Posts tagged ‘roman a clef’

25/03/2017

The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land

 

    The object of the Essays which are compiled in this small Volume, is to impart information upon the state of manners and society in the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land; to hold up to deserved ridicule, some of the vices and follies by which they are distinguished; to present a mirror wherein good qualities are exhibited, the possession of which is not always acknowledged—in a word, to present a picture of this infant state, which, it is hoped, may prove interesting as well as instructive, not only to its own component Members, but to the general Reader.
    The Author has endeavoured to avoid any expressions which might be calculated to cause pain to a single individual—his aim has been to “lash the vice, but spare the name”; and he will be sufficiently rewarded, if, in addition to the notice which his first few essays have already attracted, and which has induced him to re-published them in this form, he should witness that they produce the good effects, the hope of which originated their publication.

 

 

 

 

In my examination of Quintus Servinton, generally considered to be “the first Australian novel”, and of the peculiar life of its author, it emerged that Henry Savery had earlier published another work—one of “fiction” only in the broadest sense. The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, which appeared in 1830, was a series of satirical essays skewering various personalities and institutions to be found in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land—and, like almost everything else in Henry Savery’s life, it caused a lot of trouble.

A reading of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land reveals it as a work so much of its time and place as to be largely incomprehensible to the modern reader: in addition to its author’s generally allusive style, he avoids names at almost all points (even false names), peopling his essays with references to the tall Gentleman, the young Gentleman, the Lady, my Acquaintance, and so on; which over the course of the volume requires considerable effort on the part of the reader simply to keep up with the thread of his discourse.

The edition of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land published in 1964 by the University of Queensland Press, and edited by Savery scholar Cecil Hadgraft and Margriet Roe, provides a key to the characters. This was sourced from the copy of the book held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney, in which its original (unknown) owner not only went to the trouble of identifying most of the people in its pages, but wrote out a list in his copy’s end-papers matching the superscript numbers he had appended to the text. That an original reader was able to do this shows how recognisable was Henry Savery’s portraiture. Nevertheless, with the exception of a handful of people who had public careers, or impacted Henry Savery’s life in some other way, these contents are not particularly informative today. It does not, for instance, help us much to know that “a certain tall slender person” appearing on page 124 was meant for Horatio William Mason, “a member of the Agricultural Association”, and “a wine and spirit merchant and licensee of several hotels in Hobart and New Norfolk”.

Consequently, I am not going to try to analyse the contents of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, but to see where the writing of these sketches fits into the erratic and increasingly sad life of Henry Savery.

As we may recall, late in 1828 Henry Savery’s wife, Eliza, arrived in Hobart to find her husband – who had encouraged her to sail from England on the basis of his own secure position in the settlement – widely unpopular, in trouble with the law again, and on the verge of being imprisoned for debt. Terrible scenes ended with Henry attempting suicide by cutting his own throat, although his life was saved by the the prompt and skilful attentions of a Dr William Crowther. Henry was nevertheless carried off to Hobart Town Gaol, where he lay recovering while his wife turned around and went back to England, at least in part to avoid her own slender means being seized.

There is no doubt that the forced inactivity of jail life did Henry Savery some good: in addition to recovering his health, he underwent a period of introspection which led to the writing of Quintus Servinton, that peculiar, infuriating, self-pitying yet strangely honest novel. Also, for the first time since his arrival in Hobart Town late in 1825, Henry Savery made a real friend.

Thomas Wells was a man whose life had in many ways paralleled Henry’s own: he had been convicted and transported on a charge of embezzlement; worked for a time for the government, including as secretary for Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell (George Arthur’s predecessor); received his pardon and gone into business for himself—and ended up in a financial mess that landed him in Hobart Town Gaol. Wells made the most of his time in prison, setting up an accounting business, and writing what is considered the first work of general literature to be published in Australia: a pamphlet entitled, Michael Howe, The Last And Worst Of The Bushrangers. He also began contributing articles to the Colonial Times.

It was illegal for convicts to write for the newspapers, but the Colonial Times was owned and operated by Andrew Bent, himself a former convict and a constant thorn in the side of George Arthur. Ironically, it was income received for working as a government printer that allowed Bent to pursue his real interest. Then called the Hobart Town Gazette, Bent’s baby was the first and, for some time, only newspaper published in Van Diemen’s Land, growing from a struggling two-page effort printed with homemade ink into a powerful voice in the Colony: one which devoted considerable space to criticisms of the government. Arthur, furious on all counts, tried to have it declared illegal for printing-presses to be operated without a license: his failure was rudely celebrated in the pages of the Gazette as the defeat of tyranny. Arthur’s next move was to set up a rival newspaper, owned and operated by the government—and called the Hobart Town Gazette. He also brought against Bent a successful action for libel.

If Arthur thought this would frighten Bent off or spike his guns, he misunderstood his man: as soon as he was able, Bent was back publishing the Colonial Times, and becoming the power behind a campaign of harassment that would make Arthur’s tenure as Lieutenant-Governor miserable and help to bring it to a premature conclusion.

With his own convict background, Andrew Bent often ignored the laws forbidding convicts to write for the press, and Thomas Wells – struggling from behind bars to provide an income for his numerous family – was one of his frequent jailhouse contributors. Then, in June of 1829, a new column appeared in the Colonial Times

Satirical essays highlighting the foibles of men and manners had been a staple of publication in England since the early 18th century: the Spectator magazine was celebrated for its social analysis, and many writers turned to this form of criticism over the succeeding decades. Oliver Goldsmith, in his The Citizen Of The World, had introduced to the genre the subsequently standard figure of the outside observer, looking with fresh eyes upon a scene perhaps taken for granted by its residents. Henry Savery himself had had experience with this sort of satirical writing, after he bought the Bristol Observer in 1819: he introduced a column called The Garreteers, which promised scandalous revelations about the population of Bristol, of course in the interests of “reformation”. The resulting columns, however, rarely went further than some unkind observations about certain people’s habits and appearance.

Also in 1819, a man called Felix McDonough had written a popular series of columns called The Hermit In London, which followed the pattern by having an inexperienced individual commenting naively upon the bustling and often brutal London scene. The success of this venture was such that McDonough turned it into something of a cottage industry, following up with The Hermit In The CountryThe Hermit Abroad, and so on. Henry Savery and Andrew Bent borrowed this idea, announcing in the Colonial Times:

Perhaps it may be in the recollection of some portion of our readers, that a few years ago, a series of numbers appeared in one of the London publications, under the title of “The Hermit In London”. We have great pleasure in acquainting them, that a younger brother of this family has lately arrived in the Colony; and, having acquired, almost intuitively, considerable information upon the general state of Manners, Society, and Public Characters of our little community, has partially promised to adapt his observations to such a shape, as shall fit them to meet the eye of the Public.

The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land purported to be written by one “Simon Stukeley”, a new arrival in Hobart Town casting interested and critical eyes upon the embryo settlement. Scholars attempting to trace this choice of pseudonym to its source found the following nugget in John West’s remarkable 1852 work, The History Of Tasmania:

The original Simon Stukeley was a Quaker, who went to Turkey with an intention of converting the Grand Turk: he narrowly escaped decapitation, by the interposition of the English ambassador. He was afterwards confined in an asylum: in answer to inquiries how he came there, he replied— “I said the world was mad, and the world said I was mad; and they out-voted me.”

Whether truth or shaggy-dog story, we can see how this anecdote may have appealed to Henry Savery.

The characters commented upon by “Simon Stukeley” in his columns may be mysteries to modern readers, but there is no doubt that the people sketched therein recognised themselves. Henry Savery might have been writing from jail, but he had spent the preceding four years working in government departments, and he had not wasted his powers of observation: almost everyone who was anyone in Hobart Town wandered through the columns of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, subject to criticism – or less frequently, approval – for their appearance, dress, habits and conduct.

The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land ran in the Colonial Times from 5th June – 25th December 1829, thirty columns in all. It seems that at first Henry Savery had no idea of anything so extensive, but the columns’ reception prompted Andrew Bent to propose their reissue in book form, requiring Henry to keep his idea running. On 8th January 1830, Bent announced the volume’s imminent publication—and a week later was forced to announce that publication was suspended, pending an action for libel brought against his newspaper.

When it came to the government of Van Diemen’s Land, Henry Savery and Andrew Bent found themselves in private agreement but public odds. Whatever he may really have felt, Henry avoided criticism of George Arthur in his columns, and often praised in a general way the conduct of the Colony. He is less kind as he works his way through the lower layers of government, however; while understandably, much of his venom is directed at members of the legal profession.

At one point Stukeley is called to sit on a coroner’s jury, and extensively mocks the process, or lack thereof, as well as those conducting it; a friend of his, “the Informant”, as he calls him, offers him professional and character readings of most of the practising lawyers in Hobart Town, with only one or two escaping unflayed. One in particular attracts his negative attention: a certain “Mr Cockatrice”, upon whom Stukeley calls hoping to negotiate some leniency with respect to a debt: not his own, but that of an acquaintance who is desperately selling everything in order to stave off an arrest which would leave his wife and children destitute:

…in an evil hour, requiring pecuniary assistance upon some occasion, he had recourse to one of the “Withouts” who dealt in that line, to the tune of “never exceed twenty per cent.,” and by whom the needed help was bestowed, upon the joint security of a Mortgage and Warrant of Attorney.—I was sceptical upon the latter point, thinking he was mistaken in telling me they were both for the same transaction; but he was positive, and in the end convinced me he spoke the truth. He farther told me, that the Lawyer’s fangs having once been fixed on his property, never left hold of it, until by foreclosure, writs of fieri facias, compound interest of twenty per cent. upon twenty per cent., and all the other damnables which followed in the Lawyer’s train, he was shorn as closely of all his possessions, as ever was a six month’s lamb…

Stukely calls upon the Lawyer, but one glance is enough to convince him that his mission will be futile:

He was dressed a là dishabille; inasmuch as he wore a grey beaver dressing-gown, slippers down at heel, a yellowish, half-dirty night-shirt; his neck-cloth tied loosely, and he did not appear to have shaved that morning. In person and stature, there was nothing prepossessing… He had a shrewd cunning look about the eye, which had rather a tendency to create repulsion on the part of strangers, than to invite familiarity. Still there was a constrained politeness in his manner, a servility in his mode of replying to me which argued that he could be all things to all men; and warned me, that I was not to be misled by superficial speciousness. One thing struck me as very remarkable, in his countenance; all the lines of which where uncommonly sharp and picked;—that, whenever he attempted to smile, or to utter words which might lead to the suspicion that his heart sympathised for a moment, with other’s sorrows, two sorts of furrows were exhibited, one on each side of the mouth; reminding me to the very life, of the two supporters of the Arbuthnot Arms…

Stukeley’s mission is indeed a failure:

…the Lawyer replied to me, “I can do nothing for him, Sir; he must go to gaol, or pay the money; I only know my duty to my client.” “Surely, Sir, your client cannot suffer by allowing the poor fellow a little more time for payment of the debt—you would never think of separating a man from his wife and children, by so cruel a process as imprisonment, when no possible good can arise from it.” “I know nothing of wives and children, Sir—my duty to my client is all I think about. People have no business to have wives and children, if they cannot pay their debts. I have but one rule, Sir—I always say in reply to the question, what is to be done with so and so, Let him go to gaol, and I say so now.”

The lawyer turns up again a little later, when Stukely is invited to accompany some friends to a meeting with him about the settlement of yet another debt. He finds his opinion shared by the others:

“There’s no doubt of that, so long as you have money in your pocket,” said the Doctor; “he has a wonderful scent where cash is concerned, and will lick your hand like a spaniel, whilst it remains filled with the needful; but woe betide you, if chance place you in his way afterwards.”

Stukeley does accompany them, out of curiosity: since their meeting, “Mr Cockatrice” has made his appearance in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, and Stukeley is curious to see if his strictures have had any effect. The three men walk in to a surprising reception:

No sooner had we passed the threshold, than Mr Cockatrice started from his chair, as if he had been electrified—a spitfire Grimalkin, when, with upraised back, and distended brush, she shews her high displeasure, if her territories are invaded by a luckless wanderer of the canine race, is nothing in point of rage and fury, compared with what was exhibited upon the brow of this “stern dispenser of Laws rigours under their most rigorous shape”… He cried out, in a voice half choked with rage and anger, “How dare you put your foot within my doors, Sir? You are the Hermit—you are, Sir—“

To Stukeley’s intense amusement, he realises that for some reason Mr Cockatrice believes the Doctor to be his anonymous attacker. The Doctor himself is taken aback, and torn between anger and laughter: he for one has recognised the Hermit’s target:

    Presently he replied, “Whether I am the Hermit or not, he has produced one good effect at all events, by teaching your wife to allow you a clean shirt more frequently. I see she has taken a hint if you cannot, and that your half-dirty yellow night-shirt has given place to one a little more consistent with good manners.—You may exhibit the Arbuthnot Arms as you like (observing that at this moment two deep furrows appeared in all their native hideousness)—I care not for you, nor for any thing that your iron heart may produce—People shouldn’t have wives and children if they can’t pay their debts, you know—you understand me, don’t you?—There! take your money, and I’ll wash my hands in future of such company as yours, or any that could be found in your house. I tell you that it is well for you, I am not the Hermit; for if I had been, I would have produced a list of your acts of iron-heartedness as long as my arm; the mildest of which would have been ten times as biting as the poor horse dealer’s story.—Egad! man, that’s nothing to what I could have told him. Good bye, Arbuthnot Arms! Good morning to you! Mind the wives and children! Good bye—good bye.”
    We did not stay to hear any more, but left the house, conversing as we went through the streets, upon what had occurred; all agreeing that the moderate blister which had been applied, could not have produced such an effect as we had witnessed, if it had not been put upon a raw place…

It was Gamaliel Butler who brought an action for libel against the Colonial Times—the same Gamaliel Butler who had tried but failed to have Henry Savery jailed after the collapse of the horse-trading business for which he acted as accountant, and who – when the money was available, had he waited only a short period while matters were adjusted – had enforced his financial claim upon Henry, precipitating the disastrous chain of events that led to Eliza Savery’s departure, Henry’s suicide attempt, and his imprisonment.

The libel action against the Colonial Times was in fact the first instance of trial-by-jury in a civil proceeding in Van Diemen’s Land: the case was delayed until all relevant statutes were in place. Andrew Bent stood firm throughout, staunchly guarding the secret of Henry Savery’s authorship (of course, he would have been in trouble himself had it come out). The case itself, however, was doomed from the outset: the Hermit had waved his pen a little too widely. Apart from the vindictive Butler – did he suspect who his real enemy was? – the case was tried before Chief Justice Pedder, who had been mocked for his rambling speech and various personal peculiarities including his snuff-habit; Butler was represented by Solicitor General Alfred Stephen, who had been ridiculed as a “fop” and a “dandy”; and despite the efforts of former Attorney General Joseph Gellibrand (himself none too gently handled), who was representing Bent, the limited population of Hobart Town meant that three other people skewered by the Hermit were on the jury.

Gellibrand’s defence, moreover, was basically to argue that Butler had it coming: that he was widely known and despised as a wrecker of lives; that he profited off the misery of others; that he was notorious for preferring to send men to jail than to agree to accommodation that would allow them to pay off their debts, often rejecting offered assistance from friends of his debtors. The “list as long as my arm” of incidents, mentioned in the relevant column, was aired in court, with Gellibrand summoning John Bisdee, the head-keeper, to testify that of the thirteen debtors in Hobart Town Gaol, nine of them were there under writs brought by Butler.

Moreover, Dr William Crowther was called to testify that the scene in the office of “Mr Cockatrice” played out exactly as reported, with an enraged Butler accusing him, Crowther, of being the Hermit. This, we should note, is the same Dr Crowther who saved Henry’s life after his suicide attempt, and who appears at various points throughout The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land in an affectionate but not altogether flattering way which balances his general kindness and mastery of languages with his love of the bottle.

But truth is no defence against libel, and Bent was found guilty—damages being awarded by allowing each of the twelve jurors to decide on an amount, adding up the total and dividing it by twelve. A large but not outrageous amount, the £80 which Bent was ordered to pay was more than he could afford: he was already in debt, and ended up selling the Colonial Times to Henry Melville.

And it is to Henry Melville that most of the subsequent few positives in the life of Henry Savery are owed. Despite the libel suit, Melville and Bent went ahead with the volume publication of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, albeit in a far more low-key way than originally planned; while Melville hired Henry as assistant editor at the Colonial Times, a position which allowed him to support himself while he completed Quintus Servinton.

The years 1830 – 1832 represented a rare up-swing in the affairs of Henry Savery, but disaster struck again soon enough—inevitably, it seems. Embarking upon business ventures, Henry overreached yet again and found himself once more within the grip of the law. Having long since worn out any sympathy within the settlement, this time he was banished to the notorious penal colony of Port Arthur, where he died in obscurity in 1842—and remained forgotten until, in the mid-20th century, cultural cringe receded far enough for a few iconoclasts to consider the history of Australian literature worth studying and celebrating. In fits and starts, the story of Henry Savery then emerged.

It was Henry Melville who took the risk of publishing “the first Australian novel”, and who arranged for its subsequent reissue in England. It is also he to whom we owe our knowledge of Henry Savery’s authorship of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. While there had been plenty of speculation about the identity of “Simon Stukeley”, the person most widely believed to be the Hermit was Thomas Wells, who had introduced Henry to Andrew Bent and helped Henry prepare his columns for publication; we assume that something of this finally leaked out. However, the copy of The Hermit held by the British Library has a lengthy annotation written and signed by Melville, wherein he declares the work’s authorship: a fact nowhere else disclosed.

Not many, but a number of copies of Quintus Servinton survived in both Australia and England, and the autobiographical nature of the narrative makes it clear to anyone familiar with Henry Savery’s story who wrote it. Very few indeed, however, are surviving copies of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land; and the story of Henry Savery closes with an odd detail which the preface of the 1964 edition reveals:

This reprint is dedicated, by permission, to Dr W. E. L. H. Crowther, direct lineal descendant of the Dr Crowther who attended Henry Savery after his suicide attempt in 1828. In addition, Dr Crowther is the only private collector to possess both Savery’s works—The Hermit and Quintus Servinton. The former came to him, while he was still a small boy, as a worn little volume that his father had been given by a patient, Mrs Stokell. Packed away among youthful treasures, it was not until after World War I that its scarcity and value became apparent…

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Left and centre: Henry Melville’s handwritten annotation of the British Library copy of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, identifying Henry Savery as the author. Right: part of the handwritten key found in the Mitchell Library copy, identifying Gamaliel Butler (#61), Dr William Crowther (#62) and Joseph Gellibrand (#67).

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23/09/2014

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary

amourssultanabarbary

Acmat, who was the most amorous of all Princes, and who had Grandeur enough to maintain those Inclinations, now indulged himself. Indamora had for him a thousand Charms; and contrary to that wretched custom which makes the Grand Signior’s Passion the sole Reward of her he favoured, and that they were confined to a Seraglio, without the Liberty to see any but the Sultan and the Eunuchs that attended him; I say, contrary to this observed Custom, Acmat gave the Title of Sultana of Barbary to Indamora, and restrained her in nothing but in the Point of Amour and Gallantry. None of his Predecessors had ever indulged the fair Sex so much as he. The Sultana Queen had a great Liberty allowed her: He was much condemned for his tendency for the Women, and his very enemies acknowledged he had no other weakness…

As those of you kind enough and brave enough to follow along would know, I’ve read some difficult things in my attempt to put together a “Chronobibliography” of the early English novel—ugly stories, violent stories, scatological stories—yet I’m not sure that in its own peculiar way The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary isn’t the worst of the lot. At least ugly / violent / scatological tends to hold the attention; while this short novel commits the twin sins of being boring and pointless. Pointless, above all.

In The Protestant Whore, Alison Conway discusses the subset of literature dealing with Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the most hated and despised of all the royal mistresses. She suggests that the sudden flurry of romans à clef still mired in the era of Charles that appeared across 1689 / 1690 were actually written much earlier but deemed too dangerous to publish in the wake of the Rye House Plot, only to be rushed into print with the coming of William as forming, however vaguely, part of the ongoing literary push to legitimise the new monarchy. Thus, various publications attacking de Kéroualle continued to appear well past the point where, you would imagine, she had become an irrelevance.

However, the weird thing about The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary is that it isn’t an attack—not really—at least, not until its very last pages. Despite its overt focus on the much-despised Louise de Kéroualle, it is hardest on Barbara Villiers, surely an even greater irrelevance by that time than her successor. Moreover, though it is almost entirely concerned with the amorous doings at the court of Charles, it is content to simply relate them without resorting to more of a smidgeon of the usual justification of Catholic plots against England and the king. Instead, its narrative is made up almost entirely of who loved who, who was cheating on who, who was pursuing who, who was seeking vengeance for (romantic) betrayal on who; all reported fairly matter-of-factly, and with very little malice. When you consider that by the time this publication appeared, Charles had been dead for nearly five years, James had come and gone, and William and Mary had been on the throne for a good six months, it is hard to imagine that anyone reacted to it other than with an impatient cry of, “Oh, who cares!?”

“Oh, who cares!?” was certainly my main response, along with numerous sighs and stubborn re-reading of certain paragraphs whose sense I missed the first time because my eyes kept glazing over. However, “stubborn” being the operative word…

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary resorts to the same tactics we’ve seen many times before, with “Turky” standing in for England and Charles being represented by “the Sultan Acmat”; while Turky’s great enemy is “Germany”:

Acmat (the Grand Signior) who succeeded Mahomet III was the best-made Man in the whole Empire. He was tall, had a goodly Meen, full of majesty and Grandeur; his eyes were black, large, and roll’d with a sparkling Fire: The Air of his Face was noble and commanding and whenever he spoke, it softned into a thousand Sweetnesses; His Soul was much more agreeable than his Person, though it was a receiv’d opinion, it was not to his Quality he owed the number of those that called him the goodliest Man that had been formed. He was exactly made for a great Lover and a fine Gentleman…

Acmat’s heir is his brother:

Mustapha, brother to the Sultan, (matchless for Valour and Conduct) returned from gaining a glorious Victory. His success was alone derived from his Governing; and never was a great Prince a better Soldier: He had early all the experience of a brave General, and never could the great Acmat commit the Safety and the Glory of his Empires to a better Manager. Success constantly followed all his Designs, and it was said of him, He was the best of Soldiers and the best of Subjects; nor did his warlike humour render him unfit for other things, he was a great Courtier and a great Statesman…

Doesn’t read much like an attack on the previous monarchies, does it? But then, it doesn’t really support them, either. It just kind of—sits there.

So far as Charles is ever criticised in this narrative, it is for his tendency towards “petticoat government”, and even this is excused as resulting from a nature that is simultaneously peaceful and amorous—he’s a lover, not a fighter. And since “Acmat”’s susceptibilities are the basis of the few imperfections he does possess, the narrative then switches its focus to the women in his life. “The Sultana Queen” is given short shrift, as indeed poor Catherine of Braganza was in reality; and instead we pass over her to “Homira”, our stand-in for Barbara Villiers, skipping the majority of her time as royal favourite and going straight to the exposure of her affair with the young John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. The old scandals are dug up again, so that not only does Acmat catch Homira and Amurath together, but we hear how Amurath, always strapped for cash, took money from Homira in exchange for his services.

What’s more, Homira doesn’t confine her infidelities to one object; while her outrageous example is beginning to have a bad influence across Turky:

The Sultana Homira had studied all his Weaknesses, and was perfectly acquainted with his inclinations. Jealousie was never apt to disturb him, which she easily saw, and procured first for her self, and then for the Sultana Queen, that Liberty they possessed. Gallantry reigned here incessantly, and all manner of Pleasures, with a great deal of Luxury, which notwithstanding was believ’d to please the Sultan, since he never reprov’d it. It was this Licentiousness ruined Homira; she fell at last into a habitual Debauchery, and was a principal Advancer, being the great Example of all the Liberties taken by Women of Quality. Love and Intrigue was no more so secretly confined to the walls of the Seraglio, and if People were discreet, it was what they were not at all obliged to be…

Agreeing that Acmat cannot continue to be made a fool of by Homira, who even now this easy-going Sultan declines to banish, though he does not love her any more, Mustapha and “Mahomet Bassa, the Grand Vizier” (of whom, more below) conspire to provide him with a replacement mistress, one that they can control.

Mahomet Bassa bears a grudge against Homira, who promised him her favours if he could arrange the title of “Sultana” (Duchess of Cleveland) for her, but then reneged on the deal. He has recently seen a Christian slave who is beautiful enough to turn the head of Acmat; and who, in gratitude for her release from slavery, will certainly do as she is told. He ransoms her, brings her to court, and—as you do—demands to hear her entire life story.

I don’t know how much of the potted history of “Indamora” that follows is true; I do know it is mostly irrelevant. Its one point of interest is that it posits a secret romance between Louise de Kéroualle and Philippe de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, Grand Prior of France, who appears as “Tiridate Agustus”. We get a lengthy recapitulation of Indamora’s various romantic travails, most of which is – you guessed it – irrelevant, except that Indamora is still in love with Tiridate when she manoeuvred (rather than manoeuvring herself) into the position of royal mistress:

It is a Truth, replied the Grand Vizier, That I have those Orders from the Sultan; I do not at all doubt but that you have Wit enough to make your advantage of the favourable Sentiments he has for you; Is it not better to live gloriously, full of splendour and magnificence, (as you will do then, if you are wise) than continue in a miserable Slavery? You must flatter the Sultan in an Opinion you love him, it will not fail of pleasing him, which if once you can be so happy as to do, there is nothing in the whole Ottoman Empire but will be disposed of as you shall advise. The Sultan lets himself be governed by the Woman he loves…

And so Indamora is installed as Acmat’s mistress, much to the rage and jealousy of Homira; gets raised to the title of “Sultana of Barbary”; and actually starts to fall for Acmat—at least until Tiridate Agustus arrives unexpectedly in Turky. The old love rekindles and the two try to find a way to be together, while Homira plots to expose them to Acmat.

The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary then takes an odd turn. Mustapha, having already contracted one marriage contrary to Acmat’s desire (to Anne Hyde, though she is not mentioned), is now revealed as being on the brink of another, to “Zayda, Relique of a Noble Turk and Son to Mahomet Bassa”. Acmat is furious when he finds out, and intervenes; a contrite Mustapha begs pardon and meekly marries the bride selected for him by Acmat—“the Daughter of the King of Tunis”—in other words, Mary of Modena: a marriage that, far from being arranged by Charles, ticked him off mightily.

William Musgrave, the original owner and annotator of the copy of The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary now held by the Bodleian Library, changed his mind over the identity of the Grand Vizier. He starts out suggesting that Mahomet Bassa is George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, then later identifies him as Henry Bennett, the Earl of Arlington. I agree with the latter suggestion. By the time of Louise de Kéroualle’s arrival on the scene, Buckingham had fallen out of favour. On the other hand, Arlington was a Catholic who was heavily involved in Charles’ behind-the-scenes negotiations with Louis XIV, which resulted in the Treaty of Dover. It is much easier to picture him as the “sponsor” of Louise de Kéroualle.

When it comes to the identity of “Zayda”, however, Musgrave and I agree to disagree. He suggests that “Zayda” is Susan, Lady Belasyse, who was no connection of Buckingham or Arlington, and whose real father-in-law never got any closer to court than being elected an M. P. None of this seems to make much sense— and even less so since Zayda’s real identity is (in my opinion) perfectly plain. Furthermore, in light of future historical events, the intrusion into the narrative of “Zayda” is by far the most interesting thing about it.

When Zayda declares her passion for Amurath, we may recognise her as Sarah Jennings, the future Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah was indeed taken into the royal household in the position of maid of honour, but that was after James’ marriage to Mary of Modena. (The two frightened fifteen-year-olds quickly became close friends.) The suggestion that James wanted to marry Sarah seems bizarre. In any event, she subsequently married John Churchill while still holding her position at court, though the marriage was not made public until she fell pregnant.

However, none of this stops The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary diverting into an interpolated narrative, “The Amours Of Mustapha And Zayda”, which concludes with Zayda—in spite of her passion for Amurath—plotting vengeance against Mustapha for breaking his promise of marriage to her and thwarting her ambition. Zayda’s story is told to Homira, who has dark thoughts of her own:

Thus did Zayda finish her relation. The Sultana Homira, in another time, would have died with Rage at the Confession she made of being in Love with Amurath; but he had used the Sultana too barbarously to merit any thing of Tender from her: He had exposed her letters, and basely rendered her as ill Offices as possible; though it was by her he was first made considerable…

Anyway, the narrative then reverts to Indamora’s attempts to get herself free of Acmat so that she can be with Tiridate. One of her schemes is to fake a near-death illness, which has the double benefit of allowing her to plead for the attendance of Tiridate, “Chief of the Religious” (not that his being a priest interferes with his intrigues, of course) and to “recover” with a conscience awakened to the sin of her relationship with Acmat, which she uses as an excuse to beg her release from his court. Homira gets wind of what’s going on between Indamora and Tiridate, and tries to ruin Indamora with Acmat out of spite.

And then on the back end of all this tiresome manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring, we get the following astonishing assertion:

But whil’st [Homira] has thus disposed of her self, and that the whole Ottoman Empire enjoy’d a Tranquility beyond all example, the Sultana of Barbary will disturb it; and having got a slow Poyson, she conveys it into a Glass where the Sultan was to drink, he supped with her that fatal night, and whil’st he is more admired than ever by all the World, he falls by the extreme malice of a Woman…

That Charles’ sudden death was murder was a frequent, anti-Catholic accusation (you could take your pick of guilty party). You might expect to find something along those lines here, but no: instead we get a woman resorting to murder for the prosaic reason of not being able to rid herself of her unwanted lover by any less drastic means:

Mustapha (now the Sultan,) had not long possess’d the Crowns and Title, then that his Nephew Osmen rebels against him; but that not being my business…

Ouch! Poor old Monmouth!

…I must pass it over to come to the Sultana of Barbary, she mourned strictly for Acmat, and was very well pleased, she was no manner of way suspected (nor, in a word, any else,) for the murdering of him. After her first mourning, she implored, and received, Permission of Mustapha to retire from Turky, which, in effect, she did, not long after, with those designs which we have already related, in her Orders to the Prince Tiridate Agustus at his departure from Constantinople.

The End.

“Oh,” I said blankly.

So—yeah. The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary does finally get around to slandering Louise de Kéroualle; but frankly, I doubt by that time anyone less obstinate than me would have been awake to know it.

25/01/2014

The Court Secret: A Novel (Part 2)

belon2 …in a short time Amurat was told, that the Fleet, and all things necessary for his Expedition, were in a readiness, and ready to set Sail, only they wanted his Person, without which nothing could be done. Thus was Amurat sent away from his Sultana, to countenance Cha-abas Designs on Leridan, and to give more Liberty to his amorous Intrigues. For no sooner was Amurat gone, but that Cha-abas laid close Siege unto the Sultana’s Vertues, and follow’d it so close, that he prevented the Design that she had taken, and which doubtless she had executed, into confining her self into some Society of Religious Women, during Amurat’s Absence, had not Cha-abas Love been very diligent in breaking her measures. He had not yet made any Declaration of Love to her, and all those Services and Demonstrations of Respect which he shew’d her, pas’d but for the effects of his Courtesie and Civility, to a Princess in affliction: He had had some thoughts of declaring his Passion, but he thought it was not to be done in a mean and ordinary method, but in such a manner as should correspond with his Glory, the Greatness of the Sultana, and the Excess of his Passion… He resolv’d upon communicating of his Designs unto Clorineta, wife to Clorinet, who had accompanied the Sultana from Turky into Persia, and all along been Privy to all the Sultana’s Contrivances, Plots and Intrigues, and in whom the Sultana put all her Confidence and Trust…

Probably the most interesting thing—oh, let’s throw caution to the winds, shall we?—the only really interesting thing about Part 2 of Peter Belon’s The Court Secret is the preface. Unlike some of the publications from this era, the two parts of this novel carry only a year printing, not the month or even day the work appeared. Thus, while we know that the parts were published separately – and emanated from two different printers – we have no feel for the gap between them, and nor, more importantly, do we know their chronological relationship to the anonymous The Amours Of Messalina, which was published the same year (1689, despite what I tried to tell you the last time).

The significance of this point becomes clear as soon as the first page of Part 2 is turned, and we are confronted by the following address TO THE READER:

No sooner had the piece call’d, The Amours Of Messalina, appear’d in Publick, but some malicious Persons gave out, that I was the author of it, they having heard under-hand, that I was about some such thing; and though presently after, there came forth another Piece on the same Subject in my Name, Entitled, The Court Secret, in which Crown’d Heads are treated with that Reverence and Respect—

You guys all noticed the reverence and respect, right?

which is due to them: They have still continu’d to misrepresent me to the World, adding, That the severe Rebukes which I had received for my rude Behaviour towards Sovereigns in the first, had made me to compose the last in another strain, by way of Submission. Did those Persons that thus asperse me consider with what Respect I speak of Persons that once have had Dominion over me, they would not find one grain of that ill Nature in all my writings—

You guys noticed the absence of ill-nature, right?

with which the Amours of Messalina have been season’d by it Author, as if designedly writ as a Satyr against the late King and Queen, which has prov’d a Scandal to all moderate and modest Persons.

Who find the rape of an unconscious virgin a suitable basis for a sex farce.

    Certainly those Persons must needs be void of the Charity, which covers a multitude of Defects, that thus delight to impose the worst of Crimes on those that have been their Lords and Sovereigns, unto whom all Honour and Respect is due, from those who were once their subjects, if it were but for the bare Relation they have to our present King and Queen, whom God long preserve.
    It may be alleged (though disingenuously) That I my self am guilty of that which is blamed in others, by speaking too largely of another King, under the Name of Cha-abas Emperor of Persia. But when all is done, that very Person intended, was not my King, and God forbid he should be so; and what do I say of him, nay, what more can I say of him, than has already been declar’d and proclaim’d, not by a few of his own inconsiderable Heretick Subjects (as he is pleased to call those that are Protestants) but also by the Emperour of Germany, the Kings of England, Denmark, Sweden, the States of Holland, and all the Confederate Princes, all which has been confirm’d by his most Holy Father the Pope?

Who was also treated with great reverence and respect in Part 1.

Anyway, a two-page rant against Louis follows, which concludes with the overriding accusation that he is guilty of leading James astray:

If then that King has rendred himself so odious to all Christians…I may very well be excus’d, for what I have said of the same Person, in a Novel, where Hyperbolies are allowed in their largest extent: I having had no other design in the whole Business than to gratifie the Reader with joyning the Pleasant to the Useful—

Pleasant and useful! Those were the words I was trying to think of when I was writing up Part 1!

without the least intention of railing, or so much as making severe Reflexions, or bearing malice against any Person, even my profest Enemies, much less against such as are absolute Strangers to me.

Not to mention those of us who are both an absolute Stranger to him, and his profest Enemie!

It’s hard not to get distracted here by that tantalising reference to “a Novel”, and the fact that at the time, a novel was apparently considered a literary medium where, Hyperbolies are allowed in their largest extent; a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of 1689 and an indication, perhaps, of why Aphra Behn preferred to use the term “history” to describe her own stories. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that for the following 150 years, most English writers would go out of their way to insist upon the strict distinction that existed between the realistic “novel” and the exaggerated and improbable “romance”. Clearly the word “romance” had not yet entered the English literary vocabulary, at least not in that sense; its first usage is something to look out for in the future.

BUT—the real issue here is that despite insisting upon his “reverent” and “respectful” attitude towards his own monarchs, and justifying his handling of Louis with some shameless name-dropping, Peter Belon entirely fails to address his treatment of Mary of Modena. Putting aside (most willingly) its inclusion of the story of Roxana and her various miseries, the one significant difference between The Court Secret and The Amours Of Messalina is that the latter has Mary guilty of various sexual misdeeds; presumably it is this to which Belon refers when accusing his anonymous rival of being someone who, Delight[s] to impose the worst of Crimes on those that have been their Lords and Sovereigns. Conversely, both stories have Mary a willing participant in the conspiracy to impose a Sham Prince upon the English people—an accusation that Belon apparently doesn’t believe might be construed as disrespectful, or require an apology.

So how do we interpret this? Could it be possible—incredible thought!—that Peter Belon was the one person in England who actually BELIEVED that story? – that he thought he was simply reporting the facts, and consequently showing no disrespect towards Mary? Or – and perhaps his own use of the word is a bit of a giveaway – is this simply an outrageous piece of disingenuousness?

Anyway— I wish I could tell you that the continuation of the The Court Secret was anywhere near as interesting and amusing as its preface, but the truth is that this second part of the story, though only half as long as the first, is twice as pointless, expanding the sexual manoeuvring of the back-end of The Amours Of Messalina into almost its entire story. Ultimately, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Part 2 was written for no other reason but to give Peter Belon somewhere to publish his preface.

The one worthwhile aspect of this second part of The Court Secret is its constraint by real events: early on it dispatches Amurat (James) to Leridan (Ireland), in pursuit of a scheme to reclaim the Ottoman Empire (Britain) by first establishing Halist (Catholic) domination of that land and Clonstad (Scotland). Following his arrival in France in December 1688, James did depart for Ireland in March 1689; the Irish Parliament had refused to recognise William and still considered James the rightful monarch. James tried to sell himself to the Irish people generally by having their Parliament pass an Act granting religious freedom to Catholics and Protestants alike, and having done so set to work building an army. This series of events culminated in the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, which concluded with the overthrow of James and his permanent exile in France.

All of this is far in the future of The Court Secret, of course, which goes no further than James’ more-or-less successful establishment in Ireland: “more or less”, because the text references the Siege of Derry, which lasted from 18 April to 28 July 1689, and so places the composition of the second part of the text as later than that.

Presumably by way of demonstrating its reverence and respect for its sovereigns, The Court Secret pauses at the outset to explain why it was acceptable conduct on the part of the English people to turn against James; if indeed it was; the text isn’t quite comfortable on this point:

Upon Amurat’s deserting of his Subjects, and abandoning them to the Fury of all their Enemies, which in the Opinion of many of his Subjects, acquitted them of their Oaths of Allegiance to him; for as they said, There were mutual Oaths pass’d betwixt Amurat and his People at his accession to the Crown; He on his part did promise to govern them according to the Established Laws of the Land, and to maintain the Mahometan Religion, and all the Laws that had from time to time been made for its preservation, against all the Assaults and Conspiracies of its sworn Enemies the Halists, and to protect and defend his People from all Forreign Usurpation and Invasion; and his People on their part had promis’d to obey him, as their King and Governour, and pay unto him the same Allegiance and Obedience, which they had done to his Predecessors, on the assurance that he would faithfully keep and observe his Coronation Oath. I say, that many of his Loyal Subjects did believe, and thought in their Consciences, that the Emperour’s Breach of his Oaths had dispenc’d them from those which they had taken to him of their Allegiance. Yet there remain’d some amongst them, who still were of Opinion, That though Amurat had broke his Coronation-Oath, that did not free them from those Oaths of Allegiance to him which they had taken, saying, That his doing ill, or committing an Errour, was no warrant for them to do the same. But when it came to that pass, that the Emperour deserted them and his Kingdoms, and thereby renounc’d to the protecting and defending of them: Nay, that on the contrary, he joyn’d with the Halists against his own People, and applied himself to the greatest declared Enemy of the Ottoman Empire, and of the Mahometan Religion, which he had declar’d over and over, he would root out of the World; then, I say, that help’d to take off all those Scruples which had been left on their tender Consciences…

I find it another bit of authorial disingenuousness that James’ “desertion” is finally held to absolve his people of their oaths, in light of the great pains taken by the Williamites to bring about that very conclusion to the situation; and, after all, no matter what their own positions, no-one wanted another civil war. I can’t help feeling that the slightly squirmy reiteration of justification here echoes the linguistic manoeuvring of Parliament, in their efforts to demonstrate that James had abdicated, and that William and Mary’s assumption of the throne was therefore legal.

Anyway… None of this is really what The Court Secret is “about”, unfortunately; even more than Part 1, Part 2 consigns the affairs of Amurat to an occasional interrupting subplot. Instead, the bulk of Part 2 is given over to Cha-abas’ unsuccessful pursuit of the Sultana, which gets tangled up with his initially inadvertent overtures to Clorineta (Lady Tyrconnel), who is herself torn between her desire for Cha-abas and her ongoing affair with the Mufti Repset (Sir Edward Petre). Meanwhile, another Mufti called Chilase (François de la Chaise, Louis’ confessor) also dares raise his eyes to the Sultana, while the violently jealous Repset works to prevent Cha-abas getting sexual access to either Clorineta or the Sultana. And while all this is going on, Monitenna (Madame de Maintenon), offended and jealous over Cha-abas’ neglect, proves herself a better schemer and manoeuvrer than any of them and, though much less physically attractive that either the Sultana or Clorineta, triumphs over both of them and takes her place as Cha-abas’ official mistress. Along the way, there is (so to speak) hunting, charades, and ever so many delightful romantic misunderstandings.

Did I say delightful? What I meant was tiresome in the extreme. In fact, I see no reason to dwell upon any of this, except perhaps the, um, “climax”, in which Peter Belon gives us yet another sexual-confusion-in-the-dark scene; an infinitely less offensive one than the last, I am happy and relieved to report.

The final phase of The Court Secret is taken up with Monitenna’s plots to vanquish her romantic rivals and punish the presumptuous Muftis. While an extended bit of farce goes on, wherein Clorineta’s first planned assignation with Cha-abas is thwarted by Repset’s insistence on taking her plea of illness seriously and nursing her himself, Monitenna convinces Cha-abas that Clorineta has stood him up in order to have sex with a Mufti instead, which offends the monarch beyond any possibility of forgiveness. After this, Cha-abas becomes paranoid about Muftis generally, and convinces himself (with help from Monitenna) that the Sultana’s ongoing refusal to become his mistress has its basis in her affair with another Mufti, namely Chilase.

Chilase is in fact still pursuing the Sultana, but since he has done so in disguise at a masquerade and via anonymous letters, she has no idea who her presumptuous wooer might be. Repset, although he has given up on the Sultana himself, has no intention of standing by passively and watching Chilase succeed where he failed, and begins to interfere in one direction even as the Sultana and Clorineta conspire together in the other; while Cha-abas looks out for an opportunity to punish Repset for succeeding where he failed with Clorineta. Monitenna takes advantage of all this lust and jealousy and confusion by arranging a false assignation between Chilase and the Sultana, intending that Repset (who is to carry the letter) will read it, keep it to himself, and plot to take Chilase’s place; which he duly does. A second note goes direct to Chilase, setting up the same assignation and warning him not to say a word to Repset. With Cha-abas, the Sultana, Clorineta and Monitenna herself a silent but appreciative audience in the next room, the two Muftis creep through the darkness towards the same bed…

    With what eagerness did those two Mufties pull off their Gowns to step into the Embraces of the languishing Sultana! How were their Souls agitated with the very thoughts of the Enjoyments they were going to surfeit with! How many different violent Passions did at once seize on their Spirits! Love, Fear, Respect, and Ambition were all struggling at once, which should have the Mastery over their Spirit; and the Contention was so equally great, that it was the Cause, neither of those Passions had quite the power to exasperate their Spirits, and transport them beyond their natural bounds.
    They stept into the Bed at the same time, with all the gentleness and reservedness imaginable, and with trembling Hands, and aking Hearts, stretcht forth their Arms to feel out for the Prey, they met one anothers Hand, and at the very first touch pull’d them back, as if each had met with a Viper, not without a strange surprisal, and both lay quiet a while after, which endeavouring to inform themselves better with their Legs, they approach’d them towards the middle of the Bed, with as little satisfaction as they had receiv’d from their Hands, but with much more apprehensions: At last the boldest of the two had so much Courage as to lay his Hand on the others Face and Head, which having fully informed him, that it was a man he had felt, and that having emboldened the other to do the same, as much by way of prevention or defence, as to satisfie any further his Curiosity, they at last through fear of danger, did seize one another so hard, that the smart caus’d them each to offend his Enemy as much as he could, in order to secure themselves: these seising at last came to blows; and they were accompanied by words, and in the bustle and confusion of the Combat, holding still one another very fast with one Hand, while they laid on with the other, they at last came down on the floor together…

Okay…classy and high-brow it ain’t; but I’ll take it over rape jokes any day.

16/01/2014

The Court Secret: A Novel (Part 1)

belon1Thus was Roxana’s Child us’d to substitute an Heir to the Empire, that might be brought up in the Sect of Hali, to the prejudice of Zelinda, who was the true and undoubted Heir apparent, only because she was of the true Mahometan religion… But now that so much of the great work was done; that which remained yet undone, was to be thought of. Roxana remain’d still unconsolable, insomuch that she never made any enquiry after her Child, whether it was dead or alive; neither did she take such care of her self as she ought to do; but that was her Mother’s part, of which she acquitted her self as she ought to do. The Cabinet Council thought fit to have Roxana convey’d out of the way, lest that, having been made privy to the Plot, at some time or other she should in one of her melancholick fits discovery the whole mystery: and the Mufti Repset was appointed to perform that pious piece of work. He undertook the business, but it was not till after he had attempted and try’d all the ways and means imaginable to reclaim Roxana out of her deep melancholy, and to bring her to give an ear to his addresses; but finding all to be labour in vain, he on the sudden converted all his former Love into Hatred…

Well. I was misinformed about the content of The Court Secret; it is not one of the clutch of anti-Louise de Kérouaille publications that appeared in the wake of the departure of James, but yet another roman à clef re-working of the Sham Prince affair.

It is also one of the most vilely infuriating things I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.

Published in two separate parts in 1689, The Court Secret was the work of Peter Belon, the author of The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal, one of the two 1688 translations of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. (A correction: at that time I thought Belon was French, but in the preface to The Court Secret he has much to say about “our Late Generous Liberator…our now most Gracious Lord and King” and “the Freeing of our Distressed Country“.) This first part of his novel is an example of the kind of rudderless writing that was the consequence of the anti-James, pro-William faction actually getting what it wanted; it blends politics, slander, amatory fiction and – something else – in a haphazard melding which never seems to have the emphasis in the right place. In fact, though it goes to the Sham Prince well one more time (one might be tempted to say, and with a cracked pitcher), that by-now stale old tale becomes effectively this novel’s supporting subplot, with most of its attention focused upon the endless travails of a young woman called Roxana.

In this place, as in many others of this Book, I might make divers curious Reflections; as here, for example, jealouisie is the natural effect of Love, &c. But my design being to give you only a bare account of the Court-Secret, according to the faithfulness of my Memoires; besides that, the Subject of this Novel is sufficient enough of it self to furnish me with matter, I shall decline all such kind of superfluous digressions, and stick close to my Subject…

The political content of The Court Secret follows the same old well-worn path, setting its action in “the Ottoman Empire” (England), where “the true Mahometan Religion” (Protestantism) is under threat from “the Sect of Haly” (Catholicism), partly because of the machinations of “Cha-abas, Emperor of Persia” (Louis XIV), partly because “Selim, the second of that name” (Charles II), who is staunchly of the Mahometan faith (!), dies under suspicious circumstances and is succeeded by his brother, “Amurat” (James II), who is no sooner crowned than he announces himself to be a Halist. Amurat starts out insisting that he will maintain all the prevailing laws of the Ottoman Empire and allow the Mahometans free practice of their religion, but the Halists have no intention of allowing this and get to work on him, chiefly through their main instrument, ” the Sultana” (Mary of Modena). Serious efforts are made to exterminate the Mahometan faith, but the Halists know that it will all come to nothing if Amurat does not have a Halist heir; his current heir being his daughter, “Zelinda” (Mary), a Mahometan married to “Prince Soliman” (William of Orange). A plot to arrange an heir is finally put in motion…

Not that any of this is presented in such an orderly fashion in the text itself. The first few pages of The Court Secret are devoted to laying out this schema, but the story gets only so far as the Exclusion Crisis (Selim’s tender Love and Affection to his brother Amurat, would never permit him to give his consent to it, so that it was not done…) before it lurches violently to the left and becomes the story of Roxana, a beautiful young Persian Halist, whose father Aladin (!) is appointed to the court of Selim. Aladin tries to keep Roxana concealed from the world by immuring her in a house with high walls about its gardens and the doors guarded, but his scheming wife dreams of a great marriage for her (or at worst, a position as Royal Mistress), and takes her to “Constantinople” (London) to show her off at court. The least consequence of this is that Ibrahim, a young man occupying the house next door to Aladin, develops an instantaneous passion for the beautiful Roxana and devotes himself to finding some way to declare his feelings to her.

At this point, The Court Secret leaves the affairs of the Ottoman Empire hanging for about 80 pages, while it focuses upon the machinations of Ibrahim who, mostly through the intelligence and devotion of his servant, Moretto, finds various ways of courting Roxana from a distance, including leaving impassioned verses for her to find, and finally meets with her in a little summer house. The affair gets no further than a mutual declaration of love, however, before it comes to a tragic end. While Ibrahim is sneaking into the garden of Aladin’s house, he is spotted, mistaken for an escaped slave, and shot. He dies in Roxana’s arms, Moretto stabs himself in grief, and Roxana has a breakdown.

Another person was plac’d near Roxana, on the account she might administer Comforts to her as well as other Services during her distraction; she was Sister to a Mufti, whose name was Repset, and hers was Zora: This Mufti did also frequently visit Roxana during her sorrow, in order to reduce her to her self again. But enough of that at present; we shall have occasion more than once to speak of this Mufti and his Sister, till then I leave giving you a Character of them: mean time, leaving Roxana to the care of those persons that were appointed by her Father and Mother to attend her, we will now come to the continuance of the Historical part of this Novel, till we have occasion to return to Roxana, and bring her again into play.

Smoothly blended, isn’t it?

Plot B picks up with the death of Selim (poisoned by Cha-abas’s agents, it is implied) and the succession of Amurat. One of the interesting things about The Court Secret (which becomes explicit in Part 2) is its comparatively gentle handling of James and Mary. We have seen before the progressive emasculation of James in the literature of this time, with writers left with the choice of presenting him as either the puppet of the Catholic church or a deluded cuckold – or both. The Court Secret seems genuinely regretful that it has to be critical of James; the newly crowned Amurat is described thus:

Of truth, Amurat of himself had very good inclinations, he was very Just, Pious, Religious, Charitable, and desirous to oblige all persons, that came near him, and had he been left to his own Will and Pleasure, he had doubtless Govern’d the Empire will all Peaceableness, Tranquility and Justice, to the great joy and content of his people. But what will not a blind Zeal do, Which is continually fomented by such as breathe nothing but ruine and destruction! It was now high time for Cha-abbas and all his Creatures, to put the last hand to the great work; to this purpose, all the Priests of Haly’s Sect, which were about the Emperor, were charg’d never to let him rest, till they had brought him to a film resolution, or changing the Religion of the Empire, by totally rooting out and expelling from it, the Ottoman Religion, and establishing in lieu of it, the Sect of Haly…

One of the curious things about the Sham Prince literature, before and after the departure of James, is that the identity of the villain of the piece changes. The 1688 writings invariably cast the Papal Nuncio, Ferdinando d’Adda, in this role, offering him as the prime mover behind the substitution of the baby and/or the baby’s real father. We see this in, for example, The Sham Prince Expos’d. Afterwards, however, there is a shift towards blaming the plot upon Sir Edward Petre, an English Jesuit who was James’ confessor; he was made a privy councillor, and remained to the last one of his main religious advisors. The Amours Of Messalina, published in earlier in 1689, features both d’Adda and Petre, with the latter dreaming up the Sham Prince plot and the former working hard to produce a real baby. By the time The Court Secret appeared, d’Adda was nowhere to be seen, with Petre (in the guise of the Mufti Repset) responsible for the novel’s villainies.

Compare this description of Repset to that of Amurat:

This Creature, of mean, obscure Extraction, of as mean a mercenary Soul, and of vitiated Principles, in the Station he was got, was the Primum mobile, or great Wheel, which set the whole Machine of the Halists to work in the Ottoman Empire; he had access to the Emperour and to the Sultana at all times, at all hours of the day and night, even when they were in their private retirements: He had since his greatness at Court shaken off the Rags of Monasteries, and had lick’d himself from a shapeless Cub, into a spruce Courtier… Those hours which he was to have employed in Private and Publick Prayers, and in other Devotions, he spent in his conversation with the Female Sex; being led thereunto by that most powerful Magnet, his natural inclination: He had not been satisfied with those private Stealths which he had made on particular Persons Wives and Daughters, under the Authority and Power of his Function; but his Ambition and Lust still increasing, as did his Fortune and Credit, he resolved to look higher , and to attempt the highest piece of Villainy, and Impudence, under the Cloak of his Religion, and the design of propagating it, as could be imagined…

In short, he aspires to become the Sultana’s lover. He goes about his initial approaches in a roundabout way, however, attempting to convince her that it is her duty to bear a male child – whether it is her husband’s or not. As with “Amurat”, “the Sultana” is quite gently handled by the text: she is outraged by the suggestion, although not unmoved by the Mufti’s argument that it is her duty to anchor the Halist Sect in the Ottoman Empire  by whatever means necessary. She finally baulks at the thought of bearing a false prince herself, but agrees to the substitution of a baby; chiefly because of a message from “the Grand Mufti” (the Pope) warning her that unless she produces a Halist heir, everything done to that point will be thrown away. But how are they to go about it?

As to the other doubt you have rais’d, Madam, in the first place, long before hand, we shall get several Women that reckon about the time we prefixt, that amongst them we may have a Male-Child to substitute for yours; and as to the ways of conveyance of it into the Bed to you, there are a hundred ways besides warm Clothes, warming-pans, trapp-doors, back-doors, and private Windows at the Bedshead to bring a Child in; pish those things are practis’d every day, especially amongst us of the Clergy, who are not permitted to marry…

And so the substitution plot goes ahead, proving to be the beginning of the end for the Halists. Interestingly (in light of real-life events that bear upon Part 2), The Court Secret follows the lead of The Amours Of Messalina by suggesting that the arrest of the seven bishops had nothing really to do with their rejection of James’ Declaration of Indulgence, but was rather a scheme to get them out of the way until the Sham Prince was safely in evidence. (The baby was born on 10th June; the bishops were then still in the Tower, and stood trial on 29th June.) With a male heir in their armoury, the Halists drop all pretence of toleration for the Mahometans, and so bring about their own downfall in the Ottoman Empire:

    Of truth, it was discover’d that there was an agreement made betwixt Amurat’s Council and Cha-abas to destroy all such as would not become Halists; and to that purpose, Cha-abas was to send a Persian Army into the Ottoman Empire, which was to assist the Halists in their wicked designs, to totally root out the True, Ancient Mahometan Religion, to destroy all the maintainers thereof with Fire and Sword, and to clear the whole Emoire of that Religion.
    The Blow was ready to be given, when that all the Nobility of the Ancient and True Religion of Mahomet, made an association amongst themselves, to stand and fall by one another, for the maintenance of their Religion, and the preservation of the fundamental Laws of the Empire. This they signed, and sent over to Prince Soliman, by a particular Messenger, with letters to humbly intreat him to defer no longer his coming to redeem them from Slavery and Idolatry…

The baby used to stand in for the royal heir in the self-defeating substitution plot is a boy born to the unfortunate Roxana. Having been forced to an extent to confide in the girl and her mother, the Halists decide it’s too dangerous to keep Roxana around; while Repset, still smarting from certain events which we will return to in a moment, decides it’s too dangerous to keep her alive. Roxana is consequently shipped off to a place of confinement in Persia. The captain of the galley that transports her is given a letter to deliver along with her, which suggests that a little poison might be in order…

While it does regurgitate one more time the Sham Prince plot and the subsequent downfall of the royal family, The Court Secret has quite as much interest in how Roxana came to be in a position to donate a baby to the cause in the first place, and what happens to her afterwards. You may recall that after the tragic conclusion of her romance with Ibrahim, Roxana was left in the care of Zora, the sister of the Mufti Repset. Zora becomes infatuated with a young man called Cara, and a supposedly comic subplot develops in which Zora tries to manoeuvre Cara into marriage, and he tries to extort favours such as court appointments from her (or from Repset, at Zora’s request) without marrying her. Likewise, he determines to get her into bed before the ring is on her finger.

However, the main focus of the narrative is on Repset who, thwarted in his attempts to seduce the Sultana, transfers his lusts to Roxana. Court gossip suggests that things went much further between Roxana and Ibrahim than she has admitted – they didn’t – and on this basis Repset assumes that he will have little difficulty making his own way into Roxana’s bed; because, after all, a woman who says ‘yes’ to one man will surely say ‘yes’ to ALL men – right?

But when he makes himself clear to Roxana, she not only rejects his overtures but makes her shock and disgust clear to him. Repset is outraged by what he views as her incredible selfishness in not immediately giving him what he wants, and concludes that if she’s going to be like that, he’ll just have to rape her. And once he has raped her, she will of course become his willing mistress, because what would be the point of her fighting him any longer?

Roxana tries to elude Repset, but the Mufti’s powers are almost limitless, and he finally manages to get Roxana alone in a room with her parents away and the servants at a safe distance:

Then, Madam, replyed the Mufti, seeing that you are so plain, I will be too, and tell you that my Passion being grown to that height and strength, that I can no longer be Master over it, I am now comer to now of you, whether I must obtain by consent or by force, that without I can no longer live… I have provided before hand, against all preventions, you are in my Power. There is not one of your Servants that can so much as hear you, the door is fast, you cannot escape me; therefore, once more, Madam, I humbly beg of you to have compassion on me, and afford me freely, what you see you cannot prevent me from taking by force…

But Repset doesn’t get his way. For reasons that don’t require getting into, Cara is hiding in Roxana’s closet; and although he knows his life will be forfeit if he is caught, he decides that he has to intervene. Disguising himself in some of Roxana’s clothes, Cara attacks Repset from behind. Roxana has fainted, so she doesn’t see him; and Cara then manages to escape before Repset knows what hit him. Literally.

But Repset isn’t a man who gives up easily, and finally he decides to cut to the chase by isolating Roxana once again, and getting Zora to drug her. Meanwhile, Zora has consented to a sexual assignation with Cara, and decides to take advantage of the deserted house by arranging it for the same night. Through complicated circumstances, the two plots cross paths…

Hey, fellas—here’s a pop quiz for you! (Stand aside for the moment, ladies: this one’s just for the boys.)

Q1: You have an assignation with your potential lover. When you creep into the darkened room, you find that the person in the bed is either asleep or drugged. As far as she responds to you at all, she protests and tries to fight you off. Do you:
(a) Stop for a moment and think that something might be wrong?
(b) Proceed regardless?

Q2: Having proceeded, you discover that you are not with the sexually experienced woman you were expecting, but a virgin. Do you:
(a) Stop for a moment and think that something might be wrong?
(b) Proceed regardless?

Bonus question: Assuming that you answered (b) to both questions, how does karma treat you afterwards? Do you:
(a) Find yourself afflicted in perpetuity by suppurating sores, until one day you are attacked by a flock of ravenous seagulls and pecked to death?
(b) Marry your rape victim and live happily ever after?

The degree to which The Court Secret dwells upon attempted and successful rape is bad enough, but that it ultimately treats it as a suitable basis for a kind of sex farce puts it an immeasurable distance beyond the pale. The overriding suggestion here is not that Repset’s attitude to Roxana and his resorting to force is wrong per se, but rather that it is wrong because he is a priest. When Cara eventually realises that it was Roxana that night – with whom, after various bouts of hiding in her closet, he has “fallen in love” –  he does feel rather bad about it, but supposes if he explains how it happened she can’t really stay mad at him…

Cara gets the chance to make his explanation because he happens to be the captain of the galley on which Roxana is being transported. Knowing that he is not the father of Roxana’s baby, Repset finally puts two and two together and gives Cara an appointment which effectively banishes him from the Ottoman Empire. Having him be the person to bring about Roxana’s death is Repset’s little joke.

Via the Sultana, Roxana’s mother gets wind of the plot against her daughter’s life and puts her on her guard, though she cannot prevent her being sent away. When Roxana discovers that the captain knows her, and receives from him all sorts of services and kindnesses, she begins to hope that she can convince him that he will be delivering her to her death. Cara, meanwhile, decides to confess via letter:

Yes, Madam, I here confess that I am the Person, who the Heavens thought more fit than the abominable Mufti, to gather those Fruits which he had design’d and contriv’d for his own Tooth, with contrivances that were hatch’d in Hell. But, Madam, I was innocent all this while; witness the strange surprizal I was in, to find that I had gathered such Fruit as none had ever touch’d before… How [Zora] came not to be in that Chamber, and how I came to light on you there, does still remain a Riddle to me. I must confess, that at the resistance you would have made, and which you endeavour’d to make, as much as the narcotick effects of your Opium would permit, I found my mistake; but who then could abstain and retire? No Flesh and Blood, Madam: I accepted of what Fortune had thus thrown into my arms…

All of which Roxana finds not only perfectly reasonable, but a sign that the two of them were made for each other:

…having seriously weighed all Circumstances, and convinc’d her self that Cara had not been in the least to blame, except he had before-hand known who she was, which he did not: She began to think, that of truth, the Heav’ns had design’d Cara for her, and she for him. Being further confirm’d therein, by that Providence which appointed him to be her deliverer… She therefore resolv’d to comply with the Heav’ns Decree…

I suppose it’s just vaguely possible that, at some point in my life, I’ve read something that made me more burningly angry than The Court Secret; but I can’t offhand think what it might be…

[To be continued…]

Footnote: Contemporary opinions of Sir Edward Petre and his part in the arrival of a royal heir are perhaps best reflected in this painting now found in the National Gallery, attributed to Pieter Schenck and showing Mary of Modena, Petre, and the baby (love the wig on the baby!):

belon3b

11/08/2013

The Amours Of Messalina

amoursofmessalina1…early the next Morning she receives the glad Tidings that a Man Child was born, which with all speed was convey’d to the Dormitory adjoining to her Bed-Chamber, in the same reeking Circumstances it was Born in, and having before taken care for the conducting of it to the Queens Bed, the Alarm is given at Alba Regalis that the Queen was in Labour… Now the pretended Prince being Born the Pagans of Albion began their Jubilee, Laroon Governor of Iberia began to double the persecution of the Christians there, Polydorus by a strict Alliance and LEAGUE with Lycogenes, thinks of nothing but a Universal Monarchy, Lycogenes doubles the Oppressions of his Christian Subjects, Messalina boasts of the downfall of Heresie, and a perpetual Regency, during her Life: The poor Christians, especially the Albionites, though something apprehensive of the Consequences of this Intrigue, were yet by their constant Remarques of all Transactions since the Report of Messalina’s Conception sufficiently satisfied of the fallacy and cheat, and resolv’d on measures which they doubted not would in a little time unravel the whole Mystery.

The political writing that had been so sternly suppressed under James II came roaring back with a vengeance following the Glorious Revolution. The public stance was that the removal of James was right and proper, but a need for justification showed itself in an explosion of revisionist histories published early in 1689, as well as in the return of the roman à clef.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this school of writing is how swiftly James became irrelevant once the idea of the “sham prince” had taken hold. Feared as a monarch, in the political writings of mid-1688 onwards he appears variously as a cuckold, a buffoon, and an object of pity. The kinder versions of events present him as tragically misguided, led astray by the wicked machinations of the Pope, Louis XIV and/or his own wife. And as James recedes in these writings, Mary of Modena takes centre-stage.

The virulence of some of the attacks made upon Mary at this time make for uncomfortable reading—particularly in light of the fact that the grounds of those attacks were pure invention, as the people making them were well aware. The invention of the sham prince not only allowed, but demanded, a retconning of events that turned Mary into a dangerous enemy willing to do anything to bring England to its knees under the dual yokes of France and Catholicism. Nevertheless, in these writings her alleged religious and political conspiracies almost invariably take a backseat to lurid imaginings of her sexual misconduct.

Early in 1689 was published a roman à clef that is typical of the kinds of attacks made upon the departed royals at the time, yet different in tone and execution from most of its brethren. As tends to be the case with this branch of writing, the origins of The Amours Of Messalina are somewhat murky. Though presented as by “a Woman of Quality, a late Confident of Queen Messalina”, it is believed to be the work of an Italian, Gregorio Leti, a Milanese historian who converted to Protestantism and became known for his anti-Catholic, and in particular anti-papal, views; his biography of Pope Sixtus V (who was largely responsible for shaping Catholic thinking on contraception and abortion) is considered inaccurate and scurrilous. Leti spent some time at the courts of both France and England, publishing the first biography of Elizabeth I during the latter period. However, in 1680 he managed to offend Charles II with his satirical publication Il Teatro Britannico and fled to Amsterdam, where he spent the rest of his life.

Amsterdam, as we have seen before, was the origin of many notorious publications of this era. It was also the centre for translated works that were from there dispersed across Europe, which made it particularly useful for those wishing to disguise the true origins of a particular work. Thus the English-language version of The Amours Of Messalina asserts that it was translated from the French, while the French-language version has it as translated from English.

(Whichever language it was first written in, the most outstanding feature of The Amours Of Messalina is its run-on sentences, which are as extreme as anything I’ve come across. See, for a typical example, the first quotation below.)

I have mentioned the peculiar tone of The Amours Of Messalina, which is easier to understand once the document’s authorship is considered. While it unblushingly asserts the truth of the “sham prince” accusations, and while it describes in detail the alleged sexual intrigue of Mary of Modena with Ferdinanda d’Adda, the papal nuncio, the whole story is presented from the perspective of Mary and her courtiers. As such, the imposition of a false Prince of Wales is treated as reasonable and, indeed, the only thing to be done under the circumstances. The villain here is not Mary, but the Pope (or “Boanerges the High Priest”, as he is called) and his minions, particularly the “Jebusites”. Mary, being Catholic, simply doesn’t know any better. The text deplores her influence upon James, but does not blame her.

For the most part the disguises worn by the characters in The Amours Of Messalina are exceedingly transparent. Albion (England) is peaceful and prosperous under Brotomandes (Charles II), but trouble starts when he dies and is succeeded by his brother, Lycogenes (James II), who was once a brave and noble prince, but is now nothing more than a tool in the hands of Boanerges and Polydorus, King of Gothland (Louis XIV). His marriage to Messalina is the beginning of the end: she has been sent to England on a mission to re-establish once and for all the Pagan religion (Catholicism), and to extirpate, along with all of its followers if necessary, the Christian faith (Protestantism):

He at last dying, without lawful issue, Lycogenes the Second, his only Brother, succeeded, a Prince who in his Youth and Adversity gave so signal proofs of his Virtue and Gallantry, that he render’d himself the Admiration of Foreign Countries, and the Delight and Love of his own, but (I know not by what unhappy Counsels thereunto incited) after his coming to the Crown of Albion, he committed so many Irregularities against even the Peace and Safety of his own People, that they were obliged to call in Anaximander, Prince of the Low Lands, to their assistance to defend their Lives, which they affirm’d Lycogenes had expos’d and sold to Polydorus King of the Gaules, and to recover their Rights and Liberties which, they say, their King had encroach’d upon and taken from them: Lycogenes had by his first Wife (who was Daughter to a Noble Peer of Albion) two lovely Princesses to his Daughters, the Eldest called Artemisia, Married to Anaximander, the other Philadelphia, Married to Polycrates the Northern Prince. His second Wife was Messalina, Daughter of a Huge Prince in Italy, and nearly related to Boanerges the High-Priest, a Lady sent by Heaven to determine the Fate of Poor Lycogenes, and to ruine the growing greatness of the Pagan Interest in the Kingdom of Albion.

It is, of course, true that the Pope persuaded Mary to accept James’s proposal of marriage. Then a devout fifteen-year-old, Mary wanted only to enter a convent, and recoiled from the thought of marriage in general, and the forty-year-old James in particular, but was finally convinced that her true duty was to assist with the re-establishment of Catholicism in England.

The passage quoted above comes at the outset of The Amours Of Messalina. After presenting this overview, the text then goes on to explain in detail how “Messalina” went about determining the fate of her husband and her religion. Note the use of the expression “Poor Lycogenes”: this is the attitude of the entire document, and indeed almost every reference to Lycogenes comes qualified with a pitying “Poor”.

While, as I say, most of the disguises in The Amours Of Messalina are easily seen through, I confess that I was deeply confused by the identities of two of Messalina’s co-conspirators, “Count Davila” and “Father Pedro”. In this I was somewhat led astray by our previous dip into the murky waters of political propagandising, The Sham Prince Expos’d. As we have discussed before, the attacks on James and Mary at this time were two-pronged, offering up the mutually exclusive yet equally damaging visions of the new Prince of Wales being either the result of Mary’s infidelity, or not actually Mary’s child at all, but a substitute. For those propagandists who favoured the first alternative, the overwhelming favourite for the role of Mary’s lover was – of course – Father d’Adda. However, there was a second favourite I have not been able to identify by name, who figures in The Sham Prince Expos’d simply as “the Italian Count”.

Consequently, when an Italian Count showed up in The Amours Of Messalina, I assumed it was the same person, with Father d’Adda figuring as “Father Pedro”. However, the key to the work (belatedly appended to the fourth part, along with the rather hurtful explanation that, The Bookseller has been Advised to Add the following Key, for the benefit of the meanest Capacity, in understanding the whole History of Messalina) reveals that “Count Davila” is supposed to be Father d’Adda, while “Father Pedro” is the Jesuit Peters—or rather, Sir Edward Petre, an English Jesuit who was appointed privy councillor under James.

 The Amours Of Messalina offers both versions of the baby’s origin. With “Poor Lycogenes” in declining health, syphilitic and impotent, the worried conclave sees its chance of propagating Paganism in Albion slipping away. It is finally agreed that their only hope is for Messalina to bear a son, in conjunction with herself being named Regent in the event of Lycogenes’ death. Since Lycogenes himself is unable to father a child, the conspirators must decide whether it is best for Mary to bear a child fathered by another man, or whether, in order to ensure that the baby is a boy, they should fake a pregnancy and supply a substitute prince. Messalina decides to do both: she will take on the task of falling pregnant, while her conspirators make the arrangements for faking a birth, should it prove necessary.

And having made this decision, Messalina throws herself into her task with great enthusiasm:

The Queen who by the several remonstrances of her three Counsellors had been both press’d and convinc’d of the danger of her Affairs, and being partly overcome by the Solicitations and Endearments of the Count in particular, resolv’d now to give a loose to her natural inclinations, and thereupon turning to the Count, in a soft languishing Tone she reply’d, I must at length, dear Davila, confess my own Frailty and thy Power, my haughty mind I see at last will stoop, and thou art Born to be my Conqueror… Raising the Count, who at every Word was pressing and kissing her fair Hand, she threw her Arms about his Neck, and in Amorous Sighs and Murmurs she Whisper’d her Wishes in his Ears…

But Messalina does not conceive with Davila any more than she did with Lycogenes, and at last it is realised that the substitution must go ahead. Several young pregnant women, all due to give birth around the same time, are kept in seclusion, while Messalina goes through the motions of pregnancy, fretting over the possibility of a miscarriage and giving voice to her hopes and fears, but not letting anyone – particularly not the deeply suspicious Philadelphia – get too close to her or touch her.

The Pagans of Albion are enlisted to lend the strength of their prayers to the task of producing a Catholic Prince of Wales:

…as a Prologue to their intended Villainy, they give out, among their own Party, at least, the necessity of Unity in their Prayers to their Saints and the Deity, to send their Majesty an Heir to succeed him in his Throne and Dominions, and to settle their Holy Religion in this Heretical Land, they cause Processions and Pilgrimages, Offerings and Supplications, to be made… Such are the practices of the Pagan Religion, that the greatest Villainies and Rogueries they intend to commit are still preceded and usher’d in with great appearances of Sanctity…

The confidence expressed beforehand by Catholics and Tories that Mary’s baby would be a boy played right into the hands of their opponents, who made this apparent prior knowledge the basis of their conspiracy theories about the child’s origins. Here, of course, everyone is quite right to be suspicious; the confusion of Mary’s due date, which gave her enemies more ammunition, is also referenced:

Besides, the Confidence of the Pagan Party did strangely startle the People, when like Oracles they would affirm that of necessity it must be a Prince: These and many other material circumstances made the Albionites talk broadly of the business; nor were Lycogenes and Messalina ignorant of their Sentiments; however having the Power absolutely in their hands, they were resolved to cut that knot which they found impossible to untie, and since they had thus far advanced in a business of that importance, they resolv’d to go through and bring it about, though with a thousand absurdities and incoherencies; for besides the alteration of her Reckoning, which proceeded partly from a fear of disappointment if the Woman that came first should have brought forth a Girl, but chiefly to amuse the Nobility and Gentry of the Court and Kingdom, who would doubtless have made it their business in behalf of the Princess Artemesia and the Kingdom, to attend and watch that all things might have been carryed fairly and above board…

In April of 1688, seven bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury were arrested and charged with seditious libel after publishing their petition against James’ religious policies as a broadsheet; their subsequent acquittal was a huge blow to James and indicative of his increasingly shaky standing. In The Amours Of Messalina, however, the arrest of the bishops is all part of the plot:

Lycogenes was unluckily put in mind that by the Laws of Albion the presence of one or more of the Christian Prelates was to be at the Birth of every Royal Infant indispensably required; to resolve this difficulty a Council is immediately call’d, and after sundry debates it is concluded, that some way or other must be found to bring all or most of the dissenting part into a premunire, and so by aggravation either to endanger their lives, or at least to clap them up and secure them till the Queens Delivery; accordingly a flaw was immediately found and the Prelates forthwith confin’d…

There is indeed a false alarm when the first young woman gives birth to a girl, but with the second a sham prince is at the conspirators’ disposal, and Messalina “goes into labour”. Of this plot, if not the former, Lycogenes is fully cognisant, and plays his part by drawing away many of the courtiers who might otherwise insist on being present at “the birth”. A special, oversized, velvet-lined warming-pan has been devised for the transportation of the infant, which is smuggled into Messalina’s bed and subsequently produced in triumph.

Now feeling secure, Lycogenes begins to grant more and more privileges to the Pagans, even breaking the laws of Albion to do so. Torn between their duty to their country and their religion on one hand, and  to their king on the other, the Christians finally decide to petition Anaximander…

The Amours Of Messalina puts a spin on all the events that led up to the Glorious Revolution, presenting all the unsupported accusations made against James and Mary as based on fact and their removal as therefore right and proper. So intent is it upon its revisionism, it even manages the not inconsiderable task of being unjust to Judge George Jeffreys, then Lord Chancellor. As James pursued his increasingly open pro-Catholic policy, there was a growing fear amongst the English people that he might bring in French troops to enforce his position, particularly in light of the angry response of the army to Catholic military appointments. The Amours Of Messalina raises this particular spectre, but blunders by putting the prospect into the mouth of “Poliorcetes the Chancellor”, who also longs for the chance to assist the spread of Paganism by slaughtering more Christians. In spite of all his dirty work for James, Jeffreys was a staunch Protestant:  amusingly, the text manages to hit upon two things he would not have been guilty of, whatever his other excesses. (Mentions of Poliorcetes’ love of “fire and sword”, and a satirical reference to him as “the chief Judge of Conscience”, hit closer to the mark.)

Also amusing is that Monmouth appears at this point as “Perkin”. As we saw in the context of The Sham Prince Expos’d, Perkin Warbeck was a pretender to the throne of Henry VII. Finally admitting (albeit under torture) that he was an imposter, he was condemned and executed. Subsequently, “Perkin Warbeck”, or simply “Perkin”, became slang for any kind of audacious imposture; understandably, the term swiftly found its way into the armoury of those opposed to James. In particular, it became a favourite word with the future Queen Anne, who bought with great enthusiasm into the “sham prince” fantasy and never allowed that James Francis Edward was any blood relative of hers. Finding the expression put into the mouths of the “Pagans” and applied to Monmouth’s pretensions to the throne gives us a very good idea of Gregorio Leti’s opinion of him.

William of Orange, on the other hand, is everything that is noble and disinterested, desiring only to defend his faith and his wife’s interests:

When they plainly saw, their Own, and the Kingdoms Interest, resolved to be made a Sacrifice to the Ambition, and Covetousness of a small Party, that by the known Laws of the Land, were declared the irreconcileable Enemies of the Christians; they thought it then high time to look about them, and though they paid all the Reverence imaginable to the King, their Father; yet they could not resolve to yield their Rights and Inheritance, and hold precariously their Estates, at the Discretion of an Anti-Christian pack’d Councel… Anaximander, being a Prince of a Vast and Generous Spirit, was easily induc’d to condescend to their Relief; for, besides his proper Interest in the Crown of Albion, which by the common Principles of Nature, he was obliged to Maintain and Defend; he often would resolve on the Glory of the Action, and how Heroick and God-like it would shew, to appear the Great and Glorious Champion of the Christian Religion, which by a Secret League, between Polydorus King of the Gauls, and the King Lycogenes, was resolved to be wholly Extirpated…

In growing panic, the Pagans send their agents out amongst the people to try and win support for Lycogenes and to turn them against Anaximander, but to no avail:

And Father Pedro calling a convocation of his inferior Priests, makes them Dis-robe, and in disguise to mingle among the Christian Assemblies…and there with Confidence to utter false Reports, to lessen the Strength of Anaximander, to cry up the miseries of a Civil War, to Extol the Loyalty of the King’s Christian Subjects, to make comparison between young Perkin’s Expedition and this… Renegade Christian Divines, were ordered to Preach up the necessity of Obedience and Loyalty, to withstand the Prince in his Attempts, and to brand his Expedition with the horrible Title of Invasion. These, and many other Arts were used to take off the Edge of Anaximander’s Sword; sometimes they’d Brand His Royal Person with base and ignominious Names; other times they would think to terrifie the Rebels (as they would call all that would assist him) with the Exemplary Punishments, inflicted by the Chancellor Poliorcetes, in his bloody Western Campaign: But all would not do, the Christians knew the Pagan Punick Faith, as well as Inhumane Cruelty, they saw their Laws, their Liberties, and Lives at Stake; and that now was the only time to assert and recover them…

The Amours Of Messalina sticks briefly with the facts at this point, as Lycogenes vacillates over his response to Anaximander’s approach, trying to gauge how much support the venture is likely to find amongst the Albionites and who, if anyone, he can rely upon; while the narrative becomes openly pitying, lamenting James’ fall, his many mistakes, and ignominious retreat—but placing the blame elsewhere:

And now the Thread of Poor Lycogenes his Fate began to crack, now he could plainly see the errours of his Government, and when it was unhappily too late, might Curse the base designs of his pernicious Counsellors: now he was forc’d to stoop that Glorious Lofty Heart, which dauntless heretofore had braved the mightiest force of Europe. How was he chang’d, alas, from that brave Invincible Lycogenes, that did through Clouds of Smoake and Fire, Charge through the Belgian Fleet, and with fresh Lawrels Crown’d, return’d in Triumph to his joyfull Country: now every little Western breeze that heretofore did serve to blow and kindle up his flaming Courage, like some cold Pestilential air damps his Misgiving Soul; now Poor, forsaken of himself he stands, Conscience alone of Ills past done remains his tiresome guest: Attend ye cursed race of wicked Jebusites, see the Prodigious effects of your Pernicious Councels, ye Cloggs to Crowns, and bane of Power.

But on the back of this the narrative effectively dismisses Lycogenes, instead following Messalina to the court of Polydorus, who no sooner lays eyes upon her than he determines upon making her his mistress. Messalina sees this at once and, for that matter, has every intent of satisfying his desires and her own; although she strings Polydorus along for a time first, making a great show of her honour and chastity. At this point the whole exercise degenerates into a farcical bit of amatory writing, with Polydorus sleeping with the baby’s nurse by mistake before he and Messalina finally begin their affair, and with Messalina simultaneously pursued by the Dauphin. It was a common slander that Mary of Modena was (or became) the mistress of Louis XIV, but even so these ribald sexual manoeuvrings make for a peculiar conclusion.

09/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 7)

“Some bills Philander left her, and was so plain with her, and open-hearted, he told her that he went indeed with Cesario, but it was in order to serve the King; that he was weary of their actions, and foresaw nothing but ruin would attend them; that he never repented him of any thing so much, as his being drawn in to that faction; in which he found himself so greatly involved, he could not retire with any credit…”

The concluding stages of The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia – and of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister – finds Aphra Behn returning to the roman à clef format of her first volume, in order to deal with the events of June and July, 1685. First, however, like Behn herself, we must consider the fate of Sylvia, deserted once again by Philander who has left her to join Cesario and the other rebels.

In the wake of Philander’s departure, he and she between them having used up the bulk of what they filched from Octavio, Sylvia is thrown back upon her only remaining support: Brilliard, still fixated upon her, still biding his time and waiting for the chance that has finally come. Here we get a perverse kind of inversion of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, as now it is Sylvia who tries to create a fantasy world where she is still the great lady, Brilliard still her servant, her tool –  and Brilliard who plays along for his own purposes.

His tactics finally yield the desired result. Alone and with her resources dwindling, Sylvia begins to rely on Brilliard more and more, taking him into her confidence and at length allowing him to become increasing familiar with her, until, “Sylvia no longer resisted, or if she did, it was very feebly, and with a sort of wish that he would pursue his boldness yet farther; which at last he did, from one degree of softness and gentle force to another, and made himself the happiest man in the world.” Sylvia suffers reaction, naturally, but Brilliard has learned how to manage her: “He redoubled his submission in so cunning a manner, that he soon brought her to a good humour; and after that, he used the kind authority of a husband whenever he had an opportunity, and found her not displeased at his services.”

At this point, it seems likely that we are to be witness to Sylvia’s downward spiral; her growing dependence upon Brilliard; her inability to survive without a man; her final, abject destruction. Then something extraordinary happens: Sylvia shakes off her funk and pulls herself together. She cannot indeed survive without a man – in the sense that they have the money she needs – but that’s not to say she must submit to their terms.

The remainder of Sylvia’s story finds her increasingly taking charge of her own life. First she detatches herself temporarily from Brilliard, dons her boy’s clothes, and sets out on adventures of her own. She encounters a Spanish nobleman, Don Alonzo, who is young, handsome and wealthy – and finds herself sharing a bed with him, still in her man’s disguise. She sets herself to win him, and succeeds so well that Alonzo, “…was not seen in Brussels for eight days and nights after.”

Behn’s choice of language here is remarkable. We hear how Sylvia, “…gained that evening a thousand conquests; but those were not the trophies she aimed at, it was Alonzo was the marked-out victim, that she destined for the sacrifice of love.” Conquest…trophies…victim…sacrifice… We’ve heard all this before, but in another context: this is the language of Philander, from the beginning of our story. And most significantly of all, we hear that Sylvia is dying for Alonzo…

In short, Sylvia has become Philander – but a more successful Philander – a Philander who, absorbing the lessons of her botched affair with Octavio, has learned to keep her eyes on the prize. At length we find her juggling four men at once – conducting her affair with Alonzo; from time to time seeing Philander who, smugly convinced she still loves him, gives her money when he can; keeping Brilliard (“…she knew she could make him her slave, her pimp, her anything…”) on a string; and most incredibly of all, taking money from the still besotted Octavio, under promises of reformation and a retired, decent life – and successfully keeping all four balls in the air at once.

It is impossible to read Sylvia’s story and not feel how it influenced Daniel Defoe; but whereas Defoe’s anti-heroines tell their tales from a late-life vantage point of reformation (however unconvincing), Behn saw no need to reform Sylvia. On the contrary: Sylvia’s “reward” at the end of her journey is the profitable ability to keep her emotions in check, and to use and discard other people to her own advantage; in short, to behave like a man. It is a peculiar and disturbing triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. In a world where it is destroy or be destroyed, we know that Sylvia will survive. Our last glimpse of her in the novel is her enforced departure from Brussels, Brilliard in her train and the wreck of Alonzo in her wake: “…of whom they made so considerable advantages, that in a short time they ruined the fortune of that young nobleman and became the talk of the town; insomuch that the Governor not permitting their stay there, she was forced to remove for new prey; and daily makes considerable conquests wherever she shows the charmer…”

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

The last thing I want here (or, I’m sure, you want) is to get lost in a lengthy retelling of the Monmouth Rebellion. So I’ll try to keep this brief, touching only upon the main points, and those moments where our old friend Lord Grey comes to prominence.

After years of vacillation and plots that came to nothing, Monmouth was finally brought to the point of rebellion by the combined efforts of Grey and Robert Ferguson, “the Plotter”. Ferguson was a former Presbyterian minister who was active in pamphleteering and conspiracy all the way through the years of the Exclusion Crisis and, like Grey and Monmouth, implicated in the Rye House Plot. It was Ferguson who drafted Monmouth’s “manifesto”, the document that spelled out the grounds upon which Monmouth rebelled against James, which instead of focusing upon “acceptable” grounds of rebellion such as defence of Protestantism, accused James of every crime imaginable, including murdering his brother. It was probably this document as much as the rebellion itself that sealed Monmouth’s fate.

Monouth and his army landed in Dorset, a Protestant stronghold, and at first many among the local population did flock to him enthusiastically; but an extended period of  fruitless marching and manoeuvring saw the spirits of most begin to evaporate. The failure of a planned simultaneous rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyle was a severe blow. Indeed, Monmouth was at this point willing to call the whole thing off, and tried to slip away from his forces. He might have done so had he not been dissuaded by a passionate speech from Lord Grey, who convinced him that, “To leave the army now would be an act so base that it would never be forgiven by the people.”

Grey, by necessity, had been put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry – an arrangement on which some historians place much of the blame for the failure of the rebellion. The cavalry was twice completely routed by James’s forces, once literally turning tail and fleeing the battle, leaving Monmouth and the infantry unsupported. While our view of Grey’s conduct is now inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the outcome of his story, whether this was really cowardice or incompetence, as is often asserted, or whether Grey simply wasn’t qualified for the job, it is impossible to say. Only the damage done to Monmouth’s cause is indisputable.

The Monmouth Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. Around a thousand men were killed, most of them Monmouth’s, but the leaders of the rebellion survived. Robert Ferguson got away and escaped to Holland, but both Grey and Monmouth were captured. The latter, who had fled the battlefield, was discovered hiding in a ditch disguised as a shepherd. As soon as Monmouth found himself in enemy hands, he went to pieces. Grey, however, remained calm and composed. Possibly he was one of those who are at their best when things are at their worst. Or, possibly, he knew something…

Brought before James, Monmouth literally grovelled, sobbing and pleading for his life, and throwing the blame onto everyone else. He was soon brought to understand he wasn’t facing his soft-hearted father any more: James was inflexible and vengeful even under normal circumstances, and these were not exactly normal circumstances. In his last extemity, Monmouth – defender of the Protestant faith – promised to convert to Catholicism if James would spare his life. James met him halfway – which is to say, he offered to facilitate Monmouth’s conversion. Knowing himself doomed, Monmouth managed to pull himself together. He was comparatively calm during his final moments, making neither the defiant speech James feared, nor the public apology James wanted. “I come to die, not to talk,” was all he said; final words variously reported as stoic or sullen.

Indeed, Monmouth’s last thoughts and last words were not of his ambitions, or his rebellion, but of his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who he had loved for many years, and whose personal fortune paid for most of Monmouth’s activities. At the last, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, begging him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, before submitting to his execution – which was, by the way, nightmarishly botched. Legend has it that James made sure the axe was blunt…

Aphra Behn’s account of the rebellion runs in parallel with the ongoing story of Philander and Sylvia throughout the third volume of her novel. She also introduces a new character, Count Tomaso, who is one of the prime movers in the rebellion…and in whom we may recognise the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, of course, died in 1683, two years before James’s succession, and so played no part in the real story of Monmouth’s rebellion. However, aside from his role during the Exclusion Crisis, Shaftesbury did spend the final year of his life trying to argue, provoke and cajole Monmouth into revolt against Charles, so Behn’s resurrection of him in her novel isn’t as gratuitous or as spiteful as it might at first appear. (In case anyone was in doubt about Tomaso’s identity, Behn makes use of a piece of embarrassing gossip about Shaftesbury that was popular with his enemies, and has Tomaso avoiding arrest by scrambling naked up onto the canopy of his mistress’s bed and hiding there.)

Shaftesbury, as we may recall, was one of the five ministers forced by Charles to sign the Treaty of Dover. Those five became subsequently known as “the Cabal”, a word constructed from the first initials of their names or titles (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, Lauderdale), with the acronym subsequently entering the vernacular with its current meaning of a secret gathering, or a sinister conspiracy. As with the word “philander”, it was Aphra Behn who popularised the term, via her repeated use of it in her novel to signify the underhanded nature of Cesario’s doings. Cesario and his followers do not  meet to discuss things, they “cabal”; they are “caballists”, who are always “caballing”. The word is used from time to time prior to this point, although always with connection with Cesario; but with the arrival in the story of Tomaso, its use in the novel becomes almost obsessive.

But Tomaso is only a supporting character in Behn’s account of the events of 1685. Her focus is upon Monmouth / Cesario, who she turns into a figure of ridicule, entirely under the control of Robert Ferguson / Fergusano and Lady Henrietta / Hermione, the latter of whom dreams of being queen of “France”. Monmouth was known to be deeply superstitious; when he was caught, he was carrying a notebook full of supposed charms for warding off death in battle and opening prison doors. What’s more, Monmouth’s devotion to his Henrietta, a woman condemned in her day for being “old and ugly” (that is, she was twenty-five and no beauty), was often attributed to his being literally bewitched. The gold toothpick-case, given by Henrietta to Monmouth and which occupied the last thoughts of his life, was supposed to hold the charm by which she controlled him.

Behn, of course, has a field day with all this. Playing on Monmouth’s apparent belief in magic, she casts Robert Ferguson as a literal magician, a master of the dark arts, whose hold over Cesario rests largely on his mysterious powers; as if Monmouth’s rebellion against James could only be explained in terms of black magic. She also makes much of the toothpick-case, having Hermione keep in it a love-philtre received from Fergusano to use against Cesario. Cesario himself emerges as a fool, a buffoon, a puppet – until the moment of his death, when Behn backs off. She doesn’t reference the horrors of Monmouth’s execution, but neither does she ridicule him further; she allows Cesario to die with dignity, even to be mourned. She retreats even further when describing the fate of “Hermione”. Henrietta Wentworth herself died not long after Monmouth. Most commentators greeted the event with sneers and bad jokes; Behn, almost alone, is quite kind with her memory. Perhaps she was startled, even awed, to find that someone actually could “die of love”.

And where, in all this, is Philander? Not where you might expect. Lord Grey’s conduct during the rebellion and afterwards remains a matter for debate. I myself turned for guidance on this point to my dear friend Thomas Macaulay – who I find I prefer as a literary critic than as an historian; the political bias is just a bit too obvious. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, spends much of his detailed and otherwise very interesting account of the rebellion making excuses for Grey.

And oddly, by the end of her novel, Aphra Behn is also making excuses for “Philander”. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. But while Macaulay defended Grey as a Whig, Behn did so for quite opposite reasons. In her view, the rebellion was so entirely wrong and immoral that to desert it for any reason, at any time and under any circumstances, was the right thing to do – even if it meant behaving in a way that by normal standards was disgraceful and cowardly.

As the likelihood of open rebellion grows, so do Philander’s doubts. He confesses to Sylvia his fervent wish he’d never gotten involved, or that he could see a way out. He even speaks publicly against the venture, much to Cesario’s displeasure, and although he finally takes his place on the battlefield, his reluctance is apparent:

“Some Authors in the relation of this Battle affirm, That Philander quitted his Post as soon as the Charge was given, and sheer’d off from that Wing he commanded… He disliked the Cause, disapproved of all their Pretensions, and look’d upon the whole Affair and Proceedings to be most unjust and ungenerous; And all the fault his greatest Enemies could charge him with, was, That he did not deal so gratefully with a Prince that loved him and trusted him…”

Behn’s own discomfort here is evident, even as she tries to whitewash Philander; note the involuntary flicker of sympathy for Cesario, otherwise her whipping-boy. She does succeed somewhat in painting the impossible position of a man who no longer believes in his own cause. The problem is, we know Philander never did believe in the cause; that he was out for himself from the start, using Cesario, whom he despised, to further his own ends. Consequently, his belated moral qualms provoke, not understanding, but a curl of the lip.

In reality, debate about Lord Grey has centred on whether he was incompetent, or a coward – or whether, as Behn almost unconsciously (or even unavoidably) suggests, he was in fact a Quisling within Monmouth’s ranks all along. Whatever the truth, in the end Lord Grey did what Lord Grey always did: he found a way to wriggle out of a tight situation.

Brought before James, Grey was composed. In the wake of Monmouth’s embarrassing self-debasement, his behaviour probably looked more heroic than it was. However, nothing he did from that point on can be remotely classified as “heroic”.

First, he penned a long, rambling, self-exculpatory confession, throwing all the blame of the rebellion onto Ferguson and Shaftesbury, playing down his own influence over Monmouth as much as possible, and painting himself as a poor, lonely, friendless exile from England, who in his desperation fell into bad company, and was led into bad ways. (Not surprisingly, the reason Grey was an exile in the first place isn’t mentioned – and nor, for that matter, is Henrietta Berkeley.) Second, he ratted out his friends, providing voluntary testimony against many others captured after Sedgemoor, many of whom were condemned and executed. And last – yet hardly, one imagines, least – he paid a “fine” of forty thousand pounds into the always ravenous royal coffers.

And on the strength of these three gestures, while others only a fraction as guilty as he, men and women, aristocrat and commoner, were being sentenced to death, Lord Grey was forgiven; and not just forgiven, but eventually welcomed back at court.

There is a limit to everything – even to Aphra Behn’s inclination to make excuses for a man swearing new loyalty to James. When Behn picked up her pen in 1684 to begin what would eventually become Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, not in her very wildest imaginings could she have invented a conclusion to her story such as reality provided. Nevertheless, being given such an opportunity, she made the most of it. This most improbable denouement to a most improbable sequence of events allowed Aphra Behn to write one of English literature’s great closing paragraphs, an ending to her story none the less viciously satirical for being absolutely true:

“Philander lay sometime in the Bastille, visited by all the Persons of great Quality about the Court; he behaved himself very Gallantly all the way he came, after his being taken, and to the last Minute of his Imprisonment; and was at last pardon’d, kiss’d the King’s Hand, and came to Court in as much Splendour as ever, being very well understood by all good Men.”

After a decade of persistent and increasing ill-health, Aphra Behn died at the age of forty-nine on the 16th of April, 1689 – five days after the coronation of William and Mary. Although we must mourn her loss at such a relatively young age, it does seem somehow fitting that this woman so distinctly, so uniquely of the Restoration should not have outlived the age that created her. Then, too, perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t live to see the “real” end to her novel.

In June of 1688, a group of English noblemen, subsequently dubbed “the Immortal Seven”, sent a formal invitation to William of Orange, requesting his intervention in the English succession: the initial plan was to force James to disinherit his new-born son in favour of his daughter, Mary, William’s wife. It was November when William landed with his army, but his plans to do so had been known for at least two months, forcing not only James to decide upon a course of action, but also the dwindling numbers of statesmen who still publicly supported him – like Lord Grey.

It will come, I am sure, as no great surprise to anyone who has followed this story so far to hear that Grey’s choice was to betray the king to whom he owed his life, and to whom he swore oaths of fidelity after being received at court. His first thought as always his own skin, he abandoned James for William at the first opportunity.

And, sad to say, Grey did not merely survive under William: he thrived. Becoming a fixture at court, he was made Privy Councillor in 1695, the same year he was created Viscount Glendale and Earl of Tankerville. He subsequently served as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal and (in perhaps the sickest irony of all) Lord Justice of the Realm. The successful statesman died in 1701…remaining to the end, no doubt, well understood by all good men.

06/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 6)

“Thus he flatters and she believes, because she has a mind to believe; and thus by degrees he softens the listening Sylvia; swears his faith with sighs, and confirms it with his tears, which bedewed her fair bosom, as they fell from his bright dissembling eyes; and yet so well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so: and such effects it wrought on Sylvia, that in spite of all her honour and vows engaged to Octavio, and horrid protestations never to receive again the fugitive to her arms, she suffers all he asks, gives herself up again to love, and is a second time undone…”

So where was Aphra Behn between 1685 and 1687? Writing, of course. It was quite a good time to be a Tory writer, the very events that had so shaken the country opening up fertile ground for the monarchists. Behn had done her Tory duty early in 1685, producing an elegy for the departed Charles, and another for the widowed Catherine (who did a bunk back to Portugal as soon as she could organise it – and who can blame her?); although neither of these can hold a candle to the 800 line “pindarick” she wrote to celebrate the coronation of James. Around the same time, Roger L’Estrange received a knighthood and returned to his old position of Licensor Of The Press, John Dryden was confirmed as Poet Laureate – and Thomas Shadwell was blacklisted.

But for the most part the theatre was still stagnant; it was not until towards the end of his reign that James, all too late, began commissioning plays in the hope of using them to win some public support. Aphra Behn would not get another play produced until 1687, when both The Luckey Chance and The Emperor Of The Moon brought her dramatic success; the last of her lifetime. Also during 1687, Behn published the third part of her first venture into fiction as The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia. This is easily the longest of the three volumes, which may in part account for the delay in its appearance. It also finds Behn using a third different form of prose writing in as many volumes. While a few letters are interpolated, this work is worlds away from the epistolary style of the first, or even the “half-and-half” approach of the second, and presents as what we would now view as a conventional piece of third-person narration; although the narrator does make personal comments and additions from time to time, as we shall see.

This third volume is, I imagine, by far the most difficult for most modern readers to absorb. It consists of two overlapping yet distinct stories, the second being Behn’s account of the Monmouth Rebellion of June, 1685, in which her old friend Lord Grey suddenly reappeared on the public stage. It may even be that Behn had begun her third volume before that, then had to scrap it and start over when reality suddenly intervened. From the reader’s point of view, the difficulty here is that Behn not only describes the rebellion and its aftermath, but includes any amount of insulting minutiae about the Duke of Monmouth which, while it would have been perfectly familiar to a contemporary audience swamped by accounts of Monmouth’s life and death, means very little to the reader of today.

First, however, we rejoin our pairs of lovers. Sylvia has promised to marry Octavio (Brilliard notwithstanding) if he will take revenge on Philander for her, while Philander is still indulging in his dangerous affair with Calista, in spite of the growing suspicions of her husband, Clarineau, and Dormina, the servant set to spy upon her. Ironically, Clarineau’s way of showing his displeasure, namely, failing to visit Calista’s bed, which would have been more than welcome to her at any other time in their marriage, is now a matter of urgency: Calista is pregnant, but cannot bring about the encounter with her husband that she needs to cover her infidelity.

As her condition begins to show, Calista begs Philander to run away with her. This escapade finds Calista, too, in drag: a guise that brings out her (to Philander) strange resemblance to Octavio…and, perhaps, also makes clear the basis of her attraction for her lover:

“I own I never saw anything so beautiful all over, from head to foot: and viewing her thus, (carrying my lanthorn all about her) but more especially her face, her wondrous, charming face—(pardon me, if I say, what does but look like flattery)—I never saw anything more resembling my dear Octavio, than the lovely Calista. Your very feature, your very smile and air; so that, if possible, that increased my adoration and esteem for her…”

Remembering the fate of Clarineau’s first wife, both Philander and Calista carry weapons as they try to make their escape. They are caught by Clarineau, his nephew and his servants. As the latter engage Philander, Clarineau draws a poniard and stabs Calista, who fires her pistol at him, wounding him. Philander fights off the others, and manages to escape with the injured Calista. However, the two are soon caught and imprisoned – their jailers not realising Calista’s sex. She is terrified of being returned to Clarineau and his vengeance, while Philander knows that he himself will suffer nothing worse than a spell in prison and a fine for the cuckoldry. Calista having her jewels with her, Philander is able to pull his usual stunt – “The master of the prison was very civil and poor” – and Calista is allowed to escape, fleeing to Brussels and taking refuge in a convent where the Abbess is her aunt.

All this Philander recounts in a letter to Octavio, concluding with a request that Octavio write on his behalf to the magistrates of Cologne – sending to Sylvia at the same time another letter filled with the usual excuses. Having already broken his oath to Philander, Octavio shows her both. It doesn’t quite go as he expected. The outraged Sylvia insists upon travelling to Brussels, so that she can confront Calista – only to find herself so personally affected by Calista’s beauty (and, of course, by her resemblance to Octavio), that she almost finds it in herself to forgive her perfidious lover. Almost. On departing, Sylvia takes her revenge by giving to Calista the letter that Octavio gave to her; and Calista discovers that the man she believed loved her so honourably and tenderly has given a boastful, blow-by-blow account of their affair to another man…and that man her own brother. Sylvia, meanwhile, swears that she has cut Philander from her heart forever, and is entirely Octavio’s…

In her handling of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, and then again in the eventual reuniting of Sylvia and Philander, Aphra Behn displays a frank fascination with the masochistic potentiality of love – and an even greater one with the capacity of lovers for self-deception. Although we here a lot about “the brave, the generous, the amorous” Octavio, Behn’s language is belied by her action. Octavio’s obsession with Sylvia is an exercise in delusion and denial. To us, the onlookers, his passion for Sylvia is clearly a kind of physical addiction, a habit that he cannot kick, one that manifests as a total refusal to see reality.

When Brilliard hears of Sylvia’s promise to marry Octavio, he appeals to the local authorities, declaring himself her husband. Octavio is connected, however, and Brilliard’s attempt to claim his rights ends in failure. Although Octavio is at first horrified by Brilliard’s declaration, Sylvia manages to convince him that at the time she “married” Brilliard, he already had a wife and children, as she later discovered. At this time, Sylvia gives Octavio her own account of her relationship with Philander; and in an hilarious touch, Aphra Behn reveals that she and Sylvia were both readers of the London Gazette:

“…but all search, all hue-and-cries were vain; at last, they put me into the weekly Gazette, describing me to the very features of my face, my hair, my breast, my stature…”

The apparent barrier to their relationship removed, Octavio’s passion for Sylvia returns with redoubled force: “…he was given over to his wish of possessing of Sylvia, and could not live without her; he loved too much, and thought and considered too little…” Octavio renews his promises of marriage to Sylvia, and begins to lavish extravagant gifts upon her, his obsession with her growing uncontrollable…and in context, more than a little creepy.

Although his acquaintance with Sylvia begins when she is another man’s mistress, although he hears from both Philander and Sylvia the full truth of their relationship, Octavio insists upon courting Sylvia as if she were still the innocent girl she once was – not out of generosity, or kindness, or tact, but because this is the only way he can justify himself to himself. Sylvia is entranced by the fantasy world Octavio creates for them, which allows her to pretend that she has regained the position in life that she threw away for Philander, and intoxicated by her sense of power; she eagerly plays the part Octavio has tacitly written for her. When their mutual role-playing game ends, inevitably, in sex, Sylvia reacts not as an experienced woman, but like a ruined girl: “At first he found her weeping in his arms, raving on what she had inconsiderately done, and with her soft reproaches chiding her ravished lover…”

And perhaps here I should mention that while she lies in Octavio’s arms, weeping for an honour and a virginity long since departed, as Octavio swears to repair the great wrong he has done to her by making her his wife…Sylvia is at least five month’s pregnant with Philander’s child.

One of the most difficult things for modern readers to come to terms with in the literature of this period is its attitude to pregnancy, which is generally treated as just an inconvenience, a nuisance, but nothing that should be allowed to interfere with the business of life. It is certainly never considered a reason why two people shouldn’t have an affair. (If anything, on the contrary: you know the old saying…) In this respect, Love Letters is entirely representative. Remember that Calista, too, is pregnant when she finds refuge in the convent. There, taking stock, she is overwhelmed with shame and remorse. When her child is born, she has it taken away, before giving up the world and becoming a nun. Meanwhile, Sylvia also bears her baby…which is never mentioned again. We are given no hint of its fate; it simply disappears; and except for one or two passing references to Sylvia getting her figure back, there is no indication that she was ever pregnant, or that she ever thinks about it again. Nor is the double father remotely interested in his children’s fates.

Several decades after this, Daniel Defoe would be using his anti-heroines’ attititude to their children as a yardstick of their characters; here, Sylvia’s pregnancy is nothing more than a measure of the depth of Octavio’s delusion. As his obsession grows, Octavio rains money and jewels upon Sylvia, and sets her up in a mansion, swearing that he will marry her, “As soon as Sylvia should be delivered from that part of Philander, of which she was possessed.” But before Octavio can make good on his promise, Philander reappears on the scene…

Released from prison, Philander travels to Brussels, to the convent, where he hears quite a few home-truths from the Abbess before the door is slammed in his face. This encounter reveals to Philander that Octavio has betrayed him to Sylvia; and here Aphra Behn gives us another glimpse of the ugly reality of her world; woman’s world. Behn offers excuses for women’s perfidy in love, arguing that the world as it is hardly allows women to be honest if they would (and note the revealing slip into the first person):

“Thus she spoke, without reminding that this most contemptible quality she herself was equally guilty of, though infinitely more excusable in her sex, there being a thousand little actions of their lives, liable to censure and reproach, which they would willingly excuse and colour over with little falsities; but in a man, whose most inconstant actions pass oftentimes for innocent gallantries, and to whom it is no infamy to own a thousand amours, but rather a glory to his fame and merit; I say, in him, (whom custom has favoured with an allowance to commit any vices and boast of it) it is not so brave.”

But as with Behn’s railing against “interested” marriage and the selling of young girls to old men, this denouncing of the double standard is a cry in the wilderness. Despite Philander’s breaking of his vows to his wife, his seduction of Sylvia, and his months of bald-faced lies to her as he seduces and ruins another woman, we are given to understand that the only crime committed against honour in all this is Octavio’s breaking of his promise to Philander, the betrayal of man by man; that in fact, it is Philander who is the injured party:

“…he no longer doubted, but that his confidante had betrayed him every way. He rails on false friendship, curses the Lady Abbess, himself, his fortune, and his birth; but finds it all in vain: nor was he so infinitely afflicted with the thought of the loss of Calista (because he had possessed her) as he was to find himself betrayed to her, and doubtless to Sylvia, by Octavio.”

Philander and Octavio will later fight a duel on this point; later still, Octavio will concede to Philander that he was the one who committed the real breach of honour. And it is Octavio, the obsessive lover Octavio, who will finally put Woman firmly in her place – unearthing the novel’s subtext again in the process:

“‘These vows cannot hinder me from conserving entirely that friendship in my heart, which your good qualities and beauties at first sight engaged there, and esteeming you more than perhaps I ought to do; the man whom I must yet own my rival, and the undoer of my sister’s honour. But oh—no more of that; a friend is above a sister, or a mistress.’ At this he hung down his eyes and sighed—“

But Octavio still has some distance to travel before he can set aside his passion for Sylvia and become “a real man” – a man’s man, as it were. Although she has, to all appearances, got Octavio exactly where she wants him – has the prospect of a life so far beyond what she might expect in her circumstances as to almost boggle the mind – Sylvia is finally, fatally, betrayed by her vanity. Her absolute power over Octavio she credits to her own irresistible charm and beauty, not to Octavio’s consitutional blindness; and so abject is he in his devotion, she begins to take him just a little for granted…

Although Philander’s behaviour has killed her love for him, Sylvia realises that his betrayal of her, his finding another woman more beautiful, more desirable, than she, still rankles. She begins to toy with the notion of bringing him back to her feet, just to show that she can. As for Philander, Sylvia vanished from his thoughts the moment he set eyes on Calista; yet when he receives a letter from her declaring that she doesn’t want him any more, he instantly discovers that he wants her – and swears that he will have her again.

The resulting mutual exercise in emotionless manoeuvring and jockeying for the position of power evolves into a sick recapitulation of their original encounter – both of them falling back into their original roles without even recognising it (or as Behn puts it, “So well he dissembled, that he scarce knew himself that he did so…”) – and ends, sure enough, in Sylvia’s bed…where Octavio finds them. And even this he forgives…but in a seemingly contradictory yet psychologically convincing touch, this for Sylvia is the final straw. She has demonstrated the limitlessness of her power over Octavio; he no longer holds any challenge for her. Instead, bundling up the jewels and money and other portables that he has given her, Sylvia elopes again with Philander.

What follows is one of this novel’s strangest passages – indeed, one of the strangest things Behn ever wrote – as Octavio, his eyes opened at long last, retreats from the world as his sister did, entering a monastery. Here, the narration suddenly switches to the first person, as we hear that, I myself went to this ceremony, having, in all the time I lived in Flanders, never been so curious to see any such thing…

The evolution of the narrative voice across these three volumes is intriguing, and a fairly clear indication that initially Behn intended to write only the first of the three. The letters that make up Part 1, as you may remember, were supposed to have been found in a closet after Philander and Sylvia left the house where they had been living together between the time of their original elopement and Philander’s arrest, escape and flight from France. Presumably, then, the writer of the first volume’s preface is not the same person who supplies the narrative voice for the later ones. This third part contains some interesting experimentation with narrative possibilities, as Behn shifts back-and-forth between third-person-omniscient and first-person-onlooker – sometimes within the same passage.

Although she was not, as I have said, at all religious, Aphra Behn had a life-long fascination with the external aspects of Catholicism, its rituals, its art, its exoticism, its public display…all the things, in other words, that good Protestants were supposed to despise. There are various bits of erotica through this third volume of Behn’s story, but perversely, nothing that matches the sensuality of her description of Octavio’s withdrawal from the world:

“For my part , I confess, I thought myself no longer on earth; and sure there is nothing gives an idea of real heaven, like a church all adorned with rare pictures, and the other ornaments of it, with whatever can charm the eyes; and music, and voices, to ravish the ear…But, for his face and eyes, I am not able to describe the charms that adorned them; no fancy, no imagination, can paint the beauties there: he looked indeed, as if he were made for heaven; no mortal ever had such grace… Ten thousand sighs, from all sides, were sent him, as he passed along, which, mixed with the soft music, made such a murmuring, as gentle breezes moving yielding boughs… All I could see around me, all I heard, was ravishing and heavenly; the scene of glory, and the dazzling altar… The Bishop turned and blessed him; and while an anthem was singing, Octavio, who was still kneeling, submitted his head to the hands of a Father, who, with a pair of scissors, cut off his delicate hair; at which a soft murmur of pity and grief filled the place…”

As for Philander and Sylvia, they’re in pretty much the state you’d expect of two people held together only by their equal determination not to be the one who is discarded:

“Philander, whose head was running on Calista, grudged every moment he was not about that affair, and grew as peevish as she; she recovers to new beauty, but he grows colder and colder by possession; love decayed, and ill humour increased: they grew uneasy on both sides, and not a day passed wherein they did not break into open and violent quarrels, upbraiding each other with those faults, which both wished that either would again commit, that they might be fairly rid of one another…”

And from this state of mutual torment they are at long last delivered by a summons to Philander from Cesario: the rebellion of the Huguenots against the king of France is finally to take place…

[Aww, I really thought this would be the last of it. Curse you, Aphra Behn, and your infinitely discussable novel! Just one more piece, that’s all, I swear…]

29/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 5)

“But oh, it is fancy sets the rate on beauty, and he may as well love a third time as he has a second. For in love, those that once break the rules and laws of that deity, set no bounds to their treasons and disobedience. Yes, yes,— He that could leave Myrtilla, the fair, the young, the noble, chaste and fond Myrtilla, what after that may he not do to Sylvia, on whom he has less ties, less obligations? Oh wretched maid—what has thy fondness done…”

Reading Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister today as most of us do read it, via the Virago edition of 1987 (and really, has there ever been a more entirely fitting Virago publication?), the second part tends to feel a bit out of place. Shedding the classic epistolary structure of Part 1, Part 2 presents as a more familiar piece of fiction with a third-person, essentially omniscient narrator; and unlike both other parts, it is almost apolitical, having very little to do with the real events that shape its companions, to the extent that it sometimes feels that Aphra Behn was merely marking time when she wrote it.

However, much of this is artificial. It is important to realise that while today we think of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister as “a novel”, it was never planned or intended to be a unified work, but was written and published as three separate stories. The three volumes were not joined together until 1693, five years after Behn’s death. To do justice to Part 2, it needs to be considered more or less in isolation. It is, in its own right, an important piece of writing.

Although it was published in 1685, this volume must have been written in 1684, as there is no reference in it, not the vaguest allusion, to the momentous events that shook the whole of England in February, 1685: the sudden death of Charles II, and the succession of his brother as James II. No doubt writing quickly to cash in on the success of her first prose venture, Aphra Behn was immediately confronted by a significant problem – namely, that she had no material. Part 1 had ended with the escape of Philander and Sylvia from France, an event paralleling that of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley from England in June of 1683. Lord Grey, at least, would reappear on the public stage in the middle of 1685, but Behn wasn’t to know that. Part 2, therefore, while maintaining the pretence of being “about” Grey and Henrietta, is a work of pure fiction.

The other difficulty for Behn was that, Philander and Sylvia being together, there was no longer any need for them to correspond – at least, not at the outset. Having pioneered the epistolary novel in Part 1, Behn here responded by pioneering another form of novel-writing, one whose greatest ever exponent is probably Anthony Trollope.

Although he never wrote a true epistolary novel,  Trollope possessed an extraordinary facility for exploiting letter-writing in his works, which overflow with full or excerpted correspondence that reveals or conceals, and with acute analyses, in which the characters’ reactions to the letters in question are often juxtaposed with observations, expansive or ironic, made by the narrator. Aphra Behn does something similar here, albeit rather more crudely and tentatively; more than one-half of this novel consists of letters between the characters, which are linked with third-person narration and direct conversation. While via her narrator Behn keeps us fully informed of the characters’ real thoughts and motivations, we see simultaneously their use of letters to deceive, manipulate and misrepresent. There is a real understanding shown here of what Behn, as a political writer, must have known only too well: the gap between what people think and believe, and what they put on paper; what they are, and what they choose to appear.

And that’s probably the only time I’ll ever compare Anthony Trollope to Aphra Behn.

The story that eventually reached the public under the title Love Letters From A Noble Man To His Sister. Mixt With The History Of Their Adventures is as follows: Philander and Sylvia, with Sylvia’s husband of convenience, Brilliard, in tow, flee France for Holland. On the journey, they encounter a young Dutch nobleman, Octavio, with whom they become fast friends, Octavio not realising that Sylvia, still in her boy’s clothes, is a woman. Shortly after their arrival in Holland, Sylvia falls seriously ill, which compels Philander to confide to Octavio not only Sylvia’s secret, but their history. Before Sylvia recovers her health, an agreement between Holland and France compels the former to issue a warrant for Philander’s arrest and deportation, forcing him to fly the country. Philander leaves Sylvia in Octavio’s care; he falls in love with her, but his loyalty to his friend keeps him silent. Meanwhile, the tone of Philander’s letters to Sylvia make her fear that his passion for her is cooling.

She’s right: in Germany, Philander encounters, and instantly falls passionately in love with, Calista, the beautiful and innocent young wife of a Spanish nobleman. While still maintaining his protestations of love to Sylvia, Philander confides the truth to Octavio, who discovers to his horror that the object of Philander’s new pursuit is his own sister. Torn now between his love for Sylvia, his promises to Philander, and his sense that Philander has (albeit unknowingly) freed him from any obligation, Octavio is drawn to reveal Philander’s secret to Sylvia, who begins to plot revenge, with Octavio as her weapon, Meanwhile, Brilliard has also fallen in love with Sylvia, and begins to reflect darkly that he ought to be entitled to a husband’s privilege…

Not having any particular story to tell in this volume, Aphra Behn divides her time here between a serious and rather depressing analysis of women’s place in society, and some elaborate game-playing involving sexual hijinks and gender roles. In the latter respect in particular, this piece of prose has a quite a lot in common with Behn’s plays and poetry. There was a certain sexual ambiguity about Aphra Behn herself, with showed itself most frequently in her poetry (To The Fair Clarinda… being the most obvious example, as we have already seen); while Behn’s only serious love affair was with a known bisexual who was later arrested for committing homosexual acts.

Here, following on from Philander’s adventure while dressed as Sylvia’s maid in Part 1, Sylvia is frequently in drag; and not only is this beautiful women found more beautiful in that guise, she more than once becomes the object of a man’s affection while he believes her to be a man. For example, this  is Octavio, first encountering the young “Fillmond”, as Sylvia calls herself: “He felt a secret joy and pleasure play about his soul, he knew not why, and was almost angry, that he felt such an emotion for a youth, though the most lovely he ever saw…”

And this, too, comes on top of Behn’s descriptions of the growing friendship between Octavio and Philander, which has more than a touch of the homoerotic about it: “Octavio entered with an address so graceful and obliging, that at first sight he inclined Philander’s heart to a friendship with him; and on the other side the lovely person of Philander, the quality that appeared in his face and mien, obliged Octavio to become no less an admirer.” There are passages in this book where it seems that Sylvia is simply the vehicle via which these two men can work out their feelings for one another.

The climax of this volume – and believe me, I wish I could think of an alternative word to use there – is an extended sexual farce of cross-purposes and misidentification. Octavio has received two letters from Philander, one containing a graphic description of his affair with Calista (who is, let me remind you, Octavio’s sister), the other a placating letter to Sylvia intended to keep that particular iron in the fire, just in case. Sylvia begins negotiations for possession of the other letter; a process complicated by the interference of Brilliard who, as part of his own campaign to worm his way into Sylvia’s bed, has begun intercepting Octavio’s letters and sometimes substituting forgeries of his own. Thus, Sylvia is made to believe that Octavio will give up Philander’s incriminating letter in exchange for a night in her bed. She agrees, but plans to substitute her maid, Antonet, who is eager enough for sex with the handsome Octavio. Octavio, growing suspicious, lurks near Sylvia’s house, where (as he thinks) he sees another man being led to Sylvia’s bed. He waits in the darkness, his sword drawn and vengeance in his heart. And Brilliard, determined to make the absolute most of his night with his wife, not only doses himself with Spanish fly, but overdoses…with dire consequences.

As I have said, Part 2 is the closest in spirit of the three to Behn’s non-prose work, and it is easy enough to imagine how this complicated piece of physical comedy would have played out on the stage. At the same time, though, this is the one point in Behn’s short fiction career to date where you can really feel her struggling with the limitations of the form. There are some incoherent aspects to this twisted tale, and Behn is forced at the end to go back over her ground to clear up a couple of points that she must have felt were otherwise just a bit too obscure. Nevertheless, the jaunty sexual humour, in particular Brilliard’s painful comeuppance, is still perfectly enjoyable.

On the other hand, the way in which Behn handles the characters of Sylvia and Calista across this volume and the one following, and their contrasting fates, is not funny at all. Much of Behn’s writing concerned itself with woman’s place, woman’s destiny, and the question of whether a woman could really ever “win”…to which the answer was, in most instances, a dismal “no”. Hindered equally by the nature of her feelings and by society’s rules, the best a woman could hope for, it seems, was the briefest triumph, those moments preceding the sexual surrender. Beyond that point, there lies compromise at best, more often abandonment and despair.

We’ve already lived every second of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, his determination, her doubts and fears. Wrought up by the excitement and danger of their flight, by Sylvia’s masquerade, and even by her illness, the emotions of the two stay at a high pitch until the instant of their enforced separation. When finally off the boat and settled in Holland, they resume their sexual relationship: “It was not hard for the lover to steal into the longing arms of the expecting Sylvia; no fatigues of tedious journeys, and little voyages, had abated her fondness, or his vigour; the night was like the first, all joy! All transport!”

But Sylvia’s serious illness soon interrupts their congress. Calling upon his friends, the concerned Octavio, “…found Philander the most deplorable object that despair and love could render him, who lay eternally weeping on her bed, and no counsel or persuasion could remove him thence; but if by chance they made him sensible it was for her repose, he would depart to ease his mind by new torments, he would rave and tear his delicate hair, sigh and weep upon Octavio’s bosom…”

Likewise, when Philander learns he must leave Holland or be arrested, and Sylvia is too weak to travel: “He sighed and cried,—‘Why—farewell trifling life—if of the two extremes one must be chosen, rather than I’ll abandon Sylvia, I’ll stay and be delivered up a victim to incensed France— It is but a life’…”

Yes, very noble – if that were the end of it: “…’but by my stay I ruin both Sylvia and myself, her life depends on mine… By staying I resign myself poorly to be made a public scorn to France, and the cruel murderer of Sylvia.’ Now, it was after an hundred turns and pauses, intermixed with sighs and ravings, that he resolved for both their safeties to retire…”

We can only admire the depth and sincerity of Philander’s conviction that Sylvia couldn’t possibly survive his own death. Otherwise—well, perhaps we’re not quite as convinced by all this as Octavio is – or, for that matter, as Philander is, whose determination to rave over Sylvia in spite of her need for rest perhaps reminds us just a touch too much of his determination to fight Foscario, despite the betrayal of Sylvia’s secret inherent in that act.

But Philander does not leave Sylvia without certain qualms: “He fancied absence might make her cold, and abate her passion to him; that her powerful beauty might attract adorers, and she being but a woman, and no part angel but her form, ’twas not expected she should want her sex’s frailties…”

A fortnight after all this, Sylvia receives Philander’s first letter from Cologne, and recoils from it in horror:“It is all cold—short—short and cold as a dead winter’s day. It chilled my blood, it shivered every vein… Has thy industrious passion gathered all the sweets, and left the rifled flower to hang its withered head, and die in shades neglected?…”

Meanwhile, we have also Philander’s first letter to Octavio: “Perhaps, my friend, you are wondering now, what this discourse, this odd discovery of my own inconstancy tends to? Then since I cannot better pay you back the secret you had told me of your love, than by another of my own; take this confession from thy friend—I love!—languish! And am dying,—for a new beauty.”

Here, running in parallel with Behn’s caustic view of irregular sexual relations, we have Behn’s even more caustic view of marriage. The object of Philander’s new passion is Calista, the Countess of Clarineau, who was raised from early childhood in a convent in utter seclusion from the world, and then married off to a man some forty years her senior. The Count, a Spaniard, is living in exile in Germany because he murdered his first wife – a detail that apparently bothered Calista’s parents not one whit, while they were negotiating to sell their young and naïve daughter to him.

Indeed, so entirely ignorant and unworldly is Calista, that she takes her first glimpse of the physically beautiful Philander to be a vision – and unfortunately exclaims so in Philander’s hearing, giving him all the ammunition he needs to plot his way into her affections, and then her bed. If Sylvia, raised in and fairly knowledgeable about the world, had no defence against Philander’s strategies, what hope has poor Calista? She falls a willing victim with deadly swiftness.

It is not only the tragic certainty of Calista’s ultimate fate that makes this section of the novel so difficult for the reader, but the fact that we have to hear about all this in Philander’s own words…and after having already suffered through his languishing and dying for Sylvia and, indirectly, his languishing and dying for Myrtilla, this third serving of languishing and dying is very stale leftovers indeed. Mind you— None of this latest dying stops Philander dallying with the housemaid at the inn over the way from the Clarineaus’ house, while he figures out how to get to the guarded Calista.

The fundamental problem, in Aphra Behn’s opinion, is that there is simply no such thing as “a good man”. Octavio is often categorised as such, granted, but that’s mostly because he eventually ends up ranged amongst the novel’s victims. In practice, he’s not all that much different from Philander, his passion for Sylvia being progressively revealed as a purely physical obsession. When Philander’s letter informs him that his own sister is the object of his latest fixation, Octavio is horrified but makes no attempt to warn her. Perhaps a letter couldn’t have reached her in time – but you’d think he might at least make the gesture. Instead, he uses his certainty that Philander will seduce Calista to excuse his breaking of his own promises to Philander, and his pursuit of Sylvia:

“‘Well,’ cried he— ‘If thou be’st lost, Calista, at least thy ruin has laid a foundation for my happiness, and every triumph Philander makes of thy virtue, it the more secures my empire over Sylvia; and since the brother cannot be happy, but by the sister’s being undone, yield thou, O faithless fair one, yield to Philander, and make me blest in Sylvia!'”

Octavio’s fears – or hopes – are confirmed soon enough; and here Behn treats her more prurient readers to a large dose of the kind of erotica that helped to make her first volume so popular (not that I’m accusing you guys of prurience, or anything…):

“I who knew my advantage, lost no time, but put each minute to the properest use; now I embrace, clasp her fair lovely body close to mine, which nothing parted but her shift and gown; my busy hands finds passage to her breasts, and give and take a thousand nameless joys; all but the last I reaped; that heaven was still denied… I soothed the thought, and urged the laws of nature, the power of love, necessity of youth—and the wonder that was yet behind, that ravishing something, which not love or kisses could make her guess at; so beyond all soft imagination, that nothing but a trial could convince her… I dare not tell you more; let it suffice she was all that luxurious man could wish, and all that renders woman fine and ravishing. About two hours thus was my soul in rapture…”

 This is the letter that, at long last, seeing, “…her pain and irresolution, and being absolutely undone with love…”, Octavio delivers up to Sylvia, along with the letter he was directed to give to her in the first place: “…I have met with some affairs since my arrival to this place, that wholly take up my time; affairs of State, whose fatigues have put my heart extremely out of tune…so that I have not an hour in a day to spare for Sylvia; which, believe me, is the greatest affliction of my life…”

“Affairs of State”? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

One of the main threads running through this novel, all three volumes together, is the evolution of Sylvia’s character – particularly in contrast to that of the helplessly feminine Calista. In Aphra Behn’s writing, “good” women usually end up abandoned and alone – or dead. “Bad” women tend to fare a little better, but they pay a terrible price. Here, absorbing Philander’s lessons of deceit, manipulation and concealment, Sylvia gradually grows more and more like him – becomes, as it were, more masculine – while retaining both the female beauty and wiles that make her so dangerous, and the overweening vanity that threatens to destroy her.

Upon reading these letters both sides of her are roused. Octavio, seeing the effect of her reading upon Sylvia, presses his advantage, pleading his passion, Philander’s perfidy, Sylvia’s wounded pride. He offers to wreak vengeance upon Philander on Sylvia’s behalf…and then has the temerity to paint himself as equally Philander’s victim, swearing, “…to go and revenge himself and her on the false friend and lover, and confessed the second motive, which was his sister’s fame, ‘For,’ cried he, ‘that foul adultress, that false Calista, is so allied to me.'”

And Sylvia accepts his offer, swearing in turn that if he will do as he promises, she will marry him…Brilliard being no more than a minor inconvenience, you understand…

And so Part 2 closes, with an accompanying promise from Aphra Behn that, “The third and last part of this history, shall most faithfully relate”, the various fates of all our characters. And so it did…but not for another two-and-a-half years.

[To be continued…]

26/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 4)

“My Sylvia, thou art so dear to me, so wondrous precious to my soul, that in my extravagance of love, I fear I shall grow a troublesome and wearying coxcomb, shall dread every look thou givest away from me—a smile will make me rave, a sigh or touch make me commit a murder on the happy slave, or my own jealous heart, but all the world besides is Sylvia’s, all but another lover; but I rave and run too fast away; ages must pass a tedious term of years before I can be jealous, or conceive thou can’st be weary of Philander…”

And so, her passion overwhelming her judgement, Sylvia invites Philander to her room; and—

Nothing.

There are any number of ways in which we might interpret Philander’s embarrassing sexual failure, most simply that his mouth – or his pen – has been writing cheques that his body can’t cash. We should remember, in this respect, that Restoration writers often used impotence as a code for the presence of venereal disease. It is likely that Behn is covertly telling us here how far we should believe in Philander’s obsessive passion for Sylvia – i.e. not very.

More fittingly in the first true epistolary novel, there is also the sense here that Philander has “written” his passion for Sylvia into existence; that to an extent he has created an imaginary Sylvia with which the real one cannot compete. Repeatedly, Philander’s letters explode into extended fantasies of the joys to be experienced; again and again he speaks of “the irresistible Idea of Sylvia” and of “what I already so much adored in Idea”. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philander finds the reality inadequate to sustain his desire.

Impotence was a recurring motif in Aphra Behn’s writing – possibly her way of dealing with existence in a world where man’s power was essentially limitless, and woman’s essentially non-existent. You can imagine that she got a sour sort of satisfaction out of reminding people that in certain circumstances, the all-powerful male wasn’t quite so all-powerful. Behn’s most remarkable and sustained examination of the subject is her poem, The Disappointment, in which we find a situation very similar to the one implied in Love Letters: a young woman finally brought to the point of surrender, a man unable to perform. The difference is that in her poem, Behn is able to describe the event directly; very directly. Indeed, the subject matter and explicitness of her language resulted in The Disappointment being for some time misattributed to the Earl of Rochester. Behn quietly reappropriated her poem after her friend’s early death.

Philander’s abortive visit to Sylvia’s room presents Behn with her first major challenge as a prose writer. To that point, in the verbal sparring and manoeuvring of her lovers she has been quite at home; but now she must deal with events at which both were present. However, the nature of the contretemps makes it permissable for each of them subsequently to reflect upon it in a letter. Philander’s reaction is an even more than usually extravagant missive that, examined closely, amounts simply to a protracted wail of, This never happened to me before! – while Sylvia, in her shame and humiliation, responds by calling the affair off.

Perversely, the fact that the sexual act did not actually happen frees Behn here to describe the lead-up in deeply erotic terms – in Sylvia’s voice as well as in Philander’s. One of the things that drew so much contemporary criticism upon Aphra Behn was her stubborn insistence upon the reality and the strength of female sexual desire. She was a passionate woman herself, and looked upon women who denied, or refused to act upon, their sexual desires as hypocrites and liars. She says as much here, in Sylvia’s voice, railing against the social conventions that gave women only the choice of admitting their passions and being outcasts, or hiding them and living a life of practised deceit and concealment:

“Ah, what’s a woman’s honour when it is so poorly guarded! No wonder that you conquer with such ease, when we are only safe by the mean arts of dissimulation, an ill as shameful as that to which we fall. Oh silly refuge! What foolish nonsense fond custom can persuade: Yet so it is; and she that breaks her laws, loses her fame, her honour and esteem. Oh heavens! How quickly lost it is! Give me, ye powers, my fame, and let me be a fool; let me retain my virtue and my honour, and be a dull insensible.”

And for all the shocked reaction to it, feigned or otherwise, there is not much doubt that the eroticism of Behn’s language in describing the feelings of Philander and Sylvia here is one of the main reasons her novel remained in print throughout the entire 18th century, long after its political relevance had faded.

Here is Sylvia, reflecting upon her emotions upon Philander entering her room:

“What though I lay extended on my bed, undressed, unapprehensive of my fate, my bosom loose and easy of access, my garments ready, thin and wantonly put on, as if they would with little force submit to the fond straying hand: what then, Philander, must you take advantage?…So faintly and so feebly I upbraided you, as did but more advance your perjuries. Your strength increas’d, but mine alas declin’d; ’till I quite fainted in your arms, left you triumphant lord of all: no more my faint denials do persuade, no more my trembling hands resist your force, unregarded lay the treasure which you toil’d for, betrayed and yielded to the lovely conqueror…”

Philander’s own version of the same moment warrants close inspection. This was, remember, Aphra Behn’s first published prose work. She was still a neophyte at the form; yet consider here the brilliant building tempo of the writing, the physicality of the detail…and the comically abrupt conclusion:

“I saw the ravishing maid as much inflamed as I; she burnt with equal fire, with equal languishment: not all her care could keep the sparks concealed, but it broke out in every word and look; her trembling tongue, her feeble fainting voice betrayed it all; signs interrupting every syllable; a languishment I never saw till then dwelt in her charming eyes, that conradicted all her little vows; her short and double breathings heaved her breast, her swelling snowy breast, her hands that grasped me trembling as they closed, while she permitted mine unknown, unheeded to traverse all her beauties, till quite forgetting all I had faintly promised, and wholly abandoning my soul to joy, I rushed upon her, who, all fainting, lay beneath my useless weight, for on a sudden all my power was fled, swifter than lightning hurried through my enfeebled veins, and vanished all…”

It is, I think, the opening phrase of that quote that cuts to the heart of the matter. I spoke in my previous post about the tendency of this novel to equate love with warfare. This was not an idea unique to Aphra Behn; on the contrary. It was a commonplace at the time that women were to be “conquered”; that a man could not feel desire unless he felt also his own “triumph”, the woman’s “surrender”; and that the end of every affair was inevitable in its beginning, because where there was nothing left to be conquered, there was nothing to desire. The literature of this time, and indeed for several decades afterwards, is full of disturbing “seduction” scenes that are half an inch off being rape – and sometimes not that far.

Philander’s language in his letters reflects this convention. He dwells with pleasure upon his own capacity for violence, the idea that one day he will no longer treat Sylvia with “respect or Awe”, but sweep aside her hesitations and fears and, “…force my self with all the violence of raging Love…and Ravish my delight.” Even the inexperienced Sylvia uses the same sort of language, referring to Philander, as we have seen, as “triumphant lord” and “the lovely conqueror”. In her letter after the event, the mortified Sylvia assumes that Philander’s failure was her fault, while the real problem was not that she was insufficiently desirable, but too openly desiring. Met with a passion equal to his own, Philander retreats.

But Aphra Behn is not yet done humiliating her anti-hero. Worried that he has been spotted on his way to Sylvia’s room, upon making his escape Philander takes the precaution of disguising himself as Sylvia’s maid, Melinda. What he doesn’t remember, however, is that Sylvia’s father has designs upon the girl; and on his way through the grove of trees leading to the back gate of the property, “Melinda” is cornered by Count Bertoli and made a proposition of the most unmistakable nature:

“I replied as before—‘I am no whore, sir’—‘No,’ cries he, ‘but I can quickly make thee one, I have my tools about me, sweet-heart; therefore let us lose no time, but fall to work… Come, come, Melinda, why all this foolish argument at this hour and in this place, and after so much serious courtship; believe me, I’ll be kind to thee for ever;’ with that he clapped fifty guineas in a purse into one hand, and something else that shall be nameless into the other, presents that had been both worth Melinda’s acceptance…”

And Sylvia, too, suffers a further humiliation, but of a very different nature. To this point the story has been told essentially in two voices, but now a third intrudes, as Sylvia receives a letter from her sister, Myrtilla – Philander’s wife. We learn that Myrtilla is only too aware of the situation, but hoping for the best has held her tongue, keeping the secret from her parents. Seeing, however, that Sylvia is teetering on the brink of ruin, Myrtilla tries to pull her back from the edge, speaking, as she assures Sylvia, out of pity, not anger.

Myrtilla’s arguments are three-fold: the threat to Sylvia’s, and thus her family’s, honour; the unusual horror, as she phrases it, of it being Sylvia’s brother who pursues her; and finally, that Sylvia cannot trust Philander. It is the first two arguments that work upon Sylvia; the third that speaks to the reader, above all Myrtilla’s sad reflection that everything Philander is now saying and promising Sylvia, he once said and promised to her; that this desperate love-pursuit is nothing more to him than an elaborate game:

“He once thought me as lovely, lay at my feet, and sighed away his soul, and told such piteous stories of his sufferings, such sad, such mournful tales of his departed rest, his broken heart and everlasting love, that sure I thought it had been a sin not to have credited his charming perjuries; in such a way he swore, with such a grace he sighed, so artfully he moved, so tenderly he looked. Alas, dear child, then all he said was new, never told before, now it is a beaten road…love at second hand, worn out, and all its gaudy lustre tarnished…”

So accurate is this that it strikes the reader as equally comic and sickening: “piteous stories of his sufferings” are indeed Philander’s stock-in-trade, always dying for love yet always in perfect health. Significantly, too, there is no hint, no consciousness, in this letter of Myrtilla’s own supposed infidelities; and in spite of the insistence in the preface of Myrtilla’s affair with Cesario, we remember the contention by some that the rumoured affair between Lady Mary Grey and the Duke of Monmouth was merely a story invented by Lord Grey to give himself an excuse and an opportunity.

Shamed by this letter, yet not taking its truth to heart, Sylvia once again tells Philander, and far more definitely, that all is over; although she does not reveal to him the reason. Sylvia has a suitor, Foscario, who is approved by her parents; and seeing him leave the house in good spirits in the wake of his own receipt of Sylvia’s letter of renunciation, Philander chooses to believe that Sylvia has bestowed her hand upon his rival. He later sends Sylvia an account of his subsequent agonies, his contemplation of suicide—and his substitution of murder for suicide, confronting Foscario with his sword drawn; his need to dramatise himself, we note, infinitely outweighing his obligation to keep Sylvia’s secret.

Sylvia, however, does not see Philander’s essential selfishness, but only his danger, and his jealousy. Her need to reassure him of her love supersedes all else – including her loyalty to her sister. On the second attempt, there is no failure. We can readily believe that after the previous embarrassment, Philander found himself confronting a Sylvia who was far more shy, more shrinking, more uncertain; more desirable; more conquerable.

The concluding section of this tale gives us an oddly compressed version of reality. For one thing, Behn makes little use in her story of the arrest and trial of Lord Grey for his “debauching” of his sister-in-law; but as full transcripts of the trial were printed and devoured by the public, she may have felt that there was no point in re-working it too extensively. Moreover, as we may remember, the affair between Grey and Henrietta Berkeley was carried on for a year before discovery; here, the lovers are discovered almost immediately – and I mean, immediately: we can only cringe as Count Bertoli forces his way into his daughter’s room before she’s even had a chance to rearrange the bedclothes. (Which is to say, she stopped to write a letter first.) We learn that, ironically, it is the realisation that Melinda doesn’t understand his reproaches that alerts Bertoli to the fact that an outsider has been on the premises; an intercepted letter does the rest. Sylvia is jointly confronted by her father, her mother, and her sister, and her doom pronounced: she must marry Foscario at once, to cover her guilt.

It is this that provokes the elopement of the lovers – and while Aphra Behn didn’t feel compelled to exploit Lord Grey’s trial, the gossip about Henrietta making her escape in only her nightclothes is another matter. The elopement goes wrong, and Philander is not at the appointed place. Sylvia must trust herself to his manservant, Brilliard – the story’s substitute for William Turner, who Sylvia will shortly marry under Philander’s persuasion. Reaching Paris (remember, this is supposed to be taking place in France), Sylvia writes a letter of mingled panic and reproach to Philander, describing herself as, “…undressed…even to my under-petticoat and night-gown” and “…almost naked” – and which she signs off with the declaration, Paris, Thursday, from my bed, for want of clothes…

And where is Philander? In all sorts of trouble. He arrives at the rendezvous late, to find the carriage containing Sylvia and Brilliard gone. In fact, frightened at the delay and the likelihood of being caught, Sylvia has insisted that the carriage start for Paris, but Philander concludes that she has been found out and carried back to her home. Spying out the land there, he sees Foscario – on what he believes to be the eve of his wedding – and forces on him a second duel, in which both men are wounded. Unable to be moved from the inn to which he is carried, Philander falls prey to Count Bertoli. His next letter to Sylvia is written from the Bastille:

“I am, my Sylvia, arrested at the suit of Monsieur the Count, your father, for a rape on my lovely maid: I desire, my soul, you will immediately take coach and go to see the Prince Cesario, and he will bail me out…”

This is the first serious mention of Cesario for some time, and signals the novel’s belated return to politics. First, however, there is a flurry of action. Cesario does as Sylvia asks, warning both parties that a desperate search for the girl is under way. It is this that prompts Philander to insist upon Sylvia and Brilliard’s marriage. We get a sudden outburst here from Aphra Behn, speaking through Sylvia, against the ugly realities of “interested” marriage in the late 17th century; in particular the common situation of a young girl being sold to a rich old man: an arrangement repeatedly excoriated in Behn’s writing, along with the idea that such a union could be considered “holy”—

“Were I in height of youth, as now I am, forced by my parents, obliged by interest and honour, to marry the old, deformed, diseased, decrepit Count Anthonio…and rather than suffer him to consummate his nuptials, suppose I should (as sure I should) kill myself, it were blasphemy to lay this fatal marriage to heaven’s charge—curse on your nonsense, ye imposing gownmen, curse on your holy cant; you may as well call rapes and murders, treason and robbery, the acts of heaven; because heaven suffers them to be committed.”

But even as Philander and Sylvia discuss how they may meet again, another disaster strikes: “Riding full-speed for Paris, I was met, stopped, and seized for high-treason by the King’s messengers, and possibly may fall a sacrifice to the anger of an incensed monarch…”

However, as Lord Grey escaped the Tower of London via the power of his money, so too does Philander escape on his way back to the Bastille: “I resolved to kill, if I could no other way oblige him to favour my escape; I tried with gold before I shewed him my dagger, and that prevailed…” There is a brief reflection on the possible fate of Cesario (Monmouth, we know, was allowed to escape after the exposure of the Rye House Plot, while his co-conspirators died for the same guilt), and then plans for a reunion. Again, as Lord Grey after his escape risked recapture to meet and flee the country with Henrietta Berkeley, so too Philander:

“I wait for Sylvia; and though my life depend upon my flight, nay, more, the life of Sylvia, I cannot go without her; dress yourself then, my dearest, in your boy’s clothes, and haste with Brilliard, whither this seaman will conduct thee, whom I have hired to set us on some shore of safety…”

So closes what Aphra Behn originally intended as her whole story, that of the affair, the arrest, the treason and the flight. It was as much as anyone knew of Lord Grey and Henrietta Berkeley, who hid themselves for two years after their escape from England. But as we now know, it wasn’t the end. Behn’s story, published anonymously, was a great success; and indeed, would be reissued at least a dozen times before the end of the century. Meanwhile, the literary climate of 1684 hadn’t changed: plays were still unwanted, and Aphra Behn still had to eat.

And, after all, I suppose it’s only fair that, having invented the modern novel, Aphra Behn should also invent the modern novel’s most frequent consequence: the cash-in sequel.

[To be continued…]

 

21/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 3)

“Let us, oh let us, my brother, sit down here, and pursue the crime of loving on no farther. Call me sister—swear I am so, and nothing but your sister: and forbear, oh forbear, my charming brother, to pursue me farther with your soft bewitching passion; let me alone, let me be ruin’d with honour, if I must be ruin’d.—For oh! ’twere much happier I were no more, than that I should be more than Philander’s sister; or he than Sylvia’s brother: oh let me ever call you by that cold name, ’till that of lover be forgotten.”

On top of publishing anonymously and resorting to the roman à clef format, the opening of Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister finds Aphra Behn providing for herself a third layer of protection against the possible consequences of her tale of sex and politics: the age-old pretence of the “found manuscript”. The volume’s preface asserts that the letters were discovered, “…in their cabinets, at their house at St Denis, where they both lived together, for the space of a year; and they are as exactly as possible placed in the order they were sent.”

The preface also spells out for us the nature of the roman à clef. The story is set during the Fronde, the French civil war that took place in the middle of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 – 1659. The Fronde had two phases, and it is the second, the Fronde des nobles, with which we are concerned: “The time of the rebellion of the true Protestant Huguenot in Paris, under the conduct of the Prince of Condé (whom we will call Cesario)…”

The preface then goes on to give us a sketch of one of Cesario’s followers, a young man given the sobriquet Philander, who achieved notoriety by eloping with Sylvia, the sister of his wife, Myrtilla. In this version of events, Myrtilla is not only Cesario’s mistress, but was in love with him at the time she married Philander, which she did purely for interest’s sake. We hear of Philander’s pursuit of Sylvia, their affair, its discovery and their flight. We hear also that, as a consequence of his involvement with Cesario, Philander was one of the rebels defeated by the king’s forces; that he was imprisoned, but escaped; and that he then fled the country in Sylvia’s company.

It is unlikely that anyone in England reading this far could fail to guess the true identities of the major players of this tale. Whether they believed that the letters were actually real is debatable, but either way, they could be certain that a scandalous story was to follow.

A word about the names here. All of the characters are given pastoral pseudonyms in place of their “real” (that is, fictional) names, which was a common practice at the time in both literature and literary circles, a hangover from the days of the classical romance. These days we might be inclined to snicker at our anti-hero’s name – what, we’re supposed to be surprised that someone called “Philander” behaves like this? – but in fact, it is because of the success of this tale that the word “philander” took on its modern meaning, “to behave like Philander” eventually becoming simply “to philander”. And there is a second word in this book that Aphra Behn, not invented, but helped to entrench in common parlance; but we’ll deal with that later on.

When the story opens, Philander and Sylvia have admitted their feelings for one another, and immediately, we see how skilfully Aphra Behn builds upon her model, the Lettres Portugueses. In place of the single voice, here we have two; and the reader is invited to decode the language of each to get at the motives beyond. Sylvia is understandably torn, her passionate desire for Philander at odds with her fear of discovery, the thought of her lost honour, the shame that she would bring upon her parents should the affair be discovered, and above all her consciousness that she would be betraying her own sister. Meanwhile, despite the increasing extravagence of Philander’s language, the reader is able to see what the inexperienced Sylvia cannot, the selfish single-mindedness of his passion. She vacillates, thinking of others; he relentlessly pursues his aim.

To contemporary readers, the language of Love Letters is frequently overripe and hard to swallow; but it is important to realise that it is an accurate reflection of its time, when verbal flamboyance was commonly used to disguise brutal reality, like putting a clean dress on a dirty body. So it is throughout this book, as it becomes dismayingly apparent that for all the pleading and the protestation, all the agonies and desperation, all the languishing and dying, there is nothing in this story that we might in modern usage call “love”; not a moment when it is ever about anything other than sex. And the more apparent that becomes, the less willing are the characters to admit it – and the more excessive becomes the language.

Furthermore, increasingly over the length of the story, there is a tendency to parallel the relations between man and woman with warfare: by the end, the phrase “the battle of the sexes” is barely even a metaphor. This is, undoubtedly, Aphra Behn’s own view of her world; and to a large extent the subsequent volumes of Love Letters are questioning whether in such a world it is ever possible that the woman might be victorious, or whether she must inevitably be conquered…and then ransacked and abandoned. Anything other than defeat for one party or the other is, however, quite out the question: it is destroy or be destroyed.

Language, then, is not so much a means of communication as on one hand a weapon, on the other a form of disguise. Philander, clearly, has already learned the power of the word before he turns his batteries upon Sylvia. In their exchange of letters, her language grows more and more like his, more heated, more exaggerated: words become a substitute for sex. Increasingly, Sylvia uses in her letters the words “brother” and “sister”, ostensibly to kill their mutual passion, in fact because the forbidden nature of the relationship adds to its fire. Consciously or unconsciously, Sylvia has absorbed Philander’s lesson: how to use language to conceal an ugly truth.

Having established the nature of her characters’ passion, it is then time for Aphra Behn to move onto politics. We must remember that the story’s “rebellion of the Hugenots” is a cover for the events leading up to the Rye House Plot. As in reality, Philander and Sylvia are on opposite sides of the political divide. Sylvia’s family is loyal to the throne, while Philander has thrown in his lot with Cesario in his intended revolt against his father, the king. It is Sylvia who broaches the subject in their letters, first uttering the standard female grievance that while she thinks of nothing but him, she knows that for all his protestations, Philander often has things other than love on his mind. From an early warning about the danger to his life if he persists in following Cesario, she initiates a frank political debate, demanding to know on what grounds the rebels are taking action?—

“What is it, oh my charming brother then, that you set up for? Is it glory? Oh mistaken, lovely youth, that glory is but a glittering light, that flashes for a moment, and then disappears; it is a false bravery, that will bring an eternal blemish upon your honest fame and house; render your honourable name hated, detested and abominable in story to after ages; a traitor!”

Like Aphra Behn, Sylvia is a royalist; and like Behn again, there is an oddly sexual aspect to her devotion to her monarch: “I swear to you, Philander, I never approach his sacred person, but my heart beats, my blood runs cold about me, and my eyes overflow with tears of joy, while an awful confusion seizes me all over.”

However, Behn’s insistence upon the physical glamour of the Stuarts is far easier to take than her subsequent attempt forcibly to remodel Charles to fit the royalist vision of what a divinely-annointed monarch should be. In the literature of the time, we’ve seen any number of hilariously inaccurate descriptions of Charles by Tory writers, and Aphra Behn’s is among the most extreme; and when you consider that she probably had James as much as Charles in her mind when she wrote it, it becomes even more ludicrous:

“What has the King, our good, our gracious monarch, done to Philander?… But all his life has been one continued miracle; all good, all gracious, calm and merciful: and this good, this god-like King… His eyes have something so fierce, so majestic, commanding, and yet so good and merciful, as would soften rebellion itself into repenting loyalty… Oh! what pity it is, unhappy young man, thy education was not near the King!”

Sylvia here launches into a lengthy reproof of Philander’s intentions, and indeed his political principles – or the lack thereof. She should have heeded her own words: from the Tory perspective, as a man was in his politics, so he was in his personal life. Philander’s willingness to betray his king should have been a clear warning to Sylvia that he was not otherwise to be trusted. Sylvia’s speech here hits all the major heads of Tory attacks upon the Whigs: that their protests against “absolutism” and their claim to be acting “for the good of the people” were nothing more than a shoddy excuse for their own selfish actions; that their motives were pure self-interest and the hope of self-aggrandisement; that to oppose the will of the king was to be guilty of treason.

In all this, Philander is the very model of a Whig, particularly in his willingness to align himself with Cesario in spite of being cuckolded by him: to a Whig, we understand, lost honour is a minor consideration beside the opportunity for personal advancement. Philander admits openly that he has no respect for Cesario, and indeed, nothing but scorn for “the rabble”, in whose name he is supposed to be acting; and that it is entirely of himself that he is thinking. In doing so, he highlights one of the major debating points of the day: if it were possible to interfere with the natural line of succession (as the Whigs tried to do during the Exclusion Crisis); if it was acceptable to substitute one king for another, to, in effect, elect a king; if being king was not a matter of Divine Will, but of the strongest arm— When no man had a right to be king, then any man had the right to be king. It was the Tories’ worst nightmare.

And this is exactly Philander’s intention. He is merely using Cesario to jockey himself into a position of power. However dangerous the rebellion, however slim the chances of victory, if the rebels do prevail, why should not Philander be king?—“When three kingdoms shall lie unpossess’d…who knows but the chance may be mine… If the strongest sword must do it, (as that must do it) why not mine still? Why may not mine be that fortunate one? Cesario has no more right to it than Philander…”

Aphra Behn’s presentation of the Duke of Monmouth in this story, in the guise of Cesario, is marked by a venomous contempt for his ambition, his ingratitude to his father (and uncle) and above all his stupidity. At the same time, there is a certain disingenuity about Behn’s telling of the story, inasmuch as the religious division at the root of the crisis goes unacknowledged: the rebellion here is unmotivated by anything but greed. However, she is right in her assertion that while Monmouth supposedly had “followers” in his attempt to dislodge the Duke of York from the succession, what he really had were users: that he was never anything more to the Exclusionists than a means to an end.

Piling on the abuse, Behn first lets Sylvia loose upon the character of Cesario: here is Monmouth as seen by the Tories, his attraction for the Exclusionists laid bare—

“What is it bewitches you so? Is it his beauty? Then Philander has a greater title than Cesario; and not one other merit has he, since in piety, chastity, sobriety, charity and honour, he as little excels, as in gratitude, obedience and loyalty. What then, my dear Philander? Is it his weakness? Ah, there’s the argument you all propose, and think to govern so soft a king: but believe me, oh unhappy Philander! Nothing is more ungovernable than a fool; nothing more obstinate, wilful, conceited, and cunning…”

Not only does Philander not dispute this summation, he has a worse opinion of Cesario than Sylvia; and if this is how his “followers” feel, how must the rest of the country despise him?—

“They use him for a tool to work with, he being the only great man that wants sense enough to find out the cheat which they dare impose upon. Can any body of reason believe, if they had design’d him good, they would let him bare-fac’d have own’d a party so opposite to all laws of nature, religion, humanity, and common gratitude?… The world knows Cesario renders himself the worst of criminals by it, and has abandon’d an interest more glorious and easy than empire, to side with and aid people that never did, or ever can oblige him; and he is so dull as to imagine that for his sake, who never did us service or good, (unless cuckolding us be good) we should venture life and fame to pull down a true monarch, to set up his bastard over us.”

This political debate is merely an interlude, however, and soon Philander is ramping up his attempt to manoeuvre himself into Sylvia’s bed, using the fact that he has confided his secret, and therefore his life, to her as a measure of his love. At this point, Sylvia’s own desire is almost beyond restraint, except that she is haunted by the thought of her sister: “Myrtilla, my sister, and Philander’s wife? Oh God! that cruel thought will put me into ravings…”

These exclamations form part of one of the story’s most remarkable letters, in which Sylvia’s attempt to wean herself from her passion by harping on the marriage evolves into a tirade against the sister who is unable to appreciate what she has, which in turn becomes an erotic fantasy in which Sylvia dwells upon Philander’s physical perfections – only to conclude abruptly with the bitter realisation that Philander did not marry Myrtilla under compulsion, or for money or position, but for love.

Sylvia then tears up the letter…but Philander receives it anyway, delivered in pieces by Sylvia’s maid and confidante, Melinda, who brings also a warning that Syvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—

“My heart beats still, and heaves with the sensible remains of the late dangerous tempest of my mind, and nothing can absolutely calm me but the approach of the all-powerful Philander… Bring me then that kind cessation, bring me my Philander, and set me above the thoughts of cares, frights, or any other thoughts but those of tender love; haste then, thou charming object of my eternal wishes, and of my new desires; haste to my arms, my eyes, my soul,—but oh, be wondrous careful there, do not betray the easy maid that trusts thee amidst all her sacred store…”

[To be continued…]