Posts tagged ‘fiction’

10/12/2019

The Captain Of The Vulture (Part 2)


 
    …close beside the hearth, with his back to the window, sat the same traveller whom Samuel Pecker had last seen beneath his own roof. The uncertain flame of the fire, shooting up for a moment in a vivid blaze, only to sink back and leave all in shadow, revealed nothing but the mere outline of this man’s figure, and revealed even that but dimly, yet at the very first glance through the uncurtained window Millicent Duke uttered a great cry, and falling on her knees in the snow, sobbed aloud,—“My husband! My husband, returned alive to make me the guiltiest and most miserable of women!”
    She grovelled on the snowy ground, hiding her face in her hands and wailing piteously. Darrell lifted her in his arms and carried her into the house.
    The traveller had heard the cry, and stood upon the hearth, with his back to the fire, facing the open door; and the traveller was in sorry truth the Captain of the Vulture—that person of all others upon earth whose presence was most terrible to Darrell and Millicent…

 

 

 

 

Christmas comes once again to Compton – it is the sixth anniversary of the visit of the mysterious pedlar, and Sarah Pecker’s reformation – and this time the inn is honoured by a trio of young bucks. Their presence is considered a mark of honour for the establishment, in spite of the demands they make upon its resources and their riotous behaviour. Recognised head of the household or not, Samuel Pecker still knows when he is out of his depth; and so he suggests to Sarah that she be the one to ask the party to be a little less rough and noisy. It is therefore she who carries in the last bottles of old port held by the Black Bear:

    The third member of the little party, and he who seemed far the most sober of the three, lounged with his back to the fire and his elbow leaning on the mantelpiece… His flashing black eyes, and his small white teeth, which glittered as he spoke, lit up his face, which, in spite of his evident youth, was wan and haggard—the face of a man prematurely old from excitement and dissipation; for the hand of Time during the last six years had drawn many a wrinkle about the restless eyes and determined mouth of Sir Lovel Mortimer, Baronet, alias Captain Fanny, highwayman, and, on occasion, housebreaker.
    Heaven knows what there was in the appearance of any one of the party in the white parlour to overawe or agitate the worthy mistress of the Black Bear, but it is a sure thing that a faint and dusky pallor crept over Sarah Pecker’s face as she set the wine and glasses upon the table. She seemed nervous and uneasy under the strange dazzle of Captain Fanny’s black eyes. It has been said that they were not ordinary eyes; indeed, there was something in them which the physiognomists of to-day would no doubt have set themselves industriously at work to define and explain. They were not restless only. There was a look in them almost of terror—not of a terror of to-day or yesterday, but of some dim far-away time too remote for memory—the trace of some shock to the nervous system received long before the mind had power to note its force, but which had left its lasting seal upon one feature of the face.
    Sarah Pecker dropped and broke one of her best wine glasses under the strange influence of these restless eyes. They fixed her gaze as if they had possessed some magnetic power…

It is the fancy of Sir Lovel Mortimer to hold Sarah in conversation; and she, nettled by his contemptuous attitude to her home village, is roused to answer firmly enough. So the baronet learns of the death of Ringwood Markham, and the inheritance of the family estate by his sister, Millicent; Mrs George Duke. He takes Sarah up on her insistence that Millicent is a widow:

    “The world is wide enough outside Compton-on-the-Moor; and your sailor is a roving blade, who is apt to take his own pleasure abroad, forgetful of any one who may be waiting for him at home. Who knows that Captain Duke may not come back to-morrow to claim his wife and her fortune?”
    “The Lord forbid!” said Mrs Pecker earnestly; “I would rather not be wishing ill to any one: but sooner than poor Miss Millicent should see him come back to break her heart and waste her money, I would pray that the Captain of the Vulture may lie drowned and dead under the foreign seas.”
    “A pious wish!” cried Captain Fanny, laughing. “However, as I don’t know the gentleman, Mrs Pecker, I don’t mind saying, Amen. But as to seven years’ absence being proof enough to make a woman a widow, that’s a common mistake and a vulgar one, Mrs Sarah, which I scarcely expected to hear of from a woman of your sense. Seven years—why, husbands have come back after seventeen!”
    Mrs Pecker made no answer to this…

So focused are the people of Compton upon the visit of the baronet and his companions, and the consequent honour bestowed upon their village, that they barely notice the rash of violent robberies that occur in the surrounding districts; or at least, no-one thinks to tie these events together.

I remarked at the outset of my plunge into George Reynolds’ monumental penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London, that it was very obvious that Mary Elizabeth Braddon had been strongly influenced by Reynolds; likewise, that she was in sympathy with many of his social criticisms. Her way of addressing such points was always very different, however: whereas Reynolds does so with rhetoric and tub-thumping, Braddon’s way is that of black humour and/or chilly matter-of-factness. Here, for instance, merely as a throwaway observation in context, is a reference to the conditions prevailing in England during the 18th century, and the savage property laws of the time. It’s something that Reynolds might have said—but this isn’t the way he would have said it:

The sojourn of a handsome young baronet at the Black Bear was a rare event, to be remembered and talked of for a twelvemonth at least; while violence, outrage, robbery, and murder upon the king’s highway were of everyday occurrence. London kept holiday every Monday morning, and went gipsying and sight-seeing Tyburnwards. Thieves, retired from business, made goodly fortunes by hunting down old comrades. Children were hung without mercy for the stealing of three halfpence on that via sacra, the king’s highway; because the law—poor well-intentioned blundering monster as it was—could frame a statute, but could not make a distinction, and could only hang by the letter, where it might have pardoned according to the spirit.

The next event of significance to our characters is the coming of the end of January—the seventh anniversary of George Duke’s disappearance. Millicent must then seek out Darrell Markham in London and deliver to him Ringwood’s letter, as per her solemn promise; but she has little idea how to go about her task, and is mightily relieved when Sarah forces her own company upon her.

Holding hard to her Cumberland heritage, Sarah stubbornly refuses to be either thrilled, shocked or awed by London. As for Millicent, she barely notices her surroundings for thinking of the upcoming meeting. She has not seen her cousin Darrell for seven years either—not since he lay injured and delirious at the Black Bear, after being attacked by a man he swore was George Duke…

Millicent spends the hired coach journey between the inn at which she and Sarah are staying and the townhouse of Lord C— tormenting herself with visions of a very different Darrell; an indifferent Darrell; a Darrell in love with someone else. The reality is more prosaic but for the moment just as daunting: Darrell has grown up:

Of all the changes Millicent had ever dreamed of, none had come about. But this one change, of which she had never dreamed, had certainly come to pass. Darrell Markham had grown stouter within the past seven years ; not unbecomingly so, of course. He had only changed from a stripling into a stalwart broad-chested, and soldierly-looking fellow, whose very presence inspired poor helpless Millicent with a feeling of safety. He clasped his poor little shivering cousin to his breast, and covered her cold forehead with kisses…

Millicent is inspired with a new terror: that, he in London, she in Compton, Darrell may simply have grown away from her; but her fears in that respect are soon put thoroughly to rest. She hesitates as Darrell insists upon the implications of the seven-years’ silence, and changes the subject by putting Ringwood’s letter, as per her promise, into her cousin’s hand. Her hope is that Ringwood has left Darrell a bequest—which, as Darrell tells her, is exactly what he has done:

    It was thus that poor Ringwood had written:
    “Cousen Darrel,
    “When you gett this, Capten Duk will hav bin away sevin years. I canot lieve you a legasy, but I lieve you my sister Mily, who after my deth will be a ritch woman, for your tru and lovyng wife. Forgett
all past ill blud betwixt us, and cherish her for the sake of
    “RINGWOOD MARKHAM.”

Still gripped by her belief that George Duke is alive and waiting, Millicent resists her fate; but she has not the strength of character to withstand the force represented by an impassioned Darrell and a determined Sarah. However, she outrages the latter by refusing to come out of her mourning for Ringwood for her wedding, compromising only so far as a pale lavender gown. And though she very much enjoys the intervening fortnight, during which time Darrell ensures that she and Sarah see all the sights, there is a shadow over her happiness. At the last moment, her terrors overcome her:

    …Mrs George Duke, falling on her knees at Darrell’s feet, lifted up her clasped hands and appealed to him thus :—
    “O, Darrell, Darrell, I feel as if this was a wicked thing that we are going to do! What evidence have I that George Duke is dead? and what right have I to give my hand to you, not knowing whether it may not still belong to another? Delay this marriage. Wait, wait, and more certain news may reach us; for some thing tells me that we have no justification for the vows we are going to take to-day.”
    She spoke with such a solemn fervour, with such an earnestness in every word, with a light that seemed almost the radiance of inspiration shining in her blue
eyes, that Darrell Markham would have been led to listen to her almost as seriously as she had spoken, but for the interference of Mrs Sarah Pecker. That aggrieved matron, however, showered forth a whole volley of indignant exclamations, such as “Stuff and nonsense, child!”

Sarah hustles the pair into marriage; and this despite the fact that she herself receives at the last moment what she is inclined to take as an ill omen. Almost knocked down on the slippery pavement outside the London church, she is saved by a passing stranger…only he is not a stranger: it is none other than Sir Lovel Mortimer, looking very different from his normal dandified self in a brown wig and thick, almost disguising clothing; but there is no mistaking those eyes. The baronet is very interested to learn what business it is that has brought Sarah to London, and goes off leaving his compliments for the bride and groom.

The wedding goes ahead in spite of the spoken and unspoken fears of the trio; no George Duke appears to forbid it, in spite of Millicent’s nervous glances over her shoulder. With Darrell’s ring upon her finger, Millicent at last allows herself to relax:

Millicent abandoned herself to the delight of Darrell’s presence, and had well-nigh forgotten that she had ever lived away from him. She was with him, sheltered and protected by his love, and all the vague doubts and terrors of the wedding morning had vanished out of her mind. It seemed as if she had left her fears in the stony London church from which she had emerged as Darrell Markham’s wife. She had felt a shadowy apprehension of some shapeless trouble hovering near at hand, some unknown sorrow ready to fall upon her and crush her; but she felt this apprehension no longer. Nothing had occurred to interrupt the marriage. It seemed to her, therefore, as if the marriage, being permitted by Providence, must needs be happy…

The three travel home to Compton, and they make their first stop at the Black Bear where, knowing of the limited resources at the Hall, Sarah has sent ahead to order a celebratory dinner prepared for the newly-weds. Arriving at the inn, she hurries in ahead of her companions to check that her orders have been carried out—and finds herself confronted by the Samuel of old, a timid, weary man clearly expecting thunderstorms to descend upon his head:

    “What! what!” cried Sarah, some indistinct terror chilling her very blood; “what is it, Samuel?—have you lost your speech?”
    It seemed indeed for a moment as if Mr Pecker had been suddenly deprived of the use of that faculty. He shook his head from side to side, swallowed and gasped alternately, and then grasping Sarah by the arm, pointed with his disengaged hand to another half-open door exactly opposite to that of the room in which the dinner-table was laid. “Look there!” he ejaculated in a hoarse whisper close to Sarah’s ear.
    Following the direction of Samuel’s extended hand, Mrs Pecker looked into a room which was generally devoted to the ordinary customers at the Bear, but which on this winter’s evening had but one occupant. This solitary individual was a man wearing a dark blue travel-stained coat, jack-boots, and loose brown curling hair tied with a ribbon. His back was turned to Sarah and her husband, and he was bending over the sea-coal fire with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his hands. While Mrs Sarah Pecker stood as if transfixed, staring silently at this traveller, Darrell followed Millicent into the hall, and thence into the oak parlour, closing the door behind him.
    “O, Samuel, Samuel! how shall I ever tell her? ” exclaimed Mrs Pecker.

She cannot—and in fact does not. She excuses herself from joining the dinner, and has the inn’s servant wait upon Darrell and Millicent; which is also what Samuel has done with regard to the inn’s other customer. The Peckers try to come to terms with the appalling situation—each of them in their own way:

    “Only an hour—only an hour,” groaned Sarah: “if it had pleased Providence to have taken his life before that hour, what a happy release for them two poor innocent creatures in yonder room!”
    “Ah, what a release indeed!” echoed Samuel. “He’s sittin’ with his back to the door: if somebody could go behind him sudden with a kitchen poker,” added the innkeeper, looking thoughtfully at Sarah’s stout arm; “but then,” he continued, reflectively, “there’d be the body; and that would be against it. If you come to think of it, the leading inconvenience of a murder is that there’s generally a body. But I suppose it’s only right it should be so; for if it wasn’t for bodies, murders would be uncommon easy.”
    Sarah did not appear particularly struck by the brilliancy of her husband’s discourse; she sat in her own particular arm-chair before the old-fashioned fire place, with her hands clasped upon her knees, rocking herself to and fro, and repeating mournfully,—“O, if it had but pleased Providence to take him before that hour!—if it had but pleased Providence!”
    She remembered afterwards that as she said these words there was a feeling in her heart tantamount to an inarticulate prayer that some species of sudden death might overtake the traveller in the common parlour…

The traveller departs while Darrell and Millicent are still at dinner; for the Hall, the Peckers dismally conclude. Even at the last Sarah cannot bring herself to speak the terrible words; and though the others see that something has happened to upset their old friend, the dreadful truth does not cross their minds.

It is a short but hard walk from the Black Bear to Markham Hall, through the snow and by the light of a lantern carried by Samuel. Millicent, somewhat infected by Sarah’s fears, recoils when she sees footprints in the pathway. To approach their own front door, the two must pass several windows, including one giving into a room in which a fire has been lit: inside, a man sits before that fire…

Here, at last, we find ourselves upon familiar Braddon-ground in The Captain Of The Vulture. The bigamy-plot was one of the mainstays of the 19th century sensation novel; though it was not confined to that genre. It was occasionally deployed in more mainstream literature, too, but almost always with a man at the apex of the triangle: obviously this was considered a less shocking situation. In sensation novels, however, it was an excellent way of having a woman – generally the heroine – sexually guilty and yet innocent at the same time—if the bigamy was accidental, which was not always the case.

Braddon had already dabbled in these waters, in her first novel, The Trail Of The Serpent; but there it was merely one subplot in a dizzying maze of mystery and crime. This was the first time she brought this situation front-and-centre; and indeed, it is possible that she was using The Captain Of The Vulture as something of a dry run: bigamy would (though in very different ways) be the fulcrum of her two succeeding novels, which would be among her most controversial yet most successful works.

She handles the matter rather differently here, fittingly for what is an historical romance rather than a sensation novel, having poor Millicent agonise over her “sin” in explicitly religious terms. And there is something concrete for her to agonise over: daringly on Braddon’s part, it is clear that the marriage has been consummated.

Darrell does his best to intervene on Millicent’s behalf, arguing indeed that she was pressured into her new marriage against her better judgement; but he might as well be addressing a brick wall:

    “Now you come here and listen to me, Mistress Millicent Markham, Mrs George Duke, Mrs Darrell Markham, or whatever you may please to call yourself. Come here, I say.”
    She had been lying on the sofa, never blest by one moment’s unconsciousness, but acutely sensible of every word that had been said. Her husband caught hold of her wrist with a rough jerk, and lifted her from the sofa. “Listen to me, will you,” he said, “my very dutiful and blameless wife! I am going to ask you a few questions. Do you hear?”
    “Yes.”
    She neither addressed him by his name nor looked at him as he spoke. Gentle as she was, tender and loving as she was to every animate thing, she made no show of gentleness to him, nor any effort to conceal her shuddering abhorrence of him…

And of course, Captain Duke is not much interested in the marriage as such. What he is interested in, is Millicent’s inheritance of Compton Hall—and his consequent rights as her husband. His words are vicious, deliberately cruel—yet it is almost as if Millicent does not hear them. There is only one thought in her mind, one question which she must ask:

“George Duke, did you stay away these seven years on purpose to destroy me, body and soul?”

Somewhat to her surprise, and ours, the answer is ‘no’: Captain Duke was, he claims, cast away on a Pacific island, and only recently rescued.

Rendered helpless by the situation, Darrell can only insist upon his altered position as Millicent’s only relative. He withdraws—but warns Captain Duke about his treatment of Millicent, and adds that he will be back on the following day.

As he makes to withdraw, Millicent suddenly comes out of her near-catatonic state:

    “Stop!” cried Millicent, as her cousin was leaving the room; “my husband took an earring from me when we parted at Marley, and bade me ask him for it on his return. Have you that trinket?” she asked the Captain.
    She looked him in the face with an earnest, half-terrified gaze. She remembered the double of George Duke, seen by her upon Marley pier, in the winter moonlight.
    The sailor took a small canvas bag from his waist coat pocket. The bag contained a few pieces of gold and silver money, and the diamond earring which Millicent had given George Duke on the night of their parting…

It is the final, crushing blow:

    …going straight to her cousin, she put her two icy hands into his, and addressed him thus:
    “Farewell, Darrell Markham, we must never, never meet again. Heaven forgive us both for our sin; for Heaven knows we were innocent of evil intent. I will obey this man in all reasonable things, and will share my fortune with him and do my duty to him to my dying day; but I can never again be what I was to him before he left this place seven years ago; I can never be his wife again. Good night.”
    She put her cousin from her with a solemn gesture, which, with the simple words that she had spoken, seemed to him like a dissolution of their marriage…

With nowhere else to go, Darrell accepts the invitation of the waiting – and very apologetic – Samuel, to take up his residence at the Black Bear. It is intention to stay in Compton for the present, to see for himself how George Duke intends to treat his wife. He and Samuel turn their sad steps back along the snowy path to the inn. Along their way, the two encounter a man headed in the other direction:

    …a man wearing a horseman’s cloak, and muffled to the chin, with the snow-flakes lying white upon his hat and shoulders.
    Samuel Pecker gave this man a friendly though feeble good-night, but the man seemed a surly fellow, and made no answer. The snow lay so deep upon the ground that the three men passed one another as noiselessly as shadows.
    “Have you ever taken notice, Mr Darrell,” said
Samuel, some time afterwards, “that folks in snowy weather looks very much like ghosts; quiet, and white, and solemn?”

And this man is not the only unexpected visitor on this snowy night. Another, muffled up beyond recognition, calls at the Black Bear, demanding brandy. His voice is vaguely to familiar to Sarah, but she cannot place it—not until, in taking his drink, he exposes his face to her:

    He threw back his head as he swallowed the last drop of the fiery liquor, then throwing Mrs Pecker the price of the brandy, he bade her a hasty good-night, and strode out of the house.
    The empty glass dropped from Sarah’s hand, and shivered into fragments on the floor. Her white and terror-stricken face frightened the waiter when he returned from his errand to the stables.
    The man she had served with brandy could not surely be George Duke, for the Captain had an hour before set out for the Hall; but if not George Duke himself, this man was most certainly some unearthly shadow or double of the Captain of the Vulture…

Up at Compton Hall, Millicent goes about her duties with an air almost of quiet defiance, and declaredly has prepared for a husband a room far separate from her own, one known as the ‘Garden Room’ for its proximity to the grounds. She is interrupted by a caller – he who passed Darrell and Samuel – who seems agitated by news of the Captain’s return, but storms away without seeing him. The Captain, too, when informed, becomes angry and abusive.

Unmoved, Millicent withdraws to her own room. There her stony demeanour crumbles, as she confronts what she considers her enormous guilt—and the reality of what her life must now be. In the extremity of her misery, she even contemplates suicide, going so far as to find one of her father’s old razors. The impulse is soon quelled, however, though in her trembling haste she cuts herself while putting the blade away again. It is not a dangerous cut, but it bleeds significantly even after she bandages it up. That done, she can only sit in sleepless misery, contemplating the future…

Meanwhile, downstairs, George Duke too is reflecting upon his very altered fortunes:

“To think,” he said, “only to fancy that this Ringwood Markham, a younger man than myself, should have died within a few months of my coming home! Egad, they’ve said that George Duke was one of those fellows who always fall on their feet. I’ve had a hard time of it for the last seven years, but I’ve dropped into good luck after all—dropped into my old luck—a fortune, and a poor frightened wife that can’t say bo to a goose—a poor trembling novel-reading pale-faced baby…”

Having polished off one bottle of claret and another of brandy, the Captain staggers off to bed—still congratulating himself, and looking forward to “settling” with Darrell and Millicent:

    Mechanically his wandering right hand sought the butt-end of the pistol beneath the pillow, and so with his fingers resting on the familiar weapon, George Duke dropped off to sleep.
    It is doubtful if he had ever said a prayer in his life. He said none that night.

At some point during the endless winter night, Millicent is seized with the notion of signing over to George Duke everything she owns – everything – and under any conditions he chooses to impose, if only he will go away and leave her alone. Impulsively, she makes her way to the Garden Room:

    The firelight, changeful and capricious, now played upon the sleeper’s ringlets, lying in golden-brown tangles upon the pillow, now glanced upon the white fingers resting on the pistol, now flashed upon the tarnished gilding of the bed-posts, now glimmered on the ceiling, now lit up the wall; while Millicent’s weary eyes followed the light, as a traveller, astray on a dark night, follows a will-o’-the-wisp.
    She followed the light wherever it pleased to lead her. From the golden ringlets on the pillow to the hand upon the pistol, from the gilded bed-posts to the ceiling and the wall, lower and lower down the wall, creeping stealthily downwards, to the oaken floor beside the bed, and to a black pool which lay there, slowly saturating the time-blackened wood.
    The black pool was blood—a pool that grew wider every second, fed by a stream which was silently pouring from a hideous gash across the throat of Captain George Duke, of the good ship Vulture…

Millicent flees into the snowy night. She ignores her nearer neighbours and heads straight for the Black Bear, rousing the household with her cries. They, in turn, find her in hysterics, her hair dishevelled, her hands and her clothing smeared with blood, as she shrieks of George Duke’s murder…

The first impulse of Darrell, Sarah and Samuel is to protect Millicent from whatever has happened, but the inn’s ostler summons a constable, who has very different ideas. He and Darrell venture to Compton Hall, where they find any amount of what seems like damning evidence against Millicent—but there is one thing that they do not find:

    The candle, burned down to the socket of the quaint old silver candlestick, stood where Millicent had left it on a table near the window. The tapestry curtain, flung aside from the door as she had flung it in her terror, hung in a heap of heavy folds. That hideous pool between the bed and the fireplace had widened and spread itself; but the hearth was cold and black, and the bed upon which George Duke had lain was empty.
    It was empty. The pillow on which his head had rested was there, stained a horrible red with his blood. The butt-end of the pistol, on which his fingers had lain when he fell asleep was still visible beneath the pillow. Red ragged  stains and streaks of blood, and one long gory line which marked what way the stream had flowed towards the dark pool on the floor, disfigured the bedclothes; but beyond this there was nothing…

The men search, but no body is to be found. Money there is in abundance, however; so this is not a matter of robbery-homicide. The two notice another curious point:

    …the constable walked slowly round the chamber, looking at everything in his way. “What’s come of the Captain’s clothes, I wonder?” he said, rubbing his chin, and staring thoughtfully at the bed.
    It was noticeable that no vestige of clothing belonging to Captain George Duke was left in the apartment…

The murder of George Duke sends shockwaves of horrified delight through Compton—in itself, and inasmuch as the body must be somewhere. The subsequent investigation turns up nothing helpful, and ends as – in one respect – it must:

    Hugh Martin carried a certain official-looking document in his hand. Armed with this, he walked straight across the room to the sofa upon which Millicent sat.
    “Mrs Millicent Duke,” he said, “in the King’s name I arrest you for the wilful murder of your husband, George Duke.”

Unexpectedly, during the subsequent official inquiry, Millicent stands up under questioning far better than the people who love her: she tells her story openly and straightforwardly, winning the sympathy of everyone who hears her. But matters falter on a general failure to identify an alternative suspect. Millicent admits she knows nothing of her husband’s life away from Compton; Darrell can only add (what he sometime earlier discovered) that Duke was not a naval officer at all; and otherwise, there is only Samuel’s garbled tale of George Duke’s double. The matter concludes with Millicent committed to stand trial…

We might be inclined to feel that Braddon could have fudged the issue of Millicent’s guilt or innocence—omitted her discovering of the body, and begun the scene with her showing up at the Black Bear hysterical and covered in blood. But given Millicent’s own character, as drawn, this would have been an unnecessary piece of obfuscation: she was never the kind of worm that was going to turn, at least not to the point of cutting her husband’s throat. In later Braddon works, however, such is not always the case; and there are several in which the degree of the protagonist’s guilt becomes the crux of her narrative.

In essence, the final stages of The Captain Of The Vulture play out something like a conventional murder mystery, with Darrell Markham turning amateur detective and racing against time to try and find the evidence that will secure Millicent’s acquittal; while there is also a series of revelations about the true identities of several of the supporting cast, and the roles they have played in the tangled business.

But Braddon also uses this phase of her novel to cast a jaundiced eye on the justice system – so-called – and though overtly she admits that this was a hundred years or more in the past, she knows – and knows her readers know – that not nearly enough had changed since, even if some points of procedure had.

Again we see the similarities and differences between Braddon and George Reynolds: the points that they make, and the disparate ways in which they make them. In particular, both authors had a horror of capital punishment within a system in which circumstantial evidence carried so much weight, and no more than lip-service was paid to the presumption of innocence. Braddon even circumvents those who might be inclined to argue that, these days (that is, the 1860s) the law “pampers” criminals, by suggesting wryly that if so, it had plenty to make up for…

Darrell does succeed in elucidating some of the mystery of George Duke’s life, and discovers where he really was during those seven years – let’s just say that it wasn’t cast away on a desert island – but when Millicent’s trial begins, neither those hired to defend her nor those who love and believe in her hold much hope of her acquittal. Even when a decomposed body is found once the ice melts on a pond behind the stables at Compton Hall, it does not, under existing legal procedures, with the defence counsel permitted only to cross-examine and not to mount a rebuttal, play the part it should in Millicent’s defence:

Thus it was that the one strong point in favour of Millicent was insufficiently demonstrated to the jury who were to decide the awful question of her guilt or innocence. That one point was the physical weakness of the accused, and the improbability, if not impossibility, that such a woman could have carried the body of a stalwart strongly built man down a flight of stone steps, and across a space of forty yards, to a frozen pond, the ice upon the surface of which she must have broken before throwing the corpse of her victim into the water…

But Braddon doesn’t let her crusading overwhelm her narrative—and she pulls back from these grim matters to use her courtroom scene, not just to score points, but as the setting for a suitably dramatic ending to her narrative, when Thomas Masterson, aka the mysterious pedlar, is reluctantly giving evidence:

    In the very midst of a sentence Thomas Masterson stopped, and with ashen cheeks and dilated eyes stared across the heads of the lawyers and the multitude at the doorway of the court, which was in an elevated situation, communicating by a flight of steps with the main body of the building. A man who had just entered the court was standing at the top of these steps apart from all other spectators…
    “Why do you pause, Thomas Masterson?” asked the barrister.
    The witness slowly raised his hand, and pointed to the stranger at the top of the steps.
    “Because Cap’en George Duke has just come into the court,” he answered…

There is a distinct air of disappointment in the courtroom once this new witness has testified, accounting for the injury to his throat that really wasn’t as bad as it looked, his decision to leave Compton Hall again, and the travelling to which was due his failure to hear of his wife’s arrest. The spectators feel aggrieved at being deprived of their expected entertainment, with Millicent discharged by the judge; but this changes in a flash when, with more honour than discretion, and more deperation than either, the prisoner responds:

    Millicent Duke rose from her seat for the first time since the trial had begun. She stood up, calmly facing the eager crowd, which had been so ready to condemn her for a witch and a murderess, and which was now as ready to applaud and pity her as an innocent victim.
    She turned to the judge, and said, with quiet deliberation,—” I thank you, my lord, for your goodness to me; but that man is not my husband!”

 

10/12/2019

The Captain Of The Vulture (Part 1)


 
All Compton might think the Captain dead, but Millicent could not think so. She seemed possessed by some settled conviction that all the storms which ever rent the skies or shook the ocean would never cause the death of George Duke. She watched for his coming with a sick dread that every day might bring him. She rose in the morning with the thought that ere the early winter’s night closed in he would be seated by the hearth. She never heard a latch lifted without trembling lest his hand should be upon it, nor listened to a masculine footfall in the village High Street without dreading lest she should recognise his familiar step. Her meeting with George Duke’s shadow upon the moonlit pier at Marley had added a superstitious terror to her old dread and dislike of her husband. She thought of him now as a being possessed of unholy privileges. He might be near her, but unseen and impalpable ; he might be hiding in the shadowy corners of the dark wainscot, or crouching in the snow outside the latticed window. He might be a spy upon her inmost thoughts, and knowing her distrust and aversion, might stay away for long years, only to torment her the more by returning when she had forgotten to expect him, and had even learned to be happy…

 

 

 

I was more than a little appalled, quite some months back now, to realise I had let a year slip away between my examinations of the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon; but while I did then make a point of reading The Captain Of The Vulture, writing about it was another matter…not least because I progressively let both the second volume of The Mysteries Of London and The Sicilian join it on the list of things read-but-not-dealt-with.

But that was not the only reason for the delay. I found The Captain Of The Vulture to be the least appealing of Braddon’s novels so far, though that is not to say that it is unentertaining; on the contrary; but it does lack some of the usual Braddon spark. It is an odd book, something of an outlier in her collected works: an historical romance, rather than a contemporary sensation novel, and one lacking any obvious identification figure. It is less packed with incident than we are accustomed to, and (mostly) without the usual daring humour.

This seems to be almost a recurring theme amongst those of Braddon’s works which were intended for a “respectable” audience—as was The Captain Of The Vulture, which was serialised in weekly numbers in The Welcome Guest between April and August, 1861, before appearing as a single-volume book in 1862. It was also published in America in 1863, under the variant title, Darrell Markham; or, The Captain Of The Vulture.

Despite this retitling and his overt “hero” role, Darrell Markham is off-stage for much of the novel; while George Duke, the titular Captain, is anything but heroic. Indeed, the novel abounds in rogues—but they are all of the cut-throat variety, rather than the perversely likeable sort that we encountered in (for example) Lady Lisle. And while we may finally choose to call Millicent Duke this novel’s heroine, this is rather because of the horrors she must endure over the course of the story than for her personal qualities.

But if The Captain Of The Vulture is lacking in certain respects, there is no shortage of mystery and crime within its pages. In particular, Braddon seems to have been experimenting with “doubling”, with her narrative studded with cases of mistaken identity, certain incidents playing out more than once, various plot-points and motifs showing up in parallel at different levels of society,  and the central plot turning upon a “double” of the most explicit kind.

The Captain Of The Vulture is set in Georgian England (in-text references to the novels of Samuel Richardson place the action about 1755), and opens in the village of Compton-on-the-Moor. Darrell Markham, once a resident of the district, arrives unexpectedly at the door of the inn, the “Black Bear”, where a flurry of conversation alerts us to several things: that the woman Darrell loves, his cousin Millicent, has jilted him and married another man; that her husband, Captain George Duke, though overtly a naval officer, is suspected of having a profitable sideline as a privateer; and that Millicent’s brother, Ringwood, though “Squire”, spends most of his time going to the devil in London.

The conversation is awkwardly interrupted by a man seeking directions to a place called Marley Water. This is also Darrell’s destination, as he has already told his companions, despite the danger of highwaymen on the intervening Compton Moor. The landlord, Samuel Pecker, gives the requested information, and the horseman rides off—leaving Pecker to shake his head over the erratic behaviour and frequent absences of Captain Duke, and Darrell to absorb the fact that he has just for the first time glimpsed Millicent’s husband.

Darrell is prevented from immediately taking his leave by the arrival on the scene of Sarah Pecker, now Samuel’s help-meet – and often torment – but once Sarah Masterson, a local widow who was housekeeper to the late squire. In this role, Sarah helped to raise the orphaned young Darrell, who is the apple of her eye. She tries frantically to dissuade him from his ride across Compton Moor, but Darrell explains gravely that he must take the York coach from Marley Water the next morning on a matter of urgent business, and goes on his way.

Barely has he departed than Sarah and Samuel find themselves confronted by—Captain George Duke, who has clearly overheard Sarah’s lament regarding Darrell and Millicent; although her embarrassment swiftly turns to anger when the Captain speaks sneeringly of Darrell as, “A good-for-nothing idling reckless ne’er do-weel.”

Meanwhile, a bewildered Samuel is taking in the fact that the Captain seems to have changed his mind about crossing Compton Moor. When the Captain insists that he has only just arrived in Compton, and was certainly not at the inn half-an-hour before, Samuel can think of only one explanation:

    “Flesh and blood doesn’t creep up to a man unawares like that!”
    Captain Duke looked very hard into the face of the speaker; looked thoughtfully, gravely, earnestly at him, with bright searching brown eyes; and then again burst out laughing louder than before. So much was he amused by the landlord’s astonished and awe-stricken face, that he laughed all the way across the low old hall—laughed as he opened the door of the oak-panelled parlour in which the genteeler visitors at the Bear were accustomed to sit—laughed as he threw himself back into the great polished oaken chair by the fire, and stretched his legs out upon the stone hearth till the heels of his boots rested against the iron dogs—laughed as he called Samuel Pecker, and could hardly order his favourite beverage, rum punch, for laughing.
    The room was empty, and it was to be observed that when the door closed upon the landlord, Captain Duke, though he still laughed, something contracted the muscles of his face, while the pleasant light died slowly out of his handsome brown eyes, and gave place to a settled gloom.
    When the punch was brought him, he drank three glasses one after another. But neither the great wood fire blazing on the wide hearth nor the steaming liquid seemed to warm him, for he shivered as he drank.
    He shivered as he drank, and presently he drew his chair still closer to the fire, planted his feet upon the two iron dogs, and sat looking darkly into the red spitting hissing blaze.
    “My incubus, my shadow, my curse!” he said. Only six words, but they expressed the hatred of a lifetime…

Captain Duke spends the rest of the evening at the Black Bear, and is still there when a bloodied and near-unconscious Darrell Markham is carried in, having been left for dead on the moor. And even as Darrell earlier first glimpsed – or thought he glimpsed – the man for whom his cousin Millicent jilted him, George Duke now first lays eyes on the man he very well knows his wife still loves…

The Captain stays only long enough to learn from the surgeon that though Darrell is gravely injured, he should live provided he is not agitated into fever, before carrying the news home to Millicent.

Millicent Duke is one of Braddon’s equivocal “heroines”, as we know from the first description of her, in which Braddon’s exasperation with the prevailing taste for fair and helplessly feminine young women wrestles with her sense of how the world was likely to treat such fragile creatures:

It is a very fair and girlish face upon which the fitful firelight trembles…with delicate features and dark blue eyes in the soft depths of which there lurks a shadow—a shadow as of tears long dried, but not forgotten… It is not easy to think of her as a married woman; there is such an air of extreme youth about her, such a girlish, almost childish timidity in her manner, that, as her husband—not too loving or tender a husband at the best of times—is apt to say, “It is as difficult to deal with Millicent as with a baby, for you never know when she may begin whimpering—like a spoilt child as she is.” There are people in Compton-on-the-Moor who remember the time when the spoilt child never whimpered, and when a gleam of spring sunshine was scarcely a brighter or more welcome thing to fall across a man’s pathway than the radiant face of Millicent Markham…

Our backstory is filled in here: how the orphaned Darrell was taken in by his uncle, Squire Markham; how he grew up as Millicent’s protector and best friend and, by insensible stages, her lover; how unwittingly he mortally offended his uncle by growing into a handsome, athletic and honourable young man, while the Squire’s only son, Ringwood, grew up “a milksop”, weak and cowardly.

Darrell’s angry intervention in Ringwood’s attempted seduction of a pretty but foolish young farmer’s daughter, which ended in a blow that neither Ringwood nor the Squire could forgive or forget – the latter all the more so because of Ringwood’s subsequent pusillanimous behaviour and telling of lies – saw Darrell banished from his childhood home. Before leaving, he promised Millicent to return and marry her, when he had made his way in the world, and received in return her promise to wait.

Not long afterwards, however, the Squire and Ringwood made the acquaintance of the dashing Captain Duke, whose rollicking humour and air of worldliness suited both Markhams so well, he became all but an inmate of the Hall, and was finally offered Millicent as a bride—her fair prettiness and her fair dowry equally suiting the Captain. Her desperate letter to Darrell going astray, eighteen-year-old Millicent was then bullied and terrorised by her father into breaking her promise; while Darrell, never receiving that agonised plea for his help, knows only that Millicent has been untrue.

The marriage turns out as might have been expected: Millicent does her best but cannot hide her indifference, or her relief when her husband is going away, or her persisting thoughts of her cousin; while he, on his returns from his voyages, takes pleasure in tormenting her—perversely resenting the absence of an emotion which he knew from the outset she never felt for him, nor ever pretended to. Never before, however, has he had such a weapon in his hands as the wounding of Darrell Markham:

    “Trembling between life and death,” repeated Millicent, in the same half-conscious tone, so piteous to hear.
    “He was! Heaven knows how he may be now. That was half-an-hour ago; the scale may be turned by this time; he may be dead!”
    As George Duke said the last word, his wife sprang from her seat, and, without once looking at him, ran hurriedly to the outer door. She had her hand upon the bolts, when she cried out in a tone of anguish, “O, no, no, no !” and dropped down on her knees, with her head leaning against the lock of the door.
    The Captain of the Vulture followed her into the passage, and watched her with hard unpitying eyes.
    “You were going to run to him!” he said, as she fell on her knees by the outer door.
    For the first time since Darrell Markham’s name had been mentioned, Millicent looked at her husband; not mournfully, not reproachfully, least of all fearfully; bold, bright, and defiant, her blue eyes looked up to his.
    “I was.”
    “Then why not go? You see I am not cruel; I do not stop you. You are free. Go! Go to your—cousin—and—your lover, Mistress Duke. Shall I open the door for you?”
    She lifted herself with an effort upon her feet, still leaning for support against the street-door. “No,” she said, “I will not go to him; I could do him no good; I might agitate him; I might kill him!”
    The Captain bit his under lip, and the triumphant light faded from his brown eyes.
    “But understand this, George Duke,” said Millicent, in a tone that was strange to her husband’s ears, “it is no fear of you which keeps me here; it is no dread of your cruel words or more cruel looks that holds me from going to his side; for if I could save him by my presence from one throb of pain—if I could give him by my love and devotion one moment’s peace and comfort, and the town of Compton were one raging fire, I would walk through that fire to do it.”

Darrell does not die, however, though his recovery is anything but rapid; yet he is able deliberately to repeat the charge first made in his delirium, that it was Captain George Duke who attacked, shot, and robbed him…

Darrell is so certain and so pertinacious in his charge that it is finally referred to a reluctant magistrate, who can barely conceal his relief when the Captain can prove an alibi—that he was at the Black Bear at the time in question. Darrell is baffled and mystified, unable to dispute this yet unequally unconvinced that he is in error. Matters are not helped by the testimony of Samuel Pecker, who again nervously insists upon his ghost-story.

With this, the enmity between Darrell and the Captain escalates to a new and dangerous level. Fortunately, word is received that the Vulture has been refitted and is ready for her next voyage; while Darrell himself, as soon as he is able, returns to London and vanishes once more from his cousin’s life.

The Captain leaves Compton a few days early, in order to oversee the final arrangements for the Vulture. To the indignation of Sarah Pecker, when he is ready to sail he insists upon Millicent taking a chilly overnight stage-coach ride in order to meet him at Marley Water and see him off. Obedient upon all but one point, Millicent does as instructed, trying to hide from herself how eager she is for the absence of her husband. Upon reaching her destination, and meeting the Captain, Millicent is unnerved to see that they are being shadowed by one of her fellow passengers, a man swathed in a great coat and a muffler, his face hidden by these garments and the shadow of his hat.

Millicent speaks of her fears to her husband, who dismisses the incident as a mere coincidence of movement, but it seems that she was right: a man later calls at the inn where they are staying until the Captain’s midnight departure, asking for him. The Captain agrees to see him, though angrily, but first hastens Millicent into another room. From there, she cannot hear what is said, only that both men have raised their voices.

The departure of the unwelcome visitor leaves the Captain with no excess time on his hands. He and Millicent walk to the docks, where the latter is assured that her husband will be gone for three months at the utmost.

It is at the moment of departure that Captain George Duke demands from his wife some token, by which she may know him again, no matter how much time has passed. Bewildered, she gives him one of her earrings, of an unusual design:

    “Remember, Millicent, the man who comes to you and calls himself your husband, yet cannot give you this diamond earring, will not be George Duke.”
    “What do you mean, George?”
    “When I return to Compton, ask me for the fellow jewel to that in your ear. If I cannot show it to you—”
    “What then, George?”
    “Drive me from your door as an impostor.”
    “But I should know you, George; what need should I have of any token to tell me who you were?”
    “You might have need of it. Strange things happen to men who lead such a life as mine. I might be taken prisoner abroad, and kept away from you for years. But whether I come back three months hence, or ten years hence, ask me for the earring, and and if I cannot produce it, do not believe in me…”

After the sailing of the Vulture, Millicent hurries back through the chill night to the inn, only to encounter the strange man along the way. Her immediate fear is that she will be robbed; but when the moonlight falls upon him, she is seized with a far greater terror:

    She stood face to face with him, rooted to the ground, a heavy languor paralysing her limbs, an unearthly chill creeping to the very roots of her hair.
    Her hands fell powerless at her sides. She could only stand white and immovable, with dilated eyes staring blankly into the man’s face. He wore a blue coat, and a three-cornered hat, thrown jauntily upon his head, so as in nowise to overshadow his face.
    She was alone, half a mile from a human habitation or human help—alone at the stroke of midnight with her husband’s ghost.
    It was no illusion of the brain; no self-deception born of a fevered imagination. There, line for line, shade for shade, stood a shadow that wore the outward seeming of George Duke.
    She reeled away from the phantom figure, tottered feebly forward for a few paces, and then summoning a desperate courage, rushed blindly on towards the quay, her garments fluttering in the sharp winter air…

Despite his promise – or threat – of a three-month absence, ten tick by without any sign of Captain George Duke. Alone most of the time in her little house, with only her dog and her novels for company, and an occasional call upon Sarah Pecker at the Black Bear to relieve her loneliness and tedium, Millicent does not know that Sarah has been unable to keep the secret confided to her, and that the story of the Captain’s ghost is all over Compton. Indeed, none of the villagers expect the Captain to return, accepting this visitation as a portent; and by the ten-month mark, even Sarah is suggesting that Millicent should think of mourning—adding to her persuasions the story of her own widowing by the sea:

    “Him as you saw upon the pier at Marley, perhaps, Miss Milly,” answered Sally solemnly, “but not Captain Duke! Such things as you and Samuel see last winter aren’t shown to folks for nothing; and it seems a’most like doubting Providence to doubt that the Captain’s been drowned. I dreamt three times that I see my first husband, Thomas Masterson, lying dead upon a bit of rock in the middle of a stormy sea; and I put on widow’s weeds after the third time.”
    “But you had news of your husband’s death, Sally, hadn’t you?”
    “No more news than his staying away seventeen year and more without sending letter or message to tell that he was living in all those years, Miss Milly; and if that ain’t news enough to make a woman a widow, I don’t know what is!”

Millicent, however, who desperately wants her husband not to return, will not allow herself the comfort of believing that he won’t…

To divert her own thoughts, Millicent pursues the matter of Sarah’s first marriage, of which she rarely speaks, and soon realises that she has opened up old wounds. She hears of Sarah’s disillusioned discovery that she had been married for her small inheritance and, far worse, her further discovery three months after her marriage that Masterson was a notorious smuggler with a price on his head. Sarah’s only consolation in the life of shame and fear she was forced to lead was her baby; but as he grew, even that was poisoned for her by the realisation that Masterson was teaching the boy his own ways:

    “I could have borne to have been trampled on myself, but I couldn’t bear to see my child going to ruin before his mother’s eyes. I told Masterson so one night. I was violent, perhaps; for I was almost wild like, and my passion carried me away. I told him that I meant to take the child away with me out of his reach, and go into service and work for him, and bring him up to be an honest man. He laughed, and said I was welcome to the brat; and I took him at his word, thinking he didn’t care. I went to sleep that night with the boy in my arms, meaning to set out early the next morning, and come back to Compton, where I had friends, and where I fancied I could get a living for myself and my darling; and I thought we might be so happy together. O, Miss Millicent, Miss Millicent, may you never know such a bitter trial as mine! When I woke from pleasant dreams about that new life which never was to be, my child was gone. His cruel father had taken him away, and I never saw either Masterson or my boy again.”
    “You waited in the village where he left you?” asked Millicent.
    “For a year and over, Miss Milly, hopin’ that he’d come back, bringing the boy with him; but no tidings ever came of him or of the child. At the end of that time I left word with the neighbours to say I was gone back to Compton; and I came straight here. I’d been housemaid at the Hall when I was a slip of a girl, and your father took me as his housekeeper, and I lived happy in the dear old house for many years, and I loved you and Master Darrell as if you’d been my own children; but I’ve never forgotten my boy…”

During this time, Millicent never hears from Darrell directly; but he does write to Sarah from time to time. By these means, she (and we), learn that he has found employment in London as secretary to a Scottish nobleman: a position not without certain dangers, since his employer was “suspected of no very strong attachment to the Hanoverian cause.” (This is, we recall about a decade after Culloden.)

The narrative of The Captain Of The Vulture now shifts perspective, and we follow Darrell on various missions carried out for the nobleman, who we know only as ‘Lord C—‘. One of these finds him carrying letters through a foggy November night. He stops at an inn in Reading, the establishment already hosting a rather riotous gathering under the aegis of a Sir Lovel Mortimer. Darrell has no interest in the baronet and his drinking companions—at least, not until he goes to the stables to check on his horse, and finds stabled there his previous horse, called Balmerino, who he had owned for seven years before he was stolen the night of the attack upon Compton Moor. The two know each other instantly.

To the landlord’s dismay, Darrell insists upon being conducted into the baronet’s presence:

    In an easy-chair before the open hearth lolled an effeminate-looking young man, in a brocade-dressing-gown, silk stockings with embroidered clocks, and shoes adorned with red heels and glittering diamond buckles that emitted purple and rainbow sparks in the firelight. He wore a flaxen wig, curled and frizzed to such a degree that it stood away from his face, round which it formed a pale-yellow frame, contrasting strongly with a pair of large restless black eyes and the blue stubble upon his slender chin…
    Sir Lovel Mortimer was as effeminate in manners as in person. He had a clear treble voice, and spoke in the languid drawling manner peculiar to the maccaronis of Ranelagh and the Ring. He was the sort of fopling one reads about in the Spectator, and would have been a spectacle alike miraculous and disgusting to good country-bred Sir Roger de Coverley…

The baronet tells Darrell that he bought the horse in question a few months previously at a fair from a man who seemed to be an elderly farmer. Darrell in turn tells the story of his attack and the losses suffered; admitting disappointment at gaining no clue to the identity of the man who robbed him. The baronet almost forces the reluctant Darrell to sup with him, and spends much of the meal probing his political convictions, a topic of conversation which Darrell cautiously evades. Finally, though, Sir Lovel agrees to return Balmerino, in exchange for Darrell’s current horse and twenty guineas.

Darrell is delighted to be astride Balmerino again, so much so that the following evening he decides to ride on in the dusk rather than cut his day of travel short—and again he pays the price. And while it is not George Duke, or his double, who attacks and robs him this time, Darrell is left with a very good idea of who it was:

When Darrell Markham recovered his senses he found himself lying on his back in a shallow dry ditch; the fog had cleared away, and the stars shone with a pale and chilly glimmer in the wintry sky. The young man’s pockets had been rifled and his pistols taken from him; but tied to the hedge above him stood the grey horse which he had left in the custody of Sir Lovel Mortimer…

Painfully, Darrell makes his way to the nearest hostelry—and discovers that the people there know even more about the identity of his attacker:

    “Was the West-country baronet a fine ladyfied little chap, with black eyes and small white hands?” he asked eagerly.
    “Yes.”
    The man looked triumphantly round at the by standers. “I’m blest if I didn’t guess as much,” he said. “It’s Captain Fanny.”

(And, not for the first time, we are left to ponder whether Braddon’s respectable middle-class readers were expected to understand the implications of her improper joke.)

After this interlude, we return to poor Millicent who, the more everyone else assumes her long-absent husband is dead, becomes all the more convinced that he isn’t: that he is staying away deliberately, allowing her to grow comfortable, so that his return will make her suffer all the more.

These passages mark some of Braddon’s most daring writing within The Captain Of The Vulture: it was not often that a heroine in a Victorian novel (albeit one set a century or so before) could get away with expressing such frank dislike of her husband, such an open wish for his death—and without any attendant guilt or lip-service paid to her duties as a wife. The Duke marriage is presented from the outset as an almost deliberate act of cruelty by the three men involved, or at best one undertaken with complete disregard for Millicent’s welfare; while she, young and ignorant as she is, soon accepts one Victorian truism in place of another: that there is no hope that she will “learn to love her husband”; and the best she can do is “suffer and be still“.

Meanwhile, at the Black Bear, Sarah Pecker is up to her eyeballs in her preparations for the Christmas rush. Tradespeople and carriers make frequent appearances at the inn’s back door, delivering their wares; pedlars and beggars likewise, there to sell, beg or steal—though under Sarah’s sharp eye, opportunities are few. One pedlar is particularly pertinacious, refusing to move on at the orders of the inn’s servant, so that an angry Sarah finally confronts him—and to the great surprise of the girl and the inn’s cook, she then meekly agrees to see the man’s wares, ordering the other two away. Shut outside the room, the others try unabashedly to eavesdrop, but can hear nothing of what seems a strangely lengthy conversation…

At last the voices die away, yet Betty and the cook find the kitchen door still locked against them; nor does Sarah reply when they call out to her. The frightened Betty finally runs to Samuel Pecker.

We get one of the novel’s nastier bits of “doubling” here, as the much bullied and put-upon Samuel responds “hopefully” to Betty’s story with an inquiry of whether his wife has been, “Took bad?” – Surely it was not a ray of joy [in his face]? comments the narrator. Samuel is even more delighted by a suggestion that the pedlar has “carried off” his wife, questioning Betty as to whether he was a large enough man to succeed in such an undertaking. It takes some effort on the part of the impatient Betty to get Samuel to bring his keys, so that they can find out what has happened; and even then he dawdles:

“You’re right, Betty,” he said; “get the lantern and I’ll come round with you. But if the man has run away with your missus, Betty,” he added argumentatively, “there’s such a many roads and by-roads round Compton, that it wouldn’t be over much good going after them…”

But Sarah at least has gone nowhere:

There was no sign of the foreign pedlar; and stretched upon the hearth in a dead swoon lay Mrs Sarah Pecker…

It takes some considerable time for Samuel and Betty to bring Sarah back to consciousness, and when they do, she seems literally a different person:

    Mrs Pecker revived very slowly; but when at last she did open her eyes, and saw the meek Samuel patiently awaiting her recovery, she burst into a sudden flood of tears, and flinging her stout arms about his neck, indifferent to the presence of either Betty or the carrier, cried out passionately,—
    “You’ve been a good husband to me, Samuel Pecker, and I haven’t been an indulgent wife to you; but folks are punished for their sins in this world as well as in the next, and I’ll try and make you more comfortable for the future; for I love you truly, my dear—indeed I do!”

And a quiet and submissive Sarah it is from this point onwards, one who goes out of her way to show her appreciation of her placid husband. She does not even react with anger when it is discovered that the pedlar robbed her of her ready cash, her watch and some silver spoons, though his haul was worth some ten or fifteen pounds. As for Samuel:

    The meek landlord of the Black Bear walked about as one in a strange but delicious dream. He had the key of his cellars in his own possession, and was allowed to drink such portions of his own liquors as he thought fit; and Samuel did not abuse the unwonted privilege, for he was naturally a sober man. He was no longer snubbed and humiliated before the face of his best customers. His tastes were consulted, his wishes were deferred to. Nice little dinners were prepared for him by Sarah’s own hands, and the same hands would even deign to mix for him a nightcap of steaming rum-punch, fragrant as the perfumed groves of Araby the blest. Mr Pecker was almost master in his own house. Sometimes this new state of things seemed well nigh too much for him. Once he went to his wife, and said to her, imploringly,—
    “Sarah, speak sharp to me, will you, please; for I feel as if I wasn’t quite right in my head…”

Some months roll away after this incident, and the narrative of The Captain Of The Vulture shifts to London, where the cousins, Ringwood and Darrell Markham, are following their very different paths. Darrell, having discovered that dissipation does nothing to make him forget Millicent, has knuckled down to his work instead, and has hopes of success as a political writer. Ringwood, meanwhile, having no personal qualities that might win him friends, is wasting his inheritance in an attempt to at least buy a few. He is beginning to taste desperation when he receives a most unexpected, and unwanted, call from his cousin. It is now eighteen months or more since George Duke was last heard of, but Darrell has only just learned of it. Like everyone in Compton, his immediate reaction is “good riddance”:

    “And what do you think of all this?” asked Ringwood.
    “What do I think? Why, that Captain George Duke, and his ship the Vulture, have met the fate that all who sail under false colours deserve. I know of those who can tell of a vessel, with the word ‘Vulture’ painted on her figurehead, that has been seen off the coast of Morocco, with the black flag flying at the fore, and a crew of Africans chained down in the hold. I know of those who can tell of a wicked traffic between the Moorish coast and the West India Islands, and who speak of places where the coming of George Duke is more dreaded than the yellow fever. Good heavens! can it be that this man has met his fate, and that Millicent is free?”

(After Braddon’s The Octoroon, we are not surprised to discover the specific nature of George Duke’s “privateering”.)

Ringwood cares nothing for his sister, and less than nothing for George Duke; but he is glad to be handed something to torment Darrell with. Curiously, he comes to the same conclusion as Millicent: that Duke is choosing to stay away as his form of torment.

The real purpose of Darrell’s call, however, is to press upon Ringwood his responsibility for Millicent, who in her husband’s absence has only the interest of the pittance secured to her upon her marriage to live on. Darrell also insists upon helping Millicent himself, although he adds that Ringwood must keep it a secret. Ringwood makes no protest to any of this, but on the verge of penury himself, he has neither the means nor the inclination to help his sister. If Darrell wants to give him money, though…

Ringwood is particularly eager for a new source of income, for he has recently made a new acquaintance before whom he is eager to cut a fashionable figure:

…he had appointed to meet a gay party at Ranelagh, the chief member of which was to be a certain West-country baronet, called Sir Lovel Mortimer, and better known in two or three taverns of rather doubtful reputation than in the houses of the aristocracy.

Ringwood is too much of a country-bumpkin to recognise certain giveaway flaws in Sir Lovel’s manners and diction: he thinks he’s hit the social jackpot, and is only too eager to accept an invitation to dine and gamble at his new friend’s lodgings; being positively honoured by the thought of losing money to a baronet.

When the door is opened by Sir Lovel’s servant, Ringwood gets a shock:

    …the speaker’s face illuminated by a feeble flicker.
    Sir Lovel Mortimer’s servant was drunk; his face was dirty; his wig pushed over his eyebrows, and singed by the candle in his hand; his cravat was twisted awry, and hung about his neck like a halter; his eyes were dim and watery from the effect of strong liquors; and it was with difficulty he kept himself erect by swaying slowly to and fro as he stood staring vacantly at his master and his master’s guests.
    But it was not the mere drunkenness of the man’s aspect which startled Ringwood Markham.
    Sir Lovel Mortimer’s servant was Captain George Duke!

Ringwood sends word of his sighting of Captain Duke to Darrell. He is out of town when the note is delivered, but as soon as he returns and reads the message, he forces his presence upon his cousin and demands an explanation of what seems to him a ridiculous lie. Though hungover, dull-witted at the best of times, and pretending to be gravely insulted by Darrell’s language as he is, Ringwood sticks to his guns—adding to his initial information just who Duke is working for; prompting Darrell in turn to tell what he knows of “the baronet”:

    “You mean to tell me, then,” he said ruefully, “that this Sir Lovel—”
    “Is no more Sir Lovel than you are,” answered Darrell: “all the fashionable breeding he can pretend to is what he has picked up on the king’s highway; and the only estate he will ever be master of in Devonshire or elsewhere will be enough stout timber to build him a gallows when his course comes to an abrupt termination. He is known to the knights of the road and the constables by the nickname of Captain Fanny, and there is little doubt the house in Chelsea to which he took you was a nest of highwaymen.”

And of course, Darrell’s mind goes back to the night he was attacked on Compton Moor—by, as he would still be prepared to swear, George Duke. He puts two-and-two together in startling fashion:

“The upshot of it is, that while we have thought George Duke was away upon the high seas, he has been hiding in London and going about the country robbing honest men. The ship Vulture is a fiction; and instead of being a merchant, a privateer, a pirate, or a slaver, George Duke is neither more nor less than a highway man and a thief.”

Except that the reader knows that there is a Vulture, at least…

Darrell succeeds in getting a warrant sworn out against Captain Fanny, but by the time Ringwood manages to pick out the correct house – having generally been rather tipsy when carried there by “Sir Lovel” – the occupants have fled. Darrell comes away with nothing more than the fact that the baronet called his servant by the name of Jeremiah.

Sir Lovel and his friends did not leave before emptying Ringwood’s pockets, however, and the young squire is forced to give up his efforts to cut a dash in London, and retreat to his ancestral halls. His experiences harden his heart: as his fortunes recover, Ringwood develops miserly tendencies, becoming tight-fisted and a hard landlord; he certainly has nothing to spare for his sister.

There is now a time-gap in the novel; and The Captain Of The Vulture resumes its narrative when George Duke has been missing almost a full seven years—long enough to be declared legally dead, and his widow, should she wish it, to legally remarry.

Ringwood’s niggardly tendencies have only grown, meanwhile: he acts as his own agent, so as not to have to pay one; and he distrusts his workers, so that he spends much time riding around his estate keeping an eye on them. On one of these rides, he catches a chill which, with his weak constitution, threatens his life. Like his late mother, Ringwood is consumptive…

Millicent moves back into her childhood home to nurse her brother, and her gentle unselfishness and obvious unhappiness evoke a glimmer of remorse in the self-centred Ringwood. Knowing himself dying, he is moved to apologise to Millicent for being such a bad brother, and for his part in forcing her into marriage. He also speaks to her of the estate which, neglected as it has been through his reluctance to spend money, will still bring her a good income—the bulk of their father’s money having been tied up in it, to keep Ringwood from wasting it (the late squire knew his son).

Ringwood also speaks to Millicent of George Duke—and insists upon writing a last letter, to be delivered to Darrell come the end of the following January, once the seven years have fully passed.

When Ringwood dies, the estate does indeed pass to Millicent: the manor house, its grounds, and its surrounding farmlands; as well as what is considered, in Compton, to be a tidy fortune. After her years of deprivation, in spite of the sorrowful event that brought it about her possession of so many solid blessings seems to Millicent almost too good to be true. There is, of course, just one drawback:

If he should come home! If, after all these years of fearful watching and waiting, these years of terror and suspense, in which she had trembled at the sound of every manly footstep, and shuddered at the sound of every voice which bore the faintest resemblance to that one voice which she dreaded to hear; if, after all, now that she had completely given him up—now that she was rich, and might perhaps by-and-by be happy—if, at this time of all others, the man who had been the scourge of her young life should return and claim her once more as his, to hold and to torture by the laws of God and man!

 

[To be continued…]

 

06/12/2019

The Mysteries Of London: Volume II (Part 2)


 
    Richard was now returning to his native shore—occupying in the world a far more exalted position than, in his wildest imaginings, he could ever have hoped to attain. He had left England as an obscure individual—a subordinate in a chivalrous expedition—under the authority of others:—he came back with a star upon his breast—having achieved for himself a renown which placed him amongst the greatest warriors of the age! Unmarked by title, unknown to fame, was he when he had bade adieu to the white cliffs of Albion a few months previously:—as the Regent of a country liberated by himself—as a Marquis who had acquired nobility by his own great deeds, did he now welcome his native clime once more.
    Tears of joy stood in his eyes—emotions of ineffable bliss arose in his bosom, as he thought of what he had been, and what he now was.
    But vanity was not the feeling thus gratified: at the same time, to assert that our hero was not proud of the glorious elevation which he had reached by his own merits, would be to deny him the possession of that laudable ambition which is an honour to those who entertain it. There is, however, a vast distinction between vanity and a proper pride: the former is a weakness—the latter the element of moral strength…

 
 
Katherine’s Wilmot’s acquittal of murder is not the end of her subplot; far from it. It is actually she to whom Reginald Tracy bequeaths his fortune, by way of recompense; and she becomes one of the increasing band of individuals both devoted to, and cared for by, Richard Markham. At length it turns out that her story and Richard’s are entwined, although we don’t find out how for sure until the second half of Volume II.

Jacob Smithers is the next to give us an interpolated narrative. Post-trial, Richard treats him with a courtesy he has not experienced for many years, even shaking his hand. This melts the previously hardened Smithers, and he offers up the story of how he was changed by cruel circumstance from a decent, warm-hearted young man into an enthusiastic public executioner. Most of this is beside the point (or beside our point), except as it leads into the even sadder history of Harriet Wilmot, whom Smithers loved and lost, and who turned up on his doorstep many years later to die in his poor rooms, leaving behind what Smithers took to be her illegitimate daughter. Smithers took the child in and raised her as his niece.

The one memento that Katherine has of her mother is a fragment of a letter the poor woman struggled to write on her deathbed:

    “Should my own gloomy presages prove true, and the warning of my medical attendant be well founded,—if, in a word, the hand of Death be already extended to snatch me away thus in the prime of life, while my darling child is * * * * and inform Mr Markham, whose abode is—”
    The words that originally stood in the place which we have marked with asterisks, had evidently been blotted out by the tears of the writer…

Katherine’s inheritance of a fortune makes her a mark, and it is not long before she is contacted by the old hag, who offers to sell her some letter which will reveal and confirm her true identity. Word of this situation comes to the ears of the Resurrection Man, who intrudes himself into the transaction, forcing the old hag to split with him. When she tries to double-cross him, he retaliates by imprisoning her in that same underground dungeon that previously held Viola Chichester and starving her into submission. To secure her release, the old hag writes out her knowledge of Harriet Wilmot’s history and her own part in it, which forms yet another interpolated narrative.

Very long story very short—it emerges that Harriet Wilmot contracted a secret marriage to the late Mr Markham, father of Richard and Eugene; that she became the object of the lust of the vile and dissolute Marquis of Holmesford; that she was abducted by him; and that, while she escaped virtue intact, the circumstances convinced Mr Markham of her infidelity, so that he spurned her: all this being brokered, in various ways, by the old hag (who wasn’t so old then, but was making a living the same way).

So Katherine is Richard’s half-sister, and eventually becomes part of the ever-increasing ménage of good characters who make their home at Markham Place.

Preceding this, however, are many lengthy passages involving the old hag and the Resurrection Man, plus a side-trip into the world of the Marquis of Holmesford which allows Reynolds to indulge both his readers’ prurience and his own hatred of the aristocracy.

We might dispense with the latter first. The Marquis is a man who has devoted his life to the indulgence of his lusts and pleasures, and now, though old and worn out, still keeps a literal harem in his London home and spends his nights carousing. When his health finally, fatally breaks down and his death is imminent, the Marquis escapes his doctors in order to fulfill a promise to himself:

    “Kathleen—dear Kathleen,” he murmured in a whisper that was scarcely audible; “give me the goblet!”
    Conquering her repugnance, the Irish girl, who possessed a kind and generous heart, reached a glass on the table near the sofa; and, raising the nobleman’s head, she placed the wine to his lips.
    With a last—last expiring effort, he took the glass in his own hand, and swallowed a few drops of its contents:—his eyes were lighted up again for a moment, and his cheek flushed; but his head fell back heavily upon the white bosom.
    Kathleen endeavoured to cry for aid—and could not: a sensation of fainting came over her—she closed her eyes—and a suffocating feeling in the throat almost choked her. But still the music continued and the dance went on, for several minutes more.
    All at once a shriek emanated from the lips of Kathleen: the music ceased—the dance was abandoned—and the Irish girl’s companions rushed towards the sofa.
    Their anticipations were realised: the Marquis was no more!
    The hope which he had so often expressed in his life-time, was fulfilled almost to the very letter;—for the old voluptuary had “died with his head pillowed on the naked, heaving bosom of beauty, and with a glass of sparkling champagne in his hand!”

A far less amusing passage in this section of Volume II involves an earlier phase of the old hag’s life, when she was earning her living—not as a brothel-keeper, exactly, but by renting rooms to those in need of them. She did supplemented her income by bringing in some girls of her own, though for the purposes of blackmail rather than pimping:

    In order to increase her resources, and occupy, as she said, “her leisure time,” she had hired or bought some half-dozen young girls, about ten or twelve years old;—hired or bought them, whichever the reader pleases, of their parents, a “consideration” having been given for each, and the said parents comforting themselves with the idea that their children were well provided for!
    These children of tender age were duly initiated by the old hag in all the arts and pursuits of prostitution. They were sent in pairs to parade Aldersgate Street, Fleet Street, and Cheapside; and their special instructions were to practise their allurements upon elderly men, whose tastes might be deemed more vitiated and eccentric than those of the younger loungers of the great thoroughfares where prostitution most thrives.
    A favourite scheme of the old woman’s was this:—One of her juvenile emissaries succeeded, we will suppose, in alluring to the den in Golden Lane an elderly man whose outward respectability denoted a well-filled purse, and ought to have been associated with better morals. When the wickedness was consummated, and the elderly gentleman was about to depart, the old hag would meet him and the young girl on the stairs, and, affecting to treat the latter as a stranger who had merely used her house as a common place of such resort, would seem stupefied at the idea “of so youthful a creature having been brought to her abode for such a purpose.” She would then question the girl concerning her age; and the reply would be “under twelve” of course. Thus the elderly voluptuary would suddenly find himself liable to punishment for a misdemeanour, for intriguing with a girl beneath the age of twelve; and the virtuous indignation of the old hag would be vented in assertions that though she kept a house of accommodation for grown-up persons, she abhorred the encouragement of juvenile profligacy. The result would be that the hoary old sinner found himself compelled to pay a considerable sum as hush-money…

(Highlighting the fact that in highly moral, sexless Victorian England, child prostitution was rife and – not coincidentally – the age of consent was twelve…)

But be all that as it may—the focus of this second post on Volume II of The Mysteries Of London will be the resolution of the central plots involving the brothers Richard and Eugene Markham who (IYCCYMBTF) separated in 1831, agreeing to pursue their individual fortunes, each by their own lights, and to meet again on the 10th July, 1843, to compare notes. Richard has not seen Eugene since; though he knows his brother is alive because, on the bark of one of the two ash-trees planted by the brothers, which overhang a bench on an eminence above Markham Place, Eugene has several times carved his name and a date.

Neither does the reader hear anything more directly about Eugene Markham; although (ahem) much of both volumes is devoted to the cynical, dishonest, self-centred career of one George Montague Greenwood, who by various devious means becomes a wealthy stock-manipulator, a Member of Parliament, and the friend and companion of the nobility; even as Richard Markham is being cheated out of his fortune, spending two years in jail after being framed for passing counterfeit bills, and fighting a bitterly hard struggle not only to support himself, but to assist his late father’s associate, Mr Monroe, and his daughter, Ellen—both victims, in their different ways, of Greenwood’s villainy.

George Reynolds was widely criticised for the direction of Volume I of The Mysteries Of London, which finds good people in misery and bad people flourishing like green bay trees. He understandably concluded it with what amounts to a literary eye-roll – Yeah, yeah: stick around – and of course devotes Volume II to rewarding his good people and punishing the bad—both to extremes.

We’ve seen already Reynolds’ tendency to reward his good characters, not with the usual middle-class aims of a comfortable fortune and domestic happiness, but via absurdly over-the-top wish-fulfillment fantasies; and as Richard is his hero, he gets the wish-fulfillment fantasy to end all wish-fulfillment fantasies.

So. IYCCYMBTF, Richard is in love with Isabella, the daughter of an exiled aristocrat from Castelcicala, Count Alteroni. Eventually he discovers, much to his dismay, the the Count is actually Prince Alberto, nephew and heir to the Grand Duke Angelo of Castelcicala, and that Isabella is therefore second in line for the throne.

The Grand Duke is an old conservative tyrant, of whom Alberto fell foul when he espoused a push for constitutional reform. The demand for reform has nevertheless continued to grow; and to this Angelo retaliates by imposing press censorship, forbidding public assembly, instituting martial law, and threatening to invite in an Austrian army of occupation. Various high-ranking army officers have been expelled from the country; other reformists have fled voluntarily: so many, that the nucleus of a powerful revolutionary force is gathering in London. However, Prince Alberto declines to have anything to do with the plot in spite of his liberal beliefs, since he personally will be the main beneficiary of Angelo’s overthrow, and he will not pursue what therefore amounts to civil war for personal gain.

The leaders of the revolutionary force are the much-admired General Grachia and Colonel Morosino, who have some two thousand devoted refugees of which to form an army, but require money and contacts to secure the necessary supplies. Richard is invited to join the conspiracy—initially as an advisor and go-between, to make the necessary arrangements in the even-more necessary secrecy. He accepts this position but, not being a man to do anything half-heartedly, and with thoughts of proving himself worthy of Isabella in the back of his mind, he aligns himself with the revolutionary cause and joins the growing rebel army.

Self-evidently, this major subplot of The Mysteries Of London is utterly absurd—with the untrained, inexperienced Richard suddenly emerging as an immaculate soldier, a brilliant military strategist, and an inspiring leader of men.

BUT—in parallel with Richard’s unlikely rise to power, George Reynolds does something entirely unexpected: he creates a genuinely morally complex situation.

IYCCYMBTF, in Volume I Eliza Sydney and her friend, Diana Arlington, both having been victimised by George Montague Greenwood, retaliated by planting a mole in Greenwood’s household, with a view to heading off and preventing other villainy. It was Filippo who rescued Ellen Monroe when Greenwood abducted her, and it was he who later helped Ellen rescue Richard from a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man.

Filippo is another Castelcicalan refugee in London…but his loyalty is to Eliza, and hers – in spite of her sympathy with the push for liberal reform – is to her husband, the Grand Duke. Filippo is therefore again deployed as a mole, this time within the rebel ranks; and this means that when the “secret” rebel army arrives in Castelcicala, the forces of the Grand Duke are ready and waiting for them…

George Reynolds’ handling of this material is genuinely clever here, albeit also sneaky and rather cruel. This first battle kills off all of the high-ranking rebel officers, including General Grachia and Colonel Morosini—meaning that when (inevitably) the rebels do eventually triumph, only Richard is in charge, and only Richard is there to reap all the rewards.

Meanwhile, the narrative skips with suspicious lightness past the fact that it is Eliza Sydney – effectively this volume’s heroine, as I have said – who is chiefly responsible for the slaughter of so many good men. Presumably we’re supposed to forgive this on the grounds that it makes everything work out for Richard.

Richard himself is captured rather than killed in this first disastrous conflict, and is about to be hanged as a mercenary – not even afforded the dignity of being shot as an enemy combatant – when as a last request, he asks the young officer in charge of his execution to deliver a message for him. The mention of his name has an electrifying effect, and almost before he knows it, Richard has not only been reprieved, but is being smuggled to the capital and right into the palace in Montoni, where he confronts his fellow former-jailbird, the Grand Duchess Eliza.

We then learn that Filippo’s price for spying was that nothing should happen to Richard Markham: a price to which Eliza agreed, though this meant defying and deceiving her husband. She arranges false documentation for Richard, advising him not to attempt to flee the country in the obvious way, at the nearest border, but to pose as a tourist and walk out casually in the opposite direction.

(Again to jump the gun, this bit of conspiracy outweighs everything else Eliza has done for her husband; and when Angelo finds out about it, Eliza herself is forced to flee, which she does in company with the same young officer, Major Bazzano. The two of them, as we have already seen in Eliza’s case, end up in England.)

But Richard, as it turns out, does not leave Castelcicala. After various adventures and misadventures, he meets up with the remnants of the rebel army and begins to rebuild it, his forces swelling as Angelo follows through on his threat to bring in the Austrians, which makes outright rebels out of the previously merely disgruntled.

The first act of the new force is to storm the military prison in the city of Estella, where the prisoners captured after the first battle are being held. The town itself is in sympathy with the rebel cause, and receives the army with acclaim. It is consequently here that Richard receives the first of an ever-increasing shower of honours, being made general-in-chief of the “Constitutionalists” (as they now call themselves). One more battle, one more honour—as duly reported in the English newspapers:

    A few days after the arrival of the intelligence of the decisive victory of Abrantani, the newspapers acquainted the illustrious Italian family with the fact that the Committee of Government at Montoni had bestowed the title of Marquis of Estella upon the youthful Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of Castelcicala.
    Oh! with what joyous feelings—with what ineffable emotions of enthusiasm, did the charming Isabella read aloud to her parents that account of her lover’s elevation,—an elevation which, as he himself had felt convinced, must remove one grand obstacle that had hitherto existed in the way of their happiness.
    And how did her young heart beat and her bosom heave, when her father exclaimed, in an emphatic tone, “Yes—Richard is now a Marquis, and may take his rank amongst the proudest peers in the universe;—but there is a higher grade which he yet may reach…”

But even while the Constitutionalists are winning a series of brilliant victories, Montoni is under siege by the Austrian army and in perilous condition. Richard must lead his army against the occupying forces in a final, desperate battle…

    Presently a servant entered, and presented the morning paper to the Prince. Alberto opened it with a trembling hand: his wife and daughter watched him attentively. Suddenly he started—his eyes were lighted up with their wonted fires—a flush appeared on his pale cheek—and he exclaimed in a fervent tone, “O God! I thank thee!”
    He could say no more: his emotions nearly overpowered him, weakened as he was by a long illness.
    Isabella caught the paper as it was falling from his hands. One glance was sufficient: it told her all! For there—conspicuously displayed at the head of a column—was the following glorious announcement:—
    “CASTELCICALA. TOTAL DEFEAT OF THE AUSTRIANS—DELIVERANCE OF MONTONI.
    “The French Government have received the following Telegraphic Despatch from Toulon:—
    “‘The Castelcicalan steamer ‘Torione’ has just arrived. The Austrians were completely routed on the 23rd. Montoni is delivered. The Grand Duke has fled. The Marquis of Estella entered the capital at three o’clock on the 24th. He has been appointed Regent until the arrival of Alberto I. The ‘Torione’ left while the cannon were saluting the presence of the Marquis.'”
    “Let me be the first to congratulate your Serene Highness on this glorious result!” exclaimed Isabella, falling at the feet of her father, and pressing his hand to her lips.
    “No—not on your knees, dearest Isabel!” cried Alberto, now Grand Duke of Castelcicala: “but come to my arms, sweet girl—and you also, beloved companion of my banishment,” he added, turning towards his wife, who was nearly overcome by these sudden tidings of joy:—“come to my arms—for we are no longer exiles—we shall once more behold our native land!”

Richard – sorry, I mean, the Marquis of Estella – travels triumphantly back to England, where he cedes his own power as Regent and bestows upon Alberto all of the honours and privileges of his Grand Duchy.

And Angelo, in turn, has more honours up his sleeve for Richard:

Then the Grand-Duke took his daughter’s hand, and said, “Isabella, our duty towards our native land requires that your mother and myself should return thither with the least possible delay. But before we depart, we must ensure the happiness of you, beloved child, and of him who is in every way worthy of your affections. Thus an imperious necessity demands that the ceremony of your union should be speedily accomplished. I have fixed the day after to-morrow for your bridal:—but you, dearest Isabella, will remain in England with your noble husband. He himself will explain to you—even if he has not already done so—the motives of this arrangement. May God bless you, my beloved children! And, oh!” continued the Grand-Duke, drawing himself up to his full height, while a glow of honourable pride animated his countenance, “if there be one cause rather than another which makes me rejoice in my sovereign rank, it is that I am enabled to place this excellent young man in a position so exalted—on an eminence so lofty—that none acquainted with his former history shall ever think of associating his name with the misfortunes that are past! And that he may give even a title to his bride and accompany her to the altar with that proper independence which should belong to the character of the husband, it is my will to create him PRINCE OF MONTONI; and here is the decree which I have already prepared to that effect, and to which I have affixed my royal seal.”

Thus is virtue rewarded in the world of George Reynolds.

And of course—the reason why Richard – sorry, I mean, the Prince of Montoni – can’t leave England with his in-laws is that he still has hopes of making contact with his long-lost brother, Eugene. He promises the Grand Duke Alberto that he and Isabella will leave England for Castecicala once the momentous date of the 10th July, 1843 – and whatever it brings – has passed…

But before we trace the history of Eugene Markham, we first need to dispose of the Resurrection Man, who is the third-most important character in The Mysteries Of London. He and Richard dog each other all over the city (at least until Richard turns soldier), with the Resurrection Man carrying out various criminal ventures while eluding the forces of good. As mentioned, he is involved in the plot against the infant Lord Ravensworth; does murder Lydia Hutchinson; and starves the old hag into submission to force her to give up what she knows about Katherine. He also manages to clean out a great many valuable items from Ravensworth Hall (once Adeline has withdrawn to the Continent), by posing as the ghost of Gilbert Vernon, who commits suicide after his plot against the baby fails.

Less successful are his stint as a “river pirate”, robbing the many trading-barges that crowd the Thames; and his attempt to steal the cargo of a grounded ship, left abandoned due to plague on board. In both of these ventures he is thwarted by Richard and Morris Benstead, but manages to slip away. His luck runs out when he tries to extort money from Katherine (at this point, he does not know that Richard has taken a hand in her business), and finally walks into a trap. He is imprisoned and jailed, but pulls off an impressive escape and vanishes into the depths of London, safe from pursuit.

So he thinks. The Resurrection Man is simultaneously being hunted by Crankey Jem who, after the failure of his first attempt upon his former partner’s life, devotes time and incredible patience to ensuring he doesn’t get away a second time.

Despite these failures, enough of the Resurrection Man’s enterprises have succeeded to allow him to accumulate an impressive swag of gold and jewels. He is all the more fixated upon his ill-gotten gains because his previous such accumulation was stolen from him by Margaret Flathers, his common-law wife, before she fled to take refuge with the gypsies. The Resurrection Man keeps his haul in a secret hiding-place under the floor of one of his secret dungeons in his secret London hideout…which as it turns out, aren’t so very secret. Forced by his growing paranoia to check obsessively on his stash, one night the Resurrection Man finds his worst fears justified: his gold has once again been stolen.

Driven to extremities, the Resurrection Man sees a way to both restore his fortunes and satisfy his desire for revenge:

    “You don’t mean to do what you was telling me just now?” said Banks, earnestly. “Depend upon it, he’ll prove too much for you.”
    “Not he!” exclaimed Tidkins. “I’ve a long—long score to settle up with him; and if he has neither seen nor heard of me for the last two years, it was only because I wanted to punish Crankey Jem first.”
    “And now that you can’t find that cussed indiwidual,” said Banks, “you mean to have a go in earnest against the Prince?”
    “I do,” answered Tidkins, with an abruptness which was in itself expressive of demoniac ferocity. ‘You come to me to-morrow morning; and see if I won’t invent some scheme that shall put Richard Markham in my power. I tell you what it is, Banks,” added the Resurrection Man, in a hoarse, hollow whisper, “I hate that fellow to a degree I cannot explain; and depend upon it, he shall gnash his teeth in one of the dark cells yonder before he’s a week older.”
    “And what good will that do you?” asked the undertaker.
    “What good!” repeated Tidkins, scornfully: then, after a short pause, he turned towards Banks, and said in a low voice, “We’ll make him pay an immense sum for his ransom—a sum that shall enrich us both, Ned: and then—”
    “And then?” murmured Banks, interrogatively.
    “And then—when I’ve got all I can from him,” replied Tidkins, “I’ll murder him!”

The Resurrection Man proceeds to prepare his house for the reception of his mortal enemy; one of his mortal enemies:

    The detestable monster gloated in anticipation upon the horrible revenge which he meditated; and as he now trod the damp pavement of the vaulted passage, he glanced first at the four doors on the right, then at the four doors on the left, as if he were undecided in which dungeon to immure his intended victim.
    At length he stopped before one of the doors, exclaiming, “Ah! this must be the cell! It’s the one, as I have been told, where so many maniacs dashed their brains out against the wall, when this place was used as an asylum—long before my time.”
    Thus musing, Tidkins entered the cell, holding the lantern high up so as to embrace at a glance all the gloomy horrors of its aspect.
    “Yes—yes!” he muttered to himself: “this is the one for Richard Markham! All that he has ever done to me shall soon be fearfully visited on his own head! Ah, ah! we shall see whether his high rank—his boasted virtues—his immense influence—and his glorious name can mitigate one pang of all the sufferings that he must here endure! Yes,” repeated Tidkins, a fiendish smile relaxing his stern countenance,—“this is the dungeon for Richard Markham!”
    “No—it is thine!” thundered a voice; and at the same moment the door of the cell closed violently upon the Resurrection Man….

It’s Crankey Jem, of course, whose patience has finally paid off; and now that it has, he isn’t about to mess around in dealing out his long-delayed vengeance:

    “The hour of vengeance is come at last!” exclaimed Crankey Jem, as he lighted the candle in a small lantern which he took from his pocket. “There shall you remain, Tidkins—to perish by starvation—to die by inches—to feel the approach of Death by means of such slow tortures that you will curse the day which saw your birth!”
    “Jem, do not say all that!” cried the Resurrection Man, from the interior of the dungeon. “You would not be so cruel? Let me out—and we will be friends.”
    “Never!” ejaculated Cuffin. “What! have I hunted after you—dogged you—watched you—then lost sight of you for two years—now found you out again—at length got you into my power—and all this for nothing?”
    “Well, Jem—I know that I used you badly,” said the Resurrection Man, in an imploring tone: “but forgive me—pray forgive me! Surely you were sufficiently avenged by plundering me of my treasure—my hoarded gold—my casket of jewels?”
    “Miserable wretch!” cried Crankey Jem, in a tone of deep disgust: “do not imagine that I took your gold and your jewels to enrich myself. No: had I been starving, I would not have purchased a morsel of bread by means of their aid! Two hours after I had become possessed of your treasure, I consigned it all—yes, all—gold and jewels—to the bed of the Thames!”
    “Then are you not sufficiently avenged?” demanded Tidkins, in a voice denoting how fiercely rage was struggling with despair in his breast.
    “Your death, amidst lingering tortures, will alone satisfy me!” returned Crankey Jem. “Monster that you are, you shall meet the fate which you had reserved for an excellent nobleman whose virtues are as numerous as your crimes!”

Meanwhile—as noted, the date for the long-anticipated reunion between Richard Markham and his brother, Eugene, is creeping ever-closer. Richard looks forward to this meeting with deep affection and eagerness…albeit his feelings are slightly tempered by a discovery that his brother somehow knows the Resurrection Man: a revelation that brings with it the terrible possibility that Eugene has strayed from the path of virtue in his pursuit of success:

    Richard reflected that if he himself were eventually prosperous, his success would be owing to fair and honourable means; and he sincerely hoped that his brother might be pursuing an equally harmless career. Such an idea, however, seemed to be contradicted by the mysterious note to the Resurrection Man. But our hero remembered that bad men often enjoyed immense success; and then he thought of Mr Greenwood—the man who had robbed him of his property, but whom, so far as he knew, he had never seen.
    That Greenwood was rising rapidly, Richard was well aware; the newspapers conveyed that information. So well had he played his cards, that a baronetcy, if not even a junior post in the administration, would be his the moment his party should come to power. All this Richard knew: the Tory journals were strenuous in their praise of Mr Greenwood, and lauded to the skies his devotion to the statesmen who were aspiring to office.
    Then the great wealth of Mr Greenwood had become proverbial: not a grand enterprise of the day could be started without his name. He was a director in no end of Railway Companies; a shareholder in all the principal Life Insurance Offices; a speculator in every kind of stock; chairman of several commercial associations; a ship-owner; a landowner; a subscriber to all charitable institutions which published a list of its supporters; President of a Bible Society which held periodical meetings at Exeter Hall; one of the stanchest friends to the Society for the Suppression of Vice; a great man at the parochial vestry; a patron of Sunday Schools; a part-proprietor of an influential newspaper; an advocate for the suppression of Sunday trading and Sunday travelling; a member of half a dozen clubs; a great favourite at Tattersall’s; a regular church-goer; a decided enemy to mendicity; an intimate friend of the Poor Law Commissioners; and an out-and-out foe to all Reform.
    All this Richard knew; for he took some interest in watching the career of a person who had risen from nothing to be so great a man as Mr Greenwood was. Then, while he reflected upon these facts, our hero was compelled to admit that his brother Eugene might appear, upon the appointed day, the emblem of infinite prosperity, and yet a being from whom the truly honest would shrink back with dismay…

But having climbed to the heights of financial and social success over the course of Volume I, via a series of unconscionable plots (including accidentally ruining Richard Markham), Volume II finds things going not quite so well for George Montague Greenwood. In some cases, his plots simply misfire, sometimes for reasons beyond his control—and sometimes because the people he has mistreated take the lessons they have learned from him and turn them back upon him.

They don’t do so at once, however; and he pockets a tidy fortune from the manipulation of stock in a fraudulent railway deal.

But this is the beginning of the end for Greenwood. He is playing around with stock manipulation in France and, in pursuit of an enormous coup, must transport twenty thousand pounds to that country. His plans become known to his French valet, Lafleur, who sees his opportunity. Hiring a band of cut-throats to assist him – including the Resurrection Man and his frequent collaborator, John Wicks, aka the Buffer – Lafleur arranges for his employer to be set upon and robbed on a lonely stretch of the road to Dover. (The Frenchman later succeeds in diddling his partners in crime and absconding with almost the entire haul.)

This catastrophe is the first in a series of rolling disasters for Greenwood, who has already invested money in his schemes that he now cannot bring to fruition; nor can he recover his investment. To keep himself afloat, he must somehow borrow a large sum of money and, to this end, he puts pressure on a Mr Tomlinson, a once-failed stock-broker who has recovered his position in the world—but only because his devoted colleague took the blame for certain financial depredations of which he, Tomlinson, was actually guilty…as Greenwood well knows. He also knows that Tomlinson is concealing the wanted if not guilty man from the law. He therefore has the means to blackmail Tomlinson into raising the money he needs.

Tomlinson still requires some security for the negotiated loan, which Greenwood coolly insists he shall have, in the form of bills held by him for loans made to various prominent men. In fact, no such bills exist; not yet: he calls upon a certain Mr Pennywhiffe…

    Returning to his seat, he handed the memorandum-book to Greenwood, saying, “There is my list of noblemen, wealthy gentlemen, and great mercantile firms, whose names are familiar to me. Choose which you will have; and make notes of the various sums the bills are to be drawn for. Let them be for the most part uneven ones, with fractions: it looks so much better.”
    While Greenwood was employed in examining the memorandum-book, which contained upwards of five hundred names of peers, and great landowners, in addition to those of the chief commercial firms of London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow, and other places,—besides several belonging to Paris, Lyons, Bordeaux, Havre, and Lille; Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Hamburgh; New York, the West Indian Islands, and Montreal; Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras;—while Mr Greenwood, we say, was examining this strange register, and copying several of the best names of noblemen, gentlemen, and merchants, upon a slip of paper, Mr Pennywhiffe opened his tin-case.
    The contents thereof were numerous paid checks, and bills of exchange, respectively bearing the signatures of the persons or firms whose names were entered in the memorandum-book…
    “I have chosen eleven names,” said Greenwood; “and have appended to them the various sums for which I require the bills to be drawn. The aggregate is twenty-three thousand two hundred and seventeen pounds, nine shillings, and sevenpence halfpenny.”
    “A good total, that,” observed Mr Pennywhiffe,—“an excellent total—sounds uncommon well.”

On this “security”, then, Greenwood intends for Mr Tomlinson to raise the money he needs—but when the moment comes, he discovers to his horror that he has lost the pocket-book containing the forged bills.

It’s been found, though: Ellen spots Greenwood while she is out one day, and then literally stumbles over it. She can’t catch up with Greenwood, but as soon as she gets the chance she calls at his house to return his property. She is there when Greenwood returns from his discovery of his loss—and when, in his distracted state, he speaks out loud of “forgery” and “ruin”…

Understanding the situation in a flash, Ellen pounces:

    “When our hands are joined at the altar, I will restore you the proofs of your crime; and God grant,” she added solemnly, “that this peril which you have incurred may serve as a warning to you against future risks of the same fearful kind.”
    “You have no faith in my word—you have no confidence in my written promise, Ellen,” cried Greenwood: “how, then, can you be anxious to have me as a husband?”
    “That my child may not grow up with the stain of illegitimacy upon him—that he may not learn to despise his mother,” answered Ellen, emphatically; “for he need never know the precise date of our union.”
    “But you know, Ellen,” again remonstrated Greenwood, “that there are circumstances which act as an insuperable barrier to this marriage. Could you tell your father that you have espoused the man who ruined him—ruined Richard,—and also admit, at the same time, that this man was the father of your child! Consider, Ellen—reflect—”
    “There is no need of consideration—no need of reflection,” interrupted Miss Monroe. “I care not about revealing the fact of my marriage for the present. In a few years—when our child can comprehend his true position,—then it would be necessary to declare myself a wife.”
    “But there is another difficulty, Ellen,” persisted Greenwood: “my name—”
    “Let us be wedded privately—in some suburban church, where you stand no chance of being recognised as George Montague Greenwood, and where your right name may be fearlessly inscribed upon the register.”
    “A woman who is determined to gain her point, annihilates all difficulties,” muttered Greenwood to himself.
    “How do you decide?” asked Ellen. “Remember that I am firm. I have these alternatives before me—either to obtain a father’s name for my child, or to avenge the wrongs of my own parent and myself. Consent to make me your wife, and the proofs of your crime shall be returned to you at the altar: refuse, and to-morrow morning I will prepare the way for vengeance.”

Greenwood capitulates—and Ellen keeps her word: setting up another of this story’s bizarre moral twists. It may not be on par with Eliza selling out the Constitutionalist army, but the fact remains that as soon as Ellen knows herself a wife, she does indeed hand over the forged documents to Greenwood, and lets him get on with his current plot; this despite the explicit evocation of her father’s ruin and Richard’s by Greenwood (and, consequently, her own different variety of “ruin”).

Equally bizarre, and more than a little exasperating, is that here marks one of the few times that George Reynolds is guilty of conventional morality in The Mysteries Of London, giving in to the contemporary insistence that a mother must love the father of her child, regardless of the circumstances of conception and his subsequent treatment of her—and we know what those were with respect to Ellen and Greenwood, right? (At least if YCCYMBTF.)

So far Reynolds has always had Ellen not hating Greenwood as she would be entitled to; from here, she continues to soften towards him and finally realises that she does in fact love him (!). Greenwood’s own change of feeling is more gradual and convincing: having always been attracted to Ellen (in the sense of first buying her virginity, and then abducting her), he first learns to admire her character when – unknown to the other two – he overhears the confrontation between her and Reginald Tracy at the masquerade, and later to appreciate the generosity of her conduct towards himself.

Anyway: after, ahem, “a twenty-four hour honeymoon”, the two go their separate ways.

Meanwhile—we learn that the same information with which Greenwood has been blackmailing Tomlinson is also in the hands of the Resurrection Man, who puts it to similar use. Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, Mr Tomlinson – who has Greenwood’s loan in his possession – comes to a desperate resolution:

“I am wearied of London,—wearied of this city where all hearts seem to be eaten up with selfishness,—wearied of supporting the weight of that secret which the merest accident may reveal, and which places me at the mercy of that ferocious extortioner! Oh! if that secret were discovered—if it were ascertained that Michael Martin was really in London,—he would be dragged before the tribunals—and I must either appear against him as a witness, or proclaim his innocence and thereby sacrifice myself! No—no—I could not do either:—never—never! I know that I am weak—vacillating—timid! But God also knows how unwillingly I have departed from the ways of rectitude—how many bitter tears have marked the paths of my duplicity! And now I will be firm—yes, firm to commit one last crime! Oh! I will prove myself a worthy pupil of my great master Greenwood! He shall be amply repaid,” continued the stock-broker, bitterly, “for all the kind lessons he has given me in the school of dishonour—yes, and repaid, too, in his own coin. Seven thousand pounds—added to my own little stock,—this will be a sufficient fund wherewith to begin an honourable avocation in another clime. Yes—America is the country for me! There I can begin the world again as a new man—and perhaps I may retrieve myself even in my own estimation!”

In the wake of this, Greenwood turns to Ellen for comfort—though ashamed of the “weakness” that prompts this act. They meet on the bench under the ash-trees, on the night after the wedding of the Prince of Montoni to the Princess Isabella:

    “You are a good girl, Ellen,” said Greenwood, upon whose lash a tear stood: but he hastily dashed it away, exclaiming, “This is unlike me! What can be the cause of these emotions—hitherto unknown? Is it that I am envious of his happiness? Is it that I pine for that sweet domesticity which he will now enjoy? Or is it that I am wearied of a world false and hollow-hearted?”
    “Alas!” cried Ellen, the tears streaming from her eyes: “is the world really false and hollow-hearted? or have you sought only that sphere which wears the appearance that you deplore? Look yonder,” she continued, pointing towards the mansion; “no falsehood—no hollow-heartedness are there! And why? Because he who rules in that abode has encouraged every sweet sympathy that renders life agreeable—every amenity which inspires confidence and mutual reliance between a number of persons dwelling together. The sphere that he has chosen is purified by his own virtues: the light of his excellence is reflected from the hearts of all around him. All are good, or strive to be good in his circle—because he himself is good. Where you have moved—ever agitating amidst the selfish crowd, as in troubled waters—none are good, because no one sets a good example. Every thing in your world is SELF: in Richard’s world he sacrifices SELF unto others. Hence his prosperity—his happiness—”
    “And hence my adversity—my dissatisfied spirit!” exclaimed Greenwood, impatiently. “But talk not thus, Ellen, any more: you will drive me mad!”

Despite these moments of better feeling, Greenwood ends up trying to blackmail Gilbert Vernon over his presence in England, when he was supposedly thousands of miles away from his dying brother, Lord Ravensworth. Vernon promises Greenwood a fat pay-out once he inherits the family title and estate, but his suicide leaves Greenwood hanging once again.

The downward spiral continues, and strips Greenwood of everything he had accumulated by fair means and foul (okay, just foul). He loses his fortune, his seat in Parliament, and his mansion. In desperation, he applies to each of his high-society and business “friends”—every one of whom rejects his plea for financial assistance with the same air of contemptuous disinterest that has always marked Greenwood’s own proceedings. He ends up in such straits, the landlady of his poor lodgings locks her door against him, because he hasn’t paid the rent. And while he is grappling with being both homeless and destitute, Greenwood is struck by a carriage and ends up in hospital with a broken leg.

Here Ellen comes into her own—hiring a house where he can recover, while she cares for him. She also manages to convince him that it isn’t a question of success or failure, or even of forgiveness: that Richard just wants his brother back; and he must absolutely keep that long-standing appointment.

And so, after twelve years (and almost 2,300 pages), the fateful day dawns:

    Accordingly, at nine o’clock on the morning of the 10th of July, 1843, the Prince repaired to the eminence on which he hoped—oh! how fondly hoped—full soon to welcome the long-lost Eugene.
    His seven companions were the Princess Isabella, Ellen, Mr Monroe, Katherine, Mario Bazzano, Eliza Sydney, and the faithful Whittingham.
    Richard could not conceal a certain nervous suspense under which he laboured; for although he felt assured of Eugene’s appearance, yet so long a period had elapsed since they had parted, and so many vicissitudes might have occurred during the interval, that he trembled lest the meeting should be characterised by circumstances which would give his brother pain…
    In a few minutes Greenwood reached a point where the road took a sudden turn to the right, thus running round all one side of the base of the eminence, and passing by the mansion itself.
    There he paused again;—for although the party assembled on the hill were plainly perceived by him, he was yet unseen by them—a hedge concealing him from their view.
    “Oh! is the dread ordeal so near at hand?” he exclaimed, with a temporary revival of bitterness of spirit. “Scarcely separated from him by a distance of two hundred yards—a distance so soon cleared—and yet—and yet—“

But as Greenwood steels himself, a post-chaise comes dashing along the road. For a moment it looks as if he is to be struck down yet again—but then the chaise crashes. Greenwood hurries forward to help the passengers—and finds himself face to face with—Lafleur!

But his former valet again gets the better of him, striking him down with terrible – indeed, fatal – violence, before escaping.

Greenwood begs the postillions to carry him up the hill—and at long last, the Markham brothers are reunited:

    Richard sprang forward: a few steps brought him close by the litter, which the bearers now placed upon the ground beneath the foliage of the very tree whereon the inscriptions were engraved!
    One look—one look was sufficient!
    “Eugene—my brother Eugene!” exclaimed our hero, in a tone of the most intense anguish, as he cast himself on his knees by the side of the litter, and threw his arms around the dying man. “Oh! my God—is it thus that we meet? You are wounded, my dearest brother: but we will save you—we will save you! Hasten for a surgeon—delay not a moment—it is the life of my brother which is at stake!”
    “Your brother, Richard!” cried Isabella, scarcely knowing what she said in that moment of intense excitement and profound astonishment: “your brother, my beloved husband? Oh! no—there is some dreadful mistake—for he whom you thus embraced is Mr George Montague Greenwood!”
    “Montague—Greenwood!” ejaculated Richard, starting as if an ice-bolt had suddenly entered his heart. “No—no—impossible, Isabella! Tell me—Eugene—tell me—you cannot be he of whom I have heard so much?”
    “Yes, Richard—I am that villain!” answered Eugene, turning his dying countenance in an imploring manner towards his brother. “But do not desert me—do not spurn me—do not even upbraid me now!”
    “Never—never!” cried the Prince, again embracing Eugene with passionate—almost frantic warmth. “Upbraid you, my dearest brother! Oh! no—no! Forget the past, Eugene—let it be buried in oblivion…”

George Reynolds concludes The Mysteries Of London by informing us of the fates of all the other characters; dishing out rewards and punishments with a liberal hand. There are a few surprises here—including that we leave the former Grand Duchess of Castelcicala (who is much more prominent in this volume than this summary makes it appear) living in single, or rather widowed, blessedness, back in her old villa where she impersonated her own brother. Most surprising of all, though, is that Crankey Jem – who, not to mince matters, tortures the Resurrection Man to death – is allowed to just slip quietly out of the narrative.

But of course, George Reynolds reserves his final word for himself:

     ‘Tis done: Virtue is rewarded—Vice has received its punishment.
     Said we not, in the very opening of this work, that from London branched off two roads, leading to two points totally distinct the one from the other?
     Have we not shown how the one winds its tortuous way through all the noisome dens of crime, chicanery, dissipation, and voluptuousness; and how the other meanders amidst rugged rocks and wearisome acclivities, but having on its way-side the resting-places of rectitude and virtue?
     The youths who set out along those roads,—the elder pursuing the former path, the younger the latter,—have fulfilled the destinies to which their separate ways conducted them.
     The one sleeps in an early grave: the other is the heir-apparent to a throne…
     If, then, the preceding pages be calculated to engender one useful thought—awaken one beneficial sentiment,—the work is not without its value.
     If there be any merit in honesty of purpose and integrity of aim,—then is that merit ours.
     And if, in addition to considerations of this nature, we may presume that so long as we are enabled to afford entertainment, our labours will be rewarded by the approval of the immense audience to whom we address ourselves,—we may with confidence invite attention to a Second Series of “The Mysteries of London.”

And—he kept his promise / threat.

May God have mercy on us all…

 

 

See also:
The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 1)
The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 2)
The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 3)
The Mysteries Of London: Volume II (Part 1)

 

05/12/2019

The Mysteries Of London: Volume II (Part 1)


 
    The dwellers in the country, and even the inhabitants of the great provincial cities and manufacturing towns, can form no just estimate of the wondrous features of the sovereign metropolis by the local scenes with which they are familiar.
    Who can judge of the splendour of the West End of London by even the most fashionable quarters of Edinburgh or Dublin?
    Who can conceive the amount of revolting squalor and hideous penury existing in the poor districts of London, by a knowledge of the worst portions of Liverpool or Manchester? Who can form a conjecture of the dreadful immorality and shocking vice…?
    No:—for all that is most gorgeous and beautiful, as well as all that is most filty and revolting,—all that is best of talent, or most degraded of ignorance,—all that is most admirable for virtue, or most detestable for crime,—all that is most refined in elegance, or most strange in barbarism,—all, all these wondrous phases are to be found, greatest in glory, or lowest in infamy, in the imperial city of the British Isles!
    And shall we be charged with vanity, if we declare that never until now has the veil been so rudely torn aside, nor the corruptions of London so boldly laid bare?

 

 

Ah-hmm.

Sorry.

In my own defence, my failure to update isn’t just about my slackness and disorganisation: it’s also because I spent so long tearing my hair over how to address the second volume of George Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London, I ended up forgetting the specifics of what I wanted (somehow) to say and had to read it over again; all 1,146 pages of it.

But I think I can now see a way of tackling it, and hopefully within the confines of two posts (one ain’t gunna cut it).

Further in my defence, part of the problem is the nature of Volume II. There’s more of a sense of strain here, of Reynolds seeking ways to fill his pages and stretch his story out to the full 52 weekly parts. Thus, while this volume does finally resolve its central, anti-parallel plots involving Richard Markham and George Montague Greenwood, both of its main characters are off-stage for significant sections of the novel, while much time is spent on subplots that don’t have much to do with the central narrative, and (even more of a giveaway) on interpolated narratives. There are also rather too many songs from our criminal characters, all supplemented with lengthy glossaries of thieves’ cant.

The best that Reynolds can do to link up the increasingly disparate threads of his story is to write into most of them the sinister figure of Anthony Tidkins, aka “the Resurrection Man”, who – surprise! – did not in fact die at the end of Volume I in spite of the best efforts of his mortal enemy, James Cuffin, aka “Crankey Jem”. Other characters pop in and out as required, but not always in a convincing manner.

That last paragraph highlights an attendant problem of dealing with Volume II of The Mysteries Of London: trying to remember what happened in Volume I, and who everyone is.

Consequently I’ve coined an acronym – IYCCYMBTF – “If You Can Cast Your Minds Back That Far” – to indicate material that was touched upon in my previous posts, should any of you find it necessary to go back for a refresher.

So—to try and convey some sense of Volume II in something approaching a coherent manner, I’m going to devote this first post to the material surrounding the main plots, some of which resolves threads left hanging at the end of Volume I, and some of which introduces new characters (because we just didn’t have enough already).

Most divorced from the main plot(s) of Volume II of The Mysteries Of London is the interpolated narrative of Major Anderson, a former army officer who has ruined his life with compulsive gambling. Rescued from destitution by Richard Markham, the Major gives a circumstantial account of his fall from grace and the miseries suffered by his wife and children (who have all died of deprivation). The anti-gambling subplot is commonplace in 18th and 19th century literature, chiefly because what happens to the Andersons here very often did happen; although it is more common to find this sort of thing in novels by women, usually from the perspective of the gambler’s suffering dependents. The only two really interesting points in this material, both of which will echo throughout this volume’s other plots, are that Reynolds takes it for granted that (i) doing someone a favour will in most cases end in resentment and enmity; and (ii) a desire for revenge is a pretty normal human response to an injury. Only Reynolds’ “immaculate” characters like Richard Markham escape these two taints.

Certainly these assumptions reappear in the subplot concerning the increasingly vicious rivalry between Lydia Hutchinson and Adeline Enfield (later Lady Ravensworth). Lydia is introduced on the cold streets of London, crying out to her former friend as she is helped into her luxurious carriage by her much older husband. The Ravensworths shun the poor, wretched, shivering woman, however, who is knocked down by their carriage as they drive away, and injured. Hurriedly, Adeline explains to her husband that the woman was once – she vaguely remembers – one of her teachers; but as it is obvious what she is now, they needn’t soil their hands by having anything to do with her.

Lydia is rescued by Viola Chichester, the estranged wife of Arthur Chichester who (IYCCYMBTF) was one of those responsible for landing Richard Markham in prison for passing counterfeit notes. Viola’s own sufferings we did not touch upon in detail, however she was imprisoned by the Resurrection Man in an underground dungeon in one of his London bolt-holes until she signed her fortune over to her husband (that being what he had, after all, married her for). Her experiences have made Viola sympathetic to others in trouble and now she goes out of her way to assist and redeem people like Lydia, who she takes in, cares for, and helps to start a new life.

Lydia gives us another of the novel’s lengthy interpolated narratives, this one also a bit too familiar in most respects to be interesting, as we hear how the daughter of a poor but honest curate ends up walking the streets of London. Here, however, Reynolds is more on his game—so the familiar material is periodically broken up with scenes like this:

“I locked the door cautiously, and returned to the bed-side. And there—in a miserable garret, and in the depth of a cold winter’s night,—with a nipping frost upon the window, and the bright moon high in the heavens,—there, attended only by myself, did the delicately nurtured Adeline Enfield give birth to a male child. But the little infant’s eyes never opened even for a moment upon this world: it was born dead!”

The exigency of their circumstances forces Lydia to hide the dead baby in her trunk until the girls can figure out what to do with it. Unfortunately, this act coincides with the discovery downstairs that several silver spoons have been stolen, which prompts a school-wide search of the property of those suspected—i.e. the servants and the junior teachers. The searchers get rather more than they bargained for when they force their way into Lydia’s tiny garret: no spoons, but…

“And now the school-mistress approached my trunk: she raised the lid—I leant against the wall for support. My clothes were tumbled out on the floor: at the bottom of the box was a small bundle, wrapped round with linen articles. The school-mistress drew it forth—a terrific scream escaped my lips—the corpse of the infant rolled upon the floor!”

Mrs Lambkin turns out to be more worried about the reputation of her school than anything else (even her spoons). She therefore encourages Lydia to, um, get some exercise:

“When the house was quiet, I put on my bonnet and cloak, concealing beneath the latter the corpse of Miss Enfield’s child. I then slipped out by the back way, and striking into the bye-lanes leading towards Brompton, at length reached a pond, into which a muddy ditch emptied itself. The moon was bright, and thus enabled me to discover a spot fitted for my purpose. I placed two or three large stones in the bundle containing the body of the child: then I threw the whole into the pond. The dark water splashed and gurgled; and in a few moments all was still once more…”

(There is no suggestion in the narrative that Lydia has done anything particularly untoward here—and of course the fact is that, in addition to a naturally appallingly high infant mortality rate, it was common practice at this time for unwanted babies simply to be left on the streets to die of exposure; another of those little details of Victorian life that didn’t make it into mainstream literature.)

Adeline starts out full of passionate protestations of lifetime friendship for Lydia, but the very fact that Lydia (i) knows her secret, and (ii) succeeded in keeping it eventually finds Adeline doing her best to shake the dirt of the incident off her skirts—which involves declining to have anything more to do with her erstwhile BFF. And as the unsuspected Miss Enfield makes a spectacular marriage, Lydia falls further and further, becoming first a mistress, then a brothel-inhabitant, then a street-walker. Along the way, her curate-father dies of a broken heart and her brother gets shot dead after challenging Lydia’s seducer (or more accurately, rapist, since she was drugged first) to a duel.

Eventually, assisted by Viola Chichester, Lydia secures a position as maid to the newly-married Lady Bounce; but she is delayed on her journey to join her new mistress, who therefore departs on her honeymoon with the maid of her aunt-by-marriage instead: the latter agreeing to accept the services of the newcomer while her real mistress is away:

    “One moment, William. Did this young woman mention her name—for as yet I am really ignorant of it?”
    “Yes, my lady,” answered the domestic: “her name is Lydia Hutchinson.”
    And the servant withdrew.
    “Lydia Hutchinson!” murmured Lady Ravensworth, turning deadly pale, and tottering to a seat…

Lydia at first assumes that Adeline has hired her as a form of expiation for her previous neglect and cruelty and is more than willing to forgive and forget. When Adeline impulsively spurns her, however, Lydia reacts with violent rage and contempt, throwing their mutual secrets in the other’s face. Adeline is at first cowed, but becomes scornful and defiant as she considers that any attempt by Lydia to punish her will come down to the word of a noblewoman against that of a former prostitute:

    “Enough!” cried Adeline, now almost purple with rage, and every vein on her forehead swollen almost to bursting. “I accept your challenge—for I well know that I can rely upon the honour of Lord Dunstable and Colonel Cholmondeley. Yes—yes: they would sooner perjure themselves than attaint the honour of a peeress!”
    “There is one other consideration, then,” said Lydia, still completely unruffled: “and perhaps the ingenuity of your ladyship will devise a means of frustrating that test also.”
    “To what do you allude?” demanded Adeline.
    “I mean that when you summon your domestics to drag me to gaol on a charge of extortion,” replied Lydia, contemptuously, “that moment do I proclaim the history of the past! Then will medical expertise speedily prove whether Lady Ravensworth now bears her first child in her bosom!”

The scene between the two women is partly overheard by Lord Ravensworth who, already in poor health, is almost overcome by learning of his wife’s early transgressions. Bent now on revenge, Lydia insists on remaining in the Ravensworth household, a permanent thorn in Adeline’s side. Her plan is to stay a year, at the end of which time she will depart with a glowing reference that will secure her whatever other position she desires. In the meantime, though in public she will perform her functions as Adeline’s maidservant, behind close doors it will be Adeline who is the menial; Adeline who will wait upon Lydia…

Reynolds’ handling of this material is peculiar. He does not merely treat Lydia’s desire for revenge as a natural response (as touched upon above), but finds a general warning in her worm-turns behaviour which he swiftly extrapolates into a State Of The Nation speech:

    Yes! Most solemnly do I proclaim to you, O suffering millions of these islands, that ye shall not always languish beneath the yoke of your oppressors! Individually ye shall each see the day when your tyrant shall crouch at your feet; and as a mass ye shall triumph over that proud oligarchy which now grinds you into the dust!
    That day—that great day cannot be far distant; and then ye shall rise—not to wreak a savage vengeance on those who have so long coerced you, but to prove to them that ye know how to exercise a mercy which they never manifested towards you;—ye shall rise, not to convulse the State with a disastrous civil war, nor to hurry the nation on to the deplorable catastrophe of social anarchy, confusion and bloodshed;—but ye shall rise to vindicate usurped rights, and to recover delegated and misused power, that ye may triumphantly assert the aristocracy of mind, and the aristocracy of virtue!

While we may not consider this subplot the best vehicle for Reynolds’ social theories, this passage underscores that despite what his enemies said of him, he was a radical but no revolutionary. He even goes on to illustrate the dangers of “savage vengeance” bereft of “mercy” by having Lydia go too far in her tormenting and humiliation of Adeline, who responds with what Reynolds also treats as a natural desire for revenge—even when it takes the form of Adeline hiring a hitman.

Escaping into the grounds one evening, Adeline overhears a strange conversation between two men. The point of it (to which we will return) is lost upon her, but she quickly grasps that one of the two is a criminal for hire with no scruples about his work, as long as he is well-paid. When the second man drops the first’s scribbled address, Adeline seizes the opportunity. Taking every precaution to disguise her identity and the scene of the proposed crime, she organises for the professional criminal – who is of course the Resurrection Man – to take care of her little problem:

“My enemy is certain to come hither shortly,” whispered Adeline: “it may be directly—or it may be in an hour;—still she is sure to come. I shall conceal you behind a curtain—in case the wrong person might happen to enter the room by accident. But when any one comes in, and you hear me close the door and say ‘WRETCH!” rush upon her—seize her by the throat—and strangle her. Are you strong enough to do this?—for no blood must be shed.”

In one of the most shocking passages in The Mysteries Of London, the murder of Lydia Hutchinson occurs as planned. The Resurrection Man then – oh, irony! – disposes of her body by weighting it down in a pond, staging the scene to make it look as if she has robbed Adeline of her jewel casket and fled.

Adeline manages the dark – literally dark – business so cleverly that, at the time, the Resurrection Man does not discover her identity or that of his victim; nor does she know what he looks like. He comes later to that knowledge, as part of the plot overheard and misunderstood by Adeline—which was nothing less than the murder of Lord Ravensworth by his younger brother, Gilbert Vernon, and the subsequent murder of Adeline’s baby, should it prove to be a boy…and it does.

Lord Ravensworth is disposed of without the Resurrection Man’s intervention, via poisoned tobacco sent as a gift from Vernon who is supposedly in the Middle East. Vernon “comes home” upon his brother’s death, feigning grief, infiltrating the household, and waiting for the right time to dispose of his nephew with the connivance of his “valet”…

But Reynolds has no intention of letting wicked aristocracy flourish to that extent; and the plot against the infant lord is thwarted by the separate but determined efforts of Morcar the gypsy and Eliza Sydney, aka the Grand Duchess Eliza of Castelcicala.

(And what is the Grand Duchess doing back in England? We’ll get to that in Part 2.)

The third interpolated narrative in The Mysteries Of London gives us the life-history of Crankey Jem—who (IYCCYMBTF) almost stabbed the Resurrection Man to death at the end of Volume I. Later learning that he has failed, Jem devotes himself to tracking down and finishing off his mortal enemy, a business which unfolds over several years (and almost the entirety of Volume II). IYCCYMBTF, Jem was once convicted and transported on the testimony of his one-time partner in crime, who got off in exchange for his testimony. Reynolds – whose disgust with a legal system that punishes without any intention of, or room for, reformation we have seen many times before (and will again) – uses this subplot to condemn numerous aspects of the transportation of convicts…and you will forgive me if I dwell at some length upon Crankey Jem’s experiences and observations:

“Sydney is beautifully situated. It possesses a fine ascent from a noble harbour; and its bays, its coves, its gardens, its gentlemen’s seats, form a pleasing spectacle. Then its forests of masts—the Government-house, with its beautiful domain—the numerous wharfs—the thousands of boats upon the glassy water—and Wooloomooloo, with its charming villas and its windmills,—all these combine to enhance the interest of the scene. The town itself is far more handsome than I had expected to find it…”

I must make Crankey Jem my compliments. I don’t think transported convicts were often in a frame of mind to appreciate their surroundings, let alone discourse upon them in fluent travelogue…

Reynolds, via Jem, indulges in a two-point program here—on one hand, scaring his readers straight with a graphic account of the horrors of convict life; on the other, denouncing those horrors and the authorities that devised them:

“What with the humid climate, the want of fresh meat, and the severity of the labour, no man who fell ill ever entertained a hope of recovery. Talk of the civilised notions of the English—talk of the humane principles of her penal laws—why, the Inquisition itself could not have been more horrible than the doom of the convict at Macquarie Harbour! Again I say, it was true that we were great criminals; but surely some adequate mode of punishment—some mode involving the means of reformation—might have been devised without the application of so much real physical torture!… In the penal colony of Port Macquarie those tortures were renewed daily—and they killed the miserable sufferers by inches!”

A small group of convicts finally devise a plan of escape—knowing as they do so that even if they succeed, the country itself will probably kill them. Still, they consider this preferable to the alternative. Among this group are to be found, by the way, Robert Stephens and the lawyer, MacChizzle, who (IYCCYMBTF) were the prime movers in the complicated plot that saw Eliza Sydney masquerading as her own dead brother, Walter.

The escape succeeds. For a time the convicts survive on kangaroo and possum brought down by one of their number, but in time the game dries up and the men are faced with starvation—with just one possible way of averting it:

“On the fifth night we made a fire, and sate round it at considerable distances from each other. We all endeavoured to remain awake: we trembled at the approach of drowsiness—for we knew the consequences of sleep in our desperate condition. There we sate—none uttering a word,—with cracked and bloody lips—parched throats—eyes glowing with cannibal fires…”

At length MacChizzle is unfortunate enough to fall asleep and, well…

    “Oh! the horrors of that night! I was starving—and food was near. But what food?… Presently the hissing of the flesh upon the embers, and the odour of the awful cookery, convinced me that the meal would soon be served up. Then how did I wrestle with my inclinations! And Stephens, I could well perceive, was also engaged in a terrific warfare with the promptings of hunger. But we resisted the temptation: yes—we resisted it;—and our companions did not trouble themselves to invite us to their repast.
    “At length the morning dawned upon that awful and never-to-be-forgotten night. The fire was now extinguished; but near the ashes lay the entrails and the head of the murdered man. The cannibals had completely anatomised the corpse, and had wrapped up in their shirts (which they took off for the purpose) all that they chose to carry away with them…”

The fate of another of the group, who met a grim end venturing into the bush to cut a club with which to kill the unfortunate MacChizzle in the first place, is then discovered:

“An enormous snake was coiled around the wretch’s corpse—licking it with its long tongue, to cover it with saliva for the purpose of deglutition… Its huge coils had actually squeezed our unfortunate comrade to death!”

Our pythons don’t actually get that big…but thank you for the thought.

Jem and Stephens separate themselves from the rest and go their own way. Eventually they separate from each other—and Jem is recaptured and banished to Norfolk Island. Another amusing burst of travelogue-cum-horror follows, as Jem’s description of the island’s beauties gives way to his opinion of his new place of punishment:

    “Between Macquarie Harbour and Norfolk Island I can only draw this distinction—that the former is Purgatory, and the latter Hell!
    “There is no attempt to reform the prisoners in Norfolk Island, beyond prayer-reading—and this is scarcely any benefit. The convicts are too depraved to be amended by mere moral lessons: they want education; they require to be treated like human beings, instead of brute beasts, criminal though they are; they need a sufficiency of wholesome food, to enable them to toil with something approaching a good will; they ought to be protected against the tyranny of overseers
    “Let punishment be terrible—not horrible… The tortures of semi-starvation and overwhelming toil, and the system of retaining men’s minds in a state of moral abasement and degradation in their own eyes, will never lead to reform…”

And so on.

Another escape follows. This time Jem and his fellows have almost reached New Zealand when they are shipwrecked in a storm. Jem is (at length) the only survivor, losing his companions by various means along the way, including one to another face of the local fauna:

“The vessel went down and, small as it was, it formed a vortex which for a few moments sucked us under, spar and all. But we rose again to the surface, clinging desperately to the boom. Suddenly one of my comrades uttered a fearful cry—a cry of such wild agony that it rings in my ears every time I think of that horrible incident. I glanced towards him: the water was for an instant tinged with blood—a shark had bitten off one of the wretched man’s legs!”

(“Tinged”?)

Long story short—Jem is picked by by a passing vessel and ends up in Hobart; enabling him to again inform us of both its natural beauties and the terrible things that go on there, including a lengthy rumination upon the treatment of, and behaviour of, female convicts. However, since Jem has secured civilian clothing, and there is no-one to contradict his story, he is accepted as a freeman and eventually makes his way back to England.

Jem tells his story to young Henry Holford: he who (IYCCYMBTF) used to infiltrate Buckingham Palace and spy on Victoria. He’s still doing it, we now learn; and we follow him for another lengthy session that encompasses another discussion between the two noblewomen—one of whom insists she has proof that (i) the marriage of George III to Amy Lightfoot was legal, and that all of his royal descendants are therefore illegitimate; and (ii) George’s “madness” was a hereditary condition…which explains Victoria’s “fits of depression”…

However, this time Reynolds is mostly intent upon satirising the ignorance of the royal couple about their subjects and general conditions. Thus Henry’s spying session makes him privy to a breakfast-table conversation between Victoria and Albert:

    “The very first article on which my eyes rested when I took up this newspaper ere now, is headed ‘Dreadful Suicide through Extreme Destitution.’ Beneath, in the same column, is an article entitled ‘Infanticide, and Suicide of the Murderess, through Literal Starvation.’ The next column contains a long narrative which I have not had time to read, but which is headed ‘Suicide through Dread of the Workhouse.’ On this page,” continued the Queen, turning the paper upon the table, “there is an article entitled ‘Death from Starvation;’ another headed ‘Dreadful Condition of the Spitalfields’ Weavers;’ a third called ‘Starving State of the Paisley Mechanics;’ a fourth entitled ‘Awful Distress in the Manufacturing Districts;’ and I perceive numerous short paragraphs all announcing similar calamities.”
    “The English papers are always full of such accounts,” observed the Prince.
    “And yet I would have you know that England is the richest, most prosperous, and happiest country on the face of the earth,” returned the Queen, somewhat impatiently. “You must not take these accounts literally as you read them. My Ministers assure me that they are greatly exaggerated… I spoke to the Secretary of State a few days ago upon the subject of workhouses; and he assures me that they are very comfortable places. He declared that the people do not know when they are well off, and that they require to be managed like refractory children. He quite convinced me that all he said was perfectly correct; and I really begin to think that the people are very obstinate, dissatisfied, and insolent.”
    “They are very enthusiastic in their demonstrations towards their sovereign,” remarked the Prince.
    “And naturally so,” exclaimed Victoria. “Am I not their Queen? are they not my subjects? do I not rule over them? All the happiness, prosperity, and enjoyments which they possess emanate from the throne. They would be very ungrateful if they did not reverence—nay, adore their sovereign.”

It is after Victoria has left the room that Albert discovers the hidden Henry. In the interests of hushing up the security breach, he does not expose him or have him arrested, but rather – as the disgruntled Henry later puts it to himself – has him “turned out like a dog.” So end the palace adventures.

Brooding upon the enormous gulf between the luxuries taken for granted by the royals and his own miserable life as a pot-boy, Henry sense of bitter injustice grows until conceives the idea of making himself famous in perpetuity, by becoming a regicide…

Meanwhile—various other subplots of The Mysteries Of London are winding down and opening up in closer proximity to our main narratives.

One of these concerns the Reverend Reginald Tracy who (IYCCYMBTF), while being lauded publicly as a model churchman, was secretly carrying on a torrid sexual affair with the Lady Cecilia Harborough. The affair is still going on—but now that the Reverend’s hound-dog has been let off its leash, he’s seeing desirable women pretty much everywhere he looks, and not worrying too much about the means that get him to the end.

And the next woman who catches his roving eye is Ellen Monroe.

I’m going to jump the gun here a bit and reveal that, much to my delight, George Reynolds does not bow to one of the strongest of all prevailing conventions and punish the erring Ellen by killing her off in Volume II. That said, she is far less prominent in the narrative of this volume, with the role of “heroine” rather occupied by Eliza Sydney.

(Active heroine, that is: the immaculate Princess Isabella of Castelcicala is still sitting around and twiddling her thumbs and waiting for Providence to reward her.)

However, Ellen gets her moments. She becomes, as I say, the object of Reginald Tracy’s lust, kindled the first time he lays eyes on her. Matters now carry him to Markham Place, where he accidentally learns about Ellen’s illegitimate son—and of course promptly concludes that such a “frail vessel” is his for the taking.

Tracy’s growing obsession leads him to spy upon Ellen through the key-hole as she is taking her early morning bath:

    While thus occupied, she was partly turned towards the door; and all the treasures of her bosom were revealed to the ardent gaze of the rector.
    His desires were now inflamed to that pitch when they almost become ungovernable. He felt that could he possess that charming creature, he would care not for the result—even though he forced her to compliance with his wishes, and murder and suicide followed,—the murder of her, and the suicide of himself!
    He was about to grasp the handle of the door, when he remembered that he had heard to key turn in the lock immediately after she had entered the room.
    He gnashed his teeth with rage.
    And now the drapery had fallen from her shoulders, and the whole of her voluptuous form, naked to the waist, was exposed to his view… He literally trembled under the influence of his fierce desires.
    How he envied—Oh! how he envied the innocent babe which the fond mother pressed to that bosom—swelling, warm, and glowing!

Ahem.

Nothing happens at this juncture, but Tracy decides he must have Ellen. He hasn’t quite the effrontery to approach her himself, however, and so employs a go-between: the same old hag who (IYCCYMBTF) brokered the sale of Ellen’s virginity; and who also assisted Lady Cecilia to re-seduce Tracy, after he escaped her clutches the first time. Like the Resurrection Man, the old hag (who never gets a name) is one of the threads that tie this unwieldy narrative together, as she pops up in most of the criminal subplots.

While the hag is still in the negotiation phase, Ellen correctly deduces the identity of her employer. Concealing her true feelings, she tells the hag that she will meet with her would-be lover at a disreputable public masquerade – where he is to dress as a monk – to discuss the matter; but she has done so only to expose Tracy to himself and give more power to her rejection:

“By what right do you presume that I will compromise my fair fame for your sake, if you tremble to sacrifice your reputation for mine?” asked Ellen. “Is every compromise to be effected by poor women, and shall man make no sacrifice for her? Are you vile, or base, or cowardly enough to ask me to desert home and friends to gratify your selfish passion, while you carefully shroud your weakness beneath the hypocritical cloak of reputed sanctity? Was it to hear such language as this that I agreed to meet you? But know, sir, that you have greatly—oh! greatly mistaken me!… You cherish the idea that because I have been frail once, I am fair game for a licentious sportsman like you. You are wrong, sir—you are wrong…”

All this, too, Reynolds chalks up to “reasonable revenge”:

“It struck me that if I could induce you—you, the man of sanctity—to clothe yourself in the mummery of a mask and meet me at a scene which you and your fellow-ecclesiastics denounce as one worthy of Satan, I should hurl back with tenfold effect that deep, deep humiliation which you visited upon me… My intention was to seize an opportunity to tear your disguise from you, and allow all present to behold amongst them the immaculate rector of St. David’s. But I will be more merciful to you than you were to me…”

Humiliated indeed, Tracy slinks off—back to Lady Cecilia. He’s already bored with her, and disgusted by her ready availability; as well as blaming all his transgressions upon her, for leading him astray in the first place; but hey, she’s better than nothing:

The remainder of the night was passed by them in the intoxicating joys of illicit love…

In fact, so much “better” is she that the two of them grow careless—and are caught together by Tracy’s elderly and loyal housekeeper, Mrs Kenrick, while Tracy is smuggling Lady Cecilia out of his rectory in the early dawn.

Mrs Kenrick, a simple, profoundly devout old woman who is devoted to Tracy, is shocked to the very depths of her being. Nevertheless, her very devotion to Tracy makes her think only of his repentance and redemption; she would never dream of exposing him. But Tracy, in his now-corrupted state, sees her only as a danger to his reputation—and takes steps accordingly…

The Reginald Tracy subplot in The Mysteries Of London interweaves with another that introduces a new group of characters. The second volume opens with a different perspective on the events that closed Volume I, where (IYCCYMBYF) the Resurrection Man took refuge in a gypsy stronghold, discovered there his common-law wife who had robbed him of his accumulated gold, and (among other things) ended up getting stabbed by Crankey Jem. Volume II begins with the chase that preceded all this, with Richard Markham hunting his enemy through the streets of London in company with two or three excited but dubious police officers—dubious because (IYCCYMBTF) the Resurrection Man had supposedly been killed in an explosion that did take the lives of several officers. The possibility that the person responsible is still alive inspires the others to join the chase, but ultimately their quarry is lost.

The night’s activities leave Richard in company with an intelligent young policeman named Morris Benstead. Typical of Reynolds, though he spends much of the book decrying police methods and the privileging of the rich over the poor in all aspects of the law, here he gives us one exception to his rule: Benstead is honest, hard-working and dedicated. He also becomes one of the by-now almost endless list of Richard Markham’s acolytes.

Richard and Benstead are wending their way back when they hears screams and cries for help from a building. They force their way in and find a strange and terrible scene: man is beating a young woman, in a room fitted up – we can hardly say “decorated” – with every aspect of death by hanging, including an unnervingly realistic puppet-figure dangling from a noose.

Given his constant tub-thumping about the state of the legal system in England, the injustice of the law as applied, conditions in prison, the punishment-without-reform stance of The Authorities, and (a particular bug-bear) the punitive use of solitary confinement, we are hardly surprised to find Reynolds taking an anti-capital punishment stance. Though couched in his usual rhetoric, his arguments are cogent enough: that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent; and that the process of execution degrades and brutalises everyone associated with it. (That public executions had precisely opposite of their theoretical effect was dealt with in Volume I: The Authorities finally conceded this point, although not for another twenty years.)

The man responsible for this unique style of interior design turns out to be the public executioner, one Jacob Smithers: an individual who takes great pride in his work and devotes all his spare time to improving his technique. However, to his fury and dismay, his only son, who he intends shall first assist him and then succeed to the family business, has an eradicable horror of the whole thing and defies his father to the limits of his poor strength.

The boy – christened “John”, but whose father has since changed his name to the more professionally appropriate “Gibbet” – is something curiously rare in the pages of George Reynolds: a character we’re inclined to call “Dickens-esque”; although that said, I suspect that his direct inspiration lay rather in the recent publication of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Here is how the boy is described:

The hump-backed lad…was about seventeen or eighteen years of age, and so hideously ugly that he scarcely seemed to belong to the human species. His hair was fiery red, and covered with coarse and matted curls a huge head that would not have been unsuitable for the most colossal form. His face was one mass of freckles; his eyes were of a pinkish hue; his eyebrows and lashes were white; and his large teeth glittered like dominoes between his thick and blueish lips. His arms were long like those of a baboon, but his legs were short; and he was not more than four feet and a half high…

(We’re later told that Gibbet’s deformities are the result of being thrown violently downstairs by his father as a small boy, when he tried to intervene in a drunken brawl between his parents. I’m not altogether sure how falling down the stairs leads to this collection of attributes…particularly not the red hair!)

But of course Gibbet’s exterior conceals a heart of gold, as partly evidenced by his horror at his father’s way of life:

    “What are you snivelling at now? I’d wager a crown to a brass farthin’ that there’s many a young nobleman who’d give fifty pounds to be able to do it. Look how they hire the winders opposite Newgate! Lord bless their souls, it does me good to think that the aristocracy and gentry patronises hanging as well as the other fine arts. What would becomes of the executioners if they didn’t? Why—the legislature would abolish capital punishment at once.”
    Gibbet clasped his hands together, and raised his eyes in an imploring manner, as much to say, “Oh, how I wish they would!”
    “I’ll tell you who are the patrons of my business—profession, I mean,” continued the executioner: “and if you had a grain of feeling for  your father, you’d go down on your knees night and morning and pray for them. The old Tories and the Clergy are my friends; and, thank God! I’m a stanch Tory, too. I hate changes. What have changes done? Why, swept away the good old laws that used to hang a man for stealing anything above forty shillings. Ah! George the Third was the best king we ever had! He used to tuck ’em up—three, four, five, six—aye, seven at once! Folks may well talk of the good old times—when an executioner could make his twenty or thirty guineas of a morning!”

Gibbet’s beautiful inner nature is also displayed in his devotion to his cousin, Katherine Wilmot, who is the one person who loves and cares for him, and whose intervention on his behalf was the cause of the beating interrupted by Richard and Benstead. We learn at once that there is some doubt about Katherine’s blood relationship to Smithers, yet this does her little good as she is shunned by the neighbourhood as “the executioner’s niece”, even as she gives most of her spare time and her little money to acts of kindness and charity.

This and more Richard learns from Benstead, and of course begins to seek a way of helping Katherine. He is not the only one: Reginald Tracy also knows and feels for the girl, with what at least used to be disinterested compassion; although these days he’s also noticing how very attractive Katherine is… It is Tracy whom Richard consults about Katherine: the clergyman agrees to help secure her a domestic post that will remove her from her uncle’s household, but – having had time to think about it – concludes that no post could be better for her than one under his own roof…

In fact Katherine has long known and loved Mrs Kenrick, and she is delighted with her new position…and deeply dismayed when, one day, a strangely altered Mrs Kenrick abruptly announces her intention of sending Katherine away to her own sister in the country. But this never happens, because one evening Katherine returns from an errand to find the housekeeper dead at the kitchen table. The summoned doctor diagnoses poison—and all eyes turn to Katherine, who was on the verge of being sent away, and who just the day before purchased laudanum…she says, on the orders of the Reverend Mr Tracy, though he denies giving her any such command…

Katherine is arrested and tried for the murder of Mrs Kenrick; but she has powerful, active friends who believe in her innocence. Richard Markham knows from bitter experience how deceiving circumstantial evidence can be; and he finances a race against time by Morris Benstead to collect information in Katherine’s favour. One piece of this is a letter written by Mrs Kenrick to her sister, which reveals that she was sending Katherine away not for any fault, but to protect her; and that the person she needed to be protected from was the Reverend Reginald Tracy…

Benstead also brings the Smithers, father and son, back from Ireland—and it is Gibbet who becomes the key witness. He explains to the court that after losing his cousin’s company at home, he fell into the habit of watching her of an evening from a dark corner of the rectory yard, merely to see her. And he was at his post when strange events took place in the kitchen:

“[Mrs Kenrick] filled two cups, and then turned towards the shelves to fetch a small jug, which I thought contained milk. But while her back was turned, I saw Mr Tracy hastily put his hand into his waistcoat pocket, and then as rapidly advance his hand to Mrs Kenrick’s cup…”

Katherine is triumphantly acquitted, and Reginald Tracy arrested in her stead. As the scandal breaks, Tracy finds that he cannot face the inevitable trial, conviction and execution – even less the attendant exposure and humiliation – and takes steps to avoid both. Summoning Lady Cecilia (who he now blames for everything, and hates with a bitter passion), he persuades her to secure poison for him—in exchange for which, he promises to will her his entire fortune. Between her own terror of exposure and her love of money, Cecilia finally agrees when Tracy further promises to conceal her part in the business:

    The moment the journal was placed on the table by her side, Cecilia took it up with trembling hands, and cast a hasty glance over its contents.
    In another instant all suspense relative to the rector’s fate ceased. The following words settled that point beyond a doubt:—
    “SUICIDE OF THE REV. REGINALD TRACY.
    “Shortly after eight o’clock last evening a rumour was in circulation, to the effect that the above-named individual, whose name has so recently been brought before the public in connection with the murder of Matilda Kenrick, had put a period to his existence by means of poison…”

The weight of the world off her shoulders, Cecilia sets out immediately for the office of Reginald’s lawyer, to claim her fortune—only to discover that, not only did the rector deceive her about the money, he has revealed to his lawyer the whole story…

Facing in essence the same choice that Reginald did only the night before, Cecilia is trying desperately to think to whom she might turn for help when she runs into the one person who, for her, represents the final straw:

    “I must conceal myself—at least for the present,” resumed Cecilia. “Will you grant me an asylum?”
    “I! My dear lady!” ejaculated the hag, shaking her head ominously: “I am in danger myself—I am in danger myself! Did I not procure you the poison?”
    “True. But I would not betray you.”
    “No—we must each shift for ourselves, as best we can,” replied the old hag flatly. “Indeed, I may as well remind you, Lady Cecilia, that your day is gone—you are ruined—and, if you had any spirit, you would not survive it!”
    “My God! what do you mean?” faltered Cecilia, in a faint tone.
    “The river is deep, or the Monument is high,” answered the hag, in a significant tone; “and both are near!”

Cecilia chooses the latter:

    Down she fell!
    Her head dashed against the pavement, at a distance of three yards from the base of the Monument.
    Her brains were scattered upon the stones.
    She never moved from the moment she touched the ground;—the once gay, sprightly, beautiful patrician lady was no more!
    A crowd instantaneously collected around her; and horror was depicted on every countenance, save one, that gazed upon the sad spectacle.
    And that one wretch who showed no feeling, was the old hag of Golden Lane.
    “She cannot now betray me for procuring the poison,” thought the vile harridan, as she calmly contemplated the mangled corpse at her feet…

 
[To be continued…]
 
Footnote: While working on Part 2 of this, I came across a source of the original illustrations…and of course couldn’t resist adding this:

 

19/07/2019

The Sicilian


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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Four volumes of nothing; 1158 pages of nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m pretty certain I gasped at this:

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

Anyway—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You think?

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

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

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

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

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

Awww…

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

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

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

 

08/06/2019

I bet it’s not as much fun as it sounds…

 

Ahem.

Evidently Benjamin Disraeli’s third novel, The Young Duke, fits the general parameters of the silver-fork novel; it has accordingly been added to my provisional reading-list for the genre. However, The Young Duke was published in 1831, four years after Vivian Grey—and therefore after the silver-fork novel had become “a thing”. It will be interesting to compare the approaches of these two novels to their subject matter…

…or perhaps I should say, if and when I can compare them.

Having wrapped up Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, I rewarded myself by starting my hunt for a copy of Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, considered the first English response to Goethe’s Bildungsroman and a silver-fork progenitor work.

This proved unexpectedly difficult, due (in the first instance) to a combination of the novel’s publishing history and the idiosyncrasies of the cataloguing system recently adopted by our major libraries: because the book was initially published anonymously and then later reissued as by “the Earl of Beaconsfield”, it doesn’t always come up if you search for it as by Benjamin Disraeli.

But that was, or soon became, a relatively minor speed-bump. A more immediate obstacle was the surprising discovery that neither of the usual suspects (i.e. Penguin and the Oxford University Press) had ever issued an edition of Vivian Grey; that except for an expensive, limited-edition reissue by Pickering & Chatto of “The Early Novels Of Benjamin Disraeli” in 2004, there has not been a hard-copy, English-language edition of the book since 1968; and that the edition before that was from 1934 (in the US) and 1927 (in the UK). There are, of course, ebook and print-on-demand editions around, but I prefer to avoid those if I can.

Well. Okay. It turned out there was a copy of 1968 edition available for interlibrary loan, and inexpensive ones of the 1927 edition online. But while I was pondering that, a far more insidious issue raised its head: the incompatibility of these single-volume releases with the fact that Vivian Grey was originally published in five volumes, two of them in 1826 and the other three in 1827.

And my ugly suspicions were correct: when Vivian Grey stopped being by “Anonymous” and was reissued as by “the Earl of Beaconsfield”, it was also cut to pieces – “severely expurgated”, to use one academic’s description – and (I gather) lost a lot of its fun in the process. The much-shortened 1853 edition is now considered the standard text.

This, of course, shall not stand…

It seems that my academic library holds the five-volume version in its Rare Books section; and while this is theoretically tempting, trying to get it not only read, but written up, in-library is too impracticable even for me.

Fortunately some online library collections do hold scans of the original edition; and while reading a five-volume novel online isn’t exactly appealing, this finally seems like the most sensible way of tackling Vivian Grey.

Meanwhile—a separate issue altogether is the simultaneous discovery that while Vivian Grey and Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham represent the English reaction to Wilhelm Meister, and certainly did significantly inspire the development of the silver-fork novel proper, there are a couple of other works that also played an important part in the latter, and which pre-date both of these better-known books.

One of them, indeed, may also have been an influence upon these two—as we may judge from its title alone: Robert Plumer Ward’s Tremaine; or, The Man Of Refinement, published in 1825.

And before that we find something that is not strictly a novel at all, but nevertheless appears to warrant a place in this timeline: Theodore Hook’s Sayings And Doings; or, Sketches From Life, from 1824. Published in three volumes, these were a collection of short stories – “tales” – intended to illustrate particular maxims…and, it seems, offer not-infrequently malicious portraits of public figures, including most of Hook’s acquaintances. These proved so popular that the perpetually debt-ridden Hook continued to write them, eventually producing two more “series” of tales that eventually filled nine volumes.

I haven’t looked into the availability of these yet. I’ve been too busy slamming my forehead against my keyboard…

 

07/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 3)

    How this man had come to be here and who he might be was a complete mystery to Wilhelm.— “If so many people have taken an interest in me, why did they not guide me more strictly and earnestly? Why did they favour my playing, instead of leading me away from it?”
    “Don’t remonstrate with us!” a voice called; “you have been saved, and are on your way to the goal. You will not regret any of your follies nor wish for any of them back; no happier fate can befall anyone.” The curtain separated, and the old King of Denmark in full armour was standing in the opening. “I am your father’s ghost,” the figure said, “and I go away comforted since my wishes for you have been fulfilled more completely than I conceived them even. Steep places can only be climbed by means of detours, in the plains straight paths lead from one place to another. Farewell and remember me when you are enjoying what I have prepared for you!”
    Wilhelm was extremely taken aback, he believed he was hearing his father’s voice, and yet again it was not his voice; he found himself in the most confused situation because of his present position and his memories.
    He did not have long to reflect before the Abbé appeared and placed himself behind the green table. “Come along here,” he called to his surprised friend. On the table-cloth was a little scroll. “Here is your certificate of apprenticeship,” the Abbé said, “consider it well, its contents are important…”

 

 
Book Six, Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, closes the second volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The third volume, though it does deal with the final phase of Wilhelm’s “education”, and explains at least some of what has puzzled him and us along the way, is oddly structured: what we might tend to consider the novel’s climax occurs quite early on; it is followed by a lengthy stretch of narrative occupied not only with the breaking of old relationships and the forging of new ones, but with various passages that argue with, and in some ways undermine, what we have been led to believe is “the point” of the novel.

(And if you think that sounds like another a priori apology, give yourself a gold star.)

Overall, however, this section of the novel clearly represents Wilhelm “putting away childish things”, albeit not all at once; and that the theatre is one of those childish things is interesting in light of the fact that Goethe himself never made such a separation: even as he was writing about Wilhelm’s severance from his childhood / childish ambition, Goethe became the artistic director of the court theatre at Weimar, a position he held until 1817. (He produced Hamlet in 1792.)

Presumably, therefore, we are to take Wilhelm’s turning away from the theatre in a symbolic rather than literal spirit: it has rescued him from the soul-starving mercantile life for which his birth intended him, but it is not his ultimate life-goal.

That severance takes some time, however, and happens in fits and starts throughout Volume II. One critical event occurs when the troupe hesitates over undertaking a particular journey, having heard that bandits are roaming the district in question. Wilhelm persuades them to go on, resulting in the troupe being attacked, plundered, and scattered; Wilhelm himself, who does his best to defend his companions, is seriously injured. His life is saved when he is discovered by a beautiful woman on horseback, who brings a doctor to him. In his confused state, Wilhelm takes the woman to be some quasi-supernatural being:

…the vivid impression of her presence had such a strange effect upon his already strained senses that all at once it appeared to him as if her head were encircled by rays and as if a gleaming light were gradually suffusing her whole person…

Furthermore, Wilhelm sees in her, or thinks he sees, a strong resemblance to the young Countess; but this woman’s more forceful personality leads him to think of her as “the Amazon”. Though uncertain of how accurate his memories are of this interlude, the woman continues to haunt his dreams…

Wilhelm’s connection with the theatre also develops an almost-relationship between himself and Aurelia, the actress-sister of the troupe’s professional manager. She has never gotten over a broken love affair, and her thwarted passions have undermined her health. As it fails, she is attended by a clergyman and his doctor-friend, the same who are caring for the old harpist; and it is the doctor who, in trying to address Aurelia’s stormy discontent, lends to her the manuscript written by a friend of his, which came into his hands after her death.

Wilhelm’s reading of this manuscript to Aurelia occupies the entirety of Book Six and divides completely the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. As with so much of this novel, this interlude is not always easy to interpret—either in itself, or with respect to its specific references.

The most important of the latter (because it also impinges the story of the Count and Countess) is to the Moravian Brotherhood, a Protestant sect which originated in what is now the Czech Republic. Among its beliefs are that Christ cannot be fully comprehended by any human mind, that the Scriptures do not contain any doctrinal system, and that the formation of congregations is not necessary to worship. In the early 18th century, a colony of Moravians, who had suffered persecution in Bohemia, were invited by the Count von Zinzendorf to settle upon his estate in Saxony. They remained something of a “secret society”, however, separate from and disapproved by the mainstream church.

(Pardon an interruption to this interruption: I had a, Hey, wait a minute -! moment while writing this; and yes, we have encountered the Moravian Brotherhood before. The Moravians were the first Protestants to begin missionary work; and in this guise we met them in our reading of The Holy Lover, where there is an important shipboard encounter between the young John Wesley and a representative of Moravians while they are both on their way to America. [Although I see now that I incorrectly used the word ‘congregation’ in this context.])

Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul recounts the anonymous author’s life, in particular describing her passionate religious faith and her exposure to the Moravians; but also the inner convictions that lead her, in effect, to separate herself from the tenets of society, the church and even the Moravians, in order to pursue her own way. In fact—she comes to believe that the early religious teaching which she received was mistaken, and interfered with development of true faith: another instance within the novel of faulty childhood education setting someone on the wrong path.

Throughout this intensely personal account of one woman’s inner life, there are also external references to her family situation and connections. Most importantly in the first instance, there is a wealthy, unattached uncle, who uses his position to influence (if not indeed dictate) family affairs. The uncle arranges an advantageous marriage to “a young man of rank and wealth” for one of the author’s sisters; the associated festivities take place at his estate, a castle in the countryside, where the author is exposed for the first time to the power of art. There are familiar arguments here, although meant more literally than hitherto:

He directed my attention to the various pictures which were on the wall; my eye was caught by those whose aspect was attractive or whose subject was significant; he let this happen for a time, and then he said: “Do now pay some attention also to the skilful spirit that brought forth these works. Good minds like so much to see the hand of God in nature; why should be not also give some consideration to the hand of His imitator?” He then drew my attention to pictures that were not of an arresting quality, and tried to explain to me that in fact only the history of art could give us understanding of the value and dignity of a work of art, and that in the first place we must know about the difficult stages of mechanism and craft, by means of which gifted men have been working themselves upwards over the centuries…

This visit is likewise the author’s first experience of the full capabilities of music and song:

I now heard music which had originated from the deepest imagination of the finest characters and which by means of particular and practised voices in harmonic unity again spoke to man’s most profound and outstanding faculty and caused him really to feel vividly at this moment his likeness to God…

The author suffers bereavements: one of her sisters, her father, her brother-in-law, and then her other sister, after having given birth to her fourth child. The author is by this time an invalid herself, at the outset of her slow slide to death, and she does not feel able to take upon herself the full care of her nieces and nephews. Instead the uncle takes them in and raises them.

We hear about the oldest boy, apparently made to be a soldier, though, “Anything but rough in his actions and his whole character, in fact rather gentle and cautious.”

The eldest girl is her aunt’s favourite: “It would not be easy to find a nobler figure nor a calmer disposition… From childhood onwards her behaviour towards those who were suffering and in need of help was matchless…” This paragon even has a name! – Natalie.

The younger girl is, “Very dainty and attractive…she is much concerned with her outward appearance…”

The youngest boy, at this time, is only a baby.

We then hear about the unusual way in which the children are being educated:

    The supervision of all the children, who are educated at different places and are lodged now here, now there, is in the hands of a strange man who is taken to be a French clergyman, but without there being any real information about his origins.
    At first I could see no plan in this education, until my doctor finally revealed to me that the Uncle had let himself be convinced by the Abbé that if one wished to do something about a person’s education, one would need to see in which directions his inclinations and wishes would move. Then one would have to put him in a position where he could satisfy his inclinations and fulfil his wishes as soon as possible, so that if he should have made a mistake, he should be aware of his error in good time, and if he had found what suited him, he should hold to it all the more keenly and continue his training it all the more industriously…

We do not learn how this “strange experiment” turns out, as the author died shortly afterwards.

Prior to all this, Aurelia told her story of her ill treatment by her lover to Wilhelm, exacting from him a promise that he would travel to the estate of the unfaithful Lothario (and yes, that really is his name!), inform him of her death, and deliver a letter full of angry reproaches. Now, softened by the author’s story, Aurelia instead sends to Lothario a message of forgiveness. Wilhelm promises to deliver it, albeit he still intends to give Lothario a piece of his own mind. He even – old habits die hard – composes and rehearses a speech…

Wilhelm’s departure for Lothario’s estate does in effect mark his break from the theatre, although not from all his acquaintances there. His journey and its immediate aftermath comprise one disconcerting event after another. First he falls in again with the apparent clergyman (he still looks like one, although, as Wilhelm comments, now a like Catholic rather than a Lutheran, as he did before); then, Lothario greets him with such hospitality and politeness, it throws him off his stride. The next thing, Lothario goes off to fight a duel and is wounded, and Wilhelm finds himself helping to ease his convalescence—in company with Lothario’s friend and “second”, and his old acquaintance, Jarno—who like most people Wilhelm meets seems to know as much or more about his doings as he does himself…

It is Jarno who begins to put some of the pieces together:

    “For heaven’s sake,” cried Wilhelm, when they were alone in the room, “what’s this about the Count? Which Count is it who is taking up with the Moravian community?”
    “Someone you know very well,” Jarno replied. “You are the ghost that is chasing him into the arms of piety, you are the villain who is putting his nice wife into a position where she finds it tolerable to follow her husband.”
    “And she is Lothario’s sister?” cried Wilhelm.
    “No other.”
    “And Lothario knows—?”
    “Everything.”
    “Oh, let me disappear!” Wilhelm exclaimed, “how can I appear before him? What can he say?”
    “That nobody should pick up a stone to cast at another, and that nobody should prepare long speeches in order to put other people to shame, unless he wants to deliver the speeches in front of a mirror.”
    “You know that too?”
    “Like many other things,” Jarno replied with a smile…

During his stay with Lothario, Wilhelm becomes aware that certain sections of his castle – including an ancient tower – are blocked off; that there are many locked doors, and hints of secret passages; and notices how many conversations between Lothario and Jarno break off upon his entrance.

Finally, Wilhelm is initiated into the associated secrets. One day, before dawn, Jarno leads him through the previously inaccessible section of the castle, into the tower, and into one particular room:

    The room where he now was appeared to have previously been a chapel; instead of an altar there was a large table covered with a green cloth at the top of some steps, and above this it seemed that a closed curtain was concealing a picture; at the sides there were beautifully fashioned bookcases which were sealed off by fine wire grating, as normally seen in libraries, only instead of books he saw many scrolls stacked up. There was nobody in the room; the rising sun shone through the stained glass windows just in Wilhelm’s direction and gave him a friendly greeting.
    “Do sit down!” a voice called which seemed to be sounding from the altar. Wilhelm sat in a small arm-chair which was placed against the entrance; there was no other seat in the whole room, and he had to be resigned to this one although the morning sunlight dazzled him; the seat was fixed, all he could do was to shade his eyes with his hand.
    In the meantime the curtain above the altar opened with a slight noise and revealed a dark, empty aperture within a frame…

Various people whom Wilhelm met during his journey – the stranger who spoke to him of his grandfather’s art collection; the apparent clergyman; a soldier whom he met with Jarno; the ghost of Hamlet’s father – step one after the other into the frame, making of themselves a picture for Wilhelm’s benefit, and speak to him of fate and self-determination and education…

At the conclusion of this ceremony, Wilhelm is given his “Certificate of Apprenticeship”:

“Art is long, life short, judgement difficult, opportunity fleeting. Acting is easy, thinking difficult, acting according to one’s thoughts uncomfortable. Every beginning is cheerful, the threshold is the place of expectation. The boy is astonished, impressions form him, he learns in play, he is surprised by seriousness. What is excellent is seldom found, more rarely esteemed. It is the height that stimulates us, not the steps; we gladly walk in the plain with our eyes on the peak. Only a part of art can be taught, the artist needs it complete. Whoever half-knows art is always in error and talks a lot; whoever possesses it fully likes only to act and talks rarely or at most late. The former have no secrets and no strength, their teaching is tasty like bread that has been baked, and is satiating for one day; but flour cannot be sown, and seed-corn should not be ground. Words are good, but they are not what is best. The best is not made clear through words. The spirit in which we act is the highest. Action is only understood and reproduced by the spirit…”

And so on.

Wilhelm’s main guide through all this is Lothario’s resident clergyman, the Abbé…who may or may not be the “apparent clergyman”…among other people:

    “And so you have seen me on the stage?”
    “Oh, certainly!”
    “And who took the part of the Ghost?”
    “I don’t know, either the Abbé or his twin-brother, but I think it was the latter, he’s just a little bit taller…”

In any event, it is definitely the Abbé who directs Wilhelm’s initiation, and grants him his Certificate; though he interrupts his reading of it:

    “Enough!” the Abbé cried, “the rest in due course. Now take a look at those cases.”
    Wilhelm went over and read the inscriptions on the scrolls. He was surprised to find Lothario’s, Jarno’s and his own ‘years of apprenticeship’ set up there, among many others whose names were unknown to him.
    “May I hope to be able to cast an eye upon the scrolls?”
    “Nothing in this room is now under lock and key as far as you are concerned…”

Though nothing supernatural occurs throughout this novel, including during these passages, there is often a deep sense of strangeness about its unfolding of events – unheimlich is, I suppose, the word I’m looking for – so that it is not hard to understand how it influenced later writers who did deal in the unnatural, including Franz Kafka.

However—

It is, I think, significant that when Thomas Carlyle published his two-volume translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (as he called it), he chose to end his first volume here, at the end of Book Seven, which concludes with the Abbé exclaiming:

“May you be blessed, young man! Your years of apprenticeship are over; nature has absolved you.”

A natural break-point, indeed, we might think; but it isn’t Goethe’s. Of all the strange things that happen here, among the strangest is that having set up this situation, the author devotes a fair chunk of Book Eight to—if not outright undermining it, at least presenting counter-arguments to this complicated plan of “education” for promising young men.

In fact, in conversation with Jarno, Wilhelm learns that this enterprise is now only a remnant of its former self. Wilhelm has by this point suffered some personal difficulties (to which we will return) and is, in effect, resentful that the Society of the Tower (as it is usually called; although H. M. Waidson does not use that exact phrase in his translation) has not smoothed his path in life for him, but seems, rather, to be just jerking him around:

    “…perhaps you will be more inclined to this if I tell you rightaway that everything you saw in the Tower consists in fact only of relics of a youthful venture which at first was a matter of great seriousness for most of the initiated and which now they all only smile at from time to time.”
    “So it’s only a game as far as these noble signs and words are concerned,” Wilhelm cried out, “we are led with solemnity to a place which induces reverence in us, we are shown the strangest phenomena, we are given scrolls of magnificent, secret words of wisdom, most of which, it is true, we don’t understand, it is revealed to us that up to now we have been apprentices, we are absolved, and we are no wiser than before…”

We learn – eventually – that this “Society” was a venture between Lothario’s uncle (who has just died, which seems to have triggered Wilhelm’s initiation) and the Abbé; and that even at the time of the founding of their venture, there was disagreement over the best way of conducting “education”, a disagreement which has carried to the next generation: whether it is more useful to allow errors to play out to their natural conclusion, so that their full force is felt (as was done with Wilhelm and the theatre), or whether time should be saved by turning those in error away from their mistakes and onto their true path, with the risk of the error retaining its attractiveness through not, perhaps, being seen to be an error.

There is much quoting from the scrolls and the certificates, through much of which we may well be as confused as Wilhelm; although Jarno persists in quoting those passages he believes most thoroughly reflect the personality and thinking of the Abbé, and of translating the text into terms that Wilhelm (and we) may better understand:

“You will hear the Abbé speaking about this text often enough still, so let us just see and grasp in a truly clear way what there is about ourselves and what we can develop concerning ourselves; let us be fair to others, for we only deserve respect inasmuch as we know how to esteem others… Man is not happy until his unrestricted striving determines for itself its own limits. Don’t hold onto me, but to the Abbé; don’t think of yourself, but of what is around you. For example, learn to appreciate Lothario’s excellence, how his general view and his activity are indissolubly linked together, how he is always moving onwards, and how he extends and expands, and carries everyone along with him. Wherever he may be, he takes a world along too, his presence is invigorating and inspiring. On the other hand consider the good medicus; his temperament seems to be exactly the opposite. If the former is effective only with regard to the whole and to what is distant, the latter directs his clear glance only to what is nearest, he produces the means to activity rather than bringing forth and giving life to activity itself; his behaviour fully resembles good housekeeping, his is a quiet effectiveness, as he assists everyone in his vicinity…”

(“The good medicus” is the doctor in possession of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, and who has partial care of the old harpist.)

For personal reasons Wilhelm is not in a mood to absorb any of this. He has, previously, reacted in much the same way to a reading of his own scroll, in which he finds not only much more of the Abbé’s philosophy, but a full account of his own unwitting interactions with the members of the Society, as well as numerous, rather unwelcome home-truths about himself. His circumstances must undergo a drastic change before he allows himself to be influenced by the teachings of those around him…

Book Eight of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is lengthy, blending these passages dealing with the purposes of the Society with others in which Wilhelm crosses something of a personal Rubicon: a great deal of the narrative here is concerned with severing Wilhelm from most of the connections of his “apprenticeship”, and his forging of new, more adult bonds. The severance is often as painful for us as for him—including, among other things, the revelation of the tragic personal histories of both Mignon and the harpist.

In this, we may see how Carlyle’s impulse to bring Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to a premature conclusion, while understandable, very much misrepresented Goethe’s intentions.

It is the forging of one particular bond by Wilhelm that ultimately dictates all the rest. As we may surmise from all the former, Wilhelm’s initial plan of taking Lothario to task for his treatment of Aurelia did not exactly pan out. He does, however, eventually discuss Aurelia with Lothario (gaining a less exaggerated idea of their failed relationship); and does indeed take him to task for his neglect of the young child, Felix, whom he assumed to be the result of the affair. That said, he knows that neglect is nothing new for Felix: Aurelia was a careless mother at best, with the boy being cared for chiefly by Mignon.

Wilhelm is surprised when Lothario not only denies having a child with Aurelia, but doubts whether she had a child at all: a suggestion which sets Wilhelm on the path of discovering that Felix is his own son by Marianne. His joyful astonishment is, however, offset by the misery and self-reproach of also learning that Marianne was, in fact, never unfaithful to him; that she was turned away from her acting troupe because of her condition; and that she died destitute only days after giving birth.

(Wilhelm is largely absolved here, both because of the circumstances of his initial suspicions, and because, while he was so ill, Werner ruthlessly ran interference between him and the desperate Marianne.)

Subsequently, Marianne’s old servant, Barbara, managed to impose the baby on Aurelia (and get herself hired) by telling her that he was Lothario’s child: the always-melodramatic Aurelia took Felix in as a “memento” of her own affair with Lothario.

Wilhelm is naturally suspicious of all this, and resists an impulse to take Felix to his heart. He is later given strong evidence of the truth of all this, however; while upon being invited, during his initiation into the Society, to ask any question he likes, in spite of everything only one comes to mind:

    “…and you can expect a decisive answer if it concerns a matter which is, and should be, close to your heart.”
    “Very well then! You strange, wise men whose glance penetrates into so many secrets, can you tell me whether Felix really is my son?”
    “Blessings upon you for this question!” the Abbé cried, clapping his hands for joy…

And it is Wilhelm’s acceptance of paternity, and his subsequent reordering of his life around the boy, which is considered the real end to his “apprenticeship”.

Wilhelm’s first action is to remove both Felix and Mignon from the theatre people (he was only supposed to be visiting Lothario briefly, remember!), and to place them in the care of a new acquaintance, Theresa, another friend of the Society (albeit not an approving one). Generous and honest, Theresa is a domestic goddess who trains young girls whose inclinations lie than way in housekeeping—and who, more unexpectedly, has a rare talent for estate management, in which capacity she is often consulted by her neighbours in the district.

And she was also once betrothed to Lothario, who broke their engagement for no reason Theresa understands. (The reader learns, as Theresa does not, that Lothario discovered to his horror and shame that the woman he had been dallying with in Paris, prior to meeting Theresa, was Theresa’s mother!)

Wilhelm’s first thought in his new role as father is to provide Felix with a mother. He and Theresa become friends at once: he soon hears her life history, and promises her his own (something he undertakes only after giving proper thought to the painful contents of his scroll). Though he knows that Theresa still loves Lothario, he accepts her insistence that all is at an end between them; and he decides to propose marriage to her, which he does via a lengthy letter.

However—

In the course of his conversation with Theresa, the latter makes reference to a close friend of hers who, like herself, teaches young girls—but in that case, those who show artistic inclinations. Theresa refers to her friend as “Lothario’s excellent sister”, and Wilhelm assumes she means the Countess…

…only to find, at long last, his Amazon, the woman (literally and figuratively) of his dreams; that Natalie of the manuscript, Lothario’s other sister, who takes charge of Mignon and her “artistic inclinations”, and who hails with delight Theresa’s acceptance of Wilhelm’s marriage proposal.

Oops.

And here at last the final pieces do fall into place: the author of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul was aunt to Lothario, Natalie, the Countess (who never gets a name) and a fourth sibling, Friedrich, who has been weaving himself into the narrative, appearing and disappearing, attaching himself to Wilhelm’s acting troupe (and one actress in particular), and generally making a nuisance of himself. The “uncle” of the manuscript is therefore the co-founder of the Society (and strictly speaking, great-uncle to the rest), who has just died.

Moreover—it is Natalie who has inherited the uncle’s estate and all the works of art we heard about in the manuscript…including the art collection purchased from Wilhelm’s grandfather…

There is enough romantic shuffling in this section of the novel to fill a contemporary four-volume effort, but Goethe rushes through it in a minimum of pages—and I’ll try to do even better:

Realising that he is in love with Natalie, Wilhelm hopes desperately that Theresa will reject his proposal, but she does not. However, Jarno then turns up to announce that Lothario has discovered that Theresa’s mother is actually her step-mother, and that he (Lothario) wants her back, now that the perceived barrier between them has been removed. And though he doesn’t actually want to marry Theresa, Wilhelm is deeply aggrieved at being brushed aside, particularly when he has, at this time, no hope of Natalie; and even more so at losing the mother he hoped to give Felix—which together account for his pissy mood and his resistance of the Society’s tenets. He becomes even more morose, even ill, when a plan is concerted to send him away altogether, in company with an Italian nobleman, an old friend of the uncle’s, who needs a translator on his travels.

All this makes it awkward and embarrassing when something does begin to develop between Wilhelm and Natalie; and it requires the shameless interference of Friedrich, who casts himself as Deus ex machina, before they can come to an understanding—interference via reference to that painting of “the sick prince”, which is of course in Natalie’s possession, and which finds Friedrich casting Wilhelm as Antiochus, Natalie as Stratonice, and “the good medicus” as Erasistratus:

    He did not seem to believe in his friend’s illness at all. Once, when they were all together, he called out: “Doctor, what do you call the affliction which has beset our friend? Does none of the three thousand names with which you deck out your ignorance apply here? At least there has not been a lack of similar examples. An example of this type,” he continued with an enigmatic smile, “can be found in Egyptian or Babylonian history.”
    The company looked at each other and smiled.
    “What was the king’s name?” he called out and paused for a moment. “If you don’t want to help me, I shall be able to help myself.” He pulled open the doors and pointed to the big picture in the entrance-hall. “What’s the name of the goatee-bearded one with the crown over there who is pining away at the foot of the bed because of his sick son? What’s the name of the beauty who is coming in and whose roguish eyes contain both poison and antidote? What’s the name of the clumsy doctor who only sees the point at this very moment and who for the first time in his life has the opportunity to make out a sensible prescription and to hand over a medicament which provides a complete cure and which is as palatable as it is salutary?”
    He went on showing off in this style. The company controlled themselves as well as possible and concealed their embarrassment with forced smiles. Natalie’s cheeks reddened a little and betrayed the sensibility of her heart…

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does not, however, end with wedding-bells and happy-ever-after, but finds Wilhelm agreeing to go as requested with the Marchese, on condition that he can take Felix along too.

Presumably these travels form the first part of Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years – “years” not sounding so good for Natalie – which begs the question of whether I will feel compelled to tackle the sequel to this novel or not.

In terms of the base reason for examining Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship at all, that is, its influence upon the progenitor works of the silver-fork genre, I consider myself (to use the novel’s own word) absolved. It was another twenty-five years before Goethe published his sequel to this novel; and while that first version was what Thomas Carlyle translated – and which, presumably, influenced the young Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton – in 1829 Goethe significantly revised his text; and it is this later version that is now considered the “standard” version of the book.

So while I may get around to tackling the sequel, I am not going to consider myself bound to hold off on beginning my examination of the silver-fork novel proper until I do.

(Preliminary investigation suggests that this sequel is shorter but weirder…)

And despite these three posts on the subject, rest assured that this remains a fairly superficial examination of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I could certainly have written more – a LOT more – to take only the most obvious point of omission, I could (as others have) write as much again just about Mignon and her significance as a character and a symbol – but I hope I’ve done enough to give a fair idea of the novel and what it is trying to achieve, and to let others decide whether they might want to investigate it on their own.

 

04/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 2)


 
    “…perhaps the man to whom genius is ascribed is in a worse way than someone who possesses only ordinary capabilities; for the former can more easily be badly educated and more abruptly urged along false paths than the latter.”
    “But will not genius save itself,” replied Wilhelm, “and itself heal the wounds that it has inflicted on itself?”
    “Not at all,” the other answered, “or at least only in a makeshift manner; for nobody should believe that they can get over first childhood impressions. If someone has grown up in commendable freedom, surrounded by beautiful and noble objects, in the company of good people, if his masters have taught him the things he had to learn first, in order that the rest might be understood the more easily, if what he has learnt he never needs to unlearn, if his first actions were so directed that he can in future do good more easily and more conveniently, without his having to break himself of anything, this person will lead a purer, more perfect and happier life than someone who has misplaced the first energies of his youth in opposition and error. There is so much said and written about education, and I see only a few people who can grasp the simple but great idea that includes all else in itself…”

 

 

Put simply – far too simply – Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the story of a young man’s rejection of his bourgeois upbringing and his attempt to find meaning in his life through art. Wilhelm is the son of a hard-headed, unimaginative merchant, who expects him to carry on the family business. Wilhelm, however, has been fascinated from an early age with art, and in particular the theatre; and he finds an opportunity to break away and pursue his dream—which, indeed, turns out in many ways to be no more than a dream, forcing him to reassess his choices.

The novel opens in a manner both confounding to those accustomed to the English habit of beginning such a novel with the protagonist’s childhood, if not his birth, and shocking to those accustomed to novels of this period built upon English morality (and/or hypocrisy): when we meet Wilhelm, he is an adult – physically if not emotionally mature – and he is in the throes not merely of his first love affair, but his first sexual affair. His mistress is an actress, Marianne; and Wilhelm’s passion for her and his pre-existing passion for the theatre have become so entwined, each intensifies the other; but to the reader there is a clear note of warning in the descriptions of Wilhelm’s dazzled state:

How often he stood behind the scenes in the theatre, having been given the manager’s permission as a privilege! It was true that the magic of perspective was then lost, but the much more potent enchantment of love could now start to have its effect. He could stand for hours by the dirty light-carrier, breathing in the fumes of the tallow lamps, looking out for his beloved, and when she appeared again and looked at him in a friendly way, be lost in rapture and, when close to the structure of joists and boards, feel as if transported into a paradisaic state. The stuffed lambs, the taffeta waterfalls, the pasteboard rose bushes and the one-sided straw huts evoked in him fond poetic visions of an ancient pastoral world…

The first five books of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship put the theatre, and Wilhelm’s devotion to it, to a variety of uses that are complicated and increasingly difficult to pick apart. The earliest stages of the novel alone can be read in a straightforward manner. Here we discover that Wilhelm’s passion is not for the theatre merely as a form of entertainment, as his parents suppose, but reflective of an early fascination with art and the act of creation. This, in his adulthood, will become intermixed with his belief in the capabilities of art, including the theatre, for moral instruction and inspiration.

Increasingly, however, Goethe also uses the theatre as a framework within which to examine the state of the German drama (with which he himself was heavily involved) per se; to compare German, French and English drama; and to analyse German drama as a reflection of the German character. Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s belief in art-as-morality is both examined seriously as a philosophy of life, and treated with irony, as his lofty ideals come to grief on the rocks of the prosaic, hand-to-mouth existence of most of those actually in the theatre. These multiple intentions create a complicated scenario in which the theatre is simultaneously reality, artifice, and metaphor.

(And you may take this as my explanation / apology for not getting too deeply into this novel’s meanings!)

Having surprised us at the outset with Wilhelm’s affair with Marianne, Goethe then gives us what is, in context, an almost more shocking piece of evidence that we are far from the world of English literature.

An early conversation between Wilhelm and his mother reveals that she blames herself for his obsession, having, some twelve years before, arranged as a Christmas gift for her son the performance of a puppet-theatre. Wilhelm fires up at once in defence of his beloved puppers, revealing a startlingly clear memory of the occasion; we learn, too, that subsequently the entire theatre and its puppets were bought for Wilhelm: a decision which proved the pivotal moment of his childhood.

The puppet-theatre will be frequently referenced throughout the narrative. Now, we find that Wilhelm has already told Marianne about it; he carries to her some of the puppets, and recounts to her the story of his own artistic awakening; how he began to write and plan “productions” for his little theatre, how he found himself “directing” his siblings and friends, how even he found himself more and more concerned with accuracy of detail and (in effect) the artistic integrity of his “performances”; the successes and failures of his various little “performances”, his own not-infrequent embarrassments as something overlooked made itself felt. (Later, we will see most of these passages recapitulating themselves as a frustrated Wilhelm wrestles with controlling a professional troupe and the artistic compromises necessary to please a paying audience.)

This is a lengthy section of the novel, occupying five chapters as Wilhelm recounts in vivid detail these critical, character-forming childhood passages. Of course, we are accustomed to this sort of thing in protagonist-focused novels; and accustomed, too, the protagonist’s listeners hanging on his every word and, indeed, assuring him that he cannot go into too much detail. But that isn’t what happens here. Instead, as an oblivious Wilhelm loses himself in his story, Marianne falls asleep. Granted, she is tired after her evening’s performance; but she is also very bored…

(It is to be wished that our hero may find in future more attentive listeners to his favourite stories, observes Goethe wryly.)

It is this sort of touch that makes Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship so disconcerting, and so difficult to interpret. There is constantly a sort of split-vision around Wilhelm: at various other points he will burst into impassioned speech, only to have his listeners laugh at him, change the subject, or just leave; yet there are also scenes in which his opinions are treated with grave consideration, albeit the conclusion is generally that his opinions are misguided.

Aside from Wilhelm’s puppet-theatre reminiscences, the other critical detail of his childhood is revealed when he falls into conversation with a random stranger. Having introduced himself, Wilhelm is asked whether he is not the grandson of a man who once owned a beautiful and valuable collection of art? – a collection, we learn, that Wilhelm’s father sold to set himself up in business, leaving his young son scarred by the loss of these familiar and beautiful objects. Here, too, Wilhelm’s memories are vivid and his emotions fully engaged. He also learns to his surprise that he and the stranger are old acquaintances: he, the stranger, was sent by the collection’s eventual purchaser to inspect it and give his advice; he and the young Wilhelm had a number of conversations about the objets d’arte:

    “If I remember aright, you had a favourite picture among the paintings, and you did not want to let me get away from it.”
    “Quite right! It portrayed the story of how the sick prince consumes himself in love for his father’s bride-to-be.”
    “It wasn’t in fact the best of paintings, not well composed, of no particular colouring, and the execution was completely mannered.”
    “I didn’t understand that, and still don’t understand it; it is the subject-matter that attracts me about a painting, not the art…”

The “sick prince” with whom Wilhelm obviously identifies is Antiochus, son of Seleucus, the king of Syria, who fell in love with his young step-mother, Stratonice. The reason for his illness was discovered by his physician, Erasistratus, and, fearing that he would otherwise literally die of love, Seleuchus surrendered his young bride to his son, thus saving his life.

So the story goes, anyway—a story that seems to have fascinated a wide variety of artists, who produced a whole clutch of paintings showing the sufferings of Antiochus. It isn’t clear whether Goethe is referring here to a specific painting (given his strictures, possibly not), but it is clear he expected his readers to get the allusion.

The actual painting that Wilhelm remembers from his childhood will reappear towards the end of the novel; but there will be other references to it, and to Wilhelm’s fascination with it, along the way. This I have found one of the hardest parts of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to interpret: one of several instances where it is easier to grasp that something is intended to be significant, than what the significance actually is.
 

 
Two of the numerous paintings depicting the story of Antiochus and Stratonice: on the left is Theodoor van Thulden’s Antiochus und Stratonike, from the 1660s; on the right is Jean-Louis David’s Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease, from 1774.

 
In addition to their mutual reminiscences about the art collection, Wilhelm and the stranger have the first of what will be many conversations in this novel about fate and self-determination. Wilhelm is, at this time, a great believer in predetermined destiny; the stranger, conversely, argues that men are what they make of themselves, and that to believe in fate is to allow random chance to dictate the course of one’s life, possibly to wasteful and destructive ends:

    “We delude ourselves that we are pious by sauntering along without reflection, letting ourselves be determined by pleasant chance factors, and finally giving the result of such a precarious life the name of divine guidance.”
    “Did it never happen to you that a small circumstance caused you to follow a certain path, on which an agreeable opportunity soon offered itself, and a series of unexpected events finally brought you to a goal which you yourself had as yet scarcely envisaged? Should not this instil resignation to fate and confidence in such guidance?”
    “With those opinions no maiden could keep her virtue, and nobody could keep his money in his purse; for their are inducements enough to get rid of both. I can only be happy about the man who knows what is useful to him and to others and labours to limit the element of caprice in his life. Everyone has his fortune in his hands, just as the artist has the raw material which he wishes to re-shape into a figure. But with this art it is with the same as with all; only the capacity for it is innate, the art has to be learnt and carefully practised…”

This last paragraph is as close as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship goes to stating clearly its manifesto. Wilhelm, who understands the “subject-matter”but not “the art”, who allows “small circumstances” and “a series of unexpected events” to dictate the course of his life, must learn to take charge and shape his own fortune.

The first real crisis in Wilhelm’s life occurs when he has reason to believe that Marianne has been unfaithful. He responds to this shock as any character in a late-18th century novel would, collapsing and nearly dying of his grief. His recovery is slow, and when he is better, he does something truly horrifying:

    Up to now he had carefully preserved everything that he had written, from the earliest period of his mind’s development onward. His writings still lay in bundles at the bottom of the trunk where he had packed them at the time when he was hoping to take them with him on his flight. In how different a mood did he open them now from the time he had tied them together!
    If we open at some time later a letter, which we wrote and sealed up in particular circumstances, but which does not reach the friend to whom it was directed and is returned to us, a strange emotion overcomes us when we break open our own seal and converse with our changed self as with a third person. A similar feeling seized hold of our friend with intensity when he opened the first package and threw on the fire the copy-books after they had been split up…

Wilhelm is interrupted in the middle of this literary auto-da-fé by Werner, the son of Meister Sr’s business partner, who has embraced the merchant life with enthusiasm and whose friendship with Wilhelm consists mostly of arguments of their relative positions. He was also one of those involved in the childhood puppet-productions; and though he now has little sympathy with, or understanding of, Wilhelm’s artistic passions, he is truly shocked by this destruction of his early effusions, and tries unavailingly to stop him.

Wilhelm then bursts into a lengthy and passionate speech in which his shattered faith in Marianne and his loss of faith in his own “genius” are bundled up together; and although there is no question of Wilhelm’s sincerity, Goethe again undermines him—observing that, Werner stood by in the greatest embarrassment…

The upshot of all this is that Wilhelm resigns himself to to his father’s wishes: as a first taste of business he is sent out on a lengthy journey, visiting numerous people with whom his father is in business, checking on their enterprises and/or receiving loan repayments. He proves quite successful at the tasks assigned him; though it is travelling and meeting new people that does him the most good.

One of these people is described rather ambiguously – from his clothing and his venerable appearance he might well have been taken for a clergyman – and he is afterwards referred to as “the clergyman” in spite of the implied doubt. Wilhelm has many interesting conversations with him, which somehow again veer around to the question of fate, self-determination and education, and the necessary conditions for the emergence of genius, which Wilhelm, along with his belief in “fate”, tends to believe must necessarily “just happen”. He is startled by the terms in which his new friend states his counter-argument, that genius must have the opportunity to grow and be nurtured under certain conditions, and that from childhood, or it will likely come to nothing:

    “Do not many undertakings show great significance in the first place, and do not most of them peter out in something trivial?… And isn’t it the same in the case of what happens to individual persons?” the other continued. “Supposing that fate had destined someone to be a good actor (and why should not fate also provide us with good actors?), but unfortunately chance led the young man to a puppet-theatre, where in his youth he could not restrain himself from participating in something tasteless, from finding something silly tolerable, even interesting, and thus receiving in a wrong way those youthful impressions which never disappear and from which we can never remove a certain attachment.”
    “What makes you mention the puppet-theatre?” Wilhelm interpolated with some consternation.
    “It was only an arbitrary example; if you don’t like it, we will take another…”

The next violent lurch in Wilhelm’s life comes when he enters a certain country town to find in residence a troupe of acrobats; he has already fallen in with several out-of-work actors, who are travelling around in the hope of finding employment. Long story short—Wilhelm is completely diverted from his business (to the extent of simply keeping the money he has collected for his father!), and succumbs again to the first passion of his life.

Books Two to Five of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship deal with Wilhelm’s involvement with a company of actors, during which he progresses from fan-boy to hanger-on to writer to actor to manager. Much, though not all, of this material can be taken straight, as Goethe’s examination of the state of the theatre generally, and the German theatre in particular; and of the inevitable and perhaps irreconcilable tension between theatre-as-art, theatre-as-a-job, and theatre-as-a-money-making-venture.

The most accessible and striking aspect of this section of the novel (also the most amusing) is Wilhelm’s attempt to stage a production of Hamlet. To modern eyes, the book’s gosh-wow-Shakespeare! attitude may be a bit bemusing, but it must be understood that Shakespeare really did not reach Germany until the mid-18th century – the insularity of German drama is one of the dissected topics here – and that the translation of Shakespeare’s plays that so dazzles Wilhelm is the same one by which Goethe himself was introduced to the playwright.

This is often compelling stuff; although (as with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead) it will work best for those with a thoroughly detailed knowledge of Hamlet. In particular, much against his will, Wilhelm is forced to cut the play, in order to make it more appealing to the audience (plus ça change); and his struggle to find a way to trim it without compromising it is oddly gripping. The overall analysis he offers of Hamlet, as he tries to convince the others of its greatness, is also fascinating (whether you agree with his conclusions or not).

The crowning joke here is that Wilhelm himself ends up playing Hamlet. Of course he does: his identification with the procrastinating prince of the play is even greater than his identification with the lovesick prince of his grandfather’s painting. There is also a very strange bit of business surrounding the ghost of Hamlet’s father: Wilhelm is persuaded to leave the role uncast, promised by anonymous letter that an actor will show up to fill it on opening night. A mysterious figure in armour does turn up – exactly on his cue and not before – plays the role brilliantly, and vanishes…

(Not literally.)

Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s falling in with the troupe of performers also marks the point at which Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship opens up, introducing a plethora of new characters, and adding a second focus in Wilhelm’s relationship with several women. The troupe is hired to live and perform for a time at the castle home of a Count and Countess, who are entertaining a Prince; arrangements are made by another inmate of the castle, the Baron. There is much theatre-business here, as the Baron’s enthusiasm for actors, the Count’s mistaken ideas about the staging of plays and the demand that the troupe pay tribute in their play to the Prince must all be diplomatically managed. Many long debates about the relative merits of German, French and English drama, take place; and Wilhelm is introduced to William by the Count’s Master of Horse, a former soldier named Jarno:

    Wilhelm had scarcely read some plays by Shakespeare when their effect on him was so great that he was not able to continue further. His whole spirit came into a turmoil. He sought an opportunity to talk to Jarno, and could not thank him enough for the happiness procured him.
    “I indeed foresaw,” said Jarno, “that you would not remain unreceptive to the excellences of the most extraordinary and amazing of all writers.”
    “Yes, indeed,” Wilhelm cried, “I don’t remember that a book, a person or any happening in life produced such great effects upon me as the wonderful plays which I have got to know as a result of your kindness… They are not literary works! You believe that you are standing before the huge, open books of fate in which the high wind of life at its most agitated storms, turning the pages back and forth rapidly and with violence. I am so astonished and disconcerted by the strength and delicacy, the violence and calm… In Shakespeare’s plays I find the fulfillment and development of all premonitory feelings that I have ever had about mankind and its destiny…”

By which we may conclude that, at this point (towards the end of Book Three), Wilhelm has not yet relinquished his belief in “fate”, despite all the lectures to the contrary.

(Christoph Martin Wieland’s translation of twenty-two of Shakespeare’s plays was published across 1762 – 1766. His 1767 autobiographical novel, Geschichte des Agathon [The History Of Agathon], is considered by some to be the first Blidungsroman, rather than Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.)

While all this is going on, Wilhelm finds himself much drawn to the beautiful young Countess, whose conscious behaviour reveals that she is also attracted to the handsome young man. The two get as far as farewell kisses but these occur after Wilhelm is, more or less accidentally, involved in a practical joke that involves him masquerading as the Count—who comes away convinced that he has seen his Doppelgänger (an incident with significant consequences for the Count and those connected with him, although we do not learn this for some time). Forced to part, there is a painful scene which yet points forward, as Wilhelm is given a signet-ring with Countess’ arms on it as a parting gift, and sees what at first he takes to be his own initials engraved into the Countess’s bracelet—although she insists, “It is the cipher of a woman friend of mine…”

The opening up of the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship when Wilhelm embarks upon his travels also brings about the introduction of two supporting characters who were, at the time of the book’s first appearance, of most passionate interest to the reading public and considered its greatest success; and who also indirectly ensured this book a lasting fame that its literary merits have perhaps not secured on their own.

When Wilhelm arrives at the market town where he encounters the acrobats, his attention is caught and riveted by one of them:

…a young creature who drew his attention leapt towards him. A short silk waistcoat with slit Spanish-style sleeves and long close-fitting trousers with puffs looked very well on the child. Long black hair had been set in curls and plaits and wound round the head. He looked at the figure in astonishment and could not make up his mind whether he should declare it to be a boy or a girl…

A girl it is, though she will insist upon retaining her boys’ clothes for most of the book. Androgynous and enigmatic, Mignon weaves herself through the narrative, becoming – like the theatre itself – simultaneously real and symbolic. She is quick and intelligent, though Wilhelm’s efforts to educate her fail completely; she speaks vaguely of a childhood in Italy and longs to return there, but has no memory of how she came to be with the street-performers; she is a prey to her own sensitivity, her health fluctuating with her spirits; she rarely speaks, but expresses herself through song and dance.

Finding the child being mistreated, Wilhelm rescues her and promises to care for her always; and she responds with passionate loyalty and devotion.

But Mignon is not the only strange figure to make a call upon Wilhelm’s compassion. Not long after his adoption of Mignon, Wilhelm’s attention is likewise drawn to an elderly, wandering harpist, whose skill with his instrument is remarkable and who, like the child, prefers to communicate through his music. This second adoption of Wilhelm’s is more contentious, as the harpist is mentally unbalanced, and given to outbreaks of literally insane rage that include violence against children and arson. Wilhelm is fortunate to find a refuge for him in the care of a clergyman, who has undertaken a number of such cases and eventually gets to the root of the old man’s mental state.

Both Mignon and the harpist proved to have a strange appeal, and to an audience beyond the readers of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: they became the focus of most of the various illustrated editions of the book, particularly Mignon, most of whose appearances in the narrative involve a set-piece performance—most notably one where she is dressed as an angel. Separately and together they became the subjects of paintings; while in 1866, an opera written by Ambroise Thomas, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, premiered in Paris: it was called simply, Mignon. (It eventually ran for over 1500 performances!)

Above all, though, the songs which Goethe provides for Mignon and the harpist within his text were repeatedly set to music by some of Europe’s most famous composers.

This is not – to put it mildly – my area of expertise, but fortunately there are those who know what they are talking about and are willing to share.

The music blog Liederabend did a series of posts on the songs in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as providing online recordings of them; while two years ago the Australian arts magazine, Limelight, offered an essay on the history of Mignon and music.

Please note: Both of these sources offer explicit spoilers for the rest of the novel, so you may or may not want to put off any visit until after I’ve finished blogging it. (Because spoiling books is my prerogative, dammit!)
 

   
An illustration by W. Friedrich from the 1885 edition of Goethe’s works, showing Wilhelm, the harpist and Mignon; Paul Léveré’s Mignon and the Harper from 1923; a poster for the premiere of the opera, Mignon, from 1866.

 
[To be continued…]
 

03/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 1)


    “So you don’t believe in any destiny? In any power that holds sway over us and guides everything for the best for us?
    “It is not a matter of my faith now, nor is this the place to analyse how I try to make the things which are incomprehensible to all of us appear to some extent capable of being conceived by myself; here the only question is which way of imagining is the most advantageous to us. The texture of this world is made up out of necessity and chance; man’s higher reason comes between the two and can dominate them; it can guide, lead and make use of chance factors, and only when it stands firm and unshakeable, does man deserve to be called a god of the earth. Unhappy is he who from early years becomes accustomed to trying to find something arbitrary in what is necessary, who would like to attribute to chance elements a kind of higher reason, the following of which would in fact be a matter of religion. Does that mean anything more than to renounce one’s inclinations? We delude ourselves that we are pious by sauntering along without reflection, letting ourselves be determined by pleasant chance factors, and finally giving the result of such a precarious life the name of divine guidance…”

 

 

 

Turns out that 18th century German philosophy is difficult to review; who knew?

Though it is one of the four novels written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the fourth being a belated sequel to this book), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre – usually translated as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship or Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Apprenticeship – is anything but a straightforward work of narrative and incident. It is, rather, an extended rumination upon the factors that shape the destiny of the individual man, set within a framework of reflections upon the German character and mindset.

I’ve spent some time pondering how best to approach a post on this book—and am rather inclined to admit defeat at the outset. While I’m fully aware of the importance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in the European literary canon, as well as its specific influence upon the development of the English novel, I don’t feel qualified to tackle its themes and arguments in any depth.

What I will try to do, however, is to place this novel in its historical context; and to give an idea of how Goethe goes about making his arguments—without going too deeply into what those arguments are. Hopefully in doing this, I will also convey at least some sense of this book as a whole.

Goethe’s first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows Of Young Werther), was published in 1774, when he was twenty-five; a revised edition appeared in 1787. This semi-autobiographical epistolary novel – “semi”, obviously, since it deals with a young man dying of hopeless love – was a critical work in Germany’s Sturm und Drang movement, the country’s push-back against the tenets of the Enlightenment: a rebellion in which emotions were privileged over the intellect. (We have already examined at some length the English equivalent, expressed via the sentimental, Deist and Gothic novels of the late 18th century.)

The first version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was written at around the same time of The Sorrows Of Young Werther, and was therefore like it the work of a young man in the first phase of his career. However, it was not until some twenty years later that, with the encouragement of his friend, the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller, Goethe resurrected, rewrote and published this novel—offering a far more maturely considered version of his themes.

(The manuscript of Goethe’s first draft, a fragment called Wilhelm Meisters theatralische SendungWilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Calling – was discovered and published about a hundred years later.)

The collaboration between Goethe and Schiller was an important one, part of the “Weimar Classicism” movement, generally considered at its outset a literary attempt to reconcile the thought / feeling dichotomy of the Enlightenment and the Sturm und Drang, and which eventually became an influential factor in 19th century German thinking about culture and politics (the latter in light of German unification, which likewise required the merging of seemingly irreconcilable elements).

Within the works of this period themselves, however, the dichotomy was approached, if not resolved, by allowing the full play of emotion associated with the Sturm und Drang—but simultaneously maintaining a detached, ironic view of both the emotion and its consequences. This split-vision approach, upon which Goethe insisted, represents one of the most significant alterations to the later version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which finds the author looking back at his own youthful effusions, rather than participating in them.

However, in broad literary terms, the overriding significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is that it represents a philosophical shift. In its outlines, the novel is that most familiar of literary forms, the picaresque tale: like so many novels in general, and English novels in particular, written during the 17th and 18th centuries, it centres upon a young man travelling, meeting a variety of people, and having adventures, pleasant and otherwise.

What differs here is the intention; the lessons to be learned. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is generally considered the first of a new genre, the Bildungsroman. The direct translation of this phrase is “novel of formation”, though “novel of education” is sometimes given. These terms carry a stricter meaning than the frequent English rendering of “coming-of-age story”, in their implication that the protagonist’s real journey of life is internal and not external; his (and until very recently, it was always “his”) conflicts are not so much with other individuals, as with society and its tenets as a whole. Usually, after much striving and many false starts, the protagonist reaches a new level of maturity that permits him to re-evaluate his theories of the world: he either reconciles with society and finds a place for himself within it, or he creates a place for himself that reconciles his individual needs with society’s demands. Occasionally, he may create an entirely new society, along with other like-minded individuals. Exile from society is rarely considered a viable choice.

The true Bildungsroman, then, is a work of ideas, of reflection, rather than of action, despite the constant movement within the narrative.

To understand this shift, it may be helpful to compare Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with one of the 18th century’s most popular and successful novels, Henry Fielding’s The Adventures Of Tom Jones, A Foundling. This picaresque novel begins with Tom being turned out of the only home he has known, due to conflicts of the most immediate and personal kind. The narrative then follows him through a wide variety of incidents, and his meetings with a wide variety of people, as he “sees the world” (or at least, parts of England). When Tom’s true history is discovered and he is able to return home at the end of the novel, he is older and – perhaps – a little wiser, but he is not fundamentally changed despite all of his adventures. Rather, the book suggests that Tom was right all along, rewarding his impulsive, generous approach to life (although it also brings him to grief at times), which throughout is presented in contradistinction to the self-interest and suspicion that drive most of the other characters.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, also does things on impulse; but these moments are chiefly just to move the plot along. Once in his new circumstances, Wilhelm devotes himself to analysing his decision and its consequences, his relations to the people around him, and whether or not he has yet found his place in the world. These ruminations generally expand to a comparison of views with other parties. At each stage of the novel, Wilhelm is found measuring his life and himself against his expectations and his desires. That he does not belong where his birth seems to have placed him is the only thing he is certain of; where he does belong is the book’s great question.

Self-consciousness, then, might be considered a hallmark of the Bildungsroman; not in an egotistical sense, but in the sense of striving for understanding of the self.

The literary and cultural significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does, however, go further even than the establishment of a new genre. This novel was a major influence upon the burgeoning Romantic movement not just for its validation of its protagonist’s emotions and his demands for self-actualisation, but for its larger themes addressing the place of art and the artist within society, and the moral component of art.

In both of these respects, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had a huge impact upon European literature, including in England. However, those there unable to read German were presented with a version of Goethe’s novel that was not quite what its author intended.

In 1824, under the simple title Wilhelm Meister, Thomas Carlyle published a translation of both Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and its sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years; or, The Renunciants, usually called Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Travel).

Carlyle’s intentions were admirable: he was prompted not merely by his sincere and profound admiration of the specific work, but as a corrective to the prevailing English idea that all German literature was of the Sturm und Drang variety (a misapprehension that might have been helped along the way by Jane Austen’s inclusion of Carl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries in her list of “Horrid Novels” in Northanger Abbey, which reached the English reading public in 1818).

However—it seems that Carlyle struggled with his translation, both in the immediate sense of conveying the nuance Goethe’s ideas, and in the more contentious sense of rendering parts of the novel “more appropriate” for an English audience.

How far Carlyle strayed from Goethe’s original text I am not in a position to say, although I do know that modern Goethe scholars tend to warn potential readers away from Carlyle…which is to say, from the translation of Wilhelm Meister that is most readily (indeed, freely) available.

Very recent years have seen the publication of a new translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Eric Blackall, released by the Princeton University Press, which is now considered the best English-language rendering of the novel. Unfortunately, this was not available here; and consequently I am working from the 1977 translation of the novel by H. M. Waidson, which is considered one of the better alternative attempts (and almost as importantly, the one most likely to be held by a library).

I may say that I did have some issues with Waidson’s text, which was on occasion frustratingly oblique—but I am not certain how far this reflects the original novel, or whether it represents translation artefacts. One difficult aspect of the novel that I am sure emanates from Goethe is his habit of giving his characters a descriptor rather than a name: a choice intended to reflect these characters’ roles as an influence upon, or an example to, Wilhelm, rather than as individuals in their own right. As you would appreciate, it is not always easy, some hundreds of pages on, to recall clearly who “the stranger” was, or what “the priest” might have said; and this aspect of the novel becomes even more difficult to deal with when it is eventually revealed that a number of these supporting characters were not, in any event, who they appeared to be at the time!

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship first appeared across 1795 – 1796, in three volumes divided into eight books. The first five books describe Wilhelm’s rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing and his attempts to follow his youthful passion for the theatre. The sixth book is that construct so beloved of the picaresque novel and its forerunner, the rogue’s biography, the interpolated narrative. Given its own title, The Confessions Of a Beautiful Soul, this interruption of the main plot is so complete, and seems at the time to have so little to do with it, that it has sometimes been considered and analysed as a standalone work. However, its significance is revealed over the seventh and eighth books, as Wilhelm embarks upon the next phase of his life.

[To be continued…]

09/05/2019

A silver fork in the road

I have a clutch of unwritten posts to catch up, so naturally I’m thinking about starting something new instead.

As I have mentioned previously, one of my areas of interest – which so far I haven’t gotten around to pursuing – is the so-called “silver-fork novel”. There are a couple of different though linked reasons for this interest. The first is that these novels occupy what tends to be regarded as a lacuna in the timeline of English literature: those years between the time of Jane Austen and Walter Scott, during the Regency, and the coming of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, more or less simultaneously with the ascension of Victoria. It is generally considered that there was an absence of great writers and writers during that period, that it was occupied instead with popular but ephemeral fiction of limited literary merit, and is therefore not worth studying.

Though this is a common viewpoint, it doesn’t happen to be my viewpoint. Though on the whole I don’t dispute the criticism of the fiction of the 1820s and 1830s on the grounds of its lack of artistry, I do dispute its worthlessness. As we have seen before, literature of this ephemeral nature is often extremely revealing of the society that produced it; and this is perhaps more the case with the silver-fork novel than with any other genre, as it was intended specifically to offer immediate, detailed portraits of the English upper classes.

However popular they were with the reading public, the critics savaged this branch of writing. In fact, it was the critic Walter Hazlitt who inadvertently gave the genre its enduring name, in an article attacking the novels of Theodore Hook, which (in Hazlitt’s view) were not only poorly written, but further marred by the self-evident fact that the author was not even of the society he purported to depict. If he had been, Hazlitt sneered, surely he would not have been so dazzled by a certain aristocratic dinner-table ritual:

Provided a few select persons eat fish with silver forks, he considers it a circumstance of no consequence if a whole country starves; but these privileged persons are surely not thinking all the time and every day of their lives of that which Mr Theodore Hook has never forgotten since he first witnessed it, viz. that they eat their fish with a silver fork

Nevertheless, for approximately twenty years, the English reading public devoured these vivid accounts of upper-class life. For the aristocracy, they were an amusing mirror; for those with social aspirations, a guidebook; for the rest, either a glimpse of a dazzlingly exclusive world to which they could not even dream of finding an entrance, a shocking exposé of aristocratic immorality, or a comforting reminder that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness.

Then, almost overnight, these most fashionable of novels became unfashionable; what had made them so popular in the easy-going days of the Regency and under the profligate rule of George IV put them beyond the pale in a society increasingly gripped by (in the mournful words of Alfred Doolittle) middle-class morality.

The death-blow was struck by Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which managed simultaneously to be the silver-fork novel to (literally) end all silver-fork novels, and a savage deconstruction of the genre. From the mid-1830s onwards, the silver-fork novels began to disappear from the shelves of the circulating libraries, to be replaced by more “improving” tomes; very few were reprinted, and even those tended to be bowdlerised. Within a surprisingly short space of time, it was if they had never existed.

And this subset of writing remained largely disregarded until almost 150 years had passed, when historians (social and literary) began to realise that these novels, whatever their shortcomings as fiction, offered an extraordinarily detailed window into early 19th century life. Moreover, those academics who didn’t let their preconceptions or their snobbery get in the way discovered that among the silver-fork novelists were several who, if not “great”, were clever and entertaining—in particular Catherine Gore, who almost made the genre her own.

Being myself of the opinion that the literary canon does not properly reflect what people were really reading – and disliking the critical tendency to simply leap over decades while supposedly tracing the history of the novel – I have always had it in mind to take a look at some of the silver-fork novels—but my usual impulse to do everything “in order” and “from the beginning” repeatedly got in the way; not least because this story has an unexpected and rather peculiar beginning.

While I was researching early 19th century crime novels, such as Frances Trollope’s Hargrave and Catherine Crowe’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights – which emerged in the same lacuna as the silver-fork novels, and were similarly critically attacked – a strange web of novelistic connections began to emerge.

In particular, it seems that a major influence upon Mrs Trollope and her tendency, not just to include crime-plots in her novels, but to blend together different genres, was the work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—and most of all his 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures Of A Gentleman. And this, in turn, was influenced by Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, which was published the year before.

And both of these had already come to my attention—being mentioned in dispatches, as it were, not as actual silver-fork novels but, with their upper-class settings and social self-consciousness, as progenitor novels for the genre.

(Disraeli, like Theodore Hook, was pilloried for pretending to a knowledge of aristocratic life that he did not possess. Of course, as the Earl of Beaconsfield, he eventually had the last laugh.)

However, this is still not the starting-point: both Bulwer-Lytton and Disraeli were influenced in the writing of their novels by Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and the first version (it was later revised) of its sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. Together, these novels are themselves considered to represent to birth of a new genre, the Bildungsroman.

So I’ve been pondering going back to Goethe for quite some time—and was finally prompted actually to do it by a coincidence. One of my off-blog reading projects (because, you know, I don’t have enough on-blog reading projects) is working through perhaps the first ever “Best 100 Novels” list to be compiled by a critic, that constructed by Clement King Shorter for The Bookman in 1898. Put together chronologically – and starting with Don Quixote – it’s an interesting if highly idiosyncratic list (which you may find here, if you’re interested) that I am using chiefly to plug some gaps in my reading.

(And because I just can’t get enough of lists.)

And at #28 on Shorter’s list we find Wilhelm Meister, the title given to Carlyle’s compiled translation.

What can I say? – I took it as A Sign…