Posts tagged ‘picaresque’

30/01/2020

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (Part 1)


 
    I have been going round for days and cannot make up my mind to take up my pen; there are so many different things to be said; by word of mouth one thing would fit in with another, and one would perhaps develop out of another; therefore let me, as I am afar off, just begin with what is most general, it will after all eventually lead me on to the strange matter that I have to communicate.
    You have heard of the youth who found a thole-pin while walking by the seaside; the interest it aroused in him moved him to procure an oar, as necessarily belonging to it. But this likewise was of no use; he seriously longed for a boat and obtained one; however, boat, oar and thole-pin were not particularly beneficial; he acquired masts and sails and in this way gradually obtained what was needful for quick and comfortable sailing. With purposeful effort he acquired greater accomplishment and skill, luck favoured him, he finally became master and owner of a sizeable vessel; and in this way he became more successful, he gained prosperity, respect and a name among seafaring people.
    In causing you to read this moral tale again, I have to confess that it only belongs here in the remotest sense, but it paves the way for me to give expression to what I have to tell. Meanwhile there is some further and rather strange matter that I must deal with…

 

 

Given my track record, I don’t suppose there was ever any real chance of my not tackling Johann Goethe’s sequel to his 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; but apart from the inner glow that always comes with completism, I can’t say that this time it was worth the effort.

In terms of why I was doing this in the first place, we must remember that the version of Goethe’s novels (called, simply, Wilhelm Meister) that was so influential in England thanks to the translation by Thomas Carlyle, appeared in 1824—and was therefore based upon the first editions of the two novels. As far as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship goes, this was not a problem (though, as we discussed, Carlyle cut his translation of Apprenticeship short, at the end of Book 7 rather than of Book 8); but after initially publishing his sequel in 1821, Goethe significantly revised it in an edition first published in 1829, and this is now considered the standard text.

Wilhem Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (strictly, Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering Years, or The Renunciants; usually given as either Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Travel or Wilhelm Meister’s Travels; for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with the latter) is a strange and frustrating book—although not in the same way that its predecessor is strange and frustrating. As difficult a novel as Apprenticeship is, there is never any sense that it does not have a long-term goal, however winding the road and however opaque the writing (or perhaps the translation). Travels, however, seems to lack a real purpose; or at least, any such direct philosophical purpose; and while to an extent it expands upon the arguments of the earlier work, by the end it does not feel as if much has been gained.

The writing itself also remains problematic, particularly Goethe’s tendency to overuse pronouns within lengthy passages, so that you can lose track of who is speaking, and to use descriptors rather than names. To give an example of this—at one point Wilhelm and his friend meet up with “the two ladies”…and it is four full pages before we get confirmation of which two ladies it is. (Turns out I’d guessed wrong.)

Most frustrating of all, however, is the lack of solid connection between Apprenticeship and Travels. Reading this novel is unnervingly like reading a trilogy in which the second book is missing. A few of the dots are eventually joined, but for far too long I was left feeling as if I had accidentally begun reading this book at the wrong point.

The most notable thing about Wilhelm Meister’s Travels is its structure, or the lack thereof. Much of this novel consists of interpolated narratives, quite a few of which have little if anything to do with the central plot and the main characters, around which Wilhelm’s narrative and that of Lenardo, a new character, are woven, and which are in turn periodically interrupted by poems, songs, letters between the characters, excerpts from a diary, and literally pages of aphorisms. All sorts of subplots are set up, only to peter out into irrelevance.

Furthermore, my understanding is that the first edition of the novel was nearly all interpolated narrative and very little Wilhelm: it was the passages in between which Goethe expanded upon.

In fact, the whole thing is so wilful in its refusal to be a novel that, had it not been published early in the 19th century, you’d be tempted to call it post-modern

…a reflection which suddenly caused me to wonder whether Goethe had been reading Tristram Shandy, that other great pre-post-modern novel; and much was my glee when he started quoting Sterne and expressing his admiration of him. (And while I don’t consider this on par with my deduction that Jane Austen enjoyed the novels of Catherine Cuthbertson, I still felt pretty full of myself.)

There’s one significant difference, however: though Tristram Shandy never actually gets anywhere, the reader has no trouble following where it isn’t going, if I can put it like that, while the non-journey is ultimately its own reward; whereas too often, Wilhelm Meister’s Travels just feels like experimentation for its own sake, an annoyance rather than an enrichment of the text, or perhaps a smokescreen for its limitations. In addition, Goethe entirely lacks Sterne’s sense of humour and lightness of touch.

So this is likely to be a rather lengthy “this happens, then that happens” sort of summary, rather than any kind of analysis. I apologise for that, but at the very least it should convey the issues. I really wanted to be done with this in a single post, but I decided in the end – for the sake of your sanity, mine having already taken flight – to divide it into two.

Now—I’m tempted to add, IYCCYMBTF, but it really hasn’t been that long, has it?—Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship closes with Wilhelm, newly engaged to Natalie and having accepted his new role of Felix’s father, nevertheless being sent away by the mysterious “society”, to act as a translator for an Italian nobleman on his travels.

So you may imagine my surprise when Wilhelm Meister’s Travels opens with Wilhelm and Felix on their own and no sign of the Marchese (to whom there is eventually a passing reference). We learn presently that Wilhelm is under orders from the “society”, none of which we heard a word about in the previous book. Wilhelm writes of his situation to Natalie:

I am not to remain more than three days under one roof. I am not to leave any lodging-place without going at least four miles away from it. These instructions are truly appropriate to making my years into years of travel and to preventing my being beset by the slightest temptation to settle down in one place. Up to now I have submitted myself entirely to this condition, indeed, I have not even made use of the permission granted to me. In fact this is the first time that I am stationary, the first time that I am spending the same night in the same bed. I am sending you from here much that I have heard, observed and saved up until now, and then tomorrow the journey goes on down the other side, first to a strange family, a holy family, as I should like to put it, about whom you will find more in my diary. Goodbye now, and put this paper down with the feeling that it has one thing to say and that it would only like to say and to keep on repeating one thing, but is unwilling to say and repeat it  until I can be happy enough to be lying at your feet and weeping into your hands because of all the renunciation…

Yes, well. Wilhelm shouldn’t hold his breath, and neither should Natalie. The two remain separated for the entire course of the novel, and this is the only time either of them expresses any particular regret about it. In fact this book is studded with separated couples who don’t much seem to care that they are. We get the feeling that while Goethe appreciated the dramatic possibilities of romantic pursuit, or romantic thwarting, he thought successful love was a complete bore.

But the critical point here is that final word of Wilhelm’s, “renunciation”.

I mentioned in my previous posts that while a number of translators of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship refer to the strange society into which he is accepted as “the Society of the Tower”, H. W. Waidson, the translator of my version, uses no particular term at all.

Yet here in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, we suddenly find the expression “the Renunciants” being used—given something like pride of place in its German-language subtitle, and with references to the society under that name throughout the text.

That quoted letter from Wilhelm would seem to be setting up “renunciation” as a major theme of the novel; but this never really eventuates. Yes, Wilhelm’s conditions of travel both separate him from Natalie and force him to part from the people and places he encounters along the way; while some of the interpolated narratives also deal with characters having to give up something (occasionally as the third point of a romantic triangle); but it just doesn’t amount to anything substantial.

I’ll put it this way: if “renunciation” wasn’t pointed out as a theme, I’m not sure that’s what you would take away from a reading.

In fact, resignation seems to be of more significance, particularly in terms of the characters giving themselves over to one rather narrow way of living; often to one form of art, or craft, to which they bind themselves in perpetuity. I suppose in this respect they are “renouncing” a broader ambition, but then some of them never had one.

(In any event, Wilhelm eventually gets fed up and asks to be released from the conditions of his travels. Permission is granted. So much for that.)

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels plunges us immediately into weirdness, via Wilhelm and Felix’s encounter with the people he calls “the holy family”:

A sturdy, efficient-looking and not very tall young man whose robe was tucked up and who had a dark skin and black hair was stepping firmly and cautiously down the mountain path leading a donkey whose well nourished and well groomed head first came into view and then the beautiful burden it was carrying. A gentle and charming woman was seated on a large, well appointed saddle; in a blue robe which was wrapped round her she was holding a new-born child that she was pressing to her breast and regarding with inexpressible sweetness…

After this introduction, it is inevitable that their names should be “Joseph” and “Mary”. It turns out this isn’t – or isn’t only – coincidence, but (so to speak) a lifestyle choice, as we learn via the first interpolated narrative—which begins eight pages into the novel, under the general title of “The Flight To Egypt”, with the travellers gathering with a ruined church which the family calls home. However, there is no question of the baby’s secular origins, nor that of its older brother and half-brother: Mary was a young war-widow taken in by Joseph’s mother, patiently courted by Joseph through the period of her mourning.

Joseph is (of course) a carpenter; and here we get the novel’s first lengthy rumination upon the choosing of an art or craft, how it can shape a life, and the difference between innate talent and the real artistry that comes with formal training.

Wilhelm and Felix are forced to move on, and the next phase of their journey is dictated by the boy’s burgeoning interest in geology. He finds a box of specimens in Joseph’s possession, left behind by someone called “Montan”. Wilhelm is excited by this name, and he and Felix set out to find their “old friend”—who, some 191 pages of being referred to as Montan later, is revealed to be Jarno, who played a significant part in bringing Wilhelm into the society.

Geology plays quite a prominent role in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, reflecting the important studies which emerged during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and which began to challenge the Old Testament view of the age of the Earth. (Although Travels was published before Charles Lyall’s Principles Of Geology, which was perhaps the critical work in that respect.) Goethe, however, appears to have had no difficulty in reconciling the implications of this research with his religious beliefs. He has Montan / Jarno dismiss these larger aspects, which are “beyond our understanding”, and concentrate only upon what is useful to man in this emerging body of knowledge.

Jarno also first introduces the theme that will dominate much of what follows, the idea that to be most of service to the world, a man should strive to be really good at one thing. It is the correct choosing of that thing that is difficult:

“The present is the time for specialisation; happy is he who understands this and is active in this sense on his own behalf and for others… Make yourself into an agency, and see what sort of place in life generally people will concede to you…I say that it is everywhere necessary to serve, from the bottom upwards. The best thing is to limit oneself to one craft. For the most limited person it will always remain a craft, for someone better it will be an art, and when the best man does one thing, he does everything, or, to be less paradoxical, in the one thing he does expertly he sees the symbol for everything that is done expertly.”

In the course of a lengthy conversation between Wilhelm and Jarno (is there any other kind?), we also get this—which again makes me wonder if my issues around renunciation / resignation is a translation artefact:

    “In every new circle we have to start again as children, develop a passionate interest in the subject and in the first place take pleasure in the shell until we are fortunate enough to reach the kernel.”
    “Well, tell me then how you came to acquire this knowledge and these insights,” Wilhelm replied, “For it isn’t such a long time since we parted company!”
    “My friend,” Montan rejoined, “we have had to be in a state of resignation, if not forever, at least for a good time. The first thing that occurs to an able man in such circumstances is to start a new life. New things are not sufficient for him, they are only valid as a distraction; he demands a new totality and immediately puts himself in the middle of it…”

After the friends have separated, Felix makes a discovery in the ruined church of St Joseph:

At last the bold lad came quickly up from the crevice and brought with him a casket which was no bigger than a small octavo volume and of magnificent and ancient appearance; it seemed to be of gold and decorated with enamel…

This casket will pass from hand to hand over the course of the novel, although no-one in possession of it will succeed in opening it. This is another of those touches where it is easier to see that symbolism is intended than to pin down the meaning. (Personally I’m inclined to take the casket as representative of my struggles to make head or tail of this narrative.)

Wilhelm and Felix head off under the guidance of a another boy, Fitz, with whom Felix has made friends, but who Wilhelm does not trust—and with good reason, it seems, when, after promising to show them into the grounds of an extensive estate, leads them instead into a literal trap. From there they are transferred into a room which, luxurious as it is, is yet another prison, its walls decorated with inscriptions such as: Liberty and recompense to the innocent, pity for those who have been led astray, requiting justice to the guilty.

The explanation for this is amusingly prosaic – set in place to protect the estates valuable young trees from those who, disinclined either to pay or to work for them, try to steal them instead – but the surrounding material introduces one of my real issues with this novel.

In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship we encounter a single, mysterious society that chooses and guides its future members; fair enough. Here, however, everywhere Wilhelm goes he stumbles over yet another group of people living together and thrashing out some complicated philosophy of how to live and work. It all gets a bit much—not least because each individual group gets to expound at length upon their particular theories. Furthermore, having spent an entire book upon Wilhelm’s induction into the main Society, in this one it seems like every other person gets inducted, as long as someone recommends them.

In this specific case, Wilhelm and Felix are taken in by the elderly estate owner, his two nieces, Juliette and Hersilie, and a father and son who act as agents for the property. During their stay there is much general discussion of the duties of the wealthy to the poor, of the best methods for distributing goods so as to encourage industry, and of the true meaning of “property”. This group is also devoted to literature of various origins and types; and when Wilhelm retires for the night he is given something to read.

Here we get or second interpolated narrative, in the form of Goethe’s own short story, Die pilgernde Törin / The Foolish Pilgrim, first published in 1789. (“You must say whether you have come across anything more charming than this,” says Hersile.) Briefly, a noble father and son both fall in love with a beautiful but mysterious woman, who seems perfection—but will not reveal her true name, demanding to be taken – or not – wholly on her qualities as an individual. The story includes a ballad, “Der Müllerin Reue” / “The Maid Of The Mill’s Repentance”, which like the songs from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was set to music by others and found a separate fame.

There is what turns out to be a foreshadowing incident in this section, when Felix falls off his horse: medical help is summoned, with Hersile observing, “It’s not often that we need physicians, but we need surgeons all the time.”

However, the narrative takes a new turn via the interpolation of some correspondence between Juliette and Hersile, their aunt (who like the uncle maintains a separate establishment), and an eccentric cousin called Lenardo, who is always promising to come home, never does, instead sending letters inquiring minutely into people’s circumstances. This subplot is dragged out to unreasonable length, making a huge mystery out of a fairly straightforward if sad business: years before, a cottager and his daughter were being turned out because of inability to pay their rent; a young Lenardo promised solemnly to help, but was unable to fulfill his promise. The uncle died, and fear of the girl’s subsequent fate keeps Lenardo away. He finally returns home upon being assured that the girl is happy in a good marriage, only to discover that he had her name wrong and was asking after someone else.

The correspondence gives way without lead-in to our third interpolated narrative, given its own title of “Who Is The Betrayer?”, about a love-quadrangle working itself out.

Wilhelm then spends time with the uncle, who reveals his own history: that he was born in Germany but raised in America; finally choosing to return to Europe:

“Man needs patience above all and must needs be always consoderate, and I would rather come to terms with my king so that he will make me this or that concession, and make my peace with my neighbours so that they will relieve me of certain restrictions if I give way to them in something else, than be battling with the Iroquois in order to drive them out, or be deceiving them with contracts in order to expel them from their swamps where we are tormented to death by mosquitoes.”

This is a rare point in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels when we can grasp at something concrete: there are repeated references to this conflict between the Old World and the New; the corruption and oppression of the former, the pull of the latter with its promise of space and freedom—and the price that might have to be paid for it.

Wilhelm also meets the aunt, Makarie, and is introduced to an astronomer, who shows him some wonders through his telescope. Wilhelm appreciates this, but has some peculiar ideas on the subject of lenses generally:

    “…these aids which we use to augment our senses do not exert an ethically favourable influence on man. A man looking through glasses takes himself to be cleverer than he is, for the result is that his outer senses are thrown out of balance in relation to his inner judgement; a higher form of development is needed, and only outstanding people  are capable of this, so that their inner, true nature can be to some extent adjusted to this false element advancing upon them from outside. Whenever I look through a pair of binoculars I become another person and I am not pleased with myself; I see more than I ought to see, the more sharply focused world is not in harmony with my inner self, and I quickly put the glasses away again…
    “We shall no more banish these glasses out of the world than we shall any other piece of machinery, but it is important for the moral observer to be able to investigate and learn the origins of much that has found its way into human behaviour and of which we complain. Thus, for instance, I am convinced that the habit of wearing magnifying spectacles is the main reason for the arrogance of our young people.”

Ah, yes. These young people today, with their Mozart and their magnifying spectacles and their refusal to powder their hair…

Then we hear about a bizarre dream of Wilhelm’s:

“The green curtain rose, Makarie’s chair moved forward, all by itself, like a living creature; it had a golden glow, her garnets seemed priestly, her appearance was accompanied by a gentle gleam; I was on the point of prostrating myself. Clouds developed at her feet, as they rose they lifted up the holy figure as if on wings, in place of her wonderful features I finally saw in a parting in the cluds a star sparkling; it was carried continually upward and, moving through the opened vaulting of the roof, it became united with the whole firmament…”

This turns out to be an insight into the true nature of Makarie, who is mysteriously “attuned” with the heavens, capable of describing phenomena which may subsequently be confirmed by astrological observation:

“The astronomer then had an exact record made of what she saw, which now from time to time became quite clear to her, made calculations and deduced from them that she not only bore the whole solar system within herself, but that rather she moved spiritually as an integrating part in it…”

Wilhelm’s three days being up, he sets out in quest of Lenardo, finds him, and hears at length what I’ve summarised above. Lenardo tasks Wilhelm with finding the young woman, whose name is Nachodine (“the nutbrown maiden”). He agrees, but expresses concern over continuing to drag Felix all over the place, feeling that he should be placed in some good school and properly educated. Fortunately, Lenardo knows just the place, and sends Wilhelm to talk to a friend of his:

“When I last saw him, years ago, he told me quite a lot about a pedagogic association which I could only take to be a kind of Utopia; it seemed to me as if beneath the representation of reality a sequence of ideas, thoughts, proposals and intentions was meant which admittedly hung together, but in the usual course of things would hardly be likely to coincide…”

Wilhelm does end up leaving Felix in the “Pedagogic Province”, the functioning of which is conveyed through two lengthy descriptions, one when he drops him off and one when he picks him up. For the first, we hear only about the religious / historical grounding of the principles upon which the educational community is run.

The narrative is then interrupted by a rather lengthy story titled “The Man Of Fifty”, about yet another love-quadrangle working itself out, and in which the male rivals are also father and son. This is another of Goethe’s pre-existing short fictions, being originally published in 1808. This time, however, the “characters” in the story turn out to be real people known to Makarie, who helps them straighten out their confused situation.

Via letters, we then learn that Wilhelm is sending Lenardo to the Abbé, so that he can be inducted into the “society”. We also find Wilhelm requesting dispensation:

“After continuing an active self-examination I can only repeat even more earnestly the request which was brought forward some time ago through Montan; the wish to complete my years of travel with greater composure and steadiness is becoming increasingly pressing…”

Wilhelm speaks of “conditions” but we do not then learn what they are.

After the indirect reintroduction of the Abbé, we get a bizarre interlude that is one of the few successful bits of weirdness in this novel: Wilhelm meets up with a painter:

…it became evident that the fine artist, who was skilled at adorning water-colour landscapes with clever, well drawn and executed figures and accessories, was passionately captivated by Mignon’s fate, figure and nature. He had often pictured to himself and was now on a journey to copy from nature the surroundings she had known during her lifetime…

In other words—he’s been reading Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

It is here that Wilhelm and the artist encounter “the two ladies” mentioned above, who turn out to be Hilary and the Beautiful Widow from “The Man Of Fifty”, rather than Juliette and Hersile as I assumed. A romantic interlude amongst sublime lake and mountain surroundings follows, and the artist shows himself to be a musician and a singer too, performing some of Mignon’s songs on his lute. This idyll is brought forcibly to an end by Wilhelm’s three-day arrangement. The four go their separate ways with the artist sent to Natalie, to show her where Wilhelm has been by way of his paintings.

Goethe then butts in with what he himself calls “an interpolaton”:

    At this point, however, we find ourselves in the position of announcing to the reader an interval, and what is more, an interval of some years; on this account we would have gladly brought a volume to a conclusion here, if only this could have been linked with the typographical arrangements.
    Yet surely the space between two chapters will suffice…

Or even the space between two posts, hey, Johann?

 

[To be continued…]

04/01/2020

Leandro: or, The Lucky Rescue

 

Leandro could not reflect upon such a heap of misfortunes, without the cruellest grief in the World; however being of too brisk a Spirit to stoop to a sorrow, unbecoming the greatness of his courage, he at last endeavoured to evince the memory of his Miseries, by an assurance that Heaven would not utterly refuse him their protection from all those difficulties he must overcome, since ’twas for the sake of a Religion, he was absolutely satisfied was the truest in the World, that he was thus brought to this abyss of misery…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So. Chronobibliography.

Aren’t you astonished?

Back when I originally conceived this blog, I had the year 1692 pegged as “the beginning of the true English novel”, for reasons I will get to when the time is right. While I still think that, subsequent research has led me to tag 1690 as another landmark year, even though the developments in fiction that were taking place then were almost swamped by the resurgence of political writing that greeted James’ attempts to regain his throne—some of which I have looked at in detail (here, here and here), while others have been dealt with just in passing (here, here and here).

Nevertheless, it was during 1690 that a new tendency in publishing began to make itself felt: that of declaring a work of fiction to be, in no uncertain terms, “a novel”.

We have – believe it or not – covered some thirty years of English writing over the existence of this blog; and one of, if not the, most significant developments that occurred across those three decades was a shift away from a need to pretend everything was “a true story”—to the point where it was not only acceptable, but desirable, to admit that you were writing fiction. In fact – as the title-page above illustrates perfectly – you not only admitted it, you said so in a font bigger than that used for your title.

(The true-story impulse would reappear during the 18th century; but that’s story for a much later time.)

And while it was no doubt the printers and booksellers who were controlling the layout of publications, something else of significance occurred during 1690: it was then that an author revealing his or her name on the title-page became a common, if not ubiquitous, practice.

And as we see, the author of Leandro: or, The Lucky Rescue went a little further, revealing also his university affiliation.

I haven’t been able to turn up anything about “J. Smythies”, though it seems I should have been: this, from the British Library’s acquisition catalogue, is the best I’ve been able to do:
 

 
The irritating thing is, I haven’t been able to find the referenced entry in the Alumni Cantabrigienses (to which I’ve turned before, successfully, in hunting up obscure authors); though I’m assuming that’s where the British Library people got “James” from.

The other point of note here is that this is yet another BL holding from the collection of Narcissus Luttrell, the 17th century bibliophile to whom we owe the survival of an incredible amount of rare material. (Also helpful is his habit of annotating his romans à clef, as we saw with The Perplex’d Prince.)

Alas—would that what was behind the title-page of Leandro: or, The Lucky Rescue was half so interesting as all this. I was frankly disappointed in this short work, which over its opening pages seems to be toying with a new form of novel, but then chucks it away in favour of the same old picaresque / amatory stuff we’ve been encountering for years, albeit scaled down in both respects.

This is a very strange piece of writing. In essence it’s a low-key rogue’s biography, with its protagonist parlaying his physical perfections into a comfortable living; yet it opens with an apparently grave consideration of the persecution of the Huguenots under Louis XVI. It is hard to imagine that we’re supposed to take this work seriously overall; yet the tone is often sober, and what the hell is up with that opening? Conversely, if we are meant to take it seriously—what the hell is up with all the rest?

By which we may deduce that, in spite of the whole “a novel” thing, writers of the time hadn’t quite gotten the hang of things.

And in fact, I think I need to apologise for the unnecessary length of this piece. This is one of those works where, when you read it, you realise it’s bad; but then, when you re-read closely for reviewing purposes, you realise it’s REALLY bad (and quote accordingly). We’ve had some prat-heroes before at this blog, but Leandro might just take the cake.

Leandro opens in the wake of the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the provisions of the Edict of Nantes, instituted by Henri IV in 1598. This granted broad civil rights including the right of the Huguenots (French Protestants) to practise their religion free from persecution. The edict offended Louis XVI, who (among other things) set in motion various “unofficial” methods of persecution, intended to bully or frighten the Huguenots into converting. Then, with the Edict of Fontainebleau, he stripped the gloves off, forcing his Protestant subjects either to convert or flee.

Obviously there was a political purpose in the use of this material; but Leandro is unusual in the way it employs real recent events in a fictional context, in what we might call a recognisably modern manner.

Smythies’ main characters are two noble Huguenots, Arcanius and his son, Leandro:

Leandro was a Cavalier, of a very Noble Extraction, born in the Famous City of Orleans, and the Son of a rich Count, who deriv’d his Family from the most Illustrious House of Conde. History has so loudly proclaim’d the Bravery and Worth of this great Family, that I need no other Character to set out the Vertues and Glory of any of its Progeny, than to say they were allyed to the House of Conde; a Name which had carried so much terrour to the Roman Catholicks of France, that its most treacherous King could never think himself secure on this Throne, ’till the Blood of a most generous and devout Prince, of that Family, had been sacrificed to the revenge of a most unjust Monarch.

There were so many different Princes de Condé involved in so many different wars (and all of them called “Louis”), that this is not easy to pick apart. However, I am reasonably confident that the reference is to Louis de Condé 1530 – 1569 (as some histories actually call him, for obvious reasons!), who took a leading role in the 16th century Wars of Religion, and was executed by the future Henri III despite being wounded and attempting to surrender.

At this early point in Leandro: or, The Lucky Rescue I was anticipating something genuinely interesting; but unfortunately the characters’ connection to the Condés turns out to be no more than an Informed Attribute, with the author insisting upon their possession of countless marvellous qualities that we never see for ourselves.

On the other hand, an amusingly pragmatic reason is offered for the beginning of Louis XVI’s persecution of the Huguenots:

    For the French King being now to begin a troublesome War with his Neighbours, was resolved to drain, as much as possible, the Coffers of his rich Subjects…
    Of those that thus suffered under these intolerable Taxes, the Hugonots to be sure were were the chief, and since Arcanius was one of the most wealthy, the Gallick Tyrant had the strictest Eye over him, and glad that such an opportunity serv’d so timely to satisfie his Revenge and Avarice, one Day summon’d him to his Court at Paris, and, in a private Discourse, told him, That it was expected by the greatest in his Kingdom, that he would no longer persist in a Religion, which was, he said, so absolutely condemn’d and confuted…

Arcanius tries the old Protestant minister vs Roman priest smackdown, winner-take-all, manoeuvre; but

…his Conversion not being the Mark that Lewis aim’d at, he could receive no other answer at a request so reasonable, than That it had already been so often put to the Tryal, that the World was now fully persuaded, that the Hugonots were an Heretical People, and that they ought to be proceeded against as so; adding, That he immediately expected his compliance, without which, he told him, he would no longer acknowledge him under his Protection, and consequently one who had forfeited his Faith and Trust to his Lord and Master; And so, after a little more Discourse, the crafty King dismissed our Count, whose judgment was too mature not to discern the Treachery, and himself too discreet not to avoid the Rock he saw he was ready to split upon…

And Arcanius indeed proves too slippery for Louis: he gathers up his son, as much of his possessions as can be carried, and a handful of trusty servants, and flees his estate; while other servants are left behind to give a false account of their intentions. The parties separate in order better to evade the search they know will be set in motion, all agreeing to meet in England.

Not all the servants are so fortunate, but Arcanius and Leandro manage to elude their pursuers—more through luck than judgement, and bad luck at that: they get lost in the woods.

Unfortunately, this is about the point at which Leandro: or, The Lucky Rescue ceases to be engaging. The rest of this short novel is about Leandro’s efforts to re-establish himself at that level of society, and in possession of that wealth, that he is absolutely certain he deserves: his story told via exaggerated language that most of the time just feels like bad writing, but on occasions has a distinct air of tongue-in-cheek. It’s genuinely hard to tell.

Anyway, both Arcanius and Leandro – and, ahem, then just Leandro – are tiresome companions, perfectly convinced of their own deservingness (is that a word?), who despite their supposed piety and repeated insistence upon their intention of bowing to the Divine Will, spend most of their time moaning and wailing and having tantrums over the reversal of their fortunes.

At least, Leandro does. The father and son and their respective manservants are set upon by bandits. One of the servants is killed, the other runs away, and Arcanius is fatally wounded. The thieves strip the two of everything they possess (literally) and depart:

At first they could only behold one another, with Countenances that would have even cut the very Hearts of the most Barbarous; and when they would have vented the torment of their Souls, a flood of tears interrupted their Speech, so that they could only look upon each other with dismayed Glances, till on a sudden Leandro perceiv’d a paleness to spread it self over the Face of his miserable Father, and was just running to his assistance, when the good Arcanius, fainting, fell backwards upon the ground in a stream of Blood, which issued from a Wound in his Head, and which before lay concealed under his Perruke…

That’s some peruke.

Though Leandro clearly isn’t much use in a crisis, he does do his best with what little has been left to him:

    …stripping himself of that single Coat, which the Thieves had left him, covering with it the Body of his Father, and, with a distracted haste, ran up and down the Forrest, making the Woods and hollow Places eccho out the dolour of his complaints.
    It was his hap at last to meet with a Traveller, who, in that spacious unfrequented and uninhabited Place, had lost his way, and who, at the repeated crys of our distressed Count, fled back, being terrified at the sight of a Man naked, and who carried the appearance of one who had wholly lost the Faculties of his Reason.

Leandro manages to convince the Traveller of both his sanity and his need, but it is already too late:

He approached, softly, the Body of Arcanius, and raising him gently from the Ground, took a full view of his Face, but a Face whose paleness too evidently declared the unfortunate Arcanius to be stone dead, and as cold as that Clay of which he was first created. My dearest father, said he,— here the multitude of sighs stopping the continuance of his Speech, and his Legs not being able to support a Body loaded with so many Griefs, he let fall the breathless Carcase of the good Count, himself sliding upon the cold Body, and only saying, O God, this is above what Leandro can bear…

So you tell me: is that just lousy writing, or are we supposed to find it funny?

And actually—one of the most striking things about Leandro: or, The Lucky Rescue is its tendency to dwell without criticism upon its protagonist’s emotions, in a manner that foreshadows the exaggerated sentimental fiction of the late 18th century (where it is also hard to believe that some of the writing was meant seriously).

The Traveller – who turns out to be another fleeing Huguenot – snaps Leandro out of it and helps him perform a makeshift funeral. However, he also brings him grim word of Louis’ actions: his father’s (now his) estate has been confiscated; the servants left behind were tortured into giving up their master’s plans; the other servants were captured with their goods; and there is now a price on Leandro’s head.

The two men make their way through the woods, living off berries and evading wolves, until they eventually reach Calais. The Traveller has by then served his various purposes (one of which was hopefully lending Leandro some pants, though the narrative doesn’t say so), and so—

…our good Traveller, not being able to survive the fatigue he had suffered in his Travels, dyed…

Not to worry. Leandro immediately falls in with an English merchant, who he knows by sight and reputation; and after two full pages of hearing about how his spirit is far too lofty for him ever to beg or receive charity—

…the English-man…told Leandro, He was so well pleas’d with his appearance and behaviour, that he had very advantageous sentiments of him; and, to let him see it, presented him with an English Crown, which the young Leandro accepted with such a generous humility, as neither detracted from his illustrious Soul, nor carried the least shew of an abject submission…

Leandro then tells the merchant his story, after which he is invited to hide at his lodgings. There, the merchant consults with some friends, and they try to come up with a safe way of smuggling Leandro across the Channel. Finally, only one scheme seems feasible:

…seeing the Merchant was a Batchelour, Leandro should pass for his wife…

And having committed to this plan, they don’t stint the details:

    The Day for the Marriage comes, Leandro in Women’s Cloaths is carried to the Church in a Coach, where the Friends of the Merchant wait for her, who hindring the Croud from pressing too near, receive her and conduct her to the Altar, where a corrupted Priest performs the seeming Rites, after which they return to the lodging of the Merchant, attended by a World of Peope, who give the Bride and Bridegroom joy. Two or three Days after he commands his Ship to be in a readiness. The Seamen long to see the Lady. The Guards form themselves into two ranks, to let the new married Couple pass through to the Ship. The Merchant, that their curiosity might not be too dangerous to Leandro, scatters small pieces of Money upon the Ground, throwing some before him all the way, which the Souldiers greedily and continually stooping to take up, they passed through them with admirable facility…
    …they land safely at Dover, where the Merchant privately procured an ordinary Seaman’s habit for Leandro, and then dismiss’d him, with reciprocal Embraces and endearing Expressions on both sides, the Merchant reporting to the Seamen, that he had sent his Bride to London by the Stage-Coach.

Leandro responds to all these extraordinary efforts with his usual gratitude and resolution:

Leandro now sees himself safe from the Persecution of Lewis, but not from the Malice of Fortune. He found himself in a strange Country, known to none, and but little Money in his Pocket. True, he had Cloaths, but so poor and unbecoming so brave a Person, that he seldom look’d upon ’em, but his tears and sighs evidently declared how cruelly he bore such a vast change in his State. He had about five or six Guineas about him, which he ow’d to the Bounty of the Merchant; but still he miss’d that respect and reverence he had been us’d to in Orleance; all which reflections were as at so many Darts to his grieved Spirits…

Again, not to worry. The first person Leandro bumps into in London is his own servant, who ran away when the thieves attacked, made it to England on his own, and is in the process of being arrested on suspicion of selling stolen goods—the good in question being his (Leandro’s) clothes.

Having reclaimed his wardrobe – and dismissed his servant – Leandro takes lodgings near St. James’s; where apparently he just sits around being FABULOUS and waiting for Fortune to have a change of mood and smile on him—as, of course, She must:

Leandro was a Person of such exquisite comeliness, that it was almost impossible for a Lady to look upon him without loving him, he was something above the ordinary height of Men, his Limbs and make of his Body being exactly proportionable; his Hair, after the French fashion, being exceeding long, and curiously curl’d towards the end, was a vast addition to his other Graces; his Eyes were grey, and so piercing, that they seem’d to command at one time both love and awe from the Beholder; nor did he appear in any Company, where the Eyes of all were not continually fix’d upon him, as upon an Object that did really challenge admiration. He was naturally of a pleasing conversation, and so ingeniously winning, that his Society was desired by all the young Gallants in the English Court. He was Majestick, but not Haughty; of a Noble and Generous Spirit, without the least shew of Pride or Disdain; of a brisk and gay Countenance, and without that affectation which renders our Town Fopps so intolerably ridiculous to the true Gentry. In short, he was composed of nothing but Majesty and Sweetness, and which was so natural to him, that it attributes vast presumption to my Pen, in pretending an exact Description of what is so much above Comprehension…

There is, I must stress again, no overall suggestion that this novel is not meant to be taken seriously; yet at certain moments, such as that rider to the paragraph above, it is hard not to picture Smythies snickering to himself while writing; particularly when the immediate consequence of all these perfections is that they enable Leandro to turn to prostitution to support himself.

Oooooooooooookay, the narrative doesn’t put it quite like that; though it does provide, a priori, a rationalisation even longer than that description of Leandro:

    …he saw he must fall from the highest precipice of Honour and Gallantry, to the lowest abyss of Beggary and Misery, a thought so cruel and severe, that even cut him to the very soul, at a foresight of such base unworthiness, which he must suffer. Then did he look back upon the Grandeur he once liv’d in, when the Greatness of his Birth rendred his Company acceptable to the highest in the Kingdom, and desired by all. He remembered he was then the Son of Arcanius, and the admired Leandro: But now, poor Gentleman! he saw himself the Son of Misfortune, and the poor Leandro; Leandro that once charm’d the Eyes of all that saw him, and who was now to be the derision of the very Abjects.
    These misfortunes were so hard for the brave son of Arcanius to undergo, that he could not meditate upon them, without that insupportable Grief, that often drove him to the most desperate Resolutions, that despair and anguish could suggest to him. At last he was reduced to the utmost Drachma, and now he beheld nothing but Sorrow and Poverty just seizing on him, and which was represented to his distracted Mind in such dark and dismal colours, that bursting into a Flood of tears, Heavens, said he, with a languishing tone, what has Leandro done above other Mortals, that he is thus more persecuted than they? Since you design such misery for the unfortunate Son of Arcanius, you ought in reason either to lighten his afflictions, or give him ability equal to them: But ’tis too late, added he, and starting up seriously, my misery is already decreed, which I’ll never meet but upon the point of my Sword…

Aren’t you impressed with how this devout Protestant bows to the will of Heaven?

Anyway—it turns out that God has a rather twisted sense of humour, since in response to Leandro’s petulant demand for his “afflictions” to be “lightened”, He sends in his landlady, who first prevents his suicide, then listens patiently to “his story of his Life and Miseries”. So moved is she by this—

    …extorting an Oath from him, never to make any more attempts upon his Life, she frankly flung a small Purse of Gold into his Lap.
    Leandro, at first, was too modest to receive a Gift from one who was so much his Inferiour, denying it with very pretty evasions, till Marcia pressing earnestly upon him, he at last accepted it…

Marcia then makes a passionate declaration of her wishes:

Leandro could not hear this Discourse without a bashful confusion, having to do with a Modesty of which he was a great Master: But gratitude obliging him to to reflect upon her bounty, he soon overcame all scruples of that Nature, and finding how pliant she was, and that he might hope to keep himself in his usual splendour by her means, he quickly yielded to her. We need not batter that Fort, whose breaches are wide enough already to enter, especially when the Garrison it self is willing to surrender. She stood not long to ballance her resolutions, but silently told him, she was intirely his own, which advantage our young Count taking hold of, he soon gave her all the satisfaction she was capable of receiving…

So Leandro begins a new career as Marcia’s paid toy-boy. The two are at it like rabbits whenever they can evade her husband’s notice, until they get a little careless. Jealous by temperament anyway, he becomes suspicious and pulls the old “I’ll be away from home the entire night” manoeuvre, and, sure enough, catches them at it.

But he forgets that he’s dealing with “a gentleman”:

…[Leandro] began to struggle with Corvinius, and getting him down, presented his Sword to his Throat, vowing to dispatch him presently, if he made the least outcry…

Leandro terrifies Corvinius into promising to turn a blind eye, and then takes himself off to better accommodation—which, thanks to Marcia, he can now afford:

…being Master of about fifteen Guineas, he takes his Lodgings at another part of the Town, at a rich Gentleman’s House, who was the Father of the most celebrated Fair accounted in all London…

Because rich men with beautiful heiress daughters like nothing better than to invite good-looking but impecunious young men into their houses, right?

Smythies soon makes it clear that Leandro and Felicia are destined for one another, by insisting on her perfections in that same overpowering yet curiously disinterested manner:

To endeavour to characterize the charming Felicia, would be a talk almost as difficult as to perform impossibilities. Let it suffice then, in short, she was composed of nothing but Sweetness, Beauty, and every thing that’s required to compleat an Angel.

Of course the two of them begin to fall in love, with Leandro’s courtship taking exactly the expected form:

…the Son of Arcanius gave her the relation of his own Life, but laid not the Scene in France, neither did he yet tell her it was himself who was such a Sufferer, but told it her as from the sufferings of a Friend, waiting till she had given her sentiments upon it. Leandro told the History of his Misfortunes in an Air and Stile so well and so exactly fitted to the several parts of it, that Felicia, by her often lifting her Handkerchief to her Eyes, testified what share she took in the Misfortunes of the Son of Arcanius; but when he frankly confes’d himself to be the Person, Felicia gave him a regard both of Pity and Respect…

One wonders how largely Leandro’s previous career as a gigolo featured in his narrative.

Leandro is emboldened to move on to frank declarations, and finally draws an admission from Felicia in turn; however she tells him that in respect of her marriage, her father’s word will be law. Having gone this far in entire consciousness of his own ineligibility as a suitor, in light of his current circumstances, Leandro nevertheless chooses to take this as one more act of a malign Fate:

…he began now to look upon himself, as upon a Man whom Fortune had design’d to persecute with with the greatest Misery…

Leandro nevertheless declares himself to the father, Foscarius:

…he open’d his whole Breast to him, telling him, The greatness of his Birth and Parentage; adding, that he wanted not Friends in the Court of Paris, to solicite the French King on his behalf.

That should give Louis a good laugh.

Foscarius responds to this in a perfectly reasonable manner, telling Leandro he will consent to his marriage to Felicia when he can demonstrate that he’s capable of keeping her in the style to which she is accustomed. And Leandro responds to this response as he responds to everything:

He returns to Felicia, and with distracted look, flinging himself at the Feet of that Lady, Madam, said he, all trembling, Providence has decreed my ruine, and Foscarius has signed it. I must no longer love my Felicia; nor any more think of my self, but as one of the most miserable Abjects upon the whole Earth. O God, added he, rising up, with his Hands and Eyes erected towards Heaven, for what further Miseries have you design’d the unfortunate Son of Arcanius?

Leandro realises he can’t stay at the house any longer and prepares to depart—which he does on a horse gifted to him by Foscarius, which he accepts unhesitatingly, as he does all else. And his thoughts, as he rides away, are – after all this! – about nothing less than scraping back into favour with Louis by converting to Catholicism!—

He had not yet conquered those scruples in his Conscience, so far as to think of changing a Persuasion, so true and Orthodox, for one so erroneous and ill-grounded as that of the Romans…

But happily for Leandro – no less for the rest of us:

Fortune, who had so long taken pleasure to sport her self with this unfortunate Man, at last weel’d a-bout, and happily reversed his State, when he least expected it…

Riding along, Leandro hears shots. He at first thinks it might be a duel, but then comes across a man holding off no less than four highwaymen, his servant having already been killed. Leandro plunges into the fray. He kills one of the highwaymen, but has his second pistol struck from his hand and must rely on his sword against his second attacker. Not to worry:

…with his Sword brandish’d above his Head struck him such a deep cut in the Forehead, that, descending with an unparallel’d strength, it par’d off one side of his Face, which, with a piece of his Shoulder, fell at his Horses Feet; the Thief being so amazed at the blow, that he left his Body unguarded…

Leandro is so busy killing this highwayman, he is nearly killed by another (who is carrying a scimitar!); but the stranger saves his life in turn. The last attacker runs away, leaving Leandro and the stranger to pat each other on the back—and to look each other in the face for the first time: at which point Leandro recognises the merchant of Calais, and the merchant his erstwhile “bride”.

The two make their way to the nearest town where – as it is rather bizarrely put – “orders were taken for the dead Bodies” – and Leandro catches his friend up on what has happened to him since they parted; and oh, surprise! – not without some sorrowful complaints”. The merchant, however, is the means by which everything is to be put right for Leandro: he knows Foscarius, and persuades him to agree to the immediate marriage of Leandro and Felicia, partly by vouching for Leandro’s character (!!), but more practically by bestowing a fortune upon him. Which, of course, Leandro accepts without hesitation:

I shall conclude with telling the Reader, that the next two days put a period to the fears of our overjoy’d Lovers, and they saw themselves at Night in each others Arms, attended with a triumph as splendid as the Match was extraordinary and illustrious.

 

28/05/2014

The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley (Part 2)

SophiaBerkley1
 
O 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 – nor 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 direct 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 unlikely 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, and 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 stratagems” 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 is simply 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 her husband’s successful business can barely support her. He, 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…

Significantly, 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 focuses 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 leave 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 feature 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 it in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition of The London Jilt 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 predecessor; 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…