Posts tagged ‘fiction’

19/07/2019

The Sicilian


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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Four volumes of nothing; 1158 pages of nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m pretty certain I gasped at this:

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

Anyway—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You think?

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

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

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

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

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

Awww…

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

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

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

 

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08/06/2019

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

 

Ahem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, of course, shall not stand…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

07/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 3)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

However—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However—

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

04/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 2)


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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not literally.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
[To be continued…]
 

03/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 1)


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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[To be continued…]

09/05/2019

A silver fork in the road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

21/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 2)


 
    She is a slave!” murmured Susan, in a low, but emphatic tone.
    Louis looked perplexed, bewildered, and did not reply. Susan smiled sadly at his embarrassment, as she continued gravely—“You would say, Louis, that you were already aware of that fact; that this was nothing new or extraordinary in her position—that, in a word, you know she is a slave; but do you also know, Louis, all that means to her?”
    He did not reply, but seemed engaged in thought. Susan continued, in a low, earnest voice—“No; you, like other excellent men I know, look on slavery with indifference. It is the nonchalance of custom. But this girl! I tell you, Louis, that were you or myself now reduced to slavery—were we to change positions with one of our slaves—become his property, subject to his orders—a thing to be chained, imprisoned, beaten, bought, sold, at his whim—neither you nor I could have a more poignant sense of degradation than she suffers…”

 

 

 
While the power struggle over Louise is foregrounded in The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, something else is going on in this novel that I felt was worth highlighting.

Unlike Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows, this is not an abolitionist tract, as such: slavery is not present on what we might call “the large scale”, with the only slaves we do see being the house servants of the main white characters. The reality of slavery is still prominent in the narrative, however; and much is conveyed about the individual characters via their attitude towards it, and their treatment of their servants. There are references to who has freed their slaves, and who hires their servants for wages.

At one end of the character spectrum is, unsurprisingly, Mrs Armstrong—of whom it is observed in passing:

Only she avoided the Northern cities, to which she could not carry her slaves. Mrs Armstrong abhorred the attendance of any one over whom she did not possess absolute control…

We’ve seen up close how Mrs Armstrong treats her own daughter; Southworth leaves us to infer how she treats her slaves.

At the other end of the spectrum is Gertrude Lion, who Southworth allows to do some extraordinary things. Insisting passionately upon her own individual freedoms, Gertrude not only abhors slavery, but displays a distinct tendency towards all-men-are-created-equal in those words’ most literal sense. At one point, having come across a bad carriage-accident in the mountains, Gertrude is dealing with the situation when she encounters a runaway slave – one of Mrs Armstrong’s – who has taken refuge in a cave:

    The haggard and wolfish features of the slave relaxed a little, as he said, in a hoarse voice—“And you’ll not set the constables on me, Miss Gertrude!”
    “Explode the constables! no, I’d do you good, I said. Listen; I know you, Antony, you are Mrs Armstrong’s fugitive slave. Now, I don’t adore Mrs Armstrong myself, and if you will do me a favour, I will assist your escape from the State.”

A deal is struck between them, and after Antony has performed his part – honestly and diligently – Gertrude keeps her side of the bargain:

“Here is the pass I wrote for you.” She took it out and read it—“‘Antony Burgess has my permission to again pass and re-pass from Peakville to Alexandria, free of molestation, between the first of June and the first of July inclusive…’ There, Antony, that is exactly the pass that I give to my own men when they want to go to town. Now, it is true that you are not my own man, but that is no reason why I should not give you my  consent to go where you please, since I have no objection to it; and so, when you present that, people will naturally think it comes from your owner. And even if it fails, it cannot get you or me into trouble, since I only express my consent.”

And when Gertrude finally parts from the man (emphasis mine):

“Do you attend to what is left behind; bury the poor dead coachman, and don’t forget to recite the ten commandments over the grave. Now, good-by.” And shaking hands with him, Gertrude turned and lifted up her patient…

Much is also implied throughout The Mother-In-Law about the nature of Virginian society as a whole: almost all of the people of colour in this novel are of mixed blood; and though Southworth does not overtly pursue this point, we are left to ponder the structures and practices of the society that produced this situation.

One intriguing detail concerns Mrs Armstrong’s waiting woman, Kate Jumper: she is the niece of the local midwife, who works chiefly amongst the poor people and the servant class, and who is referred to as “Kate Jumper’s white aunt”. Though this is probably due to the low social status of each, the lack of any attempt to deny the relationship is striking. (Mr Jumper is nowhere to be found, of course…)

Kate Jumper is also important because she represents the one point in the novel where we might feel Southworth has resorted to nasty stereotyping, with much emphasis placed upon her wild and repulsive appearance. However, in this Kate is the exception to the rule; and in time it is evident that her appearance is rather meant as an externalisation of her role as the do-er of Mrs Armstrong’s dirty-work.

With all the other servants in the other households, Southworth emphasises their honesty, loyalty and intelligence. Most daringly of all, she makes a tacit argument that the supposed “inferiority” of people of colour is due purely to opportunities denied them. When in childhood, Susan Somerville is sent to the local school, her devoted servant – and “foster-sister” – Anna, insists upon accompanying her each day—being allowed, bit by bit, to creep into the classroom to sit quietly at Susan’s feet. Simply by sitting and listening, Anna absorbs as good an education as was given to any girl at the time. Far from displaying any “natural” stupidity, or “inferiority” of talent, Anna proves intelligent and thirsty for knowledge; she comes away from her indirect lessons with a thorough understanding of the world and a passion for literature and history. (Susan has already taught her to read, a dangerous undertaking at the time.)

There are two different slavery plots in The Mother-In-Law, linked, but used for different purposes. The first concerns the position of the Somervilles’ house servants, Harriet and George, and Anna, their daughter. Anna, by the way, is another of Southworth’s roster of beautiful brunettes:

And now he observed for the first time that she possessed the most lofty style of beauty. Her tall, full, graceful figure was finely curved, as she leaned upon the high back of an old leather chair, looking abstractedly from the window, the light from which fell upon her superb head, covered with a magnificent suit of black hair, that, dividing above her broad, pale forehead, rippled off into thousands of tiny jet-black, glistening wavelets over her temples and around her cheeks, and was gathered into a large knot confined by a silver bodkin behind. Her sloping, gloomy, but beautiful eyes, the sad expression of her full, red lips, closed as they habitually were, were  added to the fascination of a face that attracted without volition or consciousness. Her dress was of the coarse linsey-woolsey worn in winter by Southern house-servants, but hers was plaid, of very brilliant colours, made high in the neck, with sleeves reaching the wrists, fitting. accurately her charmingly developed form, and harmonising well with her dark, imperial style of beauty. Louis looked at her, at first, in obedience to Miss Somerville’s indication; then with surprise and admiration at the singular beauty he had never before noticed…

But the key phrase there is “broad, pale forehead”: Harriet and George are both “mulatto”, and Anna – was her background not fully known – could “pass”.

Unlike some other of the novel’s servants, Harriet, George and Anna are still slaves, owned by the elderly Major Somerville. Southworth uses the Major as an illustration of nearly everything wrong with Virginia society: he has exhausted his land by stubbornly refusing to budge from old-fashioned farming methods, and has fallen into debt he cannot possibly meet. The house, likewise, is falling into ruins, held together by the joint efforts of Susan and the servants. Meanwhile, at the end of his life, the Major clings to his dignity, wary of doing anything that could be interpreted as conceding power. Thus, despite Susan’s persuasions, he refuses to free any of his slaves—insisting that, as a woman, she doesn’t understand these things.

She does, of course—but not as well as the slaves themselves. A conspiracy of silence keeps Susan from knowing exactly how bad the situation is; so that, while she sees a profound depression taking hold of Anna, she interprets it as caused by the girl’s growing understanding of her degrading situation. What she does not know is that Major Somerville’s creditors are circling; that the bailiffs could descend any moment; and that, should that happen, Harriet, George and Anna will be sold along with all the rest of the Major’s property.

And this comes to pass when the Major dies suddenly of apoplexy. Susan takes immediate steps to free the servants, but is forestalled by the arrival of the deputy-sheriff and his goons. Even then Susan does not understand: she thinks they have come to do an assessment of the property for tax purposes, and is only angry that they have come so hard on the heels of her grandfather’s death:

    “How many slaves have you about the house, then, Miss Somerville.”
    “None, sir.”
    “What! my dear young lady.”
    “Sir, I have my foster-parents, George and Harriet, who brought me up, and my foster-sister and companion, Anna, who has always shared my room, my table, and my school. They are quadroons. I do not call them slaves.”
    “They were the slaves of the late Major Somerville, however?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “And they are yours now.”
    “No, sir! I do not for a moment acknowledge any right in myself to hold them. My dear grandfather’s funeral took place only on yesterday afternoon, and to-morrow morning I go to Richmond to take measures for their emancipation!” said Miss Somerville, in a cold, severe tone—for now she believed herself in conversation with a would-be purchaser.
    “Will you? Ah! yes, well! A generous and praiseworthy design on your part, my dear young lady,” said the deputy sheriff, perceiving for the first time that Susan was entirely unsuspicious of the object of his visit. “Will you, however, let me see these people, my dear Miss Somerville?”

Still under her misapprehension, Susan does, sending Anna to call her parents:

    Anna, who had conquered herself, and now stood calm, cold, and impassible, went out to obey.
    “Is that one of them?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “That girl?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Why, she is white!”
    “Very nearly, sir.”

Once the family is all present, the real purpose of the visit is made brutally clear:

    The assessor looked at Anna; and, as his sensual eyes roved all over her girlish figure, gloating on her beauty, he muttered an exclamation—“She is a handsome girl, and it would be a good spec’ to take her to New Orleans. She’d bring twelve or fifteen hundred dollars…”
    “That is not the question; what would she bring here?”
    “Gentlemen, I beg of you—” commenced Susan Somerville.
    “Be patient, young lady. What is her value here, Jones!”
    “Gentlemen, I insist—” began Susan again, with her cheeks burning and her eyes flashing, “I insist that this is arrested. I command you to finish your business and leave us.”
    “One instant, Miss Somerville. Well, Jones, her value is—”
    “Three hundred dollars…”
    “Miss Somerville,” began the deputy, “I have now to perform a very painful duty; a simple and short one, however.”
    “Yes, as short as an execution,” muttered George.
    “Miss Somerville, I attach this property at the suit of Spier & Co., Grocers, Peakville.”
    Susan started to her feet, clasped her hands, and turned deadly pale, as the truth suddenly struck her…

George and Harriet have tried to remain dignified and still in the face of this humiliation, and their knowledge of far worse to come; but when the assessor makes to lay hands on Anna, it is more than flesh and blood can stand. A short, ugly scene ends with George unconscious and in handcuffs, and Susan in a state of collapse. Anna is allowed to stay, temporarily and under guard, to care for Susan – a white lady, after all – but her parents are carried away to the slave auction in the nearby town of Peakville.

This situation rescues Anna from the otherwise inevitable—but only at the cost of her life: the next morning, Susan finds her dead. Heart failure is the medical ruling; although the jurors at the subsequent inquest, who know the circumstances, think differently:

The coroner’s jury came nearer the truth in their verdict—“A VISITATION OF GOD.”

We learn later that Susan had sent to the Palace for help, but the message miscarried. Hearing afterwards of these shocking developments, Louis promises Susan to get George and Harriet back at whatever cost required. He sets out after the bailiffs, but when he arrives in Peakville, he discovers that the two have already been sold to a slave-trader, necessitating a further journey to Alexandria.

And it is while Louis is away from home on this mission of mercy that Mrs Armstrong, taking advantage of his absence, regains possession of Louise.

The second slavery-related subplot in The Mother-In-Law is far less forthright, far more sensation-novel-y and plot-contrivance-y, yet still manages to make some very cogent points.

Our first hint of something untoward – well, the second, following the revelation that she was a doorstep baby – comes when old Mr Dove notices the developing situation between Zoe and Brutus Lion, albeit that there was been no overt declaration on either side. Having extorted from his blushing daughter a confession of love for Brutus, and her belief that he loves her, Mr Dove reacts with grief and dismay. There are many overt reasons, he tells Zoe solemnly, while a marriage between herself and Brutus would be unlikely and even unsuitable; yet it is a covert one that must determine her fate—

    “He is of an old and haughty family—you, Zoe, are a foundling.”
    “I know it,” murmured the maiden.
    “Yet you, in your secret heart, hoped that this might be overcome; that he might stoop to lift you to his level—on your truth, did you not?”
    Zoe bowed her head lowly, sadly.
    “He is wealthy, you are penniless; but you thought never of this as an objection, but believed that his superfluities might supply your deficiencies. Ha, child?”
    Again she bowed her head, slowly, lowly.
    “All this might happen, Zoe—the patrician might stoop to the plebeian; the millionaire to the beggar. Brutus Lion might offer his hand and name in marriage to Zoe, yet Zoe can never be the wife of Brutus Lion—”
    “Father!”
    “It is true!”
    “Father!”
    “It is fixed, inevitable, irrevocable.”

Now—this is early in The Mother-In-Law, before we have taken its measure; so those of us with experience of the sensation novel might have already leapt to a conclusion (and yes, I am looking at you, Dawn!). Amusingly, and to Southworth’s credit, she immediately takes that particular bull by the horns:

    “An insurmountable obstacle to your union exists, my dear,” said the old man, with the tears dimming his eyes.
    “Father,” said Zoe, in a suffocating voice, “father, I am a foundling, as you say—do you know or guess—that I am of—of—very near kin to Brutus?”
    “You are no kin to him, Zoe but it is not less certain that you can never, never be his wife.”

More amusingly still, when Zoe later rejects Brutus’ proposal, explaining the situation as far as she understands it, the same objection occurs to him: he reassures Zoe that both his parents died before she was born.

When Brutus brings himself to discuss his situation with Gertrude, she suggests a different possibility…

    “Now why, Gertrude, do you disapprove of Zoe??—why do you hate Zoe?”
    “I don’t hate Zoe; neither do I hate humble-bees, but I do not particularly affect either; and I will not have a little coffee-brewing, cake-baking fool in the house.”
    “You despise her for her birth!”
    “I do not despise her for her birth, although I know, as you do not know, that she is a mulatto!”
    “A mulatto!” echoed Brutus, in dismay.

***

    “Zoe is of mixed African blood, I tell you. Look at the dead white skin—”
    “Susan Somerville’s is the same.”
    “Susan Somerville’s is pure white—clear white. Zoe’s is opaque white. Look at the darkness around her finger nails; look at her
rippling black hair—not brownish black, like the English or American hair, or bluish black, like West of Ireland hair, or purplish black, like Italian hair, but jetty black like African hair, and with the little, undulating, wavy curl all through it.”
    “Pooh! Nonsense! The devil! It is not true. You know nothing about it!” exclaimed Brutus, very pale, and very much troubled.

Of course, Gertrude, being Gertrude, sees an up-side to the situation:

“I shall go by for Zoe this evening, and wrap the little one up in a cloak and take her in my sleigh to Miss Armstrong’s wedding. Ha, ha, ha! Little does Mrs Armstrong guess that in Zoe Dove she will have a mulatto guest!… Little does Mrs. Armstrong suspect that her daughter’s second bridesmaid is a mulatto—-a slave!”

At this point Brutus chooses to shrug off Gertrude’s unsupported assertion; but later, Mr Dove confirms all of his worst fears:

    “I love Zoe; I wish to marry Zoe; I will devote my life to her happiness; consent to our marriage, and her future is secured!”
    “Brutus, you love her?”
    “God knows it!”
    “Only her?”
    “Only her, of all womankind!”
    “Brutus, you cannot marry her.”
    “You have said so before, but that does not prove it.”
    “Brutus, swear that you will not divulge what I tell you.”
    “I swear it, sir.”
    “ZOE IS A SLAVE!”
    Brutus Lion reeled as if struck by a cannonball.
    “Great God, sir!”
    “And there are some in this neighborhood that know it…”

I hardly know where to start with this—and in fact I’m going to start almost at the end, with the explanation finally offered of Zoe’s origins: that she is another child of George and Harriet, born in secret and smuggled away in order to save her from the threat under which Anna lives her entire life.

Mr Dove himself has only just learned of Zoe’s origins from Nancy Jumper, who many years before was called out one night to attend a patient in labour, under conditions of great secrecy intended to conceal the mother’s identity from her; but who later, unseen herself, saw an obviously stricken Harriet leave a baby on Mr Dove’s doorstep. She kept the secret, however (we get the impression that keeping family secrets has necessarily been part of her stock-in-trade), until an encounter with Mr Dove on the 17th April – the date of these memorable events – brought it all back to her mind. Furthermore – being now old and unreliable and struggling to get by – Nancy sells the truth about Zoe to Major Somerville’s creditors.

The effect of all this upon Mr Dove is devastating—not because of Zoe’s origins, but because, a desperately poor man, he cannot afford to buy her. The old man suffers a psychotic break of sorts, during which money obsesses him to the exclusion of all else; and finally collapses altogether into a state of second childhood.

The ugly reality is that Zoe’s birth makes her every bit as much the Major’s property as her parents and sister; and she, too, is to be sold to meet his debts. Fortunately, when the deputy-sheriff comes for her, Zoe is at The Lair with Gertrude. At this moment she has no knowledge or understanding of her own position, and is more confused than frightened. Gertrude, however, grasps the situation at once:

    The bailiff walked up to Zoe, and touched her on the shoulder.
    “HANDS OFF!” shouted Gertrude, bringing the loaded end of her riding-whip down upon the floor with the force of a hammer on the anvil, the walls resounding with the report. The bailiff involuntarily started back.
    “Come here, Zoe,” said Gertrude, holding out her arms for the child. The poor girl—the victim of a vague terror—fled to her protector.
    Gertrude, with flashing eyes, raised the end of her whip, menacing the bailiff, while she encircled the waist of Zoe by one arm, and laid the head of Zoe gently on her own broad, soft bosom.
    “There, there, there, there, don’t be terrified, Zoe; nothing shall hurt you, Zoe. I’ll horsewhip the fellow within an inch of his life, if he does but lay his hand on you again, so I will.”
    “Miss Lion, are you aware that you are transgressing the law?”
    “Mr Bailiff, I don’t care a fox’s brush for any law but the ten commandments!”
    “Do you know that in harboring a slave you expose yourself to—”
    “Mr Jones, your way home lies straight out behind you. I give you two minutes’ grace; and if at the end of that time you are not out of this hall, I’ll put you out!” exclaimed Gertrude, her bosom heaving like the ocean waves in a tempest, her lips quivering, her nostrils distended, her eyes flashing, sparkling, and scintillating, as though they would explode.
    “Miss Lion, do you know, are you aware, that you are threatening an officer of the law?”
    “Ha, ha, ha, ha!—ha, ha, ha! Yes, and if an ‘officer of the law’ don’t take himself out of my sight in double quick time, I’ll take an ‘officer of the law’ by the nape of his neck and the straps of his pantaloons, and throw an ‘officer of the law’ over the precipice. You know me, sir! I am Gertrude Lion!”

He does; and consequently slinks off with his tail between his legs, to round up reinforcements; though by that time Gertrude has Zoe concealed in that same cave in the mountains.

There is some extraordinary stuff buried in this subplot—and not so buried. When the truth about Zoe becomes public knowledge, it makes no difference to anyone in the neighbourhood – except Mrs Armstrong – other than that everyone goes out of their way to love and care for her. Remarkably, Zoe herself is basically unbothered by the revelation, except for how it has impacted Mr Dove; she certainly does not react as we would expect a gently-bred white girl in a 19th century American novel to react.

But it is the response of Brutus and Gertrude that we must examine in detail—being very careful to do justice by Brutus. Certainly he recoils at Gertrude’s first suggestion of Zoe’s situation; and when Mr Dove confirms it, we get this exchange:

    “This child, Brutus! I loved her as my own!”
    “Ah, sir!” heavily sighed Brutus.
    “You do not know all she was to me!”
    “Oh, sir! yes, I do.”
    “She was the life of my heart.”
    “Oh! Heaven, sir! of mine too!”
    “I called her Zoe—life!”
    “God have mercy on us…”
    “Brutus!”
    “Sir!”
    “You can never marry her.”
    “Oh! I know it,” groaned the young man.
    “Therefore, Brutus, there must be no more love passages between you.”
    “Oh! no, no, sir,” sighed the Lion, dropping his shaggy head upon his hands…

We have to be very careful in interpreting this correctly: Brutus’ “recoil”, his despair upon receiving this confirmation, his agreement that he cannot marry Zoe, are entirely because that at the time, and in Virginia, such a marriage was illegal. The marriage is impossible not because Brutus will not, but because he cannot.

He does, however, go straight to Susan, still reeling from the triple tragedies of her grandfather’s and Anna’s deaths, and the sale of George and Harriet:

    “If she is mine, as you say, I will free her at once!”
    “But, my dear Miss Somerville, that will not do. To emancipate her would require time and trouble. In the mean while, another writ of attachment, at the suit of some other creditor, would be served on her, and your benevolent designs defeated. What I propose is the only safe way. It is very easy. Here is the deed. You have only to write your name at the bottom, and she is mine—she is safe. Come, Miss Somerville, do it,” pleaded Brutus, putting the pen in her listless fingers, and laying the deed before her.
    “Well, well; as you think best.”
    And, scarcely conscious of what she did, Susan Somerville wrote her name at the bottom of the bill of sale, and Zoe became the property of Brutus Lion.

And indeed—Zoe is inclined to think slavery not so bad, if she might be Brutus’ slave. But he having none of that, nor of anything less than marriage (Southworth shows a streak of pragmatism here unusual in this sort of fiction):

    “After all, it is nothing but the name; only it came on me like a shock; and I was a little proud; that’s all. I shall not be sad. People will say that the schoolmaster’s adopted daughter, who used to be so proud of her house-keeping, is a slave. Well; I shall not hear them say it. I shall be here with Brutus; waiting on Brutus; and I shall be happy. Don’t grieve for me, Brutus; indeed, I am not unhappy. Do you think that Zoe considers it such a misfortune to belong to Brutus? No, indeed. Come! don’t weep, Brutus! dear Brutus! I hate to see tears in manly eyes;” and she raised her apron and wiped away the tears from the eyes of her great big lubberly nurse, who was quivering with emotion like a mammoth blanc mange.
    “Zoe, my child !” he said, “did you think I would hold you bound a moment longer than I could help! Zoe, you should have been free to-day, but that the court-house was closed before I had even completed the purchase. Zoe, you shall be free to-morrow; and then you must return with your adopted father to the Dovecote.”
    “Must I leave you, Brutus?”
    “Zoe, my dear child, yes. You cannot be my wife, Zoe—and I will not make you my mistress; and loving you as I do, Zoe—loving me as you do—that would be your fate if you lived with me, dear child. Take her, Gertrude;” and pressing one passionate kiss upon her lips, he tossed her in his sister’s arms…

Now—there’s one other thing I want to consider here, before moving on to how Southworth resolves her plots—or rather, this point more or less forms the bridge for such a consideration.

You may remember that in The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, her second novel, Mary Elizabeth Braddon pulled exactly the same “racial identifier” stunt as Southworth does here, with its white-skinned, mixed-blood heroine being “outed” on the basis of her fingernails and “the corner of her eye”. Well—I have no doubt that Braddon read Southworth, and little more that (sitting in England, writing a book set in the American South), she swiped certain details from The Mother-In-Law, published ten years before.

And likewise, Braddon did what Southworth and others did at the time, in handling the dynamite that was abolitionist literature: she took it for granted that white people were only capable of really sympathising with a slave who was, effectively, white herself (and it is invariably a beautiful girl in these novels).

Here’s the thing, though:

Zoe isn’t of mixed blood after all. She is not the daughter of George and Harriet, but of two people who couldn’t be whiter. And whatever it was that Gertrude thought she saw, she was wrong.

This might at first glance seem like a cop-out, but the way that Zoe behaves, and is treated, once her supposed secret is out negates that possibility; and even as she takes the knowledge of her supposed birth and status in her stride, she is unaffected by the discovering the real truth except so far as it alters her relationship with Brutus.

No—Southworth is making a different point here and, when you think about it, an amazingly courageous one—one built around the twin characters of Zoe and Anna, the one a white lady of high social status, the other a born slave, the two of them physically indistinguishable. Not only does she explode the notion that “you can always tell”, that however white a person might look, there were certain infallible signifiers, but at a time when the pernicious “one drop of blood” scenario was firmly entrenched, she actually dared to say, in effect—What actually IS the difference, if you can’t even TELL the difference??

Meanwhile, Southworth handles this reverse-revelation rather curiously, but in doing so she’s making yet another serious point. We are made aware that Gertrude, Susan and Brighty have discovered something about Zoe; they don’t reveal it, or who was their source of information, other to say that they know for a fact she isn’t of mixed blood.

As it turns out, there are many more shocking secrets surrounding Zoe’s origin than “mere” slavery—and most of them have to do with Mrs Armstrong. They have remained a secret so long because the only witness to the events in question was Harriet. As Gertrude later explains (to a non-American), to do Zoe any real good, Harriet had to keep quiet until after the death of Major Somerville:

    “But the servant, then—Harriet! Why did she not disclose the secret?”
    “Because it would have done every sort of harm, and no good. It would have covered an honest family with shame and confusion, without restoring Zoe to her rights.”
    “I do not see that.”
    “Do you not know, then, that, however honest and good they may be, the oath of a slave or other colored person, will not pass in a slave State against a white person?”

The various plots of The Mother-In-Law come together when word filters back to Virginia of Louise’s intended marriage to James Frobisher.

Frobisher—as I did not before mention—was the only survivor of that carriage-accident in the mountains, from which he was rescued by Gertrude and carried back to The Lair. While nursing him back to health, Gertrude falls in love with him—allowing Southworth to have some fun with the gender-role reversal, with tall, powerful, domineering Gertrude attracted to the weak, helpless Frobisher – who she calls her “pretty boy” – precisely because he is weak and helpless. Frobisher is dazzled by Gertrude, but even more doubtful of her qualifications for aristocracy than he was of Brighty’s; they become sort-of engaged, until a miscommunication leaves Frobisher believing Gertrude has rejected him. Back in Washington, his wandering fancy then drifts to Louise…

Gertrude, however, considers herself plighted to Frobisher—and she is not about to let Mrs Armstrong take her “pretty boy” away from her (she knows Louise has nothing to say in the matter):

“I have felt a long time as though I ought to roll up my cuffs and take that woman in hand! This is a judgement on me for not doing it. I have let her scheme and plot, and marry and unmarry, and torture and break hearts to her own heart’s content. Oh, just God! I that I have spent so much time in ridding the woods and mountains of wolves and bears, and that I have let this human hyena walk abroad among women, and never resolved to deal with her, until she struck her fangs into my own heart! Selfish that I was! Not for the sake of Susan, of Louise, of Louis, of Zoe, of all the hearts that she has trampled in the dust, did I resolve to punish her! Now she would plant her cloven foot upon my bosom—would marry off my boy—my own, own boy—the gift of the mountain cataract to me; my own beautiful white water-lily, that I found broken and half drowned amid the foam of the torrent and the peaks of the rocks…”

And with that, Gertrude is onto her horse and off to Washington—determined to put a stop to the wedding if she has to publicly reveal every one of Mrs Armstrong’s guilty secrets to do it.

Ahem. She does.

Brighty is one of those to whom Gertrude declares her intention, and when she carries the news home to the Palace, Louis also sets out on a desperate chase to Washington—to stop Gertrude stopping the wedding, not because he doesn’t want it stopped, but because of what he fears such an appalling scene will do to Louise. But he knows he has no real hope of catching Gertrude, and sure enough, by the time he makes his way to the house where the wedding is being held, the assembled guests—

…members of the House of Representatives, Senators, members of the Cabinet with their families, foreign Ministers with their suites, were present. The President himself honored the occasion with his presence…

—are standing aghast in the face of Gertrude’s enthusiastic response to being invited to speak of any just cause or impediment

Louis is, however, just in time to witness what may, in a book full of outrageous touches, be the most outrageous:

    “Young lady,” began the Bishop, “will you please to—”
    “SHUT UP,” snapped the giantess.

 
 

19/01/2019

The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 1)

    Mrs Armstrong possessed one master passion, PRIDE; one predominant affection, MATERNAL LOVE… As Louise approached womanhood, these passions began to conflict, thus—
    The time was slowly but surely approaching when it would be proper for the heiress of Mont Crystal to be married. Her pride was interested in seeing her married, and established as the mistress of the most magnificent mansion and the greatest estate in the valley,
and pride, enlisting policy on her side, would suffer no delay, run no risk of the loss of this desideratum. But her maternal love, if the fierce, selfish, and exacting passion deserved the name, rebelled against this decision. Pride would have been highly gratified by seeing Miss Armstrong, as Mrs Stuart-Gordon, mistress of the Island Palace. Maternal love was grieved at the anticipation that her daughter should become the wife of Louis, maternal jealousy aroused by the thought that Louise should derive the happiness of her life from any other than herself. It is true, the mother coveted for her daughter no happiness that did not flow through herself. It is true, the thought of seeing Louise in another home, united to another…of feeling herself the mother of one only child, becoming of less and less importance to the happiness of that child, as year by year went by and aged her—this thought inflicted upon her selfish heart the sharpest pang it was capable of feeling…

 

While trying to determine which, of the many possible people and projects, is the most neglected around here is probably futile, there’s no doubt that if I did rank them, E.D.E.N. Southworth would be somewhere near the top of the list.

In my defence, for once there’s a good exc—uh, reason: for a long time, the only available copy of Southworth’s third novel, The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, was a scanned document of an edition resulting from a pernicious practice found in 19th century American publishing: reissuing three-volume novels in a single volume, with microscopic font, small margins and double-columns.

(In other words, almost the exact opposite of the 18th century British practice I pointed out with respect to The Picture…)

As an online text or as a PDF, the resulting scans are almost impossible to read, or read comfortably: if you fit a page on the screen the font is too small; if you make the font big enough, you have to toggle up and down repeatedly.

So perhaps I’ll be excused for putting off The Mother-In-Law as long as I have. I had girded my loins to the task, though, when I discovered that a different copy of the novel had been uploaded at the Internet Archive. I still had to read it online, but at least I could read it:
 

 

 
The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays was serialised in the National Era between 22 November 1849 – 18 July 1850, before being published in book form in 1851. It was subsequently reissued under three variant titles: The Mother-In-Law; or, Married In Haste; Married In Haste; or, Wife And No Wife; and The Mother-In-Law: A Tale Of Domestic Life. The first two give completely the wrong idea about what kind of novel it is; while with the third, you have feel that someone was being ironic.

As always with Southworth’s long and complicated sensation novels, it becomes a matter of how to do them justice in a review without simply recapitulating them. The Mother-In-Law, though quite as fully stuffed with characters and subplots as any other of Southworth’s novels, is actually more tightly plotted overall, showing the rippling impact of its central situation upon the surrounding community, and working to a climax that resolves early everything for nearly everybody. There is one important exception to this generalisation, however; and for this reason I have decided to address the novel in two posts, giving each of them their due weight.

The Mother-In-Law fits comfortably – well: not comfortably, exactly – within the framework of Southworth’s early fiction, in that it is a story of domestic misery. However, whereas in her previous novels, Southworth’s focus was on the consequences of male violence and male selfishness in the domestic sphere, here she gives us the monstrous feminine. Unnervingly, the novel carries a preface insisting that it is a true story; and while this is a common authorial ploy, of course, the length and seriousness of this introduction gives us pause.

Overall, this novel bears some resemblance to the first one of Southworth’s that we examined, Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, in that it deals with a community of families, the relationships that develop amongst its young people, and the influence – whether for good or ill (although mostly the latter) – of the older generation upon the next. In this respect, perhaps the most interesting thing about The Mother-In-Law is that while it has numerous characters, it is really a novel without either a hero or a heroine in the usual sense. This lack of conventional focus means that we must concentrate more than we normally would upon its ensemble cast.

Geographically, we find ourselves in familiar Southworth territory: The Mother-In-Law is set in the Virginian countryside, some thirty or forty years (we gather) in the past. “The Isle Of Rays” is the name given to an island situated in the middle of a broad river, which is big enough to support two important properties (as well as several much smaller ones); its land is divided into two, with one half of the island being under cultivation, the other a savage but beautiful wilderness. The natural glories of her characters’ surroundings occupy Southworth very much, and she includes many lyrical descriptions along the way—which, if it’s okay with you, we’ll take as read.

The leading property, not just of the island but the entire district, is called simply “The Island Estate”. This is the home of the Stuart-Gordons; its present lord is General Henry Cartwright Stuart-Gordon, who – as per a longstanding family condition – took his wife’s surname upon their marriage. At the story’s outset, Mrs Stuart-Gordon is recently deceased; her robust husband is recovering from the blow, but her only child, sensitive young Louis, is depressed and lonely.

Second in importance to the Palace is Mont Crystal, the home of the Armstrongs—Mrs Armstrong, a widow, and her only child, Louise—who in addition to the similarity of her name shares Louis’ birthday, 22nd February, though Louise is two years younger. Naturally, everyone expects the two estates to be merged when the young heirs are of a suitable age.

Louise, Louise and Mrs Armstrong are the three main characters of The Mother-In-Law, and since we will hear plenty about each of them along the way, I won’t talk too much about them here—except to highlight Southworth’s significant description of Louise. We’ve noted already Southworth’s tendency to “colour-code” her women with respect to their hair, also that clearly shared with her spiritual sister, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (like Southworth, a brunette), a certain exasperation over their society’s obsession with doll-like blue-eyed blondes. Fair-haired girls do not generally fare well in Southworth’s novels; and when we are offered the following portrait of Louise Armstrong—

…with her fair, transparent complexion, with her mild blue eyes and pale gold wavy hair, with her fragile and drooping form arrayed in white muslin as soft and pliable as her gentle disposition…

—we recognise her instantly as one of the author’s sacrificial lambs.

But there is a blonde of an entirely different description in The Mother-In-Law. Gertrude Lion – the “Gerfalcon”, as she is known to the district – stands nearly six feet tall; a wild, passionate, uncontrolled young woman to whom the term “Amazon” is repeatedly applied—though “Valkyrie” might have been a better choice. Orphaned early, Gertrude has been roughly raised by her equally unconventional brother, Brutus, at their isolated mountain property known as “The Lair”. Fascinatingly, particularly juxtaposed with certain other material offered by this novel, Gertrude and Brutus not only have Cherokee blood in their heritage, they are both very proud of the fact.

A unprecedented creation, Gertrude Lion explodes periodically into the narrative of The Mother-In-Law, “leaping” and “bounding” rather than ever just walking, and shattering both convention and other people’s nerves. Intriguingly, Gertrude shares certain characteristics with Hagar, the protagonist of Southworth’s The Deserted Wife, in that she is a creature of nature, excelling at all physical activities – including some distinctly unfeminine ones – and more at home with her horses and dogs than in society. However, since Gertrude is only a supporting character (and, unlike Hagar, not an authorial self-portrait), her behaviour not only goes unchecked, but unpunished. In fact, Southworth has a great deal of wicked fun with her—before pulling an extraordinary rabbit from the hat by turning Gertrude into her novel’s Deus ex machina

Pardon a digression.

An amusing contrast is drawn between the Lions and the Stuart-Gordons. The former, we learn, are descended from one of “the regicides”, who fled England upon the Restoration and settled in Virginia—then changing the family name to “Lion” as a precaution. The latter, meanwhile, are proud to claim descent from THOSE Stuarts. Southworth concedes this, though with a sardonic passing reference to “the bar sinister”; she also loads Louis with a selection of the less desirable Stuart characteristics, most significantly weakness in dealing with women; though we should note in his defence that, very un-Stuart-like, he is a young man of impeccable morals. Southworth herself digresses here for a few pointed remarks about the royal family in question, finally observing tartly that:

…their strong Scottish blood was diluted in the marriage of James V. with Mary of Lorraine, and still further reduced in the union of their daughter Mary Stuart with the imbecile Henry, Lord Darnley. Reader, did it ever occur to you to trace the downfall of that Royal House to the degeneracy of its stock from these two unfortunate marriages? If this were the place, or I had the time, I could almost prove it…

Meanwhile—Southworth lets her preference not just for brunettes, but dark brunettes, almost run riot. (No-one ever simply has brown hair in Southworth…nor have we yet met a red-head.) That said, the ladies in question could hardly be more different in either character or situation.

We are first introduced to Miss Britannia O’Riley – “Brighty” to her friends – Louise Armstrong’s Irish-American governess. Brighty—

…was about twenty-five years of age at the time our story opens, of medium height, moderately full figure, black eyes and hair, and dark complexion, features irregular, forehead broad and full, eyebrows slender and black, arched towards the nose, and elevated towards the temples, bright, piercing eyes, nez retroussé, and lips full, crimson, and quivering, formed the tout ensemble of a countenance irresistibly charming in its sparkling piquancy.

Brighty is a young woman of many faults: she is rather vain, a lover of luxury, and given to unmeasured speech. (Governesses, observes Southworth wryly, accounting for the fact that Brighty gets away with various acts of defiance and impertinence, were harder to obtain in early 19th century Virginia than they are at the time of writing.) But she is also generous, loving, and loyal.

We are next introduced to Susan Somerville, the granddaughter of old Major Somerville; the two occupy a broken-down property on the mainland known as “The Crags”: the last of an old, proud family sliding into poverty—and worse. After the death of Mrs Stuart-Gordon, Susan begins to call in the evenings upon Louis and his father, to make tea and provide sympathetic female companionship:

She was a medium-sized girl—full—even very full formed—with the well-developed bust, round chin and cheeks, and full, sweet lips, that indicate a fine vital temperament; her complexion was very fair, her eyes large, dark, and calm, and her hair black and silky, and rippling in tiny wavelets over her head. She wore it carelessly, but partly twisted up behind, partly drooping down her plump white cheeks and throat. Her dress of dark stuff was neatness itself; but her air—her air—there, that was magic! She looked like one that calmly and deeply enjoyed her life in every vein. Wisdom and innocence reposed in her serene face. Her manner was full of grave, sweet comfort…

Then there is Zoe Dove:

She was a gentle, tender little creature, with a fair, delicate skin, with soft, dark eyes, and fine, silky black hair, inclined to curl, but plainly twisted up.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of the old schoolmaster, Mr Dove, found literally upon his doorstep as a baby. She is the novel’s domestic goddess, a born housekeeper who finds all her pleasure in cooking and cleaning and sewing. A tiny, delicate creature, she is the unlikely object of Brutus Lion’s affections; even though Brutus – six-feet-nine in his stockinged feet – has to lift her up onto a table in order to converse with her. (Gertrude, a much tougher proposition than her brother, mocks him unmercifully for his “weakness”, only to get her comeuppance later in the novel via a still more unlikely romantic relationship.)

The novel’s final brunette is Mrs Armstrong herself:

She was a woman of majestic presence—very tall, very full formed—with the erect carriage, stately step, and assured manner that expressed conscious power, indomitable will, and accustomed sway. Her features were strongly marked—her forehead square and broad; her nose a high aquiline; her chin and cheeks full and round; her lips firmly set; her complexion opaque white; her eyes were dark gray—bright, cold, and hard; her eyebrows were square, heavy, and black; her hair was glossy, jet-black, and braided in large, heavy braids down her round, full, elastic cheeks, and plaited in a thick plait, wound around the back of her head, and confined by a comb…

It is Mrs Armstrong’s aberrant psychology that is the focus of The Mother-In-Law, and the driver of its plot. She is a woman of two mastering passions, which are irreconcilable—at "civil war" with each other, says Southworth, using a term less loaded in 1851 than it would become.

On one hand, there is the domineering pride which is determined that Louise will marry Louis Stuart-Gordon, and thus become the “first lady” of the district, if not indeed the entire state. Nothing less is acceptable for her daughter.

On the other, however—there is Mrs Armstrong’s attitude towards Louise, for which “possessive” is an almost laughably inadequate description:

Can you conceive, reader, a mother’s love for her only child—being a passion deep, intense, absorbing, yet selfish, jealous,’and exacting? This was the affection, if it deserved the name, that Hortense Armstrong cherished for her daughter. She had been jealous of the child’s affection for her own father, jealous of her attachment to her mulatto nurse, though the state the lady habitually kept continually left the gentle little child in charge of her attendants. But after the death of her father, and after the entrance of Louise upon her fifth year, the mother took her more particularly under her own charge—conducting her education herself; the whole bent of this education was to one object—the entire subjugation of the will of Louise to that of herself, to gain a life-long ascendancy over the heart and mind of the child, and thereby the disposal of her destiny. Not only did she require from her daughter the implicit obedience claimed by and ceded to parents by every law, human and divine, but she aspired to bring down the intellect and affections, the very mind and spirit of her child into absolute subjection to her will…

So far she has succeeded: at the age of fifteen, Louise has barely the capacity to think or act for herself, her slightest movement dictated by her simultaneous adoration and terror of her mother.

Southworth’s descriptions of Mrs Armstrong’s manipulation of her daughter are horrifying and painful. Louise is treated with a mixture of criticism and contempt, and repeatedly punished for her sins via the withholding of affection. She is made to feel insignificant and ungrateful, entirely unworthy of her magnificent mother—who, as Louise believes as an article of faith, has sacrificed her entire life to her daughter, who has no thought but for her daughter’s welfare…

Louise’s situation, not surprisingly, begins to take its toll upon her health. Her only refuge is the love and encouragement of Brighty, but these can avail little against the stone wall of Mrs Armstrong’s emotional demands. It is on Louise’s behalf that Brighty is periodically provoked into intemperate speech:

    “Pray, explain yourself,” said the lady, haughtily.
    “I will,” said Brighty, rising and settling the folds of her blue-black satin; “your daughter is attended to—worried—hurried too much—she wants rest—repose—Mrs. Armstrong, she wants a heart and mind at ease; she wants more freedom; she is afraid to stir hand or foot; to speak—to think—to feel—lest she should give her mother pain or displeasure.”
    “That is her religion,” said the lady, coolly. “Miss Armstrong, I am happy to say, is an example of filial piety. I repeat it, that is her religion.”
    “It is her superstition.”
    “You will please to remember you are addressing me, Miss O’Riley.”
    “And it is in full consciousness of that, that I say, Mrs Armstrong, that your system of education degrades, debases, enslaves, yes, destroys your daughter!—and that if it be continued, in two years from this Louise will be an irreclaimable idiot.”
    “You are speaking of Miss Armstrong,” said the lady, white with anger, but speaking steadily.
    “I know it ; and I repeat, that unless a different course is taken, in two years Miss Armstrong, of Mont Crystal, will be an idiot slave!”
    Brighty’s eyes were blazing…

Mrs Armstrong in fact heeds Brighty’s warning about Louise’s health; though a more imperative motivation is neighbourhood gossip about Louis Stuart-Gordon and Susan Somerville, with the latter’s tea-making having grown into visits paid and returned between the two young people. The thought that anyone might circumvent her marital schemes for Louise, least of all one of the destitute Somervilles, galvanises Mrs Armstrong: instead of keeping Louise isolated, as has been the case for the past several years, she begins entertaining—and throwing Louise and Louis together. The two were, in effect, childhood sweethearts, until Mrs Armstrong’s jealousy prompted her to kill off the friendship; and it does not take much for them to rediscover those early feelings. They are soon engaged, and then married—on the 22nd February, the day that Louis turns eighteen, and Louise sixteen.

There are two casualties of this arrangement. The first is Susan Somerville, who has indeed fallen in love with Louis—only to be made his confidante with respect to Louise, and to realise he thinks of her only as a sister. Pride sustains her through this mortification; even through the greater one of acting as one of Louise’s bridesmaids. The young couple see nothing but others see, and draw their own conclusions…

And the other person to suffer through this marriage is, of course, Mrs Armstrong. Though the match is of her own making, once it is made, as she anticipated she finds her altered position with respect to Louise intolerable.

Southworth makes it clear that, while Louis is genuinely in love with Louise, she is only “fond” of him—her worshipful love for her mother remaining her dominating emotion. It is thus less about what she can give, than what she is given. Louis is kind, considerate, thoughtful, always seeking new ways to show his love and to make Louise happy; while General Stuart-Gordon, likewise, pets and coddles her. Under this unprecedented treatment, this shower of love and encouragement, Louise begins to blossom—to smile, to laugh, to sing; to run and jump instead of walking sedately. And in doing so, she offends her mother past the possibility of forgiveness:

The presence of this haughty and frozen woman cast a cloud over the brightness of The Isle of Rays. She radiated a spiritual cold that chilled all who approached her. She had arrived in her coldest, hardest, and haughtiest mood; and all that she saw, heard, and felt there, aroused the most malignant passions of her soul. She saw Louise instead of being pale and dispirited at her long absence, looking rosy and joyous; and if she did not hate the child for daring to be happy, except by her permission and through her means, at least she loathed her daughter’s husband, for superseding her in the work. Yes, she began to hate Louis in proportion as Louise loved him. And sometimes she would look at Louise in astonishment, wondering that she presumed to be so free, so glad, in her presence! She grew alarmed for the permanency of her influence over her child’s intellect and affections. “In one short month I have lost so much ground. In a year longer I shall be nothing in the sum of Mrs Stuart-Gordon’s life! And she is my child—MINE! I gave her life! She came into the world by my will—mine! And who this Louis Stuart-Gordon? Perdition catch his soul! to come between me and the child I bore!” And deep in the heart of this woman whose external appearance was so cold, so hard, so stern, whose manners were so guarded, so haughty, so freezing—deep in the heart of this diabolical woman burned and burned a concealed, intense, and growing jealousy, as under the snow-clad surface of Etna glow the most dangerous fires…

Mrs Armstrong begins seeking a way to re-establish her mastery over Louise. Of course it cannot be done from a distance; but she soon perceives a way in which she and Louise can again be resident under the same roof: she will marry General Stuart-Gordon, and take over as mistress of the Palace.

But as she sets her plot in motion, it does not for a moment cross Mrs Armstrong’s mind, not just that the General is already thinking of marriage, but that he has a very different woman in his sights…

Louise’s marriage is the cue for Brighty’s dismissal from Mont Crystal. Her pride will not allow her to take payment for the months of her employment contract cut short and unfulfilled by the loss of her pupil; but since her vanity and extravagance have led her to spend most of her money on her own adornment, this gesture leaves her in a perilous situation—or it would have, had her friends not begun vying with one another for her company. Brighty, wise and far-seeing, accepts the invitation of Susan Somerville, who in the wake of the wedding is drooping into depression.

Brighty’s new situation – or rather, her emancipation from Mont Crystal – brings with it an unexpected consequence: the determined courtship of General Stuart-Gordon. During the preparations for the wedding, the two were much thrown together, including during an extended journey to New York to arrange for Louise’s trousseau and jewels. Intrigued by Brighty’s beauty and pertness, the General began what he thought of only as a dalliance, only to find himself honestly caught by the pride and self-respect with which she rejected his advances. Brighty is tempted by his subsequent offer of marriage – dazzled by the thought of being elevated to the social pinnacle of the Palace, almost won over by a vision of lording it over Mrs Armstrong – but her fundamental honesty prevails. She is touched by the supplication of the proud old military man, however, and when he persists in his courtship, she eventually finds in herself sufficient liking and esteem for the General to accept his hand.

Perversely, the General then begins to see objections where before he swept them aside—not her position as a servant, but his advanced age; and his fear that she cannot love him. Again his humility stands him in good stead with Brighty who, the more he offers to release her should she wish it, becomes the more determined to be his wife.

Matters reach crisis-point when Brighty is sought out by James Frobisher, a young Englishman attached to the British Legation in Washington and a distant cousin of sorts, who brings the startling news that as the only surviving descendant of the old Earl of Clonmachnois, who died intestate, she is now Countess of Clonmachnois in her own right; though otherwise her inheritance is only some poverty-stricken land in Ireland. Moreover, Frobisher has a proposition to make: now that he is convinced that Brighty will “do” as a member of the aristocracy, he wants to marry her; he will then petition for the reversion of the title and, as Lord Clonmachnois, set about the restoration of that Irish land.

The General takes this as the death-knell of his hopes, and he again offers to release Brighty; but this all has the opposite effect on her: she sends Frobisher to the right-about, resigns her title, and asks the General to set a date. He does—though the two of them keep it a secret until that date draws near. The General then accepts the necessity of breaking his news to the neighbourhood in general, and Mrs Armstrong in particular—who, meanwhile, has grown frustrated with the old man’s obliviousness to the various hints she has thrown out. When he begins, one morning, on a stumbling explanation of his intentions, she is at first delighted—until she realises that her hasty acceptance of his “proposal” was a trifle premature:

    Forgive me! I never presumed to the distinguished alliance of Mrs Armstrong.”
    “Sir!”
    “Pardon! pardon! The lady of my choice does not occupy so high a place in society. The lady of my choice—”
    “Is—”
    “Miss Britannia O’Riley!”
    Words would fail to express the dumbfounded astonishment, the astounded dismay, of that haughty woman, struck statue-still, with wonder, where she stood! Yes! at first it was simple stupefied wonder that fixed her there, with rigid limbs, pallid cheeks, and darkly corrugated brows. Yes, it was wonder, before it was even rage or vengeance.
    “BRITANNIA O’RILEY!”
    “Britannia O’Riley.”
    “A governess! a domestic! a hired servant!”
    “Britannia O’Riley! a beautiful, graceful, elegant, and accomplished woman.”
    “A beggar! a low Irish beggar!”
    “A lady! a lady to whom I shall be proud to give my name.”
    “A poor, miserable Irish beggar, whom I hired to serve my daughter!”
    “My intended wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior, and mistress of my house within one month from this.”

Mrs Armstrong’s response is not merely to depart, but to try and take Louise with her. Still incapable of withstanding a maternal command, bewildered by her mother’s insistence that she has been offered an intolerable insult, Louise is mechanically obeying when the General intervenes. The ensuing, violent scene only become more fraught when Louis himself returns home and becomes involved. Louise is unable to withstand the contending forces, and faints; Louis carries her back to her room, while the General—now every bit as much Mrs Armstrong’s enemy as he is hers—forces the departure of her mother.

Alone at Mont Crystal, Mrs Armstrong begins to lay her plans for the future—now quite as determined to destroy the lives of everyone at the Palace (which, by the time she sets her scheme in motion, includes Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior) as she is to regain possession and control of her daughter. Indeed, these two passions become inextricably linked together, as Mrs Armstrong begins using Louise as a weapon…

Her first step is to show herself open to the olive branch tentatively offered by the Palace. Louise, of course, suffers bitterly from the estrangement, and the feeling that it’s all her fault; and finally she and Brighty venture to Mont Crystal in an attempt to mend fences. Mrs Armstrong, taking her cue, shows herself more sorrowing than angry, and allows her penitent daughter to persuade to her to forgive the insults offered, and to dine at the Palace. From there, Mrs Armstrong keeps up her act so well that even the General’s suspicions are lulled—though granted, he is also distracted by his vivacious young wife. She bides her time until business calls Louis away from home for a week—and then she seizes her chance, inviting Louise to return to Mont Crystal for a visit. Of course she has no intention of letting her go again; or at least, only if her terms are met…

Calling alone, Mrs Armstrong confronts the General. We are reminded of the complicated situation at the Palace: that Louis is a Stuart-Gordon on his mother’s side; that the property descends to him from her, not his father; and that he is not as yet of age. Mrs Armstrong, meanwhile, is focused on Louise’s position now that the General has remarried:

    “When I bestowed the hand of my daughter, Miss Armstrong, upon your son, Mr Stuart-Gordon, it was understood that she should take the head of this establishment. Was this so, or was it not so?”
    “Certainly, madam, that was the tacit understanding, but—”
    “Never mind ‘but.’ This house was refurnished, fitted up, to suit the taste of Louise, was it not!”
    “Of course, madam, but—”
    “Louise was to have been its mistress—was she not?”
    “Certainly, madam, but—”
    “Who is its mistress!”
    “My wife, Mrs Stuart-Gordon, senior.”
    “Then the conditions of the marriage contract have not been fulfilled on your part.”

Of course in one respect this is ridiculous: Louise neither wants to be mistress of the Palace, nor is capable of fulfilling such a role; moreover, she is delighted to have the companionship of Brighty, and only too pleased to have her assume control of the household (which she does admirably, by the way). The General is understandably inclined to brush this off as nonsense—until:

“Then hear me, sir. I said that I was a woman of few words; you know that I am not a woman of vain words; and I tell you,” she said, rising, folding her arms, standing before him with her determined jaws firmly set, her determined eyes firmly fixed upon him—” I tell you,” she said, slowly, through her closed teeth, “that, until you and your wife evacuate these premises, Mrs Louis Stuart-Gordon never sets foot upon The Isle of Rays, and never exchanges one word with any one member of the Island family. I waited my time. I have her. She is in my hands now!”

So she is; and for the next several years, Louis is doomed barely to see his wife…

There are a couple of interesting social and legal points surrounding the manoeuvring of Mrs Armstrong; interesting too for the somewhat ambiguous light it throws on the character of Louis, who has been presented us us from the outset as unusually sensitive—or in his father’s opinion, weak. Taking after his mother, Louis had no interest in a military career; he doesn’t even hunt. He enjoys scenery for its own sake; he and Louise spend many hours walking hand-in-hand, admiring the Palace gardens and the wilderness beyond.

And when Mrs Armstrong tries to take Louise, Louis insists that she is free to make her own decision.

What’s fascinating here is the way that Southworth manipulates us into siding with the conservative old General, with his thunderous demand for husbandly authority and wifely submission. Of course—this really isn’t about “men” and “women”, or “husbands” and “wives”; it is about the fact that Louise as an individual is incapable of making any decision for herself, let alone one this big. Louis’ intentions may be admirable, but he picks the worst possible moment to live up to his principles; and had Louise not fainted, she would undoubtedly have been immured at Mont Crystal a few months earlier.

And when Mrs Armstrong does get her hands on Louise, a similar situation arises. Louis wants neither to force Louise to do anything, nor to wash the family’s dirty linen in public by taking legal steps to get his wife back, as he is within his rights to do; while the General is all for filing a writ of habeus corpus. It is Brighty who tips the scale towards Louis, warning the men that anything that looks (or can be made to look) like violence towards or an insult of Mrs Armstrong will not help them with Louise; but adding that, with time, Louise’s longing for her husband and their life together may override even her worship of her mother.

And perhaps so—under normal circumstances. But as soon as Mrs Armstrong has Louise back in her power, she sets about convincing her that no-one at the Palace ever loved her; that no-one has ever really loved her but her mother—least of all Louis, who only married her because she was Miss Armstrong of Mont Crystal; who was notoriously in love with Susan Somerville, and certainly would have married her had she not been destitute; and who has probably by this time made Susan his mistress…

    Louise dropped her head upon her mother’s shoulder, and groaned—
    “Oh, mother! what horrors are these you are revealing to me! My brain is reeling—reeling! my mind wanders. This is very dreadful, and yet it is of Louis—Louis that you speak! Oh, this is very, very horrible, and yet it is my mother that tells me…”

Unexpectedly, however, of the two it is finally Louis – after calling repeatedly at Mont Crystal, and being turned away; and after writing letter after letter, to no response – who suffers a collapse and its inevitable attendant, “brain-fever”. Louise herself is kept from this extremity by a growing conviction on her part:

    “Mamma, I must return to Louis! indeed I must, mamma, if he will take me back! Indeed I must, mamma, if he were twenty times a traitor!”
    “Hey! what! how! what is all this wretched nonsense, now?”
    “Mamma, I shall be a mother soon!” said Louise, in a voice between timidity and tenderness.
    “WHAT!” exclaimed the lady, raising upon her elbow, and gathering her black brows into an awful frown— ” WHAT!”
    “God has blessed me! I, too, shall be a mother, dear mamma! Oh! mamma, kiss me, now that I have told you!”
    “It is not true! It cannot be true I” exclaimed Mrs Armstrong, still glaring at her daughter.
    “Mamma, it is so; and I must return to Louis—indeed I must, mamma!”
    “To a man whose whole heart is given to his mistress—”
    “If it be so, it is dreadful, mamma, but I cannot help it. He does love me a little. Anyhow, I know I love him entirely…”

For a variety of reasons—jealousy, the potential change to Louise’s social position, her own changed position, the increased legal power this will grant Louis, and Louise’s altered affections—Mrs Armstrong is having none of it; none of it:

    “Mamma, how have I given you offence!”
    “By the subject of your conversation. Now, let me hear no more ridiculous nonsense about returning to that young scapegrace, nor the other miserable shift-about—pshaw! fudge! stuff! you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have such fancies.”
    “It is not fancy, it is fact, mamma.”
    “SILENCE! hush! not a word more of this, I command you, Louise. It is false! false! you are too young—far too young. You should blush at such imaginings!”
    “It is not imagination, mamma,” persisted Louise, with a tender earnestness.
    “Hush! I command you! Never dare to hint this subject to me, or to any one else, at the peril of my grave displeasure. Shameful! But you are really out of health. You are ill and nervous, and so, of course, full of idle fancies. You are too much confined. You do not take exercise enough. You must go out more. You shall ride on horseback. Nothing is better for low spirits than hard riding on a trotting horse…”

And having dismissed Louise, Mrs Armstrong calls her loyal waiting-woman to her:

    “What do you think of that child, Kate?” asked the lady, looking searchingly in the face of her attendant.
    “Well, madam, I think she is—indeed all the women about the house know she is—”
    “In bad health!” said the lady, emphatically, and looking sternly and threateningly at her attendant.
    “Yes, madam, of course, just as you say, in bad health.”
    “Listen to me! She is out of spirits, and she neglects her toilet sadly—more than I choose that my daughter shall. I shall dismiss her maid, and do you take her place, and superintend the dressing of your young lady. Do not permit her to go about as loosely and carelessly arrayed as has been her custom of late. See that she wears her stays; do you hear?”
    “Yes, madam, I hear and understand.”
    “Hear and literally obey.”

But none of this is to any avail; and some months later, Louise gives birth to a daughter, Margaret.

Louis is informed of the event not directly, but via neighbourhood gossip. He could, of course, demand custody—but of course he does not. His forbearance is hardly rewarded: in time he receives a black-edged letter from Mrs Armstrong informing him of his daughter’s death from scarlet fever. This is followed by a cold demand that, for the sake of Louise’s health and happiness, he arrange for a divorce. After long consideration, Louis writes back, agreeing to this if Mrs Armstrong’s claim is endorsed by Louise, in Louise’s handwriting. Such endorsement duly arrives…

Mrs Armstrong by this time has carried Louise away, not just from Mont Crystal, but Virginia; Louise remains apathetic as she is forced from place to place. Her mother finally establishes her in Washington—where the pale, pretty girl (who is assumed to be a young widow) attracts the kind attention of, “Mrs M—, the lady of the President…perhaps the most dignified and gracious of all the ladies that ever presided at the White House.” (Presumably Elizabeth Monroe, a detail which places the narrative between 1817 and 1825.)

Louise also attracts the attention of a certain James Frobisher, who by this time has succeeded in securing the reversion of the family title title—thus offering to Mrs Armstrong the glorious chance to smite her enemies with a final, decisive blow: to take Louise away altogether, out of the country, as far from the Palace (and her lingering affections) as possible; to have her marry another man, apparently of her own volition; to have her bear the title so lightly discarded by Brighty; and to see her socially elevated even beyond her mother’s wildest dreams, as Countess of Clonmachnois…

[To be continued…]

 

20/12/2018

Very critical indeed…

While doing a little research with respect to my timeline for the development of the Gothic novel, I ended up – as frequently happens upon these occasions – slipping down a rabbit hole.

As was the case with The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley and Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, Reginald du Bray was brought to my attention via the writings of Christina Morin, who has made an argument for the Irish origins of the Gothic novel. I did a quick search for access and information about this work after wrapping up the previous entry in my timeline, Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose and, while not delving too deeply at the time, became aware that there was something odd about its publishing history.

The Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) listing for this work asserts that Reginald du Bray is:

A reprint of the second volume of ‘The rival friends, or the noble recluse’, London, 1776.

While we know that publishers at this time often did release novels volume by volume, rather than all at once, it seems unlikely that anyone would reprint just one volume out of a novel—particularly the middle one out of three.

Chasing up information about The Rival Friends; or, The Noble Recluse brought me to “Volume the Forty-First” of The Critical Review, a British magazine published between 1756 and 1817: it was initially edited by Tobias Smollett, and carried writings from some of this era’s most prominent literary figures, including Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and David Hume. Of more immediate interest, the magazine made a concerted effort to provide a short review of every novel released in Britain (!). Thus, as you can imagine, it is an invaluable source of information about the now-obscure literature of the time.

In fact, this 1776 issue of The Critical Review offers the only evidence that The Rival Friends ever existed, via the following dismissive paragraph—which, given what I just got through saying about the publishing practices of the time, as illustrated by Susannah and Margaret Minifie’s exceedingly flimsy novel, The Picture, made me laugh like a loon:

But funny as that paragraph struck me, it was distinctly unhelpful with regard to the subject matter of the novel in question, and the issue of its putative connection to Reginald du Bray.

Though Christina Morin does not seem to have been aware of this asserted connection, she is right that the earliest version as such of the work in question carries a Dublin imprint: it appeared in 1779 under the title Reginald du Bray: An Historick Tale, with the author given as, A late lord, greatly admired in the literary world. This particular publication also came to the attention of Montague Summers in his important work from 1938, The Gothic Quest: A History Of The Gothic Novel, wherein he comments that, “Little attention was excited by [it].” Importantly from the point of view of the current literary thread, however, Summers adds that Reginald du Bray, “Acknowledges itself ‘the literary offspring of Longsword'”, which both places it as an early attempt at historical fiction, and suggests that one edition of the tale, at least, carried a foreword by its unidentified author.

A second edition of Reginald du Bray was issued in Dublin in 1784, this time simply as by, A late nobleman (and having lost the ‘k’ in ‘historick’). This is the version available through ECCO, which links it to The Rival Friends—and as it turns out, out of all its different editions and sources, at the present time this is the only available copy.

Accessing it online, we immediately notice something odd about this edition: it carries what is listed as a “Preparatory Discourse”, by “A Celebrated Female Pen”. This, without identification or acknowledgement of any kind, turns out to be Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld’s essay, On The Pleasures Derived From Objects Of Terror, which first appeared in Miscellaneous Pieces by Barbauld and her brother, John Aikin. Furthermore, this odd preface to Reginald du Bray also appends, also without attribution, Sir Bertrand, A Fragment, Barbauld’s attempt to illustrate the principles of her essay.

This same version of Reginald du Bray subsequently received a London release, being published in 1786 by William Lane (although prior to his founding of the Minerva Press). At this time it came to the notice of The Critical Review where, while paying little attention to the novel itself, the reviewer took offence at the “Preparatory Discourse”:

Ahem. My conclusion was that “the greater part” belonged to the lady, but we won’t quibble.

Of course we don’t know who wrote either of the brief critical responses here highlighted, so we can’t know if the same person wrote both or not: the tone is similar, but that might simply reflect the Review‘s editorial policy. But there is certainly no indication that the person who rescued Reginald du Bray from “the vale of oblivion” in 1786 recognised in it any of The Rival Friends‘ one-too-many volumes from a decade earlier.

Perhaps a more important point, however, is that remark of Monague Summers’, in which he quotes the author of Reginald du Bray. While the 1784 Dublin edition, as far as a brief examination has revealed, carries no such quotation, Summers presumably found it somewhere, perhaps the 1779 edition. As noted, it sounds like an excerpt from a preface—which makes the unavailability of that edition a frustration, as surely the author’s own words would settle once and for all the question of Reginald du Bray‘s origins: whether it was a standalone work or, the second volume of a three-volume novel, a case of the interpolated narrative gone mad.

Footnote:

I was moved to look into the local availability of Christina Morin’s The Gothic Novel In Ireland, c. 1760 – 1829. Unfortunately it is not held by any library here; and while it is available on Kindle, well…

That’s pretty much the face I made, when I saw the price:

14/12/2018

The Picture


 

 
In this picture were two principal figures, the one a fine old man with silver locks, which seemed to inspire veneration; the other, a beautiful youth in whose arms he was supported.—Miss Stanley observed, that but for their position, they might have been taken for Mentor and Telemachus.—You say right, my dear, returned Mrs Berkley.—Observe, continued she, pointing to the young man,—what nobleness in his air! what majesty! what sweetness! what expression in his looks!—If the countenance be an index of the soul, in his I read every godlike virtue of that heroe. Mrs Stanley, turning to the housekeeper, begged to know for whom it was intended.—The woman replied, that it was occasioned by a very extraordinary accident, adding, if the ladies would please to repose themselves, she would readily relate the circumstances…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The insistence of booksellers and, increasingly, the circulating libraries upon multi-volume novels had a range of consequences for authors and publishers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of them is well-illustrated in this 1766 work by Susannah and Margaret Minifie.

It is not in the least uncommon to find novels which could, and should, have comfortably occupied two or even a single volume being dragged out to the necessary three via padding of sorts, including unnecessary subplots, overly circumstantial descriptions, repetitions, and our old friend, the interpolated narrative. That these tactics almost invariably resulted in a less effective work of fiction was, evidently, considered of less importance than the financial gains to be achieved by breaking a single novel into pieces for sale and hire.

And if this artificial inflation of a book’s length damaged an otherwise successful work, you can imagine the results when the same tactics were applied to a novel with a narrative so flimsy, it could barely have sustained a single volume.

Such is the case in The Picture, which is one of the most insubstantial works of 18th century fiction I have ever read, the era’s tendency to privilege emotion over plot notwithstanding. In fact, so lacking is this novel in any sort of real content, the publishers had to chip in with padding tactics of their own, achieving three volumes only by virtue of (i) narrow pages, (ii) wide margins, (iii) large font, and (iv) spaces between paragraphs.

To illustrate:

   

By 1766, the Minifie sisters had published one novel as a joint venture, The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, and one as a solo effort—with Family Pictures released only as “By a LADY”, but in all likelihood written by Margaret.

Though it carries the ladies’ original attribution, “By the Miss MINIFIES, of Fairwater in Somersetshire”, I’m inclined to suspect that this third novel out of the stable is chiefly Susannah’s work: it has a slightly different “voice” from the previous two novels, and also from that of Barford Abbey. In fact, its style is one of the many irritating things about The Picture, with its inadequate story rendered even more so via a twee, chatty tone which becomes increasingly grating. The novel is poorly written even by the rather laissez-faire literary standards of its day, marked by a constant shifting of tense and perspective, and it resorts repeatedly to non-cliffhangers—that is, it tends to end its chapters with a dramatic interruption or a promise of important revelations to follow, which then turn out to be of minor importance if any at all.

As did Family Pictures, The Picture opens rather confusingly, with a generational shift. It begins by introducing us to a certain Mr Howard, as he receives a letter from the (we gather) newly widowed Mrs Stanley begging for his assistance. It then quickly falshes back to when Mrs Stanley was a Miss Dormer—who, between her father’s wealth and her own “most attractive sweetness”, was expected to make a great marriage.

It speaks volumes for the conventions of the 18th century sentimental novel that at this point, the authors felt compelled to stop and explain at length why, all those years before, Mr Howard did not fall in love at first sight with Miss Dormer. This passage also offers an excellent example of this novel’s overall style of writing—imagine this stretched out to about 600 pages:

By help of a little familiar named Fancy, who flies invisible, and whose flights are boundless, we are informed our readers have adjudged the sentiment proposed to love. Sorry as we are to contradict our ingenious friends, and universal as we acknowledge the power of that deity, truth bids us declare Cupid was not present at this interview, the reason of which can only be accounted for by the following incident. Some twenty years before this æra, as he was one day sporting near the sacred temple, a group of heavenly inhabitants moved towards it, surrounding two mortal figures; one appeared to be Mr Howard, conducted by Honour, the other a female of pleasing aspect, supported by Virtue. Cupid recollected and saluted his votaries. Hymen honoured in the presence of so many divinities, entered the temple before them, and performed his office in the most harmonious spirits. Which being concluded, and each bestowing on the happy pair some mark of celestial favour, Cupid presented the bride one of his best darts, rendering her husband invulnerable to the attack of any other in his whole feathered collection. Since Cupid stands acquitted, what then is the sentiment by which Mr Howard was agitated at this interview with Miss Dormer? Was it admiration? Was it compassion? Was it tender apprehension? It was not one, but all those passions blended in one…

Apparently a man feeling sorry for a girl whose father has just been ruined was far too straightforward a concept for readers of this sort of literature to grasp.

Anyway—her father’s ruination is simply an opportunity for Miss Dormer to display a whole new series of perfections. Discovering that Mr Dormer’s main creditor is Sir Thomas Stanley, she calls at his house intending to offer her jewels in part-payment of his debt, and ends up pouring out her story to someone she assumes is Sir Thomas, but who turns out to be a relative of his only—held silent because he has (of course) fallen in love with her at first sight.

Long story short, Miss Dormer becomes Mrs Stanley. We then begin our generational hopping again, with the Stanley marriage disposed of in a single sentence:

Happy in each other the thirteenth year returned, in which time she buried her father, one Son, and two daughters, and at that period Mr Stanley was also torn from her…

But the Stanleys are not the only ones subjected to a ruthless hand. Hilariously, having gone to all the trouble of introducing a Mrs Howard in order to explain Mr Howard’s otherwise incredible behavior, the lady having served her purpose the authors whack her in one off-hand phrase:

…and Mr Howard having lost his lady some years before, was retired to Rose-Hill, the sweet retreat in which our reader may remember we first discovered him.

What the reader is, in fact, more likely to discover is that the preceding fifty pages of this novel could have been dispensed with, at no cost to the plot, which (such as it is) begins properly here.

But then—we’re not going to make it to 600 pages with an attitude like THAT, are we?

The Howards and the Stanleys remained close friends over the years; and now that she is a widow, Mrs Stanley turns to Mr Howard for advice. We learn that Providence (and the Miss Minifies) has left Mrs Stanley with one living child, a daughter, Emily. She is also raising her husband’s orphaned niece, Louisa Orey, who is about Emily’s age.

It is with regard to Emily that Mrs Stanley wishes to consult Mr Howard. The Stanleys are a wealthy family, and Emily is a significant heiress. However, remembering her own plunge from affluence into poverty, Mrs Stanley has conceived a plan to raise Emily in the assumption that the family are in limited circumstances, so that she learns simplicity and humility before she comes into her fortune. Her intention is to carry the two young girls into the country, where she can supervise their education and ensure they are kept away from the pernicious influences of town life. And in order to obtain for the girls all the benefits of fortune without seeming to be able to afford them herself, Mrs Stanley makes an arrangement with a friend, a Mrs Berkley, who is herself in straitened circumstances: she will pose as the girls’ benefactor.

This complicated arrangement put in place, the all-female household retires to a cottage in the vicinity of Mr Howard’s country home, Rose-Hill. Their surroundings are exactly what we might expect, in a novel of this sort:

From this rising ground let us behold the beauties by which we are surrounded. The meadows how chearful, their robes are green-enliven’d with flowers of gold and azure; that hanging wood, which rears its lofty head, as if to overlook the distant hills, appears the seat of contemplation; the banks of yonder river, how fertile! how enriched! surely the inhabitants are nature’s favourites, and this its most luxurious garden. Mark the houses! how neatly elegant! and scattered hamlets, how gaily ornamented! the pure jessamine, and sweeter woodbine, blooms on the humble roof, regailing with their spicy breath the honest labourer, when at his threshold he eats his evening morsel…

And so are the characters:

Amazement! what do we see! two lovely forms! their actions still more lovely! Turn thy eyes to the next cottage, mark them well, with what tenderness they relieve that sick wretch, who with blessings follows them to the door; with what amiable smiles are they this moment caressing the children of poverty? Can it be any other than Benevolence and Humility descended upon this happy spot, in their own transcendent loveliness. But, hold! a friendly zephyr bears away from the most graceful, the envious hate which hid the beauties of her face. Let us examine if these can equal her fine height, easy shape, and majestic movement. Heavens! that dazzling complection, eyes black, sparkling and full of sentiment, animated features, and neck whiter than the down of swans, convinces us these are the infant charms of Miss Stanley, ripened by the hand of time… Take thy eye from Miss Stanley, to admire the modest vivacity of Louisa’s looks, her sprightly air, the delicacy of her forehead, the glossy auburne hair which shades it, the joy, the youth, the innocence that revel on her countenance…

It is, frankly, a relief to escape from these outpourings into The Picture‘s main subplot, wherein dwell our contrasting wicked characters and their criminal and venial transgressions.

Lady Edmonton, the late Mr Stanley’s half-sister, is a foolish, vain woman who contracts a second marriage with the dissolute Sir James Hallifax, and repents it soon enough. It is actually Sir James who occupies centre-stage in this plot, and in a curious way that would hardly have been permissible some years later: the baronet’s one redeeming feature is his passionate love for his illegitimate son.

However, this love leads Sir James to defraud his own young brother, Charles. The baronet intends, upon his own death, both to acknowledge his son and to leave him a fortune to counterbalance the stain of his birth. To this end, Sir James suppresses his father’s will, convincing Charles that he, as the elder son, has inherited the entire property. This situation impacts our main plot via Sir James’ scheme to see his brother provided for via marriage to Emily Stanley. Though the two are only children when the scheme is conceived, sixteen and ten respectively (this is some years before the effusions quoted above), Sir James considers there is no time to waste, and bullies his wife into doing all she can to promote the match.

Back in the country, we hear at length how Mrs Stanley’s scheme for shaping the minds and characters of the girls have been carried out. Confident in the success of her venture, when Emily and Louisa are of an age to make their debuts, Mrs Stanley begins to plan for their removal to London. However, these plans are diverted when Mrs Berkley’s pretended fortune becomes real, upon her unexpected inheritance of an estate. Mrs Stanley and the girls accompany her on her tour of inspection, the ladies stopping along the way to visit any place of note. Among these is one recommended by Mr Howard, the country-house of a certain Lord Eastley. It is here that Emily Stanley encounters her fate—or at least a representation of him:

Mrs Stanley seeing the door of another room open, imagined she might be there, stept back, and found it a little library which had been passed over in surveying many other splendid apartments.—Here then she found her daughter,—but found her with her attention so profoundly fixed on a picture which stood over the chimney, that she might be said at that moment to have resembled a fine statue of the goddess Contemplation…

Lord Eastley’s housekeeper then recounts the incident depicted in the painting, in which the household’s venerable old butler would have drowned, had not a young visitor to the estate risked his own life to save him:

    This piece of humanity had like to cost him dear, for soon after he was taken ill of a dangerous fever;—and when my lord expressed his fear that it was owing to this accident,—he replied,—that man is not worthy of life who would not risque it in the preservation of a fellow creature.—
    Unperceived even by herself, tears of admiration filled the charming eyes of Emily…

The ladies then press on to Mrs Berkeley’s house, which is situated near the estate of a duke (unnamed). While walking one morning, Emily and Louisa overhear a conversation between two young men, whom they deduce to be young Lord Eastley and the gentleman of the picture, whose first name only they learn, Harry. The subject of their conversation startles the girls: evidently Harry is engaged to a certain Lady Lydia, with whom Lord Eastley is in love…

Yet when there is an accidental encounter between Harry and the ladies, when he secures them seats at the playhouse in a nearby town, it is apparent that he is much struck with Emily. A second encounter follows:

[She] began to sing and play with a grace most enchanting.—Her soul imperceptibly softened by the Poet’s masterly representation of distressed love,—music added to that softness,—her skill inimitable,—her complexion dazzling,—her voice naturally melodious, accompanied with a more than usual sweetness;—the dove-like mildness in her eye;—her air the most melting;—her notes, her words, were all adapted to the present tenderness of her sentiments.—In this ravishing attitude she thought herself free from observation, but was undeceived by this sudden exclamation from a voice not unwelcome—Ah! Eastley, take Lady Lydia, but give me, heaven, this most perfect of thy creatures:—She rose to leave the room, covered with confusion.—Transported with admiration the inraptured Harry Prayed, nay, even kneeled, to prevent her design.—A secret emotion, a tender inclination, would have betrayed her; but considering such an inclination as stepping from that amiable reserve which she had made her standard, she retired precipitately, and ran to hide her sensibility in the bosom of Louisa…

The one really interesting thing about The Picture is how thoroughly its central love-plot violates the conventions—or at least seems to do so: naturally the authors find a way out of its worst implications, such as Harry’s pre-commitment to Lady Lydia, at the time he falls in love with Emily. Still, to have its heroine fall in love at first sight, on her own (albeit with a painting rather than the real thing), is remarkable—one of the most cherished of all literary tropes, through this century and the next, being that a proper young woman must remain unawakened until the right man asks her to love him; simultaneous love at first sight being the only exception, and even then she either has to hide her feelings or be unaware of their significance.

Meanwhile, as you have no doubt already deduced, the authors do indeed try to make a mystery of sorts out the identity of “Harry”, to the extent of stretching their narrative in improbable directions to avoid telling us who he is.

Emily makes a bid to regain her immaculate heroine status by confessing all to her mother, who warns her that for a number of reasons, she should try to overcome her “inclination”. Emily resolves to do so, but she is immediately thrown back into Harry’s vicinity when the ladies suffer a carriage accident, and he is one of those on the spot to help.

In the wake of this several odd things happen. Mrs Stanley is summoned to the duke’s castle—to see an old friend who is staying there, she tells her daughters, though the reader might doubt it—and upon her return announces that they will be departing immediately for the home of Mr Howard, who she claims is in poor health. He has, ahem, recovered by the time they get there; and Mrs Stanley again begins planning to relocate the girls to London.

But before they set out, the girls find a letter that has been smuggled onto their dressing-table:

    Its contents are weighty, replied Miss Orey; open it, whatever they are I claim a moiety.—Agreed, returned she, breaking the seal, when out dropped,—guess O! reader! it was not money, it was not jewels, but a fine resemblance of the amiable Harry.—Letter, picture, all fell from the trembling hand of Miss Stanley.—Louisa quite aghast, could only exclaim,—Heavens! what do I see?—Where am I?—What enchantment brought it hither?—Her fair speechless motionless cousin, neither hearing or answering her interrogations, she put the picture again into her hand, and applied to the billet for information;—the contents of which still plunged them into greater amazement.
    Mrs Stanley deceives you,—she is not indigent,—neither are you dependent.—You owe no advantages to the bounty of a stranger;—your own fortunes are immense.—Tax Mrs Stanley with these truths;—she cannot, will not, deny them.—These instructions belong equally to both; but to miss Stanley, the picture of a man who adores her.—

The girls immediately show the letter to Mrs Stanley, who admits the indictment it contains; the girls agree that she had good and sufficient reason for the deception, and that wraps up that unnecessary complication. Mrs Stanley then requires Emily to hand over the picture, which she does without hesitation, if not without reluctance. Confident that both girls are by now mentally and morally strong enough to resist the vanities and flatteries of the world, Mrs Stanley finally does carry them off to London.

Some of The Picture‘s most egregious padding follows, as the Hallifax subplot expands to encompass various friends and acquaintances, and their romantic – and more usually, financial – manoeuvring, and in this way fills out the rest of Volume II. The only minor relevance here is that Sir James is still trying to bring about a marriage between his brother, Charles, and Emily.

This causes much angst for the young lady we may consider the novel’s third heroine, Lady Lucy Carew. She is the daughter of Lord and Lady Castledale, but spends much time with Sir Thomas and Lady Stanley, as her parents rarely leave their Dublin home. Lady Lucy is secretly in love with Charles Hallifax, and is at first thrown into dismay by Emily’s perfections. However, reassured by her own observation that Charles cares nothing for Emily, Lady Lucy tries to attract his attention to herself and arouse his jealousy by flirting with a certain Colonel Stanhope, which causes numerous complications and allows for much tut-tutting and head-shaking by the authors.

(I’ll say this for the Miss Minifies: even as, in Family Pictures, they had the nerve to condemn fox-hunting, here they make a mockery of duelling, with a planned encounter between Charles Hallifax and Colonel Stanhope over a perceived grievance ending in the two young men agreeing that there’s really nothing to fight about, and becoming friends instead.)

After lengthy passages of courtship (honest and otherwise) and persiflage, the narrative suddenly take a dark turn. There is a violent confrontation between the Hallifax brothers when Charles positively declines courting Emily, on the grounds of his feelings for Lady Lucy. The brothers’ next encounter, however, finds Sir James wracked with guilt and remorse and misery, and obliquely confessing to having deceived and defrauded Charles, though he does not tell him why. Charles responds with brotherly and Christian forgiveness, and many solemn pronunciations of his own faith, his belief in heavenly forgiveness and the efficacy of sincere repentance; all of which which has a rather unexpected result:

    My dear brother, examine the materials of which your heart is formed: Is not the innate character of God impressed on it, however choaked or obscured by false opinions?
    Enough, enough, I am satisfied; your arguments have convinced meL retire, that I may consider and digest them: when I am disposed to hear you further, I will desire your company.
    This he spoke with so much composure, that Mr Hallifax withdrew; but hardly had he gone from the door, when the sudden explosion of a pistol recalled him.
    He ran back: The first sight with which his eyes were saluted, was his miserable brother weltering in his blood, and his brains scattered on the floor…

We then learn that Sir James had given in to impulse and revealed his paternity to his illegitimate son, who until that moment believed himself the son of the foster parents paid to care for him. Sir James did not, however, reveal the various disgraceful transactions that brought about the boy’s birth (seduction, abandonment, death in miserable circumstances, etc.)—but not understanding the reticences with which the story was told, the foster-father, Delany, later blurts out the whole ugly story. The double shock is too much for the young man, who collapses in a raging fever. A frightened Delany sends for Sir James:

    Roused by the sound of his son’s voice, he started from his drousy posture, and mad with ungovernable joy, ran to the bed, opened the curtains, and made himself known with so little caution, that he drove reason a second time from her throne, just as she was beginning to resume her empire.
    The sight of Sir James made so strong an impression on his imagination, that the idea of his unfortunate mother returned, on whom he was incessantly calling, during his delirium, in the most pathetic, the most melting terms.
    In short, a scene of so great horror is hardly to be described; or if described, scarce to be supported. Death at length stepped in, to drive these dreadful phantoms from his imagination. The twelfth day of his illness he expired in the arms of his distracted father.

This diversion having reached its conclusion, The Picture settles down to the resolution of its romantic plots. Colonel Stanhope and Louisa Orey fall in love, while Sir Charles Hallifax declares himself to Lady Lucy, which brings Lord and Lady Castledale to London. The countess and Emily are immediately drawn to one another, with consequences the latter neither expects nor wants:

    My dear, said Mrs Stanley smiling, can you guess what has been the subject of my conference with Sir Thomas?
    Nothing that displeases you, madam, I presume—
    Displeases! no, my Emily, you will be convinced I am not displeased when I tell you Lord Richmond, the son of our amiable countess, who already loves you as her daughter, Lord Richmond, the honour of our nobility, offers my child an alliance: an alliance that, I am satisfied, will make her happy: an alliance, on which all my hopes are founded.
    The dreadful knell which summons the guilty criminal to his fate, sounds in his ear less terrible than these words did in Miss Stanley’s…

Guess where this is headed? – although not, of course, before Emily gets jerked around one last time.

I’ve remarked on The Picture‘s tampering with the prevailing conventions in its main love-plot, albeit that the plot in question finally works itself out in the most predictable of ways. The only other thing of real note in this novel is the course of non-stop lying to which the girls are subjected.

One of the most cherished tenets of 18th and 19th century literature was that there was nothing worse than a lie: that lying could never be excused, and that the end never justified the means. There are entire novels devoted to depicting the inevitably disastrous consequences of even the mildest white lie.

Yet in The Picture, the supposedly wise and upright Mrs Stanley does nothing from start to finish but tell lies in order to achieve her ends. She lies to Emily and Louisa about their situation in life and their obligations to Mrs Berkley; she lies to them constantly about her conversations with the Stanleys and Mr Howard; she even lies about Mr Howard’s state of health, when she wants an excuse to relocate the girls in a hurry. It turns out that it was she who planted the letter in the dressing-room, as an indirect way of revealing to the girls their true status, and of testing Emily’s obedience and moral fortitude—giving her the picture of Harry purely in order to ask her to give it up again. The novel’s climax involves her deliberately leading Emily to suppose that she is to be compelled to marry one man while she loves another.

What the hell?

It is impossible to know how to interpret this example of what we might call education-through-deceit: whether it represents an early literary example of realism superseding didacticism, or whether – in light of what we know of the Miss Minifies’ involvement in some highly questionable transactions (considered here and here) – this aspect of The Picture is, rather, an unconscious illustration of the ladies’ own moral blindness.