Posts tagged ‘religious’

10/08/2017

Had You Been In His Place


 
    The voices of the men waxed louder. More bottles were uncorked—other tables were brought forth, cards were produced, and games went on. The small, hump-backed man behind the counter grew jubilant. His fingers pressed over the gold pieces in his palm, his black eyes sparkled and danced as he saw the piles on the different tables. Soon it would all be his. It was safe to count upon it. Rubbing his hands, he smiled up to the cut decanters standing in rows on the polished shelves. “You are handsome. You do your work well. It is impossible for these men to resist you.”
    It seemed to Fairfax that he heard the words. He ventured a look from under his hat. He saw the sparkle of the fiery fluid. There was a fascination that held him spellbound. Gradually the bottles enlarged, flames wrapped them in. Demons leaped from shelf to shelf, and from cork to cork. With airy sprightliness they filled tiny goblets with choice liquor. With charming grace
one of these approached him. He looked at the sparkling creature, bewitchingly beautiful. A gossamer veil enveloped her, but did not obscure her inimitable loveliness. Reaching forth her snowy hand, she held the jewelled cup. The fluid glowed and sparkled. and sparkled. “Drink !” said the beauty, in her most honeyed tones, “Drink, and grow strong. What is life without strength and enjoyment?”

 
 

“Temperance”, as a social issue, existed in the United States of America even before (as it has been put) there was a United States of America; but in the early 19th century something shifted. Though the concept of temperance was, in practice, chiefly economic – chiefly about control of the working-classes – there had always been a moral aspect too; and during the 19th century temperance became not merely a moral, but a specifically female-moral cause.

As the Temperance Movement gained strength, it manifested itself in all sorts of new ways, including temperance fiction. As with the movement itself, this was something that began with men but was progressively taken over by women; and while over time an explicitly feminist aspect emerged, with tales of men too weak to control themselves and the strong and saintly women who fought to redeem them becoming a popular sub-genre, stories set within a traditional religious framework remained the most common face of this branch of literature.

Though it suffered an understandable hiccup across the Civil War, the Temperance Movement regrouped in the later decades of the 19th century, and temperance fiction began to appear again. Short stories were the most popular form – they didn’t wear out their welcome in quite the same way – but some writers in this area managed to bang the drum for the length of an entire novel.

One of those who did so was Lizzie Bates (aka Lizzie-Bates-B ), who in addition to her work in the magazines published the novel, Had You Been In His Place, in 1873. This is in many ways a text-book example of temperance fiction, by which I mean that it is preachy, exasperating, dull and gigglesome in turns—although I do not for a moment suggest that Miss Bates was anything other than perfectly sincere in writing it.

As a novel, Had You Been In His Place is distinctly second-rate, full of repetitions and ridiculous coincidences as it moves towards its inevitable conclusion (which encompasses a cop-out likewise obvious from the beginning). It also suffers from its author’s refusal to admit the existence of any vice but drinking, so that every time we come across a scene of misery or a family in crisis, drink is invariably to blame; although whether we can consider that a shortcoming in the context of a piece of temperance fiction is debatable, I guess. It does, however, add yet another dollop of repetition and absurdity to the mix.

Our protagonist is Bertol Fairfax, a young man whose father died of his addiction to drink, leaving a widow and two children. Fairfax has always sworn to his mother and sister that the “demon” which consumed his father would never touch him, but we all know about good intentions… Fairfax’s ambition to excel at college has led him to take on an excessive workload, which in turn has placed him in the position of requiring “stimulants” to meet his own goals. Fairfax is unaware – or deliberately blind to – how far he is in the grip of the same addiction that destroyed his father until his lifelong friend, Terence Redford, confronts him about his weakness and, in particular, his broken promises to his family. The ensuing quarrel leads to a serious breach between the two.

Fairfax is still nursing his grievance when, on the verge of departure from his college, he is summoned to the office of its President. A guilty conscience makes him assume that Redford has ratted him out—and he lashes back, telling his other friends that Redford has done this out of jealousy because he, Fairfax, has taken the college prize they were both competing for.

One serious but kindly-intentioned lecture later, however, and Fairfax can no longer evade the truth about his own behaviour. He leaves the home of President Raffles sorrowful and chastened and full of new resolutions and—

really needing a drink.

And indeed, Fairfax’s latest promises last just as long as it takes him to walk past the nearest saloon, where some of his college friends are celebrating their emancipation. Redford’s supposed derelictions are the topic of conversation, and Fairfax broods upon them resentfully as he drinks…

Redford was not there. But, as Fairfax once more found himself in the street, he encountered his boyhood’s friend, waiting, it would seem, with no other purpose than to see him safely home. Stung by the memory of what had been, the calm, gentle face of Redford roused his passion into fury. Words followed. Blind with anger, frenzied with wine, Fairfax drew a revolver and fired. A groan, a stifled cry, and Redford fell!

Now with blood upon his hands, Fairfax flees, heading for the docks and the first ship out of the country. He finds one, but it is not to depart until the dawn—so, of course, he “wanders into a saloon”. He is desperately tempted (as described in the passage quoted above), but at the last moment he is saved by his guardian angel—or a reasonable facsimile thereof:

The vision of the child passed before Fairfax’s eyes. A small, half-clad figure, with a sweet, oval face, eyes of the deepest blue, and hair that rippled away from the torn gypsy hat in waves of soft, flossy brightness. A lovely face, but unmistakably sad; nothing of the child-face, but rather, the face of an angel fettered and hedged around with the sins of another, for whom she was to do penance all her life…

The girl, Lura, has come out into the night searching for her father; her mother is too sick to do it herself. The barman cannot help her there, but he offers the only form of assistance within his power—which brings Fairfax out of the state of stunned insensibility which has gripped him since his violent encounter with the man who was his best friend:

    “Hold, man!” exclaimed Fairfax, springing to his feet. “Not a drop for that child!” and the speaker clasped the brown hand and looked into the blue eyes. There was trust and confidence in the face, and instinctively Lura nestled to Fairfax’s side.
    “What is that child to you? Her father is here frequently, will be here again, a poor drunken devil that always manages to have enough for a drink; though I suspect his wife and child suffer for the want of it. Let her drink—it will do her good. And you too; let me fill a glass.”
    “Not a drop for either of us!”

So this time Fairfax resists temptation. He then walks the child to the squalid rooms where she lives with her parents, through ever-more horrifying scenes of poverty and filth:

    “Mamma used to be pretty, papa was good, and we had nice times; but now” – and here she hesitated a moment – ” it makes mamma sick. And last night she woke me up and whispered that she might die.”
    “Die!” gasped Fairfax. “And if she dies, what will become of you?”
    “Mamma said, if I could find papa in time he would be sorry, and if he was really sorry he would not drink any more. And when she was dead he would take me home. And God would care for us by the way.”
    “Drink—drink! your father drinks, child!”
    “He didn’t always, mamma says, that is, he didn’t take too much. You don’t take too much, do you, sir?”
    The small oval face was full of enthusiasm; the blue eyes misty…

Fairfax makes it soberly through the night and onto the Petrel, bound for Europe, where his physical and emotional suffering attracts the kind attention of a Professor Edelstein and his daughter, Amelia. There is also a clergyman on board, and Fairfax listens avidly to their many solemn conversations about God.

Here the religious aspect of Had You Been In His Place kicks in in earnest, with Bates arguing, reasonably enough, that Fairfax needs something stronger than himself to lean on. Fairfax, however, though he was given the proper religious upbringing by his mother, has since fallen away to become one of the social, lip-service, church-on-Sunday-then-forget-it kind, and now feels he has done that which cannot be forgiven. Over the course of the narrative, Fairfax is brought into contact with various manifestations of religious faith – one or two of which will distract Bates from her main plot, as we shall see – and experience an ongoing struggle between hope and despair.

Again, there is no question of Bates’ sincerity in all this; while Fairfax’s struggles are also believable; but having essentially the same set of arguments presented over and over, in almost the same words, becomes a significant test of the reader’s patience. (This is one of the main reasons that this is an unusually lengthy example of this kind of literature.) Also, though we understand that Fairfax may well feel that he has sinned beyond redemption, no-one of his upbringing should react to assurances of God’s forgiveness as though it were a new concept.

As the Petrel draws near its destination, it is caught in a violent and terrifying storm. At this point welcoming death, Fairfax meets the crisis calmly, and devotes himself to helping others into the life-boats. He is one of those still on board when the ship is engulfed…

…and is more than a little disappointed when he opens his eyes in the home of the Hatzfeld family, being nursed back to health by the two lovely daughters, Eudora and Ulrica.

Here Bates goes off on one of her tangents. This is too domestic a novel for a “Wicked Jesuit” to be found amongst its characters, but there is a lurking priest, who keeps a hopeful eye upon Fairfax and his obvious load of guilt. Fairfax is briefly tempted by Catholicism – at least, by the opportunity to confess – but finally pulls away. The main plot here, however, concerns the girls: Ulrica is a good Catholic, but Eudora has begun to think for herself—which, as always in Evangelical literature, means converting to Protestantism. In this Eudora is following the lead of her brother, Karl, and like him she has read the Bible… It was Evangelical dogma, often found in books of this sort, that no-one could read the Bible and stay a Catholic. Ulrica, meanwhile, is content to remain ignorant and to accept whatever Father Auberthal tells her.

Karl is away from home—not just away, but in America, which partly explains the girls’ excessive kindness to their American patient. Karl has gone to search for the family’s other brother, Paul, who left for America with his wife and young daughter looking for new opportunities, but who has fallen under the destructive influence of the demon drink.

Hmm…

While he is convalescent, Fairfax manages to avoid temptation, but as soon as he is on his feet, he is again placed in danger—mostly (in one of the book’s more credible touches) from social drinkers who won’t allow others to abstain. An afternoon out with Father Auberthal, for example, leads to an invitation to lunch and ends with Fairfax sleeping off a brandy bender. And later, when he finally leaves the Hatzfield house to make his own way in the world, Fairfax comes to the rescue of a Madam Von Sieberg and her niece, Frederica, whose carriage has broken down. It is Madam who suggests they crack a bottle…

It is also Madam who reveals a key detail of Fairfax’s future employment to him, Professor Edelstein having arranged for him the position of tutor in the household of the Countess Von Amburg. As they enter Detmold, Madam points out the Countess in a passing carriage, and she and Frederica comment on the lady’s unfortunate domestic issue:

    “I heard that her sons had promised to give her no farther uneasiness, provided she would dismiss Carncross, and employ a tutor, and that she had actually written to that famous professor, Edelstein, with regard to it,” observed Frederica.
    “In that case she will be sure of a worthy man; but I shall pity him. I do not think they care a straw for books.”
    “Indeed, auntie, if Countess Von Amburg would not allow of quite so much freedom at table. They spend so much time over their wine, that they cannot study.”
    “And if they are deprived of it they are full of wrath. Poor countess! I trust her new tutor will be a comfort to her,” returned Madam Von Sieberg.
    A deathly sensation passed over Fairfax. He felt like fainting, and only by the force of will did he keep from crying out, “Countess Von
Amburg’s terribly wild sons—too much time over their wine!” Had he heard rightly?

Escaping from his companions, Fairfax retreats to an inn, chiefly to debate with himself whether – from any perspective – he should fulfill his commitment to the Countess Von Amburg. Unfortunately, he immediately runs into a few choice spirits, whose idea of a good time is a bottle in the moonlight…

Finally Fairfax concludes that his only hope is to flee civilisation altogether, and shunning both the Countess Von Amburg (who can look after her alcoholic sons her own damn self) and his engagement with Madam Von Sieberg and Frederica (and their travelling wine collection), he heads into the mountains. Once there, however, he is confronted with a different temptation:

Overcome with fatigue, the fugitive crouched down on a shelf of rock and covered his eyes. A terrible temptation was in his heart. Why not throw himself down? Why offer further resistance? He had tried, tried faithfully; it was his nature, he could not help it, he was not responsible; he had received this nature, the love for strong drink was inherent. Would God crush him for doing the very thing that was in his nature to do?

(Fairfax spends a lot of time having these I-can’t-help-it arguments with himself, but Miss Bates isn’t having any of it; and indeed, amusingly enough, her rebuttal is almost exactly that of a certain Miss Rose Sayer: “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”)

A storm of such violence and cold then builds that Fairfax nearly gets his suicide whether he really wants it or not. However, he is discovered by a passing peasant, and carried to a small community nestled upon the high slopes of the mountain.

The pastoral interlude that follows occupies nearly half of Had You Been In His Place, and contains some of the novel’s strongest passages, as Fairfax falls under the influence of both the mountain scenery, and the straightforward (though by no means simple) people who make up the little farming community. Bates’ real feeling for nature, and even more, for its therapeutic qualities, is very evident. Yet again, she can’t help writing everything into the ground, with Fairfax going through the same struggles, and the same religious counter-arguments, presented again and again. After the first half-dozen times or so, your eyes do start to glaze over…

Worse still, we are soon in the presence of one of 19th century literature’s most repellent constructs, The Saintly Child Who Exists Only To Die Beautifully. Fairfax is persuaded to take on the teaching of the one small local school (after which he is referred to in-text as “the master”), a job he is surprised to find he is quite good at. He is drawn particularly to one child, an orphan boy called Direchlet. His father was a painter, and the boy too shows “genius”; the local minister has plans to send him away, to be properly trained. But Direchlet hesitates:

    “The pastor has a friend in Dresden, an artist of very great celebrity. When I am a few years older I am to go to him.”
    “For this reason you must keep well and strong—even now your hands are feverish.”
    “I know, I know,” said the child; “much as I would like to go to Dresden, sometimes I am afraid.”
    “Afraid of what?”
    “Afraid of temptation,” answered the child.
    “What put such an idea into your head?”
    “My father was a great painter. He could do wonders with his brush; but he loved strong drink, and he yielded to it.”

Surprise!

But of course, none of this ever comes to pass: Direchlet’s real destiny is evident to the reader almost from his first appearance on the scene.

Before that, however, Fairfax is in for a different kind of shock, while examining specimens of Direchlet’s art. One subject he seems to recognise:

    …the pastor entered, and with a charming grace began to talk of the pictures, giving bits of history, and showing a just appreciation of artist work and artist life. “And this,” he continued, looking into the haunting eyes, “is the exact likeness of Terence. He was a beautiful boy. His mother was my youngest sister, a gleeful, happy girl—and now she is a widow in a land remote from her old home.”
    “Terence, did you say?” stammered the master.
    “Terence Redford. Poor lad, we had high hopes of him,” and the pastor paused abruptly.
    Drops of perspiration stood on the master’s forehead…

After this, Fairfax has another terrible struggle with himself. Should he confess? Is this his punishment, to be welcomed and cared for by the people he has wronged? Could they possibly forgive him if they knew the truth? Could God? Luckily, Saintly Direchlet is there to set him right:

“I remember, a long time ago, I disobeyed the pastor. I saw the tears in his eyes, but I could not be sorry. I did not consider that I had behaved so very bad. At night he did not kiss me, and when we kneeled his arm was no longer around me. I could not sleep. Suddenly I awoke to feel the wrong was mine—that I had by my own obstinacy shut the door of his heart. Black, ugly forms hovered about me. I left my bed, and crept to the study door. The fire was smouldering on the hearth, and the pastor sat before it; his head drooped, and I knew that he was sad. I did not wait to knock. I put my arms around his neck, and my lips clung to his. He lifted me to his knees, he nestled my head on his bosom, he forgave me; and never did it seem that he loved me half as well. God deals with us after this manner when we do wrong. And when we cling to him and tell him we are sorry, he loves us all the better.”

Direchlet follows this up by meeting his Manifest Destiny:

With the world fading from his sight, the child grew in wisdom beyond his years; he lived and breathed and thought in a purer atmosphere. Instead of the pupil, he became the teacher. His words carried point by their very simplicity. His was no complex creed—to take God at his word, to lean upon, to love him. To do this required neither age nor experience. Never before had the way appeared so plain, the truth so direct and beautiful…

The faith of the villagers allows them to accept Direchlet’s death quietly, though they grieve. Fairfax’s struggle is harder; different. Between them, Pastor Nielander and the Saintly Direchlet have got the job done, and now Fairfax faces a new challenge: confessing not to God, but to man. He goes off to the rocky ledge where he was found and rescued, to commune with himself:

    How long ago it seemed! How heavy the burden he had carried! Now his heart was lightened. Was it right? There was crime—repented of, true, but that did not change the act. It was there—written down against him. Had God forgiven, blotted it out? But the life he had taken, he could not restore. Once more the image of that widowed mother came up before him. She leaned upon her boy; down the declivity of life she thought to find support in his love. What right had he to peace, when she was desolate?
    With all of this, there was nothing of the old, hard feeling. God knew it all. He must leave it there. God saw the deep dark stain, and still He had spoken words of comfort. The way to the university was not clear, however. He would return to the place where the deed was perpetrated, and offer his own life for the one he had taken…

His decision taken, Fairfax goes to tell the pastor, and finds him in a mood of great cheer:

    “Sit down. I have news that will delight thee. My cup is full, running over.” The master drew his chair still nearer. “Doubtless you remember the picture of which Dirichlet was so fond, the beautiful-faced boy. He is coming, and his mother. The intelligence quite overpowers me.”
    “Terence Redford and his mother!” gasped the master.
    “The same. I remember I told you the mother was my sister. But what is the matter. You are ill—faint…”

Like I said— COP-OUT.

Anyway—

    A groan escaped the master. He started up, his white face looking still ghastlier in the lamplight.
    “You say that Terence was wounded in a quarrel with his friend. Did your sister name the person? Could you forgive, if you knew—?”
    The excitement was too much. Again the poor youth fell back upon the pillows.
    “Do not distress yourself,” said the pastor, pressing the thin hand in his own. “I have known for months that you and Terence were once friends.”
    “Known it, and cared for me still?”
    “Does God desert his creatures, although they sin against him with a high hand? Nay, he calls them tenderly to repent, and put away the wrong.”
    “Had it not been for the love of strong drink. To what did it not lead me!”

(None of which explains why the pastor didn’t tell him that Redford wasn’t dead…or what that “We had great hopes of him” crap was about.)

With the burden of sin, or at least the worst of it, off his shoulders, Fairfax is able to pick up the threads of his former life. Sure of himself now, he makes plans to leave the village and attend the nearest university, to resume and extend his studies. However, before he can do so—

—the Franco-Prussian War breaks out.

Well. I can’t actually say I saw that coming.

Its strong pro-German tone is one of the oddities of Had You Been In His Place, and I don’t know enough to judge whether in this it was picking up a prevailing American attitude, or if this was more personal on the part of Miss Bates.

(Madam Von Sieberg’s insistent bottle-cracking followed on from angry references to “unavenged insults”, and involved toasts to “the Fatherland”, and the reverse to anyone called “Napoleon”.)

Even the remote mountain village is not immune from the demands of King and Country, and recruiters turn up soon enough. As a farming community, the village is not required to give up all of its men – not yet – and those to do are chosen by the drawing of lots. Fairfax’s host, Fritz, is one of those who must go, to the despair of his heavily pregnant wife, Madchen. But she fainted too soon—

    An earnest conversation was going on between the master and the lieutenant. Turning his face to the people, the master said, “The king demands men. Fritz is on the list, true; but, if he finds a substitute, it will be the same. You all know how I have been treated by this family, and now I must be allowed to go down to battle in Fritz’s place.”
    “Himmels Ruh!” exclaimed Leutzen. “Just what we might have expected of thee, and, if thou art to go in Fritz’s place, thou art to be our captain, as Fritz was to be.”
    “Captain Bertol!” chimed in Wilhelm, and the cheers rung out merrily.
    “Captain Bertol Fairfax,” answered the substitute, taking his place at the head of the line…

And so the slaughter begins. Many of the villagers are doomed to fall, and Fritz is conscripted anyway in due course, but Fairfax not only survives, but truly finds himself, earning rapid promotion up the ranks and an Iron Cross. Late in the conflict he is almost fatally wounded, and he is still in hospital when word comes of the conflict’s end.

The suffering of the recovering men is lightened a little by the efforts of a lovely young girl, who reads and sometimes sings to them:

    While he slept an angel floated into the room; the atmosphere was full of melody. On the wings of song he was borne into a region pure and bright; flowers were sweetly blooming; with clear running streams, and fountains sparkling in the sunlight. Birds warbled in every thicket, and remembered forms and faces looked smilingly upon him.
    It was not sadness, and still the tears came. At length the music ceased, the chain of thought was broken.
    “You do not like my singing, you weep,” said a sweet voice. At the same time a tender hand wiped away the silent tears.
    The invalid opened his eyes. A small, graceful girl, half-child, half-woman, sat beside the bed. Her blue violet eyes were full of a tender pity. The rounded outline of her cheek was touched with rose…

Something stirs in Fairfax’s memory, and a flurry of dot-joining follows:

    He was weary, and he leaned against the pillows and looked at the young face, as if he looked upon it for the first time in years. Suddenly he sprang forward and clasped his hands. “I have it!”
    The young girl closed her book, and gazed into the thin, pale face.
    “You had a father in America, and his name was Paul.”
    “Quite true,” answered Lettchen.
    “And you are not Lettchen—you are Lura!”
    “Tell me,” cried Lettchen, while a low, passionate sob escaped her, “how came you to know this?”
    It was some time before the invalid could go on, and several days elapsed before he could speak of their meeting. And then he had no need for Lura to tell him that her parents were no longer living.
    “Uncle Karl found us after mother died. And had father lived, he would have been a reformed man…”

So, yes—the first people Fairfax met in Germany were the relatives of the young girl he encountered just before leaving America; just as his wandering path through the mountains carried him to the uncle of the man he shot…

And we’re not done yet: the “uncle Karl” of Lettchen / Lura (whose shifting name is never adequately explained) turns out to be Fairfax’s ranking officer, General Eidermann, who just happens to have a young American adjutant…

    It was over—the two who had parted in strife and apparent death, stood face to face.
    “We were both to blame,” said Redford, as he held Fairfax in a close embrace. “I should have known your mood.”
    “And I— But you forgive me!” was all that Fairfax could say.
    “From this moment, let us forget all but our boyhood’s love. Let us henceforth be to each other all that we were in the old college days,” returned Redford…

 

 

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08/03/2014

Speaking of evangelicalism…

I always enjoy it when my reading threads accidentally cross.

Having completed my post on Bernard Leslie, I relaxed with my current read, Vineta Colby’s Yesterday’s Woman: Domestic Realism In The English Novel. Although I have my problems with Colby’s style, I like the fact that she gets off the beaten track when examining the 19th century novel. In this particular study she examines the novel’s shift from romanticism to reality during the first half of the century.

After discussing “the fashionable novel” and “the novel of education”, Colby gives us a lengthy chapter on “the evangelical novel”, which in the context of Bernard Leslie and William Gresley’s use of “Evangelical” offers yet another way of thinking about this most fluid of terms. She uses it, most deliberately, with a small ‘e’ – “evangelical” – to indicate not a form of religious belief or practice, or even a religious party, but an attitude, an approach to religion:

The English church of the Victorian period was Protestant. Beyond that simple declarative statement it is impossible to make any generalisation about Victorian religion that cannot be seriously challenged. The stability, tranquillity, and homogeneity so often and so wrongly attributed to the Victorian age was nowhere more vulnerable and tenuous than in matters of religious belief. The half century from 1800 to 1850 that saw the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act and the first Reform Bill, the flourishing of the Claphamite sect and the Oxford Movement, the evolution of Evangelicalism and Dissent from the status of radical fringe to solid respectability, the emergence of textual criticism and revisionism in biblical study, and open expression of scepticism and even atheism, was a period of religious ferment and turmoil less violent but no less dramatic than the Reformation…

The strongest religious force in nineteenth-century English life was evangelicalism. This term is to be understood in its broadest sense, referring not merely to that school of Protestantism which, by dictionary definition, maintains that “the essence of the Gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning work of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy,” but to the many movements of religious enthusiasm and reform that swept through every Christian denomination. Victorian evangelicalism…was all but ecumenical in spirit if not in fact…

Evangelicalism embraced not only the entire spectrum of Protestant belief but also the widest social scene. It cut across class divisions and barriers that no political revolution could have trampled. Emphasising practical morality and philanthropy rather than theology, directed primarily to the emotions rather than to reason, it appealed to all ages and all classes…

The nineteenth century began with revolution in France, a tired and debauched monarchy in England, a starved and exploited working class both in the farms and in the industrial towns, massive drunkenness, prostitution, and crime. By the middle of the century, social and moral reform had swept England. No historian of the period underestimates the importance of evangelicalism in that reform movement…

Take THAT, William Gresley!

Of course, Gresley himself would no doubt argue that all this is quite irrelevant beside the Evangelical rejection of the sacraments; that all the people helped by reform and perhaps converted by Evangelical zeal are going to hell anyway, because they’re being taught the wrong doctrine. (I keep getting a mental image of an exasperated individual stamping his foot and saying crossly, “No, no, no! – that’s not how you do religion!”)

But as Vineta Colby makes clear in her introduction, we are talking here about emotional evangelicalism: a definition that allows her to classify together the novels of an amazingly disparate group of writers. Colby is uninterested in straight doctrinal “novels” like Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, whether they be for or against Evangelicalism, focusing instead upon the increasingly popular domestic-evangelical school of writing, a female dominated sub-genre of the religious novel:

We may therefore stretch the designation “evangelical novel” to embrace the extremes from Low Church to High, from Charlotte Elizabeth (Mrs Tonna), whose passionate anti-Catholicism made her positively regret her missed chance for Protestant martyrdom (as a child inspired by “that magic book” Foxe’s Acts And Monuments, she asked her father if she might someday hope to become a martyr; “Why, Charlotte,” he replied, “if the government ever gives power to the Papists again, as they talk of doing, you may probably live to be a martyr”), to Charlotte Yonge, whose Anglo-Catholicism inspired her to translate the intellectual issues of the Oxford Movement into romances of daily life that enchanted several generations of readers. In between we may include novelists of every variety and sect—Methodist, Presbyterian, Low-Broad-High Church. Even Roman Catholic converts like Lady Georgiana Fullerton and John Henry Newman wrote novels with the same zeal and fervour though for a different faith. And a Jewish novelist, Grace Aguilar, was evangelical, affirming in her Preface to Home Influence: A Tale For Mothers And Daughters that Christian readers need not fear: “…as a simple domestic story, the characters in which are all Christians, believing in and practising that religion, all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided, the author seeking only to illustrate the spirit of true piety and the virtues always designated as the Christian virtues hence proceeding. Her sole aim with regard to Religion has been to incite a train of serious and loving thought toward God and man, especially toward those with whom he has linked us in the precious ties of parent and child, brother and sister, master and pupil…”

Call me crazy, but right now a religious novel in which “all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided” seems strangely attractive…

11/06/2011

The Haunted Room

“I have been tracing a parallel in my mind,” he observed, “between the human soul and the so-called haunted dwelling. Most persons have in the deepest recess of the spiritual man some secret chamber, where prejudice shuts out the light, where self-deception bricks up the door. Into this chamber the possesser himself in some cases never enters to search out and expel the besetting sin, which, unrecognised, perhaps lurks there in the darkness.”

Upon the death of her husband from hydrophobia only weeks after their marriage, the young widow Mrs Myers has his room bricked up. For the next fifty years, she does not leave the house…and over that time, not only the room itself but the whole estate of Myst Court gains a reputation for being haunted… Upon the death of Mrs Myers, Myst Court descends to her nephew, the widower Mr Trevor. In company with his eldest son, nineteen-year-old Bruce, Mr Trevor travels to Wiltshire to inspect his inheritance, to decide whether to move his family there, or lease the estate and continue on in the pleasant villa near to London that the Trevors currently occupy. In their absence, Mr Trevor’s brother-in-law, Captains Arrows, a naval officer, concludes a long cruise and arrives at Summer Villa to visit his relatives. Arrows’ niece, Emmie, reports to her uncle all she and her younger brother, Vibert, know of the inheritance – including its ill reputation, and the fact that Mrs Myers’ will specfied that the bricked-up room was not to be entered. Arrows laughs off the thought of a haunted house, but sees that Emmie is more disturbed than she cares to admit.

When Mr Trevor and Bruce return, the former reports that the house and estate alike are in poor repair. He adds that not only would a tenant be impossible to find, but that the necessary improvements require the oversight of an owner, not an agent; and that consequently, he has decided that Summer Villa must be given up. Although she strives to hide it, Emmie in particular is dismayed by this news, not only because of the prospect of leaving a pleasant neighbourhood and goods friends for an old house in disarray, but because, as her uncle has observed, the thought of Myst Court being haunted has taken possession of her imagination.

Captain Arrows is recalled to active duty. During his visit, he has become concerned about certain aspects of the characters of his niece and nephews; and before he leaves, he tries to warn each of them of what he fears lurks in their own “haunted room”, that dark chamber in the heart where sins and weaknesses hide even from their owner. Bruce, although level-headed and dependable beyond his years, possesses an overweening pride that gives him too high an opinion of his own powers, making him reluctant to admit a fault, resentful of criticism and scornful of advice and assistance. Vibert, meanwhile, is thoughtless to the point of being selfish, disregarding the feelings and needs of others while he pursues his own pleasures. As for Emmie, she is puzzled when her uncle accuses her of mistrust. Captain Arrows explains that Emmie does not truly have faith in God, but rather allows herself to be ruled by her fears in everything from her terror of thunderstorms – and ghosts – to her neglect of her duties: failing, for example, to succour the poor for fear of encountering sickness. Unlike her brothers, who are offended and angry with Captain Arrows, Emmie is willing enough to admit her chief failing – but no less loath to try and overcome it.

Poor Emmie’s first experiences at Myst Court are not happy ones. As a prank on Bruce, Vibert drives off without him from the station, but then gets lost in the dark, overturning the small carriage and Emmie with it just as a storm breaks. The pair are rescued by passers-by, one a Colonel Standish, an American, the other a local man, Harper, who crowns Emmie’s misery by asking whether they are, “Some of the new folk as are coming to the haunted house.” At the house itself, Emmie is settled into the largest and most comfortable room, which Bruce has been at pains to furnish and decorate for her. However, when the housekeeper, Mrs Jessel, informs her darkly that it is adjacent to the haunted room, describing also her own ghostly encounters during her employment at Myst Court, Emmie’s terror overcomes her and she begs Bruce to swap accommodation with her – even though his room is small and stark. Bruce is hurt by her disregard of his efforts and disgusted by her cowardice, but agrees.

Nor do Emmie’s efforts to fulfil her obligations to her father’s tenants go well. After literally fleeing the field in a panic during her first attempt to help, a series of humiliating blunders sees Emmie giving money to the least deserving, neglecting to provide promised aid for the sick, and finally relinquishing her duties to Mrs Jessel – who is only too happy to have the family bounty in her charge.

But Emmie has not come to the end of her trials; and before much longer, the courage and endurance of all the Trevors will be tested to the utmost, as the dark and deadly secret of the haunted room is finally revealed…

[SPOILERS]

Charlotte Maria Tucker, who usually published under the sobriquet “A.L.O.E.” – “A Lady Of England” – was one of the most prolific of all 19th-century authors – even after giving her competitors a head start. Miss Tucker’s father, an important official in the notorious British East India Company, disapproved of women working; and it was not until after his death in 1851 that his thirty-year-old daughter felt she could devote herself to the two great passions of her life, missionary work and literature. For more than twenty years, Miss Tucker published stories intended for young people, which covered a wide range of topics from the strictly historical to the frankly allegorical, but always with overt moral and religious themes. Miss Tucker’s stories were successful and very popular; if her work was always didactic, it was also entertaining, and showed an understanding often missing from tales intended for the young. The considerable earnings of her efforts were donated almost in their entirety to charity.

The Haunted Room (in some editions, “Haunted Rooms“) was published in 1876. It carries a preface stating:

It is under peculiar circumstances that A.L.O.E. sends forth this little volume. As it is passing through the press its author is preparing to enter on a new field of labour in the East, as an honorary member of the Zenana Mission in India. Of the fact that the missionary cause has been dear to A.L.O.E. her readers may be aware from her former writings. She now hopes to be permitted to devote an evening hour of her life to that cause…

At the age of fifty-four, Charlotte Maria Tucker left England for India to work as a missionary, and spent the rest of her life there. The Reverend Worthington Jukes later recalled in his memoirs, She proved an inspiration to many, not the least, to the younger generation of Missionaries, men and women, who found in her the link which they had lost on leaving their dear ones in England. They found in her a sympathy and geniality born of the deepest spirituality and intellectual cheerfulness, and they were always happy in her company. Many of these Missionaries were deeply honoured by being allowed to call her “Auntie”, and I was one of the fortunate Nephews; of the nieces there were many…

Miss Tucker continued to write during her years in India – and to donate all the proceeds. Her stories often had Indian themes, and some were translated into local dialects. Miss Tucker died in 1893; tributes are paid to her memory in the form of plaques upon both the church in Batala, where she did much of her work and where she is buried, and Lahore Cathedral.  In 1895, the novelist Agnes Giberne published a biography of her entitled A Lady Of England: The Life And Letters Of Charlotte Maria Tucker.

While most of Miss Tucker’s stories were intended for children, The Haunted Room is aimed more at an audience that today we would call “young adult”. It is an extremely hardcore religious / didactic work. Miss Tucker is uncompromising in her ideas of religious duty. To her way of thinking, Bruce’s pride, Vibert’s selfishness and Emmie’s cowardice are not mere venal transgressions, but sins of the deepest order that a good Christian must fight against and subdue.

However, although much of The Haunted Room is given to considerations of duty and faith, these reflections are set within a realistic family dynamic, and a framework of the relations between the sexes, that any reader will recognise – and either smile or wince at:

“Come, come, there’s nothing to be terrified at now; the danger is over. You’re not hurt, are you?” asked Vibert, with some anxiety, for he loved his sister next to himself, though, it must be confessed, with a considerable space between.

“Of course I will change rooms with you if you really wish it,” said Bruce, willing to humour his sister, but making mental reflections on the fickleness and unreasonableness of the female sex, of which Emmie was the only representative with whom he was well acquainted.

   “You are the last person from whom I should have expected such a taunt,” said the spendthrift bitterly. “I thought that if I had no other friend in the world I should find one, Emmie, in you.”
   “Always! always!'”cried his sister eagerly: “I would do anything for you, dear Vibert!”
   “Will you lend me that five-pound note?”

While it would be incorrect to say that Miss Tucker sympathises with her young transgressors, there is certainly a sense of wry understanding in her presentation of them, particularly of the way in which family relationships tend to trap people in certain behaviour patterns.

Thus we have Vibert emotionally blackmailing the weak-willed Emmie into lending him money, even though (i) it’s all she has; (ii) she has earmarked it for charitable works; and (iii) she knows full well from past experience that despite Vibert’s protestations and expressions of hurt at her lack of trust in him, she’ll never see a penny of it again. Emmie’s chief desire is to be a mediator between her brothers, but somehow she always manages to put herself in the wrong just before attempting it, which gives her reluctant auditors an excuse to wave her gentle criticisms away. Vibert, in his resentment of Mr Trevor’s open reliance upon Bruce’s judgement, makes a point of defying his brother at every opportunity, no matter how foolish or hurtful to others his actions might be; while Bruce, in turn, equally resentful of what he views as his father’s over-indulgence of Vibert, consoles himself with the thought of how much better a person he is than his brother – hugging the very pride and self-satisfaction that his uncle has warned him against. And then there’s Mr Trevor himself, who never seems to be around when Vibert is jeering at and goading his older brother, but always manages to enter the room just as Bruce is losing his temper in retaliation.

Speaking of Mr Trevor, it is interesting that his main contribution to this story is his repeated absence from it for one reason or another, his children frequently left to their own control. While at first glance this may be seen as an “explanation” for their failings, in fact it becomes clear that Miss Tucker does not intend this interpretation. On the contrary, in her opinion, at the ages of 19, 18 and 17, Bruce, Emmie and Vibert are quite old enough to understand and execute their duties, without the need for adult supervision.

That said, Miss Tucker does admit that the children’s early loss of their mother has been damaging, and for Emmie in particular. There is a sense that, the world – and female education – being what it is, girls do need more guidance than boys, being given less chance to learn through experience and thus more susceptible to poor influences…including the usual suspects:

…the images of Harper and Jael Jessel mixed themselves up with the phantoms which their weird stories had raised in the imaginative mind of the girl. Emmie, early deprived of the guidance of a sensible mother, had often made an unprofitable use of her leisure; she had read much of the literature which is called sensational; she had pondered over tales of horror; her mind had been fed on unwholesome food. Emmie had let fancy lead her where it list, and it would be no easy task to undo the mischief wrought in idle hours in the name of amusement.

And I doubt we’ll find a clearer declaration of Miss Tucker’s own literary manifesto anywhere in her extensive oeuvre.

Of the three Trevor children, Miss Tucker is hardest upon Emmie. Although she admits the peculiar difficulties of being a girl, it is evident that she also feels that as a girl, Emmie has the best chance to be a true Christian. From the beginning of this story, however, it is made clear how very long and thorny is the path before her. The description of Emmie’s various blunders and shrinkings and retreats during her abortive attempts at charity work is unflinching and painful, a graphic account of the consequences of what this story calls Emmie’s “mistrust”, her lack of real, practical faith in God, which leads on to other failures little less serious:

It was not the love of God, but the dread of incurring His displeasure, which made the poor, hesitating, unwilling girl combat the fear of man. And if Emmie was not impelled forwards by a loving desire to please a loving Master, still less was she influenced by tender concern for the souls of those whom she felt that she ought to visit. The child of luxury, in her pleasant home, had scarcely regarded the poor as being of the same class of beings as herself. They were creatures to be pitied, to be helped, to be taught by those trained for the work; but as beings to be objects of sympathy and love, as children of the one Great Father, Emmie could not regard them. Charity was thus to her but a cold dry duty…

Although at times I found Miss Tucker’s attitude towards Emmie perhaps a little too unrelenting, I do have to say that reading a work in which a girl being weak, timorous and helpless was treated with scorn and derision, rather than being regarded as proper female behaviour, was remarkably refreshing.

And the haunted room? The real haunted room, that is, not those figurative dark chambers within the human heart, against which the concerned Captain Arrows warns his niece and nephews at the outset of our tale, for so long to no good effect. Well, the sealed-up room at Myst Court does in fact have a terrible secret, but as you’ve probably concluded by now, given the nature of the tale in question – and Miss Tucker’s opinion of horror stories and other sensational literarure – that secret isn’t a ghost. The secret is revealed, separately, to Emmie and to Bruce, with dire consequences. By the conclusion of The Haunted Room, the entire Trevor family will have suffered through an ordeal of the most dangerous and terrifying nature, a test by fire – in Bruce’s case, almost literally – with all three of the children confronted by and compelled to overcome their worst individual failings, finally emerging tempered in both body and soul…

Not in the least degree doubting that the woman had addressed one of the household, and eager to find herself once more amongst familiar faces, out of the darkness and chilly night air, Emmie quickly followed Mrs Jessel into the room. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than she stopped short in surprise and alarm, gazing in motionless terror at the unexpected sight which met her eyes.—for Emmie stood in the haunted chamber!

.

Footnote:  Even in the didactic literature of the 19th century, it seems I cannot quite escape the political turmoil of the late 17th and early 18th centuries:

“Let’s imagine ourselves as we would have appeared some hundred and fifty years ago. I’m a young Tory gallant (of course, I’m a Jacobite at heart, and drink to the king over the water); Bruce is a decided Whig.—I’m not sure that he is not a Dutchman, and has come over from Holland in the train of the Prince of Orange.”
—Vibert Trevor, 1876.

19/03/2011

Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power

“It was better still for him, that when, from severe toll, depressed and morbid, he was inclined to forget the goods and magnify the ills of his position, he had Vivia with her divine alchemy to transmute his discontent to rejoicing, by convincing him that the inconveniences that disturbed, were also the blessings that saved him. Vivia was the sun of his world. And when her visible presence was not with him, her spirit still possessed, animated his soul, a living spring of inspiration.”

Published in 1857 and set chiefly in a remote corner of Maryland during an unspecified time in the 19th century, Vivia; or,The Secret Of Power opens with the birth of its heroine in Paris; an event that leaves her orphaned. Ten years later, Genevieve Laglorieuse – or Vivia, as she is generally known – travels from the convent school in Ireland where she has been raised to America in company with her uncle and guardian, the Abbe Francois. Their journey is the result of an urgent summons from the dying Colonel Malmaison of Maryland, who has been given reason to believe that Vivia may be the child of the son from whom he was bitterly estranged more than a decade earlier; although this the girl herself does not know.

As the travellers draw near their destination, the grand house known as Mount Storm, the Abbe falls ill and must stop to recover in a small village. Given the precarious state of the Colonel’s health and the short distance involved, Vivia sets out to complete the journey on foot, but is overtaken by a violent storm. She struggles on, and finds refuge in a convent, where her name and her story have a strange effect upon the young Abbess, Mother Agatha. Vivia is anxious to press on, but learns that her destination is across a dangerous river which cannot possibly be forded until the storm dies away. She spends the night at the convent, unknowingly watched over by Mother Agatha, for whom prayer brings little relief from the anguish in her heart…

Meanwhile, at Mount Storm, the dying Colonel Malmaison frets the few remaining hours of his life away, cursing the inflexibility that saw him cast out both a son and a daughter, and calling repeatedly for the expected child. The Colonel’s only companion in these dark hours is his daughter-in-law, Ada, the widow of his younger son; Ada, whose own son, Austin, is presently the Colonel’s sole heir; Ada, who has charge of the Colonel’s drugs…

The next day, one of the nuns, Sister Angela, takes Vivia to Mount Storm, where they learn of Colonel Malmaison’s death and present Ada with a letter written by the Abbe Francois to the Colonel – a letter which, having absorbed its contents, Ada promptly burns. After the Colonel’s funeral, Ada calls upon Mother Agatha, and a bitter scene ensues. The Abbess pleads for Ada to release her from a promise made many years before and allow her, not to speak to, but merely to see the Abbe Francois; but Ada is inexorable. As a result of their confrontation and the young Abbess’s unguarded exclamations, Ada suddenly realises that Mother Agatha is unaware of Vivia’s true identity. She explains smoothly that Vivia was summoned to Mount Storm to be given a home only in the character of her own orphaned niece; adding that as long as the Abbess abides by her promises, Vivia will be provided for. Mother Agatha has no choice but to acquiesce.

Having thus disposed of one-half of her difficulties, Ada visits the still invalid Abbe Francois, telling him regretfully that Colonel Malmaison died before being able to make provision for Vivia, but assuring him also that she will give the girl a home and, upon Austin attaining his majority and coming into his inheritance, see her properly established. The conversation then turns to the painful subject of the Colonel’s long-missing daughter, Eustacia. The Abbe begs for news, and Ada tells him that his worst fears are true: that Eustacia was last seen living a life of careless sin. In grave personal sorrow, but assured of Vivia’s security, the Abbe prepares to return to Ireland.

And Ada, having achieved her dual goals of disguising Vivia’s identity and preventing a meeting between Mother Agatha and the Abbe, returns to Mount Storm to begin her life as the great lady of the neighbourhood, leaving Vivia at the convent to complete her education.

As the years pass, Vivia forms friendships with the other children of the tiny community: the wealthy but ideallistic young Austin Malmaison; Helen and Basil Wildman, the selfish, careless scions of a once wealthy family brought to ruin by gambling and excess; Theodora Shelley, the shy, unwanted, orphaned niece of another of the valley’s prominent families, with her unexpected gift for art; and Wakefield Brunton, a mere boy carrying the burden of his desperately poor farming family, who dreams of an education and a life of the intellect. Together, these young people will face love, tragedy, hardship and triumph…

[MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on.]

Vivia is the first I have read of Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth‘s better than sixty novels, so I have no idea if its rather peculiar blending of intense religiosity and extreme melodrama is representative of her writing or not. It certainly manages never to be quite the book you expect it to be. For a considerable distance into its story, you would certainly be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a pure sensation novel; not only the incredible string of incidents and coincidences, but the extravagance of the language would support that classification. However, unexpectedly it is only halfway through the whole that the scheming, conscienceless Ada Malmaison is exposed as a multiple murderess, and the identities of the various characters revealed: Vivia as the true heiress of Mount Storm; Austin as the son of Eustacia Malmaison and Francois Laglorieuse, secretly married but then separated by Ada’s cruel manoeuvring, their child raised as Ada’s own after the mysterious (although ultimately not inexplicable) death of her husband.

But it is also from this point in the novel, and in spite of the sudden rush of confessions and revelations, and an accompanying eruption of violence, that E.D.E.N. Southworth’s true purpose begins to emerge, and we enter into an examination of the powers of religious faith, and the dangers inherent in its lack.

This is not to say, however, that following the readjustment of the positions of Vivia and Austin, the melodrama goes away. On the contrary. Austin and Theodora fall in love but, while they are separated for a time, Theodora falls victim to the parallel plotting of Helen Wildman, who wants Austin for herself, and her own family who, unaware of the greater prospects before their penniless niece, selfishly enter into a conspiracy with the merciless Helen. The defenceless Theodora is, finally, not merely tricked but drugged into submitting to marriage with the oblivious Basil Wildman. His own hopes shattered, Austin becomes easy prey for Helen; but built upon such shaky foundations, it is not long before their marriage begins to crumble. Meanwhile, Wakefield’s childhood dreams become reality when he achieves a worldwide literary success at his first venture with the pen, but his sudden, extreme celebrity puts the greatest of strains upon his character.

And through it all, only Vivia remains unwavering – although not untested…

How readers of this novel react to Vivia and her near-miraculous ability to influence, to uplift, to inspire will, I suspect, be a very individual thing. Personally, I found it slightly uncomfortable; although I don’t doubt for a moment Southworth’s sincerity in creating a character whose religious faith is so profound as to be almost mystical. Vivia herself is set within a larger consideration of faith generally and the right way of thinking and acting, and here, beyond the novel’s sensational surface, we find some issues worth pondering.

Although Southworth finally manages to contrive happy endings for her dual heroines, there is no suggestion in this novel – and this is true, I find, within the works of a number of female novelists of serious religious tendencies – that marriage is a woman’s only destiny, her only sphere. All people, Southworth contends, whether man or woman, must live in a way that is pleasing to God, and marriage is only one option for doing so.

On the basis of their steady faith, Southworth’s women (those of them that have faith) are able to call upon reserves of strength and endurance when required to do so. Unexpectedly, this is most clearly illustrated via the normally fragile and retiring Theodora, and her reaction to her shocking discovery of herself as Basil Wildman’s wife, and of her new position in the world. Up to this point in her life, Theodora has always had Vivia to rely upon in her troubles; but with Vivia and Austin away travelling, she now has no-one but herself to depend on; and not only does she find it within herself to forgive her relatives for their role in her unwanted marriage, but also brings herself to accept her situation and to take upon her own shoulders the running of the neglected Wildman farm, as well as the care of Basil’s dependent female relatives.

But while these various illustrations and implications of female strength and capacity are rather refreshing, it is disappointing that ultimately, the novel’s women are not allowed truly to carve out lives of their own, but rather are presented in a way that suggests that (married or not) a woman’s main duty in life, after her duty to God, is to inspire a man. Thus, the besotted and remorseful Basil reforms under the combined influence of Theodora’s gentle and forgiving character, her stoic example, and his own guilt, and accepts true responsibility for the first time in his life. Meanwhile, Theodora’s artistic gifts, while considerable, ultimately do more for others than for herself: she has an unconscious trick of “idealised” portraiture, showing people to themselves as they could be, and thus inspiring them to be so; and it is invariably men who are so inspired, most significantly Austin Malmaison, who in the wake of the disastrous end to his marriage has given himself up to sensual gratification and to a political career in which he has no real belief beyond the desirability of power.

As for Wakefield, his boyish adoration of Vivia has grown with him into a profound and enduring love; but in Vivia’s sorrowful but clear-sighted  judgement, Wakefield loves her too much. In doing so, he has lost sight of God – has made her his God. Wakefield lays his professional success at Vivia’s feet like a trophy; but having watched in silent disappointment as, mistakenly believing that greater fame will bring him closer to his goal and gradually succumbing to the hollow temptations of celebrity, Wakefield compromises his talents by writing for popularity alone, Vivia has no hesitation in rejecting him. It is an emotional lifetime later, after a journey through love and hate, loneliness and suffering; after regaining the courage to speak the truth in spite of scorn and rejection by a world that doesn’t want to hear it; and after learning to see past earthly love to the spiritual beyond, before Wakefield again allows himself to dream…

Vivia is, then, a rather odd piece of fiction: a sensation novel that sternly refuses to let itself be enjoyed simply on that level; or a religious novel filled with implausible plot twists, convoluted schemes, secret identities, and a surprisingly high body count; whichever way you prefer to look at it. It is, at the very least, never less than interesting and surprising; and it has inspired me with a desire to take a look at some of its creator’s other novels and discover whether this is a typical example or an aberration.

On that basis, I am tentatively moving Mrs Southworth over to “Authors In Depth” – recognising as I do so the extremely intimidating dimensions of the lady’s oeuvre, and retaining for myself the right to reclassify her right back again, should it turn out that Vivia is indeed entirely typical. As a one-off, it is entertaining; multiplied by sixty, however, I suspect I’d find it rather overpowering…

05/03/2011

The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia

“It is neither to catch the admiration of the ignorant, nor to make proselytes of the more sensible, that I now lift my pen. To wish for the former, below the dignity of common sense, and to hope for the latter, would be downright vanity. Merely to expose error and falsehood, and to stand votarist for the truth, are I trust the motives which induce me to write and publish these letters…”

As I sit down to write this review, I must first give myself an admonitory smack on the hand. Using reading challenges to random up my reading is all very well—but I have, I think, an obligation to at least try to meet the spirit of the challenge. The intent of my latest, “read a book by or about or featuring a doctor”, was clear enough; and it was hardly an invitation to dig up an obscure epistolary novel from 1788 whose only authorial attribution is to “A Doctor of Physic, M.A. &c.”.

I’ll try to do better in the future, I promise. In the meantime, let’s take a look at this very odd publication entitled The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia; Being A Rational And Philosophical Enquiry Into The Nature Of Things. In A Series Of Letters, and consider what might be the significance of that ominous frontispiece motto: If Fiction persuades, what should Facts do?

And indeed, though it masquerades as one, The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia is not a novel at all: it simply uses the epistolary form as a vehicle for a series of bizarre rants by its anonymous author. As such, it isn’t possible truly to review this publication: what I’ll do instead is simply give you a taste of it via a series of excerpts.

So—the framework. Edwin is the illegitimate son of a noble father, who at his death leaves his “real” family to decide on Edwin’s fate, and whether he is acknowledged and/or inherits any money. The family’s response is to shun Edwin and cut him off essentially penniless, a reaction that for some reason takes Edwin by total surprise.

Julia, meanwhile, is the daughter of a man who contracts religious mania and ends up confined; her mother withdraws from all society, including that of her daughter. Julia is taken in by her uncle who, despite being a clergyman, is simply intent on getting his hands on Julia’s money via this act of “kindness”.

At some point, Edwin and Julia met, fell in love, and were separated; the “novel” never gives us details. When the “interesting story” opens, the two of them have been apart for four years. Edwin is in Paris for reasons that are never made clear (although he may be studying medicine), while Julia is travelling around England with her uncle and his family, also for reasons that are never made clear. The two of them correspond, which seems an unlikely concession on the part of Julia’s uncle – unless he’s keeping her hopeless love for Edwin alive with the aim of preventing her from marrying someone else and therefore taking her fortune out of his control. Amusingly, as we also saw in the roughly contemporaneous Valentine, the anonymous author has his correspondents telling each other their life stories, despite the fact that they’ve known each other for years. And also like Valentine, we are favoured with some hilariously jolting shifts from high pathos to simple commonplaces, without any sense that the author was aware of the incongruity of his tone.

For the most part, The Interesting Story… works itself out as follows: Julia will write a letter to Edwin in which she will relate an anecdote, or repeat a conversation. Edwin will respond with a lengthy lecture on the subject in question. Julia will thank him solemnly for his interesting / enlightening / touching letter, and beg for more of the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. At length, Julia is so overcome by Edwin’s brilliance, she begs his permission to have his letters published – the world must hear of this! Edwin kindly gives her permission, being equally convinced of his own brilliance and the world’s desperate need for his wisdom. The fact that Edwin has trouble constructing a grammatical sentence and spelling correctly is, of course, irrelevant. (And let me assure you: anything italicised below that looks like a typo, isn’t.)

The main topic of conversation is religion: Edwin is a firm believer in God, but a firm disbeliever in the church, and also in hell. He despises atheists, deists and Catholics equally. He contends that the bible has been misinterpreted, accidentally (through ignorance) or intentionally (through malice), and that the church has been using these mis-readings to increase its own power and to keep mankind, particularly women, powerless. (There’s almost a feminist subtext in this, but it gets drowned out by the floodtide of bile.) Furthermore, Edwin doesn’t believe in original sin. This particular revelation prompts Julia to ask why, in that case, mankind needed a Saviour? – a question which I don’t believe Edwin ever gets around to answering.

However, the two of them find many other topics on which to give their opinions pro and con – although mostly con. It’s remarkable, really, how much Edwin and Julia have in common: the enormity of the chip each carries on their shoulder; their endless dislikes and prejudices; and above all, their profound conviction that everyone in the world is stupid and wicked except for them. The publication’s attribution to “a doctor of physic” becomes rather interesting in retrospect, as members of the medical profession and medical opinions of the time attract a significant proportion of whatever vitriol Edwin has left over after dealing with organised religion.

Let’s listen in on a few of the opinions of Edwin and Julia, shall we? This opening passage, in which Edwin airs his views on the state of the world, essentially sets the tone for everything that follows:

“My only friend is dead, which loss has pressed very heavy upon me; Heavens grant you and me the necessary fortitude, for two of the most unfortunate mortals that ever trode the stage of life; and may the faults which we have committed, be as barriers against us in future, when we would slide from the path of virtue. Let us rather than reproach our relations for their follies, learn to correct our own errors. You know the world is made up of caprice and vanity; the ignorant thinks the wise foolish, and the rich hold the poor in despite; the wife betrays her husband, the father often ushers the child to destruction, and the son frequently brings his parents and himself to a morsel of bread. Thus you see the inhabitants of the earth destroying one another, and doubtless will continue so doing till they are totally extirpated from it…”

And here’s Edwin on himself (a favourite topic):

“According to your request, I must now begin to give you a short but faithful account of myself. I believe you know that my pride and ambition may be put into a small circle. I am not very ill-natured, not very severe, although I have the misfortune to be sanguine. I hate flattery and lies; I detest the rogue and despise the villain, but have severely suffered by them. Ever since Nancy S*****, the midwife, whirled me into this ill-advised world, I have been treated not as one of my own species, but as a monster, and will probably not be  used as a human creature, till death whirl me out of it…”

And now Edwin on adultery, of which he has evidently made quite a study (I’m glad, by the way, that Edwin helpfully categorised himself as “not very severe” in his opening remarks on himself; otherwise, there might have been some confusion on that point):

“Adultry and seduction are two of the most heinous sins that man can be guilty of.—Moses both in his livitical and civil laws, rewarded the former by death, and the wisest among the ancients followed his example, and looked on the adulterer and seducer to be equally wicked. The Babylonians, Arabians, Tartars, Javans, Brazilians, and Mexicans, made adultry a capital offence. Among the Turks the offending woman is sentenced to be drowned, and the man still put to greater torture.—The Hungarians force their daughters, their husbands, their wives, their sisters, and their brothers to the place of execution, as soon as found in this abominable crime, or rather the crime of crimes, of which none will be guilty, but those who are actuated by satan, to destroy the peace and happiness of all around them…”

Edwin again, on how a dignified silence is the most powerful weapon:

“…yet I must own, it is below the dignity of Innocence to wage war, or even to defend herself against the unmanly attacks of her enemies; because she can quench the most malignant reproaches of the wicked, and is that good which cannot be taken away even in the time of torment. Silence is the most defensive weapon with which an injured man can defend himself, and is generally the child of innocence, keeping consolation and quiet in the breasts of the good, and an outward peace amongst the bad…”

It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that this paean to Silence comes at the beginning of 200 pages of Edwin’s ranting, and about 150 before he admits to Julia that he always intended publishing his “private reflections”. The publication of Edwin’s various pearls of wisdom will of course be of great benefit to the world, unlike most of what passes for literature and learning in this degenerate day and age; and as for the men who write it – !—

“How they rejoice in evil, and delight in folly; and how anxious they are to raise vice to the dignity of virtue. How they drink, how they blaspheme, how they consume the tobacco, and take away their neighbour’s good report. They have called your sex women, but they ought to have called themselves women-woe and their own! They have jumbled a parcel of lumber and worthless things together, which they call learning, but I would advise you Julia, not to meddle with it, because it is real nonsense; it can neither refine your imagination, nor elevate your understanding; and indeed you may be convinced of what I say, when ever you associate with those who deem themselves of the true literati. They are disagreeable in their manners and conversation, and are often at a loss what to do with their own legs and arms. They are diffident and mistrustful, and delight in saying ill-natured things…”

And could Edwin have had anyone in particular in mind? Like, oh, I don’t know…

“…the late Dr Johnson, whose harsh and rude manners proved him to be a mere pedantic churlish clown, in his heart and principles; altho’ he was stuffed up with verbs, nouns and pronouns, and a quantity of other such rubbish, which his disciples, especially Mrs P— and Mr. R— call learning!…Should education make us disagreeable, ill-natured and hoggish? Or can we deem a man who is so, properly educated?…”

And such is the blighted character generally of the men credited with “learning” that Edwin feels it is his duty to warn Julia away from anything resembling an “education”…among other things:

“The politics of men are such an effusion of nonsense, their philosophy such an unintelligible jargon, and their religious tenets so absurd and contradictory, that one would really think they had not a single grain of judgment or good sense left them. Therefore Julia, I earnestly entreat of you again, to study neither Latin or Greek; laugh at their politics, and scorn their philosophy; avoid the pedant and detest the fop, as also the rigidly religious, be sure to mark them down in your pocket-book…”

But Julia is, after all, just a girl, so much of this is too high-flown for her. But being just a girl, she is able to give her opinion on such topics as the “pernicious” effect of novel-reading on young women (not that this is a novel, heavens no!):

“…their minds are tainted by the pernicious, but insinuating poison of novels and romances.—The imagination heated, and the passions excited in the most pernicious of all schools, the Circulating Library, the man of gallantry makes an easy conquest; and perhaps it may be some extenuation of his guilt, that the object he has devoted to ruin, is ready to surrender on the first summons…”

And indeed, I don’t want to give you the impression that the perverse entertainment value of this thoroughly eccentric polemic lies entirely with Edwin and his ranting. Julia contributes too, as with this rather marvellous example of her habit of going abruptly from the sublime to the ridiculous:

“Do we think that the Son of God came down in vain, or that he ever wished to enforce laws and duties on his creatures, which they are unable to keep or perform? Surely, if we think so, we are mistaken: and I trust, nay, am confident, that the eternal and incomprehensible Being, who is the fountain of all goodness, and the source of love and mercy, can have no respect of persons, or desire for revenge.—But let me finish this letter, by giving you a short description of Southampton…”

Not that Julia has things all her own way in this respect. Here is how Edwin’s rant on adultery, which goes on quite some time after the conclusion of the quotation above – and which runs four full pages, beginning to end – actually finishes:

“…to live with an adulterous woman, is to live with the devil’s companion; and I should think it is much better for one to be happy than too be miserable, or at least I am of opinion that every man should leave his wife when she loves another better than himself. But if I go on in this way, I shall never give you a description of Paris…”

But a talent for anti-climax isn’t all that Edwin and Julia have in common. As it happens (no wonder the two of them fell in love!), Julia also shares Edwin’s opinion of Samuel Johnson…

“…the former of whom I have been repeatedly informed, was so loaded with ill-nature and sarcasm, that he could scarcely speak a good word even of his own poor father and mother… I have read the greatest part of Dr Johnson’s works, and must confess myself totally at a loss to see in what he surpassed the common class of authors. ‘Tis true, I am but a weak judge of literary productions, however, I am inclined to think, that the public, who too often judge wrong of things, have raised Mr Johnson to that dignity which his merit never justly entitled him to…”

And is there anything stupider than “the public”? Hardly. Just look at its habits

“Julia, although I have sent you the above lines on a tobacco-pipe*, be assured I do not wish you should carry a box, or call for a pipe. Snuff is not such a harmless thing as many take it to be, and I believe we owe a great number of of our disorders to it, and that cursed plant Tea, which you ought never to drink above twice a week, and then eat a great deal of bread with it… One half of the people in England are dead years before they are buried, and seldom or never enjoy life!—Gouts, rheumatisms, nervous complaints, scurvies, declines, consumptions, &c. &c. are their continual attendants, all which I attribute, with many more, to the irregularity of diet. They drink such quantities of tea…”

(*And yes, Edwin does send Julia a poem on tobacco – the romantic devil!)

But even more than in its general habits, just look how stupid the public is when it comes taking medical advice (and this is probably a good moment to remind you of this pseudo-novel’s attribution to “a doctor of physic”):

“Physic is surely the most difficult and intricate science under the sun… When I was at the colleges of Edinburgh and Paris, I knew numbers of dunces, especially students in physic…who ought to blush in putting any initial after their names, except F.R.S. which I believe may signify a fellow remarkably stupid, or the foolish remains of a simpleton… Our quack medicines, our brewers, our bakers, and a set of men who pretend to have arrived at a competent knowledge of physic, only from making pills, filling bottles, and running through the town with bladders and gallipots, send us to the grave in multitudes; and we composedly say, The will of the Lord Be done!…”

And if mankind’s willingness to trust these medical frauds with its health is criminally stupid, what are we to make of its religious practice? – in particular, how it allows itself to imposed upon by that set of scoundrels known as “the clergy”!—

“Man must be a stupid being indeed to suppose than the Almighty, who wanteth no counsel, hath established a parliament of popes, liars, arch bishops, arch rogues, bishops, villains, deans, drunkards, poor curates, whore-mongers, and other such imposters, as the judges of his creatures…”

BUT—I don’t want to send you away from this abbreviated version of Edwin and Julia’s Theories Of Why The World Sucks (and believe me, there are many, many more things that they despise, which I haven’t mentioned here) thinking that there is nothing whatsoever of which they do approve. There is one thing…and so I’ll leave you to ponder the following:

“I have not the honour of being personally acquainted with Mr. C—, and therefore I am not at liberty to say much about him; only tell you that I coincide with the greatest part of the sentiments laid down in his letter…especially that respecting woman’s milk, in which I believe there is a something divinely good, though very seldom prescribed by our physicians. It is the softest, the most light, and nourishing fluid that exists, and according to my humble opinion, the most sovereign balsam in the world, and the greatest restorative in nature…”

26/12/2010

Prudence Of The Parsonage

      “It seems to me,” said Mrs. Adams, “that I know more about your sisters than I do about you. I feel more acquainted with them at present, than with you.”
     
“That’s so, too,” said Prudence, nodding. “But they are the ones that really count, you know. I’m just little Prudence of the Parsonage—but the others!”

The small town of Mount Mark, Iowa, looks on with interest as the new Methodist minister, the Reverend Mr Starr, moves into the parsonage with his brood of daughters. It is five years since Mrs Starr died, and the combined duties of mother and housekeeper have fallen to the eldest daughter, Prudence, who is now nineteen. Following her are sixteen-year-old Fairy, the clever one of the family; the thirteen-year-old twins, Lark and Carol, who specialise in stories and jokes; and solemn, nine-year-old Constance.

Delighted with their new posting, which comes with a large, rambling old house with a barn attached just made for games, the Starr family tries to settle into its new life, as the people of Mount Mark try in turn to adapt to this rambunctious brood, and a minister who likes jumping fences and romping with his family. The members of the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society shake their heads over Prudence and her unconventional household methods, but have to concede that she discharges her various duties with aplomb – except, perhaps, for certain episodes involving the twins, who have a talent for trouble.

Prudence has long since made up her mind that raising her sisters and getting them settled in life is her particular sacred trust, and that helping them to achieve their dreams must be the focus of her life, even at the cost of her own. Although Mr Starr expresses his misgivings over her selfless scheme, Prudence remains serenely committed to it until a bicycling accident throws her unexpectedly into acquaintanceship with a young man named Jerrold Harmer. Jerry has no doubt about his own feelings for Prudence, but she in her innocence is for some time unaware of hers for him – and when realisation dawns, Prudence finds herself, for the first time in her life, caught in a bitter struggle between her inclination and her duty…

Even though I feel rather churlish saying so, I have to admit that Prudence Of The Parsonage didn’t really work for me – although the fact that it didn’t probably says a lot more about me than it does about the novel. This story’s success depends very much upon the reader’s identification with its cheerfully self-effacing heroine, and I never managed to reach that point, mostly because I kept finding myself in disagreement with Prudence’s viewpoint and  methods.

(Of course, disagreeing with Prudence is tantamount to agreeing with the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society…which in the context of this novel is tantamount to being WRONG.)

Oh, heck. I suppose I’d better ‘fess up. Midway through the novel, Prudence catches the romantic interest of the young professor of entomology from the local college – much to her horror. She is repulsed by his profession generally, and not least when, while out on a walk, he tucks an interesting specimen into his pocket: she spends the rest of the ramble manoeuvring away from her escort and avoiding being touched by him. The reader is clearly supposed to consider Prudence’s reaction a demonstration of her proper femininity, but— Well, here’s the problem: I find insects fascinating – and I would very much enjoy being courted by a “buggy professor” with caterpillars in his pockets. Prudence and I had already had our differences by this point in the novel, and with this episode it became clear that she and I were never really going to see eye to eye.

But my own peculiar prejudices aside— Prudence Of The Parsonage was Ethel Hueston’s first novel, and it does show at various points in the book. Early on in particular, the good-humour of the Starr family is several times illustrated by them collapsing en masse into laughter, or reducing others to a similar state with their sayings and doings, but these scenes feel rather forced. A more serious problem is the presentation of Prudence, which similarly suffers from over-insistence on Hueston’s part. We can well believe that the modest Prudence considers herself the uninteresting and unimportant member of the family; the problem is her tendency to describe herself so to others. What was needed here was a course of show, don’t tell: Prudence’s repeated assertion of her own inferiority begins to feel like an exercise in fishing for compliments.

There is also – at least to me – an uncomfortable narrowness to the religious belief evinced by the various Starrs: they display very little tolerance or understanding towards anyone who does not share their particular view of life, but calmly condemn them as simply wrong. That said, the novel has an encouraging take on religious practice. Despite Mr Starr’s position, we never venture inside his church. Rather, there is an insistence upon the weaving of faith into all aspects of life, and not merely confining it to a few hours on Sunday. Prudence herself is much given to spontaneous prayer, regardless of time and place. Her first visitor from the Ladies’ Aid is taken aback when, dropping in to offer her assistance to the newcomers, she finds Prudence on her knees in the barn – offering fervent thanks for the barn:

“…As they walked slowly toward the house, Mrs Adam looked at this parsonage girl in frank curiosity and some dismay, which she strongly endeavoured to conceal from the bright-eyed Prudence. The Ladies had said it would be so nice to have a grown girl in the parsonage! Prudence was nineteen from all accounts, but she looked like a child and, well, it was not exactly proper for a grown-up to give thanks for a barn, to say the very least! Yet this girl had full charge of four younger children, and was further burdened with the entire care of a minister-father!

As the Starrs try to find their feet in Mount Mark, the town looks on, sometimes with amusement, often with consternation. Many of the incidents described reflect, I suspect, episodes in Ethel Hueston’s own early life. Prudence Of The Parsonage is heavily autobiographical, drawing on Hueston’s experiences as one of the numerous children of a Methodist minister – although from the novel’s dedication, we gather that there was a devoted mother in charge of the brood. Various passages in the novel have an unmistakeable authenticity. It is impossible, for instance, not to sympathise with Prudence’s rapturous response to the discovery that, for the first time, the Starr family will have both a proper bathroom and electricity:

“…Oh, father, the night after you wrote there was a bathroom, Constance thanked God for it when she said her prayers. And I couldn’t reprove her, for I felt the same way about it myself. It’ll be so splendid to have a whole tub to bathe in!…And electric lights!…I’m sure we’ll all feel much more religious in a parsonage that has a bathroom and electric lights! Oh, father!

Ethel Hueston’s alter-ego here is Lark, one of the twins, whose imagination leads her sisters into fun and adventure – and occasionally trouble. Lark plans a career as a novelist and is constantly on the look-out for “material”, spinning tales at the drop of a hat and using her story-telling ability to enliven – and sometimes avoid – the housework. Entirely credible is the dark and dangerous secret society, “Skull and Crossbones”, founded by the twins, which carries out its nefarious schemes in the depths of the Starrs’ barn, and to which the youngest child, Connie, is absolutely desperate to gain admission. Who could really blame the society’s ruling members for taking advantage of such an opportunity..?

Also amusingly believable is the sequence of events that brings Prudence to the crisis of her life. Reminded of her early passion for bicycling, Prudence borrows a machine from a neighbour. However, worried that her indulgence might be regarded as too undignified for a daughter of the parsonage, she sneaks out early one morning to have her fun unseen. A long sloping hill tempts her to some freestyle coasting – only for disaster to strike:

“…but as she neared the bottom, a disastrous and totally unexpected thing happened. The placid mule, which had been righteously grazing beside the fence, suddenly stalked into the middle of the road. Prudence screamed, jerked the handle-bar to the right, then to the left, and then, with a sickening thud, she landed head first upon some part of the mule’s anatomy…

The resulting tangle of girl, bike and mule leaves Prudence stranded, her means of transport badly damaged and her ankle sprained. (The mule is uninjured, I am happy to report.) Unable to help herself, and with her family unaware of her intentions, it is with overwhelming relief that Prudence hears the approach of a stranger, a young man out for an early walk. He first offers to go for help, but the distraught Prudence begs him not to leave her, but to wait with her until some means of transport happens by. He does so, and by the time a local farmer with a cart enters their vicinity, the lives of both young people have changed forever.

But of course, for Prudence it’s not that simple. For almost seven years her every waking thought has been devoted to the care of her father and sisters, and the idea that she might now pursue her own happiness at the expense of theirs is intolerable to her. Determined to keep her pledge to her family, Prudence sends Jerry away, at bitter emotional cost to herself. The struggle with herself has a serious affect upon her health, so that when a subsequent accident leaves her weak, bedridden and feverish, her family begins to fear that she may have sacrificed much more for them than just her happiness…

Prudence Of The Parsonage was a success for Ethel Hueston, and even though I have my issues with the novel, it is not hard to see why. It’s a perfectly sincere work, a deeply heartfelt tribute to Ethel Hueston’s parents and their way of life. The depiction of small-town life with its various pleasures and conflicts, and the attractions of the surrounding countryside, is entirely persuasive. Perhaps more significantly, however, the book was published in 1915, and it captures a world, that of pre-WWI America, that would soon be gone forever. The various naive references to the seemingly remote possibility of war, and the twins’ entirely unrealistic plans for a romantic career as war nurses, have a terrible poignancy about them. It is easy to imagine that, given the events of the following three years, many people found solace in this novel’s view of the world and its overtones of simple and abiding faith.