Posts tagged ‘sex’

03/11/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 3)

 

    “Be your resolve as it may,” added Ellen, hastily, “nothing shall induce me to turn back. Desert me—abandon me if you will, Filippo; but, in the name of every thing sacred, lend me the weapons which you carry with you.”
    The Italian made no reply for some moments, but continued to walk rapidly along by the side of the disguised lady. “I will believe, Miss Monroe,” he said, at length, “that your motives are excellent; but are you well advised?”
    “Listen,” exclaimed Ellen. “The individual, whose life we may perhaps this night save, is Richard Markham—the generous young man who has been a son to my father, and a brother to myself.”
    “I have heard Mr Greenwood mention his name many times,” observed Filippo.
    “He believes that he is to meet his brother, from whom he has been for many years separated, this night on the banks of the canal,” continued Ellen. “For certain reasons I know most positively that the idea of such an appointment can only be a plot on the part of some enemies of Richard Markham. And yet I dared not communicate those reasons to him—Oh! no,” added Ellen, with a shudder, “that was impossible—impossible!”

 

 

 

 
So far we would have to say that The Mysteries Of London is rather vindicating the personal philosophy of George Montague Greenwood. Certainly Richard Markham’s high principles and impeccable personal honour do him very little good in the practical sense; while all around him, criminals both high and low are flourishing.

This was one of the reasons that The Mysteries Of London was so loudly condemned; and it is true that for most of its length, Reynolds’ crooks are much more successful than his good people and, at the higher levels of society, live much more comfortably. (I imagine there’s a flourish of comeuppances at the end, though…but that’s a thousand pages or more away.) Moreover, Reynolds presents a staggering variety of crimes in minute detail—from burglary to fraud to counterfeiting to kidnapping for ransom to attempted rape to body-snatching to attempted murder…and to murder, of course.

Greenwood might be the most successful of the upper-society criminals, but he is not alone. Richard’s initial troubles stem from the efforts of Sir Rupert Harborough (husband to the oversexed Lady Cecilia) and Arthur Chichester, who likes to pass himself off as a gentleman of good standing, but is actually the son of a notorious pawnbroker. When the wealthy but naive Richard first goes out into the world, he falls into the clutches of these two. Their first thought is to fleece him at the gambling-tables – Chichester is an experienced sharper, and he teaches Sir Rupert the tricks of his trade – but not only is Richard opposed to gambling on principle, even when they succeed in luring him unknowingly into a den, the immediate consequence is that he witnesses a young man ruining himself and then blowing his own brains out.

Giving up that scheme, perforce, Sir Rupert and Chichester instead use Richard to pass some of the counterfeit banknotes they have been involved in producing. The notes are not as convincing as they might be, and Richard is arrested and examined by a magistrate. He is confused but not worried, certain that of course Chichester will be able to clear him:

    “I really am not aware,” said Mr Chichester, caressing his chin in a very nonchalant manner, “that I can throw any light upon this subject.”
    “All I require is the truth,” ejaculated Richard, surprised at the tone and manner of his late friend. “Did you not give me that note for five hundred pounds to change for you? and did I not receive the second note from you in exchange for fifty sovereigns?”
    Mr Chichester replied in an indignant negative.
    The magistrate shook his head: the prosecuting solicitor took snuff significantly;—MacChizzle made a memorandum;—and Whittingham murmured, “Ah! that mitigated villain Axminster.”
    “What do I hear!” exclaimed Richard: “Mr Chichester, your memory must fail you sadly. I suppose you recollect the occasion upon which Mr Talbot gave you the five hundred pound note?”
    “Mr. Talbot never gave me any note at all,” answered Chichester, in a measured and determined manner.
    “It is false—false as hell!” cried Markham, more enraged than alarmed; and he forthwith detailed to the magistrate the manner in which he had been induced to change the one note, and had become possessed of the other.
    “This is a very lame story, indeed,” said the magistrate; “and you must try and see if you can get a jury to believe it. You stand committed.”

Having dodged that bullet, Chichester and Sir Rupert go back to conspiring with Greenwood; although they can’t understand why he gets so agitated when he hears what they did to Richard Markham…

But most of the novel’s criminals are found amongst the poor and underprivileged—and were, as they one after the other reveal, driven into a life of crime by injustice and distinctly un-Christian conduct on the part of their “betters”. Thus we spend much time following the activities of Tom the Cracksman, Dick Flairer, the Buffer (who gets his nickname from his habit of stripping his victims), and of course the Resurrection Man:

    “You are certain that this is the place?” said the Resurrection Man.
    “As certain as one can be who stood by the grave for a quarter of an hour in day-light, and who has to recognise it again in total darkness,” answered the surgeon. “Besides, the mortar was soft—”
    “There might have been another burial close by,” interrupted the Resurrection Man; “but we will soon find out whether you are right or not, sir. Was the coffin a wooden one?”
    “Yes! an elm coffin, covered with black cloth,” replied the surgeon. “I gave the instructions for the funeral myself, being the oldest friend of the family.”
    The Resurrection Man took one of the long flexible rods which we have before noticed, and thrust it down into the vault. The point penetrated into the lid of a coffin. He drew it back, put the point to his tongue, and tasted it.
    “Yes,” he said, smacking his lips, “the coffin in this vault is an elm one, and is covered with black cloth.”
    “I thought I could not be wrong,” observed the surgeon.
    The body-snatchers then proceeded to raise the coffin, by means of ropes passed underneath it. This was a comparatively easy portion of their task; and in a few moments it was placed upon the flag-stones of the church.
    The Resurrection Man took a chisel and opened the lid with considerable care. He then lighted his candle a second time; and the glare fell upon the pale features of the corpse in its narrow shell.
    “This is the right one,” said the surgeon, casting a hasty glance upon the face of the dead body, which was that of a young girl of about sixteen.
    The Resurrection Man extinguished the light; and he and his companions proceeded to lift the corpse out of the coffin.
    The polished marble limbs of the deceased were rudely grasped by the sacrilegious hands of the body-snatchers; and, having stripped the corpse stark naked, they tied its neck and heels together by means of a strong cord. They then thrust it into a large sack made for the purpose…

—who in addition to his main source of income works as a burglar, as well as hiring himself out for any sort of villainy, as long as the price is right.

Though Greenwood remains the novel’s main villain, over the course of The Mysteries Of London the Resurrection Man emerges as Richard’s particular evil genius—persecuting him, as we have seen, and eventually trying to take his life.

Richard, for his part, is determined to put an end to the Resurrection Man’s career. An escalating battle takes place between the two, after their initial encounter in Newgate. When they meet again near the Alteronis’ villa, Richard unthinkingly insults the Resurrection Man, who retaliates with blackmail—threatening to reveal Richard’s past to the Count. Richard is cowed into promising to pay, though he has trouble convincing his adversary that he is no longer a rich man, and can only scrape together a few hundred pounds.

However, while waiting to meet the Resurrection Man and make the payoff, Richard encounters Mr Talbot, aka Pocock, the engraver who was responsible for the counterfeit banknotes. In the meantime he has had a falling out with Chichester and Harborough, and is only too glad to write out a declaration of their plot, and Richard’s innocence.

When Richard next meets the Resurrection Man (it not having crossed his mind that his innocence won’t make any practical difference to Count Alteroni), his attitude towards him is much changed:

    “Come now,” ejaculated the Resurrection Man, considerably crest-fallen; “assist an old companion in difficulties: lend me a hundred or so.”
    “No,” returned Richard in a resolute manner; “had you asked me in the first instance to assist you, I would have done so willingly;—but you have endeavoured to extort a considerable sum of money from me—much more than I could spare; and I should not now be justified in yielding to the prayers of a man who has found that his base menaces have failed.”
    “You do not think I would have done what I said?” cried the Resurrection Man.
    “I believe you to be capable of any villainy. But we have already conversed too long. I was anxious to show you how a virtuous resolution would enable me to triumph over your base designs;—and I have now nothing more to say to you. Our ways lie in different directions, both at present and in future. Farewell.”
    With these words Markham continued his way up Brick Lane; but the Resurrection Man was again by his side in a moment.
    “You refuse to assist me?” he muttered in a hoarse and savage tone.
    “I do. Molest me no further.”
    “You refuse to assist me?” repeated the villain, grinding his teeth with rage: “then you may mind the consequences! I will very soon show you that you will bitterly—bitterly repent your determination. By God, I will be revenged!”

His theoretical repentance begins almost immediately: the Resurrection Man follows Richard through the dark streets of London, and strikes him down when he gets the chance. He thinks he has killed him; and Richard, when he regains consciousness in his enemy’s house, has the sense to feign dead. The surroundings in which he finds himself nearly are the death of him:

    Markham was about to start from his prostrate position when the interior of that room was thus abruptly revealed to him; but for a few moments the spectacle which met his sight paralysed every limb, and rendered him breathless, speechless, and motionless with horror.
    Stretched upon a shutter, which three chairs supported, was a corpse—naked, and of that blueish or livid colour which denotes the beginning of decomposition!
    Near this loathsome object was a large tub full of water; and to that part of the ceiling immediately above it were affixed two large hooks, to each of which hung thick cords. In one corner of the room were long flexible iron rods, spades, pickaxes, wooden levers, coils of thick rope, trowels, saws, hammers, huge chisels, skeleton-keys, &c…

If he was in any doubt about the purpose of these objects, his ignorance is soon enlightened:

    “Anythink by vay of a change; partikler as when we want a stiff ‘un by a certain day, and don’t know in which churchyard to dive for one, we hit upon the plan of catching ’em alive in the street.”
    “It was my idea, though,” exclaimed the Buffer. “Don’t you remember when we wanted a stiff ‘un for the wery same Sawbones which we’ve got to meet presently, we waited for near two hours at this house-door, and at last we caught hold of a feller that was walking so comfortable along, looking up at the moon?”
    “And then I thought of holding him with his head downwards in a tub of water,” added the Cracksman, “till he was drownded. That way don’t tell no tales;—no wound on the skin—no pison in the stomach; and there ain’t too much water inside neither, cos the poor devils don’t swaller with their heads downwards.”
    “Ah! it was a good idea,” said the Buffer; “and now we’ve reduced it to a reg’lar system. Tub of water all ready on the floor—hooks and cords to hold the chaps’ feet up to the ceiling; and then, my eye! there they hangs, head downwards, jest for all the world like the carcasses in the butchers’ shops, if they hadn’t got their clothes on…”

The Resurrection Man is called away by his colleagues (to dig up the girl’s body, described above), and Richard has the opportunity to escape—although not before being embarrassingly trapped, albeit temporarily, by “the Mummy”, a hideous old crone with whom the Resurrection Man shares his residence…and who actually is his mother. When the Mummy must report that “the fresh ‘un” came back to life and escaped, her loving son is thoroughly enraged.

Richard, for his part, leads the police to the churchyard, but they are just too late to prevent the girl’s body being stolen; and he is subsequently unable to find the house again. It is in the wake of this that the Resurrection Man ruins Richard with the Alteronis. Richard strikes the next blow, when information obtained from Henry Holford (pint-sized invader of Buckingham Palace) does allow him to find the house again. He organises a police-raid:

    Already were two of the officers half-way up the staircase,—already was the door of the back room on the ground floor yielding to the strength of a constable,—already were Richard Markham and several officers hurrying down the street towards the spot, obedient to the signal conveyed by the springing of the rattles,—when a terrific explosion took place.
    “Good God!” ejaculated Markham: “what can that mean?”
    “There—there!” cried a policeman near him: “it is all over with the serjeant and my poor comrades!”
Immediately after the explosion, and while Markham and the officer were yet speaking, a bright column of fire shot up into the air:—millions and millions of sparks, glistening vividly, showered down upon the scene of havoc;—for a moment—a single moment—the very heavens seemed on fire;—then all was black—and silent—and doubly sombre.
    The den of the assassins had ceased to exist: it had been destroyed by gunpowder.
    The blackened remains and dismembered relics of mortality were discovered on the following morning amongst the ruins, or in the immediate neighbourhood;—but it was impossible to ascertain how many persons had perished on this dread occasion…

Richard allows himself to believe, or hope, that the Resurrection Man is among the casualties; but his enemy, ahem, resurrects himself when he sees a chance to wreck Richard’s life again. Just as Richard seems to have begun a promising new career as a playwright under the name “Edward Preston”, his bow to the audience is interrupted by a voice from “the gods” of the theatre that reveals his true identity and his criminal – or at least, prison – past, and ruins everything.

However—even as the Resurrection Man is tracking Richard, someone else is tracking him. When we first meet him, the Resurrection Man is being held, like Richard, awaiting his trial on a charge of burglary. He escapes imprisonment by “nosing” on his partner, Crankey Jem, who is convicted and transported—but doesn’t stay transported; and if he was cranky before—

    Meantime, the Resurrection Man had precipitated himself down stairs, and had already begun to unbolt the front door, when lights appeared, and in another moment he was surrounded by the gipsy chiefs, and pinioned by them.
    “Villain!” cried Morcar, tearing the bag of gold from his grasp: “is this the reward of our hospitality?”
    “It’s mine—and I can prove it,” thundered the Resurrection Man. “But let me go—I don’t want to hurt any of you—and you needn’t hurt me.”
    “Ah! that voice!” ejaculated the Traveller, who had just reached the bottom of the stairs as Tidkins uttered those words: then, before a single arm could even be stretched out to restrain him, he rushed with the fury of a demon upon the Resurrection Man, and planted his long dagger in the miscreant’s breast.
    Tidkins fell: a cry of horror broke from the gipsies; and the Traveller was instantly secured.
    “He is not dead—but he is dying,” exclaimed Morcar, raising the Resurrection Man in his arms.
    “Tell him, then,” cried the Traveller, in a tone of mingled triumph and joy,—“tell him that the man who was transported four years ago by his infernal treachery has at length been avenged,—tell him that he dies by the hand of Crankey Jem!”
    These words seemed to animate the Resurrection Man for a few moments: he made an effort to speak—but his tongue refused to articulate the curses which his imagination prompted; and, turning a glance of the most diabolical hatred upon the avenger, he sank back insensible in the arms of Morcar…

(Only “insensible” at this stage, we note…)

Between this post and the previous one, I think I’ve given you a good idea of what The Mysteries Of London is all about. But while there are many more things I could talk about, what I want to focus upon in the rest of this post is what I consider the single most fascinating aspect of this novel so far: the character of Ellen Monroe.

Ellen is the daughter of Richard’s agent, Mr Monroe—who has at least the grace to ruin himself as well as Richard, through “investing” with George Montague. This, you may recall, takes place while Richard is in prison. The Monroes are left in penury, forced to scratch a precarious living: Mr Monroe does piece-meal law-copying for a pittance, while Ellen does needlework for even less. It is she being exploited in that quote in Part 1, being paid a farthing and a half per hour (!!!) for her efforts.

Of course this is not enough to ward off starvation, let alone pay for a decent lodging. Ellen, with her beauty, has already attracted the attention of a nasty but shrewd old woman (the same one who arranged the Reverend Reginald Tracy’s viewing of the “statue” of Cecilia Harborough); and finally Ellen is desperate enough to ask the woman’s help. Of course the old woman has only one thing on her mind—but she sees well enough that Ellen isn’t ready to take the plunge, and has to be eased into it. She first arranges for her to lend her face to a statuary; then to model – clothed – for an artist; then to pose topless for a sculptor (and you better believe we hear about her breasts, despite the tut-tut tone); then fully nude for a photographer:

We shall not proceed to any details connected with this new avocation to which that lovely maiden lent herself. Suffice it to say, that having sold her countenance to the statuary, her likeness to the artist, and her bust to the sculptor, she disposed of her whole body to the photographer. Thus her head embellished images white and bronzed; her features and her figure were perpetuated in divers paintings; her bust was immortalised in a splendid statue; and her entire form is preserved, in all attitudes, and on many plates, in the private cabinet of a photographer at one of the metropolitan Galleries of Practical Science.

Though Ellen is still physically chaste, she is progressively losing that “chastity of the mind” so beloved of the 19th century male. She is also, though she is earning much more than for her needlework when she does work, earning it irregularly: having her income cease after she has become accustomed to having money again gets more difficult each time. And when the photographer is done, the old woman insists she has nothing more to suggest; but she is only biding her time…

At last, seeing her father starving, and his health failing, Ellen is driven back to the old woman one more time. She pleads for her help, any kind of help—and the old woman finally makes her the proposition she’s been intending to make all along.

But it’s all in the timing: these events coincide with Richard’s release from prison; and although he was forced to confront him once, to confess his loss of his fortune, Mr Monroe has not faced him since. Now, quite as desperate as Ellen, Mr Monroe takes on the shameful task of begging for help from the young man he has ruined.

And it is this that drives Ellen to the old woman. Though she has known Richard all her life – in fact, both the Markham boys – in her misery Ellen is unable to imagine him doing anything but spurning his former agent. Her anticipation of this final, crushing blow to her father is too much for her—and she agrees to sell the only thing of value that she still has in her possession: her virginity.

And then, of course—Richard does help—just a little too late.

He does more than help: he insists upon the Monroes coming to live with him and sharing his scanty bounty. For Ellen, this is almost killing with kindness…particularly in light of who it was the old woman brokered the deal with…and the fact that she, Ellen, is now pregnant…

As I said at the outset, the handling of the true identity of “George Montague Greenwood” is one of the novel’s oddest touches. Reynolds doesn’t even get into it squarely at this stage; although going forward, as Ellen gets to know Richard intimately, and benefits from his unselfishness and generosity, every aspect of her situation takes on a new kind of horror for her. However, she makes up her mind that the one thing she can do to requite Richard for all that he has done for her father and herself is to keep the truth from him at all cost.

When she realises that she is pregnant, Ellen goes to Greenwood and begs him to marry her for the child’s sake. When he counters with the offer of a life of luxury for herself and the child – but no marriage – she tells him to shove it. She subsequently manages to hide her condition from her father and Richard with the help of the housekeeper (not quite so blind as the men); and is fortunate to go into labour when they are both away from home. The baby, a boy, is smuggled out to the house of a poor young doctor, who agrees to care for it in exchange for a stipend. (Greenwood does pay for the baby’s support, which is his one semi-decent act in the entire novel.) Ellen must sneak visits the child, grieving when she sees that he does not really know her. Reynolds make it clear that, despite her circumstances, she is a loving and devoted mother, suffering by being parted from her baby—and never really suggests that she deserves it.

Once she has recovered her health and strength, Ellen goes back to thinking about earning her own living, to give Richard some relief. First she gets a job as assistant to a mesmerist and “mind-reader”; but that last only until she is guilty of an ill-timed giggling fit, mid-act. She then decides to train as a dancer, and turns out to be a quick study and a genuine talent, apart from her striking physical beauty. She quickly earns a glowing reputation, as well as a satisfactory income, as a ballerina. The main downside is that she must keep her occupation secret from her father (she performs under an assumed name); although it is also necessary for her ongoingly to evade the many men who haunt the theatre.

But she cannot evade one visitor:

    One evening, a short time before she was to appear in the ballet, the manager informed her that a gentleman desired to speak with her alone in the green-room. To that apartment did Ellen immediately repair, and, to her surprise, the found herself in the presence of Mr Greenwood.
    “Ah! I am not then mistaken,” exclaimed that gentleman, with one of his blandest smiles. “I saw you last night for the first time; and the moment you appeared upon the stage I knew you—that is, I felt almost convinced that it was you. But how happened this strange event in your life?”
    “My benefactor, Richard Markham,” answered Ellen, with singular and mysterious emphasis upon the name, “is not wealthy—you best know why; my father is irretrievably ruined—you also know how:—and, with all my faults, I could not endure the idea of eating the bread of dependence and idleness.”

    “But why did you not apply to me?” demanded Greenwood. “I would have placed you above want.”
    “No—I would not for worlds be dependent upon you,” replied Ellen warmly. “I appealed to you to support my child—our child; and you did so. There was only one way in which you could have manifested a real generosity towards me—and you refused. The service I asked you once upon my knees—with tears and prayers—you rejected:—I implored you to give a father’s honourable name to your child—I besought you to save the reputation of her whose father was ruined through you, and who herself became your victim by a strange combination of circumstances. You refused! What less could I accept at your hands? Do you think that I have not my little sentiments of pride as well as you?”

Greenwood nevertheless insists that he does care for her – in his way – and renews his offers of a life of luxury as his mistress, which the disgusted Ellen unhesitatingly throws back in his face. As we already know, Greenwood does not take rejection well; and he retaliates by setting in motion a plot to abduct her. It succeeds, up to a point—but thanks to the efficiency of Filippo, the household spy, she is enabled to escape.

Later on we get an amusing early example of “stunt-casting”: Richard learns that his first play, of which the theatre-manager has high hopes, is to include in its cast that celebrated ballerina, “Miss Selina Fitzherbert”, who has decided to try her hand at acting—at which she likewise proves brilliant. (Even as he did not know about her dancing, she did not know about his writing.) But that opening-night proves a first and last for Ellen as well as for Richard: she quits when he is driven out by the Resurrection Man’s verbal assault.

Meanwhile, Ellen maintains her vigilance over Richard’s safety and piece of mind. At one point, becoming convinced that Richard is walking into a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man – she of all people knows that the message supposedly sent to Richard by Eugene is a fake – she dons men’s clothes, arms herself with pistols, and (in a chapter titled “Female Courage”) sallies forth into the night to save his life…

Reynolds’ handling of Ellen is deeply peculiar. He obviously felt that he couldn’t go without some editorialisation on her behaviour; but while she is busy committing, in 19th century terms, the most heinous transgressions imaginable, he spends most of his time criticising her not for that, but for venial sins like her vanity. And despite those transgressions – despite, too, the sop thrown to conventionality via the boringly perfect Isabella – it is impossible to get away from the fact that Ellen Monroe is this novel’s heroine.

I tell you this—if Reynolds gets cold feet here—if he feels obliged to kill Ellen off, as per Victorian tradition—I am going to be royally pissed.

I’m hopeful that he won’t, though, judging from the fact that he grants his own open-minded tendencies to his “good” male characters. Ellen’s situation is eventually discovered when the baby becomes gravely ill. She rushes off, thoughtlessly dropping the letter sent to inform her—which is found by her father. When Ellen comes back, having been reassured that the baby has recovered and is no longer in danger, she is confronted by a man in the throes of a thoroughly Victorian emotional and physical collapse.

At this, Ellen confesses everything to him—everything. And Mr Monroe, having time to ponder her words as he lies upon what he fully expects to be his death-bed, finally concludes that (i) she did what she did for him, and (ii) dying of shame would therefore be the height of ingratitude.

So he gets better.

And as for Richard—

    The father and daughter were at length restored to partial tranquillity by each other’s endeavours at reciprocal consolation, and were commingling their tears together, when the door opened.
    Markham, followed by Marian, entered the room.
    But what was the surprise of Mr Monroe—what was the joy of Ellen, when Marian advanced towards the bed, and presented the child to his mother!
    “A parent must not be separated from her offspring,” said Richard; “henceforth, Ellen, that infant must be nurtured by thee…”

The Mysteries Of London – Volume I, at least – closes with an epilogue in which Reynolds addresses the reader directly, reiterating his overarching theme of WEALTH. | POVERTY., and expanding upon his intentions in writing this serial in the first place—all of them above reproach, of course:

    We have constituted ourselves the scourge of the oppressor, and the champion of the oppressed: we have taken virtue by the hand to raise it, and we have seized upon vice to expose it; we have no fear of those who sit in high places; but we dwell as emphatically upon the failings of the educated and rich, as on the immorality of the ignorant and poor.
    We invite all those who have been deceived to come around us, and we will unmask the deceiver;—we seek the company of them that drag the chains of tyranny along the rough thoroughfares of the world, that we may put the tyrant to shame;—we gather around us all those who suffer from vicious institutions, that we may expose the rottenness of the social heart.
    Crime, oppression, and injustice prosper for a time; but, with nations as with individuals, the day of retribution must come. Such is the lesson which we have yet to teach.
    And let those who have perused what we have already written, pause ere they deduce therefrom a general moral;—for as yet they cannot anticipate our design, nor read our end.
    No:—for we have yet more to write, and they have more to learn, of THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON.

And sure enough, across 1845 – 1846, another 52 weekly numbers of The Mysteries Of London appeared. I’m not so sure, though, that Reynolds can’t justly be accused of slacking off—because in contrast to Volume I, which in its unabridged Valancourt Books reissue is 1,176 pages long, Volume II runs a mere 1,146 pages…

 

02/11/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 2)

 

    “My mind is made up,” said Eugene, “and no persuasion shall alter its decision. I am my own master—my father’s conduct has emancipated me from all deference to parental authority. Richard, you have brought my things?”
    “My dearest brother—whither are you going?”
    “I am on the road to fame and fortune!”
    “Alas!” said Richard mournfully, “you may perhaps find that this world is not so fruitful in resources as you now imagine.”
    “All remonstrances—all objections are vain,” interrupted Eugene impatiently. “We must say adieu! But one word more,” he added, after an instant’s pause, as a sudden thought seemed to strike him; “you doubt the possibility of my success in life, and I feel confident of it. Do you pursue your career under the auspices of that parent in whose wisdom you so blindly repose: I will follow mine, dependent only on mine own resources. This is the 10th of July, 1831; twelve years hence, on the 10th of July, 1843, we will meet again on this very spot, between the two trees, if they still be standing. Remember the appointment: we will then compare notes relative to our success in life!”

 

 

 

Having addressed George Reynolds’ themes and style in The Mysteries Of London in the first part of this post, here I will try to give an overview of his characters and plots—though obviously, I will have to be representative rather than thorough, or this will be a thousand pages long, too.

(ETA: It still turned out quite long enough, thanks to the necessary illustrative quotes; so I’ll divide this piece into two.)

At its simplest, The Mysteries Of London is a tale of two brothers, Eugene and Richard Markham. They are raised in wealth and comfort by a generous yet autocratic father. Eugene, the elder, is sent to Sandhurst Military Academy—and there, out in the world by himself for the first time, and thrown amongst reckless, spendthrift young men – who, as Eugene puts it, “Enlisted me in their pleasures and debaucheries” – he falls seriously into debt. Offended both by the debt and the nature of it, Mr Markham chooses this moment to teach his eldest son a severe lesson. Since some of Eugene’s debts are from his gambling – debts of honour, in other words – his inability to pay has disastrous consequences: he is shunned by his fellow officers, and forced to sell his commission and resign.

Upon his return to the parental roof, a violent confrontation ends in Eugene taking his angry father at his word and leaving home, determined to make his own fortune in his own way.

The Markham brothers have always been close – Richard, indeed, is devoted to Eugene, though they are so different in temperament – and one of their joint projects as boys was the planting of two ash trees on a hill overlooking their home, where they frequently sat as they were growing up, to talk over the present and the future. Before setting out, Eugene makes a proposal: he and Richard will each follow their own path in the world, Richard guided by their father’s precepts, Eugene living by his wits; and in twelve years’ time, they will meet again at their ash trees to see which of them has prospered more.

And that is the last that Richard sees of his brother (at least to the end of Volume I, which takes us from 1831 to 1839). Once, he has a particularly vivid dream in which he thinks he sees Eugene standing by his bed; and on various occasions, he discovers that Eugene has carved his initials and the date into the bark of his particular ash; but no meeting between the brothers occurs, nor does Richard receive any word of Eugene.

Following Eugene’s departure, the narrative stays with Richard, who is the hero of The Mysteries Of London. He is also its chew-toy—losing his entire fortune (his portion and Eugene’s, after the latter is disinherited); being wrongly imprisoned for passing counterfeit banknotes; falling in love with a young woman whose circumstances are absurdly superior to his own; having his hopes and prospects crushed every time he starts to believe he has found a way of re-establishing himself in the world; and making an extremely dangerous enemy…

Meanwhile, we also hear of a conscienceless opportunist called George Montague—who later changes his name to George M. Greenwood, overtly as a term of an inheritance, in reality because he has made one particular corner of London too hot to hold him. (The fact that certain people do not know that “Montague” and “Greenwood” are the same person causes much difficulty and grief.) Greenwood is a skilled con-man, throwing up a smokescreen of seeming prosperity and successful financial ventures, and ruining those unwise enough to trust him to invest their money. One of those whose fortune he drains away is a certain Mr Monroe—only it isn’t actually Mr Monroe’s money: he was entrusted with the management of Richard Markham’s fortune while Richard was in prison; so that when the latter gets out, he finds himself reduced from many thousands to a few hundreds of pounds a year. When Greenwood belatedly learns what he has done, for once he is strangely disturbed…

Greenwood is also a complete scoundrel when it comes to women. It was he who seduced Diana Arlington, after she was thrown upon his tender mercies when her father was ruined—by Greenwood, of course. He also buys the virginity of another of our characters (a subplot I shall return to at more length presently). He does do something that you could call “falling in love” with Eliza Sydney – she who spends the first part of the novel masquerading as her own dead brother – and gets engaged to her. Even so, he hopes to avoid actually marrying her. Eliza’s principles are too much for him, however; and when he lets passion overcome him and ventures into her bedroom one night, she holds him off with the dagger she keeps under her pillow, and drives him away and out of her life with scorn and insults. Greenwood’s wounded ego leads him to plan a vicious act of revenge, in which Eliza will be drugged, raped while unconscious, and then – what other choice would she have? – become his willing mistress; but fortunately the plot is forestalled.

But Eliza’s escape is one of Greenwood’s few failure: for the most part he flourishes like the proverbial green bay tree.

And having shown him to the reader in all his vicious, destructive and unprincipled anti-glory, Reynolds finds the perfect place for Greenwood: he goes into politics:

    “You deserved success, after that brilliant speech;” said Chichester, laughing heartily at this narrative.
    “The polling was continued briskly until four o’clock, when the mayor closed the books and announced that George Greenwood, Esquire, Gentleman, was duly returned to serve in Parliament as the representative of Rottenborough.”
    “When shall you ‘take your oaths and your seat,’ as the papers say?” demanded Chichester.
    “This evening,” answered Greenwood.
    “And of course you will range yourself amongst the Liberals?”
    “How can you fancy that I shall be guilty of such egregious folly?” cried the new Member of Parliament. “The reign of the Liberals is drawing to a close: a Tory administration within a year or eighteen months is inevitable.”
    “But you stood forward as a Liberal, and were returned as such.”
    “Very true—very true, my dear fellow. But do you imagine that I became a Member of Parliament to meet the interests and wishes of a pack of strangers, or to suit my own?”
    “And at the next election—”
    “I shall be returned again. Mark my word for that. A politician is not worth a fig who has not a dozen excuses ready for the most flagrant tergiversation; and money—money will purchase all the free and independent electors of Rottenborough.”

One of the most intriguing things about The Mysteries Of London is that, although it is perfectly obvious to the reader who George Montague Greenwood actually is, the narrative never acknowledges it. There is only one other character who knows that unwelcome truth—and for a variety of reasons, she goes to extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden.

Eliza Sydney is another of Reynolds’ characters who masquerades under a false identity—also for financial reasons. Another con-artist persuades her to participate in an elaborate fraud, by convincing her that she herself is a victim of fraud, and that the masquerade is the only way she can redress her wrongs. In truth, under the terms of the will of the late Earl of Warrington (uncle to the present Earl, the “keeper” of Diana Arlington), whose illegitimate daughter was the mother of Walter and Eliza Sydney, Walter was to inherit a fortune if he lived to come of age; if not, the money was to revert to the original family. A certain Mr Stephens, the confidante of the late Mrs Sydney, convinces Eliza that Lord Warrington intends to withhold the money illegally, and that by pretending to be her lookalike brother (who did, inconveniently, die young), she can thwart him.

Eliza and Mr Stephens take some pains to establish her identity as “Walter”, which allows Reynolds to indulge to the full his fetish for women in drag:

    Then followed the mysterious toilet.
    Stays, curiously contrived, gave to that exquisitely modelled form as much as possible the appearance of the figure of a man. The swell of the bosom, slightly compressed, was rendered scarcely apparent by padding skilfully placed, so as to fill up and flatten the undulating bust. The position of the waist was lowered; and all this was effected without causing the subject of so strange a transformation any pain or uneasiness.
    The semi-military blue frock coat, buttoned up to the throat, completed the disguise; and as this species of garment is invariably somewhat prominent about the chest, the very fashion of its make materially aided an effectual concealment, by averting surprise at the gentle protuberance of the breast, in the present instance.
    Louisa arranged the luxuriant and flowing hair with particular attention, bestowing as much as possible a masculine appearance upon that which would have been a covering worthy of a queen.
    The toilet being thus completed, this strange being to whom we have introduced our readers, descended to a parlour on the ground floor…

He also likes emphasising the contrast between Eliza’s ultra-feminine tastes, shown in the decoration of her bedroom and the dresses she isn’t allowed to wear, and her masculine attire.

However, at the very last moment, the conspirators are exposed (a letter between Stephens and his brother falls into the hands of The Black Chamber of the General Post-Office). Eliza is so appalled to discover that she has been party to a criminal conspiracy, she reveals the entire plot, pleads guilty to the subsequent charges, and goes to prison (she and Richard are convicted on the same day, and get out on the same day: two years for both of them).

Eliza’s frankness and contrition win her the admiration of Diana Arlington and the Earl of Warrington. Diana visits her in prison, and becomes her best friend when she gets out; the Earl contributes to her support, but won’t see or talk to her: in his youth he was in love with her mother, his illegitimate cousin, whom she very much resembles; however, she rejected him to marry a farmer’s son, which is the kind of thing that happens all the time in George Reynolds’ world.

While exchanging girl-talk, Diana and Eliza discover that they have something in common:

    “Forgive me, my dearest friend,” said Eliza, taking the hand of Mrs Arlington and pressing it between her own;—“forgive me if I have kept back one secret of my life from your knowledge. That George Montague—I once loved him!”
    “You!” exclaimed Mrs Arlington in surprise.
    “Yes, Diana—I once loved that man—before the fatal exposure which led to my imprisonment;—but he behaved like a villain—he endeavoured to take advantage of my affection;—and I smothered the feeling in my bosom!”
    “Oh! you did well—you did well thus to triumph over a passion which would have been fatal to your happiness;—for never would your hopes have been fulfilled—with honour to yourself,” added Mrs Arlington, sinking her voice almost to a whisper…

But the two women don’t just commiserate with each other: they join forces, and take action to ensure that at least some of Greenwood’s dastardly schemes will be thwarted, by planting a mole in his household…

In the wake of Greenwood’s attempted rape, Eliza decides that she can only truly be safe from him by leaving England. She departs for Italy, and the Grand Duchy of Castelcicala, where the Earl owns a property.

Castelcicala is necessarily fictional – hilariously, its capital city is “Montoni”, after the villain in The Mysteries Of Udolpho – because it is the site of the most extravagant of Reynolds’ wish-fulfillment fantasies. How extravagant do they get? Let’s put it this way: he manages to elevate Eliza Sydney, ex-con, offspring of a farmer’s son and an Earl’s bastard, to the throne of Castelcicala—when the elderly and rather tyrannical Grand Duke Angelo falls in love with her. Various horrified statesmen try to prevent the intended marriage by revealing Eliza’s past to the Grand Duke, but it turns out she has told him all about herself already, and he doesn’t care. So in rapid succession, Eliza Sydney is created Marchioness of Ziani, and then becomes the Grand Duchess Eliza of Castelcicala…

…which is the kind of thing that happens all the time in George Reynolds’ world…

The marriage of Eliza to the Grand Duke has significant implications—not least the possibility of an heir to the throne. Castelcicala has been in turmoil for years, with tensions between the faction supporting the Grand Duke and his traditional, iron-fisted rule, and that supporting his nephew and heir, Prince Alberto, who wants to introduce more liberal ways. To prevent civil war, Alberto has voluntarily banished himself from his country, along with some of his followers.

One of the latter is the Count Alteroni, who settles with his wife and daughter in a villa outside of London. The Count’s own liberal ideas have led him to seek acquaintance with Thomas Armstrong, a radical writer, who in turn introduces Richard to the Count and his family—after the two of them become friends in prison:

    “I am a person accused of a political offence—a libel on the government, in a journal of considerable influence which I conduct. I shall be tried next session; my sentence will not be severe, perhaps; but it will not be the less unjust. I am the friend of my fellow-countrymen, and my fellow-creatures: the upright and the enlightened denominate me a philanthropist: my enemies denounce me as a disturber of the public peace, a seditious agitator, and a visionary. You have undoubtedly heard of Thomas Armstrong?”
    “I have not only heard of you, sir,” said Richard, surveying the great Repulican writer with profound admiration and respect, “but I have read your works and your essays with pleasure and interest.”
    “In certain quarters,” continued Armstrong, “I am represented as a character who ought to be loathed and shunned by all virtuous and honest people,—that I am a moral pestilence,—a social plague; and that my writings are only deserving of being burnt by the hands of the common hangman. The organs of the rich and aristocratic classes, level every species of coarse invective against me. And yet, O God!” he added enthusiastically, “I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”

Armstrong is clearly – very clearly – intended as a self-portrait; so it is curious that Reynolds kills him off quite quickly, albeit for plot-purposes. (And no, he’s not martyred for his cause.)

Richard and the Alteronis take a strong liking to each other, and the inevitable happens: Richard and the beautiful young daughter, Isabella, fall in love. Richard is nevertheless painfully conscious of his own circumstances, but cannot quite bring himself to tell the truth to Count Alteroni. However, the choice is taken out of his hands when he offends the Resurrection Man (as quoted in Part 1). The latter tries to burgle the Alteronis’ villa and, when caught, does Richard as much harm as he can—which as it turns out is a lot:

    “Silence, my dear friend,” said the count authoritatively: “I will hear the man, let him be who or what he may!”
    “And you will do well to hear me, sir,” continued the Resurrection Man. “You harbour a villain in your house; and that villain is now before you. He boasts of having secured the affections of your daughter, and hopes to gull you into allowing him to marry her.”
    “Miscreant—murderer!” exclaimed Markham, no longer able to contain his indignation: “pollute not innocence itself by these allusions to a lady whose spotless mind—”
    “Hush!” said the count. “Let us hear patiently all this man has to say. I can soon judge whether he be speaking the truth; and if he deceives me, I will show him no mercy.”
    “But, count—allow me one word—I myself will unfold—”
    “Excuse me, Markham,” interrupted the Italian noble, with dignified firmness: “I will hear this man first. Proceed!”
    “The villain I allude to is of course that Markham,” continued the Resurrection Man. “It was him, too, that induced me and my pals, the Cracksman and the Buffer, to make this attempt upon your house to-night… This is all I have to say—unless it is that me and your friend Markham first got acquainted in Newgate—”
    “Newgate!” ejaculated the count, with a thrill of horror.
    “Yes—Newgate; where he was waiting to be tried for forgery, for which he got two years in the Compter. And that’s all. Let him deny it if he can.”

Richard is promptly exiled from his earthly paradise and, though he manages later to convince the Count and Countess of his innocence (Isabella never doubted him), it does him to good: to the Alteronis, he is “tainted” by his time in prison, be he never so innocent.

But then circumstances intervene, with the Count becoming another of the victims of a certain enterprising financier…

In fact, things run so far in the opposite direction that the Count ends up in a debtors’ prison. Richard, who has managed to consolidate the poor remains of his fortune, pays to free him. He does it anonymously, but Isabella has no doubt about who was responsible, and convinces her parents of their debt to him. As a result, Richard is summoned back into the fold—but his happiness is short-lived, as Isabella’s devotion to him leads her to tell him the truth; the whole truth:

    “Beloved girl—this moment is the happiest of my life!” exclaimed Markham; and tears of joy filled his eyes, as he pressed the maiden once more to his heart.
    “Yes, Richard,” continued Isabella, after a long pause; and now her splendid countenance was lighted up with an expression of dignity and generous pride, and the timid, bashful maiden seemed changed into a lady whose brow was encircled with a diadem; “yes, Richard, if ever I felt that no deed nor act of mine shall separate us eternally—if ever I rejoiced in the prospect of possessing wealth, and receiving lustre from my father’s princely rank—”
    “Isabella!” exclaimed Richard, dropping the arm on which the Italian lady was leaning, and stepping back in the most profound astonishment: “Isabella, what mean you?”
    “I mean,” continued the signora, casting upon him a glance of deep tenderness and noble pride; “I mean that henceforth, Richard, I can have no secret from you,—that I must now disclose what has often before trembled upon my tongue; a secret which my father would not, however, as yet, have revealed to the English public generally,—the secret of his rank; for he whom the world knows as the Count Alteroni, is Alberto, Prince of Castelcicala!”
    Strange was the effect that this revelation produced upon the young man. He felt, as if, when in a burning heat, a mighty volume of icy water had suddenly been dashed over him: his head appeared to swim round—his sight grew dim—he staggered, and would have fallen had not Isabella rushed towards him, exclaiming, “Richard—dear Richard—do you not believe how much I love you?”
    Those words produced an instantaneous change within him: those sweet syllables, uttered in the silvery tones of lovely woman’s tenderness—recalled him to himself.
    “Ah! Isabella,” he exclaimed, mournfully, “how insuperable is the barrier which divides us now!”

Of course…Richard doesn’t know that he’s living in George Reynolds’ world…

 

[To be continued…]

 

22/10/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 1)

 

    Amongst these cities there is one in which contrasts of a strange nature exist. The most unbounded wealth is the neighbour of the most hideous poverty; the most gorgeous pomp is placed in strong relief by the most deplorable squalor; the most seducing luxury is only separated by a narrow wall from the most appalling misery.
    The crumbs which fall from the tables of the rich would appear delicious viands to starving millions; and yet those millions obtain them not!
    In that city there are in all districts five prominent buildings: the church, in which the pious pray; the gin-palace, to which the wretched poor resort to drown their sorrows; the pawn-broker’s, where miserable creatures pledge their raiment, and their children’s raiment, even unto the last rag, to obtain the means of purchasing food, and – alas! too often – intoxicating drink; the prison, where the victims of a vitiated condition of society expiate the crimes to which they have been driven by starvation and despair; and the workhouse, to which the destitute, the aged, and the friendless hasten to lay down their aching heads—and die!

 

 

 

 

It is hard to know where to begin with George Reynolds’ monumental penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London—which is one reason why, after introducing Reynolds at this blog, it’s taken me so long to get around to actually considering his writing.

Even a consideration of Volume I alone is daunting—not least because it runs some 1200 pages. Furthermore, it ends, not with any attempt to wrap up any of its numerous co-plots, but a simple promise of more of the same: a promise that Reynolds kept. Volume I is a compilation of the first 52 weekly installments of his serial, which ran from 1844 into 1845; and, having drawn a line at that point, Reynolds did it all over again from 1845 into 1846.

Consequently, a standard review is impossible (even a ‘standard review’ as long as mine usually are). Instead, what I am going to try and do is just give an overview of this first volume of The Mysteries Of London: to take a look, in this first part, at Reynolds’ approach to his writing and what he was trying to achieve—and in particular how this work stands apart from the literature of its time. (Some lengthy quotes to follow—perhaps over-lengthy, but I think it does Reynolds the best justice to let him speak for himself.) A second part will consider his characters and plot.

It can be difficult today to conceptualise the contemporary popularity of The Mysteries Of London—which was in all likelihood the best-selling book of its time. The sales figures for the weekly numbers were always high, but we must think in multiples when trying to estimate how many people were actually following the story. Many copies were bought by mechanics’ institutes, and other such communal organisations, where a single issue would be read by multiple individuals. Other single copies were read out loud in a variety of gathering places—both to save costs, and because in spite of rising literacy levels among the working-class, many among Reynolds’ potential audience could not read.

But we would be very wrong to assume that only the working-classes enjoyed Reynolds—whether or not some of the people reading his books admitted it to anyone else. When Reynolds’ publisher, George Vickers, reissued The Mysteries Of London in book form, it sold over a million copies; and while Vickers sensibly kept most of his editions at accessible prices, he also released high-quality, leather-bound sets that were very definitely not aimed at working-class readers.

However, Reynolds’ subject matter, his approach to his material, and his personal unpopularity with “the establishment” for his political agitation, saw his work buried after his death in 1879. The critical condemnation of his books as “vile” and “dangerous” was allowed to prevail; and it is only very recently that Reynolds’ reputation has been revived—and, more importantly, his books reissued.

One the things that struck me immediately about The Mysteries Of London was the extent of Reynolds’ influence upon Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose own penny-dreadfuls began appearing some fifteen years later. Braddon is certainly the superior writer of the two, displaying better control of her material, much more lightness of touch, and a more subtle sense of humour—but we must remember that, despite her pointed social criticisms, Braddon was writing chiefly to entertain and to earn a living; whereas Reynolds was a committed social agitator using his works as an overt attack upon the numerous injustices prevailing in contemporary England. Not surprisingly, then, he favours a declamatory, tub-thumping style, with copious use of exclamation marks; while his humour tends more to the overtly sarcastic than the ironic.

Humour is not a dominant factor in The Mysteries Of London, however. More typical is a tone of outrage—for example, in this passage dealing with working-class wages:

    “Madam,” said Ellen, bursting into tears, “I have worked nearly seventeen hours at that shawl—”
    She could say no more: her voice was lost in sobs.
    “Come, come,” cried the shopwoman harshly,—“no whimpering here! Take up your money, if you like it—and if you don’t, leave it. Only decide one way or another, and make haste!”
    Ellen took up the sixpence, wiped her eyes, and hastily turned to leave the shop.
    “Do you not want any more work?” demanded the shopwoman abruptly.
    The fact was that the poor girl worked well, and did not “shirk” labour; and the woman knew that it was the interest of her master to retain that young creature’s services.
    Those words, “Do you not want any more work?” reminded Ellen that she and her father must live—that they could not starve! She accordingly turned towards that uncouth female once more, and received another shawl, to embroider in the same     manner, and at the same price!
    Eighty blossoms for sixpence!
    Sixteen hours’ work for sixpence!
    A farthing and a half per hour!!!

In fact—you could justly describe The Mysteries Of London as an attack upon “the 1%”. From its earliest passages, Reynolds draws graphic and repeated contrasts between the obscene wealth of the upper classes, and the even more obscene poverty of the lowest—and the indifference of the one to the other. He makes his agenda perfectly clear at the outset, in a passage striking when put in the context of mid-Victorian literature:

    For in this city the daughter of the peer is nursed in enjoyments, and passes through an uninterrupted avenue of felicity from the cradle to the tomb; while the daughter of poverty opens her eyes at her birth upon destitution in all its most appalling shapes, and at length sells her virtue for a loaf of bread.
    There are but two words known in the moral alphabet of this great city; for all virtues are summed up in the one, and all vices in the other: and those words are:

    WEALTH. | POVERTY.

In 1845 the German philosopher, Fredric Engels, published (translated) The Condition of the Working Class in England, which in turn was a significant influence on Benjamin Disraeli’s “social condition” novel of the same year, Sybil; or, The Two Nations. Disraeli’s subtitle entered the vernacular, while a certain passage in the novel was much quoted in public debate:

    “Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”
    “Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”
    The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.
    “Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
    “You speak of—” said Egremont, hesitatingly.
    “THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

Reynolds was there before him, however. And frankly, the idea that future Prime Minister Disraeli was plagiarising despised radical George Reynolds delights me quite as much as it infuriates me.

Reynolds’ overarching mantra in The Mysteries Of London is that the main cause of crime is poverty. Even his very worst and most unrepentant criminals are generally given the chance to tell their life-stories, which almost invariably begin with that individual’s attempts to live honestly, and to earn an honest living—and how that proved impossible, usually thanks to the “nice” people. And while the narrative itself expresses a conventional religious view, there is a constant, sneering depiction of religious hypocrisy, and of the actual behaviour of those who preen themselves upon being Christians in a Christian nation. The brutal treatment of those who have strayed from the path, whether criminally or sexually, by those in comfortable circumstances – the practical uselessness of repentance, once a false step has been taken – is one of Reynolds’ recurrent themes.

Another is the unavoidable impact of squalor and deprivation upon the physical, mental and moral wellbeing of those forced by poverty to live under such conditions:

    The wealthy classes of society are far too ready to reproach the miserable poor for things which are really misfortunes and not faults. The habit of whole families sleeping together in one room destroys all sense of shame in the daughters: and what guardian then remains for their virtue? But, alas! a horrible—an odious crime often results from that poverty which thus huddles brothers and sisters, aunts and nephews, all together in one narrow room—the crime of incest!
    When a disease – such as the small-pox or scarlatina – breaks out in one of those crowded houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood; the consequences are frightful: the mortality is as rapid as that which follows the footsteps of the plague!
    These are the fearful mysteries of that hideous district which exists in the very heart of this great metropolis. From St. John-street to Saffron Hill—from West-street to Clerkenwell Green, is a maze of’ narrow lanes, choked up with dirt, pestiferous with nauseous odours, and swarming with a population that is born, lives, and dies, amidst squalor, penury, wretchedness, and crime…

Many passages in The Mysteries Of London either mock at or rail against government institutions, which are shown as corrupt and venal, run by the rich for the rich. In particular Reynolds attacks the Poor Laws, and the horrors of the workhouse—highlighting the starvation conditions and the brutal separation of husbands and wives, parents and children. All this was done intentionally, of course, to dissuade the poor from seeking this dubious refuge; but instead of “getting a job”, as the architects of the system smugly asserted they would, countless thousands, unable to find either work or relief, died in miserable poverty:

    Alas! that New Year’s Day was one of strange contrasts in the social sphere of London.
    And as London is the heart of this empire, the disease which prevails in the core is conveyed through every vein and artery over the entire national frame.
    The country that contains the greatest wealth of all the territories of the universe, is that which also knows the greatest amount of hideous, revolting, heart-rending misery.
    In England men and women die of starvation in the streets
    In England women murder their children to save them from a lingering death by famine.
    In England the poor commit crimes to obtain an asylum in a gaol.
    In England aged females die by their own hands, in order to avoid the workhouse…

Another significant subplot involves what Reynolds calls “the Black Chamber of the General Post-Office”, a secret department whose job is to open any letters that look like they might be important, extract any information, political or financial, that might be of use to the government, and then close the letters so that the invasion of privacy might not be detected:

    Oh! vile—despicable occupation,—performed, too, by men who went forth, with heads erect and confident demeanour, from their atrocious employment—after having violated those secrets which are deemed most sacred, and broken the seals which merchants, lovers, parents, relations, and friends had placed upon their thoughts!
    Base and diabolical outrage—perpetrated by the commands of the Ministers of the Sovereign!

(This subplot is an exaggerated version of a real scandal, in which it was revealed that correspondence directed to an Italian refugee in London had been opened under a government warrant, and the contents transmitted to the Court of Naples—resulting in summary killing of several would-be revolutionaries. The incident ruined the career of then-Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, who to that point had been responsible for several important reforms, but afterwards, as he put it himself, was only, “Remembered as the man who opened the letters of the Italians.”)

Likewise, Reynolds constantly ridicules the idea that everyone is equal under the law. The text is peppered with incidents involving corrupt and/or incompetent policemen, and magistrates and judges going out of their way to exonerate the rich and brutalise the poor. These scenes are not exactly subtle, but they have their effect. On one hand—

    The harmony was disturbed by the entrance of a constable dragging in a poor ragged, half-starved, and emaciated lad, without shoes or stockings.
    “What’s the charge?” demanded the inspector.
    “A rogue and vagabond,” answered the constable.
    “Oh! very well: put that down, Crisp. How do you know?”
    “Because he’s wandering about and hasn’t nowhere to go to, and no friends to refer to; and I saw him begging.”
    “Very good; put that down, Crisp. And I suppose he’s without food and hungry?”
    “I have not tasted food—” began the poor wretch who stood shivering at the bar.
    “Come, no lies,” ejaculated the inspector. “No lies!” echoed the constable, giving the poor wretch a tremendous shake.
    “Have you put it all down, Crisp?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Well, let him have a bit of bread, and lock him up. He’ll get three months of it on the stepper to-morrow.”
    The poor creature was supplied with a cubic inch of stale bread, and then thrust into a filthy cell.
    “What do you think that unfortunate creature will be done to?” enquired Markham
    “Three months on the stepper—the treadmill, to be sure.”
    “But what for?”
    “Why, for a rogue and vagabond.”
    “A vagabond he may be,” said Markham, “because he has no home to go to; but how do you know he is a rogue?”
    “Why—he was found begging, wasn’t he?”
    “And does that make a man a rogue?”
    “Certainly it do—in the eye of the law.”

And on the other—

    A constable then stood forward, and stated the charge. The prisoner at the bar had turned out of a flash tavern in the Haymarket at one in the morning, and commenced crowing like a cock, and ringing at front-door bells, and playing all imaginable kinds of antics. When the constable interfered, the gentleman knocked him down; and had not another policeman come up to the spot at the moment, the said gentleman never would have been taken into custody.
    The Magistrate cross-questioned the policeman who gave evidence in this case, with great severity; and then, turning with a bland smile to the prisoner, who was surveying the clerk through his eye glass in as independent a manner as if he were lounging over the front of his box at the opera, the worthy functionary said in a tone of gentle entreaty, “Now really we have reason to suspect that John Jenkins is not your name. In fact, my lord, we know you.”
    “Well, then,” exclaimed the prisoner, turning his eye-glass from the clerk upon the magistrate, “chalk me up as Lord Plymouth, since you are down upon me in this way.”
    “My lord—my lord,” said the Magistrate, with parental urbanity of manner, “these little freaks of yours are really not creditable: upon my honour they are not. I sit here to administer justice to the rich as well as to the poor—”
    “Oh! you do, do you ?” cried the nobleman. “Now I tell you what it is—if you dare talk any of your nonsense about prisons and houses of correction to me. I’ll not stand it. You know as well as I do that whenever a barrister is to be appointed magistrate, the Home Secretary sends for him and tells him to mind his P’s and Q’s towards the aristocracy. So none of your nonsense; but be quick and let me off with the usual fine.”
    “My lord,” ejaculated the Magistrate, glancing with consternation from the prisoner to the clerk, and from the clerk to the prisoner; “did I not say that I sate here to administer equal justice to the rich and the poor? The fine for drunkenness is five shillings, my lord—and in that sum I fine you. As for the assault upon the policeman, I give you leave to speak to him outside.”
    The nobleman demanded change for a ten pound note, and threw the five shillings in a contemptuous and insolent manner towards the clerk, who thanked his lordship as if he had just received an especial favour. The assault was easily settled outside…

But whatever Reynolds’ views upon the causes of crime, his narrative positively wallows in its effects. Much of The Mysteries Of London is set amongst the lowest of the low, and in the worst and most dangerous corners of London. Crimes of all sorts are plotted and committed—and described to the reader in detail. Professional criminals rank amongst the novel’s most prominent characters—one in particular:

    “And, in return,” he added, after a moment’s pause, “if I can ever do you a service, outside or in, you may reckon upon the Resurrection Man.”
    “The Resurrection Man!” ejaculated Richard, appalled, in spite of himself, at this ominous title.
    “Yes—that’s my name and profession,” said the man. “My godfathers and godmothers called me Anthony, and my parents had previously blessed me with the honourable appellation of Tidkins: so you may know me as Anthony Tidkins, the Resurrection Man.”
    “And are you really—” began Richard, with a partial shudder; “are you really a—”
    “A body-snatcher ?” cried Anthony; “of course I am—when there’s any work to be done; and when there isn’t, then I do a little in another line…”

The relationship between Richard Markham and the Resurrection Man is something I will return to in Part 2; here I will merely note that, though Richard is effectively the hero of The Mysteries Of London, and the Resurrection Man one of its main villains, this does not prevent Reynolds on occasion from—not siding with the latter, but doing him sufficient justice. Typical is this pointed exchange, when Richard finds the Resurrection Man in the vicinity of the house of the girl he loves. His unguarded protest is something he will later be made to regret:

    “Wretch! what do you mean to do?” ejaculated Richard, hurrying after him and detaining him by the arm: “you do not know that that abode is sacred—that it is the residence of probity, innocence, and honour—that if you were to breathe a hint who and what you are, you would be spurned from the door?”
    “Ah! I am accustomed to that in this Christian land—in this land of Bibles and Missionary Societies,” said the Resurrection Man, bitterly…

And this emphasis upon life amongst the lowest and most despised of society leads me to highlight what eventually struck me as the single most remarkable thing about The Mysteries Of London: the near absence of the middle-class.

So much of Victorian literature is for and about the middle-classes that this gulf in The Mysteries Of London is startling. This in itself is a commentary upon the nature of contemporary society: middle-class people might have been allured by tales of upward mobility through socially acceptable behaviour, but the poor knew very well that such aspirations were not for the likes of them; and Reynolds knew it, too—as he knew that his readers were more interested in (or at least, titillated by) tales of misbehaviour amongst the aristocracy. So while there is a scattering of middle-class characters in the story – among them Richard Markham – they all suffer either personal or financial ruin, and so end up excluded from their natural social sphere.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the narrative is split between the very highest and the very lowest levels of English society; and rather than bothering with the usual end-of-novel rewards, such as marriage and domesticity, Reynolds instead indulges his readers with a series of absurd wish-fulfillment fantasies, in which the most unlikely people are elevated to the most improbable heights.

Another really striking aspect of The Mysteries Of London is Reynolds’ relentless insistence upon smell. This is something that was completely anathema in polite society at the time, an attitude reflected in mainstream literature. Yet this was a convention that ran counter to the ugly reality of the mid-19th century. Even in the “nice” sections of London, there was no proper closed sewage system until the 1860s—and no real thought of one until the means of transmission of cholera was determined in the 1850s. Even then the government didn’t want to pay for the necessary work—not until what became known as “The Great Stink” of 1858, when a combination of an unusually hot summer and the untreated waste that clogged the Thames persuaded the powers-that-be of its necessity.

Nevertheless, you’ll look in vain in the literature of the time for any reference to, or even just acknowledgement of, the Stink. Literally—It Just Wasn’t Done; and this taboo persisted into the 20th century. It has been suggested that, as late as 1890, part of the virulent critical reaction to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray stemmed from the text’s emphasis upon odours—even though these, for the most part, are pleasant ones.

There’s nothing pleasant about the equivalent descriptions in The Mysteries Of London, however. On the contrary, Reynolds provides a series of revoltingly graphic descriptions of rubbish rotting in the streets, open sewers, slaughterhouses, and other such delights—reminding us over and over that countless people were forced to live and work in such conditions.

Most shocking of all, however, are the numerous scenes describing bodily decomposition. No doubt most of what Reynolds describes here was another sickening reality of life amongst the London poor—for instance, those forced to live near an overcrowded cemetery:

    The soil was damp; and a nauseous odour, emanating from it, impregnated the air. When the sun lay for several days upon the place, even in the depth of winter,—and invariably throughout the summer,—the stench was so intolerable that not a dwelling in the neighbourhood was seen with a window open. Nevertheless, that sickly, fetid odour penetrated into every house, and every room, and every inhabited nook or corner, in that vicinity; and the clothes of the poor inmates smelt, and their food tasted, of the damp grave!
    The cemetery was crowded with the remains of mortality. The proprietors of the ground had only one aim in view—namely, to crowd the greatest possible quantity of corpses into the smallest space. But even this economy of room did not prevent the place from being so filled with the dead, that in a given quantity of the soil it was difficult to say whether earth or decayed human remains predominated. Still the cemetery was kept open for interments; and when there was no room for a newcomer, some recently-buried tenant of a grave was exhumed to afford the required space.

—but nevertheless there is a definite sense of gratuitousness in the way he dwells upon the subject, in the body-snatching scenes in particular, but also in the way he continues his description of the operation of the cemetery:

    Baring his brawny arms to the very shoulders, he now set himself vigorously to work to dig the grave which was to receive a new-comer that after-noon.
    Throwing the earth up on either side, he had digged to a depth of about two feet, when his spade encountered a coffin. He immediately took his pickaxe, broke the coffin to pieces, and then separated with his shovel the pieces of wood and the human bones from the damp earth. The coffin was already so soft with decay that the iron rod had penetrated through it without much difficulty; and it therefore required but little exertion to break it up altogether.
    But the odour which came from the grave was now of the most nauseating kind – fetid, sickly, pestiferous – making the atmosphere heavy, and the human breath thick and clammy, as it were – and causing even that experienced grave-digger to retch as if he were about to vomit.
    Leaping from the grave, he began to busy himself in conveying the pieces of the broken coffin and the putrid remains of mortality into the Bone-House. where he heaped them pell-mell upon the fire.
    The flesh had not completely decayed all away from the bones; a thick, black, fatty-looking substance still covered those human relics; and the fire was thus fed with a material which made the flames roar and play half up the chimney.
    And from the summit of that chimney came a smoke-thick, dense, and dark, like the smoke of a gasometer or a manufactory, but bearing on its sable wing the odour of a pestilence…

And the third really shocking aspect of The Mysteries Of London is – surprise! – its attitude to sex.

It is difficult to describe Reynolds’ approach to this touchy topic. Overtly, his narrative plays out within a framework of conventional religion and morality, and this applies to his female characters: at one extreme his heroine is a perfect angel, and at the other his women criminals are much more depraved and vicious than his men. So far, so familiar.

Almost at once, however, we get a sense of a split-vision; of lip-service. There are “fallen women” aplenty in The Mysteries Of London, and although Reynolds classes a few of them amongst his “depraved criminals”, most of them are presented as victims and treated with sympathy—and sometimes more than that.

There are many passing references to young women being forced to sell themselves to stay alive, or being seduced and abandoned. That too is in its way familiar. Where Reynolds surprises us is giving us not one, but several, such women among his main characters—each one with different circumstances and motivations, but all – or almost all – treated with dignity and an almost matter-of-fact acceptance of their situation, at least once you wave away the smokescreen of, “Tut, tut!” One of them, indeed, can almost be considered this novel’s heroine!

I will deal with Ellen Monroe’s subplot in detail in Part 2, rather than here (ETA: Or as it turned out, Part 3); but two other of Reynolds’ transgressing women are worth considering in this context. One is Diana Arlington, known as “Mrs Arlington”, though she has never been married. She is originally the victim of the man to whom she thought she was to be married, but after her father is financially ruined (by him, as it turns out), he stops meaning marriage. When her father dies and she is left destitute, she has little choice but to become her once-fiancé’s mistress. In time he gets bored with the arrangement, and hands Diana off to an acquaintance of his, a Sir Rupert Harborough. She doesn’t care for him at all, but tries to feel grateful for his generosity. However, her progressive discovery of Sir Rupert’s dishonesty and, finally, criminal behaviour disgusts her, and she decides to separate from him and – accepting that while she’d like to be “an honest woman” again, there’s really no way back – find another keeper.

She has no shortage of men to choose from—and her doing so is presented to us with extraordinary facetiousness:

    Diana hastened to unlock an elegant rosewood writing-desk, edged with silver; and from a secret drawer she took several letters – or rather notes – written upon paper of different colours. Upon the various envelopes were seals impressed with armorial bearings, some of which were surrounded by coronets. She glanced over each in a cursory manner, which showed she was already tolerably familiar with their contents. The greater portion she tossed contemptuously into the fire;—a few she placed one upon the other, quite in a business-like way, upon the table.
    When she had gone through the entire file, she again directed her attention to those which she had reserved; and as she perused them one after the other, she mused in the following manner:—
    “Count de Lestranges is brilliant in his offers, and immensely rich—no doubt; but he is detestably conceited, and would think more of himself than of his mistress. His appeal must be rejected;” and she threw the French nobleman’s perfumed epistle into the fire.
    “This,” she continued, taking up another, “is from Lord Templeton. Five thousand a-year is certainly handsome; but then he himself is so old and ugly! Away with this suitor at once.” The English Peer’s billet-doux followed that of the French Count.
    “Here is a beautiful specimen of calligraphy,” resumed Diana, taking up a third letter; “but all the sentiments are copied, word for word, out of the love-scenes in Anne Radcliffe’s romances. Never was such gross plagiarism! He merits the punishment I thus inflict upon him;—and her plump white hand crushed the epistle ere she threw it into the fire.
    “But what have we here? Oh! the German baron’s killing address—interspersed with remarks upon the philosophy of love. Ah! my lord, love was not made for philosophers—and philosophers are incapable of love; so we will have none of you.”
    Another offering to the fire.
    “Here is the burning address of the Greek attaché with a hard name. It is prettily written;—but who could possibly enter upon terms with an individual of the name of Thesaurochrysonichochrysides?”
    To the flames went the Greek lover’s note also.
    “Ah! this seems as if it were to be the successful candidate,” said Diana, carefully perusing the last remaining letter. “It is written upon a plain sheet of white paper, and without scent. But then the style—how manly! Yes—decidedly, the Earl of Warrington has gained the prize. He is rich—unmarried—handsome—and still in the prime of life! There is no room for hesitation.”

So she doesn’t: she writes, offering herself; he accepts, and sets her up in a luxurious house. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, their subsequent connection is presented almost as a quasi-marriage—two people comfortable together and glad of each other’s company—though Reynolds daringly insists that neither is in love with the other.

Eventually the relationship comes to grief, due to the Earl’s thin-skin and pride; and Diana meets a grim fate that, in another context, would certainly be a case of cosmic punishment—but which here just doesn’t read like that. Before this, Diana is one of the characters who is indisputably on the side of right, waging an anonymous battle against the ongoing depredations of her original seducer, and becoming bosom friends with another of the novel’s prominent female characters, Eliza Sydney, who despite knowing all about Diana, begs to be allowed to call her “sister”—something, by the way, that our hero, Richard Markham, also insists upon.

But Reynolds’ greatest daring is in the character of Lady Cecilia Harborough—a serial adultress because she likes sex.

She REALLY likes sex.

The fact that such a character was conceived and written in 1844 is mind-boggling. There were other serial adultresses in Victorian literature, sure, but it was always about the money; here, Reynolds makes it hilariously clear that, while Cecilia certainly likes money, there’s something else she likes even more. In an era in which some men were desperately trying to convince society at large that women lacked the capacity to enjoy sex, Lady Cecilia is not only unprecedented, but would remain unparalleled for many decades to follow.

Amusingly in retrospect, when we first meet her, Cecilia is presented as one of the novel’s “victims”: she is seduced by Sir Rupert Harborough and impregnated, and marries him after her parents agree to pay Sir Rupert’s outrageous demands. The marriage is miserable, of course, chiefly because the money dries up. Sir Rupert embarks upon a series of criminal enterprises to retrieve his fortune, while Cecilia becomes the mistress of one George Greenwood—in exchange for his retrieval of her diamonds, which Sir Rupert stole and pawned. When Greenwood gets bored and moves on, Cecilia finds a rich, handsome Guardsman to replace him—and Reynolds has the audacity to write an overt sex-farce scene, in which both Sir Rupert and Cecilia try to sneak their respective lovers out of the house at the same time, all four bumping into one another in the vestibule.

But it is what comes next that takes the reader’s breath away, as Cecilia sets her sights on a minister, who is celebrated for his eloquence, his devotion—and his chastity. In (literally) Cecilia’s experienced hands, Reginald Tracy has no chance. Afterwards, wracked with guilt and religious terror, he tries to tear himself away from her, but Cecilia isn’t having any of that; and when he won’t approach her voluntarily, she finds a way of bringing him back to her.

An old woman approaches Tracy with a story of a poor sculptor and a remarkable stature, for which he wishes to find a purchaser. Tracy agrees to see it—and finds it somewhat…familiar:

    In somewhat bold relief, against the dark wall, stood the object of his interest,—seeming a beautiful model of a female form, the colouring of which was that of life. It was naked to the middle; the arms were gracefully rounded; and one hand sustained the falling drapery which, being also coloured, produced upon the mind of the beholder the effect of real garments.
    Lost in wonder at the success with which the sculptor had performed his work,—and experiencing feelings of a soft and voluptuous nature,—Reginald drew closer to the statue. At that moment the light of the fire played upon its countenance; and it seemed to him as if the lips moved with a faint smile. Then, how was his surprise increased, when the conviction flashed to his mind that the face he was gazing upon was well known to him!
    “O Cecilia, Cecilia!” he ejaculated aloud: “hast thou sent thy statue hither to compel me to fall at its feet and worship the senseless stone, while thou—the sweet original—art elsewhere, speculating perhaps upon the emotions which this phantasmagorian sport was calculated to conjure up within me! Ah! Cecilia, if thou wast resolved to subdue me once more—if thou couldst not rest until I became thy slave again,—oh! why not have invited me to meet thine own sweet self, instead of this speechless, motionless, passionless image,—a counterpart of thee only in external loveliness! Yes—there it is perfect:—the hair—the brow—the eyes—the mouth— Heavens! those lips seem to smile once more; those eyes sparkle with real fire! Cecilia—Cecilia—”
    And Reginald Tracy was afraid—he scarcely knew wherefore: the entire adventure of the evening appeared to be a dream.
    “Yes—yes!” he suddenly exclaimed, after having steadfastly contemplated the form before him for some moments,—standing at a distance of only three or four paces,—afraid to advance nearer, unwilling to retreat altogether,—“yes!” he exclaimed, “there is something more than mere senseless marble here! The eyes shoot fire—the lips smile—the bosom heaves— Oh! Cecilia—Cecilia, it is yourself!”
    As he spoke he rushed forward: the statue burst from chill marble into warmth and life;—it was indeed the beauteous but wily Cecilia—who returned his embrace and hung around his neck;—and the rector was again subdued—again enslaved!

And afterwards—

    The barrier was now completely broken down; and the rector gave way to the violence of the passion which hurried him along.
    That man, so full of vigour, and in the prime at his physical strength, abandoned himself without restraint to the fury of those desires which burnt the more madly—the more wildly, from having been so long pent-up.
    Day after day did he meet his guilty paramour; and on each occasion did he reflect less upon the necessity of caution. He passed hours and hours together with her at her abode; and at length he ventured to receive her at his own residence, when his housekeeper bad retired to rest.
    But he did not neglect his professional duties on the Sabbath;—and he now became an accomplished hypocrite. He ascended the pulpit as usual, and charmed thousands with his discourse as heretofore. Indeed his eloquence improved, for the simulated earnestness which displaced the tone of heart-felt conviction that he had once experienced, seemed more impassioned, and was more impressive than the natural ebullition of his feelings.
    Thus as be progressed in the ways of vice, his reputation increased in sanctity…

But while he’s busy exposing everyone else’s sexual peccadilloes, Reynolds also gives away a couple of fetishes of his own. First of all, he clearly had a thing about women in drag—and finds several excuses for cross-dressing scenes. Most significantly, the novel opens with a young man getting lost in the wilds of London during a violent storm, and undergoing a terrifying, near-fatal adventure after accidentally taking refuge in a thieves’ den. This “young man” is later revealed as the aforementioned Eliza Sydney, who (for complicated reasons I won’t go into here) is carrying out an extended impersonation of her own dead brother, Walter. Meanwhile, when Ellen Monroe becomes convinced that Richard Markham is walking into a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man, she disguises herself in men’s clothes and arms herself with pistols, in order to go to his aid.

But above all else—George Reynolds was a breast-man: he proves quite incapable of describing an attractive woman without telling us everything we might have wanted to know about the size and shape of her breasts. On several occasions this is entirely inappropriate—for instance, even when the point is that an unmarried woman has borne an illegitimate baby, Reynolds can’t help commenting on how much bigger her breasts are as a consequence. This, meanwhile, is a description of what Ellen Monroe conceals under her men’s clothes:

Those swelling globes of snow, each adorned as with a delicate rose-bud, needed no support to maintain them in their full and natural rotundity…

Even Queen Victoria is not exempt!—

At that time Victoria was yet a virgin-queen. If not strictly beautiful, her countenance was very pleasing. Her light brown hair was worn quite plain; her blue eyes were animated with intellect; and when she smiled, her lips revealed a set of teeth white as Oriental pearls. Her bust was magnificent…

And speaking of Victoria— Though the monarchy was one of the infinite number of British institutions of which Reynolds disapproved, he mostly* lays off it in The Mysteries Of London (unlike some of his later works, as we shall see)—putting it to a most unexpected alternative use.

(*Mostly: there is still a suggestion that George III’s mental illness was hereditary and transmitted to his descendants, another that George’s alleged morganatic marriage to Hannah Lightfoot meant that the entire royal family was illegitimate, and a third that the marriage produced “issue”. And yes: for Reynolds, that is “laying off”.)

I have said that Reynolds resorts to absurd wish-fulfillment fantasies in this novel: the most interesting of these involves a plot concocted by the Resurrection Man, his colleague, Tom the Cracksman, and an urchin called Henry Holford, to rob Buckingham Palace. The boy is sent in as a scout and, penetrating security with embarrassing ease, spends several days concealed within the palace—gorging on stolen food, gawping at its various luxuries, and above all spying and eavesdropping from his favourite vantage point of beneath the Royal Sofa. As it happens, Henry’s unofficial visit coincides with the official one of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, so there is much for him to spy upon. Long passages describing the glories of the palace and the (visual) splendour of the nobility follow.

Reynolds, as we have seen, could be vicious in his attacks, but in this case – to mix a metaphor – he sheathes his sword and keeps his tongue in his cheek—offering an outrageous moment in which Henry not only sits on Victoria’s sofa, but dares to occupy the same space as the Royal Buttocks:

Holford emerged from beneath the sofa, and seated himself upon it. He was proud to think that he now occupied the place where royalty had so lately been…now in a palace, and seated upon the very cushion which a few hours previously had been pressed by royalty…

Reynolds follows this up with a typical bit of nose-thumbing—having his scruffy urchin, a mere “pot-boy”, invade the throne-room itself:

    At length he reached the Throne Room. The imperial seat itself was covered over with a velvet cloth, to protect it against the dust. Holford removed the cloth; and the splendours of the throne were revealed to him.
    He hesitated for a moment: he felt as if he were committing a species of sacrilege;—then triumphing over this feeling – a feeling which had appeared like a remorse – he ascended the steps of the throne;—he placed himself in the seat of England’s monarch.
    Had the sceptre been there he would have grasped it;—had the crown been within his reach, he would have placed it upon his head!

 

[To be continued…]

 

10/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 2)

 

    The good man opened the fatal epistle, therefore, with a trembling hand and a heart deeply agitated, and found this new calamity more insupportable than any he had before experienced. He blamed himself as a kind of accessory to the untimely blasting of this tender flower, was amazed at his own remissness in not immediately transplanting it to a more natural soil, and saving this tender pledge, this emblem of their beloved child, from being subject to the capricious flights and giddy management of young unthinking relations, who had not the same call, to watch with carefulness over her.
    Mrs Parker said in a heart-wounding accent, that her Eliza had exhausted all her tears, nor had she one left for poor Louisa; but, continued she, I hope, the measure of my affliction is now completed, and that it will not be long before we are all re-united in that glorious state, exempt from misfortunes, where sin and sorrow are no more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first volume of Family Pictures, as we have seen (and quoted), opens with a standard scree about the rewards of virtue—part of a preface declaiming the high moral purpose of the novel and its fitness for reading by the young and innocent.

This is how the second volume opens:

Mrs Bentley was so kind to her niece, as to suffer Arabella to beat and pinch her, without check or controul. The poor infant was uneasy for some time, at the great change she experienced, and would alternately call upon her Papa and Mamma to save her; but at length custom began to reconcile her even to the cruel usage…

We’re left to ponder whether the novel’s title was intended to be ironic, or just baldly honest.

The shift in tone and subject matter between the two volumes of Family Pictures, from the familiar sentimentalism of the romance / tragedy of Anthony and Eliza, to the cruelty and crime that set in motion the second half of the narrative, is jolting. We seem, suddenly, to have picked up a different book. Again, we can only wonder if the period’s volume-by-volume publishing style prompted authors to hide their more sinister lights under a bushel, until they were safely into the marketplace—and if readers knew to stick it out through a dull or soppy first volume, in expectation of something better.

Having lost both her parents (mostly, we have to say, through their own faults), poor Louisa emerges as the new focus of Family Pictures, with an all-new plot set in motion by her father’s incredibly stupid decision to leave her to the tender mercies of her uncle, aunt and cousins—who are, as we have seen, devoted to casual cruelty even without the added motivation of Louisa standing between them and the family property.

It is true that Anthony meant for Louisa to be left predominantly with her grandparents; but he took no steps to ensure that this happened—instead trusting the parties involved to take care of it. However – and with a distinct lack of submission to God’s will – Mrs Parker is so devastated by the death’s of her daughter and son-in-law, she isn’t fit for the task of caring for her granddaughter; and since Mr Parker is unfamiliar with the true characters of Daniel and Arabella, he sees no harm in leaving Louisa with her uncle and aunt, at least for the present.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

    [Daniel] judged it very hard to be kept out of seven hundred pounds a year by such a little child. This noble sentiment he frequently revolved in his own mind, before he was so far abandoned as to communicate it to his wife; nor did he abruptly open his heart even to her, but just insinuated that it was a mortifying circumstance, that his brother and sister had not been taken off three years sooner than they were, as Anthony would not then have been excluded from his right by a little snivelling girl…
    Daniel had so much artifice as to leave her to reflect upon what he had hinted, in hopes of drawing a proposal from her of some kind or other, which might bring his purposes to bear, as he chose to appear to follow in this respect rather than lead.

Nope: nothing immoral in THIS novel.

Much oblique back-and-forthing between Daniel and Arabella follows, the upshot of which is a sudden journey to London, the Parkers being left in ignorance of this step until it is too late for them to countermand it. The Bentleys take up residence with Arabella’s aunt, a Mrs Blackiston, a widow in dire financial straits, and without the means to protest the uses she is put to, even if she had the inclination.

It is Mrs Blackiston who proposes an alternative to the outright murder of Louisa. She suggests farming the child out—that they find a poor woman in low circumstances who is willing to take the child in and, effectively, raise her as her own. She further sketches a cover-story that makes Louisa the illegitimate child of an unnamed “great man”, such that the need for secrecy may be stressed without raising questions.

Mrs Blackiston even knows a suitable candidate; though here she perhaps does better than her co-conspirators would have preferred, in that Mrs Brisco is a kind and honest, if rather simple woman, who has suffered many personal misfortunes including the loss of her husband and child. She willingly takes in Louisa, swallowing the story fed to her, and obediently passing the girl – who is now known as “Susan” – off as her own. The two retire to a small cottage in Bedfordshire.

But of course, this is only half of the plot. In order for the Bentleys to gain the property, Louisa must die. They therefore concoct a serious illness, of which they inform the Parkers by letter, along with many expressions of fear and grief, and contrition for having carried such a young child to London. Then the terrified Parkers receive another letter announcing the death of their grandchild…

Here too Mrs Blackiston proves invaluable:

    She applyed…to a body-stealer, to furnish her with the body of a female infant of Louisa’s age… Accordingly the next evening a flag basket was provided for the conveyance of the departed babe, recently committed to the earth by its afflicted parents, but which was almost as speedily taken up by this disturber of the dead.
    The poor little sacrifice to their ambition and avarice had a gentle opiate administered to her that evening, which, taking effect at nine o’clock, they knew would continue in operation ’till twelve the next day… At length the hour of deliverance arrived, and the sleeping babe was successfully conveyed into the carriage, destined to remove her from the knowledge of her relations, friends and fortune. This great work completed, the basket was unpacked, and the lifeless imposition dressed, by the hardened Mrs Blackiston, in a cap and bed-gown of Louisa’s, reserved for the purpose, and being laid in the bed…

Okay. I know that this isn’t our usual scenario, but I’m calling it anyway:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

For Mrs Parker, this third blow is almost the end, and she sinks into a permanent stupor of grief; while Mr Parker, with a distinct lack of resignation, is in a condition little better.

Despite the violent upheavals in her circumstances, Louisa / Susan revives under the loving care of Mrs Brisco; and she begins to forget her past in her new life as a humble cottager.

Some eleven years are then skipped over, until the next significant landmark in Susan’s life: the coming to her neighbourhood of a wealthy family, the Banstons. The husband and wife have nothing in common and are bitterly estranged; while their peculiarities of temperament and constant warfare make life unpleasant for their children, a boy and a girl of around Susan’s own age. In particular, Mr Banston is a domestic tyrant: his abrupt passions, his instantaneous likes and dislikes and their violent consequences, impacting his entire household:

He was extremely ambitious, and from an anxious pride, that his children should surpass every other person’s, he sometimes led them an uneasy kind of life… He was so accustomed to disapprove of their behaviour and conversation, that when he was present, they acted under continual fear and constraint. It seems, his disposition had been early soured by disappointments, and the loss of a beloved friend, which he had never overcome, so that he, who at twenty was an easy and most amiable youth, now at fifty was become a capricious and intolerable old man.

Mrs Banston, meanwhile, is a kind if underbred woman, weak-minded and easily influenced by stronger wills, who prefers the company of her own servants to that of her husband’s social acquaintances. The family money is hers, though, which only increases the state of ongoing tension.

The mother of Dame Brisco was the the nurse of Mr Banston’s father, and a connection has always been maintained. With her quiet tact and willingness to serve, Dame Brisco makes herself useful to the Banstons in a variety of ways, not least in helping to manage a household where daily tasks are often neglected. Seeing the need for a sewing-woman, she ventures to recommend Susan who, with her neatness of person, steady habits and fine work, is soon a fixture in the house. She becomes, indeed, almost a companion to Caroline Banston, and shares some of her lessons; acquiring smatterings of both education and accomplishments.

Consequently, when Charles Banston returns home after an absence of some months on a visit to his grandmother, he finds his family rather startlingly supplemented:

Master Charles soon informed himself by his sister’s means of all the internal graces and valuable endowments of this young girl, whose person had so exceedingly engaged his admiration, and he secretly wished, that fortune had been more liberal in her favours, so as to have enabled this master-piece of Nature to have shone in a less humble light. In consequence of these impressions he treated her with the utmost respect and kindness on every occasion; for two years together that this brother and sister were inseparable, now in all these youthful pursuits and diversions Susan had a share along with them, nor, indeed, could they enjoy any pleasure without her, her modesty, humility, and good nature recommending her most irresistibly to their favour.

But of course this pastoral interlude cannot last; and after a visit to some old acquaintances in Worcestershire, where he spent his youth, Mr Banston comes home to announce that he has arranged an advantageous marriage for Charles—or at least, he has arranged it with her father; he expects Charles to seal the deal when the family comes for a visit.

With visions of Susan dancing in his head, Charles is anything but delighted; though under his father’s scowling gaze he manages to mumble something that might be compliance. Undeceived, his father reacts with one of his volcanic outbursts:

“Ungrateful and insensible wretch, cryed he, is this the utmost sensation thy groveling heart is capable of; this the return for my sollicitude for your advancement? Your veins, I find, are replete with the mean blood of your mother, not one spark of my spirit being in your whole composition; but mark me well, continued he, darting a furious look at the poor dismayed youth, you have but this one alternative in your power, viz. either to marry the lady whom I have chose for you, or to turn out, for I will harbour no disobedient children.”

Charles has little option but to play along. Caroline soon notices his disturbed state of mind and, when he explains to her his situation, tries to console him by suggesting he might like the chosen young lady—which of course prompts him to blurt out his feelings for Susan, much to his sister’s dismay, as she knows that any such connection is impossible.

But whatever apprehensions Charles might be experiencing, the reader has them one-hundred-fold—for there is little doubt about the identity of the young lady in question, given her first action upon arrival at the Banstons’:

…but, added she, this sick beast, turning about and hauling at the same time a poor little puppy out of the carriage by one leg, has made my journey very uncomfortable. Mr Banston would have relieved her of her charge, and expressed some obliging concern for her (as he supposed) little favourite; but she soon gave him to understand, that she was superior to every weak attachment of that kind, and only kept the poor animal for the pleasure of tormenting it.

Sure enough, the visitors are none other than the Bentleys; and the contrast between the attractive but brazen and unfeeling Arabella, and the gentle Susan, is almost too much for Charles—who sees with despair that Arabella is fully informed of the purpose of the visit, and expects his co-operation. His embarrassed shrinking and timid demeanour provoke Arabella, who takes a dislike to him; but she resolves to conceal her feelings until she can see if there is meat more to her taste in the neighbourhood.

Arabella and Caroline are likewise antipathetic; the latter longing for the companionship of Susan, who has been banished to Dame Brisco’s cottage to free up room at table for the visitors. The brother and sister count the minutes until the conclusion of the planned fortnight visit, only to learn that while the senior Bentleys must depart – Mrs Bentley expressing concern over the health of her only son, who (it is implied) is drinking himself into an early grave – Mr Banston persuades Arabella to stay for the entire summer.

The only compensatory aspect of this for the young Banstons is that Susan may now be recalled. Caroline drives over to collect her, in company with Arabella who, mostly out of spite and snobbery, but also having taken one look at Susan’s pretty face, refuses to have a servant admitted to the carriage and orders her to walk instead. The mortified Caroline hastily intervenes, telling Susan to stay at the cottage overnight and to come to the house in the morning, and to bring Dame Brisco with her.

From this incident an infinity of misery results. Recounting the matter to Mrs Banston, Arabella turns it around, complaining of Susan’s “sullen refusal” to walk when denied the carriage. The dull-witted Mrs Banston sees nothing odd in this assertion about a girl well-known for her retiring modesty; and when Susan does arrive, she is stunned to be rebuked for misbehaviour and pride:

She was as yet but a novice to the injustice and unkindness of the rich; nor did she imagine that they conceived themselves licenced to treat their inferiours with occasional contempt and disregard, (without being accountable for their actions) merely from their superior possessions; that the wind was not more uncertain than their favour; that they were out of reach of expostulation, and deaf to conviction; that from their determinations there was no appeal, however disgracefully or unjustly they might discard their favourites; and that the world was prepared to acquit the mighty and condemn the weak, even without a hearing; that in the single epithet rich was comprehended all merit, beauty, grace, and that consequently the horrid sound of poverty conveyed sentiments diametrically opposite…

Ouch! I wonder who Miss Minifie had in mind when penning that passage? – and if this is why she and her sister started writing: because they had to, after someone let them down?

From this point matters go from bad to worse. Arabella doesn’t want Charles, and in fact begins a secret liaison with Mr Banston’s steward, who is the kind of “man of spirit” she prefers (in other words, a coxcomb and a cad); but the fact that Charles doesn’t want her is mortifying; while his evident preference for a servant is intolerable. Consequently, she sets about destroying Susan: a task simple enough, between Mr Banston’s insane pride and Mrs Banston’s weak will; and she succeeds in the first instance in having her banished from the house altogether.

Meanwhile, the sneaking Mr Letcroft, who can barely believe his own luck, persuades Arabella first into correspondence and clandestine meetings, then into a secret marriage:

The ceremony over, the happy pair spent a short time together at a farm-house, and then returned to Mr Banston’s with as hardened a countenance, as if nothing had happened…

Soon afterwards, Arabella receives word of the death of her brother, Anthony. She is personally unmoved; and the main consequence is that she becomes, in Mr Banston’s eyes, an even more desirable daughter-in-law, since her brother’s fortune will now augment her own. Naturally he increases the pressure on Charles—who, however, has a secret weapon in his armoury. The local parish-clerk is a relative of Dame Brisco’s, and informs her of Arabella’s marriage; and she, in turn, lets Caroline know. Charles, therefore, is able for once to face his father with relative equanimity; replying coolly to his menaces:

“Time and reflection have removed all my objections, and I am ready to receive Miss Bentley’s hand, whenever she shall be disposed to bestow it upon me.”

Mr Banston is so pleased with this, he grants Charles a three-month stay of execution (so to speak). Charles makes prompt use of the time and, finally giving in to temptation, declares himself to Susan by letter. She is moved and touched by this but, in spite of her own secret feelings, she immediately declares that there can never be anything between them. When Caroline finds out, she is furious with her brother; but she knows she can rely upon Susan’s strength of character, if not Charles’, to prevent the matter going further.

And fate has another bitter blow in store for Susan, when Dame Brisco suddenly dies:

The old woman had got her relation, the parish-clerk, to scrawl out a kind of a will, by which she bequeathed to the poor girl all she was worth. This all, after everything was sold, (Mr Banston burying her at his expense) amounted to eight guineas…

Susan decides that she must leave the country for London, in order to find a way of supporting herself—and to put distance between herself and Charles. Her departure and its circumstances are widely discussed amongst the Banstons, in the course of which Mrs Banston makes reference to Dame Brisco “countenancing a bastard”, much to Arabella’s delight. Her sneering response provokes a furious outburst from Charles—also remarkable for 1764:

“Was the poor bastard, you mention with such detestation, in the smallest degree accessory or a partaker in her parents guilt? I think, added this gentleman, the world is not more cruel or unjustifiable in any one respect, than in its consideration of such unhappy beings. Is it not sufficient, that a poor child shall be brought into existence involuntarily; and, from the culpable behaviour of those who ought to protect and provide for it, not only be excluded from the comfort of relations, and every title to property or provision, but also that a considerable share of the contempt and shame, incurred by the authors of its being, should devolve upon its innocent and inoffensive head? Wickedness of heart is the same in marryed as unmarryed persons, and if the adulterers children are allowed to be uncontaminated by their parents guilt, why should the simple crime of fornication be hereditary?”

Nope: nothing in THIS novel that the moralists could object to…

We are then reminded that lawful sex, too, has its consequences:

    Six months had now elapsed since the marriage of Mr Letcroft, and Miss Arabella had evaded from time to time the importunities of her father and Mr Banston, to receive Mr Charles as a husband, when she suddenly became altered, to an uncommon degree, in her shape. The servants soon perceived it, and having easy access to the ear of their mistress, communicated their observations to her. She communicated them again to her son and daughter; but they were far from being either surprised or sorry at the event, as it would infallibly in a very short time deliver them from her disagreeable company.
    Mrs Banson was unable, long to conceal her suspicions from her husband, who resented them highly, and said, “that if he could fix upon the original authour of such a scandalous report, he would prosecute him at his own expense.” Miss Arabella, however, discovering by a hint, which, if she had been innocent, would have been perfectly unintelligible, that her condition was suspected in the family…retreated to the house of Mr Letcroft, whose marriage to her was then promulgated all over the country, to the inexpressible chagrin of Mr Banston, the diversion of his wife and servants, the satisfaction of his son and daughter, and the great disappointment and vexation of the lady’s own family.

No sooner has this departure occurred than another visitor arrives, the son of an old friend of Mr Banston and an acquaintance of Charles, who has come to invite the latter to accompany him to London. Mr Banston is persuaded, and gives Charles various commissions to carry out during his holiday, including delivering some letters for him. One of these in to a certain Mrs Blackiston, who Charles finds in extremely reduced circumstances, consumed by thoughts of vengeance against a party or parties who she blames for her miserable situation. Charles doesn’t really listen to her ravings, however: he just wants to get out of there and, having given the old woman some money, slips away as soon as he can.

He and his companion then set themselves to see all the sights of London.

Ahem. ALL the sights of London.

In the wake of a rather boozy dinner at a tavern, Charles allows himself to be led to “a certain house under Covent-garden-piazzas”:

    Their youth and genteel appearance soon gained them admittance, and a bottle of Burgundy being brought, Mr Rutland enquired, if they could not be introduced to some young ladies that were tolerably decent and not very old practitioners? The mother abbess who presided in this temple of Venus, after having presented two or three, without giving satisfaction, said, “she had one damsel under her roof, whom she feared they would find as objectionable for her coyness, as the others were for the opposite extreme; but as there were two of them, if they would make it worth their while, they should separately try what they could do with her.”
    The enflamed Mr Rutland emptied his pockets upon the table, and swore, if that was not sufficient, he would give his note for as much more; but the conscientious lady said, as he was a customer, she was satisfied with what was before her, and Mr Banston, consenting to be served after his friend, was accepted upon easier terms.

Nope: nothing in THIS novel you’d want to keep away from innocent young girls.

Wow. Seriously. I’ve encountered scenes like this before in novels by men, but I have never come across anything like it, let alone this explicitly rendered, in a novel by a woman—and that woman a clergyman’s daughter!?

Anyway—

The aptly named Mr Rutland, having paid for his privilege, tries his luck first. The lovely young girl, in ignorance of her true situation, is first shocked, then terrified and repulsed by his behaviour. Discovering to her horror that she is locked in, she can only weep and plead for mercy. Mr Rutland refuses to be dissuaded by what he perceives as “artifice”, driving his potential victim to extremes:

    “I must inform you, that you have a person to deal with, that is neither capable of being intimidated by threats, nor allured by promises, and that your triumph over her can never be completed whilst her power of resistance remains; nor will she survive such a calamity to become a prey again to avarice and prostitution, for this weapon, snatching his sword out of the scabbard, shall be more merciful than you…”
    “Well, Madam, said the half-vanquished hero, as I find I can do nothing with you by fair means, and detest a rape as much as you, I shall resign you to my friend…”

So saying, he retreats downstairs:

    The abandoned procuress, who was in the room, asked him, what success he had met with? “Why faith, said he, none at all; she is the most squeamish little b—h I ever met with: but come, Charles, continued he, she expects you, pray, do not make her wait.”
    Mr Banston was not in his nature a debauchee; but fearful of exposing himself to the laugh of his more hardened companion, he arose, and, with a reluctance and agitation he could not account for, suffered himself to be led in to the frighted prisoner…

Having sobered up, he has no intention of doing anything, though; and he tries to reassure the terrified girl he finds cringing away on the far side of the room, even promising her that he will be her protector if she needs one. This makes her turn around:

…to her unspeakable surprise, she discovered her young master Banston, and he his beloved Susan…

Yes, well. The reader is probably a little less unspeakably surprised.

Susan explains to Charles that she was betrayed by the wagoner who had conveyed her to London, who had told her that he was in a position to help her secure the assistance of “a good charitable lady”; that she had entered the lady’s house in all good faith, and spent a fortnight doing needlework there, in constant expectation of being recommended to a position; that the clothes she is wearing, she had been persuaded to don on being told that in London, even servants were expected to dress finely; and that this night had been the first time she received an inkling of her true situation.

Charles promptly proposes—pointing out that one month’s residence in any parish will enable them to marry, despite their both being under age. Susan resolutely refuses, insisting that the distance between them is too great, and that she must live single and earn her own living. However, she does accept Charles’ secondary offer of rescue—

(—a rescue, by the way, in which his drunken visit to a brothel and his participation in the purchase of a virgin go politely unremarked—)

—and a refuge under the roof of a respectable woman.

But as it turns out, Charles’ own acquaintance in London is so very limited, the only person he can think of to leave Susan with is Mrs Blackiston…

I think we can all see where this is headed.

The sudden resurrection of Louisa Bentley produces all sorts of fallout—including the belated revelation that “Mr Banston” is actually Anthony Bentley’s old friend, Frank Taylor, who changed his name as a condition of his mercenary marriage. Family Pictures then closes with the expected flourish of rewards and punishments; and while the former take up more space (a romance for Caroline Banston is hurriedly conjured up, for instance), the latter are more interesting for their sense of prosaic reality, in place of the expected speeches about the inscrutable ways of Providence, which generally close novels of this sort.

Despite her repentance and active assistance in exposing the cruel fraud, Mrs Blackiston is rather dismally killed off:

…vexation, disappointment, and the inconveniences that poverty exposed her to, in conjunction with her wounded pride, and turbulent and impatient spirit, brought a complication of disorders upon her, which kept her in a lingering state of misery and suffering, which continued for a whole twelve-month, and then put a period to her existence…

—while the Bentleys are allowed to get away with full restitution of their ill-gotten gains and a hasty retreat, their corporeal punishment consisting of having to share digs with the Letcrofts; with rather more focus given to the consequences of all this for Arabella:

Mr Letcroft and his lady, and Mr and Mrs Bentley, led a very uncomfortable life. The goddess Discord had established her seat under their roof. His being disappointed in obtaining the immense fortune he expected, notwithstanding Mrs Letcroft was likely to inherit some few thousand pounds, changed the meek, servile adorer into the morose, untractable husband. He contracted many improper intimacies, and when his weak brain was heated by a too frequent repetition of the social glass, he was wonted to bestow some rough compliment upon his lady’s delicate bones…

And sure, there is some speechifying; but even here we are struck by the matter-of-fact admission that life doesn’t usually work out as neatly – or as justly – as novels would have us believe:

Thus did the chain of events, derived upon this family, run. Agreeably to our limited notions of rewards and punishments, and though many instances in life are the reverse of this equitable distribution, it must nevertheless by acknowledged, that villainous practices are frequently discovered and detected, and that a perseverance in well-doing is productive of the most happy and agreeable consequences.

And as if this shruggingly half-hearted moralising isn’t odd enough, we are then offered this thoroughly unconvincing closing argument:

Mrs Banston was the only person who remained unchanged, uninterested, and consequently unaffected by these happy revolutions, though I really do her injustice when I say, she did not partake in some measure of the general satisfaction; for her house was clear of every imcumbrance for a long season, and she at liberty to pursue her particular inclinations without interruption, which self-enjoyment was derived from an insensibility of mind, neither to be envyed nor coveted, as surely, to a rational being it must be highly satisfactory to possess a heart capable of generous sympathy, and every humane and tender disposition; for whatever exemption from the participation of others calamities this selfish narrow principle may confer upon its possessor, it can be by no means adequate to the reflected joys of friendship and benevolence.

You know—I rather find myself in sympathy with Mrs Banston…

 

 

24/10/2017

The History Of The Mareschalless De La Ferté


The Marquess de Beuvron believing himself handsome enough to be happy, was not contented with the leavings of so many; and Madame d’Olonne being not more faithful to him, he not only resolved to see neither of ’em, but also to ruin their Reputations in the World. As he durst not brag publicky to have lain with two Sisters, he gave ’em to understand that he had enjoy’d that happiness with one, and that it was only his own fault that he had not arriv’d to it with the other. Those who knew ’em both, had no hardship to believe it, but many believing it was malice that occasion’d his railing, the injury he thought to do their Reputations, excited only in them a curiosity to see such remarkable Ladies…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So! – it is with an altered perspective that I returned to The History Of The Mareschalless De La Ferté. Possibly because, in this instance, he was dealing with people much more widely known, the anonymous author does reel himself in a bit, with this narrative being far less sexually explicit; but otherwise, it is business as usual.

The author starts out by introducing his new cast of characters:

What I have told you of Madam de Lionne, shews a great condescention in one who had aspired to Charm even the King; yet it is nothing in Comparison of what I am going to relate concerning the Mareschalless de la Ferté, who is my other Heroess; but one so Illustrious, that it would be difficult to find her fellow, should you seek throughout Paris, which is nevertheless a Marvellous place for such kind of Discoveries. However, she was no sooner thrown from the aspiring hopes I have before mention’d, but she began to endeavour to comfort her self: And it seem’d not difficult, since he who had made her forget so Charming an Idea, was not one of extraordinary merit. She was of a good Family, and the Mareschal prov’d himself more couragious when he marry’d her, than he had before done by all the Warlike enterprises he had ever attempted. For she must either have been chang’d at nurse, or resemble the rest of her Relations who were so inclin’d: a fair Example whereof was to be seen in her Sister the Countess d’Olonne, whom Bussy has endeavoured to render famous to his Abilities, tho’ he has very much fail’d in it. The Copy falling so short of the Original. This Lady, tho’ of an indifferent Beauty, and far beneath her Sisters, had nevertheless so good an Opinion of her self, that she thought it her right to Charm the World…

The narrative then offers an unpleasant sketch of the Maréchal de la Ferté, “the Mareschal” – the most brutal Man that ever was – who is shown using threats and violence against his erratic wife, in an effort to keep her in line when his military duties call him away from home. In particular, he warns her against keeping company with her sister, the Countess d’Olonne, who is less than pleased at being cast in the role of corrupting influence:

And as Revenge is commonly the darling sin of Women; she could not rest till she had place’d him in the same rank with her own Husband, that is, till she had contriv’d a pair of Horns for him. Having discover’d her intentions in this to the Marquess of Beuvron who lov’d her, she desir’d him to render her that service, in hopes, that being both handsom and witty, it would not be difficult for him to supplant a Jealous Coxcomb, who could never have pleas’d her Sister any other way than by making her Fortune.

The Marquess, while attracted by the idea of bagging sisters, suspects that the Countess is trying to palm him off so that she can move on to the Duke de Candalle. He shows his jealousy so clearly, she abandons the notion of using him as her tool; though not the notion itself. After some reflection, she comes up with an alternative lover for her sister:

…she fixt upon her own Husband, in whom she fancy’d, she had heretofore observ’d some kind looks towards her Sister, by which she concluded her not indifferent to him; and besides she thought it not ill Policy to amuse him with some engagement, that he might not pry so narrowly after her affairs.

The Countess is right about her husband, but this plan falls through too: the Count d’Orlonne being so aware of his own shortcomings that he can bring himself to make no real attempt to seduce his sister-in-law. Exasperated, the Countess then fixes upon a certain Valet de Chambre in her sister’s employ, who helps her scheme along by being reticent about his background. The Countess brings the young man to the Mareschalless’ attention, suggesting to her that he is, in reality, some young lord who is in love with her, and has adopted the disguise of a servant to get close to her. The Mareschalless is intrigued and flattered, as she intended; while she also takes opportunities to urge the young servant on. He is dazzled, but doubtful; and hesitates in a manner that frustrates the Mareschalless, and forces her to make the first move:

…he, who was afraid of being guilty of any disrespect that might occasion his discharge, had still continued so dull not to have profited by the opportunity, had not the Lady, who kindly interpreted his proceedings, forc’d him into her lap, where she made him so many advances, that he could no longer be in doubt of his good Fortune. At these signs he took Courage, and the Bed being not yet made, the half hour he remained with her, was so well employ’d, that she conceiv’s a great esteem of his merit…

The affair being so unlikely, and the Mareschalless’ lover living under her roof, the intrigue goes undiscovered by the spies placed by the Mareschal, as well as by the world at large. This does not suit the Countess d’Olonne, who is perfectly prepared to sacrifice her sister to make a fool out of her brother-in-law: she sends him an anonymous letter informing him of the intrigue. Despite his low opinion of his wife, the Mareschal can hardly believe such a thing, and determines to hide his doubts and keep watch upon her himself:

His resentment was not the less for being conceal’d, on the contrary, it disturb’d his quiet both Night and Day; which afforded no little joy to the Countess d’Olonne, who was so clear sighted to discern through all his false disguises, he suffer’d all the torture she could wish him…

However, the Countess reckons without the jealousy of the Marquess de Beuvron who, angry at being made to share her favours, secretly gives her away to the Mareschalless. She, terrified of her husband’s violence, immediately breaks off the affair—or tries to: the young man, tempting fate, digs in his heels when she tries to dismiss him from the household; time enough for the Mareschal, who has plans of his own, to offer him a position in his own service. The young man foolishly takes this as a sign that the cuckolded husband does not know about the affair, a misapprehension which costs him his life:

For taking a Journey not long after this, towards his Government of Lorain, by the way Assassinated him with his own hand, that no one might know what was become of him…

The Mareschal takes pains to advertise the disappearance of his servant, whose body is found some time afterwards, and his own anger at the cowardly crime:

The Garrison of Luxemburgh, having at this time sent Parties abroad, this Murder was attributed to them, and the Mareschal seem’d to be so incens’d at it, that he commanded a Village in that Duchy to be burnt, tho’ it was under Contribution.

Though to the world at large the Mareschal is innocent, those closest to him know better. The Countess sends the Marquess to warn her sister (without giving away her own part in the matter), and the Maraschelless takes heed, altering her conduct and confining herself to home and family parties. This attempt to allay her husband’s anger backfires, however, because “family party” means the company of the Count d’Olonne, who finds his passion for his sister-in-law becoming uncontrollable. Meanwhile, the Marquess de Beuvron, having had several private meetings with the Mareschalles while they planned the best way to placate her husband, also finds his inclinations drifting from one sister to the other. Granted, a few days earlier he was urging her to behave herself at all cost; but, oh well…

The Mareschalless is surprised by the Marquess’ sudden declaration; doubtful that he means it; and frightened of her husband. The Marquess has an answer for all this—that since he is so well known as the Countess d’Olonne’s lover, no-one will suspect them, including the Mareschal; that he is fed up with the Countess’ infidelities; and that, while the Countess is generally deemed the most beautiful women in Paris, he finds himself drawn to the Mareschalless’ less obvious charms.

The Mareschalless doesn’t quite believe any of this but, having lived all her life in her sister’s shadow, the thought of stealing her lover is too tempting. The mere fact of it is not enough for her, however:

She ask’d him which (meaning she or her Sister,) afforded him the most ravishing transports, and he…laying aside his discretion, freely confess’d, her self without Comparison: She see,’d not to believe him, pretending his Raptures did not appear to her violent enough, but this was only to give him the opportunity to begin again; which he perceiving, acquitted himself so well of his Duty, that she was forc’d to confess that if he did not love her, his treatment of her had very much the appearance of it…

The smokescreen of the Marquess’ long-standing affair with the Countess operates as anticipated—except, curiously, in one quarter. The Count d’Olonne, having turned a blind eye to the Marquess’ affair with his wife, is infuriated to find him beforehand with the Mareschalless, and picks a violent quarrel with him.

In the end it is the Countess who must act as peacemaker, inviting de Beuvron to a private supper with herself and the Count as a public show of friendship and reconciliation. The Count, however, afraid that this reconciliation may mean a resumption of the earlier affair, determines to do his best to ruin the Marquess with her, and excuses his conduct in terms of defending his sister-in-law’s reputation. This ploy fails in its intent, the Countess concluding, correctly, that he is is driven by his desire for the Mareschalless, but dismissing the notion of the Marquess cheating on her as ridiculous.

But as it turns out, the Countess has created a monster. Her desires being let off the leash via her consecutive affairs, the Mareschalless goes wild:

In effect finding her Husband more tractable at his return than she could hope, she stopped not at the Marquess de Beuvron, but associated with him many Comrades of all sorts. The Church, the Law, and the Sword, was equally well receiv’d by her, and not contented with these three States, she made a Favourite of a fourth. Those who were concern’d in the Revenue pleas’d her extreamly, and having a great inclination for Play, many believ’d her Interest engag’d her to it.

Indeed, the behaviour of the Mareschalless is so outrageous, it attracts notice in high places:

This happen’d whilst the King was young, and but little of his adroitness either in War or Love had yet appear’d; but as he had the inclinations of a great Prince, of all the Women about Court these two Sisters were the least in his esteem, and he could not forbear to say one day, speaking of the Countess d’Olonne, that she was a shame to her Sex, and that her Sister was going the way to be little better…

Meanwhile, we discover that the reason for the Mareschal’s unwonted compliance is his own secret affair. In fact, in order to keep him distracted, the Marquess has procured a pretty young prostitute and thrown her in the Mareschal’s way; and he, unknowing, has snapped at the bait:

He look’s very much upon her, and believing her as vertuous as she affeted to appear, it was not long before he made her an offer of his Heart. She at first refused it, and his passion was so enhanc’d by the denyal, that he openly Courted her. His Wife, to push the design, pretended to be offended at it, but he desisted not for this, neither car’d she much, for what she did, was only to make him believe he was not indifferent to her.

The girl eventually gives in, of course; and, primed by the Marquess, does her best to keep everyone happy:

She took great care to entertain him with the Vertue of the Mareschalless, under the pretext that having a Wife so commendable in all things, the Passion he had for her would no doubt be quickly expir’d.

No doubt.

Worried that she is overplaying her hand, the Marquess thinks it prudent to brings matters to a conclusion:

    …to prevent the worst, he caus’d her one day to be taken away by stealth, and carry’d her to Rouen, from whence he sent her to America.
    The Marechal made a great noise about it, and attributed it to his Wife’s Jealousie, which she did not at all deny. This occasion’d a breach for some time, but the Mareschal’s love fit being over, he was reconcil’d to her, and the Friendship he shew’d her, was so much the more sincere, as he believ’d a Woman capable of so much jealousie, could by no means be unfaithful to him.

The fortunes of the two sisters then shift. It is the Mareschalless who is courted by the public, her husband’s infatuation leading him to fund her various pleasures; while the Countess d’Olonne is shunned and despised. She finally stoops to a single lover, the undistinguished but wealthy Feruaques; excusing her connection with him under the guise of trying to arrange a marriage between the rich man and her comparatively poor niece, Mlle de la Ferté. But in time she stops making excuses, and the affair becomes open enough to alarm Feruaques’ family, who are afraid that, should the Countess be widowed, the foolish young man might be infatuated enough to marry her.

By this time, we are to understand that both sisters are “elderly” (they might be in their thirties); not that this has altered their desires, if it has their opportunities. The Mareschalless, being the younger, is still doing better; and it is at this point that the narratives of Gallantry Unmask’d and The History Of The Mareschalless De La Ferté begin to cross paths:

‘Twas not ill Fortune to an Elderly Lady, as the Countess was, to have the enjoyment of a Lover young and rich, but yet she fell far short of her Sister, who after she had tasted of all the Court, and even her Brother In Law, was so lucky to engage a young Prince of great Merit, the Duke of Longueville, Nephew to the Prince of Condée…

This arrangement was brokered by none other than our old acquaintance, the Count de Fiesque, who is one of the few men at court whom the Mareschalless has not “sampled”, and who she therefore regards as an actual friend. The Count is likewise a close friend of de Longueville, and warns the Mareschalless that her only hope with the young man is to reform her conduct, as the Duke is not one to be toyed with, and neither a man to share a woman’s favours. He promises her that if she can behave herself, he will put in a good word for her.

The Mareschalless is so determined on this triumph, she takes heed of de Fiesque’s advice:

‘Twas thus that the Mareschalless, by the necessities of her temper, overturn’d the Laws of Nature; for, not considering that ’twas the Woman’s part to expect the Courtship from the Man, it is evident, that she first made Love to the Duke of Longueville. The Count de Fiesque, who beliv’d she would find it very difficult to discharge so many favourites for the sake and enjoyment of one, mention’d nothing at first, of this Conversation to the Duke; but when he found she began in earnest to effect her Promise, and had parted with the Count d’Olonne, the Marquess Dessiat, and many more too tedious to name; he thought himself oblig’d to perform his promise…

The Duke, meanwhile, is willing enough now that the “obstacle” of countless rivals has been removed; and the affair is delayed only because of a certain inconvenience on his part:

In fine, too much health had occasioned his sickness, for frequenting too often some brisk Ladies about the Court, he was forc’d to retire from theirs, to put himself into the Chirurgeons hands…

In order to make sure that nothing can happen immediately, the Duke insists upon the Count de Fiesque accompanying him to his first interview with the Mareschalless, in which each of them promises to give up all their other lovers and swears fidelity (the Mareschal notwithstanding) to the other:

…she, who thought those earnests not sufficient, threw her arms about his neck, and gave him a thousand amorous kisses: Had not the Prince been indispos’d, his temper had been too acknowledging to have omitted a suitable answer. But knowing that it was not in this Distemper, that a hair of the same Dog was to be taken for a Remedy; he broke off the entertainment as soon as he could…

All of the Mareschalless’ former lovers are aggrieved by their abrupt dismissal, but none so much as the Count d’Olonne, who has spent a small fortune on her, and is wounded in both his purse and his feelings. We get a sliver of historical fact here, as with great presence of mind, the Mareschalless puts her rejection of him down to the disrespect he has shown her sister by separating from her. (The d’Olonnes did separate after ten years of marriage, when Catherine-Henriette failed to produce an heir.) The Count, bewailing the cruel fate that involved him with the sisters, is not to be persuaded by either words or tears, and the two part bitterly.

For a time the Mareschalless is concerned that he might vent by telling her husband; and we now learn that the Mareschal, much afflicted by gout, has effectively withdrawn from public life and is the one person who knows nothing of his wife’s latest escapade.

The affair between the Mareschalless and the duke hots up, but even so, he has enough caution to resist when she tries to persuade him to spend the entire night with her. Instead, he compromises:

…he desir’d Fiesque to hire a House in his name. He took one near St Anthony’s Gate, where the Mareschalless, pretending to go walk, sometimes to the Arsenal, sometimes to Vincenne, often came through a back Gate. The Petticoats began to rise with these Interviews, and finding her self with Child, she was in some concern. Yet seeming to be careless of the resentment of her Husband, to shew the greater violence of her Passion to her Gallant, she contriv’d ways to hide her great Belly, and was brought to Bed in her own Apartment…

The baby is smuggled out of the house, and the Duke puts it out to nurse. Its existence is whispered about, however, and when the still bed-ridden Mareschal makes an enemy through his rapacious and often violent acquisition of other people’s land, he retaliates via an anonymous letter hinting at the infant’s parentage. The Maraschel tries to believe that this is just slander, but he can’t help but notice that the illness which has lately confined his wife to her own bed had the same duration as a traditional recovery period…

…the time of lying in being pass’d, the Lady’s distemper vanish’d, and she came into his Chamber in as good health as if she had ailed nothing. As soon as he saw her, he began to cry out as if he had a fit of his Pain, and the Mareschalless demanding the reason. Ah Madam, said he, when you cry’d out louder than I do, not long ago, I did not ask you the matter, and therefore pray let me alone…

Before long, France and Holland being at war, the Duke de Longueville is ordered into the field. this causes the Mareschalless less distress than we might expect, as a coolness has arisen due to jealousy on her part; and when the Duke is killed in action she shrugs it off.

(More historical fact here: the Duke de Longueville was killed in 1672. Before he left Paris, he had his bastard son legitimated, a common practice at the time, a sort of “spare heir” arrangement; although history does not seem to record the identity of the boy’s mother.)

The Marechalless’ next venture is with a certain M. Bechameil who, as a “mere citizen”, she feels should be willing to pay for his pleasure, and hers; and pay – and pay – and pay. Bechameil tries to rein in her demands, insisting upon a fixed allowance, to which she reluctantly agrees; but when he finds out she has been taking his money and cheating on him anyway, he breaks off the connection:

So that not being seis’d of the whole I am contented to part with what I had to the advantage of whom you please, or, to speak properer, to the first Comer; in doing whereof, I shall for the future employ my ten thousand Crowns in Manuring a ground which shall be till’d by me alone…

Things go from bad to worse for the Mareschalless. Not only does she have debts of her own, but when soon afterwards the Mareschal dies, she learns that he too was in debt, besides the stopping of his government stipend. Desperate, the Mareschalless begins holding card parties, at which (surprise!) she does not always play fair. She finds a partner in crime in the Marchioness de Royan, who has likewise been left in difficult circumstances, and threatened with a convent by her family. To circumvent this, she agrees to marry a brother of the Count d’Olonne – there was nothing in nature more horrible than this Chevalier…he had rather the air of a Cow than a Man – a marriage which the Count has a particular reason for bringing about:

Thus it was, that the Count d’Olonne fearing there should be no Cuckolds in the Family, took himself care of that Subject…

But the cheating being suspected, the Mareschalless’ card parties do not serve her as she hoped; and at last she is driven to try and steal the still-infatuated Feruaques from her sister:

For she was vex’d at the very heart, that her Sister, who was older than her by several years, and had not a better Reputation, should have a purse like that at her command…

At this time the whole family is at loggerheads, with the debauched young Duke de la Ferté finally driven to reprimand his mother, who responds in kind:

    The Mareschalless…told him that he truly had great reason to complain, who was not only despis’d by the Court but the Town. This was nothing but the truth, but as all truths are not to be spoke; he could not bear it, but reply’d, there was yet less on hers, who was an old Wh–e, and hereupon he reckon’d up all that had to do with her, and the sum amounted to threescore and twelve; a thing not to be credited, was not Paris sufficiently satisfied of the truth of what I say.
    The Mareschalless bid him not forget his own Wife, who was as much to blame as any body; but the Duke stopt her mouth by telling her, he very well knew he was a Cuckold, but that did not hinder his Father from being one beforehand, in marriage, and after his death.

The family quarrel soon achieves such proportions, it reaches the ears of the king. Even this cannot bring them into line, as each (rightly) considers themselves already ruined at court, and so sees no point in reformation:

The Duke de la Ferte, who knew his Reputation was already lost with him, concern’d himself for it no more than the Mareschalless who continu’d this way of living; so that perhaps I may some other time acquaint you of the rest of her life, as well as the Story of Madam de Lionne, if they are still so lucky to meet with those who will accept of ’em, and Age as well as Shame does not bring ’em to Conversion…

…an offer, I am not in the least sorry to say, that does not appear to have been taken up.

 

14/10/2017

Gallantry Unmask’d; or, Women In Their Proper Colours


 
    Whether Madame de Lionne took any new offence at the Letter, or had too good an appetite (as is more likely) to be contented with the Count, who had the reputation of being more Gentile than Vigorous, she threw the Letter into the fire, and told the Messenger, she had no answer to return to it. This encreas’d the passion of the Lover, who with all haste imaginable flew to her Apartment, telling her, if she would not pardon him, he came to die at her feet, but hop’d his offence was not beyond the reach of mercy, that his Notary’s Wife, call’d le Vasseur, had forgiv’n her Husband, tho’ he had caus’d her to be proclaim’d a publick Whore by arrest of Parliament, and had long confin’d her in the Magdelonnettes or Bridewel; that his Crime was not so notorious as the Husband’s, who whatever he perceiv’d, was oblig’d by the Articles and Contract of Marriage to be silent; that there was no such Law for the Lovers, but on the contrary, Complaints were always permitted, as the kind effects of Passion, and to deny him, was an infringement on his undoubted Right.
    Tho’ the only difference between Madame de Lionne and Madame le Vasseur was, that one was a Notary’s, and the other the Wife to a Minister of State; that one was declar’d so by an Arrest of Parliament, and the other by the Voice of the People, which is nevertheless the Voice of God; the Comparison did not please her…

 

 

Welcome back, Chronobibliography. It’s been a while, by gar!

As we have seen already, with Lisarda; or, The Travels Of Love And Jealousy, the receding of politics in literature in the wake of the Glorious Revolution opened up a space within English fiction for the return of the story of romantic – or at least, sexual – misunderstanding.

Though these narratives bear a distinct resemblance to the rogue’s biographies that flourished earlier in the decade, we note too some very marked differences between them. In the first place, there tends to be more of a balance within the narrative, with neither men or women necessarily dominating in the role of identification character; and in the second, most of the subsidiary material – the cheating, and scatological humour, and physical brutality – has fallen by the wayside, leaving us with stories focused almost entirely on the mutual manoeuvring of the sexes. This might be within a context of “honourable love”, as was the case with Lisarda; or conversely, we might get something like Gallantry Unmask’d; or, Women In Their Proper Colours, which is an unapologetic sex-farce.

Though in all other respects a very minor work, Gallantry Unmask’d is important for its failure to pretend to be anything other than a work of fiction: note that on the title page, the words “A NOVEL” are in the largest font, again indicating the increasing importance of fiction in the literary marketplace. Otherwise, the one really notable thing about this short work are the lengths to which it goes in order to remind us that, prior to the 18th century, it was widely believed that women were the sexually insatiable sex—incapable of fidelity, still less monogamy; moving briskly from lover to lover, and willing to do anything to get the latest object of desire into bed; though quick to grow bored afterwards. Men, meanwhile, tend to be presented in these narratives as the hapless victims of female scheming and deceit; while husbands are simply ridiculous—unknowing cuckoldry the best they have to hope for, and no redress for their wives’ wrongs except (as with M. le Vasseur in the quote above) at the price of public humiliation and scorn. Indeed, the only thing funnier than a cuckolded husband is an impotent lover.

However, while the female-centricity of Gallantry Unmask’d puts a significant distance between it and something like The English Rogue, there’s no celebration associated with the sexual conquests described here, as there always is with those of the male (anti-)heroes of the rogue’s biographies. In its place is a constant air of tut-tut-tut, with the inevitable double-standard being applied: men are men, but women are whores.

It’s exasperating, of course; though given how little has changed since in that respect, we can hardly make it grounds for condemnation. And besides— Gallantry Unmask’d ended up teaching me new euphemisms for impotency and pregnancy; so it wasn’t a complete waste.

This anonymous work is in fact comprised of two short, related fictions (which may have been published separately in the first instance, though I can find no solid evidence of it): the title story, which follows the sexual misadventures of a certain Madame de Lionne, and The History of the Mareschalless de la Ferte, which picks up one of the minor characters of Gallantry Unmask’d and follows her sexual misadventures. Both are set in France, during the reign of Louis XIV (or “the Great Alexander” as the author discreetly calls him, following Voltaire); and once again we see a tendency to set stories of people behaving badly in not-England (another shift since the heights, or depths, of the rogue’s biography). This choice of setting also allows the author to take numerous pot-shots at the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy.

At the beginning of Gallantry Unmask’d, Mme de Lionne is trying – and failing – to achieve the honour of becoming Louis’ mistress. Her lover, the Count de Fiesque (who she keeps, presumably with her husband’s money), is unbothered by her attempts to gain the King’s favour; but when he realises her eyes are wandering further afield, he is affronted:

He was not angry at her desire to please the King, neither would it have troubled him had she succeeded in it: but finding, that not considering he had serv’d her from her youth, she was purveying for her self else where, he frankly bid her think well of what she was going to do; that it was enough to be contented with the leavings of a fulsome Husband, without suffering the refuse of others; that if he had afforded his assistance to her amour with the King, ’twas upon promise that he should only partake the pleasures of the Body, without any interest in her affection; but her daily proceedings sufficiently convinc’d him she was in search of some new Ragoust; and he was not at all pleas’d at it…

Mme de Lionne is affronted in turn, and warns M. de Fiesque that she can very well do without him: better than he can do without her money. He considers this an empty threat and, besides, that he doesn’t really care for her any more – perswading him he lov’d her now no more than a Husband does his Wife – until she starts to act upon her threats…whereupon he finds himself desperate to win her forgiveness. He goes about it rather unwisely, however, making the quoted comparison between Mme de Lionne and “publick Whore” Mme de Vasseur in the course of asserting his common-law right over her conduct. The quarrel ends with the smashing of a lute, and the entrance upon the scene of the Duke de Saux, who is amused by this evidence of a falling-out, and who Mme de Lionne immediately starts trying on, so to speak, as a replacement for M. de Fiesque.

In fact, the Duke is manouevring to get into the good graces of the Marchioness de Cœuvres, Mme de Lionne’s daughter; and it suits him for the moment to pretend not to understand her overtures. However, the Duke’s jocular attitude puts all sorts of fears into M. de Fiesque’s head, and he tries to find out Mme de Lionne’s intentions by sending her a forged letter, supposedly from the Duke, putting his failure to take her hints down to, uh, medical reasons, and suggesting an assignation at a more appropriate time:

…but, Madam, when it is ones ill fortune to be in the Chirurgeon’s hands, is it not better to seem not to understand, than expose a Lady to such certain repentance as must reasonably occasion hatred to succeed the friendship? If they tell me true, I shall be well in eight days…

Mme de Lionne’s response is alarmingly practical:

This accident has thrown me into a despair; for who can ever assure me that I can place a confidence in you; there are so many Quacks at Paris, and if by misfortune, you are fallen under any of their hands, into what extremity will you reduce those who shall fall into yours? If decency would permit me to send you my Chirurgeon, he is an able man, and would soon lead you out of this misfortune; let me know your thoughts of it…

The enraged M. de Fiesque threatens to expose Mme de Lionne, first to her husband, then to the world at large, which sends her in a panic to the Duke; arguing that if she is caught in a scandal, his name will be blackened too. She promises him that if he will help her, she will pave his way to her daughter; and offers him – or rather, demands – a few other things; right now.

Well. The spirit is willing enough, but the flesh, it turns out (the Duke having passed the previous night with a certain famous courtesan), isn’t up to the challenge:

    …he asked her if she would have money in hand, or defer payment to the following night. Madam de Lionne, who knew Man to be mortal, thought ready money best, but nevertheless she she told him, if he was not provided with the whole Sum, she would give him credit for the remainder for the time he should require.
    The Duke quickly understood the meaning of this, and placed the Cushions for a Table whereon to Count the money; but when he pull’d forth his purse, it was quite empty, to the great astonishment of the one, and no less Confusion of the other…

Knowing that one of his friends, stricken in the same way, blamed his use of a certain perfumed powder known as “Puvillio” for his failure, the Duke believes himself afflicted for the same reason. Having excused himself to the angry and frustrated Mme de Lionne, the Duke carries his grievance to Vienne, the compounder / seller of the powder, who tells him scornfully that there is nothing wrong with the cosmetic, and that the Count de St. Poll was merely trying to shift the blame to save his own reputation. Vienne also pleads with the Duke not to spread such a story about his Puvillio, but to no avail: various other men, finding themselves unable to satisfy their rapacious female partners, are glad enough to have such an excuse to fall back upon, and continue to use it, much to the indignation of the unfortunate Vienne.

A second running joke here emerges regarding the elderly Mareschal de Grancey, and the constant attempts by his servant, Gendarme, to convince him that his mistress of long-standing, Madame de Mesuil, is cheating on him with—well, just about everybody. Gendarme tries again and again to hurry the Mareschal to the scene of the crime, but since the Mareschal always has to stop and put on his truss and his wooden leg first, he never manages to catch the cheaters in the act.

Meanwhile, feeling reinvigorated, the Duke returns to Mme de Lionne, but catches her in the act of, uh, reconciling with M. de Fiesque. As they try to cover their confusion and excuse themselves, the Duke takes the opportunity to resume his pursuit of the Marchioness de Cœuvres, persuading her to a meeting. The two travel separately to the house of Mme de Mesuil (which she allows her friends to use for their assignations):

No sooner were they arriv’d, but he had a mind to know if he was still enchanted; and he found that two or three days of rest to a Man of his Age, was a wonderful remedy against such sort of Charms; when he had caress’d her twice he was glad to entertain her with some other diversion…

…but that’s not good enough for the Marchioness:

…the Duke she found was again enchanted; the Marchioness de Cœuvres, who was one of the prettiest Women in Paris, took it for a great affront to her, and began to be concern’d; she not only shew’d it by her Countenance, but resented it in these terms; I was never a Glutton in this point, and if you knew what Monsieur de Cœuvres says of me concerning it, you would find it was not on that occasion that I speak; besides, it is often a great punishment to me to endure it, which makes him often say, that I am not my Mothers Daughter, and that certainly I was chang’d at nurse. Yet altho’ my coldness might have discouraged him, he never gave me such an affront as you have done. I remember that on our Wedding Night—but why should I tell you, it will make you dye with shame; and yet he was a Husband, but you a Gallant. But yet Gods what a Gallant? one that has taken that Name to abuse me…

Frustrated and jealous that her daughter has got in before her with the Duke, Mme de Lionne rats her out to her husband, the Marquess de Cœuvres; only going so far, however, as to hint that he might want to keep a closer eye upon his wife. Nevertheless, the Marquess is sufficiently outraged to call a family meeting, in order to decide what is to be done; at which point we learn that the Mareschal de Grancey is the Marquess’ grandfather:

Most of ’em were for sending the Marchioness to a Nunnery, saying this was what might be expected from so unequal a match… Some enlarg’d upon it, and said, that an ill Tree seldom brings good Fruit; and when her Mother had always made profession of Gallantry, it was not to be expected, but her Daughter should resemble her. That they had Whores enough in the family without her…

To everyone’s surprise, the Mareschal offers a spirited defence of his granddaughter-in-law:

In troth you make me mad to hear ye talk thus; ye that pretend to be so delicate, but who had not been here any more than myself, had our Mothers been so nice… If her Crime has been only to seek the Pleasures of Nature, I declare my self her Protector. Let all this be kept secret amongst our selves, that the Court know nothing of it; The shortest Follies are the best, and it will be ill husbandry to let the whole Town laugh at our Expence…

The Mareschal is then called away, but his son, the Bishop of Laon, takes up the argument—insisting that if the Marchioness is unfaithful, she is at least discreet, and brings no discredit upon the family name. He offers to keep an eye upon her in future, which the Marquess de Cœuvres agrees to:

But he was the only man in the Company who did not penetrate his Design. The good Prelate was fal’n in love with his Niece, and not having leisure enough to follow the whole Duty of a Lover, he resolv’d to make her esteem this as a great piece of Service, and to demand an immediate recompense for it…

The Bishop does exactly that—leaving his father’s defence of the Marchioness out of his version of events. The Marchioness experiences a variety of emotions, but relief at discovering that she is only suspected by the family predominates. The situation also allows her to assume a pose of outraged virtue, both generally and in rejecting the Bishop’s overtures—which, seeing her reaction, he quickly downplays to platonic adoration; not that this deceives her:

What, ’tis a trifle then with you, says Madam de Cœuvres, for a Bishop to make Love to a marryed Woman, and for an Uncle to endeavour to seduce his Niece? Believe me, if I have any Case of Conscience to consult of, you shall never be my Casuist…

She finishes with a threat to tell the Marquess. The Bishop, stunned and disappointed at first, soon grows angry, and decides to do in reality what he promised in self-interest: to watch her, and catch her out; intending not to expose her to the family, but blackmail her into his bed.

Sure enough, the Bishop soon becomes convinced that she is carrying on with the Duke de Saux, who has indeed returned to his pursuit of her, but is disguising it behind a smokescreen of a seeming affair with Mme de Lionne. The latter is not happy with him, but the two eventually come to an understanding, agreeing to keep each other’s secrets. Their reconciliation is taken the wrong way by the Marchioness, however, who sends the Duke an angry letter in which she blames his “failure” on her mother:

It is not above an hour or two since I design’d to enquire how you did after your paralitick fit, but when I saw you get into your Coach so overjoy’d at Madame de Lionnes, I thought my Complement would be to little purpose. Any besides my self would have wonder’d, that she should perform a Miracle, they had so unsuccessfully endeavour’d to Compass; but I find the reason; in many things, I have not an Experience equal to hers; and perhaps she may have an interest with the Saints, that I cannot boast of; Let me know which you are beholden to, for I have all the reason in the World to believe it proceeds from a Religious Effect, when I find you pay such Devotion to Relicks…

His favourite courtesan being temporarily hors de combat (in her “Chirurgeon’s hands”, we gather), the Duke has no immediate choice of women, and so quickly sends his own letter to the indignant Marchioness:

I have been in search for you ever since my misfortune, to let you know ’tis you alone can cure me; if you will make an Experiment of it about two in the Morning, I have an infallible secret will help me to the door of your Apartment. Be satisfy’d you run no danger, since your Husband will not return from Versailles before tomorrow Night; if you have but the least consideration for my health, you will accept this offer; remember that old mischiefs are dangerous, and if you permit mine to root it self deeper, have a care lest it becomes at last incurable…

The Marquess de Cœuvres may be out of the way, but the Bishop of Laon is on the watch, and gets wind of the assignation. He sees in it the opportunity he has been waiting for, and determines to go to any lengths to catch the lovers out. Divesting himself of all the paraphernalia that might give away his identity, he sets himself to spy upon the Hotel de Lionne (where the de Cœuvres also live). Embarrassingly enough, he is caught by a servant of M. de Lionne, who takes him for a lurking thief. The Bishop being recognised, he begs that the servant be sent away, and then explains himself to M. de Lionne; putting his spying in terms of preserving the Marchioness’s reputation. Like everyone but the Marquess, M. de Lionne knows that the Bishop desires his daughter; but he has enough at stake in terms of the family reputation to take him at his word, and offers to watch with him.

Meanwhile, the banished servant hasn’t gone far, and so sees a man climbing in over the garden wall, and then entering the house through a window; though in the darkness he cannot see who it is.

It is the Duke de Saux, who is caught while making his way to the Marchioness’s room by Mme de Lionne, who is expecting the Count de Fiesque. After a moment of mutual alarm, they identify each other. The Duke proposes that they each just go about their business, but Mme de Lionne, assuming since it is so late, that M. de Fiesque has let her down, has other ideas:

No, no, Sir, replyed she, it shall not go as you imagine, I know it is my Daughter you would be at, but let it displease you both if it will, I shall nevertheless make use of the opportunity, since it has offer’d itself so kindly; in all likelihood the Charm of the Puvillio may be broken, and you must give me proofs of it this very instant…

The resulting low-voiced dispute, which finds the Duke trying but failing to extricate himself from Mme de Lionne’s clutches, ends with an unexpected compromise:

…she propos’d a medium, which was to go her self, and fetch her Daughter. He accepted the proposition, not being able to get out of her hands by any other means; but before she went, she conducted him to her Chamber, obliging him to go to bed, and promising to bring her Daughter, bidding him take care how he behaved himself, since he was to pass that night between ’em. If the Duke had been too scrupulous, such a proposition would have startled him, but he being a Courtier fear’d nothing of this nature; but answer’d, that he should expect ’em both with great impatience…

Mme de Lionnes does not prepare her daughter, simply ordering her to follow to her own room. She, torn between the fear of losing her assignation and that of being found out, does as she is bid. Finding the Duke in her mother’s bed, she assumes the worst, until her impatient mother explains the situation:

This a little appeas’d the young Lady, and tho’ she was sorry to be forc’d to part with a share to her Mother, of what she had all expect’d to her self, she lik’d it yet much better than to have found the Duke unfaithful… She undress’d her self, half out of obedience, and half through inclination and desire. Madam de Lionne was doing the same thing on her side, and both, expecting good fortune that Night, were only in loose Gowns, which were soon taken off, and one would have thought a reward had been promis’d to those who should be first undrest, such haste did they seem to make…

Outside, M. de Lionne’s servant tells the guardians of the family honour what he has seen. M. de Lionne takes it quite coolly, thinking only of the best way to keep the matter quiet, which drives the insanely jealous Bishop, who is thirsting for the Duke’s blood, to abuse him as a coward and a cuckold. The servant leads both men to Mme de Lionne’s room:

The Duke and the two Ladies were so busily employ’d, that they heard not the door open… M. de Lionne was so surpris’d, that he said not one word. He thought himself a Cuckold, but to find a Spark between the Mother and the Daughter, seem’d so strange a thing to him, that he could not have more wondred, had the horns sprouted out immediately on his forehead…

As the embarrassed Duke slinks away, Mme de Lionne casts herself at her husband’s feet, the Marchioness at the Bishop’s: the latter quietly promising everything her uncle wants, if only he will not expose her. The Bishop is so delighted, he switches stance, agreeing that M. de Lionne’s initial plan of hushing the matter up is by far the best proceeding:

After this the Bishop, under a pretence of correcting his niece, led her to a Chamber, where demanding her promise, she durst not refuse him, for fear he should ruin her with her Husband, and the whole Family. And having obtain’d what he desir’d, knowing she did it only out of fear, imagin’d she would quickly return to her first Affections; and to prevent it, he manag’d the affair after that method with her Husband, that she was sent into the Country to a seat of his, not far from the Bishops. This produc’d a good effect, for he recided more constantly than usual in his Doicess…

But regarding his wife, M. de Lionne has second thoughts. He places her in a convent, where she remains confined until his death; at which time she…

…is become so old, that she is forced to be contented with the Count de Fiesque, who out of necessity is oblig’d to pass by many things which would not be agreeable to a more Critical Lover.

Meanwhile – of course – the Duke emerges from the escapade with his reputation not only undamaged, but if anything enhanced:

He publish’d himself his own Adventure, chusing rather to be tax’d with indiscretion, than be depriv’d of the pleasure of talking…

 

[To be continued…]

 

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…

23/12/2012

The Fair Jilt; or, The History Of Prince Tarquin And Miranda

FairJilt1bThere was not a man of any quality that came to Antwerp, or passed through the city, but made it his business to see the lovely Miranda, who was universally adored. Her youth and beauty, her shape and majesty of mien and air of greatness, charmed all her beholders, and thousands of people were dying by her eyes, while she was vain enough to glory in her conquest, and make it her business to wound. She loved nothing so much as to behold sighing slaves at her feet of the greatest quality, and treated ’em all with an affability that gave ’em hope… Everybody daily expected when she would make someone happy by suffering herself to be conquered by love and honour, by the assiduities and vows of some one of her adorers. But Miranda accepted their presents, heard their vows with pleasure, and willingly admitted all their soft addresses; but would not yield her heart, or give away that lovely person to the possession of one who could please itself with so many.

Originally published in the first half of 1688, The Fair Jilt; or, The History Of Prince Tarquin And Miranda is a flawed but fascinating piece of short fiction. In structure and origin, it very much resembles Oroonoko, in that Aphra Behn has again taken a real-life incident from her past and woven about it a tale in which a fictionalised version of herself appears from time to time to impress upon the reader the veracity of her story. That The Fair Jilt has attracted neither the fame nor the notoriety of Oroonoko may be put down to two things: firstly, that it does not concern itself with broad social issues such as slavery and colonisation, which give the latter work a hold on the sensibilities of the modern reader; and secondly, that it centres on the sexual adventures of a woman, which too easily allows it be be dismissed, as it frequently has been, as a mere piece of vulgar “amatory fiction”. This latter reaction is, however, a complete misreading of the text, which far from being intended to titillate is an ironic rumination upon deception, and the appalling things done in the all-excusing name of love.

The tone of The Fair Jilt is set during its lengthy opening dedication to the Catholic playwright, Henry Pain (who after the Glorious Revolution turned Jacobite, and in 1690 was imprisoned and tortured for his role in a plot to restore James to the throne). It would be a serious mistake for any reader to skim or skip over this dedication, which is very much a part of the story as a whole. Aphra uses these introductory paragraphs to present her story’s apparent hero, and also to assert the veracity of her story:

Nor can this little History lay a better Claim to that Honour than those that have not pretended to it; which has but this Merit to recommend it, that it is Truth: Truth, which you so much admire. But ’tis a Truth that entertains you with so many Accidents diverting and moving, that they will need both a Patron, and an Assertor in this incredulous World. For however it may be imagin’d that Poetry (my Talent) has so greatly the Ascendant over me, that all I write must pass for Fiction, I now desire to have it understood, that this is Reality, and Matter of Fact, and acted in this our latter Age: And that, in the person of Tarquin, I bring a Prince to kiss your Hands, who own’d himself, and was received, as the last of the Race of the Roman Kings; whom I have often seen, and you have heard of; and whose Story is so well known to yourself, and many Hundreds more: Part of which I had from the Mouth of this unhappy great Man, and was an Eye-Witness to the rest.

It is difficult to know precisely how these passages were intended to be taken, which would depend upon how au fait Aphra’s readers were with the true story of “Prince Tarquin”.

It was only in 1977 that Maureen Duffy, in researching her problematic but important biography of Aphra Behn, The Passionate Shepheredess, discovered at least a part of the truth about this individual, via two separate short pieces published in the London Gazette (the same paper, as we might recall, in which Henrietta Berkeley’s father advertised for her whereabouts after her elopement with Lord Grey). The first, which appeared during the last week of May in 1666, was as follows:

The Prince Tarquino being condemned in Antwerp to be beheaded, for endeavouring the death of his sister-in-law: being on the scaffold, the executioner tied a handkerchief about his head and by great accident his blow lighted upon the knot, giving him only a slight wound. Upon which, the people being in a tumult, he was carried back to the Townhouse, and is in hopes both of his pardon and his recovery.

The next issue of the Gazette added the short follow-up: From Antwerp ’tis said, that Prince Tarquino that so accidentally escaped execution, has since obtained his pardon from his Excellency the Marquis de Castel Rodrigo.

So far, The Fair Jilt is indeed “Matter of Fact”; and in its course deals with the attempt of Tarquin [Sic.] upon the life of his sister-in-law, his botched execution, and his subsequent pardon by the Governor of Flanders. It further offers the main headings of the broader story, and above all places and times its action very carefully for us, via reference to another prince:

    …there was a great Noise about the Town, That a Prince of mighty Name and fam’d for all the Excellencies of his Sex, was arriv’d; a Prince, young and gloriously attended, call’d Prince Tarquin.
    We had often heard of this great Man, and that he was making his Travels in France and Germany: And we had also heard, that some yYears before, he being about Eighteen Years of Age, in the time when our King Charles of blessed Memory was in Bruxels, in the last Year of his Banishment, that all of a suddain, this young Man rose up upon ’em like the Sun, all glorious and dazling, demanding Place of all the Princes in that Court. And when his Pretence was demanded, he own’d himself Prince Tarquin, of the Race of the last Kings of Rome, made good his Title, and took his Place accordingly. After that, he travell’d for about six Years up and down the World, and then arriv’d at Antwerp, about the time of my being sent thither by His Late Majesty.

So far, so factual. The problem is that, having so matter-of-factly established her hero’s pretensions, Aphra goes on to conclude The Fair Jilt by even more matter-of-factly concluding her story with the exposure of “Prince Tarquin” as an imposter. According to Aphra’s (unconfirmed) report, the “Prince of mighty Name” was in reality the son of a Dutch merchant. For those readers in 1688 who knew the end of the story, Aphra’s dedication would have acted as a foreshadowing of the nature of her story. The Fair Jilt‘s overriding irony is that it finds truth – human truth – in a tale of false identities, false emotions, self-deception, and blind passions:

I’ll prove to you the strong Effects of Love in some unguarded and ungovern’d Hearts; where it rages beyond the Inspirations of a God all soft and gentle, and reigns more like a Fury from Hell. I do not pretend here to entertain you with a feign’d Story, or any thing piec’d together with Romantick Accidents; but every Circumstance, to a Tittle, is Truth. To a great part of the Main, I my self was an Eye-Witness; and what I did not see, I was confirm’d of by Actors in the Intrigue, holy Men, of the Order of St. Francis: But for the sake of some of her Relations, I shall give my fair Jilt a feign’d name, that of Miranda; but my Hero must retain his own, it being too illustrious to be conceal’d…

In spite of his prominence in both title and introduction, however, this is not the story of Prince Tarquin, but of Miranda. She is introduced to us in a suitably anomalous position, as a nun who is not a nun: the narrator explains to us that in Catholic countries, apart from those women who have made their perpetual vows, there are many “temporary nuns”, young women who take a vow to withdraw from the world for a certain period of time, and who live together in governed households overseen by a prioress. The immediate effect of this withdrawal is to make these young women doubly attractive to the young men of the town, due to the extra difficulty of gaining access to them. The girls’ “religious retreat” is therefore presented to us as an elaborate gesture of flirtation.

Miranda, young, beautiful and rich, is certainly not a member of her order as an expression of her religious convictions. She is a “jilt” not according to the modern usage of the word, but in the contemporary sense of being a woman who uses and discards a series of men. Moreover, the word then carried a harsh sexual connotation, as we know from its use in The London Jilt.

When the story open,s we find Miranda encouraging the attentions of as many worshippers as she can win to herself, while carefully maintaining a public image for modesty:

Her Beauty, which had all the Charms that ever Nature gave, became the Envy of the whole Sisterhood. She was tall, and admirably shap’d; she had a bright Hair, and Hazle-Eyes, all full of Love and Sweetness: No Art cou’d make a face so Fair as hers by Nature, which every Feature adorn’d with a Grace that Imagination cannot reach: Every Look, every Motion charm’d, and her black Dress shew’d the Lustre of her Face and Neck. She had an air, though gay as so much Youth cou’d inspire, yet so modest, so nobly reserv’d, without Formality, or Stiffness, that one who look’d on her wou’d have imagin’d her Soul the Twin-Angel of her Body; and both together, made her appear something Divine…

Although it is taken for granted by Antwerp at large that Miranda will shortly bestow her fortune and her person upon one lucky man, Miranda herself has other ideas. While she revels in the incense of their adoration, her suitors’ desperate inportunities have left Miranda quite emotionally untouched, and she has no intention of restricting herself to the attentions of a single individual.

The Fair Jilt opens with a lengthy rumination upon love, and the way in which it operates upon different characters; and while we hear a great deal about, that refin’d and illustrious Passion of the Soul, whose Aim is Vertue, and whose End in Honour, within the text Love’s consequences are inavariably disastrous and often fatal. Even Miranda herself is not immune to this aspect of it: the “arrows” of “the gentle God” strike her at the worst and most improbable moment:

There was a Church belonging to the Cordeliers, whither Miranda often repair’d to her Devotion… It happen’d that Day, that a young Father, newly initiated, carry’d the Box about, which, in his turn, he brought to Miranda. She had no sooner cast her Eyes on this young Friar, but her Face was overspread with Blushes of Surprize: She beheld him stedfastly, and saw in his Face all the Charms of Youth, Wit and Beauty; he wanted no one Grace that cou’d form him for Love, he appear’d all that is adorable to the fair Sex… He had an Air altogether great; in spight of his profess’d poverty, it betray’d the Man of Quality; and that Thought weigh’d greatly with Miranda. But Love, who did not design she shou’d now feel any sort of those easie Flames with which she had hereforto burnt, made her soon lay all those Considerations aside which us’d to invite her to love, and now lov’d she knew not why…

Miranda is right about the young friar being a man of quality: we get an inserted history here, “The Story Of Prince Henrick”, which acts as a commentary upon the main narrative. In it we meet The Fair Jilt‘s only two genuinely good people, Henrick and his true love, whose mutual passion ends in heartbreak, attempted assassination and a monastery for him, and loveless marriage and death for her, after Henrick’s elder brother, in whom he foolishly confides, decides he wants the girl for himself. The brother (not named) is Miranda’s masculine counterpart: but whereas as she brokers sex for wealth and position, he uses the power of his position as heir to his father’s throne to obtain sexual access to the object of his desire. Both, finding a sibling in their way, hire assassins, he with money, she with promises of sex.

Her passion enflamed still further by learning of Henrick’s royal birth, Miranda lays siege to the first bewildered and then horrified young man, her oblique initial approaches giving way to ever more explicit declarations as her desire grows uncontrollable. Before this we have seen Miranda feigning modesty, but now she is revealed to us as capable of assuming any character that she chooses, of playing any role that will win her what she wants:

Yet notwithstanding his Silence, which left her in doubt, and more tormented her, she ceas’d not to pursue him with her Letters, varying her Style; sometimes all wanton, loose and raving; sometimes feigning a Virgin-Modesty all over, accusing her self, blaming her Conduct, and sighing her Destiny, as one compell’d to the shameful Discovery by the Austerity of his Vow and Habit, asking his Pity and Forgiveness; urging him in Charity to use his fatherly Care to perswade and reason with her wild Desires, and by his counsel drive the God from her Heart, whose Tyranny was worse than that of a Fiend; and he did not know what his pious Advice might do…

So far Miranda’s siege has been conducted from a distance, but when Henrick is finally driven to write her a single letter of firm rejection, she decides to “show her person” and see what that effect that has.

For all the disaster and bloodshed in The Fair Jilt, what follows is the story’s most shocking sequence. Miranda gets Henrick alone by the simple expedient of asking him to hear her confession, and then reveals herself as his adorer, pouring out her passion and pleading with him to cast aside his vows and flee with her. When Henrick still resists she casts herself upon him in an attempted seduction that is in truth attempted rape. Even this the young friar withstands, and this final rejection turns Miranda’s passion into murderous hate and rage:

    Throwing herself that instant into the Confessing-Chair, and violently pulling the young Friar into her Lap, she elevated her Voice to such a degree in crying out, “Help, help; a rape; help, help!” that she was heard all over the Church, which was full of People at the Evening’s Devotion…. The fFthers…found Miranda and the good Father very indecently struggling, which they mis-interpreted as Miranda desired, who, all in Tears, immediately threw herself at the Feet of the Provincial…and cry’d, “O holy Father, revenge an innocent Maid, undone and lost to Fame and Honour, by that vile Monster… For, O holy Father, cou’d it have enter’d into the Heart of Man, to have done so barbarous and horrid a Deed, as to attempt the Virgin-Honour of an unspotted Maid, and one of my Degree, even in the Moment of my Confession, in that holy time, when I was prostrate before him and Heaven, confessing those Sins that press’d my tender Conscience…”
    With that a Shower of Tears burst from her fair dissembling Eyes, and Sobs so naturally acted, and so well manag’d, as left no Doubt upon the good Men, but all she had spoken was Truth.

Henrick is committed to appear before the magistrate, and since he will not defend himself by speaking of what happened in the confessional, he is condemned to death. However, having had time to get over their shock and horror, the other monks belatedly believe Henrick’s protestations of innocence, and persuade him to show Miranda’s letters. This produces a deadlock: the monks are convinced of Henrick’s innocence, the young men of the town of Miranda’s; caught between the two factions, the magistrate repeatedly defers Henrick’s execution, but will not pardon him. And so for the next two years, the innocent young man remains on Death Row.

Long before that, however, and thoroughly cured of her passion, Miranda resumes her normal life, making new conquests in spite of a growing feeling against her, whose Life had not been so exemplary for Vertue, not to have given the World a thousand Suspicions of her Lewdness and Prostitution. But the attention of the town is diverted from Miranda by the arrival of Prince Tarquin, who in spite of a raging debate about his origins establishes and holds his position as a prince of the blood. Miranda soon sets her ambnitious sights upon the newcomer, who in turn falls madly, blindly, unshakeably in love with her:

So that he had no Faith, but for her; and was wholly inchanted and bewitch’d by her, at last, in spight of all that would have oppos’d it, he marry’d this famous Woman, possess’d by so many great Men and Strangers before, while all the World was pitying his Shame and Misfortunes.

Now that Miranda is “a great princess”, she insists upon as much opulance and extravagance as possible, and she and Tarquin rapidly run through her fortune. Miranda’s answer to this is to invite her young sister, their late uncle’s co-heir, to live with them, and to accept Tarquin as her guardian. The innocent Alcidiana is quickly seduced by the magnificence she sees all around her, and does not think to question where the money is coming from to pay for it.

However, Alcidiana does not lack for suitors. When she engages herself to one of them over her sister’s protests, the immediate consequence is a demand for her “portion” – while the immediate consequence of that, is that Miranda starts plotting Alcidiana’s death.

Miranda’s first accomplice is a young servant, a page called Van Brune, who was raised in the sisters’ household, and who suffers from an unrequited passion for Miranda. Seeing this, she skilfully enflames the boy to the point of madness, finally hinting that if he will do as she asks of him, he will get all the reward he could desire. Van Brune is so dazed and dazzled that he agrees without hesitation, but bungles the job: Alcidiana survives the attempted poisoning, and suspicion falls upon the page, who collapses under questioning and implicates Miranda. The boy is sentenced to death, while – thanks to her “quality”, and the intervention of her royal husband – Miranda’s punishment is to be present at the execution and, To stand under the Gibbet, with a Rope around her Neck…and to have an Inscription in large Characters upon her Back and Breast, of the Cause why: Where she was to stand from Ten in the Morning, to Twelve.

The theory of this punishment is that the shame of it is a fate worse than death; but since it starts with Miranda graciously forgiving Van Brune for giving her away, and ends with her being escorted home with all possible pomp by her still-besotted husband, we have our doubts. In any event, this slight disruption to her plans barely slows Miranda down. Financial ruin and exposure are imminent; Tarquin will be imprisoned for embezzlement; and worst of all, she will no longer be able to live in the style to which she has become accustomed. In short, Alcidiana still has to die. Miranda therefore sets to work with all her hystrionic powers:

    And therefore, without ceasing, she wept, and cry’d out, She cou’d not live, unless Alcidiana dy’d. This Alcidiana, (continu’d she,) who has been the Author of my Shame: who has expos’d me under a Gibbet, in the publick Marketplace, Oh! I am deaf to all Reason, blind to Natural Affection. I renounce her: I hate her as my mortal Foe, my Stop to Glory, and the Finisher of my Days, e’er half my Race of Life be run.
    Her…Lord, and Lover, who lay sighing and list’ning by her Side, he was charm’d and bewitch’d into saying all things that appeas’d her: And lastly, told her, Alcidiana shou’d be no longer an Obstacle to her repose; but that, if she wou’d look up, and cast her Eyes of Sweetness and Love upon him, as heretofore; forget her Sorrows, and redeem her lost Health, he wou’d take what Measures she shou’d propose, to dispatch this fatal Stop to her Happiness…

But alas, Miranda is singularly unfortunate in her tools: Tarquin botches the job even worse than Van Brune, and is immediately captured. His plea that the intended victim survived does him no more good than Van Brune’s did him, and he too is sentenced to die. Miranda again escapes with her life, but is sentenced to banishment. While the two of them are in prison, the monks succeed in persuading Miranda to admit Henrick’s innocence, and that long-suffering young man is finally exonerated and released.

The narrative opens up somewhat following Tarquin’s arrest, to include contemporary debate about his identity. Another tussle to prevent an execution occurs, this time between those people who felt for Tarquin “all the compassion and pity imaginable”, including the monks who just secured Henrick’s release, and those personally offended by him:

On the other side, the Princes, and great Men of all Nations, who were at the Court of Bruxels, who bore a secret Revenge in their Hearts against a Man who had, as they pretended, set up a false Title, only to tale Place of them: who, indeed, was but a Merchant’s Son of Holland, as they said, so incens’d them against him, that they were too hard at Court for the Churchmen.

With its account of the execution – or rather, “execution” – of Tarquin, The Fair Jilt offers a fascinating collision of fact and (presumably) fiction. We know, after all that there was a Tarquin, whoever he was; that he tried to murder his wife’s sister; that he was condemned to be beheaded; and that he improbably survived the event. At the same time, we have no idea if there was a Miranda, or if she was responsible, as the narrative asserts. However, the truly fascinating thing here is the way in which Aphra Behn’s account of the failed execution, which she gives in gruesome detail, differs from the brief newspaper account: there is an authenticity about her description of Tarquin’s unlikely survival that suggests she was either there, or that she gained (and retained) a more accurate knowledge of the circumstances from the local newspapers than the short, hurried account in England could provide. The explanation offered, that the scimitar struck too low and hit the shoulder-blade rather than the neck, seems far more probable than a barrier formed by a knotted handkerchief, and moreover like something determined only after the event, once the doctors had taken over. The detail of the scimitar suggests an eyewitness, too.

We do not know the circumstances of Tarquin’s pardon, although granting freedom in the wake of an unsuccessful execution is not unprecedented. In Behn’s version, the initially vengeful Alcidiana, who remained stubbornly deaf to pleas for leniency prior to the execution, is so affected by the outcome she pleads for Tarquin’s pardon and wins it. He then ventures forth from the sanctuary of a Jesuit monastery, to which the rejoicing crowd carried him, and departs from Flanders once and for all, swearing “never to live with the fair Hypocrite more”. We are not, however, much surprised by Behn’s deadpan follow-up to this oath:

…but e’er he departed, he writ her a Letter, wherein he order’d her, in a little time, to follow him into Holland; and left a Bill of Exchange with one of his trusty Servants, whom he had left to wait upon her, for Money for her Accommodations… But, above all, she was receiv’d by Tarquin with a Joy Unspeakable…

Without editorialisation, Behn then sides with “the Princes, and great Men of all Nations” by having the faux-Tarquin return home to his father, who is “exceeding rich” but, after all, just a merchant. Nor does Behn offer commentary upon our last glimpse of Miranda, who ends her career of deceit, sex and murder the spoiled daughter-in-law of a doting, rich old man, and the object of Tarquin’s unwavering devotion; not a princess any more (though the narrator still calls her so), but as comfortable and secure as wealth and love can make her—beyond, perhaps, a certain lingering note of irony:

They say Miranda has been very penitent for her Life past, and gives Heaven the Glory for having given her these Afflictions, that have reclaim’s her, and brought her to as perfect a State of Happiness as this troublesome World can afford…

 I love a happy ending, don’t you?

The Fair Jilt is certainly not a flawless work. In particular, it loses its way somewhat in its portrait of Miranda, who goes without internal justification from a (presumed) injured innocent to a woman who has “given the World a thousand Suspicions of her Lewdness and Prostitution”, and who, after it is implied she is flattered by unmoved by her empassioned suitors, is revealed to have had a string of secret sexual affairs. Nor do we find in The Fair Jilt the kind of groundbreaking narrative experimentation that was such a feature of both Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister and Oroonoko.

Nevertheless, this is yet another intriguing piece of prose fiction—nothing less than a gender-reversed rogue’s biography, with its protagonist cutting an unmoved swathe through anyone unfortunate enough to get between her and her desires, at last emerging not just unscathed but triumphant from a lifetime of immoral adventuring, and even undergoing a thoroughly unconvincing, last-scene repentence. Miranda herself puts me very much in mind of Sylvia from Love-Letters, at least as she is at the end of the third volume, but even worse: a woman who has learned how to use sex as a weapon and does so without compunction.

The positioning of The Fair Jilt as another of Behn’s “true histories” as also fascinating. There is certainly a much larger proportion of demonstrable truth in this piece of prose than there is in Oroonoko, and yet somehow it rarely figures in the “Aphra Behn is a liar” arguments; probably, as I say, because of its easy dismissability as “amatory fiction”. Behn’s telling of the story of Tarquin, which mixes facts with things she could not have known in a by-now-familiar way, is more straightforward than the narrative of Oroonoko; the narrator here has no personal axe to grind, and this makes it hard to spot where truth ends and invention begins.

And while its narrative is not as complex as those of its fictional companion-pieces, what is noteworthy is how much in control of her language Aphra Behn shows herself to be in The Fair Jilt: much more so than in Love-Letters, where the demands of fiction (as opposed to the visuals of drama) occasionally made her stumble. We find her here more relaxed with the form; and while, as we have seen, she does still sometimes resort to the kind of comma-strung run-on sentences with which the literature of the Restoration has made us very familiar, there are other moments when she constructs sentences both pithy and stinging – such as this early comment upon the nature of Miranda’s education:

To this she had a great deal of Wit, read much, and retain’d all that served her purpose.

In this respect, I was particularly struck by the grandiloquent opening sentence of The Fair Jilt, which – to draw an exceedingly long bow, I grant you – put me irresistably in mind of one of the most famous sentences in all English literature, the opening of Pride And Prejudice:

As Love is the most noble and divine Passion of the Soul, so it is that to which we may justly attribute all the real Satisfactions of Life; and without it, Man is unfinish’d, and unhappy.

I know several people whose heads would explode at the thought of the juxtapositioning of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen, yet I feel inclined in this instance to press my point. The dominant note of The Fair Jilt is certainly irony, and irony sustained with a light hand: one of Austen’s many talents, as well. And even as Jane Austen goes on subsequently to demonstrate how the real “truth universally acknowledged” is that an unmarried man with a fortune will be relentlessly pursued to the altar, in The Fair Jilt Aphra Behn offers a devastating dissection of “the most noble and divine Passion”, which in her world leaves death, misery and ruined fortunes strewn in its wake; the crowning irony of both works being their eventual proving of their own overt theses.

28/04/2011

The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore

“There is no Nation in the World, but has in all ages, furnished Authors, who have made it their business to expose, as far as they were capable, the Frailties of the Female Sex. Some have been provoked thereunto, by their unfortunate Addresses, and by the disappointments they have met with in love; others have undertaken that Province, without any other reason, than to show their Wit. But my Business now in Writing, is to warn Men of the danger they may run in the persuit of their Amours; for which purpose, I thought a Narrative of my Life might be of extraordinary use, since it has been a continual Series of Stratagems and Artifices for the ensnaring of Men.”

Published anonymously in 1683, this first-person narration of the life of a London prostitute is a remarkable work of fiction. Only one copy of The London Jilt survives today, preserved in the Harvard University Library; our very good friends at the Broadview Press have done their usual outstanding job not only in resurrecting this rare and important piece of writing, but in placing it in its historical context, as a nexus between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography.

(Before we really get started, a word about the authorship of this tale, which is in some quarters attributed to Alexander Oldys. The Broadview editor, Charles H. Hinnant, disputes this, and so do I, although not for the same reasons. Hinnant contends that the mistaken attribution was the result of some bibliographical confusion between this text and Oldys’ 1692 novel, The Female Gallant; or, The Female Cuckold, which had as a variant title The London Jilt; or, The Female Cuckold. For myself, having studied Oldys’ The Fair Extravagant, I can say that there is not a single point of comparison between the two works in terms of their subject matter, style or attitude.)

The most notable thing about The London Jilt is that it is a rare, possible unique, example of 17th-century first-person female narration – and all the more extraordinary for being the genre that it is. Works such as the Richard Head / Francis Kirkman collaboration The English Rogue included interpolated tales told by female narrators, and there had been a handful of third-person tellings of the lives of female criminals; but The London Jilt appears to be the only such work that not only focuses entirely upon a woman, but allows her to tell her own story. Of course, when we say “her” story, the question of the author’s sex remains moot. It is most likely that the anonymous author of this tale was a man, although there is nothing here to say so for certain.

The other significant feature of the presentation of this work is the gulf between what it purports to be in its preface, and what it actually is in its text. In fact, I found myself wondering if the same person had actually written both. The preface declares this novel to be an exposé of prostitutes’ tricks, so that men may be warned and guard themselves. The language in which the author of the preface declares his – definitely his – intentions could hardly be blunter:

“And indeed what greater Folly can there be than to venture one’s All in such rotten Bottoms, and at length become the Horrour and Detestation of all the World, only for a Momentary Pleasure, and which in truth cannot well be termed Pleasure, considering what filthy, nasty, and stinking Carcasses, are the best and finest of our Common Whores? A Whore is but a Close-stool to Man, or a Common-shoar that receives all manner of Filth, shee’s like a Barber’s Chair, no sooner one’s out, but t’other’s in…”

But our tale, when it comes to be told, is a pragmatic account of a life driven by sheer necessity, at a time when women’s options were terrifyingly few, and when violence, disease and starvation were imminent threats which only constant vigilence and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive could hold at bay.

Our narrator (revealed at a single point in the novel to be called Cornelia) writes from the vantage point of the latter years of her life. Like the writer in the preface, but in gentler terms, she offers her life as a cautionary tale, by which those men likely to be tempted by women’s arts may be fairly warned. She does not, nevertheless, condemn the life that she has led out of hand, merely some of the strategems to which she was forced (or chose) to resort. The narration takes the battle for survival, including the battle between men and women, for granted; and if a woman must resort to underhanded manoeuvres, that is only fair in a world where all of the power and most of the money lies with men; and where armed with only her body and her wits – and the occasional chamber-pot – a woman must contend against fists and knives, and a willingness to use them.

There is an unexpected sophistication about some of the writing in The London Jilt, included the divided vision with which Cornelia looks back upon her girlhood, her later understanding of the events of that time sitting side-by-side with childish incomprehension. The daughter of tavern-owners, the critical moment in Cornelia’s life comes when her father is one day drawn into a trap by a passing “rope-dancer” (that is, a tightrope artist), who lures the foolish man into taking rope-dancing lessons, and leaves him suspended some thirteen feet off the ground while he calmly plunders the household. Inevitably, a fall follows, a broken leg the result. In the wake of this, the fortunes of the family go from bad to worse; and when the father dies, Cornelia and her mother must fend for themselves.

The survivors try to continue in the tavern business, but life becomes a constant and desperate struggle. (As the later Cornelia is able to appreciate, she wasn’t then old enough to be an attraction for male customers.) It is at this time that Cornelia’s mother begins taking in “night-guests”; and if the child does not quite understand the nature of these transactions, she can appreciate their outcome:

“And I remember that from time to time there was some man or other lay all Night at our House, and that upon such occasions I was forced to roost with the Maid, whereas at other times I lay in my Mothers Arms, from whence I then concluded, that she must needs be a very Commiserating Woman, since to free people out of pain, she imported to them the half of her bed, but she made them dearly pay for this pitty; and I could easily perceive, that the Chimney smoak’d more, and better by the half, when we had a night-Guest with us than otherwise…”

Time passes, and at length Cornelia not only understands what her mother is doing, but is initiated into the life herself: an event treated not only with no particular fuss, but a certain wry humour:

“About five Months after I had played Squire Limberham this Pranck, my Maiden-head was sold the first time. Be not amazed, O Reader, that I say the first time, for I have lost it several times after the manner of Italy, to which purpose I made use of a certain Water, which rendred me always the same; and though after the first Attack I found no pain at all in the Amorous Combate, but on the contrary an extraordinary Pleasure, nevertheless I sighed and groaned as strongly, as if I was to have given up the Ghost at the very instant, which moved so much Compassion in the poor Hunters after Maiden-heads, that they endeavoured to make me forget this feigned Grief, by the Unguent of several Guinnies…”

Cornelia makes no bones about her enjoyment of sex, which she regards as normal and natural, considering a full and satisfying sex life as the positive side of her way of earning a living. At the same time, she views any woman who chooses prostitution as a career out of “lasciviousness” rather than sheer necessity to be either entirely mad or entirely wicked. The only people she despises more than voluntary prostitutes are the pimps and bawds who enslave and exploit young women, giving in return insufficient means to live on, so that their slaves must remain slaves.

Cornelia herself occupies “the middle ground” of prostitution, occasionally being taken into keeping but usually maintaining a rotating roster of regular customers, but above all never allowing herself to be trapped into working for anyone but herself. Ultimately,  Cornelia survives her way of life because, despite numerous setbacks and dangers, she never loses sight of the main chance. Whatever relationship she is describing, how much money she made, how she went about getting it and what she did with it makes up a major portion of the story.

The London Jilt does keep its opening promise to expose the arts and artifices of prostitutes, but only up to a point. Cornelia is devastatingly frank about how she gets money out of her customers (including undergoing a real pregnancy and later, seeing the riches that yielded, staging an elaborately faked one). She makes no bones about promising fidelity and then cheating at every opportunity, arguing that any man who believes what a prostitute says gets what he deserves. Her narrative is full of negative aphorisms about women, and there are various “trade secrets revealed” passages in which she describes in detail the cosmetic arts used to conceal physical defects. Yet for all of this, we don’t necessarily feel that it is the women who use these devices that are the main target of criticism. On the contrary: behind every one of Cornelia’s accounts of “silly women” with their “silly strategems” lies a condemnation, explicit or implicit, of the even sillier men who fall for these obvious tricks:

“Now must I laugh at the foolishness of some men, whose unbounded Petulancy carries them sometimes so far, that they will forget the most horrible Affronts, only that they may not be banish’d from the Favor of a Woman, whose Caresses, they must purchase, while that another may as well as them enjoy her Affections for his Money. Without lying, those men shew that their Bodies have an Empire over their Minds, and that they are only Men, because they have the Figure of them: For is it not the greatest Sillyness; and the highest Madness that can be committed, that to satisfie the desire of a little Bit of Flesh, they proceed to the losing their Estates, their Reputations, and all they have dearest in the World…”

As was the case in the contemporaneous Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, there is very little evidence in this account of life during the second half of the 17th century of the existence of anything that we might be inclined to call “love”. That said, our anonymous author’s view of the world differs rather interestingly from Aphra Behn’s. Whereas Behn saw the battle of the sexes as a contest the woman must inevitably lose, “Cornelia” contends that a woman may triumph as long as she remembers what is really important. In stark contrast to Behn’s writing and indeed most other amatory tales of this time, Cornelia holds that it is men who are more likely to be sincere in their feelings – or “fond”, as she puts it – simply because, having all the money, they can afford to be sincere. A woman who allows herself to “grow fond”, and to put her feelings for a man before what she can get out of him, is a woman heading for disaster. Monetary gain is and must be the chief purpose of a sexual encounter, whether a casual one in passing or within the context of a more stable relationship – and the few times that Cornelia allows herself to forget this, she is made to suffer for it.

The London Jilt‘s view of marriage is unswervingly negative. A woman’s great aim in life, Cornelia contends, should be a single existence in a state of financial independence; but failing this, prostitution is infinitely preferable to marriage. The novel contains any number of miserable marriages, and although the power is usually with the man, it may equally be the woman who brings the relationship to ruin. Cornelia’s parents get along until her father’s disastrous day, after which her mother transforms into a full-time termagent. Many years later, a bout of smallpox puts an end to the sexual career of Cornelia’s mother, until to her daughter’s astonishment she falls for the blandishments of “a young bully” who no sooner can call himself husband than he appropriates all of his wife’s fortune, beats her unmercifully when she objects, and seeks his pleasures elsewhere. (Seeing quickly enough that the benefits of her own activities will otherwise end in her step-father’s pockets, Cornelia coolly abandons her mother to her fate – she’s sorry for her, but it’s her own silly fault – and sets up in business for herself.) Likewise, most of Cornelia’s customers are married men, who only married for what they can get out of it, and would rather pay for a prostitute’s favours than sleep with their wives for free.

Despite all this, Cornelia herself is finally tempted into marriage with the owner of a tobacco-shop – and regrets it. There simply is something about the state of marriage, she contends, that brings out the very worst in people. In Cornelia herself, it gives birth to “a Devil of Pride”, which provokes her to ridiculous extravagance, so that within a few years his successful business can barely support her. Her husband, not unreasonably, cuts off her supply, upon which Cornelia begins to defraud the business. Her husband discovering this, his reaction is short, sharp, and to the point:

“…he took notice that his Tobacco lessened and fell short, and that no money arose from it, whereupon he ratled me the first time very sharply, but seeing that was to little purpose, he undertook to employ an other more powerful means, for one Morning when all the People were gone to Church, having called me into a Back-Room, he represented to me my Duty with such very pertinent Reasons, that I was very sensible of them for above a Week afterwards…”

Signficantly, while Cornelia is at all times explicit in her account of sexual matters, when it comes to the violence she suffers at various times, particularly this bout of domestic violence, she is far more guarded in her speech: this is the part of her life that she’s ashamed of. This passage focusses a major theme of the novel, its depiction of the world of late 17th century London as a place of plot and counterplot, wrongdoing and revenge. Cornelia’s professional depredations are committed in full awareness that she might bring violent retribution upon herself: again and again she must pick up her things and flee in order to avoid suffering deserved retribution for her own frauds and manoeuvres.

As with her sexual encounters, Cornelia describes all this quite matter-of-factly: she is sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Never, however, does she let a slight or a cheat pass without devising some scheme of revenge – and nor, for that matter, does she expect her own cheats to go unpunished. This is a world of dog-eat-dog, and the individual who lets himself, or herself, be imposed upon without retaliating is a coward and a fool. (When the victim of the sham pregnancy finds out, he deserts Cornelia leaving only an angry letter behind. While she is relieved to get off so easily, she is also contemptuous of her former keeper for his spinelessness.)

What we notice, however, is the difference in the nature of revenge taken by men and by women. The former generally resort to straightforward violence, a beating or worse; while women have to rely on their wits. Cornelia herself is very given to elaborate plots and “prancks”, which end in the humiliation of the victim, and generally leaves him lighter in the pocket. Occasionally, driven to more direct means of retaliation, she resorts to that always handy weapon, the chamber-pot. There are at least three chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes in The London Jilt, one of which is—without any desire to go into detail—one of the most repulsive things I have ever read in my life. In fact, considering the substance of that scene in its entirety, the deployment of the chamber-pot may be the least repulsive thing about it.

A curious features of this narrative as a whole, and another way in which The London Jilt differs from much of the other picaresque literature of the time, is the subplot of the rope-dancer, who reappears at various points in Cornelia’s life and becomes an ongoing and ever more dangerous adversary. The two push and push back, their mutual revenge-taking escalating with each encounter – but finally, it is the male capacity for physical violence which triumphs, ending not only Cornelia’s career as a prostitute but almost her life, after a strike at her throat with a knife that misses and gashes open her forehead instead.

In the wake of this, Cornelia takes pause. She has had a good run; she has scrimped and saved, so that she might not starve in her old age; and she has the two glories of her life, the annuities she has managed to secure (one a gift, one wisely self-purchased when times were good) amounting to almost one hundred pounds a year, on which to live. The fact is, she’s getting a bit long in the tooth for this way of life, even aside from the necessity to hide the ugly scar on her face. Customers are harder to come by, and not so generous with their guineas. It’s time for a fresh start.

And so, with the same pragmatism that has marked the rest of her life, Cornelia the prostitute becomes Cornelia the lace-dealer. Her little business is a success, and she is able to sit back and take stock of her life, finally deciding to put pen to paper. There are various points in the narrative where Cornelia stops to marvel at her own audacity in becoming an author – and more than one comparison of the business of bookselling to that other business she knows so much about…

Apart from placing The London Jilt in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition makes a strong case for this novel as a previously unacknowledged inspiration for Moll Flanders and Roxana: various points of similarity are found between those two famous novels and their more obscure forerunner; although perhaps the chief point of interest is not their similarities, but their differences, particularly their moral differences.

Whether it is a reflection of the shift in social mores in the five decades between their time of publication, or the difference in attitude and beliefs between Daniel Defoe and the anonymous author of The London Jilt, the most striking thing about the earlier text is Cornelia’s refusal to repent – or rather, the fact that she doesn’t consider that she has anything in particular to repent. She has done  what she had to in order to survive, and sees no need to apologise for that.

And in fact, Cornelia is rather cynical about the late-life repenters of the world:

“…but I content my self with the testimony that my Conscience gives me, and it is the same thing to me whether I am thought discreet, vertuous or debaucht; because that I have Experience enough in the World to know that it often blames Wise and Sober Persons, and often praises and extols such as are lewd and vicious. Nevertheless I am not of the rank of those who after having led a vicious Life during their Youth, and then becoming Converts, pretend to bygottism, and walk holding their right-Hand upon their Heart as the truly Devout do…”

  

06/02/2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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