Posts tagged ‘John Dryden’

06/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 6)

“Thus he flatters and she believes, because she has a mind to believe; and thus by degrees he softens the listening Sylvia; swears his faith with sighs, and confirms it with his tears, which bedewed her fair bosom, as they fell from his bright dissembling eyes; and yet so well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so: and such effects it wrought on Sylvia, that in spite of all her honour and vows engaged to Octavio, and horrid protestations never to receive again the fugitive to her arms, she suffers all he asks, gives herself up again to love, and is a second time undone…”

So where was Aphra Behn between 1685 and 1687? Writing, of course. It was quite a good time to be a Tory writer, the very events that had so shaken the country opening up fertile ground for the monarchists. Behn had done her Tory duty early in 1685, producing an elegy for the departed Charles, and another for the widowed Catherine (who did a bunk back to Portugal as soon as she could organise it – and who can blame her?); although neither of these can hold a candle to the 800 line “pindarick” she wrote to celebrate the coronation of James. Around the same time, Roger L’Estrange received a knighthood and returned to his old position of Licensor Of The Press, John Dryden was confirmed as Poet Laureate – and Thomas Shadwell was blacklisted.

But for the most part the theatre was still stagnant; it was not until towards the end of his reign that James, all too late, began commissioning plays in the hope of using them to win some public support. Aphra Behn would not get another play produced until 1687, when both The Luckey Chance and The Emperor Of The Moon brought her dramatic success; the last of her lifetime. Also during 1687, Behn published the third part of her first venture into fiction as The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia. This is easily the longest of the three volumes, which may in part account for the delay in its appearance. It also finds Behn using a third different form of prose writing in as many volumes. While a few letters are interpolated, this work is worlds away from the epistolary style of the first, or even the “half-and-half” approach of the second, and presents as what we would now view as a conventional piece of third-person narration; although the narrator does make personal comments and additions from time to time, as we shall see.

This third volume is, I imagine, by far the most difficult for most modern readers to absorb. It consists of two overlapping yet distinct stories, the second being Behn’s account of the Monmouth Rebellion of June, 1685, in which her old friend Lord Grey suddenly reappeared on the public stage. It may even be that Behn had begun her third volume before that, then had to scrap it and start over when reality suddenly intervened. From the reader’s point of view, the difficulty here is that Behn not only describes the rebellion and its aftermath, but includes any amount of insulting minutiae about the Duke of Monmouth which, while it would have been perfectly familiar to a contemporary audience swamped by accounts of Monmouth’s life and death, means very little to the reader of today.

First, however, we rejoin our pairs of lovers. Sylvia has promised to marry Octavio (Brilliard notwithstanding) if he will take revenge on Philander for her, while Philander is still indulging in his dangerous affair with Calista, in spite of the growing suspicions of her husband, Clarineau, and Dormina, the servant set to spy upon her. Ironically, Clarineau’s way of showing his displeasure, namely, failing to visit Calista’s bed, which would have been more than welcome to her at any other time in their marriage, is now a matter of urgency: Calista is pregnant, but cannot bring about the encounter with her husband that she needs to cover her infidelity.

As her condition begins to show, Calista begs Philander to run away with her. This escapade finds Calista, too, in drag: a guise that brings out her (to Philander) strange resemblance to Octavio…and, perhaps, also makes clear the basis of her attraction for her lover:

“I own I never saw anything so beautiful all over, from head to foot: and viewing her thus, (carrying my lanthorn all about her) but more especially her face, her wondrous, charming face—(pardon me, if I say, what does but look like flattery)—I never saw anything more resembling my dear Octavio, than the lovely Calista. Your very feature, your very smile and air; so that, if possible, that increased my adoration and esteem for her…”

Remembering the fate of Clarineau’s first wife, both Philander and Calista carry weapons as they try to make their escape. They are caught by Clarineau, his nephew and his servants. As the latter engage Philander, Clarineau draws a poniard and stabs Calista, who fires her pistol at him, wounding him. Philander fights off the others, and manages to escape with the injured Calista. However, the two are soon caught and imprisoned – their jailers not realising Calista’s sex. She is terrified of being returned to Clarineau and his vengeance, while Philander knows that he himself will suffer nothing worse than a spell in prison and a fine for the cuckoldry. Calista having her jewels with her, Philander is able to pull his usual stunt – “The master of the prison was very civil and poor” – and Calista is allowed to escape, fleeing to Brussels and taking refuge in a convent where the Abbess is her aunt.

All this Philander recounts in a letter to Octavio, concluding with a request that Octavio write on his behalf to the magistrates of Cologne – sending to Sylvia at the same time another letter filled with the usual excuses. Having already broken his oath to Philander, Octavio shows her both. It doesn’t quite go as he expected. The outraged Sylvia insists upon travelling to Brussels, so that she can confront Calista – only to find herself so personally affected by Calista’s beauty (and, of course, by her resemblance to Octavio), that she almost finds it in herself to forgive her perfidious lover. Almost. On departing, Sylvia takes her revenge by giving to Calista the letter that Octavio gave to her; and Calista discovers that the man she believed loved her so honourably and tenderly has given a boastful, blow-by-blow account of their affair to another man…and that man her own brother. Sylvia, meanwhile, swears that she has cut Philander from her heart forever, and is entirely Octavio’s…

In her handling of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, and then again in the eventual reuniting of Sylvia and Philander, Aphra Behn displays a frank fascination with the masochistic potentiality of love – and an even greater one with the capacity of lovers for self-deception. Although we here a lot about “the brave, the generous, the amorous” Octavio, Behn’s language is belied by her action. Octavio’s obsession with Sylvia is an exercise in delusion and denial. To us, the onlookers, his passion for Sylvia is clearly a kind of physical addiction, a habit that he cannot kick, one that manifests as a total refusal to see reality.

When Brilliard hears of Sylvia’s promise to marry Octavio, he appeals to the local authorities, declaring himself her husband. Octavio is connected, however, and Brilliard’s attempt to claim his rights ends in failure. Although Octavio is at first horrified by Brilliard’s declaration, Sylvia manages to convince him that at the time she “married” Brilliard, he already had a wife and children, as she later discovered. At this time, Sylvia gives Octavio her own account of her relationship with Philander; and in an hilarious touch, Aphra Behn reveals that she and Sylvia were both readers of the London Gazette:

“…but all search, all hue-and-cries were vain; at last, they put me into the weekly Gazette, describing me to the very features of my face, my hair, my breast, my stature…”

The apparent barrier to their relationship removed, Octavio’s passion for Sylvia returns with redoubled force: “…he was given over to his wish of possessing of Sylvia, and could not live without her; he loved too much, and thought and considered too little…” Octavio renews his promises of marriage to Sylvia, and begins to lavish extravagant gifts upon her, his obsession with her growing uncontrollable…and in context, more than a little creepy.

Although his acquaintance with Sylvia begins when she is another man’s mistress, although he hears from both Philander and Sylvia the full truth of their relationship, Octavio insists upon courting Sylvia as if she were still the innocent girl she once was – not out of generosity, or kindness, or tact, but because this is the only way he can justify himself to himself. Sylvia is entranced by the fantasy world Octavio creates for them, which allows her to pretend that she has regained the position in life that she threw away for Philander, and intoxicated by her sense of power; she eagerly plays the part Octavio has tacitly written for her. When their mutual role-playing game ends, inevitably, in sex, Sylvia reacts not as an experienced woman, but like a ruined girl: “At first he found her weeping in his arms, raving on what she had inconsiderately done, and with her soft reproaches chiding her ravished lover…”

And perhaps here I should mention that while she lies in Octavio’s arms, weeping for an honour and a virginity long since departed, as Octavio swears to repair the great wrong he has done to her by making her his wife…Sylvia is at least five month’s pregnant with Philander’s child.

One of the most difficult things for modern readers to come to terms with in the literature of this period is its attitude to pregnancy, which is generally treated as just an inconvenience, a nuisance, but nothing that should be allowed to interfere with the business of life. It is certainly never considered a reason why two people shouldn’t have an affair. (If anything, on the contrary: you know the old saying…) In this respect, Love Letters is entirely representative. Remember that Calista, too, is pregnant when she finds refuge in the convent. There, taking stock, she is overwhelmed with shame and remorse. When her child is born, she has it taken away, before giving up the world and becoming a nun. Meanwhile, Sylvia also bears her baby…which is never mentioned again. We are given no hint of its fate; it simply disappears; and except for one or two passing references to Sylvia getting her figure back, there is no indication that she was ever pregnant, or that she ever thinks about it again. Nor is the double father remotely interested in his children’s fates.

Several decades after this, Daniel Defoe would be using his anti-heroines’ attititude to their children as a yardstick of their characters; here, Sylvia’s pregnancy is nothing more than a measure of the depth of Octavio’s delusion. As his obsession grows, Octavio rains money and jewels upon Sylvia, and sets her up in a mansion, swearing that he will marry her, “As soon as Sylvia should be delivered from that part of Philander, of which she was possessed.” But before Octavio can make good on his promise, Philander reappears on the scene…

Released from prison, Philander travels to Brussels, to the convent, where he hears quite a few home-truths from the Abbess before the door is slammed in his face. This encounter reveals to Philander that Octavio has betrayed him to Sylvia; and here Aphra Behn gives us another glimpse of the ugly reality of her world; woman’s world. Behn offers excuses for women’s perfidy in love, arguing that the world as it is hardly allows women to be honest if they would (and note the revealing slip into the first person):

“Thus she spoke, without reminding that this most contemptible quality she herself was equally guilty of, though infinitely more excusable in her sex, there being a thousand little actions of their lives, liable to censure and reproach, which they would willingly excuse and colour over with little falsities; but in a man, whose most inconstant actions pass oftentimes for innocent gallantries, and to whom it is no infamy to own a thousand amours, but rather a glory to his fame and merit; I say, in him, (whom custom has favoured with an allowance to commit any vices and boast of it) it is not so brave.”

But as with Behn’s railing against “interested” marriage and the selling of young girls to old men, this denouncing of the double standard is a cry in the wilderness. Despite Philander’s breaking of his vows to his wife, his seduction of Sylvia, and his months of bald-faced lies to her as he seduces and ruins another woman, we are given to understand that the only crime committed against honour in all this is Octavio’s breaking of his promise to Philander, the betrayal of man by man; that in fact, it is Philander who is the injured party:

“…he no longer doubted, but that his confidante had betrayed him every way. He rails on false friendship, curses the Lady Abbess, himself, his fortune, and his birth; but finds it all in vain: nor was he so infinitely afflicted with the thought of the loss of Calista (because he had possessed her) as he was to find himself betrayed to her, and doubtless to Sylvia, by Octavio.”

Philander and Octavio will later fight a duel on this point; later still, Octavio will concede to Philander that he was the one who committed the real breach of honour. And it is Octavio, the obsessive lover Octavio, who will finally put Woman firmly in her place – unearthing the novel’s subtext again in the process:

“‘These vows cannot hinder me from conserving entirely that friendship in my heart, which your good qualities and beauties at first sight engaged there, and esteeming you more than perhaps I ought to do; the man whom I must yet own my rival, and the undoer of my sister’s honour. But oh—no more of that; a friend is above a sister, or a mistress.’ At this he hung down his eyes and sighed—“

But Octavio still has some distance to travel before he can set aside his passion for Sylvia and become “a real man” – a man’s man, as it were. Although she has, to all appearances, got Octavio exactly where she wants him – has the prospect of a life so far beyond what she might expect in her circumstances as to almost boggle the mind – Sylvia is finally, fatally, betrayed by her vanity. Her absolute power over Octavio she credits to her own irresistible charm and beauty, not to Octavio’s consitutional blindness; and so abject is he in his devotion, she begins to take him just a little for granted…

Although Philander’s behaviour has killed her love for him, Sylvia realises that his betrayal of her, his finding another woman more beautiful, more desirable, than she, still rankles. She begins to toy with the notion of bringing him back to her feet, just to show that she can. As for Philander, Sylvia vanished from his thoughts the moment he set eyes on Calista; yet when he receives a letter from her declaring that she doesn’t want him any more, he instantly discovers that he wants her – and swears that he will have her again.

The resulting mutual exercise in emotionless manoeuvring and jockeying for the position of power evolves into a sick recapitulation of their original encounter – both of them falling back into their original roles without even recognising it (or as Behn puts it, “So well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so…”) – and ends, sure enough, in Sylvia’s bed…where Octavio finds them. And even this he forgives…but in a seemingly contradictory yet psychologically convincing touch, this for Sylvia is the final straw. She has demonstrated the limitlessness of her power over Octavio; he no longer holds any challenge for her. Instead, bundling up the jewels and money and other portables that he has given her, Sylvia elopes again with Philander.

What follows is one of this novel’s strangest passages – indeed, one of the strangest things Behn ever wrote – as Octavio, his eyes opened at long last, retreats from the world as his sister did, entering a monastery. Here, the narration suddenly switches to the first person, as we hear that, I myself went to this ceremony, having, in all the time I lived in Flanders, never been so curious to see any such thing…

The evolution of the narrative voice across these three volumes is intriguing, and a fairly clear indication that initially Behn intended to write only the first of the three. The letters that make up Part 1, as you may remember, were supposed to have been found in a closet after Philander and Sylvia left the house where they had been living together between the time of their original elopement and Philander’s arrest, escape and flight from France. Presumably, then, the writer of the first volume’s preface is not the same person who supplies the narrative voice for the later ones. This third part contains some interesting experimentation with narrative possibilities, as Behn shifts back-and-forth between third-person-omniscient and first-person-onlooker – sometimes within the same passage.

Although she was not, as I have said, at all religious, Aphra Behn had a life-long fascination with the external aspects of Catholicism, its rituals, its art, its exoticism, its public display…all the things, in other words, that good Protestants were supposed to despise. There are various bits of erotica through this third volume of Behn’s story, but perversely, nothing that matches the sensuality of her description of Octavio’s withdrawal from the world:

“For my part , I confess, I thought myself no longer on earth; and sure there is nothing gives an idea of real heaven, like a church all adorned with rare pictures, and the other ornaments of it, with whatever can charm the eyes; and music, and voices, to ravish the ear…But, for his face and eyes, I am not able to describe the charms that adorned them; no fancy, no imagination, can paint the beauties there: he looked indeed, as if he were made for heaven; no mortal ever had such grace… Ten thousand sighs, from all sides, were sent him, as he passed along, which, mixed with the soft music, made such a murmuring, as gentle breezes moving yielding boughs… All I could see around me, all I heard, was ravishing and heavenly; the scene of glory, and the dazzling altar… The Bishop turned and blessed him; and while an anthem was singing, Octavio, who was still kneeling, submitted his head to the hands of a Father, who, with a pair of scissors, cut off his delicate hair; at which a soft murmur of pity and grief filled the place…”

As for Philander and Sylvia, they’re in pretty much the state you’d expect of two people held together only by their equal determination not to be the one who is discarded:

“Philander, whose head was running on Calista, grudged every moment he was not about that affair, and grew as peevish as she; she recovers to new beauty, but he grows colder and colder by possession; love decayed, and ill humour increased: they grew uneasy on both sides, and not a day passed wherein they did not break into open and violent quarrels, upbraiding each other with those faults, which both wished that either would again commit, that they might be fairly rid of one another…”

And from this state of mutual torment they are at long last delivered by a summons to Philander from Cesario: the rebellion of the Huguenots against the king of France is finally to take place…

[Aww, I really thought this would be the last of it. Curse you, Aphra Behn, and your infinitely discussable novel! Just one more piece, that’s all, I swear…]

13/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 1)

“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)

“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)

“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)

“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)

There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.

Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.

I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.

I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.

When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.

Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.

Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.

It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.

This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.

Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.

Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.

But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.

While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.

And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1863, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

[To be continued…]

12/12/2010

Thomas Shadwell, superstar

I wonder what odds the Las Vegas bookies were offering last January, about there being two unrelated blog-posts on Thomas Shadwell during the same calendar year?

I suppose that’s unfair. There’s no more reason why people shouldn’t write about Shadwell than that they should write about, oh, I don’t know –  Alexander Oldys? –  to whose legacy I have just contributed 3000 words. Still, I couldn’t suppress a surprised yelp of laughter when I stumbled across this post…nor a sigh of admiration as I explored more thoroughly the blog that contained it.

As you might recall, my own mention of Thomas Shadwell was a rumination over whether he might have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince. Professor Robin Bates, blog-master of Better Living Through Beowulf, chose to draw comparisons between Shadwell and today’s more irresponsible political commentators, making outrageous remarks merely to get themselves noticed. Both of us alluded to John Dryden’s attack on Shadwell in the satirical smackdown, Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell may at length have won the political war against Dryden, but in the artistic one he crashed to bloody, humiliating defeat:

      Now Empress Fame had published the renown,

      Of Sh——’s coronation through the town.
      Roused by report of fame, the nations meet,
      From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling Street.

      No Persian Carpets spread th’imperial way,

      But scattered limbs of mangled poets lay:
      From dusty shops neglected authors come,
      Martyrs of Pies, and Relics of the Bum.
      Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,

      But loads of Sh—— almost choked the way.

As for Better Living Through Beowulf, it’s a heady mixture of literature, film, poetry, politics, religion and social issues. And if that doesn’t grab you, there’s tennis, ice hockey and (American) football. Off you go.

02/12/2010

Well, T.S.

To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attempted to assign an author to the initials appended to The Perplex’d Prince – “T.S.” – but I do rather wonder…

I pointed out the reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince. I didn’t realise it at the time, but there’s a second Dryden poem mentioned there: The Medal. This was a reaction to the reaction to the dismissal of the charges against the Earl of Shaftesbury (if you follow me), after he was accused of high treason in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. His supporters marked the occasion by pressing a medal that showed a symbolic Shaftesbury, in the form of a sun, emerging from behind black clouds.

Dryden’s response was The Medal, or A Satyr Against Sedition, a poem it is said was [*cough, cough*] suggested by Charles himself. This bitter attack upon Shaftesbury and his followers brought Dryden still more into the public eye, and not everyone was happy about it.

One of those who responded in print was Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright – and fervent Protestant. Shadwell and Dryden had once been friends and collaborators, but Dryden’s acceptance of a position at Charles’s court put an end to that. After the publication of The Medal, Shadwell retaliated with The Medal Of John Bayes: A Satyr Against Folly And Knavery, a brutal attack on Dryden himself. Nothing loath, Dryden hit right back with Mac Flecknoe: A Satyr On The Trew-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S., and then took another swing in the second part of Absalom And Achitopel, in which Shadwell appears – unflatteringly, I need hardly say – in the character of Og.

It was Dryden’s use of Shadwell’s initials in Mac Flecknoe, and his assumption that the reading public would know who “T.S.” was, that made me wonder whether Shadwell could possibly have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince – and whether Dryden even meant to imply that it was so. The pamphlet fits with Shadwell’s declared politics, certainly, but what interests me more is the dismissive way in which Dryden’s hugely successful poems are mentioned in the preface, being ranked alongside the mere disposable detritus of the literary world.

Then again, such a manoeuvre may have been too subtle for Shadwell, who apparently preferred the fist to the sword. Perhaps a third party, the true author, made use of Shadwell’s initials, either to hide behind them or just as a joke. Or perhaps it was another T.S. altogether: there was a Thomas Sprat writing at the time, but he seems to have been a straightforward royalist, so that makes it improbable. Anyway, I like to think it was Shadwell.

John Dryden remained Poet Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, but when James went, so did he – to be succeeded by his arch-rival. Thomas Shadwell may have lost the literary war against John Dryden, but with his own appointment to the position of Poet Laureate under William, he certainly had the last laugh.

29/11/2010

The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince

The Faction, amongst the many Instances they have so frequently given of their Spleen and Hatred to the Government, hardly ever showed their Malice more in any one particular, than in the Business of the Black Box, which furnish’d a Pretext to a Libel, call’d The Perplex’d Prince; which, tho’ but poorly writ, yet the malignity of the Design being to poyson Peoples Minds with an Opinion of some Probability and Truth in this Matter. It was thought fit in Return, to shew the World one of their Principal Heroes, in his true Colours.

So – the Earl of Shaftesbury. We really do need to consider the Earl of Shaftesbury before we consider the Exclusion Crisis, and we really need to consider the Exclusion Crisis before we consider The Fugitive Statesman. Such is the nature of the literature of the late 17th century.

Briefly, then (or as briefly as I can manage), Anthony Ashley Cooper was a major political figure throughout the Interregnum and the reign of Charles II. He was a member of the Convention Parliament, which agreed that monarchy should be restored, and for the first years of Charles’ reign he was a strong supporter of the king. During this time he was in great favour with Charles, being created Earl of Shaftesbury and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Lord Chancellor of England.

However, a rift eventually began to grow between the two over the question of the succession. In 1669, Shaftesbury was amongst those who urged Charles to dissolve his fruitless marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Nothing came of this at the time, but in 1673 the Parliament passed the Test Act, under which all those holding military or civil office were required to take Anglican communion every year, and to renounce Catholic doctrine. There had been rumours about James’s conversion to Catholicism for years (he had in fact converted in 1667), and a month after the passing of the Test Act, he failed to take the Easter communion. Six months after that, he married Mary of Modena.

Until that moment, the question of James’s own religion was tempered by the fact that his daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, were Protestants; but now there was the threat of a Catholic prince. Shaftesbury and others again urged Charles to dispense with Catherine and remarry, and a motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning James’s marriage. This was the beginning of Shaftesbury’s fall from grace at court, and his emergence as a leader of a new political party that (after a flurry of mutual name-calling) would eventually be known as the Whigs.

The question of the succession and the role of Parliament under monarchy were two of the dominant issues that defined this new Opposition, and throughout the 1670s a series of bitter political battles was fought on both these fronts, with Charles repeatedly proroguing or dissolving Parliament in order to stop the passage of bills. During this time, various attempts made either to exclude James from the succession, or to impose conditions upon it, such as demanding that his children be raised Protestant.

In the middle of 1678, the Popish Plot broke, bringing the already prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to a new fever pitch. Shaftesbury was active in the ensuing investigations, and began to win a reputation amongst the English people as a defender of the Protestant faith. Over the following years he campaigned vigorously for James’s exclusion and the legitimising of Monmouth, who had begun to agitate on his own behalf – and was sent into exile by his father for his pains. Shaftesbury also tried to have the Duke of York indicted as a recusant, and while he failed at that, he did succeed in convincing Monmouth to return to England, where his arrival was greeted with widespread celebration by the general population.

However, all of the measures taken to remove James and secure Monmouth’s position eventually came to nothing. The final blow for the Exclusionists was the dissolution of the so-called Oxford Parliament of 1681 – the last Parliament of Charles’s reign. In the wake of this, Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with high treason. He was subsequently acquitted, courtesy of a combination of weak evidence and a stacked jury, but his days were numbered. During 1682, Shaftesbury put much effort into urging an open rebellion led by Monmouth, but when this failed he fled England for Amsterdam, where he died in December of that year.

It is not difficult to understand why much of the literature of this time is highly political in nature. Supporters of both factions took advantage of a comparative freedom of the presses to sway the reading populace to their cause. In terms of the quality of these productions, however, Dryden’s Absalom And Architophel is an extreme exception: most of them are political to the exclusion of literary merit. We’ve met one example already, in the form of The Perplex’d Prince, which was published at a time when the Popish Plot’s chief instigator, Titus Oates, had been exposed as a perjurer (although not charged or convicted) and expelled from Whitehall, and yet matter-of-factly asserts the reality of the Plot and openly accuses James of trying to murder his brother. And on the other side of the political fence we find the self-explanatory The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince, which was published in 1683.

In requital is almost understating things. The Fugitive Statesman copies its inspiration’s use of the roman à clef, and produces a one-sided account of the Exclusion Crisis in which all of the characters are given fictitious identities; fictitious identities with which we are already quite familiar – as by this time were many of England’s readers. In short, The Fugitive Statesman steals the metaphorical language of John Dryden: the English people are the Jews, Charles is David, Monmouth is Absalom, Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the Catholics are the Jebusites, and so on. It also steals pieces of Dryden’s poetry and twists them into prose. For example, Achitopel working on Absalom’s ambitions and ego – “Not that your father’s mildness I contemn; But manly force becomes the diadem” – is turned into, “Not that David’s Gentle Temper is to be despised, but it is a greater Virtue in a private Person, or an Ecclesiastick than a Soveraign, and a Masculine Soul is certainly fitter for a Throne.” And there are many more instances of this kind of thing. Whether the passing reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince put this approach into the author’s mind, whether it was intended as a tribute to Dryden, or whether it was a shameless attempt to ride the coattails of Dryden’s success, I really couldn’t say – although my money’s on the latter.

Reading The Fugitive Statesman is rather a chore. Its author doesn’t write about his subject so much as beat it into the ground, employing a ranting, Oh, and another thing – !! style that becomes perversely funny even as it becomes more and more tiresome. The pamphlet also has a habit (evidently assuming a thorough knowledge of the details of the Exclusion Crisis and of Absalom And Achitophel) of throwing name after name at the reader with a minimum of context, which not only makes for a confusing read, but in the end very nearly defeats the author’s purpose: you just can’t be bothered with it. In The Perplex’d Prince, cracking the code seems like a game; here it feels like homework. This is a sample:

Thereupon taking his leave he went to the Rendezvous, where he found Absalom, Zimri, Nadab, Shimei, Corah, Ishban, Belial, Rabsheka, Judas, Phaleg, Ben-Jochanan, Balack, Og and Doeg, with many others of all sorts and Conditions…

Still…if you can stick with it, there are some real insights here into the thinking of the time. The author, obviously a hardcore royalist, takes the position that kings are divinely anointed and that interfering with the succession is therefore blasphemous as well as treasonous. In its presentation of Charles, this pamphlet outdoes even The Perplex’d Prince: the king is no longer merely “valiant, wise and religious”, but quite literally “God-like”. In their opposition to the king’s will, then, Shaftesbury and his followers were perceived as doing the devil’s work – also literally. In Absalom And Achitopel, there is a reference to Shaftesbury as “Hell’s dire agent”; the author of The Fugitive Statesman latches onto this, referring to his Achitopel repeatedly as “Hell’s Minister” and “the hellish Contriver”, and speaking of his “Devilish Machinations”.

In this version of events, although Achitopel and his ilk intend to enrich themselves by taking over the estates and properties of those who remained loyal to David, once they have succeeded in overthrowing him (it was for the same reason that they rebelled against David’s father, and provoked civil war), for the most part they seem intent upon anarchy for anarchy’s sake. As for Achitopel himself, it turns out that a major motivation is that he thinks acting against David will help to get him into one particular’s woman’s—well, whatever it was that women wore under their dresses in 1683.

In pursuit of his ends – and her end – there is nothing so vile and dishonest that Achitopel will not stoop to it. It was he, for instance, who devised the Popish Plot, and bought the services of Titus Oates:

I once made him pretend himself a Jebusite, that so getting Acquaintance with those of that Sect, he might be the more able to varnish with probability the Matters he is to attest. This Fellow’s Livelihood must depend on his evidence; and he shall…swear, that the Queen and the next Heir are in the Plot against the King.”

And it was he who invented the story of Absalom’s legitimacy:

He likewise gave out that there was a certain Instrument preserved in a Black Box, being the Contract of Marriage between David and Absalom’s Mother, and a settlement of the Crown upon the Issue he might have by that Lady.

And it was he who started that ridiculous rumour about David undertaking secret negotiations with “Pharaoh” (Louis XIV), as well as the one about Solomon’s Jebusitism…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Fugitive Statesmen is its refusal to accept that James was actually a Catholic, preferring instead to see assertions to that effect as merely a piece of mud-slinging, something Shaftesbury and his followers made up to suit their purposes. At the same time, there is a note of uncertainty in the author’s handling of this that is noticeably absent from the rest of the pamphlet: his protestations that James is not, not, NOT a Catholic tail finally off into, And even if he was, he could easily be brought back to Protestantism…

But without doubt, the aspect of this pamphlet that resonates most strongly today is its bitter reaction to the one piece of legislation successfully passed while all this political brawling was going on: the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Although today we regard habeas corpus of one of the cornerstones of law, the author of The Fugitive Statesman saw things a little differently:

“…a Law the Seditionaries had taken care to have pass’d some time before the breaking out of the Plot, by this Law in case of Bail offered no Man could be detained in Prison… Thus Law and Justice were perverted in these wicked Men’s hands…”

The Fugitive Statesman exults over the downfall of Achitopel and his party after the “Baharim Parliament”, and Achitopel’s consignment to the Tower of London, but is not the least little bit happy over his subsequent acquittal. It has an explanation for the jury’s verdict, however:

Were not they themselves as well engaged as he in the Conspiracy? …And people of their Mould and Principles always make Conscience, give way, and submit to Self-Preservation and Interest… Thus was the Arch-Traytor again set at Liberty…”

But this is only a temporary reprieve:

“…to find all his Devilish Wiles and Practices display’d and expos’d to the eyes of all People, to find he was become the abomination of all the sound and honest part of mankind, Achitopel laying all these things to heart, I say, put an end to his loathed Life in such wise as the World well knows.”

So there.

(I should perhaps mention that while the biblical Achitopel committed suicide, his real-life counterpart did not.)

Despite the limitless evil ascribed to the Exclusionists by The Fugitive Statesman, the fact is, they lacked teeth. For one thing, although they used it as a threat, most assuredly they did not want civil war. However, from their own point of view, probably the bigger problem was that, although they did not want James, they didn’t really want Monmouth, either: he was just the lesser of the two evils, where there was no third option – or so it seemed. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to do anything so desperate as “invite” an invasion. The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of 1681 was really the end of this particular crisis: when James did succeed his brother in February of1685, there was barely a ripple of reaction.

Of course, the overriding irony here was that once James took the throne, he began to do exactly what the Exclusionists had warned he would – whether or not they only said it to scaremonger – changing the laws around religious practice, appointing Catholics to important positions, building a standing army, and trying to remove himself from the control of Parliament. Even the hard-line Tories who had fought to protect the royal line weren’t prepared to stand for all that, and another crisis began to build. However, long before that, indeed only four months into James’s reign, the next upheaval to impact significantly upon the literature of the time occurred: the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

25/11/2010

Absalom And Achitophel

I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer: this will be in no way, shape or form a proper attempt to analyse or engage with John Dryden’s Absalom And Achitophel, but is intended merely to bring it to the attention of those who may not be aware of it or of its significance – as I was not, until quite recently.

Although his first important appointment was under Cromwell, Dryden’s reaction to the Restoration in Astraea Redux makes his passionate Royalist feelings clear; and he would continue to celebrate Charles II in his poetry even whole earning the bulk of his living as a playwright – something Charles also made possible, of course. However, Dryden’s ambitions were always for his poetry, and his breakthrough work was 1667’s Annus Mirabilis, which both established him as England’s pre-eminent poetic talent and went a long way towards securing him the position of Poet Laureate, to which he was appointed the following year.

Dryden held the position of Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, often acting as a kind of literary weapon for the former. Loyal as he was to Charles, Dryden was involved in a number of ongoing feuds with some of those around the king, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, who were often satirised in his poems and plays. These were turbulent years, as we have seen, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. As early as 1669 there were attempts made to persuade Charles to divorce Catherine of Braganza or to annul their marriage, and to remarry in order to produce a legitimate Protestant heir. Charles had refused. A decade later, the situation reached crisis point, with the Popish Plot creating an atmosphere of violent anti-Catholicism, and the Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, attempting to have legislation passed that would exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother; and, when this failed, calling upon Charles directly to legitimise his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth, in order to establish a Protestant heir to the English throne. This, too, failed.

Towards the end of 1681, John Dryden published Absalom And Achitophel, an extraordinary satirical work wherein the events of the preceding three years and the circumstances that provoked them are reconfigured in the form of religious and historical allegory. The basis of the work is the biblical story of David and Absalom, and the rebellion of the latter, although a dearly beloved son, against his father, the king. In Dryden’s work, Charles II becomes David, and the Duke of Monmouth, Absalom; but there is barely a figure involved in the politics of the time who does not appear in the poem in one guise or another. The most critical, of course, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, otherwise Achitophel. In the Old Testament, Achitophel is David’s advisor, but betrays him and supports Absalom in his rebellion. By late in the 17th century, “Achitophel” had become a generic term of abuse for anyone seen as betraying his principles, and thus its application to Shaftesbury was a doubly loaded one.

Here a few brief extracts, just to give a taste of the work and to introduce the major players. First, the Jewish (English) people, whose agitations after a delusory “freedom” led first to civil war, and then to the regretted reigns of Saul (Oliver Cromwell) and his son, “the foolish Ishbosheth” (Richard Cromwell); and who cannot be satisfied even under the indulgent David:

      The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race,
      As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace;
      God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
      No king could govern, nor no God could please;
      (Gods they had tri’d of every shape and size,
      That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
      These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
      Began to dream they wanted liberty…

David, we find, is unable to produce a legitimate heir, but looks with favour upon Absalom:

      Michal, of royal blood, the crown did wear;
      A soil ungrateful to the tiller’s care:
      Not so the rest; for several mothers bore
      To god-like David, several sons before.
      But since like slaves his bed they did ascend,
      No true succession could their seed attend.
      Of all this numerous progeny was none
      So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom…

And there are those who recognise in the native impatience of the “moody, murm’ring” Jews and the dissatisfaction with his lot on the part of Absalom an opportunity for rebellion, and for self-aggrandisement – chief amongst them, Achitophel:

      Some had in courts been great, and thrown from thence,
      Like fiends, were harden’d in impenitence.
      Some by their monarch’s fatal mercy grown,
      From pardon’d rebels, kinsmen to the throne;
      Were rais’d in pow’r and public office high;
      Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.

      Of these the false Achitophel was first:
      A name to all succeeding ages curst.
      For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
      Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
      Restless, unfixt in principles and place…

And Achitophel begins to work upon the susceptible Absalom, who at first resists the schemer’s lures, acknowledging both his debt to David and that he has no legitimate claim to the throne:

      His favour leaves me nothing to require;
      Prevents my wishes, and out-runs desire.
      What more can I expect while David lives?
      All but his kingly diadem he gives:
      And that: but there he paus’d; then sighing, said,
      Is justly destin’d for a worthier head…

Seeing Absalom swayed by his ambitions, Achitophel persists, and Absalom begins to feel the stirrings of rebellion in his soul:

      Why am I scanted by a niggard-birth?
      My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth:
      And made for empire, whispers me within;
      Desire of greatness is a god-like sin.

      Him staggering so when Hell’s dire agent found,
      While fainting virtue scarce maintain’d her ground,
      He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies:

      Th’eternal God, supremely good and wise,
      Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
      What wonders are reserv’d to bless your reign?
      Against your will your arguments have shown,
      Such virtue’s only giv’n to guide a throne.
      Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
      But manly force becomes the diadem…

And on the way through, our old friend Titus Oates rates a heavily sarcastic mention:

      To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
      Would tire a well-breath’d witness of the plot:
      Yet, Corah, thou shalt from oblivion pass;
      Erect thyself thou monumental brass:
      High as the serpent of thy metal made,
      While nations stand secure beneath thy shade…

Absalom And Achitophel then metaphorically traces the course of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, concluding with the triumph of “David” and the exposure and disgrace of “Achitophel”. And in reality, the failure of the Exclusionists left the Earl of Shaftesbury in a perilous situation. In July of 1681 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for the next four months, awaiting trial on charges of high treason.

Examined as history and not as poetry, we can appreciate how carefully Dryden treads in Absalom And Achitophel, praising David at every reasonable opportunity while also scolding him gently for sometimes allowing the father to supersede the king, and for being overindulgent to those ungrateful “murm’ring” Jews; emphasising “Absalom”’s outstanding personal qualities and arguing that it his very “kingliness”, the unavoidable gift of his father, which brought him to the point of rebellion; and pouring the bulk of the blame upon the scheming, treacherous “Achitophel”.

Dryden’s work was an enormous success, both as poetry and as propaganda, influencing not only the public perception of the events of the Exclusion Crisis, but impacting upon other political writers of the time, as we shall see. In 1682, a second part of the poem was published, but although it was sketched out by Dryden, most of it was written by someone else (probably Nahum Tate), except for a few passages in which Dryden takes pot-shots at some personal enemies; one in particular…