Posts tagged ‘historical novel’

31/01/2015

A Duchess And Her Daughter

mason1b    Even in far off Spain, when the news of the Duke of Valenzuela’s death reached there, a year after the event, the King and the Spanish Cardinals tucked away in a corner of their minds the question of the future husband of the new Duchess. Now the question of the future husband had emerged from its corner and was beginning to occupy the centre of the stage. King and Cardinals weighed the merits—more often the demerits—of a score of young noblemen who burned with chivalric zeal to make the young heiress—and themselves—happy. Two or three of these young men slipped out of Cadiz and were already on the high seas bound for Caracas. Also on the high seas was the King’s order that the marriage of the Duchess should await the Royal decision. And then—
    And then a rumour, a fantastic story, an impossible tale, crept along the Orinoco in canoes, plodded over the plains and climbed the Andes on mules, galloped through the streets of Caracas on horses. It was first whispered, then said, then shouted that while King and Church and State were deciding who was to marry the Duchess of Valenzuela, that headstrong girl had decided the matter for herself; had married; and had married a nobody…

If I were “the best woman in the world, M. K. W. M.”, I don’t know that I would be particularly flattered by having Alfred Bishop Mason’s A Duchess And Her Daughter dedicated to me: this is a strange and rather unpleasant work of historical fiction; “historical” in that it is set in the past, anyway—predominantly in 18th century Venezuela, a choice unusual enough to make it somewhat disappointing that the novel is not really “about” that, with the Spanish colony simply providing an exotic backdrop for the characters. As for the characters themselves, as far as I have been able to determine they are entirely fictional, which makes the whole exercise seem a little—well, pointless.

This is, as its title suggests, the story of a mother and daughter; but not their lives together: A Duchess And Her Daughter is a novel of two halves. The first half is tough going indeed, partly because Dolores – the Duchess of the title – is such a nasty bit of work, and partly because of the degree of violence in the story, including sexual violence. The second half, focusing upon Alegra, the daughter, is more interesting in a number of ways – Alegra is a far more engaging individual than her mother – but just because we do like her, the direction of the narrative is difficult to take.

A Duchess And Her Daughter begins in the middle of the 18th century, when the Conde de Arcetri is banished from Spain to the wilds of Venezuela for the heinous sin of marrying a woman “as good as she is beautiful”—but not noble. The two have a child, the fair and lovely Dolores, who grows to young womanhood chiefly under the care of the servants, and puts her own spin on her mother’s character by being as selfish and wilful as she is beautiful. When she is sixteen her parents die as a result of a spotted fever epidemic, and Dolores falls into the clutches of the Duke of Valenzuela.

On the principal of it being better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, the Duke of Valenzuela chose to exile himself to Venezuela after being ruled against in a matter of court precedence, his family deemed to rank below that of Medina-Sidonia: “The heralds-at-arms had been bribed and bought.” (This is the Duke’s point of view: the real family of Medina-Sidonia holds the oldest dukedom in Spain, whereas the dukedom of “Valenzuela” is fictional; although the family name of the marquisate of Villasierra is “Valenzuela”.) The Duke is an unhappy man for many reasons, not least his wife’s failure to give him the son and heir he craves. His only minor consolation is that he has succeeded in acquiring “a younger son of a younger son” of the family of Medina-Sidonia as his chaplain, gaining a morose satisfaction out of Father Josè’s subordinate position in his household.

So far from the government seat in Caracas, the Duke’s power is absolute, and there is no-one capable of interfering when he takes an interest in a woman – with or without her consent; a father who tries is tortured to death. When the death of her parents leaves Dolores alone, the Duke turns up in the guise of a respectful mourner and potential guardian, bringing an invitation from his Duchess that Dolores should make her home with them. Longing to escape from her lonely existence and ugly surroundings, Dolores accepts—and soon realises that she has made a terrible mistake. The Duchess is not at home, nor is she expected for some days…

After the first shock, Dolores takes her rape surprisingly well; disturbingly well. She is more upset by having to confront the Duchess when she returns from her visiting. The Duke, however, has already had a word with his wife:

    “You were a fool to come here without knowing I was here. A man must have his diversions. Mother-of-God, what else could pay him for living in this dreary country? Make the best of it. He is mad for a son of his own. If I could have given him one , he would have been as good a husband as a great gentleman can be. Bear him a son. The boy will be baptised as mine. Then we will adopt you as our daughter. You can go back to Spain with us and I will make a great match for you there. It is hard to follow my advice? He will make you follow the first part of it. Stop your silly sobs. Remember your race. Be proud that you are to mother the next Duke of Valenzuela.”
    The great lady leaned back in her chair of state, languid and silent. The Duke had told her what to say and she had said it. She did not wish to be further bothered with the affair…

And so Dolores becomes the third point of a ménage à trois. The Duke grows increasingly obsessed with her, sexually and as the potential mother of his son; but as soon as his fixation upon her gives her the ascendancy, Dolores grows bored with him. Instead she turns her eyes in quite another direction:

    Amid all his flock, Don Josè felt akin only to this flower-like girl and his very soul was shaken by the thought of her sin. She had, indeed, been forced into it, but was she really repentant? She had confessed the sin, but in a strange way. She had asked for absolution. He had told her he must think it over. Outside the confessional she had pouted over the delay. She was really adorable when she pouted. At this point in his pastoral meditation, Don Josè made a gallant, but unsuccessful, attempt to remember that he was not a man, but a priest.
    The confession had been rather startling, not only in substance, but in detail. Priest and penitent were separated as usual in the confessional, but they saw each other many times a day and perforce knew each other well. Even with a pierced plank between them, they were acutely conscious of each other as man and woman, young man and young woman. And when the penitent seemed to assume that the priest was a sexless Methusaleh and went into amatory detail with a frankness that left nothing unsaid, Father Josè had had a terrible tussle with Don Josè…
    Dolores had much enjoyed that confession. It was piquant to talk to a man about such things, especially to a man as handsome and as well-born as Don Josè. If the Duke were only like Don Josè, she mused…

Father Josè is devoutly religious and committed to his calling. He is also a man of great courage, which earns him the respect – and more importantly, the restraint – of Juan Paez, the local bandit chief, the son of an Indian woman and a runaway slave, who encourages the practice of “the old religion” and leads period raids against the Spanish settlers. But in battle with Dolores, Father Josè stands no chance. The girl stalks him, teasing and tormenting him until he is almost driven mad with his desire for her. He tries to avoid her, praying constantly for strength and even locking himself in his cell; but the end is inevitable:

The third night—it was four days before the Duke and Duchess were due—she came softly into his sala, put her finger on her lip, held him back with her left hand, and turned into the chapel. He followed as if he had been her dog. The moonlight fell upon the altar and across the ledge of stone in front of it, the ledge with the rich Moorish rug. In front of the altar she kissed him. In front of the altar she let fall her outer garment. In front of the altar her glorious arms and her marvellous breasts gleamed. She lay herself prone of the altar-rug…

The affair continues for some weeks but finally the tortured Father Josè tears himself away, withdrawing  from the Valenzuela household, retreating to an isolated Dominican monastery. In answer to the Duke’s request for a new confessor, he sends Fray Federigo, “a fat and aged friar”—much to Dolores’s amusement. Already certain she is pregnant by the priest, she announces the glad tidings to the Duke and Duchess; glad tidings for both, he because of his yearning for a son, she because the end of her Venezuelan exile seems finally in sight. But fate has other things in store for both…

Upon entering the Valenzuela household, Dolores is reunited with her foster-sister, Maria, an Indian girl, who was sent away when Dolores was ten and taken into the service of the Duchess—whom she hates. She learns to hate her even more for Dolores’s sake. Maria’s grandmother was a medicine woman, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft, but not before passing on her knowledge. Just before Dolores is due to give birth, the Duchess is taken violently ill and dies. Torn between her horror of what Maria has done and her soaring ambition, Dolores insists upon the Duke marrying her immediately and legitimising their child. Almost before the cowed and frightened Fray Federico can complete the hurried ceremony, Dolores is in labour. The child is—a girl.

The Duke is not really disappointed: the title and estates of Valenzuela may be inherited directly by a daughter in her own right, and if the right husband is found the title of Duke can be bestowed upon him. The Duke, indeed, is devoted to the lovely Alegra. When the child is five, Sister Isabel of Santa Clara, a convent in the town of San Fernando, arrives bearing credentials from the Archbishop of Caracas. The warm-hearted Alegra soon loves her instructress, and begins calling her “tia”, “aunt”—to which Dolores takes exception, on the grounds that they know nothing of the nun’s antecedents:

    The sister picked up the gage of battle that had been flung at her feet. “Before I made my vows,” she said, “I was the Countess of Estramadura; I was born a Medina-Sidonia; I am the sister of a holy man, formerly a priest, now a Dominican monk, who used to be chaplain here. It was probably before Your Grace’s time. He was Father Josè when he was at San Fernando.”
    Sister Isabel said this with a placid saintliness of face and of manner. There was no suggestion in her beautiful eyes of any hidden knowledge of the past. But the Duchess changed colour…

For five years life continues placidly; too placidly for Dolores, who longs to be queening it in Caracas instead of trapped in the middle of nowhere; she is bored with her life and doubly bored with her husband. However, the Duke is an old man now and reluctant to take his beautiful young wife into society, as so keeps reneging on his promises about visiting Caracas. The Duchess is just beginning to lend a willing ear to Maria’s dark counsel regarding her marriage when all plans become redundant. Juan Paez and his followers are on the warpath, sweeping across the Spanish settlements in an orgy of bloodshed and torture. Before the raiders reach San Fernando, Alegra and Sister Isabel are successfully concealed in a secret room in the church; but after their resistance is overborne, both the Duke and Duchess meet a gruesome fate…

Juan Paez, too, is killed during this final confrontation, and subsequently there is peace in the district. Alegra, now Duchess of Valenzuela and owner of vast wealth and estates both in Venezuela and Spain, continues to live in her father’s house under the care of Sister Isabel. As she grows into womanhood, she takes upon herself the management of her property and of the many branches of her trading businesses, by which she sends her goods to all corners of the globe, and by which she becomes almost unimaginably rich. She also devotes herself to the welfare of her peons—although the church firmly dissuades her from schemes for their education.

Naturally, Alegra represents a marital prize of the first order. She is herself aware of this—and also that it is only a matter of time before a husband is forced upon her by the King of Spain, eager to keep a grip on her vast possessions. Unless, of course, she can find a way of forestalling her fate…

Alegra begins to make frequent visits to the tiny village of Yriarte, which is near to the river-port town of Angostura, one of the centres of Alegra’s business interests. Overtly she is calling upon a native of Yriarte, a woman called Juana who, though clumsy and unattractive, has a rare skill for embroidery. Sister Isabel grows suspicious of these visits, certain that Alegra is up to something but unable to imagine what—and what could she be up to in a muddy hole like Yriarte? Like everyone else at San Fernando, Sister Isabel is staggered and disbelieving when Alegra finally does return home—because she does not come alone:

The nun seized the wedding-certificate, read it, looked with amazed eyes at the winner of this matrimonial prize, tried to congratulate her ward, broke down and left the room. The groom, meanwhile, had stood in awkward silence. He was, thank God, of unmixed Spanish descent, but there all thankfulness ended. He was almost as plain as his wife was beautiful. Despite his size, he did not look at all manly. His tiny moustache was no larger than many Spanish women had then and have now. A peasant and a very lout.

Sister Isabel is so profoundly offended by the marriage, the fact of it and Alegra’s secrecy, that she makes it her excuse to withdraw and return to her convent, in spite of Alegra’s pleas that she stay:

    When she said good-bye, the Duchess clung to her and cried, but the nun’s chill aloofness never left her. So long a companionship between two noble souls ended. So the love between them seemed to end, at least on Sister Isabel’s side. But love has its “ashes of roses” and within those ashes embers may live long, and may sometimes be fanned into flame again.
    There is no record of the nun’s first meeting with her brother, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior of the Convent of St Dominic, at Caracas…

News of Alegra’s marriage to Juan de Mendoza travels across Venezuela like an earthquake, and explodes like a bomb at the Court of Spain—but what can they do? – a marriage is a marriage, no matter how scandalous. As for the happy couple— Alegra goes back to running her estates and her businesses, while Juan fills much of his time in hunting up in the mountains; an acceptable pursuit for a man in his position. Eyebrows are raised, however, and tongues begin to wag, when during his time at home, he takes up embroidery.

The main difference in Alegra’s life brought by her marriage is that she is able to receive many more guests into her home. The world outside is changing; more visitors come every day to Venezuela, and those that arrive in San Fernando and in Angostura inevitably call upon the beautiful and gracious Duchess. Some are invited to stay. One of these is John Winthrop, the owner of a thriving commercial concern based in Salem, who has decided to spend some time in command of one of his own trading sloops.

The attraction between the handsome young American and the beautiful Duchess is immediate and deep, but of course the entire situation is impossible, as they equally recognise: she is a married woman, and he is a heretic. Winthrop is well aware he should leave, but day by day – then month by month – he lingers in Angostura. Meanwhile, Winthrop’s second-in-command, Henry Lyman, strikes up an unexpected friendship with Juan de Mendoza; the two begin taking lengthy hunting trips together up into the mountains, staying away for weeks on end. From one of these trips, Lyman returns in a panic, urging Winthrop to leave Angostura—then revealing that he must leave, and not alone:

He hesitated a long time, then let out a torrent of words. “This Don Juan, the Duchess’s husband, as you think and as everybody thinks, isn’t her husband, or anybody’s husband. He couldn’t be anybody’s husband. He’s a woman. And he—she—is with child by me. I must take her home and marry her and make an honest woman of her. And to do that we must start straightaway.”

As Lyman’s urgency indicates, he has in fact delayed his departure with Juan – Juana – past the point where it is safe for anybody; and although Winthrop immediately arranges for the couple’s departure, Juana goes into labour before they are well clear of the territory and Lyman must dock the ship and go in search of a midwife. Naturally, the news gets out. And if the story of the Duchess’s scandalous marriage rocked both Venezuela and Spain, it was as nothing compared to the fallout from this belated revelation about her “husband”. But before anyone has even had a chance to absorb the implications of the situation, yet another shockwave emanates from Angostura: the Duchess of Valenzuela has married a heretic…

To John Winthrop’s way of thinking, the revelation about Juana clears his path to Alegra, but for her the matter is hardly so simple. Winthrop, though he cannot promise conversion, does promise that he will study the matter; further, that he will never interfere with Alegra’s own religious practice, and that their children may be raised in the Catholic faith. Even so, Father Felipe, Alegra’s confessor, refuses to marry them—at least at first. The headstrong Duchess, having already bullied one frightened priest into “marrying” her to Juana Godina, now resorts to blackmail: she will either be John Winthrop’s wife or his mistress—Father Felipe may choose. Knowing Alegra, the priest also knows this isn’t a bluff. Consoling himself with the reflection that, occasionally, exceptions have been made and such marriages permitted, he does as the Duchess demands:

A year passed by. The lovers knew well the recipe for a happy marriage, to go on making love after marriage as before it. They practiced the recipe. Only those few happy souls who have known a great love can imagine what that year was. Its joys were worth more than all the sorrows that followed it…

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with A Duchess And Her Daughter: twelve months of marital bliss are skipped over in five sentences, and then we return to our previously scheduled ugliness and violence.

Alegra and John get their year simply because both communication and decision-making are slow processes. While the Duchess’s first marriage was a scandal, and the circumstances of its subsequent dissolution grounds for ribald laughter and obscene jokes, her marriage to a heretic – and the danger of her vast property passing into the hands of that heretic – is an outrage not to be borne. Spain begins to make plans for dire retribution, and gets as far as having the marriage annulled via a papal decree; but before it can take further action it is forestalled by Caracas, where the Inquisition holds ultimate power. Without warning, John Winthrop is arrested and imprisoned; a token trial ends in a unanimous vote that he be burned at the stake during the upcoming auto-da-fè. The Grand Inquisitor at this time is none other than our old friend, Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia.

Despite her many transgressions, Alegra maintains her standing as a Grandee of Spain, and on this basis she obtains a private interview with the Grand Inquisitor. She offers him a bargain: if he will save John Winthrop’s life, she will enter a convent and  donate her entire possessions to the Church. At length Don Josè accepts, conniving at Alegra’s scheme to fool Winthrop with the lie that she will join him in a few days: she knows he will not leave otherwise. By the time he learns the truth, she will be beyond his reach forever.

Of course, there’s just one problem with this plan: the people of Caracas have been promised the burning of a heretic. Not to worry:

    The chief role in the procession, a role that eclipsed even those of the Grand Inquisitor, the Archbishop and the Governor, that of John Winthrop, English heretic, was played by a man as amazed as he was scared, a certain low-class Spaniard, Juan Galapagos by name, who had been awakened that morning from a sound sleep and advised to dress quickly, breakfast quickly and confess quickly, because he was to be burned alive. As the offence imputed to him had been only that of presenting himself with unclean hands at the communion service, it had never occurred to him that he ran the slightest risk of such a fiery doom. In fact, it was another man whom the Grand Inquisitor had remembered as a truculent ruffian…
    When he realised from the maledictions showered upon him that he was supposed to be Winthrop, hope came back to him, poor fool that he was. It was all a mistake; he would explain it and be set free. His manacled hands forbade the tearing off of the yellow bonnet with a peaked top that hid his face, but he began shouting: “I’m not the Englishman! I’m Spanish! I’m Juan Galapagos! Let me out! It’s a mistake! I’m not the Englishman!”
    A lay-brother deftly gagged him with a long scarf. When he threw himself upon the ground, he was prodded to his feet by sword-pricks, while the crowd roared approval and cursed the English heretic for his cowardice. A moment later he was bound to the stake that had awaited Winthrop. It so happened, doubtless because the foreign heretic was the wickedest of all the victims, that when the tiny flames were but beginning to crackle at the feet of the others, they had crept to his shoulders. When the mounting fire licked away the scarf that had gagged him, his screams and blasphemies made the exit of the heretic Englishman to hell deeply gratifying to the pious folk of Caracas. “I did not know the Englishman knew so much Spanish,” said the Governor laughingly.

The circumstances of their separation are more easily borne by Alegra, who is sustained by her faith. Over the years that follow she becomes celebrated for her tireless work amongst the poor and the sick—“Santa Alegra”. She dies loved and mourned by multitudes. But she has one last shock in store, one final act of defiance:

    When she was being arrayed for the great function of her burial, her shocked sister nuns found affixed to the back of the crucifix she always wore the miniature of a man, of a man who had been condemned to the stake for heresy and who, they thought, had died at the stake. They sent in haste for Don Josè de Medina-Sidonia, prior, bishop and Grand Inquisitor, and showed him the awful thing. “What shall we do with it, Reverend Father?” they asked.
    “Do with it? Leave it as it is and bury it with the saint who wore it.”

It is some time before John Winthrop can accept that he has lost his wife forever but, after several bouts of near-fatal illness, and some equally dangerous attempts to see Alegra, he finally tears himself away from Venezuela. He returns to his old life in Salem, but he is not the same man. His business thrives but emotional life he has none. His experiences have left something inside him crippled.

Many years later, Salem is startled by the arrival of a monk—and even more so when the monk takes up residence with John Winthrop.  Unable in his pride to keep the secret of his relationship to “Santa Alegra”, Don Josè has been stripped of everything and exiled. He carries to Winthrop the news of Alegra’s death, and her last message to him—her plea that he convert so that they might meet again. As he promised Alegra he would while begging her to marry him, Winthrop begins to study her faith.

It is very difficult to be sure how the concluding stages of A Duchess And Her Daughter are supposed to be taken. The novel is shot through with anti-Catholicism – the “narrow-mindedness” and “bigotry” of the characters is mentioned again and again, while the plot repeatedly turns on what is presented as the “moral flexibility” offered by confession and absolution; and that’s before we start dwelling on the horrors of the Inquisition – and yet the story concludes with its hero’s conversion; albeit that we get here one of the few glimmers of humour to be found in this grim tale:

Then came the event that startled Salem as the old town had never been startled before. John Winthrop made a public profession of his new faith in the little Roman Catholic chapel in a by-street of Salem. It was a thunder-clap. Friends of a lifetime fell away from him. Widows and maidens stared aghast upon this lost soul. It was suggested that the community should cease to do any business with him. The two banks of Salem, in the first flush of the shocked hostility, agreed not to lend him any money, but they did not tell him so, partly because he had not borrowed any money for years and partly because each feared the withdrawal of the ample funds that stood to his credit on its depositors’ ledger. He was a merchant prince who financed his own ventures. Moreover his Midas touch did not seem to have deserted him. The grim New England God seemed to hesitate about punishing a Winthrop…

And what are we to make of what we must assume to be John Winthrop’s vision of his reunion with Alegra?

In the chapel to the right of the great doorway of the cathedral at Caracas…John Winthrop lies in peace, his skeleton feet some eighteen inches from Alegra’s, awaiting the Last Trump, when he and she are again to spring up triumphant, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, throbbing with love, pulsating with joy…

Really? Granted, I’m no expert; but I always thought of the afterlife as being a lot less—well, fleshy. Then it occurred to me to wonder—is that what Don Josè told John Winthrop to get him to convert?

15/06/2013

Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury

Leland1    “Great Earl!” cried Randolph, “and do I really behold thee? Do I embrace the man, under whose command my last days of honourable war saw glory and victory? Hath my leader survived the dreadful night of tempest which dispersed our ships! He whom we imagined buried in the seas! Is he at length returned in safety? But why this garb? Are these wretched weeds, befitting the son on an illustrious monarch, the conqueror of Gascoigne, the glory of England? Thou art come, but not to peace and repose: danger, difficulty, and distress, are still prepared for that undaunted spirit!”
    “Am I not in England?” replied the stranger. “Have I not, at length, happily escaped the insidious attempts of my enemies? What dangers have I now to fear? No, my dearest ELA! illustrious dame! tenderest wife! In thy arms shall I now forget my dangers. To thee I fly, to wipe away those tears, which burst forth at my departure, and must have flowed in full streams, during this melancholy interval of my absence. In thee and thy endearments shall all my future hopes be centred: and never, no, never more shall WILLIAM be deluded by the smiling promises of glory, to hazard the chance of arms!”

Published in 1762 – two years before The Castle Of Otranto – Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury is often described as “the first true historical novel”…but it isn’t, not really. Curiously enough, very recently in a different context I had reason to try and define the difference between “an historical novel” and “an historical romance”, at least at it exists in my own mind, and this is exactly the issue here. The distinction is not a judgement call, in spite of that use of the r-word: unlike some (many?), I don’t happen to consider the term “romance” a pejorative. Rather, I tend to define an historical novel as a work that makes a genuine effort to engage with the past and to provide a context for real people and real events; whereas an historical romance uses the past chiefly as a colourful backdrop, even if it does feature real people and events.

As far as I have been able to determine, this novel belongs in the latter category—and in fact, Thomas Leland admits as much in his novel’s rather charming preface, which I am moved to quote in full:

The out-lines of the following story, and some of the incidents and more minute circumstances, are to be found in the antient English historians. If too great liberties have been taken in altering or enlarging their accounts, the reader who looks only for amusement will probably forgive it: the learned and critical (if this work should be honoured by such readers) will deem it a matter of too little consequence to call for the severity of their censure.—It is generally expected that pieces of this kind should convey some one useful moral: which moral, not always perhaps, the most valuable or refined, is sometimes made to float on the surface of the narrative; or is plucked up at proper intervals, and presented to the view of the reader, with great solemnity. But the author of these sheets hath too high an opinion of the judgement and penetration of his readers, to pursue this method. Although he cannot pretend to be very deep, yet he hopes to be clear. And if anything lies at the bottom, worth the picking up, it will be discovered without his direction.

In spite of the “liberties” for which the preface prepares us, the central characters of Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury are real enough. William Longsword (or Longespée) was an illegitimate son of Henry II—Leland assumes by the Fair Rosamond (who gets a tut-tut name-check), but in fact by Ida de Tosny, one of Henry’s royal wards; she was later safely married off to the Earl of Norfolk. Longsword rose to prominence under his half-brother, Richard the Lion-Heart; Richard married him to Ela, the daughter and heiress of the 2nd Earl of Salisbury, and granted him his father-in-law’s title. Longsword and Ela were major contributors to the re-building of Salisbury Cathedral, and his tomb and effigy may be found there today.

In the publisher’s series Bell’s Cathedrals, Gleeson White’s entry, The Cathedral Church Of Salisbury, presumably quoting those same “antient English historians” to whom Thomas Leland refers, has some things to say about the Earl himself and, more importantly, at least in the context of this novel, about the mysterious circumstances of his death:

    On the Nativity of our Lord following, the King and his justice Hubert de Burgh came to Sarum on the day of the Holy Innocents, and there the King offered one gold ring with a precious stone called a ruby, one piece of silk, and one gold cup of the weight of ten marks; and when the mass was celebrated the King told the dean that he would have that stone which he had offered and the gold of the ring applied to adorn the text which the justice had before given; and then the justice caused the text which he had given to be brought and offered with great devotion on the altar.
    On the 10th of January, 1226, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, returned from Gascoigne, where he had resided twelve months with Richard, the King’s brother, for the defence of Bordeaux (after three months on the channel between the Isle of Rhè and the coast of Cornwall, owing to the tempestuous weather, that so long delayed his landing), “and the said Earl came that day after nine o’clock to Sarum, where he was received with great joy, with a procession for the new fabric.” The scandalous account of his death (as given by Stow), which occurred at the castle of Old Sarum, on the 7th of March in the same year, and the part played in the transaction by Hubert de Burgh cannot be told here, beyond the fact that the justice was strongly suspected of poisoning him.
    On the 8th of March, at the same hour of the day on which he had been received with great joy, he was brought to New Sarum with many tears and lamentations, and honourably buried in the new church of the Blessed Virgin. Matthew Paris gravely records that at his funeral, despite gusts of wind and rain, the candles furnished a continual light the whole of the way. Of all secular figures connected with this cathedral his is perhaps the most prominent, nor is his fame merely local. He was active in public affairs during the reign of King John, and one of the noticeable heroes in an expedition to the Holy Land in 1220, when, at the battle of Damietta, Matthew Paris tells us, he resisted the shock of the infidels like a wall. He fought both in Flanders and in France, was at his King’s side at Runnymede, and a witness to Magna Charta—a copy of which famous charter, made probably for his special use, is still preserved in the cathedral library.

(Matthew Paris was a 13th century Benedictine monk, a cartographer, an illuminator of manuscripts, and an historian—albeit not an entirely reliable one, apparently. John Stow was a 16th century antiquarian and historian.)

From this account, it will come as no great surprise that we find Hubert de Burgh playing the role of villain in Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury. De Burgh was another prominent figure at the time, effectively becoming Regent of England during the minority of Henry III, and created Earl of Kent and appointed Justiciar of England and Ireland after Henry’s coronation (though he later suffered a sharp falling out of favour). I have not been able to identify any particular reason why de Burgh should have murdered Longsword, if indeed he did. Other accounts explicitly contradict the suggestion, asserting that the two men were close comrades, and that Longsword’s death was the result of an illness contracted during his difficult journey back to England.

Thomas Leland gives us a lengthy (and mostly invented) account of Longsword’s adventures on the Isle of Rhè, where he is hunted by the forces of various French noblemen, but finds a lifelong friend in the form of a Frenchman named Les Roches, an honourable man in the service of dishonourable masters who recognises in Longsword a kindred spirit.

While this is going on, back in England Hubert de Burgh is taking advantage of Longsword’s absence and abusing his influence with the king not directly for his own gain, but for that of his nephew, Raymond, as part of a scheme for the general enrichment of his family.

It eventually falls to the unfortunate Sir Randolph to tell Longsword what has been going on:

“We all know with what uncontrouled power Hubert rules in the court of England: how his subtile arts of insinuation have penetrated into the inmost heart of our Henry; and now direct all its motions and designs. Already too dangerous, he seeks but to extend his influence and authority, and to heap wealth and honours on his family and dependents. These are his great purposes; and to these he sacrifices the reputation of his master, and the welfare of his country. To him was soon conveyed the false intelligence, that Earl William and his Knights, separated from our fleet in the tempestuous tumult, had perished in the deep. The King heard the tidings with kind concern, and paid just tribute of sorrow to his unhappy kinsman, and brave soldier. The crafty Hubert assumed the semblance of grief, whilst his soul was busy in contriving the means of turning this event to his own interested purposes. He seized the easy and complying moment, when the King lay most open to his influence: he represented the close alliance, in which Raymond stood to the illustrious house of Salisbury: he reminded him, that by the royal bounty, Lord William had obtained the heiress of that house with her possessions, and urged that the same royal bounty ought now to confer this gift on him, whom nature seemed to point out as the true inheritor. In a word, he asked this boon, that Raymond should be permitted to wed the Countess, now supposed a widow, and to enjoy her ample fortunes and her honours.”

Backed by his uncle’s authority and the king’s complacence, Raymond de Burgh has taken up residence at Salisbury Castle. Over time, he begins to replace Ela’s people with his own, progressively cutting her off from anyone she can rely upon for support and finally isolating her altogether. Rumours soon abound that he and Ela are betrothed: the people are surprised, even shocked, but see no reason to doubt it, particularly not in light of Raymond’s prolonged occupancy of the castle. Ela herself, increasingly desperate, tries every way she can think of to get a message out of the castle; and here Thomas Leland gives us a series of suspenseful scenes, as Ela tries to determine who, if anyone, she can trust, and as her chosen representatives try to find a way to elude the watchfulness of Raymond’s guards.

History has little to say about the real Raymond, or “Reymond”, de Burgh, but this novel presents him as weak, selfish and greedy, rather than actively evil. Though without his uncle’s craft, he is sufficiently lacking in morals to throw himself with fervour into Hubert’s scheme for his enrichment, his enthusiasm not one whit abated by the undisguised revulsion of Ela herself, as he variously tries wooing, coaxing, arguing, threatening, tricking and forcing her into marriage. The only thing that can be said in his defence is that he is genuinely smitten with the beautiful Ela—so much so that on occasion he hesitates to take decisive action against her: he would rather have a willing bride, if only that were possible. However, it is eventually made clear to him that it is not possible; and finally the reluctant Raymond is driven to compel Ela’s compliance by exploiting what he knows is her one weak point: she and Longsword have a young son…

Meanwhile, Longsword is making his way home to Salisbury Castle—not without a certain trepidation. There is a contrast, both amusing and exasperating, between how Longsword and Ela each receive the tidings of the other. Ela, for her part, simply refuses to believe that her husband is dead, and therefore treats Raymond’s courtship as an unmitigated insult:

“And dost though know me? Hast thou ever heard that the greatness of soul which hath invariably distinguished my long train of noble ancestry, is lost in me? One year hath not yet elapsed, since these arms embraced my honoured lord. But had the grave long since received him; had time dried up my widow’s tears, thinkest thou that the widow of a Plantagenet— But why talk I thus?—How knowest thou? What officious babbling slave hath flattered thee with the lying story that Lord William lives no longer; that the great light of England is extinguished, and that Raymond may now rise and shine?—It is false—I will not think it. Yet, yet will I hope for his return. Should he find thee here, (and this thy purpose) what could defend Lord Raymond from his resentment? Thou knowest the mighty spirit of Earl William. Fly this moment; and tempt not thy fate.”

Would that I could say that Longsword is worthy of his wife’s loyalty!—but when Sir Randolph, who has heard the disturbing rumours issuing from the castle, reluctantly explains the situation as he understands it, this is Longsword’s immediate reaction:

“Heavens!” exclaimed the Earl, “this man admitted to her bed!—Am I so soon forgotten? What? not a few months of sorrow?”

He pulls himself together moments later, telling himself sternly that it cannot be true, but clearly his doubts remain. Then, just as he is setting out from Sir Randolph’s estate, garbled word is brought that Ela has married Raymond. Immediately, Longsword begins planning a vengeful assault upon his former home:

“No,” cried the Earl, hastily interrupting him, “the attempt is not rash, nor the purpose desperate. What tho’ my wife hath so soon forgotten me? What tho’ the absence of a few months was too great for her impatience? What tho’ she hath accepted a second husband? Have my numerous dependents too been false? Have they forgotten me? No! let us collect them! let us fire their brave spirits to revenge their injured Lord; and let his fury fall with its due force upon this adulterous pair… Foolish and wretched is the man who builds his happiness on the frail and unstable affection of a woman. O my friend! how securely did I conceive our loves to have been founded! how firmly did her heart seem linked to mine!… And did our loves ever decrease? Was my heart ever estranged? Was it one moment seduced by any other object?—And yet, so soon to be forgotten! the false tidings of my death so eagerly received!”

In fact, what is going on at the castle is that Raymond, having gotten tired of waiting for Ela’s consent, has decided to go ahead without it, having found a monk not too scrupulous about the details:

He conjured the Countess by all her hopes of peace, all the tenderness she felt for her darling son, no longer to delay her own happiness; no longer to continue thus perversely insensible of his just pretensions to her love. He now stood before her, he declared, to claim those rights which the royal favour had conferred upon him; that neither his honour, nor his love, permitted him, any longer, to flatter her pride, or to indulge her weak scruples.—She fell upon her knees, and began to utter an earnest vow, that she never would accept his hand; but Raymond and his associates quickly intervened and raised her from the ground. Nor was her great spirit yet subdued by this rude violence: she turned upon them with looks of astonishment and disdain. Raymond entreated; Grey reproved; and Reginhald denounced the vengeance of heaven against her obstinacy… Raymond still held the hand of Ela; and the impious Monk, who had waited for the signal from Grey, suddenly began to pronounce the marriage rites; but was instantly interrupted by loud and piercing shrieks frequently and violently repeated both by the Countess and her attendant. The unhappy Lady could not long support this violent emotion; she sunk down upon her couch…

Sir Randolph manages to persuade Longsword that it’s really all Hubert de Burgh’s fault, and that he should carry his wrongs to the king, who is holding court at Marlborough. Longsword’s sudden resurrection is more embarrassing than gratifying to Henry, who is uneasily aware that he allowed himself to be overpersuaded by de Burgh. Hubert himself intervenes with a smooth explanation of the situation, insisting on the honourable nature of Raymond’s courtship, the loyalty of Ela’s steadfast refusal, and that in any case it was a condition of Henry’s consent that she should not in any way be coerced (which, to Henry’s credit, is actually true; the de Burghs have simply chosen to ignore the fact). This is on the outside; on the inside, de Burgh is seething with hatred and thwarted ambition, besides having a very good idea of the form that Raymond’s “honourable courtship” has taken:

Conscious of his own artifice and hypocrisy, he naturally suspected that readiness of belief, with which Salisbury seemed to yield to his declarations, as well as that sudden calm of peace and reconciliation, in which his fury appeared to subside. He had injured, and therefore hated him: he had affirmed boldly to divert the present storm; but, whether the Countess had already yielded to Raymond, or whether he had forcibly possessed himself of her bed, as yet he knew not…

Recognising that he must at all cost stop Longsword from reaching Salisbury Castle, de Burgh confers with the treacherous monk, Reginhald:

    Reginhald, with an awkward and abject abasement, declared that he was totally unable to advise, but ready to follow the directions of Lord Hubert with implicit submission. The subtle courtier seized him by the hand, applauded his zeal, lavished the amplest promises upon him. “Be bold,” said he, “and be happy.—There is but one way— Let us prevent the attempts of our common enemy—by destroying him.”—Reginhald took fire at this proposal: he at once freely offered himself to be the agent, and seemed impatient to learn the means of executing a design so suited to a heart that never felt humanity or remorse.
    Hubert hastily produced a phial filled with a deadly poison. “Behold,” said he, “the sure means of destroying our enemy. Let it be thy care to present Lord William with this fatal draught…”

Despite its title, the focus of Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury is Ela rather than her husband. Not without good reason is this novel commonly included on the timeline for the development of the Gothic novel: the middle section of the narrative describing Raymond’s persecution of Ela, even granting that it takes place under her own roof and in England, could be the template for any number of Gothic novels featuring besieged maidens and ruthless villains. No less than Emily St. Aubert is Ela, Countess of Salisbury, a victim; no less than Udolpho, situated high amongst the Pyrenees, is Ela’s own home of Salisbury Castle a prison. The difference is that Ela is no inexperienced girl, but a mature woman of dignity and courage. It is a measure of Thomas Leland’s skill that we fear for her every bit as much as for Emily; even more, perhaps, given that her situation is distressingly credible.

Two other aspects of this novel mark it as a progenitor of the Gothic proper. The spineless Raymond is the forefather of all those many villains who are “cowed” and “subdued” by the very virtues of their chosen victim. Left to himself, Raymond would have bailed on the plot against Ela—but of course he is not left to himself, but caught between the political scheming of his uncle and the desperation of his own minions, who are only too well aware that their own lives and fates hang in the balance with his, and so refuse to let him back out.

One of those minions, who soon breaks away into evil scheming on his own behalf, is Reginhald. Over the second half of Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, the narrative is progressively dominated by the machinations of a figure that in time would become one of the defining tropes of the Gothic novel: the Wicked Monk. In the character of Reginhald, Thomas Leland may have made his most significant contribution to the evolution of this branch of fiction…even granting that, correctly enough in historical terms but somewhat joltingly even so, his “wicked monk” is English. In future years this stock character would of course be used to express English Protestant hostility towards “foreigners” in general and Catholics in particular; here, the same sentiment would seem to lurk behind the jaundiced eye which Thomas Leland casts over England’s own past.

Leland3b

03/02/2013

…and then a step to the right.

QueenAfterDeath1The plan, nebulous at first, gradually assumed clearer shape. Pedro resolved that as there had been a spiritual and legal rehabilitation of Inez’s shattered reputation, he would give her poor murdered body a physical recognition of the memory in which he held her. He decided that he would give the dead Inez the honor that Fate had denied her in life. Through love for him she forfeited the respect of his country, and he had as far as he could purged the remembrance in which it held her, but that was not enough. Now he made his plans to compel to kneel at her dead feet that Portugal which had even denied her any deference while she lived. He was not satisfied that she should coldly sleep as other dead women slept. She was his heart’s princess during life, and without her even asking, he promised that she should some day be his wife. Now he would make her Portugal’s queen after death…

My visitors will have noticed that my escape from 1688, over which I gloated at the end of last year, has not been quite so clean-cut as I hoped. Apart from the fact that I still have two outstanding posts to get written (neither of them Chronobibliography, granted), I wasn’t immediately able to shake off the dust of 2012, with my talent for over-complication rearing its ugly head once again and holding me back.

In fact, the very act of gloating over escaping 1688 stopped me from actually doing it, my New Year’s viewing of Captain Blood leading me to compare and contrast the film with the novel upon which it was based. Meanwhile, I also succumbed to temptation in another direction and tracked down a copy of A Queen After Death by William Harman Black, which to the best of my knowledge is the only English-language work of fiction to deal with the story of Inés de Castro. The title of this 1933 novel gave me hopes that its author had bought into the colourfully gruesome alternative version of events. He did—but that’s about all it has going for it.

The overwhelming problem with A Queen After Death is one of style: Black doesn’t seem to be quite sure whether he wants to be writing history or whether he wants to be writing fiction, and so falls between two stools, writing fiction in a plodding, this-happened-then-that-happened sort of way that almost manages to make this outré story boring. I have no knowledge of the author beyond the existence of this novel, but on the evidence before me I feel I can safely surmise that he was unacquainted with the principle of composition generally rendered as Show, don’t tell.

In fact, A Queen After Death offers surprisingly little to the casual reader; while its main interest for me turned out to be the resources that Black drew upon in his writing, several of which, after my brief but comprehensive plunge into the Inés mythos, were a bit too obvious for comfort.

Only two aspects of this novel as a novel really struck me. The first is its emphasis upon the ages of Pedro and Inés, only twenty and seventeen respectively at the beginning of their affair—in other words, not much older than those perennial poster-children for reckless and ultimate fatal teenage passion, Romeo and Juliet. Mostly with a focus upon Constança but also with reference to Pedro, both of whom were engaged and unengaged and engaged again by their ambitious parents with no thought beyond political expediency, the novel does consider, although not in the depth we would prefer, the inevitable consequences of emotional young people being treated like trading-cards.

The other notable point is that on those rare occasions that William Black manages a genuinely striking bit of writing, it is usually a sideline to his main narrative; he seems to have been hampered by the facts even when he wasn’t strictly sticking to them. I did enjoy his portrait of Afonso IV, who is depicted as a staunch adherent of marital fidelity and whose anger with his son is as much about Pedro’s broken vows as it is about his disobedience and the potential political consequences. Intriguingly, however, Afonso’s rigidly practised fidelity to his wife is presented as a perverse way of thumbing his nose at the memory of his father, Denis, who was a a man of peace, a lover of nature and a poet at a time when such things were all but unheard of, and so managed to win a reputation for saintliness in spite of producing a swarm of illegitimate children. There is also a clear suggestion that Afonso’s long-suffering queen, Beatrice, would have preferred it if her husband had found some other way of rebelling against his father.

(And of course, he did: one of the ironies of this whole sorry story is that in his youth Afonso waged war against his father, exactly as Pedro would end up doing to him.)

This is not to say, however, that the novel’s two big set-pieces, the torture-deaths of two of Inés’ assassins and her coronation, are not “striking bits of writing”, merely that no novelist, whatever his limitations, could really fail to make an impression with the material at his disposal.

The post-mortem coronation aside, A Queen After Death sticks close enough in a general way  to the facts of the Inés story to obviate the need for a synopsis. The novel opens with the offer of a marital alliance between Pedro and Costanza (Constança) being sent from Alphonso (Afonso) IV of Portugal to Don Juan Manuel, Duke of Valeña, one of the most powerful noblemen in Castile. After some hesitation, Costanza accepts, attracted by the vision of herself as Queen of Portugal. She makes it a condition of her acceptance that she should be accompanied to Lisbon by her cousin and friend, Inez (Inés) de Castro.

In Black’s telling, Pedro and Costanza simply have no spark between them. In contrast, the attraction between Pedro and Inez is immediate and powerful – and obvious to most onlookers at court, who think the worst prematurely. The two struggle against their feelings for a year, avoiding one another as much as possible, until one day when for no specific reason they give in to their mutual passion. Subsequently, they separately and jointly defy church, crown and public opinion in pursuit of their love affair.

Around the bare bones of the story, Black weaves aspects of the various renderings of the Inés story – mostly the various fictional renderings (which strikes me as rather unethical). His choice for the villain of the piece was the first thing to properly catch my attention – in two different ways. Firstly, I realised that the character of Don Alvares de Goncales  in Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise and its English translations is supposed to be Álvaro Gonçalves, one of the three real-life executioners of Inés, and one of those later tortured and executed by Pedro. (Confusingly enough, Gonçalves is called Goncalvo here.) Secondly, Black tells the story exactly the same way as Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac but recasts the villain role, making it Diogo Lopes Pacheco whose love for Inez turns to hate when she spurns his advances and makes it clear that she prefers an illicit relationship with Pedro to honourable marriage with him. Given this, I was not exactly surprised to find Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise in Black’s bibiography – about which I shall have more to say presently – although he spells de Brilhac’s name incorrectly.

In the novel, it is her growing fear of Pacheco that prompts Inez to send for her half-brothers, Fernando and Alvarez Perez de Castro, hoping for their protection. As in reality, the friendship between the brothers and Pedro is perceived as a Castilian threat to Portugal; here, however, is is equally because the brothers encourage Pedro to neglect his duties for drinking and carousing when he must be away from Inez. Meeting anger and disapproval everywhere else he turns, Pedro finds the dissolute brothers a relief and does permit them to influence his behaviour for the worst.

Another slice of reality, and perhaps the aspect of the true history that most puzzles me, is that Black fudges the timeline of the story, compressing the events or evading the issue of how much time actually passed. Thus he never engages with the curious fact that the relationship between Pedro and Inés – and, you’d think, any concomitant political fallout – was fifteen years old when it was decided that Inés had to die. No-one to my knowledge has ever identified a specific reason why she was suddenly condemned to death. Not even Afonso’s desire for Pedro’s remarriage seems a sufficient explanation: Constança had been dead, and Pedro had been refusing another alliance, for ten years when Inés was so brutally removed from the picture. Perhaps something was going on in Castile at that time that made it seem imperative; or perhaps the precarious health of the Infante Ferdinand made Inés’ children look like more than a threat to the throne than usual. (But in that case, why kill her but not them?) The whole thing seems to me bewilderingly unmotivated.

Be that as it may, the novel’s account of the execution of Inés is one of the things that most caught my attention—inasmuch as its depiction of events is lifted wholesale from António Ferreira’s play The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro; although I imagine that the immediate source was the 1825 English translation of the play by T. M. Musgrave (condemned by John R. C. Martyn in the introduction of his translation as “an archaic and verbose rendering”). Thus we have a reluctant Alphonso being persuaded by Pacheco, Gonçalves and Pêro Coelho that Inez has to die for the good of Portugal; the only original (or rather, non-Ferreira-derived) touch is that Pacheco is clearly pursuing his own vengeance against Inez and Pedro. (Again, after fifteen years?) Alphonso and the courtiers ride to the palace at Coimbra (not mentioned in the text prior to this), but when confronted by the sight of the beautiful Inez with her children – his grandchildren, albeit illegitimate – Alphonso cannot go through with it. He and the others ride away, but they have not gotten far before Pacheco manages to change Alphonso’s mind back again. Alphonso washes his hands of the matter in the approved Pilate-esque manner, leaving the others to do as they will. They hurry back to the palace before the vacillating king can have second, or rather third, thoughts (which he does, but too late), and together stab Inez to death.

Which brings me back to a point I made in passing in my original post: if you want a post-mortem coronation, you cannot have Inés beheaded.

Pedro’s rebellion against his father follows, as well as his ascension to the throne in 1357. As you would expect, the novel picks up at this point, depicting Pedro’s obsession with the memory of Inez becoming a slow slide into madness. He broods over all the possible ways he might rehabilitate her reputation, and suddenly produces witnesses who swear to a gathering that includes the highest-ranking clerics in Portugal that they were present at the marriage of Pedro and Inez. This accomplished, and overtly accepted whatever the country’s private doubts, Pedro’s thoughts then turn to his revenge against the men who killed Inez. He enters into negotiations with Castile, and exchanges several Castilian prisoners for Goncalvo and Coelho; tipped off in time, Pacheco manages to get away, and lives in exile in France until Pedro’s death. (In-text, this is a frustrating turn of events given Pacheco’s casting as Inez’s deadly enemy.)

As far as A Queen After Death ever garnered any critical attention, it was not the coronation scene but the lengthy and gruesomely detailed account of the torture and execution of Goncalvo and Coelho that provoked a reaction:

As the effects of their free wine wore off, both Pedro and the executioner, with whom the king kept in touch by signals, saw that the crowd was sickening of this exhibition of inhumanity. Pedro resolved to end it with a combination of unparalleled hellishness… From the brazier the executioner took the red hot pincers and plucked off the ears of Coelho and the lips of Goncalvo. Goncalvo howled wild a wildcat, and again every blood vessel in his face seemed red and bursting. The muscles in his arms and across his chest twitched and swelled, but the man lived on. The blood spurted from  his mouth, and where his lips had been pulled out by the hot pincers there was a thick swollen piece of raw, bloody meat, smoking and smelling like flesh burning over hot, slow embers… As the executioner reached for one of the keen knives, Coelho regained consciousness for a moment. Lifting his head as high as the choking garotte would allow, he had just strength enough to say in a voice that was below the pitch of a whisper, but firm and masculine: “Here you will find a heart that is truer than a horse’s and stronger than a bullock’s.” As he said this he pointed to his left side and died with the fortitude of a soldier. In a moment the knife slit his skin like a thin piece of silk, and with the still smoking pincers his heart was plucked out and held aloft…

But even this doesn’t entirely sate Pedro:

His stormy heart raced and quivered at the thought of the loveliness that had been Inez, struck down by cowards’ blows with never a hand raised in her defense. When the full realization would sweep over him that he had indeed lost her forever, that never again would those lovely eyes be raised, brimming with love, to his, that he would never again hear her voice, never feel the touch of her hands, then the wild thing that leaped and coursed and yet was Pedro’s heart slowed down, almost ceased to beat, became a leaden thing, cold, like a heavy stone in his breast. Brooding and silent, he sat or walked alone, and out of the blackness of his despair, out of a loneliness and longing that carried him close to the vague line of madness, was born the idea that first struck his listeners with superstitious terror…

Pedro accordingly rounds up Portugal’s “masters of pageantry” and sets them to work planning the most elaborate and costly coronation the country has ever seen. He, meanwhile, travels to Coimbra to oversee the exhumation; although it is the unfortunate nuns of the convent next door to whom the task of dressing Inez falls. Placed back in her coffin, Inez forms the centrepiece of a procession that rolls slowly from Coimbra to Alcobaça, passing through numerous villages and attracting crowds of disbelieving peasants. The priests of the abbey at Alcobaça have followed their orders, and the coronation begins:

The loving hands of the sweet sisters again arranged the royal robe and tried to push the golden hair over the most revolting part of the features of Inez and strong soldiers bore her to a room in the monastery that was turned into a temporary reception hall. Under a canopy of flaming blue silk, two chairs of state were placed side by side, and into one of them the pitiful form of Inez was propped. After infinite trouble, the crown of Portugal, burnished for the occasion, which had not been worn since Pedro’s mother died, was placed on the toppling head of Pedro’s love. There stood at the back and at the side of the inert form two grandees who made certain that the body did not slip from the throne… Then, beginning with the Grand Seneschal, grandees, churchmen, soldiers, nobles, in a long procession passed the stiff form, and each with courtly bow made low obeisance by kissing the dead hand of Inez…

The carving of the elaborate marble tombs of Pedro and Inez follows; after which there is nothing much left for Pedro to do but lie down and die, which he does with a minimum of fuss.

All very romantic, I’m sure, provided you like your romance spiced up with torture and necrophilia (and who doesn’t?); yet for all of it, what stayed with me most about A Queen After Death was another, far more subtle tampering with the facts, a single betraying detail, which the novel tries to slide past in its early stages:

Pedro loved hawking, the chase, music, drinking, and the usual companions who attached themselves to a man who will someday be king. He could ride like a centaur; his bow was true, and his sword was strong. Indeed, his life already showed that his entire make-up was essentially Portuguese. He had boasted the Portuguese Doña Theresa Lourenco as his “official” mistress, and by him she had a son, afterwards King John I…

Except that John was born in 1357, two years after the execution of Inés.

Nothing ruins a good story like the facts, does it?

“The facts” bring me to the final telling aspect of this novel: it carries both extensive historical notes and a lengthy bibliography. It is not endnoted as such, but the notes do refer back to specific pages in the novel, reporting their various sources as they go. They begin enthusiastically, filling in historical details of Portugal and Castile and their many alliances and even more numerous conflicts. Curiously, however, as we get to the meat of A Queen After Death, they begin to trail away, with encyclopaedias and histories giving way to more populist texts—and when it comes to the all-important coronation scene, we find ourselves left with a single source:

George W. Young, Portugal Old And New. Clarendon Press, 1917.

Damn you, facts!

09/07/2011

Rookwood: A Romance

“‘Tis said, that the first of the race from which you now claim descent, Sir Ranulph Rookwood, slew his dame, in jealous indignation for imaginary wrong. Her prayers, her tears, her adjurations of innocence—and she was innocent—all her agony, could not move him. He stabbed her thrice. He smote the bleeding corse, and as life was ebbing fast away, with her fleeting breath she pronounced a curse upon her murderer, and upon his race. She had invoked all the powers of mercy, and of goodness, to aid her. A deaf ear had been turned unto her agonised entreaties. With her dying lips she summoned those of hell. She surrendered her soul to the dark Spirit of Evil, for revenge; and the revenge was accorded her. She died—but her curse survived.”

Following the death of Sir Piers Rookwood, the young Luke Bradley, who ekes out a precarious living as a woodsman and a poacher, learns from his grandfather, the sexton Peter Bradley, that Sir Piers may in fact have been married to his mother, Susan; and that far from being the despised bastard he always believed himself, Luke may be the true heir to the titles and estates of Rookwood. Although the history of the Rookwood family is dark and bloody, Luke instantly swears that he will find the proof he needs to establish his identity, but knows that in doing so he will find an implacable and dangerous enemy in the widowed Lady Rookwood, mother to the heir-presumptive, Ranulph.

The late Sir Piers and his wife led a turbulent and unhappy life together, one of the consequences of which was the departure of Ranulph for Europe, where he had lived for over a year at the time of his father’s death. Word of his succession was sent to Ranulph, but was not expected to reach him for days. To the astonishment of the household, however, Ranulph arrives at Rookwood in time for the funeral. To Dr Small, the local vicar, Ranulph confesses the real reason for his sudden departure from home, namely his father’s furious reaction to the discovery that his son had fallen in love with Eleanor Mowbray, his cousin, the daughter of Sir Piers’ sister, who had been banished from the house and family carrying her father’s malediction after marrying against his will. Ranulph also recalls a puzzling threat made by his father in the event of Ranulph’s persistence in his suit—a threat of disinheritance, although Rookwood is entailed. Finally, most reluctantly, Ranulph reveals the secret of his unexpected return: a terrifying encounter with a ghostly apparition that resembled his father, at what he now learns was the exact hour of Sir Piers’ death…

Meanwhile, Lady Rookwood is reading a letter found amongst Sir Piers’ papers—a letter which she casts into the fire as she curses her husband’s memory. She finds also a miniature of a young and lovely woman, bound up with a marriage certificate…but these she keeps and conceals. Barely has she done so than Luke Bradley almost forces his way into the house, demanding to see Lady Rookwood. During the scene that follows, Lady Rookwood stuns Luke by admitting his legitimacy—then challenges him to prove it if he can, with wealth and power and position ranged against him.

In a fury, Luke then makes his way by secret passages, the existence of which were revealed to him by his grandfather, to the room where his father’s embalmed body lies in state, forcing Lady Rookwood at pistol-point to accompany him. Upon their sudden entry, however, Luke and Lady Rookwood are equally astonished to find Ranulph standing beside the coffin. During the confrontation that follows, Luke openly declares his claim to Rookwood—and Ranulph is forced to remember his father’s mysterious threats of disinheritance. His ghostly experience weighing on his mind, Ranulph horrifies his mother by conceding that Luke may be telling the truth.

Before any resolution is reached, several of the family retainers burst into the room, capturing Luke and threatening him with an outstanding warrant for poaching and the assault of the Rookwood gamekeeper: capital offences. When Ranulph tries to intervene, the furious Lady Rookwood takes him to one side and threatens him with her own curse, warning him also that if he surrenders Rookwood, Eleanor Mowbray can never be his wife. Shaking her off, Ranulph promises Luke that he will be freed from his bonds if he will pledge his word of honour not to try and escape, but a defiant Luke will promise nothing.

Still in fetters, Luke is locked into a small room and placed under guard. However, behind the room is another secret passageway, and through a small gap in the woodwork Luke overhears a plan for an attack upon Lady Rookwood and a robbery of the house, to be committed by a band led by a man who visits the house under the name of Jack Palmer—but who in reality is the highwayman, Dick Turpin. Though the robbery is thwarted, Turpin takes possession of the marriage certificate that can prove Luke’s claim, intending to sell it to the highest bidder.

His sympathies with Luke in spite of these mercenary plans, Turpin helps him to escape. The two make their way to a gypsy encampment, ruled over by Queen Barbara Lovel, an ancient woman of strange powers whose only earthly affections are wrapped up in her lovely granddaughter, Sybil, to whom Luke has long been plighted. It is with horror and dismay that Sybil learns of Luke’s birth, convinced in spite of his ardent protestations that his pride will not permit him to marry a mere gypsy if he is in truth Sir Luke Rookwood. Sybil’s worst fears are confirmed when it is subsequently revealed that the Rookwood title alone is entailed: the lands and money are held outright, to descend to whomever their owner chooses. Luke then discovers that the only way he can take full possession is by marrying the woman to whom by right they now belong—Eleanor Mowbray…

[SPOILERS]

Although, apparently, not much remembered these days, there was a time when William Harrison Ainsworth was a true lion of the English literary scene, his novels best-sellers, his company courted by his fellow writers, and the magazines declaring him to be “the heir of Sir Walter Scott”. Ainsworth’s career began as many literary careers did in those days, it seems—that is, as the preferred occupation of a man vacillating between publishing and law as a means of earning a living, but enthusiastic about neither. At the start he wrote poetry and short stories, sometimes under a pseudonym. His first attempt at a novel was done in collaboration with John Partington Ashton, a clerk in his father’s law office. Sir John Chiverton was a great success, but one attended by controversy over the relative contributions of its two authors. These days the novel is all but impossible to get hold of, so we are unable to judge it for ourselves.

About Ainsworth’s second venture into fiction there is, however, no doubt at all. Rookwood was published in 1834 to huge success, multiple reprintings and not a little critical acclaim—but this work, too, caused quite a lot of controversy, although of a very different kind.

Rookwood is very undisciplined novel, crammed with more incidents and twists than it can comfortably hold and with the melodrama cranked up to an untenable degree. From the point of view of this blog, I also have to say that Rookwood is a very typical novel—inasmuch as we yet again find ourselves struggling with an incredibly convoluted family tree further confused by multiple marriages and assumed identities. The Rookwood habit of reiterating family names doesn’t help, either. However, the sheer enthusiasm of the project carries it over a lot of rocky ground; and whatever the literary shortcomings of this novel, historically we can see that this is a very important work, for two distinct reasons.

Firstly, Rookwood forms a clear bridge between the Gothic novel and the modern horror story. Indeed, Ainsworth himself regarded it as “a home-grown Gothic”, with English settings and character types substituted for the usual European scenes. The reality of the curse upon the Rookwoods plays itself out over the course of the story, while Ranulph’s Hamlet-like encounter with his dead father is never explained away. However, perhaps of more importance is the novel’s ghoulish dwelling upon body-horror, which marks it as a descendent of the Lewis-Maturin school of writing and points to increasingly grim future tales. A remarkable number of its scenes take place in underground crypts, with the characters surrounded by coffins and dead bodies. We even get a wedding in such surroundings! There are also lengthy descriptions of corpses in various states of preservation; while Luke Bradley acquires his dead mother’s mummified hand – a wedding-ring on the third finger – and takes to carrying it around in his inner breast pocket.

Here are some excerpts from the novel’s tone-setting opening sequence:

Within the deep recesses of a vault, the last abiding place of an ancient family—many generations of whose long line were there congregated—and at midnight’s dreariest hour, two figures might be discovered, sitting, wrapt in silence as profound as that of the multitudinous dead around them…

    A thunderous crash resounded through the vault. One of the coffins, which Luke had dislodged from its position, tumbled to the groud; it alighted upon its side, splitting asunder in the fall.
    “Great heavens! what is this?” cried Luke; as a dead body clothed in all the hideous apparel of the tomb, rolled forth to his feet.
    “It is thy mother’s corpse,” answered the sexton. “I brought thee hither to behold it; but thou hast anticipated my intentions…”

Insensible as he was, Luke had not relinquished the hold he maintained on his mother’s hand. And when Peter lifted the body, the ligaments, connecting the hand with the arm, were suddenly snapped asunder… The first thing [Luke] perceived, upon collecting his faculties, were the skeleton fingers, which he found twined within his own…

Rookwood is in many ways a very odd novel. It certainly sits very comfortably beside Vanity Fair under the descriptor, “a novel without a hero”. The Rookwoods are an old family whose men have a deadly and well-deserved reputation for marrying in haste and murdering at leisure.  In the early stages of the tale, Luke Bradley is a sympathetic character; but as soon as he knows for certain that he is a Rookwood by birth as well as by blood, the ancient curse begins to play its part and he becomes a true son of his ancestors, willing to do anything to claim his inheritance, no matter who he has to hurt – or marry – or kill. 

When Sybil Lovel hears the truth of Luke’s birth, she shrinks from him in horror, knowing only too well the fate in store for the first Rookwood bride of each generation. Sybil herself is the very embodiment of Maggie Tulliver’s dictum about “all the dark unhappy ones”; although in this case her fair counterpart, Eleanor Mowbray, seems no less doomed to be a victim. Of the men, both Ranulph Rookwood and Eleanor’s brother, Major Mowbray, are for the most part on the side of light, especially the former; but neither one of them is a vivid enough character to disperse the story’s overriding sense of  foreboding.

One of the most interesting things about Rookwood is that, in spite of its hugely complicated central plot, this is a novel that very nearly ends up being overwhelmed by its subplot. This brings us to the secondary historical importance of Rookwood, its place among the school of writing that came to be known as “the Newgate Novel”.

The first decades of the 19th century saw a sharp increase in what many social commentators considered an unhealthy interest in the details of crime and criminal lives. During the time the Newgate Calendar, which had originally been published during the 18th century and which consisted of biographies of famous and infamous criminals, was revived, and achieved great popularity. Novelists began to draw upon the Calendar for their plots, treating their anti-heroes with what critics believed to be unforgiveable leniency—or even worse, admiration. This tendency not confined to minor writers. Perhaps its most famous exponent was Charles Dickens, a number of whose early works contain vivid and not entirely negative descriptions of the criminal milieu. On the other hand, one of the genre’s most vocal critics was William Makepeace Thackeray, whose Catherine, published in 1839, was intended as a vicious satire of this particular school of writing. To Thackeray’s exasperation, his novel was frequently misinterpreted, often being classed with the very works it was written to attack.

William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, also published in 1839, is generally considered the ne plus ultra of this form of novel-writing, and was probably the the work that provoked Thackeray into literary retaliation. Rookwood, however, is also a Newgate Novel in fact if not in original intention, with its extended portrait of Dick Turpin, who emerges from the fringes of the plot to very nearly become the novel’s central character, earning the book both enthusiastic praise and angry condemnation at the time of its release

From its second edition onwards, copies of Rookwood carried prefaces penned by its author, who wavers between defiance and self-exculpation in the face of the various attacks upon his novel. As far as answering accusations of misplaced admiration of Turpin and his highwaymen brethren goes, however, Ainsworth didn’t have a leg to stand on. The enconiums upon Turpin’s character and the descriptions of his life on the road become increasingly rapturous as the tale progresses, until at last the narrator openly mourns his passing and that of a certain time in history, a certain way of life – while shaking his head over This Modern Age:

Dick Turpin was the Ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race which (we were almost about to say we regret) is now altogether extinct. Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him, expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many Knights of the Road; with him, died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex… It were a subject well worthy of inquiry, to trace this decline and fall of the empire of the Tobymen, to its remoter causes—to ascertain the why and the wherefore, that with so many half-pay captains; so many poor curates; so many lieutenants, of both services, without hopes of promotion; so many penny-a-liners, and fashionable novelists; so many damned dramatists, and damning critics; so many Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviewers; so many detrimental brothers, and younger sons; when there are horses to be hired, pistols to be borrowed, purses to be taken, and mails are as plentiful as partridges;—it were worth serious investigation, we repeat, to ascertain why, with the best material available for a new race of highwaymen, we have none, not so much as an amateur.

Almost regret; yes.

During the latter stages of this novel, the exploits of Dick Turpin and his criminal comrades actually force the Rookwoods off-stage for an extended period of time. Here Ainsworth really does get carried away, almost burying his story under a deluge of gaolhouse ballads and thieves’ cant – both of which come accessorised by a plethora of explanatory footnotes. The former grow increasingly tiresome, with Dick & Co. singing at each other for page after page after page; the latter is more interesting, if only because it becomes increasingly apparent that whatever effort Ainsworth himself may have put into accumulating this wealth of linguistic information, subsequent generations of novelists with similar needs resorted to the simpler expedient of plundering Rookwood:

Wonderful were the miracles Dick’s advent wrought. The lame become suddenly active, the blind saw, and the dumb spake; nay, if truth must be told, absolutely gave utterance ‘to the most vernacular execrations’. Morts, autem morts, walking morts, dells, doxies, kinching morts, and their coes, with all the shades and grades of the Canting Crew, were assembled…

However, not even Ainsworth’s sternest critics were able entirely to withold their admiration for Rookwood‘s great set-piece: its breathless, chapters-long description of Dick Turpin’s legendary overnight ride from London to York on his gallant mare, the famous Black Bess. The passion and the energy of this sequence, the vividness of imagination on display, was something that almost everyone felt compelled to praise, in some cases even while the choice of subject matter was being decried:

Dick’s blood was again on fire. He was first giddy, as after a deep draught of kindling spirit; this passed off, but the spirit was still in his veins—the estro was working in his brain. All his ardour, his eagerness, his fury returned—he rode like one insane, and his courser partook of his frenzy. She bounded—she leaped—she tore up the ground beneath her—while Dick gave vent to his exultation in one wild prolonged halloo. More than half his race is run. He has triumphed over every difficulty. He will have no further occasion to halt. Bess carries her forage along with her. The course is straightforward—success seems certain—the goal already reached—the path of glory won. Another wild halloo, to which the echoing woods reply, and away—! Away!—away!—thou matchless steed!—

Matchless steed, indeed. It is not too much to say that Black Bess is the real heroine of Rookwood. She spends as much time before the reader as either Sybil Lovel or Eleanor Mowbray, and is described in terms perhaps even more glowing: her beauty, her strength, her courage, and her loyalty and devotion to her master are dwelt on time and again.

But alas, Bess no less than Sybil herself is one of the “dark unhappy ones”, being likewise doomed by man’s love and man’s selfishness. While it is impossible not to respond to the description of Turpin’s ride, these days I suspect the reader’s enthusiasm is likely to be tempered by the grim reflection that what we actually have here is a graphic, blow-by-blow description of Dick Turpin deliberately riding his horse to death.

Ainsworth does acknowledge the tragedy of Bess’s pointless death, but clearly he was too dazzled by his vision of Turpin’s mad ride to feel for the unfortunate animal as we might today; or, at least—I suppose I shouldn’t speak for others—as I did. Indeed, ultimately I found myself rather in sympathy with the critic from the Weekly Dispatch, whom Ainsworth holds up to mockery in his preface, who protested in his appalled review of Rookwood, “What is there to admire in the tale of a scoundrel outlaw thus torturing a noble animal to save his own rascal carcase from the gallows…?”

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Footnote:  What did I saw about being unable to escape the Stuarts and their times??—

…the espousal of the royalist party, with sword and substance, by Sir Ralph Rookwood, the then lord of the mansion (a dissolute, depraved personage, who, however, had been made a Knight of the Garter at the Coronation of Charles I) ended in his own destruction at Naseby, and the wreck of much of his property; a loss, which the gratitude of Charles II, on his restoration, did not fail to make good to Sir Ralph’s youthful heir. The young Sir Reginald had attended Charles in the character of page during his exile… One anomaly in Sir Reginald’s otherwise utterly selfish character, was uncompromising devotion to the House of Stuart; and shortly after the abdication of James II, he followed that mornarch to St. Germain…