Posts tagged ‘Elizabeth Pipe Wolferstan’


Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 3)










The “recent events” referred to in Agatha‘s subtitle, then, are those of the French Revolution. Britain’s reaction to the upheaval in France was peculiarly contradictory. The corruption, licentiousness and brutality of the French system was taken for granted across the channel and habitually held up as the symbol of everything to be depised, as everything that Britain and its government was not – but from 1789 onwards, the Ancien Régime became regarded as the lesser of two evils. The early years of the French Revolution were deeply disturbing to a nation that had not yet recovered from the humiliation of its own Revolutionary War and the subsequent loss of its colonies (in which, of course, the French had played a significant role).

Initially, although the ruling class was  alarmed and horrified by the possibility of revolution spreading to its shores, many in Britain supported and even celebrated the events in France. All that changed, however, when the perversion of the principles upon which the revolution had been founded led first to the execution of Louis XVI and then to the bloodbath of 1793 – 1794. By the time that Elizabeth Jervis was writing Agatha, late in 1795, Louis had been dead for nearly three years, the new Constitutional Republic was a few months old—and Britain and France were at war. Some things the Revolution had not changed.

Agatha’s taking of her vows occurs late in 1789, when the Revolution was in its earliest phase; but we hear nothing about that. Instead, we are given a sketchy and not entirely convincing account of the new Sister Constance’s adjustment to her life, in which her secular interests figure as prominently as her religious duties. Agatha’s main pleasure in her new position is acting as the convent’s chief almoner, dispensing its not inconsiderable wealth amongst the deserving poor and in the process earning herself a third identity, becoming known as “the Angel of Auvergne”. Otherwise, we hear a great deal about the presents she receives from Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, who have relocated to France and bought an estate near to the convent, and about the visits of Agatha’s friend, Mrs Herbert, who has joined a travelling party in order to have the opportunity of seeing her. Again, the main thrust of this is to remind us of what Agatha has given up to fulfil her mother’s vow, and the extent of her self-sacrifice.

Agatha has been Sister Constance for two years before Mrs Herbert’s visit, and another passes fleetingly before the story settles down to be told again in detail. It is only when “the Revolution” starts to become “the Terror” that Elizabeth Jervis takes an interest in the events going on outside the convent. What follows is a staggeringly one-sided view of the situation. Jervis ignores the early revolutionary phase because, as it soon becomes clear, she has no intention of conceding that the revolutionaries had the slightest justification for their actions. Apart from an admission from the Abbess that, “The power given to the Nobles of our country over the peasantry, however temperately they have used it of late years*, is such as no one, for the honour of human nature, ought to have”, there is hardly a hint in the novel that pre-revolutionary France was anything less than a utopia.

[*emphasis mine]

Elizabeth Jervis was by no means the only English writer to react like this to the Revolution, which provoked a wave of astonishingly rose-coloured looks back at traditional French governance; and like many of them, Jervis’s keynote is ingratitude. At one point, the story of Agatha becomes a series of anecdotes about generous, right-thinking, self-sacrificing French aristocrats who dedicated their fortunes and their lives to looking after their peasants, and this is the thanks they get for it? There is a reference to “the sublime spectacle of a King giving liberty to his subjects – a King, whose humanity, and desire to make them happy entitled him to the adoration of his people”, without any indication of the series of events that brought about that particular “spectacle”. Later, a peasant family takes Agatha in and hides her from the pursuing mob: it comes as no surprise at all when we learn that they are fallen nobility, “degraded to the rank of Plebians”. Finally, we are repeatedly told that the revolutionaries who arrive to sack the convent, and who subsequently shun or attack its former inhabitants, were the very people who queued up to take its charity. Even as we hear of none but completely unselfish nobles, there is no hint here that the wealth of the covent was accumulated for any reason but to disperse it in charitable works.

As events in France threaten to engulf the convent, Agatha is beset on two fronts. First, Sir Charles and Lady Belmont are denounced as aristocrats, and must flee for their lives, their attempt to arrange Agatha’s removal from the convent thwarted. Cut off from her parents and in ignorance of their fate, in danger as both an aristocrat and as a nun, when the revolutionaries storm the convent Agatha manages to escape but is separated from her companions and must begin her dangerous journey on her own, still dressed in her habit. Seeking assistance from the those along her way, Agatha is either rejected in fear of the consequences, or ridiculed and abused. Jervis gets herself in a bit of a bind here: her use of irreligion to emphasise the degenerate state of the peasantry is undermined by the fact that the peasants’ attitude to nuns really isn’t that much different from her own: “Une Fanatique – une Religeuse!

From the perspective of literary history, this section of Agatha is rather intriguing. Two years earlier, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries Of Udolpho had defined a new genre, the Gothic novel, inspiring imitations by the score. For almost a decade, English circulating libraries were awash with tales of distant lands, gloomy castles, evil monks, persecuted damsels, and supernatural events that were (usually) explained away at the end. My own favourite consequence of this movement is the subset of novels that in desperation sold themselves as Gothic via titles like “The Secret Of The Abbey“, and then turned out to be completely domestic and realistic.

In Agatha, Elizabeth Jervis also exploits the conventions of the Gothic novel. Thus, Agatha must make a series of frightening journeys in the dark, being pursued through the woods surrounding the convent. She takes refuge in a hidden cavern beneath a ruined monastery, where she discovers living in retreat another victim of the situation, Father Albert (he who advises her to forget her vows). Later, captured by the revolutionaries, Agatha finds herself sharing a prison cell with a dead baby; while Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, forced against their wills to accept “hospitality” from another group of revolutionaries, are confronted by their own imminent fate when they discover a secret “murder room” containing the dead and mutilated bodies of their hosts’ earlier victims. These sudden detours into graphic horror in what is otherwise an extremely hardcore didactic novel, and the fact that Jervis goes in that direction when the reality of the Terror offered, surely, enough factual opportunities for graphic horror, are a clear indication of the contemporary dominance of the Gothic novel. You are sure they are all horrid?, indeed.

There are shifts and twists throughout Agatha that hold the interest even when it stumbles as a piece of writing, and we get another one when the novel abruptly forsakes Gothic horror for politics. However, even as Elizabeth Jervis’s own religious prejudices undermine her depiction of the revolutionaries, her reluctance to admit that the peasants may have had a point interferes with her various expressions of patriotic fervour: she keeps comparing France unfavourably with England, even while refusing to admit that things were really all that bad in France.

The same speech in which she concedes that the French aristocracy may have had just a leetle too much power finds the Abbess admitting to Agatha and Mrs Herbert, “I have often looked with envy towards your country, where the same laws protect the person and property of the peasant as of the lord.” St Valorie, the fallen noble who tries to save Agatha from the mob, also utters an empassioned speech about England: “Happy, happy country, if you knew your own happiness… Had this been the government, these the laws of France – !”

St Valorie’s next words are even more telling:

“Even this government, excellent as it is, may not be perfect; there may exist faults which you say it is the opinion of many might be rectified; but it is not the season to begin to repair your own house when its foundations have recently been shaken by the shock given to the surrounding earth when that of your neighbour fell…and when the imperfections of yours, if not imaginary, are, at least, so trifling that you may reside in it with comfort and convenience in its present state…”

Here we find Elizabeth Jervis’s rose-coloured glasses perched firmly on her nose again. This time of trifling imperfections of government was that of a yawning gulf between the rich and the poor, and of parallel abuses of the law. Not for nothing did the ruling class of England fear that the revolutionary fever might take hold there. What’s more, the further this passage goes on – and it goes on – the louder becomes the tone of reproof, the more obvious the finger-wag at the working classes, who should just accept their narrow lot and not be so ungrateful as to ask for more. 

Note, too, the simultaneous finger-wag at the home-grown reformers – one that is almost comically familiar: Hey, if you don’t like it here, go live in— Wherever. In this case, Revolutionary France. I’ve never quite understood why conditions being worse in some other country frees a government from any obligation to try and improve conditions in its own country, but it seems that they do – and, apparently, always have.

There’s a closing point I want to make about Agatha, but before I do, it is necessary to first take a look at another of Elizabeth Jervis’s prejudices. There is a curious passage – curious in light of Jervis’s subsequent marriage to an abolitionist – in which an acquaintance of Agatha’s remarks, “There are two kinds of people I have always wanted to talk to, and those are, nuns and negroes” – going on to add that she has often wondered, “Whether negroes are really so cruelly treated as Mr Sharp and Mr Wilberforce say they are.” This is not the first reference to slavery in the novel. As you may recall, Edward Hammond is himself enslaved in Algiers, the single white man amongst a host of black slaves. His eventual rescue puts Elizabeth Jervis in another of her personal binds, as the fact that Hammond ups and leaves without any attempt to free his companions hardly gels with her depiction of him as “the soul of nobility and sensibility”.

To get around this (she thinks), she has Hammond pause on the brink of freedom and reflect, “Had the companions of my toil evinced the smallest traces of compassion for my sufferings, or even appeared sensible of their own, I could not have parted from them without compunction of heart…but they had always seemed unconscious of their own misfortunes and regardless of mine, which at this minute was a consolation to me, and prevented even the shadow of a regret at leaving them behind me…”

The native insensibility of its victims was a common justification of slavery at the time, of course, and this sophistical manoeuvring on the part of Hammond / Jervis would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for an unexpected piece of juxtapositioning. One of the subplots of Agatha concerns a long-term friend of Hammond’s, a Jew named Aaron Israeli, who was “hated and ridiculed by every other in the school” when Hammond took him under his wing. We don’t see much of Israeli ourselves over the course of the novel, but we hear quite a bit about him – and he is unfailingly generous, noble and loyal. It is he who rescues Hammond from slavery, and at considerable personal cost.

Casual, and not-so-casual, anti-Semitism would be a common feature of English literature for the next 150 years, with even otherwise liberal writers often lapsing on this point. We would hardly call Elizabeth Jervis “liberal”, considering the rest of her novel. Agatha in its entirety is a strange mix of piety and prejudice. Some of its excesses we laugh at, some (I hope) we wince at; but with her sketch of Aaron Israeli, she takes us entirely by surprise. In and of itself a welcome piece of generosity, in the context of the novel that contains it, it is nothing short of astonishing.



Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 2)








While Elizabeth Jervis gets points for coming up with so unexpected a plot twist as confronting her heroine with the prospect of life in a convent, it is upon this twist that her novel founders – or rather, upon the attitude that underlies her handling of it.

During this time and, indeed, across much of the 19th century, the English anti-Catholic novel was nothing uncommon. Many of those novels were virulently negative in their view of “the Romish faith” and sincere in their belief in the threat it posed to England…but Agatha isn’t really like that. It has few good words for Catholicism as such, granted, but the overriding feel of the novel is a perfectly English and perfectly Protestant bewilderment as to why anyone would want to be Catholic – let alone a nun. It’s not hostile, merely confused.

This confusion undermines the story. We are told in passing that “Agatha had been raised in her mother’s faith”, but there is absolutely no sense of either she or Lady Belmont as a devoted, practising Catholic; no hint as to when or where they attend Mass and go to confession. We hear much about Agatha’s “religion” but it’s all very generic. Nothing in the early stages of the novel prepares us for believing that Lady Belmont would make and keep such an oath.

The other major problem is the character of Sir Charles Belmont, who despite retaining his own faith accepts the necessary sacrifice of his daughter and acts in concert with his wife to raise Agatha so as to prepare her for it. We in turn must accept that he believes that his wife will be eternally damned if she does not succeed in persuading Agatha to enter a convent – or at least that he believes that she believes it – but as the character is sketched, it is easier to imagine him putting down a Protestant foot and exclaiming, “Nonsense!”

However, Elizabeth Jervis’s failure to convince the reader on this point actually creates an extremely interesting tension throughout the rest of the novel. It is clear that Jervis could think of no greater sacrifice in life than entering a convent; no more extreme way for Agatha to exhibit her self-control, her mastery of her own passions and her filial devotion. In short, Agatha wins her author’s unqualified approval by doing something that meets with her unqualified disapproval.

Once Lady Belmont has explained the situation, Agatha is left to make her decision as to whether or not she can and will renounce the world – which means renouncing Edward Hammond, and life as a wife and a mother. Her choice is made no simpler by the fact that every other character in the novel thinks that becoming a nun is wrong, not just for Agatha, but generally.

Agatha takes the usual* Protestant standpoint that entering a convent is not an act of devotion, but an act of cowardice, a retreat from the temptations and challenges of the world; while the choosing of “a Heavenly Spouse” over an earthly one is both wasteful and unnatural. Almost every person that Agatha encounters expresses this opinion to a greater or lesser degree, reacting to her dilemma with unconcealed horror and sympathy.

(*Usual in this era, anyway, some fifty years before the founding of the first English Anglican convents, which were in any case viewed with similar if not equal disapproval.)

These scenes climax in a series of sickly comic passages involving Hannah, the Belmonts’ Malaprop-spouting housemaid, who upon getting wind of the scheme denounces “these nasty abominable nun notions” and encourages Agatha to run off with either of the young men seen lurking in the vicinity of the house – marriage being “a holy constitution”. (The second is William Milson, for whom Agatha is his latest hopeless passion.)

More seriously, Agatha is confronted by a vision of what she is giving up in the shape of Jemima Simmonds, who becomes the object of her sympathy after circumstances force the young woman to choose between her lover and her duty to care for the grandmother who raised her, and who is now ill and unable to be moved. The always over-the-top Mr Ormistace intervenes in the situation and reunites the estranged lovers, and Agatha is later forced to listen to Jemima’s panagyric on a life of earthly, wedded love, literally love in a cottage, where, “Our brown loaf and homemade cheese eats so sweet a lord might envy us… O Madam, them only that love and are married know what it is to be happy!”

This scene leads to one of the novel’s most drily funny moments, when Lady Belmont, who has listened to this and seen its effect upon Agatha with dismay, deflates her dangerous emotion by remarking to her daughter, “A white loaf and Parmesan cheese would not have excited a tear in either of us”, then in a flash of inspiration points out that Jemima has, in fact, been rewarded for her filial devotion. Agatha, to her credit, sees through her mother’s tactics, but is too worn down to combat them. It is, in fact, the very next day that she gives Lady Belmont the promise she seeks, and agrees to fulfil her mother’s oath by becoming a nun.

Now, you might think that upon leaving Protestant England for Catholic France, Agatha would find some support for her decision, but you’d be wrong. No-one in France thinks she’s doing the right thing, either – including the others in the convent – where if anyone has taken the veil out of a sense of vocation, we’re certainly not introduced to them.

The motives of the Abbess, who becomes “a second mother” to Agatha (I’m honestly not sure if that description was intended ironically or not), are not explored, so we’re at liberty to believe in her religious sincerity. Be that as it may, the Abbess seems to put most of her energy into discouraging her noviciates from taking the veil. Among the nuns themselves, we meet only two, neither of whom has renounced the world with a free heart or an easy spirit. Agatha’s closest friend, Sister Agnes, entered the convent following her betrayal by, and the subsequent misery and death of, her fiancé. Later, at a moment of high drama, Agnes will endanger Agatha’s life and her own by returning to her cell for her one earthly treasure, a miniature of her former lover to which she still clings.

Meanwhile, there’s Sister Frances, who drew the short straw amongst her overly numerous sisters. Frances makes no bones about her belief that, since her vows were made under compulsion, they’re not binding – nor of her intention to swap the convent for the world and a man at the first opportunity. (Frances also likes to amuse herself by dressing up in men’s clothes and wandering around the convent grounds, putting the wind up her companions in the process.) The ludicrous climax to this particular plot thread is reached later in the novel, when a Catholic priest who has befriended Agatha admits to her that he does not consider entering a convent as being devoted to Heaven in “the truest sense of the word”, and advises her to just forget about her vows and get married.

However – all of this is intended not to dissuade Agatha from her intention, but to delineate the magnitude of her self-sacrifice, and the depth of the devotion to duty that makes it possible. It is, nevertheless, something of a shock to the reader when Agatha concludes her probationary period undisturbed, and proceeds to the taking of her vows. Even as Lady Belmont screams and faints and has to be carried out of the chapel, Agatha emerges from beneath the black pall as Agatha no longer, but as Sister Constance.

It is now late in the year of 1789 – and the French Revolution is underway…

[To be continued…]


Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 1)

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (1796) was the only novel ever written by Elizabeth Jervis. It was written when she was thirty-three years old, and published anonymously in the same year that she married Samuel Pipe Wolferstan, a Leicestershire lawyer and anti-slavery campaigner. The novel was well-received by neither the critics nor Elizabeth Jervis’s immediate circle, including her soon-to-be fiancé (although excluding her proud father); and this, combined with the assumption of new duties including becoming stepmother to two children in their teens, may have discouraged her from trying again. The new Elizabeth Pipe Wolferstan did, however, write poetry under her married name, as well as a text on the education of young children, but published nothing until after the death of her husband in 1820. Although Agatha was translated into French and Dutch, it failed to find an audience in its native land, and a second edition did not appear.

Until now. In my first “Reading Roulette” post, I gave an outline of the circumstances in which the identity of Agatha‘s author was unexpectedly brought to light, and the novel at long last reissued. As to the big question of whether it was worth it—

Is Agatha a lost classic? No. Is it an interesting novel worthy of consideration? Yes, absolutely.

Agatha is very much the product of its time. The language is often overwrought – or perhaps I should say, poetical – and it is full of characters suffering an excess of “sensibility”, to the point of being perpetually on the edge of physical and emotional collapse; and who are, as characters full of sensibility tend to be, utterly humourless.

(As I always say, I can deal with the weeping and the fainting: it’s the tottering that sets my teeth on edge.)

However, these are not mere indulgences. Agatha is a didactic novel, its lesson quite a stern one about the control of the passions and submission of the will to duty and to God; and in pursuit of this theme, it takes its story in some very—I might even say, completely unexpected directions.

Our titular heroine is Agatha Belmont, who from an early age displays “every sign of a warm and benevolent heart, a sweet and serene temper, and a soul exquisitely susceptible”. There is a shadow across Agatha’s life, as we, her readers, are aware: after her parents have been married for twelve happy, although childless, years – something happens – something that makes them thankful to have no child. Naturally, Lady Belmont immediately afterwards falls pregnant. Agatha is raised in almost total seclusion, and taught by her mother to depise the world, including love and marriage, which Agatha is assured are most likely to bring her only misery. Agatha dutifully imbibes her mother’s lessons, but has enough youthful spirit and independence of mind to fancy:

…that the world, bad as it was, might afford her some happiness; and that when the time should arrive that she was permitted to enter it, thus guarded by caution, she should be able to discriminate; to separate the bad from the good; to make a moderate use of pleasures; to dance without fatigue, love without much jealousy, and to be one of the favoured few who married happily…

When Agatha is sixteen, her parents visit France, leaving her with the only friend with whom they have not cut their ties over the preceding years, a Miss Hammond. However, Miss Hammond is “seized with a violent fever” and dies, leaving Agatha entirely alone and at a complete loss. Her solitude is abruptly shattered by the arrival of Miss Hammond’s long-lost younger brother, Edward, who (in the first but by no means the last of the novel’s improbable turns) has spent the last few years enslaved in Algiers, labouring for the “Moorish pirate” who captured him. Hammond and Agatha are two peas in a pod, and it is a mere matter of hours before they are in love; although Agatha does not immediately recognise her feelings for what they are. (In an amusing touch, having been taught by her mother that “friendship” is a far higher state than mere “love”, Agatha repeatedly torments her adorer by assuring him of her friendship for him.)

Since she cannot stay at the Hammond house alone with a man, Agatha is received into the household of a neighbour, Sir John Milson, with whose daughter she is slightly acquainted. Here, Elizabeth Jervis’s talent for character sketches shows itself: her protagonists might be sickeningly perfect, but her supporting cast is not. Indeed, and without wanting to get carried away, the crude Sir John Milson strikes me as almost a model for Jane Austen’s Sir John Middleton, right down to the similarities of name, with both Sir Johns embarrassing and disconcerting their young female guests by talking of little other than “catching husbands”. (Agatha conceals her feelings rather better than Marianne, despite her “sensibility”.) The cool description of Lady Milson, who “had she been married to a man of a liberal turn of mind, instead of one whose meannesses she had early learned to contract, would probably have been a respectable member of society”, also strikes me as somewhat Austen-esque.

Surrounding these two are Miss Milson, who “possessed from nature some sensibility, and from art infinitely more”; her brother William, who makes a profession out of being in unrequited love; the eccentric Mr Craggs, a self-ministering hypochondriac of the most peculiar sort; Mr Ormistace, whose “benevolence, untempered by reason” makes him the perfect target for con-men (and women), as well as an object lesson about self-control; and the sensible Mr Crawford, who functions as this menagerie’s voice of reason. Best of all, though, is the tart-tongued young widow, Mrs Herbert, who has both a sense of humour and a nice way with a sarcastic putdown:

    “Why this is no how,” said Sir John. “Whenever one talks to you, Mrs Herbert, you answer one in such a roundabout manner, that a plain sensible man, though he may be a gentleman and a baronet into the bargain, perhaps, can’t understand what you mean.”
    “I am sorry, indeed,” said Mrs Herbert, “and for the future I will endeavour to adapt my language to the comprehension of gentlemen and baronets.”

However, with the reappearance on the scene of Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, this lightness of tone almost vanishes from the novel. Agatha’s parents are furious and horrified at finding her not only in the midst of the very society from which they have deliberately kept her cut off, but only too obviously loved and in love. They whisk her away to her own home without loss of time, making it perfectly clear to Edward Hammond that he is persona non grata, and finally reveal to Agatha the Terrible Secret that will shape the rest of her story.

The earliest pages of the novel mention in passing that Lady Belmont is French, and that she and Sir Charles made a runaway marriage, which left Lady Belmont estranged from her mother. We now get the rest of Lady Belmont’s story, and its looming impact upon her only child.

The mother of Lady Belmont was, we learn, “born with dreadful and violent passions, which had been from my youth upwards suffered to assume mastery of my reason”. Equally in love with and jealous of her husband, upon coming to believe that she had lost his affections to another woman, she set a band of hired assassins on him – regretting it, of course, as soon as the blow was struck. With her husband lying between life and death, she then swore an oath to God that the child she was carrying would be dedicated to His service. Her husband recovered from his wounds, and the child, the future Lady Belmont, subsequently educated in a convent with a view to her finally taking the veil. However, on a brief visit home before taking her vows, the young woman fell in love with Sir Charles Belmont and eloped with him, thus breaking her mother’s oath.

It was not until many years later that Lady Belmont was allowed again into her mother’s presence, and suffered the full consequences of her actions. As her mother lay dying, she forced from Lady Belmont another oath: that should she in turn bear a child, it would be dedicated to God as she, Lady Belmont, should have been; and that she would keep this oath on pain of eternal damnation. Appalled at this prospect, but facing her mother’s curse, Lady Belmont finally swore the oath – doing so in the belief that after so many barren years, she would never bear a child and thus never have to keep it.

Enter Agatha.

[To be continued…]



So I decided to make a beginning with Reading Roulette. My scheme for this is, as I have mentioned, to select a novel at random from those in my wish list published between 1751 and 1930, inclusive. They are arranged chronologically and numbered, so I can enter those numerical cutoffs into a random number generator and have my book chosen for me.

(Obsessive? Who, me?)

And using this approach, my first random book has been selected – and in terms of an investigation of obscure, forgotten 18th and 19th century novels, I could hardly have hit upon a better example:

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (1796) – Elizabeth Jervis

The joke here is that had I done this only a few months ago, this novel would have been obscure and forgotten to the point of being unobtainable. By a wonderful coincidence, it has been made available by the efforts of John Goss, a M. Litt. student who stumbled across the identity of the author of this anonymously published novel while researching Robert Bage* for his thesis. Learning that less than twenty libraries in the world held a copy of Agatha, Goss initiated a subscription process to fund the editing and reissuing of the novel (I wish I’d known about that at the time) – a second edition 214 years after the first. A limited run of the novel was released earlier this year…and has, apparently, already been pirated by those print-on-demand outfits. Charming.

Anyway – the story being what it is, I’ve decided to order a copy of Agatha (an authorised one, I hasten to add). The first game of Reading Roulette will have to wait just a little longer.

(*Robert Bage! Now, there’s someone I haven’t read for a year or two. I remember enjoying his novels.)