Posts tagged ‘Minerva Press’

05/09/2016

My man Hugh

Some of you with extremely long memories for trivia may remember that I once did a short post referencing Hugh Walpole’s historical romance, Judith Paris. This is the second book in Walpole’s “Herries Chronicles”, a family saga stretching from Georgian times to contemporary England (Walpole was writing in the 20s and 30s), and is interesting for the way it tends to present English history away from the “big events” that dominate historical fiction: much of the third volume, The Fortress, for instance, is set during that most-neglected period between the Regency and the ascension of Victoria.

Another attraction of this series is its amusing use of literature—using the term “literature” a bit lightly. Walpole not only introduces various literary figures as characters, but his people tend to be readers of the more eclectic type. The One of the highlights for me of Judith Paris was a short scene in which two minor characters are reading a novel by my homegirl, Kitty Cuthbertson. (They didn’t like it, which only proves there’s no accounting for bad taste.)

I was delighted to discover that Walpole kept up his game of literary allusions in The Fortress—where yet again we meet a raft of characters who feel they should be reading poetry and other such serious works, but would rather curl up with a novel…

In Judith Paris, we were introduced to an incompetent tutor who kept his position by reading Minerva Press novels out loud to his employer, the foolish Jennifer Herries; here, the far shrewder Judith picks a better qualified man for her own son:

His passion was for Homer, and Adam owed that at at least—that the Iliad and the Odyssey were to be ever friendly companions to him because of Roger Rackstraw. He had a pretty sense too of the virtues of Virgil, Horace, Thucydides and the Greek dramatists, and could make them live under his fingers. He had a poor opinion of contemporary English Letters, although he said a good word for the Waverley romances and told everyone that there was a young poet, John Keats, who would be remembered. For Mr Wordsworth he had more praise than was locally considered reasonable, but when alone with a friend confessed that he thought Southey’s poetry ‘fustian’…

Possibly the reason that Roger “had a poor opinion of contemporary English Letters” is that he was living during the literary black hole which occurred between the death of Jane Austen and the arrival on the scene of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens: a time when the void was chiefly filled by amusing but trivial Silver-Fork Novels. Judith sees this second-rate writing as the expression of a general malaise:

She saw that she was in a society where nothing was real, where nobody believed in anything at all, where everyone feared what the morrow would bring. The ‘Silver Fork’ novels of fashionable life, just then beginning to be popular, were symptomatic of the falsehood and sham, while cruel and malicious sheets like the Age and the John Bull of Theodore Hook showed where the rottenness was hidden…

(Hmm… She was in a society where nothing was real, where nobody believed in anything at all, where everyone feared what the morrow would bring— Is that why we have so many terrible movies at the moment?)

The young Uhland Herries has a crippled leg, and lives withdrawn from his family. Most people are frightened of Uhland (with good reason, as we shall learn), and even his father, Walter, who almost worships him, does not understand him—least of all his passion for reading:

    Uhland was reading Ivanhoe.
    “What a silly book, Papa!” he said. “I am certain that people never talked like that.”
    Walter placed his great bulk on the bed and put his arm round his son. Under Uhland’s nightdress there was a sharp rigid spine-bone that seemed to protest against the caressing warmth of Walter’s hand.
    “Why not, my boy?” said Walter, who had never read Ivanhoe. “Sir Walter Scott is a very great man.”
    “Have you ever read a book called Frankenstein, Papa?”
    “No, my boy.”
    “That’s better than this stuff. Frankenstein creates a Monster and cannot escape it. There is too much fine writing, however…”

(This is the earliest instance I know of, of a fictional character identifying with Frankenstein’s Creature, as I prefer to call him. As a grown man, Uhland will give in to the blackest side of his nature and persecute his cousin, John Herries, exactly as the Creature persecutes Frankenstein, for far less cogent but psychologically similar reasons.)

As a young woman, Uhland’s sister Elizabeth finds a post as governess, but discovers that (as with the incompetent tutor) she is also expected to entertain her pupils’ mother:

Mrs Golightly enjoyed entertaining her friends in the evening…but perhaps more than anything else she enjoyed sitting with her toes in front of the fire of an evening and listening to Elizabeth’s reading of a novel. The original inquiry at the Agency about the Poets had been genuine enough, but when it came actually to reading—well, the novel was the thing! Elizabeth had a beautiful, quiet, cultivated voice, as Mrs Golightly told all her friends. It was a pleasure indeed to listen to her. So Elizabeth read, night after night, from the works of Bulwer, Ainsworth, that delightful new writer Charles Dickens, Theodore Hook, Mrs Gore, Miss Austen (“a little dull, my love—not enough Event”) and even some of the old Minerva Press’ romances—Mandroni, Ronaldo Rinaldini and The Beggar Girl And Her Benefactors, the last in seven volumes…

Meanwhile, Adam Paris grows up to be first a literary critic, and then an author of fantasy stories:

    “There are two sorts of writers, Mother, just as there are two sorts of Herries. One sort believes in facts, the other sort believes in things behind the facts.”
    “The books I like best,” she answered, “are those that have both sorts in them.”
    “For instance?”
    “Jane is reading me a very amusing story called Under Two Flags. It’s silly, of course—not like real life at all—but most enjoyable. And then there’s Alice In Wonderland. And then there’s Mr Huxley’s Man’s Place In Nature.”
    Adam laughed. “Mother, what a ridiculous mixture!”
    “They all come to the same thing in the end.”
    “What thing?”
    “The world is made up both of fantasy and reality, I suppose…”

As these passages illustrate, Walpole uses his characters’ reading not only to reveal their natures – here, the many contradictions of Judith – but to mark the passage of time and the changing of society: the events of The Fortress covering the years between 1822 and 1870 and climaxing with Judith reaching her 100th birthday.

But there’s one more literary passage in The Fortress that I must highlight, and—well, let’s just say that my man Hugh didn’t let me down:

They had never been to Uldale before on a visit, and this was a great adventure. ‘Madame’ was a ‘character’ through the whole countryside, and it was wonderful to be entertained in her parlour. Or was it Mrs Herries’ parlour? People said that she was mad and walked about the country singing songs to herself—mad, poor thing, because her husband had discovered her with her lover and he had killed himself. Very shocking, but how romantic! And then her son John was so handsome, the best-looking young man in the North, a little sad and pensive as a good-looking young man ought to be. For they adored Thaddeus Of Warsaw and Mrs Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano and Mrs Meeke’s Midnight Weddings

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20/08/2014

The Mysterious Wife

MysteriousWife1b“I am no stranger to the situation of your heart, nor do I want the proofs that letter contains to convince me your passion was returned, even with interest; still, after what you have heard, and the restrictions you are laid under, would you venture your future happiness upon so hazardous a stake? Love is a wild, ungovernable, romantic passion, and often leads the greatest men to commit follies; I would therefore have you strictly examine your heart before you decide upon so important a matter; this may be a most advantageous offer, and may prove the exact reverse; your liberty, peace of mind, nay, eternal salvation, may become the sacrifice, were you to accept these fascinating offers; it is a sort of equal chance, and upon my honour, remember it is the strong friendship I feel for you makes me speak thus plain, I would not advise you to run so great a risk…”

There’s something oddly fitting, I suppose, about using a novel about a wife who refuses to reveal her true identity to try and determine the true identity of the person who wrote it. Published in 1797, The Mysterious Wife was the first Minerva Press release to bear the imprint “Gabrielli”—who, as discussed previously, may or may not have been the same person as “Mrs Meeke”. Certainly I had these questions in my mind while reading this novel, and I remain unconvinced that a second hand wasn’t involved.

For one thing, The Mysterious Wife is a very long novel in which not much happens, which is not something you can say about the three earlier novels by “Mrs Meeke”. The first half of the first volume is devoted to drawing the novel’s young hero into his strange marriage, the conclusion of the fourth volume resolves things with a rush; everything in between is essentially filler. The only question is whether the narrative will ultimately vindicate the romantic relationship at its heart, or whether its moral will turn out to be, “That’s what you get for marrying a foreigner, or at any rate a Catholic.”

Perhaps more revealingly, however, the style of writing here is quite different. Grammatical errors are not uncommon, while the author favours a rather tortuous form of prose involving lengthy run-on sentences strung together with a seemingly endless supply of semi-colons. The shift in topic between the beginning and the end of any given paragraph is often quite remarkable.

The Mysterious Wife opens in France, Some years before the fatal epoch of the French Revolution – in-text allusions later place the action about 1775 – and is the story of a young man whom we first know as Henry Westhorpe, the unwanted poor relation of an English family which has moved for economic reasons to the town of St Omers; quite the English conclave for people in the same sad situation. As a child, Henry is firmly discouraged from asking questions about his parents. He is led to understand that his mother made a disgraceful marriage, and that his uncle, her brother, has permitted him out of generosity to use the name “Westhorpe”. This is as far as Mr Westhorpe’s generosity extends, however. As an infant, Henry is put out to nurse; at the age of six he is sent away to an inexpensive school, and stays there for the next ten years. He is in some respects fortunate in this: though the school is not one of high reputation, its master, Mr Parker, is a good and well-educated man, who recognises Henry’s academic abilities and nurtures them; while Mrs Parker is a kind-hearted, motherly woman. It is to the deep regret of all three when, at the age of sixteen, Mr Westhorpe sends for Henry and places him in a college near St Omers to finish his education.

Henry’s education completed, Mr Westhorpe disposes of him by arranging for an army commission. The main consequence of Henry’s career move, rather to the chagrin of his relatives, though Mr Westhorpe is glad to have him off his purse, is that he acquires two powerful friends: the “Chevalier Macharty”, a Scotsman in the French army, arranges Henry’s commission in a Swiss Protestant regiment via his friendship with the Marquis D’Orcy, a colonel in a French regiment, who despite the difference in their ages takes such a shine to Henry that he adopts him as a sort of unofficial younger brother.

One of the most tiresome aspects of The Mysterious Wife is its constant harping upon Henry’s perfections—few of which we see in practice—and its insistence upon his limitless popularity with “the best people”; this short early passage sets the tone for the rest:

Henry’s elegant, manly figure, and rare accomplishments, soon made him a welcome visitor every where. The Chevalier was never invited to any party, without being entreated to bring his protégée in his hand, to the no small delight of the good old man, who soon became strongly attached to his young friend…

Prior to Henry setting out to join his regiment, the grovelling Mr Westhorpe tries to recommend himself to the Marquis by boasting of all he has done for Henry. In doing so, he not only says more about Henry’s parents than he has done before, but hints that Henry’s background is not what the boy was previously led to believe. Henry now discovers that his father was of good family, a soldier killed at the siege of Quebec. An unguarded remark discouraging him from “making any claim” upon his relatives suggests the existence of wealth, at least, making his difficult childhood even more difficult to understand. Mr Westhorpe refuses to be more explicit, however.

Though regretting his separation from the Marquis, Henry soon adjusts to his new surroundings:

…Henry, now equipped en militaire, was the next morning presented to all the officers of the regiment; one only excepted, who was a North-Briton, they were all Swiss, and received their new comrade with the greatest politeness, particularly Captain Beattie, his countryman; and Henry was excessively pleased to find himself not the only Englishman in the corps, and in less than a month he was quite at home among his new companions, and soon found he was infinitely better off than he would have been in a national regiment, as the inferior French officers are generally low-bred, illiterate coxcombs; the younger sons of the provincial nobility, who depend chiefly upon their pay for a livelihood…

Good GOD!! What kind of miserable excuse for a human being depends upon his pay for a livelihood!!?? Amusingly enough, at this stage of the novel the answer to that question would be “Henry Westhorpe”, although we are in little doubt that his kind creator will soon enough relieve him from his state of shameful income-earning.

Evidently being in the army imposes very little restraint upon a young man, nor does it require from him anything more arduous than wearing becoming regimentals, doing the occasional “exercise”, or acquiring many “brother officers” as friends. (Presumably there are soldiers who are not officers, but they never intrude upon the narrative.) Thus, Henry is soon able to arrange an extended leave, and goes off to Spa with the Marquis for a holiday. While there, Henry is powerfully attracted to a young fellow-visitor:

The one in the middle…now afforded him a full view of as fine a set of features as ever graced a female face; she was leaning upon an arm of each of her companions, and appeared to be in very high spirits; she was elegantly dressed, for a morning, in a sort of slight mourning, did not seem more than one or two and twenty, was rather tall, but possessed sufficient embonpoint to prevent her looking awkward. Her blooming complexion convinced the Marquis and Henry she had not come to Spa in search of Hygeia’s blessings; a pair of bright blue eyes expressed very strongly the natural vivacity of her disposition, though they beamed with mildness and sensibility…

It soon becomes apparent that there is a mystery attached to this beautiful young woman: no-one seems to know who she is, and it takes Henry and the Marquis some time to discover that she lives retired from the public eye in a rented house outside of the town. She does, however, walk at the spa most mornings, and the two men take every opportunity to improve their acquaintance with her—such as it is, considering their ignorance, which she does nothing to relieve. It is soon evident to the experienced Marquis that the two young people are falling in love, and he worries about what the mystery of the woman’s identity might imply. The two most likely explanations that occur to him is that either the young wife of an elderly and jealous husband, who forces her to live out of the world in an effort to keep her from the gaze of more attractive men, or that she is a kept mistress. Neither of these explanations appeal to Henry, who cannot believe her guilty of sin and deceit. He counters with a suggestion that she is in mourning for a dead husband, and living retired until the expiry of the usual period.

However, the mystery with which the young woman surrounds herself convinces Henry that there is something untoward, something that puts her beyond the pale, and he tries to get the better of his feelings for her. During one of his deliberate absences from the morning walk, the Marquis encounters the young woman, and the two have a frank conversation. The Marquis emphasises Henry’s apparent low birth and penniless condition in an effort to discourage her, but if anything she seems pleased—particularly since, at the same time, the Marquis cannot help but expatiate upon his young friend’s personal excellence.

In the wake of this conversation, Henry receives a letter:

“…you have, no doubt, often, during our acquaintance, thought me a strange mortal, therefore you will not so much wonder at my endeavouring to act up to the character I have adopted; I chuse to be a riddle, and am not inclined in the present instance to regulate my behaviour by form or rule, so must entreat you would candidly answer the following question:—Dare you venture, knowing as little of me as you do at present, and without making any further inquiries, (which I must acknowledge would prove absolutely fruitless) to unite your fate to mine. If you are so inclined, I offer you my hand; my heart you have possessed for some time, and I do not wish to separate them. Still don’t presume too much upon my weakness; my passion shall be always subservient to my will, and my situation is such, that should you comply with my wishes, our marriage must remain a profound secret for a time, the reason shall be hereafter explained fully to your satisfaction; upon this point I pledge my honour, but at present neither your prayers nor entreaties, even were you to bind yourself by an oath to secrecy, (though I would as soon trust to your honour) should induce me to declare why this mystery is required? who I really am? nor what are the motives of my strange behaviour?”

The conditions attached to this proposal are startling. On one hand, the young woman – “Josephine”; we learn no more – assures Henry that there is no disgraceful secret connected with the mystery of her identity, and that she is both high-born and wealthy. However, there are cogent reasons why she cannot be more explicit at the moment and, if he accepts her proposal, he must accept also that he will not yet learn her real name and that the two of them must subsequently live apart until her situation alters.

Henry is tempted by this offer – too tempted. He consults the Marquis, who warns him against succumbing. Yet it is also the Marquis who subsequently removes the barrier of Henry’s suspicions, reporting to him that although he still does not know who the young woman is, he has accidentally discovered that she is acquainted with a certain Archduchess known for her high principles and the selectivity of her friendship, and must therefore be as spotless as she has asserted herself to be.

At this discovery, Henry’s resistance crumbles. He agrees to all of Josephine’s conditions, even though she warns him that the period of their separation may be months, if not years, and that it must begin only a fortnight after their marriage.

The modern reader may be amused by the financial arrangements associated with this strange marriage. In the context of the narrative, Josephine’s generosity is meant to be an expression of her boundless faith in Henry, but as every repeated refusal to reveal her identity or her situation comes accompanied by a wad of bills, it is hard not to feel that Henry is being bought off.

Amusing, too, is the sudden shift from love and romance to cold hard cash; a not-uncommon touch in English novels of this time, as we saw with respect to Munster Abbey:

“You are a soldier, and I have commenced heroine of a romance, you very probably think; but this necessary separation will merely be a mutual trial of our love and fortitude, and we will each endeavour to encourage the other during the painful interval which must elapse ere we meet again. I will have proper settlements drawn immediately according to my own instructions, and which I am unreasonable enough to hope you will sign without hearing them read; depend upon my attention to your future interest, and I will make you immediately independent. I read the wishes of your generous heart in your countenance; but  I desire your want of fortune may never occasion you a moment’s uneasiness, I am quite rich enough for both. You shall have a hundred thousand Livres Tournois down on or before our wedding-day, and I will insure you a like sum annually…”

And so they two are married – Josephine bearing for the occasion the title of “Madame la Baronne de Belville”, though Henry knows that isn’t her name – and enjoy a brief honeymoon. Then one day Henry comes home to find that Josephine has departed in his absence, choosing that there will be no difficult parting scene. Subsequently, the two communicate only by letter, their correspondence being facilitated by the Marquis and Josephine’s bankers.

Now—the separation of Henry and Josephine occurs on page 141 of a 1145 page novel, and the situation is not resolved until page 1137; so as you would appreciate, the author has to find some way of filling up the intervening three-and-a-half volumes.

In the first and most important ploy, the truth of Henry’s background is revealed. He is really Henry Cleveland, the grandson of Sir William Cleveland, “one of the wealthiest men in England”; his father was a younger son who quarrelled violently with his own father after marrying without his consent, and in opposition to his ambition. However, he was well-liked and respected in his own right, and died heroically in battle. Henry’s mother dying in childbirth, and Sir William Cleveland’s anger persisting, the infant boy was given to his mother’s relatives.

All this is discovered when Sir William’s agent comes looking for his long-lost grandson. Henry learns that his uncle and cousin have both died, and that he is now Sir William’s heir—Sir William being, we are reminded again and again—“one of the wealthiest men in England”. Henry is therefore summoned to England to take up his new position, thus ending his brief foray in the Swiss army. His grandfather, whose ambition is still his ruling passion, buys his grandson a title, and so humble Henry Westhorpe becomes Earl Fitz-Osborne.

The change in Henry’s circumstances also has the effect of revealing the real reason for Mr Westhorpe’s behaviour. It turns out that he embezzled the trust fund left to his care by Henry’s father, and lost the lot in bad investments. There were more reasons than one for the Westhorpes’ flight to France.

But even this drastic alteration in Henry’s situation takes up only a portion of the remaining pages. The rest of them are filled by:

  • Henry trying to hold at bay his grandfather’s attempts to arrange a “good” marriage for him, without revealing (i) he’s already married, (ii) his wife is a French Catholic, and (iii) he doesn’t know her name.
  • Henry embarrassing people who were mean to him when he was Mr Westhorpe’s unwanted poor relation
  • Henry making a lot of rich and titled friends, and visiting them
  • Henry exposing various blackguards and frauds
  • Henry participating in various pointless activities, in scenes that are supposed to be funny, but really aren’t. (One of these involves a horse being literally spurred and beaten to death.)

So it all becomes rather an endurance test. The only subplot that really means anything involves Henry’s attempts to discover Josephine’s identity, and even these usually turn into one of the other dot-points. For example: Henry learns of a woman who not only fits his wife’s description, but is called Josephine; she has married a nasty old man for his money. Meaning to expose her in his righteous fury, he encounters a complete stranger and ends up hiding from her jealous spouse in a cupboard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as time drags on and Henry continues to be put off with excuses, his patience begins to wear thin, and disillusionment sets in. When at length he resorts to making ultimatums, he receives an answer that both stuns and dismays him…

Now—assuming that he or she didn’t just zone out during the preceding 1000 pages, not that you would blame anyone who did, the reader should be aware of Josephine’s identity and the reasons for her reticence, even if Henry is not. About midway through The Mysterious Wife, Henry’s health begins to be affected by his constant lack of peace of mind, and he lapses into a fever. As he lies ill at an inn, he is visited by a woman calling herself Madame de Verneuil, who claims to be a cousin of the Marquis D’Orcy; she is a member of a nearby religious order, famed for its care of the sick and poor, and she insists upon Henry being transported to the Abbey. He is won over by her citing of his friend’s name, and allows the woman to have her way.

Pains are taken to assure the reader that the members of this particular religious order are not nuns, as such, and that they have no difficulty obtaining dispensation from their vows, should they choose to marry. We also hear much about the head of the order, the beautiful Princess de Beaufremont, “an angel upon earth”, though we do not see her. When it is subsequently revealed that Madame de Verneuil is not the Marquis’s cousin at all, Henry is puzzled, but thinks little more of it.

It is, however, “Madame de Verneuil” who responds to his final ultimatum to Josephine, spiriting him away in the middle of a masquerade and taking him to a mansion outside of Paris. Someone waits for him there, although it is not Josephine:

…a second little bustle induced him to seize one of the lights, and advance with cautious steps. He put by a silk curtain , which half concealed the object he was come in search of, and discovered a child, wide awake, who instantly put out its little hands to be taken up…

There is also a letter from Josephine, bidding Henry farewell forever…

Josephine is indeed the Princess de Beaufremont, “one of the wealthiest women in France”. With the death of her brother she has inherited her family’s titles and vast estates and wealth, something her greedy and vindictive relatives have no intention of allowing her to dispose of via marriage, least of all to an English Protestant. By misrepresenting the circumstances to the Pope, Josephine’s family not only prevents her from receiving dispensation from her vows, but has her marriage declared invalid. In addition, Josephine is to be confined to the Abbey for a full year, and has been forbidden to receive visitors or to correspond.

With these revelations, all of Henry’s love for Josephine is reawakened—but there is nothing he can do. With deep reluctance, he makes preparations to leave France for England, taking with him the baby, also called Henry, and resolving to raise him openly as his son, though he cannot be his legal heir.

When Henry learns the truth about Josephine, there are only 44 pages left in The Mysterious Wife, so it is purely a matter of how things will be resolved, rather than “what happens next”. For some considerable time, indeed, the narrative seems to have been shaping itself into a dire warning against romantic love and marriage, and an even direr one about getting involved with Catholics. (When Josephine’s fate is put to him in terms of papal infallibility, Henry had nearly sent the Pope to the —-, but reflected just in time, in whose company he was…) As Henry turns towards England, though in his bitter disappointment he swears that he will remain faithful to Josephine’s memory, the reader is very well aware that a highly suitable alternative bride awaits him in the shape of the beautiful and accomplished young daughter of a Scotch nobleman.

So it was, I admit, quite a surprise when it was revealed, only 4 pages from the end, that the Marquis D’Orcy had been very busy indeed since learning the truth about Josephine—petitioning the King, making sure that the true version of events reaches the Pope, negotiating Josephine’s release in exchange for her surrender of her title and one-half of her possessions, and having the legality of the marriage restored.

Though perhaps my surprise didn’t quite equal Henry’s:

    Unable to utter a single word, he flung himself upon his knees by the side of the sofa, and in this posture caught the lovely Josephine in his arms. His transports greatly accelerated her recovery; and, when perfectly sensible, her looks were infinitely more expressive than words could have been.
    Henry was half wild; his surprise almost equalled his joy, while a violent flood of tears relieved the bursting heart of his Josephine; and at last enabled her to say, “My Henry, we meet to part no more.”

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”.

30/05/2014

“A. Rogers” is “a young lady”

Wandering about in the realm of obscure 18th and 19th century fiction as I do, I often stumble over interesting cross-currents and odd coincidences. (On that subject, remind me to tell you sometime about The Two Lizzie Bates-es.) Not infrequently a factoid I’ve picked up in one context proves to have a bearing in another, or I’ll notice the same name cropping up in a number of seemingly unrelated places. Generally none of this is of the least actual importance, but in terms of my hunt for forgotten fiction, it adds another layer of enjoyment, like sprinkles on ice-cream.

When I turn up one of these writers who has, to all intents and purposes, vanished into oblivion, I like to see if I can find out anything about them. As you would appreciate, research such as this is a lot easier if the person in question is called, say, “Wilhemina Adelina de Vere Loftington”, than it is if they’re called “Anne Smith”. In this respect, a writer I’ve had a vague curiosity about since I first noticed her, but have been unable to discover anything concrete regarding, is one “A. Rogers”. If attributions are to be believed – and they are not necessarily so – “A. Rogers” wrote approximately ten novels, in addition to some miscellanea, during the second half of the 18th century. None of her works carried her name on their title page, but were all published as by “a young lady”.

There were a couple of reasons why this obscure novelist with a common name stuck in my memory.

The first is that although, to the best of my knowledge, she published spasmodically over a twenty-seven year period, “A. Rogers” never stopped referring to herself as “a young lady”.

The second reason is that, having started to publish novels in 1773 (perhaps; I’ll be coming back to that point in a minute), in the years 1787 and 1792, respectively, we find in the bibliography of “A. Rogers” the following works:

  • Lumley-House: A Novel. The First Attempt Of A Young Lady. In Three Volumes
  • Fanny; or, The Deserted Daughter. A Novel. Being The First Literary Attempt Of A Young Lady

Hmm…

So, simply because her discovery gave me a couple of giggles, I have always remembered “A. Rogers”.

Of course, attribution can be a tricky thing; and as I say, none of these novels carry an author’s name on the title page. However, “A. Rogers” comes up as the author of the works in question using a search of the Oxford University library system, which is good enough for me…

…usually.

Imagine my surprise when my research into the background of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley turned up this:

rogers1

 

 

 

 

This particular attribution does not come up searching through the Oxford University system, or through the Amazon system (a surprisingly good source for lost works), but only via Overcat, a search engine associated with the cataloguing site LibraryThing, which consists of “32 million library records…assembled from over 700 sources…” Boston College, as we see, happens to be the source of this particular search result.

I’m not quite sure what to think about this. My first impulse was to reject the attribution, chiefly because in spite of the spate of recent research into the origins of the Gothic novel and the Irish Gothic, academics in this area continue to refer to The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley as an anonymous novel. It seems to me that if it were possible to confidently assign authorship of the novel, someone would have done it.

In addition, this attribution puts a thirteen-year gap in the bibliography of “A. Rogers”, which doesn’t seem very likely.

On the other hand, if I arbitrarily reject this attribution, why should I believe any of the others? This confusion also throws a new light on those “first attempt[s] of a young lady”. Perhaps we’re not talking about the same person? Or perhaps “A. Rogers” was a very early example of the “house name”, the practice of concealing a variety of writers behind a single pseudonym, as with the Nancy Drew books by “Carolyn Keane”. Or perhaps an over-zealous cataloguing system simply decided that anything by “a young lady” was also by “A. Rogers”?

After pondering this for a ridiculous amount of time in the lead-up to my last spate of blogging, I finally decided to put the bigger problem to one side, and for the moment to stick with “If A. Rogers wrote The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, someone else would know it”. I was further confirmed in this line of argument by accessing the works of “A. Rogers” which are available online and noting their publication details. The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, as we have seen, was published in Dublin; whereas all the other novels attributed to “A. Rogers” were published in London; some of them (including one of the “first attempts”) by the Minerva Press.

All of them, that is, except 1786’s The History Of Jessy Evelinwhich was published in Dublin.

The mystery deepens…

 

 

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.

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…

26/02/2011

Valentine

Orlando, the amiable Orlando, returns then to Magdeburg, to his Isabella; and Oh! dreadful, dreadful recollection! demands her hand—compels her to meet him at the altar, and pledge those vows she cannot assent to.— Orlando, truly worthy, how sensible I am of your merit, and your love, but I cannot return it— Valentine, your still more happy brother, possesses it, and I am born to make you wretched.

One of my plans for this year was to participate in reading challenges as a way of bringing more obscure novels to light. This month, I had the chance to join in a very February-focused challenge, to read a book by someone called “Valentine”, or a book with the word “valentine” in the title. My choice was an anonymous novel from 1790 called Valentine.

What can I say? I have a very literal mind.

One of the stranger eruptions of the 18th-century was that of “sentimentalism”. This was a movement that went far beyond the merely “sentimental”: it was a reaction to the tenets of the Age of Reason; and far from celebrating rationality, it condemned it as an approach to life that encouraged self-interest and calculation; the worst kind of secularism. In contrast, sentimentalism saw emotion as a hotline to God. Man’s natural impulses and passions were, it argued, literally God-given, that is, everything that was pure, unselfish and generous, until corrupted by a wordly education. While the rational individual protected himself from harm by distance and a refusal to be involved, the sentimentalist opened himself to every emotion; and not only his own, but those of others with whom he came in contact, via an intensely cultivated empathy.

For all the age’s broad emphasis on rationalism, in artistic terms the first stirrings of this kind of deliberate emotional indulgence were evident quite early in the 18th century. We recall in Pamela, for example, Richardson’s staging of the reunion of Pamela and her father, which is organised to take place in the presence of the entire household, while everyone else stands around and watches them. The emotion of the two and the sentiments uttered by Mr Andrews upon learning of his daughter’s rise in the world are “feasted upon” by the gathered gentry, who analyse the scene afterwards as if they’d just watched a play. This vicarious pleasure in the extreme emotion of others is the key to the novel of sentimentalism, the model of which is Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. The novel’s naïve hero, Harley, travels around with all his nerve endings exposed, trying to help those in need, feeling every pain of every unfortunate he encounters, and being repeatedly taken advantage of by “rationalists”. He weeps, he suffers, he collapses and grows ill under the weight of his own emotion. In the end, discovering that the woman he loves, loves him, he dies of joy.

It seems incredible today, but The Man Of Feeling was an enormous success. People read it in groups for the specific purpose of crying over it publicly: to react in this way was a measure of a person’s “sensibility”. It’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that Harley dies. The very hallmark of the novel of sentimentalism is that almost everyone dies; the hero and/or heroine, certainly. Usually the final scenes leave just a person or two still standing, so that they can look back over the literary carnage and mourn. It is the strangest aspect of this very strange movement that it openly admits its inability to survive in the world of the rationalist; but to the sentimentalist, this very incapacity is evidence of an inherent moral superiority. They’re too good to live, you understand.

As always, other authors were swift to react to the emergence of a new subgenre; and for a couple of decades in the second half of the 18th century, tales of misery, death, doom and despair flooded the marketplace. Amongst this deluge was Valentine, a “pre-Minerva Press” novel – that is, it was published by William Lane before he introduced the Minerva Press imprint. I can’t say I’m exactly surprised to find Mr Lane cashing in on a trend.

One of the most interesting things about Valentine is its preface. This novel was, as I say, published anonymously, and I’ve been unable to decide in my own mind the sex of the author. The preface has a male persona, however, and the distance that its writer tries to put between – himself? herself? – and the text makes me suspect it was a man. Women writers at this time, whether publishing anonymously or not, were generally swift to reveal their gender as (hopefully) a way of warding off critical attack. On the other hand, a certain fixation upon the minutiae of dress in the story proper might suggest a woman.

In the preface, the writer tells us about being stood up by the friend he was supposed to having dinner with, and being instead left with a manuscript to read until the friend finally arrived, Which I was to give my candid opinion upon, on his return. As he found the manuscript, …worthy your notice, I send it unvarnished by any eulogium of mine, a tale unadorned by fiction. So he didn’t write it, and he didn’t find it, and anyway it’s not a work of fiction.

Typical of the genre, the preface is almost a novel of sentimentalism in itself. At completely unnecessary length, Mr I-Didn’t-Write-It tells us about his inheritance of a fortune, his retirement from business, his move to the country – and his belated discovery that, on the whole, he rather wishes he hadn’t retired from business and moved to the country: A recluse and still life is not calculated to raise content, when the mind has been busily employed for years in a Court of Law. Man is born for society, the hours hang heavy when crowded with too much reflection; Books will not always entertain or relieve; there is a vacuity in solitude; to pass the tedious hours alone is burdensome, and I cannot solace the day by the sports of the field, which afford me no enjoyment…

And why is he so burdensomely alone? You have to ask?

I have felt a severe affliction in my earliest days, by a disappointment in the tenderest of passions, that of Love!—Dear amiable woman! why was I fated to know you and to love you? Can I ever forget the innocence and beauty of your first appearance? No, never; never will the impression be effaced from my still bleeding heart. Love, early implanted, is not soon eradicated— I felt it in its full force, and could tell a very tender— But I am not addressing myself to you, for my own history, but to inform you that a few days past I was under an engagement to dine with a very particular friend…

Welcome to the world of the novel of sentimentalism, where explaining how you went to dinner with a friend will inevitably entail a recitation of the romantic woes that have scarred your life.

The story of Valentine  takes place in 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, opening in the aftermath of the Battle of Sohr, which took place on the 30th September, and finishing after the Battle of Kesselsdorf on 15th December. Its sketched account of the relevant campaigns is, as far as some quick research can ascertain, accurate. This grounding in reality is rather unusual for this kind of novel. However, the setting isn’t all that important except so as to ensure a high body count amongst the male characters, every one of whom is a soldier.

But while the background of this novel is concrete, the plot is, far more typically, rudimentary. The children of the families of Dholte and Marluritz have been raised together. Count Marluritz literally wills his only surviving daughter, Isabella, to the older of the Dholte boys, Orlando. This engagement is ratified by Isabella’s brother, Ferdinand (just before he dies, too), and has royal approval. However, Isabella is in love with Orlando’s brother, Valentine, and he with her; the two finally declare their feelings for one another. As pressure mounts on Isabella to go through with the wedding to Orlando, Valentine convinces her to run away. He conceals her with a family he befriended after carrying the son wounded from the battlefield. They are noble, but the widowed Baroness has raised her two children far from the corruption of the Court. She confides to Valentine that Eleanor is not in fact her daughter, but a foundling who carried with her indications of a high birth. Valentine finally persuades Isabella to a secret marriage, but a call to arms separates them almost immediately…

Now, you could probably make a decent story out of this, but Valentine doesn’t even try. Instead it settles down into a competition to see which of its characters can behave and speak in the most unnecessarily extravagant manner – while remaining at all times blissfully unaware of its own absurdity. Therein lies the enduring charm of the genre. Indeed, Valentine is the most hilariously awful piece of tosh it’s been my pleasure to read in a long, long time. I giggled from the opening soliloquy of the hero, completely absorbed in his own romantic problems although up to his armpits in battlefield dead, to the inevitable body count in the final pages.

The novel is written in semi-epistolary style, alternating between letters between the characters and prose when straight narration is required. These interpolations have their own little chapter headings – for example, The Widow Woolstan’s Affecting And Pathetic Narrative, The Tale Of Woe Continued, Valentine’s Morn Of Happiness, and (since one “morn of happiness” is as much as any character in one of these stories is ever allowed) A Pathetic Conclusion.

Valentine himself sets the tone from the beginning, unable to refrain from dragging Isabella into everything he thinks, says or does. When we meet him he is soliloquising as he gazes around the body-strewn battlefield, his high-blown moralising on the empty glories of war rapidly and idiotically turning into a speech about how if Isabella doesn’t love him, then he wishes he hadn’t survived, either. He is interrupted in his self-pitying musings by a cry for help from a wounded soldier. This, naturally, brings on another soliloquy about how Isabella doesn’t love him, so really, what’s the point?—

“Can compassion be extended,” said he, “amidst this scene? I will assist thee, perhaps thou hast an Isabella who may mourn thy loss, may sooth thy pains. These wounds were gained in the field of honour; thy plaintive fair too may even now be weeping for thy loss; while mine, insensible and regardless of my life or fame, gives all her anxious cares and fears to her Orlando. Distraction’s in the thought, but I will assist thy enfeebled strength.” When looking around he beheld a youth wallowing in blood…

It must be said, some of the fun goes out of Valentine once its lovers come to an understanding, and Valentine stops being compelled to drag Isabella and her supposed cruelty into every single random thought that crosses his mind. On the other hand, this plot thread does climax in a passage that is a masterpiece of incoherency, when upon placing Isabella with the Baroness and her family, Valentine begins to worry that his friend Woolstan might prove a romantic threat; while at the same time he remains oblivious to Eleanor’s attraction to himself:

They parted, inviolable secrecy was promised by all parties—Isabella sighed, Eleanor sighed—the eyes of Eleanor followed him ’till out of sight. Eleanor loved Valentine better than any man on earth, Woolstan excepted, but Woolstan was her brother. Valentine left Isabella in safety, yet Woolstan was young, was susceptible! Isabella attractive! But Woolstan, bred with Eleanor from their infancy, must love her in preference to all the sex, and Eleanor is not Woolstan’s sister.

Since story is a minor consideration here, we can amuse ourselves instead spotting the various tropes of sentamentalism. Some of them are stylistic, like the insistence of the characters upon addressing each other by their names instead of ever using pronouns, and the use of archaicisms (“Dost thou, Isabella, truly intend such cruelty to Valentine?”) Others are philosophical, like the constant harping upon the superiority of the cottage over the court, the country over the city; a belief that here takes the author to such extremes, he feels compelled to insist upon the natural elevation of every aspect, every single action, of country life…even knocking on the door:

    No burnished knocker graced the portal of the cottage door—no party coloured lackies with leaded canes preceded on before the carriage, and by their thundering reiteratinf rap, told their master of their errand.—These were not wanting here to grace the entry of Valentine at Staudentz, ever expected, ever welcome.
    His whip performed the necessary notice, two taps, gentle as the breathing bosom of the lovely Isabella…

Mind you, the author’s determination to extol “simplicity” at every opportunity sometimes causes certain difficulties, such as when it clashes with a desire to bestow everyone with enormous fortunes (various solemn descriptions of death are interrupted to tell us who inherited what), or to to paint lengthy word-pictures of Isabella and her “elegant” wardrobe:

The beautious form of Isabella, which required no ornament, was neverthless elegantly dressed; her robe, of white muslin (according to the fashion of the country) was long, but not tuck’d up, for the convenience of walking, covered with an azure coloured petticoat; round her waist was a zone, or cestus, of black velvet, fastened with a gold buckle, on her head was a bonnet, originally the manufacture of Leghorn, decorated with white ribbon…

Eleanor’s whole attention was fixed on her diamond clasps, her gold buckle, and the flowing elegance of her robe… She viewed Isabella as a Deity; while, on the contrary, Isabella beheld Eleanor as a model of perfection, luxuriantly adorned by nature! for Isabella was truly insensible to the power of her own attraction—and for dress, she subscribed to it more from custom than any intention she had to embellish those charms, in which nature had been so lavish to her…

Another idiocy here, one that to be fair is quite common in epistolary novels generally, is the author’s inability to give us the characters’ back-stories without having them tell each other at length things they must already know. Here the main culprit is Isabella, writing to her friend Bertha; the tone of their correspondence is entirely set by the opening paragraph of its opening letter:

And will Bertha still favor with her friendship the unfortunate, the unhappy Isabella? Will the daughter of the amiable Baroness Waesneri, still give sanction to her friend, removed from her to a distant home? Will she honor with her confidence the former partner of her heart, intrust her secrets, tell her inquietudes, pour the torturing anxieties of disappointment or expectation into her faithful bosom; and receive, in exchange, the heart rending troubles and distresses of her Isabella? Yes, you have told me you will…

At one point, Bertha addresses Isabella as, The friend of my infant, as well as my maturer years. Heaven knows what the two of them were talking about all that time: in an earlier letter, Isabella states, That Isabella is the daughter and only surviving child of Field Marshall General Count Marluritz, is all my Bertha knows of a life, young and already seasoned in the disappointments of this world’s glories… – before proceeding to edify her (and, of course, us) with her life story.

I’m sure it won’t come as any surprise to anyone to learn that Isabella is a crier. Well – that is to say – they’re all criers; that goes without saying; but Isabella takes the prize. Here are just a few, a very few examples of how she seems to pass most of her time:

At the mention of his name her eyes were suffused in a briny torrent…

I weep, Bertha—an involuntary flood of tears comes to my relief.— You will, at parting from the Baron Schwerin, let fall regretting tears; yet not with such poignancy of sorrow as these which fall so abundantly, so incessantly, from the eyes of Isabella…

“No, Valentine, I love but you alone. I cry incessantly, it is Valentine draws the tears…” I threw myself on my knees, and with a flood of tears eased the bursting heart of Isabella…

The letter however from the first friend of Isabella drew those crystal drops that were wont to fall from her eyes…

Isabella’s tears ceased not to flow, and more, for Valentine was now her husband, she need not now conceal the cause…

“…yet Valentine I waked in tears, and the pillow which supported the head of your weary Isabella, was wet with the gushing suffusion…”

And really, I can only say with Oscar Wilde— Anyone who doesn’t find Isabella’s relentless and determined misery quite hilarious must have a heart of stone.

However, perhaps the single outstanding quality of the novel of sentamentalism is the gap that develops between the reader’s perception of the characters’ actions, and that of the characters themselves; a gap that, granted, may have been a great deal smaller, or even non-existent, in 1790. These days, however, it is impossible not to be struck by the way in which the characters in novels like these view everything through the distorting lens of their own total self-absorption.

In Valentine, the best example of this is the sneaking behaviour of our putative hero after his hiding of Isabella. An increasingly frantic Orlando begins to suspect every man he knows of being responsible for Isabella’s disappearance – well, except for his noble and honourable brother – and finally challenges one of them, Baron Schwerin, to a duel. Does even this cause Valentine, who has looked on silently at his brother’s growing distraction, to confess himself responsible? Of course not. Instead, he lets his brother and his good friend go off and try to kill each other – as they very nearly do. In fact, it is evident during the duel that Orlando has stopped caring whether he lives or dies, and it is only due to Schwerin’s generosity that he escapes with his life. Even Isabella, more than a little self-absorbed herself, is disturbed by this event – although it is only the danger to Orlando to which she reacts. Her lover’s self-serving passivity doesn’t seem to bother her, nor that the man her best friend loves could have been killed just to preserve her secret. I guess that things like that are all in a day’s work, when you’re a sentamentalist.

Anyway…it all ends in tears, of course. Valentine has a double-barrelled ending, its final miseries described first in a letter from Schwerin to Bertha, and then again by the author in the third person; I suppose in case we hadn’t all suffered enough the first time. And since we’ve been studying the various lengths and forms of the run-on sentence, it pleases me enormously to be able to report that Valentine ends with one even longer than that which opened Rosabella…which of course gives me an excuse to wrap up this nonsense by quoting it:

Orlando left the chief of his fortune to Eleanor, which with her own, made it very considerable; they were at a proper time married in Berlin, and though it was not possible for a man to be more attached to beauty, than the Baron was to his lovely Eleanor, with whom he had been brought up from their tenderest infancy, yet had she not influence sufficient over him to make him quit the path of fame and glory, in which his father and all his progenitors had trod, a path of fame, although so unhappily fatal to his dearest friends, in the lamented, the valiant and brave Valentine with the amiable Isabella.

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.