Posts tagged ‘Mary Leman Grimstone’

27/08/2021

Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (Part 2)


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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Australian novel, remember?—

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

 

18/08/2021

Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (Part 1)

I have previously discussed, with respect to Henry Savery and Mary Leman Grimstone, the difficulties associated with bestowing the title of “the first Australian novel” upon any one work.

While there is no doubt that Savery’s Quintus Servinton was the first novel to be published in Australia – and the first also have a significant part of its content set there – this work has a challenger for the title of first novel to be written in Australia, in Grimstone’s Louisa Egerton; or, Castle Herbert (also known as Louisa Egerton: A Tale From Real Life).

The matter is complicated, and has been the subject of much debate. Michael Roe, an Australian academic and historian (now retired), is the leading expert in this area. Roe’s own research, conducted while he was Professor of History at the University of Tasmania, was later supplemented by that of Peter Arnold, a Melbourne-based bibliophile. In 2016, Roe published what he called “Final Words On Mary Leman Grimstone” in Volume 63 of the Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, in which he summarised his own and Arnold’s conclusions.

According to the two men’s account of the matter, the success of Grimstone’s first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps, in 1825, prompted a publisher (who they assume to be George Virtue) to contact her, requesting a follow-up work. Grimstone had been married and widowed in what seems to have been rapid succession, and may have written her first novel (she was also a poet and essayist) either to distract herself, or as a way of earning money. She appears to have begun her second work while still in England, but made so little progress that, when asked about it by her sister Louisa, she had not even thought of a title. (Is this how / why she named her heroine? – or because that Louisa was being left behind?)

In September of 1825, Grimstone embarked with her second sister, Lucy Adey, and her brother-in-law on the Cape Packet, bound for Tasmania, where Stephen Adey was an official with the Van Diemen’s Land Company. The novel that would become Louisa Egerton was written partly on board, but chiefly during Grimstone’s time in Hobart—and, it seems, in fits and starts. Having come into possession of a second edition of the novel, which was published in three volumes by George Virtue in 1830, Peter Arnold discovered that it carried a preface by Grimstone in which she states:

“…the volumes were written at very distant intervals and, as they were thrown off…were transmitted to England, and without my knowledge, printed as they came to hand… On my late arrival from a remote country, with the completion of my task, and purposing to review the whole, I found that all opportunity of so doing was gone bye…”

The publishing history of Louisa Egerton is therefore complicated in itself. Evidently, a first edition was published piecemeal in 1829, as George Virtue received Grimstone’s “transmissions”. It is not clear whether there was a misunderstanding between the two, or whether Virtue went ahead against her wishes and/or their agreement. However, when Grimstone returned to England in 1829, and discovered how her manuscript had been handled, she negotiated for revision rights, and in May of 1830, a second, revised edition of her novel appeared, carrying the explanatory preface.

But there is an additional, rather confusing aspect to the publication history of Louisa Egerton, which is that the copy of the novel held by most of those libraries that do hold it – and the source of the GoogleBooks ebook that is today the only practical (or semi-practical) way of reading it – is a two-volume edition clearly dated 1830.

So where did this come from? I’m inclined to wonder whether, confronted by an angry author (who, perhaps, he did not expect to actually return from Australia), George Virtue placated her via a limited, three-volume edition carrying her revisions—but made the book generally available via a less-expensive, unrevised, two-volume edition. The fact that the latter is available today, whereas only two copies of the former survive (one of them, that held by Peter Arnold), would seem to support this; and if so, this would have the side-effect of increasing the novel’s “Australian-ness”.

Now, unclear as some of this is, there at least seems no doubt either as to when Louisa Egerton was written—or, more importantly, where; and I am inclined to accede to Michael Roe’s description of the work as the first novel of Australian provenance.

It also turns out that a copy of the two-volume, 1830 edition of Grimstone’s novel is held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney—and the very fact that it is held further supports the “provenance” argument: someone, at some point, recognised Louisa Egerton as “an Australian novel”.

And these discoveries being made in those long-ago, fondly remembered days when it was actually possible to visit a library (sigh), I went in to take a look at the book for myself, to see if the text offered any more clues to its origins.

Broadly the answer is “no”; but three details are worth highlighting: (i) this version carries the second-edition title of Grimstone’s first novel, which was altered upon its re-release to Love At First Sight; or, The Beauty Of The British Alps; and (ii) it reproduces the illustrations included in the first, 1829 release, a frontispiece of Grimstone among them, which the three-volume version of the novel does not. (These also appear in the GoogleBooks edition.)

And (iii)—the book’s spine incorrectly calls its title / heroine Louise!—

 

  

   

 

12/07/2015

The Beauty Of The British Alps

grimstone1b
 
Her mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…

 

 

 

 

It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:

    If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the first hasty and unfinished draught was taken from me, without its having received the benefit of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
    Under these circumstances, as well as its being a first essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.

After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.

The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:

    As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the florid descriptions of the poet. His figure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of fire and softness, his finely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
    But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…

But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.

In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) begins in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.

The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…

Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.

Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.

The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.

But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…

The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.

To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber, a cousin, to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:

“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”

Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:

    “I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
    The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…

What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont, and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.

At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of the earlier novel’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.

And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.

The  narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:

Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…

And after indulging this choice for a time:

The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…

Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.

There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.

Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:

To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.

Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…

While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:

Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy, which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.

But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.

This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.

Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.

Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.

During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.

Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:

    “I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
    “I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
    “Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
    “You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
    “Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
    He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…

In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:

“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”

Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:

Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections  which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…

Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…

Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:

    “What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
    “Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
    “Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
    Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…

It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.

Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…

The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.

Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…

Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.

(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)

And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, Lord Egremont arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…

…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:

    “Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
    “Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
    “Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
    Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour  was thus recalled to her mind.
    “Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”

 

09/07/2015

Novelist in transit

One of the challengers for Henry Savery’s title of “first Australian novelist” – or at least, “author of the first Australian novel”, which isn’t quite the same thing – is Mary Leman Grimstone. Though over her lifetime she was far better known as a poet and essayist, Grimstone wrote several novels, two of which are of particular interest with respect to an examination of the development of Australian fiction.

Mary Leman Rede was born in Hamburg, where her family had fled to escape their creditors, and was taken to England at the age of ten. In her mid-twenties she married a man called Grimstone, but seems to have been widowed after only a brief marriage. Possibly because of this, her health failed, and in 1825 she travelled to Tasmania (or rather, Van Diemen’s Land) with her sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom had a government position. While there she continued to write poetry, much of it inspired by the landscape, and gained notoriety for an essay in which she bewailed Hobart as a cultural wasteland – she was right, of course, but that didn’t endear her to the locals – while at the same time expressing sympathy and understanding of the embryo colony. In 1829 Mary returned to England, where she began moving in feminist circles and became a strong advocate for the reform of female education. She also continued to write.

In 1825, just before her departure for Australia, Mary published her first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps. Her second, Louisa Egerton: A Tale Of Real Life, was evidently begun on shipboard and completed after her arrival; while her third novel, Woman’s Love, was written during her time in Hobart—both of them pre-dating Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton. However, Mary published neither of these novels while in Australia, but waited until her return to England*, with Louisa Egerton appearing in 1829 and Woman’s Love in 1832.

I’ve talked before about the difficulties of assigning “firsts” with respect to early Australian fiction, and with the work of Mary Leman Grimstone we have a case in point. Perhaps the best approach here is to follow the lead of The Australian Dictionary Of Biography, which calls Woman’s Love “the first novel of Australian provenance”**.

(* / ** In fact it’s a bit more complicated than that…)

Be that as it may, in time I will be taking a look at both Louisa Egerton and Woman’s Love. However, since I never in my life dreamed of simplifying something when I could make it more difficult and time-consuming, I will be starting my examination of the novels of Mary Leman Grimstone with The Beauty Of The British Alps.