Posts tagged ‘fiction’

27/01/2023

The Old Engagement

 

    “And you have not seen him from that period till now?” I asked.
    “No, not once,” she said.
    “And how very extraordinary it is that they should at last have met, and quite accidentally, too,” observed Mrs Grove.
    “It is indeed most remarkable,” said I; “and one cannot help believing that important results to them both will be the consequence of it.”
    “I sometimes suspect that it will only end in our complete and final separation,” said Miss Vaughan.
    “It will be your own fault if it should do so, I am persuaded,” I replied.
    “As far as I am concerned,” she answered, “events must take their course, there must be no endeavour on my part to renew a tie which was broken by himself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some {*cough*} time ago, Random Reading plucked from my lists an obscure novel from 1858, The Gilberts And Their Guests. Though billing itself as “A Story Of Homely English Life”, this novel is striking for its undertones of rebellion, touching upon such topics as—well, allow me to quote myself:

…the humiliation of dependence; a woman’s right to support herself through her own labour; the iniquity of the double standard; a plea for the revision of the divorce laws; and a smattering of religious scepticism.

The author of this unexpected piece of writing was Julia Day, and it was, as it turned out, her second and final novel: you have to wonder whether critical disapproval might not have dissuaded her from continuing in this new form of expression. Day was primarily a poet, whose verses may be found online for those interested. Of information about the lady herself, I can offer nothing more.

Day’s first novel, The Old Engagement: A Spinster’s Story, was published in 1851—and frankly I found it something of a disappointment. It is an altogether more conventional work, despite its tacit support for a woman’s right to singledom; and it lacks the sharp note of protest that marks its successor. There isn’t much plot to speak of here: the novel is set in a country area, with a background of visits, teas, dinners and dances involving more or less the same people. In between times the characters, in particular the three mature women at its heart, exchange views on marriage, the relations between the sexes and women’s lives in general, among other topics.

Yet despite this novel’s subtitle, and for all this airing of opinions, we never really seem to get inside the heads of, in particular, Miss Brooke and Miss Vaughan, the novel’s two spinsters, to see what motivated their choices. A sense of distance is maintained that progressively becomes frustrating.

This is not to say that The Old Engagement is not an enjoyable read: it still has Day’s rather acerbic wit to recommend it; but it is in all respects a lesser work than The Gilberts And Their Guests.

On the other hand, this should add up to a single short(-ish) post—which is good news for all of us.

The Old Engagement is narrated by Miss Brooke, a settled spinster in her forties (or perhaps a bit more). She does not begin by introducing herself, but rather her friend, Miss Anne Vaughan: a decade or so younger than she and also a spinster, though in her case less from choice than from circumstance:

She was not handsome, she was not young, she was not rich, she was not accomplished; she was simply Miss Vaughan, whom you could not look at without being sure that it was by her own choice she was Miss Vaughan, whom you could not converse with without feeling interested to know how it chanced that she continued to be Miss Vaughan, whom you could not think of without hoping that she would not always remain Miss Vaughan. There was an indescribable charm in her companionship that spontaneously gave rise to these thoughts; and yet, perhaps, her solitude was made cheerful by the very spirit that gave grace and animation to her manner in society, and which I am inclined to believe sprang from a contented mind, and if so there was no lack of wisdom in her perseverance in a life of singleness…

And having introduced her, Miss Brooke then makes the following revelation with a casualness both shocking and funny:

Admirers she had had in abundance, and twice she had been on the point of marriage; on one of these occasions the projected event had been broken off by the almost sudden death of the gentleman to whom she was engaged, on the other by her accidental discovery that the individual with whose fate she was about to unite her own, had been only a few months before the inmate of a lunatic asylum…

Miss Vaughan also has two current suitors, though neither is a particularly viable prospect: one is “a contemporary of her late father”, the other, conversely, a student “whose years certainly numbered not half her own”. Neither puts in an appearance.

Miss Brooke goes to stay with her friends, Dr and Mrs Grove, and discovers to her pleasure that Miss Vaughan will be there at the same time.

The Groves are the novel’s positive face of marriage. Mrs Grove is a devoted and happy wife and mother, who enjoys and takes pride in her housekeeping, and whose own happiness makes her inclined to push when it comes to her single friends.

Just the same, when she learns that Dr Grove has not merely invited an old friend, a Colonel Lawrence Estcourt, to dinner, but to stay with them for a week or two, her reaction is dismay:

    “Oh!” almost shrieked Mrs Grove, “what can be done! Edward, how could you be so injudicious?… I am thinking of Miss Vaughan.”
    “Well, my love, I can discern nothing alarming in that; you have a very pleasant subject for your thoughts; I think of Miss Vaughan a good deal myself too, sometimes.”
    “You could not have thought of her when you invited Colonel Estcourt.”
    “And why not? ” asked Doctor Grove, looking fairly puzzled.
    “Have you forgotten that there was an engagement between them, which was broken off?”

Miss Vaughan gets around.

Dr Grove admits he has no idea whether his old friend is now married or single; and he reacts with scepticism to his wife’s flustered insistence that Miss Vaughan has never gotten over this early affair—going so far as to cite all the evidence to the contrary. We then hear briefly about “poor Lacy”, who was “so long and so deeply attached to her” (presumably he’s the one who died); but for Anne’s “acceptance of Mr Conway, after a short acquaintance” (in between periods of confinement!), Mrs Grove has no explanation.

There is then a brief dispute on the subject of the broken engagement, each of the Groves taking the side of their own friend: Mrs Grove accuses Estcourt of “drawing in” Anne, then breaking with her when his family objected; Dr Grove counters that they were both too young, and the gentleman younger than the lady; and that whatever was done, he is sure it was for good reason and in an honourable way:

    “Depend on it, the marriage, if it had taken place, would not have proved a happy one. Miss Vaughan has escaped a host of troubles; she is a fortunate woman, Maria.”
    “Fortunate! Edward, in having that sweet nature of hers, that would have warmed and expanded so freely in domestic life, left to chill and run waste in solitude. Fortunate! in seeing me and so many of her early friends surrounded with living objects of love and interest, while her early affections, thrown back, as it were, upon herself, can have caused only heart-bitterness and regret. Do you call this fortunate?”
    “My dear little wife, rely on it Miss Vaughan herself does not view her position in the light in which you have placed it; there is a cheerfulness about her that is genuine; I will answer for it that she is not a discontented woman.”
    “Discontented!” repeated Mrs Grove; “no, she is too wise and too good for that.”
    “Then, if she be not discontented, she cannot be unhappy; and if she is not unhappy, I repeat that she is fortunate.”
    “Ah! you men never can be made to understand a woman’s feelings—you do not do justice to Anne’s…”

There is some discussion about whether the two unsuspecting parties ought to be warned about their upcoming reunion, and it is finally agreed that this would only make them self-conscious and the meeting even more awkward (a decision I profoundly disagree with, but anyhoo). There is also some debate about whether the reunion was “fated”. Mrs Grove brightens at this thought, though the question of Colonel Estcourt’s marital status continues to intrude. Mrs Grove also regrets that another of their dinner guests will be Mrs Pemberton—a widow, but young, beautiful, and the worst flirt in the neighbourhood: a practice in which she uses her lookalike young daughter as a sort of fashion accessory, dressing her up like a mini-me and posing as a devoted mother.

The meeting between Miss Vaughan and Colonel Estcourt takes place, not without emotion, but without anything to capture the attention of unknowing parties. However, Mrs Pemberton proceeds to fulfill Mrs Grove’s worst fears. The widow’s sights are currently set upon Mr Johnstone, the rector of the parish, whose somewhat advanced years are offset by his devotion to her and his large personal fortune; but no sooner has the widow laid eyes on Colonel Estcourt – younger, more distinguished-looking, and richer – than she changes course like an Exocet missile. Mrs Grove’s exasperation with her is tempered only by the fact that her impertinent questioning does establish that the colonel is indeed still single.

Also exasperating to Mrs Grove is Miss Vaughan’s own determination to avoid the tête-à-têtes that she tries to arrange between her and Colonel Estcourt. Thwarted in one direction, the would-be match-maker tries another:

    “Ah, Anne,” said Mrs Grove, as we adjourned to our dressing-rooms, “we must not be one minute too late to-day; but there will be quite time for you to put on that sweetly pretty brocaded dress, which I admire so much. I will send Priscilla to you directly: I dare say Miss Brooke will excuse her attendance for a few minutes.”
    “Pray do not send her to me at all,” I replied, “I am my own tire-woman on all occasions.”
    “And, my dear Anne,” cried Mrs Grove, stopping for a moment longer at the door of Miss Vaughan’s room, “that little cap with the wreath of winter berries, it is so excessively becoming; do wear it to-day, to oblige me.”
    “My dear friend,” replied Miss Vaughan, laughing, “I will wear anything you please.”
    “Can I oblige you,” said I to Mrs Grove, “by adorning myself in any particular manner? I have a turban which was in fashion some fifty years ago, in which I flatter myself I should look quite captivating…”

In spite of his hostess’s efforts, Colonel Estcourt shows no reluctance to accept Mrs Pemberton’s invitations, nor any disinclination for her company; something resembling a rivalry even seems to develop between himself and Mr Johnstone. Dr Grove sees the three of them out walking together one afternoon, when he is dashing by in his carriage on his way to see a patient:

    “I hope you ladies have been enjoying this fine day,” said our host, in an interval of carving a noble turkey that was before him; ” I hope you have been enjoying it, no less than a certain fair friend of ours, whom I met, over the hills and far away, under a very imposing escort, having the benefit of clergy and a guard of honour besides.”
    Neither of the gentlemen at whom this remark was levelled could refrain from smiling.
    “How was it. Doctor,” inquired Mr Johnstone, “that you did not pull up for a chat when you met us, instead of driving on in double quick time? Mrs Pemberton’s sensibilities were so much excited by the apprehension that your extraordinary speed was an indication of one of your patients being in the extremity of danger, that the Colonel and I had enough to do to pacify the dear creature, and to subdue a strong fit of hysterics.”
    “Then the Colonel and you must have been infinitely obliged to me, I am sure,” replied Doctor Grove, “since it gave you the opportunity of affording consolation to beauty in distress. But how did you manage the hysterics? As the pond was frozen over, I fear there was no water at hand to throw over the lovely patient in order to abate their violence.”
    “That was fortunate for the fine feathers, at all events,” said I.
    “And especially fortunate, as fine feathers make fine birds,” added Mrs Grove.
    “My little wife is growing quite severe, I declare,” exclaimed Doctor Grove; “I appeal to Miss Brooke. Did you ever before hear her utter anything so nearly approaching to satire?”
    “I never did; but I suspect she has never yet had so fair a subject for it,” I replied.

(Those of us with an interest in the evolution of the English novel might care to note here the derogatory usage of those great 18th signifiers, sensibilities and hysterics.)

Mrs Grove is, however, a less subtle observer than Miss Brooke: as she frets over Colonel Estcourt’s apparent willingness to fall into the unsubtle traps of Mrs Pemberton, she does not notice what Miss Brooke sees clearly enough, how intently the colonel watches Miss Vaughan when she isn’t looking at him, how closely he pays attention when she speaks. Though even she has her doubts, expressed during an evening party at the widow’s:

    This little scene was almost too much for the patience of Mrs Grove. “I wish,” said she to me, almost in a whisper, “that my advice had been acted upon, and that we had remained at home this evening; Anne’s quiet elegance is quite lost here. Colonel Estcourt, you see, has neither eyes nor ears for any one but the little widow, who I was sure from the first moment of their meeting, had determined to make a conquest of him.”
    “And if she should succeed,” I replied in the same low tone, “he will be a prize not much worth contending for; but in my opinion she is shooting above the mark.”
    “You think, then,” said Mrs Grove, her countenance brightening as she spoke, “that he will not be tempted to give up the thought of Anne.”
    “I think,” answered I, “that any sentiment which Colonel Estcourt may entertain for Miss Vaughan must be of a character so totally different to the feeling which may be awakened by the sort of attractions possessed by the lady who is at the present moment engaging his attention, that the interest of your friend can in no way be affected by the admiration which he appears to bestow on her supposed rival; and yet,” I added, again glancing at the party whom we had criticised, “one must not be too secure: it is an every-day occurrence to see the silliest of women turning the heads of the most sensible men, and leading them to commit acts of egregious folly…”

The further we read into The Old Engagement, the harder it is to believe that Julia Day wasn’t deliberately invoking Persuasion. (Note, for one thing, her heroine’s first name.) Certainly the exasperation expressed by Mrs Grove and Miss Brooke as they watch Colonel Estcourt with Mrs Pemberton echoes that of Lady Russell in the earlier work: …her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove.

Though of course what we have here is a gender-flipping of Persuasion’s central premise, with the man ending the engagement for what he believes to be the good of the woman, in doing so inflicting a wound that doesn’t heal—and only later being given the chance to realise the consequences of his actions.

It is presumably as Miss Vaughan’s determination not to let her wound dictate her life that we are to read her surprisingly numerous contemplations of other marital ventures; from which, however, she always manages to extricate herself, or is extricated by her author (albeit at the cost of death and lunacy). Perhaps Mr Conway was her version of Louisa Musgrove. More likely, however, is that Miss Vaughan was – at least to an extent – buying into the 19th century contention that only through marriage could a woman live a “worthwhile” life, if not be happy as such; and goodness knows that alternatives were thin on the ground until late in that century. We should not, however, underestimate the significance of Miss Vaughan’s creator (was Julia Day married? – was she not?) offering opposition to this dogma in the form of the contented, self-determining Miss Brooke.

But marriage and related topics continue to occupy the thoughts of the three ladies. One day, while the men are pursuing outdoor activities, they stay in to sew and read…a new novel that had fortunately just come to hand, would furnish us with ample occupation and entertainment till we should all re-assemble at dinner. The work in question happens to deal with, the difficulties attending a long engagement of marriage—

(—and you better bet I stopped to try and work out if a real mid-1850s novel was being referenced; though nothing sprang to mind—)

—which prompts some serious and rather sad conversation:

    “I can imagine few states so perplexing,” said Miss Vaughan, “few so precarious. Love—I mean that love which is combined both of sentiment and passion—must of necessity decline in intensity as years ripen the judgement and moderate the feelings. Attractions, on the woman’s side, at least, are certain to fail; and the result of all this is, as a matter of course, to produce, in one party, at all events, a disinclination to ratify, in mature life, an engagement formed in early youth. It is sometimes done, we know; but I doubt if it ever be with a full feeling of satisfaction.”
    “I am very much of your opinion,” I replied, “although within my own circumscribed range of observation I have met with more than one happy exception. As to marriages in general that are entered upon somewhat late in life, and that have not been preceded by engagements of unusual length, I am disposed to view them favourably. They are for the most part judiciously formed; and where there exists no striking disparity of station—no startling dissimilarity of habits and tastes—I am inclined to believe that as fair a share of happiness may be looked for in unions of this description as in the love matches of the young.”
    “I cannot agree with you there,” said Miss Vaughan. ” No, my dear Miss Brooke, it is the young only, I feel persuaded, who can find true happiness in marriage. Solace, protection, companionship, it may afford in after-life; but felicity in union can, I imagine, only be found in the sweet spring-time of youth.”
    “You mean, I imagine, that the romance of affection can only exist at that early period?”
    “Yes, something of that,” replied Miss Vaughan, “all that gives to love the inexpressible grace and charm with which it invests the object of its choice; this dies with our youth, certainly. In after-life, a rational attachment may spring up—a calm affection, founded on the high or endearing qualities which we perceive in another—but this has little affinity with the love that springs straight from the heart, and holds no consultation with the head; this last, I suspect, can exist only in youth—in early youth.”
    “Ah! my dear Miss Vaughan,” I exclaimed, “pardon me if I warn you against the encouragement of too tender a recollection of that transitory season, lest it lead you to value too lightly the sober happiness that in mature life may be both given and received.”

Miss Vaughan’s championing of “the love that springs straight from the heart” is thus set against Miss Brooke’s “sober happiness”; and we likewise recall Dr Grove’s contention that at the time of their engagement, Miss Vaughan and the future Colonel Estcourt were both “too young”. However, though by now we have learned to heed our narrator’s pearls of wisdom, there is no question that Miss Vaughan is speaking directly to her own experience of young love, young passion—which was taken away from her by the object of that passion.

And this, ultimately, is why I find The Old Engagement a disappointment: we never really get to the bottom of why the engagement was broken off. We are given only Dr Grove’s comment about the age of the couple, and this early exchange between the Groves:

    “I don’t see that, Maria,” replied her husband; “you seem to view this affair in a false and exaggerated light. The engagement was broken off, if I remember rightly, by mutual consent.”
    “To be sure it was. Anne had too proud a heart to enter a family who were unwilling to receive her.”
    “Well, then, I don’t see that any blame could attach to Estcourt himself.”
    “Indeed! How was he justified in winning her affections, in drawing her into a positive engagement, and then coolly writing to say that his family objected to a connection with hers, and leaving it to herself to determine whether, under such circumstances, their engagement ought to continue?”
    “My dear, the right or the wrong of this depended entirely, in my opinion, on the manner in which it was done; and I have no doubt that Estcourt expressed himself with as much consideration for Miss Vaughan’s feelings as, under the circumstances, was possible. There is no question that it was a most imprudent engagement…”

—and that is all we get: from the parties themselves we get nothing, beyond Anne’s assertion (quoted in the header) that the engagement was “broken by himself”.

As the novel progresses, Mrs Grove gets the tête-à-têtes she wanted; but what this means in practice is that she and Miss Brooke – and the reader – are not privy to the conversations of Anne Vaughan and Lawrence Estcourt as they work through their past and come to a new understanding; they, and we, see only the reactions of each until they are ready to make an announcement:

…we returned to the other room, where Miss Vaughan was still standing at the window. She did not immediately turn her face towards us, and when she did so there were traces of emotion visible on it. Colonel Estcourt now left us, to give orders for the carriage to be in readiness, and during the few minutes of his absence, Mrs Grove and I had recourse to the telescope and the distant prospect in order to give Miss Vaughan the opportunity of recovering her equanimity unnoticed by us. She was looking quite calm and happy when I next glanced at her countenance, as Colonel Estcourt was assisting her into the carriage and sedulously folding a cloak round her…

In context, I can’t help comparing this to Jane Austen’s fine forensic analysis of Anne Elliot’s motives in breaking her engagement, being persuaded that it was for Frederick Wentworth’s own good; of her immediate, and ongoing, regret; and of her realisation that she has wrecked her own life, if not his. Nor, as I say, do we get to listen in as the couple re-negotiates their relationship. And least of all do we get anything remotely resembling Anne Elliot’s indelible declaration of hopeless love.

And no, of course I’m not suggesting that Julia Day should be able to rival Jane Austen; but she could do better than this, and thankfully we saw that in The Gilberts And Their Guests.

Anyway—

There are two points further I want to consider in The Old Engagement

—well, three, if you count this from the sulky Mrs Pemberton: even a broken clock is right twice a day:

    “…it is a serious thing to be engaged, is it not, Mrs Pemberton?”
    “Indeed it is,” she answered, with a slight toss of the head, “and for my part, I think all people who are engaged to be married ought to wear an engaged ring, that everybody should know it.”
    “What! gentlemen as well as ladies?” said the Doctor.
    “Yes, gentlemen particularly,” she answered, “that the ladies may not be deceived by them.”

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot in this novel, and it is only a subplot, though it too leads to discussion of good and bad marriages, that involves another neighbouring family, the Willises. Emma Willis is young and pretty, but not very bright, and rather weak; it becomes evident early to the reader, if not her parents, that she is carrying on a secret romance with a young man who himself hasn’t the best of reputations: though he regarded as unsteady rather than “bad”. All this culminates in an elopement; and though there is reason at first to fear the worst, when the couple are found they have been married out of a relative’s house.

In a way this makes things worse: obviously the elopement was anything but spontaneous, but rather the result of a lot of planning and secret arrangements over quite a period of time; and it is the deceit of it that horrifies everyone.

Julia Day, via her characters, agrees with this line of argument; but then things take a more unexpected turn: she blames Emma Willis’ weakness of character upon bad parenting.

Parents per se, parenting generally, obedience to parents in particular, are subjects so sacrosanct in so much of 18th and 19th century English fiction that it is genuinely startling when you find someone willing to take that particular bull by the horns.

Longstanding visitors might recall my examination of Marion’s Path Through Shadow To Sunshine by someone called “Miss Meeke” (because if there’s one thing I need at this blog, it’s another author called “Meeke”). This short, didactic work intended for young readers ties itself into knots on this point, expressing utter horror at the very thought of childish disobedience, while at the same time cursing its titular anti-protagonist with an awful mother who clearly should not be obeyed. And it never even attempts to deal with this contradiction: Marion stays with her aunt for a while and from her learns to be a better person, but is then packed off again without any advice offered on how to reconcile her ghastly mother’s terrible parenting with demands for unquestioning filial obedience.

The Old Engagement, however, concludes that while Emma Willis is certainly at fault, her parents are too: they have made her this way. Emma, we learn, is inflicted by, on one side, an overly-indulgent father, but one who pays insufficient attention; and on the other, by a cold and nasty mother who seems to enjoy making her daughter’s life miserable (possibly out of jealousy over Mr Willis’ fondness for her): and in negotiating between the two, Emma has learned to tell fibs and be secretive and go her own way—something that Julia Day, although by no means uncritical, treats as only to be expected:

    “It is a very sad business, I fear,” said Colonel Estcourt.
    “These runaway matches usually prove most disastrous, and are soon bitterly repented of,” I remarked.
    “In this case,” said Miss Vaughan, “I think the young man must be exceedingly culpable; for Miss Willis appeared simple as a child.”
    “He practised a good deal of artifice to-night, in his apparent devotion to Mrs Pemberton, and thereby most completely succeeded in lulling to rest the suspicions which Mrs Willis had begun to entertain of his being an admirer of her daughter, and thus rendering her less vigilant than she otherwise might have been,” said I.
    “Mr Willis so doted on his daughter, that I pity him exceedingly: Mrs Willis, whatever her affection might have been, had not a happy manner of showing it in her behavior to the poor girl,” observed Miss Vaughan.
    “She had not,” I acquiesced, “but perhaps the young lady needed a little more severity than we were aware of. I have noticed on more than one occasion some indications of self-will and stubbornness on her part, that were anything but pleasing; and worse than this, she did not scruple to have recourse to subterfuge when she thought it might screen her from her mother’s displeasure; but these faults were likely enough the fruits of the injudicious mode in which she has been brought up…”

(It is inferred, by the way, that in making this runaway match Frank Edwards is calculating on Mr Willis being indulgent enough to capitulate quickly and settle a tidy income on his daughter…and he’s right.)

Julia Day’s cool assessment of all points of this situation, and her willingness to ignore the prevailing social dogma in her various criticisms of the Willises, is far more like what we get from her in The Gilberts And Their Guests.

One final point:

We do eventually get some conversation about Miss Vaughan’s other engagements. Speaking of capitulation, that with Mr Lacy was out of “pure compassion” (in other words, he wore down her resistance); but it is, of course, the other engagement that we want explained:

    “With that unfortunate Mr Conway,” cried Mrs Grove; “I confess, my dear Anne, I never could comprehend how that came to pass.”
    “Through my own weakness,” she replied: “I was fairly captivated by his brilliancy of conversation; and I looked on his eccentricity as the result of extraordinary talent, never for a moment suspecting that it was the offspring of a diseased mind…”

Dear me.

 

 

22/01/2023

So where were we? (Part 4)

To resume:

All of my reviewing threads are absurd, but some are more absurd than others.

In this I include Authors In Depth, not least because the writers who end up being recruited tend to be those whose oeuvres would, on their own, make a ridiculously complicated project—let alone all of them at once.

Be that as it may.

So far my progress in this area looks like this:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon:

The Trail Of The Serpent (1860)
The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana (1859 / 1861)
The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight (1861 – 1862)
Lady Lisle (1862)
The Captain Of The Vulture (1862)
Ralph The Bailiff, And Other Tales (1862 / 1869)

E. D. E. N. Southworth:

Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows (1850)
The Deserted Wife (1850)
The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (1851)
Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power (1857)

Frances Trollope:

The Refugee In America (1832)
Hargrave; or, The Adventures Of A Man Of Fashion (1843)

Mrs (Mary) Meeke:

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (1795)
The Abbey Of Clugny (1796)
Palmira And Ermance (1797)
Ellesmere (1799)

“Gabrielli” (Elizabeth Meeke):

The Mysterious Wife (1797)
The Sicilian (1798)

Margaret Minifie and Susannah Minifie Gunning:

The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— (1763)
Family Pictures (1764)
The Picture (1766)
Barford Abbey (1768)

So which of these threads do I intend to continue with?

Don’t be silly: none of them.

Instead I’ve read the second and final novel by someone even more obscure than these ladies—by which means I can fool myself that I have at last ticked something off the list…

 

10/11/2022

Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers

 

The society of the Dudleys soon rapidly extended beyond their own hitherto narrow, though happy circle; all that friendship could suggest was exerted to make those previously known to them, not only reconciled, but delighted with the resolution they had adopted of seeking a home in this distant region. While those who did not possess the advantage of a previous acquaintance with this amiable family were not neglected, but immediately experienced the benefits of the kindest attention and most cordial assistance. Thus emigration was robbed of all its bitterness; for could any grieve at an exile from their own country, where they had so long been the victims of difficulties and anxieties, when their arrival at their new home was greeted with such warm-hearted benevolence and hospitality, and where they at once found themselves in society, which while it was graced with every charm of refinement and elegance, possessed also the more solid qualities of high intellect and sterling worth, and over which good-humour, sincerity, and a warm feeling, ever presided?

 

 

 

 
 

First things first: Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers is a frequently misattributed book—one often credited to the historian and sociologist, William Howitt, who in the 1850s spent two years travelling through Australia, chiefly Victoria, and wrote a number of observational books about it upon his return to England. My best guess is that there was confusion between this work and Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures In The Wilds Of Australia, which was published in 1854 (and which I may or may not take a look at, anon).

So while you can still find an annoying number of references to this book as by William Howitt, its author was actually Sarah Ricardo Porter—and this is not the only way in which history has shafted her.

I am very indebted to Sergio Cremaschi’s conference paper, “Sarah Ricardo’s Tale of Wealth and Virtue”, later published in the History of Economics Review, for not only providing an outline of the author’s life, but for explaining some of the stranger touches in her only novel.

Briefly, Sarah Ricardo was the sister of the political economist, David Ricardo, and married George Richardson Porter, a government statistician who made important contributions to British economic, sociological and educational writings from the 1840s through the 1860s. Consequently, Sarah has too often been treated just as a footnote to either her brother’s career or her husband’s (she is often referenced as “Mrs G. R. Porter”), without due notice being given to her own achievements in the area of children’s education. She was an active member of the Central Society for Education, a radical organisation – so it was considered in the 1830s – which advocated not only the establishment of primary schools for the working-classes, but the removal of religious teaching from the curricula: it was on this point that previous school planning had generally foundered, since by definition any given religion would exclude a large section of the target population.

Meanwhile, Sarah Porter wrote essays on educational theory, including her belief in the importance of engaging the imagination of children when teaching them (she was, as Cremaschi puts it, an anti-Gradgrind), and a mathematical textbook, in addition to her one novel.

This background, as I say, explains some of peculiarities of Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers, which – alas! – is not really a novel about Australia, but rather one about English social problems in that nebulous period between the Regency and the Victorian era (and, significantly, before the passing of the First Reform Bill), and how some of them might be solved: Australia is merely the chosen forum for the working out of Porter’s theories.

This is also very much a “novel of sensibility”, with the characters making emotional speeches at one another while they contemplate their circumstances, and a great deal of it devoted to Porter’s ideas about the existing structures of English society and the more desirable social arrangements that might be possible elsewhere; her aspirations for human interaction; and the responsibilities of people to one another—particularly the responsibility of the rich to the poor.

As Sarah Porter acknowledges in her preface, her knowledge of Australia was likewise all theoretical: her background information was drawn from The Present State Of Australia; a description of the country, its advantages and prospects, with reference to emigration by Robert Dawson, chief agent to the Australian Agricultural Company, a business founded by the Macarthur family which had negotiated a grant of one million acres of land to be used for experimental projects in emigration and farming. (There’s a much bigger story here, but it is beside our present point.)

Though her novel is aimed at a younger audience, Porter’s preface is addressed to their “judicious parents”, who—

    …are always desirous of ascertaining how far truth is blended with fiction, and what accurate ideas their children may obtain from the perusal of any work which may fall into their hands.
    The following short tale is founded on the circumstance of a gentleman, with his highly-educated son, settling in Australia, and there for a long period cheerfully submitting to all the hardships and privations attendant on such a situation. Although the events leading to and arising out of this fact, as here narrated, are purely fictitious, yet the Author has been careful to make the latter in strict accordance with a settler’s life and habits; while implicit reliance may be placed on whatever is found in these pages relating to the natural history of Australia, and to the manners and character of its native inhabitants…

We will return a bit later to the implications of that last phrase.

Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers opens in England, where Mr Dudley is the squire of a small country estate and lives quietly and (another of Porter’s favourite words) “usefully” with his wife and four children. The eldest and only boy, Alfred (thirteen when the narrative opens, just of age when it closes), is the apple of his parents’ eye; he is also, in spite of an estrangement between his mother and her brother, heir presumptive to the estate and property of his uncle, Sir Alfred Melcombe:

He had accumulated immense wealth by his parsimonious habits, and always declared that his property should devolve on the person who should bear his title. Such an education was therefore sought to be given to Alfred, as should best fit him for the high station in society which he appeared destined to fill. Under the judicious guidance of his parents, ably assisted by an intelligent tutor, his character gradually developed itself, giving promise of future excellence; and many a dream of parental ambition saw in him the future luminary of his age and country.

Storm clouds are on the horizon, however. Mr Dudley is approached by a relative of his own about a business partnership—his contribution to which is described in terms guaranteed to make anyone familiar with 19th century English literature shudder in horrified anticipation:

[He] sought to induce his kind friend to enter with him into a banking concern in the neighbouring town. He professed to require nothing from Mr Dudley but the use of his name, which would at once give character and stability to the establishment. Mr Dudley, unfortunately, was not a man of business, and did not exactly understand the responsibility he should incur by such an arrangement; being also of a confiding, unsuspicious temper, he in a fatal moment consented to become the partner of one whom he had always believed to be a man of strict integrity, as well as of good abilities and practical knowledge.

The inevitable happens: the man of strict integrity embezzles the funds and does a bunk, and Mr Dudley is left to face the defrauded bank customers. It never occurs to him to do anything other than meet the full responsibility and he is able to do so, but only by selling Dudley Manor and emptying out the family coffers. On the remnants of their property, the Dudleys then retire to an obscure corner of France (where they find a small colony of English people in similar straits), where they work at picking up the pieces and learn to support themselves:

    Alfred proved himself a valuable and persevering coadjutor to his father; while the little girls were delighted at the wonderful effects produced by their own industry. When the parterres had, by the united exertions of the whole family, been tolerably cleared from rubbish, healthy fruit-trees and valuable plants were discovered, which had been choked up by the noxious weeds.
    In a surprisingly short time, that which had been unsightly and unproductive, exhibited a pleasing and flourishing appearance. While Mr and Mrs Dudley contemplated, with no small complacency, the improved condition of their present abode, they were astonished how soon their minds had accommodated themselves to circumstances, and how much of content and cheerfulness already surrounded them. They were still a happy family, and were pleased to find that this happiness did not depend on adventitious circumstances.

Sir Alfred Melcombe, in spite of his “immense wealth”, does nothing to assist his relatives; on the other hand, their new “poor but happy” arrangements offend his pride: he demands that, his heir shall not be contaminated by plebeian modes of subsistence, or by coming in contact with penury and privation; in short, that Alfred be sent to public school in England. Mr and Mrs Dudley’s ambitions for their son’s future lead them to acquiesce; and though Alfred begs to be allowed to stay with his family and share their difficulties, he reluctantly obeys when they insist.

While he is away, his parents’ thoughts turn to their future. They long to return to England, but recognise that the country in its present condition offers little hope for them beyond mere subsistence; and Mr Dudley begins to consider emigration. He is still trying to resign himself to this course of action when he receives a letter from a friend, who has settled in Australia—

This gave a brilliant account of prosperity in that far distant land; enlarged so enthusiastically on the benefits almost certain to accrue from obtaining a grant of land there; and dwelt so warmly on the beauty of the climate, that Mr Dudley’s fancy was caught by the alluring picture…

But there are many practical objections to the scheme, including the frail health of the youngest daughter, Mary; and finally Mr Dudley proposes that he go on ahead, alone, to prepare a home for his family in the new land; and that they join him when he has built a secure future for him. Mrs Dudley doesn’t like this idea one bit, and nor, when he returns home during his holidays and hears of it, does Alfred—though his suggestion is not that his father give up the scheme, but that he accompany him to the new land and be his partner in re-establishing the family.

Alfred and Mr Dudley, as is their wont, then makes speeches at one another:

    “I cannot consent, my son,” his father would say: “you are destined to fill a higher station than that of an Australian settler: your uncle is willing, nay, anxious to continue to you the benefits of what is considered the best education, and to confer on you all the advantages arising from wealth. Amid our misfortunes it is an inexpressible consolation that you at least are spared the vicissitudes of our lot. We have not to mourn over the extinction of those ambitious parental aspirings with which we have been wont to illume your future path. You will not, my child, disappoint our hopes: you will yet fulfil all our fondest wishes: you will shine among the first stars of your country—the eloquent orator, the incorruptible legislator, the enlightened statesman, and perhaps the benefactor of your species.”
    “And will this,” exclaimed Alfred, “will this be fulfilling all your fondest wishes? Would you have me become the undutiful, cold-hearted son—the neglectful, selfish brother—who could see his parents and sisters, they who had always showered upon him all the tenderness and affection which give value to life, could calmly see them become exiles from their country, to seek a refuge where his protecting arm might shield them from danger—a home which his unwearied exertions might deprive of its desolation, while he should bask in all the luxuries bestowed by a capricious relative, and unfeelingly withheld from those nearest and dearest to him? Should I fulfil all your wishes by becoming such a wretch? Oh, my father!”—he hid his face in his hands, and sobbed aloud…

Well. His father’s desire that Alfred become an “eloquent orator” comes back to bite him, as after much more similar back-and-forth, Alfred’s arguments finally win out. The two begin to make their preparations for departure (including, as is mentioned in passing, investing some of their small resources in a starter flock of Merino sheep); while the womenfolk give up their ramshackle property and move in with some friends to save expenses.

The journey is slow and frustrating, five months in duration; and it is eleven months before the first letters from the emigrants reach France. (From this point, the narrative toggles between straight description and excerpts from Alfred’s letters.) Alfred, we find, has mixed feelings about his new surroundings:

“We had several fellow-passengers who, like ourselves, were voluntary exiles, seeking an asylum in that country to which the criminal is banished. There is certainly something unpleasant associated with Botany Bay—it always brings with it ideas of disgrace and coercion; and I should, for my own part, have been much better pleased if my father had decided on some other place of destination; but after all, this is nothing but prejudice, and I can be as virtuous and free in Australia, as if it were not contaminated by vice and misery…”

That attitude doesn’t stop Mr Dudley from acquiring a couple of convict labourers, we should note; and later descriptions of the immigrants’ living arrangements include assurances of strictly separate living-quarters—tents at a distance to start, and later a designated cottage, with the convicts banned from ever setting foot in the main house.

(The use of the c-word is mine, however: on the whole Porter prefers “servants”.)

The Dudleys do not linger in Sydney. On board they found new friends in Mr and Mrs Pelham, who likewise has been brought to emigration by their circumstances and by positive reports from friends; and the two pairs of newcomers acquire adjoining land grants, so that they may be company for each other and share their resources as they work to build their new homes, which are to the north of the main settlement (near Newcastle, in the region now known generally as the Hunter Valley or just “the Hunter”), which is accessible by boat up a river.

One of the most interesting things about this book is its attitude to manual labour—at a time when no man who wanted to be considered a gentleman would dream of soiling his hands with work of any kind (recall Sir Alfred’s horrified reaction to “plebeian modes of subsistence”). Porter, conversely, finds not only dignity in labour, but in self-sufficiency; and though they need the assistance of their, ahem, servants, both Mr Dudley and Alfred not only throw themselves into the hard physical exertions needed to get themselves established, they end up finding pleasure in the work itself, and take pride in their accomplishments:

    The first dawn of day saw them at their work, which they did not quit until night. Their industrious example and liberal remuneration induced their servants to extra diligence; and in a very short time some acres were cleared, enclosed, and planted. They had then time to think of their present wants, and of providing themselves with a more substantial habitation. For this purpose the father and son turned carpenters: assisted by their servants, they cut down trees, stripped the bark, and sawed the trunks into logs and planks. While thus so unremittingly employed, they were far from being unhappy. This may best appear from a letter Alfred, about this time, addressed to his sisters:
    “How often, my dear sisters, I wish you could take a peep at us; you would scarcely recognise your sunburnt father and brother in their linen jackets, busily engaged in their multifarious occupations… For the first month we were nothing but labourers in the field: we could then afford no time to the conveniences of life, and were forced to be content with the provisions with which we had plentifully supplied ourselves from Sydney. The flour and the Indian corn-meal were prepared à la hâte, merely as we required it; and we were right glad at night to stretch our weary limbs under the shelter of a tent…

Once the clearing and the planting are under control, however, Mr Dudley and Alfred turn their attention to the building of a real house, to accommodate their womenfolk. Their long-term plans envisage a new Dudley Manor, as far as it can be replicated; but sensibly they attack the work piecemeal, getting their absolute necessities in place first.

The Dudleys are assisted in all facets of their work not only by advice from the Pelhams, who have the property next door (and are also getting a house built; deliberately, front door to front door is about a mile), but the fleet of boat-borne pedlars who ply their trade on the river, bringing goods of all sorts upriver for sale, and for a commission carrying produce to Sydney, to the farmers’ agents. The Dudleys’ first crop of “maize” goes that way and sells for a good price, giving them a measure of financial security and enabling them to move to the next phase of land development and house-building.

We hear a great deal more about all this, and the Dudleys’ adjustment to their new life, but most of it we’ll take as read. A far more important plot-thread is now introduced, as Alfred – having gained more spare time after his father hires more servants, and more “servants”, to do the heavier physical work – begins to explore the terrain surrounding the property.  Out riding, he comes across an aboriginal woman who has injured her ankle, and her toddler; he helps them onto his horse and leads them to their encampment—which we now hear is some “two miles away”. We also learn that Alfred had seen some natives before this, though previously “they avoided him”.

Alfred’s rescue of the woman and child breaks down the barriers, however, and he is welcomed, thanked and invited to stay for dinner (at this stage, mostly through sign language, we gather). It is getting late, so Alfred declines; he also, against the tacit advice of the natives, insists that he will be fine on his own. Fortunately for him, a young native boy is sufficiently doubtful of his bush navigation skills as to follow him—and just as Alfred is contemplating his dilemma, the boy – called “Mickie”, whatever his name actually is – emerges from the falling darkness to lead him home.

The natives, Mickie in particular, become a constant presence in Alfred Dudley from this point on. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the novel sometimes makes us clench our teeth: the natives fall all too easily into “serving” the white settlers; their speech, a mixture of real terms presumably culled from Robert Dawson and a form of pidgin English, contains the word “massa” far too frequently; and Alfred himself evinces a rather patronising attitude when recounting tales of the Dudleys’ black neighbours, Mickie in particular, in his letters.

However – and this is a very big HOWEVER – Porter’s subsequent depiction of the peaceful co-habitation of the black natives and white settlers, and the habits of friendly give-and-take that develop, is striking—and all the more so because, I gather, here she rejects the views of Dawson (who, like the majority of those in charge of settlement, considered the natives as just one more obstacle to be cleared off the land).

Mr Dudley even encourages the natives to live on his property, a touch unprecedented (and possibly even unique) in this sort of literature: Alfred finds the natives – with their “their inoffensive manners and kind-hearted dispositions” – an extremely pleasant change of company from the convicts. While Mickie’s attachment to Alfred has more of the “good and faithful servant” about it than we might like, the boys share adventures in which Mickie is able to show off-his bush-lore; and when various disasters afflict the settlers, it is usually the young native who saves the day with his quick thinking and local knowledge. Furthermore, Alfred later explicitly interdicts the use of the word “savage” by another young settler; and when this boy makes Mickie the butt of a practical joke, Mickie promptly pranks him back—and there is no suggestion that he is out of line in doing so. Towards the end of the novel there is mention of a new school, in which the white and black children were, without any distinction, admitted.

Along the way we get scenes like this:

    Mickie was now quite in his element, and was on the alert to do the honours of his native woods to me. Our first care was directed to the horses, which we tethered to a tree, and abundantly supplied with long grass. He next, using his knife with great dexterity, stripped some large pieces of bark from the trees, cut some forked sticks, and made a very comfortable bark covering, resembling the hood of a chaise, under which I could creep and lie as snug as under a curtained canopy; while daylight allowed us, we collected together a heap of dried leaves and branches, and soon made a glowing fire.
    Mickie supplied my little hut with plenty of long grass and soft bark from the tea-tree, and every arrangement seemed to be made, necessary for passing the night most comfortably. My companion, who knew every inch of the ground, now went in search of a narrow streamlet, which he recollected ran near this spot; he succeeded in bringing a small supply of water for the horses… He next produced a bag, which was suspended to his belt, and which had been filled with biscuit and bread by his friends at Newcastle; he poured the contents into my lap, and with an air as if he considered me his guest in the bush, apologised that he had nothing better to offer me…

Of course—there’s both idealism and naivety in all this from Porter; but the generosity of her vision, another face of the “human connection” that she emphasises so much in this book, is admirable.

Now— This may or may not be the best time to mention that Kate Grenville’s prize-winning historical novel, The Secret River, is curiously enough set at the same time and in exactly the same geographical area as Alfred Dudley, and includes a number of similar details including the river pedlars—though alas, its depiction of race relations is rather more realistic.

And Porter, too, allows a more realistic touch to intrude, when Alfred comes across Mickie being literally treed by an angry, gun-wielding white man:

“‘What is the matter?’ I exclaimed to the man; ‘why do you seek to hurt the boy?’ ‘He is a little black rascal,’ he gruffly replied, ‘and if he do not come down I will shoot him.’ ‘Don’t let him tchoot me, massa—don’t let him tchoot me,’ vociferated Mickie, still continuing his oscillations. ‘What has he done,’ said I, again addressing the man, ‘that you should seek a fellow-creature’s life?’ ‘Fellow-creature!’ he scoffingly answered; ‘that little twisting black thing my fellow-creature! If such vermin not only refuse to be useful but are mischievous likewise, they must be put out of the way.’ I know not whether it were indignation or prudence which restrained my tongue, and prevented me from telling him, how much superior in the scale of being was the kind-hearted Mickie to the brutal wretch before me…”

When the white man is reinforced by two others, Alfred decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and he and Mickie escape the scene om horseback (the others fire at them as they go). Alfred is not quite satisfied with himself for what he can’t help feeling is just running away, however—

“As to my father, he has nothing of the old Spartan in him, and would rather rejoice over my flight than weep over my grave…”

Another interesting touch then emerges. We’ve seen hints before of a changing societal attitude towards the treatment of animals, in books like Milistina and Family Pictures; here Sarah Porter takes it a step further, having Alfred reject animal killing as a measure of manliness, particularly killing for pleasure:

“Our dear mother, from my earliest childhood, so constantly and so forcibly impressed on my mind and heart the inhumanity of being cruel in sport, and of finding pleasure in the exercise of any pursuit which would cause pain to even the meanest creature that has life, that both my taste and my principles revolt from scenes of blood. I could never understand what amusement a man of any refinement could feel in witnessing the writhing agonies of his feathered victims, or in following the chase in the unequal contest of one poor terrified creature against a concourse of biped and quadruped assailants…”

This is another way in which Alfred Dudley separates itself from the vast majority of colonial fiction, which almost always included a hunting scene in which the (inevitably male) protagonist would prove himself by killing an elephant, a tiger or a bear, according to which colony we happened to be dealing with.

(Australia of course was always rather awkward in that respect, not having any large predators: no-one looks tough bagging a Tasmanian devil.)

Mind you, you could accuse Porter of having her cake and eating it, as in spite of a number of critical comments from Alfred, she does include a hunting scene that ends with him killing something—but only for the best of reasons (and note Porter’s choice of language). Mickie’s move to manhood requires that he hunt and kill a kangaroo on his own, and Alfred tags along purely as a spectator:

At length a herd of kangaroos did actually appear in sight, and we were off in various directions in pursuit, seeking to surround some of our prey and prevent their escape. Mickie and I kept together, and we had a long chase after one. Mickie begged me not to use my gun, as he wished to prove that he was a man to-day, and ‘to catch kangaroo all by himself.’ He was fired with ambition, and had set his heart on signalising himself in this important expedition. I promised to be an idle though admiring beholder of his prowess; and after much creeping, dodging, and watching, the poor terrified creature, hemmed in at all sides, took to the water. Mickie, first darting at it his spear, plunged in after it…

This is almost the last thing that Mickie ever does, and Alfred finally intervenes to save his friend’s life:

Now the fearful contest commenced: it seemed a trial of strength and dexterity. The creature caught hold of his assailant, hugged him close, and held him down with his head under water… Mickie’s strength appeared gradually lessening; and at length the kangaroo kept his head under water for so long a time, that I could no longer remain an inactive spectator: I levelled my gun, and shot it through the body. It was evidently mortally wounded; but yet little Mickie did not take advantage of this rescue, and floated, still fast locked in the embrace of his dying foe. I was alarmed, and instantly plunging into the water, with some difficulty disengaged him from the convulsive grasp of the kangaroo…

Mickie is more angry than grateful for the rescue, but is mollified when Alfred subsequently lets him use his gun (which I would have thought against the rules, but anyhoo).

Things continue to progress well for the Dudleys (unrealistically well: applying English farming methods to Australian conditions was exactly why many settlers crashed and burned, but once again, anyhoo), until Mr Dudley begins to make plans to bring his wife and daughters out. Initially he intends to travel back to Europe to escort them, though he frets over leaving Alfred alone for so many months; but he is forestalled when the female Dudleys seize an opportunity and set out on their own behalf, and the family is unexpectedly reunited.

A few months later the little society is expanded again by the arrival of Frederick and Emilia Egerton, the orphaned niece and nephew of Mrs Pelham. Frederick is a rackety young man, whose thoughtlessness causes trouble for his new companions on several occasions; but he learns a few stern lessons about responsibility, and has besides Alfred as a model:

“That Alfred, about whom my uncle and aunt used to fill their letters, whom you know I had predetermined to dislike, and moreover to quiz unmercifully, is indeed ‘a pattern fellow’ but not that pedantic prig which we understand by that term. Dislike him! Had I made a thousand vows to that effect, they would all have dissolved in thin air when I first saw his bright smile, and when, as he cordially shook my hand, he welcomed me home, and hoped we should be brothers. Quiz him! Not I, nor all the choicest fellows of our school could do that; he has a greater talent for quizzing than any one I ever knew. In this he has ‘a giant’s strength,’ though he rarely ‘uses it as a giant.’ He is the very prince of fun; but he seems to have an innate feeling where fun ends and mischief begins—there he makes a dead halt.”

Over the final stretch of Alfred Dudley, Sarah Porter turns her attention back to her social and economic theories. The Dudleys and the Pelhams thrive in their new environment, and the former almost forget their English connections—Sir Alfred having fallen silent since his heir made his choice to throw in his lot with his parents, after sending one last sneering letter to assure Alfred that though he might inherit the title, he will never get the property. But years later, a letter from a lawyer announces that, on his death-bed, Sir Alfred could not bring himself to separate title and fortune, and Alfred inherits the lot.

This event throws a pall over the happy little Australian community, as these events seem to demand Alfred’s return to England. Mr and Mrs Dudley are caught in a bind, dismayed at parting with their beloved son, but still nursing those early ambitions for him, as “the eloquent orator, the incorruptible legislator, the enlightened statesman” of his country.

I am reminded here of the amusing passage in Anna Karenina in which the hero of the novel that Anna is reading is described as, “Almost reaching his English happiness, a baronetcy and an estate.” This was thought at the time to be a wink at Anthony Trollope, but it serves as a summation of rather too much 19th century English fiction.

And of course—“a baronetcy and an estate” are exactly what Alfred is offered here. He has ideas of his own on the subject, however—one of which is that England isn’t his country any more.

We may or may not consider Sarah Porter’s ideas on education for the working classes or on race relations “radical”, but she does something in the final section of her novel that, writing in 1830, definitely raises eyebrows: she chooses wealth over birth; not in a grasping way – on the contrary – rather, she argues that birth only helps you; but if you have wealth, you are in a position to help others.

What’s interesting in all this is Porter’s gloomy contemporary view of England—and she was not wrong: at the time it was a country beset by social ills and, although it never succumbed to revolution as many other nations did around this time, it was closer to it than history tends to acknowledge; and indeed, the passing of the First Reform Bill is itself an acknowledgement of just how scared those in power were of what might happen.

How bad things were getting is suggested in the sense here of Porter washing her hands: she sees no immediate solution for the masses, only an escape for the few via emigration. Alfred’s final decision is to turn his back on his inheritance—rent out his property, put trustworthy agents in charge, and stay in Australia to work with his parents and the Pelhams on building a model community filled with the right sort of people:

…his benevolent mind delighted in planning vast schemes for removing a portion of human misery. Living already in comparative affluence and comfort, his wealth could but little increase the enjoyments of his family and himself, except by being expended in the blessed office of doing good to others. It is always a source of the most gloomy reflection to every feeling heart, that so many fellow-beings should appear to be inevitably consigned to irremediable poverty and wretchedness, and Alfred rejoiced in the idea that he should now perhaps be enabled to rescue a small portion of these from their cheerless and apparently hopeless lot; to effect this, he was desirous of obtaining as large a grant of land as he could, in the neighbourhood of his father’s location, with which he hoped to be the instrument for doing extensive good in proportion to the means employed…

(Note the emergence of that critical signifier of the novel of sensibility, benevolence; though later, note also Porter’s own qualifier, judicious. There speaks the economist.)

The plan agreed upon involves seeking out those of the middle classes and the landed gentry who, like Mr Dudley, have come a cropper through no fault of their own; but also those of the working- and farming-classes who have proven themselves to be “honest and industrious”. The Dudleys’ goal here is not only to give those who deserve it a second chance, but to raise the general moral tone of Australia.

For which I’m sure we thank them.

Alfred does have to travel to England to settle his inheritance. While there, he also sets this picking-and-choosing process in motion, inviting those who meet the criteria to emigrate, and arranging for local agents to take over the work. He then returns to Australia—and his parents have an epiphany:

As Mr Dudley contemplated this scene with gratified delight; as he reflected on the judicious benevolence which had converted so large a mass of misery and privation into so vast a sum of human happiness now collected around him, (happiness which but for Alfred would never have been called into existence, and the extension of which appeared to have no other boundary than the immense sea-girt tract of land which they inhabited,) he said, “Yes, my son, you have indeed more than fulfilled my most ambitious, fondest wishes; if you have renounced worldly honours, you possess far more valued distinctions. If you have not the admiration of the world, you have the love of a grateful multitude; while your dominion is more exalted than the most extravagant dreams of parental ambition could have desired—your sway is higher and purer than that of terrestrial sovereigns, for you reign in the hearts of the many whom you have rendered happy. Blessed reflection! Yes, you are indeed fulfilling the end of your being, and my cherished child is the benefactor of his species.”
 

 

27/10/2022

So where were we? (Part 3)

Well, this is a cheat, or at least the softest option—since of all the sub-sections of this blog, my examination of the roots of Australian fiction has travelled the least distance. However—

My posts in this area have chiefly addressed the arguments surrounding the various definitions of “first” – provenance vs publication – while we have also taken a look at a random piece of poetry, the earliest piece of fictional writing of any kind to be published here.

So far, our Australian bibliography looks like this—

The Beauty Of The British Alps (1825): written and published in England by Mary Leman Grimstone before the author’s journey to Tasmania; not strictly part of this series
The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors, or The Heroes Of Cornwall (1827): an anonymous poem satirising the failure of the Tasmanian authorities to deal with the local bushranger problem
Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (1829): written partially on shipboard and completed in Hobart by Mary Leman Grimstone, but sent to England for publication; set in England
The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land (1829): a collection of satirical sketches by Henry Savery, lampooning prominent Hobart citizens, which appeared in the Colonial Times before being published in book form
Quintus Servinton (1830 – 1831): by Henry Savery, the first novel written, published and (mostly) set in Australia

But as we all know, I can never take a step forward without taking one back; and there is another work from 1830 that I need to take a look at before we can actually make some progress.

It’s an odd work, written in England by an Englishwoman who never set foot in Australia, and dealing predominantly (although not always overtly) with English problems; but it is mostly set in Australia, and was certainly the first such piece of writing to be aimed at an audience that we would today call “young adult”.

Next up, then—

Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers by Sarah Porter.

Beyond that, we take a leap into the unknown. There are plenty of non-fiction works out there, particularly travel diaries and memoirs, and a surprising amount of poetry; but the dogma is that very little Australian fiction of any description was written over the next decade and a half. My next efforts here will be focused upon trying to determine whether that is true.

 

 

15/09/2022

1692: a watershed year

Back when I initially conceived this blog, lo these many years ago, my first thought was a general look at the English novel from about the 1740s, at which time “the novel” was a firmly established facet of everyday life: Fielding vs Richardson was the start I had in mind.

But my brain being what it is, I then started pondering how exactly things had got to the point where a nine-volume epistolary novel with a middle-class female protagonist could be the most popular fictional work of its day. And perhaps even more pertinently, where did Pamela come from?

Gradually, therefore, my plans slid backwards to Daniel Defoe. At that time, I wasn’t as hostile to the mainstream scholarly view of Defoe as “the father of the English novel” as I am now; but even so, the fundamental question remained: how did Defoe become Defoe? Even then, I had no time for the suggestion that the English novel “began” with Defoe: someone must have been before him.

The year 1700 then seemed like a reasonable starting-point, nice and clean—until one day when I was browsing at my academic library to see exactly what had been happening with the novel around that time, and my eye was caught by a modern reissue of a novel first published in 1692: a work highlighting that year as a critical point in the development of English fiction. THIS, I thought, was a much more conceptually valid place to start.

And for quite a while there, 1692 was my choice. I began reading and researching around that date—only to come to the conclusion that there was one earlier work in particular that demanded a full analysis.

So my next stop was 1684’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister…and though I don’t believe in ur-works, if I had to nominate one work as the English ur-novel, this would be it.

But of course, it too had influences…

As some of you might recall – anyone? – my first significant posts at this blog dealt with the still-ongoing controversy over the authorship of the Lettres PortugaisesThe Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun – which were first published in 1669 and first translated into English in 1678. These putatively real letters triggered in England a passion for published correspondence, real or otherwise, and were a huge influence upon Aphra Behn in crafting a new sort of fiction that would later become known as the epistolary novel.

The other aspect of the Lettres Portugaises that made them so attractive is what they were notnot the other dominant form of English writing at the time – not an example of the so-called “rogue’s biography”: which is another way of saying that I desperately did not want to deal with Richard Head’s The English Rogue.

But you don’t think my brain was going to let me get away with such pusillanimity, do you?

So my blog’s actual ground-zero turned out to be 1665: a mere 80 years earlier than I first anticipated.

It’s since taken me over a decade to struggle back to what, in spite of all this, I originally recognised as a legitimate starting-point for a study of the English novel, and an enlightening journey it has been, albeit a very strange one taken via a path strewn with obstacles and detours.

We made it, my dudes.

 

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    Aurelian was growing a little too loud with his Admiration, had she not just then interrupted him, by clapping on her Masque, and telling him they should be observed, if he proceeded in his Extravagance; and withal, that his Passion was too suddain to be real, and too violent to be lasting. He replied, Indeed it might not be very lasting, (with a submissive mournful Voice) but it would continue during his Life. That it was suddain, he denied, for she had raised it by degrees from his first sight of her, by a continued discovery of Charms, in her Mien and Conversation, till she thought fit to set Fire to the Train she had laid, by the Lightning of her Face; and then he could not help it, if he were blown up.
    He begg’d her to believe the Sincerity of his Passion, at least to enjoin him something, which might tend to the Convincing of her Incredulity. She said, she should find a time to make some Trials of him; but for the first, she charged him not to follow or observe her, after the Dissolution of the Assembly. He promised to obey, and entreated her to tell him but her Name, that he might have Recourse to that in his Affliction for her Absence, if he were able to survive it. She desired him to live by all means; and if he must have a Name to play with, to call her Incognita, till he were better informed…

 

 

 

 

Born in 1670, William Congreve started out studying for the bar, and would later have a minor political career with the Whigs; but he was always drawn to the world of literature. He became a disciple of John Dryden, and through him was introduced to the London coffee-house circuit where men of letters gathered to discuss each other’s work.

Congreve’s career as a playwright was short but brilliant: he achieved fame early, with his first play, The Old Bachelor, produced when he was only twenty-three; but he fell foul of changing mores and increasing attacks upon the “immorality” of the stage and, always sensitive to criticism, by the turn of the 18th century he had retreated almost into retirement. Nevertheless, Congreve is considered to have significantly influenced the course of English drama and comedy: his plays are still regularly revived, and two of them have given to the English vernacular lines that everyone knows, even if they don’t know the source: “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast” and “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned”, both from 1697’s The Mourning Bride; and “O fie, Miss, you must not kiss and tell” from 1695’s Love For Love.

After his career writing for the stage ended, Congreve dabbled in politics before turning back to literature, working on translations and writing poetry, and collaborating with John Vanbrugh and William Walsh on an English-language adaptation of Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac called Squire Trelooby. However, his health failed early; and after suffering a carriage-accident from which he never really recovered, Congreve died in 1729.

All of which is beside the point—or at least, beside OUR point—which is that before any of this, William Congreve wrote a novel.

I’ve nominated other years as being particularly important in the development of the English novel: 1689, for one, which seems to me the year that the word “novel” took over from “history” in describing a piece of fiction, and when the requirement to pretend that the story you were telling was true faded away.

1689 proved to be something of a false dawn, however, as a resurgence of political writing then proceeded to subsume fiction once again.

But in 1692, I believe we have the real deal. Not only is political writing conspicuous by its absence, but the words “a novel” appear almost without exception upon the title pages of that year’s publications—one of them being Incognita; or, Love And Duty Reconcil’d. A Novel.

This short work was revived and reissued in 1951 by the Folio Society—and it was this very slender volume (only 71 pages including an introduction, a dedication and a preface) that caught my eye while I was browsing the shelves of my academic library way back when.

The danger when dealing with Incognita, I think, is either demanding of it too much as a work by William Congreve, or not asking of it enough: dismissing it in contrast with his plays. Certainly no great claims for it can be made as literature. Rather, its interest lies in the fact that it exists at all: that Congreve, in first putting pen to paper, turned his talents to the form of writing that was rapidly gaining dominance in the marketplace. Some scholars believe that he may have written it when he was only seventeen, but not published it until five years later, which is interesting in itself. Still more so is the extent to which Congreve, both in his introduction and his text, addresses the reader directly—and what he has to say.

Because the first thing Congreve does is define for us the difference between the European “romance” and the English “novel”: a distinction that would occupy a great many English writers going forward (though the matter was never as clear cut as the English liked to think, as we saw via James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England):

Romances are generally composed of the Constant Loves and invincible Courages of Hero’s, Heroins, Kings and Queens, Mortals of the first Rank, and so forth; where lofty Language, miraculous Contingencies and impossible Performances, elevate and surprize the Reader into a giddy Delight, which leaves him flat upon the Ground whenever he gives of, and vexes him to think how he has suffer’d himself to be pleased and transported, concern’d and afflicted at the several Passages which he has Read, viz. these Knights Success to their Damosels Misfortunes, and such like, when he is forced to be very well convinced that ’tis all a lye. Novels are of a more familiar nature; Come near us, and represent to us Intrigues in practice, delight us with Accidents and odd Events, but not such as are wholly unusual or unpresidented, such which not being so distant from our Belief bring also the pleasure nearer us. Romances give more of Wonder, Novels more Delight…

This is a fascinating passage when placed in the context of the English novel’s very struggle to exist. Lingering puritan impulses in England frowned upon fiction as a form of lying, and for decades authors were forced to pretend that they were telling true stories – “histories” – rather than presenting their readers with something made up.

What Congreve does here is turn that argument on its head: it is the romance, with its high-flown content and its improbabilities, that is “all a lye”; and it is the novel that offers a more truthful picture of life—“not so distant from our Belief”.

Nevertheless, the reader of Incognita may feel that Congreve was being somewhat disingenuous here, since his novel is set amongst the nobility of Italy—Mortals of the first Rank, as you might say.

This setting also highlights another ongoing struggle, the right of the English novel to be English: as we have seen, it was far more common for even those works willing to call themselves “novels” to be set somewhere else.

The protagonist of Incognita, or one of them, is Aurelian, the only son of a wealthy and prominent gentleman of Florence, Don Fabio. At eighteen, Aurelian is completing his education in Sienna when he meets and becomes intimate with a Spaniard of his own age, Hippolito, who is travelling for his own education under the guardianship of a certain Signio Claudio. Unfortunately for the friends, Hippolito has been called home by his uncle, the Archbishop of Toledo, and it seems that they must part. Reluctant to do so, they begin looking for ways around this edict. Discovering that despite his travels, Hippolito has never been to Florence, Aurelian proposes that his friend take a rather circuitous route home via that city, and that he, Aurelian, accompany him.

Drawing near to their destination, the young men discover that a near-relation of a “great duke” is to be married, and that extraordinary celebrations have been planned to mark the occasion:

…Balls and Masques, and other Divertisements; that a Tilting had been proclaimed, and to that purpose Scaffolds erected around the Spacious Court, before the Church Di Santa Croce, where were usually seen all Cavalcades and Shews, performed by Assemblies of the Young Nobility: That all Mechanicks and Tradesmen were forbidden to work or expose any Goods to Sale for the space of three days; during which time all Persons should be entertain’d at the Great Duke’s Cost; and publick Provision was to be made for the setting forth and furnishing a multitude of Tables, with Entertainment for all Comers and Goers, and several Houses appointed for that use in all Streets.

Having found lodgings, the young men set about securing appropriately rich clothing to wear at the upcoming masque but, having arrived late, can only secure a single outfit—each trying to cede it to the other. Their dilemma is solved by one of their servants, who encounters another with a suit of clothing to sell: his own master being too unwell to wear it. Hippolito purchases the suit and, both properly dressed and appropriately masked, the two young men plunge into the revels.

At this point, William Congreve first makes his own presence felt. Having diverted from his characters’ movements with a description of the scene—

…such a prodigious number of Torches were on fire, that the day, by help of these Auxiliary Forces, seem’d to continue its Dominion; the Owls and Bats apprehending their mistake, in counting the hours, retir’d again to a convenient darkness; for Madam Night was no more to be seen than she was to be heard; and the Chymists were of Opinion, That her fuliginous Damps, rarefy’d by the abundance of Flame, were evaporated…

—he then addresses his reader directly:

Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed…

Aurelian and Hippolito are at first almost overwhelmed with the glories of their surroundings, but they soon set their sights upon some fun with the many women present. They decide to separate for an hour, each to pursue his own fortune.

Aurelian already has his eye on one particular lady, and accosts her with bows and compliments. She allows his attention, and soon reveals a nice skill at repartee—rather better than Aurelian’s:

She thanked him for his Complement, and briskly told him she ought to have made him a return in praise of his wit, but she hoped he was a Man more happy than to be dissatisfy’d with any of his own Endowments; and if it were so, that he had not a just Opinion of himself, she knew her self incapable of saying any thing to beget one. Aurelian did not know well what to make of this last reply; for he always abhor’d any thing that was conceited, with which this seem’d to reproach him. But however modest he had been heretofore in his own thoughts, yet never was he so distrustful of his good behaviour as now, being rally’d so by a Person whom he took to be of judgment…

The two then dance, and between that and the “rallery”—

…for his part, he was strangely and insensibly fallen in love with her Shape, Wit and Air; which, together with a white Hand, he had seen (perhaps not accidentally) were enough to have subdued a more stubborn Heart than ever he was master of; and for her Face, which he had not seen, he bestowed upon her the best his Imagination could furnish him with…

Hippolito, meanwhile, is having his own adventure: a woman signals her desire to speak to him privately, and then addresses him as “Don Lorenzo”. Realising that she has mistaken him for the original owner of his costume – her cousin, as it turns out – he decides to play along; although the lady’s hurried conversation raises some alarm in him:

“I am overjoy’d to see you are so speedily recovered of your Wounds, which by report were much more dangerous than to have suffered your coming abroad so soon; but I must accuse you of great indiscretion, in appearing in a Habit which so many must needs remember you to have worn upon the like occasion not long ago, I mean at the Marriage of Don Cynthio with your Sister Atalanta; I do assure you, you were known by it, both to Juliana and my self, who was so far concerned for you, as to desire me to tell you, that her Brother Don Fabritio (who saw you when you came in with another Gentleman) had eyed you very narrowly, and is since gone out of the Room, she knows not upon what design; however she would have you, for your own sake, be advised and circumspect when you depart this place, lest you should be set upon unawares; you know the hatred Don Fabritio has born you ever since you had the fortune to kill his Kinsman in a Duel…”

Realising he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew, Hippolito is about to reveal himself when his companion, misunderstanding his hesitation in replying, removes her mask to prove her identity:

…and discovered to Hippolito (now more amaz’d than ever) the most Angelick Face that he had ever beheld…

He is still trying to think of a way to extricate himself gracefully from the situation – assuming he really wants to – when his companion startles him by mentioning Aurelian’s father:

“I am mighty glad that I have met with you here, where I have had an Opportunity to tell you what so much concerns your Safety, which I am afraid you will not find in Florence; considering the great Power Don Fabritio and his Father, the Marquess of Viterbo, have in this City. I have another thing to inform you of, That whereas Don Fabio had interested himself in your Cause, in Opposition to the Marquess of Viterbo, by reason of the long Animosity between them, all hopes of his Countenance and Assistance are defeated: For there has been a Proposal of Reconciliation made to both Houses, and it is said it will be confirm’d (as most such ancient Quarrels are at last) by the Marriage of Juliana the Marquess’s Daughter, with Aurelian, Son to Don Fabio…”

Finally forced to reply, Hippolito does so in such a faint, muffled voice that Leonora, worried that “Don Lorenzo” is still insufficiently recovered from his wounds, proposes that the two withdraw from the masque. She leads him away from the crowds towards her own house—

…which gave Hippolito time to consider of the best way of discovering himself. A thousand things came into his Head in a minute, yet nothing that pleased him: and after so many Contrivances as he had formed for the discovery of himself, he found it more rational for him not to reveal himself at all that Night, since he could not foresee what effect the surprize would have, she must needs be in, at the appearance of a Stranger, whom she had never seen before, yet whom she had treated so familiarly. He knew Women were apt to shriek or swoon upon such Occasions, and should she happen to do either, he might be at a loss how to bring himself off. He thought he might easily pretend to be indisposed somewhat more than ordinary, and so make an excuse to go to his own Lodging. It came into his Head too, that under pretence of giving her an account of his Health, he might enquire of her the means how a Letter might be convey’d to her the next morning, wherein he might inform her gently of her mistake, and insinuate something of that Passion he had conceiv’d…

Meanwhile, Congreve here grants the reader more information than he has yet given his main characters; or as he puts it himself—

…let me take the liberty to digress a little, and tell the Reader something which I do not doubt he has apprehended himself long ago, if he be not the dullest Reader in the World…

—namely that Don Fabritio, as Leonora feared, recognised the outfit of clothing that Hippolito was wearing; but unlike Leonora herself, he also knew that far from attending the masque, Lorenzo was himself gravely wounded in the duel and is not expected to live; so that Hippolito was not in fact in danger of family vengeance, despite the demands of honour:

Fabritio being much concerned for his Kinsman, vow’d revenge (according to the ancient and laudable custom of Italy) upon Lorenzo if he surviv’d, or in case of his death (if it should happen to anticipate that, much more swinging Death which he had in store for him) upon his next of Kin, and so to descend Lineally like an English Estate, to all the Heirs Males of this Family…

And having caught us up with Hippolito’s present circumstances, Congreve returns to Aurielian:

So, Reader, having now discharg’d my Conscience of a small Discovery which I thought my self obliged to make to Thee, I proceed to tell thee, that our Friend Aurelian had by this time danced himself into a Net which he neither could, nor which is worse desired to untangle…

Aurelian is, in fact, busy making declarations of undying passion to the woman whose identity he still doesn’t know; yet in the middle of these solemn vows, he is also telling her lies:

    Aurelian was unwilling for the present to own himself to be really the Man he was; when a suddain thought came into his Head to take upon him the Name and Character of Hippolito, who he was sure was not known in Florence…
    “I am by Birth a Spaniard, of the City of Toledo; my name Hippolito di Saviolina: I was yesterday a Man free, as Nature made the first; to day I am fallen into a Captivity, which must continue with my Life, and which, it is in your power, to make much dearer to me. Thus in obedience to your Commands, and contrary to my Resolution of remaining unknown in this place, I have inform’d you, Madam, what I am; what I shall be, I desire to know from you; at least, I hope, the free discovery I have made of my self, will encourage you to trust me with the knowledge of your Person.”

The woman, more cautious – and more truthful – then offers “Hippolito” a choice: he may know her name, or see her face:

    …she pull’d off her Mask, and appear’d to him at once in the Glory of Beauty. But who can tell the astonishment Aurelian felt? He was for a time senseless; Admiration had suppress’d his Speech, and his Eyes were entangled in Light.
    In short, to be made sensible of his condition, we must conceive some Idea of what he beheld, which is not to be imagined till seen, nor then to be express’d. Now see the impertinence and conceitedness of an Author, who will have a fling at a Description, which he has Prefaced with an impossibility…

When the time comes for them to part, in spite of all this “Hippolito” again pleads to know the woman’s name. She answers only, “Incognita…”

After a few more confusing adventures with which we need not concern ourselves, Aurelian and Hippolito meet up at their lodgings and exchange love-stories. In the course of this, Aurelian learns to his dismay that his father, in order to put to rest the family feud, has engaged him to Juliana, the daughter of the Marquess of Viterbo; and also that Don Fabio knows that he is in Florence. Aurelian resolves to avoid his father at all cost, in order to be compelled neither to obey nor disobey him.

Hippolito’s problem, meanwhile, is how tactfully to inform Leonora that she has been confidential with a complete stranger, and that the complete stranger in question is in love with her:

    He look’d upon it as an unlucky thought in Aurelian to take upon him his Name, since possibly the Two Ladies were acquainted, and should they communicate to each other their Adventures; they might both reasonably suffer in their Opinions, and be thought guilty of Falshood, since it would appear to them as One Person pretending to Two. Aurelian told him, there was but one Remedy for that, which was for Hippolito, in the same Manner that he had done, to make use of his Name, when he writ to Leonora, and use what arguments he could to perswade her to Secrecy, least his Father should know of the Reason which kept him concealed in Town. And it was likely, though perhaps she might not immediately entertain his Passion; yet she would out of Generosity conceal, what was hidden only for her sake.
    Well this was concluded on, after a great many other Reasons used on either Side, in favour of the Contrivance; they at last argued themselves into a Belief, that Fortune had befriended them with a better Plot, than their regular Thinking could have contriv’d. So soon had they convinc’d themselves, in what they were willing to believe…

Leonora is at first horrified and offended, when she receives a letter from “Aurelian” explaining her error of the evening before; but before long – and having read the impassioned epistle several times – she begins to make excuses for its author, and to find much to admire within. Indeed, her thoughts lead her so rapidly away that, when she catches herself, she is shocked:

    She had proceeded thus far in a maze of Thought, when she started to find her self so lost to her Reason, and would have trod back again that path of deluding Fancy; accusing her self of Fondness, and inconsiderate Easiness, in giving Credit to the Letter of a Person whose Face she never saw, and whose first Acquaintance with her was a Treachery, and he who could so readily deliver his Tongue of a Lye upon a Surprize, was scarce to be trusted when he had sufficient Time allow’d him to beget a Fiction, and Means to perfect the Birth.
    How did she know this to be Aurelian, if he were? Nay farther, put it to the Extremity, What if she should upon farther Conversation with him proceed to Love him? What Hopes were there for her? Or how could she consent to Marry a Man already Destined for another Woman? nay, a Woman that was her Friend, whose Marrying with him was to compleat the happy Reconciliation of Two Noble Families, and which might prevent the Effusion of much Blood likely to be shed in that Quarrel: Besides, she should incurr share of the Guilt, which he would draw upon him by Disobedience to his Father, whom she was sure would not be consenting to it…

We then get a piece of infuriating male smugness from William Congreve, whose male protagonists, let us remind ourselves, have done nothing but lie to the women they supposedly love since they met them: apparently this comes under the heading of “all’s fair”, as no criticism is made of their conduct. Of Leonora, however, who finds herself the more strongly attracted to “Aurelian” the more reasons that they cannot be together occur to her, we get this:

    ’Tis strange now, but all Accounts agree, that just here Leonora, who had run like a violent Stream against Aurelian hitherto, now retorted with as much precipitation in his Favour. I could never get any Body to give me a satisfactory reason, for her suddain and dextrous Change of Opinion just at that stop, which made me conclude she could not help it; and that Nature boil’d over in her at that time when it had so fair an Opportunity to show it self: For Leonora it seems was a Woman Beautiful, and otherwise of an excellent Disposition; but in the Bottom a very Woman. This last Objection, this Opportunity of perswading Man to Disobedience, determined the Matter in Favour of Aurelian, more than all his Excellencies and Qualifications, take him as Aurelian, or Hippolito, or both together.
    Well, the Spirit of Contradiction and of Eve was strong in her; and she was in a fair Way to Love Aurelian…

The masque of the night before gives way to a tournament: both Aurelian and Hippolito don armour, concealing their faces behind their visors, and join the lists; the latter wearing Leonora’s handkerchief as a favour, and the former, having nothing to display, drawing himself to the attention of his Incognita by “bowing to her after the Spanish mode”. Both young men perform well, particularly in the jousting that closes the entertainment (that is, the participants use blunted lances); and both manage to steal away without their identities being revealed.

Also attending the tournament was Don Fabio, who thinks he has a very good idea who the two unknown young knights were; and when the nobles of Florence praise the two, and speculate over their identities, vanity makes him speak out:

This discovery having thus got vent, was diffused like Air; every body suck’d it in, and let it out again with their Breath to the next they met withal; and in half an hours time it was talked of in the House where our Adventurers were lodged. Aurelian was stark mad at the News, and knew what search would be immediately made for him. Hippolito, had he not been desperately in Love, would certainly have taken Horse and rid out of Town just then, for he could make no longer doubt of being discovered, and he was afraid of the just Exceptions Leonora might make to a Person who had now deceived her twice…

Meanwhile, the Duke is busy reconciling Don Fabio and the Marquess of Viterbo, who are still wary of one another, and pushing for the formalisation of the engagement of Aurelian to Juliana:

In short, by the Complaisant and Perswasive Authority of the Duke, the Dons were wrought into a Compliance, and accordingly embraced and shook Hands upon the Matter. This News was dispersed like the former, and Don Fabio gave orders for the enquiring out his Son’s Lodging, that the Marquess and he might make him a Visit, as soon as he had acquainted Juliana with his purpose, that she might prepare her self…

Juliana is anything but delighted by her father’s announcement, and by the ribald way he makes it in front of her friends—including Leonora, who withdraws in dismay, finding that the greater the obstacles become, the greater also her passion for “Aurelian”.

Elsewhere, the two young men are even more miserable:

Hippolito’s Speech, usher’d by a profound Sigh, broke Silence. “Well! (said he) what must we do, Aurelian?” “We must suffer,” replied Aurelian faintly. When immediately raising his Voice, he cry’d out, “Oh ye unequal Powers, why do ye urge us to desire what ye doom us to forbear; give us a Will to chuse, then curb us with a Duty to restrain that Choice! Cruel Father, Will nothing else suffice! Am I to be the Sacrifice to expiate your Offences past; past ere I was born? Were I to lose my Life, I’d gladly Seal your Reconcilement with my Blood. But Oh my Soul is free, you have no Title to my Immortal Being, that has Existence independent of your Power; and must I lose my Love, the Extract of that Being, the Joy, Light, Life, and Darling of my Soul?”

Before long, both young men find themselves having unexpected encounters with their beloveds: Hippolito – that is, “Aurelian” – is so fortunate as to hear Leonora give herself away via song and soliloquy; while Aurelian – that is, “Hippolito” – rescues Incognita from an assailant. Both men plead their passions, and win a confession of love returned; both plead for an immediate marriage, that their lives need not be ruined by the forced and unwanted union of Aurelian and Juliana.

Well. I think we can see where this is headed…

I have my suspicions about the origins of Incognita; or, Love And Duty Reconcil’d. I don’t think William Congreve set out to write a novel at all: I think this was his first attempt at writing a play. There’s hardly a moment in this comedy of mistaken (or false) identity where you can’t imagine how it might have played out on the stage, in particular an amusing passage towards the end where various people keep running in and out of Aurelian and Hippolito’s lodgings, always finding there someone other than the person they expect to see.

In his introduction, in which starts out by comparing “romances” and “Novels”, William Congreve goes on to explain the inferiority of both to drama:

    And with reverence be it spoken, and the Parallel kept at due distance, there is something of equality in the Proportion which they bear in reference to one another, with that between Comedy and Tragedy; but the Drama is the long extracted from Romance and History: ’tis the Midwife to Industry, and brings forth alive the Conceptions of the Brain. Minerva walks upon the Stage before us, and we are more assured of the real presence of Wit when it is delivered viva voce…
    Since all Traditions must indisputably give place to the Drama, and since there is no possibility of giving that life to the Writing or Repetition of a Story which it has in the Action, I resolved in another beauty to imitate Dramatick Writing, namely, in the Design, Contexture and Result of the Plot. I have not observed it before in a Novel. Some I have seen begin with an unexpected accident, which has been the only surprizing part of the Story, cause enough to make the Sequel look flat, tedious and insipid; for ’tis but reasonable the Reader should expect it not to rise, at least to keep upon a level in the entertainment; for so he may be kept on in hopes that at some time or other it may mend; but the ’tother is such a balk to a Man, ’tis carrying him up stairs to show him the Dining-Room, and after forcing him to make a Meal in the Kitchin…

There are, furthermore, various points at which Congreve’s attitude is amusingly like that of those stage actors who were persuaded to act in film in its early days: taking the money, sure, but convinced of the natural inferiority of this new form of entertainment.

But as I say, despite his declared intention of writing prose in which he would nevertheless “imitate Dramatick writing”, I think William Congreve originally intended to write a play—only the plot he came up with was so flimsy, he couldn’t stretch it out to the obligatory three acts. And then, when he couldn’t get his comedy to work in that format—instead of destroying his drafts, or shoving them into a drawer for a later time, he turned his story into a novel.

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen such a transformation. We’ve already dealt with William Chamberlayne’s Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger, published in 1683, wherein Chamberlayne turned his own epic poem, Pharinnida, into a novel; and also the anonymous 1689 reworking of another, centuries-old epic poem into The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton. In both of these cases, there is a clear acknowledgement of the extent to which the English reading public was becoming a novel-reading public.

But—I could be entirely wrong about the origins of Incognita, which would be no less interesting or significant. Perhaps the most fascinating touch here is the extent to which future playwright William Congreve reveals himself as a novel-reader: so much so, he can offer a thoughtful criticism of their shortcomings. And perhaps he did indeed sit down to write a short fiction work in which, in his opinion, those shortcomings were addressed.

In the end, however, the question of whether William Congreve did or did not set out to write a novel is infinitely less important that the fact that he did it at all.

1692, you people: mark it in your diaries!
 

 

 

13/09/2022

So where were we? (Part 2)

I’m going to keep this brief (Huzzah! they cried), because the points that most need making are best made in a different context.

Instead, I just want to remind everyone – myself included – of where we had got up to with the Chronobibliography.

We did examine two short fictions, James Smythies’ Leandro; or, The Lucky Rescue and Peter Belon’s The Reviv’d Fugitive, both of which dealt – more or less – with the consequences of the issuing of the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.

However, most exasperatingly, we also had to deal with a resurgence of political writing, most of which hashed over the iniquities of the Stuarts yet again, while a much smaller proportion dealt with the legitimacy of William and Mary’s claim to the throne, or tried unavailingly to attack Louis XIV using the same tactics that had been so successful against James.

What was strikingly missing, though our wander through this material took us pretty much to the end of 1691, was any reference to the Battle of the Boyne. This may have been, as I suggested re: the appendix of Nathaniel Crouch’s revised The Secret History Of The Last Four Monarchs Of Great Britain, because though James himself had scarpered, the war between the Irish and the English forces led by William was still in progress at that time, and would end only with the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691.

Furthermore, and rather curiously given the preponderance of political writing to date, not only is there no sign of a belated effort to deal with the Battle of the Boyne subsequently, but political writing overall seems almost to vanish from the annals of popular literature from this point.

Oh, sure: Nathaniel Crouch rehashed The Secret History… not once but twice more, catching us up on “the happy revolution, and the accession of Their present Majesties” and “the later reign of James the Second, from the time of his abdication of England, to this present Novemb. 1693”; while some anonymous sadist also decided that we had to hear the story of the Sham Prince one more time; but other than this, a cautious glance forward reveals a fairly steady diet of fiction from this point onwards…at least until the ascension of Anne.

I think another Huzzah! might be in order.

And in fact—I’ve already made a start on 1692, reading one particular work of fiction that to my mind represents a critical watershed in the development of the English novel…

06/09/2022

One step forward, thirteen years’ steps back

I wonder, can I ever make a plan that doesn’t immediately hit an obstacle?

Apparently not.

Having posted the other day, I was doing some bookish busy-work – uploading covers, checking publication dates, that sort of thing – which I find helps gets my head in the right place for some actual writing, when to my horror I discovered on my to-be-reviewed lists what seemed to be an overlooked work of fiction from 1679:

(Before you ask, I disposed of The English Monsieur here – in a post where, I see, I was also complaining about obstacles! – only one of its four parts is available.)

I’ve talked before about the two Lizzie Bates-es; this, however, given the publication date, looked like a case of Lizzie-Bates-C.

After a gawping moment, it was clear what had happened: this wasn’t an oversight, this was a belated addition on the strength of its attribution: an attribution clearly incorrect but understandable, probably the work of an over-officious algorithm. The first Miss Bates, Lizzie-Bates-A, often published as “by a Lady”: this is “by a Lady”, therefore it is by Lizzie Bates. And I added it to the lists automatically without looking at the date.

The problem is…I don’t think I can just let it go.

In the first place, this appears to be a very early piece of outright English fiction – not political writing, not a roman à clef, not a hoax, not an autobiography – just a story; in fact, by date second only to Richard Head’s The English Rogue. I mourned the loss of The English Monsieur on exactly these grounds.

But there is a second critical aspect to The Penitent Hermit. Of course I don’t know for sure that it was actually written by “a Lady”, though I can’t think why, in 1679, a man would have been masquerading under a female pseudonym; I’m hoping I can get a feel from the tone of it. And if this was the work of a woman, it is the earliest piece of female-authored post-Restoration English fiction that I’ve come across, pre-dating the contentiously-authored The London Jilt by four years and our first definite example, Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, by five.

There’s also this, as noted by Robert Ignatius Letellier’s The English Novel, 1660-1700: An Annotated Bibliography, the only tiny piece of information I’ve found about this work (nothing about its author, alas):

A “fairly realistic setting” is not something often found in the writing of this time either.

So all things considered, this is a work that needs examination.

But what I will do is leave it until after I’ve taken that one step forward in my Chronobibliography: in my case, as they say, a giant leap…

 

 

 

07/10/2021

Ellesmere (Part 2)


 
That he had some secret enemies did not remain a doubt, though he could not conceive why they should seek his life. Madame de Grand-Pré was certainly anxious to prevent his enforcing claims which must expose her duplicity; the Dubois’s in that case must be her accomplices. He certainly was not accidentally wounded: the very spot where the vile deed was perpetrated, seemed marked for such a purpose—there was not another equally convenient between Lausanne and the castle. Should the people who were gone in pursuit, secure the villain, he might perhaps be obliged to prosecute the mother of his daughter for an attempt upon his life. The bare idea made him shudder…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clement Davenport discovering his true identity and then taking his place in his parents’ world as the Earl of Ellesmere carries us to the end of Volume II of Ellesmere. From here the narrative undergoes a severe lurch, turning from its English-domestic scenes to an almost-Gothic European-set plot, as Clement sets out again to track down the Baroness—determined to discover her retreat and the reasons for it, and to take steps accordingly:

No longer the ardent lover ready to perform impossibilities to obtain the favour of the woman he had once so fervently adored, he could now calmly and dispassionately review his and her past conduct. Before marriage she had appeared an angel, in whom every perfection centred; but now he found she had been guilty of levity and imprudence in encouraging, nay even noticing him. Situated as he then was, and after she had, as he then supposed, blessed him for life, what homage did she not exact! How often did she obliquely glance at the great sacrifice she had made at the shrine of Love, and what a return she had made for his unbounded confidence! Therefore ought she to escape unpunished? Of what iniquity might not such a woman prove capable?—No, he must and would obtain a legal dissolution of so dishonourable a connection: he was therefore anxious for the lawyers’ answer, but his suspense no longer preyed upon his mind. Having brought himself, as he hoped, to think with perfect indifference of the Baroness, he was prepared to expect a divorce would be the result of those enquiries he was so fully determined to make…

I can’t think of any other novel of this time – or for a long time afterwards – that takes such a prosaic approach to the end of a marriage. There’s no sense here of “What therefore God hath joined together”, no agonising about the rights and wrongs of divorce: Clement wants out of his marriage, and sets about finding his wife purely so that she can cease to be his wife. Given Meeke’s general conservatism (and that allusion to the Baroness’s “levity and imprudence” absolutely captures her general tone), this is almost shocking; and I suspect she allows herself to go this road because the novel as a whole operates as a warning not just about the foolishness of “romance”, but against getting involved with “foreigners”. (There’s a plot-touch later that reinforces the latter in a most annoying way.)

The entire Ormond family ends up removing to the south of France, avoiding the English winter for the health of both Clement and his elderly father. Prior to this, Clement and Meredith are caught on the edge of an incident involving a mad bull, and offer their coach as a refuge for a young woman, Miss Belville, and her governess—the former of whom drops a letter. Rather incredibly, given the usual rules governing correspondence, Meredith reads the whole thing—and so learns, and reveals, that Clement is an object of interest (to say the least) to a certain Lady Augusta Cameron. Clement explains that the two of them knew each other as children, then met again some years later, when she was visiting a relative near Fairfield. The letter also reveals that Lady Augusta is resisting marriage to her cousin (a foreigner!), which her father, the Earl of Greville, is blaming upon her desire to “throw herself away upon that low fellow, Davenport”.

Once on the Continent, Clement and Meredith set out on their quest for the Baroness. Their first stop is Paris where, to pass the time, they attend a play. In the interval, Meredith is accosted by an old school-fellow, the Earl of Harold: a handsome but rather dissolute and selfish individual, for whom he has little liking. He is surprised to learn that Lord Harold is newly married, and rightly assumes that the lady’s money was his chief motivation:

    “I dare say your Lordship has made so prudent a choice, no one will venture to condemn you for having parted with your liberty.”
    “In my place, Meredith, I think you would have done the same. A very rich and very handsome girl fell in love with the cut of my face; and, although not absolutely an Englishwoman, out of pure compassion I offered her my hand…”

Marriage does not seem to agree with the new Lady Harold, however; with her loving husband observing dispassionately that he may be a widower soon enough. Discussing the matter afterwards, Meredith and Clement shake their heads:

    “…he has, therefore, most probably, imposed upon some silly credulous woman, who, I am apt to think, from his account, already severely repents having placed her happiness in his keeping.”
    “I never yet heard any man glory so openly in his own baseness,” replied Clement; “but he is really so fine a figure, I cannot so much wonder at his having retrieved his fortune through matrimony:—however, little as I have seen of him, I sincerely pity the poor woman who has fallen to his share.”
    “If he only turns her into ridicule,” replied Meredith, “she may esteem herself very fortunate; but depend upon it if she has either common sense, or common feelings, she must be miserable with such a character. He did right in marrying a foreigner; for I think no English woman of fortune would have accepted of his title…”

The friends travel on to Geneva, where they try to pick up information about the Baroness’s movements, prior to Clement undertaking the unpleasant task of confronting the Dubois. They learn quite as much about the latter as they do about their main quarry, which tends to confirm the suspicion that her secret marriage placed the Baroness in the power of two very unscrupulous people:

Every one had heard that Madame de Grand-Pré had quitted Switzerland; but why or wherefore no one could take upon themselves to say, nor could anyone fathom where the Dubois’s had raised the money necessary to make their recent purchase, as the husband was only a a subaltern Officer in the French service, at the time he married; and the wife was almost wholly dependent upon the Baroness. This rendered it rather astonishing that they should now be able to live quite in affluence in Rolles, a small town between Geneva and Lausanne, as they kept a carriage, regular set of servants, &c. &c. and were, in short, strongly suspected of having egregiously duped the too easy Baroness…

The financial situation is the main weapon in Clement’s armoury. The Baroness undertook the disposal of her Swiss property with his blessing, but since she was married, the sale was technically illegal—the property no longer being hers to sell. This includes the sale of the Castle de Grand-Pré to the Dubois, a matter which was clearly hinky anyway as they self-evidently could not afford the estate.

In fairness to the Baroness, as Clement pursues his search he is forced to realise how much he is to blame for her behaviour: how his concealment of his comfortable circumstances in England would have paved the way for the Dubois to convince her that he was only a fortune-hunter after all, and that hiding herself from him was her only protection against his inevitable claim to her property:

“Such are the blessed fruits of indulging romantic notions! I could not condescend to be happy in the common way. But I think my greatest enemies, even the Dubois’s, or Lord Clancastle, would allow, if they were acquainted with my feelings, I am sufficiently punished for having quitted the beaten path…”

But the situation as it exists gives him leverage with the Dubois. They are beyond dismayed to discover the Earl Of Ellesmere in the Baroness’s former courier, but not being about to give up their ill-gotten gains, their tactic is to deny, deny, deny. An ugly scene results, with Clement provoked into spelling out just how far both they and the Baroness have put themselves in his power by their treacherous conduct:

“I would have you reflect how little honour you will gain by having recourse to any more subterfuges. I told you then, whenever I should think it worth my while, I should find no difficulty in proving my right to the Baroness’s fortune; though, believe me, my contempt for her has, if possible, increased since that period:—still I now chuse to assert my claims, not because I covet her riches, but because I wish her accomplices’ infamy to be blazoned to the world. I mean to see her steward before I sleep. I have taken the advice of the most eminent lawyers in Great Britain; therefore when you are necessitated to resign your cheaply acquired castle, only reflect you are reaping the fruits of your own obstinacy; for I had much rather debate this point amicably with your friend, than publicly dishonour myself by acknowledging myself her husband…”

Driving away, Clement and Meredith agree that the Dubois could tell them everything about the Baroness, had they chosen to; Meredith advises Clement to go ahead with the legal seizure of his wife’s estates, as the best way of flushing her out. As announced, they seek out M. Monvel, the Baroness’s steward, only to learn that he is ahead of them, having set out for the Castle de Grand-Pré. Clement goes after him, resolving also to take the opportunity to call upon Mr Maynard, the current tenant, as he promised during his previous call there. He does not quite make it to the castle, however:

He had arrived within a mile of the place of his destination, when a rustling to the right, which he imagined proceeded from a bird fluttering in the hedge, induced him to turn his head: at the very instant he received a violent flash of gunpowder in his face, and the contents of a musket in his neck, which brought him to the ground…

(In the interests of full closure, I must here state that I have finally found one point of direct overlap between “Mrs Meeke” and “Gabrielli”, with both of them apparently believing that bullets do less damage the closer you are to a gun, a touch we also found in The Sicilian.)

Clement’s life is saved partly by the angle of the shot, partly by the thickness of his neckcloth (!), and mostly by swift action on the part of Mr Maynard. Knowing Clement only as the man who once came seeking the Baroness, Maynard is stunned and appalled when his possessions reveal him to be the Earl of Ellesmere—

—“Mr Maynard” being the Earl of Clancastle, not only wracked with remorse for his past crimes, but now fully awake to the implications of an attempt upon Ellesmere’s life almost on his own doorstep.

The situation also causes some attendant awkwardness for Meredith, hastily summoned, as it reunites him with the Lady Lucy Killarney. Far from intending any claim upon him, he finds her not only aware of her father’s villainy, but determined to share his fallen fortunes.

Clement reluctantly concedes that the Baroness may be behind his shooting; though he agrees with Clement that Dubois is most likely the one who pulled the trigger. Monvel, the steward, is also a suspect: though he bears a good reputation locally, he was long in the service of the Grand-Pré family, and was the other major financial beneficiary of the Baroness’s hasty disposal of her property. Monvel is called to the castle and told the whole story. He is shocked by the Baroness’s behaviour, but refuses to believe that she could have had a hand in the attempt upon Clement’s life—he, too, pointing a finger at Dubois.

The matter takes another turn when Monvel receives a letter from his former mistress, who begs him to seek her out at the Convent of St. Mary, near Chamberry, where she has taken refuge. The thought that his wife has been all this time in a convent, rather than pursuing a second marriage, or “marriage”, in Germany, as he was repeatedly told, causes a revolution in Clement’s feelings; as do her regretful references to the Dubois. He and Meredith make preparations to accompany Monvel to Chamberry, with Clement waving away his cousin’s fears for his health and indeed his life. He decides to take Monvel’s place, and interview the Baroness himself.

The three men travel a circuitous route to Chamberry, keeping their destination a secret. After taking rooms, Clement and Meredith survey the town and the convent—noting that the high, thick walls of the latter make it look more like a prison. At the agreed time, Clement sets out to call upon his wife.

He does not return…

In the dark of night, almost sick with apprehension, and with his suspicions of Monvel’s treachery fully revived, Meredith calls at the convent. His demands to see the Abbess are refused, while a surly porteress not only insists that no man called there that day at all, but denies that any such person as the Baroness de Grand-Pré is staying there.

Frantic with worry, Meredith turns on Monvel, who steadfastly denies any involvement in Clement’s disappearance. He also warns him, as a foreign Protestant in a Catholic land, to keep his head. Meredith heeds the steward’s suggestion that they call upon the convent’s confessor, Father Benedict. The latter listens seriously to their story, but tells them they will not gain entry to the convent without an order from the town Governor. He proves to be away from home and, Chamberry being a walled city, Meredith passes a night of painful suspense until the gates are opened at dawn the following morning. Intent upon his quest, Meredith pays little heed to the robed figure outside the walls, waiting conversely for entry—

—until the “monk” speaks to him in his cousin’s voice.

Clement’s adventure is the stuff of Gothic novels, though it represents only an interlude in the overall scheme of Ellesmere. It is, however, amusing to find Meeke dabbling in this sort of sensation material. Less surprising is the overt anti-Catholic tone of it: though at one point she has a character speak in defence of most convents, the Convent of St. Mary is the exception that proves the rule—receiving unwilling novitiates in exchange for payment, and acting as a prison for disobedient daughters.

Clement tells Meredith that he did not see his wife. It was Father Benedict with whom he had to deal, who began by announcing that he was fully invested with the power to act on the Baroness’s behalf. After abusing him roundly as a scoundrel and a low-born adventurer, the monk presented him with papers to sign, relinquishing all claim to the Baroness’s property. Declaring himself willing enough to give it all up, Clement nevertheless refused to sign under compulsion—hardly expecting the response from this man of God:

“…remember, your friends are at no certainty you ever entered these walls, and if you ever wish to leave them, you must first set your name to these deeds:—you shall have till midnight to reflect upon the alternative; an oath never to reveal what has passed between us, and compliance with the Baroness’s wishes, procure you instant liberty. If, on the contrary, (putting his hand in his bosom while he spoke, and discovering the haft of a poniard)—but no more—if you are wise, you will accept of your liberty upon the proposed terms. It is now ten; in two hours more you shall see me again;” once more leaving Clement to darkness and his own reflections…

Clement’s delivery comes in an entirely unexpected manner: a female voice whispers to him through a thin piece of paneling; and he learns that in the next room are confined one each of the convent’s aforementioned victims (an unwilling novitiate and a disobedient daughter), who had already been seeking a means of escape. They have a knife, and with it Clement is able to cut a way into their room, there being a way out through it into the body of the convent; while a spare monk’s robe in his own locked room offers a disguise. Coming together in total darkness, the three do not wait for introductions: Clement finds one of them bold and eager for freedom, the other shy and shrinking; he later learns that it was the monk’s pronouncement of the name “Clement Davenport” that inspired the young women to risk pleading for his succour.

Luck, courage and a little deceit combine to see the three escape their prison. After walking a considerable distance towards Geneva, Clement, in his guise as a monk, manages to borrow a cart and driver for the young ladies, sending them on to his hotel in possession of his watch and advising them to seek out a servant called Watson. He then turns back to Chamberry, where he encounters the frantic Meredith.

The two then walk almost smack into Father Benedict and, after an exchange of threats involving the Governor, make him their prisoner and carry him towards Geneva in a carriage secured via a message sent to Monvel. During the journey – the monk’s arms bound to keep his itchy fingers away from his poniard – they manage to convince him that Clement is who he says he is, and that he has been duped by the Baroness:

    “I find I have been deceived,” said he. “I little thought you could have adduced such proof of what I told you would allege by way of frightening me; your Lordship may now depend upon every atonement in my power.”
    “Now you do seem to understand your interest, Father,” replied Clement;—“for depend upon it you will gain more by endeavouring to make me your friend, than by persisting in a wilful error. Is the Baroness de Grand-Pré now at Chamberry?”
    “Not at present, I am pretty sure, my Lord; but I wonder, since you acknowledged last night you wished to be legally separated from this lady, that you should have been so averse to renouncing your claims upon her person and fortune.”
    “Had she come forward, as I expected, Father, I should have made no difficulty in complying with many of her demands; but signing those papers you presented to me last night would not unfortunately have unmarried me—that must be done publicly, and, as I said before, legally. The Baroness wishes to make quicker work of it, by sending me out of the world.”

The monk denies any such intention, and goes back to trying to get Clement to admit assisting in the escape of the young women he persists in calling “nuns”. Clement evades the point, insisting (truthfully) that he saw no women at all while in the convent.

When the carriage passes from Savoy into Genevese territory, Father Benedict is released—and roundly warned about what he says regarding his experiences. The monk turns back upon the road to Chamberry—

—upon which Dubois is later found weltering in his blood from stab-wounds…one in the back.

They really should have taken that poniard away from him…

In Geneva, Clement and Meredith discover the identities of the two convent escapees: the bolder one is Clara di St. Amori, one of the numerous progeny of a noble but impoverished Sardinian family, forced into the convent (though not yet a novitiate) by way of disposing of her; the shy, shrinking one is none other than the Lady Augusta Cameron, author of that very interesting letter to her friend Miss Belville.

I admit to some disappointment here (not with regards to Lady Augusta: nothing at all unexpected there, unfortunately): in typical second-banana style, both Meredith and Clara are livelier, more sensible and have a better sense of humour than their more “sensitive” friends, and it looks as for a time as if Meeke intends to hook them up. However, she must have remembered that Clara is a foreigner: so instead, she pulls an impoverished soldier-lover out of her hat, has Clement dower Clara as thanks for the girl’s help, and so disposes of her. Meredith, meanwhile – once her father conveniently dies – is steered back towards Lady Lucy.

(Who, it occurs to me – it may not have done to Meeke – may well be Catholic…)

Lady Augusta, on the other hand, was placed in the convent by her aunt, by way of persuading her to bestow herself and her fortune upon her cousin – a foreigner! – a match she was wholly averse to even without her secret (or not-so-secret) passion for Clement.

Clement now considers that the best thing to do is to place her under his mother’s care, until her father, currently ambassador to the Court of Madrid, can be contacted. This is arranged, and the party travels to Avignon. There, Lady Augusta’s esteem for Clement is soon obvious to everyone; while she learns soon enough of his marriage—though also, via the Marchioness, who is only too eager to gain this daughter-in-law, of his plans for a divorce.

There is much debate within the family of the appropriate action to take against the Baroness and her presumed co-conspirators, Father Benedict and the Abbess of St. Mary’s:

    Monvel had retired to the apartment allotted him, to draw up a short case concerning the manner in which Clement had been decoyed into the Monastery—the steps Meredith and himself had taken in consequence of his detention—how, and with whom, he had made his escape; which was to be submitted to the Cardinal Vice Legate, who, the steward affirmed, had unlimited power over the sons and daughters of the Church (as they were styled) of every nation, and might possibly be able to cite Madame de Grand-Pré to his tribunal as being the instigator of the Confessor and Abbess.
    To bring her forward in any way, was become so serious an object, that the Marquis had determined, if the Vice Legate did not seem likely to interfere with success, to apply, without loss of time, to the Sardinian Court, and the Sovereign Council of Berne, to order her immediate confinement, as he hardly conceived his son in safety while she continued at large.

While these larger matters are in train, tea-table gossip reveals that the Earl and Countess of Harold are in Avignon for the latter’s health, which continues to decline. No-one is very surprised at this outcome:

    “We learned that she was ill at Paris,” rejoined Meredith; “and I thought then there was very little chance of her recovery, being pretty well acquainted with the character of her unprincipled Lord. But how could a sensible, rich, and handsome woman make so preposterous a choice?”
    “I can’t see any thing so extraordinary in what I am more apt to consider as her misfortune, than as any lapse of judgement,” said the Marquis.—“Lord Harold is a remarkably fine figure, and in every sense of the word, a truly handsome man. His education, and the company he was early introduced into, have given him other advantages; and I dare say he appeared a very desirable lover. Once married, he probably threw off the mask; and, in endeavouring to break his wife’s spirit, seems to have nearly broken her heart…”

The Marchioness is sympathetic, but only up to a point:

“There is a great deal to be said on both sides in this case, though I don’t doubt but Lord Harold deceived her in many essential points; still we must suppose she once loved him, or she would have been more particular in her enquiries concerning his morals, &c.; for upon these more than his fortune, her happiness depended. Therefore I think, instead of sinking under the disappointment she has experienced, she had better have endeavoured to reclaim the man she must have chosen; for no parents would have advised such a match…”

Lady Ormond also comments that Lady Harold had evinced a desire for their friendship, when they were introduced, and hinted that she required advice as to the disposal of her property; though there she cannot feel herself justified in interfering.

All this precedes an expected visit from the Earl and Countess, in whom the young people have very little interest—except the frankly curious Meredith. Lady Augusta, who is using a false name while her issues with the convent are sorted out, and while she waits to hear from her father, withdraws altogether; while the disinterested Clement continues to play with his daughter, now a toddler:

    …she put her arms round his neck, and refused to leave her hold, closely hugging, and repeatedly calling him papa—a word that she found had hitherto procured her every indulgence she desired. He was therefore standing in this posture, unable to disengage himself from her, when the Countess of Harold stopped directly opposite him. Their eyes remained rivetted upon each other for several seconds; till Maria, not feeling herself supported as before, clung still closer to papa, and made him remember he had slackened his hold; but his emotion rendered him incapable of attending to her endearments, upon recognising, though scarcely the shadow of her former self, her mother in the wife of Lord Harold.
    Altered as she was, a second glance placed her identity beyond doubt; and hastily disengaging the lovely infant’s arms from round his neck, he put her down; but had not set her upon her feet before the Baroness, having made a sort of feeble effort to catch the child from him, sunk senseless on the carpet before anyone could prevent her fall…

Alas, though not surprisingly, Ellesmere disappoints me again: I don’t get my divorce, with the Baroness taking to her bed, never to rise again. The point remains valid, though: no other novel of this time that I know of is so casual – even positive – on the subject.

Meeke proceeds from here to absolve the Baroness of everything but abysmal stupidity, placing all the criminal guilt upon the Dubois, who parleyed their knowledge of the Baroness’s secrets into ownership of an estate and a comfortable fortune (rewards for service sliding imperceptibly into blackmail). She did not, for example, knowingly commit bigamy, having been induced to believe that Clement was married when they met—to Mrs Davenport, no less, whose footman he once was. So she is convinced by Mme Dubois—and the Earl of Harold, who doesn’t exactly understand why the latter has encouraged him to repeat a bit of gossip about a foolish old lady marrying her servant, but knows enough to see that it will somehow help him in his own scheme of a wealthy marriage.

The best thing the Baroness does in the entire novel is keep her mouth shut on that point: Clement and Harold are already at daggers drawn, and she fears for the outcome should the latter’s active role in her deception be known. She also has a will drawn up that bequeaths her entire estate to Maria and names Clement as her guardian, without declaring her true relationship to either.

At this point it becomes evident that Maria, like her father, has had a very narrow escape: when Clement prevented the Dubois from getting their hands on the child, the Baroness had just appointed them her guardians and – in the event of her death – heirs to the fortune settled on her…

Knowing herself dying, the Baroness makes what amends she can by helping to lure Mme Dubois into a legal trap, one that ends with her, Father Benedict and the Abbess handed over to the tender mercies of the Church. Dubois – confirmed as the attempted murderer of Clement, and his role in the deception / bribing of the monk revealed – is allowed to go on slowly dying of his stab-wounds.

Her sensation-plot resolved, and the notion of “romance” thoroughly debunked, Meeke then provides an almost defiantly prosaic ending to her novel (one, by the way, that suddenly fires an unprovoked pot-shot at Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication Of The Rights Of Women), with Lord and Lady Ormond making formal proposals to the Earl of Greville, on behalf of the Earl of Ellesmere, for the hand of the Lady Augusta Cameron…who he has learned to esteem:

…he requested the Marquis would solicit Lord Greville’s permission in proper form, as he had no wish his addresses should have a clandestine appearance; he had had enough of romantic mysteries, therefore chose to proceed this time in the usual routine.

 
 

05/10/2021

Ellesmere (Part 1)

    The painful reflection that he now had no friend solicitous for his future welfare, nor to whose care he could, with perfect satisfaction, consign his infant daughter, increased the dejection which continued to prey upon his mind; and for her sake alone he wished to live, as all his prospects of happiness seemed closed forever. An unfortunate planet, he conceived, had presided over his birth; yet when he reflected upon the almost miraculous manner in which he had been preserved in his infancy, and upon the virtues of his late benefactress—the manner in which she had brought him up, the education she had given him, so superior to his apparent rank in society, and the large fortune she had bequeathed him—he considered it almost impious to murmur against those decrees which had doomed him to survive his recent disappointment; and which he could not help acknowledging might, in some respects, be attributed to his own romantic notions.—Had he openly aspired to the Baroness’s hand, and succeeded in the attempt, no artful confidant could have undermined their conjugal felicity.
    His own duplicity, respecting his circumstances, had laid the foundation for this separation, which had nearly brought him to the brink of the grave. Though he would very fain have persuaded himself he despised the Baroness too much to make him regret the step he had taken, yet he had loved too fervently to admit of this self-deception, and at times he could not help cherishing the delusive hope, that she would yet be able to convince him of his innocence…

 

 

Sigh.

As I went seeking for a copy of this novel from 1799, it was made painfully clear how far the new argument that the Minerva Press novelist known as Mrs (Mary?) Meeke was actually Elizabeth Meeke has propagated.

I’ve made my thoughts on this subject clear in a previous post: briefly, that having ended up with two writers of the same name on his roster, William Lane made the second of them use a pseudonym, resulting in some novels by “Mrs Meeke” and some by “Gabrielli”. That these are indeed two different people, rather than one woman using two authorial names, is clear enough if you’ve read their books…but I’m quite sure I’m the only one who has, whatever other research might have been done in this area.

I have no means of halting the spread of what I believe to be misinformation, but I do have one more detail to add to my counter-argument: the fact that, as can be seen on the title page above, the ‘by the author of’ statement from the Minerva Press includes only those novels by “Mrs Meeke”, and none by “Gabrielli”.

Anyway—

Despite it running four volumes, I’m sure I can get through this review of Ellesmere in two posts—the first one being shorter than usual, as I certainly don’t want to dwell more than I have to upon the exasperating first volume and a half, which focus upon two young people behaving (each in their own way) in a frustratingly stupid manner. Thankfully, the novel improves from that point—amusingly repositioning what is ordinarily the favourite Meeke climactic revelation to the middle of Volume II and then involving its hero in some rather Gothicky adventures.

As with Meeke’s previous novels, Ellesmere lays much of its action on the Continent prior to the French Revolution—which at least this time she doesn’t pretend never happened, though nothing in its French-set passages even hint at discontent. It opens, however, in England, with the overturning of a London-bound coach and the death of a woman carrying a baby. The child is unhurt, and is rescued by a middle-aged widow called Mrs Davenport. Childless herself, she quickly becomes attached to the baby; though she scrupulously does everything in her power to find his people. None of her questioning or advertising brings information beyond where the dead woman boarded the coach, and that offers no pleasing interpretation of the baby’s background—he most likely being the bastard one of the soldiers whose regiment departed just before the still-unidentified woman likewise left town.

Regardless, Mrs Davenport decides to raise the boy herself; and she earns the disapproval of her gossipy neighbours by having him christened “Clement Davenport”. Accepting the likely lowness of his birth, Mrs Davenport resolves to prepare him to earn his own living and plans to send him to India, where his presumed origins will least hamper his rise in the world. However, as the boy grows her attachment to him becomes such that she cannot bring herself to part with him—somewhat to his own disappointment, as he too accepts his position and his need to fend for himself. Finally Mrs Davenport goes all out—willing to the young man Fairfield, her estate near London, and nearly all of her fortune, amounting to some £5000 a year.

Inheriting this property at the age of twenty, Clement consults with Dr Lewis, the clergyman who educated him and acted as Mrs Davenport’s co-adjutant during his upbringing, and decides to undertake the Grand Tour. He soon finds himself in Geneva with a group of friends—for the most part, young aristocrats whose birth is better than his, but their purses much slimmer. And it is there that Clement first hears of the beautiful and wealthy young Baroness de Grand-Pré, and her declaration that she will never marry except for love.

Here we must – or anyway, shall – cut a long story short: Clement becomes fixated upon the idea of being “loved for himself”, and enters the Baroness’s service as her courier; while she, in turn, cannot believe that his handsome, cultured, obviously adoring young man is anything less than an aristocrat in disguise, despite him being in service and what he says about his origins. The two fall in love and secretly marry—not without extreme qualms on the Baroness’s side, with her genuine feeling for Clement battling against the pride and ambition instilled in her by her English mother, who taught her to think of marriage to an English nobleman as the proper goal of her life.

Clement, meanwhile, has foolishly concealed his comfortable circumstances—planning on springing them on his bride as a pleasant surprise when they eventually reach England. First they spend a year together travelling through France and Italy, finally settling near Florence, where the Baroness gives birth to a daughter, named Maria for her mother. During this time, the Baroness begins to divest herself of her Swiss property, the young couple agreeing to a fresh start where their backgrounds are not known. Clement from the start has, despite the 18th century marriage laws, refused to take any of his wife’s money, and leaves her to dispose of her property as she chooses.

All this seems properly “romantic”—but if we have learned anything about Mary Meeke, it is that she thoroughly disapproved of “romance”. Her characters might esteem one another; they might even be permitted to feel a passion; but the intrusion into her narrative of romance invariably signals disaster, and so it is here. Clement’s scheme of posing as a servant – which even he sees before long was incredibly foolish, though he can’t bring himself to withdraw – and the Baroness’s certainty that her servant is in fact a nobleman, are both repeatedly designated – not to say stigmatised – as “romantic”; and we are not altogether surprised when their relationship implodes.

Meeke is roundly critical of both her characters—of Clement for mistaking the Baroness’s beauty and manners for character, and of the Baroness for, well…

…unfortunately, she imbibed a very romantic turn of mind, which was greatly encouraged by being permitted to read indiscriminately every novel that found its way to Vevay, the nearest town. This induced her frequently to make the declaration Mr Haller had repeated, and to peremptorily refuse a German Nobleman of the first rank, who accompanied her father into Switzerland, purposely to make her an offer of his hand. The Baron would probably have enforced obedience, had not an apoplectic stroke carried him off almost immediately, and thus left his fair daughter at liberty to pursue the dictates of her romantic imagination…

(Two “romantics” in one paragraph, oh dear. Note also Clement’s condemnation of his own “romantic notions” in the header-quote.)

There is a serpent in Eden in the form of Mademoiselle Denisir, a ward of the Baroness’s late father who acts as her companion. Behaving at any moment in a way best calculated to guarantee her own ongoing comfort and security, having encouraged the Baroness in her marriage to this supposed aristocrat, Mlle Denisir now begins poisoning her mind against her husband, and convincing her that she has thrown herself away on a base-born adventurer and fortune-hunter.

A crisis occurs when Clement is hurriedly summoned back to England to the deathbed of Dr Lewis, though he dies before his young pupil arrives. Clement must stay in England some time to settle his friend’s affairs, and also orders work done at Fairfield, in preparation for the arrival of his family. When he returns to the Continent, he finds his wife strangely elusive—sending letters of excuse rather than coming to him herself, and then falling silent. He discovers the baby and her nurse where they were left, in “Chamberry” (Chambéry) and makes plans to send them to England, but can find no trace of his wife. Upon returning to Grand-Pré, he finds it occupied by an Englishman, Mr Maynard, and his daughter: Maynard tells Clement that he rented it from M. Monvel, the Baroness’s former steward, who in turn had leased it from its new purchaser, a man called Dubois.

Clement continues to search for his wife, but the trail runs cold until an accidental encounter with Mlle Denisir – or rather, Mme Dubois – who astonishes and enrages him by speaking of him to her new husband as “the Baroness’s former courier” and denouncing him when he dares refer to their marriage; telling him, in fact, that the Baroness has gone into Germany to make preparations for her upcoming wedding…

Conversely, Clement’s revelation that he has already removed the baby and Jeanette, her nurse, from Chamberry obviously causes Mme Dubois great chagrin—which convinces Clement that they had been sent by the Baroness to bring the child to her. The meeting ends in an exchange of threats, and Clement retreats to lick his wounds:

…he now sunk under the mortifying reflection, that the obscurity of his birth had afforded his wife an opportunity of taking so base an advantage of his credulity, and of, perhaps, sheltering herself from his claims in the arms of some more fortunate rival.
Whenever this notion occurred to him, and it was generally uppermost in his thoughts, he resolved to proclaim his marriage, and thus make her as miserable as she had succeeded in making him…

Clement’s health subsequently collapses; and though the doctors pull him through, they fear he is sinking into a decline that must soon be fatal. He manages to rally under the stimulus of two forces: the thought of the precarious position his daughter would be left in, if he died without first settling his affairs; and a friendship formed with a young Welshman, Edwin Meredith. The two young men, indeed, swiftly become inseparable; and Meredith invites Clement to his own home in the foothills of the mountains of Wales. Having settled Jeanette and the baby at Fairfield, he accepts. Though his health remains somewhat precarious, and he tires easily, Clement begins to recover under the generous care of his new friend.

Though a commoner, Meredith is very well-connected, being nephew to the Marquis and Marchioness of Ormond, whose estate adjoins his own property. He runs tame in their household, and soon confides in them his friend’s troubles—as much as he knows, Clement having maintained a strict silence about the exact nature of what is so obviously preying upon his mind and undermining his constitution:

“From some disappointment of a very tender nature, I am of the opinion,” he answered, “from the visible indifference with which he seems to regard the fair sex. Had he been in mourning, I should have been tempted to suspect he had lost a beloved wife; but that not being the case, I attribute his melancholy to the death, or, at least, to the loss of a favourite lady. He certainly has been one of the handsomest men in England, nay, I hardly know whether he is not so still; though grief and bad health have robbed his cheeks of their colour, and his eyes of their natural lustre and animation. His person is as faultless as his face, and his manners and conversation are at once refined and fascinating; altogether he is, without exception, one of the most agreeable companions I ever met with; and I don’t think, short as has been our acquaintance, I could feel a much stronger regard for an only brother…”

Clement is subsequently introduced to the elderly Marquis and his much younger second wife. The latter fancies herself something of a healer, and takes the young man under her wing. Various comments from Meredith have alerted Clement to the Ormonds having suffered some cruel blow; while we have been privy to references to the Earl of Clancastle, the Marquis’s brother-in-law, being their enemy. The Marchioness is subject to outbreaks of uncontrollable grief; and there are allusions to a newspaper advertisement which has to date brought no response.

While the Ormonds and Meredith are debating how next to proceed, Clement picks up the newspaper in question and, rather than ask awkward questions, satisfies his curiosity by reading the advertisement in question:

“TEN THOUSAND POUNDS REWARD: Whereas, it has lately been discovered, that the infant son of a noble family was, for the basest of purposes, about one-and-twenty years ago, removed from under the protection of his parents, who were led to believe him no more, a dead child having been substituted in his stead, to further this iniquitous deception; there is every reason to believe, from the confession of one of the accomplices in this vile plot, that he is still living; in which case he bears a mark of two vowels, duplicates of which are in his parents’ hands, who dare not be more explicit, for fear of exposing themselves to a further imposition…”

So. Once again cutting a very long story short, the current Earl of Clancastle is a man risen from Irish obscurity, advancing through a naval career to the rank of Admiral, and then via marriage to the acquisition of a title. Obsessed with his sons advancing even more, he began to dream of their inheritance of the Ormond title and property, due to the Marquis having no heir—never dreaming that his widowed brother-in-law would remarry late in life and have a son. His subsequent mixture of intemperate threats and promised rewards with regard to his nephew moved his servant to take him at his word. Discovering that his sister’s baby had just died of convulsions, Gwillim managed to smuggle the body into the nursery, removing the infant Earl of Ellesmere and – having marked the child so he could be identified in the future – handed him into his sister’s care; allowing Lord Clancastle to believe, however, that the child had, ahem, mysteriously died.

So, yes—once again, my friends, say it with me:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

The sister is of course the anonymous woman killed in the opening scene, and “Clement Davenport” is of course Alfred Ormond, Earl of Ellesmere (though everyone continues to call him “Clement”, and so shall we).

This is Meeke’s most beloved and well-used plot-trick, but instead of keeping this revelation for the climax of her novel, in Ellesmere she puts it to very different use by foregrounding the relationship between her hero and his parents. Furthermore, though the point is never made overtly, Meeke indulges herself in a wicked irony: the fact that, when she allowed her “romantic imagination” to convince her that her servant was an aristocrat in disguise, the Baroness was absolutely right—only to end up spending three volumes fleeing exactly the husband her ambition would have chosen.

Anyway—after the hysteria recedes somewhat, it is revealed that, having believed their son dead for twenty years, the Ormonds only recently learned better when the Marquis and Meredith were present to receive the dying confession of Gwillim…who put the blame firmly upon Lord Clancastle.

Retribution had already caught up with Clancastle, with the sons for whose benefit he concocted his evil scheme both dying in action. In the wake of his bereavement, remorse took hold; and, when confronted by this ghost of his past, the Earl fled the country—taking with him his surviving child, the Lady Lucy Killarney, and causing a painful dilemma for Meredith who, though “esteeming” Lady Lucy, feels that under the circumstances he cannot marry her.

The discovery of his parents and his cousin – and of his own title and wealth, which Meeke is amusingly upfront about – and the mutual joy of the newly reunited family, completes the restoration of Clement’s health. Even his marital situation no longer has the ability to hurt him, though he dreads having to confess it to the others:

…who would probably, and very justly, blame him for having indulged the romantic notion of being loved for himself. Well, they could not condemn his conduct more than he did himself…

Clement does finally tell his story, begging his parents for their advice. Lady Ormond immediately sends for the baby, while her husband ponders his son’s situation:

    As for her mother, he hardly knew what to say: there was a bare possibility that she was not so much to blame as she appeared;—the Dubois’s seemed very designing people. Situated as his son then was, he saw nothing blameable in his disguise—it was a romantic notion, and many more young people had been attracted by the same impulse; besides it certainly afford him an opportunity of studying the Baroness’s character, rarely to be obtained.
    “But did not the blind God, my dear Clement,” he continued, “prevent you from perceiving her faults? I can’t acquit her of imprudence, even before she married—nor you of an excess of complaisance in leaving everything at her disposal. If she has abused your noble confidence, she is indeed unworthy your regret: this time alone must discover;—there is great reason to suppose that she has done neither you, nor her daughter justice; but if she seeks the child, I shall think that she has suffered herself to be misled by her artful friend…”

Lady Ormond and Meredith also weigh in, agreeing that the matter must be investigated and the Baroness’s degree of guilt, or credulity, determined, before Clement can judge how best to behave in future.

But Clement sees no way in which his wife can explain her behaviour to his satisfaction; nor does he intend to dwell upon the matter any longer:

“My prospects are now very different, and I should be unpardonable were I to suffer the desertion of an unprincipled woman any longer to affect either my health or spirits;—situated as I was at the time, it was hardly excusable, but it was a very severe disappointment.—Love and vanity, arising from the supposed preference I had met with, as my father very justly remarked, had blinded me to the imperfections of the heroine of my romance; and to find my goddess a mere mortal, was truly mortifying to my pride…”

 

[To be continued…]

27/08/2021

Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (Part 2)


 
He had studied Louisa, as only the peculiar circumstances of her fortune could have permitted him to have done. He had seen her virtues, like the white blossom of the almond-tree, adorning the bare and leafless bough of withering poverty; he had seen her choose the path of difficulty, rather than accept the aids which would have made her way more easy, lest the breath of suspicion should sully any part of her conduct. He had seen her pass through the ordeal of distress, of insult, and of injury—and the sudden reverse of prosperity, of flattery, and of homage—unchanged through all;—in adversity undebased, in success uninflated; in suffering, meek and patient; in gratitude, deep and fervent; and hiding, under an apparent fortitude, the bleeding sensibility of her heart. No weak appeals, no permitted tears, sought to move interest and compassion; the convulsion that shook her soul, was only revealed by its influence on her frame; and her courage held her on her way, long after her strength was exhausted. Such a being comes not often from the hands of Nature—such a being was not easily resigned…

 

 

 

 

Be all this as it may, its provenance is the only Australian thing about Louisa Egerton…other than a tiny, throwaway detail towards the end, which we shall deal with in due course.

Set almost entirely amongst the English aristocracy, this is a rather serious, domestic / didactic novel: an improvement on The Beauty Of The British Alps in a literary sense, but generally a lot less fun. It is also overlong and frankly overwritten, full of moralising lectures and detailed descriptions and analyses of even minor characters; although its most exasperating touch is a lengthy – and unnecessary – interpolated narrative inserted right in the middle of its climax. (And there’s a second, shorter one only 50 pages from the end!)

In fact, it seems likely to me that the two-volume, 1830 edition of Louisa Egerton used Grimsone’s original, unedited (and already typeset) text, because this version of the novel is believably the work of a woman with a lot of time on her hands, but who hadn’t gotten around to doing any revision.

My suspicion is that while Grimstone’s first novel was popular with the public, it may have been criticised for its mixed characters and its general lack of didacticism: something which makes it appealing today, but would have been frowned upon in 1825. If so, Grimstone took the criticisms to heart: while she retains her penchant for mixed characters in Louisa Egerton, she does not this time go so far as having a hero and heroine who fit that description. On the contrary (as the quote above makes clear), Louisa is all but flawless; and so is the man who recognises her as his soulmate.

In such a long novel, this might have been hard to bear, particularly as Louisa’s perfections take the form of an absolute determination to immolate herself on the shrine of “duty” and “honour”. However, Grimstone leavens the dose in a number of ways, including the creation of an effective co-heroine in the Lady Alicia Herbert, whose outspokenness and force of character make a welcome contrast to Louisa’s sensitivity and shrinking silences. Furthermore, in what is a very crowded, multi-plotted story, Grimstone permits different characters to dominate the narrative at different times, with Louisa slipping into the background.

Now—what I don’t want is for this post to fall into the same trap as Louisa Egerton itself, and end up overlong and overwritten: this is a book whose importance in context is its background rather than its contents. So even at the risk of doing this novel some injustice – and despite my strictures, it is interesting and well-plotted – I’m going to try and keep to a single, summarising post.

(Yes, yes…I’m picturing the sceptical looks…)

For backstory, we are first given the history of Sir William Egerton, a man out of step with what Grimstone paints as a materialistic and rather licentious society by virtue of his benevolence and his interest in his fellow man. During one of his regular, incognito excursions to examine social conditions and help those who need it, Sir William encounters and befriends Lieutenant Wilton, a former soldier struggling with poverty, who lives in a tiny cottage with his devoted wife and two daughters. Sir William ends up falling in love with the younger daughter, Eva; and his proposal is viewed as a blessing from God by everyone but Eva herself: she does not love Sir William, and struggles to reconcile herself to what she is told is her duty to her family.

Not long before the wedding, Eva is thrown into the society of Sir William’s much-younger brother, Frederick, who is the baronet’s polar opposite: handsome, reckless and rather dissipated, and inclined to resent his brother’s authority—though he stays on terms with him, since he regularly needs his debts paid. Driven partly by real feeling, but partly also by a sense of satisfaction in cutting out the perfect Sir William, Frederick embarks upon a desperate secret courtship of Eva, which culminates in an elopement to the Continent.

The shock nearly destroys the Wiltons; it literally kills Mrs Wilton, whose dying injunction to her husband and Sir William is to forgive Eva and take her back, should she need it. However, much to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that Frederick has actually married her; and in his hurt and resentment, Sir William allows himself to interpret this as Eva being “all right”. He therefore takes no further steps to find the delinquents.

No real explanation is ever offered for the marriage that Sir William eventually does make to a beautiful and (again) much-younger woman, with whom he has little in common. Unlike her husband, Lady Egerton is worldly and ambitious, the latter becoming focused in the one child of the marriage, a daughter called Julia.

The one point upon which Sir William and Lady Egerton agree is their hope for Julia’s marriage to Eardley Herbert, the young Earl of Elville, though their motivations are quite different. With the former, it is a matter of friendship with the earl’s late father; with the latter, her dream of seeing her daughter at the heights of society. Lady Egerton having a fair grasp of her wilful daughter’s character, Julia has been kept in ignorance of her parents’ plans, so as not to put her off. However, we later learn that Lord Elville had Julia pressed upon him as his bride when his father was dying—which may or may not account for his subsequent dilatoriness in returning to England and taking up his new honours.

While being kept waiting in this manner, Lady Egerton has made it her business to court a friendship with the Lady Alicia Herbert, Elville’s sister and a relative of her own.

These two women are perhaps Grimstone’s most interesting characters, being almost mirror images of one another. Both are beautiful and aristocratic, and accustomed to leading their society and having their own way; but under pressure, different aspects of their personalities come to the fore. Lady Egerton has some good qualities, but her most prominent traits are her pride and her ambition, which finally subsume her better nature.

Lady Alicia, meanwhile, has a somewhat impatient, domineering nature and, in reaction to her disappointment in the very society in which she moves, she metes out fairly harsh treatment to anyone who earns her dislike or disapproval. She also does more damage than she knows or intends through her determination to be witty at others’ expense.

Here is Lady Alicia as seen by the susceptible Cecil Dudley and the misanthropic Major Selton:

    “Is she not a magnificent creature? What an air she has!—what intelligence in her large dark eye!—what archness in the expression of her beautiful mouth!”
    “All this I grant you,” cried the Major, “but she’s a devil for all that. She moves in society as Boadica in her war chariot through the Roman legion, armed at all points, and dealing wounds and death wherever she comes. At best she is a polished Amazon. Satire is the science of her life. She has all the arrogance of high rank, and all the insolence of superior intellect.”

And the Major is not wrong; though he fails to add (probably having had no experience of that side of her) that Lady Alicia also possesses a wealth of generosity, and is capable of great kindness. She is a shrewd judge of character, and her singling out of Louisa for her rare friendship says much about both young women—as does Alicia’s polite but determined avoidance of Julia, despite Lady Egerton’s efforts to create an intimacy between them. She is also devoted to her brother, Eardley.

At this early stage of the novel, however, we see more of Lady Alicia’s bad points, with the narrator both conceding and expanding upon Major Selton’s strictures: something which gives weight to his opinion when he and Cecil Dudley turn their attention to the Egerton girls:

    “They are now standing together, and we have the means of comparison. Is there not something in her countenance which speaks to the soul, and which Julia wants?”
    “Much of that is to be attributed to the circumstances in which she is placed,” said Cecil; “recent and true sorrow has yet left its traces on her cheek, and like a veil softens every charm it shades. She is new to the scene in which she is introduced, and that adds the sweetness of timidity to a form naturally graceful.”
    “There may be something in that,” cried Major Selton; “yet I cannot but perceive a distinction beyond what you have remarked. In height and figure they are almost the same, but, in countenance, Sir William’s niece has the advantage of his daughter. She has more sense, more sweetness, although, from her paleness and want of excitement, she is less striking.”
    “Brilliancy, I should say, was Julia’s characteristic,” said Cecil.
    “It is so,” replied his friend; “the consequence of a highly polished surface…”

Recently, Lady Egerton has acquired a parasite in the form of Emma Dickson, a connection of hers who, after much persistence and pushing, has managed to get a foot in the door at Sir William’s and is determined to keep it there no matter what. In pursuit of this end, Miss Dickson sets about making herself indispensable to Lady Egerton—and she is not slow to perceive that she can best do so by furthering her ambitions for Julia, and conversely by attacking the person who, all unwittingly, poses a threat to their accomplishment.

Louisa Egerton’s arrival in the narrative is low-key and indirect: the reader first hears of her during a nasty conversation between Emma Dickson and her own connections, the Browns (who she in turn patronises as Lady Egerton patronises her); and soon a whisper is abroad that Louisa is really Sir William’s illegitimate daughter: something that, though she never knows of it, will cause her great grief in the long run.

The rumour is perhaps bolstered by the warmth with which Sir William takes his niece to his heart. Much neglected by his worldly wife and daughter, remorseful over his dismissal of the erring Frederick and Eva, and the latter’s early death, and learning that Louisa has fled to him from solitude and destitution, Sir William finds her both a consolation and a means of making amends for past errors.

Accepted into the Egerton household and placed on an equal footing with her cousin Julia, Louisa is introduced to London high society and finds herself becoming involved in the tangled interactions of the Egertons’ circle.

Much of the interest of Louisa Egerton lies in the fact that it is a post-Regency or pre-Victorian novel – whichever term you prefer – Williamite? – and evinces a more pragmatic attitude than would be required of a later work, particularly one from a female author. Mary Leman Grimstone manages to have it both ways here: she presents Louisa Egerton and Lord Elville as examples of what should be, while filling her pages with a realistically variegated cast of characters moving in a society that, whatever lip-service it pays to convention, shows in practice a rather flexible morality.

For example— One of the most significant of this novel’s many subplots involves Sir Harry and Lady Arden. The latter, having been married for her money at the age of only fifteen, has since been cast adrift by a husband who evinces his dislike and contempt for her at every opportunity, while having a good time on her money and almost openly pursuing Julia Egerton—although to what end, no-one dares think. Sir Harry has in fact fallen sincerely in love with Julia, and his hatred of his wife rises in parallel with the growth of his illicit passion. He devotes much of his time to running interference between Julia and any man who seems a viable marital prospect: a fulltime job, as Julia’s own energies are devoted to attracting admiration and flattery.

Society shakes its head, but of course does nothing so forthright as closing its doors to Sir Harry – not even the Egertons forbid him their house – and in fact, if anything, sympathy is rather with him: the drooping, unhappy Lady Arden being viewed more or less as the skeleton at the feast.

An emotional support group eventually gathers around Lady Arden – rather belatedly, we might think – led by Louisa and Lady Alicia; and one of its members is Cecil Dudley, who is presented at the outset as a highly susceptible and rather feckless young man, but who proceeds to fall seriously in love with the neglected wife—and to an extent vice-versa, though Grimstone is more skittish about delineating the married woman’s state of mind. Their struggle to do the right thing is placed side-by-side with Sir Harry’s habitual libertinism and his manoeuvring pursuit of Julia, and presented not just without judgement, but with real understanding. The situation is even depicted as the making of Dudley, calling forth depths in his character that no-one knew he had.

But while subplots proliferate, the heart of Louisa Egerton remains the at-first unwitting and then acknowledged rivalry that develops between Julia and Louisa—or more correctly, the growing resentment of Julia and Lady Egerton at the threat posed by Louisa to their ambitions.

These do not take quite the same direction. Determined upon a marriage between Julia and Lord Elville, Lady Egerton does not, at first, consider Louisa any danger to her plans. When she first arrives in London, she is in mourning for her father and worn down by her struggles with poverty: subdued and retiring, she seems without any capacity to rival her cousin. However:

…the more she saw of Louisa, the more reason she discovered to fear her powers of attraction. Her beauty was of that dangerous kind, that grows upon the beholder; her artlessness, her unconsciousness, awakened no suspicion, and the unalarmed, unguarded heart found itself taken, ere it knew it had been touched. Her intellectual resources, the extent of which her ladyship did not, as yet, even pretend to guess, were to her beauty what the sun is to the world, giving it lustre and animation; and as the cloud of sorrow wore away, of course they would break forth with full spendour. Louisa was, evidently, the modest possessor of much intellectual treasure, and many natural advantages, which intimacy must inevitably elicit, and they would all come forth with the more powerful effect, from being unexpected. Julia, beautiful and brilliant as she was, had much to fear from such a competitor, especially as it was generally understood that the Earl of Elville was no man of fashion, but highly cultivated and a lover of the arts.

Lady Egerton is particularly concerned by Lady Alicia having attached herself to Louisa: she knows how close are the brother and sister, and fears that Alicia’s influence may turn Lord Elville from Julia to her cousin. She begins to interfere in the friendship, when she can, and her manner to Louisa becomes cold and repulsive, causing the sensitive girl to shrivel and withdraw—which serves her aunt’s purpose perfectly.

Lord Elville’s tardiness in returning to England has been a frustration to Lady Egerton, but now she welcomes it. It occurs to her that if she can get Louisa married off, or at least engaged, before the earl does arrive, it will be a danger circumvented. Immediately to hand for her purpose she finds Major Selton: though a misanthrope rather than a misogynist, the Major has no opinion of the female sex; but Louisa has become to him the exception that proves the rule; and he finds his awkward courtship being given far more assistance than he ever anticipated—much to its object’s dismay.

However, perhaps Lady Egerton’s scheming and cynicism are best illustrated in the way she tolerates the attentions of Sir Harry Arden to Julia:

It would appear strange to the eye of common observation, that Lady Egerton should be so regardless or indifferent to the Baronet’s devotion to to her daughter, and which, if paid by one likely to have interfered with her scheme of making her a Countess, would have called all her vigilance into play. But her ladyship looked upon it in no other light than the harmless gallantry natural to the Baronet’s character, and consequent of Julia’s beauty, while it acted as a sort of safeguard to the approach of admirers less safe, she thought, and more sincere; thus, so long as her own views were undisturbed she suffered her daughter to imbibe the poison of flattery from the unhallowed lips of a libertine…

But Grimstone isn’t done: she follows up this shocking glimpse into the workings of Lady Egerton’s mind by revealing that Julia is every bit her mother’s daughter:

This laxity of principle might have carried its own punishment, but Julia was as cold as she was vain, and, intent upon inspiring passion in all, she was incapable of feeling it for any…

The Egerton household acquires another member when Stafford Monteith is placed under Sir William’s guardianship for the final months of his minority. The young man is handsome, wealthy and high-principled, having been raised away from the pernicious influence of society; and Sir William, having taken his measure, begins plotting a marriage between him and Louisa.

Louisa, indeed, finds herself falling in love with the accomplished young man—and suffers the mortification of having her inclination become public property when Emma Dickson brazenly invades her room and her diary. Her awareness that her secret is in another’s keeping causes the hypersensitive Louisa to start avoiding Monteith, almost to the point of rudeness; and he, having initially been drawn to her, is offended by what he perceives as her fickleness—or coquetry. (He, too, has heard the circulating rumours about Louisa’s birth…)

Monteith’s misinterpretation of Louisa’s behaviour is perhaps not to be wondered at: for all his perfections, the very nature of his upbringing has left him inexperienced with women; and in the wake of Louisa’s apparent defection he proves it by falling in love with Julia.

She, of course, has automatically turned her batteries upon the handsome newcomer—only to end up hoist with her own petard when she discovers herself developing some real feeling for the first time in her career of vanity and ego-stoking. Monteith’s passionate sincerity, so different from the calculated flattery and game-playing she is accustomed to, catches Julia off-guard; and though her instinct is to draw the situation out, she is hurried into giving him a promise of sorts.

And more petard-hoisting follows, when Lady Alicia also finds herself falling for Monteith.

In expressing her low opinion of her society, Alicia has certainly never spared the opposite sex, to the point of openly declaring her intention never to marry. She maintains her position in vigorous argument against Louisa and Lady Arden, both of whom cherish a belief in an ideal of love:

    “Hush! hush!” cried Louisa, “we must not allow you to abuse one half of the world at this rate; it is not generous, as they are not here to defend themselves.”
    “Oh! believe me, I am no back-biter,” rejoined her ladyship; “I do not think there is one of the race can accuse me of ever having said a civil thing of or to them.”
    “Well, that is certainly meritorious,” replied Louisa, laughing.
    “It is consistent, at least,” said Lady Arden; “but I cannot subscribe to your opinions. You are robbing the world of its sunshine, if you destroy our faith in the existence of a confiding and devoted love—you are robbing life, at least youth, of its poetry, if you deprive it of romantic feeling.”

But Lady Alicia is having none of it. In particular, these views coming from Lady Arden, whose dutiful efforts to “love” her appalling husband she has witnessed, along with the constant humiliation that requite those efforts, rouses her to complete exasperation:

    “It is the folly of most women, and of none more than women of genius, to heighten, to quicken their feelings to a morbid excess—to lay both mental and physical strength prostrate at the shrine of emotion—and for what? For the fraction of a passion prostituted to hundreds—for a love, pure, original, and undivided, never warmed the tide that rushes through the heart of man…
    “And for whom do you make this sacrifice or moral and mental energy?—For a being, who has no superiority except in vice, and whose universal employment is to degrade you to his own level; who, with every weakness common to both natures, pretends a proud exemption in his own person, and has the impudence to pretend to pity their existence in yours. Colleges have been endowed, and some learning thrust into his dull head; exercises have been invented, and they have invigorated his robust limbs; in these, consist his triumph, and his means of triumph; while ye,” and, as she looked at Louisa and Lady Arden, she apostrophised the whole sex—
        “‘Ye would be dupes and slaves,
        ‘And so ye are.'”

But in Stafford Monteith, raised outside this system, high-principled, clean-handed and with the strength of character to avoid the lures and traps laid out for any young man of wealth, Lady Alicia finds her own exception that proves the rule. She nurses no hope for herself, however, having seen with her usual insight Monteith’s hesitation between the Egerton girls: sympathising with his initial attraction to Louisa, deploring his surrender to Julia—for him even more than for herself.

Alicia’s private disappointment has a curious effect upon her character. In conjunction with her shift to spending less time in general society, and more with Louisa, Lady Arden and her aunt, the Duchess of Ancaster, she begins to set aside her sarcastic and domineering manner, showing the better nature that lurks behind it and softening to a kinder, more generally pleasing manner that is both a surprise and a relief to those who come into contact with her.

Meanwhile, Sir William has confided to Lady Egerton his hopes for Louisa and Monteith. The latter, still determined to get Louisa married off as quickly as possible, but unfussed as to who serves her purpose, is content to have it so—although Sir William’s encomiums and his evident preference for Louisa over Julia – or at least, his higher opinion of Louisa’s character – arouses her resentment and, for the first time, some suspicion that those persistent rumours might be true. Nor does Louisa endear herself to her aunt by receiving – and rejecting – a proposal of marriage from Lord Harwell, the heir apparent to a dukedom: Lady Egerton is suddenly painfully aware that her own daughter has never received any comparable offer. Though she has so far done her duty as Louisa’s relative and hostess, from this point Lady Egerton’s heart hardens cruelly against her.

By this time the London season is over: the Egertons have withdrawn to a villa at Chiswick, and Lady Alicia and the Ancasters to her house at Windsor, within visiting distance: Alicia hardly acknowledges to herself the reason for her preference for Windsor over Herbert Castle, her brother’s seat in Devonshire, where she usually passes the summer.

It is Sir William who is summoned to Herbert Castle. Having accepted management of the estate when Lord Elville and his father left England for the benefit of the latter’s health (unavailing, as it turned out), with the young earl’s failure to return he has continued to oversee the estate; and now receives a letter from the steward that convinces him his presence is required.

His announcement of his intended departure prompts Stafford Monteith to request a private audience. The conversation that follows is mortifying to both, with Sir William’s own plans leading him to assume Monteith is referring to Louisa, and enthusiastically giving his consent—and Monteith learning that the Earl of Elville has (as it were) got dibs. In exchange from an assurance from Sir William that Julia will not be compelled, a promise is wrung from the anguished young man that he will say nothing of this arrangement. Unable to deal with his disappointment, he makes a long-intended visit to his mother and sister an excuse to withdraw from Chiswick.

Word of the situation has already reached Lady Egerton via Emma Dickson (who was eavesdropping when Monteith and Julia made their mutual declarations), and she takes steps of her own by encouraging Sir William to carry Julia away to Herbert Castle—partly to ensure her ongoing separation from Monteith, partly on the assumption that when Lord Elville does return, that will be his first destination. Sir William agrees, and suggests taking Louisa too: her struggle with her own emotions and the misery of her separate persecutions by Major Selton and Emma Dickson are undermining her health, as her uncle has seen without grasping the cause. Lady Egerton, however, has plans of her own for Louisa, and insists that she stay behind. There is, consequently, an unhappy parting between Louisa and Sir William, with the latter conscious that his own health is none too good.

In the absence of Sir William, matters go swiftly from bad to worse for Louisa—the first intimation of dreadful storms to come a wholly unexpected letter from her step-mother.

We get Louisa’s back-story here: her parents’ peripatetic, hand-to-mouth existence, her mother’s early death, and Frederick Egerton’s disastrous second marriage to a scheming widow, whose vicious enmity Louisa secured to herself by trying to open her infatuated father’s eyes before it was too late. Soon enough, the new Mrs Egerton showed her true colours, bleeding her husband dry and then leaving him to suffer the consequences of her actions in a French debtors’ prison, while she herself parlayed her new surname into a measure of social success.

Far from having any hope of freeing her father, in order to support both him and herself Louisa was driven to sell the few pieces of jewellery she inherited from her mother. She was fortunate, in finding a goldsmith both sympathetic and honest, and who gave her a fair price for her trinkets; and it was during one of these transactions that she caught the attention of a young Englishman who happened to be passing through Dieppe. Learning the details of the situation from the goldsmith, the young man visited the Egertons in their prison and, introducing himself as Mr Leslie, offered his assistance.

Overcoming the proud resistance of the Egertons, Leslie paid Frederick’s debts and had him removed to lodgings. However, it was soon clear that his physical and emotional sufferings had irreparably damaged his health.

Louisa’s subsequent nursing of her dying father was made only more difficult by the reappearance of Mrs Egerton, demanding her rights purely to supplant and hurt Louisa, and attempting to put an end to Leslie’s help via her sneering innuendos as to what he was getting in return for his money. Remorse setting the seal on his collapse, Frederick did the only thing he could do by way of reparation to his daughter, sending a last letter to his long-estranged brother and begging a refuge for her.

Frederick’s death was the signal for Mrs Egerton’s departure, with Louisa left to manage her father’s burial—and to find some way of keeping herself while waiting with trepidation for Sir William’s response. With her step-mother’s ugly taunts ringing in her ears, and now without even nominal chaperonage, Louisa shrank from any more of Leslie’s assistance, however delicately offered; and in the end accepted a loan instead from the elderly goldsmith to pay for her journey to England—slipping secretly away and leaving no trail for the dismayed Leslie.

Mrs Egerton, we now learn, is a connection of the wealthy but vulgar Stubbs family – who are connections of the Browns – who (you may remember) are connections of Emma Dickson: and so she learns that her much-hated step-daughter is living in luxury and rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy. Mrs Egerton sees in the situation a double opportunity: the chance for a little shoulder-rubbing of her own, while continuing to torment Louisa.

The arrival of her step-mother’s letter, in which Mrs Egerton declares her intention of exerting the authority of her position over her, is a blow that, in her weakened condition, Louisa cannot withstand: she collapses. Recognising that she is seriously, even dangerously, ill, Lady Egerton “acquits her conscience” by summoning the best medical attendance; however—

…Lady Egerton retired to mediate on the measures she should adopt as to Sir William, Immediate information on such a subject he would expect—yet such she had no intention of transmitting. She argued, with a great deal of philosophy, that, in the event of Louisa’s death, she might urge that she had not deemed the danger so imminent… The knowledge that Louisa was, in all human probability, on her death-bed, would, she felt convinced, call Sir William to her side, perhaps leaving Julia in the inefficient charge of other people; or, if bringing her along with him, at least it would be to the neglect of the Elville interest…

The situation is complicated by a series of letters intimating Sir William’s inability to deal with his wilful daughter, and urgently requiring the presence of his wife and niece. Lady Egerton is still pondering the matter when she meets her sister-in-law—recognising at once a likely co-conspirator.

Matters take another serious turn when a frantic message arrives from Herbert Castle, announcing that Sir William has suffered a paralytic stroke and is not expected to live. Lady Egerton makes immediate plans for departure, resigning Louisa to the tender mercies of her step-mother, to whom is confided the plan to force her into marriage with Major Selton. Mrs Egerton is also granted full authority in the Chiswick villa.

Louisa recovers from her own illness, though when confronted by the twin horrors that await her she sincerely regrets doing so:

    “Oh! you must shake off this melancholy,” rejoined Mrs Egerton, with offensive pleasantry; “we must talk of weddings, not burials. You will sleep with as much security, and less cold, in the arms of Major Selton, who is dying to throw himself once more at your feet.”
    Description can do little justice to the expression of Mrs Egerton’s eye.—There was cunning, malice, and a cast of levity…

Unexpectedly, though she is still very physically weak, the need to deal with her step-mother goes some way towards snapping Louisa out of her funk.

And something else happens at this point that, in terms of 19th century literature generally, is worth highlighting. We have spoken before, chiefly in the context of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano, of the reluctance – particularly on the part of male authors – to concede that a woman might love more than once. Female authors tended to be more realistic. In Cuthbertson’s novel, it is a matter of a young women getting over an unworthy man. Here we get something even more pragmatic: as she deals with her various physical and emotional crises, Louisa discovers that her inclination for Stafford Monteith has burnt itself out. Though the language used is much more high-flown, the implication is that she has had a first crush, and gotten over it: something that, despite its absolute naturalness, I can hardly recall from any other book of this period.

In practical terms, however, this leaves Louisa with one less weapon in her armoury, when it comes to holding off Major Selton—armed, conversely, with the approval and encouragement of Lady Egerton, Mrs Egerton and Emma Dickson, who between them have puffed him up to such an extent, Louisa’s coldness does nothing to dissuade him. Besides, once they are married— The major, as he tells Louisa ominously, is a great believer in “the husband’s prerogative”…

Louisa’s resistance is sorely tried by the receipt of a letter from Lady Egerton informing her of her uncle’s parlous condition, and tacitly reminding her that she is a destitute orphan living on her relatives’ charity: the implication is clear enough:

    There was then no refuge for her, but a marriage with one she did not love! No other alternative, to preserve her from her iniquitous step-mother! Lady Egerton had evinced a heartlessness—a determination to abandon her, which left her neither a hope or a desire to receive the smallest aid from her hands. Could she so far humble herself as to entreat her ladyship’s continued protection, she felt it would but be to meet repulse…
    To make up her mind to some decided plan of conduct, was now necessary. The conflict was great—the decision difficult. Whether to cast herself upon a yet untried world, or to accept the offer of Major Selton, equally presented ample field for apprehension…

Louisa is still hesitating painfully when the decision is made for her. During the night, the villa catches fire. Louisa has a chance to save herself, but she stops in a effort to wake and save her maid. This takes enough time that the two are all but trapped, and it is only through the efforts of Major Selton that the two are saved. After this, Louisa feels that she has no choice, and agrees to an engagement; though she never succeeds in disguising her indifference and reluctance. She also resists the demand for an immediate marriage, with which she is immediately assaulted.

Meanwhile, Sir William is making a recovery of sorts, although his intellect and his memory are impaired: Louisa, when they are at length reunited, understands that she has nothing to hope from his protection. Her father’s situation is more or less forcing a discontented Julia to behave, but she is pining for society. Seeing this, Miss Dickson sets to work on her—in the first place pointing out the likelihood of a permanent withdrawal from the great world as the wife of Stafford Monteith, who has even – quelle horreur! – mentioned the church as a possible future career.

Having sown her seed, Dickson then for the first time informs Julia of her parents’ intentions—following up with a word-picture of the endless glories that await the beautiful young Countess of Elville. Needless to say, her promise to Monteith slips rapidly from Julia’s memory…

Amusingly, Julia here turns out to be more of a pragmatist than even Lady Egerton ever realised: if only she’d known, she laments, she would have sucked up to Lady Alicia like her mother always wanted!

Speaking of Lady Alicia— She has been off the scene for some time, nursing and comforting the Duchess of Ancaster, who lost a baby; but now she comes roaring back. Lady Egerton made it her business to keep Louisa’s illness quiet; Alicia has heard of Sir William’s, but assumed, naturally enough, that Louisa was in Devonshire with the rest of the family. It is the news of the fire at the villa, however, that results in Alicia turning up at Castle Herbert. She is furious at Louisa’s abandonment in London, appalled by her engagement to Major Selton, and has knowledge of the true character of Mrs Egerton: and on all three counts she reads Lady Egerton the riot act.

The same conversation, unpleasant though it is in most respects, offers Lady Egerton a balm in the announcement of Lord Elville’s expected arrival. Lady Alicia’s passionate championing of Louisa still alarms her, however, and it is this that prompts her to try and force an immediate marriage.

Lady Alicia returns to London and carries Louisa off from under the nose of the furious Mrs Egerton, inviting her to stay with her at the Ancasters’, until the arrival of her brother: they may then travel to Castle Herbert together. This, as Alicia well knows, is in direct defiance of Lady Egerton’s own plans for Louisa: she intends sending Emma Dickson for her, and for the two to travel with Major Selton; further rivetting Louisa’s bonds with a public display of their connection.

And Eardley Herbert does indeed make his much-belated appearance upon the scene, to be greeted rapturously by his sister, and welcomed warmly by his uncle and his guests.

At this critical moment, Louisa enters the room—and all but faints:

    “What, my dear Louisa, my dear Eardley, is the meaning of this?” cried Lady Alicia, as soon as they were alone.
    “Spare me—spare Miss Egerton any inquiry now, my Alicia,” cried his lordship; “I have had the pleasure of knowing her long since, although, perhaps,” he added, taking Louisa’s hand, “she did not know me so well…”

Lord Elville is, of course, that “Mr Leslie” who came to Louisa’s rescue in Dieppe—and who then fell in love with her, despite the reluctant promise wrenched from him by his dying father, with regard to Julia. It is the latter that has kept him away; and, as he later confesses to Alicia, he has returned to England now only because word reached him through channels that Julia was engaged to Stafford Monteith, and he thought the coast was clear.

Instead of which, he finds Julia not only apparently free but pantingly eager—to be Countess of Erville, at least—and Louisa engaged to a man for whom she self-evidently cares nothing:

    “I must not listen to the dreams of your fancy,” he cried, smilingly.
    “No—trust to something better,: she rejoined, “trust to my agency, my ardent and devoted interest in your happiness. Give me, Eardley, that which I covet beyond all else—your confidence; repose in mine the secrets of your bosom, and see whether or not I can minister to your malady.”
    “Such a confidence,” replied his lordship, relapsing into gloom, “might make you a partner of my grief, of my regrets—no more. There is a valedictory decree gone out against me, and the seal of death has made it immutable.”
    “Eardley, you talk enigmas, which I vainly endeavour to expound. Hear me speak plainly and intelligibly, and, if wrong, contradict me. You love Louisa Egerton—and she is worthy of even your love—you find her engaged, by some fatuity, to one whom her heart abhors—you feel it a point of honour not to step in between the accepted lover and affianced bride. But this hateful marriage shall never be—so I have this very morning told Lady Egerton—Louisa shall be free—shall be yours.”
    Various and deep was the emotion expressed in Lord Elville’s countenance, as he listened to his passionate and ardent sister. When she became silent, he shook his head, and after a pause cried in a deep voice—
    “What shall it avail me that she is free—when I am not? When I arrived here, it was under the impression that Julia was on the point of marriage!”

But Julia, it turns out, is not the main stumbling-block. Having made a fatal misstep at the outset in her dealings with Elville, upon his arrival at Castle Herbert – showing herself in full dress regalia and turning upon him all her charms, flirting and laughing while her father is critically ill upstairs – Julia soon recognises both Elville’s indifference to her and his preference for Louisa, and recoils from him in mortified self-love.

Ultimately, it is Louisa – caught, as Alicia accuses her brother of being, “on a point of honour” – who is the real problem: she simply will not help herself, in spite of Elville’s pleading and Alicia’s arguments. She has given her word to Major Selton—and having done so, she has given up the struggle. Her health, never fully re-established, is failing again; and she has resigned herself to an early marriage and an early death; the one, we gather, to follow naturally from the other…

Well. Having gotten her characters into this appalling mess, Mary Leman Grimstone then spends another two hundred and fifty pages getting them out out of it again – some of them – dispensing catastrophe and retribution with a liberal hand, and happy endings a bit more sparingly.

None of which I intend to get into…with the exception of this revelation, which comes on the very last page of Louisa Egerton:

An Australian novel, remember?—

Mrs Egerton was suddenly arrested in an impudent career of successful imposition, by the appearance of her first husband, whom she had erroneously supposed dead; but who, having fulfilled his sentence of transportation, returned to his country, little amended by the discipline he had experienced…