Posts tagged ‘roman a clef’

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 Sylvia’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…]

 

13/01/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 1)


 
“The play had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play. Nor does it’s loss of Fame with the Ladies do it much hurt, though they ought to have had good Nature and justice enough to have attributed all its faults to the authours unhappiness, who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”
— Aphra Behn (1678)

“There are strong marks of Genius in all this lady’s works, but unhappily, there are some parts of them, very improper to be read by, or recommended to virtuous minds, and especially to youth. She wrote in an age, and to a court of licentious manners, and perhaps we ought to ascribe to those causes the loose turn of her stories. Let us do justice to her merits, and cast the veil of compassion over her faults.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

“Mrs Behn wrote foully; and this for most of us, and very properly, is an end of the whole discussion.”
— William Henry Hudson (1867)
 
“We cannot but admire the courage of this lonely woman who, poor and friendless, was the first in England to turn to the pen for her livelihood, and not only won herself bread but no mean position in the world of her day and English literature of all time.”
— Montague Summers (1915)

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
— Virginia Woolf (1928)

“Without a knowledge of Aphra Behn’s work our conception of English literary history is incomplete. Her place can’t be filled by anyone else. There remains quite simply a gap and, without Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister in particular, we are led to suppose that the eighteenth-century novel sprang unmothered from the thigh of Robinson Crusoe.”
— Maureen Duffy (1986)

There are, of course, any number of quotes I could have used to illustrate the changing fortunes of Aphra Behn, but these for one reason or another caught my eye. Clara Reeve encapsulates for us the growing divide between Behn’s writing and her reputation, while speaking late in the 19th century, William Henry Hudson gives us Behn at her nadir, her writing so “foul” neither it nor she warrants discussion. It was Montague Summers via his study of Restoration drama who began to rehabilitate Behn’s reputation, but although he edited and reissued her works, he seems like Virginia Woolf to have been as interested in the woman as in the writer. Indeed, for Woolf, all that really mattered was Behn’s position as a professional female writer: what she wrote was far less important than the fact that she wrote at all.

Half a century later, Behn had become a powerful symbol for feminist academia, a rebuttal to the entrenched male-centric view of the evolution of the novel, with its mulish insistence upon Defoe or Richardson or Fielding as “the” father of the novel. (Maureen Duffy’s choice of the tart term “unmothered” speaks for itself.) Today, so charged is the idea of Aphra Behn that there is occasionally some difficulty in shifting the mounds of baggage to one side, in order look at her writing upon its own merits.

I stress, “shift”, not “dispose of”: we certainly do not want to lose sight of the historical importance of Aphra Behn, whose self-carved career was quite unique, and whose belated foray into fiction would prove enormously influential in the direction taken by subsequent English prose writers. Although Behn had few if any role models, she would be an inspiration for two succeeding generations of female writers, poets and novelists in particular; until the tightening morals of the 17th century made Behn and her followers personae non gratae; and even then, when she herself became almost literally unmentionable, Behn’s writing continued to exert its influence.

I don’t intend here to get into Aphra Behn’s biography: that job’s been done, and done well. Janet Todd’s comprehensive work was preceded by Maureen Duffy’s breakthrough 1977 study, The Passionate Shepherdess, and by Angeline Goreau’s Reconstructing Aphra, from 1980; while numerous other works discuss her life and works. Instead, we’ll be confining ourselves to the historical, social and literary forces that prompted Behn, a poet by choice and a playwright by need, to begin writing fiction.

When Charles II reopened the London theatres at the beginning of the Restoration, two dramatic companies divided the audience and the spoils: the King’s Company, which produced predominantly established plays; and the Duke’s company, which focused upon new works. Naturally, it was to the latter that Aphra Behn attached herself in the late 1660s. Her first play staged was The Forc’d Marriage, produced in 1670. From there, Behn had regular successes for over a decade – mixed with a few failures – while she also gained a reputation as a poet and expanded her circle of literary and artistic acquaintances. At the same time, the personal attacks upon her gained force and virulence, and Behn expended much energy in (largely justifiable) complaints that she was condemned for “immorality” for material that, had it been written by a man, would have passed without comment. Throughout her writing career, there was an ambivalence about Aphra Behn’s attitude to her own professional standing that showed itself in her need to prove that she could “mix it with the boys”, while remaining acutely sensitive to, and desiring recognition for, her position as a female writer.

Behn’s social origins are murky at best, but it does not seem that she could have been more than middle-class by birth, and was very likely less. Throughout her personal and professional life she exhibited royalist / Tory tendencies combined with a healthy contempt for “the mob”: a stance that probably reflected her simultaneous effort to distance herself from an unsatisfactory past while, in effect, writing herself into a new existence. It was certainly also part of an attempt to get a foot in the door at court. Behn never did quite manage this, although she became a friend and collaborator of the Earl of Rochester, and was much admired by John Dryden. She had no particular religious feeling; her adherence to monarchy had nothing “divine” about it; she believed, rather, in the desirability of a central authority. However, as with many royalists of the time, we imagine, Behn’s theories about monarchy had to survive the reality of Charles; particularly in the wake of her unhappy experiences as an agent for his government.

Behn’s most successful play was The Rover, first produced in 1677. It became a favourite not just with London audiences in general, but at court – and particularly with the Duke of York, who met with Behn after seeing it and praised her work. This encounter seems to have left Behn quite star-struck, and it is from this time that we can date her increased willingness to take a political stance in her writing. Two of Behn’s more successful plays from this period, 1681’s The Roundheads and 1682’s The City Heiress, support royalism and the legitimate monarchy, which as so often in the Tory works of this time is presented as ludicrously virtuous, while suggesting that interference with natural succession and other Whiggish notions will inevitably lead to disaster. The former went so far as to equate the Exclusionists with the rebels of the 1640s.

It is important to realise, however, that over the course of the turbulent decade following the “revelation” of the Popish Plot, and in particular through the events of the Exclusion Crisis, Behn’s primary loyalty was not to Charles, but to James. This explains her increasing hostility towards the Duke of Monmouth – which, however James might have felt about it, Charles certainly did not appreciate. Behn’s new political persona saw her invited to write the prologue and epilogue for a play called Romulus And Hersilia, and in the wake of the dismissal of the charges of high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury, she let rip. Her prologue attacked the Whigs in general, while her epilogue focused on Monmouth. As a consequence, both Behn and the actress speaking the lines were arrested and asked to “show cause”. There were no further consequences, however, so presumably Charles meant nothing more than to give Behn a good dissuasive scare. It didn’t entirely work, as we shall see, but it did make her change her tactics.

This turn of events is often given as the reason Aphra Behn as good as stopped writing plays, but in fact the political situation that gave Behn her last dramatic successes was about to overwhelm her career. Audiences that had flocked to the theatre in the early Restoration to celebrate the depoliciticising of entertainment began to dwindle in the late 1670s as religious and political division again became rife. During this period, the King’s Company was also mismanaged; and in 1682, a decision was made to merge the King’s and the Duke’s into the single United Company, with the former management of the Duke’s in charge. Despite this, probably for pragmatic reasons, the new company adopted the King’s philosophy of staging predominantly classic and established plays. Very few new plays were commissioned, and a great many playwrights, Aphra Behn among them, were left with little prospect of being able to earn their living in that direction. As a fulltime professional, Behn had little choice but to look for alternative sources of revenue. The poetry she had always favoured was not very remunerative, and nor were translations, but she worked at both of these. Another possibility was fiction.

Behn was a reader as well as a writer, of European texts as well as English. She was familiar with the market and knew that, in fiction as in drama, sex sold. The apolitical plays she staged prior to The Roundheads had failed: people wanted political material. Yet political material could be dangerous, even if favouring the “right” side, as Behn had learned the hard way.

Behn’s literary solution to her dilemma was nothing short of a stroke of genius, one which drew heavily upon existing forms and texts yet created an identity all of its own. Published letters were an established genre even before the success of The Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, which were translated into English in 1678. Whether real or fictional, these impassioned letters, focused upon the emotions of the writer to the exclusion of all else, were a literary revelation. Behn took her cue from them but went them one better, using letters to show both sides of an illicit love affair. In doing so she created a new form of fiction, the epistolary novel, which would dominate English prose writing throughout the 18th century.

But Behn didn’t stop there. Melded with the story told via letters, which provided the reader with plenty of sex, is a healthy dose of politics. In this, Behn resorted to the use of another established literary form, the roman à clef. In the 16th and much of the 17th century, this “disguised” form of writing was a means of examining great issues: of analysing, and criticising, nations, governments, peoples, mores; but as the 17th century wore on this form became increasingly a means of expressing a particular political viewpoint, or criticising a particular person – or exploiting a particular scandal – and of doing so more or less with impunity.

While many of these romans à clef strike us today as ludicrously transparent, as well as outrageous in content, there was apparently some kind of arrangement in place, at least a tacit one, that protected the booksellers and authors responsible for these works from legal repercussions, as long as all concerned adhered to the convention of pretending they were talking about “somewhere else”. During the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis in particular, as we have seen, in this way the most incredible accusations were thrown variously at the king and his court (and his brother), and at the enemies of the king and his court (and his brother), apparently without consequence.

And again, Aphra Behn took note. She was nervous about her new venture – which would finally be published anonymously, just in case – and the prospect of being somehow “protected” by employing a particular form of writing was naturally attractive. Behn’s work would eventually stretch to three volumes, of which only the first is in the classic epistolary form; but in its entirety, it is a roman à clef, the re-telling of a story that had scandalised the whole of England through the years 1682 – 1683, and which (no doubt to Behn’s eventual delight) would erupt again in 1685. As material for her first published attempt at prose, the story must have seemed to Behn almost too good to be true, offering illicit – and illegal – sex, outrageous doings amongst the aristocracy, and the opportunity to launch a scathing attack upon the enemies of the Stuart monarchy. Early in 1684, Aphra Behn published the first part of what is now widely regarded as the first true “modern” novel, Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister.

[To be continued…]

 

29/11/2010

The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince


 
The Faction, amongst the many Instances they have so frequently given of their Spleen and Hatred to the Government, hardly ever showed their Malice more in any one particular, than in the Business of the Black Box, which furnish’d a Pretext to a Libel, call’d The Perplex’d Prince; which, tho’ but poorly writ, yet the malignity of the Design being to poyson Peoples Minds with an Opinion of some Probability and Truth in this Matter. It was thought fit in Return, to shew the World one of their Principal Heroes, in his true Colours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So – the Earl of Shaftesbury. We really do need to consider the Earl of Shaftesbury before we consider the Exclusion Crisis, and we really need to consider the Exclusion Crisis before we consider The Fugitive Statesman. Such is the nature of the literature of the late 17th century.

Briefly, then (or as briefly as I can manage), Anthony Ashley Cooper was a major political figure throughout the Interregnum and the reign of Charles II. He was a member of the Convention Parliament, which agreed that monarchy should be restored, and for the first years of Charles’ reign he was a strong supporter of the king. During this time he was in great favour with Charles, being created Earl of Shaftesbury and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Lord Chancellor of England.

However, a rift eventually began to grow between the two over the question of the succession. In 1669, Shaftesbury was amongst those who urged Charles to dissolve his fruitless marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Nothing came of this at the time, but in 1673 the Parliament passed the Test Act, under which all those holding military or civil office were required to take Anglican communion every year, and to renounce Catholic doctrine. There had been rumours about James’s conversion to Catholicism for years (he had in fact converted in 1667), and a month after the passing of the Test Act, he failed to take the Easter communion. Six months after that, he married Mary of Modena.

Until that moment, the question of James’s own religion was tempered by the fact that his daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, were Protestants; but now there was the threat of a Catholic prince. Shaftesbury and others again urged Charles to dispense with Catherine and remarry, and a motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning James’s marriage. This was the beginning of Shaftesbury’s fall from grace at court, and his emergence as a leader of a new political party that (after a flurry of mutual name-calling) would eventually be known as the Whigs.

The question of the succession and the role of Parliament under monarchy were two of the dominant issues that defined this new Opposition, and throughout the 1670s a series of bitter political battles was fought on both these fronts, with Charles repeatedly proroguing or dissolving Parliament in order to stop the passage of bills. During this time, various attempts made either to exclude James from the succession, or to impose conditions upon it, such as demanding that his children be raised Protestant.

In the middle of 1678, the Popish Plot broke, bringing the already prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to a new fever pitch. Shaftesbury was active in the ensuing investigations, and began to win a reputation amongst the English people as a defender of the Protestant faith. Over the following years he campaigned vigorously for James’s exclusion and the legitimising of Monmouth, who had begun to agitate on his own behalf – and was sent into exile by his father for his pains. Shaftesbury also tried to have the Duke of York indicted as a recusant, and while he failed at that, he did succeed in convincing Monmouth to return to England, where his arrival was greeted with widespread celebration by the general population.

However, all of the measures taken to remove James and secure Monmouth’s position eventually came to nothing. The final blow for the Exclusionists was the dissolution of the so-called Oxford Parliament of 1681 – the last Parliament of Charles’s reign. In the wake of this, Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with high treason. He was subsequently acquitted, courtesy of a combination of weak evidence and a stacked jury, but his days were numbered. During 1682, Shaftesbury put much effort into urging an open rebellion led by Monmouth, but when this failed he fled England for Amsterdam, where he died in December of that year.

It is not difficult to understand why much of the literature of this time is highly political in nature. Supporters of both factions took advantage of a comparative freedom of the presses to sway the reading populace to their cause. In terms of the quality of these productions, however, Dryden’s Absalom And Architophel is an extreme exception: most of them are political to the exclusion of literary merit. We’ve met one example already, in the form of The Perplex’d Prince, which was published at a time when the Popish Plot’s chief instigator, Titus Oates, had been exposed as a perjurer (although not charged or convicted) and expelled from Whitehall, and yet matter-of-factly asserts the reality of the Plot and openly accuses James of trying to murder his brother. And on the other side of the political fence we find the self-explanatory The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince, which was published in 1683.

In requital is almost understating things. The Fugitive Statesman copies its inspiration’s use of the roman à clef, and produces a one-sided account of the Exclusion Crisis in which all of the characters are given fictitious identities; fictitious identities with which we are already quite familiar – as by this time were many of England’s readers. In short, The Fugitive Statesman steals the metaphorical language of John Dryden: the English people are the Jews, Charles is David, Monmouth is Absalom, Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the Catholics are the Jebusites, and so on.

It also steals pieces of Dryden’s poetry and twists them into prose. For example, Achitopel working on Absalom’s ambitions and ego – “Not that your father’s mildness I contemn; But manly force becomes the diadem” – is turned into, “Not that David’s Gentle Temper is to be despised, but it is a greater Virtue in a private Person, or an Ecclesiastick than a Soveraign, and a Masculine Soul is certainly fitter for a Throne.” And there are many more instances of this kind of thing. Whether the passing reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince put this approach into the author’s mind, whether it was intended as a tribute to Dryden, or whether it was a shameless attempt to ride the coattails of Dryden’s success, I really couldn’t say – although my money’s on the latter.

Reading The Fugitive Statesman is rather a chore. Its author doesn’t write about his subject so much as beat it into the ground, employing a ranting, Oh, and another thing – !! style that becomes perversely funny even as it becomes more and more tiresome. The pamphlet also has a habit (evidently assuming a thorough knowledge of the details of the Exclusion Crisis and of Absalom And Achitophel) of throwing name after name at the reader with a minimum of context, which not only makes for a confusing read, but in the end very nearly defeats the author’s purpose: you just can’t be bothered with it. In The Perplex’d Prince, cracking the code seems like a game; here it feels like homework. This is a sample:

Thereupon taking his leave he went to the Rendezvous, where he found Absalom, Zimri, Nadab, Shimei, Corah, Ishban, Belial, Rabsheka, Judas, Phaleg, Ben-Jochanan, Balack, Og and Doeg, with many others of all sorts and Conditions…

Still…if you can stick with it, there are some real insights here into the thinking of the time. The author, obviously a hardcore royalist, takes the position that kings are divinely anointed and that interfering with the succession is therefore blasphemous as well as treasonous. In its presentation of Charles, this pamphlet outdoes even The Perplex’d Prince: the king is no longer merely “valiant, wise and religious”, but quite literally “God-like”. In their opposition to the king’s will, then, Shaftesbury and his followers were perceived as doing the devil’s work – also literally. In Absalom And Achitopel, there is a reference to Shaftesbury as “Hell’s dire agent”; the author of The Fugitive Statesman latches onto this, referring to his Achitopel repeatedly as “Hell’s Minister” and “the hellish Contriver”, and speaking of his “Devilish Machinations”.

In this version of events, although Achitopel and his ilk intend to enrich themselves by taking over the estates and properties of those who remained loyal to David, once they have succeeded in overthrowing him (it was for the same reason that they rebelled against David’s father, and provoked civil war), for the most part they seem intent upon anarchy for anarchy’s sake. As for Achitopel himself, it turns out that a major motivation is that he thinks acting against David will help to get him into one particular’s woman’s—well, whatever it was that women wore under their dresses in 1683.

In pursuit of his ends – and her end – there is nothing so vile and dishonest that Achitopel will not stoop to it. It was he, for instance, who devised the Popish Plot, and bought the services of Titus Oates:

I once made him pretend himself a Jebusite, that so getting Acquaintance with those of that Sect, he might be the more able to varnish with probability the Matters he is to attest. This Fellow’s Livelihood must depend on his evidence; and he shall…swear, that the Queen and the next Heir are in the Plot against the King.

And it was he who invented the story of Absalom’s legitimacy:

He likewise gave out that there was a certain Instrument preserved in a Black Box, being the Contract of Marriage between David and Absalom’s Mother, and a settlement of the Crown upon the Issue he might have by that Lady.

And it was he who started that ridiculous rumour about David undertaking secret negotiations with “Pharaoh” (Louis XIV), as well as the one about Solomon’s Jebusitism…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Fugitive Statesmen is its refusal to accept that James was actually a Catholic, preferring instead to see assertions to that effect as merely a piece of mud-slinging, something Shaftesbury and his followers made up to suit their purposes. At the same time, there is a note of uncertainty in the author’s handling of this that is noticeably absent from the rest of the pamphlet: his protestations that James is not, not, NOT a Catholic tail finally off into, And even if he was, he could easily be brought back to Protestantism…

But without doubt, the aspect of this pamphlet that resonates most strongly today is its bitter reaction to the one piece of legislation successfully passed while all this political brawling was going on: the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Although today we regard habeas corpus of one of the cornerstones of law, the author of The Fugitive Statesman saw things a little differently:

a Law the Seditionaries had taken care to have pass’d some time before the breaking out of the Plot, by this Law in case of Bail offered no Man could be detained in Prison… Thus Law and Justice were perverted in these wicked Men’s hands

The Fugitive Statesman exults over the downfall of Achitopel and his party after the “Baharim Parliament”, and Achitopel’s consignment to the Tower of London, but is not the least little bit happy over his subsequent acquittal. It has an explanation for the jury’s verdict, however:

Were not they themselves as well engaged as he in the Conspiracy? …And people of their Mould and Principles always make Conscience, give way, and submit to Self-Preservation and Interest… Thus was the Arch-Traytor again set at Liberty

But this is only a temporary reprieve:

to find all his Devilish Wiles and Practices display’d and expos’d to the eyes of all People, to find he was become the abomination of all the sound and honest part of mankind, Achitopel laying all these things to heart, I say, put an end to his loathed Life in such wise as the World well knows.

So there.

(I should perhaps mention that while the biblical Achitopel committed suicide, his real-life counterpart did not.)

Despite the limitless evil ascribed to the Exclusionists by The Fugitive Statesman, the fact is, they lacked teeth. For one thing, although they used it as a threat, most assuredly they did not want civil war. However, from their own point of view, probably the bigger problem was that, although they did not want James, they didn’t really want Monmouth, either: he was just the lesser of the two evils, where there was no third option – or so it seemed. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to do anything so desperate as “invite” an invasion. The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of 1681 was really the end of this particular crisis: when James did succeed his brother in February of1685, there was barely a ripple of reaction.

Of course, the overriding irony here was that once James took the throne, he began to do exactly what the Exclusionists had warned he would – whether or not they only said it to scaremonger – changing the laws around religious practice, appointing Catholics to important positions, building a standing army, and trying to remove himself from the control of Parliament. Even the hard-line Tories who had fought to protect the royal line weren’t prepared to stand for all that, and another crisis began to build. However, long before that, indeed only four months into James’s reign, the next upheaval to impact significantly upon the literature of the time occurred: the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.

 

20/11/2010

The Perplex’d Prince

 

Notwithstanding all the Favours and Priviledges the Gregorians enjoyed under the peaceful Reign of Conradus, by means of the Prince of Purdino, they were not therewith content, but greatly desiring to have their Religion the Religion established by Law, which could not be while Conradus lived, they began to think he had reigned long enough…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The period from the Restoration in 1660 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a time of continuous political and religious upheaval in Britain, and it is not surprising that much of what was published during those years was political and/or religious in focus as well. Fiction for entertainment alone took a back seat at this time to fiction with a purpose, including the emergence of the roman à clef as a political weapon. The “novel with a key” had been popularised throughout Europe in the middle of the 17th century by the elephantine productions of Madeleine de Scudéry, which in spite of their “Oriental” or “classical” settings were populated by characters based upon herself and her friends and acquaintances, and who spoke, thought and acted accordingly. Finding yourself in one of de Scudéry’s novels was a popular past-time amongst the habitués of French salon society.

In England, however, such writing took on a deeper and darker meaning during the reign of Charles II, when it became a means of taking a political stance while (at least in theory) avoiding accusations of libel or sedition. A perfect example of the genre is The Perplex’d Prince, published in 1682 and attributed only to one “T.S.”, which gives a fictionalised account of the Popish Plot of 1679 – 1681, and the supposed role played in it by the Duke of York.

Briefly, the Popish Plot was – allegedly – a plan to assassinate Charles II and thus ensure the succession of his Catholic brother, James. It was held to have emanated directly from the Pope and been propagated by the Jesuits; to consist of several separate murder schemes, so that one might succeed if the others failed; and to be the prelude to an uprising of the Catholic population of London and the slaughter of its Protestant inhabitants.

The Plot became public on the testimony of Titus Oates, who claimed that he had infiltrated the Jesuits and learned of their plans. Oates himself had a chequered and fairly disgraceful history, and most of those supporting his claims were no better; but the time was one of growing and passionate anti-Catholic feeling, particularly in view of the failure of Charles to produce a legitimate Protestant heir, and Oates’ accusations did not fall upon deaf ears. Although Charles himself considered the claims preposterous, Parliament saw its chance and – in an unmistakable case of “I want to believe” – took the incredible and unreliable evidence of Titus Oates at face value.

A bloodbath followed. Sixteen Catholics were quickly executed for their supposed involvement, and eight Catholic priests for having knowledge of the plot beforehand; before a halt was called, thirty-five people lost their lives to Oates’ accusations. Among those to die was Edward Coleman, the personal secretary of Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York. The Queen’s physician, Sir George Wakeman, was also accused; while rumour was busy with Catherine herself. In the Parliament, the Earl of Shaftesbury in particular seized upon the situation (which became known in some quarters as “the Shaftesbury Plot”) and began an agitation that would eventually evolve into the Exclusion Crisis.

Meanwhile, Oates was rewarded for his “services” with state apartments and a fat pension. At length, however, although too late for many of the accused, the holes in Oates’ claims, his contradictions and the failure to find any hard corroborating evidence turned the tide in many minds, including judicial ones. Acquittals of accused Catholics became more common, and attacks on Oates himself more frequent. Apparently quite unable ever to keep his mouth shut, Oates retaliated in kind, accusing James outright of involvement in the Plot, and initiating a chain of events that would lead to the pillory and prison for him, and post-mortem pardons for some of his victims.

The Perplex’d Prince was published in 1682, after Oates’ eviction from Whitehall, his accusations against James, and his consequence imprisonment for sedition. However, despite Oates’ fall from grace at court, there was still great belief in the Popish Plot amongst the population in general, with many seeing Oates’ imprisonment not as the just result of his exposure, but as an act of revenge by the Catholic James. The pamphlet was therefore speaking to an eager audience when it chose to take the events of the Plot at face value.

Nor did it stop there, but also latched onto a rumour that was gaining strength under the looming threat of a Catholic monarch: namely, that Charles had been legally married to Lucy Walter, the mother of his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth; and that Monmouth, a Protestant, was the legitimate heir to the English throne. This was the so-called “black box” theory, in which Lucy Walter was supposed to have sealed her marriage-lines in a certain locked black box, which was then given into the keeping of John Cosin, an Anglican bishop, who by the time this theory became public was, like Lucy Walter herself, conveniently dead. The furious and exasperated Charles retaliated by declaring publicly that Catherine of Braganza was his only wife, and Monmouth illegitimate, but the conspiracy theorists – and the Exclusionists – paid little heed.

The Perplex’d Prince deals, self-evidently, with dangerous if popular material. Small wonder, then, that its anonymous author chose to pass it off as mere fiction, by telling the story of the country of Otenia, and the terrible plots against its Good King Conradus by a religious faction known as the Gregorians. The pamphlet opens with a brief, head-shaking account of the overthrow of Conradus’ father by the vile Vallinsia. After an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Vallinsia’s army, Conradus, Prince of West-tenia, goes into exile in Denesia in company with his younger brother, Heclasius, Prince of Purdino. There, Conradus falls in love with one of the ladies of the court, Lucilious, who he finally persuades into a secret marriage to which the only witnesses are the officiating priest and Heclasius. Lucilious bears Conradus a son, and they live happily together until Lucilious’ death.

Shortly afterwards, the people of Otenia decide they want their king back. Conradus is reinstated with all pomp and ceremony, and a desirable marriage is soon proposed to him with Berrelia of Legentine. The one fly in the ointment is a clause in the contract insisting that Berrelia’s children will be Conradus’ direct heirs. Conradus baulks at this, but finally declares the young Prince of Burranto illegitimate under the persuasions of Heclasius, who has already tried (and failed) to deny his own secret marriage.

Things do not remain peaceful in Otenia for long. The Gregorian faction begins to plot against Conradus, with the help of Heclasius, a secret Gregorian. Heclasius manages to surround the unsuspecting Conradus with his own people, who set to work poisoning the king’s mind against their religious enemies, the Calvenians. However, unable to push Conradus into action either in favour of the Gregorians or against the Calvenians, the Gregorians decide that the king must die…

Although the early section of The Perplex’d Prince, with its protracted account of Charles’ courtship of Lucy Walter, is fairly tedious, once the “Gregorian” plot is under way, it barely misses a beat. Scheme piles upon scheme, all attempts on the king’s life discovered in time purely by the grace of God – Who is, of course, a staunch anti-Gregorian. In light of what we now know about Titus Oates and the Popish Plot, this matter-of-fact account of the evil-doing of the Gregorians is rather chilling; but at the same time there is an amusing side to The Perplex’d Prince, albeit an unintentional one.

Virulently anti-Catholic as it is, we are not surprised at the pamphlet’s depiction of James as profoundly self-interested and deceitful, prepared to do anything to gain his ends, even to the extent of murdering his brother. The pamphlet makes much of the Gregorians, Heclasius included, having been absolved a priori by the “Pontify” for any sins they might commit for their cause. The difficulty for the anonymous author, clearly, was how to depict Charles, who in his inability to see through his brother’s façade to the dangerous plotter and religious fanatic beyond comes across as terribly naive – or as terribly thick, depending upon how you read it. Time and again, the evidence points to James as one of the main conspirators; time and again, Charles allows himself to be convinced by his brother’s tearful declarations of innocence and protestations of fraternal love.

The gap between the theoretical “Conradus” – So excellent a Prince as he was…every one who had the happiness to know him, highly commending him for a valiant, wise, and religious Prince – and the behaviour of the actual Charles was obviously a significant problem for the author, but perhaps no greater than the one he created for himself. With the best will in the world, the author cannot justify or explain away the perfect Conradus’ bastardising of the Prince of Burranto, whose birth is greeted with a solemn speech – “Sweet babe, thou art born Heir to a Crown, and although thy Father be at present out of possession thereof, yet he hopes shortly to recover it, and leave thee in quiet injoyment of it” – and who is subsequently disinherited under the pragmatic reflection that Conradus, Might safely do it to serve a present turn; and if his Highness saw occasion for it, he might right the young Prince at any time.

Very valiant, wise and religious of you, Charlie.

But of course, we see the author’s dilemma. Disgusted by the thought of a republic, a staunch believer in monarchy, a rabid anti-Catholic— How, then, to react in the face of a Catholic heir to the English throne? We cannot tell whether the author actually believed in either the Popish Plot or the “black box”, but we can understand why he might have seized upon both so avidly. In his view of the world, and of the natural fitness of things, Monmouth simply had to be legitimate.

The Perplex’d Prince is also an illustration of the dangers of writing to the minute, as it has no real ending. There is a concluding passage in which Conradus is separated from his brother and the rest of his party while out hunting (Heclasius hoping fervently that the leopard he was chasing has gotten him), after which he spends the night at the cottage of a simple countryman who doesn’t know who his guest is, and thus favours him with a few home truths about wicked Gregorians and saintly Calvenians, and how everyone knows the Prince of Burranto is the true heir and not Heclasius. This seems to be leading somewhere – back to the court for a showdown with Heclasius, perhaps – but instead the story just stops.

Although I’ve already gone on much longer than I intended (it’s hard to be brief when discussing the politics of this era), there are a couple of side-points I want to make about The Perplex’d Prince, one funny, one not funny at all. First of all we have the fact that no-one connected with this work seems to have been able to settle on the spelling of its adjective, which is given as “perplexed” in the first chapter heading, “perplext” in the dedication, and “perplex’d” on the title page, which is what I’ve gone with.

It is also in the dedication that we get the feeling that the author may have had more of a sense of humour than his main text suggests, as he bemoans the unlikelihood of his pamphlet getting noticed at all amongst such a plethora of, “Intelligencies, Addresses, Absolom and Achitophels, Medals, Prologues, Epilogues…” and envisages the reaction of the customers: “The Perplext Prince! say some; Away with him, and tell us of the Victorious Prince… The Perplext Prince, says others, how can that be? Since he was indewed by Heaven with a Power to remove all Persons that occasioned any displeasing or Perplexing Thoughts…

(That reference to Absalom And Achitophel is something I’ll be coming back to later on.)

We can smile at these reflections upon the perils of authorship and bookselling, but the dedication in which they appear wipes the smile from our faces. In a discomforting touch, The Perplex’d Prince is dedicated to William, Lord Russell, who at the time was one of the leaders of the Exclusionists, and who was subsequently accused of involvement in the Rye House Plot (a plot to assassinate Charles and James), convicted and executed, although I’m not aware that there was any particular evidence against him.

The final point to be made about The Perplex’d Prince (Thank God! I hear you cry) is its source. The copy I have studied was originally owned by the bibliophile Narcissus Luttrell. Luttrell was a Tory, although not a particularly rabid one by the standards of the time, and an avid collector of material relating to the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. In later years, financial trouble forced him to sell off his collection of printed material, much of which eventually ended up in the British Library.

There are, and will continue to be, very passionate debates about the future of books and bookselling, and the part to be played by eReaders. My own stance on the subject is simple and selfish: I love actual books as much as anyone, but the eReader allows me access to material I would otherwise never get within a thousand miles of – like Narcissus Luttrell’s copy of The Perplex’d Prince. We know it’s his, because he wrote his name on the fly-leaf.

What’s more, recognising it as a roman à clef, he declared as much on the title page (see above), and then while reading it tried to break its code, adding notes about who and where he believed the characters and places were intended to be – and fixing up the typos. On the accessible electronic version, these hand-written annotations have a startling immediacy, effortlessly bridging the 350-year gulf between reader and reader, book-lover and book-lover. I can think of no better argument in favour of the eReader.

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