Posts tagged ‘Earl of Shaftesbury’

09/02/2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17/01/2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Grey, however, was not among them…

[To be continued…]

13/01/2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[To be continued…]

18/12/2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/12/2010

The Fair Extravagant; or, The Humorous Bride

“Whoever She be, She is Beautiful enough to tempt any man to make me a Monster! A Cuckold! Which (perhaps) is just now in Agitation. — O Justice! Justice! How many of my own intimate acquaintances have I served so! Not to name Strangers and Foreigners. — Well! I am at last overtaken, and now I pay for all! For all of them put together could never have made half such a beauty as my false Ariadne! My Jilting Ariadne, my Devil, Damn’d imposter Ariadne!”

After all the propagandising and politicking of The Perplex’d Prince and The Fugitive Statesman, I must say that it was a great relief to read something intended chiefly just to amuse and entertain. The Fair Extravagent; or, The Humorous Bride. An English Novel, published in 1682 by Alexander Oldys, is a remarkably interesting piece of writing, particularly from the perspective of the development of the novel. It is impossible to say, of course, whether this specific piece of early fiction was a direct influence on what came after it, but what we can say is that here again we have evidence of a style of writing supposedly “invented” in the 18th century, in existence decades before.

In light of this, it is a shame that no complete copy of James Howard’s The English Monsieur is accessible: a reading of its first section indicates that it is an interesting early example of a genre long popular in other nations and becoming increasingly so in England, the picaresque. Given Henry Fielding’s adoption of this form of writing (though more in the style of Cervantes specifically than of the genre in general), it is intriguing that it is Fielding that Alexander Oldys most puts me in mind of here – particularly with respect to the presence in his novel of a chatty narrator who tends to get distracted from the main story and to go off on personal tangents, or to argue with the reader about his artistic choices:

“…But did I ever tell you she kept a Coach? yes, now you shall know she did. However, she foresaw the inconvenience if she had met Polydor in her own Coach; and besides her Servants would have been witnesses of what she intended to conceal, had she returned to Town with them about her. And again, I believe she was willing to spare her own Horses. Now are you satisfied?”

Furthermore, the story of Don Quixote plays an oblique part in this story, partly by way of delineating its heroine’s mindset, but also as an indication that she and the hero are well-matched. However, Oldys takes pains to assure us, in his text as well as in his subtitle, that this will be a very English story. Of his heroine, he says:

 “Her birth two was Honourable enough, being Daughter to a Knight Baronet, by which you may guess she was an English Woman and our Neighbour; for (by the way) I am not going to put any Spanish Intrigue upon you.

This attitude is not only an expression of Oldys’s not-unpleasant Anglocentrism, but a reference to the fact that aside from the picaresque tales that actually were Spanish, a great many English writers at this time published mock-Spanish stories, using an exotic locale to excuse fantastic events and immoral conduct – or in other words, they wrote “romances”. Given what we have already seen of the divide between “the novel” and “the romance”, it is interesting that Oldys is so emphatic about his own work being “AN ENGLISH NOVEL.”

Our heroine is Adriadne, who by the ripe old age of “about the seventeenth year of her reign”, is beginning to despair of ever finding a man she can love enough to marry, despite the number of suitors who have besieged her due to her birth, beauty and money. However, she fully intends to, as she puts it, “Commit the dangerous Sin of Matrimony”, announcing to her cousin, Miranda, “I am just now weary of that o’repressing weight of a Maidenhood, which I have laboured under these five long years.”

(When you read around this period, you quickly adjust your ideas of what’s age-appropriate: in our mutual futures lies a story that has its protagonist embarking on a rapid career of marriage, murder, adultery and piracy at the age of sixteen!)

Ariadne persuades Miranda to join her in dressing up in men’s clothes and going out on the town, reasoning that by disguising herself and venturing into male-only territory, she will get a better idea of the real men behind the polished suitors. The young women penetrate such forbidden territories as coffee-houses, gambling-dens and the pit of the playhouse; and in the latter, Ariadne finds what she’s been looking for in the shape of a young man called Polydor. Inviting Polydor to share a bottle, and passing herself off as her own cousin, Ariadne gives a rapturous (although not inaccurate) description of herself and proposes marriage, but gives Polydor only until the following morning to make up his mind – and warns him that when he meets his bride-to-be, she will be masked.

Although well-born, Polydor is not merely a younger son but (ouch!) a youngest son, and the proposal of a match so infinitely beyond his situational deserts takes his breath away. He passes the night torn between hope and the gloomy reflection that in all probability, the – lady? – is either looking to foist an illegitimate child on him, or that her debts will see him arrested as soon as his ring is on her finger. In the end, Polydor decides at least to meet the mysterious Ariadne and, in spite of her disguise, sees and hears enough to give him heart. The two head for church, where Ariadne is compelled to remove her mask.

(Of course, this tale sits squarely within the comedy-of-the-sexes tradition that dictates that no woman dressed as a man will be recognisable as a woman; and nor, when she resumes her skirts, will she be recognisable as the man.)

Polydor, mesmerised by the beautiful face revealed to him and immensely heartened by finding that this much of the representation, at least, is true, goes through with the ceremony. As they celebrate the occasion with a sumptuous luncheon, the bride and groom grow more and more pleased with one another, discovering matching intelligence and wits, as well as matching passions:

“First he threw himself at her Feet, Embrac’d her Knees, kissing her Hands by force, and almost wept with Joy. Then on a suddain up he starts, and like a meer Tyrant in Love, falls aboard her delicate powting lips, and Lovely Rising Breasts, without so much as giving her an opportunity to chide him.”

Chide him she does – when she can – but soon responds in kind:

“Well! Have at you! (cry’d she throwing her arms about his Neck)… Now my dear Polydor (said she giving him a Thousand Kisses) Are you now convinc’d Ariadne loves you?”

So convinced is he, that he begins to intimate that he would like something more than kisses. Ariadne modestly asks permission to retire for a few moments, which Polydor grants…but then the minutes tick by and by, until the new husband discovers to his horror that his bride has done a flit…although not without paying the bill.

In fact, Ariadne has taken it into her head to really test her man, intending to know him thoroughly before she submits herself to him. To this end she runs out on him, tempts him with another woman, manipulates him into fighting a duel, and finally has him imprisoned for her (non-existent) debts. It is made clear that this “extravagance”, as the title puts it, stems from Ariadne’s passion for reading romances. However, instead of throwing up his hands in horror, lecturing us on the mortal perils of light reading and punishing his heroine for her tastes, as later writers would certainly have done, Oldys has fun with it.

For one thing, Polydor shares Ariadne’s “extravagance” and “humours” (they probably read the same books). When Ariadne stops before the church and gives him a chance to back out of their marriage, Polydor responds gallantly, “No, no, I am resolved to enter the Enchanted Castle with thee, and try the force of it’s Charms!” – a sentiment completely undercut by the narrator’s later appropriation of Polydor’s inflated language when Our Hero is hauled off to jail: “Polydor took leave of him to go to his Enchanted Castle…” – and yes, I’m sure the paralleling of marriage and prison was entirely intentional.

Although the fact that Ariadne is “humorous” refers to her whims and moods rather than her sense of humour, there’s no doubt that we’re supposed to find Polydor’s romantic travails funny – and for the most part we do, although the duel and the prison-cell might strike us as beyond a joke. We need to keep in mind, though, that this was written during a period when life in general, including the humour, was nothing short of brutal. (I couldn’t tell you how many chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes that were supposed to be funny I’ve already read.) Compared to most of its ilk, The Fair Extravagant is a gentle romp.

More worrying to me – yes, yes, remember when it was written, and all that – is that we’re back at the narrow, specific definition of “virtue” in a woman. As he becomes convinced of Ariadne’s perfidy, Polydor vents by name-calling: Ariadne is false, a jilt, a siren, a prostitute, a lewd woman… Are we detecting a theme here?

Although his soliloquies make it clear that in his time he has slept with plenty of married women, Polydor cannot bear the thought that Ariadne may have had another lover. Indeed, in time finds that he can bear anything but that, even reflecting that he’d gladly pay her debts for her…if he could afford to pay her debts for her… Finally he admits as much publicly: asked what happiness he can expect with her, he replies simply, “The greatest I could wish were she yet but Virtuous”, while at length he tells Ariadne to her face, “Wert thou but half so Virtuous as Fair; and I a thousand times more Rich and Happy, than I now am miserable: I’d kneel to get one Smile of thee…” And upon discovering at length that Ariadne is indeed just as virtuous as he could wish, Polydor is so overcome with joy that he never bothers to ask an explanation of her behaviour!

There you go, ladies: as long as you’re technically “virtuous”, you can do anything you like to a man and it’s a-okay. So have at it!

Interestingly, more than a decade after the publication of The Fair Extravagant, the story was turned into a play called She Ventures, And He Wins by someone known only as “Ariadne”. The play takes some interesting liberties with the text. In the novel, Ariadne accepts that for a woman, marriage means dominion by the man; her quest is therefore to find a man to whom she can submit with a good grace, and her “testing” of Polydor is intended to give her a thorough understanding of his character, more than she could gain from standard courtship. In the play, however, Ariadne’s manipulation of Polydor is undertaken to put her into the position of power within the marriage. Possibly this was too outrageous an idea for 1695, as the play was not a success.

(Hmm… I see that it was revived last year. [I make no comment. I merely report.])

I did say that The Fair Extravagant isn’t about “propagandising and politicking” the way that the pamphlets we have been examining are, but there’s a dollop of politics woven into the story even so. You get the feeling that, so politically charged were the times, writers found it hard not to venture into that territory. Alexander Oldys was tagged by Nicholas Hudson, in his paper on “Tory novel-writing”, as one of the Tory writers of the time, which is clearly correct. Polydor is the very model of a young Tory gentleman: he might spend all his time drinking, gambling and intriguing, but he is also a good Christian who prays regularly and sincerely, and passionately loyal to the crown. Indeed, Polydor’s arrest for debt provokes an extraordinary outburst:

I think here within your Dominions ‘tis a matter of Imprisonment, at least for a Gentleman to draw his Sword in his own defence: It scares your whining Zealots out of the little sense they had. Besides they are always apprehensive of their own guilt, and fear the Punishment they might reasonably expect from the Sword, for their Rebellious, Seditious and mutinous Endeavours against the Royal Prerogative.  I’le tell you (continued he all in a flame, not so much for his own Circumstances as with Zeal for his Prince) I will not be Prisoner within these wicked Walls, within this City, in whose Great Streets and highest Places, the best of Kings (O hellish Riddle!) That Glorious Martyr for the Liberty of his People, was proclaim’d a Traitor!… Was there a Necessity that I must be brought hither to this Stage, where the factious Schismaticks are playing the old Gaim again with some of the same Cards, only the Knaves are all Chang’d!

This is, of course, another example of Polydor’s “extravagance” (not to mention a fine fit of egotism, comparing his arrest for debt to the execution of Charles I!), but there is no doubt of the sincerity of the sentiment. Interestingly, there is a passing reference in this section to the debtors’ sanctuaries, which we discussed with respect to The Floating Island, as the men apprehending Polydor comment that they needed him to come within Temple Bar before they could arrest him.

(By the way— If I ever have a band, I’m calling it “The Factious Schismaticks”.)

Early in the novel, the disguised Ariadne and Miranda venture into a coffee-house called Richard’s, which we find is frequented by those of Whiggish tendencies. Under discussion is The Character Of A Popish Successour, And What England May Expect From Such A One, written by the playwright Elkanah Settle, allegedly at the prompting of the Earl of Shaftesbury. One of the coffee-house denizens remarks that this pamphlet is, “As Rational a Discourse as has been writ of late, nor can I think that Mr. L’Strange has any way answer’d his least Objections to the D.’s Succession.

(The ‘D.’ is the Duke of York, and ‘Mr. L’Strange’, Roger L’Estrange, a prominent Tory writer who we’ve met before at this blog, in his guise as the first English translator of  The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun.)

Ariadne, like Polydor (and her creator) a good Tory, weighs into the debate, demonstrating that she reads pamphlets and plays as well as romances. A flurry of literary references follows, with Ariadne suggesting that Elkanah Settle would be better off sticking to the stage and not meddling in statecraft. (There are references here to Settle as “her friend” and “my friend”, which suggest that he and Oldys knew and liked one another, but disagreed about politics.) She gets the last word, too:

Pray Sir, (continues he pertly) don’t you think the late Parliament dissolv’d at Oxford, were all wise and honest, well meaning Gentlemen? How Sir! (cry’d Ariadne very briskly) All wise and honest! that can’t be, for there must be some Fools, and some Knaves, or else they are not the true Representatives of the People.

She and Miranda then beat a retreat to the playhouse, where they see a production of Thomas Otway’s The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage, and meet Polydor.

And there’s one more political / literary allusion in The Fair Extravagant that warrants examination. Thanks to Ariadne’s manoeuvring, Polydor becomes convinced that his new bride is a vile imposter and that, consequently, his life is over and he might as well go to the devil as quickly as possible. In his despair, he begins to make a list of all the increasingly desperate and dreadful things he’s going to do:

“…Ay, Ay (pursu’d he) and I’le throw off my Sword, and turn as great a Cheat as any Tradesman of them all! As great a Rebel, and as great an Hypocrite as any Puritan Villain among them, nay more (added he fiercely) I cou’d almost find in my heart to write Pamphlets against the D. and call the Kings late most Gracious Declaration a Libel.

—which is, of course, a reference to The Perplex’d Prince.

I’ve remarked before that the fun of this reading course isn’t just the reading itself, but discovering the historical and political context of the literature of the day, and the richness this lends to the texts. This, though— This was something special: the fact that, in 1682, Alexander Oldys made a throwaway facetious remark, and that in 2010, I got the joke

Brain-melt.

08/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 1&2)

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

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You know, when I set out on this course of reading I knew very little about the Restoration, and I find myself surprised at the amount of knowledge I’ve managed to absorb just by trying to make head or tail of the literature of the day; enough, as it turns out, so that I can spot when the makers of Charles II: The Power & The Passion start tampering with the facts.

This mini-series has been broadcast here at least three times, although for some reason I never watched it properly before. (Probably because I had no interest in the Restoration, ha-ha.) I did catch bits and pieces of it, though, which from what I can gather puts me in more or less the same boat as the American viewers of this series, who got a significantly cut-down version of a drama that is, in my opinion, far too short to start with.

However, the good news here is that, whatever the series’ faults, its production values of are truly excellent. (Finding Kate Harwood’s name in the opening credits was immediately reassuring.) The casting of Rufus Sewell as Charles was a bit of a no-brainer, I guess, but he’s really very good, capturing the mixture of character traits that drove so much of the era’s upheaval. We see Charles’s obsession with his father’s death, and his consequent determination not just to hold the crown, but to revive its divine attribution – and sacrifice anything or anyone that might interfere with his goal.

It is on this point alone that Charles is steadfast, however: in all else he is facile in a way that is occasionally admirable, and frequently dismaying. We see a spirit of compromise and tolerance, particularly in matters of religion, completely out of step with the times; we see also the unfortunate habit of being swayed by just the wrong person at just the wrong time; and above all we see that he is, when it comes to the ladies, a complete putz.

Part 1 opens with the execution of Charles I, which turns out to be the younger Charles’s nightmare (complete with sitting bolt upright in bed – tsk). We find Charles and his entourage in Antwerp – for simplicity’s sake, I imagine, they keep the peripatetic prince fairly stationary – where he is advised and supported by Sir Edward Hyde (Ian McDiarmid), and passes his time in company with his lifelong friend, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Rupert Graves). The latter is bored and frustrated with his position – and Charles’s poverty – and begins to counsel compromise with Cromwell, to Charles’s outrage. At length, Buckingham reveals that he has been invited back to England under promise of forgiveness by Cromwell and with the offer of an advantageous marriage. He accepts, initiating a growing rift between himself and Charles that will ultimately find Buckingham amongst the leaders of Charles’s opponents.

We also have a first glimpse of religious discord, ominously enough within Charles’s own family, as he and his mother, the coldly Catholic widow Henrietta Maria (Diana Rigg), clash over the religion of Charles’s younger brothers: Charles is adament that it is only as the Protestant king of a Protestant country that he can regain his father’s throne; that Parliament will accept nothing else. The queen counters that he would not need Parliament if, as a Catholic king, he joined with Louis XIV, and shared his bounty and his armies. She also recommends the re-Catholicisation of England by the simple expedient of burning all the Protestants at the stake.

Charles soon finds some consolation for his various woes, however, when he encounters one Lady Palmer – aka Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory), the first and longest-lasting of many, many, many royal mistresses, who would bear Charles five (acknowledged) children, but whose increasing promiscuity and debauchery would eventually see her supplanted and evicted from Whitehall. This series also posits an ongoing affair between Barbara and Buckingham, who was – I think – her half-cousin, and has her seducing the young Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson), and encouraging his ambitions. It is via Barbara that we here learn that Buckingham, far from finding the expected pardon in England, has been consigned to the Tower of London by Cromwell.

In the wake of Cromwell’s death and the resignation of Richard Cromwell, the question of the restoration is broached. Her we are introduced to the Earl of Shaftesbury (Martin Freeman), who reveals Charles’s intentions to Parliament – including, typically, a promise to reopen the theatres and allow music and dancing. It also includes an offer of amnesty for those who opposed him; and offer that does not (and did not) extend to those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The beginning of Charles’s reign is marked by the bloody execution of the condemned (and oh, how these historical dramas love to dwell upon the horror of hanging, drawing and quartering!); although here it is implied that, sickening of the slaughter midway through the process, Charles pardoned those still alive.

Under Barbara’s influence, Buckingham is restored to favour. Barbara further exhibits her power over Charles after the birth of their first child when, as Monmouth looks on in startled admiration, she throws a monumental tantrum from which she emerges triumphant as Countess of Castlemaine. Mistresses and bastards aside, Parliament is already considering the question of Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza (Shirley Henderson), whose dowry outweighs her Catholicism, at least to some. We get the first scuffle here between Charles and Shaftesbury, as the latter protests Catherine’s religion. Charles voices his determination to pursue a policy of religious tolerance: perhaps the noblest of all his intentions and, alas, like most noble intentions at the time, one which came to nothing.

I’m going to make a concerted effort here not to append the word “unfortunate” to every mention of Catherine, but I’m not sure how far I’ll succeed – particularly not in the face of her unkind reception by a snickering royal household, provoked by her appearance, her lack of English, and her outrageous request for a cup of tea; nor in that of the terror with which she prepares herself to submit to her wedding-night: a terror so evident that Charles suggests they postpone things for a while. There’s certainly a careless sort of kindness in this, but at the heart of it, he simply doesn’t find her attractive. The marriage remains unconsumated until a day when Charles, catching Catherine off-guard, dressed in boys’ clothes, her hair loose and romping with a dog, is caught off-guard himself.

There’s a certain detached humour in this series, particularly in the way it views Charles himself, and we get a taste of it here. Upon her arrival in England, it is discovered that Catherine speaks not a word of English; yet before much longer, having become only too well aware of Barbara Villiers, she is throwing the furniture at Charles and screaming about, “Your whore!” She learned that word quickly enough, of course. (“I suspect the queen still has some reservations over Lady Castlemaine’s appointment to the household,” deadpans Sir Edward.)

Meanwhile, James, Duke of York (Charlie Creed-Miles) and Buckingham are agitating for war against the Dutch, against the counsel of Sir Edward Hyde and Shaftesbury. Swayed by James’s muttered aside that the monetary spoils of war would free him from Parliament’s grip, Charles votes yes. Now, we’ve already considered just how bad an idea this was apropos of Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines. It also gives us one of the series’ odder glitches, at it places the Battle of Medway before the Great Fire.

Actually, James is having quite a run of outs, as it is now that his affair with Ann Hyde (Tabitha Wady) becomes public due to her pregnancy. The series takes the stance that James was essentially trapped into marriage, whereas there seems reasonable evidence that, despite urgings that no-one expected him to keep the promises he made before the Restoration, he insisted on going through with it. If so—well, no good deed goes unpunished, I guess: it would of course be a child of that marriage to whom James would eventually lose the throne. The script here takes the opposing view chiefly, I imagine, to give us an early scene of Charles refusing to interfere with the succession in any way: having Parliament dissolve James’s marriage and declare his child illegitimate would be setting far too dangerous a precedent.

Part 2 opens with the court gathered around a telescope, as Halley’s Comet passes. Charles tells Catherine that it means nothing, but Sir Edward comments quietly that many see it as a portent: “They foretell disasters and catastrophes before the year is out.” (Possibly this is why they moved Medway.) For Charles himself, the year certainly starts disastrously, with his pursuit of Lady Frances Stewart (Alice Patten) finishing – gasp! – unsuccessfully. (The sorely harrassed young woman had to find ways to hold him off until she could arrange to elope with her lover, the Duke of Richmond.) Elsewhere, the unfortunate Catherine (yeah, I know…), after three childless years, is taking the waters at Tunbridge Wells, which were believed to help with conception; while James is taking Catholic instruction…

For a time it seems that the former, at least, will end well, but Catherine’s joyfully announced pregnancy ends in miscarriage. In her misery, the unfortunate woman (sorry…) wanders into the royal nursery, staring in agonised bewilderment at Barbara and her illegitimate children. “What did you do…to warrant such a sign of Grace…?”

In the wake of Catherine’s miscarriage, Charles recalls James from sea, where he is leading the war against the Dutch in his position of Admiral of the Fleet. James is outraged, but Charles tells him flatly that with only his infant daughters to follow him, his life cannot be risked.

When it becomes apparent that Catherine will never bear a child, an odd evolution takes place in her position at court. In her despair, she becomes one of the few people who will speak the truth to Charles without hesitation; and over time she slowly transforms into Charles’s friend and counsellor – quite a ruthless counsellor at times – but one, perhaps the only one, he can trust completely. It is to Catherine he confides the secret of James’s conversion, predicting that it will bring everything to ruin. Interestingly, Charles’s attitude is entirely secular: he views James’s choice as selfish and ultimately destructive, but there is no hint he sees it as dividing him from his brother forever; as his mother would certainly see it. Whether this is a sign of Charles’s fundamental irreligiosity or his fundamental Catholicism is unclear.

As Part 2 moves towards its conclusion, we get two very strange choices from screenwriter Adrian Hodges – one of them, indeed, unforgiveable. With the outbreak of the Great Plague, a horrified and sickened Charles is taken through the streets of London by the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (David Bradley). Berry Godfrey is best known as the magistrate who took Titus Oates’ deposition, his “final” version of the events of the Popish Plot – and who was murdered soon afterwards. To many, the murder was proof positive of the truth of Oates’ accusations – while some say it was Oates and his people who had the magistrate murdered for just that reason. When the character of Sir Edmund turned up at this point in the series, I assumed it was to prepare for these later events – but he never appears again. Odd.

The other mystifying plot-thread concerns debate over Charles’s supposed marriage to Lucy Walter and Monmouth’s legitimacy. Barbara has been pushing this bandwagon, as well as trying to convince Charles to divorce Catherine – mostly because of personal emnity, we imagine; while she and Buckingham are both busy poisoning Charles’s mind against Sir Edward Hyde, who has too much influence for their liking. The question of the Test Act has already created a rift between Charles and Sir Edward, and in the wake of the Battle of Medway, Hyde’s enemies see their chance, with Buckingham calling for his impeachment. Buckingham’s outspokenness sees him back in the Tower for a time, but he emerges triumphant. For a time it seems that Hyde’s enemies will bring about his death, but Charles commutes the sentence: the most loyal of his counsellors is instead sent into permanent exile. Here we have the first of a long line of moments in which Charles averts his eyes from a friend, murmuring that someone must take the blame…

Meanwhile, according to the script, it was not Lucy Walter at all who owned a black box containing proof of her marriage to Charles, but Charles himself! Repeatedly, Charles denies his marriage and declares Monmouth illegitimate; but a silent scene has him producing a hidden black box, him taking a paper from it and destroying it…

This is an absolutely bewildering touch – particularly in light of the series’ depiction of Charles’s stance on the succession. Think about it: what he’s doing here is destroying the proof that he has a legitimate Protestant heir: an heir that would have solved all his problems; an heir that would have solved EVERYONE’S problems. The hell – !?

Okay, I guess they just wanted to work the famous black box into it somehow… And they as good as admit the tampering, too: we never actually see what the paper is. And really, perhaps it was just the symbolism of it they were after; because, as Charles drops that mysterious paper into the fire, we cut from those flames to the Great Fire of London…

02/12/2010

Well, T.S.

To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attempted to assign an author to the initials appended to The Perplex’d Prince – “T.S.” – but I do rather wonder…

I pointed out the reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince. I didn’t realise it at the time, but there’s a second Dryden poem mentioned there: The Medal. This was a reaction to the reaction to the dismissal of the charges against the Earl of Shaftesbury (if you follow me), after he was accused of high treason in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. His supporters marked the occasion by pressing a medal that showed a symbolic Shaftesbury, in the form of a sun, emerging from behind black clouds.

Dryden’s response was The Medal, or A Satyr Against Sedition, a poem it is said was [*cough, cough*] suggested by Charles himself. This bitter attack upon Shaftesbury and his followers brought Dryden still more into the public eye, and not everyone was happy about it.

One of those who responded in print was Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright – and fervent Protestant. Shadwell and Dryden had once been friends and collaborators, but Dryden’s acceptance of a position at Charles’s court put an end to that. After the publication of The Medal, Shadwell retaliated with The Medal Of John Bayes: A Satyr Against Folly And Knavery, a brutal attack on Dryden himself. Nothing loath, Dryden hit right back with Mac Flecknoe: A Satyr On The Trew-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S., and then took another swing in the second part of Absalom And Achitopel, in which Shadwell appears – unflatteringly, I need hardly say – in the character of Og.

It was Dryden’s use of Shadwell’s initials in Mac Flecknoe, and his assumption that the reading public would know who “T.S.” was, that made me wonder whether Shadwell could possibly have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince – and whether Dryden even meant to imply that it was so. The pamphlet fits with Shadwell’s declared politics, certainly, but what interests me more is the dismissive way in which Dryden’s hugely successful poems are mentioned in the preface, being ranked alongside the mere disposable detritus of the literary world.

Then again, such a manoeuvre may have been too subtle for Shadwell, who apparently preferred the fist to the sword. Perhaps a third party, the true author, made use of Shadwell’s initials, either to hide behind them or just as a joke. Or perhaps it was another T.S. altogether: there was a Thomas Sprat writing at the time, but he seems to have been a straightforward royalist, so that makes it improbable. Anyway, I like to think it was Shadwell.

John Dryden remained Poet Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, but when James went, so did he – to be succeeded by his arch-rival. Thomas Shadwell may have lost the literary war against John Dryden, but with his own appointment to the position of Poet Laureate under William, he certainly had the last laugh.

29/11/2010

The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince

The Faction, amongst the many Instances they have so frequently given of their Spleen and Hatred to the Government, hardly ever showed their Malice more in any one particular, than in the Business of the Black Box, which furnish’d a Pretext to a Libel, call’d The Perplex’d Prince; which, tho’ but poorly writ, yet the malignity of the Design being to poyson Peoples Minds with an Opinion of some Probability and Truth in this Matter. It was thought fit in Return, to shew the World one of their Principal Heroes, in his true Colours.

So – the Earl of Shaftesbury. We really do need to consider the Earl of Shaftesbury before we consider the Exclusion Crisis, and we really need to consider the Exclusion Crisis before we consider The Fugitive Statesman. Such is the nature of the literature of the late 17th century.

Briefly, then (or as briefly as I can manage), Anthony Ashley Cooper was a major political figure throughout the Interregnum and the reign of Charles II. He was a member of the Convention Parliament, which agreed that monarchy should be restored, and for the first years of Charles’ reign he was a strong supporter of the king. During this time he was in great favour with Charles, being created Earl of Shaftesbury and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Lord Chancellor of England.

However, a rift eventually began to grow between the two over the question of the succession. In 1669, Shaftesbury was amongst those who urged Charles to dissolve his fruitless marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Nothing came of this at the time, but in 1673 the Parliament passed the Test Act, under which all those holding military or civil office were required to take Anglican communion every year, and to renounce Catholic doctrine. There had been rumours about James’s conversion to Catholicism for years (he had in fact converted in 1667), and a month after the passing of the Test Act, he failed to take the Easter communion. Six months after that, he married Mary of Modena.

Until that moment, the question of James’s own religion was tempered by the fact that his daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, were Protestants; but now there was the threat of a Catholic prince. Shaftesbury and others again urged Charles to dispense with Catherine and remarry, and a motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning James’s marriage. This was the beginning of Shaftesbury’s fall from grace at court, and his emergence as a leader of a new political party that (after a flurry of mutual name-calling) would eventually be known as the Whigs.

The question of the succession and the role of Parliament under monarchy were two of the dominant issues that defined this new Opposition, and throughout the 1670s a series of bitter political battles was fought on both these fronts, with Charles repeatedly proroguing or dissolving Parliament in order to stop the passage of bills. During this time, various attempts made either to exclude James from the succession, or to impose conditions upon it, such as demanding that his children be raised Protestant.

In the middle of 1678, the Popish Plot broke, bringing the already prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to a new fever pitch. Shaftesbury was active in the ensuing investigations, and began to win a reputation amongst the English people as a defender of the Protestant faith. Over the following years he campaigned vigorously for James’s exclusion and the legitimising of Monmouth, who had begun to agitate on his own behalf – and was sent into exile by his father for his pains. Shaftesbury also tried to have the Duke of York indicted as a recusant, and while he failed at that, he did succeed in convincing Monmouth to return to England, where his arrival was greeted with widespread celebration by the general population.

However, all of the measures taken to remove James and secure Monmouth’s position eventually came to nothing. The final blow for the Exclusionists was the dissolution of the so-called Oxford Parliament of 1681 – the last Parliament of Charles’s reign. In the wake of this, Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with high treason. He was subsequently acquitted, courtesy of a combination of weak evidence and a stacked jury, but his days were numbered. During 1682, Shaftesbury put much effort into urging an open rebellion led by Monmouth, but when this failed he fled England for Amsterdam, where he died in December of that year.

It is not difficult to understand why much of the literature of this time is highly political in nature. Supporters of both factions took advantage of a comparative freedom of the presses to sway the reading populace to their cause. In terms of the quality of these productions, however, Dryden’s Absalom And Architophel is an extreme exception: most of them are political to the exclusion of literary merit. We’ve met one example already, in the form of The Perplex’d Prince, which was published at a time when the Popish Plot’s chief instigator, Titus Oates, had been exposed as a perjurer (although not charged or convicted) and expelled from Whitehall, and yet matter-of-factly asserts the reality of the Plot and openly accuses James of trying to murder his brother. And on the other side of the political fence we find the self-explanatory The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince, which was published in 1683.

In requital is almost understating things. The Fugitive Statesman copies its inspiration’s use of the roman à clef, and produces a one-sided account of the Exclusion Crisis in which all of the characters are given fictitious identities; fictitious identities with which we are already quite familiar – as by this time were many of England’s readers. In short, The Fugitive Statesman steals the metaphorical language of John Dryden: the English people are the Jews, Charles is David, Monmouth is Absalom, Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the Catholics are the Jebusites, and so on. It also steals pieces of Dryden’s poetry and twists them into prose. For example, Achitopel working on Absalom’s ambitions and ego – “Not that your father’s mildness I contemn; But manly force becomes the diadem” – is turned into, “Not that David’s Gentle Temper is to be despised, but it is a greater Virtue in a private Person, or an Ecclesiastick than a Soveraign, and a Masculine Soul is certainly fitter for a Throne.” And there are many more instances of this kind of thing. Whether the passing reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince put this approach into the author’s mind, whether it was intended as a tribute to Dryden, or whether it was a shameless attempt to ride the coattails of Dryden’s success, I really couldn’t say – although my money’s on the latter.

Reading The Fugitive Statesman is rather a chore. Its author doesn’t write about his subject so much as beat it into the ground, employing a ranting, Oh, and another thing – !! style that becomes perversely funny even as it becomes more and more tiresome. The pamphlet also has a habit (evidently assuming a thorough knowledge of the details of the Exclusion Crisis and of Absalom And Achitophel) of throwing name after name at the reader with a minimum of context, which not only makes for a confusing read, but in the end very nearly defeats the author’s purpose: you just can’t be bothered with it. In The Perplex’d Prince, cracking the code seems like a game; here it feels like homework. This is a sample:

Thereupon taking his leave he went to the Rendezvous, where he found Absalom, Zimri, Nadab, Shimei, Corah, Ishban, Belial, Rabsheka, Judas, Phaleg, Ben-Jochanan, Balack, Og and Doeg, with many others of all sorts and Conditions…

Still…if you can stick with it, there are some real insights here into the thinking of the time. The author, obviously a hardcore royalist, takes the position that kings are divinely anointed and that interfering with the succession is therefore blasphemous as well as treasonous. In its presentation of Charles, this pamphlet outdoes even The Perplex’d Prince: the king is no longer merely “valiant, wise and religious”, but quite literally “God-like”. In their opposition to the king’s will, then, Shaftesbury and his followers were perceived as doing the devil’s work – also literally. In Absalom And Achitopel, there is a reference to Shaftesbury as “Hell’s dire agent”; the author of The Fugitive Statesman latches onto this, referring to his Achitopel repeatedly as “Hell’s Minister” and “the hellish Contriver”, and speaking of his “Devilish Machinations”.

In this version of events, although Achitopel and his ilk intend to enrich themselves by taking over the estates and properties of those who remained loyal to David, once they have succeeded in overthrowing him (it was for the same reason that they rebelled against David’s father, and provoked civil war), for the most part they seem intent upon anarchy for anarchy’s sake. As for Achitopel himself, it turns out that a major motivation is that he thinks acting against David will help to get him into one particular’s woman’s—well, whatever it was that women wore under their dresses in 1683.

In pursuit of his ends – and her end – there is nothing so vile and dishonest that Achitopel will not stoop to it. It was he, for instance, who devised the Popish Plot, and bought the services of Titus Oates:

I once made him pretend himself a Jebusite, that so getting Acquaintance with those of that Sect, he might be the more able to varnish with probability the Matters he is to attest. This Fellow’s Livelihood must depend on his evidence; and he shall…swear, that the Queen and the next Heir are in the Plot against the King.”

And it was he who invented the story of Absalom’s legitimacy:

He likewise gave out that there was a certain Instrument preserved in a Black Box, being the Contract of Marriage between David and Absalom’s Mother, and a settlement of the Crown upon the Issue he might have by that Lady.

And it was he who started that ridiculous rumour about David undertaking secret negotiations with “Pharaoh” (Louis XIV), as well as the one about Solomon’s Jebusitism…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Fugitive Statesmen is its refusal to accept that James was actually a Catholic, preferring instead to see assertions to that effect as merely a piece of mud-slinging, something Shaftesbury and his followers made up to suit their purposes. At the same time, there is a note of uncertainty in the author’s handling of this that is noticeably absent from the rest of the pamphlet: his protestations that James is not, not, NOT a Catholic tail finally off into, And even if he was, he could easily be brought back to Protestantism…

But without doubt, the aspect of this pamphlet that resonates most strongly today is its bitter reaction to the one piece of legislation successfully passed while all this political brawling was going on: the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Although today we regard habeas corpus of one of the cornerstones of law, the author of The Fugitive Statesman saw things a little differently:

“…a Law the Seditionaries had taken care to have pass’d some time before the breaking out of the Plot, by this Law in case of Bail offered no Man could be detained in Prison… Thus Law and Justice were perverted in these wicked Men’s hands…”

The Fugitive Statesman exults over the downfall of Achitopel and his party after the “Baharim Parliament”, and Achitopel’s consignment to the Tower of London, but is not the least little bit happy over his subsequent acquittal. It has an explanation for the jury’s verdict, however:

Were not they themselves as well engaged as he in the Conspiracy? …And people of their Mould and Principles always make Conscience, give way, and submit to Self-Preservation and Interest… Thus was the Arch-Traytor again set at Liberty…”

But this is only a temporary reprieve:

“…to find all his Devilish Wiles and Practices display’d and expos’d to the eyes of all People, to find he was become the abomination of all the sound and honest part of mankind, Achitopel laying all these things to heart, I say, put an end to his loathed Life in such wise as the World well knows.”

So there.

(I should perhaps mention that while the biblical Achitopel committed suicide, his real-life counterpart did not.)

Despite the limitless evil ascribed to the Exclusionists by The Fugitive Statesman, the fact is, they lacked teeth. For one thing, although they used it as a threat, most assuredly they did not want civil war. However, from their own point of view, probably the bigger problem was that, although they did not want James, they didn’t really want Monmouth, either: he was just the lesser of the two evils, where there was no third option – or so it seemed. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to do anything so desperate as “invite” an invasion. The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of 1681 was really the end of this particular crisis: when James did succeed his brother in February of1685, there was barely a ripple of reaction.

Of course, the overriding irony here was that once James took the throne, he began to do exactly what the Exclusionists had warned he would – whether or not they only said it to scaremonger – changing the laws around religious practice, appointing Catholics to important positions, building a standing army, and trying to remove himself from the control of Parliament. Even the hard-line Tories who had fought to protect the royal line weren’t prepared to stand for all that, and another crisis began to build. However, long before that, indeed only four months into James’s reign, the next upheaval to impact significantly upon the literature of the time occurred: the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

25/11/2010

Absalom And Achitophel

I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer: this will be in no way, shape or form a proper attempt to analyse or engage with John Dryden’s Absalom And Achitophel, but is intended merely to bring it to the attention of those who may not be aware of it or of its significance – as I was not, until quite recently.

Although his first important appointment was under Cromwell, Dryden’s reaction to the Restoration in Astraea Redux makes his passionate Royalist feelings clear; and he would continue to celebrate Charles II in his poetry even whole earning the bulk of his living as a playwright – something Charles also made possible, of course. However, Dryden’s ambitions were always for his poetry, and his breakthrough work was 1667’s Annus Mirabilis, which both established him as England’s pre-eminent poetic talent and went a long way towards securing him the position of Poet Laureate, to which he was appointed the following year.

Dryden held the position of Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, often acting as a kind of literary weapon for the former. Loyal as he was to Charles, Dryden was involved in a number of ongoing feuds with some of those around the king, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, who were often satirised in his poems and plays. These were turbulent years, as we have seen, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. As early as 1669 there were attempts made to persuade Charles to divorce Catherine of Braganza or to annul their marriage, and to remarry in order to produce a legitimate Protestant heir. Charles had refused. A decade later, the situation reached crisis point, with the Popish Plot creating an atmosphere of violent anti-Catholicism, and the Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, attempting to have legislation passed that would exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother; and, when this failed, calling upon Charles directly to legitimise his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth, in order to establish a Protestant heir to the English throne. This, too, failed.

Towards the end of 1681, John Dryden published Absalom And Achitophel, an extraordinary satirical work wherein the events of the preceding three years and the circumstances that provoked them are reconfigured in the form of religious and historical allegory. The basis of the work is the biblical story of David and Absalom, and the rebellion of the latter, although a dearly beloved son, against his father, the king. In Dryden’s work, Charles II becomes David, and the Duke of Monmouth, Absalom; but there is barely a figure involved in the politics of the time who does not appear in the poem in one guise or another. The most critical, of course, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, otherwise Achitophel. In the Old Testament, Achitophel is David’s advisor, but betrays him and supports Absalom in his rebellion. By late in the 17th century, “Achitophel” had become a generic term of abuse for anyone seen as betraying his principles, and thus its application to Shaftesbury was a doubly loaded one.

Here a few brief extracts, just to give a taste of the work and to introduce the major players. First, the Jewish (English) people, whose agitations after a delusory “freedom” led first to civil war, and then to the regretted reigns of Saul (Oliver Cromwell) and his son, “the foolish Ishbosheth” (Richard Cromwell); and who cannot be satisfied even under the indulgent David:

      The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race,
      As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace;
      God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
      No king could govern, nor no God could please;
      (Gods they had tri’d of every shape and size,
      That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
      These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
      Began to dream they wanted liberty…

David, we find, is unable to produce a legitimate heir, but looks with favour upon Absalom:

      Michal, of royal blood, the crown did wear;
      A soil ungrateful to the tiller’s care:
      Not so the rest; for several mothers bore
      To god-like David, several sons before.
      But since like slaves his bed they did ascend,
      No true succession could their seed attend.
      Of all this numerous progeny was none
      So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom…

And there are those who recognise in the native impatience of the “moody, murm’ring” Jews and the dissatisfaction with his lot on the part of Absalom an opportunity for rebellion, and for self-aggrandisement – chief amongst them, Achitophel:

      Some had in courts been great, and thrown from thence,
      Like fiends, were harden’d in impenitence.
      Some by their monarch’s fatal mercy grown,
      From pardon’d rebels, kinsmen to the throne;
      Were rais’d in pow’r and public office high;
      Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.

      Of these the false Achitophel was first:
      A name to all succeeding ages curst.
      For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
      Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
      Restless, unfixt in principles and place…

And Achitophel begins to work upon the susceptible Absalom, who at first resists the schemer’s lures, acknowledging both his debt to David and that he has no legitimate claim to the throne:

      His favour leaves me nothing to require;
      Prevents my wishes, and out-runs desire.
      What more can I expect while David lives?
      All but his kingly diadem he gives:
      And that: but there he paus’d; then sighing, said,
      Is justly destin’d for a worthier head…

Seeing Absalom swayed by his ambitions, Achitophel persists, and Absalom begins to feel the stirrings of rebellion in his soul:

      Why am I scanted by a niggard-birth?
      My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth:
      And made for empire, whispers me within;
      Desire of greatness is a god-like sin.

      Him staggering so when Hell’s dire agent found,
      While fainting virtue scarce maintain’d her ground,
      He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies:

      Th’eternal God, supremely good and wise,
      Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
      What wonders are reserv’d to bless your reign?
      Against your will your arguments have shown,
      Such virtue’s only giv’n to guide a throne.
      Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
      But manly force becomes the diadem…

And on the way through, our old friend Titus Oates rates a heavily sarcastic mention:

      To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
      Would tire a well-breath’d witness of the plot:
      Yet, Corah, thou shalt from oblivion pass;
      Erect thyself thou monumental brass:
      High as the serpent of thy metal made,
      While nations stand secure beneath thy shade…

Absalom And Achitophel then metaphorically traces the course of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, concluding with the triumph of “David” and the exposure and disgrace of “Achitophel”. And in reality, the failure of the Exclusionists left the Earl of Shaftesbury in a perilous situation. In July of 1681 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for the next four months, awaiting trial on charges of high treason.

Examined as history and not as poetry, we can appreciate how carefully Dryden treads in Absalom And Achitophel, praising David at every reasonable opportunity while also scolding him gently for sometimes allowing the father to supersede the king, and for being overindulgent to those ungrateful “murm’ring” Jews; emphasising “Absalom”’s outstanding personal qualities and arguing that it his very “kingliness”, the unavoidable gift of his father, which brought him to the point of rebellion; and pouring the bulk of the blame upon the scheming, treacherous “Achitophel”.

Dryden’s work was an enormous success, both as poetry and as propaganda, influencing not only the public perception of the events of the Exclusion Crisis, but impacting upon other political writers of the time, as we shall see. In 1682, a second part of the poem was published, but although it was sketched out by Dryden, most of it was written by someone else (probably Nahum Tate), except for a few passages in which Dryden takes pot-shots at some personal enemies; one in particular…