Posts tagged ‘epistolary’

26/08/2017

Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 2)


 
    The truth rises upon me, and every succeeding circumstance points to one conclusion. Lisette was to-day of a junketing party, which Lonquillez contrived for the entertainment of his friend Le Blanc. Mention was again made of old stories, and Savillon was a person of the drama. The wench is naturally talkative, and she was then in spirits from company and good cheer. Le Blanc and she recollected interviews of their young mistress and this handsome elève of her father. They were, it seems, nursed by the same woman, that old Lasune, for whom Julia procured a little dwelling, and a pension of four hundred livres, from her unsuspecting husband. “She loved them (said Le Blanc) like her own children, and they were like brother and sister to each other”—“Brother and sister, indeed!” (said Lisette.) She was more sagacious, and had observed things better.—“I know what I know, (said she) but to be sure, those things are all over now, and, I am persuaded, my mistress loves no man so well as her own husband. What signifies what happened so long ago, especially while M. de Montauban knows nothing about the matter?”
    These were her words: Lonquillez repeated them thrice to me.—Were I a fool, a driveller, I might be satisfied to doubt and be uneasy; it is Montauban’s to see his disgrace, and, seeing, to revenge it…

 

That Henry Mackenzie intended Julia de Roubigné as a criticism of the theories of sentimentalism is most evident by the mid-novel juxtapositioning of Julia receiving posthumous instructions from her mother, and Julia succumbing to irrational fears upon first setting foot in her husband’s house.

Before Julia sets out with de Montauban, her father gives her an unfinished letter from her mother, which is full of advice and admonitions about a wife’s duty. As with her earlier observation about Julia not listening, we get the impression that Mme de Roubigné is passing on hard lessons learned through bitter experience; that we saw her as an exemplary, self-sacrificing wife speaks for itself. The miserable idea passed on to the reader of 18th century marriage is, alas, no doubt accurate:

    “Sweetness of temper, affection to a husband, and attention to his interests, constitute the duties of a wife, and form the basis of matrimonial felicity. These are indeed the texts, from which every rule for attaining this felicity is drawn…
    “Never consider a trifle what may tend to please him. The great articles of duty he will set down as his own; but the lesser attentions he will mark as favours; and trust me, for I have experienced it, there is no feeling more delightful to one’s-self, than that of turning those little things to so precious a use.
    “If you marry a man of a certain sort, such as the romance of young minds generally paints for a husband, you will deride the supposition of any possible decrease in the ardour of your affections. But wedlock, even in its happiest lot, is not exempted from the common fate of all sublunary blessings; there is ever a delusion in hope which cannot abide with possession. The rapture of extravagant love will evaporate and waste; the conduct of the wife must substitute in its room other regards, as delicate, and more lasting. I say, the conduct of the wife; for marriage, be a husband what he may, reverses the prerogative of sex; his will expect to be pleased, and ours must be sedulous to please.
    “This privilege a good natured man may wave. He will feel it, however, due; and third persons will have penetration enough to see, and may have malice enough to remark, the want of it in his wife. He must be a husband unworthy of you, who could bear the degradation of suffering this in silence…
    “Above all, let a wife beware of communicating to others any want of duty or tenderness, she may think she has perceived in her husband. This untwists, at once, those delicate cords, which preserve the unity of the marriage-engagement…”

This (and much more) is transmitted in its entirety by Julia to Maria…yet Julia’s very next letter finds her not only reporting her doubts and unhappiness to her friend, but indulging in gloomy forebodings about the future. Here is only a short excerpt of the new wife’s feelings:

Why should I wish for long life? Why should so many wish for it? Did we sit down to number the calamities of this world; did we think how many wretches there are of disease, of poverty, of oppression, of vice, (alas! I fear there are some even of virtue) we should change one idea of evil, and learn to look on death as a friend…

So ends the first volume of Julia de Roubigné; the second starts with an interjection from our editor, explaining the difficulty he had working out how to organise his second batch of letters, since they clearly overlapped the first batch in date and in content. As always, “sentiment” is allowed to have the final word:

Many of the particulars they recount are anticipated by a perusal of the foregoing letters; but it is not so much on story, as sentiment, that their interest with the reader must depend…

The second batch of letters were written by Savillon, beginning at the time of his arrival in Martinique, and sent from there to his friend, Beauvaris, in Paris. Though he speaks of his duty to both M. de Roubigné and to his uncle, one theme dominates:

Julia de Roubigné!—Did you feel that name as I do!—Even traced with my own pen, what throbbing remembrances has it raised!—You are acquainted with my obligations to her father: You have heard me sometimes talk of her; but you know not, for I tremble to tell you, the power she has acquired over the heart of your friend…

Though Savillon feels himself unfitted for business, and in particular the business conducted by his uncle (of which, much more shortly), he knows his only hope of being considered a fit husband for Julia is to succeed and make his fortune, which might now weigh in the balance against his (relative) lack of birth. He therefore grits his teeth and knuckles down—but immediately finds himself confronting a barrier he cannot surmount, namely, that his uncle, a planter, runs his business on slavery.

As noted, Henry Mackenzie was in general a fairly conservative individual, who resisted the advanced social theories of his contemporaries; yet in Julia de Roubigné we find him espousing what would, in 1777, have been considered not merely “advanced”, but radical. This is one of the very earliest works of fiction not merely to protest slavery, but to suggest there was a better way; a way both more humane and more productive—and that it appeared more than one hundred years after Aphra Behn deplored the cruelty and mutual degradation of slavery in Oroonoko is a profoundly depressing thought. This time-gap is a chilling indication of the brutality that was the hallmark of the so-called “Age of Reason”. Conversely, we must keep in mind that whatever absurdity and self-indulgence may have belonged to the “cult of sensibility”, it also gave birth to the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

And whatever Mackenzie thought about sentimentalism in general, we have no reason to think he isn’t sincere about the words he puts in Savillon’s mouth:

To a man not callous from habit, the treatment of the negroes, in the plantations here, is shocking… I have been often tempted to doubt whether there is not an error in the whole plan to negro servitude, and whether whites, or creoles born in the West-Indies, or perhaps cattle, after the manner of European husbandry, would not do the business better and cheaper than the slaves do. The money which the latter cost at first, the sickness (often owing to despondency of mind) to which they are liable after their arrival, and the proportion that die in consequence of it, make the machine, if it may be so called, of a plantation extremely expensive in its operations. In the list of slaves belonging to a wealthy planter, it would astonish you to see the number unfit for service, pining under disease, a burden on their master.—I am talking only as a merchant: But as a man—good Heavens! when I think of the many thousands of my fellow creatures groaning under servitude and misery!—Great God! hast thou peopled those regions of thy world for the purpose of casting out their inhabitants to chains and torture?—No; thou gavest them a land teeming with good things, and lighted’st up thy sun to bring forth spontaneous plenty; but the refinements of man, ever at war with thy works, have changed this scene of profusion and luxuriance, into a theatre of repine, of slavery and of murder… Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason…stifles humanity, and debases the species—for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man.

In fact—the most radical part of that might be Savillon’s reference to the slaves as “my fellow creatures”: that black people were not fully human was the basic argument of the slavers; while the anti-slavery movement defiantly operated within a broader concept of “the brotherhood of man”.

Savillon persuades his uncle to let him try an experiment. He starts by forming a bond with an intelligent if understandably wary slave called Yambu, who was the former leader of a band of men captured together in Africa:

Next morning I called those negroes who had formerly been in his service together, and told them that, while they continued in the plantation, Yambu was to superintend their work; that, if they chose to leave him and me, they were at liberty to go; and that, if found idle or unworthy, they should not be allowed to stay. He has, accordingly, ever since had the command of his former subjects, and superintended their work in a particular quarter of the plantation; and, having been declared free, according to the mode prescribed by the laws of the island, has a certain portion of ground allotted him, the produce of which is his property. I have had the satisfaction of observing those men under the feeling of good treatment, and the idea of liberty, do more than almost double their number subject to the whip of an overseer. I am under no apprehension of desertion or mutiny; they work with the willingness of freedom, yet are mine with more than the obligation of slavery…

But while we must highlight and celebrate this interlude, it is only a diversion within the main narrative of Julia de Roubigné. Another comes in the form of a developing friendship between Savillon and an Englishman, William Herbert, which offers the reader both the inevitable “interpolated narrative”, as Savillon reports the details of Herbert’s life to Beauvaris, and the equally inevitable “tragedy we can all wallow in” as, after striving for years to support the wife and children he adores but is separated from, Herbert finally sends for them—and promptly loses them in a shipwreck.

This is somewhat curious, as it exactly the kind of thing that “real” novels of sentimentalism delight in, yet is presented straight in what we interpret as a critique of the genre.

Even more curious is that despite Savillon’s various outbursts of romantic agony about Julia, and about his ideas on friendship (most of which I’ve spared you), Mackenzie uses him from time to time as the novel’s voice of reason—which is to say, he puts into his mouth the frequent (and not unwarranted) rebuttal of “sensibility”, that it was simply a form of self-indulgence:

I begin to suspect that the sensibility, of which your minds are proud, from which they look down with contempt on the unfeeling multitude of ordinary men, is less a blessing than an inconvenience.—Why cannot I be as happy as my uncle, as Dorville, as all the other good people around me?—I eat, and drink, and sing, nay I can be merry, like them; but they close the account, and set down this mirth for happiness; I retire to the family of my own thoughts, and find them in weeds of sorrow…

We should note, however, that at another point Mackenzie is generous enough to make a distinction between “real” sensibility and “false” affectation; although we do come away with the impression that he felt most of it was affectation.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear of Savillon’s life in Martinique, and his affectionate but somewhat uneasy relationship with his business-hardened uncle, and of a new acquaintance:

At one of those dinners was a neighbour and intimate acquaintance of my uncle, a M. Dorville, with his wife and daughter. The young lady was seated next me, and my uncle seemed to incline that I should be particularly pleased with her. He addressed such discourse to her as might draw her forth to the greatest advantage; and, as he had heard me profess myself as lover of music, he made her sing, after dinner, till, I believe, some of the company began to be tired of their entertainment. After they were gone, he asked my opinion of Mademoiselle Dorville, in that particular style by which a man gives you to un|derstand, that his own is a very favourable one. To say truth, the lady’s appearance is in her favour; but there is a jealous sort of feeling, which arises in my mind, when I hear the praises of any woman but one; and, from that cause perhaps, I answered my uncle rather coldly… Her father, I am apt to believe, has something of what is commonly called a plot upon me; but as to him my conscience is easy, because, the coffers of my uncle being his quarry, it matters not much if he is disappointed…

Now—you might be struggling at this point to conceive of a marriage between Savillon and Mlle Dorville, and you’d be right:

    My uncle, who had staid some time behind me with Dorville, came in. He was very copious on the subject of Mademoiselle. I was perfectly of his opinion in every thing, and praised her in echo to what he said, but he had discernment enough to see an indifference in this, which I was sorry to find he did not like. I know not how far he meant to go, if we had been long together; but he found himself somewhat indisposed, and was obliged to go to bed.
    I sat down alone, and thought of Julia de Roubigné…

Like Mme de Roubigné, Savillon’s uncle goes to bed never to rise from it. Having inherited a fortune, Savillon himself embarks for France as soon as he can manage it, with only one thought on his mind. His correspondent at this point switches from M. Beauvaris to Mr Herbert, and for more reasons than one: when Savillon arrives in Paris, he discovers that Beauvaris has suddenly died. This shock is bad enough but, as we know, there is another in store…

While all this has been going on, there have been a few other interpolated letters—from Julia to Maria, and from de Montauban to Segarva: the former, trying to take her mother’s advice, has little say that isn’t superficial; the latter showing himself increasingly aware of the significant differences in temperament and character between himself and his wife. Guests, in the form of a M. de Rouillé and a Mme de Sancerre, drive the point home: de Montauban is often unable to enter into the spirit of their conversation, though his duty as a host requires him to at least seem pleased. He is particularly annoyed when he sees how the often “melancholy” Julia is brightened by de Rouillé’s cheerful and joking demeanour:

    Why should I allow this spleen of sense to disqualify me for society?—Once or twice I almost muttered things against my present situation.—Julia loves me; I know she does: She has that tenderness and gratitude, which will secure her affection to a husband, who loves her as I do; but she must often feel the difference of disposition between us. Had such a man as Rouillé been her husband—not Rouillé neither, though she seems often delighted with his good humour, when I cannot be pleased with it.—
    We are neither of us such a man as the writer of a romance would have made a husband for Julia.—There, is indeed, a pliability in the minds of women in this article, which frequently gains over opinion to the side of duty.—Duty is a cold word.—No matter, we will canvas it no farther. I know the purity of her bosom, and I think, I am not unworthy of its affection…

Perhaps not—but Julia’s “duty”, if not her “affection”, is about to be seriously challenged, and a new emotion reignite her correspondence:

    I have just now received a piece of intelligence, which I must beg my Maria instantly to satisfy me about. Le Blanc, my father’s servant, was here a few hours ago, and among other news, informed Lisette, that a nephew of his, who is just come with his master from Paris, met Savillon there, whom he perfectly remembered, from having seen him in his visits to his uncle at Belville. The lad had no time for enquiry, as his master’s carriage was just setting off, when he observed a chaise drive up to the door of the hotel, with a gentleman in it, whom he knew to be Savillon, accompanied by a valet de chambre, and two black servants on horseback.
    Think, Maria, what I feel at this intelligence!—Yet why should it alarm me?—Alas! you know this poor, weak, throbbing heart of mine! I cannot, if I would, hide it from you.—Find him out, for Heaven’s sake, Maria; tell me—yet what now is Savillon to your Julia?—No matter—do any thing your prudence may suggest; only satisfy me about the fate of this once dear—Again! I dare not trust myself on the subject—Mons. de Montauban! Farewell!

Maria and Savillon do meet in Paris; the outcome is reported to Mr Herbert:

    When I told you, my Beauvaris was no more, I thought I had exhausted the sum of distress, which this visit to Paris was to give me. I knew not then what fate had prepared for me—that Julia, on whom my doating heart had rested all its hopes of happiness;—that Julia is the wife of another!
    All but this I could have borne; the loss of fortune, the decay of health, the coldness of friends, might have admitted of hope; here only was despair to be found, and here I have found it!
    Oh! Herbert! she was so interwoven with my thoughts of futurity, that life now fades into a blank, and is not worth the keeping…

Maria, meanwhile, has the painful task of letting Julia know the truth:

    What do you tell me! Savillon in Paris! unmarried, unengaged, raving of Julia! Hide me from myself, Maria, hide me from myself—Am I not the wife of Montauban?—
    Yes, and I know that character which as the wife of Montauban, I have to support: Her husband’s honour and her own are in the breast of Julia. My heart swells, while I think of the station in which I am placed.—Relentless Honour! thou triest me to the uttermost; thou enjoinest me to think no more of such a being as Savillon.
    But can I think of him no more?—Cruel remembrances?—Thou too, my friend, betrayest me; you dare not trust me with the whole scene; but you tell me enough.—I see him, I see him now! He came, unconscious of what Fortune had made of me; he came, elate with the hopes of sharing with his Julia that wealth, which propitious Heaven had bestowed on him.—She is married to another!—I see him start back in amazement and despair; his eye wild and haggard, his voice lost in the throb of astonishment! He thinks on the shadows which his fond hopes had reared—the dreams of happiness!…

This passage is the most extravagant example of something that recurs throughout Julia de Roubigné, with the characters, Julia and de Montauban in particular – it’s the one thing they do have in common – able to summon up imaginary scenes more real to them than reality. For example, Julia’s early realisation of her love for Savillon came accompanied by a terrifying vision of confessing it to her father, to excuse her refusal of de Montauban: Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself…

This tendency that speaks back to the way in which the correspondence is organised within this epistolary novel, with the absence of responding letters making the emotional reality of Julia and de Montauban and Savillon its only reality. In Julia’s case, Mackenzie repeatedly places her outbursts against some piece of prosaic reality or unwelcome duty, in order to point out the growing distance between what she should be focused upon and what she is focused upon, and the danger inherent in her lack of emotional self-control. The warning conveyed when we were alerted to Julia’s habit of separating “thought” and “conduct” here comes to poisonous fruition.

Even before she learned that Savillon was not in fact married, Julia’s exact degree of success in driving him from her heart was conveyed to us in a letter from de Montauban:

I was last night abroad at supper: Julia was a-bed before my return. I found her lute lying on the table, and a music-book open by it. I could perceive the marks of tears shed on the paper, and the air was such as might encourage their falling: Sleep however had overcome her sadness, and she did not awake when I opened the curtains to look on her. When I had stood some moments, I heard her sigh strongly through her sleep, and presently she muttered some words, I know not of what import. I had sometimes heard her do so before, without regarding it much; but there was something that roused my attention now. I listened; she sighed again, and again spoke a few broken words; at last I heard her plainly pronounce the name Savillon, two or three times over, and each time it was accompanied with sighs so deep, that her heart seemed bursting as it heaved them…

Now, the fact that she could not bear to part with that miniature of Savillon comes back to bite her (and, by the way, we never do learn Maria’s thoughts on the subject):

    Segarva!—but it must be told—I blush even telling it to thee—have I lived to this?—that thou shouldst hear the name of Montauban coupled with dishonour!
    I came into my wife’s room yesterday morning, somewhat unexpectedly. I observed she had been weeping, though she put on her hat to conceal it and spoke in a tone of voice affectedly indifferent. Presently she went out on pretence of walking; I staid behind, not without surprise at her tears, though, I think, without suspicion; when turning over (in the careless way one does in musing) some loose papers on her dressing-table, I sound a picture of a young man in miniature, the glass of which was still wet with the tears she had shed on it. I have but a confused remembrance of my feelings at the time; there was a bewildered pause of thought, as if I had waked in another world…

His suspicions thoroughly awakened, de Montauban now sees guilt in every word and action of Julia; and (like so many 18th century male leads, though Henry Mackenzie at least has the grace not to call him “hero”) he seems to take a fierce pleasure in thinking the worst of the woman he is supposed to love. Here, de Montauban too shows his skill in conjuring up visions with which to torment himself:

    We dined alone, and I marked her closely; I saw, (by Heaven! I did) a fawning solicitude to please me, an attempt at the good-humour of innocence, to cover the embarrassment of guilt. I should have observed it, I am sure I should, even without a key; as it was, I could read her soul to the bottom.—Julia de Roubigné! the wife of Montauban!—Is it not so?
    I have had time to think.—You will recollect the circumstances of our marriage—her long unwillingness, her almost unconquerable reluctance.—Why did I marry her?
    Let me remember—I durst not trust the honest decision of my friend, but stole into this engagement without his knowledge; I purchased her consent, I bribed, I bought her; bought her, the leavings of another!—I will trace this line of infamy no further: There is madness in it!…

De Montauban’s Spanish upbringing now kicks in, at this perceived affront to his honour—an “honour” which doesn’t prevent him from setting his servant to spy on his wife, or from seeking intelligence about her amongst the other servants. Typically, though the vast majority of what he hears is capable (and rightly) of a perfectly innocent construction, it is the passing suggestion of Lisette that Julia once loved Savillon that de Montauban seizes upon; and from a childhood crush to the guilt of adultery is a small step in his disordered imagination. Lonquillez, the servant (Spanish, and therefore capable of stooping to anything in the name of his master’s honour), persuades de Montauban that Julia and Savillon must be corresponding, and that he should confirm his suspicions by intercepting their letters—

—a decision which coincides with the single exchange of letters between the two, with Savillon finally persuading Maria to send onto Julia a letter from himself begging for a single meeting, and Julia’s reply agreeing to it. The honourable de Montauban has no hesitation sending his discoveries to Segarva, in the name of self-justification:

    “I know not, Sir, how to answer the letter my friend Mademoiselle de Roncilles has just sent me from you. The intimacy of our former days I still recal, as one of the happiest periods of my life. The friendship of Julia you are certainly still entitled to, and might claim, without the suspicion of impropriety, though fate has now thrown her into the arms of another. There would then be no occasion for this secret interview, which, I confess, I cannot help dreading; but, as you urge the impossibility of your visiting Mons. de Montauban, without betraying emotions, which, you say, would be dangerous to the peace of us all, conjured as I am by these motives of compassion, which my heart is, perhaps, but too susceptible of for my own peace, I have at last, not without a feeling like remorse, resolved to meet you on Monday next, at the house of our old nurse Lasune, whom I shall prepare for the purpose, and on whose fidelity I can perfectly rely. I hope you will give me credit for that remembrance of Savillon, which your letter, rather unjustly, denies me, when you find me agreeing to this measure of imprudence, of danger, it may be of guilt, to mitigate the distress, which I have been unfortunate enough to give him.”
    I feel at this moment a sort of determined coolness, which the bending up of my mind to the revenge her crimes deserve, has confered upon me; I have therefore underlined some passages in this damned scroll, that my friend may see the weight of that proof on which I proceed. Mark the air of prudery that runs through it, the trick of voluptuous vice to give pleasure the zest of nicety and reluctance. “It may be of guilt.”—Mark with what coolness she invites him to participate it!—Is this the hand writing of Julia?—I am awake and see it.—Julia! my wife! damnation!

…all of which goes to show exactly how much de Montauban knows about the women he is married to. But then, we recall his low opinion of the female sex in general – the usual masculine self-fulfilling prophecy, which puts the worst possible construction upon everything on the flimsiest of evidence – and we see it in action when de Montauban calls upon the simple, kind-hearted old Lasune who (having nursed them both) thinks of Julia and Savillion both as her own children, and as brother and sister. But even here de Montauban sees only conscious guilt:

    Whether they have really imposed on the simplicity of this creature, I know not; but her answers to some distant questions of mine looked not like those of an accomplice of their guilt.—Or, rather, it is I who am deceived; the cunning of intrigue is the property of the meanest among the sex.—It matters not: I have proof without her.
    She conducted me into an inner room fitted up with a degree of nicety. On one side stood a bed, with curtains and a bed-cover of clean cotton. That bed, Segarva!… It looked as if the Beldame had trimmed it for their use—damn her! damn her! killing is poor—Canst thou not invent me some luxurious vengeance?

Segarva is, we gather, fully in sympathy with his friend’s homicidal rage; his only caution is that de Montauban should keep his revenge a secret, not in fear for himself, but so that general knowledge of Julia’s guilt should not posthumously tarnish his, ahem, “honour”:

I am less easily convinced, or rather I am less willing to be guided, by your opinion, as to the secrecy of her punishment. You tell me, that there is but one expiation of a wife’s infidelity.—I am resolved, she dies—but that the sacrifice should be secret. Were I even to upbraid her with her crime, you say, her tears, her protestations would outplead the conviction of sense itself, and I should become the dupe of that infamy I am bound to punish.—Is there not something like guilt in this secrecy? Should Montauban shrink, like a coward, from the vindication of his honour?—Should he not burst upon this strumpet and her lover—the picture is beastly—the sword of Montauban!—Thou art in the right, it would disgrace it…

Julia’s agreement to the meeting, however, has not come without agonies of doubt, and many changes of mind; her longing to see Savillon one last time battling with her painful consciousness that if she does so, she will no longer be able to draw that comforting if specious distinction between “thought” and “conduct”. At the last she accepts that she must not do it, and sends via Maria a message to Savillon telling him not to come.

The matter does not rest there, however: Maria, having been subjected to the full battery of Savillon’s own agonies, is overborne, and joins him in persuading Julia to a single meeting. Julia finds herself unable to resist temptation, when it comes from the person she is used to considering as the voice of reason:

    You intreat me, for pity’s sake, to meet him.—He hinted his design of soon leaving France to return to Martinique.—Why did he ever leave France? had he remained contented with love and Julia, instead of this stolen, this guilty meeting—What do I say?—I live but for Montauban!
    I will think no longer.—This one time I will silence the monitor within me…

The meeting, if impassioned, is of course innocent (despite the bed in the corner of the room):

I spoke of the duty I owed to Montauban, of the esteem which his virtues deserved.—“I have heard of his worth (said Savillon) I needed no proof to be convinced of it; he is the husband of Julia.”—There was something in the tone of these last words, that undid my resolution again.—I told him of the false intelligence I had received of his marriage, without which no argument of prudence, no paternal influence, could have made me the wife of another.—He put his hand to his heart, and threw his eyes wildly to Heaven.—I shrunk back at that look of despair, which his countenance assumed.—He took two or three hurried turns through the room; then, resuming his seat, and lowering his voice, “It is enough (said he) I am fated to be miserable! but the contagion of my destiny shall spread no farther.—This night I leave France forever!”

Overwhelmed by the emotion of their final parting (though not so much that she can’t write to Maria about it), Julia is again the victim of her imagination; and we reach the most thoroughly Gothicky bit of the novel:

    You know my presentiments of evil; never did I feel them so strong as at present. I tremble to go to bed—the taper that burns by me is dim, and methinks my bed looks like a grave!…
    My fears had given way to sleep; but their impression was on my fancy still. Methought I sat in our family monument at Belville, with a single glimmering lamp, that shewed the horrors of the place, when, on a sudden, a light like that of the morning, burst on the gloomy vault, and the venerable figures of my fathers, such as I had seen them in the pictures of our hall, stood smiling benignity upon me! The attitude of the foremost was that of attention, his finger resting upon his lip.—I listened—when sounds of more than terrestrial melody stole on my ear, borne, as it were on the distant wind, till they swelled at last to music so exquisite, that my ravished sense was stretched too far for delusion, and I awoke in the midst of the intrancement!…

…though of course, for once this may not be just imagination:

    Chance has been kind to me for the means. Once, in Andalusia, I met with a Venetian empiric, of whom, among other chymical curiosities, I bought a poisonous drug, the efficacy of which he shewed me on some animals to whom he administered it. The death it gave was easy, and altered not the appearance of the thing it killed.
    I have fetched it from my cabinet, and it stands before me. It is contained in a little square phial, marked with some hieroglyphic scrawls, which I do not understand. Methinks, while I look on it—I could be weak, very weak Segarva.—But an hour ago I saw her walk, and speak, and smile—yet these few drops!…

Julia de Roubigné is by no means—by NO means—the only novel of this period (not even amongst just those few we’ve examined in detail) to get its effects out of star-crossed lovers, misunderstanding and tragedy, or to wallow in the emotions of its own situations. The central premise, indeed, is very like that found in Elizabeth Griffith’s The History Of Lady Barton, which also has its heroine married to one man but in love with another. However, there seems to me to be a significant difference between this novel and most of its ilk, in its implicit condemnation of its characters and their behaviour. Most novels of “sensibility” seem to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that if you have “sensibility”, then the rules don’t apply to you: you’re “above” all that petty, day-to-day stuff. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find the heroes and heroines of such novels behaving with complete self-absorption, in a context exasperatingly free of criticism.

(Which is, of course, exactly the attitude that Jane Austen is attacking via Marianne Dashwood in Sense And Sensibility.)

It is this preening, and the accompanying tacit exemption from the ordinary obligations of life, that Henry Mackenzie takes issue with in Julia de Roubigné. Though he is by no means without sympathy for the way in which his characters have been trapped by circumstance, he obviously considers that they need to just bite the bullet. Julia’s privileging of her emotions is, in Mackenzie’s mind, a recipe for disaster; while her nursing of her feelings for Savillon after her marriage constitutes a real and serious violation of her duty. It is interesting, however, that Mackenzie does not consider Julia the only, or even the worst, offender. On the contrary, he clearly views de Montauban’s “honour” as another form of self-indulgent posturing—and one even more dangerous than the ordinary cultivation of “sensibility”. In this respect, the novel we have examined previously that is closest in spirit to Julia de Roubigné may be John Robinson’s Sydney St. Aubyn, which likewise casts a jaundiced eye over the hysterical self-pity of its misbehaving “hero”.

(In her introduction to the 1999 reissue of Julia de Roubigné, Susan Manning makes the wry point that the novel is, in effect, a version of Othello in which there is no Iago…because there is no need of an Iago.)

For all its effectiveness, there seems to me to be a flaw in Julia de Roubigné—which, ironically, concerns her flaw: it is not clear to me whether Mackenzie thinks that Julia’s “fatal flaw” lies in her marrying one man while loving another, or whether it is that, having done so, she is not able to smother her now-guilty love. Similarly, I’m not sure what to make of the silence that persists between Julia and Savillon prior to his departure for Martinique—his imposed by, sigh, “honour”, hers by “delicacy”. Whether or not Mackenzie intended a criticism of this prevailing societal norm, we cannot be other than painfully aware that if either of them had brought themselves to speak one single word at the time, then none of this would have happened.

(Mind you— Were Julia not so given to turning everything that might happen to her into some sort of dark fantasy, maybe she wouldn’t have been so quick to believe an unsubstantiated report from the other side of the world. I think we can interpret that with confidence.)

Nevertheless, within the context of the novel of sensibility, Julia de Roubigné is a fascinating anomaly; and even were it less successful than it is in offering didacticism in the guise of a familiar tear-jerker, it would still be a novel worth highlighting for its brave early stance on the subject of slavery: one of the first efforts indeed to carry the fight to that section of the public that preferred a novel to a pamphlet.

 

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25/08/2017

Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 1)


 
    Pity me, Maria, pity me! even that quiet which my letters of late described, which I was contented to call happiness, is denied me. There is a fatality which every where attends the family of the unfortunate Roubigné; here, to the abodes of peace, perplexity pursues it; and it is destined to find new distress, from those scanty sources to which it looked for comfort.
The Count de Montauban—why did he see me? why did he visit here? why did I listen to his discourse? though Heaven knows, I meant not to deceive him!—He has declared himself the lover of your Julia!—I own his virtues, I esteem his character, I know the gratitude too we owe him; from all those circumstances I am doubly distressed at my situation; but it is impossible, it is impossible that I should love him. How could he imagine that I should? or how does he still continue to imagine that I may be won to love him? I softened my refusal, because I would distress no man; Montauban of all men the least; but surely it was determined enough, to cut off all hopes of my ever altering my resolution.
    Should not his pride teach him to cease such mortifying solicitations? How has it, in this instance alone, forsaken him? Methinks too, he has acted ungenerously, in letting my mother know of his addresses. When I hinted this, he fell at my feet, and intreated me to forgive a passion so earnest as his, for calling in every possible assistance. Cruel! that in this tenderest concern, that sex which is naturally feeble, should have other weaknesses to combat besides its own…

 
 

In the second half of the 18th century, as a result of increasing emphasis upon general education based upon egalitarian principles, a major and significant societal shift occurred in Scotland which on one hand produced remarkable accomplishments in the areas of science and medicine, and on the other the propagation of philosophical arguments which stressed rationalist thinking and humanitarianism, and the improvement of society through the moral and practical improvement of the self. While the so-called “Scottish Enlightenment” is best reflected by the philosophical works of David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, and the scientific writings of William Cullen, Joseph Black and James Hutton, it was also a time that embraced a national literature, best exemplified by the work of Robert Burns.

Henry Mackenzie was something of an anomalous figure within this movement. Though he knew and admired many of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, Mackenzie himself was a conservative thinker who resisted most of the more liberal theories of his contemporaries. A lawyer by training, Mackenzie’s position of Comptroller of Taxes for Scotland gave him the economic security to indulge his passion for writing. He became a major contributor to the important periodical magazines of the time, and eventually became editor for several years of two of them, The Mirror and The Lounger. He was also a playwright and a novelist—in his time and since best known for his first work of fiction, The Man Of Feeling, published in 1771, though written many years earlier.

Recent years have seen something of a reassessment of the works of Henry Mackenzie. Long considered a writer within the “cult of sensibility”, critical reading of his novels now suggests that he was, rather, attacking that movement in his novels. However, if indeed he did intend The Man Of Feeling to act that way, he overshot his mark by some distance: the work in question quickly attained and and still holds a reputation as the ne plus ultra of that lachrymose school of writing.

On the other hand, Mackenzie’s third and last novel, Julia de Roubigné, published in 1777, seems to have been recognised immediately as a critical examination of the tenets of sentimentalism.

This current consideration of Julia de Roubigné was prompted by some remarks which placed it within the timeline of the Gothic novel; and while it bears in outline little resemblance to the works of that genre, some of its details do warrant highlighting in that context. Though this is a wholly domestic novel, it gains some of its effects in a manner that would become a hallmark of the Gothic novel proper. Here, for example, is a just-married Julia reacting to her new home:

There was a presaging gloom about this mansion which filled my approach with terror; and when Montauban’s old domestic opened the coach-door, I looked upon him as a criminal might do on the messenger of death. My dreams ever since have been full of horror; and while I write these lines, the creaking of the pendulum of the great clock in the hall, sounds like the knell of your devoted Julia…

Furthermore, the character of the novel’s anti-hero, the Count de Montauban, would fit him for the role of Gothic villain, being conveyed in ominous signifiers such as “proud”, “stern”, “lofty” and “melancholy”.

The most obvious point, however, is Mackenzie’s choice to place his novel in France, and give it a male lead with Spanish ideas about “honour”. Mackenzie may have perceived sentimentalism as something which “infected” Britain from the Continent, even as the Scottish Enlightenment was heavily influenced by the new ways of thinking that were spreading across Europe in the 18th century. Or perhaps, like many British authors of this time, he felt that extravagant plots were most believable when set “somewhere else”.

Julia de Roubigné is an epistolary novel which, like The Man Of Feeling, carries an introduction from an editor explaining how he came into possession of the letters, and why he decided to arrange them in the given order. It is evident that the editor is meant to be one of the novel’s “characters”, rather than Mackenzie himself, both from his ideas about the nature of the entertainment he is offering, and his clear alignment with the cult of sensibility, seen in the value he finds in even the tiniest personal detail:

I found it a difficult task to reduce them into narrative, because they are made up of sentiment, which narrative would destroy. The only power I have exercised over them, is that of omitting letters, and passages of letters, which seem to bear no relation to the story I mean to communicate. In doing this, however, I confess I have been cautious: I love myself (and am apt therefore, from a common sort of weakness, to imagine that other people love) to read nature in her smallest character, and am often more apprised of the state of the mind, from very trifling, than from very important circumstances…

The novel proper features three main correspondents, each of them writing to a close friend, to whom they do not hesitate to “unfold themselves”: Julia herself, who writes to her best friend, Maria de Roncilles; the Count de Montauban, who writes to his best friend, Segarva; and Savillon, a young man raised within the de Roubigné family, who writes at different times to a M. Beauvaris in Paris, and to an English acquaintance, Mr Herbert, in Martinique. Narrative necessity will eventually introduce two other letter-writers, but the majority of the story is told from the perspective of these three.

The critical point about the letters given is that we never see those written in response. It is important to recognise that this is not another case of a novel being presented in epistolary form simply because that style happened to popular—as was the case with The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley. Instead, this is a deliberate authorial ploy to trap the reader within the the thoughts and, even more so, the emotions of the three main characters who, however else they may differ, have in common the dominant trait of allowing their impulses to override their judgement. In Henry Mackenzie’s mind, this is a tendency that can only lead to disaster.

Julia de Roubigné opens in the wake of a significant family upheaval: M. de Roubigné, Julia’s father, has lost a lawsuit which has cost him both his property and most of his fortune. Deeply embittered, he is forced to remove his wife and daughter from an existence divided between the luxury and entertainments of Paris and the dignity of an estate to a small, rather isolated country house. Mme de Roubigné and Julia try to show themselves contented with their new lot, and to do what they can to reconcile their husband and father to the situation, but between wounded pride and feelings of guilt, M. de Roubigné is a gloomy and difficult companion.

Finally, it is not the efforts of his womenfolk that eases the burden on M. de Roubigné, but the making of a new friend. In the Count de Montauban, a neighbour, he finds a man of ideas and feelings very similar to his own: upright, dignified and very proud, with little lightness or humour in his demeanour. Though his newly acquired thin skin makes him wary at first, M. de Roubigné becomes grateful for this new companionship, and gradually admits the Count into his family circle.

We see this introduction from the point of view of the Count who, we learn, though French by birth, has been raised in Spain and has Spanish ideas about morality and honour. As he admits to his correspondent, Segarva, returning to France has been difficult for him: he finds his countrymen frivolous and dissipated; while the less said about the behaviour of the women, the better. Not that (so we gather) the Count ever entertained much of an opinion of the female sex; he has no intention of marrying, of entrusting his honour to such a frail vessel.

Except—

    But her daughter, her lovely daughter!—with all the gentleness of her mother’s disposition, she unites the warmth of her father’s heart, and the strength of her father’s understanding. Her eyes in their silent state (if I may use the term) give the beholder every idea of feminine softness; when sentiment or feeling animates them, how eloquent they are! When Roubigné talks, I hate vice, and despise folly; when his wife speaks, I pity both; but the music of Julia’s tongue gives the throb of virtue to my heart, and lifts my soul to somewhat super-human.
    I mention not the graces of her form; yet they are such as would attract the admiration of those, by whom the beauties of her mind might not be understood. In one as well as the other, there is a remarkable conjunction of tenderness with dignity; but her beauty is of that sort, on which we cannot properly decide independent of the soul, because the first is never uninformed by the latter.
    To the flippancy, which we are apt to ascribe to females of her age, she seems utterly a stranger. Her disposition indeed appears to lean, in an uncommon degree, towards the serious. Yet she breaks forth at times into filial attempts at gaiety, to amuse that disquiet which she observes in her father; but even then it looks like a conquest over the natural pensiveness of her mind.

Julia, meanwhile, though glad indeed that her father has found a friend, and his spirits have both calmed and lifted, is repulsed by what she sees and senses of the hardness in the Count’s emotional makeup:

    In many respects, indeed, their sentiments are congenial. A high sense of honour is equally the portion of both. Montauban, from his long service in the army, and his long residence in Spain, carries it to a very romantic height. My father, from a sense of his situation, is now more jealous than ever of his. Montauban seems of a melancholy disposition. My father was far from being so once; but misfortune has now given his mind a tincture of sadness. Montauban thinks lightly of the world, from principle. My father, from ill-usage, holds it in disgust. This last similarity of sentiment is a favourite topic of their discourse, and their friendship seems to increase, from every mutual observation which they make. Perhaps it is from something amiss in our nature, but I have often observed the most strict of our attachments to proceed from an alliance of dislike.
    There is something hard and unbending in the character of the Count, which, though my father applauds it under the title of magnanimity, I own myself womanish enough not to like. There is a yielding weakness, which to me is more amiable than the inflexible right; it is an act of my reason to approve of the last; but my heart gives its suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause…

This is a curious and interesting moment. Hardly a reader, then or now, would expect or even desire Julia to prefer “inflexible right” to “yielding weakness”, or read this passage as anything other than the privileging of her “heart” over her “reason”; yet in retrospect, her admission – My heart gives its suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause – is the first ominous rumbling of the novel’s main theme.

Julia is dismayed when Montauban proposes to her, and grows angry when, after she refuses him, he nevertheless tells her parents about it, tacitly engaging their sympathy and support (prompting the quote given up above). However, while they certainly desire the match, the de Roubignés put no pressure on their daughter. Aware that her marriage would relieve her father of her support, and that there is certainly generosity in Montauban’s willingness to take her without a dowry, this forbearance makes Julia feel worse rather than better.

Julia de Roubigné strikes a false note here, giving us, in effect, English ideas in a French context. We must remember at this point that, unlike in other countries, in England the novel was from the outset a very middle-class form of literature, and spoke predominantly to that audience. This form of writing was a powerful vehicle for propagating new ideas, including those about love and marriage, and played a significant role in the acceptance of the notion that a girl should have the right, if not to choose her own husband, at least to say “no”. (This was one reason that girls reading novels was often disapproved: they got “ideas”.) If Julia was an English girl of the same social standing, say, of the landed gentry, then her parents’ unwillingness to pressure her might be considered advanced but reasonable. However, in pre-Revolution France, arranged marriages were very much the norm at this level of society. In this respect, Henry Mackenzie’s displacement of his narrative affects its credibility.

Julia’s examination of her feelings following Montauban’s proposal leads to a shocking realisation—shocking to her, in any event:

    The character you have heard of the Count de Montauban is just; it is perhaps even less than he merits; for his virtues are of that unbending kind, that does not easily stoop to the opinion of the world; to which the world therefore is not profuse of its eulogium. I revere his virtues, I esteem his good qualities; but I cannot love him.—This must be my answer to others: But Maria has a right to something more; she may be told my weakness, for her friendship can pity and support it.
    Learn then that I have not a heart to bestow.—I blush even while I write this confession—Yet to love merit like Savillon’s cannot be criminal.—Why then do I blush again, when I think of revealing it?

Savillon is the son of an old friend of de Roubigné, who effectively adopted the boy after his father’s death. He and Julia almost grew up together, even having the same nurse; sharing some of their lessons and learning to think alike on many subjects. However, Savillon’s general situation was a difficult one: his birth was somewhat inferior to Julia’s, and his father’s death left him poor. When, as a young man, he was sent for by his uncle in Martinique, who offered to start him in business, he felt that he could not refuse to go.

Julia’s recognition of her feelings leads us to another of the book’s critical passages:

To know such a man; to see his merit; to regret that yoke which Fortune had laid upon him—I am bewildered in sentiment again.—In truth, my story is the story of sentiment. I would tell you how I began to love Savillon; but the trifles, by which I now mark the progress of this attachment, are too little for description…

Here, of course, Julia finds herself in that familiar deplorable heroine’s situation, conscious that she loves a man without being certain that he loves her. She thinks he does; she believes he does; she sees how honour would have held him silent, considering his circumstances. But

I know I am partial to my own cause; yet I am sensible of all the impropriety with which my conduct is attended. My conduct, did I call it? It is not my conduct; I err but in thought. Yet, I fear, I suffered these thoughts at first without alarm. They have grown up, unchecked, in my bosom, and now I would controul them in vain. Should I know myself indifferent to Savillon, would not my pride set me free? I sigh, and dare not say that it would…

The distinction made here between “conduct” and “thought” would have set alarm bells ringing for contemporary readers.

However, Julia at least has the reassurance of hearing that Maria agrees with her about the sinfulness of marrying one man while loving another—however futile that love:

    I have ever thought as you do, “That it is not enough for a woman not to swerve from the duty of a wife; that to love another more than a husband, is an adultery of the heart; and not to love a husband with undivided affection, is a virtual breach of the vow that unites us.”
    But I dare not own to my father the attachment from which these arguments are drawn. There is a sternness in his idea of honour, from which I shrink with affright. Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself. Even before my mother, as his wife, I tremble, and dare not disclose it…

Just as well, too, because her castles in the sky are about to come crashing down upon her:

    I have now time to think and power to express my thoughts—It is midnight and the world is hushed around me! After the agitation of this day, I feel something silently sad at my heart, that can pour itself out to my friend!
    Savillon! cruel Savillon!—but I complain, as if it were falsehood to have forgotten her whom perhaps he never loved.
    She too must forget him—Maria! he is the husband of another! That sea-captain, who dined with my father to day, is just returned from Martinique. With a beating heart I heard him questioned of Savillon. With a beating heart I heard him tell of the riches he is said to have acquired by the death of that relation with whom he lived; but judge of its sensations, when he added, that Savillon was only prevented by that event, from marrying the daughter of a rich planter, who had been destined for his wife on the very day his uncle died, and whom he was still to marry as soon as decency would permit.

Again and again Julia must remind herself that there was no word of love spoken between herself and Savillon, and therefore no breach of honour. But this is comfort of the coldest kind, as Julia is left to writhe in the agonies of that special hell preserved for 18th and 19th century heroines who fall in love without being “bidden”.

Julia’s sufferings attract the attention of her mother, who feels the need to speak a few cautionary words to her; though even as she speaks them, she knows (from experience?) that they will probably fall upon deaf ears until it is too late:

“Your mind, child (continued my mother) is too tender; I fear it is, for this bad world. You must learn to conquer some of its feelings, if you would be just to yourself; but I can pardon you, for I know how bewitching they are; but trust me, my love, they must not be indulged too far; they poison the quiet of our lives. Alas! we have too little at best! I am aware how ungracious the doctrine is; but it is not the less true. If you ever have a child like yourself, you will tell her this, in your turn, and she will not believe you.”

(Which, by the way, is a fairly astonishing admission for a novel of this vintage; certainly in the phrasing of it in terms of the natural resistance of youth to cold prudence, rather than of outright wickedness in not believing every word a parent says.)

While Julia wrestles with her own emotions, another blow falls upon the family. While the devastating law-suit has been settled via the ceding of the de Roubigné property, the associated legal costs have not—and these added expenses can only be met by giving up the final mite of de Roubigné’s fortune and the family’s comparatively humble retreat. Genuine poverty stares them in the face.

Mackenzie resorts to a sly and suggestive literary reference here, as de Roubigné prepares to reveal this latest catastrophe to his wife and daughter:

    On his return in the evening, he found my mother and me in separate apartments. She has complained of a slight disorder, from cold I believe, these two or three days past, and had lain down on a couch in her own room, till my father should return. I was left alone, and sat down to read my favourite Racine.
    “Iphigenia! (said my father, taking up the book) Iphigenia!” He looked on me piteously as he repeated the word. I cannot make you understand how much that single name expressed, nor how much that look…

(We must understand here that in Racine’s version of the story, Iphigenia is so dutiful a daughter, she can hardly wait to be sacrificed by her father…)

And though at this point it seems that nothing else can go wrong for the family, the most overwhelming blow of all follows when Mme de Roubigné’s illness proves fatal. Knowing that her death is imminent, she gathers her strength to speak parting words to her daughter:

    The night before she died, she called me to her bed-side:—“I feel, my child, (said she) as the greatest bitterness of parting, the thought of leaving you to affliction and distress. I have but one consolation to receive or to bestow: A reliance on that merciful Being, who, in this hour, as in all the past, has not forsaken me! Next to that Being, you will shortly be the only remaining support of the unfortunate Roubigné.—I had, of late, looked on one measure as the means of procuring his age an additional stay; but I will not prescribe your conduct, or warp your heart…”
    These words cannot be forgotten! they press upon my mind with the sacredness of a parent’s dying instructions! But that measure they suggested—is it not against the dictates of a still superior power? I feel the thoughts of it as of a crime. Should it be so, Maria; or do I mistake the whispers of inclination for the suggestions of conscience?

For one of the few times in the novel, we are given a clear intimation of what Maria says in answer to this, and it isn’t what Julia wanted to hear. Maria accuses her of nursing her feelings for Savillon instead of honestly striving to overcome them, as she is now duty bound to do, and thus of being guilty of “a want of proper pride”.

Julia’s response is fascinating—at once a perfectly reasoned and reasonable argument, and a still louder ringing of the warning bell.

We have considered before the grave difficulty faced by young women at this time, with many being pressured into marriage upon an assurance that they would “learn” to love their husbands. Imagine my surprise when the emotionally irrational Julia de Roubigné offered the perfect riposte (and from a man’s pen!):

The suggestions I have heard of Montauban’s unwearied love, his uncommon virtues, winning my affections in a state of wedlock, I have always held a very dangerous experiment; there is equivocation in those vows, which unite us to a husband, our affection for whom we leave to contingency.—“But I already esteem and admire him.”—It is most true;—why is he not contented with my esteem and admiration? If those feelings are to be ripened into love, let him wait that period when my hand may be his without a blush. This I have already told him; he almost owned the injustice of his request, but pleaded the ardour of passion in excuse. Is this fair dealing, Maria? that his feelings are to be an apology for his suit, while mine are not allowed to be a reason for refusal?

Yet alas, this is not what we are to take away from this exchange of opinions, but rather Julia’s initial rejection of Maria’s counsel:

There is reason in all this; but while you argue from reason, I must decide from my feelings…

Surprisingly, after some consideration de Montauban concedes the strength of Julia’s argument, withdrawing his suit and apologising for causing disturbance in the family in their time of grief. This seeming generosity takes Julia off-guard, and softens her feelings towards him. However, de Montauban’s next move is quietly to pay off the final crushing debt hanging over de Roubigné’s head, saving him and daughter from ruin and eviction and, in de Roubigné’s case, a debtor’s prison…and leaving Julia with little choice.

(This is not presented as a deliberate ploy on de Montauban’s part, but it is impossible to believe this outcome wasn’t lurking somewhere in the back of his mind.)

The Count’s announcement of his triumph in a letter to his friend, Segarva, also contains a great deal of back-pedalling. This is, after all, a man who has always held a low opinion of the female sex, of Frenchwomen in particular, and who always swore he would never marry: sentiments in which Segarva wholeheartedly joined him:

    Trust me, thy fears are groundless—didst thou but know her as I do!—Perhaps I am tenderer that way than usual; but there were some of your fears I felt a blush at in reading. Talk not of the looseness of marriage-vows in France, nor compare her with those women of it, whose heads are giddy with the follies of fashion, and whose hearts are debauched by the manners of its votaries. Her virtue was ever above the breath of suspicion, and I dare pledge my life, it will ever continue so. But that is not enough; I can feel, as you do, that it is not enough. I know the nobleness of her soul, the delicacy of her sentiments. She would not give me her hand except from motives of regard and affection, were I master of millions…
    You talk of her former reluctance; but I am not young enough to imagine that it is impossible for a marriage to be happy without that glow of rapture which lovers have felt and poets described. Those starts of passion are not the basis for wedded felicity, which wisdom would chuse, because they are only the delirium of a month, which possession destroys, and disappointment follows. I have perfect confidence in the affection of Julia, though it is not of that intemperate kind, which some brides have shewn.  Had you seen her eyes, how they spoke, when her father gave me her hand! there was still a reluctance in them, a reluctance more winning than all the flush of consent could have made her. Modesty and fear, esteem and gratitude, darkened and enlightened them by turns; and those tears, those silent tears, which they shed, gave me a more sacred bond of her attachment, than it was in the power of words to have formed…

With nothing to wait for, the marriage takes place in only a few days’ time. Julia reports her intentions to Maria but, as the time draws near, finds herself unable to write again—since (we understand) her letters are reports of her feelings, and her feelings are particularly what she does not wish to share. It is left to her maid, Lisette, to send off a report to Maria, in which the position occupied by women in society at the time is presented to us all the more painfully for the complete obliviousness of the person making the point (emphasis mine):

And then her eyes, when she gave her hand to the Count! they were cast half down, and you might see her eye-lashes, like strokes of a pencil, over the white of her skin—the modest gentleness, with a sort of a sadness too, as it were, and a gentle heave of her bosom at the same time;—O! Madam, you know I have not language, as my lady and you have, to describe such things; but it made me cry, in truth it did, for very joy and admiration. There was a tear in my master’s eye too, though I believe two happier hearts were not in France, than his and the Count de Montauban’s

When Julia finally does write again to Maria, it is to apologise for her neglect, which she puts in terms of, not merely not wishing to share her feelings, but of not being able to put them into words. However, she makes it clear that understands the step she has taken, and means to do her duty, if nothing else:

Montauban and virtue! I am your’s. Suffer but one sigh to that weakness which I have not yet been able to overcome. My heart, I trust, is innocent—blame it not for being unhappy.

Yet this vow comes in the middle of Julia caught once again between her reason and her feelings, when in packing up her things she comes across a miniature of Savillon drawn when he was only a boy, which she has had in her possession for many years:

The question comes strong upon me, how I should like that my husband had seen this.—In truth, Maria, I fear my keeping this picture is improper; yet at the time it was painted, there was one drawn for me by the same hand, and we exchanged resemblances without any idea of impropriety. Ye unfeeling decorums of the world!—Yet it is dangerous; is it not, my best monitor, to think thus?—Yet, were I to return the picture would it not look like a suspicion of myself?—I will keep it, till you convince me I should not…

 

[To be continued…]

 

28/06/2015

The History Of Lady Barton

griffith1b    Yes, Fanny, I confess it! you have searched my bosom, and found the arrow rankling in my heart! Too cruel sister! better, sure far better, that you had remained ignorant of my disease, unless you can prescribe a cure! I now detest myself; and all that generous confidence, which is the true  result and firm support of real virtue, is for ever fled! I shrink even from the mild eye of friendship—The tender, the affectionate looks of Harriet and Lucy, now distress me! How then shall I endure the stern expression of contempt and rage, from an offended husband’s angry brow! There is but one thing that could be more dreadful—I mean his kindness—That alone could add new horrors to my wretched state, and make me feel the humiliating situation of a criminal still more than I now do.
    I am, I am a criminal! Alas! you know not to what degree I am so! But I will tell you all, lay bare my heart before you, and beg you not to soothe, but to probe its wounds…

I can only apologise for the recent deluge of lugubrious sentimental novels at this blog—it certainly wasn’t intentional, as evidenced by the fact that each of these novels has emerged from a different reading category. In the case of The History Of Lady Barton, A Novel In Letters it turns out that the categorisation was not really accurate. This novel came to my attention at the same time as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, and like it was characterised as a proto-Gothic novel; but while the eponymous Sophia does indeed undergo various experiences that hearken forward to the travails of the typical Gothic heroine (including being abducted and imprisoned herself, while her fiancée is kidnapped by “pyrates”), the sufferings of Lady Barton are of an entirely domestic nature.

There are, however, a couple of distinctly Gothicky subplots along the way, chiefly affecting the supporting characters, which are the kind of thing that the Gothic novelists later seized upon and expanded into major narratives. In this respect we may indeed consider this novel another of the later genre’s forebears.

The History Of Lady Barton was the second novel published by Elizabeth Griffith, one of the more popular exponents of sentimentalism. (The title of her first novel, The Delicate Distress, suggests that Griffith hit the ground running.) Griffith is an interesting literary figure, and one who possibly deserves to be better known than she is. She was born in Dublin, and became an actress at the age of only seventeen, after her family fell on hard times following the death of her theatre-managing father. Her stage career lasted until her marriage to Richard Griffith (no relation), which occurred secretly due to the disapproval of the groom’s family—disapproval centred in the bride’s lack of fortune, ironically enough: Richard subsequently suffered a string of business failures associated with bankruptcy and debt, and Elizabeth, like so many of her literary sisters, took up writing in order to support herself and her two children.

It seems that Elizabeth Griffith may have been a case of “spoiled by success”, although given her circumstances we can hardly blame her for writing to the marketplace. She began as a playwright, and reports suggest that her early plays were startlingly feminist for the time, featuring strong-willed, intelligent female characters and overtly attacking the double standard and the social and legal inequities that attended woman’s place in society. However, after Griffith left Dublin for London in order to further her career, she found that her plays were attracting harsh criticism from the influential London critics. She responded by reining herself in, and although she continued to foreground her female characters, on the whole they stopped challenging the status quo and instead triumphed through patience and submission. (The History Of Lady Barton is something of an exception to that generalisation.)

Griffith ultimately had quite a varied and successful career. In addition to her plays and novels, she produced many translations of French novels, memoirs and collections of letters, and she became one of the first women to find success as a literary critic. And while at the time Griffith’s The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated was her most well-received work, of more note around these parts is that she also edited a collection of works by female dramatists – including Aphra Behn – in which she tried to show how the plays in question, far from being “immoral” as accused, were intended to illustrate and criticise immorality.

The History Of Lady Barton is a three-volume epistolary novel originally published in 1771; it carries a preface which pretty much spells out for us the perceived “dangers of novel-reading”, namely, the powerful influence of fiction upon the minds and morals of the young (by implication, particularly young women), but which also argues for the power of the novel – the moral novel – as a force for good:

    Works of this kind are in general of so captivating a nature to young readers, that let them run through but a few pages of almost any Novel, and they will feel their affections or curiosity so interested, either in the characters or the events, that it is with difficulty they can be diverted to any other study or amusement, till they have got to the end of the story.
    From the experience then of this sort of attraction, such sort of writings may be rendered, by good and ingenious authors, extremely serviceable to morals, and other useful purposes of life—Place the magnet low, and it will degrade our sentiments; hold it high, and it elevates them…

In short, the didactic purpose of The History Of Lady Barton is made clear—which may strike us as rather amusing, considering that the novel’s plot features countless incidences of seduction, attempted rape, illicit sex, forbidden love and various other transgressions. Nevertheless, the unexpected aspect of The History Of Lady Barton is that it’s story is told from the perspective of a woman who (all the preceding notwithstanding) commits the ultimate sentimental-novel sin of marrying without love.

Additionally, in Sir William Barton we have a convincingly exasperating portrait of a man who marries a woman who he knows does not love him—and then gets mad because she doesn’t love him. Worse—in this case, it seems, Louisa told him outright before accepting his proposal that she did not love him—but he didn’t believe her—she was just being shy, delicate, modest; how could she not love him? When the penny drops, Sir William becomes morose, domineering, capricious and insulting; so that, with the best will in the world to be a properly dutiful wife and to love her husband, Louisa finds it impossible—which in turn makes Sir William even more self-defeatingly unkind:

Yet this I am convinced of, that had Sir William persevered, perhaps a few months longer, in wishing to obtain that heart, it might, I doubt not, have been all his own. But can it now bestow itself unsought, and trembling yield to harshness, and unkindness? Impossible! The little rebel owns as yet no lord, and it may break, but it will never bow, beneath a tyrant’s frown!

Louisa’s chief correspondent is her sister, Fanny Cleveland, who is concerned by what she call’s Louisa’s “propensity to unhappiness”, revealed in her remarks about her husband and her marriage; although her advice is unexpectedly pragmatic (not to say cynical) coming from the individual who will act generally as the novel’s moral touchstone:

    I very sincerely join with you in wishing, since you have not yet, that you may never feel the passion of love, in an extreme degree; for I am firmly persuaded, that it does not contribute much to the happiness of the female world—and yet, Louisa, I will frankly tell you, that I am extremely grieved at some hints you have dropped, in your letters, which speak of a want of affection for Sir William.—It is dangerous to sport with such sentiments; you should not suffer them to dwell even upon your own mind, much less express them to others—we ought not be too strict in analysing the characters of those we wish to love—if once we come to habituate ourselves to thinking of their faults, it insensibly lessens the person in our esteem, and saps the foundation of our happiness, with our love.—
    I am perfectly convinced that you have fallen into this error, from want of reflection, and through what is called une maniere de parler; for I will not suppose that my Louisa, tho’ persuaded by her friends and solicited most earnestly by Sir William, gave him her hand without feeling in her heart that preference for his person, and esteem for his character, which is the surest basis for a permanent and tender affection…

She did, though:

How often have my brother, Sir William, and you, seemed to doubt my sincerity, when I have declared I knew not what love was! and, O! how fatal has that inexperience been to my peace, since! Yes, Fanny, your sister is a wretch! and gave away her hand, before she knew she had a heart to transfer.—

This is simultaneously the most interesting thing about the novel, and its elephant in the living-room—because Louisa Cleveland’s decision to marry Sir William Barton is never satisfactorily accounted for, in spite of those references to her friends’ “persuasion” and Sir William’s “solicitation”. Certainly Louisa does not marry for title or position, nor is she pressured into it by her family (although Sir William neatly uses her conventional put-off of “I cannot do anything without my brother’s consent” against her, ingratiating himself with the brother and intimating that Louisa has given a conditional ‘yes’ to his proposal). The only thing that really approaches an explanation is a reference to Sir William’s “obstinate perseverance”; presumably he simply wore Louisa down and, in her ignorance, she thought it didn’t much matter, since of course she would learn to love her husband…

And while its overarching theme is a typical sentimental novel stance against marriage without love, this, I think, is what Griffith really intended to be the focus of her novel—an exposure and condemnation of the prevailing belief that any truly “good” woman would inevitably “learn” to love her husband – and, even more so, of the attending implication that a woman who cannot is bad – but the point ultimately remains frustratingly muted.

Be that as it may, right from the beginning of the novel we find Louisa courting disaster, attitudinally speaking:

    You desired me, my Fanny, to write to you from every stage—this is the first moment I have had to myself—one of Sir William’s most favourite maxim’s, is, that women should be treated like state criminals, and utterly debarred from the use of pen and ink—he says, that “those who are fond of scribling, are never good for anything else; that female friendship is a jest; and that we only correspond, or converse, with our own sex, for the sake of indulging ourselves in talking of the other.”
    Why, Sir William, why will you discover such illiberal sentiments, to one who has been so lately prevailed upon to pronounce those awful words, “love, honour, and obey”! The fulfilling the first two articles of this solemn engagement, must depend upon yourself, the latter only, rests on me; and I will most sanctimoniously perform my part of the covenant…

Immediately after their wedding, Sir William carries Louisa off to his estate in Ireland. They pass through Wales (the narrative stopping for a brief instance of rhapsodising about nature: a touch also seen in William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage, published the following year, and something which became increasingly common in the sentimental novel before being adopted as a hallmark of the Gothic), and along the way collect two friends of Sir William’s: Colonel Walter, who owns a neighbouring estate, and to whom Louisa takes an immediate dislike; and the young Lord Lucan*, by whom, conversely, she is impressed…though perhaps not quite as impressed as he is with her

(*No relation, I’m sure.)

Disaster strikes on the party’s sea-journey to Ireland, and very nearly tragedy: as they approach their destination, a violent storm breaks, which lasts for hours, during which time their ship is in danger of being driven onto rocks. This situation provokes an extreme reaction from one of the party:

There was a great number of passengers on board, and their groans and lamentations would have affected me extremely, in any other situation; but the violent and continued sickness which I suffered, rendered me insensible, even to my own danger; nor did I feel the smallest emotion when Lord Lucan, who had seldom left my bedside, caught hold of my hand, with a degree of wildness, and pressing it to his lips, said, “We must perish!—but we shall die, together!”

Alas, the narrative does not reveal whether Louisa responded by throwing up on him; we can only hope.

Our main characters make it into a lifeboat and are cast ashore on a small island off the coast, from where they are shortly rescued. This experience has somewhat torn down the barriers between them, for good or ill.

A variety of new characters and sub-plots are now introduced, most of them acting as a compare-and-contrast backdrop to Louisa’s situation, as we are introduced to various people who are genuinely in love and miserable because of it.

Fanny Cleveland herself is engaged, but has the disturbing experience of her fiancée, Lord Hume, not merely spending much time on the Continent away from her, but now beginning to hint at a three-year Grand Tour. Lord Hume is a close friend of Lord Lucan, and through their correspondence we will learn that Hume has fallen in lust with a beautiful Italian adventuress and lost his taste for Fanny’s pallid perfections. Hume writes to Fanny and breaks off their engagement (without getting into specifics), with the result that her correspondence becomes all about the miseries of love, even as Louisa’s continues to be about the miseries of un-love.

Meanwhile, Sir George Cleveland, brother and guardian to Louisa and Fanny, is himself engaged to a Miss Colville (another bundle of pallid perfections). Here the impediment is Miss Colville’s ghastly mother, who refuses to consent to their marriage—because (we later discover) she wants Sir George for herself…and badly enough to facilitate her pursuit of him by immuring her daughter in a convent while faking her death to the world at large, while she tries to convince the stricken Sir George (via forged letter) that it was Delia’s last wish that they should be married.

This is, self-evidently, one of the Gothic-like subplots I referred to earlier, made even more so by the associated sub-sub-plot about the identity of the young woman buried as Delia Colville; but it is only a digression in the novel as a whole.

Back in Ireland, Harriet Westley, a young niece of Sir William’s, is received into the Bartons’ home and becomes a friend and companion to Louisa—who soon concludes that the girl is suffering from unrequited love. This sub-plot touches upon an interesting point from the literature of this time, the seriousness with which what to modern eyes is just a first crush tends to be treated. But then, in a society where girls were considered marriageable at fifteen, I suppose it’s not unreasonable to treat their emotions as likewise mature.

The object of Harriet’s passion is Lord Lucan—who has fallen in love with Louisa; while Colonel Walter, who is supposed to be engaged to a wealthy widow, Mrs Layton, also begins pursuing Louisa, though not out of “love”, exactly.

Fanny correctly deduces Lord Lucan’s secret passion from Louisa’s oblivious descriptions of his behaviour and change in demeanour—but that isn’t all she has deduced. Louisa’s letters have begun to evince an increasing tendency to compare Sir William with Lord Lucan, to the former’s discredit; perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since Sir William keeps going out of his way to behave like a dick an upright magistrate:

    Lord Lucan flew directly into the garden, and explained the phenomenon, by bringing the basket and its contents into the parlour, which was an infant, about a week old, clean, though poorly clad, with a note pinned to its breast, which said, this child has been baptised by its father’s name, William.
    This circumstance disconcerted Sir William who, after many unnecessary asseverations of his innocence, upon this occasion, at which the whole company smiled, as they knew he had been above a year out of the kingdom, determined to prove his virtue, at the expense of his humanity, by ordering the child to be left again in the garden where it was found, till the parish officers should come to take charge of it; and by commanding a strict search to be made for the mother, that she might be punished, according to law.
    We all opposed the severity of this resolution, as the poor infant appeared almost perished with cold, and hunger; but Sir William persisted in acting like an upright magistrate, according to the letter of the law—till Lord Lucan declared that he was ready to adopt the little foundling, and promised to take care of it for life, though his name was Thomas…

In this particular instance, Louisa’s sensitivity to the situation and the behaviour of the two men may be enhanced by the fact that she is pregnant—something which, due to the increasing estrangement between herself and Sir William, she delays in telling him, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Our main characters remove to Waltersburgh, Colonel Walters’ neighbouring estate, chiefly so the gentlemen can have some hunting, and there Louisa has a terrifying experience when a man intrudes into her bed-chamber and, um, takes liberties; though voices nearby stop things from going too far, and the intruder flees while Louisa faints. Since all the other men of the party are supposedly out, Louisa can only conclude that Lord Lucan (who has done an amusingly heroine-like thing by spraining his ankle) finally succumbed to his passion, and is both deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed:

    I determined, on the instant, to return to Southfield directly, let the consequence be what it would; and never to suffer Lord Lucan to come into my sight again; but, alas! when I attempted to rise, I found it impossible; the agitation of my mind, had disorder’d my whole frame; my illness encreased every moment, a messenger was dispatched for a physician, but before he could arrive—
    When Sir William was informed of my misfortune, he raved and stamped like a mad-man; said I must have designed to destroy his heir, out of perverseness, or I would certainly have acquainted him with my situation…

The estrangement between the Bartons naturally worsens from this point, and Colonel Walter, pursuing his own ends, is not slow to take advantage of it; intimating to Sir William, for instance, that the reason Louisa didn’t tell him about her pregnancy is that he was not the father…

While Louisa is recuperating, she receives a letter from Lord Lucan, full of regret and distress at her illness, but without the slightest hint of awareness of the cause, which makes her rethink her assumption; although in the circumstances she cannot see how anyone came to her room.

A secret passage, perhaps?—a rather Gothicky touch; while at this point our second Gothicky subplot also puts in an appearance. Via her maid, Louisa learns that a small child is a mostly-unseen resident of Colonel’s Walter’s house, and manages to make contact with her. The girl, who speaks no English, reveals to Louisa that her mother also is living in the house. First through an exchange of smuggles letters, then in a secret meeting, Louisa learns that the woman is Colonel Walter’s wife – possibly legally, possibly through a false marriage; she isn’t sure herself – and that out of fear for her own life and, even more so, for that of her daughter, she lives concealed in the attic, while her husband pursues various affairs and even tries to marry – or “marry” – a fortune.

(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)

As is common in sentimental novels, we then the get interpolated narrative of Mrs Walter’s entire life-story, and her escalating miseries at the hands of Colonel Walter and of society at large. Louisa of course repeats it all to Fanny in her letters and (showing a pleasing degree of backbone) the sisters plot to remove the unfortunate Olivia and her daughter from the Colonel’s dubious “protection”. In fact, in an unexpected and amusing touch, we get a full-on female conspiracy here, with Harriet Westley and Louisa’s friend Lucy Leister let in on the secret and offering their assistance, in addition to Benson the maid who has been the women’s go-between. Louisa succeeds in smuggling her new friends away from Waltersburgh and into a tenant-cottage at Southfield (Sir William’s property), and from there to Fanny in London.

Her interaction with Olivia provokes Louisa to the following suggestion—a topic that became quite common in sentimental novels, but which led to nothing in reality because of the stubborn refusal to see further than women’s refuge = convent = Catholic (the tone here makes me wonder if Griffith had been reading Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, an entire novel on the subject; particularly considering the radical suggestion of marital separation):

I should approve extremely of an establishment of this kind, in our own country, under our own religion and laws; both equally free from tyranny—An asylum for unhappy women to retreat to—not from the world, but from misfortunes, or the slander of it—for female orphans, young widows, or still more unhappy objects, forsaken, or ill treated wives, to betake themselves to, in such distresses…

Meanwhile, the continuous references in Louisa’s correspondence to Lord Lucan, her final conclusion that he could not have been guilty of the bedroom outrage, and her speculation about his connection with a Miss Ashford, a neighbourhood beauty to whom rumour has him attached, prompts Fanny to issue a stern warning:

    Vigilant and watchful must that woman be, who has so many foes to shield against—the unkindness of Sir William—the passion and merits of Lord Lucan—the arts and malice of Colonel Walter—but the last and most formidable—shall I venture to speak of it?—is your own heart.
    You have not yet begun to suspect it. It is therefore the more dangerous enemy. Examine it, my sister; call it to strict account; and if you find one sentiment or wish, that lurks in secret there, unworthy of yourself, banish it, I beseech you: thoughts, even without purposes, are criminal, where our honour is in question. Consider the slightest idea of this kind, as a young serpent; though stingless now, its growth will give it strength and power to wound the breast that nursed and cherished it! crush it, betimes, Louisa; and be at peace for life…

Louisa confesses that Fanny is right and suffers an agony of guilt and shame; although she cannot help wandering into the might-have-been, and offering another radical suggestion:

Flattering sophistry! Alas! I would deceive myself, but cannot! Have I not vowed, even at the altar vowed, to love another? Yet can that vow be binding, which promises what is not in our power, even at the time we make it? But grant it were, the contract sure is mutual; and when one fails, the other should be free…

(…particularly considering the countless 18th and 19th century novels in which an unhappy wife is told firmly by some authority figure or another that her husband’s neglect / cruelty / infidelity does not justify any failure in marital duty of her part.)

Much back and forth between the sisters follows, but for all of Louisa’s good intentions her practice keeps wandering away from her theory…until finally a concurrence of circumstances leads to a mutual declaration between Lord Lucan and herself, although also to a mutual resolve to do nothing dishonourable. They try to avoid one another, but their network of friends keeps unwittingly throwing them together, keeping both secret passions alive.

Meanwhile, Colonel Walter, experienced in intrigue, has seen what is going on between Louisa and Lord Lucan—sort of: he is incapable of believing that they might be in love without having sex; and likewise the type who assumes that if a woman is having illicit sex with one man, she’ll willingly have illicit sex with any man. When Louisa spurns his advances, he makes it his business to cause as much trouble as he can, partly as a way of blackmailing Louisa into his bed, partly out of sheer bastardry. The stresses of the situation bring about a collapse, and Louisa begins to suffer recurrent bouts of ill-health…

The History Of Lady Barton must necessarily devote much time and effort to the resolution of its almost innumerable romantic complications—although this doesn’t stop Elizabeth Griffith from taking up much of the third volume with yet another interpolated narrative, in this case the (of course) sad history of the young lady who ends up buried in Delia Colville’s grave (which contains yet another interpolated narrative). The true fate of Delia herself is revealed when Olivia finally decides to retreat into a convent, and discovers that she is a prisoner there, confined on the basis of false charges of immorality made by her mother.

Sir George Cleveland comes racing to the scene, in company with his new friend—Lord Hume, who was bled dry by his Margarita and her family and then, having outlived his usefulness to them, nearly murdered; a fate from which Sir George rescued him. Sir George is unaware of the former engagement between Hume and his sister, and unknowingly reunites them. By this time Hume has learned to appreciate Fanny’s modest virtues, and the two are married.

And so at last there is only our central complexity to resolve: will Elizabeth Griffith kill off the inconvenient Sir William Barton and let her secret lovers be happy, or will it be a case of broken hearts and ruined lives all around? Will Colonel Walter succeed in his evil machinations, or will he get his comeuppance? The matter stills hangs in the balance with very few pages to go:

About eight o’clock, this morning, there arrived a messenger from Waltersburgh, and in a few minutes after, Sir William rushed into my room, with an appearance of frenzy in his air and countenance.— “Vilest of women! cried he out, “you have now completed your wickedness—But think not that either you, or your accomplice, shall escape—That pity, which pleaded in my weak heart, even for an adultress, will but increase my rage against the murderess of my friend.” He then quitted me abruptly, as if bent upon some horrid purpose…

01/05/2015

Sydney St. Aubyn. In A Series Of Letters

sydneystaubyn1    The season of delusion is past, and the reign of reason restored—I turn back, ashamed to have sacrificed my youth to such fallacious pursuits, and to have vested so important a matter as my happiness on the fidelity of a woman who was unworthy of esteem—without doing myself the justice to consider the caprices of the sex. Blinded by my passion, I hurried on with heedless temerity, until the power of recovering myself was lost—
    Or if I saw at all, it was with the partial eye of generous affection, that eagerly magnified every trait of merit in my mistress; whilst she, cunningly conscious of the weakness of love, with subtle dissimulation, moulded me to her will; and when a series of lengthened unkindness, or rather cruelty, had loosened the attachment, I was simple enough to be lured by a siren smile, and suffer the momentary gratification which resulted from it, to counterbalance an age of lingering anxiety.
    Thus self-betrayed into the snare, I hugged my chains, and thought even captivity sweet…

I’m beginning to worry that I’m not giving the novelists of the late 18th century enough credit—or at least, I’ve noted a worrying tendency in myself, every time I come across something interesting in an obscure novel, to add a rider to the effect of, “It was probably accidental.”

But is it always accidental? This is the question raised in my mind by Sydney St. Aubyn, an epistolary novel from 1794, which on the surface is yet another tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but which gradually reveals itself as something rather different; different and, yes, interesting. Which is to say, it still is a tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but the message it leaves us with is not the one we are led to expect.

I don’t know much – in fact, I don’t really know anything – about John Robinson, the author of Sydney St. Aubyn, except that he wrote several novels in addition to some poetry. (As you would appreciate, the name “John Robinson” is not a great aid to research.) I can only say that I’m now tempted to try his other works of fiction, to see whether what struck me as so interesting about this novel might indeed have been a deliberate exercise in misleading the reader.

At any rate, my opinion of Sydney St. Aubyn differs from that of whoever originally owned the copy of the novel now held by the Houghton Library of Harvard University, who saw fit to express his feelings about the novel’s two leading female characters by way of marginalia.

Unusually, this work opens in the immediate wake of a broken engagement, with our eponymous hero – or at least, protagonist – pouring out his heart-break and his sense of betrayal in a letter to his friend, Stafford Sullivan. But although St. Aubyn swears to abjure any further thought of Augusta Conway, his love for her dies hard; so that subsequently he finds himself caught between his lingering passion for his former fiancée and a new attraction towards a girl called Emily Alderton. Both women are conveyed to the reader via the usual descriptors of the sentimental novel: Augusta is damned via words like “haughty”, “imperious” and “headstrong”, while we know all we need to about Emily when we hear about, A tear—which started into the lovely girl’s eye, and stood there a glistening monument of wounded sensibility.

Tempora mutantur, and all that: Augusta, with her moods and uncertainties, and the constant impression given of motives beyond the ones declared, is a far more interesting character than that bundle of boring perfections, Emily. So I say, but evidently the owner of this book disagreed with me. Here is his opinion of Emily, who declares her predilection for St. Aubyn in a letter to her sister, Harriet:

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sydneystaubyn2

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And here, conversely, is his opinion of Augusta, expressed at the conclusion of a letter to St. Aubyn, who, she believes, is revenging himself upon her by drawing from her a confession that she still cares for him, even as he courts Emily Alderton:

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sydneystaubyn3

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I haven’t quite been able to decipher the adjective – any suggestions? – but I don’t think there’s much doubt about the noun.

Sydney St. Aubyn opens with a flurry of letters between St. Aubyn and his friend, Sullivan, and between Augusta and her friend, Louisa Wentworth—the latter horrified that Augusta has broken such a long-standing engagement, and certain that she is at fault. Augusta’s letters are masterpieces of circumlocution, but it eventually emerges that she has come to believe that St. Aubyn is the father of an orphan they have both been providing for. The child is that of a young woman seduced and abandoned, who was taken in by a cottager, and who died after giving birth. Augusta does not believe St. Aubyn’s protestations of innocence, which he makes both to her outside the scope of the novel, and in his letters to Sullivan.

Moreover, Augusta has reacted to the breaking of her engagement by immediately contracting another, to a Colonel Alderton—much to Louisa’s doubt, Sullivan’s scorn, and St. Aubyn’s mingled misery and indignation. St. Aubyn’s health begins to suffer, and he takes himself off to the spa town of Matlock, in Derbyshire, where he finds a friend in a fellow-sufferer—a Colonel Alderton.

Long story short, Augusta’s betrothed – who has been pressing for an early marriage – is actually a penniless Irish adventurer called Douglas, who has been posing as a man known both as a military hero and as having a comfortable fortune of his own. The imposture is exposed by Sullivan, who makes it his business to inquire into this multiplicity of Aldertons, but actually recognises Douglas from an earlier encounter.

Douglas’s subplot is one of the stranger aspects of Sydney St. Aubyn. He starts out looking like the villain of the piece, but – after a series of largely comic experiences – undergoes repentence and redemption and allowed to have a happy ending. It turns out that (i) Douglas is the father of the illegitimate child, and (ii) the child’s mother faked her own death as a way of separating herself permanently from her lover, leaving her baby as part of her self-inflicted punishment. She and Douglas are eventually reunited and marry, and presumably live happily ever after. They’re about the only people in this novel who do.

Douglas, peculiarly enough, given the nature of his introduction into the plot, functions as the comic relief for much of Sydney St. Aubyn. Left without resources in the wake of the failure of his plan to marry Augusta’s fortune, he ends up joining an acting troupe—we are not surprised that he turns out to have a natural aptitude. What might surprise us – or at least, amuse us – is the role in which he has his first success:

    The play I fixed upon to make my entré in, was “Oroonoko”—and on the awful day appointed, it was announced with all the honours of a country play-bill—besides all other embellishments, it set forth “how this tragedy was a particular favourite on the London stage, and drew crouded audiences—representing a royal black prince in chains, and how his fair Imoinda, from whom he was separated when taken prisoner, afterwards came into the country where he was captive, and how she there met with her long-lost lord—and at last how they died for each other, &c. &c.”…
    Presently, Oroonoko was led forth in chains—my figure was striking, and I was welcomed with plaudits—this encouraged me, and I went thro’ my part tolerably well—but owing to the absence of one of our company, who was reported to be in a state of ebriety at a neighbouring ale-house, we were under the necessity of making free with the whole of the third act, and dividing the last into two—this was reckoned a harmless stratagem, and had often been practised.—The play was concluded, and Oroonoko retired with distinguished applause…

(Though intended as a joke, this interlude highlights the fact that, although Aphra Behn and her writing became increasingly unacceptable over time, dramatic adaptations of Oroonoko remained popular right through the 18th century and beyond.)

Meanwhile, our central characters are getting themselves into one hell of a mess. Determined to put his relationship with Augusta behind him, St. Aubyn begins courting Emily Alderton, when she comes to Matlock to be with her brother. Emily is immediately swept off her feet, as she confesses in a letter to her sister:

    A bold assertion this, Harriet, and will carry with it a sort of whisper that your Emily’s affections are in danger.—
    I despise the poor artifices of dissimulation—and were I to say that I could observe with indifference such a happy assemblage of amiable qualities in one form, I must have some motive—unworthy of myself.—Genuine merit commands the ready suffrage of sensibility, and on such an occasion, conscious innocence may chearfully stand forward to offer it…
    The resplendence of St. Aubyn’s character, bursting upon me at once, captivated my yielding senses—and I could love the man, were it only for his humble unaffected modesty, his mild unassuming delicacy, and in short for those endearing graces which he so evidently possesses, as the pure inheritance of nature.—
    I am only alluding to the accomplishments of his mind—his person deserves a separate panegyric.
    And when I tell you that it is everything I could wish for in a lover, you will conclude that nature has also been equally liberal there…

And St. Aubyn writes likewise to Sullivan:

    Emily Alderton came to Matlock, and won my affections.—I surrendered my heart, shattered as it had been by a former successless flame, whilst the lovely maid, unconscious of its imperfections, tenderly and fondly accepted it.
    Yes, Stafford, she heard the ingenuous avowal of my love with melting sensibility—and proved to me that her soul, all purity itself, suspected not the integrity of another.
    Then happiness spread forth her alluring blandishments, and I began to forget all I had suffered.
    The hours flew away on silken wings—and Emily and St. Aubyn lived only for each other—blest in the delicious confidence, the happy intercourse of Love…

And so matters stand – that is (just to be perfectly clear), St Aubyn has declared his love for Emily but not formally proposed marriage – when he learns that Augusta Conway is in Matlock…

In the wake of the exposure of the false “Colonel Alderton”, Augusta suffers a collapse that, we gather, has its basis in humiliated pride rather than wounded affections. She also makes a wild declaration to her friend, Louisa, that she will never marry—a declaration that she then spends a fair chunk of the novel trying to take back. (It is touches like this that, while they condemn Augusta utterly in terms of the genre that contains her, make her so much more real to the modern reader than the personality-less Emily.) To assist her convalescence, Augusta’s doctor orders her to a watering-place of her choice…

St. Aubyn is thrown into a panic by Augusta’s arrival, and more so when he receives a note from her requesting him to call upon her. Augusta is in the immediate wake of her pledge never to marry and tells him so, offering her friendship on that basis. She also explains her misapprehension about the paternity of the orphan and apologises for doubting him. Augusta’s unwonted humility and gentleness overset all of St. Aubyn’s good intentions, and he ends up all but renewing his vows to her, leaving her with an assurance that he sees her proffered friendship only as the first step to their reconciliation.

Once parted from Augusta, however, St. Aubyn can see nothing but his untenable situation with respect to Emily Alderton…a situation which is no secret to the other visitors to Matlock, and which very soon comes to Augusta’s ears. Concluding that St. Aubyn’s intention has been to lead her on and then spurn her, as revenge for her breaking of their engagement, she experiences torments of humiliation beside which her sufferings in the wake of Douglas’s exposure are nothing:

    At the moment  when, like another knight of the woeful countenance, he ventured into my presence, trembling with confusion, his brow overspread with a modest, mild complacency, artfully endeavouring to exact from me an engagement that amounted to a pledge of my affections, do you know, my dear, that he was absolutely betrothed to another?
    And your friend Augusta was to have been the mortified dupe to her credulity.— Oh yes, Mr St. Aubyn—undoubtedly you shall retaliate in this way, and take your own revenge on Augusta Conway!…
    He has absolutely descended into the commission of a mean falsehood, to gloss over his artful hypocrisy—for whilst I ingenuously acknowledged the impulse of that friendship I proffered him, (and which I declared was founded on a conviction of his superior merits) I regretted that he could not, from the gay circles of fashion and beauty, select some deserving fair one, who by returning his affection, might establish the means of forgetting his former unsuccessful attachment.
    But, no—if I would give him my friendship as a hostage for love, he would gratefully receive and preserve it.—
    —Yet but an hour before he had been at the feet of this melting damsel—this enchanting Miss Alderton, sighing out his passion, and doubtless confirming the sincerity of it with a profusion of oaths…

As, indeed, he was.

In his fretting over Augusta, St. Aubyn is stand-off-ish to Emily, and her distress alerts Colonel Alderton to the situation. Matlock gossip has been busy with St. Aubyn and Augusta, too, and it is an outraged brother who finally confronts St. Aubyn about his apparent perfidy. This elicits something at least approaching a full confession from St. Aubyn, and ends with him insisting there is nothing he wants more than to marry Emily. Alderton gives his consent and approval, and the three of them depart Matlock for Bath, where the wedding is to take place. St. Aubyn writes an account – or a version – of these events to Sullivan, in which he admits that he knows very well that his only chance of being happy with Emily is if he never sees Augusta again…

(It is St. Aubyn’s hurried departure with the Aldertons, in the wake of all this, that prompts Augusta to send an angry, scornful letter after him—and that letter in turn which prompted the owner of this book to call her a bitch and accuse her of “plaguing the poor man so”—!!)

Up to this stage of Sydney St. Aubyn, the reader has certainly been encouraged to sympathise with the eponymous Sydney; while his position as the novel’s main identification character lends authenticity to his feelings, his version of events. But at this point, with St. Aubyn caught between Augusta and Emily, the possibility of a second and very different reading of the text begins to creep in.

Overtly, the narrative of Sydney St. Aubyn positions the capricious Augusta as the villain of the piece, wreaking emotional destruction upon herself and others through her wilfulness; yet as the story progresses, it is, it seems to me, St. Aubyn himself who really occupies that position—not least because of his appalling mishandling of the emotional tangle in which he finds himself enmeshed. Though he keeps declaring himself a victim of circumstances, or of fate, for the disaster that ultimately befalls him he has nothing to blame but his own selfishness and stupidity.

Then, too, there is the matter of the broken engagement, which is never properly accounted for—Augusta’s professed belief in St. Aubyn’s paternity of the illegitimate child being clearly an excuse rather than a reason. Perhaps, over time, Augusta began to sense something a bit “off” about St. Aubyn—nothing she could put her finger on, or give a name to—nothing that would justify the breaking of an engagement—but which determined her not to marry him after all…

And, in fact, there’s something else peculiar about this novel. All throughout it everyone harps upon St. Aubyn’s perfections—his “superior merit”, his “resplendence”, his “brilliant character”—and the more the other characters go on like this, the harder it becomes to take any of it seriously. The novel, in its entirety, protests far too much. And the more it does so, the more it begins to feel not like an example, but a deconstruction of the tenets of “sentimentalism”…

This, anyway, is the reading that I finally took away from Sydney St. Aubyn. Whether it is the reading I was supposed to take away—I have absolutely no idea. If it is intentional, it’s an unusually subtle bit of writing for this literary period.

The second volume of Sydney St. Aubyn opens—oddly. It was the practice in the late 18th century for multi-volume novels to be released volume by volume, and I suspect that this one was so. At any rate, John Robinson – posing as the “editor” of the letters, as so often the case with epistolary novels – switches to third-person narrative for a time here, apparently in order to hurry the plot up. We get a brief tut-tut visit with Augusta via an excerpt of a letter from Louisa, in which she deprecates Augusta’s contemplated “revenge” upon St. Aubyn; we hear of the marriage of St. Aubyn and Emily, and their departure for Dublin; and we learn that Colonel Alderton has stayed behind in England for a very particular reason—nothing less than to pursue his sudden attraction towards Augusta:

    A few days previous to his sister’s departure for Dublin, he had invited St. Aubyn to a private interview, and with the confidence of friendship, unbosomed a secret that a good deal chagrined him—this was no other than a growing partiality for Augusta Conway…
    St. Aubyn, a good deal disconcerted, (tho’ he knew not why) at this unexpected discovery, could hardly resolve what to answer to make the Colonel.—We would fain hope, for the honour of St. Aubyn’s character, that he had renounced every lurking thought which threatened to remind him improperly of Miss Conway—certain it is, he did not receive the intelligence with that cordiality which the other expected—whether St. Aubyn foresaw danger in too close an alliance with the former disturber of his peace, or that a selfish motive (unworthy himself) prevailed for a moment, the future contents of these pages will best determine…

So.

Much of Volume II is devoted to the reclamation of Douglas and his reunion with Maria and their child; we needn’t get too much into that. Our A Plot finds Colonel Alderton pursuing a determined courtship of Augusta, who eventually capitulates—sending Louisa word that she will have her revenge upon St. Aubyn, after all:

I suppose, Louisa, I must marry him.—Well—St. Aubyn has had his whim that way, and my time must come—what think you my dear, will Mrs St. Aubyn’s husband be pleased with this family commutation?—Now, draw yourself up, my sober sentimental girl, and ask what right he has to be thought of?—Remember, Louisa, I told you I had  not done with my gentleman yet!—he shall see what I am capable of—he shall see what real love can accomplish—that Augusta Conway might shine as a spinster, but that she is unrivalled as a wife…

Louisa takes Augusta’s invitation literally, and sends her back a letter full to overflowing with criticisms, admonitions, warnings and forebodings. The Colonel, meanwhile, sends what sounds like a masterpiece of tactlessness to St. Aubyn—only we don’t get the letter itself, we get some commentary upon it by our “editor” instead:

He forgets not to tell him, that he expects, very shortly, to lead her to the altar—nor is he sparing in his description of Augusta’s charms, but with too prodigal a hand dwells on the fascinating subject.—He felt as a lover, and forgot that it was possible for him to be fanning the expiring embers of a flame which ought, by that time, to have been wholly extinguished—perhaps it was imprudent in the Colonel to do so…

You think?

The consequences of this self-absorbed epistle become evident in a hasty letter sent to Stafford Sullivan by Emily St. Aubyn:

    Ah, my God, Mr Sullivan—you are my St. Aubyn’s friend—will you not be a friend to me too?
    He has been delirious for some hours—and there is that on his mind, which I am convinced will for ever mar our happiness, even if it should please providence to restore him to health.
    He calls loudly on Augusta Conway—me he heeds not, but wildly declaims against the treachery of friendship, and swears, with ungovernable fury, that he will not live to see love’s
altar polluted…
    St. Aubyn has had a dreadful night.—She, the fatal she, has been the constant object of his thoughts, nor has there been a moment that his mind did not seem wholly occupied with a determination to punish some person’s perfidy, and abuse of confidence.—My God—surely he does not mean my brother!

St. Aubyn – unfortunately, we might be inclined to add – recovers, and sends Sullivan a letter full of mingled self-blame and self-pity:

    Ah, Stafford—I was not born to be happy—I told you so over and over.—
    Never did wedded love witness a brighter ornament than Emily St. Aubyn.—Nor did a purer, or more ardent affection ever glow in the bosom of virtuous love.—
    I—I am a wretch, Stafford—who have profaned its hallowed rites—who have wantonly trifled away every hope of happiness.
    What luckless agent of mischief brought the devoted Emily Alderton in my way, to be sacrificed to insensibility like mine—at a time, too, when fate seemed to be relenting—when AUGUSTA CONWAY herself, frank and unreserved, deigned to sue to St. Aubyn?
    Was it well done of the Colonel to fasten me so closely to the flimsy etiquette of honour, whilst he was projecting the plan of robbing he of the mistress that I find, Stafford, is still dearer to me than life?

And upon St. Aubyn hearing that Augusta and the Colonel are actually married, we get this:

    On my estate in Yorkshire, I have a small but elegant mansion, fitted exactly for a recluse.—
    There is a wilderness behind it.
    The first thing I have to do is to construct an hermitage in the most retired part of this wilderness—I shall have a lamp perpetually burning—and there I shall sojourn from morn to eve—my wife and I have agreed upon it—she says she won’t control me.—
    Here I shall cherish reflection, instead of flying from it.— You know I have been disappointed a good deal in life—but ’tis all over—I laugh now at what fate can do—yet your friend is no common philosopher.—
    Is not this an excellent scheme?

Sure—if you’re a pathetic, childish, self-indulgent wanker.

I think what makes Sydney St. Aubyn so difficult to gauge is the lack of editorialisation—novels of this period usually weren’t shy about telling the reader what to think, but John Robinson practices an unexpected degree of restraint. And while these days we might be inclined to conclude that there is no way the reader could be expected to sympathise with St. Aubyn, the fact is that there are plenty of sentimental novels in which the characters behave just as extravagantly and selfishly as St. Aubyn, and yet clearly do expect us to sympathise. So while we can give John Robinson the benefit of the doubt in this respect—doubt there still is.

And as for the conclusion of the narrative itself—from the moment he starts raving about hermitages, it’s pretty clear where Sydney St. Aubyn himself is headed. The only question is how many of the supporting cast he might manage to take down with him…

27/03/2015

The Histories Of Lady Frances S— And Lady Caroline S—

Minifies1cWe who have indulgent parents, or such as supply their loss, like the aunt of my Juliet, ought to think them the richest gift of Providence.—An incident has happened since my last, that gives more force to this reflection, than any other I have met with.—Scarcely am I yet recovered from the hurry of spirits it occasioned.—Sitting alone this morning, I was told that a young lady desired admittance to me, with great earnestness; but being suddenly taken ill, was obliged to drink a glass of water, before she could deliver her request… What was my astonishment to find there Lady Frances S—, whom but two days since I saw at the masquerade, inspiring all who beheld her, with respect, even to veneration, now unattended; in appearance all terrified, and ready to sink; her feet being scarce able to support their trembling burden.—Unable to speak, I received her in my arms; her head fell on my shoulder, while her hidden grief found vent in a most violent gush of tears…

Margaret and Susannah Minifie were the daughters of the Reverend James Minifie of Somersetshire. Margaret was born around 1734, and Susannah around 1740. Not much is known about their early lives; from our point of view, the most cogent fact is that in 1763, the sisters began writing novels: a profession in which they were later joined by Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth.

It should be stressed at the outset that the bibliography of the Minifie sisters is confused and contradictory when it comes to individual authorship—in short, it is not at all clear who wrote what. Sometimes they put their name, or names, or the title page and sometimes they did not; while certain works have been differently attributed by different academics. We should note that while it is canon to list Susannah Gunning as the author of Barford Abbey, the novel has been attributed by some to Margaret Minifie; though I’m not aware of any solid reason to do so. (We might recall that during the Gunning scandal – the first – Gunning scandal – Susannah denied writing this novel; although if that were true, “my sister wrote it” might have been a more cogent response than “I never heard of it.”)

The Minifies, separately and together, found a certain measure of success as writers. They specialised in “novels of sensibility”, usually featuring the stock wish-fulfilment fantasies of poor girls either marrying into the aristocracy, or discovering they are of the aristocracy, or both (ironic, considering their connection to the Gunning sisters, who did exactly that). Their over-the-top sentimentality saw them paid the backhanded compliment of having the term “Minific” coined to describe that type of writing; in which respect, Clara Reeve singled out Margaret Minifie for criticism in her study of the novel, The Progress Of Romance. However, while it is generally agreed that the Minifies’ early novels are fairly weak, there is also some feeling that they improved as writers over time.

The Minifies’ first novel, published as by “the Miss MINIFIES of Fairwater, in Somersetshire”, appeared in 1763. The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— is, as we might expect, a sentimental epistolary novel, and entirely typical of that branch of writing, inasmuch as there is a lot of talk, and a great many outpourings of “sensibility”, but not a lot actually happens.

Overall, however, the main weakness of the novel lies in its handling of one particular plot-thread.

Lady Frances S—, having fled from her parents’ house and taken refuge with the Lady Lucy Walton, daughter of the Earl of — (I’m not sure why Lady Lucy gets a surname and Lady Frances doesn’t; though their parents are equally title-less), feels obliged to give a circumstantial account of her entire life, in order to justify herself. This account Lady Lucy, naturally, transcribes word for word and sends to her chief correspondent, Miss Juliet Hamilton. At the outset of it (page 17 of the novel), Lady Frances declares:

About this time died my sister Caroline, two years younger than myself.—Had she lived—but for her sake I ought not, will not wish it…

But on the other hand, there’s this dream sequence:

Back again to town, my father spurning me from him, my mother frowning, and ordering me from her presence:—all insulting me, except my uncle, who with a look of mingled pity and resentment, took my hand, and convey’d me from them.—Once more at Audley-castle, Mr Worthley with us; all harmony. My father and mother both caressing him. To compleat all, a lovely creature rush’d into my mother’s arms, who presented her to me, bidding me embrace my sister…

What could the truth possibly be!?

Here’s a hint – take another look at the title of the novel.

Yes. Not a lot of suspense there. Basically we spend the whole novel waiting for the female version of The Suspiciously Superior Peasant to show up, which she duly does.

Anyway. The first half of The Histories— deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Frances; and the second half, although apparently we’re not supposed to realise it, deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Caroline. The plot, such as it is, has various of its characters being caught between love and duty; and though I doubt this was the moral that the Minifies intended to convey, things tend to work out whichever of those options is chosen. I can’t even really say that choosing love over duty brings more suffering, just a different kind.

One of the most unexpected things about The Histories— is the situation of Lady Frances who, though she would appear to be everything her aristocratic patents could desire in a daughter, is hated by those parents: or rather, she is hated by her mother, a former famous beauty suffering from poisonous jealousy of the young and even more lovely girl, while her father goes along with the resulting persecution because of his blind obsession with his wife. Most of what Lady Frances suffers is the direct result of deliberate cruelty from her mother and father, which in turns leads to the novel’s most exasperating aspect – exasperating in 1763, exasperating when Dickens did it about a hundred years later – the insistence that no matter how viciously a “good” girl is treated by her parents or, conversely, how entirely she is rejected by them, she will bear no feelings of resentment whatsoever, desire only to be reconciled, and (if and when that happens) evince nothing towards them but gratitude and love.

Groan.

Lady Frances’s father, though inheriting a dukedom, was otherwise deprived of everything he could be deprived of as a result of marrying against his father’s wishes, with all unsecured property and money devolving to his younger brother, Lord Henry: a situation which not unnaturally caused deep resentment in the new Duke. Nevertheless, seeing Frances neglected by her mother and left to the servants (at that time not out of jealousy, just because of the Duchess’s passion for her social life), Lord Henry arranged for her to be sent away to school, where she spent the next ten years; it was shortly after she left that the Lady Caroline died {*cough*}.

Returning home, Frances finds her parents’ passive hostility has become active, resulting in her being, in effect, kept in solitary confinement; while Lord Henry’s attempts to make the Duke and Duchess see their injustice backfire as often as not:

His Lordship remonstrated to my mother on my too strict confinement; and at length got her to promise she would introduce me to some of her acquaintance… About six I was summoned to the drawing-room, and found there my father, Lord Henry, and my mother: his Lordship, with an air of affection not visible on any other countenance called me dear good girl; see brother, see sister, leading me to them, how your condescension has made her eyes sparkle with gratitude. Her Grace looked at me in a manner that made me tremble. In my agitation I dropped down on one knee, took her hand and put it to my lips; being so much affected by her unkind silence, that I felt the tears falling in a shower on my face.—What does the girl mean? said my mother; this indulgence spoils her.—Indeed, brother, you persuade me to take a wrong method.—Go, madam, walk back to your apartment; I shall not carry you abroad to expose me…

Repeat ad nauseum.

Eventually Lord Henry persuades the Duke and Duchess to let him take Lady Frances home with him, where she is loved and appreciated; though of course she never stops repining over her parents’ neglect and indifference. At this point (with Lady Lucy repeating Lady Frances’ account of herself to Juliet Hamilton), the narratives-within-narratives start to intrude. We are first given the life-story of the subtly named Mrs Worthley—severely abridged version, she is widowed when her soldier-husband is killed and left almost destitute. She is succoured by an aristocratic woman who turns out to be Lady Frances’ grandmother, the late Duchess; and here allow me to quote a couple of short passages which, I think, convey perfectly both the overall tone of this novel, and its more-than-occasional amusing clumsiness of expression:

Recovering, I found myself thrown on my bed, a lady standing by me, with a smelling bottle in one hand, in the other my daughter…

The sight of [my daughter] made me wish to preserve that life, which was become less valuable, by being deprived of its richest comfort. The greatness of her joy shewed what her sorrow had been. From my arms she ran into the person’s by whose means I had been restored. O, madam, (she cried, locking the child in them, and kissing her with an affection like my own) what a child is this! never did I see such sensibility…

Mrs Worthley has a son as well as a daughter. Charles eventually follows his father into the army, while Sophia becomes the object of Lord Henry’s affections—but dies shortly before they are to be married. Lord Henry buries his heart in her grave and devotes himself to Good Works, in which he is assisted by Mrs Worthley.

Lord Henry is one of this novel’s more interesting aspects and, as with most of what is interesting here, it feels accidental. Lord Henry becomes, progressively, the moral centre of the story, everyone’s touchstone for what is honourable; yet to the reader it appears that Lord Henry has a talent for placing those who love him in the wrong, or for being away when his advice is most needed; so that (given the kind of novel this is) we end up with a series of big emotional scenes in which someone – usually the unfortunate Lady Frances – acts on their own judgement and then – of course – has to throw themselves at Lord Henry’s feet and beg his forgiveness for the heinous crime of being a little less perfectly perfect than he, in the kind of public display that novels of sensibility eat for breakfast.

Lord Henry’s Good Works also smack of killing with kindness. Even allowing for the shifts in language that have occurred since this novel was written, it is hard not to laugh when Charles Worthley, discovering that it was Lord Henry who bought the small estate that his mother sold following her husband’s death, and that he intends to restore it to him along with twenty years’ of collected rents, describes himself as being, “Oppressed by benefits.”

While on leave from his duties, Charles Worthley visits his mother, who now lives upon Lord Henry’s estate, and is introduced to Lady Frances. Naturally, these very nearly perfectly perfect young people fall in love, much as they struggle against it, and much as they struggle to conceal the fact from one another. Eventually, however, they confide in Lord Henry. Although he knows – or ought to know – that the Duke and Duchess will froth at the mouth at the very idea of Lady Frances marrying a mere soldier, he nevertheless asks their permission on the young couple’s behalf, hoping that a fervent description of Charles’ manifold virtues and the news that he, Lord Henry, has made Charles his heir will sufficiently make up for his lack of birth.

Naturally, the Duke and Duchess respond by calling their daughter home, violently abusing her non-stop for her wilfulness, disobedience and lack of proper pride, and try to force her into a hateful marriage—partly because the party in question is a member of the aristocracy and therefore (whatever his personal failings) a proper suitor for Lady Frances…but mostly just because it is hateful.

And having played no small part in bringing about this situation, Lord Henry then fades from the scene, leaving Frances to fend for herself—to decide on her own, firstly, whether “duty” – the perfect “duty” so beloved of Lord Henry – really dictates that she must marry as her parents bid her, whatever her feelings; and secondly, what to do when Charles Worthley tries to persuade her into a secret marriage…

So much for Plot A. Plot B concerns Lord Ormsby, the brother of Lady Lucy, whose erratic behaviour has been referred to at intervals during the transmission of Lady Frances’ story. At length – at length – it transpires that Ormsby has fallen under the influence of the dissolute Lord Edgmore, who has made it his business to lead him away from the path of virtue. As with Lady Frances’ parents, there is a proximate and ultimate reason for Lord Edgmore’s behaviour: on one hand, he likes corrupting virtuous young men; on the other, he is plotting his revenge against a venerable old country clergyman, Mr Nevison, who discovered his wicked intentions with respect to a certain young girl and intervened. Mr Nevison is to be punished for his temerity, the target of Lord Edgmore’s vengeance being the old man’s own beautiful, innocent young granddaughter, the weapon Lord Ormsby…

Ormsby, masquerading under a false identity, and at this stage imbued with Edgmore’s own vicious immorality, does indeed lay siege to Miss Dalton, with the intention of making her his mistress via a false marriage. He finds the task rather more difficult than anticipated; Miss Dalton is not what he expected, particularly in light of her lowly situation:

Can a girl unacquainted with riches, resist the charm they bring? may she not have some sparks of vanity in her composition; and may I not, by the breath of flattery, blow those sparks into flames? but in vain did I try that common and generally successful battery; she was proof against all my arts: my visits, through frequent, were never placed to her account; though I could discern I had by my assiduity gained her esteem. With pleasure have I seen her with an additional chearfulness, and the warmest filial duty imprinted on her face, exerting all the powers of sense and eloquence to entertain her aged and almost decrepid grandfather; which seem’d to soften the rigor of his pain, and banish the remembrance of his misfortunes.—How different from what is called the well-bred of her sex, who make the most desirable and necessary duties of life subservient to the least of their amusements. Often have I regretted, that so many fine women should lose, in the stream of pleasure, a sympathising softness, which nature has originally implanted in them, as a soil more capable of improving those tender seeds, than in us, whose minds are cast in a rougher mould. Difficult as I found it to proceed, I found it as difficult to retreat…

Ashamed of going on with his plot, yet more ashamed to back down in front of Lord Edgmore, Ormsby retreats to his home, when his strange moods attract the notice of his family and friends. He realises that he is in love with Miss Dalton, yet does not relinquish his plan. He proposes and is accepted, then turning his mind to how to lure her away from home. He ends up forging a letter from Miss Dalton’s mother (of whom, more anon), in which she reveals she has been ill, and asks her daughter to come to her. Lord Ormsby offers to escort her to the meeting place, and so manages to remove her from her grandfather’s care and to a house that he has prepared for the occasion. Having got Miss Dalton into his clutches, Ormsby gets to work:

In that time I intended to discover to her my quality, the impossibility of my marrying her (which had made me act as I had done) to tell her that I would study her happiness; and that if my fortune and entire affection could bestow it on her, they were both at her disposal. This considered, I hoped would induce her to forgive the deception I had used, and listen to those sophistical arguments which I had made myself master of, till her virtue should be lull’d asleep by them.—I took a lodging near hers, which was a small distance from the town, and seeing my scheme now at its crisis, I ventured to laugh at those sacred rites which I had before seemed to venerate, called them priestcraft, talked of her sparkling with jewels in a side-box; and being distinguished for her beauty wherever she appeared. When she thus interrupted me— Certainly you are not Mr Beaumont! The Mr Beaumont that honoured me with his regard, was good and generous. Leave, leave me, sir, I will not be insulted; if you entertain those opinions, leave me, and know that I detest the one, and despise the other…

Lord Ormsby does leave her; and, once home again, he finally confesses all to his best friend, Sir William Hamilton (brother to Juliet, who is courting Lady Lucy), asking his advice and that of their respective sisters as to how he should proceed.

Juliet, who recounts all this to another correspondent, her cousin Miss Wentworth, is moved, if not quite to poetry, at least to elaborate analogy:

After all, my dear, what a dreadful thing it is, when any of our sex, who really love virtue, are so unhappy as to fall into the hands of men, who glory in bringing it on a level with vice; of which principles is the hateful Lord Edgmore, especially in the case of Miss Dalton? Like the villain spider, he had artfully spun his web of so fine a texture, as to make it imperceptible. Hid in the close recesses of his wicked machinery, with malicious pleasure, he saw the innocent unsuspecting fly enjoying the sweets of content, and the liberty of roving from flower to flower, and sucking the sweets of education; till at last allured by a sunbeam, she is entangled in the net of vice.—The spider now shews itself, creeping out by slow degrees, eyeing its prey; who, at his approach, sends out a feeble cry of pity to its destroyer.—Bloated with imagined success, methinks I see him just ready to seize the victim of his revenge, when behold she is miraculously delivered by her own virtue…

As is also the case with Susannah Minifie Gunning’s later novel, Barford Abbey, some fairly twisted morality emerges at this point in The Histories— When Lady Frances’ parents go berserk at the thought of her marriage to Charles Worthley, and try to force upon her an individual loathsome for everything but his title, we naturally take it as a typical sentimental novel view of birth-vs-worth. And naturally, when Lord Ormsby falls for a girl of low birth, but who is otherwise “the most beautiful and the most virtuous of her sex”, we expect their union to be held up approvingly as an example of the triumph of proper values. But it doesn’t happen.

Both because he is in love with her, and to make reparation, Lord Ormsby proposes to Miss Dalton, even though he knows his father will be utterly enraged when he finds out. (To modern eyes, “the best of parents”, as he is repeatedly described, is both a domestic tyrant and a terrible snob.) Miss Dalton, however, is steadfast in her refusal—not, we gather, so much because of Ormsby’s transgressions, but because she is now aware that he is the son and heir of an earl. And instead of disputing her stance, Lady Lucy thanks her for it, praising her generosity and self-sacrifice in preventing Lord Ormsby from disgracing his family, and promising to love her as a sister provided she never actually becomes her sister.

So much for Miss Dalton’s beauty, innocence, virtue and courage, which are brushed aside as of no importance. It’s a pity, they all agree, but her marriage with Lord Ormsby is impossible.

Well. Almost impossible.

Before I move on to the question of how we turn an impossibility into a fait accompli, we must digress a moment for an extract from Mr Nevison’s letter to his granddaughter, upon his becoming aware of her various travails. Apparently he and Juliet Hamilton had the same English teacher:

Suspicion and innocence seldom meet; how could you then suspect that under the appearance of merit, was hid a subtil poison, calculated to fascinate the senses, and bid us both asleep? Few they are that can fly from this serpent, under the disguise of a friend; but often when too late discover the deception, and the force of its baneful influence. For innocence, like the playful squirrel, skipping from bough to bough, unmindful of its safety, discerns the beautiful speckled serpent, attempting to climb the tree, which affords her liberty, food, and shelter. Not mistrusting it for an enemy, it descends nearer, whilst the sly reptile rolls himself in a thousand different ways, the more to attract her notice. Sometimes it towers its head, fold upon fold, shewing its glittering scales, and then again baking in the sun of prosperity, licks the dust, attempting, by devilish cunning, to bring his designed prey to the low level of his desires; till at length the poor animal, lured by deceitful appearances, having her head made giddy by them, drops into the extended jaws of the baneful snake, who exults in loud reproachful hisses, on the misfortune he had occasioned…

Lady Frances and Lord Henry have been popping in and out of this plot-thread, but we don’t hear much of the Duke and Duchess until Lady Frances is summoned home by her father, who is stricken with grief and remorse in the face of his wife’s possibly fatal illnesss; and even at this early acquaintance with the Minifies, we are not in the least surprised to discover that the illness in question is smallpox. In Barford Abbey,  the heroine being both beautiful and virtuous, she survives unmarked; the Duchess, being beautiful but rather lacking in the virtue department, survives but has the looks she has always been so vain about completely ruined. This brings about an almost instantaneous reformation, and reconciles her to the daughter she has always hated as a rival—while Lady Frances, of course, is overcome with dutiful joy at this outcome.

Not so fortunate is the Duchess’ tirewoman—a certain Mrs Dalton. She catches smallpox from her mistress, and soon knows she is going to die. This prompts her finally to reveal the Terrible Secret she has harboured for many years…

Come not near me, Madam, said the poor creature, I am a wretch, unworthy this condescension, or your forgiveness. I assured her I did not recollect any offence towards me, but such as I could easily pardon.—O blessed sound! she replied, am I forgiven?—Then staring up, she wrung her hands, and with wild vehemence cried out, O my good Lady—the Duke—Lady Caroline—they—they;—have mercy, heaven, hide—hide—my guilt…

That’s right, folks! Say it with me now, loud and proud—

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

We haven’t had one of those plots for a while! Personally, I’ve missed them.

It turns out that Mrs Dalton has left a written confession behind, so we get the details as well as the facts. She starts by assuring the Duchess that her long-lost daughter, Still lives; she lives, an honour to you, an honour to your sex! concealed by me under a fictitious name, her noble birth shines out in obscurity.

Yeah, for all the good it’s done her.

Mrs Dalton was Lady Caroline’s wet-nurse. When the baby became ill, she was ordered to take her into the country, as well of course as her own daughter, Elizabeth. There she conceived the idea of swapping the children, and giving her own all the advantages of birth and wealth – an imposture she was sure she could get away with:

Such a mother as yourself, who had never seen your own, but once from its birth, would not discern the changeling…

(This is the second time we’ve encountered a baby substitution plot facilitated by disinterested 18th century motherhood.)

And so Elizabeth Dalton was received into an aristocratic nursery, while the Lady Caroline was banished to the country, to be raised by Mr Nevison, Mrs Dalton’s father. The scheme worked admirably—at least until the false Lady Caroline died…

Despite these outrageous revelations, Mrs Dalton doesn’t hesitate to read the Duchess a lecture on her own conduct:

Now I fear not your resentment, yet implore your forgiveness, and that of my dear Lady Frances Worthley. Your Grace too well knows the part I have acted towards that excellent Lady; it was when I saw your Grace’s treatment of the gentle sufferer in sending her from your house, that a sincere repentance first entered my heart; it was then  that I resolved to write what you now read; not only to restore Lady Caroline to your arms, but to endeavour to convince your Grace that, had you acted like a mother, you would never have lost the one, nor driven the other from you…

The revelation of Lady Caroline’s identity of course removes all barriers between herself and Lord Ormsby, and her steadfast clinging to duty is rewarded…while Lady Frances, who defied her parents and contracted a clandestine marriage to a man out of her own social class is…also rewarded, with reconciliations and friendships all around.

I’m just a little confused right now…

19/10/2014

Barford Abbey

barfordabbey1How was I surpris’d at ascending the hill!—My feet seem’d leading me to the first garden,—the sweet abode of innocence!—Ten thousand beauties broke on my sight;—ten thousand pleasures, before unknown, danced through my heart.—Behold me on the summit;—behold me full of surprise,—full of admiration!—How enchanting the park! how clear the river that winds through it1—what taste,—what elegance, in the plantations!—How charmingly are Nature’s beauties rang’d by art!—The trees,—the shrubs,—the flowers,—hold up their heads, as if proud of the spot they grow on!—Then the noble old structure,—the magnificent mansion of this antient family, how does it fire the beholder with veneration and delight! The very walls seem’d to speak; at least there was something that inform’d me, native dignity, and virtues hereditary, dwelt within them.

Susannah Gunning’s 1768 publication, Barford Abbey, A Novel. In A Series Of Letters, is another work that has been mentioned as a potential proto-Gothic novel, though as it turns out there is very little in the book itself to support this assertion; except perhaps (as is evident from its earliest pages) there is a secret to do with her parentage in the background of the novel’s heroine. However, since it eventually becomes evident that almost everyone except the heroine herself is in on that particular secret, it hardly constitutes the kind of mystery that would eventually become a trope of the Gothic novel proper. In fact, my suspicion is that Barford Abbey ended up on the list of Gothic progenitors purely because it had the word “abbey” in its title; thirty years later, this would indeed constitute a fairly reliable marker.

One thing that Barford Abbey does have in common with a surprising number of the proto-Gothics is that it was first published in Dublin, with a second edition appearing in England some three years later. However, its author was English: Susannah Minifie was born in Somerset, the daughter of a poor clergyman. Susannah’s sister, Margaret, was also a novelist (and attracted pointed criticism from Clara Reeve in her The Progress Of Romance, for reasons I have yet to investigate), while her daughter, Elizabeth, would likewise become a writer.

In 1768, the same year that she wrote Barford Abbey, her first novel, Susannah Minifie married John Gunning, brother to the famous Irish Gunning sisters, who became the Countess of Coventry, and the Duchess of Hamilton and later the Duchess of Argyll, respectively. (John Gunning is a story unto himself, to which I might return sometime…)

Barford Abbey was, as I say, a first novel, and it shows. Some things, however, it does do well. Unlike the earlier The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley, this is an epistolary novel proper, with correspondance in various voices, and differing perspectives on the same events, so that the reader is aware of various facts while the characters – or at least the heroine – remain in ignorance of them. This novel also does a good job creating suspense, albeit rather mild, by writing as people do write—that is, the correspondents don’t tell each other things that they already know. This is a an area where many epistolary novels fail, even falling into the fatal trap of including entire back-stories for certain characters under the guise of “dear friends” demanding to know each other’s life-histories.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that this approach sometimes makes Barford Abbey simply confusing—although in retrospect this might be more correctly attributed to another rookie mistake. Rarely for a novel of this type, sometimes there is simply not enough detail in the description of the characters. One subplot involves an estrangement between father and son. The context in which this plot-point is raised suggests that the son is a young man, perhaps in his early twenties; in fact he is some twenty years older, a detail which alters the implications of the situation altogether.

There’s also the fact that all of the novel’s correspondents favour the same peculiar punctuation style.

Overall, Barford Abbey is a sentimental novel par excellence, inasmuch as while very little actually happens, endless pages are devoted to the characters reporting and analysing their feelings. Its main failing is that the two people doing most of the analysing are neither of them very interesting. Our hero and heroine are, alas!—respectively a prat and a bore.

With respect to both, Mrs Gunning falls into the trap of the “informed attribute”. Every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her; through their correspondence we hear not only of her beauty and grace, but of her sensibility, intelligence and wit; of how “angelic”, how “bewitching” she is…but her own correspondence, which makes up the bulk of the novel, gives us no hint of anything out of the thoroughly ordinary. We are left to assume that everyone is reading whatever they want to into the tabula rasa of a pretty face. Likewise, though we hear from his first appearance about how Lord Darcy’s mind is “illumin’d with uncommon understanding, sweetness, and refinement”, what he reveals of himself directly and in his letters makes the reader want to slap him.

(Most exasperatingly, this novel repeatedly contends that no-one who isn’t perfectly beautiful can expect to be loved, even to the point of creating a plain spinster character in every other respect even more boringly perfect than Fanny herself. At some points it even suggests that no-one who isn’t beautiful is capable of loving. I suppose this attitude may have been consequence of Mrs Gunning having seen first-hand what her sisters-in-law achieved via beauty alone, unsupported by birth or money, though it seems an odd and hurtful assertion coming from someone who does not seem to have been more than borderline pretty herself.)

The opening of Barford Abbey gave me what proved to be unfounded hopes that it was going to be an exercise in hilarious misery like Valentine:

How distressing, how heart-rending, is my dear Fanny’s mournful detail!—It lies before me; I weep over it!—I weep not for the departed saint: no; it is for you, myself, for all who have experienced her godlike virtues!

But this was largely misleading, although though we do get a few agreeably absurd flourishes from time to time. The novel’s opening correspondents are Miss Fanny Warley and the Lady Mary Sutton; the latter, for her health, has been for some time residing at “the German Spaw”, although she now holds hopes of being permitted by her physician to return to England. Fanny’s dismal letter (not included) reports the death of one Mrs Whitmore, with whom she has been living. Lady Mary begs Fanny to join her on the Continent by travelling with Mr and Mrs Smith, who will be wintering at Montpelier; in the meantime, she is to be taken in by Mr and Mrs Jenkings, the former the steward to Sir James and Lady Powis of – ah-ha! – Barford Abbey.

What we notice chiefly about the early multiplicity of names is the distinct lack of Warleys in the immediate vicinity of Fanny Warley. In fact, Fanny is an orphan, and without either birth or money. Not to worry, though!—she’s beautiful, so I’m sure fate has something pleasant in store for her.

Fanny has barely arrived at the Jenkings’ before she finds herself an object of interest to Sir James and Lady Powis. The two ladies immediately discover that they are kindred spirits:

Then addressing herself to me, Will you, Madam, give me the pleasure of your company often at the Abbey?—I mean, will you come there as if it was your home?—Mr and Mrs Jenkings have comforts, I have not,—at least that I can enjoy.—Here she sigh’d deeply;—so deep, that I declare it pierced through my heart;—I felt as if turn’d into stone;—what I suppose I was a true emblem of.—The silent friends that trickled down my cheeks brought me back from my inanimate state…

The comfort that Lady Powis cannot enjoy is her son, who due to a disagreement with his father lives on the Continent (it’s crowded over there) and has not been home since his departure. Mr Jenkings also has a son, Edmund, of whom he is inordinately proud—to which, or so Fanny assumes (comparing her penniless condition to Edmund’s expectations from his well-heeled father), we can attribute the disapproval he evinces when he realises that (sigh) Edmund is falling in love with their visitor.

Fanny’s first visits to Barford Abbey serve to make the reader aware of another potential mystery, in addition to the vagueness of our heroine’s background. In conversation she naturally makes several references to “Lady Mary”; her subsequent revelation of her de facto guardian’s identity has a strange effect:

    A similitude of manners between your Ladyship and Lady Powis, particularly in doing the honours of the table, struck me so much, that I once or twice call’d her Lady Mary.—Pray, Miss Warley, ask’d she, who is this Lady Mary?
    What could occasion her confusion!—what could occasion the confusion of Sir James!—Never did see any thing equal it, when I said it was Lady Mary Sutton!—The significant looks that were interchang’d, spoke some mystery;—a mystery it would be presumption in me to dive after. Her Ladyship made no reply,—Sir James was eager to vary the subject,—and the conversation became general…

No explanation is forthcoming for some considerable time, while Fanny is reassured by Lady Mary’s evasive assertion that Lady Powis is worthy of her love. Meanwhile, we learn that the estrangement between Sir James and his son was caused by the failure of the latter to marry the wealthy woman his father picked out for him; though as it turns out, the lady refused his loveless offer.

Though separated from her son, Lady Powis does take some comfort from the visits to the Abbey of the young Lord Darcey, who Fanny is invited to meet, and of whose circumstances she first hears from Mrs Jenkings:

Mrs Jenkings informed me, his Lordship was a ward of Sir James’s just of age;—his estate genteel, not large;—his education liberal,—his person fine,—his temper remarkably good.—Sir James, said she, is for ever preaching lessons to him, that he must marry prudently;—which is, that he must never marry without an immense fortune…

So…a handsome young peer needing to marry for money thrown together with a beautiful but penniless young woman…what could possibly go wrong?

Barford Abbey’s second major correspondence is between Lord Darcey and his cousin, George Molesworth. While the letters exchanged between Fanny Warley and Lady Mary Sutton are full of sentiment and sensibility, those of the two young men offer a more cynical, if no less emotive, commentary upon the workings of society, in particular its attitude to love, marriage and money. Through these exchanges we also learn more of Lord Darcey’s position, and his relationship with Sir James Powis. Though “just of age”, Darcey is still subject to Sir James’s will thanks to a promise made to his father on the latter’s death-bed:

    Without his consent never can I give my hand;—the commands of a dying father forbid me.—Such a father!—O George! you did not know him; —so revered, —so honour’d,—so belov’d! not more in public than in private life.
    My friend, behold your son!—Darcey, behold your father!—As you reverence and obey Sir James, as you consult him on all occasions, as you are guided by his advice, receive my blessing.—These were his parting words, hugg’d into me in his last cold embrace…

Ew!

(So his last earthly thoughts were not of God or heaven, but of keeping his son in a state of permanent subjection? Such a father, indeed…)

But as Molesworth is quick to deduce from his cousin’s letters, Darcey has already fallen in love with Fanny. He helpfully clarifies the situation by explaining why Darcey’s raptures indicate more than mere friendship, using his unfortunate cousin as a negative example:

So it is necessary for every woman you think capable of friendship, to have fine eyes, fine hair, a bewitching smile, and a neck delicately turn’d.—Have not I the highest opinion of my cousin Dolly’s sincerity?—Do I not think her very capable of friendship?—Yet, poor soul, her eyes are planted so deep, it requires good ones to discover she has any.—Such a hand, George!—Such a hand, Darcey!—Why, Lady Dorothy too has hands; I am often enough squeez’d by them:—though hard as a horse’s hoof, and the colour of tanned leather, I hold her capable of friendship.—Neck she has none! yet need I the determination of another, to tell me whether my regard for her proceeds from love or friendship?

Some regard.

This is the point when Darcey begins to evince some very unlovely character traits. In the first place, though he knows that Sir James will never permit their marriage—though Sir James has specifically and directly warned him away from Fanny—though he repeatedly declares that, as a consequence, he cannot marry her—Darcey not only declines to do anything as sensible (or unselfish) as remove himself from Fanny’s orbit, he continues to court her until she falls in love with him. Fanny’s letters become full of hope mingled with confusion, and eventually distress: Darcey’s behaviour seems to promise everything, but he does not speak…

This situation reaches an unexpected crisis when, thanks to the meddling of a busy-body visitor, Darcey is forced to make a public declaration that he has no intention of offering for anybody… Hurt and humiliated (not least because the circumstances ensure that everyone knows exactly who Darcey has “no intention” of offering for), Fanny tries to cut him out of her heart, evading him whenever she can, and treating him coldly when she cannot—which is most of the time. Despite his declaration, Darcey continues to pursue her, protesting (both to her and in his letters) about her “coldness” and “indifference”, repeatedly addressing her in public as “my angel” and “my dearest life”, and forcing his company upon her no matter how often or how firmly she lets him know it’s not wanted.

But this isn’t even the worst of it! Since every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her, and since most of them are under no restriction about who they marry, from the very first Darcey is wracked with jealousy, which becomes even worse after his public crying off:

    Where are those looks of preference fled,—those expressive looks?—I saw them not till now:—it is their loss,—it is their sad reverse that tells me what they were. She turns not her head to follow my footsteps at parting;—or when I return, does not proclaim it by advancing pleasure tip-toe to the windows of her soul.—No anxiety for my health! No, she cares not what becomes of me.—I complain’d of my head, said I was in great pain;—heaven knows how true! My complaints were disregarded.—I attended her home. She sung all the way; or if she talked, it was of music:—not a word of my poor head
    Shall she be another’s?—Yes, when I shrink at sight of what lies yonder,—my sword, George;—that shall prevent her ever being another’s

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

(Actually, this aspect of Barford Abbey put me very much in mind of Fanny Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which also features a “hero” so intent upon claiming his romantic privileges, he all but ruins the life of the woman he’s supposed to be in love with.)

Finally Fanny is driven to drastic action. Keeping her intentions a strict secret until, as she knows is to happen, Darcey is forced to leave Barford Abbey for a time on account of business associated with his own estates, she makes arrangements to travel to London to join Mr and Mrs Smith, who are to escort her to Montpelier. Her hope is to be out of the country before Darcey even knows she’s left the Abbey. She sets out…

A flurry of shocks and revelations follow, with the correspondence flying back and forth between several parties and almost bewildering the reader. Some of this is intentional, some due (as I alluded to at the beginning) to insufficient set-up. In the latter category we have the abrupt revelation of Fanny’s true identity: she is the granddaughter of Sir James and Lady Powis, the daughter of the estranged Mr Powis and his wife. (You will now appreciate my confusion over Mr Powis’s apparent age.)

This aspect of Barford Abbey is nothing less than absurd. It turns out that the woman Mr Powis did not marry was – surprise! – Lady Mary Sutton who, though “possess’d of every virtue” (including the whacking great fortune that attracted Sir James’s attention in the first place), had the misfortune to be plain:

    Mr Powis’s inclinations not coinciding,—Sir James throws himself into a violent rage.—Covetousness and obstinacy always go hand in hand:—both had taken such fast hold of the Baronet, that he swore—and his oath was without reservation—he would never consent to his son’s marrying any other woman.—Mr Powis, finding his father determin’d,—and nothing, after his imprecation, to expect from the entreaties of his mother,—strove to forget the person of Lady Mary, and think only of her mind…
    The two Ladies set out on their journey, attended by Sir James and Mr Powis, who, in obedience to his father, was still endeavouring to conquer his indifference.—Perhaps, in time, Lady Mary might have found a way to his heart,—had she not introduc’d the very evening of their arrival at the Lodge, her counter-part in every thing but person:—there Miss Whitmore outshone her whole sex…

Well, now…that was silly.

Lady Mary, though in love with Mr Powis (God only knows why), accepts that he can never love her, and generously makes it look to Sir James as if she has rejected him. Furthermore, she then enters into a conspiracy to get Mr Powis married off to the beautiful Miss Whitmore, binding everyone involved to a solemn oath of silence. The plotters go so far as to (i) fake Miss Whitmore’s death; (ii) have her live on the Continent under an assumed name, never acknowledged as Mrs Powis, and (iii) giving up their child to be raised by her grandmother, Mrs Whitmore, with assistance from Lady Mary, rather than give away their secret.

All of which makes a lot more sense than Mr Powis saying openly, “Screw you, Dad, I’ll marry who I damn well please!”

(So if I’m understanding it correctly, the moral of Barford Abbey is: It’s fine to disobey your father, as long as he doesn’t find out you’ve done it…)

Anyway— The revelation that Fanny is his granddaughter reconciles the avaricious Sir James to pretty much everything, including her marriage to Lord Darcey. (The fact that Fanny is in fact neither an orphan nor penniless might also have something to do with it.) Darcey is instantly cast up into the heights of ecstasy—and then, this being the kind of novel that it is, instantly afterwards cast down into the depths of despair—for reasons conveyed by George Molesworth to another of our supporting characters, Captain Richard Risby:

    Oh Dick! the most dreadful affair has happen’d!—Lord Darcey is distracted and dying; I am little better.—Good God! What shall I do?—what can I do?—He lies on the floor in the next room, with half his hair torn off.—Unhappy man! fatigue had near kill’d him, before the melancholy account reach’d his ears.—Miss Warley, I mean Miss Powis, is gone to the bottom.—She sunk in the yacht that sailed yesterday from Dover to Calais.—Every soul is lost.—The fatal accident was confirm’d by a boat which came in not ten minutes before we arriv’d.—There was no keeping it from Lord Darcey.—The woman of the Inn we are at has a son lost in the same vessel: she was in fits when we alighted.—Some of the wreck is drove on shore.—What can equal this scene!—Oh, Miss Powis! most amiable of women, I tremble for your relations!—But Darcey, poor Darcey, what do I feel for you!—He speaks:—he calls for me:—I go to him.—
    Oh, Risby! my heart is breaking; for once let it be said a man’s heart can break.—Whilst he raved, whilst his sorrows were loud, there was some chance; but now all is over. He is absolutely dying;—death is in every feature.—His convulsions how dreadful!—how dreadful the pale horror of his countenance!—But then so calm,—so compos’d!—I repeat, there can be no chance—

Oh, really?

Sentimental novels, as we know, enjoy nothing better than wallowing in extreme emotion, and they frequently do kill off their heroes and heroines in order to dwell upon the misery of the survivors (kind of the literary equivalent of, Shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die…); but it usually happens towards the end of the novel, not only three-fifths of the way through. However, Barford Abbey lingers so long upon the grief of its characters that I began to be lulled into a belief in Fanny’s death, which a combination of cynicism and experience had previously prevented. Curiously, what restored my instinctive scepticism was this, also from George Molesworth:

I have neither leisure or spirits to tell you in what manner the body was found, and how I knew it to be Miss Powis’s…

A ship lost with all hands is one thing; a body washed ashore quite some time afterwards and identified via (presumably) clothing or jewellery is something very different. Sure enough, eventually we learn about an unfortunate young woman called Frances Walsh, who favoured initialled handkerchiefs…

So where is Fanny? Why has she not been in contact?

Having slipped away from Barford Abbey and Lord Darcey, Fanny is escorted to London by Mr Smith (remember him?), who on the way reveals himself to be—A VILLAIN!! Or at least an idiot, making improper proposals on the strength of his wife being sure to die sooner or later; hiding under the bed in Fanny’s room at an inn, in order to do it again; and then threatening to shoot himself if she won’t listen to him. Fanny’s screams bring an elderly gentleman also staying at the inn to the scene, who turns out to be Lady’s Mary’s banker. Mr Delves carries her to his own house in London, where almost immediately she falls ill with smallpox. There, after a series of coincidences, George Molesworth finds her—and relieves our minds of their most pressing concern in a letter to Captain Risby:

But let me tell you, Miss Powis is just recover’d from the smallpox;—that this was the second day of her sitting up:—let me tell you too her face is as beautiful as ever…

Phew! For a moment there I was afraid she might now be less than perfectly beautiful!

But as long as Barford Abbey spent dwelling on the misery of its characters following Fanny’s death, it spends twice as long dwelling on their incredulous joy after her resurrection. The only event of note that occurs in the final one hundred pages of the novel is Fanny’s marriage to Lord Darcey; although this is supported by a flurry of engagements amongst the minor characters—those of George Molesworth, Captain Risby and Lord Hallum to, respectively, the Lady Elizabeth Curtis, the Lady Sophia Curtis, and Miss Delves; all three young ladies being—I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear—perfectly beautiful.

    How infinite,—how dazzling the beauty of holiness!—Affliction seems to have threatened this amiable family, only to encrease their love,—their reverence,—their admiration of Divine Omnipotence.—Blessings may appear, as a certain great man remarks, under the shape of pain, losses, and disappointment;—but let us have patience, and we shall see them in their own proper figures.
    If rewards even in this world attend the virtuous, who would be deprav’d?—Could the loose, the abandon’d, look in on this happy mansion, how would their sensual appetites be pall’d!—How would they hate,—how detest the vanity,—the folly, that leads to vice!—If pleasure is their pursuit, here they might see it speaking at mouth and eyes:—pleasures that fleet not away;—pleasures that are carried beyond the grave…

25/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 1)

SophiaBerkley1

    The hated Castilio renewed his unmanly treatment. He swore by heaven, he would no longer be imposed upon. Prepare, said he, in a menacing voice, to receive me this night to your bed; for may eternal perdition seize me, (that was his horrid expression) if I allow you another night; you abuse my complaisance, but I will no longer be trifled with. Having said this, the inhuman monster left me.
    I threw myself upon the floor, and gave myself up to the most agonising despair: I tore my hair, and bathed the earth with my tears. I now saw the fatal hour approach, when death or infamy must be my portion. I lay some minutes in this situation; then summoning all my resolution to my assistance, I reproached myself severely for my want of courage. What, thought I, do I hesitate between death and dishonour! I threw myself upon my knees, and poured out the bitterness of my anguish to heaven, resolving to die at once, and by that means relieve myself from the horrors that surrounded me…

While I was researching Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, I came across something both fascinating and frustrating. To start at the end, there has recently been a push to show that a number of the tropes we take for granted in English Gothic literature may be found, at least in embryonic form, in mid-18th century Irish writing. Academics working in this area argue that most such regional works are overlooked almost as a matter of course, with mainstream dogma taking it for granted that this school of writing started in England; and that even when such studies include Longsword as a proto-Gothic, rather than starting with The Castle Of Otranto, they rarely identify Thomas Leland as an Irish writer.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, the following remark in a piece by Deborah Russell titled, Generic Restrictions And The ‘Female Gothic’:

Morin also argues that “scholars of British Gothic fiction generally ignore the fact that two Irish Gothic novels were published before The Castle of Otranto”, the most significant of which is Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762).

This, as you might imagine, sent me off on a frantic hunt for “Morin”, and the identity of that second novel…

After some hunting, I identified the source of this remark as a paper by Christina Morin, Forgotten Fiction: Reconsidering the Gothic Novel in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, and the novel in question as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, published in Dublin in 1760 by “a young lady”, and therefore pre-dating Longsword by two years, and Otranto by four.

The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is a short novel, a single volume of only around 170 pages; but it is sufficiently entertaining, if not always in the way in which its anonymous author intended. By far the most interesting thing about it is how many different genres intersect within its pages. It has a number of features in common with the picaresque novel that flourished during the 18th century, although since its focus is a young woman the “adventures” are of a different kind (in this, its author may have been influenced by the earlier works of Penelope Aubin). It is an early example of the novel of sentiment, dwelling at length upon the moral superiority of its characters, and having them exhibit that superiority through their emotions; although it never reaches the heights, or depths, of something like Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It is an epistolary novel – sort of – which from mid-century onwards became perhaps the dominant novelistic form; and it is (albeit unknowingly) a proto-Gothic novel.

No more than Longsword is The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley a true Gothic, but its placing at the earliest point (so far) in the timeline of Gothic literature is justified. The usual historical and geographical settings are missing, but this is a woman-in-peril novel par excellence. However, the plot offers no mystery to be solved, and the narrative is quite as devoted to lengthy descriptions of its characters’ “exalted sentiments” as it is to its heroine’s adventures. Furthermore, in spite of its general popularity, the true Gothic novel would eschew the epistolary form, presumably since having someone to correspond with in the first place would undermine the sense of the heroine’s isolation and danger that is one of the genre’s hallmarks.

So the upside of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is that it is consistently interesting, even though it is extremely doubtful that its author intended any of the qualities that make it so. The downside is – if you consider it a downside – it’s not very good.

I say that this is “sort of” an epistolary novel because the correspondence presented is entirely one-sided. In fact, this is really just a first-person narrative broken up into letters rather than chapters. The main effect of this choice is to add a welcome note of the ludicrous to the proceedings, as without a third-person narrator to tell the reader how beautiful and accomplished and full of “delicacy of sentiment” Sophia is, she’s forced to tell us so herself:

I was then just nineteen, my person was graceful, and I was universally reckoned handsome by the men [who] all paid me the homage, that is in general so delightful to a young heart… As for me, I was totally unacquainted with the arts of my sex…

Similarly, the first-person narration of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley adds an unintentional comic edge to the action of the novel. It is not uncommon in this genre for the heroine’s beauty and goodness to win her partisans on her difficult journey through the world, but ordinarily we hear about their motivations from themselves. Here, with everything filtered through Sophia’s self-absorption, we hear only about her problems, as the people who help her drop like flies along the way.

Sophia’s letters, as so often in the novels of this period, comprise her attempt to fulfil a request from her dearest friend, Constantia, who signifies her attachment in the usual way:

You insist upon my giving you a circumstantial account of all that has happened to me, from my infancy to the time when I was so happy as to be acquainted with you…

However, Sophia starts with a background sketch of her parents: he an army officer and a younger son, she the daughter of an objecting nobleman, both of already feuding families; they eloped, and remained unforgiven by both sides (thus explaining why, later on, Sophia has no relatives to turn to in her travails). Sophia was the only child of the marriage, her mother dying young. She grows up happy in her father’s love and care, but regrets that she has no true friend:

I had naturally a turn for friendship. I found something in this passion more consistent with my ideas than any other; I wished to meet with one who could think on this head like myself; but here I was always disappointed. The young women of my acquaintance looked upon me as a romantic girl, and were incapable of conceiving those joys which flow from the sacred influence of friendship. I began at last to persuade myself that my ideas were perhaps chimerical, when I fortunately became acquainted with a young lady, who had a soul superior to her sex, and whose delicacy of sentiments were upon a level with my own…

Fortunate for Sophia, perhaps; not so much for Isabella. In a distinctly Gothic-y touch, we are told (not quite casually enough) that Isabella has been raised in her mother’s Roman Catholic faith – A religion which, as it addresses itself to the passions of mankind, can never chuse a better opportunity of taking possession of the mind, than when it is weakened by grief – thus immediately clueing us in on her eventual fate. Isabella is naturally of a “spritely” disposition, so Sophia notices at once when she suddenly grows grave and sad. Isabella finally confesses to unrequited love for the heir to a neighbouring estate. Sophia herself is unacquainted with the young man, Horatio, and when she expresses a curiosity to meet him, Isabella suffers a qualm at the thought of introducing them.

And not without cause:

O Constantia! how shall I teach you to conceive what a sight of this lovely youth inspired me with. His form and person was perfectly pleasing: the bloom of youth sat upon his cheeks. His eyes were a fine blue, and sparkled with a gentle lustre… His conversation was full of good sense, and perfectly consistent with that modesty of soul so little known among men, and yet the greatest charm they can possess. He seemed particularly struck with me…

And of course, he is; so much so that the very next day he asks permission to address her. This creates something of a dilemma for our perfect Sophia:

…the only obstacle I saw, was my friendship for Isabella; and to such a height did I carry this friendship, that I secretly resolved, let the consequence be what it would, never to marry Horatio, unless I could do so without making her miserable. To purchase my own happiness at the expence of my friend’s, was a meanness I should have despised myself for. No one, I believe, ever carried their ideas higher upon these heads than I did…

…except, luckily for her, Isabella, who seeing the writing on the wall, takes herself off to a convent, which we’ve been expecting since her religion was mentioned. Sophia suffers such qualms of conscience over Isabella’s sacrifice that it is a full six hours after hearing of her resolution before she accepts Horatio’s proposal.

Now—the fact that the hero and heroine come together so quickly and easily at the outset of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley is of course an unmistakable sign that they’re about to be separated, lengthily and painfully.

Only a couple of days before the wedding, our young lovers are late arriving home after sitting in the dying light by the sea. Sophia then finds that she has lost her watch. Horatio goes to look for it, and gets attacked by pirates. Naturally.

When Horatio fails to return to the house, a frightened Sophia sends her father after him; he returns some time later in a state of despair, bringing with him the dead body of Horatio’s servant. The servant did live long enough to describe the attack by “a crew of pyrates who frequently infested these coasts”, and how Horatio accounted for four of the pirates before succumbing to his own wounds. The pirates were looting his body when some villagers ran up and, rather than lose their valuable prize, they carried his body away with them…

Sophia suffers agonies of grief, though it is surprisingly never suggested that she is dying of it. In fact, she has just regained something resembling tranquillity of spirits when she suffers the loss of her father, from “a violent fever”. As he lies dying, he is forced to make a confession:

I have been too profuse in my manner of living—my whole estate is gone, and you are left to poverty and distress! At these words he fell into convulsions. The violent agitation which his tenderness for me threw him into, was too great for his strength to support…

Yes, well. It’s a pity his “tenderness” for Sophia didn’t lead him to save a buck or two, but I guess you can’t have everything. When her father’s affairs are settled, not without input from some rapaciously dishonest creditors who take advantage of her ignorance, Sophia finds herself in possession of a mere one hundred pounds, and without a roof over her head. Having dismissed all of the servants except a maidservant called Juliet, Sophia braces herself and resolves to move to—the most expensive and dangerous place she can think of:

I determined to go to London, though I had no acquaintance there… Thus, at the age of twenty, you behold me destitute of money or friends; having already undergone two of the severest trials that can happen to a woman upon the point of entering the place in the world, where, for a female, experience and protection are the most necessary.

Luckily for Sophia, she has Juliet. It is Juliet who does know something of London; who arranges the journey; who finds a safe place for Sophia while she goes out to look for lodgings for her; who finds those lodgings, and at a price Sophia can afford; and who takes every opportunity to express her profound devotion to her mistress:

…adding, with tears in her eyes, that if I chose to have her live with me, she would never leave me; that she should be sufficiently paid in being with me; and as she had saved money in service, she would never take any wages…

The woman with whom Sophia lodges, a Mrs Williams, is a distressed gentlewoman reduced to running a milliner’s shop. When she hears the particulars of Sophia’s situation, she offers to take the girl into partnership. Sophia eagerly accepts, and, well—

…having no longer an occasion for Juliet, I dismissed her…

Sophia has a peaceful interlude with Mrs Williams, but, as she says herself, she is simply being set up for another fall. A wealthy young rake named Castilio (an unlike name for an Englishman, one would think, but moving on) drops into the shop looking for lace for some ruffles. His reputation precedes him:

Never, said she, was the power and will of doing ill, so completely joined as in Castilio. He is just come to the possession of an immense estate, which he spends in the gratification of every inordinate desire. He has been the ruin of several young women; and is so far from being ashamed of it, that he publickly boasts of it. There are no vile arts and contrivances he does not put in practice for the execution of his projects: I tremble whenever he comes into my house, and yet I dare not deny him entrance; for, if I did, he would never rest till he had revenged himself upon me…

But alas, this warning comes too late—for Castilio has already caught sight of the incomparable Sophia…

Sophia’s persecution by Castilio, which escalates from harassment and improper suggestions to her being decoyed away and abducted and imprisoned in his isolated estate, makes clear the claim of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley for a place in the Gothic timeline. Yet perhaps more obvious still are the differences between this novel and its descendants: not just the domestication of the action in England, and Castilio’s “anything but marriage” attitude, which owes more than a little to Clarissa – with true Gothic villains, it’s usually either marriage or murder – but the sense of authorial uncertainty over how far Sophia should be active in her own defence, or whether helpless passivity is more attractive in a heroine. Thankfully, though she is not the prime mover, Sophia does not just sit and cry while someone else does the heavy lifting, but does her part, and with surprising physicality.

Ultimately Sophia owes her salvation to her predecessor in Castilio’s, uh, “affections”, who though discarded remains in his service. Given the task of persuading Sophia into compliance with Castilio’s “I’d rather you gave in gracefully, but if I have to I’ll rape you” scheme, the subtly named Fidelia, in spite of the fate that she knows awaits her should Castilio discover her betrayal of him, gives Sophia advice on how to hold him at arm’s-length for long enough for the two of them to hatch and execute an escape plan. Sophia discovers a bricked-up window behind some hangings, and the two girls set to work digging out the mortar. They manage to dislodge enough bricks to pull loose the iron bar that blocks their way (Sophia is never more likeable than when violently attacking the brickwork), and squeeze through the gap into the garden beyond. There’s a handy tree with branches extending over the high wall of the estate, and Sophia makes it to the top of the wall. Then disaster strikes:

I called Fidelia to follow me, which she prepared to do; but most unfortunately, when she had just got to the top of the tree, the branches on which she stood gave way and she fell backwards. I was shocked beyond imagination; I asked her if she was hurt. Alas! said she, in a feeble voice, I have, I believe, broke my leg, for I cannot rise; make haste, continued she, save yourself and leave me to my fate; I shall die in peace, since I have been a means of preserving your life and honour. My heart bled within me to see the poor creature, to whom I owed so much, in such a condition. I determined not to leave her; and was preparing to go back again, when I observed some people in the garden, and heard Castilio’s voice crying, This way, this way! This, you may believe, threw me into a terrible fright; I knew I could be of no use to Fidelia, and therefore resolved to get away as fast as I could…

So much for heaven protecting the working girl. We never find out what happens to Fidelia, though we are aware that she was in fear of her life from Castilio. Nor, as far as we know, does Sophia ever waste another thought upon her.

But, hey!—Sophia gets away safely, and that’s what really matters, right?

[To be continued…]

 

 

13/03/2011

Friend or Defoe?

“What makes Robinson Crusoe so monumental is the moment of hesitation – brief for some readers, longer for others – during which the horizon of expectations definitively shifted and adjustments were made that ultimately forced such ‘historical’ narratives to be read as works of fiction. Defoe’s importance to the history of the novel lies principally in the fact that his narratives were a key part of the process in the course of which readers created a new narrative category, eventually labeled ‘novel’.”

In History And The Early English Novel: Matters Of Fact From Bacon To Defoe, Robert Mayer contends that the novel as we know it evolved out of historical writing, and his study makes a case for Daniel Defoe as the critical figure in the development of the novel, based upon Defoe’s unique melding of history and fiction in those works which we now call his “novels” – but which were not generally recognised as novels at the time.

The first half of this book traces “the history of history”, the development of historical writing in England and the different forms in which it appeared before what we might now consider “proper” historical writing emerged, including history with a frank political or religious agenda, or history that was also autobiography, such as the Earl Of Clarendon’s History Of The Rebellion.

Although it covers a great deal of ground, Mayer’s main thrust here is his examination of how legendary or fantastic material, most notably the stories of King Arthur, was handled over the years by various categories of historians. He shows that even with a strong push towards factual and unbiased history, the old stories continued to be included and treated with respect. It was the attitude of the historian that changed, from one of declared belief to an acknowledgement that the stories were just stories. Many historians took the view that a respect for tradition demanded the inclusion of these tales; others recognised that a fabulous beginning was better than no beginning at all (harder-line historians tended to begin their work with the first Roman invasion); while others still, significantly, simply recognised that their readers liked stories.

The upshot of all of this, according to Mayer, is that the English people were not merely used to having, but happy to have, “fabulous” material included in their history; that they were accustomed to a little fiction mixed into their facts. And this, he contends, paved the way for the idiosyncratic writings of Daniel Defoe, who took the opposite tack of producing fictions that read like histories, and that challenged the reading public to categorise them correctly – and indeed, do so to this day.

Mayer uses Robinson Crusoe and The Journal Of The Plague Years as the basis of his argument, examing the puzzlement, the confusion and the outrage that greeted the former, and the way in which history and fiction are blended in the latter. Some of this we have glanced at before, courtesy of Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which Mayer references here, but which is considerably more critical of Defoe’s manoevrings than this study. Mayer makes a strong case, but a highly selective one; and the more I thought about his assertions the more I felt inclined to argue.

Mayer’s stance – and he uses the word repeatedly – is that Defoe’s writing is “revolutionary”; that it literally changed the landscape and determined the course of the development of the novel. There are, of course, quite a number of studies of the history of the novel that make a case for a single critical figure, an ur-figure, as Mayer puts it; and while I do not dispute the importance of Defoe or the uniqueness of his writing, my issue with this approach to literary history is that by definition it requires an accompanying argument as to why other writers are not important…and that’s where I start to get uncomfortable.

In fact, the main case that Mayer makes against Defoe’s “rivals” – and we are, of course, talking mainly about Aphra Behn, but also Eliza Haywood – is that their writings were not “revolutionary”; that readers were not confused and uncertain about them, as they were about the status of Defoe’s “histories”; that they didn’t change anything, or not immediately. This seems to me an odd sort of argument, but I suppose it is an unavoidable one once you start insisting upon a single writer, a single work, as responsible for the rise of the novel. In making this assertion, and dismissing Aphra Behn and her followers from the history of the novel, Mayer makes use of what seems to me some fairly specious arguments, which confuse the writings themselves with their changing public reception.

“The inescapable fact of the history of the English novel is that the so-called “novel of amorous intrigue” has been marginalized for two-and-a-half centuries, and no amount of criticism will change that.”

One immediate problem I have here is the snarkiness of that final clause. I would argue, on the contrary, that criticism has changed everything: that thanks to the hard work of some very determined academics, we have not only witnessed the rehabilitation of the personal and professional reputations of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, but seen, not just Behn and Haywood, but other writers like Delariviere Manley, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, among others, take their rightful places in the timeline of the novel’s development.

But if we’re only arguing the immediate effect of  the works in question, well, I feel inclined to dispute that point, too. Mayer seems to be suggesting here that the “marginalising” of certain writers meant that they could not be an influence upon the course of the development of the novel. If that is his contention, he’s rearranging the facts to suit himself. The marginalisation to which Mayer refers happened well subsequent to the original publication dates of the works in question, which were successful and popular to a degree that should not be underestimated. For example, Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister ran through something like eighteen editions between the time of its publication and the turn of the century, that is, better than one a year: hardly evidence of “marginalisation”. It was years, in some cases decades, before the writings of Behn and Haywood did fall out of favour, and then it was the result of shifting social mores, that is, a judgement made not upon the quality of the writing, but upon its content.

I also take issue with the implication that these writers wrote only “novels of amorous intrigue”. This may or may not be true of Eliza Haywood, or true of the first phase of her career – I haven’t examined her writing closely yet, so I can’t at the moment say – but you can hardly call Oroonoko a “novel of amorous intrigue”. Nor, in spite of its sex and manoeuvring, can Love Letters… possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a cheap thrill, as we have seen. What’s more, having now really sat and studied Behn’s first attempt at fiction, it seems to me Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana owe more than a little to the character of Sylvia, but there’s no consideration here of any such possible influence.

More importantly, however, at least to my mind, is the fact that if you dismiss Aphra Behn from the novel’s timeline, you lose along with her a proper understanding of the development of the epistolary novel, so dominant a form all the way through the 18th century, and so critical a factor in the emergence of true psychological writing. Here, too, Mayer strikes me as disingenuous: while arguing for Defoe’s creation of a new form of writing, he takes no notice of the fact that Behn did the same; his account of the novel, as all these “single figure” studies do, then jumps from Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, where we find him simultaneously admitting Aphra Behn’s influence upon Richardson while dismissing her as an important influence. He also skates over the fact that Richardson plundered Behn’s work while leading the growing wave of criticism, moral rather than literary, against her.

(While I wouldn’t call Pamela “a novel of amorous intrigue”, exactly, I do find its prurience much more offensive than Behn or Haywood’s frank approach to sex.)

I suppose  in the end it comes down to whether you want to posit the history of the novel in terms of a single individual, or whether you prefer see it as a stepwise process involving any number of writers. Mayer argues strenuously for Defoe’s writing as causing a “literary revolution” that expanded the “horizon of expectatations” for the early 18th-century reader. The trouble is, having made this assertion, and having dismissed Behn and Haywood for their failure significantly to alter the literary landscape, he then makes little effort to show how Defoe’s “revolutionary” writing actually changed anything, either for the contemporary reader or for contemporary and subsequent writers.

And while Robert Mayer makes his case here by talking in historical terms, I feel compelled finally to answer him biologically, and to say with respect to his vision of a single progenitor, an ur-figure, that evolution really doesn’t work that way. It is true that nature sometimes throws up a spectacular mutation, a sport. However, these dramatically different entities rarely lead to anything, but are, on the contrary, usually sterile. Most of the time change occurs, not instantaneously, but gradually, by a process of action and reaction, with the individual, or the individual species, pushing against the prevailing environment, which pushes right back.

We can illustrate this in a literary context. We’ve seen already how Aphra Behn’s move to fiction writing was shaped both by her knowledge of pre-existing texts (chiefly Love Letters From A Portuguese Nun) and by political and economic factors (no new plays being commissioned): the result was Love Letters…, which in turn inspired Delariviere Manley, who was simultaneously influenced by the nature of the text and by her environment, in which politics were dominated by the Whigs she so despised. Eliza Haywood, noting the ephemeral nature of Manley’s texts, so much a product of a single time and place and milieu, shed the literal politics but kept the sexual kind; while Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin, strongly disapproving of the earlier publications but nevertheless adopting their forms, began to strive for the novel as a moral influence… And so on, to Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Edgeworth, to Scott, and Austen, and beyond… All important figures, some truly great figures…but no ur-figures, if you please.

And now, to change the subject somewhat— Thinking over my reaction to History And The Early English Novel, and trying to articulate it, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, feeling somewhat reassured about this ridiculous blog project of mine*. Mayer, like many literary historians, simply steps over the intervening years between Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson…which are precisely the years that most interest me.

This may, at first glance, seem somewhat perverse. Off the top of my head, I can name only a couple of writers who worked during this time: Penelope Aubin, who certainly was influenced by Defoe (but perhaps that’s not considered anything to boast about?), but whose career ended in the 1720s; and of course Eliza Haywood – and the first part of her fiction-writing career came to a shuddering halt during the first part of this period, too, thanks largely to the limitless bile of Alexander Pope. So who else was publishing in the years before Richardson? Was it a wasteland, as most literary histories would suggest? – or were still further novelistic developments going on there in the shadows, in works perhaps more important than worthy? Do any forgotten gems lurk there? I don’t know…but it is these historical black holes that I’m finding increasingly fascinating…

(*Call it Robert Mayer’s revenge. I’ve come away from History And The Early English Novel with yet more additions to my wishlist, this time a set of publications that are for the most part either apologies for “the Glorious Revolution”, or reactions to those apologies. Never mind my hope of “getting the hell out of the 17th century“: at this rate I’m never going to make it out of the 1680s…)

05/03/2011

The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia

“It is neither to catch the admiration of the ignorant, nor to make proselytes of the more sensible, that I now lift my pen. To wish for the former, below the dignity of common sense, and to hope for the latter, would be downright vanity. Merely to expose error and falsehood, and to stand votarist for the truth, are I trust the motives which induce me to write and publish these letters…”

As I sit down to write this review, I must first give myself an admonitory smack on the hand. Using reading challenges to random up my reading is all very well—but I have, I think, an obligation to at least try to meet the spirit of the challenge. The intent of my latest, “read a book by or about or featuring a doctor”, was clear enough; and it was hardly an invitation to dig up an obscure epistolary novel from 1788 whose only authorial attribution is to “A Doctor of Physic, M.A. &c.”.

I’ll try to do better in the future, I promise. In the meantime, let’s take a look at this very odd publication entitled The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia; Being A Rational And Philosophical Enquiry Into The Nature Of Things. In A Series Of Letters, and consider what might be the significance of that ominous frontispiece motto: If Fiction persuades, what should Facts do?

And indeed, though it masquerades as one, The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia is not a novel at all: it simply uses the epistolary form as a vehicle for a series of bizarre rants by its anonymous author. As such, it isn’t possible truly to review this publication: what I’ll do instead is simply give you a taste of it via a series of excerpts.

So—the framework. Edwin is the illegitimate son of a noble father, who at his death leaves his “real” family to decide on Edwin’s fate, and whether he is acknowledged and/or inherits any money. The family’s response is to shun Edwin and cut him off essentially penniless, a reaction that for some reason takes Edwin by total surprise.

Julia, meanwhile, is the daughter of a man who contracts religious mania and ends up confined; her mother withdraws from all society, including that of her daughter. Julia is taken in by her uncle who, despite being a clergyman, is simply intent on getting his hands on Julia’s money via this act of “kindness”.

At some point, Edwin and Julia met, fell in love, and were separated; the “novel” never gives us details. When the “interesting story” opens, the two of them have been apart for four years. Edwin is in Paris for reasons that are never made clear (although he may be studying medicine), while Julia is travelling around England with her uncle and his family, also for reasons that are never made clear. The two of them correspond, which seems an unlikely concession on the part of Julia’s uncle – unless he’s keeping her hopeless love for Edwin alive with the aim of preventing her from marrying someone else and therefore taking her fortune out of his control. Amusingly, as we also saw in the roughly contemporaneous Valentine, the anonymous author has his correspondents telling each other their life stories, despite the fact that they’ve known each other for years. And also like Valentine, we are favoured with some hilariously jolting shifts from high pathos to simple commonplaces, without any sense that the author was aware of the incongruity of his tone.

For the most part, The Interesting Story… works itself out as follows: Julia will write a letter to Edwin in which she will relate an anecdote, or repeat a conversation. Edwin will respond with a lengthy lecture on the subject in question. Julia will thank him solemnly for his interesting / enlightening / touching letter, and beg for more of the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. At length, Julia is so overcome by Edwin’s brilliance, she begs his permission to have his letters published – the world must hear of this! Edwin kindly gives her permission, being equally convinced of his own brilliance and the world’s desperate need for his wisdom. The fact that Edwin has trouble constructing a grammatical sentence and spelling correctly is, of course, irrelevant. (And let me assure you: anything italicised below that looks like a typo, isn’t.)

The main topic of conversation is religion: Edwin is a firm believer in God, but a firm disbeliever in the church, and also in hell. He despises atheists, deists and Catholics equally. He contends that the bible has been misinterpreted, accidentally (through ignorance) or intentionally (through malice), and that the church has been using these mis-readings to increase its own power and to keep mankind, particularly women, powerless. (There’s almost a feminist subtext in this, but it gets drowned out by the floodtide of bile.) Furthermore, Edwin doesn’t believe in original sin. This particular revelation prompts Julia to ask why, in that case, mankind needed a Saviour? – a question which I don’t believe Edwin ever gets around to answering.

However, the two of them find many other topics on which to give their opinions pro and con – although mostly con. It’s remarkable, really, how much Edwin and Julia have in common: the enormity of the chip each carries on their shoulder; their endless dislikes and prejudices; and above all, their profound conviction that everyone in the world is stupid and wicked except for them. The publication’s attribution to “a doctor of physic” becomes rather interesting in retrospect, as members of the medical profession and medical opinions of the time attract a significant proportion of whatever vitriol Edwin has left over after dealing with organised religion.

Let’s listen in on a few of the opinions of Edwin and Julia, shall we? This opening passage, in which Edwin airs his views on the state of the world, essentially sets the tone for everything that follows:

“My only friend is dead, which loss has pressed very heavy upon me; Heavens grant you and me the necessary fortitude, for two of the most unfortunate mortals that ever trode the stage of life; and may the faults which we have committed, be as barriers against us in future, when we would slide from the path of virtue. Let us rather than reproach our relations for their follies, learn to correct our own errors. You know the world is made up of caprice and vanity; the ignorant thinks the wise foolish, and the rich hold the poor in despite; the wife betrays her husband, the father often ushers the child to destruction, and the son frequently brings his parents and himself to a morsel of bread. Thus you see the inhabitants of the earth destroying one another, and doubtless will continue so doing till they are totally extirpated from it…”

And here’s Edwin on himself (a favourite topic):

“According to your request, I must now begin to give you a short but faithful account of myself. I believe you know that my pride and ambition may be put into a small circle. I am not very ill-natured, not very severe, although I have the misfortune to be sanguine. I hate flattery and lies; I detest the rogue and despise the villain, but have severely suffered by them. Ever since Nancy S*****, the midwife, whirled me into this ill-advised world, I have been treated not as one of my own species, but as a monster, and will probably not be  used as a human creature, till death whirl me out of it…”

And now Edwin on adultery, of which he has evidently made quite a study (I’m glad, by the way, that Edwin helpfully categorised himself as “not very severe” in his opening remarks on himself; otherwise, there might have been some confusion on that point):

“Adultry and seduction are two of the most heinous sins that man can be guilty of.—Moses both in his livitical and civil laws, rewarded the former by death, and the wisest among the ancients followed his example, and looked on the adulterer and seducer to be equally wicked. The Babylonians, Arabians, Tartars, Javans, Brazilians, and Mexicans, made adultry a capital offence. Among the Turks the offending woman is sentenced to be drowned, and the man still put to greater torture.—The Hungarians force their daughters, their husbands, their wives, their sisters, and their brothers to the place of execution, as soon as found in this abominable crime, or rather the crime of crimes, of which none will be guilty, but those who are actuated by satan, to destroy the peace and happiness of all around them…”

Edwin again, on how a dignified silence is the most powerful weapon:

“…yet I must own, it is below the dignity of Innocence to wage war, or even to defend herself against the unmanly attacks of her enemies; because she can quench the most malignant reproaches of the wicked, and is that good which cannot be taken away even in the time of torment. Silence is the most defensive weapon with which an injured man can defend himself, and is generally the child of innocence, keeping consolation and quiet in the breasts of the good, and an outward peace amongst the bad…”

It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that this paean to Silence comes at the beginning of 200 pages of Edwin’s ranting, and about 150 before he admits to Julia that he always intended publishing his “private reflections”. The publication of Edwin’s various pearls of wisdom will of course be of great benefit to the world, unlike most of what passes for literature and learning in this degenerate day and age; and as for the men who write it – !—

“How they rejoice in evil, and delight in folly; and how anxious they are to raise vice to the dignity of virtue. How they drink, how they blaspheme, how they consume the tobacco, and take away their neighbour’s good report. They have called your sex women, but they ought to have called themselves women-woe and their own! They have jumbled a parcel of lumber and worthless things together, which they call learning, but I would advise you Julia, not to meddle with it, because it is real nonsense; it can neither refine your imagination, nor elevate your understanding; and indeed you may be convinced of what I say, when ever you associate with those who deem themselves of the true literati. They are disagreeable in their manners and conversation, and are often at a loss what to do with their own legs and arms. They are diffident and mistrustful, and delight in saying ill-natured things…”

And could Edwin have had anyone in particular in mind? Like, oh, I don’t know…

“…the late Dr Johnson, whose harsh and rude manners proved him to be a mere pedantic churlish clown, in his heart and principles; altho’ he was stuffed up with verbs, nouns and pronouns, and a quantity of other such rubbish, which his disciples, especially Mrs P— and Mr. R— call learning!…Should education make us disagreeable, ill-natured and hoggish? Or can we deem a man who is so, properly educated?…”

And such is the blighted character generally of the men credited with “learning” that Edwin feels it is his duty to warn Julia away from anything resembling an “education”…among other things:

“The politics of men are such an effusion of nonsense, their philosophy such an unintelligible jargon, and their religious tenets so absurd and contradictory, that one would really think they had not a single grain of judgment or good sense left them. Therefore Julia, I earnestly entreat of you again, to study neither Latin or Greek; laugh at their politics, and scorn their philosophy; avoid the pedant and detest the fop, as also the rigidly religious, be sure to mark them down in your pocket-book…”

But Julia is, after all, just a girl, so much of this is too high-flown for her. But being just a girl, she is able to give her opinion on such topics as the “pernicious” effect of novel-reading on young women (not that this is a novel, heavens no!):

“…their minds are tainted by the pernicious, but insinuating poison of novels and romances.—The imagination heated, and the passions excited in the most pernicious of all schools, the Circulating Library, the man of gallantry makes an easy conquest; and perhaps it may be some extenuation of his guilt, that the object he has devoted to ruin, is ready to surrender on the first summons…”

And indeed, I don’t want to give you the impression that the perverse entertainment value of this thoroughly eccentric polemic lies entirely with Edwin and his ranting. Julia contributes too, as with this rather marvellous example of her habit of going abruptly from the sublime to the ridiculous:

“Do we think that the Son of God came down in vain, or that he ever wished to enforce laws and duties on his creatures, which they are unable to keep or perform? Surely, if we think so, we are mistaken: and I trust, nay, am confident, that the eternal and incomprehensible Being, who is the fountain of all goodness, and the source of love and mercy, can have no respect of persons, or desire for revenge.—But let me finish this letter, by giving you a short description of Southampton…”

Not that Julia has things all her own way in this respect. Here is how Edwin’s rant on adultery, which goes on quite some time after the conclusion of the quotation above – and which runs four full pages, beginning to end – actually finishes:

“…to live with an adulterous woman, is to live with the devil’s companion; and I should think it is much better for one to be happy than too be miserable, or at least I am of opinion that every man should leave his wife when she loves another better than himself. But if I go on in this way, I shall never give you a description of Paris…”

But a talent for anti-climax isn’t all that Edwin and Julia have in common. As it happens (no wonder the two of them fell in love!), Julia also shares Edwin’s opinion of Samuel Johnson…

“…the former of whom I have been repeatedly informed, was so loaded with ill-nature and sarcasm, that he could scarcely speak a good word even of his own poor father and mother… I have read the greatest part of Dr Johnson’s works, and must confess myself totally at a loss to see in what he surpassed the common class of authors. ‘Tis true, I am but a weak judge of literary productions, however, I am inclined to think, that the public, who too often judge wrong of things, have raised Mr Johnson to that dignity which his merit never justly entitled him to…”

And is there anything stupider than “the public”? Hardly. Just look at its habits

“Julia, although I have sent you the above lines on a tobacco-pipe*, be assured I do not wish you should carry a box, or call for a pipe. Snuff is not such a harmless thing as many take it to be, and I believe we owe a great number of of our disorders to it, and that cursed plant Tea, which you ought never to drink above twice a week, and then eat a great deal of bread with it… One half of the people in England are dead years before they are buried, and seldom or never enjoy life!—Gouts, rheumatisms, nervous complaints, scurvies, declines, consumptions, &c. &c. are their continual attendants, all which I attribute, with many more, to the irregularity of diet. They drink such quantities of tea…”

(*And yes, Edwin does send Julia a poem on tobacco – the romantic devil!)

But even more than in its general habits, just look how stupid the public is when it comes taking medical advice (and this is probably a good moment to remind you of this pseudo-novel’s attribution to “a doctor of physic”):

“Physic is surely the most difficult and intricate science under the sun… When I was at the colleges of Edinburgh and Paris, I knew numbers of dunces, especially students in physic…who ought to blush in putting any initial after their names, except F.R.S. which I believe may signify a fellow remarkably stupid, or the foolish remains of a simpleton… Our quack medicines, our brewers, our bakers, and a set of men who pretend to have arrived at a competent knowledge of physic, only from making pills, filling bottles, and running through the town with bladders and gallipots, send us to the grave in multitudes; and we composedly say, The will of the Lord Be done!…”

And if mankind’s willingness to trust these medical frauds with its health is criminally stupid, what are we to make of its religious practice? – in particular, how it allows itself to imposed upon by that set of scoundrels known as “the clergy”!—

“Man must be a stupid being indeed to suppose than the Almighty, who wanteth no counsel, hath established a parliament of popes, liars, arch bishops, arch rogues, bishops, villains, deans, drunkards, poor curates, whore-mongers, and other such imposters, as the judges of his creatures…”

BUT—I don’t want to send you away from this abbreviated version of Edwin and Julia’s Theories Of Why The World Sucks (and believe me, there are many, many more things that they despise, which I haven’t mentioned here) thinking that there is nothing whatsoever of which they do approve. There is one thing…and so I’ll leave you to ponder the following:

“I have not the honour of being personally acquainted with Mr. C—, and therefore I am not at liberty to say much about him; only tell you that I coincide with the greatest part of the sentiments laid down in his letter…especially that respecting woman’s milk, in which I believe there is a something divinely good, though very seldom prescribed by our physicians. It is the softest, the most light, and nourishing fluid that exists, and according to my humble opinion, the most sovereign balsam in the world, and the greatest restorative in nature…”

26/02/2011

Valentine

Orlando, the amiable Orlando, returns then to Magdeburg, to his Isabella; and Oh! dreadful, dreadful recollection! demands her hand—compels her to meet him at the altar, and pledge those vows she cannot assent to.— Orlando, truly worthy, how sensible I am of your merit, and your love, but I cannot return it— Valentine, your still more happy brother, possesses it, and I am born to make you wretched.

One of my plans for this year was to participate in reading challenges as a way of bringing more obscure novels to light. This month, I had the chance to join in a very February-focused challenge, to read a book by someone called “Valentine”, or a book with the word “valentine” in the title. My choice was an anonymous novel from 1790 called Valentine.

What can I say? I have a very literal mind.

One of the stranger eruptions of the 18th-century was that of “sentimentalism”. This was a movement that went far beyond the merely “sentimental”: it was a reaction to the tenets of the Age of Reason; and far from celebrating rationality, it condemned it as an approach to life that encouraged self-interest and calculation; the worst kind of secularism. In contrast, sentimentalism saw emotion as a hotline to God. Man’s natural impulses and passions were, it argued, literally God-given, that is, everything that was pure, unselfish and generous, until corrupted by a wordly education. While the rational individual protected himself from harm by distance and a refusal to be involved, the sentimentalist opened himself to every emotion; and not only his own, but those of others with whom he came in contact, via an intensely cultivated empathy.

For all the age’s broad emphasis on rationalism, in artistic terms the first stirrings of this kind of deliberate emotional indulgence were evident quite early in the 18th century. We recall in Pamela, for example, Richardson’s staging of the reunion of Pamela and her father, which is organised to take place in the presence of the entire household, while everyone else stands around and watches them. The emotion of the two and the sentiments uttered by Mr Andrews upon learning of his daughter’s rise in the world are “feasted upon” by the gathered gentry, who analyse the scene afterwards as if they’d just watched a play. This vicarious pleasure in the extreme emotion of others is the key to the novel of sentimentalism, the model of which is Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. The novel’s naïve hero, Harley, travels around with all his nerve endings exposed, trying to help those in need, feeling every pain of every unfortunate he encounters, and being repeatedly taken advantage of by “rationalists”. He weeps, he suffers, he collapses and grows ill under the weight of his own emotion. In the end, discovering that the woman he loves, loves him, he dies of joy.

It seems incredible today, but The Man Of Feeling was an enormous success. People read it in groups for the specific purpose of crying over it publicly: to react in this way was a measure of a person’s “sensibility”. It’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that Harley dies. The very hallmark of the novel of sentimentalism is that almost everyone dies; the hero and/or heroine, certainly. Usually the final scenes leave just a person or two still standing, so that they can look back over the literary carnage and mourn. It is the strangest aspect of this very strange movement that it openly admits its inability to survive in the world of the rationalist; but to the sentimentalist, this very incapacity is evidence of an inherent moral superiority. They’re too good to live, you understand.

As always, other authors were swift to react to the emergence of a new subgenre; and for a couple of decades in the second half of the 18th century, tales of misery, death, doom and despair flooded the marketplace. Amongst this deluge was Valentine, a “pre-Minerva Press” novel – that is, it was published by William Lane before he introduced the Minerva Press imprint. I can’t say I’m exactly surprised to find Mr Lane cashing in on a trend.

One of the most interesting things about Valentine is its preface. This novel was, as I say, published anonymously, and I’ve been unable to decide in my own mind the sex of the author. The preface has a male persona, however, and the distance that its writer tries to put between – himself? herself? – and the text makes me suspect it was a man. Women writers at this time, whether publishing anonymously or not, were generally swift to reveal their gender as (hopefully) a way of warding off critical attack. On the other hand, a certain fixation upon the minutiae of dress in the story proper might suggest a woman.

In the preface, the writer tells us about being stood up by the friend he was supposed to having dinner with, and being instead left with a manuscript to read until the friend finally arrived, Which I was to give my candid opinion upon, on his return. As he found the manuscript, …worthy your notice, I send it unvarnished by any eulogium of mine, a tale unadorned by fiction. So he didn’t write it, and he didn’t find it, and anyway it’s not a work of fiction.

Typical of the genre, the preface is almost a novel of sentimentalism in itself. At completely unnecessary length, Mr I-Didn’t-Write-It tells us about his inheritance of a fortune, his retirement from business, his move to the country – and his belated discovery that, on the whole, he rather wishes he hadn’t retired from business and moved to the country: A recluse and still life is not calculated to raise content, when the mind has been busily employed for years in a Court of Law. Man is born for society, the hours hang heavy when crowded with too much reflection; Books will not always entertain or relieve; there is a vacuity in solitude; to pass the tedious hours alone is burdensome, and I cannot solace the day by the sports of the field, which afford me no enjoyment…

And why is he so burdensomely alone? You have to ask?

I have felt a severe affliction in my earliest days, by a disappointment in the tenderest of passions, that of Love!—Dear amiable woman! why was I fated to know you and to love you? Can I ever forget the innocence and beauty of your first appearance? No, never; never will the impression be effaced from my still bleeding heart. Love, early implanted, is not soon eradicated— I felt it in its full force, and could tell a very tender— But I am not addressing myself to you, for my own history, but to inform you that a few days past I was under an engagement to dine with a very particular friend…

Welcome to the world of the novel of sentimentalism, where explaining how you went to dinner with a friend will inevitably entail a recitation of the romantic woes that have scarred your life.

The story of Valentine  takes place in 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, opening in the aftermath of the Battle of Sohr, which took place on the 30th September, and finishing after the Battle of Kesselsdorf on 15th December. Its sketched account of the relevant campaigns is, as far as some quick research can ascertain, accurate. This grounding in reality is rather unusual for this kind of novel. However, the setting isn’t all that important except so as to ensure a high body count amongst the male characters, every one of whom is a soldier.

But while the background of this novel is concrete, the plot is, far more typically, rudimentary. The children of the families of Dholte and Marluritz have been raised together. Count Marluritz literally wills his only surviving daughter, Isabella, to the older of the Dholte boys, Orlando. This engagement is ratified by Isabella’s brother, Ferdinand (just before he dies, too), and has royal approval. However, Isabella is in love with Orlando’s brother, Valentine, and he with her; the two finally declare their feelings for one another. As pressure mounts on Isabella to go through with the wedding to Orlando, Valentine convinces her to run away. He conceals her with a family he befriended after carrying the son wounded from the battlefield. They are noble, but the widowed Baroness has raised her two children far from the corruption of the Court. She confides to Valentine that Eleanor is not in fact her daughter, but a foundling who carried with her indications of a high birth. Valentine finally persuades Isabella to a secret marriage, but a call to arms separates them almost immediately…

Now, you could probably make a decent story out of this, but Valentine doesn’t even try. Instead it settles down into a competition to see which of its characters can behave and speak in the most unnecessarily extravagant manner – while remaining at all times blissfully unaware of its own absurdity. Therein lies the enduring charm of the genre. Indeed, Valentine is the most hilariously awful piece of tosh it’s been my pleasure to read in a long, long time. I giggled from the opening soliloquy of the hero, completely absorbed in his own romantic problems although up to his armpits in battlefield dead, to the inevitable body count in the final pages.

The novel is written in semi-epistolary style, alternating between letters between the characters and prose when straight narration is required. These interpolations have their own little chapter headings – for example, The Widow Woolstan’s Affecting And Pathetic Narrative, The Tale Of Woe Continued, Valentine’s Morn Of Happiness, and (since one “morn of happiness” is as much as any character in one of these stories is ever allowed) A Pathetic Conclusion.

Valentine himself sets the tone from the beginning, unable to refrain from dragging Isabella into everything he thinks, says or does. When we meet him he is soliloquising as he gazes around the body-strewn battlefield, his high-blown moralising on the empty glories of war rapidly and idiotically turning into a speech about how if Isabella doesn’t love him, then he wishes he hadn’t survived, either. He is interrupted in his self-pitying musings by a cry for help from a wounded soldier. This, naturally, brings on another soliloquy about how Isabella doesn’t love him, so really, what’s the point?—

“Can compassion be extended,” said he, “amidst this scene? I will assist thee, perhaps thou hast an Isabella who may mourn thy loss, may sooth thy pains. These wounds were gained in the field of honour; thy plaintive fair too may even now be weeping for thy loss; while mine, insensible and regardless of my life or fame, gives all her anxious cares and fears to her Orlando. Distraction’s in the thought, but I will assist thy enfeebled strength.” When looking around he beheld a youth wallowing in blood…

It must be said, some of the fun goes out of Valentine once its lovers come to an understanding, and Valentine stops being compelled to drag Isabella and her supposed cruelty into every single random thought that crosses his mind. On the other hand, this plot thread does climax in a passage that is a masterpiece of incoherency, when upon placing Isabella with the Baroness and her family, Valentine begins to worry that his friend Woolstan might prove a romantic threat; while at the same time he remains oblivious to Eleanor’s attraction to himself:

They parted, inviolable secrecy was promised by all parties—Isabella sighed, Eleanor sighed—the eyes of Eleanor followed him ’till out of sight. Eleanor loved Valentine better than any man on earth, Woolstan excepted, but Woolstan was her brother. Valentine left Isabella in safety, yet Woolstan was young, was susceptible! Isabella attractive! But Woolstan, bred with Eleanor from their infancy, must love her in preference to all the sex, and Eleanor is not Woolstan’s sister.

Since story is a minor consideration here, we can amuse ourselves instead spotting the various tropes of sentamentalism. Some of them are stylistic, like the insistence of the characters upon addressing each other by their names instead of ever using pronouns, and the use of archaicisms (“Dost thou, Isabella, truly intend such cruelty to Valentine?”) Others are philosophical, like the constant harping upon the superiority of the cottage over the court, the country over the city; a belief that here takes the author to such extremes, he feels compelled to insist upon the natural elevation of every aspect, every single action, of country life…even knocking on the door:

    No burnished knocker graced the portal of the cottage door—no party coloured lackies with leaded canes preceded on before the carriage, and by their thundering reiteratinf rap, told their master of their errand.—These were not wanting here to grace the entry of Valentine at Staudentz, ever expected, ever welcome.
    His whip performed the necessary notice, two taps, gentle as the breathing bosom of the lovely Isabella…

Mind you, the author’s determination to extol “simplicity” at every opportunity sometimes causes certain difficulties, such as when it clashes with a desire to bestow everyone with enormous fortunes (various solemn descriptions of death are interrupted to tell us who inherited what), or to to paint lengthy word-pictures of Isabella and her “elegant” wardrobe:

The beautious form of Isabella, which required no ornament, was neverthless elegantly dressed; her robe, of white muslin (according to the fashion of the country) was long, but not tuck’d up, for the convenience of walking, covered with an azure coloured petticoat; round her waist was a zone, or cestus, of black velvet, fastened with a gold buckle, on her head was a bonnet, originally the manufacture of Leghorn, decorated with white ribbon…

Eleanor’s whole attention was fixed on her diamond clasps, her gold buckle, and the flowing elegance of her robe… She viewed Isabella as a Deity; while, on the contrary, Isabella beheld Eleanor as a model of perfection, luxuriantly adorned by nature! for Isabella was truly insensible to the power of her own attraction—and for dress, she subscribed to it more from custom than any intention she had to embellish those charms, in which nature had been so lavish to her…

Another idiocy here, one that to be fair is quite common in epistolary novels generally, is the author’s inability to give us the characters’ back-stories without having them tell each other at length things they must already know. Here the main culprit is Isabella, writing to her friend Bertha; the tone of their correspondence is entirely set by the opening paragraph of its opening letter:

And will Bertha still favor with her friendship the unfortunate, the unhappy Isabella? Will the daughter of the amiable Baroness Waesneri, still give sanction to her friend, removed from her to a distant home? Will she honor with her confidence the former partner of her heart, intrust her secrets, tell her inquietudes, pour the torturing anxieties of disappointment or expectation into her faithful bosom; and receive, in exchange, the heart rending troubles and distresses of her Isabella? Yes, you have told me you will…

At one point, Bertha addresses Isabella as, The friend of my infant, as well as my maturer years. Heaven knows what the two of them were talking about all that time: in an earlier letter, Isabella states, That Isabella is the daughter and only surviving child of Field Marshall General Count Marluritz, is all my Bertha knows of a life, young and already seasoned in the disappointments of this world’s glories… – before proceeding to edify her (and, of course, us) with her life story.

I’m sure it won’t come as any surprise to anyone to learn that Isabella is a crier. Well – that is to say – they’re all criers; that goes without saying; but Isabella takes the prize. Here are just a few, a very few examples of how she seems to pass most of her time:

At the mention of his name her eyes were suffused in a briny torrent…

I weep, Bertha—an involuntary flood of tears comes to my relief.— You will, at parting from the Baron Schwerin, let fall regretting tears; yet not with such poignancy of sorrow as these which fall so abundantly, so incessantly, from the eyes of Isabella…

“No, Valentine, I love but you alone. I cry incessantly, it is Valentine draws the tears…” I threw myself on my knees, and with a flood of tears eased the bursting heart of Isabella…

The letter however from the first friend of Isabella drew those crystal drops that were wont to fall from her eyes…

Isabella’s tears ceased not to flow, and more, for Valentine was now her husband, she need not now conceal the cause…

“…yet Valentine I waked in tears, and the pillow which supported the head of your weary Isabella, was wet with the gushing suffusion…”

And really, I can only say with Oscar Wilde— Anyone who doesn’t find Isabella’s relentless and determined misery quite hilarious must have a heart of stone.

However, perhaps the single outstanding quality of the novel of sentamentalism is the gap that develops between the reader’s perception of the characters’ actions, and that of the characters themselves; a gap that, granted, may have been a great deal smaller, or even non-existent, in 1790. These days, however, it is impossible not to be struck by the way in which the characters in novels like these view everything through the distorting lens of their own total self-absorption.

In Valentine, the best example of this is the sneaking behaviour of our putative hero after his hiding of Isabella. An increasingly frantic Orlando begins to suspect every man he knows of being responsible for Isabella’s disappearance – well, except for his noble and honourable brother – and finally challenges one of them, Baron Schwerin, to a duel. Does even this cause Valentine, who has looked on silently at his brother’s growing distraction, to confess himself responsible? Of course not. Instead, he lets his brother and his good friend go off and try to kill each other – as they very nearly do. In fact, it is evident during the duel that Orlando has stopped caring whether he lives or dies, and it is only due to Schwerin’s generosity that he escapes with his life. Even Isabella, more than a little self-absorbed herself, is disturbed by this event – although it is only the danger to Orlando to which she reacts. Her lover’s self-serving passivity doesn’t seem to bother her, nor that the man her best friend loves could have been killed just to preserve her secret. I guess that things like that are all in a day’s work, when you’re a sentamentalist.

Anyway…it all ends in tears, of course. Valentine has a double-barrelled ending, its final miseries described first in a letter from Schwerin to Bertha, and then again by the author in the third person; I suppose in case we hadn’t all suffered enough the first time. And since we’ve been studying the various lengths and forms of the run-on sentence, it pleases me enormously to be able to report that Valentine ends with one even longer than that which opened Rosabella…which of course gives me an excuse to wrap up this nonsense by quoting it:

Orlando left the chief of his fortune to Eleanor, which with her own, made it very considerable; they were at a proper time married in Berlin, and though it was not possible for a man to be more attached to beauty, than the Baron was to his lovely Eleanor, with whom he had been brought up from their tenderest infancy, yet had she not influence sufficient over him to make him quit the path of fame and glory, in which his father and all his progenitors had trod, a path of fame, although so unhappily fatal to his dearest friends, in the lamented, the valiant and brave Valentine with the amiable Isabella.