Posts tagged ‘picaresque’

28/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 2)

SophiaBerkley1O heavens! what was my amazement; I rose and flew into his arms. Joy and astonishment at once took possession of all my faculties. Every power of expression was lost—I only breathed forth, My Horatio! and sunk upon his bosom, unable to proceed: he casting a look of inexpressible delight upon me, clasped me to his breast, with all the enraptured transport that attends the return of a once enjoyed, but long lost blessing. It was with difficulty I could persuade myself, this was not all a vision. How inferior is all language to the varied emotions of my soul! I was even doubtful whether I should believe my senses; but my fond, flattering heart, confessed its loved possessor. The dear, the faithful Horatio, whose death I had so greatly mourned, was again restored to me. Conceive, my Constantia, conceive the mutual transport that filled us…

Having escaped from Castilio, Sophia goes cross-country and into some surrounding fields, where she feels safe enough to have a bit of a meltdown. She is found by an elderly shepherd who takes her home to his wife. The couple care for her until her health and nerves are restored. They are (rather improbably) sufficiently lettered to have paper, pen and ink in their cottage, allowing Sophia finally to get a letter away to Mrs Williams…and another…and another. When she does not hear from her friend, Sophia is despairing; but the cottagers come to her rescue once again, diffidently offering to adopt her, in effect, as they have no children of their own. She accepts with gratitude, and lives nearly a year with the elderly couple.

Here too The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley has more in common with the sentimental novels of the time than with the Gothics to come, as we get extended passages devoted to extolling the simple life and how happiness and virtue are to be found in a cottage, not a mansion. (We do get this in Gothic novels too, but generally from a safe distance, not when the heroine is actually living it.) But this idyll doesn’t last, as Typhoid Sophia strikes again. The old woman is killed when a cow kicks her in the head. The grieving widower decides he cannot bear to go on living at the cottage without his wife, and conveniently enough prepares to go to London, where after making sure Sophia has a safe refuge—

…the old shepherd, who was the only friend I had in the world, was taken ill, and died about three weeks after he came to London. At his death, he gave me all he had in the world, which consisted of about fifty pounds…

Sophia has already tried and failed to get word of Mrs Williams, though with a not unnatural fear of falling once again into the hands of Castilio or his myrmidons she restricts her public movements. Finally she decides that she will have to support herself by going into service. At this point she remembers the existence of the useful Juliet, in service herself some distance out of town:

She sent me an answer, expressing her sorrow for my misfortunes; she told me she knew nothing about Mrs Williams, to whom she had wrote, but that she never received any answer. She concluded her letter by telling me, that if she could be any use to me, she would leave her place and come to town…

We note with relief that Sophia does not accept this offer, but continues to seek a position as lady’s maid on her own account. She hears of a place that she thinks will suit her, but before she is able to act upon it, she is seized by a bailiff. Her bewilderment turns to horror when she discovers that she has been arrested for a debt supposedly owed to Castilio, who has forged her signature upon an IOU for one hundred pounds. Her protests and pleadings attract a crowd, but they hesitate to interfere with the law. However, a passing gentleman observes the commotion and intervenes, giving the bailiff a bank bill for the debt (whether he is in on the plot or not, the bailiff is disappointed with this outcome), and carrying the fainting Sophia away from the scene.

The gentleman, Dorimont by name, falls in love with Sophia at first sight (of course), which puts her in an awkward situation: she is grateful to him, and in his debt; but after her loss of Horatio she resolved never to marry. She is at least geographically rescued from her dilemma by an accidental encounter with Mrs Williams, not only hale and hearty but in possession of a small legacy that allows her to live independently. Sophia takes up residence with her friend, but this does not protect her from the inevitable declaration – not Dorimont from the inevitable can’t-we-just-be-friends? response:

A death-like paleness overspread his face: he let go my hand, which he had yet held between his; and reclining his head upon his breast, he remained for some time in that mournful posture. O Constantia, what various emotions filled my soul! To behold Dorimont, in a situation like this; to see his soul struggling between love and honour; to be witness to his agony, and to know myself the cause, overcame all my resolution. Tears filled my eyes. O Dorimont, said I, taking his hand, I cannot see you thus. Let not this unhappy passion for me—I was proceeding, but he interrupted me. O Sophia, said he, I am ashamed of my weakness: but who renounces calmly the fondest wishes of his soul? I foresaw what you would say, but no preparation was sufficient to guard me from the cruel conflict. You must, you shall be obeyed, even though my life should be the sacrifice…

Or not. Dorimont drops into an armchair and communes with himself for about half an hour:

He then on a sudden assumed a calm and serene air; and coming up to me, he again took my hand, and pressed it to his lips. What a victory you have gained, madam! said he; in Dorimont you are no longer to behold a lover, but a friend…

It’s just that easy!

Just as well, too:

…a servant came up, and told me there was a gentleman below, that asked to see me immediately. As I was still apprehensive of Castilio’s contrivances, I began to fear this was some new treachery of his, as I could by no means guess what gentleman should enquire for me. I entreated Dorimont to go down and see who it was. He was hardly gone, when he returned, leading in his hand, O Constantia, you will hardly believe it—My Horatio! my long lost Horatio!

Some credit is due here to our anonymous author, who again (as in her description of the practical means taken by Sophia and Fidelia to escape from Castilio) reveals a practical bent in conflict with the demands of her chosen genre: in spite of “sinking” onto Horatio’s bosom, Sophia does not actually faint. In fact, she pulls herself together in a remarkably short space of time, and starts making the necessary introductions. We are a far cry here from the absurdities of something like Munster Abbey, with its repeated scenes in which a character almost dies of joy. (And nor, for that matter, can Munster Abbey touch The Man Of Feeling, which actually does have someone die of joy.)

We then hear all about Horatio’s adventures among the “pyrates”. Of course he had only fainted from loss of blood when he was carried off; and also of course, when he is in danger of being tossed overboard his life is spared by one of the band, “having more humanity than the rest”. However, it turns out that one of the pyrates killed by Horatio during the initial fight was, ahem, “one of the favourites” of the captain, Rodolpho, who is so determined on revenge that he rejects the offer of a large ransom in preference for making Horatio’s life a living hell:

I was not without hopes that when we came to land, I might find some way to escape and return to England. I determined therefore to wait patiently, and arm myself with all my resolution to bear the insults of the inhuman Rodolpho, who took pleasure in making me sensible I was in his power. But I was always superior to my ill fortune, and treated Rodolpho with a contempt which provoked him beyond expression…

Not too smart on Horatio’s part, we might think, particularly when it turns out that the pyrates are slave-traders…

And here we might pause for a flashback. Those of you who were around in the very earliest days of this blog might recall that in the very first novel I ever considered for Reading Roulette, Elizabeth Jervis’s Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events, the hero (or at least, the man with whom the heroine was in love) was also captured by pirates and enslaved. Now, this did happen during the 18th century; but I can’t help wondering whether it’s one of those things that happened much more frequently in novels than in actuality?—and how many novelists did use this as a device for separating their lovers? Mrs Jervis does at least pay lip-service to the real circumstances, with ships from Christian countries being attacked by Muslim pirates operating out of North Africa. Our anonymous “young lady”, on the other hand, gives us a band of predominantly English “pyrates” operating rather improbably off the south coast of England. Either way, it should be kept in mind that after peaking during the first half of the 18th century, the activities of the Barbary pirates were severely curtailed mid-century onwards, first by an increasing multi-national naval presence in the Mediterranean, and then by the Barbary Wars of the 1780s.

In fact, most captives during this time were ransomed rather than enslaved. However, Horatio has ticked off Rodolpho to such an extent that not only does he refuse a ransom, he enslaves Horatio personally, setting him with a number of others to work in a marble quarry hewing rock from which he, Rodolpho, intends to have a luxurious house built. (The pyrates are based in Algiers, which is at least an accurate detail.) Horatio finds an escape plan already brewing – one rather questions the wisdom of Rodolpho in giving his slaves free access to tools – and becomes part of the band building a boat out of the flotsam and jetsam tossed up upon the coast. The men save up their scanty rations to make provisions and, under the leadership of a former sailor, make their escape.

And here we see how entirely Horatio and Sophia are made for each other: he, too, tends to walk away unscathed, while leaving death and disaster in his wake:

    The third day of our navigation there arose a violent tempest; the sea was prodigiously agitated; the waves tost up to an amazing height: the whole heavens were darkened; horrid peals of thunder roared over our heads; and a prodigious flash of lightning every now and then furnished us with light sufficient to behold our danger; for we were thrown into the midst of a great number of rocks, against some of which we expected every moment to strike…
    A horrid blast of wind, stronger than the first, now arose, and whirled us round and round for a few minutes; then it threw us with a redoubled violence against the same rock; at which instant, our ship split into a thousand pieces. I was thrown by the force of a wave upon the side of a rock, and was so bruised by the blow that I had the utmost difficulty to rise, which, however, I did; and finding there was a small neck of land adjoining to the rock, I made a shift to crawl a few paces forward, and got at last upon firm ground…

Horatio is the only survivor (of course) and finds himself not so badly off: his island offers fresh water, fish and fruit to eat, and flints for a fire; and he lives there for six months until picked up by a passing French ship that spots his distress signal. On board he makes a friend, who will be the linchpin of his next set of adventures:

    His name was the Marquis de Bellville: he was the only son to the Duke de Bellville, one of the oldest families in France. This young nobleman was possessed of a thousand good qualities. He had an uncommon elevation of soul, an untainted honour, and the utmost generosity.
    But with so many amiable qualities, he had one, which threw a shade upon them all, and was the source of the misfortunes that since befel him. He was naturally excessive passionate: the violence of his temper would so totally get the better of his reason, that, in a fit of rage, he would have committed the most extravagant actions imaginable…

The Marquis carries Horatio to his family seat. The two make plans to travel together to England, and in the meantime, via a friend, Horatio tries but fails to get some word of Sophia. His only thought is to go in search of her, but events intervene: the Marquis has a sister who (of course) falls desperately in love with Horatio. (If Sophia’s adventures owe something to Clarissa, Horatio’s own smack of Sir Charles Grandison.) Discovering his sister’s secret, the Marquis – despite the fact that he knows about Sophia! – proposes a marriage. When Horatio (of course) refuses, the Marquis does not take it well – to say the least:

Ah! my dear Marquis, said I, how distressful is the situation in which I find myself. I am truly penetrated with the distinguishing mark of honour I have just now received—but, O Belville! it is impossible for me—Enough, enough, interrupted the Marquis, whose eyes sparkled with indignation; and this is the return you make me; my sister, it seems, is unworthy your acceptance. Alas! Belville, replied I, you blame me most unjustly; Mademoiselle de Bellville deserves all that heaven, in its utmost profusion of blessings, can bestow—but you know that I am—A villain, replied he fiercely. How! Bellville!—But do not hope, continued he, transported with rage, do not hope to boast of having refused and insulted my sister, this very moment shall avenge her. At these words he drew his sword…

At first Horatio fights only defensively, hoping to disarm his psychotic young friend, or at least hold him off until he cools down; but finally there is only one way he can save his own life…

Then we meet the Duke de Bellville, and find out where the Marquis got all his rationality and sense of proportion:

…a letter de cachet was procured by the Duke against me; and I was conducted into a dark and horrible dungeon, where I was put in chains, as if I had been a common malefactor…

After four days of this, Horatio is hauled before the King; but since he won’t reveal the cause of the fight between himself and Bellville, he is condemned in short order.

Then something weird happens: Horatio literally has his head upon the block when there is an uproar nearby, and he is reprieved. He is taken back to the palace, where he learns to his bewilderment that someone else has confessed to the killing of the Marquis and, furthermore, that the two peasants who stumbled into the scene at the conclusion of the duel and were the main witnesses for the prosecution, are now insisting that the second young man, Clerimont by name, was responsible. Clerimont testifies that he and Horatio have been life-long friends, and that taking the blame for the Marquis’s death was Horatio’s way of repaying his friend for once saving his life. The peasants, meanwhile, were bribed by Horatio to remain silent over Clerimont’s guilt, Clerimont himself having been wounded in the duel and oblivious to his friend’s machinations.

Horatio being Horatio, he continues to insist upon his own guilt and that, furthermore, he has never seen his “life-long friend” before. The King, at first inclined to be admiring of his sacrifice, grows angry at what he comes to interpret as a plot to help Horatio escape retribution. Finally, losing his temper, he condemns both young men to death, and at once. Horatio and Clerimont are therefore hustled back to the place of execution. On the way, all Horatio’s thoughts are taken up with the question of just who this person is, but Clerimont does not explain, merely passing him a note with strict instructions not to read it until he, Clerimont, has been executed.

Clerimont now prepared himself to receive the fatal blow: but what words can paint the horror and surprise that filled me; when, as he was fixing his head upon the block, in the posture which the executioner thought most convenient, I beheld a mask, made so artificially, as to represent a human face, fall to the ground, and discover the lovely features of Mademoiselle de Bellville!

The young lady has stood up unshaken to the prospect of being executed, but being exposed like this before the mob causes her to be overcome with maidenly shame; naturally, she faints. A lieutenant who has had charge of Horatio, and become attached to him, obeys his pleas to carry Mademoiselle de Bellville to a safe place, and then accompanies his charge back to the palace once again – I know not, said the lieutenant, what effect this may have upon the king; but I think he will hardly send you to the scaffold a third time – and in fact, His Majesty has a mood swing, exonerating Horatio and trying to make it up to him for the whole repeatedly-trying-to-cut-your-head-off thing.

By this time the Duke has also cooled down; he is further appeased by Horatio offering him his sword, so that he might take his life if he chooses. Escaping this peril, Horatio nevertheless concludes that, all things considered, he is in honour bound to Mademoiselle de Bellville if she wants him; but she – so to speak – pulls an Isabella:

    After what I have done, Horatio, it would be vain for me to deny my real sentiments with regard to you. I shall own, without a blush, that you are the only man I ever did, or ever can love. But do not imagine my affection for you is attended by any of that weakness which generally accompanies this passion. I would have died for you, Horatio—Did that resolution appear noble? The one I have taken is much nobler.—Your heart, your vows, can never be mine; your gratitude is—your esteem shall be—You imagine, perhaps, that I shall accept the sacrifice you have prepared to make me of yourself; but here you are mistaken; for I swear by heaven I will never give my hand to any man…
    Mademoiselle de Bellville begged me to leave France immediately, and return to my native country; from whence I had been too long absent. Do not think, said she, to stay any longer here on my account, for after to-morrow you will not again see me; I shall retire into a convent…

Horatio, off the hook in both respects, wastes no time fleeing France for England (and who can blame him?). He immediately seeks out the friend who he tasked with trying to get news of Sophia, but he has learned nothing of her beyond the death of her father.

But not to worry! In a marvellous bit of anticlimax, after all their adventures Horatio and Sophia are reunited thus:

…but it happened very fortunately, that I took a lodging in that very house which my Sophia left when she came here. As I was asking the man of the house what lodgers he lately had, he mentioned several, and amongst them a young lady, who, by the description he gave me of her, I soon discovered to be Sophia. I asked him eagerly, if he knew where she now lodged; he told me that he did, and then gave me a direction here…

Horatio and Sophia are then married. This isn’t quite the end of things, but – in a touch that finally, out of all its possible genres, places The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley firmly in the camp of the novel of sentiment – it concludes with a paean to friendship, which novels of this kind commonly exalt above love. And in this spirit, although two of the friends in question are Dorimont and Mademoiselle de Bellville (whose father finally insists upon her leaving the convent), the novel surprises us just a little by declining to marry them off:

    Prepared as I was to admire and love Mademoiselle de Bellville—I was struck with the distinguishing graces of her appearance and manners. She treated me with the most polite distinction; she honoured me with her friendship; and never, I believe, was there a more perfect one than that which we contracted together.
    It is only souls of a certain kind that can conceive the happiness flowing from a society like ours.
    Friendship unmixed—confidence unbounded—reigned among us, and reigned uninterrupted…

25/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 1)

SophiaBerkley1
 

    The hated Castilio renewed his unmanly treatment. He swore by heaven, he would no longer be imposed upon. Prepare, said he, in a menacing voice, to receive me this night to your bed; for may eternal perdition seize me, (that was his horrid expression) if I allow you another night; you abuse my complaisance, but I will no longer be trifled with. Having said this, the inhuman monster left me.
    I threw myself upon the floor, and gave myself up to the most agonising despair: I tore my hair, and bathed the earth with my tears. I now saw the fatal hour approach, when death or infamy must be my portion. I lay some minutes in this situation; then summoning all my resolution to my assistance, I reproached myself severely for my want of courage. What, thought I, do I hesitate between death and dishonour! I threw myself upon my knees, and poured out the bitterness of my anguish to heaven, resolving to die at once, and by that means relieve myself from the horrors that surrounded me…

 

 

 

 

While I was researching Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl Of Salisbury, I came across something both fascinating and frustrating. To start at the end, there has recently been a push to show that a number of the tropes we take for granted in English Gothic literature may be found, at least in embryonic form, in mid-18th century Irish writing. Academics working in this area argue that most such regional works are overlooked almost as a matter of course, with mainstream dogma taking it for granted that this school of writing started in England; and that even when such studies include Longsword as a proto-Gothic, rather than starting with The Castle Of Otranto, they rarely identify Thomas Leland as an Irish writer.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, the following remark in a piece by Deborah Russell titled, Generic Restrictions And The ‘Female Gothic’:

Morin also argues that “scholars of British Gothic fiction generally ignore the fact that two Irish Gothic novels were published before The Castle of Otranto”, the most significant of which is Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762).

This, as you might imagine, sent me off on a frantic hunt for “Morin”, and the identity of that second novel…

After some hunting, I identified the source of this remark as a paper by Christina Morin, Forgotten Fiction: Reconsidering the Gothic Novel in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, and the novel in question as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, published in Dublin in 1760 by “a young lady”, and therefore pre-dating Longsword by two years, and Otranto by four.

The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is a short novel, a single volume of only around 170 pages; but it is sufficiently entertaining, if not always in the way in which its anonymous author intended. By far the most interesting thing about it is how many different genres intersect within its pages. It has a number of features in common with the picaresque novel that flourished during the 18th century, although since its focus is a young woman the “adventures” are of a different kind (in this, its author may have been influenced by the earlier works of Penelope Aubin). It is an early example of the novel of sentiment, dwelling at length upon the moral superiority of its characters, and having them exhibit that superiority through their emotions; although it never reaches the heights, or depths, of something like Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It is an epistolary novel – sort of – which from mid-century onwards became perhaps the dominant novelistic form; and it is (albeit unknowingly) a proto-Gothic novel.

No more than Longsword is The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley a true Gothic, but its placing at the earliest point (so far) in the timeline of Gothic literature is justified. The usual historical and geographical settings are missing, but this is a woman-in-peril novel par excellence. However, the plot offers no mystery to be solved, and the narrative is quite as devoted to lengthy descriptions of its characters’ “exalted sentiments” as it is to its heroine’s adventures. Furthermore, in spite of its general popularity, the true Gothic novel would eschew the epistolary form, presumably since having someone to correspond with in the first place would undermine the sense of the heroine’s isolation and danger that is one of the genre’s hallmarks.

So the upside of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley is that it is consistently interesting, even though it is extremely doubtful that its author intended any of the qualities that make it so. The downside is – if you consider it a downside – it’s not very good.

I say that this is “sort of” an epistolary novel because the correspondence presented is entirely one-sided. In fact, this is really just a first-person narrative broken up into letters rather than chapters. The main effect of this choice is to add a welcome note of the ludicrous to the proceedings, as without a third-person narrator to tell the reader how beautiful and accomplished and full of “delicacy of sentiment” Sophia is, she’s forced to tell us so herself:

I was then just nineteen, my person was graceful, and I was universally reckoned handsome by the men [who] all paid me the homage, that is in general so delightful to a young heart… As for me, I was totally unacquainted with the arts of my sex…

Similarly, the first-person narration of The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley adds an unintentional comic edge to the action of the novel. It is not uncommon in this genre for the heroine’s beauty and goodness to win her partisans on her difficult journey through the world, but ordinarily we hear about their motivations from themselves. Here, with everything filtered through Sophia’s self-absorption, we hear only about her problems, as the people who help her drop like flies along the way.

Sophia’s letters, as so often in the novels of this period, comprise her attempt to fulfil a request from her dearest friend, Constantia, who signifies her attachment in the usual way:

You insist upon my giving you a circumstantial account of all that has happened to me, from my infancy to the time when I was so happy as to be acquainted with you…

However, Sophia starts with a background sketch of her parents: he an army officer and a younger son, she the daughter of an objecting nobleman, both of already feuding families; they eloped, and remained unforgiven by both sides (thus explaining why, later on, Sophia has no relatives to turn to in her travails). Sophia was the only child of the marriage, her mother dying young. She grows up happy in her father’s love and care, but regrets that she has no true friend:

I had naturally a turn for friendship. I found something in this passion more consistent with my ideas than any other; I wished to meet with one who could think on this head like myself; but here I was always disappointed. The young women of my acquaintance looked upon me as a romantic girl, and were incapable of conceiving those joys which flow from the sacred influence of friendship. I began at last to persuade myself that my ideas were perhaps chimerical, when I fortunately became acquainted with a young lady, who had a soul superior to her sex, and whose delicacy of sentiments were upon a level with my own…

Fortunate for Sophia, perhaps; not so much for Isabella. In a distinctly Gothic-y touch, we are told (not quite casually enough) that Isabella has been raised in her mother’s Roman Catholic faith – A religion which, as it addresses itself to the passions of mankind, can never chuse a better opportunity of taking possession of the mind, than when it is weakened by grief – thus immediately clueing us in on her eventual fate. Isabella is naturally of a “spritely” disposition, so Sophia notices at once when she suddenly grows grave and sad. Isabella finally confesses to unrequited love for the heir to a neighbouring estate. Sophia herself is unacquainted with the young man, Horatio, and when she expresses a curiosity to meet him, Isabella suffers a qualm at the thought of introducing them.

And not without cause:

O Constantia! how shall I teach you to conceive what a sight of this lovely youth inspired me with. His form and person was perfectly pleasing: the bloom of youth sat upon his cheeks. His eyes were a fine blue, and sparkled with a gentle lustre… His conversation was full of good sense, and perfectly consistent with that modesty of soul so little known among men, and yet the greatest charm they can possess. He seemed particularly struck with me…

And of course, he is; so much so that the very next day he asks permission to address her. This creates something of a dilemma for our perfect Sophia:

…the only obstacle I saw, was my friendship for Isabella; and to such a height did I carry this friendship, that I secretly resolved, let the consequence be what it would, never to marry Horatio, unless I could do so without making her miserable. To purchase my own happiness at the expence of my friend’s, was a meanness I should have despised myself for. No one, I believe, ever carried their ideas higher upon these heads than I did…

…except, luckily for her, Isabella, who seeing the writing on the wall, takes herself off to a convent, which we’ve been expecting since her religion was mentioned. Sophia suffers such qualms of conscience over Isabella’s sacrifice that it is a full six hours after hearing of her resolution before she accepts Horatio’s proposal.

Now—the fact that the hero and heroine come together so quickly and easily at the outset of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley is of course an unmistakable sign that they’re about to be separated, lengthily and painfully.

Only a couple of days before the wedding, our young lovers are late arriving home after sitting in the dying light by the sea. Sophia then finds that she has lost her watch. Horatio goes to look for it, and gets attacked by pirates. Naturally.

When Horatio fails to return to the house, a frightened Sophia sends her father after him; he returns some time later in a state of despair, bringing with him the dead body of Horatio’s servant. The servant did live long enough to describe the attack by “a crew of pyrates who frequently infested these coasts”, and how Horatio accounted for four of the pirates before succumbing to his own wounds. The pirates were looting his body when some villagers ran up and, rather than lose their valuable prize, they carried his body away with them…

Sophia suffers agonies of grief, though it is surprisingly never suggested that she is dying of it. In fact, she has just regained something resembling tranquillity of spirits when she suffers the loss of her father, from “a violent fever”. As he lies dying, he is forced to make a confession:

I have been too profuse in my manner of living—my whole estate is gone, and you are left to poverty and distress! At these words he fell into convulsions. The violent agitation which his tenderness for me threw him into, was too great for his strength to support…

Yes, well. It’s a pity his “tenderness” for Sophia didn’t lead him to save a buck or two, but I guess you can’t have everything. When her father’s affairs are settled, not without input from some rapaciously dishonest creditors who take advantage of her ignorance, Sophia finds herself in possession of a mere one hundred pounds, and without a roof over her head. Having dismissed all of the servants except a maidservant called Juliet, Sophia braces herself and resolves to move to—the most expensive and dangerous place she can think of:

I determined to go to London, though I had no acquaintance there… Thus, at the age of twenty, you behold me destitute of money or friends; having already undergone two of the severest trials that can happen to a woman upon the point of entering the place in the world, where, for a female, experience and protection are the most necessary.

Luckily for Sophia, she has Juliet. It is Juliet who does know something of London; who arranges the journey; who finds a safe place for Sophia while she goes out to look for lodgings for her; who finds those lodgings, and at a price Sophia can afford; and who takes every opportunity to express her profound devotion to her mistress:

…adding, with tears in her eyes, that if I chose to have her live with me, she would never leave me; that she should be sufficiently paid in being with me; and as she had saved money in service, she would never take any wages…

The woman with whom Sophia lodges, a Mrs Williams, is a distressed gentlewoman reduced to running a milliner’s shop. When she hears the particulars of Sophia’s situation, she offers to take the girl into partnership. Sophia eagerly accepts, and, well—

…having no longer an occasion for Juliet, I dismissed her…

Sophia has a peaceful interlude with Mrs Williams, but, as she says herself, she is simply being set up for another fall. A wealthy young rake named Castilio (an unlike name for an Englishman, one would think, but moving on) drops into the shop looking for lace for some ruffles. His reputation precedes him:

Never, said she, was the power and will of doing ill, so completely joined as in Castilio. He is just come to the possession of an immense estate, which he spends in the gratification of every inordinate desire. He has been the ruin of several young women; and is so far from being ashamed of it, that he publickly boasts of it. There are no vile arts and contrivances he does not put in practice for the execution of his projects: I tremble whenever he comes into my house, and yet I dare not deny him entrance; for, if I did, he would never rest till he had revenged himself upon me…

But alas, this warning comes too late—for Castilio has already caught sight of the incomparable Sophia…

Sophia’s persecution by Castilio, which escalates from harassment and improper suggestions to her being decoyed away and abducted and imprisoned in his isolated estate, makes clear the claim of The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley for a place in the Gothic timeline. Yet perhaps more obvious still are the differences between this novel and its descendants: not just the domestication of the action in England, and Castilio’s “anything but marriage” attitude, which owes more than a little to Clarissa – with true Gothic villains, it’s usually either marriage or murder – but the sense of authorial uncertainty over how far Sophia should be active in her own defence, or whether helpless passivity is more attractive in a heroine. Thankfully, though she is not the prime mover, Sophia does not just sit and cry while someone else does the heavy lifting, but does her part, and with surprising physicality.

Ultimately Sophia owes her salvation to her predecessor in Castilio’s, uh, “affections”, who though discarded remains in his service. Given the task of persuading Sophia into compliance with Castilio’s “I’d rather you gave in gracefully, but if I have to I’ll rape you” scheme, the subtly named Fidelia, in spite of the fate that she knows awaits her should Castilio discover her betrayal of him, gives Sophia advice on how to hold him at arm’s-length for long enough for the two of them to hatch and execute an escape plan. Sophia discovers a bricked-up window behind some hangings, and the two girls set to work digging out the mortar. They manage to dislodge enough bricks to pull loose the iron bar that blocks their way (Sophia is never more likeable than when violently attacking the brickwork), and squeeze through the gap into the garden beyond. There’s a handy tree with branches extending over the high wall of the estate, and Sophia makes it to the top of the wall. Then disaster strikes:

I called Fidelia to follow me, which she prepared to do; but most unfortunately, when she had just got to the top of the tree, the branches on which she stood gave way and she fell backwards. I was shocked beyond imagination; I asked her if she was hurt. Alas! said she, in a feeble voice, I have, I believe, broke my leg, for I cannot rise; make haste, continued she, save yourself and leave me to my fate; I shall die in peace, since I have been a means of preserving your life and honour. My heart bled within me to see the poor creature, to whom I owed so much, in such a condition. I determined not to leave her; and was preparing to go back again, when I observed some people in the garden, and heard Castilio’s voice crying, This way, this way! This, you may believe, threw me into a terrible fright; I knew I could be of no use to Fidelia, and therefore resolved to get away as fast as I could…

So much for heaven protecting the working girl. We never find out what happens to Fidelia, though we are aware that she was in fear of her life from Castilio. Nor, as far as we know, does Sophia ever waste another thought upon her.

But, hey!—Sophia gets away safely, and that’s what really matters, right?

[To be continued…]

 

 

28/04/2011

The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore

“There is no Nation in the World, but has in all ages, furnished Authors, who have made it their business to expose, as far as they were capable, the Frailties of the Female Sex. Some have been provoked thereunto, by their unfortunate Addresses, and by the disappointments they have met with in love; others have undertaken that Province, without any other reason, than to show their Wit. But my Business now in Writing, is to warn Men of the danger they may run in the persuit of their Amours; for which purpose, I thought a Narrative of my Life might be of extraordinary use, since it has been a continual Series of Stratagems and Artifices for the ensnaring of Men.”

Published anonymously in 1683, this first-person narration of the life of a London prostitute is a remarkable work of fiction. Only one copy of The London Jilt survives today, preserved in the Harvard University Library; our very good friends at the Broadview Press have done their usual outstanding job not only in resurrecting this rare and important piece of writing, but in placing it in its historical context, as a nexus between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography.

(Before we really get started, a word about the authorship of this tale, which is in some quarters attributed to Alexander Oldys. The Broadview editor, Charles H. Hinnant, disputes this, and so do I, although not for the same reasons. Hinnant contends that the mistaken attribution was the result of some bibliographical confusion between this text and Oldys’ 1692 novel, The Female Gallant; or, The Female Cuckold, which had as a variant title The London Jilt; or, The Female Cuckold. For myself, having studied Oldys’ The Fair Extravagant, I can say that there is not a single point of comparison between the two works in terms of their subject matter, style or attitude.)

The most notable thing about The London Jilt is that it is a rare, possible unique, example of 17th-century first-person female narration – and all the more extraordinary for being the genre that it is. Works such as the Richard Head / Francis Kirkman collaboration The English Rogue included interpolated tales told by female narrators, and there had been a handful of third-person tellings of the lives of female criminals; but The London Jilt appears to be the only such work that not only focuses entirely upon a woman, but allows her to tell her own story. Of course, when we say “her” story, the question of the author’s sex remains moot. It is most likely that the anonymous author of this tale was a man, although there is nothing here to say so for certain.

The other significant feature of the presentation of this work is the gulf between what it purports to be in its preface, and what it actually is in its text. In fact, I found myself wondering if the same person had actually written both. The preface declares this novel to be an exposé of prostitutes’ tricks, so that men may be warned and guard themselves. The language in which the author of the preface declares his – definitely his – intentions could hardly be blunter:

“And indeed what greater Folly can there be than to venture one’s All in such rotten Bottoms, and at length become the Horrour and Detestation of all the World, only for a Momentary Pleasure, and which in truth cannot well be termed Pleasure, considering what filthy, nasty, and stinking Carcasses, are the best and finest of our Common Whores? A Whore is but a Close-stool to Man, or a Common-shoar that receives all manner of Filth, shee’s like a Barber’s Chair, no sooner one’s out, but t’other’s in…”

But our tale, when it comes to be told, is a pragmatic account of a life driven by sheer necessity, at a time when women’s options were terrifyingly few, and when violence, disease and starvation were imminent threats which only constant vigilence and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive could hold at bay.

Our narrator (revealed at a single point in the novel to be called Cornelia) writes from the vantage point of the latter years of her life. Like the writer in the preface, but in gentler terms, she offers her life as a cautionary tale, by which those men likely to be tempted by women’s arts may be fairly warned. She does not, nevertheless, condemn the life that she has led out of hand, merely some of the strategems to which she was forced (or chose) to resort. The narration takes the battle for survival, including the battle between men and women, for granted; and if a woman must resort to underhanded manoeuvres, that is only fair in a world where all of the power and most of the money lies with men; and where armed with only her body and her wits – and the occasional chamber-pot – a woman must contend against fists and knives, and a willingness to use them.

There is an unexpected sophistication about some of the writing in The London Jilt, included the divided vision with which Cornelia looks back upon her girlhood, her later understanding of the events of that time sitting side-by-side with childish incomprehension. The daughter of tavern-owners, the critical moment in Cornelia’s life comes when her father is one day drawn into a trap by a passing “rope-dancer” (that is, a tightrope artist), who lures the foolish man into taking rope-dancing lessons, and leaves him suspended some thirteen feet off the ground while he calmly plunders the household. Inevitably, a fall follows, a broken leg the result. In the wake of this, the fortunes of the family go from bad to worse; and when the father dies, Cornelia and her mother must fend for themselves.

The survivors try to continue in the tavern business, but life becomes a constant and desperate struggle. (As the later Cornelia is able to appreciate, she wasn’t then old enough to be an attraction for male customers.) It is at this time that Cornelia’s mother begins taking in “night-guests”; and if the child does not quite understand the nature of these transactions, she can appreciate their outcome:

“And I remember that from time to time there was some man or other lay all Night at our House, and that upon such occasions I was forced to roost with the Maid, whereas at other times I lay in my Mothers Arms, from whence I then concluded, that she must needs be a very Commiserating Woman, since to free people out of pain, she imported to them the half of her bed, but she made them dearly pay for this pitty; and I could easily perceive, that the Chimney smoak’d more, and better by the half, when we had a night-Guest with us than otherwise…”

Time passes, and at length Cornelia not only understands what her mother is doing, but is initiated into the life herself: an event treated not only with no particular fuss, but a certain wry humour:

“About five Months after I had played Squire Limberham this Pranck, my Maiden-head was sold the first time. Be not amazed, O Reader, that I say the first time, for I have lost it several times after the manner of Italy, to which purpose I made use of a certain Water, which rendred me always the same; and though after the first Attack I found no pain at all in the Amorous Combate, but on the contrary an extraordinary Pleasure, nevertheless I sighed and groaned as strongly, as if I was to have given up the Ghost at the very instant, which moved so much Compassion in the poor Hunters after Maiden-heads, that they endeavoured to make me forget this feigned Grief, by the Unguent of several Guinnies…”

Cornelia makes no bones about her enjoyment of sex, which she regards as normal and natural, considering a full and satisfying sex life as the positive side of her way of earning a living. At the same time, she views any woman who chooses prostitution as a career out of “lasciviousness” rather than sheer necessity to be either entirely mad or entirely wicked. The only people she despises more than voluntary prostitutes are the pimps and bawds who enslave and exploit young women, giving in return insufficient means to live on, so that their slaves must remain slaves.

Cornelia herself occupies “the middle ground” of prostitution, occasionally being taken into keeping but usually maintaining a rotating roster of regular customers, but above all never allowing herself to be trapped into working for anyone but herself. Ultimately,  Cornelia survives her way of life because, despite numerous setbacks and dangers, she never loses sight of the main chance. Whatever relationship she is describing, how much money she made, how she went about getting it and what she did with it makes up a major portion of the story.

The London Jilt does keep its opening promise to expose the arts and artifices of prostitutes, but only up to a point. Cornelia is devastatingly frank about how she gets money out of her customers (including undergoing a real pregnancy and later, seeing the riches that yielded, staging an elaborately faked one). She makes no bones about promising fidelity and then cheating at every opportunity, arguing that any man who believes what a prostitute says gets what he deserves. Her narrative is full of negative aphorisms about women, and there are various “trade secrets revealed” passages in which she describes in detail the cosmetic arts used to conceal physical defects. Yet for all of this, we don’t necessarily feel that it is the women who use these devices that are the main target of criticism. On the contrary: behind every one of Cornelia’s accounts of “silly women” with their “silly strategems” lies a condemnation, explicit or implicit, of the even sillier men who fall for these obvious tricks:

“Now must I laugh at the foolishness of some men, whose unbounded Petulancy carries them sometimes so far, that they will forget the most horrible Affronts, only that they may not be banish’d from the Favor of a Woman, whose Caresses, they must purchase, while that another may as well as them enjoy her Affections for his Money. Without lying, those men shew that their Bodies have an Empire over their Minds, and that they are only Men, because they have the Figure of them: For is it not the greatest Sillyness; and the highest Madness that can be committed, that to satisfie the desire of a little Bit of Flesh, they proceed to the losing their Estates, their Reputations, and all they have dearest in the World…”

As was the case in the contemporaneous Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, there is very little evidence in this account of life during the second half of the 17th century of the existence of anything that we might be inclined to call “love”. That said, our anonymous author’s view of the world differs rather interestingly from Aphra Behn’s. Whereas Behn saw the battle of the sexes as a contest the woman must inevitably lose, “Cornelia” contends that a woman may triumph as long as she remembers what is really important. In stark contrast to Behn’s writing and indeed most other amatory tales of this time, Cornelia holds that it is men who are more likely to be sincere in their feelings – or “fond”, as she puts it – simply because, having all the money, they can afford to be sincere. A woman who allows herself to “grow fond”, and to put her feelings for a man before what she can get out of him, is a woman heading for disaster. Monetary gain is and must be the chief purpose of a sexual encounter, whether a casual one in passing or within the context of a more stable relationship – and the few times that Cornelia allows herself to forget this, she is made to suffer for it.

The London Jilt‘s view of marriage is unswervingly negative. A woman’s great aim in life, Cornelia contends, should be a single existence in a state of financial independence; but failing this, prostitution is infinitely preferable to marriage. The novel contains any number of miserable marriages, and although the power is usually with the man, it may equally be the woman who brings the relationship to ruin. Cornelia’s parents get along until her father’s disastrous day, after which her mother transforms into a full-time termagent. Many years later, a bout of smallpox puts an end to the sexual career of Cornelia’s mother, until to her daughter’s astonishment she falls for the blandishments of “a young bully” who no sooner can call himself husband than he appropriates all of his wife’s fortune, beats her unmercifully when she objects, and seeks his pleasures elsewhere. (Seeing quickly enough that the benefits of her own activities will otherwise end in her step-father’s pockets, Cornelia coolly abandons her mother to her fate – she’s sorry for her, but it’s her own silly fault – and sets up in business for herself.) Likewise, most of Cornelia’s customers are married men, who only married for what they can get out of it, and would rather pay for a prostitute’s favours than sleep with their wives for free.

Despite all this, Cornelia herself is finally tempted into marriage with the owner of a tobacco-shop – and regrets it. There simply is something about the state of marriage, she contends, that brings out the very worst in people. In Cornelia herself, it gives birth to “a Devil of Pride”, which provokes her to ridiculous extravagance, so that within a few years his successful business can barely support her. Her husband, not unreasonably, cuts off her supply, upon which Cornelia begins to defraud the business. Her husband discovering this, his reaction is short, sharp, and to the point:

“…he took notice that his Tobacco lessened and fell short, and that no money arose from it, whereupon he ratled me the first time very sharply, but seeing that was to little purpose, he undertook to employ an other more powerful means, for one Morning when all the People were gone to Church, having called me into a Back-Room, he represented to me my Duty with such very pertinent Reasons, that I was very sensible of them for above a Week afterwards…”

Signficantly, while Cornelia is at all times explicit in her account of sexual matters, when it comes to the violence she suffers at various times, particularly this bout of domestic violence, she is far more guarded in her speech: this is the part of her life that she’s ashamed of. This passage focusses a major theme of the novel, its depiction of the world of late 17th century London as a place of plot and counterplot, wrongdoing and revenge. Cornelia’s professional depredations are committed in full awareness that she might bring violent retribution upon herself: again and again she must pick up her things and flee in order to avoid suffering deserved retribution for her own frauds and manoeuvres.

As with her sexual encounters, Cornelia describes all this quite matter-of-factly: she is sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Never, however, does she let a slight or a cheat pass without devising some scheme of revenge – and nor, for that matter, does she expect her own cheats to go unpunished. This is a world of dog-eat-dog, and the individual who lets himself, or herself, be imposed upon without retaliating is a coward and a fool. (When the victim of the sham pregnancy finds out, he deserts Cornelia leaving only an angry letter behind. While she is relieved to get off so easily, she is also contemptuous of her former keeper for his spinelessness.)

What we notice, however, is the difference in the nature of revenge taken by men and by women. The former generally resort to straightforward violence, a beating or worse; while women have to rely on their wits. Cornelia herself is very given to elaborate plots and “prancks”, which end in the humiliation of the victim, and generally leaves him lighter in the pocket. Occasionally, driven to more direct means of retaliation, she resorts to that always handy weapon, the chamber-pot. There are at least three chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes in The London Jilt, one of which is—without any desire to go into detail—one of the most repulsive things I have ever read in my life. In fact, considering the substance of that scene in its entirety, the deployment of the chamber-pot may be the least repulsive thing about it.

A curious features of this narrative as a whole, and another way in which The London Jilt differs from much of the other picaresque literature of the time, is the subplot of the rope-dancer, who reappears at various points in Cornelia’s life and becomes an ongoing and ever more dangerous adversary. The two push and push back, their mutual revenge-taking escalating with each encounter – but finally, it is the male capacity for physical violence which triumphs, ending not only Cornelia’s career as a prostitute but almost her life, after a strike at her throat with a knife that misses and gashes open her forehead instead.

In the wake of this, Cornelia takes pause. She has had a good run; she has scrimped and saved, so that she might not starve in her old age; and she has the two glories of her life, the annuities she has managed to secure (one a gift, one wisely self-purchased when times were good) amounting to almost one hundred pounds a year, on which to live. The fact is, she’s getting a bit long in the tooth for this way of life, even aside from the necessity to hide the ugly scar on her face. Customers are harder to come by, and not so generous with their guineas. It’s time for a fresh start.

And so, with the same pragmatism that has marked the rest of her life, Cornelia the prostitute becomes Cornelia the lace-dealer. Her little business is a success, and she is able to sit back and take stock of her life, finally deciding to put pen to paper. There are various points in the narrative where Cornelia stops to marvel at her own audacity in becoming an author – and more than one comparison of the business of bookselling to that other business she knows so much about…

Apart from placing The London Jilt in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition makes a strong case for this novel as a previously unacknowledged inspiration for Moll Flanders and Roxana: various points of similarity are found between those two famous novels and their more obscure forerunner; although perhaps the chief point of interest is not their similarities, but their differences, particularly their moral differences.

Whether it is a reflection of the shift in social mores in the five decades between their time of publication, or the difference in attitude and beliefs between Daniel Defoe and the anonymous author of The London Jilt, the most striking thing about the earlier text is Cornelia’s refusal to repent – or rather, the fact that she doesn’t consider that she has anything in particular to repent. She has done  what she had to in order to survive, and sees no need to apologise for that.

And in fact, Cornelia is rather cynical about the late-life repenters of the world:

“…but I content my self with the testimony that my Conscience gives me, and it is the same thing to me whether I am thought discreet, vertuous or debaucht; because that I have Experience enough in the World to know that it often blames Wise and Sober Persons, and often praises and extols such as are lewd and vicious. Nevertheless I am not of the rank of those who after having led a vicious Life during their Youth, and then becoming Converts, pretend to bygottism, and walk holding their right-Hand upon their Heart as the truly Devout do…”