Posts tagged ‘pseudonym’

19/07/2019

The Sicilian


 
 
    His Lordship would have liked to have travelled with the Duke; but as his Grace did not make the proposal, he did not chuse to mention his wishes, as he found he could not take the same liberties with the Duke di Ferrara as he could with the Viscount and Mellifont, to whom he chose to expatiate in the most pompous terms upon his Grace’s consequence, and to hint he expected them both to pay him the utmost respect.
    “Sole heir, you find, to two of the most noble, most illustrious houses in Sicily: his immense fortune is his least boast. He is also a grandee of Spain, Prince of the Roman Empire, &c. therefore far superior to many sovereign princes, and may truly be ranked among the first subjects in Europe…”

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
The only good thing about The Sicilian is that it essentially confirms my theory that the Minerva Press novelists known as “Mrs Meeke” and “Gabrielli” were indeed two different people.

As you might recall, recent research has determined that the real name of the writer who published as “Gabrielli” was Elizabeth Meeke; and there was some contention too that this was the actual name of the the author known simply as “Mrs Meeke”, whose first name is usually given as “Mary”.

My counter-suggestion was that the Minerva Press imposed a pseudonym upon Elizabeth Meeke to avoid having two different authors of the same name on its roster: a belief strengthened by the fact that – and I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this – I’ve read at least one book by each of the two Mrs Meekes.

While there were certain points of similarity between the works I had read attributed to “Mrs Meeke” and The Mysterious Wife, the first novel by “Gabrielli”, my overall impression was that the latter was by a less competent writer (I hesitate to say “talented” in either case). Moreover, while Mrs Meeke’s books tend to be overcrowded with incident, that by “Gabrielli”, other than a flourish of events at beginning and end, was mostly just padding.

The latter tendency is even more pronounced in the second novel attributed to “Gabrielli”, 1798’s The Sicilian, which – not to put too fine a point on it – is a whole lot of nothing.

Four volumes of nothing; 1158 pages of nothing.

While its title might suggest rather Gothicky goings-on – at the very least, banditti, and vendettas, and poignards a-flashing – The Sicilian is, for the most part, an intensely dull domestic novel about an immaculate young man (from, yes, Sicily) visiting his English relatives.

In order to fill out her four volumes, therefore, the author resorts to describing everything that happens in the most minute detail, with every incident, no matter how small or unimportant, dragged out to untenable length and relentlessly flogged to death. Quite often nothing happens at all—with large chunks of this book consisting of seemingly endless dialogue scenes in which half-a-dozen different characters give their opinion about something, and then the protagonist is proven correct.

The former quickly becomes excruciating; while the latter offers some interest, but mostly from the outside, as it were: the research mentioned above also uncovered that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-daughter of Dr Charles Burney, and therefore through her mother’s second marriage connected with the infinitely more talented Frances Burney. Among their many other qualities, Burney’s novels were celebrated for their dialogue: she had a knack for rendering idiosyncratic though believable speech, and using it to reveal character. It occurred to me while reading The Sicilian that Elizabeth Meeke was striving for something similar in her dialogue scenes, but since most of her characters are two-dimensional at best, their dialogue has nothing to reveal—but instead just drones on and on…

What minor entertainment is offered by this book is almost entirely inadvertent, being found chiefly in the author’s serene belief that people with titles are better than the rest of us, and the more titles, the better; which, coupled by her evident ignorance of the society she was trying to depict, does make for some laughs. There are one or two other eyebrow-raising and/or gigglesome touches, but otherwise The Sicilian is something of a grim endurance test.

That said—two of the novel’s accidental points of interest occur at the outset. The Sicilian opens during the early phase of the French Revolution, in a Belgium overrun by emigrants. Amusingly, though also somewhat horrifyingly, considering that this novel was written well after the events depicted and with a full knowledge of their outcome, the author has no sympathy whatsoever for these displaced persons, saving all of her concern for the non-French people inconvenienced by them—including her hero; who, by the way, observes:

“…I think most of them had much better have staid in France; as I have been assured, by people whose authority was unquestionable, that the greater number of them were not of sufficient consequence to have excited the attention of the democrats: but it is fashionable to emigrate, and every chevalier wishes to be thought a nobleman.”

And this is in 1792, mind you! To be clear, there’s no irony intended here, nor any hint that the hero might be (heaven forfend!) wrong.

That hero creates something of a dilemma for his author, inasmuch as he is Catholic. The Sicilian opens with a young Englishman called Francis Neville becoming stranded in a small Belgium town due to lack of accommodation and horses, and visiting the church for want of anything else to do. Shown around by the sexton, Neville is subjected to a harangue about the various miracles performed in the district by the Virgin Mary, at which he can barely refrain from laughing out loud. This companion in his tour of the shrine is a gentleman about his own age, accompanied by a small boy: the latter—

…expressed [his] doubts as to the authenticity of the miracles [the sexton] was descanting upon… Before he had enumerated half the surprising deeds she had performed, the child exclaimed, “Pray, papa, how many Virgin Mary’s are there?” This question quite overset Neville’s gravity; and the stranger, without entering into a discussion upon the subject, joined him in a very hearty laugh…

Yeah, sound like a couple of devout Catholics, don’t they? – particularly the five-year-old; though of course, as her hero is his creator’s idea of a veray parfit gentil knight, he has to be devout…just not too devout…or at least, not too Catholicky in his devotion. Particularly he can’t believe too much in all that saints-and-miracles stuff, which as any sensible person must realise (Catholic or not) is just silly:

    As Mr Neville had been the first to give way to his mirth, he made his excuses to the stranger, adding, “I think it would be excusable in the most rigid Catholic not to give credit to such absurd fabrications.”
    “Else I should be very deserving of censure, sir,” said the stranger. “Yet, though I profess that religion, I do not place implicit faith in the doctrine of miracles.”

And so it is throughout the novel: the hero is shown as steady in the practise of his faith and his attendance at Mass, yet always with some sort of disclaimer tacked on.

The conversation continues, with the stranger eventually revealing that he is on his way to England to visit his friend, Lord Fortrose…who happens to be Mr Neville’s father. Neville then rightly surmises that the stranger is the Duke di Ferrara, who once assisted his father when the latter feel ill while travelling. It is further revealed that the young duke is a widower, and that the boy is his eldest son, Alfred.

The two young men journey on together, but are forced to spend the night in an an overcrowded town where they secure the last hotel room, dirty and inadequate as it is. The duke offers to share their accommodation with an elderly Englishman who, being a nobleman of some sort, is aggrieved to be obliged to (as he supposes) a couple of commoners, but accepts the offer and takes over their room. He is tired and cranky, unused to “putting up” with anything inferior, and is as rude, petulant and condescending as possible to everyone who comes near him…until Neville uses the phrase, “Your Grace.”

The elderly nobleman, meanwhile, is travelling with two young men, one of whom refers to the other as, “Lord Gowrie”, which in turn attracts the duke’s full attention. The nobleman is revealed as the Earl of Merton before he finds out his companions’ names…and titles. Neville eventually introduces himself, but the duke is subjected to the equivalent of a game of twenty questions, which makes it clear that the earl suspects the latter’s identity, and has some unpleasant personal knowledge related to it. Eventually we get this:

    “Pray is your Grace acquainted with any part of the St. Severino family?”
    The Duke fixed his eyes upon the Peer, while he replied, “I was intimately so during their life-time, my Lord. The late Duke of that name died about two years ago; his title and estates centred in my family; my eldest son, who sleeps there, bears that name.”
    The Earl shrunk from the Duke’s scrutinising looks, and was for a few seconds lost in astonishment; but speedily rousing himself, fearful of being remarked, he said, with some hesitation, “A very great family I always understood, though I can’t say I was acquainted with every branch of it; but pray, your Grace, was not there once, or have I been misinformed, a Count (Italian Counts, I know, are mere nominal titles), but I understood there was a Count Mondovi, a relation of the St. Severino family?”
    The Duke, who secretly enjoyed the Earl’s perplexity, knowing full well from whence it arose, said very coolly, “I presume your Lordship means the late Duke; he was fourth son to the former one, and did bear the title you allude to.”
    “Oh! the fourth son,” said the Earl: then, having taken a few moments for reflection, he proceeded, “Pray did he leave any daughters behind him? I presume he had no sons, from his title and estates having devolved to your Grace.”
    “He had but one daughter, my Lord, who married against his consent, and preceded him to the grave…”

This little interlude is an excellent example of The Sicilian‘s style (or lack thereof): the conversation is interrupted at this point, and about another 100 pages have passed before the complicated family relationships – and, more importantly (at least in the author’s view), inheritances – are spelled out, confirming for us that: (i) the duke is Lord Melton’s grandson; (ii) his father was Lord Melton’s third son, Alfred; (iii) Alfred married the only daughter of the Count Mondovi against both their fathers’ wills; (iv) Count Mondovi later became the Duke di St. Severino after most of his family was wiped out in the Calabrian earthquakes of 1783; and (iv) the Duke di Ferrara bears his title courtesy of his marriage to the heiress of that family, as a royal bequest…

…thus allowing him and his young son to both be dukes simultaneously.

There is eventually a reconciliation between Lord Melton and his newly discovered relatives – of course there is: his grandson and great-grandson are both dukes!! – and most of remaining three-and-a-half volumes of The Sicilian are devoted to the duke meeting his English relatives, and those relatives discovering how immensely superior he is to pretty much everyone, what with his multiple titles and everything…

The latter straightfaced attitude is also picked up in the material concerning Lord Melton himself, who is forgiven his overweening pride and arrogance, and the fact that he allowed his son Alfred to remain an outcast and suffer many difficulties after his marriage, on account of the fact that, Aw c’mon, he’s an Earl! – cut him some slack!!

And yet—the novel also devotes a tedious number of pages to mocking the subsuming family pride of the Earl’s spinster-niece, Miss (or as she calls herself, “Mistress”, Mrs) Rachel de Studeville, who spends most of her time dwelling on her inherited magnificence as the daughter and heiress of Sir Yelverton de Studeville, and who also conceives a passionate affection for her new relative mostly (though not entirely) on account of his multiple titles.

This seems unnecessarily cruel inasmuch as Mrs Rachel has a few more good qualities than her uncle. She was also unkindly treated by the duke’s father, who reacted to being pressured into marrying his much-older cousin (and thus keeping all the property in the family) by eloping with another woman. Rachel at that time nursed an unrequited affection for the ungrateful Alfred, and when he later fell into poverty and struggle due to his impulsive marriage, it was she who displayed forgiveness and generosity by sending him some relieving money.

Despite its length, there are really only two subplots of any real interest in The Sicilian, the first of which involves the rather dubious relationship between Lord Melton and his heir, his eldest grandson, Viscount Gowrie.

As noted, when the duke and Lord Melton first encounter each other, the latter is travelling with Lord Gowrie and another grandson, Captain Mellifont. The two parties end up merging for an extremely rough passage across the Channel, which they are required to complete by oar. The conditions are still difficult, and the passengers frequently splashed by breaking waves, particularly Lord Melton:

The Viscount, by way of appeasing him, protested he had no intention to take the best place, and entreated the Earl would change with him, which at last the old man agreed to; and nothing would have been more easy than for Lord Gowrie to have stood up, and thus let the Earl slide himself into his seat, instead of which he chose to assist the old Peer in rising as he sat, meaning to take the advantage he ought to have allowed him to have done. A moment’s reflection would doubtless have made the Earl object to rising; however, he was half upon his legs when the Captain, who saw a large wave coming, called out “For God’s sake take care, we shall overset!” He had not time to finish his sentence before Lord Gowrie started up, as he said, to let the Earl take his place, when he fell against the poor old man, already upon a totter, and fairly sent him backwards over the side of the boat…

But of course—

The idea of self-preservation induced everyone but the Duke to obey, who the moment the accident happened, had thrown off his great coat, and in ten seconds, having disencumbered himself of the greatest part of his clothes, seeing the Earl rise at some distance from the boat, just said, before anyone had remarked what he was about, “Lie quietly on your oars,” and plunged into the sea…

The duke succeeds in rescuing his grandfather, although this incident is nearly the end of them both, and particularly of the latter. Fortunately, however, they chose just the right country almost to drown in—

His Grace called to his valet, and gave him orders what to prepare the moment he reached the shore; being, as he had observed, particularly fond of the water, and very often upon it, his Grace had frequently been a witness of similar scenes to the one he had now been so principal an actor in, and had, out of a motive of benevolence, made a particular study of the rules laid down by the English Humane Society; he was therefore perfectly competent to prescribe in such cases…

When everyone has had a chance to rest and recover, it becomes apparent that all those involved have come to the same conclusion regarding Lord Gowrie’s part in the near-tragedy:

    “Upon my soul,” said Neville, “I don’t think your Grace has done his tender-hearted grandson a favour as it is.”
    “I am afraid not; his bombastic expressions of grief and joy confirm me in that opinion.”
    “I protest I think they were merely assumed to exculpate himself in our eyes,” continued Neville; “for upon my honour I think he was, if not purposely, in a great measure accessory to the accident.”
    “I am perfectly of your opinion. God forgive him if he is guilty, or me if I judge him wrongfully! but as I sat opposite, I had them both perfectly in view; I positively thought—(the Duke paused)—he might at all events have saved the poor old man: however, let us hope he only wanted presence of mind.”
    “I wish the Earl may not have imbibed a few of my suspicions,” said Neville; “he don’t seem to treat the stupid being with much cordiality…”

It is the wake of this incident that the relationship between the duke and Lord Melton is revealed and announced. The chastened earl laments his past cruelty, and wishes aloud that he was in a position to testify his remorse and gratitude via something more solid than his “esteem” and “affection”:

    “I never wished for more believe me, my Lord,” replied the Duke; “and I am very happy my maternal grandfather put it out of my power to accept anything else… I did as he desired; and then solemnly swore that, admitting I should ever, by the same chance which constituted me his, become also your heir, I would renounce all claims to your title and estates; continue all my life to profess the religion in which I had been brought up, and remain a subject of the King of Naples. I farther bound myself to educate my sons in the same principle…”
    The Earl was evidently hurt, though he tried to conceal his vexation: he looked at his Grace—“I find the Duke di St. Severino neither imitated nor approved my conduct:” then, after a pause, “All my children gone before me!—Well, I am justly punished (casting a disdainful glance at Lord Gowrie;)…”

Nevertheless, Lord Melton is all over the duke from this point; though the latter both refuses an invitation to stay at his house in London – he is already committed to Lord Fortrose – and ignores his hints about travelling on together, leaving the earl with the cold comfort of bragging about to his other two grandsons about the duke’s endless titles (civil and military), and his family connections.

We get one of the novel’s few glimmerings of humour and perspective here, as Captain Mellifont reflects silently that:

…[he] would have enjoyed asking the old man why he found himself so grievously offended with his son for marrying into one of these illustrious houses…

…but this is quickly drowned out by our very similar awareness that for the vast majority of its narrative, this novel is itself guilty of precisely the same kind of bragging.

Once in London, Lord Melton does everything he can to introduce the duke around and advertise their relationship. The latter takes this in his stride, and gratifies his grandfather by a wish to attend a parliamentary debate, in which the earl is to take a leading role. The two, in company with Lord Fortrose and Neville, leave the House in the early hours of the morning; and as Lord Melton steps into his carriage, danger suddenly threatens him again:

…some mischievous person had watched opportunity…to tie upon the end of the pole, just under the horses’ noses, a large bunch of squibs, which were lighted at the moment the carriage stopped, by some person who held a flambeau in his hand, which he instantly extinguished, and ran away full speed… By the time the Duke had advanced near enough to see what was the matter, it was in full blaze, and the horses plunging most dreadfully; in a minute more they sprung forward with the utmost rapidity, as the coachman had no longer any power over them. The Duke snatching his great coat out of his servant’s hand, who was waiting for him, darted so quickly as to catch hold of one of the horses’ heads, by which means he was able to keep up with, and prevent them from running against any other carriage they passed, while with his other hand he flung the great coat over the fire, and thus smothered it by degrees…

Comparing notes with Neville and his father, the duke finds them seized by the same suspicion as himself; and they decide to call at Lord Gowrie’s house under the pretence of informing him of his grandfather’s close call. However, they find Gowrie not only there but in his nightclothes, which argues in his favour and makes them conclude that perhaps the earl was simply the victim of a dangerous prank. Nevertheless, Mellifont continues to hint at his suspicions whenever he gets an opportunity, while the earl himself becomes coldly hostile and withdrawn—leaving his panicky heir to conclude that, while he cannot be kept out of the inheritance of the title, there is every chance he will soon be cut out of his grandfather’s will otherwise.

The inevitable third act of this would-be tragedy does not play out until nearly a full volume more has ticked away, when the duke, after a lengthy sojourn in the country, finally gives in to his grandfather’s insistence and agrees to stay a fortnight with him at his London house. The earl, without saying anything, gives up his own suite to the duke, as they are the best rooms he has to offer; meaning that it is a strong and healthy young man, not an elderly one, who subsequently encounters as intruder.

In the struggle the duke takes a pistol-shot to the shoulder. The wound is not deadly; and as the ball is being extracted by a surgeon, he offers his views upon the injury:

…he did not perceive the slightest danger at present; presumed the pistol was held close to the Duke—a fortunate circumstance, as it had prevented the ball from having its full force.

There is plenty of evidence that this was an inside job, including a pre-arranged rope-ladder and a dropped hat; and though the duke succeeds in keeping his grandfather quiet until they are alone, he then tells him frankly the whole story:

“What was my astonishment, when behind the curtain, to meet the eyes of Lord Gowrie!—I started back, and at the same moment he levelled a pistol at my breast: in my effort to ward it off I received its contents in my shoulder, and instantly fell. Could I have recovered my legs, he had already made his escape by a rope, which, on examination you will find had been previously fastened for that purpose…”

Though the fiction of a housebreaker is maintained for the benefit of the rest of the household, the next morning the earl and the duke take counsel with Captain Mellifont, who agrees to call at Lord Gowrie’s residence to learn whether he has, as they suppose, and hope, fled for the Continent. However, Mellifont reports to the others, via his lordship’s valet, that he is at home and asleep. The three conclude that Gowrie must believe the duke dead, without realising how much damning evidence he left behind. On this basis, Mellifont is sent to fetch Lord Gowrie to the earl, but finds him still asleep; and as it turns out, permanently:

The Captain perceived a written sheet undoubled, that had been placed under the other paper; he folded, and put it in his pocket, as the beginning informed him it was intended for Lord Melton, and again approached the bed, turned down the clothes, and perceived a small vial laying by his side: he was going to take it up, but checked himself, and flung the clothes over again, desiring the valet, who stood on the other side, to run of send for his Lordship’s apothecary, who lived in the same street. The man left the room; during his absence the Captain took away the vial, and searched his Lordship’s pockets, in which he found a brace of pistols, one of them still loaded, and a little powder screwed in a bit of paper;—these he removed into his own pockets; in a few minutes the apothecary came, and pronounced his Lordship quite dead, supposing of an apoplexy…

The cover-up is successful, though Mellifont tells his grandfather and the duke the truth; while Gowrie’s largely unrepentant suicide note confirms everyone’s suspicions regarding the boat and the carriage; as well as explaining that it was only hearing the earl calling out for help as he ran away, and knowing that the duke survived, that made him kill himself.

News of Lord Gowrie’s death does not precisely wrack anyone with grief; while the earl even warms himself on one consequence, albeit briefly:

During the Captain’s absence, the Earl had been using every argument his love for the Duke inspired him with, to induce his Grace (now become his legal heir) to permit him to acknowledge him as such. The Duke, with a firmness that did him the utmost honour in the eyes of the Earl, entreated his grandfather to wave the subject, adding, if British laws made such a step necessary, he would formally renounce every claim his birth might give to his Lordship’s title and estates, in favour of Captain Mellifont…

So much for that.

Prior to all this, however, we have followed the duke as he becomes acquainted with Mrs Rachel de Studeville, who turns out to be a country-neighbour of Lord Fortrose, near Bath.

This is where the novel-as-endurance-test aspect of The Sicilian begins in earnest.

In immediate terms, the pain begins with an all-but blow-by-blow repetition, in the duke’s meeting with Mrs Rachel, of his meeting with the earl: he ends up rescuing her from peril, in this case a carriage-accident, and then goes through exactly the same routine of jerking her around about his identity and their relationship—with exactly the same outcome.

However, the lasting impact comes from the fact that, when Mrs Rachel finally persuades the duke to begin what turns out to an almost interminable visit to Studeville Court, she already has a houseful of guests.

We learn that while Mrs Rachel buried her heart in Alfred St. Aubyn’s grave, her two younger sisters both married, and both unwisely: one to an impecunious clergyman, the other to a man she was deceived into believing a “merchant prince”, but who was certainly not one and barely the other. Sir Yelverton de Studeville followed the lead of his brother-in-law, the Earl of Melton, by cutting off his children without a shilling; leaving the younger generation – and, in the latter case, the widowed Mr Chambers – to hang upon Mrs Rachel’s sleeve in the desperate hope of becoming her heir: she having inherited her sisters’ portions as well as her own.

Thus we find Mrs Rachel entertaining – or at least, failing to persuade to leave her house – Mr Chambers, a draper by trade; his son, Robert, and Robert’s new wife, whose marriage was the initial excuse for their visit; his daughter, Rachel; and James and Grace Vernon, the children of the poor clergyman. These two are a different proposition from the Chambers, or at least Grace is: James is a gentleman without the money necessary to be one, and a gambling habit that has already found him deeply in debt; so he must grit his teeth and court Mrs Rachel like the rest.

This is where, as I suggested, “Gabrielli” seems to have been trying to imitate her step-sister, Frances Burney, who loved to create unlikely gatherings, and had a talent for amusing and distinctive dialogue. In this respect, Mr Chambers is certainly memorable enough, as a sample of his conversation will attest:

Mr Chambers soon began to harangue his family to the following effect:—“Now, was I not right, boys and girls? (Mr Vernon was present); was I not right when I said this here fellow would never be easy till his nose in amongst us? I dare say, for all what Grace said, he is as poor as Job, almost glad of a meal of victuals, perhaps, if one knew the truth of it; and this damned stinking snotty-nosed brat too—I will be hanged, drawn, and quartered, if the old cat would have laid out half the money upon any of us, or ever will while she lives, (and pray God her mouth was full of earth to-morrow!) she has already squandered away upon that shock-pated rude little urchin, and all, forsooth, because his name is Alfred, and he is grandson to her false lover! The Duke is no fool, though knave enough I warrant me; and he means to take advantage of this silly old woman’s folly; depend upon it he will try to make her provide for this boy, and the other too, whose name is no more Roger than mine is. I wonder, when the fellow was cracking, he did not say at once it was Yelverton; but that would have been too barefaced, I suppose, he thought, and t’other tickled her fancy just as well…”

Not that there isn’t any humour in this, or in Chambers’ hard-dying conviction that the duke is a rival con-artist; but his creator just doesn’t know when to quit: imagine this speech dragged out to about 200 pages, and you’ll have a fair idea how she fills her second and third volumes; that, along with an endless series of scenes in which Mrs Rachel, the duke and Neville are compelled to go amongst the Chambers family and their ilk, just so we can all appreciate how comical and/or crass working-folk are, and how infinitely superior anyone with a title.

Still—there is one aspect of Mr Chambers’ conversation that I want to bring to your attention, to which that description of the saintly and precocious young Alfred as a damned stinking snotty-nosed brat is merely a forerunner. As I have frequently said, part of the fun of this project, if not always in reading the novels themselves, is watching their evolution—in this case, in terms of acceptable language.

As you may (but probably don’t) remember, 1767’s The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Bart. did give us a passing reference to toilet paper and its use; but this is as late as 1798, and a book by a female author; so if I raised my eyebrows at that description of Alfred, I may even have blinked in surprise at this:

“…how came this here outlandish Duke to I have heard about the old girl be the old woman’s cousin? and how came he to be so damned handy? I have heard the old girl talk about some of the tribes coming over to England, from the Devil’s A—e-a-Peak, when Adam was a little boy…”

And I’m pretty certain I gasped at this:

“…though it is hardly worth while going to law about such nonsense, for what is it to you if he calls himself Jack of Nokes, or Tom of Styles? You know the old saying, Madam, the more you stir a t—d, the more it stinks!”

Anyway—

The duke’s wounding and subsequent recovery give rise – eventually – to The Sicilian‘s only other point of interest, and allows the author to – eventually – tie up her plot.

Mrs Rachel is another of the guests at Lord Melton’s London house, a rare visit to the capital to which she agrees in exchange for her uncle and the duke afterwards accompanying her to Newnham Hall, her other country residence, where she intends to pass the summer. The movements of her other guests are delayed by the duke’s injury, but Mrs Rachel not only sets out for Newnham Hall anyway, she persuades his father to allow her to take Alfred with her, having conceived a warm affection for the boy. She is also accompanied by the welcome Grace Vernon, and the very unwelcome Mr Chambers and Robert Chambers, still clinging like limpets.

The party has barely settled in when the damned stinking snotty-nosed brat saintly and precocious young Alfred is kidnapped right out of the grounds. There is some evidence is found that the child has been carried away by boat, and the footprints of both a man and a woman are found at the river’s edge. As wide a search as can be organised is immediately instituted, the authorities in all directions are notified, and an enormous reward is offered, but no trace of the boy is found.

What the shock might do to the duke in his state of ill-health is everyone’s first thought, and in fact the others conspire to keep him in ignorance of what has happened for as long as they dare. However, it is Mrs Rachel who is the main sufferer from the situation: her health collapses under the weight of her grief and guilt, and she becomes bed-ridden, blaming herself for Alfred’s fate and refusing to be comforted or even to believe that the child is still alive. Finally, knowing herself dying, Mrs Rachel organises to rewrite her will; and is sufficiently compos mentis to have herself attended by several doctors able subsequently to testify to the fact, to prevent any chance of it being contested.

This is also the cue for the bad news finally to be broken to the duke, as Mrs Rachel’s last wish is to have the chance to beg his forgiveness.

With no attempt made to ransom Alfred, and the duke himself dismissing suggestions of political enemies from Italy, only one suspect has presented herself – herself – to the minds of the interested parties. While staying at Studeville Court, Alfred was often taken out by a servant for a run upon the Downs, where visitors to Bath also exercised on horseback. There he attracted the attention of a mysterious woman, nearly always veiled, who expressed great kindness for him, asked him many questions about himself and his father, and allowed him to ride gently on her horse. However, when the curiosity of the duke and Neville sent them out to catch a glimpse of Alfred’s “beautiful lady”, she proved extremely elusive:

    The Earl and Neville continued with the Duke, who paced the room in silence for some minutes, and neither chose to interrupt his reverie; till stopping suddenly opposite to Neville, he said, “There is a lady—”
    “She is still at Clifton, I believe,” said Neville. “My father’s first suspicions were similar to those I can presume your Grace may entertain. He was therefore particularly minute in his enquiries. She is really a woman of family he tells me, and Countess of Glenalvon.”
    “What, the young widow?” said Lord Melton, “the Earl of Orcan’s daughter?”
    The Duke, who had resumed his walk, made a sort of instantaneous stop, while his colour heightened so much and so visibly, as induced the Earl, with some surprise, to enquire, “Did your Grace ever see Lady Roxana Charleville during her residence abroad with her father?”
    The Duke approached one of the windows. “I thought I recollected the name of Orcan, my Lord; the Earl was some time Ambassador at Vienna if I remember right?”
    “He was,” said Lord Melton, “for near three years—let me see—aye, it must have been much about the same time your Grace was in the Austrian service…”

You think?

About 500 pages before this, there is a suspiciously brief allusion to an unhappy love affair that preceded the duke’s marriage to the Duchess di Ferrara. In fact he and Lady Roxana faced as many objections to their marriage as did his own parents: he was then only an impecunious young officer, though titled; Lord Orcan having in addition an insurmountable prejudice against his daughter marrying “a foreigner”, and the Duke di St. Severino an equal one to his heir marrying a Protestant. The two were ruthlessly separated; Lady Roxana was forced into marriage with the much-older, rather dissolute Lord Glenalvon; and the then-Count Mondovi gave in to his grandfather’s wishes and agreed to an alliance with the Ferrara family.

So—it is certainly not Lady Roxana who has kidnapped Alfred, to whom she was drawn by his resemblance to his father; but it is her who is finally instrumental in his rescue, thus paving the way for our happy ending.

To cut a long story (and an overlong blog-post) short, it is of course the Chambers family who are behind Alfred’s kidnapping—masterminded by Senior and carried out by Junior, with the help of the latter’s mistress and her (unwitting) sister. Once exposed, they confess that their motive was partly the reward offered, and partly the hope of causing a total breach between Mrs Rachel and the duke, who they had come to view, and rightly, as their main rival to the lady’s property and fortune: having realised belatedly that he was more of a threat in his own persona than as the con-artist they initially took him for, inasmuch as (as the saying goes), Them that has, gets. They are less forthcoming as to whether they hoped the shock of Alfred’s abduction would have the effect upon Mrs Rachel’s health that, in fact, it did.

All this comes to light when a response to one of the widely-distributed reward-posters finally evokes a response, from an innkeeper in Wales, and sends the duke flying to Swansea, where he finds a crowd gathered in an uproar before a certain house:

    His Grace made but a few steps across the room, shoved in between the assembly, as he had done only a moment before to get into the room; and at the same moment met the eye of his lovely boy, seated upon the knee, and encircled by the arms of the Countess of Glenalvon.
    The child starting down from her lap, sprang forward, exclaiming, “Oh, Papa, Papa, Papa!” and burst into tears before the Duke could catch him in his arms.
    Having given way for a few moments to his own emotion upon so rapturous a meeting, and repeatedly embraced his beloved Alfred, who cried and laughed in a breath, the Duke raised his eyes upon his darling son’s deliverer…

Awww…

In fact, Alfred more or less saved himself—spotting Lady Roxana on horseback in the street below, and managing to attract her attention through an uncovered window high up in the house in which he was being held; after which she and her servants forced their way in and secured the two women involved.

So! – little now remains – by which I mean the best part of an entire other volume, in which I swear to God nothing whatsoever happens worth mentioning – but to wrap things up and pack the duke and his new duchess off to Sicily; once, that is, the duke has managed to divest himself of all the unwanted property bequeathed to him by the unfortunate Mrs Rachel…who at least gets the last laugh, both in giving Chambers and his son very short shrift in her will, and in the same document appointing her executors in the following terms:

“I do hereby appoint the Right Honourable Alfred Alexander (St. Aubyn) Earl of Melton, Viscount Gowrie, Baron Lovel, &c., and the Right Honourable Ferdinand Rinaldo (St. Aubyn) Duke di Ferrara, and St. Severino, Count Mondovi, &c. &c., my joint and sole executors…”

 

03/08/2014

If I might Meekely interject…

Sigh…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEEKE, Mrs, a prolific Writer of Novels…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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