Posts tagged ‘Mary Meeke’

03/08/2014

If I might Meekely interject…

Sigh…

I wonder if you guys are as tired of me starting my blog posts with an apology for my absence and/or unanswered comments as I am of starting them that way? But here we are again… I have an ambition, which is rapidly escalating into the realm of delusion, that at some stage I will be able to settle into a posting routine and be updating here about once a fortnight; but every time it begins to look like I might approach that particular asymptote, ill health, work horrors and/or computer issues start to interfere. I don’t know why the blogging gods hate me so; I only know they do… [*sniff*]

Anyway—after a more than usually painful period of cosmic intervention (involving ill health, work horrors and computer issues), I set myself to the task of getting things rolling again by resurrecting one of the more neglected corners of this blog, Authors In Depth, and by returning to the first author to feature in that category, the Minerva Press mainstay, Mrs Meeke…only to discover that in the interim, something in the nature of a revolution had occurred.

Early in 2013, academic Simon Macdonald published an essay in which he challenged the longstanding identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke, the wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke, a minor poet. Macdonald contends that the Minerva Press novelist was in fact one Elizabeth Meeke, whose full name appears in a catalogue for the publisher from 1798.

The fact that there was an “Elizabeth Meeke” on the Minerva Press’s roster of novelists is not a new discovery. This point was raised in a 1946 issue of that wonderfully peculiar journal, Notes And Queries, with the contributor referencing that same piece of Minerva Press publicity. What Simon Macdonald has done is identify and trace the life of the woman who could be the elusive Mrs Meeke. If Macdonald’s scholarship concerned only the identity of a minor 18th century novelist, perhaps only people who share my arcane tastes would be interested; but the academic community sat up and paid attention when it was revealed that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-sister of Fanny Burney.

Briefly, according to Macdonald’s account, the woman in question was born Elizabeth Allen; she became a de facto member of the Burney family when her widowed mother married Dr Charles Burney. When she was only fifteen, Elizabeth ran away with the much-older Samuel Meeke and, after an awkward delay, finally acquired the right to call herself “Mrs Meeke”. The marriage was not happy, and after various episodes of separation and reconciliation (and hints of the wife’s involvement with another man), there was a permanent break. Burney family letters suggest ongoing misbehaviour on the part of Elizabeth, who for a time seems to have gone under the assumed name of “Mrs Bruce”. She later married again, to a man called Rawlings, but this marriage was no more successful than her first.

Between 1795 and 1823 there appeared a remarkable number of novels, translations and children’s books which have been attributed to “Mrs Meeke”. Most of the novels carried the name “Mrs Meeke” (no first name) on the title page; others appeared under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, still others were published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that “Gabrielli” was a reference to the Italian opera singer, Catarina Gabrielli, whose London Performance was attended by the Burney family, as their letters attest. He also points out that the first “Gabrielli” novel, The Mysterious Wife, is dedicated to Mrs Arthur Young (Arthur Young was an agricultural economist, active in the area of agricultural workers’ rights); Martha Young, e Allen, was Elizabeth Allen’s maternal aunt.

Now—if all of this is so, it begs the question of where the alternative identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke came from: a question not at all easy to answer. Those modern writers who have taken notice of Mrs Meeke (and they are not numerous) draw upon three sources:

Published in 1812, Robert Watt’s Bibliotheca Britannica; or, A General Index Of British And Foreign Literature has only this to say upon the subject:

MEEKE, Mrs, a prolific Writer of Novels…

Four years later, A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland offered a slightly more expansive (and rather tongue-in-cheek) listing:

MEEKE, Mrs, one of the numerous family of novelists whose prolific genius is always labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries. Her performances are— [list follows]

In 1885, the Dictionary Of National Biography (edited first by Sir Leslie Stephen, later by Sidney Lee) has rather more to say about Mrs Meeke, and is in fact the source of almost everything we thought we knew about her:

    MEEKE, Mrs MARY (d. 1816?), novelist, seems to have been the wife of the Rev. Francis Meeke (B. A. Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1773, and M. A., 1776), who published a volume of poems in 1782 (Notes And Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 229). She began her prolific career as a novelist in 1795, when she published ‘Count St. Blancard‘ in 3 vols., and continued her labours for more than twenty years. In October 1816 there died, at Johnson Hall, Staffordshire, Mary, the widow of the Rev. Francis Meeke, who may perhaps be identified with the novelist.
    Mrs Meeke naively recommends novelists, before planning a work, to consult their publisher as to how they may best satisfy the prevailing public taste
(Midnight Weddings, pref.). Personally, she apparently followed this plan with some success. Although her plots are commonplace, and her literary style poor, and her characters only faintly reflect contemporary manners, she had some distinguished readers. Macaulay ‘all but knew’, Lady Trevelyan writes, ‘Mrs Meeke’s romances by heart’, but, despite his liking for them, he relegated Mrs Meeke to the position of his favourite among the bad novel-writers, and agreed in his sister’s criticism that ‘that they were one just like another, turning on the fortunes of some young man in a very low rank in life who eventually proves to be the son of a duke.’ (TREVELYAN, Life Of Macaulay, vol. i.) Miss Mitford was also a reader of Mrs Meeke’s works in her youth, and in her old age re-read at least six of them (Notes And Queries, 7th ser. vii. 405).
    The titles of the novels published under her own name (all in 3 vols. unless otherwise stated) are— [list follows] Probably posthumously published were— [list follows]
    Mrs Meeke also translated from the French— [list follows] In 1811 she completed the translation by Mrs Collyer (q. v.) of Klopstock’s ‘Messiah‘ (another edition 1821).
    Mrs Meeke has been identified with the writer who assumed the pseudonym of Gabrielli (Notes And Queries, 2nd ser. i. 133) and published— [list follows] 

I’ve said this before, but it bears stressing— Pegging Mrs Meeke as a “bad novel-writer” on the strength of Lord Macaulay’s comments is misinterpreting what he meant. In the first place he was clearly sharing a joke with his sister, Lady Treveleyan, when he remarked that, “My tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.” When that remark is read in context, however, Macaulay is actually comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels to a satisfying, old-fashioned English dinner; he condemned his own tastes as “vulgar” because he was unable to enjoy the prevailing fashion for dinners comprised of elaborate but unsatisfying dishes. Furthermore, in another letter Macaulay comments that when he read a novel he didn’t enjoy, he would then re-read one of Mrs Meeke’s as a palette-cleanser. None of this proves she was a good writer, of course, but at least it indicates that she was entertaining.

But to return to the question of attribution— Note the hesitation in the Dictionary Of National Biography‘s identification of Mrs Meeke as Mary Meeke, wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke: she ‘seems to have been’ and ‘may perhaps be identified’ as such. Clearly, this was no more than someone’s best guess which, in the absence of any suggestion to the contrary, was allowed to pass unchallenged (that question in Notes And Queries excepted), and to become accepted as fact.

Simon Macdonald’s research does seem to establish that Elizabeth Meeke was at least the author of the “Gabrielli” novels. My remaining doubts focus on the question of why some of the novels attributed to Mrs Meeke were published under a pseudonym in the first place, and why others seem to have been published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that the “Gabrielli” pseudonym was adopted to avoid oversaturating the marketplace with novels by “Mrs Meeke”, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded by that argument. Consider the implications of that remark from A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland, about novelists “labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries”: given the Minerva Press’s position as a leading supplier of such fodder, would the publisher really have been concerned about producing too many novels?

It was my hunt for a copy of 1797’s The Mysterious Wife, the first of the “Gabrielli” novels, that led me into these murky waters in the first place. This is the fourth of the novels attributed to “Mrs Meeke”, after Count St. Blancard (1795), The Abbey Of Clugny (1796) and Palmira And Ermance (1797); it doesn’t seem likely to me that after three novels in three years, William Lane would have started worrying about “saturation”. What’s more, having now read The Mysterious Wife, I have to say that I’m not convinced that it was written by the same person. In fact, I found myself wondering whether the root of the confusion could possibly be that the Minerva Press had ended up with two authors on its hands called “Mrs Meeke”, and had allowed one to keep her name while the other published anonymously or pseudonymously.

Now—I admit that I was very conscious of this controversy while I was reading, and that it is entirely possible I was consequently reading with a bias. And there are certain points of comparison between this work and the earlier ones, chiefly that it is set partly in France, and that it separates its hero and heroine for a very long stretch of the narrative. It does not feature a baby substitution per se, but it does have a young man raised under a false name (the better to facilitate a little trust-fund embezzlement) who later succeeds to a title. It also has a strong streak of anti-Catholicism, but that, in English novels of the late 18th century, is hardly diagnostic.

On the other hand, whereas the earlier novels doggedly refuse to acknowledge that the French Revolution ever happened, The Mysterious Wife opens with a statement placing its action “some years” before that epoch. Its action is divided between France and England, with both good people and bad people representing each nation. Most significantly, the novel focuses upon a marriage contracted for wholly “romantic” reasons, and – after, admittedly, looking for some time like it was going to do the opposite – it ultimately vindicates romantic love (in conjunction with “virtue”) as a basis for marriage over prudential motives; as opposed to the stance of Palmira And Ermance, which supported arranged marriages and severely punished a young woman led astray by romantic yearnings. The Mysterious Wife also features a French Marquis, the last of his name, who has never married because he has never fallen in love.

However, the main reason I feel that The Mysterious Wife may have been written by a different author from the earlier novels is its style—or lack thereof. Put simply, The Mysterious Wife is poorly written, being full of grammatical errors, whereas the earlier novels were not. It is also rather dull, with very little happening over the course of its four volumes. The previous three novels by “Mrs Meeke”, in contrast, though no-one would ever mistake them for great literature, are if anything absurdly over-plotted, with much of their entertainment value lying in their constant twists and turns and the various revelations of secret identity. I can imagine re-reading the first three novels and enjoying them again; once I’ve reviewed The Mysterious Wife, I’ll be putting it aside for good.

Of course, none of this proves anything. The Mysterious Wife may just be a bad novel because it’s a bad novel; perhaps because it was written in haste, not because it was written by a different person (although that argues against the “oversaturation” theory). And perhaps its different philosophy simply reflects the greater freedom of a pseudonym. Certainly I have no real evidence one way or the other—but I will be keeping all this in mind as I move forward through the novels of “Mrs Meeke”, “Gabrielli”, and that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”.

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16/10/2011

Palmira And Ermance (Part 2)

As soon as the Duke was alone, his thoughts reverted to Ermance, he wished he had first been introduced to Palmira: she might, and he had been led to believe was, be as handsome as Ermance; but if she did not possess an equal share of vivacity, her countenance could not be so animated; Palmira was taller, Madame de l’Ecluse had told him; but Ermance had not done growing, and was far from short for her age… Such were his reflections before he went to sleep, and he found it rather difficult to forget himself; Ermance presented herself to him under so many different aspects; she became the subject of his sleeping as well as waking reveries: yet he was convinced he was only interested in her future welfare…

[SPOILERS]

Several positives stem from Mary Meeke’s non-substitution plot in Palmira And Ermance, the most significant being the way it allows her to have her cake and eat it. Most pleasingly, in this novel we are light-years away from the noxious “birth is everything” attitude of Count St. Blancard, in which a supposed apothecary’s son is mysteriously superior to his position in life and sure enough proves to be a long-lost aristocrat. Here, character is allowed to predominate. The man we know as M. de Melac is the same man, whether he is the Duke de St. Piene, the bastard child of a servant and a prostitute, or a successful merchant; and while, inevitably in the overall scheme of things, it is at length established that he is aristocratic by birth as well as breeding, there is no sense here of, Oh, well, that explains it.

Conversely, it is the undoubted aristocrat, the Marquis de St. Firnim, who attracts the sneers of his creator, as she recounts how, upon hearing his son-in-law’s confession, it seems to him that all the virtues for which the Duke had hitherto been celebrated, “Vanished the moment he became acquainted with the lowness of his origin”, and how the Marquis suddenly remembered, “That he had always been overly familiar with his inferiors…” And let us not forget the Dowager Duchess, more than ready to commit criminal fraud in order to hang onto her fortune and position. Like the Marquis, her morals are no match for her ambition. These characters are starkly contrasted with the various individuals we meet in Dunkirk and its surrounding villages, whose lack of birth and education are unimportant beside their honesty and wholeheartedness.

But of course, the novel’s point is most forcibly made in the character of its young hero. Part of the fallout from the disastrous end to her marriage is that the Duchess de St. Piene raises her son on liberal principles, while simultaneously erecting barriers between her child and her father. (As the Duke recounts to M. de Melac, his mother’s intention in restricting his grandfather’s access to him was to prevent the Marquis from “spoiling” him; as the story progresses, we begin to appreciate that the Duchess meant that in more senses than one.) It is as a result of this that the Duke, although himself a beneficiary of the established order, reacts with spontaneous anger upon hearing how M. de Melac was forced to resign his military commission because of, “The lowness of my origin”, condemning a system more concerned with a man’s family than with his conduct and abilities

It is evident throughout Palmira And Ermance that Adolphus—and I think, like Meeke herself, we will just call him “Adolphus” from this point on, now that we have two Dukes to contend with—that Adolphus is modelled upon that paragon to end all paragons of the 18th century, Sir Charles Grandison; but in a welcome surprise (and all the more so since character drawing really isn’t Mary Meeke’s strong point), he is actually a lot more likeable than his prototype. For one thing, he has a sense of humour; for another, he doesn’t go around lecturing people on how they, too, could be perfect like him, with just a little effort.

Nor is there any sense of noblesse oblige about Adolphus, any hint that his behaviour is part of some elaborate “theory of correctness”, painstakingly enacted, rather than just a reflection of who he is. It is one of his most pleasing qualities that he is never above his company, but willing and able to adapt himself to, for example, the simple hospitality and amusements offered by villagers, upon his first appearance in the story. That all this is not merely for show is evidenced by the frequency of his voluntary calls upon Madame des Ormes, M. de Melac’s elderly mother-in-law, who at her son-in-law’s expense has been established in a comfortable cottage in the village outside Dunkirk, through which Adolphus passes on a regular basis. This mark of respect from the Duke is starkly contrasted with the behaviour of Bazile, who considers his grandmother a “low connection” and avoids her whenever he can.

And of course, as we progressively understand, much of this is about the contrast between Adolphus and Bazile, those unacknowledged half-brothers—and about the situation of M. de Melac, caught between the perfect son he is unable to claim and the imperfect son he’d probably like to disown. Bazile is, indeed, a thoroughly exasperating individual, and we can only admire the patience that Adolphus displays when dealing with his various presumptions and idiocies, even as we sympathise with the frustration and disappointment of his father, which grows proportionately with M. de Melac’s closer acquaintance with Adolphus—leading, finally, to a moment of startling emotional honesty.

Mary Meeke was in many ways an anomalous writer for her time, making her success as a novelist all the more interesting. The late 18th century, as we have seen, was a period in which the popular novel was shaped by a prevailing taste for extreme sentimentality—giving rise to ludicrous works such as Valentine. In sharp contrast, Meeke is if anything an anti-sentimentalist; and although there have been hints of this in her earlier novels, it declares itself without disguise in Palmira And Ermance.

During the journey to Ypres, Bazile, Ernestine and Clemence travel in M. de Melac’s heavy coach with the girls’ governess and M. Vanval, while Adolphus and M. de Melac share the former’s light chaise. As they are passing through Roesbrugge, “the last town in the empire”, an unruly post-horse causes an accident in which the chaise is overturned. M. de Melac is uninjured, but Adolphus suffers a head-wound and is knocked unconscious.

As Adolphus is pulled from the chaise, bleeding and motionless, M. de Melac’s extreme emotion is evident to everyone present, which by now includes M. Vanval, who hurries to tend the young man’s injuries, and his travelling companions. As he regains consciousness, Adolphus himself is deeply struck by it; and it is obvious even to the self-absorbed Bazile, who however sees nothing in the situation beyond an opportunity to curry favour with his father by expressing some loud if insincere concern for the Duke:

    His Grace opened his eyes for some seconds before he was able to speak. Bazile, seeing him so likely to do well, went to examine the fragments of the shattered carriage: when he returned he gave the company a most exaggerated account of the damage it had sustained; and then asked his father if he was in it when it was overturned?—“To be sure I was, fool!” said M. de Melac.
    “I only wish I had been with you instead of the Duke.”
    “Would to God you had!” said de Melac, hastily.

Ouch.

As I mentioned earlier, in Palmira And Ermance Mary Meeke offers a more complex story than in her previous novels, which were really only concerned with the solution to their overt mysteries. Here, although the story is still intended chiefly just to entertain, the interwoven secrets and misapprehensions give her tale all sorts of subtextual touches that help to enrich it—and upon which Meeke, much to her credit, sees no need to editorialise.

My favourite of these unspoken points, I think, is the sharp contrast that lies at the very heart of the story. On one hand, we have the fact that the Duchess de St. Piene has had the sole care and education of her son, a situation that has produced a model young man, a verray, parfit, gentil knyght; while on the other, M. de Melac has had the sole care and education of his son, a situation that has produced—well, Bazile. Likewise, we know that after the shattering end to her brief marriage, the Duchess buried her heart in her husband’s grave, all but withdrawing from the world and devoting herself to her child; while in the same situation, M. de Melac, before three years had passed, had remarried and begun a second family.

Men, you can almost hear Mary Meeke sniff.

(To be fair, as frequently happens in Meeke’s novel, M. de Melac more or less inherits a wife, finding himself, after the death of his business partner, with the man’s young widow on his hands; the fact that she has inherited her husband’s share of the business makes marriage sensible as well as convenient. There is, as you might imagine, some embarrassment attending the restored Duke de St. Piene’s eventual reunion with his long-estranged wife. The Duchess, however, perfect as always, offers no reproach, and is thrilled to find herself with three more children.

It’s interesting how often bigamous marriages occur in the literature of this time – although this one is, of course, inadvertent. It’s curious, too, that no-one ever seems very upset about it, and nor do there ever seem to be any particular repercussions for the children of such marriages. On the contrary, here the de Melac children benefit from the French system that allows legitimacy to be purchased.)

Now—by this point in the proceedings, you might well be asking yourselves (as indeed I was, while reading this book) just where the hell, in a novel called “Palmira And Ermance“, are Palmira and Ermance? 

It is one of the many quirks of Mary Meeke’s novels that what we might consider the “main” plot tends to resolve itself by half to two-thirds of the way through the story, with some other plot emerging to flesh out the rest of the text—as with the detour into the Gothic in The Abbey Of Clugny. And it is in this respect, in Palmira And Ermance, that Meeke’s lack of sentimentality really comes to the fore. While both of her earlier novels were notable for the perfunctory nature of their love-plots, with the young heroes falling in love at the outset, being separated from the objects of their affection for the length of the book, and then married off at the end, Meeke outdoes herself here, not only—and in spite of naming the novel after them!—relegating her dual heroines to the realm of the subplot, but resolving their story in the most unexpected manner possible.

It is during the eventful journey to Ypres that Adolphus reveals that he is engaged to a girl he has never seen; and while M. de Melac expresses concern over this arranged marriage, Adolphus himself is quite cheerful about the prospect. The girl, Palmira de Moncove, has been chosen for him by his mother, and educated both for the social position she is to occupy and to be a suitable companion for her husband. And while, as Adolphus frankly admits, the mere fact that his mother wants the marriage would be enough for him, a lifetime’s experience of the Duchess has taught him how implicitly he may rely upon her judgement. He fully anticipates, therefore, finding Palmira everything that he could desire in his wife.

But, as they say, the best-laid plans…

Arriving in Ypres, the disappointed Adolphus finds that Palmira is not there, as he had been led to believe she might be, the girl’s mother, the Marquise de Neufpont, having been prevented by her duties at the Court of Versailles from bringing Palmira to the dedication of the church as she intended. Instead, Adolphus is introduced to his “sister elect”, Ermance:

Ermance de Moncove had been a cannoness for a year or more, and had constantly resided with her aunt at Bourbourg since she became a member of that society: she was just turned of sixteen, and in every respect a regular beauty; but her animated pleasing countenance was far more fascinating than her fine features and sparkling blue eyes, which expressed very forcibly the vivacity of a disposition no monastic rules could repress. Her natural colour was heightened during her introduction to the Duke; upon whom she smiled excessively, while she paid her compliments with the most unaffected gaiety—laughed at his disappointment, which she assured him she read in his countenance the moment he caught sight of her cross, and wished her sister supplied her place.

Presuming upon their almost-relationship, and addressing one another as “ma petite soeur” and “mon frere“, Adolphus and Ermance instantly form a fast friendship, not scrupling to spend much of their spare time together—and before long, Adolphus finds the vivacious girl occupying his thoughts rather more than is quite consistent with his engagement to Palmira…

At this point, you might think that you can safely predict how this novel will work itself out, with Adolphus caught between his pledge to Palmira and his feeling for Ermance, his honour and his heart, with the heart allowed to win out at last. Well—you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, and once again, wrong; because in defiance of literally centuries of novel-writing convention, and having spent two and a half novels criticising every French institution she can lay her pen on, from the country’s religion and its practitioners to its judicial system to its military preferments to the behaviour of its aristocracy, Mary Meeke here comes down upon the side of—of all things—the arranged marriage.

For all that Sir Charles Grandison is held up by his author as a pattern of correct conduct, I’ve always doubted that anyone ever really admired him for his ability to turn his emotions on and off like a light-switch. His calm. circumstantial toggling between the perfect English rose, Harriet Byron, and that personificaton of Italian Roman Catholic emotional instability, Lady Clementina, is disturbing in ways his creator can hardly have intended. Here, Adolphus is never more like his model—which is to say, never more unlikeable—than in the wake of his visit to Ypres, when he coolly dissects his mind and heart:

“I had promised Ermance to visit her at Bourbourg; she will soon learn what prevented me from keeping my word. I must own the discovery I fancied I made, on the morning I left Ypres, did not tend to eradicate the strong impression her artless, nay almost infantine, sweetness of manners had made upon my heart: I am sorry to say I think we parted with equal regret;—but no more of the subject;—I neither like to reflect nor reason upon it at present—reason will, I hope, soon reassume her empire over my mind; the sight of Palmira will very probably restore me to my senses—for love certainly is a species of madness, and lovers in general, it is observed, are always either melancholy or raving.”

The now-Duke de St. Piene is not quite happy about these sentiments, nor indeed about the idea of arranged marriage in general; but lest we mistake him for the novel’s voice of reason, it is revealed to us that his perfect marriage to the perfect Duchess was itself an arrangement, with the subsequently blissful couple meeting for the first time at the altar. “There certainly are exceptions to every general rule,” he concedes, when his son points out the contradiction. However, as the Duke counters, he felt no preference for any other woman when he was married; and he counsels Adolphus to study carefully Palmira’s temper and inclination, as well as his own feelings, and above all not to rush into anything.

But as it turns out, the decision is taken out of Adolphus’s hands. On the road, there is an unexpected meeting with the Duchess de St. Piene and her friend, the Marquise de Neufpont, both of them dismayed and disappointed—for Palmira has suddenly declared that she does not wish to marry Adolphus but intends instead to enter a convent; and all the pleadings, persuasions and arguments of her parents and the Duchess have been unable to sway her determination.

Adolphus, though startled, is not hurt by this revelation; still less so when the Marquise adds that she and the Duchess had been on their way to Bourbourg, to explore whether Ermance might not make a suitable substitute for her sister. The Duke (by now reunited with his wife) gives away his son’s secret, and to the satisfaction of all, the matter seems to have settled itself:

Adolphus was very happy when he found himself alone, and at liberty to reflect upon the occurrences of the evening: how sincerely did he rejoice to think his father and mother were thus happily restored to each other: Ermance next came across him;—with what pleasure did he reflect upon all that had passed at Ypres;—he could not doubt the sincerity of Palmira’s vocation, since it had produced so agreeable and unexpected a change in his matrimonial prospects; he should be at liberty to speak the language of his heart when he next addressed Ermance!—with what raptures did he anticipate their meeting!—their love was reciprocal, he was convinced.

But although this is the standard language of the romance, it is difficult, in retrospect, not to feel that Mary Meeke is in fact being sarcastic here; because when Adolphus does next meet Ermance, he finds her elusive, cold in her manner to him, and no more inclined to become his wife than is her sister.

It’s enough to make even a paragon of virtue swear.

It probably goes without saying that a great deal has been going on out of the sight of the characters and the reader alike, which is progressively revealed to the reader, at least. A chain of events was set into motion at Ypres, when the artless Ermance wrote a letter to her sister full of rapturous praises of Adolphus, and without intention or even her knowledge, completely revealed to Palmira the state of her heart. It is this that determined Palmira to sacrifice herself by entering a convent, thus freeing Adolphus for Ermance.

But when the Marquise travels to Bourbourg to fetch her younger daughter, she is escorted by a relative, a hanger-on of her family, the Count de Selincourt, who while possessing a superficial charm and an adaptability that makes him a welcome addition to most gatherings, is a wholly self-interested individual with a great love of mischief for its own sake. Ill-charactered enough to dislike Adolphus on principle, as soon as he understands the situation he makes it his business to convince Ermance, firstly, of Adolphus’s indifference to her—since he can move so easily from Palmira to herself; secondly, that it is Palmira’s knowledge of Adolphus’s true moral character (or lack thereof) that has made her retreat into a convent rather than marry him; and finally, of his own desperate passion for her.

The bewildered and inexperienced Ermance has no defence against the Count’s wiles. She is horrified by what he reveals to her of Adolphus’s character, and soon lured into believing herself as devoted to the Count as he professes to be to her. The Count has, of course, no genuine feeling at all for the unfortunate girl; but his vanity is greatly gratified by his success in stealing her away from the immaculate and popular Adolphus. More to the point, however, Palmira’s retirement into the cloister means that Ermance will become her parents’ heiress, and a marital prize of the first order:

There is not a more dangerous companion for a young inexperienced girl, than a man who has designs on her fortune without caring for her person; self-gratification being his only aim, he is able to dive into every recess of her heart, and to discover every weakness of her disposition; and his own indifference enables him to form his plans infinitely better than the most ardent lover; her predominant passion seems transfused into his mind; he accommodates himself to her most unreasonable caprices, undermines every tie of duty, if it clashes with his separate interests, and conceals his deep and dark design under the veil of love, a word so fascinating in the vocabulary of youth.

Mary Meeke’s handling of Ermance makes her thoroughgoing scepticism about romantic love perfectly clear. Although she concedes the girl’s “youth” and “inexperience”, the words that linger from this passage are, rather, “weakness” and “caprice”. The attraction between Adolphus and Ermance is emotional, and therefore (in Meeke’s opinion) by definition unstable and transient; merely an infatuation; and while Adolphus is hurt by Ermance’s behaviour, it is made clear to us that his pride has suffered just as much as his heart. His father’s exasperated observation, that the girl who could care for Selincourt over him is not worth worrying about, is enough to cauterise the wound.

And when, in the wake of Ermance’s extraordinary about-face and her declaration that she will marry Selincourt or no-one, Palmira finally, finally, appears in person (on page 658 of a 759-page novel), having been convinced by the Duchess that she is free to act as she wishes, the original engagement – based upon “esteem” – is calmly resumed, and the wedding arranged without delay. Adolphus and the lovely Palmira were as happy as they deserved to be, reports Meeke placidly, what more can be said of their mutual felicity?

Not much, apparently.

But Meeke is not quite finished yet, and she sets about disposing of her remaining characters with no little ruthlessness. Palmira’s emergence from the convent has, of course, restored her position as elder sister and heiress—just as the Count de Selincourt is declaring his disinterested love for Ermance. But although the unavoidable marriage is presented to us as his punishment, a case of the Count being hoist with his own petard, there’s very little doubt about who will end up being the greatest sufferer: a disturbing fate for poor Ermance, and one disproportionately harsh for someone whose only real crime was being a credulous and inexperienced sixteen-year-old.

And then there’s Bazile, who is of course stunned and thrilled to find himself the son of a Duke and, in fact, a Count in his own right. But the implacable Meeke isn’t about to let him get away, either:

As for Bazile, he found people might be unhappy though blest with a title, and allowed to wear red heels; he was placed in a German regiment, under a very severe colonel…

Ouch. Just—ouch.

09/10/2011

Palmira And Ermance (Part 1)

Though the Duke had promised to try to sleep, and really found himself so inclined from loss of blood, he could not help revolving in his mind the various occurences of the last twelve hours; and the reiterated proofs of attachment de Melac had given him… He had been excessively struck with many of de Melac’s unguarded expressions during his state of phrenzy; and had particularly remarked what he said to Bazile, which seemed to come from his very soul, and to be occasioned by the impulse of the moment: yet, could he suppose he preferred him to his own son? it would be very strange if he did… Ermance also had been struck with the strong resemblance between them; yet he saw no possibility of their being in any way related. Still de Melac talked very ambiguously, and seemed acquainted with many of his friends; and it now struck him, though the idea had never entered his head before, that the bare mention of his relationship to the Marechal de St. Firmin had occasioned the first strange illness de Melac had been seized with…

After a profitable career in Guadeloupe, M. de Melac returns to France with his three grown children, Bazile, Ernestine and Clemence. Although his initial plan is retirement and a life of leisure, when as a result of his financial acumen and probity he is offered of his choice of posts, he accepts that of Receiver-General of Dunkirk, which gives him occupation without being overly demanding. The decision infuriates Bazile, a callow young man obsessed with dress whose only ambition is to cut a figure in the polite world; and indeed, one of M. de Melac’s reasons for moving his family to Dunkirk is to separate Bazile from the dangerous companions and temptations of Paris.

The attention of Dunkirk becomes absorbed by the arrival of the cavalry regiment commanded by the handsome young Duke de Civrac, whose glowing public reputation precedes him. Immediately, thinking how well a uniform would become him, Bazile is consumed by a desire to join the cavalry. One evening, M. de Melac takes his family to a fete in a nearby village. To their surprise, they find that several of the cavalry officers are in attendance; and that far from considering himself above the country gathering, the Duke de Civrac participates in its various amusements, and accepts the village Bailli’s eagerly offered hospitality. During the festivities, M. de Melac is introduced to the Duke – and for a moment can only stare at him in some confusion, struck by his appearance but unable to say why. It is two of the onlookers, one of the other officers and de Melac’s friend, the surgeon M. Vanval, who comment upon the resemblance between the two men. M. de Melac is embarrassed, but the Duke soon succeeds in putting him at his ease. He then requests an introduction to Ernestine and joins the dance with her, before partnering the daughter of the Bailli.

Over the following weeks, the Duke and M. de Melac find themselves drawn to one another, and in spite of the disparity in their ages a friendship grows between them. Yet M. de Melac never presumes upon the acquaintance: if anything, he keeps the Duke at a slight distance, offering him no encouragement to call at his house or to see more of Ernestine and Clemence. At the same time, he shows himself willing to ride out with the Duke or to dine with him whenever asked. The two men find that they have common interests, and often discuss topics such as military tactics, politics and the state of French finances. The Duke discovers that M. de Melac was, in the early part of his life, in the military; but seeing that this is for some reason a painful topic, he changes the subject.

But although M. de Melac strives to avoid presuming in any way upon the young nobleman’s favour, such is not the case with Bazile, who takes it into his head to exploit his father’s friendship by begging the Duke to grant him a place in his regiment. Although taken aback by the boy’s presumption, the Duke’s warm feeling for M. de Melac restrains him from snubbing Bazile; and although he will not help him – particularly after Bazile admits that his father does not want a military career for him – he agrees to discuss that aspect of the matter, at least, with M. de Melac. When the three meet one afternoon, at the prompting of Bazile the Duke recounts his own service history, which began at the age of fourteen in a regiment commanded by his own grandfather, the Marechal de St. Firmin, a great military leader.

The conversation is broken off when M. de Melac is suddenly taken ill and collapses. When he recovers from the spell, he insists that it is nothing serious; but the Duke, in his concern, sends the regimental physician, M. Bertrand, to attend him – an attention that almost overpowers M. de Melac again, as the doctor notes. Unable to make light of his illness to M. Bertrand as he did to the others, M. de Melac attributes it to a long-standing, though usually latent, condition – at which the acute physician diagnosis him as suffering from a secret strain upon his mind and spirits, rather than any bodily ill. He admits to it, and asks for the physician’s assurance that he will say nothing of his case to the Duke. When, some days later, the Duke tells M. de Melac that he will be leaving Dunkirk, the older man’s distress is evident, leaving the Duke both touched and a little confused. He explains that he will only be gone for a short time while he visits Ypres, where a great festival is to be held upon the dedication of a new church. At this, M. de Mercal replies that he, too, has been invited to Ypres by his friend M. Vanval, who was originally from that town and has many relatives there.

M. de Melac accompanies the Duke to Ypres in his chaise. On the way, the Duke confides to his friend that he was a very personal reason for going – that he hopes to see, for the first time, the girl to whom he has been betrothed for many years. When M. de Melac expresses surprise and some uneasiness over this arrangement, the Duke assures him that he is quite content with it; that with lady in question, Mlle Palmira de Moncove, is celebrated equally for her beauty and the sweetness of her temper. He goes on to explain that the girl’s mother, a daughter of the Marquis de Neufpont, and his own have always been the closest of friends – were married on the same day during a joint ceremony – and have long desired the union of their children.

However, the Duke’s story is interrupted when M. de Melac is again taken ill, although this time he recovers more quickly. He insists that there is nothing a doctor can do, and admits that his illness is not physical; commenting that a strange fatality seems to preside over his life. To his surprise, the Duke replies that, of his own experience, he understands what he means. When M. de Melac hesitatingly alludes once more to the betrothal, the Duke remarks that the marriage being his mother’s wish is enough for him, but beyond that he knows that he can depend entirely upon her judgement. He adds that it is to his mother alone that he owes his education, after being deprived of his father by an act of the cruellest villainy.

Hearing of the Duke’s upbringing, M. de Melac laments his own failures with Bazile. The Duke ventures to suggest the army for the boy, since he has declared an interest in such a career, but M. de Melac says bitterly that the boy’s lack of birth would be against him, and that it was because of his own lowness of origin that he was compelled to resign his military post. The Duke is warmly indignant on his friend’s behalf, speaking angrily of such prejudices. The two travel on to Ypres, where M. de Melac is invited to accompany the Duke while he meets the party waiting for him, chiefly the Bishop who is to perform the dedication ceremony – and who is the uncle of Mlle de Moncove. To the Duke’s disappointment, Palmira herself is not present after all. Instead, he finds himself being introduced to her lovely younger sister, Ermance…

[SPOILERS]

You have to hand it to Mary Meeke. Although it’s hard to argue with the assertion that “all her novels are the same”, it’s also hard not to admire her ability to keep putting a different spin on her favourite plot-point, the substituted baby – and furthermore, to keep the reader guessing over how the various, seemingly contradictory, elements in her story can possibly be resolved. If you’ll forgive the stretching of a simile, Meeke’s novels are rather like a game of chess: she uses a traditional open gambit each time, yet each individual contest plays out differently.

In Palmira And Ermance, the improvement we noted between Meeke’s first and second novels continues, here manifesting as a better integration between the central mystery and the other elements of the plot. As in The Abbey Of Clugny, much of the interest of this novel lies in the slow revelation that the central mystery is not actually what we think it is. We certainly know enough to prick up our ears at the early mention of the death of someone close to the central character, whose demise was evidently surrounded by strange circumstances; and before too long we are as certain as we can be that M. de Melac is the young Duke’s long-lost father. The overarching question here, then, is not whether the West Indian merchant is in fact the supposedly dead Duke de St. Piene, but rather, if he is—why doesn’t he say so?

If you think it might have something to do with a substituted baby, give yourself a gold star.

Meeke has fun playing with her readers’ expectations in this novel, delaying explanation and confusing the issue even while scattering throughout her text all sorts of clever touches best appreciated in retrospect—my favourite being that, at quite distinct points in the story and when we are likely to be distracted by other events, it is separately revealed that the young Duke’s first name is Adolphus, and that M. de Melac’s initial is ‘A’. There’s also the detail that the Duke has been awarded a newly created title on the strength of his own merit and military accomplishments (and, as we later infer, as a way of glossing over the family embarrassment), the result of this being that until he casually mentions his grandfather’s name, M. de Melac doesn’t realise who he is talking to. No wonder he collapses.

The revelation of the Terrible Secret is another clever scene, with M. de Melac writhing in silent agony as he is compelled to hear his own secret history from the lips of his own son who, by now harbouring an almost incredible suspicion, watches him like a hawk as tells his story.

We learn of the blissful marriage of the young Duke de St. Piene and his Duchess, one about to be crowned by the birth of their first child when tragedy strikes. The fly in the young couple’s ointment is the family steward, Joinville, who takes advantage of the favour of the Dowager Duchess and grows ever more insolent and presuming—until the Duke finally loses his temper and threatens chastisement and dismissal, only to be threatened in turn:

Joinville, by no means intimidated, merely said, “Do your worst, young fellow! you are in my power; and no more whom you suppose yourself to be, than I am! you are not a Duke—do I speak intelligibly now?” Looking around as he concluded, as if fearful of being overheard, though he had said this almost in a whisper;—Astonished, staggered, and hardly believing he had understood the vile wretch, my father, for some seconds, remained motionless, till Joinville repeated his words, adding, in a still lower tone, “Not to keep you in useless suspence, young man—know you are my son—judge therefore how little right you have to exert the obedience of your father; and if ever you forget yourself as you have done this day, I will disclose this secret, which has lain heavy on my mind for some years, to the whole world, and reduce you by one word to a level with myself!”

And, believe it or not, it gets worse—for it is not, as we first suppose, a case of the Duchess fooling around with a servant:

“…it is no longer my intention to keep you in the dark respecting your real origin, my son.” —My father shuddered at the appellation, and the villain thus proceeded:— “nor of the reasons which induced me to connive at the deception the Duchess Dowager de St. Piene, your supposed mother, chose to put upon her husband’s family: you are my son by an opera dancer, for I was never married… The late Duke de St. Piene died before his son was six months old; strong convulsions…carried off his son a few days afterwards; and to make short of my story, to secure the property to the Duchess Dowager, you were by her desire substituted in his place…”

But in spite of being, as he puts it himself, the son of “a most abandoned villain and a common prostitute”, the ci-devant Duke is “the soul of honour”. His first impulse is to confess everything to his wife, and abide by her judgement; to stay or leave as she bids him—but with the birth of their child imminent, he does not dare give her such an appalling shock. Instead, he confronts his mother—or rather, “mother”—who confirms Joinville’s story. Instantly, the shattered young man resolves to relinquish everything he holds under false pretences, and he steels himself to confess to his wife’s father, the Marquis de St. Firmin. The outcome is even worse than he fears:

…few were greater slaves to etiquette, or more zealously conscious of the honour of their family, than the Marquis: to learn therefore that he had bestowed the heiress of one of the most noble and most ancient houses in France, upon the base-born son of a hireling domestic, and an abandoned woman, did not dispose the haughty Marquis to treat my father’s noble confession, as such generous frankness deserved. Every virtue he had been the first to acknowledge in the Duke de St. Piene, vanished the moment he became acquainted with the lowness of his origin…

The only up-side of the situation is that the Marquis is determined to hush the scandal up, partly for his daughter’s sake, but mostly in the name of honour. Having first secured a promise from his son-in-law that he will not attempt to see his wife, the Marquis has Joinville—who, judging by himself, never dreams that the young man will voluntarily surrender his title, fortune and position—seized and imprisoned, so that he will have no chance to air the family’s dirty laundry any further (no difficult matter, in a society unhampered by that nonsensical convention known as “due process”), before confronting the quaking Duchess and threatening her with dire punishment should she ever breathe a word of the truth.

The Marquis then consults with the uncle of the “Duke”—who should have inherited the title and estate upon the death of his infant nephew—and as a consequence, the young man is told that his wife has died in childbirth, and the baby with her. His world now utterly shattered, he makes no protest against the Marquis’s suggestion that he leave France and begin again in another country, and departs without delay for the West Indies. Meanwhile, waiting only until his daughter is safely delivered of a son, the Marquis tells her that her husband has been killed in a duel – a mock funeral being performed to support this outrageous lie. An invented flaw in the marriage settlements see the title and estates revert to the uncle, who (being unmarried) subsequently settles them upon his great-nephew, thus closing the circle of conspiracy…

And so the stubborn silence of “M. de Melac” is explained, and we are left gasping at Mary Meeke’s audacity. Has she truly written a novel in which the two central characters are the bastard offspring of a servant and a prostitute, and that child’s own blood-tainted son!?

No, of course she hasn’t. What, are you nuts!?

I said at the outset that we have to admire Meeke’s ability to keep ringing the changes in her favourite plot, and nowhere more so than here, in a a novel that turns out to be built around a baby substitution that never actually happened.

What did happen is this: Joinville and his mistress (who he had installed as the young Duke’s nurse) concocted a plan to exploit the venal Duchess and set themselves up for life by exchanging their own baby for their noble charge; but before they could do so, their child died. Not to worry. Switching to Plan B, they simply told the Duchess it was her son who died, and offered her “their” son in exchange, so that she could hold onto her fortune and her position in society—and the Duchess, being a proper 18th century mother, was of course quite incapable of recognising her own baby…

As it turns out, almost from the moment of his arrest Joinville tried to confess to this tremendous secret, but was unable to get anyone to listen to him. It was, consequently, twelve years after the “death” of the Duke de St. Piene before the truth came to light, to the horror and shame of the Marquis de St. Firnim and his co-conspirator. A search was immediately instigated, but no trace of the exile Duke could be found beyond the moment of his arrival in Nantes; and whether he is dead or alive his wife and son have been unable to determine.

Until now

    “I have no will but yours, my dear father,” said Adolphus; “God forbid I should ever again cause a moment’s sorrow to either; but my happiness will not be complete till I see you again restored to my dear mother. But why have you, I may say wantonly, so long retarded that happy event? You must have known that I was your son a very short time after we became acquainted.”
    “But not that I was Duke de St. Piene, my Adolphus; and nothing short of that conviction should ever have made me disclose a secret I was afraid, till within this half hour, would lower you in the eyes of the world. I have, as you observe, long known you was my son; and have never let a day pass since I became thus wise, without pouring out my gratitude to the giver of all goodness for such a blessing…”

[To be continued…]

24/09/2011

For whom the book tolls…

Life being inconvenient, as it so often is, I’ve been trying not to dwell upon the fact that I’ve slipped behind in my review writing again. But no matter where I turn – or at least, no matter to which book I turn – I find an uncomfortable reminder of my unmet obligations. 

Outside the goalposts, I’ve been reading John Buchan’s Leithen Stories, a series of five novels connected by the presence of the character of Sir Edward Leithen. In the second volume, John Macnab, published in 1925, an aspiring politician is asked to make his first public appearance, and after freezing and forgetting every word of his conned speech, he blunders into an emotional and unrehearsed declaration of his feelings about things in general and England in particular:

It was a strange, inconsequent speech, but it had a curious appeal in it–the appeal of youth and candour and courage.  It was philosophy rather than politics, and ragged but arresting philosophy. He began by confessing that the war had left the world in a muddle, a muddle which affected his own mind.  The only cure was to be honest with oneself, and to refuse to accept specious nonsense and conventional jargon.  He told the story from Andersen of the Emperor’s New Suit.  “Our opponents call us Tories,” he said; “they can call us anything they jolly well please.  I am proud to be called a Tory.  I understand that the name was first given by Titus Oates to those who disbelieved in his Popish Plot. What we want to-day is Toryism–the courage to give the lie to impudent rogues.”

That was a bolt from the blue.

However, this passage was merely a teaser compared to the full-on assault on my guilt complex offered by Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris, the second volume in his “Herries Chronicles”, which is less like a hint that I should be catching up my blog reviews than it is a bizarre kind of family reunion.

Published in 1931 and set from 1774 – 1820, this novel is amazingly literary, if we use that word in its broadest sense. It teems with readers, and there are any number of references to hot-off-the-press works of non-fiction such as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Paine’s Age Of Reason, Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France and Rousseau’s Contrat Social. One character writes for the Gentleman’s Magazine; another has his life changed by the The Life Of John Wesley; while the appearance of a professional actress gives us a whirlwind tour of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But ultimately, novels and poetry predominate. A fit of righteous rage is described in the words of Ann Radcliffe: To speak in the terms of The Italian, he was ‘cold fury nobly seething’. Mrs Radcliffe wins a second mention when the heroine wakes from a strange dream with her mind in a bookish jumble: With confused notions of Mrs Radcliffe, a novel that the night before she had been reading, The Last Step; or The History Of Mrs Brudenal, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Isabella; or The Rewards Of Good Nature

We are introduced to the young John Herries, who at the age of fourteen…could read tales and poetry to himself by the hour. He would sit curled up in a corner somewhere and pray he would not be noticed. He had always detested Mangnall’s Questions, and Butler’s Guide To Useful Knowledge—for such things he had no use whatever, but Goldsmith’s History Of England he devoured in all its four volumes because of the thrilling detail in it. Then there was Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts In Prose And Verse, then Marmion, The Lay, the Waverleys, The Parents’ Assistant, The Fairchild Family and, secretly, obtained from some of the Forresters who lived in Bassenthwaite, many volumes of the Minerva Press, The Mysterious Hand, The Demon Of Society and the rest…

That’s my boy.

We also meet John’s mother, Jennifer, who keeps her children’s grotesquely unqualified tutor around because, among other reasons, he’s willing to entertain her by reading Minerva Press novels to her.

All sorts of literary figures flit across the pages of this novel. Robert Southey and Walter Scott appear in person, as do Sarah and Hartley Coleridge, although not their husband and father; while there are mentions of Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron. Francis Herries, while trying to support himself as a writer, becomes acquainted with Charles Lamb and Samuel Rogers; and it is the latter who introduces Francis to a young man destined to make his mark in the world:

    “This is Mr Macaulay, who is at Cambridge and will soon be having the world at his feet. Come, come, Macaulay. You know you will. You are as confident of it as I am.”
    The thick-set untidy youth raised a pair of very remarkable piercing eyes and began to talk with great eloquence and volubility. It was clear that he did not suffer from shyness… The loquacious youth had already forgotten him and was talking eagerly to Sumner about a book he held in his hand…

We are not made privy to the volume that has won the enthusiasm of the future Lord Macaulay, but I just know it was one of Mary Meeke’s novels…

But the crowning moment comes when Judith Paris calls upon some friends of hers, a tacitly lesbian middle-aged couple. She finds one of them sewing while the other reads a novel out loud:

    She knocked on the door, was admitted by their little maid Betty, and found them by the fire in the parlour, Miss West reading to Miss Pennyfeather from one of the novels of Mrs Cuthbertson.
    They were enchanted to see Judith.
    Miss West threw Mrs Cuthbertson on to the floor, crying in a deep bass voice: “This is Stuff!”

Oh, hey!!

So where did Hugh Walpole learn about the novels of Kitty Cuthbertson, which were long out of print by 1931? Possibly he found some old volumes in his family’s library—although all things considered, my best guess would be that he’d been reading The Life And Letters Of Macaulay, and thus learned about Cuthbertson – and Meeke – exactly the same way that we did.

Or, I suppose, he could have been reading Jane Austen’s letters

So there you have it: a sign from the ether that the universe is Not Best Pleased with my slackness, that I should be knuckling down to my exceedingly overdue review of Mary Meeke’s 1797 novel, Palmira And Ermance – and that it intends to keep pestering me until I do.

And furthermore that, having done so, I will be able to move on to the next novel in line for Authors In Depth—Kitty Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector.

Footnote:  The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterreanean Horrours!: A Romance by Augustus Jacob Crandolph and The Fairchild Family by Martha Sherwood were already on The List; but of The Demon Of Society, The Last Step and Isabella I can, alas, find no sign.

28/07/2011

Oops, I did it again

“It” being getting caught in a loop of catching up my outstanding reviews, and then celebrating the fact by plunging into an orgy of reading that leaves me in more of a mess than ever. I did it after Romance Of The Pyrenees, which took us all the way through to Rookwood; and then immediately fell into the same trap, of which the final episode was Joan!!! The gap between the reading and the writing impacts upon my memories of the works and the points I meant to make, which isn’t good for my reviews. It’s a annoying situation none the less exasperating for being entirely self-inflicted.

So, I’ve decided to crack down on myself, and be much more disciplined about my reading; a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that – ulp! – I’ve finally run out of excuses to put off tackling The English Rogue.

As we discussed way back when I first started digging my heels in, The English Rogue is a compilation work with a rather strange history. After being published in 1665 it went on, by all accounts, to become the most popular and successful of all the rogue’s biographies, with which the literary marketplace of the time seems to have been awash. (According to Charles Hinnant, second place was held by The London Jilt.) The story seems to have autobiographical aspects, and Richard Head went out of his way to identify himself with his tale’s anti-hero, Meriton Latroon: a tactic that blew up in his face when the reading public took him at his word and treated him like the scoundrel they assumed he was.

The magnitude of The English Rogue‘s success had its publisher, Francis Kirkman, clamouring for a sequel; but smarting from the backfiring of his plans, Head declined—so Kirkman wrote one himself, publishing it in 1671. By this time, Richard Head’s financial difficulties were urgent enough for him to put aside his hurt feelings, and he and Kirkman subsequently collaborated on two more volumes, published in 1674 and 1680. Then, in 1688, after the death’s of both Head and Kirkman, the rights to The English Rogue fell to another publisher. An anonymous hand wrapped up the project with a brief, epilogue-like “final volume”, and the five parts were reissued as a single work.

So I’ve started on the reading, and I’ve already decided—part of that new discipline, you know—to treat the five volumes as five separate works. To be frank, I can take only so much of this kind of writing at a time. That said, I’ve acquired from my academic library the 1928 (!) edition of The English Rogue, which contains the first three volumes. It also reproduces the figures and has cleaned up the text—typographically, that is, not scatalogically—by correcting the spelling errors, substituting the standard ‘s’ for the long, and providing footnotes: an approach that is facilitating the reading process, in spite of the size and weight of the volume.

Now— You can tell what a mess I’ve gotten myself into with my reviews by the fact that it’s been weeks since I even thought about Reading Roulette. However, I have managed to acquire and read Lily The Lost One; or, The Fatal Effects Of Deception, a piece of hardcore didactic literature that manages to be interesting almost in spite of itself.

I’ve also returned to the random number generator for my next pick: The Gilberts And Their Guests by Julia Day, from 1858. I haven’t been able to find out much about Miss Day. She seems to have been best known as a poet; although she did publish one other novel: The Old Engagement: A Spinster’s Story, in 1852. I guess I’ll let you know.

Elsewhere, Authors In Depth takes us back to Mary Meeke, whose third novel, Palmira And Ermance, was published in 1797. This was also the year that Meeke adopted the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, which she is supposed to have appended to her “racier” novels – gasp! I’m rather looking forward to finding out if that’s true.

Speaking of Meeke, I mentioned at the outset that there is a novel called Madeline Clifford’s School Life that has been attributed to her, but which no-one who has written about her has taken very much notice of. I discovered the other day a second novel bearing the name Mary Meeke that also pre-dates Count St. Blancard, which is called Marion’s Path, Through Shadow To Sunshine. Both of these works appear to be stories for girls, and a much more appropriate field of endeavour for the prim wife of an English minister – wouldn’t you think? Significantly, neither book was published by William Lane; and, I confess, I’m getting a lot of evil enjoyment from the mental picture of Meeke, having tried and failed at writing “proper” novels, then throwing her hands into the air in disgust and starting to write pseudo-Gothic sensation novels instead; a pursuit which, I need hardly remind you, brought her a tidy income over some twenty-five years…

25/03/2011

The Abbey Of Clugny

The Marquis fairly trembled with anxiety, and was more at a loss than ever to conjecture what this meant. It was certainly him they were talking about. What strange mystery still hung over his head; he now reflected upon the kind reception he had met with from the Prince and Princess; the great precautions his uncle had taken before he brought him to the Castle; the Princess having called him her dear child that very afternoon, though she had excused herself immediately. In short, his mind was upon the rack…

In France, in 1770, a priest and his sister receive into their house two travellers, an Abbé and a young man suffering from a depression so profound that he is weak and ill as a consequence. Having arranged sleeping quarters for his charge, the Abbé tells his hosts the young man’s story, which will, as he concedes, be public knowledge within days.

Twenty-two years earlier, a baby was left at the cottage of an elderly village curate who lived near Brussels. Unprepared for such a charge, the curate willingly gave the child into the care of the local lord, the Baron Wielbourg, who was already caring for his own orphaned niece, Alphonsine de Cheylus, and who offered to give the boy a home. Subsequently, the child, dubbed Alexis, and Alphonsine were raised as the Baton’s own children. As a young man, Alexis wished to become a soldier, but the Baron, knowing that the mystery of his birth might prove a stigma, refused to allow this. Alexis’s disappointment was swiftly cured, however, when the Baron revealed himself to be fully aware of his love for Alphonsine, and hers for him, and gave his consent for their marriage, in spite of Alexis’s uncertain status.

However, the mutual joy of the young people was short-lived. Only a week away from the wedding, the Abbé de Mondevergue called upon the Baron with astonishing news: that Alexis was in truth the son of the wealthy and powerful Duke de Longueville, who as a baby was kidnapped by an enemy of the Duke’s as an act of revenge. The man responsible died recently in great distress, but first confessed his crime. The Abbé gives the Baron a letter from the Duke, stating his claim to the child, and revealing that the long-missing Marquis de St. Cernin might be recognised by a certain birthmark – which Alexis has.

The Baron is initially overwhemed by this revelation, but when he recovers his faculties, he finds himself puzzled by certain aspects of the case, as presented to him: the seeming lack of sufficient motive on the part of the supposed kidnapper, who left the Duke’s second son unmolested, and his failure to step forth even when the Duke promised both a large reward and a free pardon to anyone who could restore the child, although he was at the time suffering desperate poverty.

However, in spite of his misgivings, the Baron cannot doubt that his Alexis is the missing child. He breaks the news to the young man, who is anything but pleased – not least because the Baron now refuses to allow him to marry Alphonsine, insisting that he must discuss the matter with his real father, who may not consider the girl a fitting match for his heir. Moreover, the Baron refuses even to let Alexis see Alphonsine before he goes, believing that it would be easier for both not to take leave of one another. Alexis is thrown into the greatest distress by this, but is finally compelled to obey his erstwhile father. The new Marquis de St. Cernin takes a sad and reluctant leave of the Baron, and departs with the Abbé for Paris.

His reception by the Duke de Longueville does nothing sooth the young man’s feelings. His father welcomes him with little emotion, speaks of the Baron with what Alexis – now called Alphonso – considers insufficient gratitude, and shows no particular desire for his son’s company. The final blow comes when, as the Baron anticipated, the Duke rejects Alphonsine as a potential daughter-in-law, beginning to plan a magnificent marriage for his heir.

The Marquis’s only consolation in his new situation is that he is permitted the military career he desired; and between his new duties and the unfamiliar dissipations of Paris, he tries to forget his troubles; but Alphonsine is never far from his thoughts. Relief comes, however, with arrival in Paris of the Marechal de Mercoeur, Alphonso’s maternal great-uncle, just returned from an embassy to Spain. Although, the Duke’s second son having recently died, the late Duchess’s huge fortune would have reverted to her uncle had Alphonso not been found, the Marechal is sincerely delighted to meet his great-nephew. That there is bad blood between the Duke and the Marechal is evident; but so powerful and influential a figure is the Marechal that the Duke can hardly object when he offers to take Alphonso under his wing.

Travelling in his uncle’s company, the Marquis finds the affection so lacking in his relationship with his father. He seizes an opportunity to visit the Baron Wielbourg, who greets him as warmly as ever, but reveals that Alphonsine is not at the Castle. He says no more, but from the sympathetic housekeeper the Marquis learns that the girl pleaded with her uncle to be allowed to enter a convent. This was refused, but the Baron did agree to a visit to Alphonsine’s paternal aunt in Arras, in the hope that this change of scenery would help to stop her dwelling upon her lost love. The Marquis sets out for Arras, but there learns from the Countess  de Verneuil that while Alphonsine was expected, she never arrived. The Marquis can only conclude that Alphonsine has managed to slip away and find a covent willing to receive her.

The Marechal invites his nephew to accompany him upon a visit to some old and dear friends of his, the Prince and Princess de Montalban, who live in an ancient castle in a remote and beautiful corner of Burgandy. On the journey, the Marechal tells Alphonso that his friends have suffered great tragedy in their lives, the deaths of two of their sons and the inexplicable disappearance of the third, and for this reason have retired from the world to their distant estate. At the castle, Alphonso is not merely welcomed, but almost overwhelmed by the reception given him by his hosts.

Overlooking the beautiful grounds of the de Montalbans’ estate is the Abbey of Clugny, a convent of the Order of St. Claire. In conversation, the Marquis learns of a beautiful novitiate who has recently arrived at the convent, and the description of the girl inspires him with the hope that he has accidentally found the refuge of Alphonsine. However, before he can act on this belief, his thoughts are sent in an entirely different direction. Strolling in the grounds one night, the Marquis inadvertently overhears part of a conversation between the Marechal and his friends – the Prince and Princess pleading, the Marechal urging caution, his own name – which convinces him that the mystery of his birth and identity is very far from being solved…

[SPOILERS, ho!]

Published less than a year after Count St. Blancard, Mary Meeke’s second novel is a marked technical improvement over its predecessor. Although her plot is no less complicated – if anything, rather more so – Meeke is more in control of her material here. There is a sense of increased confidence about this work, as if the commercial and, to an extent, critical success of her first venture led her to sit down to the second in a less tentative frame of mind; and this shows itself, among other places, in Meeke no longing pretending to be merely a translator, but claiming authorship of both her novels on the title-page of her new work.

If it was true that Mary Meeke shaped her novels to the prevailing public taste, it seems that in writing The Abbey Of Clugny she was also listening carefully to her critics, and responding accordingly. In place of a world where everyone, it seems, is amusingly willing to commit a dastardly act on the slightest provocation, here we have a more credible scenario of a single, serious villain who is responsible for most of the story’s evil and/or venal acts, assisted in his schemes by one particular act of madness on the part of another individual (repented too late) and by various hired goons.

Instead of all the novel’s virtues being ascribed to the aristocracy, and all the wickedness to various lower-born individuals, both are distributed with a more impartial hand. The protagonists are less boringly perfect, motives are more mixed, and at some points Meeke treats her characters (particularly the bad ones) with a certain wry humour. Here, for example, we have the Duke de Longueville greeting Alphonso – in front of witnesses – upon his return from his first military assignment:

The Duke de Longueville was excessively affected by this meeting; at least he took out his handkerchief to conceal his tears or his face; for every actor has not the absolute command of his countenance…

(And as it happens, this humour is very welcome in the overall scheme of things. Unreasonable of me to complain, I know, but I was a tad disappointed to discover that this novel is less unintentionally funny than the earlier one…)

The Abbey Of Clugny, as we have seen, features another of Meeke’s Cinderella plots; although here she gives the wheel an extra spin by seeming to solve a large slice of her mystery at the outset, and then slowly revealing that she has done nothing of the kind; on the contrary. We are almost as confused as the unfortunate Alphonso when it becomes apparent that the Duke isn’t merely cold by nature, but genuinely indifferent to the long-lost son he has gone to so much effort to find.

As in Count St. Blancard, the mystery itself is ultimately less a matter of “what” or “who” than it is of “why” and “how”, but it certainly catches and holds the reader’s interest. The tangle of relationships, hatreds and greed behind which lurks the truth of our young protagonist’s identity requires considerable unravelling. And it is only in retrospect that we properly appreciate various touches scattered throughout the early sections of the novel – such as, amongst the numerous miseries endured by the Duke and Duchess de Longueville in the early years of their marriage, a passing reference to the dangerously premature birth of their first child after a fall suffered by the Duchess. We are quite some distance into the novel before it is made quite clear that – ahem – the baby wasn’t premature at all…

But not all of Mary Meeke’s authorial quirks have disappeared between novels. For one thing, her dramatis personae are no less amusingly drowning in titles, and we again struggle to keep identities and relationships clear, particularly when certain individuals not only inherit multiple titles, but simultaneously acquire military ones. For example, the Marechal is, at various points, also known as the Chevalier d’Ormonville and the Duke de Mercoeur; while our hapless protagonist ends up changing his name and title no less than three times over the course of the story.

(Apropos, I can’t help wondering whether it ever occurred to Meeke that in loading her characters with titles in late 18th-century France, she wasn’t exactly doing them a favour…)

The weakest part of the novel is that from which it takes its title; a title which I’m sure was mean to imply that this was a Gothic novel, which it certainly isn’t. I can only assume that William Lane told Mary Meeke that the Francophobe aspects of Count St. Blancard were appreciated by her readers, because what was merely a few slaps in passing in her first novel becomes a major subplot here.

Even here, though, Meeke improves her technique. Instead of the narrator throwing in unprovoked attacks on France and French institutions, Meeke uses the Baron Wielbourg, who is (I think) Flemish, to voice her various criticisms. The usual targets take the usual beating, as we shall see, but we also get variations upon the theme, for instance when the Baron launches into a well-argued attack upon the French (and not only French, of course) practice of basing military appointments upon birth rather than seniority, after Alexis / Alphonso is made a Colonel at the outset despite having no experience or even knowledge of warfare. And it is the Baron who expresses perhaps the novel’s most unexpected viewpoint; a refreshing change from the virtue-as-genetic stance of Count St. Blancard:

The Baron was not weak enough to attribute the noble sentiments Alexis had always displayed, to his exalted birth; a peasant’s son, who had been equally well-educated, might have acted, thought and expressed himself as he did…

But it is Catholicism that suffers the most, both explicitly and implicitly, as Meeke presents the standard English Protestant view of the French religion as hypocritical and corrupting, built upon the exploitation of the ignorant and the superstitious; and of convent life as a cowardly retreat from the world. Other than the Abbess of the Abbey of Clugny, who is at least a well-bred lady, the religious characters in this novel are a sorry bunch indeed. Here again the Baron is the novel’s mouthpiece, as we discover that when it comes to Catholicism, his opinions are something less than, well, catholic:

Baron Wielbourg had often told him religion was the foundation of all noble and generous actions, and that a truly good priest was a most respectable character; but real piety was very seldom to be found in convents; monks, in general, were a very despicable set of men, who disgraced the order they professed, by their numerous vices; for they were all, more or less, hypocrites, tho’ some would even triumph openly in violating every vow they had taken; and it was no uncommon thing to see friars in liquor.— Poverty and laziness were their only inducements to embrace a monastic life, except a few mistaken wretches, whose narrow minds had made them a prey to the grossest superstition and the most infatuated bigotry…

This is possibly a good time to remind everyone that Mary Meeke was the wife of an English minister. It may not only have been her prejudiced readers she was writing to please.

We learn that Alphonsine’s retreat to the cloister has been facilitated by a woman who believes that helping her to elude her family and enter a convent, and then lying about it, is a “holy” act. The Abbey itself, when Alexis / Alphonso arrives in Burgandy, is in a state of mourning for its late Abbess…if “mourning” is the right word. Typically, the Abbess was a thoroughly immoral woman, raised to her position not through piety, but family influence and bribery. Tradition dictates that the Abbess’s grave must be watched and prayed over for a full year, a duty that falls to nuns and novitiates alike, and one filled with terror for the young women, as the Abbess’s evil life and sudden death, without receiving the Sacraments, has led to stories of the convent being haunted…particularly when strange and inexplicable sounds begin to interrupt their grim nightly vigil…

This abrupt detour in a story that is otherwise grounded in reality (if not particularly “realistic”) is obviously Mary Meeke’s way of placating any reader who bought her novel purely on the strength of its title, and might have felt somewhat disappointed in its domestic settings. Her atmospheric account of the convent’s haunting could have been lifted wholesale out of an actual Gothic novel…as indeed could the rational explanation for it that she eventually provides.

However, while this sudden eruption of the apparently supernatural is not unwelcome in itself, the fact is that this subplot is allowed to run on to unnecessary and indeed tiresome length, particularly inasmuch as the same ground is gone over in detail twice (first the haunting, then a point-by-point explanation). But it is not difficult to understand this seeming blunder, which is one not at all uncommon in the era of the three-volume novel. Clearly, Mary Meeke ran out of material after two and a half volumes, and had to find a way of fulfilling her contractual obligations. The Abbey Of Clugny might be a considerable improvement over Count St. Blancard, but as a professional novelist, our author still had a lot to learn…

28/12/2010

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 2)

The Apothecary, roused from his stupefaction by these orders, again called out, “Stop – stop!”, catching hold of the coach door, the glass being down; but the coach went on, and was driving out of the court; not being able to keep his hold at the gate, he let go, saying, in a loud voice, “Go, then, unnatural father, and condemn thine own son: Dubois is not mine, ’tis your son will perish, by your unjust decree!”

Our story, set in France, opens with an account of the fast friendship between the young Marquis D’Elcour and Dubois, the son of an apothecary. The nurses of the two were sisters, and thus the boys spent much of their time together while children. Reciprocal friendship seldom exists (at least to a strong degree) between superiors and inferiors, states Mary Meeke at the opening of her tale, going on to explain the apparent anomaly with which she then presents us by commenting, It must be observed, that this strict union had taken place between the young Marquis and Dubois, at an age when they were both totally ignorant of the distinction of rank, &c. &c. However, despite the social gulf that lies between them, the “likeness in disposition” that drew the two together in the first place maintains their friendship as they become men.

Although Dubois’ first choice in life is the army, followed by the law, his father – who took the name Rhubarbin upon his marriage – thwarts his son in both of these ambitions and insists upon his studying medicine. Dubois reluctantly accedes to his father’s wishes, and soon proves to have a great talent for his profession. His skills are put to their ultimate test when the half-sister of the Marquis D’Elcour is taken desperately ill. When the physicians first called in give Adelaide no chance of survival, D’Elcour persuades his step-father, M. de Ceare, to allow Dubois to treat her. Under his management, Adelaide begins a slow recovery, during which time Dubois becomes an inmate of M. de Ceare’s house. Inevitably, Dubois and Adelaide fall in love; but knowing that the overwhelming pride of M. de Ceare would never permit their marriage, they accept that they must part forever. However, before Dubois leaves his house, M. de Ceare becomes aware of the situation and, despite owing his daughter’s life to him, begins to treat the young man with offensive coldness and arrogance. The heart-sore Dubois returns home, hoping to be soothed by his father’s company, but to his dismay is immediately sent away by Rhubarbin to further his studies in Padua.

Meanwhile, M. de Ceare plans a splended marriage for his daughter. For a time, Adelaide manages to avoid this fate by starting objections to her suitors that appeal to her father’s controlling pride, but at last a wholly unobjectionable suitor presents himself. In desperation, Adelaide decides to run away and place herself under the care of her aunt, an Abbess. Needing help, she confides her plan to Champagne, a footman in her father’s employ who is also her foster-brother. He agrees to assist her, pretending affection and loyalty, but knowing that she will be carrying her jewellery, plans to rob her. With his hired confederates, Champagne springs his trap, but a passing traveller sees Adelaide’s peril and comes to her aid, killing two of the robbers and wounding Champagne. To her astonishment, Adelaide sees that her rescuer is Dubois, on his way home from Italy. When she explains her situation, Dubois agrees to escort her to her aunt. On the way, however, they are stopped by officers of the law. Dubois finds himself charged with murder, seduction and theft, and held in irons in the Conciergerie, while Adelaide is confined in a convent.

It is to Champagne that Dubois owes his imprisonment. Hoping to disguise his own role in them, the would-be thief gives M. de Ceare an account of the events calculated to inflame his fury and outrage against both Dubois and Adelaide, so that he will listen to neither of them. The plan succeeds. Offended almost to the point of madness by his belief that the lovers were eloping, M. de Ceare carries his grievances to the judge who is to try Dubois. The first Président du Parlement is renowned as a man of unimpeachable professional honour. Why, then, does he listen so avidly to M. de Ceare’s distorted account of Dubois’ crimes? – ignore testimony in Dubois’s favour and accept Champagne’s obviously fabricated evidence against him? – and condemn a man he knows to be innocent of wrongdoing to prison, under threat of a cruel and shameful death..?

From the particular structure of Count St. Blancard, it is impossible to talk about its story without giving away most of its plot. However, this doesn’t really spoil the novel, as its pleasures lie less in its central mystery than in the question of how all these people managed to get themselves into such a mess. The rest of its entertainment value lies in a variety of quirks that distinguish Mary Meeke’s writing.

[From here there are MAJOR SPOILERS]

From what I have been able to determine, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, published in three volumes by the Minerva Press in 1795, is an entirely typical Mary Meeke novel – probably because her popular success, upon her first venture, encouraged her to keep writing after that same pattern: even her Number One Fan admitted that Mrs Meeke’s novels were overly similar to one another. She had, it seems, a particular fondness for the Cinderella plot, although her Cinderellas tend to be male. She also had a touchingly simple faith in the power of hereditary over environment. From the opening paragraphs of this novel, in which we are introduced to an apothecary’s son who is mysteriously superior to his birth and upbringing, well, we know what to think.

Before the end of Volume 1, we’ve already begun to hear the sad history of President de Ransal, whose father, in retaliation for his son marrying against his will, abducted his daughter-in-law and infant grandson and disposed of both, confining the former in a convent and giving the latter to a servant to be left at a Foundling Hospital. After many desperate years’ searching, the future President managed to discover and reclaim his wife; but of their son, the couple found no trace until the servant, knowing herself dying, confessed to her part in the plot. She tells the desperate parents that, hoping for a better fate for the baby, she left him not at the Foundling Hospital but on the doorstep of a certain house in the Rue St. Honore in Paris, with various tokens about him indicating his parentage. She later learned that the house belonged to one M. Rhubarbin, a wealthy apothecary.

Inspired with hope at last, President de Ransal and his wife confront Rhubarbin. To their dismay, he flatly denies knowing anything about a baby, declaring that the only child in his home is his own son, to whose identity anyone can attest. Something in Rhubarbin’s manner convinces de Ransal that he is lying, but neither pleading nor threats can extract any more information from him. Left with no choice, the President and his wife withdraw, the former conceiving against Rhubarbin a bitter hatred and swearing that he will revenge himself upon the apothecary if ever he gets the chance – which he does, when Dubois appears before him on a capital charge.

Determined to use Dubois’ situation to force Rhubarbin to tell him the truth, the President pretends a belief in the young man’s guilt that he does not feel. Beyond caring how much harm he does in pursuit of his ends, he has Dubois placed in irons in a foul, lightless cell in a prison where fever is rife, and leads him to believe that his execution is imminent. The tactic works: Rhubarbin does indeed confess the truth about the foundling baby – thus revealing to the appalled President just who it is that he is wreaking his vengeance upon…

And then, after hearing the President’s lengthy history, which runs from towards the end of Volume 1 and across four-fifths of Volume 2, it’s time for us to hear Rhubarbin’s story – which polishes off Volume 2 and extends into Volume 3, and which contains some of my favourite bits of Mary Meeke’s writing.

We hear how the young Dubois, as he was then, was apprenticed to a M. Rhubarbin, an apothecary; and how, after the death of his master, Dubois married the widow, who was some twenty years older than himself, changing his surname for the sake of the business; and that, after his wife’s not-too-distant death, and in spite of the fact that he openly married the woman for her money, and equally openly despised her, M. Rhubarbin was genuinely and sincerely outraged when he discovered that she had willed her fortune away from him.

In fact, after the birth of her baby, knowing herself dying, the new mother secretly created a trust for her son, with his fortune invested until his coming-of-age, the interest only coming to Rhubarbin for the child’s care, and the money to go to a cousin in the event of the boy’s death.

In the meantime, though, Rhubarbin had control of his son’s fortune – at least while the child lived – which he did not. The burial was held in the country, where the child was at nurse, and where Rhubarbin succeeded in persuading his brother to keep silent about it for one month, so that he could receive one more interest payment before he losing his wife’s money forever. The brother reluctantly agreed. Rhubarbin then returned to Paris…where he found a baby on his doorstep…

I don’t know if this is a characteristic of all of Mary Meeke’s writing – although I certainly hope it is – but if the characters of Count St. Blancard have one thing in common, it is that they are pragmatic to the point of being hilariously crass. Perhaps the outstanding example of this comes when Rhubarbin describes the expiry of the one month’s grace his brother gave him. Rhubarbin has successfully substituted the foundling baby for his own, as far as his own household is concerned; but how to deal with his brother? I’ll let Rhubarbin tell it:

    “I soon found all my difficulties had not ceased; the time my brother had promised to conceal the death of my child, was more than expired, and I had received the dividend which had occasioned the strategem. This he knew, and wrote me several letters, desiring I would make my son’s death publick. I really began to think heaven favoured my iniquities, for just as I was in the greatest perplexity to devise some means of preventing my brother from rendering all of my precautions fruitless, by discovering my secret; he was seized by an apoplexy, which carried him off in a few minutes.
    “I was really very much afflicted when I learnt the news, but I should have been still more so, if this misfortune had not put a final stop to his remonstrances, and raised [razed] the only difficulty I had left to combat with…

Way to assuage your fraternal grief, there, Rhubarbin.

A great deal of the fun of Count St. Blancard lies in the completely outrageous conduct of its characters – well, most of them. While its hero and heroine – and the Marquis D’Elcour, for that matter – are your typically boring sentimental novel constructs, all tears and self-sacrifice, the supporting cast spends its time doing the most appalling things, and with barely the batting of an eyelid.

Thus we have a member of the nobility who reacts to his son’s marriage by locking up his daughter-in-law and disposing of her baby, then denying all knowledge of the business; a “model of rectitude” who is quite prepared to commit judicial murder in pursuit of his own ends; a wealthy and successful businessman so offended by a young man daring to fall in love with his daughter that he tries to get him broken on the wheel; our hero’s loving and generous father, who is revealed as a kidnapper and a thief; various nuns who imprison unoffending young women in exchange for payment; and a footman who, when his plans for robbery and murder are thwarted, does everything he can to get an innocent man executed.

And of all these miscreants, try and guess who is the only one to be punished? If you said “the footman”, give yourself a gold star. In the world of Mary Meeke, it doesn’t pay to be low-born and/or poor. M. de Ceare, once the truth is revealed, is given the rounds of the kitchen for his behaviour towards Dubois, but since it is Rhubarbin – you know? the kidnapping thief? – who tells him off, it hardly strikes us as fitting retribution.

Whether revealing her own prejudices or pandering to the anticipated preferences of her readers, in her debut novel Mary Meeke dispenses titles and fortunes with a lavish hand. This is one of the reasons, I suspect (although only one, as we shall see), why so many of her novels were set in France. In truth, though, the forest of titles – some characters have two or more – gets rather confusing, and that includes with respect to the novel’s title. “Count St. Blancard” was the title held by the President at the time of his marriage, although that isn’t made clear to us until we’ve known the man by another name for the better part of a volume; it is also the title that the ci-devant Dubois assumes at the end of the novel. Frankly, The Prejudiced Judge; or, The History Of Count St. Blancard would have been a better title.

Count St. Blancard is, as I say, set in France – but what France? Certainly not Revolutionary France, in spite of the novel’s date of publication; not with the nobility spilling off every page. But the possibility of multiple titles in the same family wasn’t the only attraction for Mary Meeke of the time of the Ancien Regime: another was obviously the scope it offered for parental tyranny – convents for girls, lettres de cachet for boys – upon which much of the story rests. A French setting also allowed for the usual English slaps at Catholicism, which here take the form of a casual assumption of the Catholic clergy’s dishonesty and venality.

Above all, though—by setting her first novel in France, Mary Meeke was able to pretend that she hadn’t written it at all. It wasn’t uncommon at the time, of course, for female novelists to resort to various tactics to try and ward off the anticipated blows of the critics. Some would include a self-deprecatory preface; others point out that it was their first attempt at writing a novel. Some would plead pecuniary necessity. Mary Meeke tried a slightly different approach. Here is the final paragraph of the novel:

Having now brought our history to a conclusion, the translator merely hopes this slight specimen of the late laws and customs of France, will not prove unacceptable to those who may peruse these volumes.

Incredibly, the ruse worked. The Monthly Review concluded that the novel was, “Probably the work of some industrious emigrée“, and praised it for being devoid of, “The immorality, party, and levity, which are too frequently found in the lighter productions of French writers.” Meanwhile, the Critical Review took exception to the novel’s evident belief that, “Beauty, grace, and talents, can only belong to persons of high rank, by right of hereditary tenure“, while conceding that it probably couldn’t help feeling that way, “Being a translation from the French.” Nevertheless, the reviewer concluded, in other respects the novel was, “An entertaining, well-connected story, and may agreeably beguile a leisure hour.”

In any event, Mary Meeke’s debut novel was a commercial success; enough so that when it came to her second, The Abbey Of Clugny, published in 1796, she was prepared to shed her disguise and declare herself on the title page to be, “Author of Count St. Blancard.”

And as for myself—on the strength of Count St. Blancard, I think it is fair to say that while no-one is ever going to mistake Mary Meeke’s writing for great literature, she certainly does keep you turning the pages.

27/12/2010

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 1)

“…for my tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.”
—Thomas Babington Macaulay (1832)

Which brings us to the first entry in our new series, Authors In Depth, in which (to start with) we will be examining the extant works of the once popular and now largely forgotten novelist, Mary Meeke.

Anyone who knows anything about the popular literature of the late 18th and early 19th century will be aware of the notorious Minerva Press, home of the “scribbling women”, mainstay of the circulating libraries, and favourite target for condescending critics and antinovelists alike. For some twenty years, William’s Lane’s mini-empire turned out three-, four- and even five-volume sentimental and gothic novels, crammed from cover to cover with instanteaneous passion, extravagant speeches, swooning women and improbable events. Mary Meeke is, in many respects, the perfect exemplar of the Minerva Press novelist: prolific, popular, and critically scorned.

Very little is known about Mrs Meeke herself. She seems to have been the wife of a minister, and was evidently well-educated. Between 1795 and the (disputed) time of her death, she wrote over thirty novels, as well as publishing several translations of European works. Though selling well in their time, her novels were not reissued and have since fallen into obscurity. Search for information on her, and for the most part you will find only that quote above, which has been used time and again to demonstrate conclusively that Mary Meeke was a bad writer – which is not at all what Thomas Macaulay intended when he penned those words. That damning quote has been taken quite out of context.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, later the 1st Lord Macaulay, was a poet, an historian, and a politician, serving at various times as Secretary of War and as Paymaster-General. He was also – and for our puposes, this is far more important – a lifelong, voracious devourer of novels, good, bad and indifferent. Even as today we adopt lines of dialogue from popular TV shows, Macaulay and his sister Hannah, later Lady Trevelyan, quoted novels at one another and compared people they knew to various fictional characters. Macaulay once contended that, between them, he and his sister could re-write Sir Charles Grandison from memory. His letters to Hannah contain any number of references to his reading, and there are at least three remarks in them about the novels of Mary Meeke. The tone of those remarks makes it clear that Macaulay’s fondness for her books was something of a running joke between his sister and himself.

And in truth, Macaulay may have been Mary Meeke’s Number One Fan. By his own assertion, he owned and repeatedly re-read her novels. He used catchphrases from her writing. When he went to India in 1834, he took a crate of her books with him.  Once, having read a novel he really didn’t enjoy, he declared his intention of cleansing his palette by re-reading Mrs Meeke’s Langhton Priory. In the letter containing the quote above, jokingly as it is phrased, Macaulay is in fact comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels favourably with a good old-fashioned English dinner. It is quite incorrect for that quote to be used as “evidence” that she was a bad novelist.

Mind you— None of this proves that Mary Meeke wasn’t a bad novelist, either. It simply proves that Thomas Macaulay wasn’t ashamed of his taste in light literature – and that he had a sense of humour. In the course of this series, we shall find out for ourselves exactly what kind of a novelist Mrs Meeke was.

(By a rather charming coincidence, sometime in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a bit more from Thomas Macaulay, Literary Critic.)

08/11/2010

Speedbumps

I’ve been having a problem settling into a reading pattern lately, with each aspect of my reading program running into difficulties. And, yes, I’m well aware that most of those difficulties are self-inflicted, so you needn’t bother pointing that out.

My suprising success rate in accessing obscure, late 17th century texts must have lulled me into a false sense of security, because my first serious failure in that respect came as a real shock. I became aware of The English Monsieur, A Comical Novel, by James Howard, courtesy of an interesting article by Nicholas Hudson published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, entitled, Social Rank, ‘The Rise Of The Novel,’ and Whig Histories of Eighteenth-Century Fiction, which goes against many of the “rise of the novel” studies with their paradigm of the parallel “rise of the middle class” and an assumption of increasing liberalism, domestic values and social levelling.

Hudson argues instead for an even longer history of what we might call Tory novel-writing, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing at least into the early 19th century, that was concerned with maintaining a social hierarchy headed by an exclusive and self-contained aristocracy, and discouraged social aspiration and the mingling of the classes. The final author considered in this respect is Jane Austen. Hudson concedes that while her novels display a belief in the traditional Tory values, there has been a considerable softening of the 18th-century stance that shows itself in both an expressed disapproval of the aristocracy, along with an admission that the gentry is all the better for an injection of middle class values. Some of the barricades, at least, had been torn down.

The English Monsieur is cited by Hudson as an early example of his own paradigm of Tory novel-writing – and onto The List it went, despite having been published in 1679, earlier than the works I’d progressed to. (Just when I thought I was out of the 17th century, it pulls me back in.) And yes, I located and downloaded a copy, and off I went…until I got to the final page of what I had and found the ominous announcent, END OF PART ONE.

What the – !?

I subsequently had no luck finding a complete version. Admittedly, this was disappointing more from an historical point of view than a literary one. Whatever else it might have proven to be (and I might say that by the end of Part 1, I’d seen little to support Hudson’s theory), The English Monsieur was the first work I’d come across that used the word “novel” in the sense that we might use it today. Extrapolating from Part 1, it must have been a work of some length, certainly the longest piece of straightforward fiction I’ve encountered so far from this period; although a significant portion of the first volume is given over to a common tendency at the time, the interpolation of side-stories into the main one, usually in the form of one or other of the supporting characters relating their “history”. Still, there was a reasonable amount of movement and plotting, too; and that, along with the amorous adventures of the title character, made it strike me (and without wanting to get too carried away) as a sort of embryonic Tom Jones.

But, in the absence of Parts 2 – 4, it was back to the bad jokes and plagiarisms of Richard Head. Groan.

Well, I’ve made it over that speedbump now, although of course there’s a much bigger one to come. Anyway, I can’t be sorry I found out about O-Brazile, because apart from being mercifully short, it turns out (like most of Richard Head’s work, it seems) to be interesting for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing. But we’ll deal with that presently.

Elsewhere, with Philip And Philippa out of the way, I was up for another game of Reading Roulette. This time around, the Reading Gods smiled: my visit to the random number generator gave me an excitingly low number – which turned out to be connected to exactly the kind of novel I had in mind at the outset of this ridiculous project: The Mysterious Wife by Mary Meeke, from 1797.

Yes, it was perfect. A little too perfect… So perfect, I decided to make it, or rather its author, the focus of a third reading thread: Authors In Depth.

Mary Meeke was one of the mainstays of the notorious Minerva Press. Between 1795 and 1823, she wrote more than 30 novels, most under her own name, but some (evidently the more “daring” ones) under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, while some were published anonymously. She also translated several European works, including Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s The Messiah. Too prolific and popular ever to find much favour with the critics, Meeke essentially cut her own throat by admitting publicly that before starting a novel, she always consulted with her publisher to see what was selling. Her early novels had received some positive reviews, but from that moment onwards Meeke was regarded as the worst exemplar of the “scribbling woman”, and attracted nothing but scornful dismissal – the assumption being, as always, that you cannot both write to please an audience, and write good novels.

Whatever we make today of Mary Meeke’s professional pragmatism, her willingness to act as a literary weather vane makes her novels a remarkable window into shifting public taste over a full quarter of a century. Unfortunately, however, Meeke finally suffered the fate of many popular but critically dismissed novelists of the time: her works were never reprinted. Consequently, a number of them are today unobtainable. Others are available electronically (although I can’t currently swear to their condition); while back in 1977, her first novel*, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, was reproduced as a three-volume set by the Arno Press, God love ’em – and as it turns out, my academic library has a copy – God love them. However, right now, the third volume – just the third volume – is out on loan…which somehow is much more annoying than the whole book being unavailable. Anyway, when I get my hands on it, Authors In Depth will begin – and we’ll find out for ourselves just what kind of novels Mary Meeke wrote.

(*There’s a 1783 novel out there in eBook world called Madeline Clifford’s School Life, which is attributed to Meeke. It may represent an early effort, before she hooked up with the Minerva Press. However, none of the articles on Meeke that I’ve read – and I’m pleased to find that there have been a few recent efforts made to rehabilitate her reputation as a novelist – mention it, so I’m going with Count St. Blancard.)

So then it was back to the random number generator, where I landed upon Money To Loan, On All Collaterals: A Tale Of The Times by Minnie Lawson, from 1895. Alas, this one was obscure to the point of being unobtainable. (American novels are, generally, much harder to get hold of than British ones.) All I’ve been able to find out is that it expressed Lawson’s concerns about the state of public finance and the conduct of the banks and Wall Street (and plus ça change once again), that it contained an unflattering portrait of J.P. Morgan (although whether in person or under a pseudonym, I can’t say), and that Lawson wrote at least two other “social issues” novels under her married name of Minnie L. Armstrong.

Third spin, third time lucky? Yes, I guess so. This time I hit 1903’s The Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard. Not only did Gerard live an intriguing personal life, but like Mary Meeke, she wrote prolifically and over a period of many years, her career extending from the early 1880s to the time of WWI, with her novels featuring a wide variety of settings and subject matter. (Her first novels were written in collaboration with her sister, Emily, who was the collector of the Transylvanian folklore that Bram Stoker drew upon when writing Dracula.) And in fact, my moment of hesitation after landing on The Eternal Woman was due to an uneasy feeling that Gerard, too, really deserved to be the subject of Authors In Depth…

…but finally I decided that this business was getting out of hand even by my ridiculous standards. And so—

Chronobibliography:  it’s an Exclusion Crisis smackdown, with The Perplex’d Prince vs The Fugitive Statesman
Reading RouletteThe Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard – a “New Woman” novel, I gather, although not an approving one
Authors In DepthCount St. Blancard by Mary Meeke, which based upon its Arno Press revival, may be a Gothic novel…I hope

For the benefit of those of you playing along at home, I can’t see that Count St. Blancard is available electronically, but a good academic library might do the trick. The Eternal Woman is available through the Internet Archive, but I strongly recommend the PDF version rather than the ePUB one, which has some serious formatting issues.