Posts tagged ‘sentimental’

26/08/2017

Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 2)


 
    The truth rises upon me, and every succeeding circumstance points to one conclusion. Lisette was to-day of a junketing party, which Lonquillez contrived for the entertainment of his friend Le Blanc. Mention was again made of old stories, and Savillon was a person of the drama. The wench is naturally talkative, and she was then in spirits from company and good cheer. Le Blanc and she recollected interviews of their young mistress and this handsome elève of her father. They were, it seems, nursed by the same woman, that old Lasune, for whom Julia procured a little dwelling, and a pension of four hundred livres, from her unsuspecting husband. “She loved them (said Le Blanc) like her own children, and they were like brother and sister to each other”—“Brother and sister, indeed!” (said Lisette.) She was more sagacious, and had observed things better.—“I know what I know, (said she) but to be sure, those things are all over now, and, I am persuaded, my mistress loves no man so well as her own husband. What signifies what happened so long ago, especially while M. de Montauban knows nothing about the matter?”
    These were her words: Lonquillez repeated them thrice to me.—Were I a fool, a driveller, I might be satisfied to doubt and be uneasy; it is Montauban’s to see his disgrace, and, seeing, to revenge it…

 

That Henry Mackenzie intended Julia de Roubigné as a criticism of the theories of sentimentalism is most evident by the mid-novel juxtapositioning of Julia receiving posthumous instructions from her mother, and Julia succumbing to irrational fears upon first setting foot in her husband’s house.

Before Julia sets out with de Montauban, her father gives her an unfinished letter from her mother, which is full of advice and admonitions about a wife’s duty. As with her earlier observation about Julia not listening, we get the impression that Mme de Roubigné is passing on hard lessons learned through bitter experience; that we saw her as an exemplary, self-sacrificing wife speaks for itself. The miserable idea passed on to the reader of 18th century marriage is, alas, no doubt accurate:

    “Sweetness of temper, affection to a husband, and attention to his interests, constitute the duties of a wife, and form the basis of matrimonial felicity. These are indeed the texts, from which every rule for attaining this felicity is drawn…
    “Never consider a trifle what may tend to please him. The great articles of duty he will set down as his own; but the lesser attentions he will mark as favours; and trust me, for I have experienced it, there is no feeling more delightful to one’s-self, than that of turning those little things to so precious a use.
    “If you marry a man of a certain sort, such as the romance of young minds generally paints for a husband, you will deride the supposition of any possible decrease in the ardour of your affections. But wedlock, even in its happiest lot, is not exempted from the common fate of all sublunary blessings; there is ever a delusion in hope which cannot abide with possession. The rapture of extravagant love will evaporate and waste; the conduct of the wife must substitute in its room other regards, as delicate, and more lasting. I say, the conduct of the wife; for marriage, be a husband what he may, reverses the prerogative of sex; his will expect to be pleased, and ours must be sedulous to please.
    “This privilege a good natured man may wave. He will feel it, however, due; and third persons will have penetration enough to see, and may have malice enough to remark, the want of it in his wife. He must be a husband unworthy of you, who could bear the degradation of suffering this in silence…
    “Above all, let a wife beware of communicating to others any want of duty or tenderness, she may think she has perceived in her husband. This untwists, at once, those delicate cords, which preserve the unity of the marriage-engagement…”

This (and much more) is transmitted in its entirety by Julia to Maria…yet Julia’s very next letter finds her not only reporting her doubts and unhappiness to her friend, but indulging in gloomy forebodings about the future. Here is only a short excerpt of the new wife’s feelings:

Why should I wish for long life? Why should so many wish for it? Did we sit down to number the calamities of this world; did we think how many wretches there are of disease, of poverty, of oppression, of vice, (alas! I fear there are some even of virtue) we should change one idea of evil, and learn to look on death as a friend…

So ends the first volume of Julia de Roubigné; the second starts with an interjection from our editor, explaining the difficulty he had working out how to organise his second batch of letters, since they clearly overlapped the first batch in date and in content. As always, “sentiment” is allowed to have the final word:

Many of the particulars they recount are anticipated by a perusal of the foregoing letters; but it is not so much on story, as sentiment, that their interest with the reader must depend…

The second batch of letters were written by Savillon, beginning at the time of his arrival in Martinique, and sent from there to his friend, Beauvaris, in Paris. Though he speaks of his duty to both M. de Roubigné and to his uncle, one theme dominates:

Julia de Roubigné!—Did you feel that name as I do!—Even traced with my own pen, what throbbing remembrances has it raised!—You are acquainted with my obligations to her father: You have heard me sometimes talk of her; but you know not, for I tremble to tell you, the power she has acquired over the heart of your friend…

Though Savillon feels himself unfitted for business, and in particular the business conducted by his uncle (of which, much more shortly), he knows his only hope of being considered a fit husband for Julia is to succeed and make his fortune, which might now weigh in the balance against his (relative) lack of birth. He therefore grits his teeth and knuckles down—but immediately finds himself confronting a barrier he cannot surmount, namely, that his uncle, a planter, runs his business on slavery.

As noted, Henry Mackenzie was in general a fairly conservative individual, who resisted the advanced social theories of his contemporaries; yet in Julia de Roubigné we find him espousing what would, in 1777, have been considered not merely “advanced”, but radical. This is one of the very earliest works of fiction not merely to protest slavery, but to suggest there was a better way; a way both more humane and more productive—and that it appeared more than one hundred years after Aphra Behn deplored the cruelty and mutual degradation of slavery in Oroonoko is a profoundly depressing thought. This time-gap is a chilling indication of the brutality that was the hallmark of the so-called “Age of Reason”. Conversely, we must keep in mind that whatever absurdity and self-indulgence may have belonged to the “cult of sensibility”, it also gave birth to the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

And whatever Mackenzie thought about sentimentalism in general, we have no reason to think he isn’t sincere about the words he puts in Savillon’s mouth:

To a man not callous from habit, the treatment of the negroes, in the plantations here, is shocking… I have been often tempted to doubt whether there is not an error in the whole plan to negro servitude, and whether whites, or creoles born in the West-Indies, or perhaps cattle, after the manner of European husbandry, would not do the business better and cheaper than the slaves do. The money which the latter cost at first, the sickness (often owing to despondency of mind) to which they are liable after their arrival, and the proportion that die in consequence of it, make the machine, if it may be so called, of a plantation extremely expensive in its operations. In the list of slaves belonging to a wealthy planter, it would astonish you to see the number unfit for service, pining under disease, a burden on their master.—I am talking only as a merchant: But as a man—good Heavens! when I think of the many thousands of my fellow creatures groaning under servitude and misery!—Great God! hast thou peopled those regions of thy world for the purpose of casting out their inhabitants to chains and torture?—No; thou gavest them a land teeming with good things, and lighted’st up thy sun to bring forth spontaneous plenty; but the refinements of man, ever at war with thy works, have changed this scene of profusion and luxuriance, into a theatre of repine, of slavery and of murder… Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason…stifles humanity, and debases the species—for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man.

In fact—the most radical part of that might be Savillon’s reference to the slaves as “my fellow creatures”: that black people were not fully human was the basic argument of the slavers; while the anti-slavery movement defiantly operated within a broader concept of “the brotherhood of man”.

Savillon persuades his uncle to let him try an experiment. He starts by forming a bond with an intelligent if understandably wary slave called Yambu, who was the former leader of a band of men captured together in Africa:

Next morning I called those negroes who had formerly been in his service together, and told them that, while they continued in the plantation, Yambu was to superintend their work; that, if they chose to leave him and me, they were at liberty to go; and that, if found idle or unworthy, they should not be allowed to stay. He has, accordingly, ever since had the command of his former subjects, and superintended their work in a particular quarter of the plantation; and, having been declared free, according to the mode prescribed by the laws of the island, has a certain portion of ground allotted him, the produce of which is his property. I have had the satisfaction of observing those men under the feeling of good treatment, and the idea of liberty, do more than almost double their number subject to the whip of an overseer. I am under no apprehension of desertion or mutiny; they work with the willingness of freedom, yet are mine with more than the obligation of slavery…

But while we must highlight and celebrate this interlude, it is only a diversion within the main narrative of Julia de Roubigné. Another comes in the form of a developing friendship between Savillon and an Englishman, William Herbert, which offers the reader both the inevitable “interpolated narrative”, as Savillon reports the details of Herbert’s life to Beauvaris, and the equally inevitable “tragedy we can all wallow in” as, after striving for years to support the wife and children he adores but is separated from, Herbert finally sends for them—and promptly loses them in a shipwreck.

This is somewhat curious, as it exactly the kind of thing that “real” novels of sentimentalism delight in, yet is presented straight in what we interpret as a critique of the genre.

Even more curious is that despite Savillon’s various outbursts of romantic agony about Julia, and about his ideas on friendship (most of which I’ve spared you), Mackenzie uses him from time to time as the novel’s voice of reason—which is to say, he puts into his mouth the frequent (and not unwarranted) rebuttal of “sensibility”, that it was simply a form of self-indulgence:

I begin to suspect that the sensibility, of which your minds are proud, from which they look down with contempt on the unfeeling multitude of ordinary men, is less a blessing than an inconvenience.—Why cannot I be as happy as my uncle, as Dorville, as all the other good people around me?—I eat, and drink, and sing, nay I can be merry, like them; but they close the account, and set down this mirth for happiness; I retire to the family of my own thoughts, and find them in weeds of sorrow…

We should note, however, that at another point Mackenzie is generous enough to make a distinction between “real” sensibility and “false” affectation; although we do come away with the impression that he felt most of it was affectation.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear of Savillon’s life in Martinique, and his affectionate but somewhat uneasy relationship with his business-hardened uncle, and of a new acquaintance:

At one of those dinners was a neighbour and intimate acquaintance of my uncle, a M. Dorville, with his wife and daughter. The young lady was seated next me, and my uncle seemed to incline that I should be particularly pleased with her. He addressed such discourse to her as might draw her forth to the greatest advantage; and, as he had heard me profess myself as lover of music, he made her sing, after dinner, till, I believe, some of the company began to be tired of their entertainment. After they were gone, he asked my opinion of Mademoiselle Dorville, in that particular style by which a man gives you to un|derstand, that his own is a very favourable one. To say truth, the lady’s appearance is in her favour; but there is a jealous sort of feeling, which arises in my mind, when I hear the praises of any woman but one; and, from that cause perhaps, I answered my uncle rather coldly… Her father, I am apt to believe, has something of what is commonly called a plot upon me; but as to him my conscience is easy, because, the coffers of my uncle being his quarry, it matters not much if he is disappointed…

Now—you might be struggling at this point to conceive of a marriage between Savillon and Mlle Dorville, and you’d be right:

    My uncle, who had staid some time behind me with Dorville, came in. He was very copious on the subject of Mademoiselle. I was perfectly of his opinion in every thing, and praised her in echo to what he said, but he had discernment enough to see an indifference in this, which I was sorry to find he did not like. I know not how far he meant to go, if we had been long together; but he found himself somewhat indisposed, and was obliged to go to bed.
    I sat down alone, and thought of Julia de Roubigné…

Like Mme de Roubigné, Savillon’s uncle goes to bed never to rise from it. Having inherited a fortune, Savillon himself embarks for France as soon as he can manage it, with only one thought on his mind. His correspondent at this point switches from M. Beauvaris to Mr Herbert, and for more reasons than one: when Savillon arrives in Paris, he discovers that Beauvaris has suddenly died. This shock is bad enough but, as we know, there is another in store…

While all this has been going on, there have been a few other interpolated letters—from Julia to Maria, and from de Montauban to Segarva: the former, trying to take her mother’s advice, has little say that isn’t superficial; the latter showing himself increasingly aware of the significant differences in temperament and character between himself and his wife. Guests, in the form of a M. de Rouillé and a Mme de Sancerre, drive the point home: de Montauban is often unable to enter into the spirit of their conversation, though his duty as a host requires him to at least seem pleased. He is particularly annoyed when he sees how the often “melancholy” Julia is brightened by de Rouillé’s cheerful and joking demeanour:

    Why should I allow this spleen of sense to disqualify me for society?—Once or twice I almost muttered things against my present situation.—Julia loves me; I know she does: She has that tenderness and gratitude, which will secure her affection to a husband, who loves her as I do; but she must often feel the difference of disposition between us. Had such a man as Rouillé been her husband—not Rouillé neither, though she seems often delighted with his good humour, when I cannot be pleased with it.—
    We are neither of us such a man as the writer of a romance would have made a husband for Julia.—There, is indeed, a pliability in the minds of women in this article, which frequently gains over opinion to the side of duty.—Duty is a cold word.—No matter, we will canvas it no farther. I know the purity of her bosom, and I think, I am not unworthy of its affection…

Perhaps not—but Julia’s “duty”, if not her “affection”, is about to be seriously challenged, and a new emotion reignite her correspondence:

    I have just now received a piece of intelligence, which I must beg my Maria instantly to satisfy me about. Le Blanc, my father’s servant, was here a few hours ago, and among other news, informed Lisette, that a nephew of his, who is just come with his master from Paris, met Savillon there, whom he perfectly remembered, from having seen him in his visits to his uncle at Belville. The lad had no time for enquiry, as his master’s carriage was just setting off, when he observed a chaise drive up to the door of the hotel, with a gentleman in it, whom he knew to be Savillon, accompanied by a valet de chambre, and two black servants on horseback.
    Think, Maria, what I feel at this intelligence!—Yet why should it alarm me?—Alas! you know this poor, weak, throbbing heart of mine! I cannot, if I would, hide it from you.—Find him out, for Heaven’s sake, Maria; tell me—yet what now is Savillon to your Julia?—No matter—do any thing your prudence may suggest; only satisfy me about the fate of this once dear—Again! I dare not trust myself on the subject—Mons. de Montauban! Farewell!

Maria and Savillon do meet in Paris; the outcome is reported to Mr Herbert:

    When I told you, my Beauvaris was no more, I thought I had exhausted the sum of distress, which this visit to Paris was to give me. I knew not then what fate had prepared for me—that Julia, on whom my doating heart had rested all its hopes of happiness;—that Julia is the wife of another!
    All but this I could have borne; the loss of fortune, the decay of health, the coldness of friends, might have admitted of hope; here only was despair to be found, and here I have found it!
    Oh! Herbert! she was so interwoven with my thoughts of futurity, that life now fades into a blank, and is not worth the keeping…

Maria, meanwhile, has the painful task of letting Julia know the truth:

    What do you tell me! Savillon in Paris! unmarried, unengaged, raving of Julia! Hide me from myself, Maria, hide me from myself—Am I not the wife of Montauban?—
    Yes, and I know that character which as the wife of Montauban, I have to support: Her husband’s honour and her own are in the breast of Julia. My heart swells, while I think of the station in which I am placed.—Relentless Honour! thou triest me to the uttermost; thou enjoinest me to think no more of such a being as Savillon.
    But can I think of him no more?—Cruel remembrances?—Thou too, my friend, betrayest me; you dare not trust me with the whole scene; but you tell me enough.—I see him, I see him now! He came, unconscious of what Fortune had made of me; he came, elate with the hopes of sharing with his Julia that wealth, which propitious Heaven had bestowed on him.—She is married to another!—I see him start back in amazement and despair; his eye wild and haggard, his voice lost in the throb of astonishment! He thinks on the shadows which his fond hopes had reared—the dreams of happiness!…

This passage is the most extravagant example of something that recurs throughout Julia de Roubigné, with the characters, Julia and de Montauban in particular – it’s the one thing they do have in common – able to summon up imaginary scenes more real to them than reality. For example, Julia’s early realisation of her love for Savillon came accompanied by a terrifying vision of confessing it to her father, to excuse her refusal of de Montauban: Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself…

This tendency that speaks back to the way in which the correspondence is organised within this epistolary novel, with the absence of responding letters making the emotional reality of Julia and de Montauban and Savillon its only reality. In Julia’s case, Mackenzie repeatedly places her outbursts against some piece of prosaic reality or unwelcome duty, in order to point out the growing distance between what she should be focused upon and what she is focused upon, and the danger inherent in her lack of emotional self-control. The warning conveyed when we were alerted to Julia’s habit of separating “thought” and “conduct” here comes to poisonous fruition.

Even before she learned that Savillon was not in fact married, Julia’s exact degree of success in driving him from her heart was conveyed to us in a letter from de Montauban:

I was last night abroad at supper: Julia was a-bed before my return. I found her lute lying on the table, and a music-book open by it. I could perceive the marks of tears shed on the paper, and the air was such as might encourage their falling: Sleep however had overcome her sadness, and she did not awake when I opened the curtains to look on her. When I had stood some moments, I heard her sigh strongly through her sleep, and presently she muttered some words, I know not of what import. I had sometimes heard her do so before, without regarding it much; but there was something that roused my attention now. I listened; she sighed again, and again spoke a few broken words; at last I heard her plainly pronounce the name Savillon, two or three times over, and each time it was accompanied with sighs so deep, that her heart seemed bursting as it heaved them…

Now, the fact that she could not bear to part with that miniature of Savillon comes back to bite her (and, by the way, we never do learn Maria’s thoughts on the subject):

    Segarva!—but it must be told—I blush even telling it to thee—have I lived to this?—that thou shouldst hear the name of Montauban coupled with dishonour!
    I came into my wife’s room yesterday morning, somewhat unexpectedly. I observed she had been weeping, though she put on her hat to conceal it and spoke in a tone of voice affectedly indifferent. Presently she went out on pretence of walking; I staid behind, not without surprise at her tears, though, I think, without suspicion; when turning over (in the careless way one does in musing) some loose papers on her dressing-table, I sound a picture of a young man in miniature, the glass of which was still wet with the tears she had shed on it. I have but a confused remembrance of my feelings at the time; there was a bewildered pause of thought, as if I had waked in another world…

His suspicions thoroughly awakened, de Montauban now sees guilt in every word and action of Julia; and (like so many 18th century male leads, though Henry Mackenzie at least has the grace not to call him “hero”) he seems to take a fierce pleasure in thinking the worst of the woman he is supposed to love. Here, de Montauban too shows his skill in conjuring up visions with which to torment himself:

    We dined alone, and I marked her closely; I saw, (by Heaven! I did) a fawning solicitude to please me, an attempt at the good-humour of innocence, to cover the embarrassment of guilt. I should have observed it, I am sure I should, even without a key; as it was, I could read her soul to the bottom.—Julia de Roubigné! the wife of Montauban!—Is it not so?
    I have had time to think.—You will recollect the circumstances of our marriage—her long unwillingness, her almost unconquerable reluctance.—Why did I marry her?
    Let me remember—I durst not trust the honest decision of my friend, but stole into this engagement without his knowledge; I purchased her consent, I bribed, I bought her; bought her, the leavings of another!—I will trace this line of infamy no further: There is madness in it!…

De Montauban’s Spanish upbringing now kicks in, at this perceived affront to his honour—an “honour” which doesn’t prevent him from setting his servant to spy on his wife, or from seeking intelligence about her amongst the other servants. Typically, though the vast majority of what he hears is capable (and rightly) of a perfectly innocent construction, it is the passing suggestion of Lisette that Julia once loved Savillon that de Montauban seizes upon; and from a childhood crush to the guilt of adultery is a small step in his disordered imagination. Lonquillez, the servant (Spanish, and therefore capable of stooping to anything in the name of his master’s honour), persuades de Montauban that Julia and Savillon must be corresponding, and that he should confirm his suspicions by intercepting their letters—

—a decision which coincides with the single exchange of letters between the two, with Savillon finally persuading Maria to send onto Julia a letter from himself begging for a single meeting, and Julia’s reply agreeing to it. The honourable de Montauban has no hesitation sending his discoveries to Segarva, in the name of self-justification:

    “I know not, Sir, how to answer the letter my friend Mademoiselle de Roncilles has just sent me from you. The intimacy of our former days I still recal, as one of the happiest periods of my life. The friendship of Julia you are certainly still entitled to, and might claim, without the suspicion of impropriety, though fate has now thrown her into the arms of another. There would then be no occasion for this secret interview, which, I confess, I cannot help dreading; but, as you urge the impossibility of your visiting Mons. de Montauban, without betraying emotions, which, you say, would be dangerous to the peace of us all, conjured as I am by these motives of compassion, which my heart is, perhaps, but too susceptible of for my own peace, I have at last, not without a feeling like remorse, resolved to meet you on Monday next, at the house of our old nurse Lasune, whom I shall prepare for the purpose, and on whose fidelity I can perfectly rely. I hope you will give me credit for that remembrance of Savillon, which your letter, rather unjustly, denies me, when you find me agreeing to this measure of imprudence, of danger, it may be of guilt, to mitigate the distress, which I have been unfortunate enough to give him.”
    I feel at this moment a sort of determined coolness, which the bending up of my mind to the revenge her crimes deserve, has confered upon me; I have therefore underlined some passages in this damned scroll, that my friend may see the weight of that proof on which I proceed. Mark the air of prudery that runs through it, the trick of voluptuous vice to give pleasure the zest of nicety and reluctance. “It may be of guilt.”—Mark with what coolness she invites him to participate it!—Is this the hand writing of Julia?—I am awake and see it.—Julia! my wife! damnation!

…all of which goes to show exactly how much de Montauban knows about the women he is married to. But then, we recall his low opinion of the female sex in general – the usual masculine self-fulfilling prophecy, which puts the worst possible construction upon everything on the flimsiest of evidence – and we see it in action when de Montauban calls upon the simple, kind-hearted old Lasune who (having nursed them both) thinks of Julia and Savillion both as her own children, and as brother and sister. But even here de Montauban sees only conscious guilt:

    Whether they have really imposed on the simplicity of this creature, I know not; but her answers to some distant questions of mine looked not like those of an accomplice of their guilt.—Or, rather, it is I who am deceived; the cunning of intrigue is the property of the meanest among the sex.—It matters not: I have proof without her.
    She conducted me into an inner room fitted up with a degree of nicety. On one side stood a bed, with curtains and a bed-cover of clean cotton. That bed, Segarva!… It looked as if the Beldame had trimmed it for their use—damn her! damn her! killing is poor—Canst thou not invent me some luxurious vengeance?

Segarva is, we gather, fully in sympathy with his friend’s homicidal rage; his only caution is that de Montauban should keep his revenge a secret, not in fear for himself, but so that general knowledge of Julia’s guilt should not posthumously tarnish his, ahem, “honour”:

I am less easily convinced, or rather I am less willing to be guided, by your opinion, as to the secrecy of her punishment. You tell me, that there is but one expiation of a wife’s infidelity.—I am resolved, she dies—but that the sacrifice should be secret. Were I even to upbraid her with her crime, you say, her tears, her protestations would outplead the conviction of sense itself, and I should become the dupe of that infamy I am bound to punish.—Is there not something like guilt in this secrecy? Should Montauban shrink, like a coward, from the vindication of his honour?—Should he not burst upon this strumpet and her lover—the picture is beastly—the sword of Montauban!—Thou art in the right, it would disgrace it…

Julia’s agreement to the meeting, however, has not come without agonies of doubt, and many changes of mind; her longing to see Savillon one last time battling with her painful consciousness that if she does so, she will no longer be able to draw that comforting if specious distinction between “thought” and “conduct”. At the last she accepts that she must not do it, and sends via Maria a message to Savillon telling him not to come.

The matter does not rest there, however: Maria, having been subjected to the full battery of Savillon’s own agonies, is overborne, and joins him in persuading Julia to a single meeting. Julia finds herself unable to resist temptation, when it comes from the person she is used to considering as the voice of reason:

    You intreat me, for pity’s sake, to meet him.—He hinted his design of soon leaving France to return to Martinique.—Why did he ever leave France? had he remained contented with love and Julia, instead of this stolen, this guilty meeting—What do I say?—I live but for Montauban!
    I will think no longer.—This one time I will silence the monitor within me…

The meeting, if impassioned, is of course innocent (despite the bed in the corner of the room):

I spoke of the duty I owed to Montauban, of the esteem which his virtues deserved.—“I have heard of his worth (said Savillon) I needed no proof to be convinced of it; he is the husband of Julia.”—There was something in the tone of these last words, that undid my resolution again.—I told him of the false intelligence I had received of his marriage, without which no argument of prudence, no paternal influence, could have made me the wife of another.—He put his hand to his heart, and threw his eyes wildly to Heaven.—I shrunk back at that look of despair, which his countenance assumed.—He took two or three hurried turns through the room; then, resuming his seat, and lowering his voice, “It is enough (said he) I am fated to be miserable! but the contagion of my destiny shall spread no farther.—This night I leave France forever!”

Overwhelmed by the emotion of their final parting (though not so much that she can’t write to Maria about it), Julia is again the victim of her imagination; and we reach the most thoroughly Gothicky bit of the novel:

    You know my presentiments of evil; never did I feel them so strong as at present. I tremble to go to bed—the taper that burns by me is dim, and methinks my bed looks like a grave!…
    My fears had given way to sleep; but their impression was on my fancy still. Methought I sat in our family monument at Belville, with a single glimmering lamp, that shewed the horrors of the place, when, on a sudden, a light like that of the morning, burst on the gloomy vault, and the venerable figures of my fathers, such as I had seen them in the pictures of our hall, stood smiling benignity upon me! The attitude of the foremost was that of attention, his finger resting upon his lip.—I listened—when sounds of more than terrestrial melody stole on my ear, borne, as it were on the distant wind, till they swelled at last to music so exquisite, that my ravished sense was stretched too far for delusion, and I awoke in the midst of the intrancement!…

…though of course, for once this may not be just imagination:

    Chance has been kind to me for the means. Once, in Andalusia, I met with a Venetian empiric, of whom, among other chymical curiosities, I bought a poisonous drug, the efficacy of which he shewed me on some animals to whom he administered it. The death it gave was easy, and altered not the appearance of the thing it killed.
    I have fetched it from my cabinet, and it stands before me. It is contained in a little square phial, marked with some hieroglyphic scrawls, which I do not understand. Methinks, while I look on it—I could be weak, very weak Segarva.—But an hour ago I saw her walk, and speak, and smile—yet these few drops!…

Julia de Roubigné is by no means—by NO means—the only novel of this period (not even amongst just those few we’ve examined in detail) to get its effects out of star-crossed lovers, misunderstanding and tragedy, or to wallow in the emotions of its own situations. The central premise, indeed, is very like that found in Elizabeth Griffith’s The History Of Lady Barton, which also has its heroine married to one man but in love with another. However, there seems to me to be a significant difference between this novel and most of its ilk, in its implicit condemnation of its characters and their behaviour. Most novels of “sensibility” seem to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that if you have “sensibility”, then the rules don’t apply to you: you’re “above” all that petty, day-to-day stuff. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find the heroes and heroines of such novels behaving with complete self-absorption, in a context exasperatingly free of criticism.

(Which is, of course, exactly the attitude that Jane Austen is attacking via Marianne Dashwood in Sense And Sensibility.)

It is this preening, and the accompanying tacit exemption from the ordinary obligations of life, that Henry Mackenzie takes issue with in Julia de Roubigné. Though he is by no means without sympathy for the way in which his characters have been trapped by circumstance, he obviously considers that they need to just bite the bullet. Julia’s privileging of her emotions is, in Mackenzie’s mind, a recipe for disaster; while her nursing of her feelings for Savillon after her marriage constitutes a real and serious violation of her duty. It is interesting, however, that Mackenzie does not consider Julia the only, or even the worst, offender. On the contrary, he clearly views de Montauban’s “honour” as another form of self-indulgent posturing—and one even more dangerous than the ordinary cultivation of “sensibility”. In this respect, the novel we have examined previously that is closest in spirit to Julia de Roubigné may be John Robinson’s Sydney St. Aubyn, which likewise casts a jaundiced eye over the hysterical self-pity of its misbehaving “hero”.

(In her introduction to the 1999 reissue of Julia de Roubigné, Susan Manning makes the wry point that the novel is, in effect, a version of Othello in which there is no Iago…because there is no need of an Iago.)

For all its effectiveness, there seems to me to be a flaw in Julia de Roubigné—which, ironically, concerns her flaw: it is not clear to me whether Mackenzie thinks that Julia’s “fatal flaw” lies in her marrying one man while loving another, or whether it is that, having done so, she is not able to smother her now-guilty love. Similarly, I’m not sure what to make of the silence that persists between Julia and Savillon prior to his departure for Martinique—his imposed by, sigh, “honour”, hers by “delicacy”. Whether or not Mackenzie intended a criticism of this prevailing societal norm, we cannot be other than painfully aware that if either of them had brought themselves to speak one single word at the time, then none of this would have happened.

(Mind you— Were Julia not so given to turning everything that might happen to her into some sort of dark fantasy, maybe she wouldn’t have been so quick to believe an unsubstantiated report from the other side of the world. I think we can interpret that with confidence.)

Nevertheless, within the context of the novel of sensibility, Julia de Roubigné is a fascinating anomaly; and even were it less successful than it is in offering didacticism in the guise of a familiar tear-jerker, it would still be a novel worth highlighting for its brave early stance on the subject of slavery: one of the first efforts indeed to carry the fight to that section of the public that preferred a novel to a pamphlet.

 

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25/08/2017

Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 1)


 
    Pity me, Maria, pity me! even that quiet which my letters of late described, which I was contented to call happiness, is denied me. There is a fatality which every where attends the family of the unfortunate Roubigné; here, to the abodes of peace, perplexity pursues it; and it is destined to find new distress, from those scanty sources to which it looked for comfort.
The Count de Montauban—why did he see me? why did he visit here? why did I listen to his discourse? though Heaven knows, I meant not to deceive him!—He has declared himself the lover of your Julia!—I own his virtues, I esteem his character, I know the gratitude too we owe him; from all those circumstances I am doubly distressed at my situation; but it is impossible, it is impossible that I should love him. How could he imagine that I should? or how does he still continue to imagine that I may be won to love him? I softened my refusal, because I would distress no man; Montauban of all men the least; but surely it was determined enough, to cut off all hopes of my ever altering my resolution.
    Should not his pride teach him to cease such mortifying solicitations? How has it, in this instance alone, forsaken him? Methinks too, he has acted ungenerously, in letting my mother know of his addresses. When I hinted this, he fell at my feet, and intreated me to forgive a passion so earnest as his, for calling in every possible assistance. Cruel! that in this tenderest concern, that sex which is naturally feeble, should have other weaknesses to combat besides its own…

 
 

In the second half of the 18th century, as a result of increasing emphasis upon general education based upon egalitarian principles, a major and significant societal shift occurred in Scotland which on one hand produced remarkable accomplishments in the areas of science and medicine, and on the other the propagation of philosophical arguments which stressed rationalist thinking and humanitarianism, and the improvement of society through the moral and practical improvement of the self. While the so-called “Scottish Enlightenment” is best reflected by the philosophical works of David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, and the scientific writings of William Cullen, Joseph Black and James Hutton, it was also a time that embraced a national literature, best exemplified by the work of Robert Burns.

Henry Mackenzie was something of an anomalous figure within this movement. Though he knew and admired many of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, Mackenzie himself was a conservative thinker who resisted most of the more liberal theories of his contemporaries. A lawyer by training, Mackenzie’s position of Comptroller of Taxes for Scotland gave him the economic security to indulge his passion for writing. He became a major contributor to the important periodical magazines of the time, and eventually became editor for several years of two of them, The Mirror and The Lounger. He was also a playwright and a novelist—in his time and since best known for his first work of fiction, The Man Of Feeling, published in 1771, though written many years earlier.

Recent years have seen something of a reassessment of the works of Henry Mackenzie. Long considered a writer within the “cult of sensibility”, critical reading of his novels now suggests that he was, rather, attacking that movement in his novels. However, if indeed he did intend The Man Of Feeling to act that way, he overshot his mark by some distance: the work in question quickly attained and and still holds a reputation as the ne plus ultra of that lachrymose school of writing.

On the other hand, Mackenzie’s third and last novel, Julia de Roubigné, published in 1777, seems to have been recognised immediately as a critical examination of the tenets of sentimentalism.

This current consideration of Julia de Roubigné was prompted by some remarks which placed it within the timeline of the Gothic novel; and while it bears in outline little resemblance to the works of that genre, some of its details do warrant highlighting in that context. Though this is a wholly domestic novel, it gains some of its effects in a manner that would become a hallmark of the Gothic novel proper. Here, for example, is a just-married Julia reacting to her new home:

There was a presaging gloom about this mansion which filled my approach with terror; and when Montauban’s old domestic opened the coach-door, I looked upon him as a criminal might do on the messenger of death. My dreams ever since have been full of horror; and while I write these lines, the creaking of the pendulum of the great clock in the hall, sounds like the knell of your devoted Julia…

Furthermore, the character of the novel’s anti-hero, the Count de Montauban, would fit him for the role of Gothic villain, being conveyed in ominous signifiers such as “proud”, “stern”, “lofty” and “melancholy”.

The most obvious point, however, is Mackenzie’s choice to place his novel in France, and give it a male lead with Spanish ideas about “honour”. Mackenzie may have perceived sentimentalism as something which “infected” Britain from the Continent, even as the Scottish Enlightenment was heavily influenced by the new ways of thinking that were spreading across Europe in the 18th century. Or perhaps, like many British authors of this time, he felt that extravagant plots were most believable when set “somewhere else”.

Julia de Roubigné is an epistolary novel which, like The Man Of Feeling, carries an introduction from an editor explaining how he came into possession of the letters, and why he decided to arrange them in the given order. It is evident that the editor is meant to be one of the novel’s “characters”, rather than Mackenzie himself, both from his ideas about the nature of the entertainment he is offering, and his clear alignment with the cult of sensibility, seen in the value he finds in even the tiniest personal detail:

I found it a difficult task to reduce them into narrative, because they are made up of sentiment, which narrative would destroy. The only power I have exercised over them, is that of omitting letters, and passages of letters, which seem to bear no relation to the story I mean to communicate. In doing this, however, I confess I have been cautious: I love myself (and am apt therefore, from a common sort of weakness, to imagine that other people love) to read nature in her smallest character, and am often more apprised of the state of the mind, from very trifling, than from very important circumstances…

The novel proper features three main correspondents, each of them writing to a close friend, to whom they do not hesitate to “unfold themselves”: Julia herself, who writes to her best friend, Maria de Roncilles; the Count de Montauban, who writes to his best friend, Segarva; and Savillon, a young man raised within the de Roubigné family, who writes at different times to a M. Beauvaris in Paris, and to an English acquaintance, Mr Herbert, in Martinique. Narrative necessity will eventually introduce two other letter-writers, but the majority of the story is told from the perspective of these three.

The critical point about the letters given is that we never see those written in response. It is important to recognise that this is not another case of a novel being presented in epistolary form simply because that style happened to popular—as was the case with The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley. Instead, this is a deliberate authorial ploy to trap the reader within the the thoughts and, even more so, the emotions of the three main characters who, however else they may differ, have in common the dominant trait of allowing their impulses to override their judgement. In Henry Mackenzie’s mind, this is a tendency that can only lead to disaster.

Julia de Roubigné opens in the wake of a significant family upheaval: M. de Roubigné, Julia’s father, has lost a lawsuit which has cost him both his property and most of his fortune. Deeply embittered, he is forced to remove his wife and daughter from an existence divided between the luxury and entertainments of Paris and the dignity of an estate to a small, rather isolated country house. Mme de Roubigné and Julia try to show themselves contented with their new lot, and to do what they can to reconcile their husband and father to the situation, but between wounded pride and feelings of guilt, M. de Roubigné is a gloomy and difficult companion.

Finally, it is not the efforts of his womenfolk that eases the burden on M. de Roubigné, but the making of a new friend. In the Count de Montauban, a neighbour, he finds a man of ideas and feelings very similar to his own: upright, dignified and very proud, with little lightness or humour in his demeanour. Though his newly acquired thin skin makes him wary at first, M. de Roubigné becomes grateful for this new companionship, and gradually admits the Count into his family circle.

We see this introduction from the point of view of the Count who, we learn, though French by birth, has been raised in Spain and has Spanish ideas about morality and honour. As he admits to his correspondent, Segarva, returning to France has been difficult for him: he finds his countrymen frivolous and dissipated; while the less said about the behaviour of the women, the better. Not that (so we gather) the Count ever entertained much of an opinion of the female sex; he has no intention of marrying, of entrusting his honour to such a frail vessel.

Except—

    But her daughter, her lovely daughter!—with all the gentleness of her mother’s disposition, she unites the warmth of her father’s heart, and the strength of her father’s understanding. Her eyes in their silent state (if I may use the term) give the beholder every idea of feminine softness; when sentiment or feeling animates them, how eloquent they are! When Roubigné talks, I hate vice, and despise folly; when his wife speaks, I pity both; but the music of Julia’s tongue gives the throb of virtue to my heart, and lifts my soul to somewhat super-human.
    I mention not the graces of her form; yet they are such as would attract the admiration of those, by whom the beauties of her mind might not be understood. In one as well as the other, there is a remarkable conjunction of tenderness with dignity; but her beauty is of that sort, on which we cannot properly decide independent of the soul, because the first is never uninformed by the latter.
    To the flippancy, which we are apt to ascribe to females of her age, she seems utterly a stranger. Her disposition indeed appears to lean, in an uncommon degree, towards the serious. Yet she breaks forth at times into filial attempts at gaiety, to amuse that disquiet which she observes in her father; but even then it looks like a conquest over the natural pensiveness of her mind.

Julia, meanwhile, though glad indeed that her father has found a friend, and his spirits have both calmed and lifted, is repulsed by what she sees and senses of the hardness in the Count’s emotional makeup:

    In many respects, indeed, their sentiments are congenial. A high sense of honour is equally the portion of both. Montauban, from his long service in the army, and his long residence in Spain, carries it to a very romantic height. My father, from a sense of his situation, is now more jealous than ever of his. Montauban seems of a melancholy disposition. My father was far from being so once; but misfortune has now given his mind a tincture of sadness. Montauban thinks lightly of the world, from principle. My father, from ill-usage, holds it in disgust. This last similarity of sentiment is a favourite topic of their discourse, and their friendship seems to increase, from every mutual observation which they make. Perhaps it is from something amiss in our nature, but I have often observed the most strict of our attachments to proceed from an alliance of dislike.
    There is something hard and unbending in the character of the Count, which, though my father applauds it under the title of magnanimity, I own myself womanish enough not to like. There is a yielding weakness, which to me is more amiable than the inflexible right; it is an act of my reason to approve of the last; but my heart gives its suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause…

This is a curious and interesting moment. Hardly a reader, then or now, would expect or even desire Julia to prefer “inflexible right” to “yielding weakness”, or read this passage as anything other than the privileging of her “heart” over her “reason”; yet in retrospect, her admission – My heart gives its suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause – is the first ominous rumbling of the novel’s main theme.

Julia is dismayed when Montauban proposes to her, and grows angry when, after she refuses him, he nevertheless tells her parents about it, tacitly engaging their sympathy and support (prompting the quote given up above). However, while they certainly desire the match, the de Roubignés put no pressure on their daughter. Aware that her marriage would relieve her father of her support, and that there is certainly generosity in Montauban’s willingness to take her without a dowry, this forbearance makes Julia feel worse rather than better.

Julia de Roubigné strikes a false note here, giving us, in effect, English ideas in a French context. We must remember at this point that, unlike in other countries, in England the novel was from the outset a very middle-class form of literature, and spoke predominantly to that audience. This form of writing was a powerful vehicle for propagating new ideas, including those about love and marriage, and played a significant role in the acceptance of the notion that a girl should have the right, if not to choose her own husband, at least to say “no”. (This was one reason that girls reading novels was often disapproved: they got “ideas”.) If Julia was an English girl of the same social standing, say, of the landed gentry, then her parents’ unwillingness to pressure her might be considered advanced but reasonable. However, in pre-Revolution France, arranged marriages were very much the norm at this level of society. In this respect, Henry Mackenzie’s displacement of his narrative affects its credibility.

Julia’s examination of her feelings following Montauban’s proposal leads to a shocking realisation—shocking to her, in any event:

    The character you have heard of the Count de Montauban is just; it is perhaps even less than he merits; for his virtues are of that unbending kind, that does not easily stoop to the opinion of the world; to which the world therefore is not profuse of its eulogium. I revere his virtues, I esteem his good qualities; but I cannot love him.—This must be my answer to others: But Maria has a right to something more; she may be told my weakness, for her friendship can pity and support it.
    Learn then that I have not a heart to bestow.—I blush even while I write this confession—Yet to love merit like Savillon’s cannot be criminal.—Why then do I blush again, when I think of revealing it?

Savillon is the son of an old friend of de Roubigné, who effectively adopted the boy after his father’s death. He and Julia almost grew up together, even having the same nurse; sharing some of their lessons and learning to think alike on many subjects. However, Savillon’s general situation was a difficult one: his birth was somewhat inferior to Julia’s, and his father’s death left him poor. When, as a young man, he was sent for by his uncle in Martinique, who offered to start him in business, he felt that he could not refuse to go.

Julia’s recognition of her feelings leads us to another of the book’s critical passages:

To know such a man; to see his merit; to regret that yoke which Fortune had laid upon him—I am bewildered in sentiment again.—In truth, my story is the story of sentiment. I would tell you how I began to love Savillon; but the trifles, by which I now mark the progress of this attachment, are too little for description…

Here, of course, Julia finds herself in that familiar deplorable heroine’s situation, conscious that she loves a man without being certain that he loves her. She thinks he does; she believes he does; she sees how honour would have held him silent, considering his circumstances. But

I know I am partial to my own cause; yet I am sensible of all the impropriety with which my conduct is attended. My conduct, did I call it? It is not my conduct; I err but in thought. Yet, I fear, I suffered these thoughts at first without alarm. They have grown up, unchecked, in my bosom, and now I would controul them in vain. Should I know myself indifferent to Savillon, would not my pride set me free? I sigh, and dare not say that it would…

The distinction made here between “conduct” and “thought” would have set alarm bells ringing for contemporary readers.

However, Julia at least has the reassurance of hearing that Maria agrees with her about the sinfulness of marrying one man while loving another—however futile that love:

    I have ever thought as you do, “That it is not enough for a woman not to swerve from the duty of a wife; that to love another more than a husband, is an adultery of the heart; and not to love a husband with undivided affection, is a virtual breach of the vow that unites us.”
    But I dare not own to my father the attachment from which these arguments are drawn. There is a sternness in his idea of honour, from which I shrink with affright. Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself. Even before my mother, as his wife, I tremble, and dare not disclose it…

Just as well, too, because her castles in the sky are about to come crashing down upon her:

    I have now time to think and power to express my thoughts—It is midnight and the world is hushed around me! After the agitation of this day, I feel something silently sad at my heart, that can pour itself out to my friend!
    Savillon! cruel Savillon!—but I complain, as if it were falsehood to have forgotten her whom perhaps he never loved.
    She too must forget him—Maria! he is the husband of another! That sea-captain, who dined with my father to day, is just returned from Martinique. With a beating heart I heard him questioned of Savillon. With a beating heart I heard him tell of the riches he is said to have acquired by the death of that relation with whom he lived; but judge of its sensations, when he added, that Savillon was only prevented by that event, from marrying the daughter of a rich planter, who had been destined for his wife on the very day his uncle died, and whom he was still to marry as soon as decency would permit.

Again and again Julia must remind herself that there was no word of love spoken between herself and Savillon, and therefore no breach of honour. But this is comfort of the coldest kind, as Julia is left to writhe in the agonies of that special hell preserved for 18th and 19th century heroines who fall in love without being “bidden”.

Julia’s sufferings attract the attention of her mother, who feels the need to speak a few cautionary words to her; though even as she speaks them, she knows (from experience?) that they will probably fall upon deaf ears until it is too late:

“Your mind, child (continued my mother) is too tender; I fear it is, for this bad world. You must learn to conquer some of its feelings, if you would be just to yourself; but I can pardon you, for I know how bewitching they are; but trust me, my love, they must not be indulged too far; they poison the quiet of our lives. Alas! we have too little at best! I am aware how ungracious the doctrine is; but it is not the less true. If you ever have a child like yourself, you will tell her this, in your turn, and she will not believe you.”

(Which, by the way, is a fairly astonishing admission for a novel of this vintage; certainly in the phrasing of it in terms of the natural resistance of youth to cold prudence, rather than of outright wickedness in not believing every word a parent says.)

While Julia wrestles with her own emotions, another blow falls upon the family. While the devastating law-suit has been settled via the ceding of the de Roubigné property, the associated legal costs have not—and these added expenses can only be met by giving up the final mite of de Roubigné’s fortune and the family’s comparatively humble retreat. Genuine poverty stares them in the face.

Mackenzie resorts to a sly and suggestive literary reference here, as de Roubigné prepares to reveal this latest catastrophe to his wife and daughter:

    On his return in the evening, he found my mother and me in separate apartments. She has complained of a slight disorder, from cold I believe, these two or three days past, and had lain down on a couch in her own room, till my father should return. I was left alone, and sat down to read my favourite Racine.
    “Iphigenia! (said my father, taking up the book) Iphigenia!” He looked on me piteously as he repeated the word. I cannot make you understand how much that single name expressed, nor how much that look…

(We must understand here that in Racine’s version of the story, Iphigenia is so dutiful a daughter, she can hardly wait to be sacrificed by her father…)

And though at this point it seems that nothing else can go wrong for the family, the most overwhelming blow of all follows when Mme de Roubigné’s illness proves fatal. Knowing that her death is imminent, she gathers her strength to speak parting words to her daughter:

    The night before she died, she called me to her bed-side:—“I feel, my child, (said she) as the greatest bitterness of parting, the thought of leaving you to affliction and distress. I have but one consolation to receive or to bestow: A reliance on that merciful Being, who, in this hour, as in all the past, has not forsaken me! Next to that Being, you will shortly be the only remaining support of the unfortunate Roubigné.—I had, of late, looked on one measure as the means of procuring his age an additional stay; but I will not prescribe your conduct, or warp your heart…”
    These words cannot be forgotten! they press upon my mind with the sacredness of a parent’s dying instructions! But that measure they suggested—is it not against the dictates of a still superior power? I feel the thoughts of it as of a crime. Should it be so, Maria; or do I mistake the whispers of inclination for the suggestions of conscience?

For one of the few times in the novel, we are given a clear intimation of what Maria says in answer to this, and it isn’t what Julia wanted to hear. Maria accuses her of nursing her feelings for Savillon instead of honestly striving to overcome them, as she is now duty bound to do, and thus of being guilty of “a want of proper pride”.

Julia’s response is fascinating—at once a perfectly reasoned and reasonable argument, and a still louder ringing of the warning bell.

We have considered before the grave difficulty faced by young women at this time, with many being pressured into marriage upon an assurance that they would “learn” to love their husbands. Imagine my surprise when the emotionally irrational Julia de Roubigné offered the perfect riposte (and from a man’s pen!):

The suggestions I have heard of Montauban’s unwearied love, his uncommon virtues, winning my affections in a state of wedlock, I have always held a very dangerous experiment; there is equivocation in those vows, which unite us to a husband, our affection for whom we leave to contingency.—“But I already esteem and admire him.”—It is most true;—why is he not contented with my esteem and admiration? If those feelings are to be ripened into love, let him wait that period when my hand may be his without a blush. This I have already told him; he almost owned the injustice of his request, but pleaded the ardour of passion in excuse. Is this fair dealing, Maria? that his feelings are to be an apology for his suit, while mine are not allowed to be a reason for refusal?

Yet alas, this is not what we are to take away from this exchange of opinions, but rather Julia’s initial rejection of Maria’s counsel:

There is reason in all this; but while you argue from reason, I must decide from my feelings…

Surprisingly, after some consideration de Montauban concedes the strength of Julia’s argument, withdrawing his suit and apologising for causing disturbance in the family in their time of grief. This seeming generosity takes Julia off-guard, and softens her feelings towards him. However, de Montauban’s next move is quietly to pay off the final crushing debt hanging over de Roubigné’s head, saving him and daughter from ruin and eviction and, in de Roubigné’s case, a debtor’s prison…and leaving Julia with little choice.

(This is not presented as a deliberate ploy on de Montauban’s part, but it is impossible to believe this outcome wasn’t lurking somewhere in the back of his mind.)

The Count’s announcement of his triumph in a letter to his friend, Segarva, also contains a great deal of back-pedalling. This is, after all, a man who has always held a low opinion of the female sex, of Frenchwomen in particular, and who always swore he would never marry: sentiments in which Segarva wholeheartedly joined him:

    Trust me, thy fears are groundless—didst thou but know her as I do!—Perhaps I am tenderer that way than usual; but there were some of your fears I felt a blush at in reading. Talk not of the looseness of marriage-vows in France, nor compare her with those women of it, whose heads are giddy with the follies of fashion, and whose hearts are debauched by the manners of its votaries. Her virtue was ever above the breath of suspicion, and I dare pledge my life, it will ever continue so. But that is not enough; I can feel, as you do, that it is not enough. I know the nobleness of her soul, the delicacy of her sentiments. She would not give me her hand except from motives of regard and affection, were I master of millions…
    You talk of her former reluctance; but I am not young enough to imagine that it is impossible for a marriage to be happy without that glow of rapture which lovers have felt and poets described. Those starts of passion are not the basis for wedded felicity, which wisdom would chuse, because they are only the delirium of a month, which possession destroys, and disappointment follows. I have perfect confidence in the affection of Julia, though it is not of that intemperate kind, which some brides have shewn.  Had you seen her eyes, how they spoke, when her father gave me her hand! there was still a reluctance in them, a reluctance more winning than all the flush of consent could have made her. Modesty and fear, esteem and gratitude, darkened and enlightened them by turns; and those tears, those silent tears, which they shed, gave me a more sacred bond of her attachment, than it was in the power of words to have formed…

With nothing to wait for, the marriage takes place in only a few days’ time. Julia reports her intentions to Maria but, as the time draws near, finds herself unable to write again—since (we understand) her letters are reports of her feelings, and her feelings are particularly what she does not wish to share. It is left to her maid, Lisette, to send off a report to Maria, in which the position occupied by women in society at the time is presented to us all the more painfully for the complete obliviousness of the person making the point (emphasis mine):

And then her eyes, when she gave her hand to the Count! they were cast half down, and you might see her eye-lashes, like strokes of a pencil, over the white of her skin—the modest gentleness, with a sort of a sadness too, as it were, and a gentle heave of her bosom at the same time;—O! Madam, you know I have not language, as my lady and you have, to describe such things; but it made me cry, in truth it did, for very joy and admiration. There was a tear in my master’s eye too, though I believe two happier hearts were not in France, than his and the Count de Montauban’s

When Julia finally does write again to Maria, it is to apologise for her neglect, which she puts in terms of, not merely not wishing to share her feelings, but of not being able to put them into words. However, she makes it clear that understands the step she has taken, and means to do her duty, if nothing else:

Montauban and virtue! I am your’s. Suffer but one sigh to that weakness which I have not yet been able to overcome. My heart, I trust, is innocent—blame it not for being unhappy.

Yet this vow comes in the middle of Julia caught once again between her reason and her feelings, when in packing up her things she comes across a miniature of Savillon drawn when he was only a boy, which she has had in her possession for many years:

The question comes strong upon me, how I should like that my husband had seen this.—In truth, Maria, I fear my keeping this picture is improper; yet at the time it was painted, there was one drawn for me by the same hand, and we exchanged resemblances without any idea of impropriety. Ye unfeeling decorums of the world!—Yet it is dangerous; is it not, my best monitor, to think thus?—Yet, were I to return the picture would it not look like a suspicion of myself?—I will keep it, till you convince me I should not…

 

[To be continued…]

 

16/03/2017

Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge

    Herbert called late in the afternoon. When he entered the room, by invitation, Madeline was supported by some pillows, in a half-reclining position, looking through the window at the setting sun, and the soft rays lingered upon her faded cheek, and cast a delicately beautiful, but melancholy, glow over her face.
    “Are you better?” tenderly asked Herbert.
    “I do not know, Mr. Leslie,” answered Madeline.
    “I was just thinking,” she continued, “that I should not mind to die if I could sink to rest as quietly as yonder sun glides away in its beautiful vermillion shroud. I love to look upon the serene face of nature, and imagine that I can see God smiling with goodness, mercy and love; and that I can see bright angels standing upon the craggy points of the snow-white little clouds that float dreamily in the blue sea: that I can see harps in their hands, and diadems upon their brows. Yes, I love nature. There is no dissimulation in the works of our Father. There is no deceit ‘graven upon Jehovah’s heart.'”
    Herbert’s head dropped upon his bosom. These words found their way to his heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 
I’ll say this for James Summerfield Slaughter: he wastes no time whatsoever letting us know exactly what’s in store for us during a reading of his 1859 novel, Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge. Allow me to quote in full his preface:

    We will not detain you, reader, with a long Preface. The author indulges the hope, that our first meeting in the relations of reader and writer may not be disagreeable. He will not disguise that it is with feelings of parental solicitude for a kindly greeting from generous hearts, that his little ideal “MADELINE” is sent abroad to distant home circles.
    The present work is no candidate for fame. If the views and sentiments it presents, shall gladden the hearts of a single wayward fellow-being, or whispers consolation to a mourner of earth, or give encouragement to one struggling for the cause of virtue, then the author will have sufficient recompense in knowing that he has contributed something to the noble and good influences that redeem the world from the thraldom of sin, and invest life with beauty, unequaled by those glittering stars in the purple throne of night, and a fragrance more grateful than the bright flowers of earth.

Slaughter is dead on the mark when he calls his novel “no candidate for fame”. Though at this time Americans had a great appetite for sensation novels, they had also had sufficient exposure to enough well-written ones to be able to discriminate; and despite the preening that lurks behind the mock humility of this preface, and the lofty claims made for the novel in its advertisements, I am unable to believe that the first readers of Madeline greeted it with anything other than guffaws, despite its impeccable Southern credentials.

I give the eponymous Madeline star-billing in the quote up above, but the sad truth is that for most of the narrative she is an almost entirely passive figure, sitting alone in her antebellum mansion and twiddling her thumbs while the plot – or “plot” – plays out elsewhere in the country. It is only towards the end, when the machinations of the wicked Herbert reach their climax, that she is given much to do in the story that bears her name.

The book opens with Madeline Lindsey being deserted by her brother, Albinus, who (without a hint of authorial criticism) has decided that exploring in the north-west is a lot more interesting than staying at home to care for his orphaned young sister and run their plantation, even if he gets killed in the process, which he seems fully to expect; and not content with this, he takes with him both his friend Douglas Hardy, who is secretly in love with Madeline but considers himself ineligible, and the plantation’s mainstay, a devoted old black servant called – I kid you not – “Uncle Tom”.

I’m sure you can imagine the tenor of Uncle Tom’s discourse and his general conduct, but just to make sure, here’s a sample:

    It was in one of these musings in his office, late one evening, as he was sitting by his desk arranging his affairs to leave for the North-West, that Uncle Tom entered with a message.
    “Is that you, Uncle Tom?” spoke Douglas kindly, “and what can I do for you? I suppose I must not forget to leave you some keep-sake to repay you, in part, for your kindness to me, and to take a pledge from you, that you will never forget to favour your young mistress.”
    Here Uncle Tom began to draw out his large cotton ‘kerchief, for the tears were already gushing in his eyes.
    “God bless you, massa Douglas! poor old Tom goin’ too. Just to think! he stay home and let massa Binus go way off, and be killed by the Injuns, and no body to nuss him and take care of him! Old Tom ‘tends to go with the darling. He’s de berry pictur ob old Massa.”

So, basically, the hell with Madeline: the three go off without arranging any sort of company or assistance for her. She manages to locate and hire a middle-aged couple, the Carsons, he to act as overseer, she as companion-housekeeper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its heroine’s isolated situation, we have progressed no further than page 8 before we get the first of the novel’s interpolated narratives, as Madeline asks Aunt Phebe, as she is known, for her life story. We learn that she was a native of Havana, and that while she was rescued from a fire at a theatre, her father was killed, leaving her an orphan—and an heiress. Her rescuer was a Mr Carson, with whom she promptly fell in love. An amusing recapitulation of Madeline’s own situation then occurs, with Phebe left alone at her father’s plantation and hiring a couple to work for her and keep her company. Also like Madeline (as it will later turn out), Phebe became subject to romantic persecution, with a fiery young Spaniard, Don Pedro Montie, whom she had already rejected, renewing his attentions. She rejects him again, with immediate consequences: she finds in her carriage a bullet dyed red, and attached to it a note reading, Beware the Spaniard’s revenge! She then learns that Mr Carson has been arrested:

I…told him that I desired him to find out the facts—the charge, and especially by whom preferred—and to report to me, enjoining him to keep the whole affair profoundly secret. He departed on his mission, and returned in a few hours. The charge, he stated to be conspiracy against the Government, preferred by Pedro Montie!

Duh, we might think. Turns out ol’ Pedro’s messing with the wrong woman, though: learning that Carson has been condemned to the chain-gang, Phebe sends her servant out again to find where he is held at night. Meanwhile, she makes her own preparations:

I drew the Red Bullet from my pocket, and retired to my father’s old desk and got a pistol that I knew to be there. When a girl, my father learned me to shoot with great accuracy. The pistol was loaded. I drew from the draw an ace of hearts—stepped back twenty paces—fired, and drove out the heart! The shot restored my confidence that I had not lost the skill with which I used to shoot. I returned to my room—charged the pistol—put in the Red Bullet

Phebe and her servant devise a scheme to break Carson out, but are surprised in the middle of the enterprise:

    “Ha, ha! Beware of a Spaniard’s revenge!”
    I recognised Pedro Montie by the first gleam of the lantern. In a moment, I replied—
    “Yes! and BEWARE OF THE RED BULLET!”
    My pistol was discharged. I saw the figure reel in the dim, gloomy light and heard a groan. Mr Carson was by my side. We leaped into the carriage and dashed away…

Now both fugitives, Phebe and Carson are forced to take refuge in a haunted castle…leading to an interpolated nattative within an interpolated narrative, and the story of a lovely young noblewoman being forced into a hateful marriage, and the brave but foolhardy page whom she really loved. On her marriage-day the bride chose rather to kill herself; lamentations over her body were startlingly interrupted:

    The sharp report of a pistol, followed by a stream of blood, sent a thrill of terror through the crowd of spectators. The father fell down upon the floor and cried wildly:
    “Retribution! Retribution!
    Don Leon staggered back, fell and expired.
    “Ha, ha! They thought to rob me of my lady love. I see her now!” His eyes was fixed wildly upon the ceiling. “I am coming, Adelaide!” and, as he spoke, he stabbed himself…

By the way, if you don’t come away from a reading of this blog post the same way I came away from a reading of this novel, namely, crying, “Ha, ha!” upon the flimsiest of pretexts, I shall be very disappointed in you.

Of course (as Madeline actually points out), this has nothing to do with anything, so instead Phebe recounts her own terrifying night in the haunted castle, where she encountered a madwoman believing herself to be the Prophetess of Fire and a chained up “man-monster”. As you do. The madwoman turned out be be an old friend of Phebe’s who was seduced and abandoned, and then lost her mind. (But don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation of the man-monster.)

Phebe and Carson – “Ben” to us now – find an American minister to marry them, and then flee Cuba, leaving all their worldly goods behind and taking with them Phebe’s own faithful servant, “Old Juan”. (Sigh.) Then three of them hop into a boat and set out to sail from Cuba to Florida—but of course get shipwrecked on a desert island on the way. They are rescued, make it eventually to New Orleans, and find work. Old Juan dies without lacerating our sensibilities any more; and then there is only one more incident to recount before Phebe wraps up her life-story:

“The other event was the loss of our child. We were blessed with a child, who gave us more pleasure than all the world besides.
Percy—that was his name—attained the age of twelve, was merry as a song-bird, and as sportive as the lambkin. One morning he went to the beach, drawn I suppose, by idle curiosity or pleasure; but never returned. We have no doubt that he was drowned…”

That, or he ran away upon discovering that his mother was in the habit of describing him to random strangers as “sportive as the lambkin”.

So, we’re about 30% of our way through Madeline now without its heroine doing much more than listening to stories, and since that’s not about to change any time soon, we (like her own brother) now abandon Madeline for the middle of nowhere, and are introduced to a young woman in every way more interesting than she is—even if she does have what I’m inclined to call “an obvious character flaw”:

White Fawn was the daughter of an Indian chief. She was just blooming into woman-hood—an intelligent, beautiful girl. You would hardly believe that she was an Indian. True, her cheeks were slightly bronzed—and very slightly—but her forehead and chin was perfectly fair; her face possessed a peculiar attraction; the contour was bold and well-marked; her eyes first drew your attention; her nose, you would admit, was beautiful; but when you beheld her hair float back from a broad, snowy forehead, you at once felt the magic of the beauty of an Indian girl…

…who within a single page of her introduction is spurning her would-be native husband for the attractions of a wandering white man and having oblique conversations with Chief Radiola about her paternity. Sigh.

Discovering that the spurned Hawk is plotting bloody revenge, White Fawn slips away through the snowy woods to where Albinus Lindsey, Douglas Hardy, Uncle Tom and a third white man to whom we are not immediately introduced are camped. The latter is the object of White Fawn’s passion. Upon receiving White Fawn’s warning, the men break camp and try to slip away, but are ambushed by Hawk and his followers, and White Fawn and her lover carried away. The others follow and manage an ambush of their own. They carry White Fawn back to her father, who immediately goes on the war-path against Hawk. The others agree to fight with him, but only after White Fawn’s still-nameless lover has, with her father’s consent, placed her with a family living at safe distance—and who, Could not readily believe, that she was an Indiansigh.

The conflict begins, and at the last moment Radiola’s men are reinforced:

He did not make his appearance until the silent moment that precedes the dreadful battle-shock. His equipage was very handsome, even dazzling. He wore a dark velvet frock-coat, beautifully and ingeniously inwrought with beads—bright military buttons and a red scarf—yellow buff pants and light, well formed boots that came to the knee; a beautiful belt encircled the waist, and a light, straightsword hung glittering by his side. The form was slender and extremely graceful. A mask concealed the face. He rode a wild, spirited black horse that stamped the earth and danced, while the rein fell carelessly upon the flowing mane…

In the middle of the ongoing war, the unnamed man is decoyed away and imprisoned. At this point the narrative lurches once again, and we are finally informed of his identity—and, oh surprise!—

    He is Percy Carson—the lost child. Wandering down to the beach on a beautiful spring morning, to view the many objects of attraction to be seen along the “sounding shore,” he met with a man who seemed to be selecting shells.
    “What is your name ?” asked the stranger.
    “Percy Carson, sir,” replied the lad, raising his bright eyes to the questioner’s face.
    The man started back as if an apparition was before him, and then recovering his self-possesion from the shock, assumed an air of perfect indifference. Like Lucifer, in the shape of a toad, to whisper in the ear of Eve while she reposed beneath the fragrant bower in the Garden—while the silver stars glittered above Paradise and trembled upon the four rivers, and the angel watchers winged through the mystic light—this man had assumed a shape, a countenance, not his own, and to beguile, like a lurking demon, an innocent child…

It is soon revealed that the Red Bullet didn’t finish its work:

This man is Don Montie. The infernal spirit of revenge has possessed him, as the unclean spirit possessed the man “who had his dwelling among the tombs” in the days of Christ. It has been his accursed incentive ever since his overtures to Phebe Laniz. He has now followed her to America to get another opportunity of glutting his terrible passion—to rob a mother’s heart of its dearest object. All of life’s aims and purposes, were swallowed up in the one thought—Revenge!

Despite what we might fear from all this, Don Pedro’s plan is merely to, Bind the noble-spirited boy with dark chains of dissipation, and then send him back to his doating mother—a captive of the Evil One: a process slow enough to allow for his rescue by another stranger, this one well-intentioned, who turns out to be Percy’s uncle-by-marriage.

We then hear the history of Mr Shelley and Aurelia Laniz, the latter of whom bore the brunt of Don Pedro’s anger after Ben and Phebe escaped. Using his influence, Don Pedro arrived at the Laniz estate to confiscate the family’s property, only to be thoroughly cowed by a lecture from the spirited Aurelia:

“It is false that my brother fled for the commission of a crime. It is meanly false that I have had any complicity in a conspiracy against the government of this Island. We were both, however, born too free, upon the soil of America, not to despise, upon the one hand, the grinding tyranny of the government, and, upon the other hand, the cowardly submission and servility of a large portion of the population; and had I power commensurate with my desire, I would drag down the regal fabric upon the heads of both tyrant and willing submission. There breathes not an American, animated by the genius of the free institutions of his native land, who does not abhor the vile vassalage imposed by the bloody minded mother government, and old Moro Castle with her bristling cannons, may one day yield as readily to American arms as the famed Castle of San Juan de Ulla did.”

Mr Shelley, a spectator of this scene, is swept off his feet by this patriotic eloquence—though he expresses his passion in practical terms, determining by law what part of the estate has been secured to Aurelia, and holding that when the rest is confiscated. The two are married, and for a time blissfully happy, until one day Aurelia dies suddenly—poisoned. The grieving Mr Shelley learns that he has had a narrow escape:

Mr Shelley would have met the same fate, but for the fact that he was perusing the daily journals, as was his custom, while his cup of tea was cooling. For years he had read the daily papers while sitting at the table by a smoking breakfast. To this habit he owed his life, in this instance.

Mr Shelley and Percy throw in their lots together and set off to make a new life for themselves.

(“What!?” I said out loud at this point. “Didn’t they even try to find his parents!?”—a question not answered for some considerable time, and as an obvious afterthought: “Oh, yeah! We, uh, we looked for them but they weren’t there. Sure, that’s what happened…”)

Anyway, somewhat surprisingly, Percy becomes an actor—and, At the age of twenty, he became what is called in theatrical parlance, “a star.”

But not everyone is a fan, and one night Percy has his performance interrupted by hissing, issuing from none other than Don Pedro—who seems to have moderated somewhat his ideas on “revenge”.

Percy, like his Aunt Aurelia, is undaunted:

“I can brook insults from so great a villain as Don Montie. It is a serpentine hiss, and I am willing that he shall roll in the slime and eat the dust of his own degradation.”

Percy goes on to denounce Don Pedro’s villainy and cowardice, until, with all eyes in the theatre upon him, Don Pedro cannot do other than respond with a challenge. To his dismay, Percy leaps at this:

    “I trust this large and respectable audience will remain perfectly quiet. I need not affirm that I have not been the cause of this uninteresting quarrel, but I wish you to witness its end. I accept your challenge,” he said, as he fixed his eyes fiercely upon Don Montie, “which was thrown out with the vain expectation that the time would be set in the future; but I prefer this moment—upon this stage, the place—repeaters, the weapons—across a pocket-handkerchief, the distance—we will need no seconds.”
    “Rash youth!” exclaimed one.
    “He’s a brave one!” answered the second.
    “He’ll do to let alone,” observed the third.
    In a moment suggestions ceased, and every one awaited, with breathless interest, to see the result.
    Don Montie sank down upon his seat, turning pale, and great drops of perspiration gathering upon his forehead. He essayed not to utter a word.
    “Coward! Coward!” ran through the audience.
    Percy bowed gracefully to the crowd, and retired under a shower of boquets…

The narrative then wrenches again, and we catch up with Don Pedro some months later. Another interpolated narrative, this one the life-story of Don Pedro and how he came to be eaten up by—Revenge!—a story peppered with vague references to various crimes committed in his past, some of which sound familiar to us. However, the centrepiece of the tale is Don Pedro’s repeated, La Belle Dame Sans Merci encounters with a strange woman (who we sort-of recognise as the Prophetess of Fire), who again and again ambushed him while he was riding, leaping up behind his saddle and forcing him to ride wildly by holding a knife to his throat.

And in the very midst of Don Pedro’s reflections, the woman appears to him again—this time forcing him into the burial vault of an old and noble Spanish family:

    The view was at once awful—they were in a charnal-house—a Golgotha. Human bones lay profusely about, while in the centre there was a heap of bones some two or three feet high.
    “Now, sir,” spoke the woman, as they came to the vault, “I have brought you hither to show you the place where your bones will soon be piled. No grave yard shall be your resting place, but here your body shall remain until the day of final accounts. Do you know
me?”
    Don Montie shook his head solemnly in reply to the interrogation.
    “Ah! you feign forgetfulness of one whom you injured—victimised—robbed of her chastity,” continued the woman, and there was a fearful emphasis in her expression… “You have lived only to persecute—to blast the happiness of others—to lurk about and accomplish mischief—to war upon women and children! You are a murderer—a forger—and—and—”
    The woman paused for a moment, and laughed frantically, and then continued—
    “A seducer! You turned me loose upon the world, covered with shame and scorn and misery; blasted—robbed of hope—debarred from virtuous society—with no claim for sympathy, while you mingled in the festive throng, and was admitted in society—and all the while you laughed at the credulity of woman. You shall now realise that a woman, weak though she may be, is yet strong enough and capable of avenging herself…”

And so Don Pedro meets an appropriately gruesome end.

The narrative (some 50% passed) then jumps back to—gasp!—the story of Madeline Lindsey. Remember her? Her author finally did:

This scene is going on at Woodland. Madeline and Douglas Hardy have been engaged over twelve months. He has been in the North-west, with his friends, nearly two years.

Thanks for sharing; this is the first we’ve heard about it.

But all is not well between Madeline and the man who prefers wandering around pointlessly in the snow to spending time with her. His letters complain (ironically enough) of her coldness, and demand that they break their engagement. Madeline is angry and indignant, as well as miserable and confused: she endures a state of suffering relieved only by the friendship of a young man called Herbert Leslie, who likes to read poetry with her.

That old ploy.

It is soon revealed to us that between desire for Madeline and desire for her property and fortune, Herbert has launched upon an elaborate scheme to break up her relationship (such as it is) with Douglas, intercepting their letters and getting a useful forger-friend to substitute some of his own composition. The forger, Tom Martin, is (fittingly enough) getting cold feet, but Herbert scoffs at his scruples:

“I will undeceive her when I have succeeded, and the joke has gone far enough for all practical purposes. By that time I will have established my claims as a good husband, and we will laugh it all over as a clever bit of pleasantry. It will no doubt divert her, that you could so successfully counterfeit Douglas Hardy’s handwriting.”

Madeline is deceived by Herbert’s insinuating demeanour; Aunt Phebe is glad of anything that can cheer her up these days; but Ben Carson has suspicions that receive support from an anonymous letter denouncing Herbert as “a monster” and warning of a plot against Madeline. Until now Ben has not been informed of the situation with Douglas, but when an anguished Madeline reveals it he puts two and two together and decides that Herbert has somehow had a hand in things. Madeline rejects this idea, but the suggestion that she has a false friend as well as a false lover is too much for her, and her health begins to fail. It is not long before Herbert has reason to fear he has seriously overreached himself…

In a moment of overwhelming guilt, Herbert confesses. The revelation is a blow that Madeline cannot withstand in her already enfeebled condition. Soon the household is gathered about what they expect to be her death-bed…

…and the narrative jumps back to the North-West, where in the middle of bemoaning Madeline’s conduct towards him, Douglas receives a letter alerting him to the truth, and sets out at once for Woodland…

…and the narrative abandons both of them to follow the adventures of Albinus Lindsey, who we shall give the benefit of the doubt for the moment and assume doesn’t know about his sister’s situation, since the text never bothers to verify that point. He encounters an old friend of the family and accepts an invitation to his home, Clifton Hill.

Mr Wolsey, a year earlier, married a widow with four children; he has since learned not only to resent his step-children, but to be actively cruel to them: among other things, using their money, of which he is trustee, for his own children’s advantage:

Mr Wolsey had cherished a secret prejudice against the Leighton orphans, and all because they elicited more attention from the public than his own children. How revolting, that a man should have prejudice against an innocent, fatherless child! How terrible must be the curse that awaits such a being. Alone in the world, untaught in the great business of life, with no great throbbing heart of sympathy to lean upon when fever racks the brain and gives hot eye-balls! Vile man! to feel no kindly impulse for the orphan in your charge!

(Unexpectedly, and one of the few genuinely interesting things in this silly novel, the narrative will later contend that Mrs Wolsey’s first duty was to her children, and that she should have left her husband when she saw his attitude towards them.)

Almost immediately, Wolsey begins making plans for Albinus and his daughter, Louise. Albinus, however, has rediscovered a childhood friend in the youngest of the Leightons (although given what must be the age gap between them, the subsequent description of how they used to “romp together in the woods” has an uncomfortable edge; however—):

Nannie was a simple child of nature. Her heart knew no guile. She never knew the artfulness of society—the cunning and address of the world, but her heart and hands were as pure as the riven snow of the mountains. Her face was full and fair, and tinged with the healthful life-current that bounded through vein and artery; her wavy, tressy hair was as dark as a raven’s; her lips soft and delicate, and her form was perfect and graceful. She deserved to be called “Pretty Nannie.” She was known far away for her beauty, gentleness and intelligence. Her life was as quiet and even as the little brook that flows along its smooth channel, and murmurs its pleasing, rippling song, and kisses the flowers that bow their delicate faces to the stream for a grateful drop. But in the hidden depths of her heart were glorious sentiments—worthy, noble, pure, holy sentiments!

Sorry—I’m with Mr Wolsey on this one.

Albinus and Nannie go walking together and, when Albinus expresses admiration of a “grand peak” in the district, Nannie is moved to offer an interpolated narrative—that of “The Man Of The Rock”, a wanderer who, in his youth, fell in love with the same girl as his brother, and killed him in a jealous rage. After many years of bitter repentance, the man fell in love with a pretty Italian flower-seller (as you do), and finally overcame both her mother’s doubts and his own feeling that he deserved no happiness in life, and married her. The two had a daughter, but Gabriella died. After placing his child—somewhere—the man returned to the mountains where he and his wife had been happy, and jumped off a cliff…

The narrative then lurches back to Woodland—where Douglas Hardy arrives in time only to hold Madeline’s dead body in his arms…and promptly loses his mind. He is locked up for his own safety while her burial is conducted, but no sooner has he been freed than he undertakes a little body-snatching…

Just as well, too:

    There was the verification—a figure before them, in burial habiliments sitting up and possessed of life.
    “This is a strange world!” began the ghostly figure. “How strange!”
    “It’s Madeline Lindsey!” exclaimed several…
    The dead’s alive! She had been lowered into the silent grave as dead, was resurrected to life—for she moves and breathes and speaks…

It turns out that Herbert Leslie drugged Madeline with something that brought on the appearance of death, that Tom Martin warned everyone frantically that she wasn’t dead, only drugged, and that the doctors and undertakers went ahead anyway, in spite of everyone agreeing that “she did not look dead”, and a corpse that “retained something of a perspiration, and the colour of life”—yike!

Douglas (whose resurrection-work goes politely unremarked) hunts down Herbert and is about to murder him when a mysterious old man intervenes, arguing that he should allow Herbert to be “blasted by God’s vengeance” instead.

As for our undead heroine—

One month from the occurrences just narrated, she was completely restored to her wonted vivacity of feeling and vigorous, blooming health; so entirely that Douglas Hardy again took his leave of Woodland to return to the North-West…

To be fair, this time there’s some excuse for him: he doesn’t know what has happened to either Albinus or Percy. Surprisingly, the narrative stays with Madeline, who gets lost while out riding. With a violent storm coming, she finds herself in a steep, rocky ravine, and makes her way into a winding, secret cave—which turns out to be a bandit’s hideout. While she (and her horse) are hiding in a narrow tunnel, she overhears two of the bandits discussing their latest recruit—none other than Herbert Leslie. She learns to her horror of another plot against herself, when the bandits express doubts about “warring on women”, and hears to her confusion a reference to her father:

“I think—I know that my father died at sea, when I was a child. So I have always heard, and had it not been true, he would certainly have appeared in the interim of fifteen years…”

Oh, certainly! Madeline tries to convince herself that some other girl, lucky enough to have a father, is the target of the plot. She also starts looking for an escape route from the cave, carefully eluding the bandits as she (and her horse) try to find another way out. She glimpses a distant ray of light—hears strange music—and eventually finds herself confronted by a woman who, having been seduced and abandoned by one of the bandits, chose to stay in the cave rather than face the world again. The miserable woman tells Madeline that there are other ways out, but she doesn’t know where they are; so Madeline (and her horse) press on, only to be confronted by—a bear! Madeline has a pistol with her, and arms herself, but before she can take action—her horse springs into action!

You wondered why her horse was being dragged through all this, didn’t you??

Madeline and Snow Ball between them manage to overcome the bear, but their troubles are hardly over:

    “Ha! we have met!” exclaimed a voice near.
    Madeline started up with affright and turned to see who it was that spoke. It was Herbert Leslie!

Snow Ball again intervenes, and this time, sadly, gets a bullet in the chest for her pains. But before Herbert can carry out his nefarious intentions towards Madeline, he gets a bullet in his chest:

    Madeline raised her head to discover from whence her deliverance came. Upon the bank above, just on the verge of the channel stood an old man with a rifle in his hand, apparently as collected as if nothing had occurred.
    “I will draw you up in a basket,” spoke the man above.

Herbert dies, but not before confessing that (i) he already has a wife, and (ii) he was the one who seduced the woman in the cave. The old man, meanwhile, as he helps Madeline out, admits that he is the one who intervened to save Herbert from Douglas, but won’t say any more.

We then lurch back to Douglas, who is talking to a no-longer-captive Percy. The two men exchange stories, the latter explaining that he owes both his own preservation and the conclusion of the conflict to the mysterious masked warrior—and that, oh gosh, no-one’s seen or heard anything of White Fawn since Percy left her with his friends. Funny, that.

Percy does find her again, though, with Radiola, who gives his consent to their marriage; which is to happen at Woodland due to the insistence of Albinus—last seen on a mountain with Pretty Nannie. Douglas now thinks to mention that there are two people called “Carson” at Woodland, though Percy doesn’t think they can be anything to do with him, despite the fact that the woman exactly matches the description of his mother and her name is “Phebe”.

We then catch up with Albinus—or rather Nannie, on whose behalf a couple of cousins have intervened, taking her away from Wolsey on a visit, and then facilitating her elopement. She, White Fawn and the three young men set out together:

Merrily the party conversed—wit and humour passed around. As they were thus rattling away, they were suddenly aroused by a band of highwaymen.

It happens, right? Percy is slightly injured in the ensuing fight, and White Fawn is abducted. Albinus and Nannie continue the journey to Woodland, while Percy and Douglas set out in pursuit; falling in with a small band of trappers, who join with them in their rescue attempt.

White Fawn is carried to the isolated villa of a Spaniard called Gonzoles, for no apparent reason (except that our author is clearly struggling to meet his word count; this was written for serialisation, remember?). We roll our eyes through a lot of highwayman blather, Percy demands White Fawn of Gonzoles, and he hands her over.

Percy, White Fawn and Douglas catch up with Albinus and Nannie at St Louis, and they all set out again together. They make another friend upon the way, one LeRoy Pennance, an elderly man travelling south, and invite him to join them at Woodland. There, Percy and the Carsons rediscover each other; while two more elderly men turn up from nowhere and are invited to stay for no reason.

We are now two pages from the end of Madeline, and from here I think I’ll let the text speak for itself:

*******************

    “LeRoy Pennance!?” exclaimed one of the strangers.
    “Ay! why?” was the answer.
    “And who is this ?” inquired the first speaker, evincing great agitation.
    “I cannot tell,” answered Mr Pennance—“who are you?”
    “Hampton Lindsey,” he answered.
    “What! Hampton Lindsey?” exclaimed the other.
    “Hampton Lindsey!” exclaimed the third stranger.

*******************

    “My Father !” exclaimed Madeline, and she rushed into the arms of Lindsey. He sustained her for some minutes, and then, looking earnestly into her face, said:
    “No, Madeline! I am not your father; but he is here;” and the speaker turned and pointed to Mr. Pennance. “Here is your father. Your name is not Lindsey, as you have supposed, but Pennance!”

*******************

    “Who was my mother?” enquired Madeline.

*******************

    “Hampton, do you not know me?”
    “Jerrald! thank God, the reunion is perfect.”
    “Forgive me, Hampton !”
    “In the name of God, I do.”
    The brothers embraced.
    “De Lord knows! here’s massa Jerrald—after jumping off ob de rock at Clifton—”
    “Clifton Height!”” exclaimed Nannie.
    “Clifton Height!” joined White Fawn and Albinus Lindsey.
    “How’s this?” asked Douglas Hardy.
    “Wonders will never cease,” remarked Percy Carson.
    “What of my child?” asked Jerrald Lindsey of Uncle Tom.    
    “Here she is !” replied the old servant gathering White Fawn in his arms. “Dis is de child, Gabriella,” and he bore her to her real father, Jerrald Lindsey.

*******************

    “And what of—of—what of—Mary?” asked Jerrald of his brother.
    “Ah! that is a painful question,” answered Hampton, “but this is the proper time to answer it,” and as he spoke he regarded LeRoy Pennance earnestly. “She became the wife of my friend, Pennance, and he was an affectionate, kind, indulgent husband, and their union was blessed with the birth of Madeline—but distrusting and jealous by nature, she doubted her trust-worthy husband. She left him, fled to disgrace and infamy. Madeline was left to my charge. By her father’s request she was to pass as my daughter until she became old enough to know and consider properly the facts connected with her unfortunate mother. But let us pass them now, since Mary has long since paid the great debt of nature which, sooner or later, all of us must discharge.”

*******************

    The evening following, witnessed the marriage of the three happy couples.
    Our story is finished.

*******************

And so bewildering is this rush of revelations, enough to sustain any self-respecting soap opera through about five seasons, that we might well think so; but a moment’s reflection informs us that:

(1) We don’t know who the chained-up man-monster was;
(2) We don’t know what happened to Mr Shelley;
(3) We don’t know how Percy came to be wandering around in the north-west;
(4) We have no fricking idea how Gabriella Lindsey became White Fawn, daughter of Chief Radiola;
(5) We never get confirmation that White Fawn and the Masked Warrior are one and the same;
(6) We never find out which of the three elderly men was the person who intervened to stop Douglas killing Herbert, subsequently killed Herbert himself, and rescued Madeline; or if it was someone else altogether.

And yet we get to sit through three pages of highwayman blather

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18/01/2017

Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale

erminamontrose1b    One fine evening, when the children were retired to rest, Ermina stole gently down stairs, and crossing through the hall to her own apartment, opened the glass door which led into the shrubbery, which she walked, and passed lightly over the lawn to a favourite walk, which was a long avenue of trees by the side of a canal, at the end of which was an elegant alcove, where she frequently delighted to seat herself, as she now did. A pleasing languor stole over her senses…
    The dews of eve that bathed the various fragrant plants and odoriferous shrubs that surrounded the spot where she was, diffused a sweet refreshing perfume, which, added to the general stillness that reigned amidst the shades of night, lulled her mind into calm repose. The images of those she loved, and had so cruelly lost, presented themselves to her imagination in the most pleasing forms, and she pictured to herself that they beheld her conduct and sufferings with approbation. “Alas!” she mentally exclaimed, “though unrelenting fate persecute and tear from me all that my soul holds dear, yet have I the soothing consolation of preserving a heart unsullied with guilt, though not free from error, and this bosom can boast of moments of happiness which the conscience of those who injure me will not suffer them to enjoy, and of which they cannot deprive me, poor and dependent as I am.”

 

 

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When your bosom starts boasting, it might be time to worry.

Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale is a fairly typical second- (or third-) tier novel of the turn of the 19th century, featuring a persecuted heroine and much high-flown sentiment, but with lingering flickers of the Gothic impulse (which, indeed, would not be fully extinguished for another two decades or so). Though the persecution persists, most of the Gothic touches are confined to the first of the novel’s three volumes; after which the narrative settles down and goes through essentially the same set of cyclic motions until the three volumes have been filled—viz. our orphan heroine finds a refuge where she can work and support herself, someone traduces her character, she flees secretly for some reason or another, she struggles with poverty until she finds a refuge where she can work and support herself…

But the repetition of the action is not the major shortcoming of Ermina Montrose, which is rather that Ermina suffers more at the hands of the people who are supposed to love her than she does through the machinations of her enemies. Indeed, this is one of a worrying number of novels I’ve read recently that turn on a man’s willingness (even eagerness) to believe the worst of the woman he loves. This novel features one of the most unlikeable “heroes” of a genre that rarely seems to recognise dickish behaviour when it sees it, and Ermina’s repeated forgiveness of her lover’s distrust, tantrum-throwing and selfishness grows ever more exasperating.

While it will turn out to play the most minor of roles in the story, aside from its symbolic value —“cottage” is a signifier for a sentimental novel in the same way that “abbey” is for a Gothic novel—Ermina Montrose does open at the titular cottage; while the language – and the occasionally infelicitous grammar – used in these opening paragraphs let us know clearly what we’re in for over the next 700 pages or so:

    Embosomed in the deep romantic valley of Riversdale, stood the habitation of Colonel Montrose. Simple was its structure, being little superior to the cottages of the neighbouring rustics. Yet, with all its simplicity, dear was this abode to his feeling heart; for it had sheltered his beloved Ermina from the storms of life, and witnessed her flight to those regions of happiness, which the superior virtues of her mind rendered her worthy of attaining. The soft harmony of her voice, the æthereal sweetness of her smile, all dwelt on his imagination with forcible and pained remembrance.
    Oh! souls of sympathy, cannot ye picture to yourselves the poignant anguish which overwhelms to agony a mind of sensibility, when it has lost a tenderly beloved friend and companion? What is the grief of common souls compared to theirs, who wear not only the semblance of sorrow, but its keenest shafts penetrate their lacerated bosoms; and objects that formerly created pleasure, serve only to bring the mournful recollection, that, alas! the chief source of delight is fled for ever?

If anything has the power to divert us from our attempts to make sense of that last sentence, it is the text’s apparent revelation that this novel’s heroine is dead—but of course, this turns out to be Ermina Montrose Sr. She and Colonel Montrose married without the permission of her father, Lord Belvidere, “a haughty, imperious nobleman”, who responded not merely by disinheriting her, but by actively persecuting the young couple, who finally fled to their isolated cottage to escape his vindictive wrath. Six years of happiness which included the birth of their only child followed, but now Colonel Montrose has been widowed and left the raise his daughter alone. The narrative skips lightly over this, content with observing matter-of-factly that, Each year, as it rolled away, brought some accomplishment in Ermina nearer to perfection, until she is fourteen, at which time the Colonel decides to place her in a convent in France for two years, so that she can perfect her French.

Like many sentimental novels of this period, Ermina Montrose chooses to behave as if the French Revolution never happened; though it goes its competition one better by forgetting, evidently, that its characters aren’t Catholic, and having Ermina decide to become a nun (it is clear later that she hasn’t converted). But while they occupy a fair chunk of the first volume, Ermina’s convent experiences and friendships – and hints at interesting back-stories for several of the nuns – ultimately turn out to have nothing to do with anything; except to make me suspect, in conjunction with what happens to her once she gets out of the convent, that Emily Clark originally intended writing a much more Gothicky novel, but for some reason changed her mind and instead sent her narrative in a domestic direction over the succeeding two volumes.

Neither Ermina’s sojourn in the convent nor her entering upon her novitiate prevents every man who sees her from falling in love with her. Victim #1 is the Count de Valcour, a volatile (to say the least) young Frenchman, who goes so far as to break into the convent in order to get up close and personal with her; Victim #2 is Father Eustache, a young Benedictine monk (!!), who starts repenting his vows the moment he lays eyes on her; and Victim #3 is Lord Henry Beauchamp, the son of the Earl of Darlington, who saves Colonel Montrose from bandits. The latter is invited to accompany the Colonel on one of his visits to the convent, and the damage is done. Here, however, we get damage in the other direction too:

…she was then as much charmed with his manners as with his appearance. She thought him learned without pedantry, sensible without affectation, and animated and witty without being frivolous or a coxcomb; and she admired him mostly for not being the least vain of his person (as handsome men in general are), but apparently unconscious of possessing more beauty than what falls to the usual lot of the male part of creation…

As it turns out, it’s just as well he’s got his looks to depend upon.

Lord Henry lays indirect siege to Ermina via poetry and then, as the time for her to take the veil draws near, declares himself in frantic smuggled letters, begging her to marry him. She is moved and confused, but still intends to take her vows when her father’s health collapses—because he can’t stand her becoming a nun, as he might have wanted to mention about a year ago. Ermina decides to leave the convent, and she, her father and Lord Henry become the guests of de Valcour.

The convent may be a thing of the past, but we’re not done being Gothicky just yet:

At supper the count introduced them to Father Anselmo, a monk, his friend and confessor. Ermina felt something repugnant to her feelings in his appearance; for though his sallow countenance was always dressed in smiles, yet under those smiles she fancied lurked cruelty and deceit… He easily perceived he was no favourite with her, as he had a great deal of penetration; and the glances he sometimes gave her from his yellow eye balls were replete with venom and ill-nature…

De Valcour regrets inviting Lord Henry to his chateau from the moment he gets a good look at him. His fears are well justified, as we learn with amusing casualness that—

…this animated party had been three weeks together at the chateau, which had passed on such silken wings that it appeared but as one. In this happy interval Lord Henry had again offered himself to Ermina, who, with the sanction of her father, had accepted his addresses…

…provisional upon Lord Henry receiving the approbation and consent of his father: this probably wasn’t intended as a pot-shot at her own parents, but it sure does read that way. Lord Henry is then abruptly called back to England, to the bedside of Lord Darlington, who is seriously ill, and must part from Ermina:

A cold shiver came over him…and his eyes were dimmed with tears as he entered the carriage… He could not shake off an uncommon depression of spirits, which he feared presaged some misfortune to himself, or (who was dearer to him) his innocent and beauteous Ermina.

He’s right about that, of course; although ironically he himself is the main misfortune which strikes her.

In Lord Henry’s absence, Ermina takes to wandering the grounds of the chateau alone, and on one of her expeditions comes across a lonely cottage occupied by a young Englishwoman and an elderly Frenchwoman. This, of course, is the cue for an interpolated narrative. Long story short, Adeliza’s intended marriage to de Valcour was prevented by the revelation of him being already married, so he abducted and eventually seduced her.

Shocked by her discovery of de Valcour’s true nature, Ermina begins to consider how to help Adeliza escape, but is diverted when Colonel Montrose’s health collapses. On his deathbed, he succeeds in extracting from de Valcour all sorts of promises about Ermina’s welfare; but no sooner is he dead than the count begins laying siege to her, intercepting her correspondence with Lord Henry, refusing to let her return to the convent, and finally imprisoning her, refusing to release her until she promises to marry him. Ermina withstands all this, and at length even persuades de Valcour to let her walk in the grounds, on the score that her health is suffering from confinement. On one of these expeditions she discovers a grotto, with a cave that has been turned into an apartment in its depths. Here she overhears a terrifying conversation between Father Anselmo and another monk:

    After something that Anselmo had said, the other monk replied in an agitated voice, “Hold, ’tis cowardly to assassinate a woman, poison would be better.”
    “No,” rejoined Anselmo, “she may then by some means escape, and suspicion be infused into her bosom. She shall no longer stand between me and my interest; for, were she disposed of, I could do whatever I pleased with de Valcour, and his fortune. Call it not murder.” Here he raised his voice, his countenance assuming a more diabolical expression, which she plainly perceived, as the cowl he wore concealed but half his face. “Is it not a religious act to stab an heretic, who, wedded to the count, will raise a brood of others? Here, mark me! take this dagger, steal to her chamber in the dead of night, and point it to her breast: for I’ve decreed it; ere three days more shall pass, she dies: France shall not another week contain alive the hated offspring of Colonel Montrose.”

At this point I had high hopes of Ermina Montrose, on the level of entertainment if not as literature, exactly; but sadly from here it’s downhill all the way. The present situation resolves itself when Adeliza’s outraged brother finally catches up with de Valcour and kills him; Adeliza dies of grief; Anselmo flees, never to be seen again (alas!); and Ermina returns to the convent to recover and sort out her life. There she becomes acquainted with Lady Julia Vernon, in retreat while mourning her husband (a short interlude that gives Ermina a completely false idea of her character), who offers to carry her back to England.

From here we settle into the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of the novel. Invited to stay with Lady Julia for a time, Ermina does in the hope of finding out why Lord Henry is not responding to the letters she is now certain he is receiving. Despite her disinclination, she feels obliged sometimes to accompany Lady Julia into society, and one night is taken to Ranelagh, where a certain Mr Devereaux becomes smitten with her.

From this point, Emily Clark strives in Ermina Montrose for the kind of social satire and character types with which Frances Burney’s novels abound, but her efforts are feeble, and occasionally embarrassing (as, for instance, when she stops to explain to us that any person with a disability or some sort of deformity, or is simply not physically attractive, will invariably prove to be “deformed” on the inside, too). All sorts of eccentrics wander in an out of the narrative, in scenes that are generally tiresome, rather than amusing as they are intended to be.

Clark is on firmer ground with the endless scenes of her heroine being persecuted; and we return to this dominating theme when, as Ermina walks with Devereaux, someone steps on the train of her gown:

The intended apology died away in confused murmurs on Lord Henry’s lips, the glow of surprise faded to an ashy paleness, and instead of returning the animated smile, he received from her, with the same look of pleasure, or accepting her proffered hand…he surveyed her with a repulsive gravity, uttered in a faultering voice, a few incoherent words of congratulations on seeing her in England, coldly bowed, and left her.

Get used to it, people: scenes like this comprise most of what this novel has to offer by way of “a love story”; when, that is, Lord Henry isn’t ranting at Ermina for being a whore. (My word, not his; but that’s the gist of it.)

When she can extricate herself from Lady Julia, Ermina returns to “the cottage of the vale” and is happy there for a time, reuniting with old acquaintances, until she receives word that the bank in which her small inheritance was placed has failed, and the banker fled. Forced to find work, Ermina requests her various friends to find her a position as governess, and is taken into the country house of Sir John and Lady Assop: near neighbours of the widowed Mrs Helderton, another person who, at this time, she considers a friend. For a time all seems well: the Assops are kind, Ermina’s young pupils well-behaved, the surrounding countryside beautiful. The first reversal of fortune comes when Mrs Helderton makes it very clear that her “friendship” for Ermina has altered with the girl’s circumstances.

But if Mrs Helderston dislikes Ermina as a governess, she positively hates her when she sees that her handsome cousin, Sir Charles Melrose, is immediately attracted to her. Mrs Helderton has no intention of remaining a widow, and Sir Charles is one of the two marital prospects she is assiduously pursuing, though only her second choice. The first happens to be Lord Henry Beauchamp…

By one of those capricious chances, in which fortune delights, a friend of Lord Henry’s and Mrs Helderton’s told her in confidence (unsuspecting her designs), of the hold Ermina still had on his affections, notwithstanding he was convinced of her unworthiness, though in what manner she had improperly acted Lord Henry would never tell his friend. Enraged, that she should be slighted for this insignificant girl (as she styled her), she vowed to do every thing in her power to mortify her…

And in this respect, at least, Mrs Helderton is a woman of her word; and her machinations and their consequences will b e at the root of much of what Ermina suffers over the following two volumes.

For a time Ermina is oblivious to the evil currents that are beginning to swirl around her; but one evening she overhears an enlightening conversation between Mrs Helderton’s maid and the Assops’ nursery-maid:

“Sir Charles may amuse himself with her as a mistress, but she will never be any thing more honourable to him. For my part,” continued Bridget, “if I was such a noble, handsome, rich gentleman as Sir Charles…I would never take up with other people’s hangers-on… Only to think now, that this wicked Miss Montrose enticed away my dear lady’s lover Lord Henry Beauchamp, when he was in France. She spent almost all his fortune, and then ran away with another gentleman, whom she intrigued with beforehand, which broke her poor father’s heart. There’s a wicked hussy for you, when she knew my lady was engaged to Lord Henry…and the poor gentleman, who was as beautiful a man as ever the sun shone on, is now wasting to a shadow: for nobody thinks he’ll live, it hurts him so, to think of her bad conduct; and I’m sure I wonder such a good woman as your mistress keeps the naughty creature in her house. Now you can’t be surprised that my lady hates her; and then to think, that she should make Sir Charles in love with her too! I do believe her to be a witch.”

This speech is a good example of the kind of talk that follows Ermina throughout the rest of the novel, always a framework of circumstantial truth surrounding the worst possible interpretation of events. But while it may be understandable that people who don’t really know Ermina may begin to lend an ear to the constant denigration of her character, there is no excuse for the people who are supposed to know and love her.

Annoyingly enough, the main thing that Ermina carries away from her enlightening eavesdropping (she does that a lot, though the narrative takes pains to find excuses) is the bulletin about Lord Henry’s failing health. This possibility preys upon her mind, affecting her spirits and her health so that everyone notices—including Sir Charles, who is so moved by her evident distress that he impulsively proposes marriage. Caught between her lingering feelings for Lord Henry, her awareness that he now despises her, and her gratitude for the generosity of Sir Charles, whom she likes and admires, Ermina wrestles with herself but finally accepts his proposal. News of the engagement spreads quickly, pleasing the Assops and causing everyone but Mrs Helderton to treat Ermina with increased respect.

Soon after this, however, Ermina is walking out when she is accosted by a gipsy—who turns out (for reasons not worth getting into) to be Lord Henry in disguise. She is taken so much by surprise that she stays to hear what he has to say for himself. As she suspected, their letters were intercepted; and Lord Henry knew nothing concrete until the news of Colonel Montrose’s death was reported. Shortly afterwards, still trying to bring his father (who objected to Ermina’s all-but-penniless state) to consent to their marriage, Lord Henry received further word of Ermina through a French friend of Lord Darlington’s, who mentioned to him a certain beautiful Englishwoman who was known by common report to be the mistress of the libertine Count de Valcour:

“I now attributed your neglect of me to a passion for my rival; and rage, jealousy, and contempt for your depraved conduct and infidelity, seized complete possession of my soul…”

Then the meeting at Ranelagh: he wondered at seeing her with Lady Julia—but assumed she had deceived her, too; he noted her mourning—and concluded it was for de Valcour… And so on. Finally he tore himself away from London and went wandering, ending up by pure chance at The Cottage Of The Vale, where Ermina’s maid, Therese, told him what had actually gone on in France:

“But, oh heavens! when she related in those simple unadorned terms, which so forcibly convey the truth, the various miseries and misfortunes in which you had been involved by the treachery and deceit of your worthless enemies, I execrated my credulity and unfeeling behaviour, reflecting with remorse that I ought, before I had condemned, to have heard your justification, and enable you to defend yourself against every calumnious aspersion.”

On the back of this, Lord Henry confronts the gossipy Baron de Belmont:

“…whom I brought to a confession that he had been instigated by Lord Darlington (whom de Valcour had treacherously informed of our attachment, and at the same time suppressed our letters) to invent those falsehoods of you, having himself never seen, or even heard of you and de Valcour, and would not for any consideration have aided such a scheme, if my father had not represented you as a girl of infamous character, who wished to seduce me to marry her.”

Now—you’d think an experience like this might have taught Lord Henry a thing or two, but you’d be very wrong: he spends the rest of the novel listening to anyone who has a bad word to say about Ermina; when, that is, he isn’t busy behaving like a dick of monumental proportions.

When telling Ermina’s story, Therese also informed Lord Henry of her engagement to Sir Charles Melrose; and now, though she forgives him for his distrust of her, Ermina insists that honour forbids her to break with the baronet. Lord Henry begs and pleads, but she is adamant; which produces this outburst:

Almost frantic at the idea of losing her, Lord Henry implored her compassion, intreating her not to sacrifice their happiness to a vain phantom of honour. This she steadily refused; and, irritated, abandoned to passion by the stings of disappointed affection, he exclaimed: “Then you have never loved me, deceitful girl, if I am to be resigned for the empty opinion of the world! You must prefer Sir Charles; but I swear by God, that I will not live to see you his wife—either one or other of us must fall. I will hasten instantly to him and demand satisfaction.”

Ah! – the always charming and by no means a sign that you are dealing with a narcissistic sociopath if-I-can’t-have-you-no-one-will gambit! (Which was last seen around these parts in Barford Abbey.) I must admit, though, to being intrigued by Lord Henry’s casual dismissal of “honour” as a mere excuse, given how many novels of this period have their characters tying themselves in knots over merely perceived demands of honour, let alone a case as clear as this one.

Ermina manages to calm Lord Henry down, admitting that she still loves him, and pleading with him neither to risk his own life nor Sir Charles’s. Finally they part—forever, as far as Ermina is concerned. Preparations for the wedding continue, and the entire party travels from the country to Sir John’s house in London, where the ceremony to to take place. All is well until a few days before, when Sir Charles’s behaviour towards Ermina suddenly changes. He offers no explanation, however (of course not!), and Ermina is at a loss until the party attends a play: so emotionally caught up in the miseries on stage that she nearly swoons, Ermina is just recovering when…

…the first object she saw was Lord Henry Beauchamp contemplating her with an air of the deepest dejection, apparently regardless of every one but herself, whilst Sir Charles surveyed him with a fierce and sullen countenance…

Sure enough, the threatened duel takes place, though at Sir Charles’s seeking, and on the morning of his wedding-day!—and it is Sir Charles who gets the worst of it, being carried back to the Assops’ covered in blood and not expected to live. Mrs Helderton has been in the mix lately, so we are not much surprised at this, even if Ermina is; and in a state of guilt and shock, contemplating Sir Charles’s death on one hand and Lord Henry either under arrest or fleeing the country, she flees herself, slipping out of the house unseen and making sure no-one knows where she has gone (and that no-one will be able to find her, should things prove not quite so grim as anticipated, sigh).

Under the name of “Miss Smith” (no really), Ermina finds lodgings – poor, but with a kind landlady – and work, being employed to do fancy needlework by a French modiste. Though tormented by not knowing whether Sir Charles is alive or dead, and Lord Henry consequently safe, under arrest or on the run (it doesn’t occur to her to buy a newspaper), Ermina settles into her new, narrow existence until discovered by the dissolute Sir Patrick O’Neil, to whom she was introduced at Lady Julia’s. He informs his good friend, Mr Glencarnock – “an ugly, little, hump-backed man” – and the two begin persecuting her, both determined to obtain her in one capacity or another. Glencarnock, indeed, finally proposes marriages—provided Ermina is willing to keep it a secret.

In the face of this harassment, Ermina starts regretfully making plans to change her lodgings; but this is forestalled by an offer of work as a live-in seamstress for a certain Colonel Rivers. She accepts this offer with relief, only to be shocked by the discovery that – duh! – she has been decoyed into a trap by Glencarnock. To her credit, Ermina shows some backbone and makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, failing narrowly only when she suffers a bad fall, before Glencarnock unwisely gets into a physical confrontation with her over the key to her room and is left sprawling with a head injury. Ermina takes to her heels and is fortunate enough to find someone willing to help her, one “Zemin Linmore”.

Here erupts one of Ermina Monstrose‘s most absurd subplots; though its absurdity cannot compensate for its bad taste. Linmore turns out to be the son of a Native American chief – no, really – who has been handed over to one Captain Linmore to be raised and educated as an English gentleman. The narrative goes on and on about how handsome Zemin is, how good, how generous, how high-principled, how accomplished…before shaking its head over how sad it is that he isn’t white, without which the rest means nothing. Zemin falls in love with Ermina, of course, and equally of course knows it’s futile, since he isn’t white. He finally leaves the country to try and get over his hopeless passion—and when a newspaper reports that his ship sank with all hands lost, it is accompanied by a straight-faced suggestion that an early death was a fate to be desired, considering that he wasn’t white, and therefore could never be happy. (Too bad for the rest of the passengers and crew…)

Anyway— Zemin cannot prevent Ermina being dragged back by Glencarnock’s servants, but he arranges her escape and places her with friends of his, Quakers called Mr and Mrs Fairfield. Here the wash-rinse-repeat cycle starts again: Ermina is safe and happy for a time, until the Fairfields carry her to London, on a visit to their far less unworldly son and daughter-in-law. Against her will, Ermina is taken out into society, usually under the chaperonage of a Mrs Ballenden, where she attracts the attention of an elderly nobleman, the Earl of Valency, to whom she is also drawn for reasons she cannot articulate. (Jane Austen alert!) Other consequences are less pleasant, and include an encounter with Mrs Helderton. Soon enough, the daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, is asking pointed questions about Sir Charles Melrose, and excoriating Ermina for abusing the trust of the Fairfields:

“I have already spoken to them,” replied the quaker, “and it has occasioned a misunderstanding between them, my husband, and myself; for thy arts, of which I have been fully informed, have blinded them to believe any thing thou doth choose to advance. Verily, it was not well done of Zemin Linmore to introduce his mistress under the roof of our respectable parents, whose ill-placed charity in protecting thee, must bring disgrace on all their family.”

In the wake of this, Ermina has an excruciating encounter with her former employer, the modiste, who in front of Elizabeth addresses her as “Miss Smith”—which leaves her with nothing to do but run away again. This time she cannot find employment, and sinks into real poverty before being discovered and rescued again, this time by the same Mr Devereaux whom she met at Ranelagh, before her first encounter with Lord Henry. Devereaux finds a position for her as companion to his aunt, the eccentric Mrs St Austin. Before she leaves London, he begs her to allow him to escort her to the theatre. She feels that she cannot refuse the invitation—but of course is made to regret her decision:

…she perceived to her extreme consternation, Mrs Helderton and another lady of a most unprepossessing appearance, looking at her with a sneer on their countenances, and talking at the same time, apparently about her, to a gentleman who seemed very much interested in what they said… Suddenly, however, he turned round to seat himself by Mrs Helderton, and, overcome with joy, surprise, and terror, Ermina felt ready to faint, when their eyes at the same moment meeting, she discovered the man whom she had so long regretted, whom she fancied to be wandering, forlorn, unhappy, and anxious for her fate, far from his native country, to be now before her; for it was indeed Lord Henry…

…who behaves towards her exactly as we expect; and for a few glorious moments, Ermina reacts to it as she should:

When at liberty to reflect on the conduct of Lord Henry, she felt keener resentment against him than she could ever have thought it possible for her to feel for any person, particularly one who had so often vowed his affection for her was interwoven with his existence…How sincerely did she regret the loss she had sustained in the alienated affections of Melrose, whose faith and truth were so much more valuable than the fickle passion of Lord Henry… She regretted bitterly, that he should have prevented an union in which the greatest felicity would most probably have been her lot… She even worked up her imagination to a belief, that the story he had told her at their last interview in Devonshire, was a fabrication to exculpate himself…

Well—it’s nice while it lasts, anyway.

Ermina travels to Mrs Austin’s country estate, where she is safe and happy for a time; until—

Do I really have to say it?

First, however, Ermina interests herself in the situation of a peasant family living on the estate. Long story short (again), the beautiful daughter became the object of the lustful interest of a Squire Brandon, who to pave his own way to her, had her soldier-fiancé transferred to a regiment about to be sent overseas on active duty, while forcing Helen and her grandmother off their farm in order to deprive them of their income. Ermina relieves the immediate wants of the unfortunate women, but worries that Helen’s illness may be fatal. She and Dame Primrose agree to present an account of the circumstances to Edward’s commanding officer, in the hope that he will undo the young soldier’s transfer if he knows why it was brought about. Ermina writes a letter, stating everything she knows and asseverating her belief in the good character of all three, and Dame Primrose carries it to Carlisle. She manages to see the regimental colonel, and he does indeed read the letter—and is so affected by it that even the hopeful grandmother is surprised.

And here we get the novel’s one successful touch of humour as, thanks to Dame Primorose’s extreme country accent, Ermina does not recognise who she means when she speaks of “Lord Bochon”.

Sure enough, Lord Henry soon rocks up. He is scrupulous in assisting Dame Primrose, Helen and Edward; but when he sees Ermina, we start all over again:

“Fool, mean-spirited madman that I am, not all your infidelity and ill usage can eradicate the fatal passion you inspired, which has been my ruin… Yes, wretched woman, you have been my destruction, blasted every prospect of my happiness, and forced me to seek in battle an oblivion of my sorrows; as the fatal remembrance of your cruelty has denied me peace in this world. In a few months I quit England for ever; and in far-distant Eastern climes will bury all recollection of the falseness and treachery with which you have required my faithful love.”

He then has the gall to promise “always to be her friend”, if she will “return to the paths of honour”; warning her however that “the loss of [her] innocence is never to be recovered”.

Ermina is not unnaturally stunned by this outpouring, but as he starts to leave she insists on being heard; and again she says exactly as she should—except for not sending him on his way with a hearty wish of a close encounter between himself and a cannon-ball:

    “That you should harbour suspicion after the explanation that took place between us in Devonshire, appears to me beyond belief; for having once made me suffer from your credulity, it is certainly unpardonable of you to err a second time. I have not much to say on the subject, because I feel myself perfectly undeserving of reproach, and know not who are my accusers; but in talking of injuries you totally mistake the affair, as it is myself, and not you, that is the injured person. I compassionate, however, the weak credulity of your disposition… Perhaps you will find a pleasure…in the reflection that you have insulted a woman you pretended to love with the most gross suspicions…”
    “I would fain believe you innocent,” replied Lord Henry, “and what you affirm overwhelms me with fresh doubt, but will listen no more; warned by those, who know you and your power over me, not to attend to your fascinating voice…”
    “Alas! I see but too plainly,” exclaimed Ermina, “the extent of my misfortunes. Not any assertions of mine will make you believe me innocent, and to combat with prejudices so rooted is quite useless. And now, Lord Henry, I take my leave; yet the time I hope will come…when you will repent your too easy belief, but it will then be too late, as from this moment I obliterate all traces of you from my remembrance; and be assured, that wounded pride and injured virtue will make the task far from difficult.”

And, oh!—if only she’d meant it! If only she had married Devereaux – who is in love with her, of course – or Charles Melrose – who isn’t dead, of course. I’d’ve quite liked this novel then, or at least liked it better. Buuuuuuuut, no; and sadly, Catherine Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano remains the only novel of this era I’ve yet discovered to have its heroine respond to mistreatment by breaking with a man who doesn’t deserve her and finding one who does.

Around this time we finally get some explanation of the chain of gossip which has pursued Ermina, and how Mrs Helderton managed to rope the Earl of Darlington, the Baron de Belmont, Mr Glencarnock and even Sir Charles into her plots against the girl; convincing the latter that she was Lord Henry’s cast-off mistress, and calling various “witnesses”, including her maid, Bridget, who overheard the conversation betweem Ermina and Lord Henry in Devonshire (translated into a “secret assignation”), to back up her story.

In the latter Mrs Helderton overreached herself, having certainly not meant for Sir Charles and Lord Henry to try and kill each other; and great was her exasperation upon discovering afterwards that although she had succeeded in ruining Ermina with both men, neither of them showed the slightest increase of partiality for her. Her malice then pursued Ermina to the Fairfields, where to the existing stories another involving Zemin Linmore was added; while later, applied to by Lord Henry, who knew her only as a connection of the various interested parties, after Ermina’s disappearance from the Assops’ house, she added to the mix the assertion that her reduced circumstances forced Ermina to become the mistress of Sir Patrick O’Neil; after which she taken under the protection of Mr Devereaux.

Mrs Helderton overreaches again, this time fatally, when she sends an anonymous letter denouncing Ermina to Mrs St Austin: the latter shows the ugly epistle to its subject, and Ermina recognises the handwriting. She tells as much as she understands of the sorry tale, which isn’t that much (as she knows nothing of Mrs Helderton’s personal plans for Lord Henry and/or Sir Charles), and Mrs St Austin persuades her (or orders her) to travel to London, to seek out those to whom she believes she has been calumniated by Mrs Helderton, and to show them the letter and the handwriting. Ermina obeys, but finds everyone she needs to talk to out of the country.

Forced, reluctantly, to wait in London for their return, Ermina is at least moved to send Mrs Helderton a satirical letter, thanking her for all her good offices (not that she knows the half of it!). This is a tremendous shock for Mrs Helderton, whose guilty conscience brings on hysterics, which eventually reduce her to a convenient state of shattered health, and put her into an even more convenient mood for confession.

But that is some time in the future. First (through circumstances too dumb to be dwelt upon), Ermina goes through one more round of lonely destitution; this time being rescued by the long-forgotten Earl of Valency, who turns out to be – surprise! – her grandfather, who inherited another title after he was introduced to us as the “haughty, imperious” Lord Belvidere. His lordship has long since repented his cruel treatment of his daughter and son-in-law, and wants to make amends of sorts by re-establishing Ermina.

After that, things fall into place pretty quickly, the process being greatly assisted by Bridget who, after being sacked by Mrs Helderton, retaliates by telling the truth to the Assops; while Mrs Helderton, literally dying of shame, as we are asked to believe, calls for Lord Henry and tells him the truth. This sends him flying to Ermina, and to her feet, to beg forgiveness.

So we would hope.

And yet there is still time for one more outbreak of dickishness from Our Hero, when the altogether too forgiving Ermina rightly “determine[s] to punish him just a little for what he had caused her to suffer”, by telling him:

    “…your present confession, though it cannot restore my love, which your ill treatment of me quickly effaced, yet gains you my esteen and friendship”; and as she uttered these last words, with an assumed coldness and indifference, she held out her hand to him.
    So well did she dissemble, that with an angry and mournful air mingled with surprise, Lord Henry rejected her proffered hand. “Cruel, insulting woman,” said he, “I will not accept your friendship; your love I require or nothing. Oh! had I ever been truly valued, you would not thus have wounded my feelings by such cold language, but would eagerly have forgiven errors for which I have been sufficiently punished.”

That’s right, folks—SHE has been cruel to HIM. And, yup, SHE ends up apologising:

Lord Henry now drew from the blushing Ermina a reluctant confession, that, notwithstanding the reasons she apparently had to detest him, he had always continued dear to her…

Woman—you ought to blush…

.

.

12/07/2015

The Beauty Of The British Alps

grimstone1bHer mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…

 

 

 

It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:

    If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the first hasty and unfinished draught was taken from me, without its having received the benefit of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
    Under these circumstances, as well as its being a first essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.

After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.

The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:

    As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the florid descriptions of the poet. His figure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of fire and softness, his finely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
    But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…

But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.

In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) opens in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.

The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…

Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.

Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.

The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.

But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…

The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.

To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, to where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:

“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”

Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:

    “I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
    The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…

What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont,  and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.

At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of Gunning’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.

And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.

The  narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:

Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…

And after indulging this choice for a time:

The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…

Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.

There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.

Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:

To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.

Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…

While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:

Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy , which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.

But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.

This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.

Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.

Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.

During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.

Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:

    “I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
    “I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
    “Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
    “You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
    “Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
    He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…

In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:

“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”

Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:

Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections  which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…

Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…

Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:

    “What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
    “Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
    “Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
    Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…

It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.

Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…

The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.

Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…

Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.

(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)

And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, Lord Egremont arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…

…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:

    “Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
    “Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
    “Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler  betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
    Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour  was thus recalled to her mind.
    “Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”

 

28/06/2015

The History Of Lady Barton

griffith1b    Yes, Fanny, I confess it! you have searched my bosom, and found the arrow rankling in my heart! Too cruel sister! better, sure far better, that you had remained ignorant of my disease, unless you can prescribe a cure! I now detest myself; and all that generous confidence, which is the true  result and firm support of real virtue, is for ever fled! I shrink even from the mild eye of friendship—The tender, the affectionate looks of Harriet and Lucy, now distress me! How then shall I endure the stern expression of contempt and rage, from an offended husband’s angry brow! There is but one thing that could be more dreadful—I mean his kindness—That alone could add new horrors to my wretched state, and make me feel the humiliating situation of a criminal still more than I now do.
    I am, I am a criminal! Alas! you know not to what degree I am so! But I will tell you all, lay bare my heart before you, and beg you not to soothe, but to probe its wounds…

I can only apologise for the recent deluge of lugubrious sentimental novels at this blog—it certainly wasn’t intentional, as evidenced by the fact that each of these novels has emerged from a different reading category. In the case of The History Of Lady Barton, A Novel In Letters it turns out that the categorisation was not really accurate. This novel came to my attention at the same time as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, and like it was characterised as a proto-Gothic novel; but while the eponymous Sophia does indeed undergo various experiences that hearken forward to the travails of the typical Gothic heroine (including being abducted and imprisoned herself, while her fiancée is kidnapped by “pyrates”), the sufferings of Lady Barton are of an entirely domestic nature.

There are, however, a couple of distinctly Gothicky subplots along the way, chiefly affecting the supporting characters, which are the kind of thing that the Gothic novelists later seized upon and expanded into major narratives. In this respect we may indeed consider this novel another of the later genre’s forebears.

The History Of Lady Barton was the second novel published by Elizabeth Griffith, one of the more popular exponents of sentimentalism. (The title of her first novel, The Delicate Distress, suggests that Griffith hit the ground running.) Griffith is an interesting literary figure, and one who possibly deserves to be better known than she is. She was born in Dublin, and became an actress at the age of only seventeen, after her family fell on hard times following the death of her theatre-managing father. Her stage career lasted until her marriage to Richard Griffith (no relation), which occurred secretly due to the disapproval of the groom’s family—disapproval centred in the bride’s lack of fortune, ironically enough: Richard subsequently suffered a string of business failures associated with bankruptcy and debt, and Elizabeth, like so many of her literary sisters, took up writing in order to support herself and her two children.

It seems that Elizabeth Griffith may have been a case of “spoiled by success”, although given her circumstances we can hardly blame her for writing to the marketplace. She began as a playwright, and reports suggest that her early plays were startlingly feminist for the time, featuring strong-willed, intelligent female characters and overtly attacking the double standard and the social and legal inequities that attended woman’s place in society. However, after Griffith left Dublin for London in order to further her career, she found that her plays were attracting harsh criticism from the influential London critics. She responded by reining herself in, and although she continued to foreground her female characters, on the whole they stopped challenging the status quo and instead triumphed through patience and submission. (The History Of Lady Barton is something of an exception to that generalisation.)

Griffith ultimately had quite a varied and successful career. In addition to her plays and novels, she produced many translations of French novels, memoirs and collections of letters, and she became one of the first women to find success as a literary critic. And while at the time Griffith’s The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated was her most well-received work, of more note around these parts is that she also edited a collection of works by female dramatists – including Aphra Behn – in which she tried to show how the plays in question, far from being “immoral” as accused, were intended to illustrate and criticise immorality.

The History Of Lady Barton is a three-volume epistolary novel originally published in 1771; it carries a preface which pretty much spells out for us the perceived “dangers of novel-reading”, namely, the powerful influence of fiction upon the minds and morals of the young (by implication, particularly young women), but which also argues for the power of the novel – the moral novel – as a force for good:

    Works of this kind are in general of so captivating a nature to young readers, that let them run through but a few pages of almost any Novel, and they will feel their affections or curiosity so interested, either in the characters or the events, that it is with difficulty they can be diverted to any other study or amusement, till they have got to the end of the story.
    From the experience then of this sort of attraction, such sort of writings may be rendered, by good and ingenious authors, extremely serviceable to morals, and other useful purposes of life—Place the magnet low, and it will degrade our sentiments; hold it high, and it elevates them…

In short, the didactic purpose of The History Of Lady Barton is made clear—which may strike us as rather amusing, considering that the novel’s plot features countless incidences of seduction, attempted rape, illicit sex, forbidden love and various other transgressions. Nevertheless, the unexpected aspect of The History Of Lady Barton is that it’s story is told from the perspective of a woman who (all the preceding notwithstanding) commits the ultimate sentimental-novel sin of marrying without love.

Additionally, in Sir William Barton we have a convincingly exasperating portrait of a man who marries a woman who he knows does not love him—and then gets mad because she doesn’t love him. Worse—in this case, it seems, Louisa told him outright before accepting his proposal that she did not love him—but he didn’t believe her—she was just being shy, delicate, modest; how could she not love him? When the penny drops, Sir William becomes morose, domineering, capricious and insulting; so that, with the best will in the world to be a properly dutiful wife and to love her husband, Louisa finds it impossible—which in turn makes Sir William even more self-defeatingly unkind:

Yet this I am convinced of, that had Sir William persevered, perhaps a few months longer, in wishing to obtain that heart, it might, I doubt not, have been all his own. But can it now bestow itself unsought, and trembling yield to harshness, and unkindness? Impossible! The little rebel owns as yet no lord, and it may break, but it will never bow, beneath a tyrant’s frown!

Louisa’s chief correspondent is her sister, Fanny Cleveland, who is concerned by what she call’s Louisa’s “propensity to unhappiness”, revealed in her remarks about her husband and her marriage; although her advice is unexpectedly pragmatic (not to say cynical) coming from the individual who will act generally as the novel’s moral touchstone:

    I very sincerely join with you in wishing, since you have not yet, that you may never feel the passion of love, in an extreme degree; for I am firmly persuaded, that it does not contribute much to the happiness of the female world—and yet, Louisa, I will frankly tell you, that I am extremely grieved at some hints you have dropped, in your letters, which speak of a want of affection for Sir William.—It is dangerous to sport with such sentiments; you should not suffer them to dwell even upon your own mind, much less express them to others—we ought not be too strict in analysing the characters of those we wish to love—if once we come to habituate ourselves to thinking of their faults, it insensibly lessens the person in our esteem, and saps the foundation of our happiness, with our love.—
    I am perfectly convinced that you have fallen into this error, from want of reflection, and through what is called une maniere de parler; for I will not suppose that my Louisa, tho’ persuaded by her friends and solicited most earnestly by Sir William, gave him her hand without feeling in her heart that preference for his person, and esteem for his character, which is the surest basis for a permanent and tender affection…

She did, though:

How often have my brother, Sir William, and you, seemed to doubt my sincerity, when I have declared I knew not what love was! and, O! how fatal has that inexperience been to my peace, since! Yes, Fanny, your sister is a wretch! and gave away her hand, before she knew she had a heart to transfer.—

This is simultaneously the most interesting thing about the novel, and its elephant in the living-room—because Louisa Cleveland’s decision to marry Sir William Barton is never satisfactorily accounted for, in spite of those references to her friends’ “persuasion” and Sir William’s “solicitation”. Certainly Louisa does not marry for title or position, nor is she pressured into it by her family (although Sir William neatly uses her conventional put-off of “I cannot do anything without my brother’s consent” against her, ingratiating himself with the brother and intimating that Louisa has given a conditional ‘yes’ to his proposal). The only thing that really approaches an explanation is a reference to Sir William’s “obstinate perseverance”; presumably he simply wore Louisa down and, in her ignorance, she thought it didn’t much matter, since of course she would learn to love her husband…

And while its overarching theme is a typical sentimental novel stance against marriage without love, this, I think, is what Griffith really intended to be the focus of her novel—an exposure and condemnation of the prevailing belief that any truly “good” woman would inevitably “learn” to love her husband – and, even more so, of the attending implication that a woman who cannot is bad – but the point ultimately remains frustratingly muted.

Be that as it may, right from the beginning of the novel we find Louisa courting disaster, attitudinally speaking:

    You desired me, my Fanny, to write to you from every stage—this is the first moment I have had to myself—one of Sir William’s most favourite maxim’s, is, that women should be treated like state criminals, and utterly debarred from the use of pen and ink—he says, that “those who are fond of scribling, are never good for anything else; that female friendship is a jest; and that we only correspond, or converse, with our own sex, for the sake of indulging ourselves in talking of the other.”
    Why, Sir William, why will you discover such illiberal sentiments, to one who has been so lately prevailed upon to pronounce those awful words, “love, honour, and obey”! The fulfilling the first two articles of this solemn engagement, must depend upon yourself, the latter only, rests on me; and I will most sanctimoniously perform my part of the covenant…

Immediately after their wedding, Sir William carries Louisa off to his estate in Ireland. They pass through Wales (the narrative stopping for a brief instance of rhapsodising about nature: a touch also seen in William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage, published the following year, and something which became increasingly common in the sentimental novel before being adopted as a hallmark of the Gothic), and along the way collect two friends of Sir William’s: Colonel Walter, who owns a neighbouring estate, and to whom Louisa takes an immediate dislike; and the young Lord Lucan*, by whom, conversely, she is impressed…though perhaps not quite as impressed as he is with her

(*No relation, I’m sure.)

Disaster strikes on the party’s sea-journey to Ireland, and very nearly tragedy: as they approach their destination, a violent storm breaks, which lasts for hours, during which time their ship is in danger of being driven onto rocks. This situation provokes an extreme reaction from one of the party:

There was a great number of passengers on board, and their groans and lamentations would have affected me extremely, in any other situation; but the violent and continued sickness which I suffered, rendered me insensible, even to my own danger; nor did I feel the smallest emotion when Lord Lucan, who had seldom left my bedside, caught hold of my hand, with a degree of wildness, and pressing it to his lips, said, “We must perish!—but we shall die, together!”

Alas, the narrative does not reveal whether Louisa responded by throwing up on him; we can only hope.

Our main characters make it into a lifeboat and are cast ashore on a small island off the coast, from where they are shortly rescued. This experience has somewhat torn down the barriers between them, for good or ill.

A variety of new characters and sub-plots are now introduced, most of them acting as a compare-and-contrast backdrop to Louisa’s situation, as we are introduced to various people who are genuinely in love and miserable because of it.

Fanny Cleveland herself is engaged, but has the disturbing experience of her fiancée, Lord Hume, not merely spending much time on the Continent away from her, but now beginning to hint at a three-year Grand Tour. Lord Hume is a close friend of Lord Lucan, and through their correspondence we will learn that Hume has fallen in lust with a beautiful Italian adventuress and lost his taste for Fanny’s pallid perfections. Hume writes to Fanny and breaks off their engagement (without getting into specifics), with the result that her correspondence becomes all about the miseries of love, even as Louisa’s continues to be about the miseries of un-love.

Meanwhile, Sir George Cleveland, brother and guardian to Louisa and Fanny, is himself engaged to a Miss Colville (another bundle of pallid perfections). Here the impediment is Miss Colville’s ghastly mother, who refuses to consent to their marriage—because (we later discover) she wants Sir George for herself…and badly enough to facilitate her pursuit of him by immuring her daughter in a convent while faking her death to the world at large, while she tries to convince the stricken Sir George (via forged letter) that it was Delia’s last wish that they should be married.

This is, self-evidently, one of the Gothic-like subplots I referred to earlier, made even more so by the associated sub-sub-plot about the identity of the young woman buried as Delia Colville; but it is only a digression in the novel as a whole.

Back in Ireland, Harriet Westley, a young niece of Sir William’s, is received into the Bartons’ home and becomes a friend and companion to Louisa—who soon concludes that the girl is suffering from unrequited love. This sub-plot touches upon an interesting point from the literature of this time, the seriousness with which what to modern eyes is just a first crush tends to be treated. But then, in a society where girls were considered marriageable at fifteen, I suppose it’s not unreasonable to treat their emotions as likewise mature.

The object of Harriet’s passion is Lord Lucan—who has fallen in love with Louisa; while Colonel Walter, who is supposed to be engaged to a wealthy widow, Mrs Layton, also begins pursuing Louisa, though not out of “love”, exactly.

Fanny correctly deduces Lord Lucan’s secret passion from Louisa’s oblivious descriptions of his behaviour and change in demeanour—but that isn’t all she has deduced. Louisa’s letters have begun to evince an increasing tendency to compare Sir William with Lord Lucan, to the former’s discredit; perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since Sir William keeps going out of his way to behave like a dick an upright magistrate:

    Lord Lucan flew directly into the garden, and explained the phenomenon, by bringing the basket and its contents into the parlour, which was an infant, about a week old, clean, though poorly clad, with a note pinned to its breast, which said, this child has been baptised by its father’s name, William.
    This circumstance disconcerted Sir William who, after many unnecessary asseverations of his innocence, upon this occasion, at which the whole company smiled, as they knew he had been above a year out of the kingdom, determined to prove his virtue, at the expense of his humanity, by ordering the child to be left again in the garden where it was found, till the parish officers should come to take charge of it; and by commanding a strict search to be made for the mother, that she might be punished, according to law.
    We all opposed the severity of this resolution, as the poor infant appeared almost perished with cold, and hunger; but Sir William persisted in acting like an upright magistrate, according to the letter of the law—till Lord Lucan declared that he was ready to adopt the little foundling, and promised to take care of it for life, though his name was Thomas…

In this particular instance, Louisa’s sensitivity to the situation and the behaviour of the two men may be enhanced by the fact that she is pregnant—something which, due to the increasing estrangement between herself and Sir William, she delays in telling him, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Our main characters remove to Waltersburgh, Colonel Walters’ neighbouring estate, chiefly so the gentlemen can have some hunting, and there Louisa has a terrifying experience when a man intrudes into her bed-chamber and, um, takes liberties; though voices nearby stop things from going too far, and the intruder flees while Louisa faints. Since all the other men of the party are supposedly out, Louisa can only conclude that Lord Lucan (who has done an amusingly heroine-like thing by spraining his ankle) finally succumbed to his passion, and is both deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed:

    I determined, on the instant, to return to Southfield directly, let the consequence be what it would; and never to suffer Lord Lucan to come into my sight again; but, alas! when I attempted to rise, I found it impossible; the agitation of my mind, had disorder’d my whole frame; my illness encreased every moment, a messenger was dispatched for a physician, but before he could arrive—
    When Sir William was informed of my misfortune, he raved and stamped like a mad-man; said I must have designed to destroy his heir, out of perverseness, or I would certainly have acquainted him with my situation…

The estrangement between the Bartons naturally worsens from this point, and Colonel Walter, pursuing his own ends, is not slow to take advantage of it; intimating to Sir William, for instance, that the reason Louisa didn’t tell him about her pregnancy is that he was not the father…

While Louisa is recuperating, she receives a letter from Lord Lucan, full of regret and distress at her illness, but without the slightest hint of awareness of the cause, which makes her rethink her assumption; although in the circumstances she cannot see how anyone came to her room.

A secret passage, perhaps?—a rather Gothicky touch; while at this point our second Gothicky subplot also puts in an appearance. Via her maid, Louisa learns that a small child is a mostly-unseen resident of Colonel’s Walter’s house, and manages to make contact with her. The girl, who speaks no English, reveals to Louisa that her mother also is living in the house. First through an exchange of smuggles letters, then in a secret meeting, Louisa learns that the woman is Colonel Walter’s wife – possibly legally, possibly through a false marriage; she isn’t sure herself – and that out of fear for her own life and, even more so, for that of her daughter, she lives concealed in the attic, while her husband pursues various affairs and even tries to marry – or “marry” – a fortune.

(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)

As is common in sentimental novels, we then the get interpolated narrative of Mrs Walter’s entire life-story, and her escalating miseries at the hands of Colonel Walter and of society at large. Louisa of course repeats it all to Fanny in her letters and (showing a pleasing degree of backbone) the sisters plot to remove the unfortunate Olivia and her daughter from the Colonel’s dubious “protection”. In fact, in an unexpected and amusing touch, we get a full-on female conspiracy here, with Harriet Westley and Louisa’s friend Lucy Leister let in on the secret and offering their assistance, in addition to Benson the maid who has been the women’s go-between. Louisa succeeds in smuggling her new friends away from Waltersburgh and into a tenant-cottage at Southfield (Sir William’s property), and from there to Fanny in London.

Her interaction with Olivia provokes Louisa to the following suggestion—a topic that became quite common in sentimental novels, but which led to nothing in reality because of the stubborn refusal to see further than women’s refuge = convent = Catholic (the tone here makes me wonder if Griffith had been reading Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, an entire novel on the subject; particularly considering the radical suggestion of marital separation):

I should approve extremely of an establishment of this kind, in our own country, under our own religion and laws; both equally free from tyranny—An asylum for unhappy women to retreat to—not from the world, but from misfortunes, or the slander of it—for female orphans, young widows, or still more unhappy objects, forsaken, or ill treated wives, to betake themselves to, in such distresses…

Meanwhile, the continuous references in Louisa’s correspondence to Lord Lucan, her final conclusion that he could not have been guilty of the bedroom outrage, and her speculation about his connection with a Miss Ashford, a neighbourhood beauty to whom rumour has him attached, prompts Fanny to issue a stern warning:

    Vigilant and watchful must that woman be, who has so many foes to shield against—the unkindness of Sir William—the passion and merits of Lord Lucan—the arts and malice of Colonel Walter—but the last and most formidable—shall I venture to speak of it?—is your own heart.
    You have not yet begun to suspect it. It is therefore the more dangerous enemy. Examine it, my sister; call it to strict account; and if you find one sentiment or wish, that lurks in secret there, unworthy of yourself, banish it, I beseech you: thoughts, even without purposes, are criminal, where our honour is in question. Consider the slightest idea of this kind, as a young serpent; though stingless now, its growth will give it strength and power to wound the breast that nursed and cherished it! crush it, betimes, Louisa; and be at peace for life…

Louisa confesses that Fanny is right and suffers an agony of guilt and shame; although she cannot help wandering into the might-have-been, and offering another radical suggestion:

Flattering sophistry! Alas! I would deceive myself, but cannot! Have I not vowed, even at the altar vowed, to love another? Yet can that vow be binding, which promises what is not in our power, even at the time we make it? But grant it were, the contract sure is mutual; and when one fails, the other should be free…

(…particularly considering the countless 18th and 19th century novels in which an unhappy wife is told firmly by some authority figure or another that her husband’s neglect / cruelty / infidelity does not justify any failure in marital duty of her part.)

Much back and forth between the sisters follows, but for all of Louisa’s good intentions her practice keeps wandering away from her theory…until finally a concurrence of circumstances leads to a mutual declaration between Lord Lucan and herself, although also to a mutual resolve to do nothing dishonourable. They try to avoid one another, but their network of friends keeps unwittingly throwing them together, keeping both secret passions alive.

Meanwhile, Colonel Walter, experienced in intrigue, has seen what is going on between Louisa and Lord Lucan—sort of: he is incapable of believing that they might be in love without having sex; and likewise the type who assumes that if a woman is having illicit sex with one man, she’ll willingly have illicit sex with any man. When Louisa spurns his advances, he makes it his business to cause as much trouble as he can, partly as a way of blackmailing Louisa into his bed, partly out of sheer bastardry. The stresses of the situation bring about a collapse, and Louisa begins to suffer recurrent bouts of ill-health…

The History Of Lady Barton must necessarily devote much time and effort to the resolution of its almost innumerable romantic complications—although this doesn’t stop Elizabeth Griffith from taking up much of the third volume with yet another interpolated narrative, in this case the (of course) sad history of the young lady who ends up buried in Delia Colville’s grave (which contains yet another interpolated narrative). The true fate of Delia herself is revealed when Olivia finally decides to retreat into a convent, and discovers that she is a prisoner there, confined on the basis of false charges of immorality made by her mother.

Sir George Cleveland comes racing to the scene, in company with his new friend—Lord Hume, who was bled dry by his Margarita and her family and then, having outlived his usefulness to them, nearly murdered; a fate from which Sir George rescued him. Sir George is unaware of the former engagement between Hume and his sister, and unknowingly reunites them. By this time Hume has learned to appreciate Fanny’s modest virtues, and the two are married.

And so at last there is only our central complexity to resolve: will Elizabeth Griffith kill off the inconvenient Sir William Barton and let her secret lovers be happy, or will it be a case of broken hearts and ruined lives all around? Will Colonel Walter succeed in his evil machinations, or will he get his comeuppance? The matter stills hangs in the balance with very few pages to go:

About eight o’clock, this morning, there arrived a messenger from Waltersburgh, and in a few minutes after, Sir William rushed into my room, with an appearance of frenzy in his air and countenance.— “Vilest of women! cried he out, “you have now completed your wickedness—But think not that either you, or your accomplice, shall escape—That pity, which pleaded in my weak heart, even for an adultress, will but increase my rage against the murderess of my friend.” He then quitted me abruptly, as if bent upon some horrid purpose…

01/05/2015

Sydney St. Aubyn. In A Series Of Letters

sydneystaubyn1    The season of delusion is past, and the reign of reason restored—I turn back, ashamed to have sacrificed my youth to such fallacious pursuits, and to have vested so important a matter as my happiness on the fidelity of a woman who was unworthy of esteem—without doing myself the justice to consider the caprices of the sex. Blinded by my passion, I hurried on with heedless temerity, until the power of recovering myself was lost—
    Or if I saw at all, it was with the partial eye of generous affection, that eagerly magnified every trait of merit in my mistress; whilst she, cunningly conscious of the weakness of love, with subtle dissimulation, moulded me to her will; and when a series of lengthened unkindness, or rather cruelty, had loosened the attachment, I was simple enough to be lured by a siren smile, and suffer the momentary gratification which resulted from it, to counterbalance an age of lingering anxiety.
    Thus self-betrayed into the snare, I hugged my chains, and thought even captivity sweet…

I’m beginning to worry that I’m not giving the novelists of the late 18th century enough credit—or at least, I’ve noted a worrying tendency in myself, every time I come across something interesting in an obscure novel, to add a rider to the effect of, “It was probably accidental.”

But is it always accidental? This is the question raised in my mind by Sydney St. Aubyn, an epistolary novel from 1794, which on the surface is yet another tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but which gradually reveals itself as something rather different; different and, yes, interesting. Which is to say, it still is a tear-drenched, disaster-strewn piece of sentimentality, but the message it leaves us with is not the one we are led to expect.

I don’t know much – in fact, I don’t really know anything – about John Robinson, the author of Sydney St. Aubyn, except that he wrote several novels in addition to some poetry. (As you would appreciate, the name “John Robinson” is not a great aid to research.) I can only say that I’m now tempted to try his other works of fiction, to see whether what struck me as so interesting about this novel might indeed have been a deliberate exercise in misleading the reader.

At any rate, my opinion of Sydney St. Aubyn differs from that of whoever originally owned the copy of the novel now held by the Houghton Library of Harvard University, who saw fit to express his feelings about the novel’s two leading female characters by way of marginalia.

Unusually, this work opens in the immediate wake of a broken engagement, with our eponymous hero – or at least, protagonist – pouring out his heart-break and his sense of betrayal in a letter to his friend, Stafford Sullivan. But although St. Aubyn swears to abjure any further thought of Augusta Conway, his love for her dies hard; so that subsequently he finds himself caught between his lingering passion for his former fiancée and a new attraction towards a girl called Emily Alderton. Both women are conveyed to the reader via the usual descriptors of the sentimental novel: Augusta is damned via words like “haughty”, “imperious” and “headstrong”, while we know all we need to about Emily when we hear about, A tear—which started into the lovely girl’s eye, and stood there a glistening monument of wounded sensibility.

Tempora mutantur, and all that: Augusta, with her moods and uncertainties, and the constant impression given of motives beyond the ones declared, is a far more interesting character than that bundle of boring perfections, Emily. So I say, but evidently the owner of this book disagreed with me. Here is his opinion of Emily, who declares her predilection for St. Aubyn in a letter to her sister, Harriet:

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sydneystaubyn2

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And here, conversely, is his opinion of Augusta, expressed at the conclusion of a letter to St. Aubyn, who, she believes, is revenging himself upon her by drawing from her a confession that she still cares for him, even as he courts Emily Alderton:

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sydneystaubyn3

.

I haven’t quite been able to decipher the adjective – any suggestions? – but I don’t think there’s much doubt about the noun.

Sydney St. Aubyn opens with a flurry of letters between St. Aubyn and his friend, Sullivan, and between Augusta and her friend, Louisa Wentworth—the latter horrified that Augusta has broken such a long-standing engagement, and certain that she is at fault. Augusta’s letters are masterpieces of circumlocution, but it eventually emerges that she has come to believe that St. Aubyn is the father of an orphan they have both been providing for. The child is that of a young woman seduced and abandoned, who was taken in by a cottager, and who died after giving birth. Augusta does not believe St. Aubyn’s protestations of innocence, which he makes both to her outside the scope of the novel, and in his letters to Sullivan.

Moreover, Augusta has reacted to the breaking of her engagement by immediately contracting another, to a Colonel Alderton—much to Louisa’s doubt, Sullivan’s scorn, and St. Aubyn’s mingled misery and indignation. St. Aubyn’s health begins to suffer, and he takes himself off to the spa town of Matlock, in Derbyshire, where he finds a friend in a fellow-sufferer—a Colonel Alderton.

Long story short, Augusta’s betrothed – who has been pressing for an early marriage – is actually a penniless Irish adventurer called Douglas, who has been posing as a man known both as a military hero and as having a comfortable fortune of his own. The imposture is exposed by Sullivan, who makes it his business to inquire into this multiplicity of Aldertons, but actually recognises Douglas from an earlier encounter.

Douglas’s subplot is one of the stranger aspects of Sydney St. Aubyn. He starts out looking like the villain of the piece, but – after a series of largely comic experiences – undergoes repentence and redemption and allowed to have a happy ending. It turns out that (i) Douglas is the father of the illegitimate child, and (ii) the child’s mother faked her own death as a way of separating herself permanently from her lover, leaving her baby as part of her self-inflicted punishment. She and Douglas are eventually reunited and marry, and presumably live happily ever after. They’re about the only people in this novel who do.

Douglas, peculiarly enough, given the nature of his introduction into the plot, functions as the comic relief for much of Sydney St. Aubyn. Left without resources in the wake of the failure of his plan to marry Augusta’s fortune, he ends up joining an acting troupe—we are not surprised that he turns out to have a natural aptitude. What might surprise us – or at least, amuse us – is the role in which he has his first success:

    The play I fixed upon to make my entré in, was “Oroonoko”—and on the awful day appointed, it was announced with all the honours of a country play-bill—besides all other embellishments, it set forth “how this tragedy was a particular favourite on the London stage, and drew crouded audiences—representing a royal black prince in chains, and how his fair Imoinda, from whom he was separated when taken prisoner, afterwards came into the country where he was captive, and how she there met with her long-lost lord—and at last how they died for each other, &c. &c.”…
    Presently, Oroonoko was led forth in chains—my figure was striking, and I was welcomed with plaudits—this encouraged me, and I went thro’ my part tolerably well—but owing to the absence of one of our company, who was reported to be in a state of ebriety at a neighbouring ale-house, we were under the necessity of making free with the whole of the third act, and dividing the last into two—this was reckoned a harmless stratagem, and had often been practised.—The play was concluded, and Oroonoko retired with distinguished applause…

(Though intended as a joke, this interlude highlights the fact that, although Aphra Behn and her writing became increasingly unacceptable over time, dramatic adaptations of Oroonoko remained popular right through the 18th century and beyond.)

Meanwhile, our central characters are getting themselves into one hell of a mess. Determined to put his relationship with Augusta behind him, St. Aubyn begins courting Emily Alderton, when she comes to Matlock to be with her brother. Emily is immediately swept off her feet, as she confesses in a letter to her sister:

    A bold assertion this, Harriet, and will carry with it a sort of whisper that your Emily’s affections are in danger.—
    I despise the poor artifices of dissimulation—and were I to say that I could observe with indifference such a happy assemblage of amiable qualities in one form, I must have some motive—unworthy of myself.—Genuine merit commands the ready suffrage of sensibility, and on such an occasion, conscious innocence may chearfully stand forward to offer it…
    The resplendence of St. Aubyn’s character, bursting upon me at once, captivated my yielding senses—and I could love the man, were it only for his humble unaffected modesty, his mild unassuming delicacy, and in short for those endearing graces which he so evidently possesses, as the pure inheritance of nature.—
    I am only alluding to the accomplishments of his mind—his person deserves a separate panegyric.
    And when I tell you that it is everything I could wish for in a lover, you will conclude that nature has also been equally liberal there…

And St. Aubyn writes likewise to Sullivan:

    Emily Alderton came to Matlock, and won my affections.—I surrendered my heart, shattered as it had been by a former successless flame, whilst the lovely maid, unconscious of its imperfections, tenderly and fondly accepted it.
    Yes, Stafford, she heard the ingenuous avowal of my love with melting sensibility—and proved to me that her soul, all purity itself, suspected not the integrity of another.
    Then happiness spread forth her alluring blandishments, and I began to forget all I had suffered.
    The hours flew away on silken wings—and Emily and St. Aubyn lived only for each other—blest in the delicious confidence, the happy intercourse of Love…

And so matters stand – that is (just to be perfectly clear), St Aubyn has declared his love for Emily but not formally proposed marriage – when he learns that Augusta Conway is in Matlock…

In the wake of the exposure of the false “Colonel Alderton”, Augusta suffers a collapse that, we gather, has its basis in humiliated pride rather than wounded affections. She also makes a wild declaration to her friend, Louisa, that she will never marry—a declaration that she then spends a fair chunk of the novel trying to take back. (It is touches like this that, while they condemn Augusta utterly in terms of the genre that contains her, make her so much more real to the modern reader than the personality-less Emily.) To assist her convalescence, Augusta’s doctor orders her to a watering-place of her choice…

St. Aubyn is thrown into a panic by Augusta’s arrival, and more so when he receives a note from her requesting him to call upon her. Augusta is in the immediate wake of her pledge never to marry and tells him so, offering her friendship on that basis. She also explains her misapprehension about the paternity of the orphan and apologises for doubting him. Augusta’s unwonted humility and gentleness overset all of St. Aubyn’s good intentions, and he ends up all but renewing his vows to her, leaving her with an assurance that he sees her proffered friendship only as the first step to their reconciliation.

Once parted from Augusta, however, St. Aubyn can see nothing but his untenable situation with respect to Emily Alderton…a situation which is no secret to the other visitors to Matlock, and which very soon comes to Augusta’s ears. Concluding that St. Aubyn’s intention has been to lead her on and then spurn her, as revenge for her breaking of their engagement, she experiences torments of humiliation beside which her sufferings in the wake of Douglas’s exposure are nothing:

    At the moment  when, like another knight of the woeful countenance, he ventured into my presence, trembling with confusion, his brow overspread with a modest, mild complacency, artfully endeavouring to exact from me an engagement that amounted to a pledge of my affections, do you know, my dear, that he was absolutely betrothed to another?
    And your friend Augusta was to have been the mortified dupe to her credulity.— Oh yes, Mr St. Aubyn—undoubtedly you shall retaliate in this way, and take your own revenge on Augusta Conway!…
    He has absolutely descended into the commission of a mean falsehood, to gloss over his artful hypocrisy—for whilst I ingenuously acknowledged the impulse of that friendship I proffered him, (and which I declared was founded on a conviction of his superior merits) I regretted that he could not, from the gay circles of fashion and beauty, select some deserving fair one, who by returning his affection, might establish the means of forgetting his former unsuccessful attachment.
    But, no—if I would give him my friendship as a hostage for love, he would gratefully receive and preserve it.—
    —Yet but an hour before he had been at the feet of this melting damsel—this enchanting Miss Alderton, sighing out his passion, and doubtless confirming the sincerity of it with a profusion of oaths…

As, indeed, he was.

In his fretting over Augusta, St. Aubyn is stand-off-ish to Emily, and her distress alerts Colonel Alderton to the situation. Matlock gossip has been busy with St. Aubyn and Augusta, too, and it is an outraged brother who finally confronts St. Aubyn about his apparent perfidy. This elicits something at least approaching a full confession from St. Aubyn, and ends with him insisting there is nothing he wants more than to marry Emily. Alderton gives his consent and approval, and the three of them depart Matlock for Bath, where the wedding is to take place. St. Aubyn writes an account – or a version – of these events to Sullivan, in which he admits that he knows very well that his only chance of being happy with Emily is if he never sees Augusta again…

(It is St. Aubyn’s hurried departure with the Aldertons, in the wake of all this, that prompts Augusta to send an angry, scornful letter after him—and that letter in turn which prompted the owner of this book to call her a bitch and accuse her of “plaguing the poor man so”—!!)

Up to this stage of Sydney St. Aubyn, the reader has certainly been encouraged to sympathise with the eponymous Sydney; while his position as the novel’s main identification character lends authenticity to his feelings, his version of events. But at this point, with St. Aubyn caught between Augusta and Emily, the possibility of a second and very different reading of the text begins to creep in.

Overtly, the narrative of Sydney St. Aubyn positions the capricious Augusta as the villain of the piece, wreaking emotional destruction upon herself and others through her wilfulness; yet as the story progresses, it is, it seems to me, St. Aubyn himself who really occupies that position—not least because of his appalling mishandling of the emotional tangle in which he finds himself enmeshed. Though he keeps declaring himself a victim of circumstances, or of fate, for the disaster that ultimately befalls him he has nothing to blame but his own selfishness and stupidity.

Then, too, there is the matter of the broken engagement, which is never properly accounted for—Augusta’s professed belief in St. Aubyn’s paternity of the illegitimate child being clearly an excuse rather than a reason. Perhaps, over time, Augusta began to sense something a bit “off” about St. Aubyn—nothing she could put her finger on, or give a name to—nothing that would justify the breaking of an engagement—but which determined her not to marry him after all…

And, in fact, there’s something else peculiar about this novel. All throughout it everyone harps upon St. Aubyn’s perfections—his “superior merit”, his “resplendence”, his “brilliant character”—and the more the other characters go on like this, the harder it becomes to take any of it seriously. The novel, in its entirety, protests far too much. And the more it does so, the more it begins to feel not like an example, but a deconstruction of the tenets of “sentimentalism”…

This, anyway, is the reading that I finally took away from Sydney St. Aubyn. Whether it is the reading I was supposed to take away—I have absolutely no idea. If it is intentional, it’s an unusually subtle bit of writing for this literary period.

The second volume of Sydney St. Aubyn opens—oddly. It was the practice in the late 18th century for multi-volume novels to be released volume by volume, and I suspect that this one was so. At any rate, John Robinson – posing as the “editor” of the letters, as so often the case with epistolary novels – switches to third-person narrative for a time here, apparently in order to hurry the plot up. We get a brief tut-tut visit with Augusta via an excerpt of a letter from Louisa, in which she deprecates Augusta’s contemplated “revenge” upon St. Aubyn; we hear of the marriage of St. Aubyn and Emily, and their departure for Dublin; and we learn that Colonel Alderton has stayed behind in England for a very particular reason—nothing less than to pursue his sudden attraction towards Augusta:

    A few days previous to his sister’s departure for Dublin, he had invited St. Aubyn to a private interview, and with the confidence of friendship, unbosomed a secret that a good deal chagrined him—this was no other than a growing partiality for Augusta Conway…
    St. Aubyn, a good deal disconcerted, (tho’ he knew not why) at this unexpected discovery, could hardly resolve what to answer to make the Colonel.—We would fain hope, for the honour of St. Aubyn’s character, that he had renounced every lurking thought which threatened to remind him improperly of Miss Conway—certain it is, he did not receive the intelligence with that cordiality which the other expected—whether St. Aubyn foresaw danger in too close an alliance with the former disturber of his peace, or that a selfish motive (unworthy himself) prevailed for a moment, the future contents of these pages will best determine…

So.

Much of Volume II is devoted to the reclamation of Douglas and his reunion with Maria and their child; we needn’t get too much into that. Our A Plot finds Colonel Alderton pursuing a determined courtship of Augusta, who eventually capitulates—sending Louisa word that she will have her revenge upon St. Aubyn, after all:

I suppose, Louisa, I must marry him.—Well—St. Aubyn has had his whim that way, and my time must come—what think you my dear, will Mrs St. Aubyn’s husband be pleased with this family commutation?—Now, draw yourself up, my sober sentimental girl, and ask what right he has to be thought of?—Remember, Louisa, I told you I had  not done with my gentleman yet!—he shall see what I am capable of—he shall see what real love can accomplish—that Augusta Conway might shine as a spinster, but that she is unrivalled as a wife…

Louisa takes Augusta’s invitation literally, and sends her back a letter full to overflowing with criticisms, admonitions, warnings and forebodings. The Colonel, meanwhile, sends what sounds like a masterpiece of tactlessness to St. Aubyn—only we don’t get the letter itself, we get some commentary upon it by our “editor” instead:

He forgets not to tell him, that he expects, very shortly, to lead her to the altar—nor is he sparing in his description of Augusta’s charms, but with too prodigal a hand dwells on the fascinating subject.—He felt as a lover, and forgot that it was possible for him to be fanning the expiring embers of a flame which ought, by that time, to have been wholly extinguished—perhaps it was imprudent in the Colonel to do so…

You think?

The consequences of this self-absorbed epistle become evident in a hasty letter sent to Stafford Sullivan by Emily St. Aubyn:

    Ah, my God, Mr Sullivan—you are my St. Aubyn’s friend—will you not be a friend to me too?
    He has been delirious for some hours—and there is that on his mind, which I am convinced will for ever mar our happiness, even if it should please providence to restore him to health.
    He calls loudly on Augusta Conway—me he heeds not, but wildly declaims against the treachery of friendship, and swears, with ungovernable fury, that he will not live to see love’s
altar polluted…
    St. Aubyn has had a dreadful night.—She, the fatal she, has been the constant object of his thoughts, nor has there been a moment that his mind did not seem wholly occupied with a determination to punish some person’s perfidy, and abuse of confidence.—My God—surely he does not mean my brother!

St. Aubyn – unfortunately, we might be inclined to add – recovers, and sends Sullivan a letter full of mingled self-blame and self-pity:

    Ah, Stafford—I was not born to be happy—I told you so over and over.—
    Never did wedded love witness a brighter ornament than Emily St. Aubyn.—Nor did a purer, or more ardent affection ever glow in the bosom of virtuous love.—
    I—I am a wretch, Stafford—who have profaned its hallowed rites—who have wantonly trifled away every hope of happiness.
    What luckless agent of mischief brought the devoted Emily Alderton in my way, to be sacrificed to insensibility like mine—at a time, too, when fate seemed to be relenting—when AUGUSTA CONWAY herself, frank and unreserved, deigned to sue to St. Aubyn?
    Was it well done of the Colonel to fasten me so closely to the flimsy etiquette of honour, whilst he was projecting the plan of robbing he of the mistress that I find, Stafford, is still dearer to me than life?

And upon St. Aubyn hearing that Augusta and the Colonel are actually married, we get this:

    On my estate in Yorkshire, I have a small but elegant mansion, fitted exactly for a recluse.—
    There is a wilderness behind it.
    The first thing I have to do is to construct an hermitage in the most retired part of this wilderness—I shall have a lamp perpetually burning—and there I shall sojourn from morn to eve—my wife and I have agreed upon it—she says she won’t control me.—
    Here I shall cherish reflection, instead of flying from it.— You know I have been disappointed a good deal in life—but ’tis all over—I laugh now at what fate can do—yet your friend is no common philosopher.—
    Is not this an excellent scheme?

Sure—if you’re a pathetic, childish, self-indulgent wanker.

I think what makes Sydney St. Aubyn so difficult to gauge is the lack of editorialisation—novels of this period usually weren’t shy about telling the reader what to think, but John Robinson practices an unexpected degree of restraint. And while these days we might be inclined to conclude that there is no way the reader could be expected to sympathise with St. Aubyn, the fact is that there are plenty of sentimental novels in which the characters behave just as extravagantly and selfishly as St. Aubyn, and yet clearly do expect us to sympathise. So while we can give John Robinson the benefit of the doubt in this respect—doubt there still is.

And as for the conclusion of the narrative itself—from the moment he starts raving about hermitages, it’s pretty clear where Sydney St. Aubyn himself is headed. The only question is how many of the supporting cast he might manage to take down with him…

27/03/2015

The Histories Of Lady Frances S— And Lady Caroline S—

Minifies1cWe who have indulgent parents, or such as supply their loss, like the aunt of my Juliet, ought to think them the richest gift of Providence.—An incident has happened since my last, that gives more force to this reflection, than any other I have met with.—Scarcely am I yet recovered from the hurry of spirits it occasioned.—Sitting alone this morning, I was told that a young lady desired admittance to me, with great earnestness; but being suddenly taken ill, was obliged to drink a glass of water, before she could deliver her request… What was my astonishment to find there Lady Frances S—, whom but two days since I saw at the masquerade, inspiring all who beheld her, with respect, even to veneration, now unattended; in appearance all terrified, and ready to sink; her feet being scarce able to support their trembling burden.—Unable to speak, I received her in my arms; her head fell on my shoulder, while her hidden grief found vent in a most violent gush of tears…

Margaret and Susannah Minifie were the daughters of the Reverend James Minifie of Somersetshire. Margaret was born around 1734, and Susannah around 1740. Not much is known about their early lives; from our point of view, the most cogent fact is that in 1763, the sisters began writing novels: a profession in which they were later joined by Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth.

It should be stressed at the outset that the bibliography of the Minifie sisters is confused and contradictory when it comes to individual authorship—in short, it is not at all clear who wrote what. Sometimes they put their name, or names, or the title page and sometimes they did not; while certain works have been differently attributed by different academics. We should note that while it is canon to list Susannah Gunning as the author of Barford Abbey, the novel has been attributed by some to Margaret Minifie; though I’m not aware of any solid reason to do so. (We might recall that during the Gunning scandal – the first – Gunning scandal – Susannah denied writing this novel; although if that were true, “my sister wrote it” might have been a more cogent response than “I never heard of it.”)

The Minifies, separately and together, found a certain measure of success as writers. They specialised in “novels of sensibility”, usually featuring the stock wish-fulfilment fantasies of poor girls either marrying into the aristocracy, or discovering they are of the aristocracy, or both (ironic, considering their connection to the Gunning sisters, who did exactly that). Their over-the-top sentimentality saw them paid the backhanded compliment of having the term “Minific” coined to describe that type of writing; in which respect, Clara Reeve singled out Margaret Minifie for criticism in her study of the novel, The Progress Of Romance. However, while it is generally agreed that the Minifies’ early novels are fairly weak, there is also some feeling that they improved as writers over time.

The Minifies’ first novel, published as by “the Miss MINIFIES of Fairwater, in Somersetshire”, appeared in 1763. The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— is, as we might expect, a sentimental epistolary novel, and entirely typical of that branch of writing, inasmuch as there is a lot of talk, and a great many outpourings of “sensibility”, but not a lot actually happens.

Overall, however, the main weakness of the novel lies in its handling of one particular plot-thread.

Lady Frances S—, having fled from her parents’ house and taken refuge with the Lady Lucy Walton, daughter of the Earl of — (I’m not sure why Lady Lucy gets a surname and Lady Frances doesn’t; though their parents are equally title-less), feels obliged to give a circumstantial account of her entire life, in order to justify herself. This account Lady Lucy, naturally, transcribes word for word and sends to her chief correspondent, Miss Juliet Hamilton. At the outset of it (page 17 of the novel), Lady Frances declares:

About this time died my sister Caroline, two years younger than myself.—Had she lived—but for her sake I ought not, will not wish it…

But on the other hand, there’s this dream sequence:

Back again to town, my father spurning me from him, my mother frowning, and ordering me from her presence:—all insulting me, except my uncle, who with a look of mingled pity and resentment, took my hand, and convey’d me from them.—Once more at Audley-castle, Mr Worthley with us; all harmony. My father and mother both caressing him. To compleat all, a lovely creature rush’d into my mother’s arms, who presented her to me, bidding me embrace my sister…

What could the truth possibly be!?

Here’s a hint – take another look at the title of the novel.

Yes. Not a lot of suspense there. Basically we spend the whole novel waiting for the female version of The Suspiciously Superior Peasant to show up, which she duly does.

Anyway. The first half of The Histories— deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Frances; and the second half, although apparently we’re not supposed to realise it, deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Caroline. The plot, such as it is, has various of its characters being caught between love and duty; and though I doubt this was the moral that the Minifies intended to convey, things tend to work out whichever of those options is chosen. I can’t even really say that choosing love over duty brings more suffering, just a different kind.

One of the most unexpected things about The Histories— is the situation of Lady Frances who, though she would appear to be everything her aristocratic patents could desire in a daughter, is hated by those parents: or rather, she is hated by her mother, a former famous beauty suffering from poisonous jealousy of the young and even more lovely girl, while her father goes along with the resulting persecution because of his blind obsession with his wife. Most of what Lady Frances suffers is the direct result of deliberate cruelty from her mother and father, which in turns leads to the novel’s most exasperating aspect – exasperating in 1763, exasperating when Dickens did it about a hundred years later – the insistence that no matter how viciously a “good” girl is treated by her parents or, conversely, how entirely she is rejected by them, she will bear no feelings of resentment whatsoever, desire only to be reconciled, and (if and when that happens) evince nothing towards them but gratitude and love.

Groan.

Lady Frances’s father, though inheriting a dukedom, was otherwise deprived of everything he could be deprived of as a result of marrying against his father’s wishes, with all unsecured property and money devolving to his younger brother, Lord Henry: a situation which not unnaturally caused deep resentment in the new Duke. Nevertheless, seeing Frances neglected by her mother and left to the servants (at that time not out of jealousy, just because of the Duchess’s passion for her social life), Lord Henry arranged for her to be sent away to school, where she spent the next ten years; it was shortly after she left that the Lady Caroline died {*cough*}.

Returning home, Frances finds her parents’ passive hostility has become active, resulting in her being, in effect, kept in solitary confinement; while Lord Henry’s attempts to make the Duke and Duchess see their injustice backfire as often as not:

His Lordship remonstrated to my mother on my too strict confinement; and at length got her to promise she would introduce me to some of her acquaintance… About six I was summoned to the drawing-room, and found there my father, Lord Henry, and my mother: his Lordship, with an air of affection not visible on any other countenance called me dear good girl; see brother, see sister, leading me to them, how your condescension has made her eyes sparkle with gratitude. Her Grace looked at me in a manner that made me tremble. In my agitation I dropped down on one knee, took her hand and put it to my lips; being so much affected by her unkind silence, that I felt the tears falling in a shower on my face.—What does the girl mean? said my mother; this indulgence spoils her.—Indeed, brother, you persuade me to take a wrong method.—Go, madam, walk back to your apartment; I shall not carry you abroad to expose me…

Repeat ad nauseum.

Eventually Lord Henry persuades the Duke and Duchess to let him take Lady Frances home with him, where she is loved and appreciated; though of course she never stops repining over her parents’ neglect and indifference. At this point (with Lady Lucy repeating Lady Frances’ account of herself to Juliet Hamilton), the narratives-within-narratives start to intrude. We are first given the life-story of the subtly named Mrs Worthley—severely abridged version, she is widowed when her soldier-husband is killed and left almost destitute. She is succoured by an aristocratic woman who turns out to be Lady Frances’ grandmother, the late Duchess; and here allow me to quote a couple of short passages which, I think, convey perfectly both the overall tone of this novel, and its more-than-occasional amusing clumsiness of expression:

Recovering, I found myself thrown on my bed, a lady standing by me, with a smelling bottle in one hand, in the other my daughter…

The sight of [my daughter] made me wish to preserve that life, which was become less valuable, by being deprived of its richest comfort. The greatness of her joy shewed what her sorrow had been. From my arms she ran into the person’s by whose means I had been restored. O, madam, (she cried, locking the child in them, and kissing her with an affection like my own) what a child is this! never did I see such sensibility…

Mrs Worthley has a son as well as a daughter. Charles eventually follows his father into the army, while Sophia becomes the object of Lord Henry’s affections—but dies shortly before they are to be married. Lord Henry buries his heart in her grave and devotes himself to Good Works, in which he is assisted by Mrs Worthley.

Lord Henry is one of this novel’s more interesting aspects and, as with most of what is interesting here, it feels accidental. Lord Henry becomes, progressively, the moral centre of the story, everyone’s touchstone for what is honourable; yet to the reader it appears that Lord Henry has a talent for placing those who love him in the wrong, or for being away when his advice is most needed; so that (given the kind of novel this is) we end up with a series of big emotional scenes in which someone – usually the unfortunate Lady Frances – acts on their own judgement and then – of course – has to throw themselves at Lord Henry’s feet and beg his forgiveness for the heinous crime of being a little less perfectly perfect than he, in the kind of public display that novels of sensibility eat for breakfast.

Lord Henry’s Good Works also smack of killing with kindness. Even allowing for the shifts in language that have occurred since this novel was written, it is hard not to laugh when Charles Worthley, discovering that it was Lord Henry who bought the small estate that his mother sold following her husband’s death, and that he intends to restore it to him along with twenty years’ of collected rents, describes himself as being, “Oppressed by benefits.”

While on leave from his duties, Charles Worthley visits his mother, who now lives upon Lord Henry’s estate, and is introduced to Lady Frances. Naturally, these very nearly perfectly perfect young people fall in love, much as they struggle against it, and much as they struggle to conceal the fact from one another. Eventually, however, they confide in Lord Henry. Although he knows – or ought to know – that the Duke and Duchess will froth at the mouth at the very idea of Lady Frances marrying a mere soldier, he nevertheless asks their permission on the young couple’s behalf, hoping that a fervent description of Charles’ manifold virtues and the news that he, Lord Henry, has made Charles his heir will sufficiently make up for his lack of birth.

Naturally, the Duke and Duchess respond by calling their daughter home, violently abusing her non-stop for her wilfulness, disobedience and lack of proper pride, and try to force her into a hateful marriage—partly because the party in question is a member of the aristocracy and therefore (whatever his personal failings) a proper suitor for Lady Frances…but mostly just because it is hateful.

And having played no small part in bringing about this situation, Lord Henry then fades from the scene, leaving Frances to fend for herself—to decide on her own, firstly, whether “duty” – the perfect “duty” so beloved of Lord Henry – really dictates that she must marry as her parents bid her, whatever her feelings; and secondly, what to do when Charles Worthley tries to persuade her into a secret marriage…

So much for Plot A. Plot B concerns Lord Ormsby, the brother of Lady Lucy, whose erratic behaviour has been referred to at intervals during the transmission of Lady Frances’ story. At length – at length – it transpires that Ormsby has fallen under the influence of the dissolute Lord Edgmore, who has made it his business to lead him away from the path of virtue. As with Lady Frances’ parents, there is a proximate and ultimate reason for Lord Edgmore’s behaviour: on one hand, he likes corrupting virtuous young men; on the other, he is plotting his revenge against a venerable old country clergyman, Mr Nevison, who discovered his wicked intentions with respect to a certain young girl and intervened. Mr Nevison is to be punished for his temerity, the target of Lord Edgmore’s vengeance being the old man’s own beautiful, innocent young granddaughter, the weapon Lord Ormsby…

Ormsby, masquerading under a false identity, and at this stage imbued with Edgmore’s own vicious immorality, does indeed lay siege to Miss Dalton, with the intention of making her his mistress via a false marriage. He finds the task rather more difficult than anticipated; Miss Dalton is not what he expected, particularly in light of her lowly situation:

Can a girl unacquainted with riches, resist the charm they bring? may she not have some sparks of vanity in her composition; and may I not, by the breath of flattery, blow those sparks into flames? but in vain did I try that common and generally successful battery; she was proof against all my arts: my visits, through frequent, were never placed to her account; though I could discern I had by my assiduity gained her esteem. With pleasure have I seen her with an additional chearfulness, and the warmest filial duty imprinted on her face, exerting all the powers of sense and eloquence to entertain her aged and almost decrepid grandfather; which seem’d to soften the rigor of his pain, and banish the remembrance of his misfortunes.—How different from what is called the well-bred of her sex, who make the most desirable and necessary duties of life subservient to the least of their amusements. Often have I regretted, that so many fine women should lose, in the stream of pleasure, a sympathising softness, which nature has originally implanted in them, as a soil more capable of improving those tender seeds, than in us, whose minds are cast in a rougher mould. Difficult as I found it to proceed, I found it as difficult to retreat…

Ashamed of going on with his plot, yet more ashamed to back down in front of Lord Edgmore, Ormsby retreats to his home, when his strange moods attract the notice of his family and friends. He realises that he is in love with Miss Dalton, yet does not relinquish his plan. He proposes and is accepted, then turning his mind to how to lure her away from home. He ends up forging a letter from Miss Dalton’s mother (of whom, more anon), in which she reveals she has been ill, and asks her daughter to come to her. Lord Ormsby offers to escort her to the meeting place, and so manages to remove her from her grandfather’s care and to a house that he has prepared for the occasion. Having got Miss Dalton into his clutches, Ormsby gets to work:

In that time I intended to discover to her my quality, the impossibility of my marrying her (which had made me act as I had done) to tell her that I would study her happiness; and that if my fortune and entire affection could bestow it on her, they were both at her disposal. This considered, I hoped would induce her to forgive the deception I had used, and listen to those sophistical arguments which I had made myself master of, till her virtue should be lull’d asleep by them.—I took a lodging near hers, which was a small distance from the town, and seeing my scheme now at its crisis, I ventured to laugh at those sacred rites which I had before seemed to venerate, called them priestcraft, talked of her sparkling with jewels in a side-box; and being distinguished for her beauty wherever she appeared. When she thus interrupted me— Certainly you are not Mr Beaumont! The Mr Beaumont that honoured me with his regard, was good and generous. Leave, leave me, sir, I will not be insulted; if you entertain those opinions, leave me, and know that I detest the one, and despise the other…

Lord Ormsby does leave her; and, once home again, he finally confesses all to his best friend, Sir William Hamilton (brother to Juliet, who is courting Lady Lucy), asking his advice and that of their respective sisters as to how he should proceed.

Juliet, who recounts all this to another correspondent, her cousin Miss Wentworth, is moved, if not quite to poetry, at least to elaborate analogy:

After all, my dear, what a dreadful thing it is, when any of our sex, who really love virtue, are so unhappy as to fall into the hands of men, who glory in bringing it on a level with vice; of which principles is the hateful Lord Edgmore, especially in the case of Miss Dalton? Like the villain spider, he had artfully spun his web of so fine a texture, as to make it imperceptible. Hid in the close recesses of his wicked machinery, with malicious pleasure, he saw the innocent unsuspecting fly enjoying the sweets of content, and the liberty of roving from flower to flower, and sucking the sweets of education; till at last allured by a sunbeam, she is entangled in the net of vice.—The spider now shews itself, creeping out by slow degrees, eyeing its prey; who, at his approach, sends out a feeble cry of pity to its destroyer.—Bloated with imagined success, methinks I see him just ready to seize the victim of his revenge, when behold she is miraculously delivered by her own virtue…

As is also the case with Susannah Minifie Gunning’s later novel, Barford Abbey, some fairly twisted morality emerges at this point in The Histories— When Lady Frances’ parents go berserk at the thought of her marriage to Charles Worthley, and try to force upon her an individual loathsome for everything but his title, we naturally take it as a typical sentimental novel view of birth-vs-worth. And naturally, when Lord Ormsby falls for a girl of low birth, but who is otherwise “the most beautiful and the most virtuous of her sex”, we expect their union to be held up approvingly as an example of the triumph of proper values. But it doesn’t happen.

Both because he is in love with her, and to make reparation, Lord Ormsby proposes to Miss Dalton, even though he knows his father will be utterly enraged when he finds out. (To modern eyes, “the best of parents”, as he is repeatedly described, is both a domestic tyrant and a terrible snob.) Miss Dalton, however, is steadfast in her refusal—not, we gather, so much because of Ormsby’s transgressions, but because she is now aware that he is the son and heir of an earl. And instead of disputing her stance, Lady Lucy thanks her for it, praising her generosity and self-sacrifice in preventing Lord Ormsby from disgracing his family, and promising to love her as a sister provided she never actually becomes her sister.

So much for Miss Dalton’s beauty, innocence, virtue and courage, which are brushed aside as of no importance. It’s a pity, they all agree, but her marriage with Lord Ormsby is impossible.

Well. Almost impossible.

Before I move on to the question of how we turn an impossibility into a fait accompli, we must digress a moment for an extract from Mr Nevison’s letter to his granddaughter, upon his becoming aware of her various travails. Apparently he and Juliet Hamilton had the same English teacher:

Suspicion and innocence seldom meet; how could you then suspect that under the appearance of merit, was hid a subtil poison, calculated to fascinate the senses, and bid us both asleep? Few they are that can fly from this serpent, under the disguise of a friend; but often when too late discover the deception, and the force of its baneful influence. For innocence, like the playful squirrel, skipping from bough to bough, unmindful of its safety, discerns the beautiful speckled serpent, attempting to climb the tree, which affords her liberty, food, and shelter. Not mistrusting it for an enemy, it descends nearer, whilst the sly reptile rolls himself in a thousand different ways, the more to attract her notice. Sometimes it towers its head, fold upon fold, shewing its glittering scales, and then again baking in the sun of prosperity, licks the dust, attempting, by devilish cunning, to bring his designed prey to the low level of his desires; till at length the poor animal, lured by deceitful appearances, having her head made giddy by them, drops into the extended jaws of the baneful snake, who exults in loud reproachful hisses, on the misfortune he had occasioned…

Lady Frances and Lord Henry have been popping in and out of this plot-thread, but we don’t hear much of the Duke and Duchess until Lady Frances is summoned home by her father, who is stricken with grief and remorse in the face of his wife’s possibly fatal illnesss; and even at this early acquaintance with the Minifies, we are not in the least surprised to discover that the illness in question is smallpox. In Barford Abbey,  the heroine being both beautiful and virtuous, she survives unmarked; the Duchess, being beautiful but rather lacking in the virtue department, survives but has the looks she has always been so vain about completely ruined. This brings about an almost instantaneous reformation, and reconciles her to the daughter she has always hated as a rival—while Lady Frances, of course, is overcome with dutiful joy at this outcome.

Not so fortunate is the Duchess’ tirewoman—a certain Mrs Dalton. She catches smallpox from her mistress, and soon knows she is going to die. This prompts her finally to reveal the Terrible Secret she has harboured for many years…

Come not near me, Madam, said the poor creature, I am a wretch, unworthy this condescension, or your forgiveness. I assured her I did not recollect any offence towards me, but such as I could easily pardon.—O blessed sound! she replied, am I forgiven?—Then staring up, she wrung her hands, and with wild vehemence cried out, O my good Lady—the Duke—Lady Caroline—they—they;—have mercy, heaven, hide—hide—my guilt…

That’s right, folks! Say it with me now, loud and proud—

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

We haven’t had one of those plots for a while! Personally, I’ve missed them.

It turns out that Mrs Dalton has left a written confession behind, so we get the details as well as the facts. She starts by assuring the Duchess that her long-lost daughter, Still lives; she lives, an honour to you, an honour to your sex! concealed by me under a fictitious name, her noble birth shines out in obscurity.

Yeah, for all the good it’s done her.

Mrs Dalton was Lady Caroline’s wet-nurse. When the baby became ill, she was ordered to take her into the country, as well of course as her own daughter, Elizabeth. There she conceived the idea of swapping the children, and giving her own all the advantages of birth and wealth – an imposture she was sure she could get away with:

Such a mother as yourself, who had never seen your own, but once from its birth, would not discern the changeling…

(This is the second time we’ve encountered a baby substitution plot facilitated by disinterested 18th century motherhood.)

And so Elizabeth Dalton was received into an aristocratic nursery, while the Lady Caroline was banished to the country, to be raised by Mr Nevison, Mrs Dalton’s father. The scheme worked admirably—at least until the false Lady Caroline died…

Despite these outrageous revelations, Mrs Dalton doesn’t hesitate to read the Duchess a lecture on her own conduct:

Now I fear not your resentment, yet implore your forgiveness, and that of my dear Lady Frances Worthley. Your Grace too well knows the part I have acted towards that excellent Lady; it was when I saw your Grace’s treatment of the gentle sufferer in sending her from your house, that a sincere repentance first entered my heart; it was then  that I resolved to write what you now read; not only to restore Lady Caroline to your arms, but to endeavour to convince your Grace that, had you acted like a mother, you would never have lost the one, nor driven the other from you…

The revelation of Lady Caroline’s identity of course removes all barriers between herself and Lord Ormsby, and her steadfast clinging to duty is rewarded…while Lady Frances, who defied her parents and contracted a clandestine marriage to a man out of her own social class is…also rewarded, with reconciliations and friendships all around.

I’m just a little confused right now…

19/10/2014

Barford Abbey

barfordabbey1How was I surpris’d at ascending the hill!—My feet seem’d leading me to the first garden,—the sweet abode of innocence!—Ten thousand beauties broke on my sight;—ten thousand pleasures, before unknown, danced through my heart.—Behold me on the summit;—behold me full of surprise,—full of admiration!—How enchanting the park! how clear the river that winds through it1—what taste,—what elegance, in the plantations!—How charmingly are Nature’s beauties rang’d by art!—The trees,—the shrubs,—the flowers,—hold up their heads, as if proud of the spot they grow on!—Then the noble old structure,—the magnificent mansion of this antient family, how does it fire the beholder with veneration and delight! The very walls seem’d to speak; at least there was something that inform’d me, native dignity, and virtues hereditary, dwelt within them.

Susannah Gunning’s 1768 publication, Barford Abbey, A Novel. In A Series Of Letters, is another work that has been mentioned as a potential proto-Gothic novel, though as it turns out there is very little in the book itself to support this assertion; except perhaps (as is evident from its earliest pages) there is a secret to do with her parentage in the background of the novel’s heroine. However, since it eventually becomes evident that almost everyone except the heroine herself is in on that particular secret, it hardly constitutes the kind of mystery that would eventually become a trope of the Gothic novel proper. In fact, my suspicion is that Barford Abbey ended up on the list of Gothic progenitors purely because it had the word “abbey” in its title; thirty years later, this would indeed constitute a fairly reliable marker.

One thing that Barford Abbey does have in common with a surprising number of the proto-Gothics is that it was first published in Dublin, with a second edition appearing in England some three years later. However, its author was English: Susannah Minifie was born in Somerset, the daughter of a poor clergyman. Susannah’s sister, Margaret, was also a novelist (and attracted pointed criticism from Clara Reeve in her The Progress Of Romance, for reasons I have yet to investigate), while her daughter, Elizabeth, would likewise become a writer.

In 1768, the same year that she wrote Barford Abbey, her first novel, Susannah Minifie married John Gunning, brother to the famous Irish Gunning sisters, who became the Countess of Coventry, and the Duchess of Hamilton and later the Duchess of Argyll, respectively. (John Gunning is a story unto himself, to which I might return sometime…)

Barford Abbey was, as I say, a first novel, and it shows. Some things, however, it does do well. Unlike the earlier The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley, this is an epistolary novel proper, with correspondance in various voices, and differing perspectives on the same events, so that the reader is aware of various facts while the characters – or at least the heroine – remain in ignorance of them. This novel also does a good job creating suspense, albeit rather mild, by writing as people do write—that is, the correspondents don’t tell each other things that they already know. This is a an area where many epistolary novels fail, even falling into the fatal trap of including entire back-stories for certain characters under the guise of “dear friends” demanding to know each other’s life-histories.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that this approach sometimes makes Barford Abbey simply confusing—although in retrospect this might be more correctly attributed to another rookie mistake. Rarely for a novel of this type, sometimes there is simply not enough detail in the description of the characters. One subplot involves an estrangement between father and son. The context in which this plot-point is raised suggests that the son is a young man, perhaps in his early twenties; in fact he is some twenty years older, a detail which alters the implications of the situation altogether.

There’s also the fact that all of the novel’s correspondents favour the same peculiar punctuation style.

Overall, Barford Abbey is a sentimental novel par excellence, inasmuch as while very little actually happens, endless pages are devoted to the characters reporting and analysing their feelings. Its main failing is that the two people doing most of the analysing are neither of them very interesting. Our hero and heroine are, alas!—respectively a prat and a bore.

With respect to both, Mrs Gunning falls into the trap of the “informed attribute”. Every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her; through their correspondence we hear not only of her beauty and grace, but of her sensibility, intelligence and wit; of how “angelic”, how “bewitching” she is…but her own correspondence, which makes up the bulk of the novel, gives us no hint of anything out of the thoroughly ordinary. We are left to assume that everyone is reading whatever they want to into the tabula rasa of a pretty face. Likewise, though we hear from his first appearance about how Lord Darcy’s mind is “illumin’d with uncommon understanding, sweetness, and refinement”, what he reveals of himself directly and in his letters makes the reader want to slap him.

(Most exasperatingly, this novel repeatedly contends that no-one who isn’t perfectly beautiful can expect to be loved, even to the point of creating a plain spinster character in every other respect even more boringly perfect than Fanny herself. At some points it even suggests that no-one who isn’t beautiful is capable of loving. I suppose this attitude may have been consequence of Mrs Gunning having seen first-hand what her sisters-in-law achieved via beauty alone, unsupported by birth or money, though it seems an odd and hurtful assertion coming from someone who does not seem to have been more than borderline pretty herself.)

The opening of Barford Abbey gave me what proved to be unfounded hopes that it was going to be an exercise in hilarious misery like Valentine:

How distressing, how heart-rending, is my dear Fanny’s mournful detail!—It lies before me; I weep over it!—I weep not for the departed saint: no; it is for you, myself, for all who have experienced her godlike virtues!

But this was largely misleading, although though we do get a few agreeably absurd flourishes from time to time. The novel’s opening correspondents are Miss Fanny Warley and the Lady Mary Sutton; the latter, for her health, has been for some time residing at “the German Spaw”, although she now holds hopes of being permitted by her physician to return to England. Fanny’s dismal letter (not included) reports the death of one Mrs Whitmore, with whom she has been living. Lady Mary begs Fanny to join her on the Continent by travelling with Mr and Mrs Smith, who will be wintering at Montpelier; in the meantime, she is to be taken in by Mr and Mrs Jenkings, the former the steward to Sir James and Lady Powis of – ah-ha! – Barford Abbey.

What we notice chiefly about the early multiplicity of names is the distinct lack of Warleys in the immediate vicinity of Fanny Warley. In fact, Fanny is an orphan, and without either birth or money. Not to worry, though!—she’s beautiful, so I’m sure fate has something pleasant in store for her.

Fanny has barely arrived at the Jenkings’ before she finds herself an object of interest to Sir James and Lady Powis. The two ladies immediately discover that they are kindred spirits:

Then addressing herself to me, Will you, Madam, give me the pleasure of your company often at the Abbey?—I mean, will you come there as if it was your home?—Mr and Mrs Jenkings have comforts, I have not,—at least that I can enjoy.—Here she sigh’d deeply;—so deep, that I declare it pierced through my heart;—I felt as if turn’d into stone;—what I suppose I was a true emblem of.—The silent friends that trickled down my cheeks brought me back from my inanimate state…

The comfort that Lady Powis cannot enjoy is her son, who due to a disagreement with his father lives on the Continent (it’s crowded over there) and has not been home since his departure. Mr Jenkings also has a son, Edmund, of whom he is inordinately proud—to which, or so Fanny assumes (comparing her penniless condition to Edmund’s expectations from his well-heeled father), we can attribute the disapproval he evinces when he realises that (sigh) Edmund is falling in love with their visitor.

Fanny’s first visits to Barford Abbey serve to make the reader aware of another potential mystery, in addition to the vagueness of our heroine’s background. In conversation she naturally makes several references to “Lady Mary”; her subsequent revelation of her de facto guardian’s identity has a strange effect:

    A similitude of manners between your Ladyship and Lady Powis, particularly in doing the honours of the table, struck me so much, that I once or twice call’d her Lady Mary.—Pray, Miss Warley, ask’d she, who is this Lady Mary?
    What could occasion her confusion!—what could occasion the confusion of Sir James!—Never did see any thing equal it, when I said it was Lady Mary Sutton!—The significant looks that were interchang’d, spoke some mystery;—a mystery it would be presumption in me to dive after. Her Ladyship made no reply,—Sir James was eager to vary the subject,—and the conversation became general…

No explanation is forthcoming for some considerable time, while Fanny is reassured by Lady Mary’s evasive assertion that Lady Powis is worthy of her love. Meanwhile, we learn that the estrangement between Sir James and his son was caused by the failure of the latter to marry the wealthy woman his father picked out for him; though as it turns out, the lady refused his loveless offer.

Though separated from her son, Lady Powis does take some comfort from the visits to the Abbey of the young Lord Darcey, who Fanny is invited to meet, and of whose circumstances she first hears from Mrs Jenkings:

Mrs Jenkings informed me, his Lordship was a ward of Sir James’s just of age;—his estate genteel, not large;—his education liberal,—his person fine,—his temper remarkably good.—Sir James, said she, is for ever preaching lessons to him, that he must marry prudently;—which is, that he must never marry without an immense fortune…

So…a handsome young peer needing to marry for money thrown together with a beautiful but penniless young woman…what could possibly go wrong?

Barford Abbey’s second major correspondence is between Lord Darcey and his cousin, George Molesworth. While the letters exchanged between Fanny Warley and Lady Mary Sutton are full of sentiment and sensibility, those of the two young men offer a more cynical, if no less emotive, commentary upon the workings of society, in particular its attitude to love, marriage and money. Through these exchanges we also learn more of Lord Darcey’s position, and his relationship with Sir James Powis. Though “just of age”, Darcey is still subject to Sir James’s will thanks to a promise made to his father on the latter’s death-bed:

    Without his consent never can I give my hand;—the commands of a dying father forbid me.—Such a father!—O George! you did not know him; —so revered, —so honour’d,—so belov’d! not more in public than in private life.
    My friend, behold your son!—Darcey, behold your father!—As you reverence and obey Sir James, as you consult him on all occasions, as you are guided by his advice, receive my blessing.—These were his parting words, hugg’d into me in his last cold embrace…

Ew!

(So his last earthly thoughts were not of God or heaven, but of keeping his son in a state of permanent subjection? Such a father, indeed…)

But as Molesworth is quick to deduce from his cousin’s letters, Darcey has already fallen in love with Fanny. He helpfully clarifies the situation by explaining why Darcey’s raptures indicate more than mere friendship, using his unfortunate cousin as a negative example:

So it is necessary for every woman you think capable of friendship, to have fine eyes, fine hair, a bewitching smile, and a neck delicately turn’d.—Have not I the highest opinion of my cousin Dolly’s sincerity?—Do I not think her very capable of friendship?—Yet, poor soul, her eyes are planted so deep, it requires good ones to discover she has any.—Such a hand, George!—Such a hand, Darcey!—Why, Lady Dorothy too has hands; I am often enough squeez’d by them:—though hard as a horse’s hoof, and the colour of tanned leather, I hold her capable of friendship.—Neck she has none! yet need I the determination of another, to tell me whether my regard for her proceeds from love or friendship?

Some regard.

This is the point when Darcey begins to evince some very unlovely character traits. In the first place, though he knows that Sir James will never permit their marriage—though Sir James has specifically and directly warned him away from Fanny—though he repeatedly declares that, as a consequence, he cannot marry her—Darcey not only declines to do anything as sensible (or unselfish) as remove himself from Fanny’s orbit, he continues to court her until she falls in love with him. Fanny’s letters become full of hope mingled with confusion, and eventually distress: Darcey’s behaviour seems to promise everything, but he does not speak…

This situation reaches an unexpected crisis when, thanks to the meddling of a busy-body visitor, Darcey is forced to make a public declaration that he has no intention of offering for anybody… Hurt and humiliated (not least because the circumstances ensure that everyone knows exactly who Darcey has “no intention” of offering for), Fanny tries to cut him out of her heart, evading him whenever she can, and treating him coldly when she cannot—which is most of the time. Despite his declaration, Darcey continues to pursue her, protesting (both to her and in his letters) about her “coldness” and “indifference”, repeatedly addressing her in public as “my angel” and “my dearest life”, and forcing his company upon her no matter how often or how firmly she lets him know it’s not wanted.

But this isn’t even the worst of it! Since every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her, and since most of them are under no restriction about who they marry, from the very first Darcey is wracked with jealousy, which becomes even worse after his public crying off:

    Where are those looks of preference fled,—those expressive looks?—I saw them not till now:—it is their loss,—it is their sad reverse that tells me what they were. She turns not her head to follow my footsteps at parting;—or when I return, does not proclaim it by advancing pleasure tip-toe to the windows of her soul.—No anxiety for my health! No, she cares not what becomes of me.—I complain’d of my head, said I was in great pain;—heaven knows how true! My complaints were disregarded.—I attended her home. She sung all the way; or if she talked, it was of music:—not a word of my poor head
    Shall she be another’s?—Yes, when I shrink at sight of what lies yonder,—my sword, George;—that shall prevent her ever being another’s

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

(Actually, this aspect of Barford Abbey put me very much in mind of Fanny Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which also features a “hero” so intent upon claiming his romantic privileges, he all but ruins the life of the woman he’s supposed to be in love with.)

Finally Fanny is driven to drastic action. Keeping her intentions a strict secret until, as she knows is to happen, Darcey is forced to leave Barford Abbey for a time on account of business associated with his own estates, she makes arrangements to travel to London to join Mr and Mrs Smith, who are to escort her to Montpelier. Her hope is to be out of the country before Darcey even knows she’s left the Abbey. She sets out…

A flurry of shocks and revelations follow, with the correspondence flying back and forth between several parties and almost bewildering the reader. Some of this is intentional, some due (as I alluded to at the beginning) to insufficient set-up. In the latter category we have the abrupt revelation of Fanny’s true identity: she is the granddaughter of Sir James and Lady Powis, the daughter of the estranged Mr Powis and his wife. (You will now appreciate my confusion over Mr Powis’s apparent age.)

This aspect of Barford Abbey is nothing less than absurd. It turns out that the woman Mr Powis did not marry was – surprise! – Lady Mary Sutton who, though “possess’d of every virtue” (including the whacking great fortune that attracted Sir James’s attention in the first place), had the misfortune to be plain:

    Mr Powis’s inclinations not coinciding,—Sir James throws himself into a violent rage.—Covetousness and obstinacy always go hand in hand:—both had taken such fast hold of the Baronet, that he swore—and his oath was without reservation—he would never consent to his son’s marrying any other woman.—Mr Powis, finding his father determin’d,—and nothing, after his imprecation, to expect from the entreaties of his mother,—strove to forget the person of Lady Mary, and think only of her mind…
    The two Ladies set out on their journey, attended by Sir James and Mr Powis, who, in obedience to his father, was still endeavouring to conquer his indifference.—Perhaps, in time, Lady Mary might have found a way to his heart,—had she not introduc’d the very evening of their arrival at the Lodge, her counter-part in every thing but person:—there Miss Whitmore outshone her whole sex…

Well, now…that was silly.

Lady Mary, though in love with Mr Powis (God only knows why), accepts that he can never love her, and generously makes it look to Sir James as if she has rejected him. Furthermore, she then enters into a conspiracy to get Mr Powis married off to the beautiful Miss Whitmore, binding everyone involved to a solemn oath of silence. The plotters go so far as to (i) fake Miss Whitmore’s death; (ii) have her live on the Continent under an assumed name, never acknowledged as Mrs Powis, and (iii) giving up their child to be raised by her grandmother, Mrs Whitmore, with assistance from Lady Mary, rather than give away their secret.

All of which makes a lot more sense than Mr Powis saying openly, “Screw you, Dad, I’ll marry who I damn well please!”

(So if I’m understanding it correctly, the moral of Barford Abbey is: It’s fine to disobey your father, as long as he doesn’t find out you’ve done it…)

Anyway— The revelation that Fanny is his granddaughter reconciles the avaricious Sir James to pretty much everything, including her marriage to Lord Darcey. (The fact that Fanny is in fact neither an orphan nor penniless might also have something to do with it.) Darcey is instantly cast up into the heights of ecstasy—and then, this being the kind of novel that it is, instantly afterwards cast down into the depths of despair—for reasons conveyed by George Molesworth to another of our supporting characters, Captain Richard Risby:

    Oh Dick! the most dreadful affair has happen’d!—Lord Darcey is distracted and dying; I am little better.—Good God! What shall I do?—what can I do?—He lies on the floor in the next room, with half his hair torn off.—Unhappy man! fatigue had near kill’d him, before the melancholy account reach’d his ears.—Miss Warley, I mean Miss Powis, is gone to the bottom.—She sunk in the yacht that sailed yesterday from Dover to Calais.—Every soul is lost.—The fatal accident was confirm’d by a boat which came in not ten minutes before we arriv’d.—There was no keeping it from Lord Darcey.—The woman of the Inn we are at has a son lost in the same vessel: she was in fits when we alighted.—Some of the wreck is drove on shore.—What can equal this scene!—Oh, Miss Powis! most amiable of women, I tremble for your relations!—But Darcey, poor Darcey, what do I feel for you!—He speaks:—he calls for me:—I go to him.—
    Oh, Risby! my heart is breaking; for once let it be said a man’s heart can break.—Whilst he raved, whilst his sorrows were loud, there was some chance; but now all is over. He is absolutely dying;—death is in every feature.—His convulsions how dreadful!—how dreadful the pale horror of his countenance!—But then so calm,—so compos’d!—I repeat, there can be no chance—

Oh, really?

Sentimental novels, as we know, enjoy nothing better than wallowing in extreme emotion, and they frequently do kill off their heroes and heroines in order to dwell upon the misery of the survivors (kind of the literary equivalent of, Shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die…); but it usually happens towards the end of the novel, not only three-fifths of the way through. However, Barford Abbey lingers so long upon the grief of its characters that I began to be lulled into a belief in Fanny’s death, which a combination of cynicism and experience had previously prevented. Curiously, what restored my instinctive scepticism was this, also from George Molesworth:

I have neither leisure or spirits to tell you in what manner the body was found, and how I knew it to be Miss Powis’s…

A ship lost with all hands is one thing; a body washed ashore quite some time afterwards and identified via (presumably) clothing or jewellery is something very different. Sure enough, eventually we learn about an unfortunate young woman called Frances Walsh, who favoured initialled handkerchiefs…

So where is Fanny? Why has she not been in contact?

Having slipped away from Barford Abbey and Lord Darcey, Fanny is escorted to London by Mr Smith (remember him?), who on the way reveals himself to be—A VILLAIN!! Or at least an idiot, making improper proposals on the strength of his wife being sure to die sooner or later; hiding under the bed in Fanny’s room at an inn, in order to do it again; and then threatening to shoot himself if she won’t listen to him. Fanny’s screams bring an elderly gentleman also staying at the inn to the scene, who turns out to be Lady’s Mary’s banker. Mr Delves carries her to his own house in London, where almost immediately she falls ill with smallpox. There, after a series of coincidences, George Molesworth finds her—and relieves our minds of their most pressing concern in a letter to Captain Risby:

But let me tell you, Miss Powis is just recover’d from the smallpox;—that this was the second day of her sitting up:—let me tell you too her face is as beautiful as ever…

Phew! For a moment there I was afraid she might now be less than perfectly beautiful!

But as long as Barford Abbey spent dwelling on the misery of its characters following Fanny’s death, it spends twice as long dwelling on their incredulous joy after her resurrection. The only event of note that occurs in the final one hundred pages of the novel is Fanny’s marriage to Lord Darcey; although this is supported by a flurry of engagements amongst the minor characters—those of George Molesworth, Captain Risby and Lord Hallum to, respectively, the Lady Elizabeth Curtis, the Lady Sophia Curtis, and Miss Delves; all three young ladies being—I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear—perfectly beautiful.

    How infinite,—how dazzling the beauty of holiness!—Affliction seems to have threatened this amiable family, only to encrease their love,—their reverence,—their admiration of Divine Omnipotence.—Blessings may appear, as a certain great man remarks, under the shape of pain, losses, and disappointment;—but let us have patience, and we shall see them in their own proper figures.
    If rewards even in this world attend the virtuous, who would be deprav’d?—Could the loose, the abandon’d, look in on this happy mansion, how would their sensual appetites be pall’d!—How would they hate,—how detest the vanity,—the folly, that leads to vice!—If pleasure is their pursuit, here they might see it speaking at mouth and eyes:—pleasures that fleet not away;—pleasures that are carried beyond the grave…

29/08/2014

Pamela’s Daughters

PamelasDaughters1bThus for nearly two hundred years Pamela has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case for the psychiatrist, a noble woman, a Shavian superman, the glory of her sex, a disgrace to womanhood, a saint, a pervert, a martyr, an entirely normal girl. In so far as she is human and normal, she is so because she has many traits and qualities, no one of which adequately represents her without the others. Her daughters, the heroines of later fiction, too often have to get along with one trait apiece—as if the heritage had to be divided among the heiresses. Hence come the type-form heroines who may be more or less safely classified according to the traits they inherit, and we have the Prude, the Weeper, the Fainter, “The Lass With The Delicate Air” , the “fallen” heroine and the poor working girl. One or two others there are who show relationship in collateral branches. Without defining here the exact degree of cousinship we may claim them as members of the family, include them in the sorority, and discuss them all as Pamela’s daughters.

I mentioned while reviewing Munster Abbey that it had been brought to my attention in the first place by a study of the English novel, which held it up as an example of the heights of absurdity reached by the 18th century sentimental novel—and which supported its argument by quoting the marvellous passage in which a character almost drowns because all the other characters are too busy demonstrating their “sensibility” by fainting to help her. I also mentioned that I had forgotten the title of the book in question, but expected, given my predilection for books-on-books, that I would sooner or later encounter it again.

I can now tell you that the book in question, to which I am deeply indebted, is Pamela’s Daughters by Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham. The explanation for this work’s genesis is amusing, though its conclusion is very sad. This impressive work, over 500 pages in length, began life in 1920 as an idea for a magazine article—in fact, as an article for the Women’s Home Companion—on “Fashions in Heroines”. Almost immediately, however, the project got out of hand. Robert Utter, an academic at the University of California, worked at it on and off for the next eight years, at which point he began collaborating with Gwendolyn Needham. The two of them carried on the enterprise for a further eight years, trying to mould their exponentially multiplying and unwieldy material into a coherent volume. Sixteen years after its conception, the manuscript of Pamela’s Daughters was handed to the publisher…and a month later, Robert Utter was killed in a freak accident.

It’s been mentioned before, but—you bite, Reality.

The 1930s was an interesting period in literary scholarship; quite a number of studies published during that time show an admirable willingness to get off the beaten path and to use “lesser” literature as a reflection of the times that produced it. (Sadly, over the three subsequent decades academic research focused upon anything other than a short list of canonical works was sternly discouraged.) Pamela’s Daughters is an excellent example of this variety of study. Unhindered by academic expectation, this examination of the development of the English heroine from the mid-18th century into the 1920s is solid and insightful, yet also freewheeling and good-humoured; though that said, Robert Utter’s 1930s-ish views with respect to “correct” female behaviour do occasionally intrude.

Pamela’s Daughters starts, of course, with Pamela herself, discussing the reception of Richardson’s novel and the widely varying reactions to the fifteen-year-old girl who would become the progenitor-figure of generations of sentimental heroines.

Utter and Needham then briefly outline the changing position of women over the course of the 18th century, during which time, due to increasing industrialisation and its consequent financial and social alterations, women were progressively stripped of their autonomy, rendered entirely financially dependent, and even relieved of their domestic duties—with the leisured woman becoming increasingly a status symbol, a reflection of the success of her husband or father. Financial dependency made marriage the only acceptable way of life for a woman, whose single imperative duty was to free her family of her support by securing a husband. At the same time, autonomy of thought and action were not merely discouraged but prevented by a relentless narrowing of the definition of proper conduct. The literature of the late 18th century illustrates the irreconcilable outcome of these pressures:

The Helpless Female was shaped by the forces that were shaping civilisation. Just as inevitably as selection and environment mould biological characteristics, so the forces we have been tracing moulded the legacy of Pamela to her daughters and granddaughters, the sentimental heroines of the eighteenth century, and the Victorian ones of the nineteenth. Certain physical, mental and moral traits become artificially female, others, more or less antithetical, are male. Delicacy, sensibility, chastity, these three (and the greatest of these is chastity), such are the canonical virtues of Pamela’s daughter for a century and a half after Pamela… Delicacy, physical, mental and moral, becomes so essentially female that it develops into feebleness in all three categories. Mental delicacy points to spelling and punctuation as intellectual achievement and dictates the concealment of any higher powers if they exist. Moral delicacy prevents a girl from receiving money if she has so far transgressed as to earn it. With this powerful equipment of feebleness she must defend her priceless chastity. If the villain tries to violate it, she must not violate her delicacy by slapping his face; if the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma, good for five volumes of sorrows in the hands of any delicate authoress…

In “The Importance Of Being A Prude”, Utter and Needham devote a chapter to a consideration of “delicacy”, its false twin, “prudery”, and all the shadings of behaviour in between, arguing that many of the behaviours usually summed up under the heading of “Victorianism” were in fact alive and thriving a hundred years earlier. In particular, authors (usually female, but not always) devoted pages to stressing that their heroines had not just delicacy, but true delicacy.

But if this heroine was born in the 18th century, she reached her apotheosis in the 19th:

Of all Pamela’s daughters, the one most moulded by prudery is the god-daughter of Victoria… In the beginning, before her lover comes, she is unawakened, virginal as virginity itself. She is at one and the same time as sexless as a china doll and as feminine as a practised coquette. Her innocence is really abysmal ignorance, but the effect of it is the same as that of the completest sophistication and circumspection. She is perpetually on guard against evils of which she cannot know anything, alertly sensitive to acts, words, implications which could not conceivably have any significance to her; their danger she is supposed to recognise by instinct… There is no evidence that she is anything but a head and a pair of hands attached to a costume… In her ball dress she may show us that her “bosom is faultlessly moulded”, but the rest is silence. We infer that she might nourish children, but know no possibility of her conceiving or bearing them. That she might have any sexual feeling is unthinkable. That even in married life she has any sexual experience is not hinted. It is true that between the last two chapters she has managed to produce three or four fine children, but no-one could guess how she did it…

Intriguingly, though the authors are discussing heroines rather than real women, what the find in the novels they are examining reflects the real-world pressures that we examined in Martha Vicinus’s Suffer And Be Still (rendered most vividly in Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s hair-raising contention that a truly “good” girl was one with the capacity to sense evil without recognising it):

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the history in the novel of the first principle of prudery, that where innocence is ignorance ’tis criminal to be wise, or what you don’t know won’t hurt you. When this was the guiding principle, the best armour for the protection of maiden purity was supposed to be a stout pair of stays and complete ignorance of the nature of chastity and its enemies. Virginity seemed no less of the mind than of the body. Its delicacy was such that if a girl so much as knew she had it, it was tarnished, and if she knew more, it was gone…

In “Liquid Sorrow”, Utter and Needham trace the rise of the cult of “sensibility” in the 18th century, examining its birth and evolution as a counter-force to the cool, emotionless tenets of the Age of Reason in the broader context of the historical significance of emotion in the development of European literature. They point out that tears have held an important place in literature since its very inception, and that for centuries it was male tears that directed the reader’s response; a man crying was a shorthand signifier of extreme circumstances. However, male crying went out of fashion during the pragmatic age that followed the Glorious Revolution. When tears returned as an important literary signifier, it was in an entirely different social context.

The evolution of the sentimental novel is then examined, from the earliest appearances of those definitive counterforces, corrupting civilisation and the untouched natural world populated by noble savages. By the 1740s, sentiment had taken root in the English novel, and the crying hero made a reappearance. For those who like to make a simple, masculine / feminine divide between the novels of Fielding and Richardson, it is pointed out that Fielding’s heroes are some of the most persistent criers of the era. Novels became less about the hero’s adventures, and more about his feelings, with Henry Brooke’s The Fool Of Quality and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It was at this time that the heroine came into her own: with the focus on feelings rather than events, a woman’s heart became sufficient subject matter for an entire novel. New ideas about “nature” also became an important aspect of literature. Eventually these various threads were melded into a new literary form called the Gothic novel.

The sentimental novel is treated fairly here. It is pointed out, for example, that these books were an important vehicle for concepts like sympathy, compassion, and charity, and played a part in instigating reforms in both prison conditions and the treatment of the mentally ill. However, in the long run this variety of novel became exaggerated beyond the point when anything about them could be taken seriously. What in the 1740s was an expression of honest emotion became, by the 1770s, a perverse variety of performance art, with crying, fainting and even dying of grief intended as a measure of an individual’s “sensibility”; while by the 1790s, expressing the appropriate emotion was all but a fulltime occupation.

The authors spend some considerable time gleefully attacking the absurdities of this literary era—and lo! – if the novel most held up for ridicule is not our old friend, Munster Abbey!!

AND—a second masterpiece of sentimentality is also brought to our attention:

In sentimental fiction, tears are by this time a bottomless ocean raging with storms of passion… On it we ship with Charlotte Palmer in Female Stability, 1780, five volumes of unmitigated misery whence comes the pearl of price which adorns the head of this chapter. (“She stopped and wiped her gentle eyes, that swam with liquid sorrow.”) We have met the heroine, Adeline, who exhibits female stability by a ceaseless flow of tears for a dead lover and unwavering refusal of a series of high-voltage suitors. The plot of this thanatopsis is contrived for the sole purpose of turning up tearful situations in rapid succession… [Tears] flow on and on, from page to page, from paroxysm to paroxysm, from volume to volume. At the end Adeline subsides into a middle-aged routine of weeping, a mere daily dozen at the tomb of the lost Augustus, which we may imagine keeps her happy for the rest of her life…

Naturally enough, this chapter on crying is followed by one on fainting (“Cut My Lace, Charmian”), which in turn yields to a consideration of evolving female fashion, and from there to a much more detailed examination of physical fashions—that is, of how woman were depicted in both word-pictures and visually, in novels and in art (“The Lass With The Delicate Air”). The traditional dichotomies are examined – blonde / brunette, Snow White / Rose Red – as are the seemingly limitless examples of stories featuring physically contrasting heroines, who meet contrasting fates apparently pre-determined by nature. Walter Scott, a leading exponent of this trope (Rebecca / Rowena, Rose Bradwardine / Flora MacIvor), is given a thorough airing—as is George Eliot’s passionate cry, courtesy of Maggie Tulliver, in defence of “the dark, unhappy ones”.

(My own observation here is to note the significance of Rebecca being invariably listed first—the only instance I know of in this context, of the brunette being given “billing”.)

A prime example of the kind of unexpected digressions that punctuate Pamela’s Daughters appears in “The Lass With The Delicate Air”, wherein the authors suddenly divert from the their consideration of the female body in art to give a brief history of depilation—offering such factoids as that the so-called “Brazilian” has a much longer history than we might imagine, and that leg-shaving was a consequence of a push-back against stockings, which in turn was linked to a greater emphasis on female exercise, and therefore upon clothing facilitating freedom of movement, and the rise of the “beach culture”. I was mildly disappointed that not much was said about underarm shaving; I often find myself, while watching period dramas, wondering to what degree modern fashions are incorrectly imposed upon the characters.

A consideration of women who never married (“Aunt Tabitha”) segues into one of those novels dealing with women who decided that marriage wasn’t necessary and the consequences (almost invariably disastrous) of that decision (“Some Do”); and from there into an examination of the endless depictions of young women staunchly defending their virtue against wicked men of all descriptions (“Some Don’t”). The shifting view of female virginity over the centuries, from a mere accident of nature not important in itself, to the be-all and end-all of female existence, is examined, as is the changing face of “the woman who did”. It is stressed that during the 18th century, virginity became a commodity to be sold—in marriage as well as in brothels; a woman who “did” on her own account, robbed not herself but her family or her pimp, and that in the crudest financial sense. By the 19th century, however, these bald economic facts had become obscured by a dense mist of sentimentality and pseudo-moral hand-wringing. By the end of the 19th century, although the burgeoning women’s rights movement was making all sorts of previously unthinkable suggestions, for the most part novels remained strictly conservative; it was a rare and brave novelist indeed who suggested that a girl’s loss of virginity might not be the end of the world.

Most novelists went to the other extreme, showing how it was absolutely the end of the world, or near enough. The 19th century’s prevailing view on the issue is illustrated via reference to its very first work on the subject: Amelia Opie’s Father And Daughter, published in 1800, which features in its opening paragraph the primal scene of the erring daughter, illegitimate baby in arms, fighting her way through a storm back to the parental home from which she was seduced:

If this is, as it seems to be, the first appearance of this famous necessary scene, Mrs Opie deserves a monument from the writers of melodrama of the nineteenth century. We who were brought up on it scarcely need, as Mrs Opie’s readers perhaps did, to read the next seventy pages in order to learn that “Agnes Fitzhenry was the only child of a respectable merchant in a country town…” and so on to page seventy where we read, “But to return to Agnes, who, when she beheld in her insane companion her injured father, the victim probably of her guilt, let fall her sleeping child, and, sinking on the ground, extended her arms towards Fitzhenry, articulating in a faint voice, “O God! My father!” then prostrating herself at his feet, she clasped his knees in an agony too great for utterance.” This tale is worth citing because it is true melodrama growing directly out of Puritan moralising… It is melodrama because the author is bold enough to impose a major catastrophe on her heroine, but not brave enough to enforce the full penalty. It shows the weakening of tragedy by sentimentality…

Conversely, girls defending their virginity until marriage remained a perennially popular novel-plot, and by the end of the century they were even defending it actively, and not passively through sheer ignorance. In fact, this plot became more popular as options for women opened up and they began to venture out into the world on their own account, into colleges and into the workforce. Very little had changed is essence, however: merely, marauding rakes had been replaced by marauding employers.

The highlight of this section of Pamela’s Daughters is its examination of “working girl” fiction. The heroines of these novels, Utter and Needham contend, were in truth “Pamela’s daughters”, since just like Pamela herself they were virtuous working girls clinging to a moral code in a world full of dangers and temptations. In most (again like Pamela), it was economic necessity rather than choice than launched the heroine into the world, and by the end of the novel she was relieved and happy to surrender all ideas of autonomy and make a conventional marriage. And most like Pamela of all, many of these heroines were truly working-class, not the “distressed gentlewomen” who populated the progenitor of this form of literature, the “governess novel”. In this branch of popular fiction, “mill girls” and “shop girls” abound; “office girls” came a little later. George Gissing’s Thyrza is the most serious and literary example of this sort of fiction, though the sub-genre is better represented by Geraldine Fleming’s Only A Working Girl. The danger of physical attractiveness in a working girl is a recurrent, even obsessive, theme:

Pamela’s father and mother feared lest Pamela’s beauty should lead to her downfall. So in the nineteenth century it is less often the heroine herself who thinks of beauty as a curse than her family and friends. The sister of “the little beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills”, Hazel Easterbrook, had “one earnest prayer to Heaven”; it was that “little Gay’s rare beauty would not prove a curse to her, for no man ever looked twice at that saucy, roguish, irresistible face whose heart was not conquered by it She was only sixteen, yet she could count admirers by the score.” Only by the score? There must have been hundreds, then, who looked but once. The mother and sister of Elsie Brandon “prayed fervently that her beauty would not be a curse to her”. The idea is explicit in the title of The Curse Of Beauty; or, The Cloakmaker’s Model.

As early as the late 19th century there were books in which the heroine was allowed to enjoy her work, and even to display a degree of ambition. However, in most cases this ambition fulfilled itself via marriage to the boss. Alternatively, the working-class heroine improves herself through her aspirations to be “a lady”; although sometimes her efforts in this respect also pave the way for a rapid rise up the social ladder via marriage. In light of all this, a special mention should be given to The Typewriter Girl by Grant Allen (the progressive, not to say radical, author of the scandalous – and hugely popular – The Woman Who Did), which concludes with its Girton Girl heroine stepping out of a love triangle (involving, yup, her boss) and devoting herself to her career instead: she does so partly because her romantic rival, in stark contrast to her intelligent, competent self, is traditionally “feminine” to the point of being completely helpless. It is wryly noted that Juliet, Allen’s heroine, is a brunette, her romantic rival a blonde:

The authors of these novels think that their readers prefer blondes. A check of many working-girl novels of the nineteenth century indicates that in every hundred heroines we have eighty blondes, ten brunes, and ten red-heads. The authors have little skill [and] for the most part their heroines appear only through raptures and ravings… In general, too, these authors follow the age-old tradition of behaviour patterns, at least to the extent that the brunettes take a more active part in the action of the tale…

Though Pamela’s Daughters has by now wended its way well into the 20th century, at this point its authors step back to take a look at the changing face of the heroine across the 19th century (“New Girls For Old”). On the whole the trend is positive: “the lass with the delicate air” with her crying and fainting begins to give way to a more grounded type of girl; physical fragility is no longer so prized; and though there is still plenty of sentimentality around, displays of strong emotion are now indicative of a lack of well-bred self-control, and frowned upon accordingly. But alas, few novelists are capable of giving the reader a thoroughly nice, thoroughly believable heroine. We are not exactly surprised when Utter and Needham jump back across the century for a visit with Jane Austen:

It is this refusal of Jane Austen to go to extremes in either direction that brings her to her supreme achievement. The best of heroines before her time, Clarissa Harlowe, Sophia Western, Emilia Gauntlet, are fine upstanding girls of whom any age might be proud, but their main attraction is that of their sex; they are men’s women, created to express the charm that women have for men. They do not exhibit what Jane Austen seems to give us for the first time, the best of womanhood, as endearing to women as to men, shining through any and all colours of fashion and undimmed by the changes of time… Meredith shows this figure at its best. Dickens was not up to it. Scott and Thackeray show it, but not until Jane Austen had shown it to them. Trollope has it more often than any other.

Heroines, like the young women who inspired them, became more active over the 19th century—and here the chapter diverts into a consideration of the changing silhouette, in a discussion of the battles waged progressively over stays, corsets, and eventually bloomers and bathing-suits. From this distance it can be hard to grasp just how deadly seriously these matters were taken, and the degree of outrage that attempts to popularise women’s clothes that allowed for greater freedom of movement provoked: the battle raged both in the streets themselves, and even more so in the letters pages of the daily newspapers. Ludicrous as this fashion war now seems, make no mistake: the battle over women’s clothing was a hugely important aspect of female emancipation. In fact, as the authors point out, underwear in novels becomes a marker of passing time:

In the novel we see in retrospect a girl’s graduation from waists to girdles in Ruth Suckow’s Odyssey Of A Nice Girl, 1926, and in Una Hunt’s Young In The Nineties, 1927, though in the novels of the nineties underclothes were kept out of sight. In these books also we see the reaction toward lighter clothing on the part of women who were forced as girls to wear prickly flannels and starched drawers, heavy waterproofs and winter coats, rubbers and galoshes…

By now, we are well into the 20th century. Victoria is long gone, and so is much of what she represented (justly or otherwise). The final chapter of Pamela’s Daughters, “Victoria, Where Is Thy Victory?”, considers how novelists dealt with rapid shifts in social mores and the dreaded topic of S-E-X. I may say that I was quite startled to learn that during the 1920s there was a significant sub-genre of novels dealing bluntly with, ahem, “girls who did”; although we should note that these books were more common in the US than in Britain. Shedding both their corsets and the expectation of ignorance, the heroines of these novels were only too eager to experiment with sexual experience – and perhaps most surprisingly of all, this experimentation does not always end in death or even in pregnancy. Quite often, having found out what she wanted to know, and learned to give sex its proper weight, the heroine settles down with an equally advanced young man, who is sometimes her erstwhile lover, sometimes not, but who either way considers her neither “sinful” nor “damaged”.

It is, by the way, quite clear from the tone of Pamela’s Daughters at this point that Robert Utter (if not necessarily Gwendolyn Needham) did not entirely approve of this particular turn in the history of heroines—and of real girls—though the role of WWI in bringing about this drastic shift is given fair weight. Another swing of the pendulum was in progress, however, by the time Utter and Needham drew a line under their history of heroines; and they close with some reflections upon what they consider this particular era’s exemplar novel, Nalbro Bartley’s The Premeditated Virgin, and by comparing Bartley’s Mary Ann Plowden with her great-great-great-grandmother, Pamela:

Pamela and Mary Ann Plowden are both premeditated virgins, but they wear their premeditation with a difference, and we may gauge the difference as a measure of progress. Pamela’s choice was a narrow one; she was held pretty helpless by the society of her time. In her game against fate her scope is restricted, her moves are sharply limited. She wins not only because she moves shrewdly but because luck is with her. Hers is a sort of poker game in which all the skill and intelligence she can bring to bear are, when the game is legitimately played, subordinate to luck. Mary Ann Plowden plays a different game, one in which skill, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, may have much more scope… Mary Ann does not lean on authority, on social order, or on God. She does not seek a verdict from society. She does not pray, or “invoke the protection of Heaven” for herself or her virginity. For any protection that she must have she invokes her own brain and summons her own powers. She “stands unshook” upon such truth as she can find, and she finds it in herself…