Posts tagged ‘Henry Mackenzie’

26/08/2017

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

25/08/2017

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


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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[To be continued…]

 

06/02/2012

Isn’t it romantic?

    There are faults in the sentimental novel other than the lack of variety and depth in characterization. The poorer sort of author catered to the tastes of the circulating-library reader and to hold her attention he pandered to her yearning for excitement by providing material that grew more and more stimulating, and so ran the scale from the pathetic through the journalistic, the bizarre, the pathological, and finally, after jettisoning almost all intellectual cargo, arrived at melodrama. And he used stock themes and situations, such as the prodigal’s return, the benevolent tableau, the call of the blood, the tearful farewell, the fainting fit, and tear tracking.
    However, not all of the sentimental novelists were mediocre. Some had remarkable ability, and nearly all of them are still interesting. Their novels picture the life of the eighteenth century as seen from the point of view of writers whose estimate of man was generous—too generous, as it proved—and are significant because in them there was a notable development of the sensitiveness which is essential to progress in narrative fiction.

From the openmindedness and willingness to engage with minor novelists expressed in his introduction, I was prepared to enjoy James R. Foster’s work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England – but I was not necessarily expecting to find it perhaps the most unusual “rise of the novel” study I’ve ever encountered. Almost all such studies go to immense pains to draw distinctions between the English “novel” and the European “romance”, and are predicated upon the assumption that it is possible – indeed, necessary – to define the former in terms of its difference from the latter. James Foster, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that far from being separate forms with nothing in common, the novel and the romance were inexorably linked, and that the influence of each upon the other zig-zagged back and forth for some 150 years.

It is in this context that Foster takes his study far beyond the narrow bounds of those novels and novelists generally taken these days to properly represent the 18th century. The usual suspects – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, Burney – are given their due here, but are presented as standing shoulder to shoulder with now-forgotten writers whose works did not outlive their day. Foster contends that, during the second half of the 18th century in particular, sentimental novels dominated the English literary scene, and that the few, more realist works now accepted as “classics” give a skewed impression of what people were reading. While the more romantic works have not survived the way their realistic brethren have, in Foster’s opinion they nevertheless better reflect the contradictory and warring attitudes of their time.

Another unusual and interesting thing about this book is the way that Foster organises his study. After a background section (to which we will frequently refer) discussing sentimentality as a backlash against the perceived coldness and calculation of the Age of Reason, and related factors such as the rise of Deism, Foster works chronologically through the 18th century, nominating what he considers to be the most influential work of each time and type, and then discussing the novels they influenced. Writing in the dim, distant, pre-electronic access days of 1949, Foster not only assumes that his readers will not have read most of the works he is analysing, but that they will never have a chance to do so. Consequently, he pauses frequently in this book to provide lengthy summaries of various novels so that the reader can follow his analyses. Personally, I chose to skip over most of these synopses, because of course I’m eventually going to read EVERY SINGLE NOVEL discussed in this book—right??

Although we have already discussed the pros and cons of the sentimental novel at this blog, and will doubtless do so again, Deism as such is not something we’ve yet encountered. Briefly (I hope not too inaccurately), Deism is a form of religion that finds its faith through a combination of reason and appreciation of the natural world, and which rejects the idea of man as inherently corrupt; believing, rather, than man is corrupted by society and its institutions. It can be imagined how in the 18th century Deism stood in opposition to many of the tenets of the Age of Reason, and that it attracted scorn and criticism as a consequence. Furthermore, since the established church was one of the institutions considering corrupt and corrupting by Deists, denouncing from the pulpit was common. While the principles of Deism were increasingly disseminated during the 18th century, it was never an accepted viewpoint, but rather one to be espoused with caution. James Foster makes the amusing point here that many novels of the time derided Deism, even while their characters were clearly embracing its beliefs.

Foster begins his study of the novel with a brief overview of pre-18th century literature, which he designates likewise “pre-sentimental”. The focus here is upon the French romances of the time, those by Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame de La Fayette, and others, and their influence upon English writers – the most important of whom he considers to be Aphra Behn. Although in Foster’s opinion Behn was not herself a sentimentalist (he’s right!!), he shows both how her Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister paved the way for the sentimentalists’ main vehicle, the epistolary novel, and how in Oroonoko she crystalised the idea of what would become one of the sentimentalists’ most cherished icons, the “noble savage”.

When I reviewed History And The Early English Novel, I objected to Robert Mayer’s attempt to position Daniel Defoe as the ur-figure in the history of the English novel on the grounds that, among other things, he failed to demonstrate Defoe’s influence upon subsequent novelists. But perhaps there was a reason for that failure; not that it didn’t happen, but that it took an unfortunate form. Here, James Foster wraps up the introductory phase of his work by nominating two authors who clearly were influenced by Defoe: Penelope Aubin in England, and the Abbé Prévost in France – neither one of whom showed the slightest interest in copying Defoe’s harsh realism, but instead lifted a variety of incidents from his works, chiefly the shipwrecks, and wove around them extravagant romances.

In time, as Foster demonstrates, Prévost’s tales circled back and influenced a number of English novelists including Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke and, perhaps above all, Henry Mackenzie, whose The Man Of Feeling represents the ne plus ultra of the sentimentalism movement. Hardly the effect Defoe was striving for, one imagines. Foster suggests that the overriding sense of inescapable destiny in Prévost’s tales appealed to the English sentimentalists, particularly those fond of an unhappy ending.

However, it is another writer upon whom Prévost  modelled his writing that Foster tags as the most critical influence upon the early English sentimental novel: Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, author of the unfinished novels  La Vie de Marianne and Le Paysan Parvenu:

    …he was not much of a philosopher. In Marianne he wrote that the intellect was too much of a fanciful dreamer to be depended on in learning about ourselves. The real clue to human nature was sentiment. His point of view was conditioned by deistic ideas, yet in his novels these were pushed into the background by the all-absorbing interest which he took in human conduct. Doubtless his insistent disapproval of authoritarian ethics and religion derived from deistic anti-clericalism, as did also the large number of false devotees and selfish and stupid spiritual directors in his novels. But there was no bitter hate…
    He was interested in the common people; his sympathy for them was genuine. Because all men are interdependent, he thought the rich under an obligation to relieve the poor. The rich man or the aristocrat who had nothing to recommend him but power or rank disgusted him. Marianne is partly an attack on the privileges of birth. Portions of this novel reveal a surprising interest in domestic life and its problems… In Marianne he gave realistic pictures of the social conditions of the poor and studies of the mentalities of the common people…

La Vie de Marianne, known in its English translation as The Virtuous Orphan, was published in eleven volumes across eleven years, 1731 – 1741, and in fact was never officially “finished”. The story of an orphan of uncertain birth, whose nobility therefore lies in her conduct rather than her family, Marianne embraces two of the sentimentalists’ most cherished beliefs, the lack of connection between “virtue” and “rank”, and the moral superiority of the country over the city. However, the most significant aspect of this novel, which came over time to be referred to (not always with kindly intention) as “marivaudage” was the characters’ tendency to analyse in the most minute detail their thoughts, feelings and motivations. Marivaux displays similar attention to detail in his presentation of domestic, chiefly middle-class, life.

An argument begun in 1740 and still flaring up from time to time in academic circles to this day is the influence of Marivaux upon Richardson—something that Richardson himself always denied, and a number of critics have likewise disputed. However, it is hard not to see something of Marianne in Richardson’s virtuous servant, Pamela, and more than a little of his style in the circumstantial accounts of themselves given by the characters of Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa.

But whether we consider them one influence or two, Marivaux and Richardson were  largely responsible for the direction subsequently taken by one significant stream of English novel-writing. While many of the important English writers of the time, chiefly Fielding and Smollet, were turning the picaresque tale to their own purposes, others were drawing upon the detailed accounts of day-to-day life of the two arch-sentimentalists to give new power and interest to the female-focused, domestic novel. Fanny Burney, whose Evelina and Cecilia, in particular, won new respectability and admiration for this brand of writing and paved the way for both Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, did not hesitate to acknowledge her profound indebtedness to Marivaux; a fact that highlights the fundamental difficulty of trying to separate (surgically, as it were) the English realist novel and the French romance.

James Foster’s main interest, however, lies less with these these well-known, acceptable writers, as with the second tier that flourished during the second half of the 18th century, when the novel came into its own as England’s dominant literary form. In a chapter rather charmingly titled “Some Early English Sentimentalists And Some Odd Ones”, Foster takes a running look at the works of Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, and Mary Collyer, who “wrote the first out-and-out deistic novel in the English language”.

Collyer in fact published one of the first English translation of Marianne, a free adaptation in which, according to Foster, “She omitted some of the marivaudage, added reflections of her own which are an interesting blend of Richardsonian and deistic moralizing, and furnished a happy ending.” Collyer’s deistic work is Letters From Felicia To Charlotte, an epistolary novel published in 1744. Collyer herself draws a distinction between “romances” and her work, emphasising her devotion to “truth and nature”; and this would be the line of argument used by most subsequent writers and critics. The subtitle of the novel declares: Containing a series of the most interesting events, interspersed with moral reflections: chiefly tending to prove that the seeds of virtue are implanted in the mind of every reasonable being. The moral reflections, observes Foster, which are:

…usually put in the mouth of the hero Lucius, constitute a complete handbook of deism. Indeed, the discussion of ideas often weighs down the story part of the novel…The Letters From Felicia is notable chiefly for its oriiginality, yet it should also be remembered for its unassuming modesty and its keeping within the bounds of ordinary life… Her novel demonstrates how the head and the heart function in perfect harmony. The villain, as is usual in a deistic novel, is a religious hypocrite. The praise of Nature, “equally lovely in all her works,” disquisitions on the moral sense, tolerance, providence and similar topics, interest in the child and education, and a belief in the dignity and essential goodness of man—all these are deistic.

Foster’s “odd ones”, by the way, are John Shebbeare, Thomas Amory and William Dodd, “the macaroni parson”, all of whom deserve more space than I can give them here.

In “The Great And Near-Great”, Foster considers Richardson – Grandison and Clarissa, rather than Pamela – Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollet and Sterne. On a personal note, I don’t thank him at all for this chapter, which has almost persuaded me that I need to take another look at Smollet, who I hated with a passion during my first sweep through “the history of the Englih novel” some twenty-odd years ago. (Here I will pause to make the exception that everyone always makes about Smollet—except for Humphry Clinker.) Foster makes a persuasive case here for the influence of Smollet upon a range of interesting second-tier novelists—although seeing his virtues requires the reader to look past his misanthropy and tendency to wallow in nastiness, no easy task, as Foster admits. (These days, I tend to look upon Smollet as a descendent of Richard Head.)

In respect of Sterne, it his not his Tristram Shandy that Foster highlights here, although he draws attention to the influence of its generous humanism, but rather A Sentimental Journey. The former was inimitable, but the latter provoked an explosion of imitations, and was indirectly responsible for the tear-soaked school of sentimental writing headed by The Man Of Feeling. Sterne, says Foster:

 …wished to make his audience cry and then laugh, for he thought life without the spirit of humour intolerable, just as without feeling it was cold and empty… The man without a sense of the ridiculous is to be pitied as much as the man without a feeling heart. 

Unfortunately, most of Sterne’s imitators disagreed with his opinion of the importance of humour, or perhaps lacked the necessary literary skills. During the following decades, even the better writers tended towards unhappy tales of afflicted heroines; while less talented one produced tales so exaggeratedly lachrymous and full of death and disaster that they very often became inadvertently funny. Of the more respectable imitators of Sterne, Foster highlights Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Susannah Minifie, Elizabeth Griffith, Hugh Kelly, Edward Bancroft, Arthur Young and Henry Brooke, before paying some reluctant but necessary attention to Henry Mackenzie:

he was all for seemliness, propriety, verbal delicacy, piety, and decorum. But he did not have a tenth part of Sterne’s sprightliness or a sign of his wit. He was a solemn, stuffy person, precisely the type Sterne most detested. He allowed but one indulgence—luxuriating in tears and the damp atmosphere of lachrymous effusion… In The Man Of Feeling the author asks the reader to pity a hero whose feelings are so intense and delicate that they devitalize his will… He really prefers having the odds against himself heavy, for then his self-esteem will suffer less if he loses. His are not the pleasures of success but of resignation…

Foster describes The Man Of Feeling‘s infamous closing scene, in which the emotion of finding out that the woman he loves returns his affections kills the delicate Harley, as:

…the apotheosis of sentimental passivity and so forced that it seems almost farcial to the modern reader. Sentimentalists of that day, however, revelled in its semi-morbid emotionalism.

Indeed. The Man Of Feeling ran through no less than forty-six editions (!?). Foster goes on to point out a number of novels inspired by Harley and his determination to finish last at every possible opportunity:  John Chater’s The History Of Tom Rigby, John Heriot’s Sorrows Of The Heart, William Hutchinson’s The Doubtful Marriage, Edward Davies’ Elisa Powell; or, The Trials Of Sensibility and the anonymous Wanley Penson; or, The Melancholy Man and The Amiable Quixote. And while no-one, to my knowledge, had ever made a claim for these books in terms of their literary merit, I must say that I find it fascinating that this particular sub-branch of the sentimental novel, in which the most extreme and exaggerated emotionalism is lauded, is almost exclusively the work of men.

In parallel with these nakedly emotional works, another important form of the sentimental novel was beginning to develop, in response to startling world events and the increasing demands of the reading public for fuel for their imaginations as well as their emotions:

In the seventeen-eighties there appeared still more signs indicating how far the drift away from Augustan serenity, restraint, and disposition to preserve what was established had borne the minds of man. As classical ideals receded, emotional temperatures rose and imaginations soared. The atmosphere was charged with the expectation of great ansd sweeping changes soon to come. The hopes of the deists and other liberals in sympathy with French reform movements were raised by the train of exciting events climaxed by the fall of the Bastille. This decade and the next marked the heyday of the ultra-sentimental novel and the romain noir or “Gothic” romance…

Here, in contrast to what we might call the “realist” sentimental novel, we find the ladies almost entirely in charge – at least in England. Here again the French romance intrudes, in the shape of the influential works of Baculard D’Arnaud, “the French Mackenzie”. Foster quotes the European Magazine, which described D’Arnaud’s works as, Characterized by their moral tendency as well as for the energy and beauty of his diction. His colouring is frequently tinged with melancholy; a melancholy, however, that makes the deepest impression on the reader’s feelings. Foster follows this by giving an overview of those English writers who he believes were most strongly influenced by D’Arnaud—our old friend Clara Reeve, Sophia and Harriet Lee, Anna Maria Mackenzie, and Elizabeth Blower, whose novels constitute a sliding-scale from genuine historical novels, to heavily romanticised works in which “history” is merely an excuse, to the Gothic novels set in an entirely imaginary past.

The third significant branch of late 18th century novels come under the simple chapter heading, “Liberal Opinions”—the works of the so-called “radicals”. Of course, like most labels, the term “radical” ending up embracing a wide spectrum of beliefs, from a forthright embrace of revolutionary principles to a patient conviction of the eventual triumph of the better side of man. What these works do have in common, however, is that they are works of ideas—sometimes to the detriment of their ability to entertain. Invariably, they express a philosophy of the interconnectedness of man, and man’s responsibility to man, while scorning the notion that virtue is a function of birth or wealth. There is often a generosity of spirit about these works that is unexpected and appealing, particularly in their expression of views that were perceived at the time as genuinely radical and dangerous, such as the equality of the sexes. While they rarely espouse mainstream Christianity, these novels do evince a deistic view of God in nature; their leading belief is “benevolence”.

These “radical” novels were, as you might imagine, not always well received. Three writers who did find literary success, or at least notoriety, are considered here: Robert Bage, Charlotte Smith, and Thomas Holcroft—all of whom, I am happy to admit, I enjoy very much; call me a revolutionary. What the three had most in common was not their specific beliefs, but their appropriation of the sentimental novel as a vehicle for their political views.

Thomas Holcroft’s novels suffer from his inability successfully to translate his theories into convincing stories, but his Anna St Ives is a curiously compelling work in which the upper-class heroine prefers a well-educated farmer’s son to the local rake-aristocrat, who takes the situation as an unforgiveable personal affront.

(What I always remember most about Anna St Ives, however, is that it is the only—and I mean the ONLY—English novel I have ever read that has its hero refuse to fight a duel on principle, and then stand firm in the face of scorn and ostracism. Most of them – including Sir Charles Grandison chicken out of taking a moral stand on the subject, out of fear of their hero looking “unmanly”: “Duelling is wrong! – but if you insist…” )  

Robert Bage’s novels, on the other hand, although wordy and rambling and over-reliant on coincidence, are readable and often startlingly progressive. Moreover, Bage clearly liked women, and his heroines are flesh-and-blood people, not mere moral constucts. Though he disapproved of many aspects of society, Bage was a peaceful man who also disapproved of violence. His tales often involve a self-contained community operating on principles of equality and mutual support.

The one genuine radical to be found in this crowd is Charlotte Smith, who despised the English class system and imperialism, and openly supported the American and French Revolutions. Smith got away with her extreme views chiefly because most of the time she was forced to subsume them in novels written almost entirely for financial gain: she was a victim of the 18th century marriage laws, who took up novel-writing to support herself and her twelve children after she was deserted by her husband – who nevertheless turned up from time to time to demand she hand over her earnings, as he was legally entitled to do. (Smith’s first publication, a volume of poetry, was written while she and Benjamin Smith were confined in a debtor’s prison.) While Smith’s larger beliefs are on display more openly that you might anticipate, given her need to appeal to a broad public, her novels most often deal with what Fanny Burney called “female difficulties”—the struggle of women to maintain themselves and their self-respect in a harsh and predatory world.

Smith’s novels were also a way for her to channel her “unwomanly” anger with her husband and his family, against whom she fought for countless years a lawsuit over a property that she believed hers by marriage settlement, and which would have given her both a home for her children and an income. Says Foster with wry sympathy:

Perhaps Charlotte Smith…could have borne in decent silence the burden of bringing up her dozen children under the untoward conditions caused by their father’s proclivities for squandering his money, getting into debtor’s prison, or flying to France to escape prosecution, had it not been for lawyers. Very likely the lawyers received some of the blows she would gladly have bestowed on her husband and his relatives could she have done so without stepping out of her role of the exemplary wife. Yet she did not spare her spouse entirely as she put him in many of her novels as the hare-brained, selfish husband of a long-suffering, clever, sweet and saintly wife—that is, herself. To her mind lawyers were legalized ruffians who deprived her of what was rightfully hers—vampires who sucked the blood of her children. There is no fury like a woman trying to collect, and she was that woman during most of her writing years.

Lawyers do NOT fare well in Charlotte Smith’s novels.

The final novelist considered in this study, who gets a chapter all to herself—and rightly so—is Ann Radcliffe, who across the 1790s made the Gothic novel her own. Foster spends some time analysing the Gothic as a uniquely exaggerated offshoot of the sentimental novel:

    Of course, one can find moral instruction in Mrs Radcliffe’s pages, but she dared to give up pretending that each page was written for edification. Although she did not wish to encourage superstition, she played such a convincing game of “Wolf-Wolf” that she made the hair stand on end and the goose pimples come out. And citing Burke’s Inquiry, she pretended to believe that the effects of such strenuous emotional exercises were beneficial because they expanded the soul and stimulated all the faculties… But she was not really much of a philosopher. Her forte was the imagination. She was the inventor of melodrama in technicolor, the great impresario of beauty, wonder, and terror.
    Her novel stems from the line of Richardson, Prévost, D’Arnaud, Mackenzie, Clara Reeve, the Lee sisters, and Charlotte Smith. It is a special development of the sentimental novel and retains its main features… The atmosphere of her novel is more melodramatic and “wondrous strange” than in the regular type of sentimental narrative. Her heroine, instead of dwelling in a modest cottage in Surrey or Dorset, spends nights of insomnia and nightmare in a Gothic castle in the Apennines or Pyrenees. Strange lands and unfamiliar things take the place of the old familiar surroundings of London and Bath. The heroine who used to have desperate trouble with obdurate papas and mammas whose worst threats were to send her to a convent or to confine her to her room and take away all her writing materials now finds herself menaced by dangers so terrible that the mere thought of them brings on fainting fits. Instead of macaronis and young men about town, sinister villains with sin and despair written on their faces plot her undoing… It is a world of the romantic imagination and one that is most effective at twilight and after dark…

Radcliffe, too, had her copyists, of course; and Foster concludes his study with a brief look at the most successful of them: Elizabeth Helme and Regina Maria Roche.

The French Revolution, which began with such high hopes and ended in a bloody nightmare, was a shattering blow to the sentimentalists and their desire to think well of all mankind. Most of them retreated, mortally wounded, and so left the field clear for the cynics and the misanthropes. Yet the sentimental novel did not entirely go away, even as satirical portraits of a corrupt society grew in popularity. Many domestic novelists still embraced elevated principles and high-flown emotions, although they tended to integrate them into tales of young ladies fording the shoals of London society, rather than living in isolation in “Surrey or Dorset”. The Victorian era preached self-control and restraint, but it also embraced the extravagances of Charles Dickens, who managed to turn the sentimental novel into a weapon. “Sentiment”, as a genre, may have died under the guillotine, but “sentiment”, as an abstract, continued to be cherished throughout the 19th century—

—at least until Oscar Wilde had the final word on Little Nell.