthlessly separated; Lady Roxana was forced into marriage with the much-older, rather dissolute Lord Glenalvon; and the then-Count Mondovi gave in to his grandfather’s wishes and agreed to an alliance with the Ferrara family.

So—it is certainly not Lady Roxana who has kidnapped Alfred, to whom she was drawn by his resemblance to his father; but it is her who is finally instrumental in his rescue, thus paving the way for our happy ending.

To cut a long story (and an overlong blog-post) short, it is of course the Chambers family who are behind Alfred’s kidnapping—masterminded by Senior and carried out by Junior, with the help of the latter’s mistress and her (unwitting) sister. Once exposed, they confess that their motive was partly the reward offered, and partly the hope of causing a total breach between Mrs Rachel and the duke, who they had come to view, and rightly, as their main rival to the lady’s property and fortune: having realised belatedly that he was more of a threat in his own persona than as the con-artist they initially took him for, inasmuch as (as the saying goes), Them that has, gets. They are less forthcoming as to whether they hoped the shock of Alfred’s abduction would have the effect upon Mrs Rachel’s health that, in fact, it did.

All this comes to light when a response to one of the widely-distributed reward-posters finally evokes a response, from an innkeeper in Wales, and sends the duke flying to Swansea, where he finds a crowd gathered in an uproar before a certain house:

    His Grace made but a few steps across the room, shoved in between the assembly, as he had done only a moment before to get into the room; and at the same moment met the eye of his lovely boy, seated upon the knee, and encircled by the arms of the Countess of Glenalvon.
    The child starting down from her lap, sprang forward, exclaiming, “Oh, Papa, Papa, Papa!” and burst into tears before the Duke could catch him in his arms.
    Having given way for a few moments to his own emotion upon so rapturous a meeting, and repeatedly embraced his beloved Alfred, who cried and laughed in a breath, the Duke raised his eyes upon his darling son’s deliverer…

Awww…

In fact, Alfred more or less saved himself—spotting Lady Roxana on horseback in the street below, and managing to attract her attention through an uncovered window high up in the house in which he was being held; after which she and her servants forced their way in and secured the two women involved.

So! – little now remains – by which I mean the best part of an entire other volume, in which I swear to God nothing whatsoever happens worth mentioning – but to wrap things up and pack the duke and his new duchess off to Sicily; once, that is, the duke has managed to divest himself of all the unwanted property bequeathed to him by the unfortunate Mrs Rachel…who at least gets the last laugh, both in giving Chambers and his son very short shrift in her will, and in the same document appointing her executors in the following terms:

“I do hereby appoint the Right Honourable Alfred Alexander (St. Aubyn) Earl of Melton, Viscount Gowrie, Baron Lovel, &c., and the Right Honourable Ferdinand Rinaldo (St. Aubyn) Duke di Ferrara, and St. Severino, Count Mondovi, &c. &c., my joint and sole executors…”