Posts tagged ‘E.D.E.N. Southworth’

21/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 2)


 
    She is a slave!” murmured Susan, in a low, but emphatic tone.
    Louis looked perplexed, bewildered, and did not reply. Susan smiled sadly at his embarrassment, as she continued gravely—“You would say, Louis, that you were already aware of that fact; that this was nothing new or extraordinary in her position—that, in a word, you know she is a slave; but do you also know, Louis, all that means to her?”
    He did not reply, but seemed engaged in thought. Susan continued, in a low, earnest voice—“No; you, like other excellent men I know, look on slavery with indifference. It is the nonchalance of custom. But this girl! I tell you, Louis, that were you or myself now reduced to slavery—were we to change positions with one of our slaves—become his property, subject to his orders—a thing to be chained, imprisoned, beaten, bought, sold, at his whim—neither you nor I could have a more poignant sense of degradation than she suffers…”

 

 

 
While the power struggle over Louise is foregrounded in The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, something else is going on in this novel that I felt was worth highlighting.

Unlike Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows, this is not an abolitionist tract, as such: slavery is not present on what we might call “the large scale”, with the only slaves we do see being the house servants of the main white characters. The reality of slavery is still prominent in the narrative, however; and much is conveyed about the individual characters via their attitude towards it, and their treatment of their servants. There are references to who has freed their slaves, and who hires their servants for wages.

At one end of the character spectrum is, unsurprisingly, Mrs Armstrong—of whom it is observed in passing:

Only she avoided the Northern cities, to which she could not carry her slaves. Mrs Armstrong abhorred the attendance of any one over whom she did not possess absolute control…

We’ve seen up close how Mrs Armstrong treats her own daughter; Southworth leaves us to infer how she treats her slaves.

At the other end of the spectrum is Gertrude Lion, who Southworth allows to do some extraordinary things. Insisting passionately upon her own individual freedoms, Gertrude not only abhors slavery, but displays a distinct tendency towards all-men-are-created-equal in those words’ most literal sense. At one point, having come across a bad carriage-accident in the mountains, Gertrude is dealing with the situation when she encounters a runaway slave – one of Mrs Armstrong’s – who has taken refuge in a cave:

    The haggard and wolfish features of the slave relaxed a little, as he said, in a hoarse voice—“And you’ll not set the constables on me, Miss Gertrude!”
    “Explode the constables! no, I’d do you good, I said. Listen; I know you, Antony, you are Mrs Armstrong’s fugitive slave. Now, I don’t adore Mrs Armstrong myself, and if you will do me a favour, I will assist your escape from the State.”

A deal is struck between them, and after Antony has performed his part – honestly and diligently – Gertrude keeps her side of the bargain:

“Here is the pass I wrote for you.” She took it out and read it—“‘Antony Burgess has my permission to again pass and re-pass from Peakville to Alexandria, free of molestation, between the first of June and the first of July inclusive…’ There, Antony, that is exactly the pass that I give to my own men when they want to go to town. Now, it is true that you are not my own man, but that is no reason why I should not give you my  consent to go where you please, since I have no objection to it; and so, when you present that, people will naturally think it comes from your owner. And even if it fails, it cannot get you or me into trouble, since I only express my consent.”

And when Gertrude finally parts from the man (emphasis mine):

“Do you attend to what is left behind; bury the poor dead coachman, and don’t forget to recite the ten commandments over the grave. Now, good-by.” And shaking hands with him, Gertrude turned and lifted up her patient…

Much is also implied throughout The Mother-In-Law about the nature of Virginian society as a whole: almost all of the people of colour in this novel are of mixed blood; and though Southworth does not overtly pursue this point, we are left to ponder the structures and practices of the society that produced this situation.

One intriguing detail concerns Mrs Armstrong’s waiting woman, Kate Jumper: she is the niece of the local midwife, who works chiefly amongst the poor people and the servant class, and who is referred to as “Kate Jumper’s white aunt”. Though this is probably due to the low social status of each, the lack of any attempt to deny the relationship is striking. (Mr Jumper is nowhere to be found, of course…)

Kate Jumper is also important because she represents the one point in the novel where we might feel Southworth has resorted to nasty stereotyping, with much emphasis placed upon her wild and repulsive appearance. However, in this Kate is the exception to the rule; and in time it is evident that her appearance is rather meant as an externalisation of her role as the do-er of Mrs Armstrong’s dirty-work.

With all the other servants in the other households, Southworth emphasises their honesty, loyalty and intelligence. Most daringly of all, she makes a tacit argument that the supposed “inferiority” of people of colour is due purely to opportunities denied them. When in childhood, Susan Somerville is sent to the local school, her devoted servant – and “foster-sister” – Anna, insists upon accompanying her each day—being allowed, bit by bit, to creep into the classroom to sit quietly at Susan’s feet. Simply by sitting and listening, Anna absorbs as good an education as was given to any girl at the time. Far from displaying any “natural” stupidity, or “inferiority” of talent, Anna proves intelligent and thirsty for knowledge; she comes away from her indirect lessons with a thorough understanding of the world and a passion for literature and history. (Susan has already taught her to read, a dangerous undertaking at the time.)

There are two different slavery plots in The Mother-In-Law, linked, but used for different purposes. The first concerns the position of the Somervilles’ house servants, Harriet and George, and Anna, their daughter. Anna, by the way, is another of Southworth’s roster of beautiful brunettes:

And now he observed for the first time that she possessed the most lofty style of beauty. Her tall, full, graceful figure was finely curved, as she leaned upon the high back of an old leather chair, looking abstractedly from the window, the light from which fell upon her superb head, covered with a magnificent suit of black hair, that, dividing above her broad, pale forehead, rippled off into thousands of tiny jet-black, glistening wavelets over her temples and around her cheeks, and was gathered into a large knot confined by a silver bodkin behind. Her sloping, gloomy, but beautiful eyes, the sad expression of her full, red lips, closed as they habitually were, were  added to the fascination of a face that attracted without volition or consciousness. Her dress was of the coarse linsey-woolsey worn in winter by Southern house-servants, but hers was plaid, of very brilliant colours, made high in the neck, with sleeves reaching the wrists, fitting. accurately her charmingly developed form, and harmonising well with her dark, imperial style of beauty. Louis looked at her, at first, in obedience to Miss Somerville’s indication; then with surprise and admiration at the singular beauty he had never before noticed…

But the key phrase there is “broad, pale forehead”: Harriet and George are both “mulatto”, and Anna – was her background not fully known – could “pass”.

Unlike some other of the novel’s servants, Harriet, George and Anna are still slaves, owned by the elderly Major Somerville. Southworth uses the Major as an illustration of nearly everything wrong with Virginia society: he has exhausted his land by stubbornly refusing to budge from old-fashioned farming methods, and has fallen into debt he cannot possibly meet. The house, likewise, is falling into ruins, held together by the joint efforts of Susan and the servants. Meanwhile, at the end of his life, the Major clings to his dignity, wary of doing anything that could be interpreted as conceding power. Thus, despite Susan’s persuasions, he refuses to free any of his slaves—insisting that, as a woman, she doesn’t understand these things.

She does, of course—but not as well as the slaves themselves. A conspiracy of silence keeps Susan from knowing exactly how bad the situation is; so that, while she sees a profound depression taking hold of Anna, she interprets it as caused by the girl’s growing understanding of her degrading situation. What she does not know is that Major Somerville’s creditors are circling; that the bailiffs could descend any moment; and that, should that happen, Harriet, George and Anna will be sold along with all the rest of the Major’s property.

And this comes to pass when the Major dies suddenly of apoplexy. Susan takes immediate steps to free the servants, but is forestalled by the arrival of the deputy-sheriff and his goons. Even then Susan does not understand: she thinks they have come to do an assessment of the property for tax purposes, and is only angry that they have come so hard on the heels of her grandfather’s death:

    “How many slaves have you about the house, then, Miss Somerville.”
    “None, sir.”
    “What! my dear young lady.”
    “Sir, I have my foster-parents, George and Harriet, who brought me up, and my foster-sister and companion, Anna, who has always shared my room, my table, and my school. They are quadroons. I do not call them slaves.”
    “They were the slaves of the late Major Somerville, however?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “And they are yours now.”
    “No, sir! I do not for a moment acknowledge any right in myself to hold them. My dear grandfather’s funeral took place only on yesterday afternoon, and to-morrow morning I go to Richmond to take measures for their emancipation!” said Miss Somerville, in a cold, severe tone—for now she believed herself in conversation with a would-be purchaser.
    “Will you? Ah! yes, well! A generous and praiseworthy design on your part, my dear young lady,” said the deputy sheriff, perceiving for the first time that Susan was entirely unsuspicious of the object of his visit. “Will you, however, let me see these people, my dear Miss Somerville?”

Still under her misapprehension, Susan does, sending Anna to call her parents:

    Anna, who had conquered herself, and now stood calm, cold, and impassible, went out to obey.
    “Is that one of them?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “That girl?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Why, she is white!”
    “Very nearly, sir.”

Once the family is all present, the real purpose of the visit is made brutally clear:

    The assessor looked at Anna; and, as his sensual eyes roved all over her girlish figure, gloating on her beauty, he muttered an exclamation—“She is a handsome girl, and it would be a good spec’ to take her to New Orleans. She’d bring twelve or fifteen hundred dollars…”
    “That is not the question; what would she bring here?”
    “Gentlemen, I beg of you—” commenced Susan Somerville.
    “Be patient, young lady. What is her value here, Jones!”
    “Gentlemen, I insist—” began Susan again, with her cheeks burning and her eyes flashing, “I insist that this is arrested. I command you to finish your business and leave us.”
    “One instant, Miss Somerville. Well, Jones, her value is—”
    “Three hundred dollars…”
    “Miss Somerville,” began the deputy, “I have now to perform a very painful duty; a simple and short one, however.”
    “Yes, as short as an execution,” muttered George.
    “Miss Somerville, I attach this property at the suit of Spier & Co., Grocers, Peakville.”
    Susan started to her feet, clasped her hands, and turned deadly pale, as the truth suddenly struck her…

George and Harriet have tried to remain dignified and still in the face of this humiliation, and their knowledge of far worse to come; but when the assessor makes to lay hands on Anna, it is more than flesh and blood can stand. A short, ugly scene ends with George unconscious and in handcuffs, and Susan in a state of collapse. Anna is allowed to stay, temporarily and under guard, to care for Susan – a white lady, after all – but her parents are carried away to the slave auction in the nearby town of Peakville.

This situation rescues Anna from the otherwise inevitable—but only at the cost of her life: the next morning, Susan finds her dead. Heart failure is the medical ruling; although the jurors at the subsequent inquest, who know the circumstances, think differently:

The coroner’s jury came nearer the truth in their verdict—“A VISITATION OF GOD.”

We learn later that Susan had sent to the Palace for help, but the message miscarried. Hearing afterwards of these shocking developments, Louis promises Susan to get George and Harriet back at whatever cost required. He sets out after the bailiffs, but when he arrives in Peakville, he discovers that the two have already been sold to a slave-trader, necessitating a further journey to Alexandria.

And it is while Louis is away from home on this mission of mercy that Mrs Armstrong, taking advantage of his absence, regains possession of Louise.

The second slavery-related subplot in The Mother-In-Law is far less forthright, far more sensation-novel-y and plot-contrivance-y, yet still manages to make some very cogent points.

Our first hint of something untoward – well, the second, following the revelation that she was a doorstep baby – comes when old Mr Dove notices the developing situation between Zoe and Brutus Lion, albeit that there was been no overt declaration on either side. Having extorted from his blushing daughter a confession of love for Brutus, and her belief that he loves her, Mr Dove reacts with grief and dismay. There are many overt reasons, he tells Zoe solemnly, while a marriage between herself and Brutus would be unlikely and even unsuitable; yet it is a covert one that must determine her fate—

    “He is of an old and haughty family—you, Zoe, are a foundling.”
    “I know it,” murmured the maiden.
    “Yet you, in your secret heart, hoped that this might be overcome; that he might stoop to lift you to his level—on your truth, did you not?”
    Zoe bowed her head lowly, sadly.
    “He is wealthy, you are penniless; but you thought never of this as an objection, but believed that his superfluities might supply your deficiencies. Ha, child?”
    Again she bowed her head, slowly, lowly.
    “All this might happen, Zoe—the patrician might stoop to the plebeian; the millionaire to the beggar. Brutus Lion might offer his hand and name in marriage to Zoe, yet Zoe can never be the wife of Brutus Lion—”
    “Father!”
    “It is true!”
    “Father!”
    “It is fixed, inevitable, irrevocable.”

Now—this is early in The Mother-In-Law, before we have taken its measure; so those of us with experience of the sensation novel might have already leapt to a conclusion (and yes, I am looking at you, Dawn!). Amusingly, and to Southworth’s credit, she immediately takes that particular bull by the horns:

    “An insurmountable obstacle to your union exists, my dear,” said the old man, with the tears dimming his eyes.
    “Father,” said Zoe, in a suffocating voice, “father, I am a foundling, as you say—do you know or guess—that I am of—of—very near kin to Brutus?”
    “You are no kin to him, Zoe but it is not less certain that you can never, never be his wife.”

More amusingly still, when Zoe later rejects Brutus’ proposal, explaining the situation as far as she understands it, the same objection occurs to him: he reassures Zoe that both his parents died before she was born.

When Brutus brings himself to discuss his situation with Gertrude, she suggests a different possibility…

    “Now why, Gertrude, do you disapprove of Zoe??—why do you hate Zoe?”
    “I don’t hate Zoe; neither do I hate humble-bees, but I do not particularly affect either; and I will not have a little coffee-brewing, cake-baking fool in the house.”
    “You despise her for her birth!”
    “I do not despise her for her birth, although I know, as you do not know, that she is a mulatto!”
    “A mulatto!” echoed Brutus, in dismay.

***

    “Zoe is of mixed African blood, I tell you. Look at the dead white skin—”
    “Susan Somerville’s is the same.”
    “Susan Somerville’s is pure white—clear white. Zoe’s is opaque white. Look at the darkness around her finger nails; look at her
rippling black hair—not brownish black, like the English or American hair, or bluish black, like West of Ireland hair, or purplish black, like Italian hair, but jetty black like African hair, and with the little, undulating, wavy curl all through it.”
    “Pooh! Nonsense! The devil! It is not true. You know nothing about it!” exclaimed Brutus, very pale, and very much troubled.

Of course, Gertrude, being Gertrude, sees an up-side to the situation:

“I shall go by for Zoe this evening, and wrap the little one up in a cloak and take her in my sleigh to Miss Armstrong’s wedding. Ha, ha, ha! Little does Mrs Armstrong guess that in Zoe Dove she will have a mulatto guest!… Little does Mrs. Armstrong suspect that her daughter’s second bridesmaid is a mulatto—-a slave!”

At this point Brutus chooses to shrug off Gertrude’s unsupported assertion; but later, Mr Dove confirms all of his worst fears:

    “I love Zoe; I wish to marry Zoe; I will devote my life to her happiness; consent to our marriage, and her future is secured!”
    “Brutus, you love her?”
    “God knows it!”
    “Only her?”
    “Only her, of all womankind!”
    “Brutus, you cannot marry her.”
    “You have said so before, but that does not prove it.”
    “Brutus, swear that you will not divulge what I tell you.”
    “I swear it, sir.”
    “ZOE IS A SLAVE!”
    Brutus Lion reeled as if struck by a cannonball.
    “Great God, sir!”
    “And there are some in this neighborhood that know it…”

I hardly know where to start with this—and in fact I’m going to start almost at the end, with the explanation finally offered of Zoe’s origins: that she is another child of George and Harriet, born in secret and smuggled away in order to save her from the threat under which Anna lives her entire life.

Mr Dove himself has only just learned of Zoe’s origins from Nancy Jumper, who many years before was called out one night to attend a patient in labour, under conditions of great secrecy intended to conceal the mother’s identity from her; but who later, unseen herself, saw an obviously stricken Harriet leave a baby on Mr Dove’s doorstep. She kept the secret, however (we get the impression that keeping family secrets has necessarily been part of her stock-in-trade), until an encounter with Mr Dove on the 17th April – the date of these memorable events – brought it all back to her mind. Furthermore – being now old and unreliable and struggling to get by – Nancy sells the truth about Zoe to Major Somerville’s creditors.

The effect of all this upon Mr Dove is devastating—not because of Zoe’s origins, but because, a desperately poor man, he cannot afford to buy her. The old man suffers a psychotic break of sorts, during which money obsesses him to the exclusion of all else; and finally collapses altogether into a state of second childhood.

The ugly reality is that Zoe’s birth makes her every bit as much the Major’s property as her parents and sister; and she, too, is to be sold to meet his debts. Fortunately, when the deputy-sheriff comes for her, Zoe is at The Lair with Gertrude. At this moment she has no knowledge or understanding of her own position, and is more confused than frightened. Gertrude, however, grasps the situation at once:

    The bailiff walked up to Zoe, and touched her on the shoulder.
    “HANDS OFF!” shouted Gertrude, bringing the loaded end of her riding-whip down upon the floor with the force of a hammer on the anvil, the walls resounding with the report. The bailiff involuntarily started back.
    “Come here, Zoe,” said Gertrude, holding out her arms for the child. The poor girl—the victim of a vague terror—fled to her protector.
    Gertrude, with flashing eyes, raised the end of her whip, menacing the bailiff, while she encircled the waist of Zoe by one arm, and laid the head of Zoe gently on her own broad, soft bosom.
    “There, there, there, there, don’t be terrified, Zoe; nothing shall hurt you, Zoe. I’ll horsewhip the fellow within an inch of his life, if he does but lay his hand on you again, so I will.”
    “Miss Lion, are you aware that you are transgressing the law?”
    “Mr Bailiff, I don’t care a fox’s brush for any law but the ten commandments!”
    “Do you know that in harboring a slave you expose yourself to—”
    “Mr Jones, your way home lies straight out behind you. I give you two minutes’ grace; and if at the end of that time you are not out of this hall, I’ll put you out!” exclaimed Gertrude, her bosom heaving like the ocean waves in a tempest, her lips quivering, her nostrils distended, her eyes flashing, sparkling, and scintillating, as though they would explode.
    “Miss Lion, do you know, are you aware, that you are threatening an officer of the law?”
    “Ha, ha, ha, ha!—ha, ha, ha! Yes, and if an ‘officer of the law’ don’t take himself out of my sight in double quick time, I’ll take an ‘officer of the law’ by the nape of his neck and the straps of his pantaloons, and throw an ‘officer of the law’ over the precipice. You know me, sir! I am Gertrude Lion!”

He does; and consequently slinks off with his tail between his legs, to round up reinforcements; though by that time Gertrude has Zoe concealed in that same cave in the mountains.

There is some extraordinary stuff buried in this subplot—and not so buried. When the truth about Zoe becomes public knowledge, it makes no difference to anyone in the neighbourhood – except Mrs Armstrong – other than that everyone goes out of their way to love and care for her. Remarkably, Zoe herself is basically unbothered by the revelation, except for how it has impacted Mr Dove; she certainly does not react as we would expect a gently-bred white girl in a 19th century American novel to react.

But it is the response of Brutus and Gertrude that we must examine in detail—being very careful to do justice by Brutus. Certainly he recoils at Gertrude’s first suggestion of Zoe’s situation; and when Mr Dove confirms it, we get this exchange:

    “This child, Brutus! I loved her as my own!”
    “Ah, sir!” heavily sighed Brutus.
    “You do not know all she was to me!”
    “Oh, sir! yes, I do.”
    “She was the life of my heart.”
    “Oh! Heaven, sir! of mine too!”
    “I called her Zoe—life!”
    “God have mercy on us…”
    “Brutus!”
    “Sir!”
    “You can never marry her.”
    “Oh! I know it,” groaned the young man.
    “Therefore, Brutus, there must be no more love passages between you.”
    “Oh! no, no, sir,” sighed the Lion, dropping his shaggy head upon his hands…

We have to be very careful in interpreting this correctly: Brutus’ “recoil”, his despair upon receiving this confirmation, his agreement that he cannot marry Zoe, are entirely because that at the time, and in Virginia, such a marriage was illegal. The marriage is impossible not because Brutus will not, but because he cannot.

He does, however, go straight to Susan, still reeling from the triple tragedies of her grandfather’s and Anna’s deaths, and the sale of George and Harriet:

    “If she is mine, as you say, I will free her at once!”
    “But, my dear Miss Somerville, that will not do. To emancipate her would require time and trouble. In the mean while, another writ of attachment, at the suit of some other creditor, would be served on her, and your benevolent designs defeated. What I propose is the only safe way. It is very easy. Here is the deed. You have only to write your name at the bottom, and she is mine—she is safe. Come, Miss Somerville, do it,” pleaded Brutus, putting the pen in her listless fingers, and laying the deed before her.
    “Well, well; as you think best.”
    And, scarcely conscious of what she did, Susan Somerville wrote her name at the bottom of the bill of sale, and Zoe became the property of Brutus Lion.

And indeed—Zoe is inclined to think slavery not so bad, if she might be Brutus’ slave. But he having none of that, nor of anything less than marriage (Southworth shows a streak of pragmatism here unusual in this sort of fiction):

    “After all, it is nothing but the name; only it came on me like a shock; and I was a little proud; that’s all. I shall not be sad. People will say that the schoolmaster’s adopted daughter, who used to be so proud of her house-keeping, is a slave. Well; I shall not hear them say it. I shall be here with Brutus; waiting on Brutus; and I shall be happy. Don’t grieve for me, Brutus; indeed, I am not unhappy. Do you think that Zoe considers it such a misfortune to belong to Brutus? No, indeed. Come! don’t weep, Brutus! dear Brutus! I hate to see tears in manly eyes;” and she raised her apron and wiped away the tears from the eyes of her great big lubberly nurse, who was quivering with emotion like a mammoth blanc mange.
    “Zoe, my child !” he said, “did you think I would hold you bound a moment longer than I could help! Zoe, you should have been free to-day, but that the court-house was closed before I had even completed the purchase. Zoe, you shall be free to-morrow; and then you must return with your adopted father to the Dovecote.”
    “Must I leave you, Brutus?”
    “Zoe, my dear child, yes. You cannot be my wife, Zoe—and I will not make you my mistress; and loving you as I do, Zoe—loving me as you do—that would be your fate if you lived with me, dear child. Take her, Gertrude;” and pressing one passionate kiss upon her lips, he tossed her in his sister’s arms…

Now—there’s one other thing I want to consider here, before moving on to how Southworth resolves her plots—or rather, this point more or less forms the bridge for such a consideration.

You may remember that in The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, her second novel, Mary Elizabeth Braddon pulled exactly the same “racial identifier” stunt as Southworth does here, with its white-skinned, mixed-blood heroine being “outed” on the basis of her fingernails and “the corner of her eye”. Well—I have no doubt that Braddon read Southworth, and little more that (sitting in England, writing a book set in the American South), she swiped certain details from The Mother-In-Law, published ten years before.

And likewise, Braddon did what Southworth and others did at the time, in handling the dynamite that was abolitionist literature: she took it for granted that white people were only capable of really sympathising with a slave who was, effectively, white herself (and it is invariably a beautiful girl in these novels).

Here’s the thing, though:

Zoe isn’t of mixed blood after all. She is not the daughter of George and Harriet, but of two people who couldn’t be whiter. And whatever it was that Gertrude thought she saw, she was wrong.

This might at first glance seem like a cop-out, but the way that Zoe behaves, and is treated, once her supposed secret is out negates that possibility; and even as she takes the knowledge of her supposed birth and status in her stride, she is unaffected by the discovering the real truth except so far as it alters her relationship with Brutus.

No—Southworth is making a different point here and, when you think about it, an amazingly courageous one—one built around the twin characters of Zoe and Anna, the one a white lady of high social status, the other a born slave, the two of them physically indistinguishable. Not only does she explode the notion that “you can always tell”, that however white a person might look, there were certain infallible signifiers, but at a time when the pernicious “one drop of blood” scenario was firmly entrenched, she actually dared to say, in effect—What actually IS the difference, if you can’t even TELL the difference??

Meanwhile, Southworth handles this reverse-revelation rather curiously, but in doing so she’s making yet another serious point. We are made aware that Gertrude, Susan and Brighty have discovered something about Zoe; they don’t reveal it, or who was their source of information, other to say that they know for a fact she isn’t of mixed blood.

As it turns out, there are many more shocking secrets surrounding Zoe’s origin than “mere” slavery—and most of them have to do with Mrs Armstrong. They have remained a secret so long because the only witness to the events in question was Harriet. As Gertrude later explains (to a non-American), to do Zoe any real good, Harriet had to keep quiet until after the death of Major Somerville:

    “But the servant, then—Harriet! Why did she not disclose the secret?”
    “Because it would have done every sort of harm, and no good. It would have covered an honest family with shame and confusion, without restoring Zoe to her rights.”
    “I do not see that.”
    “Do you not know, then, that, however honest and good they may be, the oath of a slave or other colored person, will not pass in a slave State against a white person?”

The various plots of The Mother-In-Law come together when word filters back to Virginia of Louise’s intended marriage to James Frobisher.

Frobisher—as I did not before mention—was the only survivor of that carriage-accident in the mountains, from which he was rescued by Gertrude and carried back to The Lair. While nursing him back to health, Gertrude falls in love with him—allowing Southworth to have some fun with the gender-role reversal, with tall, powerful, domineering Gertrude attracted to the weak, helpless Frobisher – who she calls her “pretty boy” – precisely because he is weak and helpless. Frobisher is dazzled by Gertrude, but even more doubtful of her qualifications for aristocracy than he was of Brighty’s; they become sort-of engaged, until a miscommunication leaves Frobisher believing Gertrude has rejected him. Back in Washington, his wandering fancy then drifts to Louise…

Gertrude, however, considers herself plighted to Frobisher—and she is not about to let Mrs Armstrong take her “pretty boy” away from her (she knows Louise has nothing to say in the matter):

“I have felt a long time as though I ought to roll up my cuffs and take that woman in hand! This is a judgement on me for not doing it. I have let her scheme and plot, and marry and unmarry, and torture and break hearts to her own heart’s content. Oh, just God! I that I have spent so much time in ridding the woods and mountains of wolves and bears, and that I have let this human hyena walk abroad among women, and never resolved to deal with her, until she struck her fangs into my own heart! Selfish that I was! Not for the sake of Susan, of Louise, of Louis, of Zoe, of all the hearts that she has trampled in the dust, did I resolve to punish her! Now she would plant her cloven foot upon my bosom—would marry off my boy—my own, own boy—the gift of the mountain cataract to me; my own beautiful white water-lily, that I found broken and half drowned amid the foam of the torrent and the peaks of the rocks…”

And with that, Gertrude is onto her horse and off to Washington—determined to put a stop to the wedding if she has to publicly reveal every one of Mrs Armstrong’s guilty secrets to do it.

Ahem. She does.

Brighty is one of those to whom Gertrude declares her intention, and when she carries the news home to the Palace, Louis also sets out on a desperate chase to Washington—to stop Gertrude stopping the wedding, not because he doesn’t want it stopped, but because of what he fears such an appalling scene will do to Louise. But he knows he has no real hope of catching Gertrude, and sure enough, by the time he makes his way to the house where the wedding is being held, the assembled guests—

…members of the House of Representatives, Senators, members of the Cabinet with their families, foreign Ministers with their suites, were present. The President himself honored the occasion with his presence…

—are standing aghast in the face of Gertrude’s enthusiastic response to being invited to speak of any just cause or impediment

Louis is, however, just in time to witness what may, in a book full of outrageous touches, be the most outrageous:

    “Young lady,” began the Bishop, “will you please to—”
    “SHUT UP,” snapped the giantess.

 
 

19/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 1)

    Mrs Armstrong possessed one master passion, PRIDE; one predominant affection, MATERNAL LOVE… As Louise approached womanhood, these passions began to conflict, thus—
    The time was slowly but surely approaching when it would be proper for the heiress of Mont Crystal to be married. Her pride was interested in seeing her married, and established as the mistress of the most magnificent mansion and the greatest estate in the valley,
and pride, enlisting policy on her side, would suffer no delay, run no risk of the loss of this desideratum. But her maternal love, if the fierce, selfish, and exacting passion deserved the name, rebelled against this decision. Pride would have been highly gratified by seeing Miss Armstrong, as Mrs Stuart-Gordon, mistress of the Island Palace. Maternal love was grieved at the anticipation that her daughter should become the wife of Louis, maternal jealousy aroused by the thought that Louise should derive the happiness of her life from any other than herself. It is true, the mother coveted for her daughter no happiness that did not flow through herself. It is true, the thought of seeing Louise in another home, united to another…of feeling herself the mother of one only child, becoming of less and less importance to the happiness of that child, as year by year went by and aged her—this thought inflicted upon her selfish heart the sharpest pang it was capable of feeling…

 

While trying to determine which, of the many possible people and projects, is the most neglected around here is probably futile, there’s no doubt that if I did rank them, E.D.E.N. Southworth would be somewhere near the top of the list.

In my defence, for once there’s a good exc—uh, reason: for a long time, the only available copy of Southworth’s third novel, The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, was a scanned document of an edition resulting from a pernicious practice found in 19th century American publishing: reissuing three-volume novels in a single volume, with microscopic font, small margins and double-columns.

(In other words, almost the exact opposite of the 18th century British practice I pointed out with respect to The Picture…)

As an online text or as a PDF, the resulting scans are almost impossible to read, or read comfortably: if you fit a page on the screen the font is too small; if you make the font big enough, you have to toggle up and down repeatedly.

So perhaps I’ll be excused for putting off The Mother-In-Law as long as I have. I had girded my loins to the task, though, when I discovered that a different copy of the novel had been uploaded at the Internet Archive. I still had to read it online, but at least I could read it:
 

 

 
The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays was serialised in the National Era between 22 November 1849 – 18 July 1850, before being published in book form in 1851. It was subsequently reissued under three variant titles: The Mother-In-Law; or, Married In Haste; Married In Haste; or, Wife And No Wife; and The Mother-In-Law: A Tale Of Domestic Life. The first two give completely the wrong idea about what kind of novel it is; while with the third, you have feel that someone was being ironic.

As always with Southworth’s long and complicated sensation novels, it becomes a matter of how to do them justice in a review without simply recapitulating them. The Mother-In-Law, though quite as fully stuffed with characters and subplots as any other of Southworth’s novels, is actually more tightly plotted overall, showing the rippling impact of its central situation upon the surrounding community, and working to a climax that resolves early everything for nearly everybody. There is one important exception to this generalisation, however; and for this reason I have decided to address the novel in two posts, giving each of them their due weight.

The Mother-In-Law fits comfortably – well: not comfortably, exactly – within the framework of Southworth’s early fiction, in that it is a story of domestic misery. However, whereas in her previous novels, Southworth’s focus was on the consequences of male violence and male selfishness in the domestic sphere, here she gives us the monstrous feminine. Unnervingly, the novel carries a preface insisting that it is a true story; and while this is a common authorial ploy, of course, the length and seriousness of this introduction gives us pause.

Overall, this novel bears some resemblance to the first one of Southworth’s that we examined, Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, in that it deals with a community of families, the relationships that develop amongst its young people, and the influence – whether for good or ill (although mostly the latter) – of the older generation upon the next. In this respect, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Mother-In-Law is that while it has numerous characters, it is really a novel without either a hero or a heroine in the usual sense. This lack of conventional focus means that we must concentrate more than we normally would upon its ensemble cast.

Geographically, we find ourselves in familiar Southworth territory: The Mother-In-Law is set in the Virginian countryside, some thirty or forty years (we gather) in the past. “The Isle Of Rays” is the name given to an island situated in the middle of a broad river, which is big enough to support two important properties (as well as several much smaller ones); its land is divided into two, with one half of the island being under cultivation, the other a savage but beautiful wilderness. The natural glories of her characters’ surroundings occupy Southworth very much, and she includes many lyrical descriptions along the way—which, if it’s okay with you, we’ll take as read.

The leading property, not just of the island but the entire district, is called simply “The Island Estate”. This is the home of the Stuart-Gordons; its present lord is General Henry Cartwright Stuart-Gordon, who – as per a longstanding family condition – took his wife’s surname upon their marriage. At the story’s outset, Mrs Stuart-Gordon is recently deceased; her robust husband is recovering from the blow, but her only child, sensitive young Louis, is depressed and lonely.

Second in importance to the Palace is Mont Crystal, the home of the Armstrongs—Mrs Armstrong, a widow, and her only child, Louise—who in addition to the similarity of her name shares Louis’ birthday, 22nd February, though Louise is two years younger. Naturally, everyone expects the two estates to be merged when the young heirs are of a suitable age.

Louise, Louise and Mrs Armstrong are the three main characters of The Mother-In-Law, and since we will hear plenty about each of them along the way, I won’t talk too much about them here—except to highlight Southworth’s significant description of Louise. We’ve noted already Southworth’s tendency to “colour-code” her women with respect to their hair, also that clearly shared with her spiritual sister, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (like Southworth, a brunette), a certain exasperation over their society’s obsession with doll-like blue-eyed blondes. Fair-haired girls do not generally fare well in Southworth’s novels; and when we are offered the following portrait of Louise Armstrong—

…with her fair, transparent complexion, with her mild blue eyes and pale gold wavy hair, with her fragile and drooping form arrayed in white muslin as soft and pliable as her gentle disposition…

—we recognise her instantly as one of the author’s sacrificial lambs.

But there is a blonde of an entirely different description in The Mother-In-Law. Gertrude Lion – the “Gerfalcon”, as she is known to the district – stands nearly six feet tall; a wild, passionate, uncontrolled young woman to whom the term “Amazon” is repeatedly applied—though “Valkyrie” might have been a better choice. Orphaned early, Gertrude has been roughly raised by her equally unconventional brother, Brutus, at their isolated mountain property known as “The Lair”. Fascinatingly, particularly juxtaposed with certain other material offered by this novel, Gertrude and Brutus not only have Cherokee blood in their heritage, they are both very proud of the fact.

A unprecedented creation, Gertrude Lion explodes periodically into the narrative of The Mother-In-Law, “leaping” and “bounding” rather than ever just walking, and shattering both convention and other people’s nerves. Intriguingly, Gertrude shares certain characteristics with Hagar, the protagonist of Southworth’s The Deserted Wife, in that she is a creature of nature, excelling at all physical activities – including some distinctly unfeminine ones – and more at home with her horses and dogs than in society. However, since Gertrude is only a supporting character (and, unlike Hagar, not an authorial self-portrait), her behaviour not only goes unchecked, but unpunished. In fact, Southworth has a great deal of wicked fun with her—before pulling an extraordinary rabbit from the hat by turning Gertrude into her novel’s Deus ex machina

Pardon a digression.

An amusing contrast is drawn between the Lions and the Stuart-Gordons. The former, we learn, are descended from one of “the regicides”, who fled England upon the Restoration and settled in Virginia—then changing the family name to “Lion” as a precaution. The latter, meanwhile, are proud to claim descent from THOSE Stuarts. Southworth concedes this, though with a sardonic passing reference to “the bar sinister”; she also loads Louis with a selection of the less desirable Stuart characteristics, most significantly weakness in dealing with women; though we should note in his defence that, very un-Stuart-like, he is a young man of impeccable morals. Southworth herself digresses here for a few pointed remarks about the royal family in question, finally observing tartly that:

…their strong Scottish blood was diluted in the marriage of James V. with Mary of Lorraine, and still further reduced in the union of their daughter Mary Stuart with the imbecile Henry, Lord Darnley. Reader, did it ever occur to you to trace the downfall of that Royal House to the degeneracy of its stock from these two unfortunate marriages? If this were the place, or I had the time, I could almost prove it…

Meanwhile—Southworth lets her preference not just for brunettes, but dark brunettes, almost run riot. (No-one ever simply has brown hair in Southworth…nor have we yet met a red-head.) That said, the ladies in question could hardly be more different in either character or situation.

We are first introduced to Miss Britannia O’Riley – “Brighty” to her friends – Louise Armstrong’s Irish-American governess. Brighty—

…was about twenty-five years of age at the time our story opens, of medium height, moderately full figure, black eyes and hair, and dark complexion, features irregular, forehead broad and full, eyebrows slender and black, arched towards the nose, and elevated towards the temples, bright, piercing eyes, nez retroussé, and lips full, crimson, and quivering, formed the tout ensemble of a countenance irresistibly charming in its sparkling piquancy.

Brighty is a young woman of many faults: she is rather vain, a lover of luxury, and given to unmeasured speech. (Governesses, observes Southworth wryly, accounting for the fact that Brighty gets away with various acts of defiance and impertinence, were harder to obtain in early 19th century Virginia than they are at the time of writing.) But she is also generous, loving, and loyal.

We are next introduced to Susan Somerville, the granddaughter of old Major Somerville; the two occupy a broken-down property on the mainland known as “The Crags”: the last of an old, proud family sliding into poverty—and worse. After the death of Mrs Stuart-Gordon, Susan begins to call in the evenings upon Louis and his father, to make tea and provide sympathetic female companionship:

She was a medium-sized girl—full—even very full formed—with the well-developed bust, round chin and cheeks, and full, sweet lips, that indicate a fine vital temperament; her complexion was very fair, her eyes large, dark, and calm, and her hair black and silky, and rippling in tiny wavelets over her head. She wore it carelessly, but partly twisted up behind, partly drooping down her plump white cheeks and throat. Her dress of dark stuff was neatness itself; but her air—her air—there, that was magic! She looked like one that calmly and deeply enjoyed her life in every vein. Wisdom and innocence reposed in her serene face. Her manner was full of grave, sweet comfort…

Then there is Zoe Dove:

She was a gentle, tender little creature, with a fair, delicate skin, with soft, dark eyes, and fine, silky black hair, inclined to curl, but plainly twisted up.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of the old schoolmaster, Mr Dove, found literally upon his doorstep as a baby. She is the novel’s domestic goddess, a born housekeeper who finds all her pleasure in cooking and cleaning and sewing. A tiny, delicate creature, she is the unlikely object of Brutus Lion’s affections; even though Brutus – six-feet-nine in his stockinged feet – has to lift her up onto a table in order to converse with her. (Gertrude, a much tougher proposition than her brother, mocks him unmercifully for his “weakness”, only to get her comeuppance later in the novel via a still more unlikely romantic relationship.)

The novel’s final brunette is Mrs Armstrong herself:

She was a woman of majestic presence—very tall, very full formed—with the erect carriage, stately step, and assured manner that expressed conscious power, indomitable will, and accustomed sway. Her features were strongly marked—her forehead square and broad; her nose a high aquiline; her chin and cheeks full and round; her lips firmly set; her complexion opaque white; her eyes were dark gray—bright, cold, and hard; her eyebrows were square, heavy, and black; her hair was glossy, jet-black, and braided in large, heavy braids down her round, full, elastic cheeks, and plaited in a thick plait, wound around the back of her head, and confined by a comb…

It is Mrs Armstrong’s aberrant psychology that is the focus of The Mother-In-Law, and the driver of its plot. She is a woman of two mastering passions, which are irreconcilable—at "civil war" with each other, says Southworth, using a term less loaded in 1851 than it would become.

On one hand, there is the domineering pride which is determined that Louise will marry Louis Stuart-Gordon, and thus become the “first lady” of the district, if not indeed the entire state. Nothing less is acceptable for her daughter.

On the other, however—there is Mrs Armstrong’s attitude towards Louise, for which “possessive” is an almost laughably inadequate description:

Can you conceive, reader, a mother’s love for her only child—being a passion deep, intense, absorbing, yet selfish, jealous,’and exacting? This was the affection, if it deserved the name, that Hortense Armstrong cherished for her daughter. She had been jealous of the child’s affection for her own father, jealous of her attachment to her mulatto nurse, though the state the lady habitually kept continually left the gentle little child in charge of her attendants. But after the death of her father, and after the entrance of Louise upon her fifth year, the mother took her more particularly under her own charge—conducting her education herself; the whole bent of this education was to one object—the entire subjugation of the will of Louise to that of herself, to gain a life-long ascendancy over the heart and mind of the child, and thereby the disposal of her destiny. Not only did she require from her daughter the implicit obedience claimed by and ceded to parents by every law, human and divine, but she aspired to bring down the intellect and affections, the very mind and spirit of her child into absolute subjection to her will…

So far she has succeeded: at the age of fifteen, Louise has barely the capacity to think or act for herself, her slightest movement dictated by her simultaneous adoration and terror of her mother.

Southworth’s descriptions of Mrs Armstrong’s manipulation of her daughter are horrifying and painful. Louise is treated with a mixture of criticism and contempt, and repeatedly punished for her sins via the withholding of affection. She is made to feel insignificant and ungrateful, entirely unworthy of her magnificent mother—who, as Louise believes as an article of faith, has sacrificed her entire life to her daughter, who has no thought but for her daughter’s welfare…

Louise’s situation, not surprisingly, begins to take its toll upon her health. Her only refuge is the love and encouragement of Brighty, but these can avail little against the stone wall of Mrs Armstrong’s emotional demands. It is on Louise’s behalf that Brighty is periodically provoked into intemperate speech:

    “Pray, explain yourself,” said the lady, haughtily.
    “I will,” said Brighty, rising and settling the folds of her blue-black satin; “your daughter is attended to—worried—hurried too much—she wants rest—repose—Mrs. Armstrong, she wants a heart and mind at ease; she wants more freedom; she is afraid to stir hand or foot; to speak—to think—to feel—lest she should give her mother pain or displeasure.”
    “That is her religion,” said the lady, coolly. “Miss Armstrong, I am happy to say, is an example of filial piety. I repeat it, that is her religion.”
    “It is her superstition.”
    “You will please to remember you are addressing me, Miss O’Riley.”
    “And it is in full consciousness of that, that I say, Mrs Armstrong, that your system of education degrades, debases, enslaves, yes, destroys your daughter!—and that if it be continued, in two years from this Louise will be an irreclaimable idiot.”
    “You are speaking of Miss Armstrong,” said the lady, white with anger, but speaking steadily.
    “I know it ; and I repeat, that unless a different course is taken, in two years Miss Armstrong, of Mont Crystal, will be an idiot slave!”
    Brighty’s eyes were blazing…

Mrs Armstrong in fact heeds Brighty’s warning about Louise’s health; though a more imperative motivation is neighbourhood gossip about Louis Stuart-Gordon and Susan Somerville, with the latter’s tea-making having grown into visits paid and returned between the two young people. The thought that anyone might circumvent her marital schemes for Louise, least of all one of the destitute Somervilles, galvanises Mrs Armstrong: instead of keeping Louise isolated, as has been the case for the past several years, she begins entertaining—and throwing Louise and Louis together. The two were, in effect, childhood sweethearts, until Mrs Armstrong’s jealousy prompted her to kill off the friendship; and it does not take much for them to rediscover those early feelings. They are soon engaged, and then married—on the 22nd February, the day that Louis turns eighteen, and Louise sixteen.

There are two casualties of this arrangement. The first is Susan Somerville, who has indeed fallen in love with Louis—only to be made his confidante with respect to Louise, and to realise he thinks of her only as a sister. Pride sustains her through this mortification; even through the greater one of acting as one of Louise’s bridesmaids. The young couple see nothing but others see, and draw their own conclusions…

And the other person to suffer through this marriage is, of course, Mrs Armstrong. Though the match is of her own making, once it is made, as she anticipated she finds her altered position with respect to Louise intolerable.

Southworth makes it clear that, while Louis is genuinely in love with Louise, she is only “fond” of him—her worshipful love for her mother remaining her dominating emotion. It is thus less about what she can give, than what she is given. Louis is kind, considerate, thoughtful, always seeking new ways to show his love and to make Louise happy; while General Stuart-Gordon, likewise, pets and coddles her. Under this unprecedented treatment, this shower of love and encouragement, Louise begins to blossom—to smile, to laugh, to sing; to run and jump instead of walking sedately. And in doing so, she offends her mother past the possibility of forgiveness:

The presence of this haughty and frozen woman cast a cloud over the brightness of The Isle of Rays. She radiated a spiritual cold that chilled all who approached her. She had arrived in her coldest, hardest, and haughtiest mood; and all that she saw, heard, and felt there, aroused the most malignant passions of her soul. She saw Louise instead of being pale and dispirited at her long absence, looking rosy and joyous; and if she did not hate the child for daring to be happy, except by her permission and through her means, at least she loathed her daughter’s husband, for superseding her in the work. Yes, she began to hate Louis in proportion as Louise loved him. And sometimes she would look at Louise in astonishment, wondering that she presumed to be so free, so glad, in her presence! She grew alarmed for the permanency of her influence over her child’s intellect and affections. “In one short month I have lost so much ground. In a year longer I shall be nothing in the sum of Mrs Stuart-Gordon’s life! And she is my child—MINE! I gave her life! She came into the world by my will—mine! And who this Louis Stuart-Gordon? Perdition catch his soul! to come between me and the child I bore!” And deep in the heart of this woman whose external appearance was so cold, so hard, so stern, whose manners were so guarded, so haughty, so freezing—deep in the heart of this diabolical woman burned and burned a concealed, intense, and growing jealousy, as under the snow-clad surface of Etna glow the most dangerous fires…

Mrs Armstrong begins seeking a way to re-establish her mastery over Louise. Of course it cannot be done from a distance; but she soon perceives a way in which she and Louise can again be resident under the same roof: she will marry General Stuart-Gordon, and take over as mistress of the Palace.

But as she sets her plot in motion, it does not for a moment cross Mrs Armstrong’s mind, not just that the General is already thinking of marriage, but that he has a very different woman in his sights…

Louise’s marriage is the cue for Brighty’s dismissal from Mont Crystal. Her pride will not allow her to take payment for the months of her employment contract cut short and unfulfilled by the loss of her pupil; but since her vanity and extravagance have led her to spend most of her money on her own adornment, this gesture leaves her in a perilous situation—or it would have, had her friends not begun vying with one another for her company. Brighty, wise and far-seeing, accepts the invitation of Susan Somerville, who in the wake of the wedding is drooping into depression.

Brighty’s new situation – or rather, her emancipation from Mont Crystal – brings with it an unexpected consequence: the determined courtship of General Stuart-Gordon. During the preparations for the wedding, the two were much thrown together, including during an extended journey to New York to arrange for Louise’s trousseau and jewels. Intrigued by Brighty’s beauty and pertness, the General began what he thought of only as a dalliance, only to find himself honestly caught by the pride and self-respect with which she rejected his advances. Brighty is tempted by his subsequent offer of marriage – dazzled by the thought of being elevated to the social pinnacle of the Palace, almost won over by a vision of lording it over Mrs Armstrong – but her fundamental honesty prevails. She is touched by the supplication of the proud old military man, however, and when he persists in his courtship, she eventually finds in herself sufficient liking and esteem for the General to accept his hand.

Perversely, the General then begins to see objections where before he swept them aside—not her position as a servant, but his advanced age; and his fear that she cannot love him. Again his humility stands him in good stead with Brighty who, the more he offers to release her should she wish it, becomes the more determined to be his wife.

Matters reach crisis-point when Brighty is sought out by James Frobisher, a young Englishman attached to the British Legation in Washington and a distant cousin of sorts, who brings the startling news that as the only surviving descendant of the old Earl of Clonmachnois, who died intestate, she is now Countess of Clonmachnois in her own right; though otherwise her inheritance is only some poverty-stricken land in Ireland. Moreover, Frobisher has a proposition to make: now that he is convinced that Brighty will “do” as a member of the aristocracy, he wants to marry her; he will then petition for the reversion of the title and, as Lord Clonmachnois, set about the restoration of that Irish land.

The General takes this as the death-knell of his hopes, and he again offers to release Brighty; but this all has the opposite effect on her: she sends Frobisher to the right-about, resigns her title, and asks the General to set a date. He does—though the two of them keep it a secret until that date draws near. The General then accepts the necessity of breaking his news to the neighbourhood in general, and Mrs Armstrong in particular—who, meanwhile, has grown frustrated with the old man’s obliviousness to the various hints she has thrown out. When he begins, one morning, on a stumbling explanation of his intentions, she is at first delighted—until she realises that her hasty acceptance of his “proposal” was a trifle premature:

    Forgive me! I never presumed to the distinguished alliance of Mrs Armstrong.”
    “Sir!”
    “Pardon! pardon! The lady of my choice does not occupy so high a place in society. The lady of my choice—”
    “Is—”
    “Miss Britannia O’Riley!”
    Words would fail to express the dumbfounded astonishment, the astounded dismay, of that haughty woman, struck statue-still, with wonder, where she stood! Yes! at first it was simple stupefied wonder that fixed her there, with rigid limbs, pallid cheeks, and darkly corrugated brows. Yes, it was wonder, before it was even rage or vengeance.
    “BRITANNIA O’RILEY!”
    “Britannia O’Riley.”
    “A governess! a domestic! a hired servant!”
    “Britannia O’Riley! a beautiful, graceful, elegant, and accomplished woman.”
    “A beggar! a low Irish beggar!”
    “A lady! a lady to whom I shall be proud to give my name.”
    “A poor, miserable Irish beggar, whom I hired to serve my daughter!”
    “My intended wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior, and mistress of my house within one month from this.”

Mrs Armstrong’s response is not merely to depart, but to try and take Louise with her. Still incapable of withstanding a maternal command, bewildered by her mother’s insistence that she has been offered an intolerable insult, Louise is mechanically obeying when the General intervenes. The ensuing, violent scene only become more fraught when Louis himself returns home and becomes involved. Louise is unable to withstand the contending forces, and faints; Louis carries her back to her room, while the General—now every bit as much Mrs Armstrong’s enemy as he is hers—forces the departure of her mother.

Alone at Mont Crystal, Mrs Armstrong begins to lay her plans for the future—now quite as determined to destroy the lives of everyone at the Palace (which, by the time she sets her scheme in motion, includes Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior) as she is to regain possession and control of her daughter. Indeed, these two passions become inextricably linked together, as Mrs Armstrong begins using Louise as a weapon…

Her first step is to show herself open to the olive branch tentatively offered by the Palace. Louise, of course, suffers bitterly from the estrangement, and the feeling that it’s all her fault; and finally she and Brighty venture to Mont Crystal in an attempt to mend fences. Mrs Armstrong, taking her cue, shows herself more sorrowing than angry, and allows her penitent daughter to persuade to her to forgive the insults offered, and to dine at the Palace. From there, Mrs Armstrong keeps up her act so well that even the General’s suspicions are lulled—though granted, he is also distracted by his vivacious young wife. She bides her time until business calls Louis away from home for a week—and then she seizes her chance, inviting Louise to return to Mont Crystal for a visit. Of course she has no intention of letting her go again; or at least, only if her terms are met…

Calling alone, Mrs Armstrong confronts the General. We are reminded of the complicated situation at the Palace: that Louis is a Stuart-Gordon on his mother’s side; that the property descends to him from her, not his father; and that he is not as yet of age. Mrs Armstrong, meanwhile, is focused on Louise’s position now that the General has remarried:

    “When I bestowed the hand of my daughter, Miss Armstrong, upon your son, Mr Stuart-Gordon, it was understood that she should take the head of this establishment. Was this so, or was it not so?”
    “Certainly, madam, that was the tacit understanding, but—”
    “Never mind ‘but.’ This house was refurnished, fitted up, to suit the taste of Louise, was it not!”
    “Of course, madam, but—”
    “Louise was to have been its mistress—was she not?”
    “Certainly, madam, but—”
    “Who is its mistress!”
    “My wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior.”
    “Then the conditions of the marriage contract have not been fulfilled on your part.”

Of course in one respect this is ridiculous: Louise neither wants to be mistress of the Palace, nor is capable of fulfilling such a role; moreover, she is delighted to have the companionship of Brighty, and only too pleased to have her assume control of the household (which she does admirably, by the way). The General is understandably inclined to brush this off as nonsense—until:

“Then hear me, sir. I said that I was a woman of few words; you know that I am not a woman of vain words; and I tell you,” she said, rising, folding her arms, standing before him with her determined jaws firmly set, her determined eyes firmly fixed upon him—” I tell you,” she said, slowly, through her closed teeth, “that, until you and your wife evacuate these premises, Mrs Louis Stuart-Gordon never sets foot upon The Isle of Rays, and never exchanges one word with any one member of the Island family. I waited my time. I have her. She is in my hands now!”

So she is; and for the next several years, Louis is doomed barely to see his wife…

There are a couple of interesting social and legal points surrounding the manoeuvring of Mrs Armstrong; interesting too for the somewhat ambiguous light it throws on the character of Louis, who has been presented us us from the outset as unusually sensitive—or in his father’s opinion, weak. Taking after his mother, Louis had no interest in a military career; he doesn’t even hunt. He enjoys scenery for its own sake; he and Louise spend many hours walking hand-in-hand, admiring the Palace gardens and the wilderness beyond.

And when Mrs Armstrong tries to take Louise, Louis insists that she is free to make her own decision.

What’s fascinating here is the way that Southworth manipulates us into siding with the conservative old General, with his thunderous demand for husbandly authority and wifely submission. Of course—this really isn’t about “men” and “women”, or “husbands” and “wives”; it is about the fact that Louise as an individual is incapable of making any decision for herself, let alone one this big. Louis’ intentions may be admirable, but he picks the worst possible moment to live up to his principles; and had Louise not fainted, she would undoubtedly have been immured at Mont Crystal a few months earlier.

And when Mrs Armstrong does get her hands on Louise, a similar situation arises. Louis wants neither to force Louise to do anything, nor to wash the family’s dirty linen in public by taking legal steps to get his wife back, as he is within his rights to do; while the General is all for filing a writ of habeus corpus. It is Brighty who tips the scale towards Louis, warning the men that anything that looks (or can be made to look) like violence towards or an insult of Mrs Armstrong will not help them with Louise; but adding that, with time, Louise’s longing for her husband and their life together may override even her worship of her mother.

And perhaps so—under normal circumstances. But as soon as Mrs Armstrong has Louise back in her power, she sets about convincing her that no-one at the Palace ever loved her; that no-one has ever really loved her but her mother—least of all Louis, who only married her because she was Miss Armstrong of Mont Crystal; who was notoriously in love with Susan Somerville, and certainly would have married her had she not been destitute; and who has probably by this time made Susan his mistress…

    Louise dropped her head upon her mother’s shoulder, and groaned—
    “Oh, mother! what horrors are these you are revealing to me! My brain is reeling—reeling! my mind wanders. This is very dreadful, and yet it is of Louis—Louis that you speak! Oh, this is very, very horrible, and yet it is my mother that tells me…”

Unexpectedly, however, of the two it is finally Louis – after calling repeatedly at Mont Crystal, and being turned away; and after writing letter after letter, to no response – who suffers a collapse and its inevitable attendant, “brain-fever”. Louise herself is kept from this extremity by a growing conviction on her part:

    “Mamma, I must return to Louis! indeed I must, mamma, if he will take me back! Indeed I must, mamma, if he were twenty times a traitor!”
    “Hey! what! how! what is all this wretched nonsense, now?”
    “Mamma, I shall be a mother soon!” said Louise, in a voice between timidity and tenderness.
    “WHAT!” exclaimed the lady, raising upon her elbow, and gathering her black brows into an awful frown— ” WHAT!”
    “God has blessed me! I, too, shall be a mother, dear mamma! Oh! mamma, kiss me, now that I have told you!”
    “It is not true! It cannot be true I” exclaimed Mrs Armstrong, still glaring at her daughter.
    “Mamma, it is so; and I must return to Louis—indeed I must, mamma!”
    “To a man whose whole heart is given to his mistress—”
    “If it be so, it is dreadful, mamma, but I cannot help it. He does love me a little. Anyhow, I know I love him entirely…”

For a variety of reasons—jealousy, the potential change to Louise’s social position, her own changed position, the increased legal power this will grant Louis, and Louise’s altered affections—Mrs Armstrong is having none of it; none of it:

    “Mamma, how have I given you offence!”
    “By the subject of your conversation. Now, let me hear no more ridiculous nonsense about returning to that young scapegrace, nor the other miserable shift-about—pshaw! fudge! stuff! you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have such fancies.”
    “It is not fancy, it is fact, mamma.”
    “SILENCE! hush! not a word more of this, I command you, Louise. It is false! false! you are too young—far too young. You should blush at such imaginings!”
    “It is not imagination, mamma,” persisted Louise, with a tender earnestness.
    “Hush! I command you! Never dare to hint this subject to me, or to any one else, at the peril of my grave displeasure. Shameful! But you are really out of health. You are ill and nervous, and so, of course, full of idle fancies. You are too much confined. You do not take exercise enough. You must go out more. You shall ride on horseback. Nothing is better for low spirits than hard riding on a trotting horse…”

And having dismissed Louise, Mrs Armstrong calls her loyal waiting-woman to her:

    “What do you think of that child, Kate?” asked the lady, looking searchingly in the face of her attendant.
    “Well, madam, I think she is—indeed all the women about the house know she is—”
    “In bad health!” said the lady, emphatically, and looking sternly and threateningly at her attendant.
    “Yes, madam, of course, just as you say, in bad health.”
    “Listen to me! She is out of spirits, and she neglects her toilet sadly—more than I choose that my daughter shall. I shall dismiss her maid, and do you take her place, and superintend the dressing of your young lady. Do not permit her to go about as loosely and carelessly arrayed as has been her custom of late. See that she wears her stays; do you hear?”
    “Yes, madam, I hear and understand.”
    “Hear and literally obey.”

But none of this is to any avail; and some months later, Louise gives birth to a daughter, Margaret.

Louis is informed of the event not directly, but via neighbourhood gossip. He could, of course, demand custody—but of course he does not. His forbearance is hardly rewarded: in time he receives a black-edged letter from Mrs Armstrong informing him of his daughter’s death from scarlet fever. This is followed by a cold demand that, for the sake of Louise’s health and happiness, he arrange for a divorce. After long consideration, Louis writes back, agreeing to this if Mrs Armstrong’s claim is endorsed by Louise, in Louise’s handwriting. Such endorsement duly arrives…

Mrs Armstrong by this time has carried Louise away, not just from Mont Crystal, but Virginia; Louise remains apathetic as she is forced from place to place. Her mother finally establishes her in Washington—where the pale, pretty girl (who is assumed to be a young widow) attracts the kind attention of, “Mrs M—, the lady of the President…perhaps the most dignified and gracious of all the ladies that ever presided at the White House.” (Presumably Elizabeth Monroe, a detail which places the narrative between 1817 and 1825.)

Louise also attracts the attention of a certain James Frobisher, who by this time has succeeded in securing the reversion of the family title title—thus offering to Mrs Armstrong the glorious chance to smite her enemies with a final, decisive blow: to take Louise away altogether, out of the country, as far from the Palace (and her lingering affections) as possible; to have her marry another man, apparently of her own volition; to have her bear the title so lightly discarded by Brighty; and to see her socially elevated even beyond her mother’s wildest dreams, as Countess of Clonmachnois…

[To be continued…]

 

10/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 3)

Days passed. Raymond now only too surely, terribly felt that his love for Rosalia was no longer pure brotherly affection. It was an intense and absorbing passion. He began to struggle against its nearly overwhelming power—he began to avoid the charming girl. Now could Hagar have trusted him; could she have believed in the power of redeeming qualities that really existed in his heart; the solid substratum of good that lay beneath this superficial alluvium of wilfulness and effeminacy; her faith might yet have saved him; saved herself from much anguish. As it was, Raymond struggled on alone against the advancing power of his great temptation. He might have struggled longer, he might have struggled successfully, but that the very means he took accelerated the crisis, the catastrophe. He began to avoid Rosalia; declined her music; evaded her questions; repulsed her gentle attentions, until the guileless girl, utterly unable to comprehend her position, grew wretched, more wretched every day, in the thought that her last friend, her only present friend, as in her heart she began to style Raymond, had fallen from her; and by the fatality that makes us set a higher value upon a possession that is passing away, Rosalia began to prize his affection exceedingly—to desire its continuance more than all things—to lament its seeming loss passionately—to strive to win it back.

 

The Deserted Wife, as I remarked at the outset, is a terribly uncomfortable book—uncomfortable in many different ways. As was the case in Retribution—as may well be the case in all of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels—there is a kernel of hard emotional truth behind all the melodrama and exaggeration and contrivance that makes it impossible to dismiss this novel as “just” an entertainment or a cheap thrill. The emotional abuse of Hagar by Raymond, like Ernest Dent’s transference of his own guilt onto his innocent wife in the earlier novel, is convincing in a way that suggests only too clearly that Southworth was writing from her own experience; and while this is bad enough, hard enough for the reader to take, the discomforting power of this story is amplified by the impossibility of pinning down the novel’s attitude towards its beleaguered heroine.

On the surface, at least, The Deserted Wife takes no issue with the prevailing 19th century view of marriage, which demanded of the wife that she subsume her own desires, wants and preferences in her husband’s, and which placed the entire responsibility for the success or failure of a marriage upon the woman: if it failed, it was because she had not done her duty. Taken to its extreme, it was a convention that essentially resulted in the woman ceasing to have any meaningful individual identity. There are plenty of Victorian novels that do indeed accept this convention without question, and are pretty hard to swallow as a consequence; but I’m not sure that The Deserted Wife isn’t harder for its smothered note of rebellion, which suggests that E.D.E.N. Southworth was caught between feelings of resentment and guilt, her anger at being blamed for the failure of her marriage battling with her fear that it was indeed all her fault.

It is Southworth’s use of this novel as a vehicle for working through her feelings that is behind its extremely peculiar tone—and for what amounts to a distressing lack of sympathy for Hagar, upon whom her creator bestows all of her own least desirable traits and emotions, and whose unhappiness is repeatedly declared to be her own fault, for her inability to control her passions, and for her struggle against the absolute necessity of submitting in all things to her husband. So far, Southworth seems entirely in sympathy with society’s judgement against herself.

And yet—and yet— What are we to make of the fact that “society’s judgement” is invariably conveyed via Sophie?—Sophie, whose idea of a good time is subjecting her will to that of a dangerous lunatic for the better part of ten years; Sophie, thrilled by the prospect of demonstrating her love for her second husband by a complete spiritual prostration:

    “I love my husband so much, so much, so much, with a fullness of tenderness that it seems to me could not be expressed, except by suffering something—sacrificing something for his sake. I am sure sometimes I wish me would ask me to do something naturally repugnant to my feelings, that I might have one opportunity of showing how much I do love; to give up my dearest wish for his pleasure would give me exquisite joy—a joy that I crave. I do not comprehend this, dear, but it is so.”
    “Oh, I comprehend it, Sophie, perfectly; it is the very same principle that led the saints ages ago to scourge and starve themselves to testify their love to God—God forgive them the blasphemy! You, Sophie, have a propensity to worship, and a very decided vocation for martyrdom, which, unfortunately, under existing circumstances, I have not!” sneered the scornful girl.

One does wonder who 19th century readers sympathised with here.

This is only one of many clashes between Sophie and Hagar on the subject of marital duty, in which Sophie is unshakably on the side of Raymond. One long lecture on Hagar’s unavoidable duties, and her myriad of failings (Hagar’s involuntary protest, that Raymond knew all that before he married her, is waved away as irrelevant), bad enough at first reading, becomes increasingly chilling in retrospect, as we come to an ever deeper understanding of just what submission to Raymond entails:

“I see,” said she, “it is your pride, Hagar…it is your pride, love, that rebels against a rule every way gentle, just, and reasonable. Subdue it, Hagar. Your husband has been educated among the refinements of cultivated city society. He, himself, perhaps, among the most fastidious of that class. His taste is offended, his delicacy shocked by your wildness… He loves you, Hagar—has loved you long… He loved you—let me speak plainly, Hagar, for your sake and his—he loved you when you were a very unlovely child—at least to every one but me.—Well, he loved you, and sought and gained your love. You gave yourself away to him, and now he naturally expects you to conform your manners to his taste… Your pride must be subdued—it must: If you do not subdue it yourself, he will, with cruel pain to you. Raymond’s demands are all reasonable; such requirements are usual—in your case any man would make them…”

The reader, unlike Sophie, is given a good, long, clear-eyed look at Raymond’s “reasonable” demands and his “gentle, just and reasonable rule”. The marriage, indeed, quickly settles into a series of ugly skirmishes in which Raymond seeks out and invariably finds the points at which Hagar is most vulnerable, striking with merciless accuracy, forcing her to give way to him in matters that cause her the greatest possible pain. Most cruelly of all, perhaps, Raymond takes it into his head that it is “degrading” to have to share Hagar’s affections with her beloved horse and dogs—Hagar is understandably astonished, since not a word of these offended feelings did Raymond breathe before their marriage; she should have interpreted his silence, he tells her in all seriousness—and sells them behind her back. Small wonder that Hagar is unable to hide her bewildered misery from interested eyes; another affront to her husband:

    Hagar felt her arm grasped tightly from behind, and Raymond’s voice in her ear, muttering low and quickly, “You are making your well-merited wretchedness apparent to Sophie—be more natural; for as God in heaven hears me, if by word, look or gesture you reveal your miseries, making me a subject of speculation to these people—you shall suffer for it in every nerve in your body to the last day of your life,” and he let go her arm.
    “Dearest Raymond, how could you think that I would willingly betray uneasiness—have I been gloomy? I will be so no longer—you shall see—dear Raymond, smile on me—say one gentle word to me; my heart has been starving—even the bitter bread was welcome—give me a sweet word, Raymond!”
    “Don’t be ridiculous,” were the sweet words granted to her prayer…

By this time great changes have taken place in the lives of our characters. Sophie has married Augustus Wilde and lives with him on board the store ship under his command; Gusty May and Rosalia are engaged, although in respect of her youth (and, perhaps, her aunt’s doubts of the true nature of her feelings), no early marriage will be permitted. To Gusty’s dismay, his manoeuvring fails to secure him duty on the Rainbow, and he receives orders for a three-year cruise on another ship. In increasing desperation, Gusty spends his last days of leave trying to win some sign from Rosalia that she does, in fact, love him above all others, and is nearly driven to distraction by her calm serenity and her failure to understand his importunities. A good friend of Gusty’s, Midshipman Murphy, sympathising, uses his connections to get their postings swapped; he takes the three-year duty in the Mediterranean, and Gusty gets the Rainbow after all. In the full flow of his gratitude, Gusty (as he is wont to do) blurts out his troubles:

“Love me? Yes, she does. She loves her old, poor blind nurse Cumbo—uncle’s Newfoundland dog, Juno, and me in about the same proportions, and in the same manner… She will caress me right before her aunt’s face, freely and calmly as though I were her grandmother… Yet she tells me she loves me! Oh, yes, she loves me! and the next minute she will throw her arms around Juno’s neck and tell her she loves her! and with equal fervour. And if I ever complain to her that she does not love me, she weeps as though I did her an injury. Nearly three months here have I spent trying to kindle one spark, to touch one chord of responsive passion in her bosom. I have poured my whole soul forth at her feet, and she looks at me with her calm, sweet eyes and wonders at me…”

For all Gusty’s forthcomingness, one thing he does keep to himself: an uncomfortable belief, real or conjured up by his jealous fears, that the one time her ever did see a different light in Rosalia’s blank calm, sweet eyes, they were resting on Raymond…

Meanwhile, Heath Hall has been closed up, and Raymond and Hagar have moved to his villa on the banks of the Hudson River, three days’ travel from New York City; an inheritance from his paternal grandfather, General Raymond. To her dismay, Hagar finds it stiflingly over-decorated and, if anything, overstocked with servants; she is left with nothing to do all day but, as Raymond puts it, to “cultivate her beauty”. It soon becomes clear that the household is run on a scale far beyond the couple’s slender means, which are supplemented by Raymond accepting, albeit reluctantly, a teaching position at a nearby college. Hagar tries to remonstrate, arguing that all this display is unnecessary—indeed, she finds it personally distasteful—but of course Raymond is uninterested in her feelings. He has, he insists, “a constitutional love and necessity of luxury.”

And Hagar submits—not only because she must, but because her thoughts are concentrated elsewhere: she gives birth to twin girls, Agatha and Agnes; black-haired like their mother, beautiful like their father. Motherhood opens up in Hagar new and unexpected depths of emotion—feelings much gentler, although no less passionate, than she has experienced before. And in Hagar’s absolute devotion to her babies, Raymond is quick to recognise a much greater threat to his dominance over his wife than any posed before. His jealousy and resentment of Hagar’s absorption in her children are, we realise, of the same nature but upon a different scale from that he felt towards her pets. In this case, of course, he can’t sell the babies behind Hagar’s back (we occasionally get the feeling he would if he dared); instead, he decides that Hagar is ruining her health and her looks—not necessarily in that order—by nursing the children herself, and that it must stop. Holding over Hagar’s head the threat of sending the children away altogether by “putting them out to nurse”, Raymond manages to impose upon her a hired wet-nurse and restricted access each day to the babies, which are removed from the master-bedroom to a distant nursery.

(Translation: Raymond wants sexual access to his wife again.)

This war is still being fought and lost when a letter arrives for Hagar (which Raymond opens, as is mentioned in passing) announcing that Sophie, Augustus, Gusty and Rosalia will be coming for a visit. Augustus has himself been ordered to the Mediterranean, and Sophie is to accompany him—but Rosalia, never quite having gotten over her terrors of the sea, is to be left behind with either Raymond and Hagar, or Emily Buncombe. Raymond insists upon the former…

Here, too, we must wrestle with this novel’s tendency to put the bulk of the blame upon its heroine—or to look as if it is doing so. I can’t quite believe that Southworth intends us to take all this at face value, or perhaps I just don’t want to. She does, in fact, spread the blame around to an extent. Raymond is criticised for the self-indulgence that has become a habit, almost an addiction, the “moral lethargy” that robs him of the strength to put right before desire; and even Rosalia comes in for her share—her tenderness unsupported by strength of principle, heart unprotected by mind.

But finally the finger points at Hagar who, confronted by the nightmare vision that has blighted her whole life, the sight of Rosalia stealing love away from her, gives in to a bitter, uncontrolled, uncontrollable jealousy, which springs into being and shows itself before there is any concrete cause, and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, frightening Rosalia and driving her to Raymond for comfort and, in and of itself—or so we are told—putting the idea of Rosalia into Raymond’s head.

This is, indeed, the final conclusion: Hagar is to blame for what happens, because she does not really trust her husband as a wife should. After all—husbands don’t cheat on wives who trust them—right?

(While debating within myself just how far Southworth actually intends this sincerely, I can’t help remembering that in Retribution, Hester Dent trusted her husband and her best friend absolutely—and look what happened to her.)

Raymond does, in fact, struggle against the tide, albeit feebly; while Rosalia doesn’t even realise what’s happening until the crisis point is reached:

    “Tell me! just tell me how I have offended you all, Raymond! Oh! I am so unhappy! so lonesome—no one loves me now! tell me why?” She laid her soft hand upon her arm, and, bending forward, looked up in his face with her tender and coaxing gaze.
    The effect was electrical! Turning, he suddenly caught and strained her to his bosom, exclaiming, “My flower! my dove! my lamb! my angel! Rose! oh, Rose!” and pressing burning kisses upon her brow and lips between every breath and word. “Love you! I love you; more than life, soul, Heaven, God! Love you! my joy, my destiny! love you! let me have you and die! give yourself to me, and the next hour let me die, die!”

Rosalia is horrified and frightened by what has happened and tries to evade the consequences by leaving , but her will is nothing compared to Raymond’s, and she finds herself a party to an illicit elopement almost against her own volition. A concurrence of circumstances favours the joint disappearance: Rosalia is supposed to be travelling to stay with Emily Buncombe, where Gusty eagerly awaits her; Raymond has accepted an appointment to a consulate in Europe (a three-year appointment, as he calmly announces to an hysterical Hagar, explaining that she and the children will naturally stay where they are). The two are gone before anyone realises it. Raymond does indeed write to both Hagar and to Mrs Buncombe, blowing smoke in both directions; but he fails to deceive Gusty, seeing with the hawk-like eyes of jealousy (not, apparently, such a terrible thing in a man as it is in a woman). Without a word of explanation to his bewildered mother, who has not absorbed a single hint of the truth of the situation, he sets out to see Hagar—and finds devastation.

For Hagar has not only been deserted by her husband, she has been left without any means of support; not merely destitute, but deeply in debt, thanks to Raymond’s extravagance; with no prospect of an income, and two babies to care for, and pregnant…

An exchange of letters then takes place between Gusty and his mother, which are offered without editorialisation:

From Gusty:

“Mother, come quickly to Hagar. The servants are all leaving the house, because there is no money to pay them their wages. I have exceeded my furlough. I do not know what will be the consequence, and cannot help it. I am cited to appear before a court martial—cannot do it, of course. The devil himself would not leave Hagar in her present situation. Thank God! I have a few thousand dollars in bank, and that will keep the wolf from Hagar’s door for some years to come, any how! Oh, mother! do come quickly. Hagar is still confined to her bed—she wants a lady with her—a friend with her…”

From Mrs Buncombe:

    “Gusty! Is this the way in which you repay all my care of you? Return immediately to your post, as you value my blessing. Do you not know, wretched boy, that you run the risk of having your commission taken away from you? Do you not know, oh! dolt of a child, that you will be scandalized to death, if you remain a day where you are? and all the servants leaving the house, too! Oh, Heavens, Gusty! am I who never risked the chance of a breath of calumny, am I now to suffer through the imprudence of my son?…
    “As to my coming to Hagar, it is not possible just now; Buncombe has the rheumatism, and baby is cutting her eye-teeth; besides which Kitty has scalded her hand so badly as to be nearly useless—so that you see I am the sole dependence of the family.
    “This unhappy Hagar had ever possessed the unenviable gift of drawing down upon her head the ban of society—but she must not pull others down with her…”

Gusty—dear Gusty, I can only say along with his creator—looks both professional ruin and his mother’s horror and condemnation square in the face and stays where he is. When Hagar is able to travel, he escorts her and the babies back to Heath Hall, the only place she now has the right or the will to call home. The journey takes place in brutal mid-winter, and after disembarking from their boat the travellers are unable to reach the house, but are forced to pass a night in a fishing-hut near the river: an involuntary impropriety that will have evil consequences in the future.

In the morning Gusty hires horses, and the party reaches the Hall safely—where Hagar is greeted by Starlight, her horse, and Romulus and Remus, her pointers, who collectively made life so miserable for their new owners – the Gardiner Greens – that they turned the dogs loose, and sold Starlight back to Gusty. Having seen Hagar settled and safe with the servants who were left to care for the Hall, old Cumbo and Tarquin (or “Tarquinius Superbus”, to give him his correct title), Gusty departs to face the music. And there—solitary and neglected, the fodder for neighbourhood gossip—Hagar gives birth to her third child, a son.

In the long term Hagar must, of course, find some way of earning a living for herself and her children—and no, she doesn’t do it as a writer—what made you think that? Hagar’s one “indoor gift” is her music, her singing; and she plots a careful, step-wise course to a career as a concert performer, assuming a false name, and winning a reputation both for the power of her voice and the strict morality of her conduct, which attracts almost as much attention. Indeed, there is no-one in her new life that has the privilege of saying they “know” this intriguing celebrity: she appears, she performs, she retreats behind high walls, she sees no callers, she admits no admirers…

And where are our other characters in the meantime?

Frankly, I’d like nothing better than to be able to tell you that the boat carrying Raymond and Rosalia sank with all hands lost, and that after a suitable period Gusty and Hagar got married and lived happily ever after; but in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, we do not really expect anything so simple—or convenient—or pleasant.

Instead, we find our cast scattered about the world, trying to stay in contact via an uncertain mail service. For Augustus and Sophie, this means trying to make sense at a great distance of ambiguous letters from Raymond, which at one time seem to be promising to escort Rosalia back to them, at another, that he is in search of Rosalia, who has vanished… Augustus is away on duty, and Sophie alone, when she receives a still more staggering letter from a lawyer in America, who used to represent Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law. The occasion is Rosalia’s eighteenth birthday; the letter is to reveal a long-held secret: that Rosalia was not, in fact, the biological child of the Aguilars, but was adopted; her mother was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, who called herself Fanny Raymond…

Ah, the incest card!—where would sensation novelists be without it?

Well…

I am compelled, at this point, although not without certain feelings of admiration, to accuse E.D.E.N. Southworth of disingenuous conduct.

The fact of the matter is that, although she delays the revelation for as long as possible, Southworth is finally forced to come clean, and admit to the reader that the affair between Raymond and Rosalia never goes any further than that first passionate embrace. She accounts for this well enough in terms of Rosalia’s remorse and fear (combined, though she does not say so outright, with the cramped shipboard accommodations, which hardly lend themselves to adulterous seduction); yet in a corner of my mind I have a vision of her opening her eyes wide in mock-shock at her readers and their dirty minds: “Good heavens, no! I never meant any such thing!”

It is to her credit, I suppose, that she resisted the temptation of playing with her readers even more, and separates her illicit lovers altogether before further dropping the incest bombshell.

Though Rosalia’s consciousness of wrongdoing make her equally fearful of facing Hagar or Emily Buncombe, which in turn makes her give in weakly to Raymond’s persuasions, she spends the entire journey to Europe facing what she has done, and working up sufficient courage to run away from her would-be seducer. Her flight being facilitated by the fact that Raymond hardly expects either determination or careful plotting from her, Rosalia succeeds in escaping both him and Genoa, where they land, and where he has his consular appointment. She has, of course, no money and nowhere in particular to go; her only thought is away, and she goes away as far and as long as she can before collapsing at the side of the road and being discovered, and taken in, by (in the novel’s one really outrageous twist) no less a person than—as it is spelled out for us—Her Royal Highness, Maria Louisa, Grand Duchess of Parma. Delighted with the girl’s beauty and gentle manners, the Duchess makes a companion out of her; and so it is that some time later, Rosalia just happens to be a member of a concert party that gathers to hear a new, celebrated singer, touring Europe after winning her reputation in America…

And Raymond? At first, unused to being thwarted, unable to bear being so, he takes Rosalia’s flight as an affront that he cannot and will not tolerate. He becomes obsessed with finding her, plotting ways and means of discarding Hagar and making Rosalia his wife. He is in this state of mind when he receives a letter from Hagar, who after having had time to reflect chooses to treat his behaviour as an outbreak of insanity—moral insanity, as opposed to his father’s mental derangement—and to behave as if nothing were really wrong. Her first letter, received during the darkest period of Raymond’s obsession, places a weapon in his hands: in it she recounts their child’s birth, her return to Heath Hall under Gusty’s protection, and her subsequent removal to Washington (for reasons undeclared). All this Raymond – who knew that Hagar was pregnant when he left her – twists into a confession of adultery and desertion, the easy means to a divorce.

Hagar’s second letter, however, written in response to his, is something else: a lengthy, detailed, painfully considered dissection of Raymond’s character, mind and behaviour – including his infatuation with Rosalia – that contains so much truth that even Raymond at his worst cannot gainsay it. This naked exposure of himself to himself is a shock to Raymond; he sees his pursuit of Rosalia for what it is, and also his marriage, and his treatment of Hagar. He is still in this rare chastened state of mind when he receives the frantic communication from Sophie informing him that Rosalia is his sister

The result is a breakdown – and “brain fever” (of course) – during which “his life was despaired of” – but no such luck. He recovers—he is recalled to America—but before leaving Genoa, he attends the concert of the celebrated new American singer…

I hardly know what to make of the conclusion of The Deserted Wife. Perhaps it’s just me, but here, as in Retribution, while I find the emotional violence and scenes of conflict and unhappiness convincing, I also find Southworth’s “happy endings” false to the point of being dishonest. After all that has happened, how can there be anything between Hagar and Raymond that you would dignify by calling “a marriage”? How can we believe, as the text insists, that the two of them were and are properly in love? Yet the novel concludes with the reconciliation of the two, offered up as if the reader is supposed to be glad: The beautiful family were all now united in love and joy.

And yet—perhaps the dishonesty is intentional? Perhaps, by paying this sort of lip-service, E.D.E.N. Southworth fully intended to expose not just the dishonesty but the cruelty of social convention, which demands that women love once and regardless, and that marriage is necessarily forever? I don’t know—but I look forward to reading more of her novels and trying to find out.

 

07/07/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 2)

 

It was so strange! queer—a few words had been pattered over by a fat old gentleman in a gown; and, lo! all their relations were changed. It was curious; her very name and title were gone, and the girl, two minutes since a wild, free maiden, was now little better than a bondwoman; and the gentle youth who two minutes since might have sued humbly to raise the tips of her little dark fingers to his lips, was now invested with a life-long authority over her. Yes, it was so curious! and the spirited girl was in doubt whether to laugh or cry; and the expression of mingled emotions on her face blended into one of intense interest and inquiry as she met his gaze and smile, which she could not help fancying patronizing and condescending, as well as protective and loving! A new, extremely provoking feature in his smile! but perhaps she only fancied it…

 

 

 

 

 

From the beginning of her acquaintance with Withers, Sophie is haunted by a strange, spectral figure: a woman, pale and gaunt, with long, fair hair, who appears from nowhere, lurking at the edge of the surrounding forest and by the road. At the figure’s first appearance it points towards Withers, uttering the words Shun him! in a voice that only Sophie can hear…

On the evening of Sophie’s capitulation to Mrs Gardiner Green, on which her doom—her wedding-day—is fixed, the figure appears again:

    She looked up, and the phantom of the forest dell stood before her, the same wan, spectral face—the same large, intense, blue eyes, blazing in their hollow sockets, surrounded by their livid, blueish circle—the same streaming yellow hair, with its streaks of grey—the same emaciated claw-like fingers. Her intense gaze sought into Sophie’s eyes, and she knew that her visitor was a denizen of earth. She remained gazing into Sophie’s eyes a minute, and then she broke forth with terrible energy:
    “Do not marry him!—risk—suffer anything but that. Do not marry him! Be true to your instincts—they warned you at your first meeting, they warn you now! Be true to your instincts! They were given to you of God for your protection; it is a sin—it is a sin to disregard them, and the punishment will be more than you can bear!—a broken heart!—a maddened brain!—at least—a blighted life! Look at me!”
    She tore the mantle from her breast and displayed a skeleton form, to which the tight skin clung.
    “Who are you, in the name of Heaven?”
    “I am a shadow—a memory—a warning! I was his wife!”

With Withers’ appearance on the scene the spectre vanishes into the shadows, and is next seen a pathetic corpse, found floating in the bay. At the inquest, Sophie—clinging to the thought that Withers has always spoken of losing his first wife, never that his wife died—gathers together the last remnants of her strength and courage and testifies, telling all she knows of the dead woman. This compels Withers to respond. He testifies that he did know the woman, had known her all her life; that for the past year she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, from where she escaped; but swears solemnly that she was not his wife. His word is taken, and the inquest closed.

With that, Sophie gives up her faint struggle for freedom, and goes to her marriage as to her execution.

After the ceremony, Sophie is summoned from the house by an unexpected arrival. At first glance she thinks that the suicide has returned to haunt her literally—the fair hair, the blue eyes, are the same—but the visitor is a young man, hardly more than a boy. His name is Frank Raymond Withers, and he has come to warn Sophie not to marry his father, because his father is insane…

A reeling Sophie then hears of the fits which gradually consumed the intellect of John Withers, causing him shame as well as terror, but which with the help of his son, he managed to conceal from the world; and of his marriage to Fanny Raymond—so much for the word of honour of a man of God—although when the boy is asked about his mother’s fate, he recoils. Raymond – so the boy is called – tells Sophie that she can have her marriage annulled, but upon being pressed, agrees that this would make Withers’ malady public knowledge and, in all likelihood, cost him his tenuous grip on his sanity.

Absorbing this story, Sophie—who has repeatedly been described to us as visionary, as seeking a higher calling—does not, as we might expect and even hope, flee her husband. Instead, she goes to the other extreme:

During the interview, a revolution had taken place in Sophie’s soul; all her deep religious feeling, her latent passion for self-devotion, her enthusiasm, her benevolence, had been called forth. Thus softened by pity, and inspired by her own lofty ideal of duty, she determined to devote herself to the tranquility of his shrunken and tortured life, with one purpose—his restoration to mental and physical health… An hour before, she had seemed a trembling, shrinking, suffering victim, offered in useless, objectless sacrifice; now she was a cheerful, self-possessed human soul, who had solved the problem of her life, and held the answer in her hands.

Intriguingly, from the first Sophie’s willing self-immolation is presented to us in ambiguous terms. Southworth starts out musing on the impulse of self-sacrifice, and the great works so achieved by noble souls—and then drifts into a reflection of the nature of fanaticism, and the damage that can be caused by enthusiasm unchecked by reason. So, we are to understand, is Sophie’s devotion to her husband, a duty which she pursues while neglecting all other duties.

And with this, the focus of The Deserted Wife begins to shift from Sophie to the most important duty she is neglecting: the child Hagar, who in a stroke of fate goes from being Sophie’s constant companion and the cynosure of her life, to a mere afterthought, neglected and ignored; something underfoot, and generally in the way.

Here, too, this novel takes on an ambivalent tone that will persist throughout its remaining pages. The positioning of Hagar as Southworth’s alter-ego could not be more nakedly evident as she struggles to apportion blame: constantly, bitterly critical of the girl for her inability to control her passions—her anger, her resentment, her jealousy—yet time and again, almost involuntarily, it seems, tracing her faults back to this moment in her childhood when Hagar is simply pushed aside:

Sophie had fallen into that dangerous error so common to enthusiasts—the exclusive absorption in one duty, to the neglect of others… Even religion, piety, which is most excellent, stretched beyond the line of moderation becomes fanaticism, superstition—which is anything but worship and honour to the Creator. For Scripture saith, “Be not righteous over much.” Poor Sophie was “over much,” and hence her self-sacrifice was not, as it might have been, productive of unmingled good. To Hagar it brought great evil…

From Hagar’s point of view, worse is to come than even her abrupt relegation in her aunt’s priorities. Word is received that Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law have fallen victim to a fever epidemic in Baltimore, and so Sophie finds herself guardian to her second niece, Rosalia, orphaned at the age of three. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, gentle and timid, wanting only to love and be loved, Rosalia is everything that Hagar is not. The older girl’s resentment manifests as contempt, while Rosalia conceives a fear of Hagar which she never quite gets over.

Rosalia’s arrival brings Hagar into temporary alliance with Withers—the two are otherwise mutually antagonistic. In her fair loveliness, Rosalia seems to Withers’ disordered gaze the unfortunate Fanny Raymond reincarnated, and he must be petted and soothed into acceptance of the girl by Sophie. However, everyone else in the household takes the beautiful child to their hearts in an instant—and before much time has passed, Hagar finds herself being told repeatedly that she will never be pretty like Rosalia, but she could at least try to be good like her.

And then they’re surprised that Hagar goes through life with a permanent scowl on her face, while behaving as badly as possible.

Upon Hagar, too, these influences were producing the worst effects. Jealousy and suspicion of the few she loved, scorn and contempt for the opinions of others—neglect of her person as little worth attention, and a morbid desire to be loved exclusively—these were some of the evil fruits of her wretched bringing-up…

The one consolation in Hagar’s life are those times when Raymond Withers is a member of the household, in between his college terms. The two become acquainted on the night of the wedding, when Hagar—in a fore-taste of things to come—is sitting by herself, the sole child amongst a crowd of indifferent adults. Raymond is drawn to the lonely little girl, plying her with cakes and sweetmeats while he investigates the source of her evident grief; and from the moment of this first encounter, he becomes the object of Hagar’s passionate devotion, her adopted brother:

    “She used to keep me always by her side, or on her lap; for two or three days she has left me here with Mrs May, and now that she has come, she scarcely speaks to me!” exclaimed the child, and her black eyes flashed under her sharp brows, and her white teeth gleamed under her up-turned lip as she spoke.
    A soft smile hovered an instant around the beautiful lips and under the golden eye-lashes of the youth as he said—“You look so like a little playful, spiteful black kitten, that I am almost afraid of your teeth and claws—however—” and stooping down he daintily lifted the child and set her on his lap. Then he said, “I think you are a jealous little girl.”
    “I don’t know what ‘jealous’ is, but I don’t like to be robbed of what is mine.”
    “You are selfish, I am afraid, my little one—who has robbed you?”
    “Mr Withers has got Sophie, and now he may have her, for I don’t care…”

In his time in the household of his father and step-mother, Raymond does indeed share with Sophie the care of Withers, and the job of concealing his illness from the community. It is no easy task, and becomes still less so as Withers’ malady grows upon him, and his fits, for the first time, threaten violence. Raymond, more familiar with the phases of his father’s illness than Sophie, becomes worried that she will no longer be able to soothe and calm him; that in fact, he poses a genuine threat to her. Finally, Raymond tells Sophie that they must think of a retreat for her, some place where she will be safe. Withers overhears—and, in his madness, misunderstands; his response is to seize Raymond by the throat…

E.D.E.N. Southworth was, as we have seen, an enormously successful and popular novelist; and the more I see of her writing, the more I’m inclined to think that the basis for her appeal may have been willingness to break taboos—to speak of unspeakable things, both in a broad, social sense and more intimately, domestically—using the unrealistic mask of the sensation novel as an excuse. In any event, critics of the time, some admiring, some horrified, were quick to single out this scene of familial violence, which we may say put Southworth on the map as a novelist:

    “Perfidious son of a perfidious mother!” he exclaimed, shaking him violently, “her image in heart and mind, as well as in person—traitor and reprobate! would you wile the love of my bride away from me? would you teach her your vile mother’s sin?”
    The youth was but as a reed in his grasp. Sophie sank pale and helpless into a chair. Now another figure appeared upon the scene—little Hagar stamping and screaming.
    “Let Raymond! let my brother alone! Let him go, I say! you old Satan, you. I—I’ll kill you—I’ll scratch your eyes out,” and clambering upon a chair, and then a table, she sprang upon the back of his neck. He was obliged to drop his hold of Raymond a moment to shake off the little wild-cat—he seized her, and pulling her off, hurled her flying through the open window…

Fortunately, this occurs on the ground floor…

The young Jane Eyre is probably the 19th century’s most famous poster child for violence and wilfulness, but she meets her match in Hagar—each of the girls both suffering and inflicting physical abuse. It is disturbing, although not, I suppose, altogether surprising that these twin shatterers of 19th century childhood myths should both be self-portraits by their creators.

(There’s an evil part of me that would love to give Jane and Hagar ten minutes alone in a room with Little Nell and the young Florence Dombey…)

This outbreak of violence on the part of John Withers represents the peak of his illness. From this point, he retreats into long periods of morose silence, and his general health begins gradually to fail. With the slow approach of death, ironically his mind clears. A new gentleness, and a deep remorse, are evident. Almost at the last, Withers steels himself for the task of confessing the entire truth about Fanny Raymond: a subject that, once recognising that this, above all else, would precipitate an attack—that it was Raymond’s resemblance to his mother that triggered Withers’ assault of his son—Sophie has scrupulously avoided. We hear of Withers’ reluctant embrace of the church, to which he was reconciled by the adulation his impassioned sermons won him; of his introduction to the young Fanny, beautiful only child of an elderly father; and of the twisted nature of their relationship (in describing which, Southworth struggles, as she did in Retribution, with the necessity of saying “love” when she means “sex”):

“I wooed Fanny Raymond—did I love her? No; but her extreme youth, her beauty and graceful shyness strongly attracted me—through that idiosyncrasy that lured me to the pursuit of such. I wooed her, but she avoided me. That added zest to the chase. I had her father’s interest, and I married her. I married her, despite her reluctance, or rather because of her reluctance, and despite of tears, prayers and resistance… The wild shy creature, full of emotion as a harp is of music, was in my power—in my grasp. Oh! the wild beating of my heart, when I had caught and held the fluttering bird! Did I love her now? Yes! as the fire loves the fuel it consumes. And then she loved me, Sophie! or rather no, I will not profane the word that expresses your pure affection for me, Sophie. But she grew passionately, insanely fond of me—she loved me as the drunkard loves the bowl he feels is his destruction—as the moth loves the flame that must consume it. And then, Sophie! then, she lost all attractions for me! From indifference I grew almost to loath her. I struggled against this growing disgust, but it overmastered me…”

Unhappiness—estrangement—and finally, infidelity, betrayal and madness, as Fanny’s slighted and banked up passions finally break out in another direction, attaching to yet another unworthy object and precipitating disaster. As Withers succumbs to his first fit, Fanny flees the house. The young Raymond nurses his father back to comprehension, and is then sent in pursuit of his mother, who he eventually locates in a lunatic asylum; while a recovering Withers is left to confront a parish that knows every detail of his domestic disgrace. His fits return, periodically, and it is Raymond who bears the brunt, caring for his father and defending his secret against prying eyes. In one of his fits, Withers strikes Raymond a vicious blow, which injures his chest and leaves him with impaired health and permanent damage to his lungs.

Withers does at last recover – or at least, the fits became more infrequent – until Raymond feels secure enough to give in to his father’s prompting and return to his neglected education. At this time Withers resumes his correspondence with an old friend, Mr May, who has seen the notice of his resignation from the pulpit—which Withers attributes to grief over “the loss of my wife”. And from this correspondence springs the offer of a new parish, upon the death of Mr May…and Withers’ meeting with Sophie…and the reappearance and death of Fanny…

Changes have come to the quiet valley over the years of Sophie’s marriage, and her widowhood. The children have, perforce, grown up. Gusty May is preparing for a career in the navy, under the patronage of his uncle, which frees his mother to at long last become Mrs Buncombe. Rosalia is away at school in Baltimore, and Hagar—is Hagar.

Having contracted, in her lonely childhood, solitary habits, as a young woman Hagar scandalises the neighbourhood with her reckless habits and her indifference to public opinion. She is an intrepid horsewoman, a crack shot, an expert archer and an enthusiastic hunter, and can handle a boat with skill and ease; her overflowing emotions find an outlet in her devotion to her horse and her dogs, who are her constant companions in her wanderings. Hagar is, it almost goes without saying, an object of horror to the painfully conventional Emily Buncombe—and all the more so because Gusty, Hagar’s childhood friend, is rather obstinately in love with her, in spite of his mother’s limitless objections—and her fear of what the neighbours will say:

    “I have a worse fear for you than that, Gusty, a far worse fear for you than that. This Hagar, she is the talk of the whole neighbourhood; her eccentricity, her improprieties, expose her to severe animadversions.”
    “Her originality you mean; her independence; her free, strong, glorious spirit! Oh! Hagar is a chamois! you cannot expect her to trot demurely to the music of her own grunting, from trough to straw, like any pig! Hagar is an eagle! you must not look to find her waddling lazily and feeding fatly with barnyard ducks and geese.”
    “A pretty way to speak of your neighbours, Mr May.”
    “Well, then, let them leave Hagar alone!”

Hagar’s affection for Gusty is real enough, but thoroughly sisterly, and she holds him at a determined distance. For Hagar’s heart is gone, long gone; given to Raymond without hesitation—yet not without a qualm. The two of them become engaged, are so for some time. For all Hagar’s love for Raymond, some instinct makes her shrink from taking the final, fatal step. There is, at last, a final tussle of two strong wills—and in spite of the text’s insistence upon Raymond’s “gentleness”, of which we hear from his first appearance, there is no doubt of the steel behind it. Since completing his education, Raymond has been building a career for himself, and now he tells Hagar that he has been offered an appointment at the Court of Madrid—which he will accept if she does not agree to an immediate marriage. Still the battle goes on, Raymond insisting and Hagar resisting. They part—he goes—but before he can get any further than New York, a letter calls him back…

Hagar’s marriage has consequences for people other than herself and Raymond. Poor Gusty, in his desolation and in his need for someone to love, makes a fool of himself by asking Sophie to marry him (she is, as he points out, only eight years older than himself), and is refused with both tact and affection. Gusty is then sent away, under the guise of making himself useful, to fetch Rosalia from Baltimore so that she can attend the wedding; and by the time the two appear – having travelled by land rather than water, due to Rosalia’s terrors – Gusty’s pliable affections have taken yet another turn—and this time, they stick.

Meanwhile, word comes that Emily Buncombe is expecting a visit from her brother. The first meeting between Augustus and Sophie is awkward in the extreme, full of “Captain Wilde” and Mrs Withers”, until an involuntary shower of tears from Sophie finds her in her lover’s arms and, his leave being brief, agreeing to an immediate marriage on the single condition that when they depart, Rosalia goes with them—the alternative being to leave her with Hagar:

“Hagar is dangerous to one so tender as Rosalia. Would you put a dove in the guardianship of a young eagle? Hagar has a fine, high spirit—she would go through fire or flood to serve one she loved—but, mark you! she would cast that one she loved back into the fire or flood if they should offend her.”

As for Hagar, she watches from a distance the effect of Rosalia: Sophie’s rapturous greeting of the girl, and Captain Wilde’s unconcealed admiration; that Gusty, such a short time ago at her own feet, is utterly entranced by her; and that Raymond gazes upon her with the eyes of a connoisseur—and perhaps something more. The demon jealousy is awake in an instant, precipitating a skirmish between Hagar and her husband, a battle of the wills that is a disturbing portent of worse to come…

It is, perversely, Raymond’s very gentleness that frightens his wife; his command over himself, which gives him a strange power over her. She recognises this, although she has no way of combatting it. Her passions are all fire and tempest; his, ice and steel behind a face like a mask—at least in front of outsiders. Raymond is an immovable object against which Hagar’s force proves anything but irresistable, but instead batters itself into helpless submission:

She stopped short, and gazed in surprise at him. How changed his aspect! was it the same Raymond that an hour ago was smiling, bowing, glancing, gliding through the lighted drawing-rooms? He stood with folded arms and curling lip; his cold eye crawling over her from head to foot, yet so fascinating in his beautiful scorn, that she could have uttered a death-cry of anguish, as love and pride tugged at her…

We might be inclined to think, during the early stages of this nove , that John Withers’ obsession with pursuing women who do not want him, are in fact frightened of him, is a manifestation of his insanity—until the text takes pains to tell us otherwise. And here we find Raymond pursuing the same course—Raymond, whose father’s malady is explicitly characterised as not hereditary—the eminently sane Raymond—marrying a woman with the declared intention (declared after the event, of course, not before) of dominating her will and compelling her to submit and obey. In fact, Raymond goes his father one better by choosing a woman not weak and gentle, but passionate and wilful: a woman whose spirit is fully worth a man’s trouble in breaking it:

    “Come, come!—come, come! be still, Hagar, no phrensy,” said he, smilingly, tauntingly caressing her, while a gentle, cruel strength struck out from the pressure of the soft arms that held her in a fast embrace; “if your eagle flaps its wings and beats its cage so violently, I am afraid clipping its pinions and claws will not be enough—I am afraid I will have to crush it altogether,” said he, looking down into her eyes.
    She ceased to struggle, and letting fall her hands clasped upon her lap—dropped her head upon her chest, while the colour all faded from her cheeks, and the light from her eyes.
    “Come, love, you are a spirited little thing, but you will be docile by and by…”

[To be continued…]

16/06/2012

The Deserted Wife (Part 1)

 

A murmur of admiration ran through the crowded parlours as Sophie was led in by Mr Withers, and the bridal party took their stand in the centre of the room. The bishop of the diocese, summoned from Baltimore, was in attendance to perform the ceremony. He wore the usual full wide black gown of an Episcopalian clergyman. The bridal party stood before him cheerily; the young bridesmaids and groomsmen stood in reverent attitude, their eyes bent upon the ground, but the corners of their lips full of dimples, scarcely suppressing their smiles—stern and solemn stood the tall thin figure of the dark bridegroom, and cold, pale, and quiet, Sophie waited. Once she raised her eyelids, but her glance fell on the black gown and solemn countenance of the clergyman before her, and she quickly dropped them again. He seemed to her the incarnation of darkest doom. She felt a dreary sinking of the heart as the first words of the ritual fell upon her ear, as the sentence of death falls upon the criminal hearing…

 

 

 

 

 
Our acquaintance with Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth, brief as it has been, has already taught us that the lady was capable of writing some very peculiar books (as evidenced here and here). Her second novel, The Deserted Wife, which was first published in 1850, is peculiar as well, but it is something else besides—namely, one of the most uncomfortable books I’ve ever read.

I don’t quite know how to approach The Deserted Wife. It is, like the other works of Southworth we have considered, a strange blending of the sensation novel and—something else. For most 19th century writers, the sensation novel itself, with its reliance on extravagant plots, dark passions, deadly secrets and social transgressions, was quite extreme enough. For E.D.E.N. Southworth, however, the sensation novel was merely the vehicle for the story she was really trying to tell. In Retribution she blended its conventions with an abolitionist tale; in Vivia, with religious didacticism. Here, in The Deserted Wife, she uses the sensation novel as a backdrop to a portrait of an emotionally abusive marriage so convincing as to be utterly chilling—and all the more so because this tale is, only too obviously, largely autobiographical.

The details we know of Emma Southworth’s life are painfully significant. After her father died when she was young from complications of injuries sustained in the War of 1812 – and having, as a last request, had his daughter rechristened to add the names “Dorothy Eliza”, so that her initials would spell “E.D.E.N.” – Emma Nevitte was raised in Washington D.C. by her mother and her step-father, Joshua Laurens Henshaw, the latter of whom she found cold and unsympathetic. He was the head of an academy for girls, from which she graduated at the age of 16 before finding employment as a schoolteacher. In 1840, Nevitte married Frederick Southworth and left Washington for Wisconsin. Four years later, at the age of 25, the mother of one child and pregnant with a second, she returned alone: her husband had deserted his family and fled to South America. Sources vary on the specifics of the split, but not the underlying motivation: some say that an expected legacy from Mrs Southworth’s grandparents was not forthcoming; others that, in disapproval of the marriage, Henshaw refused the young couple any financial aid. Either way, Frederick Southworth clearly did not get out of the marriage what he went into it anticipating and left to chase his fortune elsewhere.

After recovering from the birth of her second child, Emma Southworth went back to work, supporting herself and her son and daughter on a slender teacher’s salary that was barely sufficient, but which was strained to the utmost by the children’s frequent bouts of ill-health and escalating doctor’s bills. (In many of her novels, including The Deserted Wife, Southworth speaks of the poor salary and long hours of the teaching profession with great bitterness.) In 1845, in an attempt to supplement her income, she began writing short stories, and by this means found a little relief from her difficulties. Then, in 1849, everything changed almost overnight: Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or The Vale Of Shadows was first serialised in the National Era and then published in book form early in 1850. It was a huge success, so much so that Southworth was able to give up teaching and write full-time. Her popularity only grew over the succeeding years, until by 1856 she had an exclusive contract for her work with Robert Bonner of the New York Ledger, and by 1860 she was earning an unprecedented $10,000 a year.

It must be assumed that news of Southworth’s triumphs did not penetrate into the wilds of Brazil, as Frederick Southworth never reappeared to batten upon his deserted wife—as he was still legally entitled to do. It is known that, when the statutes on desertion permitted it, E.D.E.N. Southworth did begin divorce proceedings against her husband—but then chose not to go through with it. We can only speculate about the reason for her hesitation. Was being a wife, even a publicly deserted wife, better than being a divorced woman? Did she think that perhaps divorce was exactly what Southworth wanted, and therefore denied it to him? – or did she, conversely, look upon divorce as an admission of her own defeat?

Southworth rarely spoke of her situation, so we cannot know for sure. Nor do we know whether another woman was involved in Frederick Southworth’s flight, although the recurrent theme of the betrayed wife in the early novels might suggest so. What we do know is that, in spite of the luxury and plenty that came with success, it was the years of loneliness and privation that fueled Southworth’s novel-writing. Again and again in her novels, a young woman is left to fend for herself in a world that would rather judge and condemn than help, and where social convention has a terrifying power which is exerted without pity.

Even with no more knowledge of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s body of work than can be gained by a reading of Vivia and Retribution, we have already absorbed a vital lesson: always watch out for the black-haired woman, who is trouble personified. In Vivia she is Helen Wildman, who coldly plots to divide the young lovers, Austin Malmaison and Theodora Shelley, and then draws Austin into a marriage that ends disastrously. In Retribution she is Juliette Summers, who repays the kindness and generosity of the gentle, trusting Hester Dent by seducing her husband. This kind of moral colour-coding can be tiresome in the extreme, but in Southworth’s case a new light is thrown upon it by The Deserted Wife, which is not only autobiographical in detail, but in which the black-haired woman is an explicit self-portrait.

Like her contemporary, Louisa May Alcott, Southworth struggled all her life with feelings of inadequacy rooted in her inability to be what society told her a girl “should” be, either in appearance or conduct. In an interview, she once recalled of herself:

“At the age of six, I was a little, thin, dark, wild-eyed elf, shy, awkward and unattractive, and in consequence was very much—let alone. I spent much time in solitude, reverie, or mischief…”

This novel’s heroine, Agatha Churchill, is likewise little, thin, dark and wild – but grows up beautiful, as Southworth did not; something which she clearly felt as another inadequacy. Through this girl—Agatha—or, as from her wild, dark beauty, she was called Hagar—Southworth explores the unhappinesses of her own life. There is a painful nakedness about this self-examination, and all the more so because of Southworth’s obvious ambivalence about the social code that placed all the blame squarely on her shoulders. There is—I don’t want to misuse this term, but it conveys what I mean better than any other—there is a bi-polar quality to this novel, with Southworth swinging wildly between abject self-excoriation, with Hagar’s misery brought on entirely by her inability to control her passions, and moments where she all but shakes her clenched fists at the world and screams, “IT IS NOT MY HAGAR’S FAULT, DAMMIT!!”

Like the other of Southworth’s works we have examined, The Deserted Wife is a hugely complicated, multi-generational story with multiple subplots that wanders over both time and distance, and is as a consequence exceedingly difficult to address without numerous pauses to re-set the scene. It is likely to run across several posts. I apologise in advance.

This novel opens—or at least, did in its original form—with a completely tone-setting moment of weirdness: the 1850 American edition is prefaced by an introduction in which Southworth lets fly on the subject of how girls are raised, in which she targets not only that perpetual favourite, an inadequate education, but also idiotic fashions that restrict a girl’s movements and a prevailing code that discourages girls from getting a decent amount of exercise. As a consequence, Southworth argues, American girls grow up physically weak. Then they are permitted, if not actively encouraged, to marry very young, with immediate and repeated pregnancies and childbirths often ruining their health and reducing them to invalidism. As a consequence, the marriage – certainly the physical side of it – all but comes to an end. The wife is incapable of an active, useful life, and the husband, if he is a decent man, can only put up with being tied to a sickly, immobile wife who can be no real companion or helpmate for him; or if not, will in all probability seek consolation elsewhere, perhaps finally abandoning his family.

(Frederick Southworth, we recall, didn’t even stay around long enough for this to be an account of Southworth’s own marriage.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the British edition of The Deserted Wife, published in 1856, deletes this airing of Southworth’s views, and substitutes the novel’s original first chapter, in which she no less angrily compares the settlers of Maryland and Virginia to their New England counterparts, the latter caring for and preserving the land so that future generations can also benefit from it, the former wrenching from the earth everything it will give in the short term without any consideration for the consequences.

The novel proper begins with an account of one such family, left to struggle along on in their neglected and crumbling house, and on their depleted acres:

Down on the western shore of Maryland is a heath containing about five hundred acres—upon which stands an old mansion-house, in ruins. It is bounded on the North by the river P., on the South by Satchem’s Creek, on the West by a deep, dense forest, and on the East by the Chesapeake Bay…

The family that settled the land still occupies it, now consisting only of a brother and two sisters. The two eldest marry; neither prosper. Of Ignatius Churchill, the text comments:

His poverty and his encumbrances did not prevent him from loving and marrying a beautiful girl in his neighbourhood, Agatha Gormon, who left a luxurious home to share his poverty in the ruined Hall at the Heath; nor could his love save her from death, when in the second year of her marriage, she passed away, leaving an infant daughter a day old…

This is our heroine, Hagar, who falls to her aunts’ care after Ignatius pines away; although she does not become the focus of the novel for some considerable time. The older Churchill sister, Rosalie, then marries a merchant who carries her off to Baltimore, leaving the seventeen-year-old Sophie in sole charge of the baby and completely alone in the world except for an elderly slave, who seventy years before, in her childhood, had been torn from her native coast, brought to this country, and sold.

Southworth permits herself this slap at slavery in passing, before her real target in this novel makes its appearance:

After the death of her brother, and the marriage of her sister, she had, in pure ignorance of the world, kept up exactly the same manner of life as before. Instead of engaging some respectable elderly female as housekeeper and companion (which indeed her limited resources did not allow), she preferred remaining alone, and continued to receive the visits not only of ladies, but of gentlemen—that is to say, of her own and father’s familiar friends—who testified their remembrance of the dead, and their respect for the living, by sometimes calling to see Sophie and her little charge, and by sometimes bringing her a brace of wild fowl, a pair of pigeons, or some other such game from their morning sport upon the moor: until at last they found that their well meant kindness to the young and pretty orphan was subjecting her to the invidious remarks of all the thoughtless or malicious gossips of the neighbourhood…

Thus, The World, fumes Southworth: always more eager to condemn than to help, and always, always ready to think the worst.

Cut off from both company and supplies, the tiny household struggles through a bitter winter suffering relentless cold and hunger. They all survive, however, and in the spring comes a belated visit from the local minister, the elderly Mr May, and his young wife, Emily, who at least have the fact that they live on the other side of the river, impassable in winter, as an excuse for their neglect. Mr May is shocked and grieved by Sophie’s story, and he invites her to bring Hagar and make a home with his wife and himself—but before this generous plan can be put into effect, Mr May’s heart condition intervenes. His successor, the Reverend John Huss Withers, arrives in time to perform the funeral service, and then takes up residence as Mrs May’s boarder. Sophie does bring Hagar for a visit, and so is introduced to the new minister—for whom she conceives an immediate and profound antipathy:

Sophie, attracted by one of those strange spells exercised by objects of terror over us, could not keep her large startled eyes off him: at last he raised his head and looked her full in the face, her eyes fell, and a visible shudder shook her frame; a just perceptible smile writhed the corner of his mouth as he withdrew his gaze from her…

At the first opportunity, Sophie bolts back to Heath Hall. She finds no refuge, however: as minister, Withers takes it upon himself to call upon her regularly, often staying for the entire evening. Sophie is torn by her conflicting emotions, her ideas about the duty and veneration owed to a man of the cloth as a man of the cloth compelling her to suffer Withers’ visits without protest, while every instinct in her is shrieking at her to get as far away from him as possible, and stay away. However, unable to think of a way to prevent the minister’s visits without a degree of rudeness she cannot bring herself to commit, she endures them.

If Withers is aware of her distaste, he shows no sign. On the contrary: he appoints Sophie teacher of the new small school set up in the neighbourhood, and supplements her admittedly scanty education by giving her – forcing upon her, it might be more accurately said – lessions in Greek and mathematics; spending even more time with her in the process:

Sophie felt so little “vocation” for these severe studies that only the implacable will of her minister could have kept her to it. Worse than anything in her experience she dreaded his frown and his stern and sure rebuke when she had not accomplished her task—worse than anything except the steady searching gaze of his coldly brilliant green-grey eyes. This froze the blood in her heart. And yet she felt grateful towards him; she blamed herself for her antipathy—her reason assured her that the fault was not in him, but the folly in herself. Her reason approved the pastor, the philosopher, the teacher—her instincts shrank from the man…

However, another new acquaintance promises better. Mrs May receives another visitor in the welcome form of her brother, Augustus Wilde, a naval officer whose duties separate him from his sister for many months at a time. Augustus is prepared to like Sophie as his sister’s friend, but even from their introduction is aware of something much warmer than liking. As for Sophie, this first meeting of the eyes could not be more different from the last:

He approached, addressed her freely and cheerfully as his sister’s familiar friend, and in lifting her off the pillion their eyes met, their souls met. The soul more or less plainly speaks through the eyes, and the truest, purest, strongest, and most lasting love begins with the first meeting of the eyes, in a sort of mutual recognition…

Though no premature word is spoken, neither one of them is in doubt about their feelings. Both young and inexperienced, each innocent in their own own way, neither Sophie nor Augustus is able to conceal from the interested gaze of the neighbourhood the wondrous thing that has happened to them.

And then Sophie’s world comes crashing down. Withers calls upon her as usual, and begins what Sophie at first takes to be a lecture on her too-obvious happiness. She also assumes, confusedly, that he is scolding her because she has behaved in a manner unfitting for a school mistress. She could not be more wrong—he is lecturing her on behaviour unbecoming in a young woman about to be married…

“All the county”, he tells her, has been fully aware of their engagement for two months at least. It subsequently transpires that it is so because he has made it so, enlisting the assistance of Mrs Gardiner Green, the social leader of the neighbourhood (and the worst gossip), and asking her, as Sophie has no family, to host the wedding. Of course, it never crosses Mrs Gardiner Green’s mind that the minister is speaking anything other than the simple truth, and she immediately sets to work preparing her house and spreading the news. Sophie herself, it turns out, is almost literally the last person to know.

Here, finally, in her horror and desperation, Sophie does voice her utter aversion of Withers—and it makes no difference to him. Far from it:

    He closed his eyes and smiled; he stretched forth his hand, and taking hers, drew her to her seat, and passed his arm around her waist and whispered—
    “My little Sophie, my little fawn, you shall be Mrs Withers in three weeks, just as sure as you live!”
    She shrank from the clasp of his arm, as though it had been the clammy coil of a serpent.
    “I will not! cannot! durst not! Mr Withers, why don’t you marry Rose Green? She would have you; or Mrs Somerville, or Mrs Slye, or Mrs Joshua Eversham, or Miss Polly Mortimer—any of them would have, would be proud to have the minister of the parish… And any of these ladies would make you a good wife… Why don’t you marry one of them?”
    “Because they are each ready to fall into my arms.”
    “In the name of reason and of mercy, why seek to marry a girl…who hates—no, does not hate, but who fears and recoils from you?”
    “Precisely because she does fear and recoil from me…”

Left stunned almost beyond the ability to think by this confrontation, Sophie must then suffer the definitive blow of a visit from the bustling Mrs Gardiner Green, who arrives full of schemes for dresses, bridesmaids and decorations, and is anything but prepared for what Sophie tries to tell her. Full of Withers’ version of events, she scolds Sophie for her fickleness and selfishness, and warns her that scandalous playing of fast and loose with a man of God will damage not merely her own reputation, but Hagar’s also. Sophie’s desperate attempt to explain herself she barely listens to, still less has the capacity to understand:

She continued to talk, using all the arguments of a hard woman of the world, with a nervous, sensitive, and somewhat visionary young girl, and at the end of two hours more, left Sophie very well prepared to receive, or rather, very incapable of resisting her destiny and her master…

And where, in all this, is Sophie’s dear friend, Emily May?

Emily May is, in a perverse sort of way, one of the most interesting characters in this novel: Convention personified. A woman of limited intelligence and ability, although quite kindly intentioned, she has never in her life felt, thought or wanted anything but what she was assured it was proper for her to feel, think and want—and is quite incapable of sympathising with anyone who does, or whose life experience is different from her own calm waters. Indeed, she seems to be quite without any strong emotion of any kind. Her first marriage is to a man old enough to be her father out of “feelings of veneration”; she will later marry a second time—but having decided that she cannot do so until the son of her first marriage comes of age, she embarks upon a seven-years’ engagement without a qualm or a struggle.

It is, indeed, only in relation to her son – named Augustus for his uncle, but known to one and all as “Gusty” – that Emily shows any real feeling. Gusty himself, a far more compassionate individual, often frightens and bewilders his mother with his displays of distressed empathy on behalf of others—even those individuals who are unhappy as a result of their passions and desires and therefore, in Emily’s opinion, deserve to be so. As he grows into manhood, Gusty becomes fully aware of his mother’s narrow and judgemental view of the world and at one point, although an almost achingly dutiful son, is provoked into calling her on it:

    “Hagar has given room for talk for getting into an anomalous position; why should people find themselves in inconceivable situations? I never did, yet I was an unprotected girl.”
    Gusty looked at her in sad perplexity, divided between his wish to defend Hagar and his reverence for her; and at last he said, smiling sadly—
    “Dear mother, Lewis Stephens, poor fellow! was drowned last summer, in a gale of wind!—Now, why should people be drowned in a gale of wind?
I never was, and I have been in a gale of wind!”

But in these early days, Gusty is no more than a sturdy, good-natured little boy, and there is no-one to defend Sophie against the inexorable pressure of public expectation. Learning of Sophie’s “engagement” from Mrs Gardiner Green, Emily is surprised, but doesn’t question it; everyone says Sophie and Withers are to be married, and if everyone says it, it must be so. That her brother is in love with Sophie—that Sophie is in love with him—that Sophie is being forced into marriage with a man who terrifies and revolts her—that two of the three people she loves best in the world are profoundly unhappy—all this means little to Emily May. Social convention speaks, and she looks the other way. Besides, they’ll get over it.

As for Augustus Wilde, oblivious to the social machinery so busy about him and the girl he loves, by the time he has worked up the nerve to propose to Sophie, it is too late: he is sent away, broken-hearted, to begin a three-years’ voyage. And Sophie, having utterly given up the struggle, is swept in a state of unprotesting apathy towards her marriage—never for a moment suspecting how close she comes to avoiding her fate.

Yet there comes a moment, later on, when John Withers is finally brought to give an account of himself, when he confesses to Sophie that the very abjectness of her surrender made him lose all desire for her, even contemplate not marrying her after all—because there is no pleasure in the game of domination if the victim doesn’t fight back…

[To be continued…]

25/06/2011

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 2)


 
 
…plans of emancipation, elaborated from the brain of the patriot, found their way through his brother-son to the Senate hall of the Commonwealth. These were then freely admitted and discussed; but, as the years went by, opposition rose against them. The season had gone by; the enthusiasm for the cause of general emancipation, raised by their recent glorious victories in the cause of Liberty, had subsided. Like that of self-deceived converts to Christianity, they had become false to their first love, recreant to their first faith, lukewarm to the cause of universal liberty. And projects for the emancipation of mankind were fast giving way before selfish (miscalled patriotic) plans of national glory…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
To begin frankly— I am perfectly ignorant when it comes to the way slavery was addressed in novels of the 19th century. Like most people, I suspect, when it comes to abolitionist literature, I think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and that’s about it. Retribution is the first time I’ve come across abolition as a plot thread in what we might call an “ordinary novel”, a novel of entertainment; and while here again E.D.E.N. Southworth is not entirely successful in her presentation of her material, the fact that, at a time when she was writing to earn a living for her family, she nevertheless had the courage to tackle such a controversial theme to any degree seems to me admirable. I gather that, later on, when she was more established as a writer, Southworth wrote at least one more novel that dealt more forthrightly with slavery than does Retribution.

(I should probably mention here that Emma Southworth and Harriet Beecher Stowe were good friends.)

Although written in 1849, Retribution is set from the late 1790s through the first decades of the next century. This distancing of the story is not merely a safety mechanism for its author, divorcing the novel’s events from contemporary attitudes; it also allows Southworth to vent her frustration and disappointment with her countrymen. The two Ernest Dents and Hester’s father were all veterans of the War of Independence; and we hear, through Hester, her creator’s dismay at the way that the high ideals on which a nation was founded, the dreams of the equality of man and inalienable rights, were so swiftly compromised, reinterpreted and set aside.

One of those guilty of this is Hester’s own father, a Virginian and a slave-owner. Although the friendship forged at Yorktown leads him to name his comrade Ernest Dent as his daughter’s guardian, politically the two men could not be more divided. Thus an active abolitionist finds himself entrusted with a plantation of some three hundred slaves. General Dent’s compromise is, using his own money in the first instance, to begin running the property on a principle of wage-labour, with the slaves paid a percentage of its earnings. The experiment is a success; and General Dent further introduces an education program, under which the slaves are taught to read and write. All this is explained to Hester when her soon-to-be husband removes her from school. She is as enthusiastic about the scheme as the Dents could wish:

I have aims and objects now that occupy all my thoughts and employ all my faculties. I told you that Colonel Dent’s plan was a progressive one. Our final object in wishing to make this farm the very best and most beautiful in the state, is that, first, our nearest neighbours, who have seen every stage of this improvement, and then others, may perceive its benefits, and be induced to adopt it—thus paving the way to an emancipation that shall be agreeable and profitable to all parties. We wish to demonstrate on this farm the practicability of this plan.

One of the perpetual arguments against abolition was the question of what would happen if there was a blanket emancipation under which countless former slaves found themselves homeless and with no way to support themselves. I imagine that schemes such as the one Southworth articulates here in her novel, a graduated move from slave-labour to paid-labour, was one of the mooted alternatives—at least before history overwhelmed the situation.

Soon after her arrival at her family home, Hester learns that the property, known as The Vale, has a strange and bloody history, one which impacts upon her inheritance of it and her subsequent actions. Out riding with Ernest, Hester hears how her ancestor, determined to have the rich valley for his own, arranged the slaughter of its native inhabitants; and how the last survivor of the tribe, a woman, put a curse upon the land and those who would subsequently occupy it—a curse which in part threatened, that he who had murdered her sons before her face, be sonless to the end of time; he and his children.

Ernest, of course, scoffs at this as nonsense, and sharply scolds Hester for the emotion she betrays; but he cannot get away from the fact that there has never been a son born to the owners of The Vale; that, in a strange sort of reverse entail, the property, destined to pass to the direct heir, has been handed down from mother to daughter over many generations. Men marry into it; they never own it.

(There are other aspects to this comprehensive curse, all of which also come true over the course of the story—including the threat of domestic treachery and misery: When they most fondly loved and trusted, might they still be most darkly betrayed…)

Although married at eighteen, Hester nevertheless will not control her property until she turns twenty-one. She is bitterly disappointed, but must resign herself to the legal ruling. In the meantime, promising the slaves that they will be free as soon as she comes of age, she continues the wage system and the education programs initiated by the Dents.

But by the time her coming-of-age is imminent, Hester is dying. Even in this extremity, her thoughts are upon the solemn promises she made. Ernest, between his political commitments and his secret, sickening guilt, is away from home. Hester summons a lawyer and has the deeds of manumission drawn up. Having done so, she must then cling to life through two days and two nights, holding desperately to the last fibres of her existence until the clock strikes midnight and she may set a wavering signature to the papers. By seven the next morning, she is dead.

And then Ernest, good old Ernest, points out that Hester was born at 10.00 pm; that she was strictly twenty-two hours short of her majority when she signed the papers, which are therefore invalid.

I may say that I have no idea whether Ernest’s objection would in fact be legally binding. The bigger question seems to be why he said anything at all. Possibly this hair-splitting was meant to illustrate the height of his principles, but it is more likely to strike us as a case of narrowness of the soul. It should, however, be pointed out that Ernest does not profit directly by his actions: Hester’s property descends to her daughter, the infant Julie, to be held in trust until she is of age; and the slaves, having waited so many years, must wait again:

    “But I hope to persuade you, Colonel Dent, to leave Minny with your daughter. Believe me, she will need a younger pair of feet than mine to follow her little steps about.”
    “Then take one of the girls from the plantation; take Kitty or Harriet.”
    “Oh! sir, Kitty or Harriet won’t do. They dislike the child; all the colored people do; although it is not like colored people to do so; but they have been so bitter, and grumbled so much, since their young mistress’s death.”
    “Grumbled?”
    “Yes, sir, grumbled. They say that Mrs. Dent loved her child better than she loved right and justice. They complain that she broke her promise; and, instead of setting them free, has left them all, with their children, and their children’s children, forever and hopelessly enslaved. And they dislike the child, as the supposed cause of their misfortune. It is very unjust, but you must allow for their disappointment, Colonel Dent.”

It is a valid criticism of Retribution that it tends to look at slavery from a safe distance. The slaves, with one exception, are never characters; they are more like a theory being worked out. But this might only be a reflection of the fact that, as a young woman and a non-slave owner, Southworth was lacking first-hand knowledge, and preferred to stick with what she did know. Her argument here, which allows her to stay with Ernest and Juliette, is that slavery degrades all parties to it, slave owners and slaves alike.

Juliette’s attitude to the institution is another black strike on her character: she enjoys not just the leisured existence, but the feeling of power that comes with “ownership”; and for a time the besotted Ernest indulges her. Ernest himself, whose political career continues to flourish, is appointed Ambassador to France. The newlyweds arrive just after the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (if you pay attention, there’s a careful timeline in this novel), and Juliette, La Circe Americaine, soon becomes the cynosure of the court. The revenues from The Vale, which belong to the child Julie, are squandered on jewels, gowns and other extravagances.

It is belatedly made quite clear that Juliette herself is also the child of slave owners, with a sudden and shocking account of the uprising in St Domingo (that is, Saint-Domingue, Haiti) from which the young Giullietta so narrowly escaped with her life. It is also made clear that slavery is a form of violence that can only beget vilence; and that Juliette’s heritage has left her tainted—marked for retribution almost from her cradle:

“A burning homestead, smoke, flames, falling roofs, glowing beams and blazing rafters hurled through the air before the furious blast, and hundreds of dark demons leaping, capering, and exulting in frantic orgies through the scene. These were the sights. The reverberation of the thunder—the roaring of the sea—the noise of the cataracts—the howls and shrieks of the wind—the groans of the wounded and dying—the screams of the women and children, and the triumphant shouts of the blacks. These were the sounds. Yes, Ippolyto! borne in a pair of strong, rugged arms, rested against a coarse, rough chest, through this scene of night and tempest, of flame and massacre, of shouts and groans, I was hurried, whirled. Yes, Ippolyto! that is the first thing I recollect of life. And the scene lives before me now, not as a retrospect, but as a vision—not as a memory, but as a prophecy.”

And indeed, by this stage of the novel, night and tempest, flame and massacre essentially describes Juliette’s character; while she is doomed in the reader’s eyes long before this sense of foreboding grips her. There is a second plot thread in this novel that addresses slavery, apart from Juliette’s and Hester’s relative backgrounds and their attitudes; and the two collide when Juliette, in a sick jealous rage, become convinced that the Dents’ single house slave, Minny, is Ernest’s mistress. Her vengeance is swift:

“Mrs Wimset, I have sent for you to request you to send Minny Dozier to the quarters—to the quarters of the field negroes—with a note to the overseer, directing him to set her to work tomorrow with the others.”

Mrs Wimset, the housekeeper, instead goes directly to Ernest, who as she anticipates intervenes. This both confirms Juliette’s suspicions and pushes her over the edge; and when Ernest, the root of the matter made clear to him, makes the mistake of laughing at his wife, Juliette’s response is to pick up a pistol…

Early in the novel, in one of his few uncompromised acts, Ernest Dent purchases a female slave, to rescue her from the fate that her youth and beauty would otherwise seem to make inevitable. At first, the girl’s erratic behaviour makes Hester worry that she is slightly unbalanced; but her entire devotion to the Dents is very clear. She becomes the baby Julie’s nurse; and as the two girls draw together over their love for the child, Hester extracts from Minny the terrible secret of her life—that young as she is, she too is a wife and a mother…

The story of Minny is one of Retribution‘s most frustrating aspects—but perhaps we need to blame the marketplace, not the author. Here is Hester’s description of Minny, in a letter to Juliette:

She is gentle and docile, but not quick in intellect. The child delights what you term my artistic love of beauty. Her frame is slight, but rounded and graceful; her hands and feet beautifully delicate; her head small; her forehead low, but shaded with a quantity of shining purplish black hair; her complexion is of that opaque white usually seen in quadroons, and sets into stronger relief the straight black eyebrows and long black eyelashes; her eyes are large and soft, tender and still. I have never seen her eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow…

Now, we’ve seen this tactic before, in The Rebel’s Daughter – which was written fifty years after Retribution, remember – the implication that readers, white readers, can only be expected to sympathise with a slave who is beautiful, who is in some other way remarkable, and above all who is herself – and it always is a girl, it seems – essentially white. And whether society or her own sensibilities dictated it, in the end Southworth’s portrait of Minny manages to be both ridiculously idealised and extremely moving.

Minny is the child of a white father and a half-caste mother; and while her father, Alphonse Dozier, a French West Indian, did sincerely love the woman he took as his mistress, the fact that she was his slave, that she had no choice, broke her heart and her spirit. She died young, leaving behind a quarter-blood child, Erminie – Minny – who became her stricken father’s constant companion. It barely occurred to either of them that Minny, as well as being her father’s beloved daughter, was his slave, his property.

As she grew, the child proved to have an extraordinary gift for music, her favourite past-time being to learn from, and to sing back to, the birds; and it is while she is doing this that she attracts and captivates a young man, Guillieme La Chappelle, himself a singer, and the son of a great maestro engaged to perform in Havana. And so Guillieme and Minny were married. Even then it did not cross Alphonse Dozier’s mind to reveal Minny’s history, or to make arrangements for her future. Of course, he meant to, some day

In the meantime, Guillieme lived with his wife and her father, teaching her to read and write, to draw, and to play musical instruments – until being summoned to Paris by news of his own father’s illness. His departure triggers two great shocks: Minny gives birth prematurely to a daughter, and Alphonse dies of apoplexy. In Guillieme’s absence, Dozier’s property falls into the hands of his cousins, who are swift to put Minny in her place:

    “Ole massa never offered for to give your free papers, did he?”
    “Free papers?”
    “Dem’s dey—have you got dem?”
    “I don’t know what you mean, aunty.”
    “Sorry for you; dis is what I mean. You ‘longed to ole massa jes’ as much as any of us; all de same you hadn’t been his darter; mudder slave woman—darter slave too.”
    “But my husband will return.”
    “Ef he does he can’t do nuffin’ ‘t all; you don’t ‘long to him. Property is property, and you anoder man’s property.”

The shell-shocked Minny is promptly separated from her daughter – having a baby with her will lower her market price – and sold off to a slave merchant. She first ends up in New Orleans, where she is sold again to a plantation-owner from Richmond. She is rescued from life as her new owner’s whore in the first instance due to her hysterical grief, which ruins both her looks and her constitution, but ultimately only because of the death of her master. She is then returned to the auction block—and catches the eye of Ernest Dent.

This is the story that Minny tells to Hester who, sickened and distressed by it, is still more deeply moved by knowing the end of it, which Minnie does not know: of a terrible tragedy, of a fire aboard a ship in which, after saving numerous lives himself, the young opera singer Guillieme La Chappelle is presumed to have perished. But this Hester does not reveal…

The abolitionist plot recedes in Retribution while it concentrates upon the spiralling misery of Ernest and Juliette; but after Juliette’s attempt on her husband’s life, it returns to the fore. It is Minny’s story which is first resolved. It is in Ernest’s power, he having bought Minny in the first place, to free her—and this he does. At first Ernest offers Minny the choice between retaining her place in the household at a fair salary or having her way paved for a career as a singer, but both options are forestalled when, in town, Ernest is confronted by a grave young man leading a lovely little child by the hand; a man whose long search has finally borne fruit…

Guillieme explains to Ernest that not only was he seriously injured in the maritime disaster on his way back to Havana, but that he had the further misfortune afterwards to be picked up by a ship heading in the wrong direction—back to Europe. At length returning, he discovered to his horror Minny’s fate, and managed to trace her to New Orleans, but no further. The child, however, contrary to what Minny had been told, was still at her grandfather’s former plantation. Here, too, Guillieme reveals that Alphonse Dozier did, at the last minute, do the right thing: not only granting his daughter her freedom, but making her the legal heir to his property…only he gave the papers to Guillieme, just before he left for Paris…

Why prolong this scene? Who can not follow, in imagination, the little, reunited, joyful family, through the hours, too blissful for eating or sleeping, that immediately followed their meeting? The next morning…they set out for Norfolk, whence in a few days, they sailed for Havana, they reached the Dell, where, reader, they still live prosperous and happy…

Oh, they do, do they? The French opera singer – and his quadroon wife – and their octaroon children? In the early 1800s? I’d love to think so; I really would.

Still, let’s not criticise Southworth for her optimism, but rather, let’s see how she wraps up her other plot. Following the final implosion of the second Dent marriage, Ernest crawls back to The Vale, broken in spirit and older than his sixty years. He finds his own situation and state of mind reflected back at him by his daughter’s neglected property, left to him in trust:

The fences and out-houses are in a miserably dilapidated condition; the fields have been wretchedly tended, and the crop is nought; the trees in the orchard are, some of them, for the want of props, broken down with fruit, some of them covered with cobwebs and caterpillars, and some infested with worms; the grape vines in the vineyards,broken down by the storm of years, have been left untrained and unbound, trailling on the ground—dead—the caterpillars have woven over them a shroud of gossamer; the garden has grown up in weeds, and the cattle have trampled down the flowers; the apiary is a ruin. What had wrought this change? When the soul departs, the body falls into dissolution. The soul of liberty and hope had departed from the model farm…

And yet there is hope – but it lies in the next generation: in Julie Dent, long-neglected like her inheritance, who combines her father’s strength with her mother’s spirit and ideals. Ernest spells out to his daughter exactly what her sacrifice will involve: not only the surrender of any prospect of a leisured life, but the loss of the man she loves, who has already made it clear that if Julie proceeds, if she deliberately divests herself of her inheritance, it will mean the end of their engagement. She hesitates, but only for a moment:

Julie carried out her purpose of emancipation. Every man, woman, and child, to the number of three hundred, were freed…

It is often the case, I gather, in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, that a young woman is left to carry the torch of progress, in spite of the many obstacles placed in her way by the law, by male expectation and demand, and by social convention. Optimistic? Idealistic? Unrealistic? Perhaps—but not to be depised on that account.

 

24/06/2011

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 1)

 

They were happy. Their reconciliation was complete…for the time. Well had it been for them had this been their only quarrel. Reader, it was only their first. The cause that produced this quarrel was not removed. The ulcer was scarred over, not healed, liable to break out again at the least irritation. It was a latent, deep-seated distrust in each other’s fidelity, but too well-founded on their knowledge of each other’s treachery. This voice of distrust, audible even amidst the full-toned music of love, became awfully distinct in the silence of cool reflection. There was no lasting peace or happiness for them. A love sown in treason could not possibly flourish in trust. Sin is its own retribution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte was born in Washington D.C. in 1819, and spent her early years in the rural areas of Maryland and Virginia. As a young woman she attended the small college of which her step-father was president, and subsequently became a teacher. In 1840, she met and married Frederick Hamilton Southworth, an inventor. The couple moved to Wisconsin and lived there until 1844, when Frederick Southworth abandoned his family, leaving his young wife pregnant with their second child. Returning to Washington, where her mother and step-father still lived, Mrs Southworth resumed teaching in order to support herself and her children. However, this earned her only $250 a year, and in order to supplement this slender income, she began submitting short stories and novellas to the magazines.

Emboldened by her early literary successes, Mrs Southworth then embarked upon her first novel. Retribution was serialised in the National Era, appearing in 14 chapters across 1849 before being republished in book form in 1850. The novel was an enormous commercial success, selling over 200,000 copies – and as a result its author, now known to the public as E.D.E.N. Southworth, was able to retire from teaching and write fulltime, producing more than sixty novels over the following fifty years. By 1857, she was earning an extraordinary $10,000 a year through her writing and is, by most reckonings, the best-selling American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.

Retribution is – at least at its outset – the story of Hester Grey. Shy, gentle and serious-minded, the orphaned Hester is unpopular at her boarding-school, where the other girls plot and dream of romantic conquests and lives of wealth and luxury and sneer at Hester’s solemn ideas of life and its duties. Taking pity on the lonely girl, one of the teachers tries to bring her out of herself by asking her to take under her wing a new pupil who is like herself an orphan.

When she was only a baby, Guillietta Nozzalina was, with her mother, a survivor of a violent slave uprising in St Domingo, in which the other members of her family were killed. Arriving in Alexandria upon an American ship, the near-catatonic woman and her infant daughter were received into the family of a local merchant. Signora Nozzalina died within a year, but the child – her name changed to Juliette Summers – was raised within the family. However, the Summers’ business failing, at sixteen Juliette found herself faced with the necessity to earn her own living, and has been sent to the school to complete her education and prepare for life as a governess.

Tall, dark and beautiful, with a rebellious and calculating nature carefully concealed from those about her, Juliette could not be more different from the shrinking Hester, who nevertheless, in her aching need for someone to love, immediately takes the newcomer to her heart. Juliette does grow fond of Hester, but her eyes are firmly fixed on the prospect of a comfortable and leisured future, when Hester comes of age and takes possession of the fortune and property currently held in trust for her.

At eighteen, Hester is taken away from school by Colonel Ernest Dent, to whom the care of herself and her property have devolved following the death of his father, General Dent. The guardianship of Hester has created a most unusual situation, with the abolitionist Dents left to manage a large, slave-based estate in Virginia. As Hester recounts in a letter to Juliette, with no legal right to free Hester’s slaves, the Dents instead put them in charge of the neglected farm attached to Hester’s house, known as The Vale, paying them wages in the form of a percentage of the farm’s subsequent earnings: the currently thriving concern becoming a practical demonstration to the surrounding plantations of the increased effectiveness and dignity of paid labour. Hester adds that it is her intention to emancipate her slaves as soon as she turns twenty-one.

In spite of the difference in their ages, Hester soon conceives a deep and worshipful love for her guardian. However, believing that so great and good a man could never care for someone so plain and insignificant as herself, Hester nurses her feelings in secret, only revealing them in her regular letters to Juliette. However, one day Colonel Dent catches her at her letter-writing—and from the depths of humiliation Hester is lifted into disbelieving joy when a proposal of marriage follows…

For Hester, her marriage represents the very pinnacle of human happiness. However, she continues to fret over her unworthiness and weakness, an attitude which increasingly draws from her complacent husband criticism and expressions of disappointment, rather than appreciation for Hester’s many virtues and abiding love. A daughter is born to the Dents, named Julie for her mother’s dearest friend. Hester’s legal attempt to use the occasion of her marriage to bring forward the date at which she may emancipate her slaves is frustrated when it is ruled that she must still wait for her coming of age, but her despondency over this outcome is tempered when Colonel Dent agrees to her request to have Juliette Summers, who has completed her schooling, come to The Vale for a visit.

Juliette, her disinclination to earn her own living having grown in parallel with her conviction that beauty like hers deserves a splendid marriage and a privileged existence, has through the years carefully nursed her relationship with Hester, fully intending that her wealthy but unassuming friend will be the means to her ends. Hester’s marriage is, therefore, something of a blow: Juliette, who has extracted from Hester’s letters an idea of Ernest Dent’s character that would horrify his wife, recognises that the Colonel may be a serious obstacle to her plans. When Hester’s invitation to The Vale arrives, Juliette accepts it avidly, conscious that while Hester herself will be easy enough to deceive and manipulate, she must tread carefully around Colonel Dent, and win his admiration at all cost.

To her surprise and secret glee, Juliette finds the task before her simpler than she could have imagined. Colonel Dent travels from The Vale into the city to collect Juliette, and is struck at first glance by her dark, imperious beauty. By the end of a week in her company, passed in shopping and in introducing Juliette to some of the pleasures of the city such as art galleries and a concert, seeds of discontent have taken root in Ernest Dent’s heart – as Juliette, although feigning obliviousness, is very well aware.

It is with great joy that Hester welcomes her dear friend into her home, marvelling at the way her presence seems to light up the house. Even Ernest seems quite changed! But Juliette has not been long under Hester’s roof before her personal plans undergo a dramatic change—for she, unlike the self-absorbed Ernest, has seen in Hester Dent the early signs of a serious illness…

I commented about Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, my first encounter with one of Southworth’s novels, that its most striking feature was its bizarre blending of genres, in that case the sensation novel with the religious / didactic tale. It seems that this approach was indeed typical of Southworth’s writing style, as we also find it here in her very first novel, which mixes the sensation novel with the abolitionist tract. Perhaps not surprisingly, Retribution is ultimately something of a failure as a novel—but a failure in ways that are intensely interesting.

The most significant failure here is the character of Ernest Dent. He is clearly conceived as something of a tragic figure, and indeed he dominates the second half of the novel in that capacity; but although all the pieces are there they never quite come together. Our initial sketch of Ernest is quite intriguing. He is the son of another Ernest, who married young and had a child immediately: the two go through life more like brothers than father and son. They enlist in the army together, and fight together at Yorktown; later, they enter the political arena together, both eventually becoming senators, and campaigning for the abolition of slavery.

But as is progressively revealed, it is only the elder Ernest who is a truly great man – “Patriot, philanthropist, and martyr”, as Hester describes him in a letter to Juliette. The second Ernest has, as it were, ridden to greatness on his father’s coattails, achieving success and acclaim without effort, and without sacrifice, and smugly taking himself at the world’s mistaken estimation:

There was much in the circumstances and character of Colonel Dent that the partial eyes of his young wife failed to observe. Colonel Dent was undoubtedly a man of high honor, of sincere philanthropy, and of fervent piety; the country said it—all men gave credence to it—and Colonel Dent believed it most implicitly of all.

It is Ernest Dent’s peculiar destiny to be sequentially involved with two women who bring out the very worst in his nature, although in very different ways: the innocent Hester feeding his egotism and self-satisfaction with her abject love; and the anything-but-innocent Juliette rousing dark passions that, before her arrival, had laid comfortably dormant, so that their owner barely knew of their existence.

The relationship between Hester and Juliette is – and perhaps not entirely accidentally, given this novel’s publication date – rather reminiscent of that between Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp; although unlike Thackeray in his attitude to Amelia, there is little irony about Southworth’s characterisation of Hester—except, perhaps, when she, like Amelia, exhibits a tendency to dwell upon her husband’s non-existent virtues. In this case, however, it is not the unsatisfactory husband who dies.

One of the most unexpected strokes in Retribution is that Southworth “pulls a Psycho“, killing off her unfortunate young heroine less than halfway through the novel. By this time, a dangerous passion has grown up between Ernest Dent and Juliette Summers; although at the time of Hester’s death they are innocent in deed, if not in thought.

The second half of the novel is given over to the disastrous marriage of Ernest and Juliette, as they become one another’s torment, one another’s punishment for their mutual treachery to Hester, who loved them both so dearly. This grande passione is not entirely credible, but perhaps in this case we need not judge it an artistic failure. In 1849, a novel focused squarely on an uncontrollable sexual attraction would hardly have found its way into the magazines—or even into publication, except, perhaps, in France.  As it builds to its climax, Retribution descends into melodrama of the most unabashed kind, with Southworth arranging for her anti-heroine a fate so horrifying that it supports my growing theory of 19th century novel-writing: that it took a really nice woman to write a really shocking novel.

There’s a deeply curious aspect to the pattern of this story, one made clear in the quotation that heads this review: the sense that Southworth wasn’t prepared to “leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her”. Instead, Southworth seems rather annoyed with God, and his tendency to forgive; she wants her sinners thoroughly punished on earth. It is, inevitably I suppose, Juliette who pays the ultimate price; Ernest, suffering miseries, pulls back from the brink, his proud spirit finally broken and, in his new humility, with some prospect of finally achieving true greatness.

While doubtless we’re intended to be glad of Ernest’s belated reformation, I have to say I found it singularly unconvincing. The problem, I suspect, is that his creator’s heart just wasn’t in this section of her novel the way it was in many of its earlier scenes. There’s a real – and, frankly, fascinating – sense here of Southworth writing to a theoretical plan, rather than with sincerity; because try as she might to make him a genuinely tragic figure, the plain fact is that Ernest Dent is never so believable as a character as when he’s being a selfish, self-absorbed jackass of a husband.

I have no idea whether Frederick Southworth ran off with another woman or not, but be that as it may, it is impossible to read of the Hester-Ernest-Juliette triangle without feeling that Southworth’s own marital experiences were fueling her writing. There is a simmering resentment underlying these scenes, one that imbues them with an aching reality that just isn’t evident in the more melodramatic parts of the novel.

Frankly, we fear for Hester from her first introduction to Ernest Dent. Criticising Hester soon becomes Ernest’s favourite hobby; and so desperate is she to love and be loved, she receives his unwearying strictures with pathetic gratitude, taking them as a sign of his moral superiority:

    “Am I so very unlovely then, Colonel Dent?”
    “No. Oh, no, Hester. But you are not the girl to attract a young man’s admiration. You are aware that I never flatter, Hester.”
    Yet I should like to have been flattered and petted a little just then. With his keen penetration, he must have perceived my foolish thought, for he answered it.
    “This is childish and puerile, Hester, and unworthy of you and me. It springs from an incipient self-love and vanity that you must root out and cut off.”
    Now, this was worse than before. There was nothing good in me, within or without. I felt provoked to bid him to go about his business, and marry a cast-iron woman, if it pleased him; but I looked up in his face—his unclouded, truthful, glorious face—the countenance of an archangel reproving folly—and my spirit fell at his feet again.

Of course, the consequence of all this is that, just as he estimates himself by the world’s opinion of him, Ernest begins to take Hester at her own estimation: she believes herself not good enough for him, and before too long he agrees with her. Into this situation walks Juliette, who is everything that Hester is not: beautiful, poised, self-respecting—and a challenge.

It is the sharp-eyed Juliette who first sees in Hester the warning signs of the illness that will end her young life, and from that moment she embarks upon a dangerous game of inflaming Ernest’s passion for her while righteously scorning him for it…although at the same time managing to hint that she secretly returns his love. But even Juliette herself is startled by the demons that these tactics arouse:

    “Colonel Dent, you should blush for yourself,” said Miss Summers, in a tone of withering scorn. “This is ungenerous, unmanly, cruel!”
    “And my love is cruel! exacting, fierce, and cruel! If I were about to die this moment, Juliette, I should kill you, lest anyone else should have you. If I were condemned to eternal misery, I should try to draw your spirit down to perdition with mine, from the love I bear you!” exclaimed he, passing his arm around her waist.
    Juliette darted her head down quick as lightning, and, setting her teeth in the flesh of his hand, bit it to the bone, exclaiming, as the blood spouted from the little semi-circle of wounds—
    “Now, lunatic! will you release me?”
    “Beautiful Vixen!—no. Bite again, Juliette. I like it!”

This violent scene takes place on the very night of Hester’s collapse, when it becomes clear to all parties that she is dying of consumption. The Dents and their guest are in Philadelphia (at this time still the national capital), where Ernest has gone to take his seat in the Senate. They are, of course, invited to all the most desirable and glittering social affairs; and upon Ernest Dent’s appearance with two women upon his arms, a mistake – perhaps a natural one – is made by the other guests, who assume that the tall, beautiful woman is “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”, and the small, plain one, “Oh! that!—that is Miss—Miss—Wint—no, Summer. A poor relation, or a governess, or something; I don’t know what, exactly.”

This error gets around, eventually reaching the ears of the three people most concerned in it. It fires Juliette’s ambition to actually be “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”; it enrages Ernest against his unassuming wife, demonstrably unworthy of so great a man as he; while Hester—Hester thinks it’s funny.

She ceases to do so, however, over the course of an evening recorded with painful minuteness by Southworth. The lovely Juliette attracts a swarm of interested men as Ernest looks on in a jealous rage, taking out his anger and frustration on the unfortunate Hester who, her illness and her husband’s unkindness overcoming her simultaneously, collapses—but not before signaling the extremity of her condition by, for the first and only time, talking back:

    “Dear Ernest, I am sick; feel my fingers, how cold they are; and put your hand on my forehead—see how hot it is.”
    “Sick! Why, I never saw you looking better in my life. Your cheeks are glowing. Sick! You can’t be with that color, unless, indeed, you rouge. I hope you don’t rouge, Hester.”
    His wife replied by taking his hand and placing it against her burning cheek.
    “Yes, I see it is very hot. Well, no wonder. You are every way unfit for such a scene as this, Hester. Indeed, I don’t know why you should have wished to come. I should have supposed that you would have preferred staying at home with your child.”
    “Why, colonel,” said Hester, in a manner slightly petulant, from feverish and nervous irritability, “don’t you know I did want to stay at home, but you wouldn’t consent to it? Don’t you know that you insisted on my coming to chaperone Juliette, because she was anxious to be here?”
    “So I did. Very well; then I will not insist upon your coming again, since it puts you in such a bad humor as to make you forget the commonest respect due me.”
    “Dear Ernest, forgive me if you think I spoke petulantly. I am not in a bad humor, but I am faint, and feverish, and every nerve in my body seems quivering; my eyes are dim, and my head swims. Please let me go home.”
    “Heavens!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, with startling energy, “if there is not Juliette tête-à-tête with Murray in the alcove. Hester! no languishing and whining now; take my arm, and come and join them.”

The subsequent confirmation that Hester is fatally ill produces a certain reaction in Ernest of guilt and shame, but his obsession with Juliette is not one whit abated. Indeed, the knowledge that Hester is dying, that it is only a matter of time, grips both parties to this illicit passion, who silently, separately, watch and wait…

So Hester Dent, the loving, but unloved; the gentle, yet oppressed; the confiding, though deceived, was dead at last. The low, sweet voice, whose tones were never heard but in words of sincerity and affection, was hushed; the gentle eyes, whose mild beams ever shone with the light of truth and love, were closed; the little hands, ever so busy in the service of them—the treacherous, who neglected and deceived her—were cold, stiff, and useless. Hester was dead—and out of the way.

But wait! – didn’t I say that Retribution is an abolitionist tract? Yes, so it is; and so important, and so interesting, is that aspect of this novel, that it really deserves its own post; so—

[To be continued…]

 

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…

Vivia; or The Secret Of Power 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…

24/02/2011

Keep away! Keep away!

I take back anything nice I may have said about the Reading Gods. They’re mean.

My journey to my latest Reading Roulette selection was an exercise in exasperation. My first hit was something called Such Things Were; or, The Lady On The Rock by Archibald Maclaren from 1820. My search for this was made more difficult by the surprising number of Archibald Maclarens out there (Scottish physical fitness experts, English Test captains, etc., etc.), but I finally determined that “my” Archibald Maclaren in fact wrote stage musicals: his various works are described as “a dramatic piece in two acts with songs”, as “a musical entertainment in two acts”, as “a comic opera in two acts”, and so on. I couldn’t find my actual hit, but there was a piece called The Isle Of Mull; or, The Lady On The Rock listed for 1820, so I guess that was it under a variant name. In any case, it certainly wasn’t for reading, so—delete—and back to the random number generator.

My next two hits both turned out to be for works that were dated incorrectly and therefore in the wrong spot in the Wishlist. Yes, I could have read them anyway; and yes, I should have; but my recent successes in finding things made me overconfident, I guess, so instead I re-dated both, slotted them in where they should have been, and tried again.

This time I hit a novel from 1825, The Robber Chieftain; or, Dinas Linn by Nella Stephens. This came up on GoogleBooks, so off I went downloading – only to realise that only three of the four volumes were available. (Why do they do that!?) They have the fourth volume but it hasn’t been digitised yet, so while I have future hopes of this one, I had to move on again.

Next up was Mairi Of Callaid: A West Highland Tale by Katherine I. Campbell, from 1878. My research on this one turned up the subtitle, Translated from the Gaelic and versified. Not exactly my usual thing, but I probably would have taken a whack at it if there had been a copy readily available. However, I didn’t feel like going the rather-pricey-import route, so it was back to the drawing-board once again.

And to cut a long and extremely frustrating story short, I then sequentially hit the following unavailable novels:

  • Wilburn; or, The Heir Of The Manor. A Tale Of The Old Dominions by Walter Whitmore (1852)
  • Deborah, The Advanced Woman by Mary Ives Todd (1896)*
  • Sweet Bells Jangled. A Dramatic Love Tale by Cara Oakey Hall (1878)
  • The Child Of The Wreck; or, The Stolen Bracelets. A Romance Of The South Of England by Fred Hunter (1848)

(*This one was particularly disappointing, since unlike some – I may even say most – “New Woman” novelists, Miss Todd was for and not against.)

And then the Reading Gods finally relented. Possibly they realised that if I hit my keyboard with my forehead one more time I might actually smash it, and then they wouldn’t be able to torment me at all.

So on my tenth attempt, I was given—

Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power by Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth, from 1857.

E.D.E.N. Southworth, as she is usually known, was one of the most prolific and the most popular American novelists of the 19th century; some sources have her as the most successful novelist of her time. She took up writing in order to support herself and her children after her husband deserted her, and wrote more than sixty novels between 1849 and 1899, some of which were published posthumously. Southworth was interested in social reform and a supporter of women’s rights, but with her family’s income at stake, she was careful in her handling of potentially controversial material. Although she herself was a northerner, many of her books are set in the post-Civil War south.

I have a notion that E.D.E.N. Southworth, too, ought to be on my Authors In Depth list…but I’m not sure I’m up to making such a long-term commitment. (A scary number of her novels are available.) So I guess we’ll wait and see about that. She will, however, be the first person slotted into my new subcategory – that for authors with quadruple-barrel names!