“…Lady Jemima began, before she could summon her privy counsellor, to deliberate on her next manoeuvre. Her ill success, though it distressed, did not discourage her; her spirit rose under oppression, and her only difficulty was to find some usurper to set up. She could contemplate with philosophic temper the circumstances of her two daughters; one was, she concluded, dead; the other, perhaps, was ruined; for the experienced matron had little faith in Hymen’s purple and yellow; but the greatest of all misery was, that she had not the means of imposing on Sir Clifford; and without that, she considered it impossible to cheat him.”
Joan!!! is, as I have mentioned, an odd book that goes in unexpected directions; and turning this post into a two-parter is simply a matter of not selling it short. I certainly don’t want to oversell this novel, which is anything other than a “lost classic”; but nor do I want to skip over its strange charms; and when I found my word-count creeping up towards the dreaded 3000 mark, without having said half of what I intended to, it seemed the best idea to cut things short and start fresh.
This is a long novel, and is so chiefly because its point of view keeps changing, with a range of different characters becoming its focus at different times. It also dispenses with one heroine and takes on another, as Joanna recedes into the background of the tale and we follow the shifting fortunes of Elizabeth instead. Yet in the end, neither of these two is the novel’s most memorable character. This is instead Lady Jemima
As the story progresses, Lady Jemima’s behaviour becomes a startling mix of the immoral and the illegal; yet in place of the expected angst and hand-wringing, the language and tone in which all this is described to us gives the distinct impression that the author was getting some wicked enjoyment out of writing a character so outrageous. This is another place where the 18th century novel separates itself from its descendents: I wouldn’t advise any of you to hold your breath waiting for the next time that a novel’s “bad woman” would be treated as a figure of fun.
The first unexpected thing to happen here, however, is the rapid passing of the time. Nine years flit by without a significant event, until the death of Lady Armathwaite both frees and enriches her husband:
He was now at liberty, and in a state of superior affluence; but he was miserable; for Joanna, though still constant in her attachment to him, and urged by both him and her friend to take a legal opinion on the point of annulling her marriage, was too scrupulous, and too completely disgusted with the idea of a fresh search after happiness, to suffer any step towards this end to be taken. His lordship, therefore, finding the quiet of home unfriendly to him, interested himself in the bustle of army politics; and procuring a military appointment, went abroad…
Joan!!! then follows the fortunes of Elizabeth, brought up in the belief that she is Byram’s bastard. Not surprisingly, the “marriage” between Byram and Lady Jemima is a total disaster; the reader may well take a grim satisfaction in the punishment that Byram brings on himself. Jemima is selfish, extravagant, fashion-mad and flirtatious – “flirtatious” – being the polite word for it – and leads her husband a dog’s life. (Jemima’s conduct brings about an estrangement between herself and her brother, Lord Armathwaite, which ironically prevents any chance of him learning of the whereabouts of Elizabeth.) The marriage produces two daughters, who favour their mother in that they are both thoroughly nasty bits of work. A member of the family by the merest sufference, and immured in the depths of the country while her relatives live a fashionable life in the city, Elizabeth’s life is also an unhappy one:
There was a cloud spread, as it were, by the hand of Nature, over Elizabeth at her birth, and which every circumstance of her existence, as it unfolded itself to her perception, seemed to increase. The first sentiment she could remember, was that of fear of Lady Jemima: she soon was aware that her father was kind to her only by stealth: she had been ill-treated by her half-sisters, and uniformly confined to a solitude which every expanding idea convinced her was not the common lot of daughters…
The misery and strain of Byram’s life ruins his health, and he dies young. At the last, he makes an attempt to tell his daughter the truth about herself, but his failing strength prevents it. He does manage to give Elizabeth a locket containing her mother’s picture, promising it will prove her identity. Elizabeth’s lonely despair is subsequently crowned by a conversation with her father’s Irish servant, Dennis, who repeats to her some unguarded words spoken by Byram not long before his death: “Ah, Dennis, that swate crature in the north, that I call my naitral daughter, is no more my naitral daughter than she is yours.” Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Elizabeth entirely misinterprets the point of this declaraction…
Lady Jemima, meanwhile, is utterly unmoved by her husband’s death, except as it might affect her income. She is deep in debt through gambling, and already facing the necessity of a second marriage, when she arrives in the depths of Ireland to see what might be salvaged from the estate. There she finds Elizabeth, much to her annoyance; the encumbrance of a third daughter she does not need. She immediately begins considering ways and means to get the girl off her hands, not merely to save expenses, but in the fear that otherwise Sir Clifford Byram will learn of her existence.
The foolish Sir Clifford has had time and plenty to recover from the infatuation that compelled him to push his only son into marriage with Lady Jemima, and has long since learned to see his daughter-in-law for exactly what she is. In her financial extremity, Lady Jemima begins scheming ways to worm herself back into Sir Clifford’s favour, and makes disposing of Elizabeth her top priority, lest she prove a rival for Sir Clifford’s fortune:
She had, it is true, but one point to carry—this was to secure as much as possible of her father-in-law’s property to herself and her children. To this the exclusion of Elizabeth appeared necessary; for it never entered her crooked imagination, that a generous protection of an injured girl, and an appeal to Sir Clifford’s justice and humanity, would have had just as good an effect, and by much shorter means. Cunning loves a labyrinth, and leaves the high road for wisdom.
Meanwhile, Lord Armathwaite has seen the news of Byram’s death and arrives on Mrs Halnaby’s doorstep in a state of near-hysteria, demanding that Joanna marry him. She, worn down by so many years of loneliness and uncertainty, proves unenthused by the thought of a second marriage, much to Armathwaite’s hurt and dismay; but she does still care for him, and feels moreover that his fidelity deserves its reward. Armathwaite then comes up with an offer than Joanna cannot refuse: he will seek out Elizabeth and restore the girl, now a young woman, to her mother; he will be a father to her. At this, Joanna gives her promise. Armathwaite sets out on his mission immediately, his first stop for information being the sister from whom he has been estranged so many years.
Of course—it isn’t only Elizabeth that Lady Jemima wants off her hands: her own daughters are no more to her than an expensive encumbrance; and when Armathwaite makes his purpose clear to her, Lady Jemima has a blinding flash of inspiration…and she passes her own eldest child off on her brother as the long-lost Elizabeth.
And what a child she is!—her mother’s child in every respect, except that she is stupid and stubborn, as well as selfish, venal and superficial; her favourite occupations being reading trashy novels and flirting with the footmen. The journey in her company is a nightmare to Lord Armathwaite, only too acutely aware of the overwhelming blow in store for his beloved Joanna, who has built her missing daughter up to an impossible pitch in her imagination:
Joanna’s grief was not to be restrained any longer than till the cause of it was out of hearing; nor was it in the power of Lord Armathwaite or Mrs Halnaby to offer her any other consolation than a hope that a new mode of treatment might retrieve the unfortunate girl.
“But,” said Joanna, “what ground is there for hope? She has not only shewn her total want of every external recommendation, but she has no heart—no morality.”
“Let us, however, wait a few days,” said the Earl, “and see whether these deficiences, which perhaps are more in appearance than in reality, may not be in some way supplied.”
“They can never be supplied,” answered Joanna emphatically. “The girl who at seventeen has no heart, is very little likely to find one.—Good God! what will my future life be?”
“Happy it would be, could I make it so,” said Lord Armathwaite.
“Of that I am convinced,” said Joanna; “but this is a misfortune we could not expect.”
“Let us share it together, and it will be lessened,” he said.
And so Lord Armathwaite gets his reward…although not exactly in the way he’d been imagining for the past eighteen years.
Lady Jemima, meanwhile, has disposed of her younger daughter, Arabella, by placing her in a cheap boarding-school in Dublin (although, cheap as it is, she has no intention of paying more than the first necessary bill); and she turns her attention to ridding herself of the real Elizabeth once and for all, thus freeing herself to pursue her fortune. Lady Jemima’s first impulse is to do what so very often was done with unwanted females at the time, and pack Elizabeth off to the marriage-market in India. The girl is bewildered by this proposition and, once it is explained to her, horrified. She refuses point-blank, and Lady Jemima promises that she will not have to go; a promise that she has no intention of keeping…
In pursuit of this end, Lady Jemima manages to have Elizabeth taken in by a “dear friend”—soon to be romantic rival and deadly enemy—called Mrs Haccombe, who lives in London, and whose companion Elizabeth believes she is to be, until she is able to find employment and the means of supporting herself. Going out into the world with no name to call her own, Elizabeth chooses one for herself; and although we are privy only to the very improving literature that makes up the bulk of her study, it’s just possible that a trashy novel or two may also have come her way:
“I was thinking, madam, to take the name of Peregrina Lamorne… I think it is descriptive of my situation; for Peregrina, you know, is a wanderer; and Lamorne would just suit me; for I am sure I shall be sorrowful…”
And so Elizabeth makes her entry into the world under an assumed identity; an identity that means, should anybody with any knowledge of her real history encounter her—for instance, her own mother—that they will not know her.
The household into which Peregrina is received consists of its master and mistress; Sir Edward Bergholt, a ward of Mr Haccombe who is recovering from a severe breakdown; and Mrs Barnby, Mr Haccombe’s widowed niece, with whom Sir Edward had “an understanding” prior to his illness, but who now barely seems to remember her. Sir Edward, who is given to extravagant emotional outbursts and wild speech, evokes both terror and pity in Peregrina, and she avoids him whenever she can; but she is deeply grateful to the others for what she perceives to be their selfless kindness towards her…and completely oblivious to the ulterior motives that surround her.
In the first instance, Mrs Haccombe is supposed to manoeuvre Peregrina onto a slow boat to India. This plan is thwarted, however, and by this time there has been a falling out between Mrs Haccome and her “dear friend” Lady Jemima, the bone of contention being Lord Surchester—that same Lord Surchester who once tried to buy Joanna Doveridge from her guardian—on whom Lady Jemima has set her sights. Unfortunately for her, the maritally-disinclined nobleman turns out to prefer a more irregular connection with Mrs Haccombe; and he abandons Lady Jemima to follow her “dear friend” to London.
With the need to distract her husband from what is going on in his household, Mrs Haccombe takes in Peregrina, knowing her husband well enough to know that the lovely young girl will catch and hold his attention—as she does. But Mr Haccombe is not otherwise as blind to his wife’s activities as she supposes; while the presence of Peregrina in the house has consequences that Mrs Haccombe does not anticipate. Mr Haccombe in fact becomes so obsessed with the girl that—quickly realising that dishonourable propositions will get him nowhere—he begins to contemplate ways and means of ridding himself of his wife; her death being preferable, but divorce also an option. While this is going on, Peregrina also catches the wandering interest of Lord Surchester, who cools towards Mrs Haccombe as a consequence, much to her fury. That slow boat to India suddenly seems like an excellent idea…
Kept therefore ignorant of her own powers, and the weakness of others; inclined to believe whatever was seriously told her, and supposing all the world infinitely better than herself, she was fitted to become its dupe. She had indeed read of fraud, villainy, and passion; but how difficult is it to apply the experience of books to the living world!—She had no confidence in her own judgement, no distrust in her nature, no guile in her heart, no hypocrisy on her tongue, and therefore no caution.
With disaster looming on all fronts, the friendless Peregrina is initially alarmed when she begins to receive anonymous letters warning her of the dangers that surround her. At first she cannot believe what they say; but although she is innocent, she is not stupid; and her increased watchfulness soon informs her that the letter-writer is only too correct in what he says. With no money and nowhere else to go, Peregrina can only endure what she now considers to be the horrors of the Haccombes’ household, while she continues to heed the cautions and follow the advice of her “good genius”, whose identity becomes an increasingly entrancing mystery to her as his letters begin to reveal rather more than a purely disinterested concern for her welfare…
Thwarted in her pursuit of Lord Surchester, Lady Jemima has no recourse but to try and reinstate herself in Sir Clifford Byram’s good graces. This proves no simple matter, as Lady Jemima must overcome not only the damage done by her years of extravagance and carelessness of her reputation, but a wholly unexpected barrier in the form of an upstart attorney called Lassiter, who has beaten her to the punch by battening upon the ailing Sir Clifford, intending to siphon from his estate every penny that he can.
In pursuit of this end, Lassiter has gathered and used every scrap of information about the Byrams, and succeeded in convincing Sir Clifford that, on one hand, Lady Jemima is Lord Surchester’s mistress and, on the other, that his rumoured grandchild is no such thing, not Lambert Byram’s daughter but merely his ward; and that, in any case, she is in India and married.
However, a nemesis of sorts appears on the scene in the form of one Mr Broome, a minister—the very man, in fact, who married Lambert and Joanna, and who knows that any child of that marriage must be legitimate. When Sir Clifford challenges Lassiter with Broome’s assertions, the attorney counters by admitting he knew of the marriage, but kept it concealed because of the bad character of the late Mrs Byram; adding that any child born of the marriage was not necessarily Lambert’s.
His quick talking serves him for the present, but Lassiter recognises in Mr Broome a dangerous enemy—one moreover who has nothing to gain from the situation but the hope of doing right—and in his desperation he makes an ally of his former enemy, Lady Jemima. The idea of another grandchild has taken possession of Sir Clifford’s imagination, and Lassiter persuades Lady Jemima that it would be in their mutual best interests to produce one.
Lady Jemima, supposing the real Elizabeth in India, is forced to fall back upon the false Elizabeth currently ruining the lives of Lord and Lady Armathwaite. Her idea is to have Sir Clifford’s fortune secured to the girl and thus ultimately in her real mother’s control – minus Lassiter’s cut, of course. Her plans fall to pieces when, after sending a courier to the Armathwaites to secure the faux-Elizabeth for “a visit”, she receives a message from her brother informing her that the girl lies at the point of death…her reckless determination to escape from the “confinement” of sedate and proper living having ended in a night-time escapade and a severe fever.
It is at this dreadful juncture, with their plans in seeming ruins and a grieving mother to comfort, that Lassiter is brought to a proper appreciation of the powers and capacity of his co-conspirator:
Lassiter began to talk of the universality of death, his own resignation to the loss of his wife, &c. &c. He was proceeding most piously. “For Heaven’s sake,” interrupted the lady, “hold your tongue, Mr Lassiter; I should not care a rush about the girl’s situation, but she cannot come—think what is now to be done.”
Lassiter was outdone—he was awed—he felt small, for he had once lost a child, and he had sorrowed for it. The lady’s voice and philosophy rallied his fugitive wits, but he could only repeat, “Ay, what is now to be done?”
“Sir Clifford’s letter must be put off no longer,” said her Ladyship—“it must be answered; I could perhaps in it make such an apology as would procure me time enough to send over to Dublin for Arabella; she might answer the purpose as well.”
And so another false Elizabeth—not quite as unsatisfactory as the other, but no prize, either—is imposed upon another deceived relative.
Well— It’s been fun, and all—and make no mistake about it: there is no doubt at all that the author was getting quite a kick out of these awful people and their increasingly outrageous schemes—but as the end of the fourth volume begins to draw near, convention demands that things be set to rights: that the real Elizabeth is reunited with her mother and finally able to take her rightful place in society; that the long-suffering Joanna, and the even more long-suffering Lord Armathwaite, can finally be happy; and that the conspirators are unmasked and punished. Lady Jemima in fact attracts a double punishment: not only has she, in her desperation, contracted a secret marriage with Lassiter, but her eldest daughter survives her illness and recovers—and returns to her mother’s “care”.
And then there’s the little matter of who has been writing those anonymous letters to the bewildered but captivated “Peregrina”…although the reader may not find this mystery as difficult to solve as our innocent young heroine does.
Ultimately, the most intriguing thing about Joan!!! is the casual way that most of its characters go about committing cruel, immoral and illegal acts. This is something we’re used to seeing in the Gothic novels of the time, where dark schemes and violent deeds are all in a day’s work; but there’s something unnerving about seeing these things transferred from “foreign lands” and “the past” into a completely contemporary, domestic setting…and I admit, reading this novel I found myself wondering what kind of things did go on in society at the time.
Particularly interesting is the sexual misconduct rampant in the Haccombe household, with Mrs Haccombe’s adulterous affair, and Mr Haccombe’s disinterest in it—except as far as he can use his wife’s infidelity to his own advantage. It’s a situation with a nasty ring of truth about it. Before the conclusion of this story, bigamy, adultery, fraud, embezzlement, attempted kidnapping and the 18th century version of identity theft will have passed, one after the other, before the reader’s startled eyes. It may be a sad commentary upon the human condition that evil deeds are so much more credible than selfless ones, but the fact is that the matter-of-fact way in which so many of this novel’s characters set about being wicked makes the happy ending awaiting the few good ones seem by comparison even more than usually contrived.