Posts tagged ‘sex’

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…]

 

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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…]

29/01/2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[To be continued…]

26/01/2011

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[To be continued…]

 

21/01/2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[To be continued…]

16/10/2010

Sex, sex, sex…that’s all they ever think about

So – we meet again, Dan Cruickshank!

The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital finds both Dan Cruickshank and myself out of our comfort zones, and immersed in a study of the 18th-century sex industry almost as extensive as the industry itself. Cruickshank’s usual interests do come under scrutiny here, as he considers the many and often surprising ways in which the epidemic of prostitution impacted upon the expansion of London in the Georgian era, not only in terms of building practices and innovations, but as an influence upon trends in architecture and art. Cruickshank describes the histories of three very specific buildings associated with the sex industry of the time: the Foundling Hospital, built in an effort to cope (tragically, without much success) with the hundreds of babies abandoned and left to die on London’s streets; the Madgalen, a reformatory for penitent prostitutes; and the Lock Hospitals, established specifically for the treatment of venereal disease, which was rampant.

But this study goes far beyond these boundaries. Cruickshank’s facts and figures conjure up a dark, dangerous and violent world whose scope is almost unimaginable – until some ugly economic realities are factored in. This was a time when honest labour for a woman usually meant a short life on starvation wages. For example, for the princely sum of £5 a year, a housemaid would be expected work twelve to sixteen hours a day and to make herself sexually available to the men of the household. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that many young women chose a life of overt, rather than covert prostitution. The hours and the pay were much better, and (as we shall see in the case of Ann Bond) the dangers of disease and violence not always that much greater.

Cruickshank also highlights another way in which some women tried to escape the painfully rigid boundaries of their existence: cross-dressing and passing as a man. While in some cases this was simply a pragmatic response to their limited opportunities as women, in others it was clearly an expression of an aspect of their personalities that Georgian society was not prepared to deal with – as evidenced by the punitive punishments handed out to women found guilty of perpetrating such a “fraud”. The cases of several woman who joined the army or navy in male guise are considered, as are others involving those who “married” other women. The unhappy life of perhaps the era’s most famous cross-dresser, Charlotte Charke – aka “Charles Brown” – the daughter of playwright and Poet Laureate (and political sycophant) Colley Cibber, is also sketched.

Examining legal records and other publications of the time, Cruickshank paints a picture of a society whose attitudes to its prostitutes were profoundly ambivalent, seeing the women simultaneously as victims and abusers, the scourge of society as well as the “salvation of good women”, who were preserved from, on one hand, having to submit to their husbands as often as they otherwise would, and on the other, protected from the threat of an epidemic of sexual assault, which was considered the inevitable consequence of cutting off easy access by men to sexual release, and which was the spectre invariably raised whenever any serious attempt was made to address the problem of prostitution.

The attitude of the legal system itself was equally confused: the statutes were brutal, but juries and judges often sympathetic – unless it could be proven that a prostitute was guilty of or involved in robbery as well as sexual activity, in which case she was likely to suffer transportation or death. This was a time, of course, before a professional police force or channels of investigation, when court cases, even for capital crimes, rested almost entirely upon verbal testimony and who the jury chose to believe. Curiously, despite outward condemnation of the race as “the lowest, most evil and most debauched of creatures”, unless a prostitute was testifying on her own behalf (and sometimes even then), it was a matter of public pride that her evidence under oath should be accepted. The inevitable intertwining of the judiciary and the sex industry is illustrated by accounts of various famous criminal cases involving prostitutes, including the trial of Colonel Francis Charteris for the rape and abuse of his housemaid, Ann Bond, which highlights both the best and worst aspects of the contemporary legal system.

Particular notice is paid to the bizarre case of Elizabeth Canning, who in 1753 claimed to have been abducted and held against her will with an aim of enforced prostitution. Her accused kidnappers were arrested and tried, and initially convicted; but the inconsistencies in Canning’s evidence and account of her ordeal were disturbing to some, who would not let the matter drop. The result was a case that shook the legal system’s faith in verbal testimony to its foundations, as it became increasingly clear that someone – either the seemingly innocent young girl making the accusation, or the far less innocent but far more convincing defendents – was lying through their teeth under oath.

This was also the era of the professional informant, which was one way that the moral crusaders tried to gather the evidence needed to close down “bawdy-houses”. It was, of course, a system open to brutal abuse, with informants willing to perjure themselves condemning their victims to jail, transportation and even death in exchange for payment – or threatening to do so unless paid off. Sympathetic as the law often was to female prostitutes, it was far otherwise towards their male equivalents, or indeed towards any man accused of “sodomitical intent”: the early part of the century saw a wave of executions of men convicted of homosexual activity, and another favourite game of the informers was to extort money from their victims under threat to lodge an accusation of “a sodomy”.

It was in this climate of jurisdictional failure and uncertainty that gave birth to the first police force, the Bow Street Runners, a secret squad of professional criminal investigators founded by Henry Fielding (who had played a rather ugly role in the Canning case), and later refined and expanded by his successor as Chief Magistrate, his half-brother Sir John Fielding (the “blind beak”).

Although much of Dan Cruickshank’s story deals necessarily with its “lower” levels, that there was not an aspect of society left untouched by the sex industry during the Georgian era is illustrated in a series of case studies involving famous figures of the time: the eccentric Dr James Graham, whose “Temple Of Health” promised his clients “marrow-melting” sexual pleasure stimulated by that mysterious new force, electricity; William Hogarth, using “the harlot” as a symbol both explicit and implicit for society’s ills; Sir Joshua Reynolds and his prostitute-muses – including the future Emma Hamilton; John Wilkes, who finally crashed and burned not because of his attacks upon the king, but because of his pornographic Essay On Woman; and Sir Francis Dashwood, whose Hell-Fire Club is a fitting symbol of the age. Also included are biographies of the very few women who successfully parlayed their sexual careers into fame, security, and even respectability – most notably Lavinia Fenton, who began as a prostitute, made her public name as an actress, and finally became Duchess of Bolton. She, of course, was an extreme exception, her story cast into relief by our knowledge of the countless, countless thousands of anonymous individuals who died in obscurity, misery and poverty.

“To read” addition:

The History Of Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn – Charlotte Charke

09/10/2010

The Isle Of Pines (Part 3)

“You would have blessed yourself to see how the naked islanders flocked unto us, so wondering at our ship as if it have been the greatest miracle of nature in the whole world.”
— Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten

Truthfully, trying to work out the religious implications of The Isle Of Pines is as difficult as trying to work out Henry Neville’s own religious attitudes. We do know that he scorned the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, and that he was charged with atheism and blasphemy, although his accusers couldn’t make it stick. We also know that while in exile in Italy, he became close friends with Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with whom he held a long correspondence; and that when he returned to England, even while involving himself in the Exclusion Crisis, Neville campaigned for greater tolerance for English Catholics and an end to the scapegoating of the Catholics by the government.

The deployment of religion in The Isle Of Pines seems finally more about Neville’s attitude to monarchy and governance than it does about religion itself. Under the benign, unstructured “rule” of George Pine, there is peace on the island. There may or may not be religion: it is not mentioned until near the end of George’s life. At that time he institutes monthly (not weekly) Bible readings, but not until he has already ordered the dispersing of his descendants to all corners of the island, so we may infer that not everyone is receiving instruction. While overtly this dispersal is partly to do with the increasing population, and partly to work against the continuance of incestuous relationships, there is also an amusing sense of “hey, you kids, get off my lawn!” about it, with an ageing and cranky George Pine commenting, “I liked not the wanton annoyance of young company.”

But in fact, George has always been about leaving his children to fend for themselves, even from a scarily young age: the first babies born to him and his “wives” are simply abandoned, with George explaining, “When they had sucked, we laid them in moss to sleep, and took no further care of them; for we knew, when they were gone more would come.” This hair-raising attitude to parenting is, I think, best read metaphorically: Neville was against an absolute monarchy and in favour of power being dispersed amongst the people, who he believed to a large extent should be left to govern themselves. Thus, under the indirect and unstructured rule of George Pine, the island flourishes; but with the passing of control to “King Henry” Sparks Pine, everything starts to go wrong.

While George Pine exhorts his children to follow the tenets of Christianity, it is a very Old Testament set of laws finally introduced by King Henry. It was upon the authority of the Old Testament that England’s monarchs made their claim for a Divine Right, and based their refusal to recognise any earthly bounds to their power.  Here, Neville seems to be offering a sardonic reminder that, after all, a king is just a man: even backed by the Old Testament, the power of the island’s monarchy grows ever weaker, as we see in the unexplained descent in the status of the ruler from “king” to “prince”, and in the fact that ultimately, Prince William cannot control his people, but must beg help from outsiders.

The Isle Of Pines must be read in the context of the humiliations suffered by the English at the hands of the Dutch. Whatever pretexts were found, the wars between the two nations were all about dominance in trade and colonisation. Henry Neville was, in this respect, very much a man of his time: he was all for an aggressive foreign policy and the expansion of England’s territories, by force of arms if necessary, and he despised Charles II for what he perceived as his failures and weaknesses in this respect.

However, within the text of The Isle Of Pines we find evidence that Neville recognised that certain dangers were inherent in being a colonising nation. The most unpleasant aspect of the story is its handling of Phillippa, the slave – which becomes no less unpleasant if viewed as a manifestation of “coloniser’s anxiety”. There’s no work to do on the island, so Phillippa is technically no longer a slave. Nevertheless, she is treated at all times as a thing apart, something less human than the island’s other denizens. Their first night on land after the shipwreck, while the white people fall into an exhausted sleep, Phillippa is left to keep watch – “the blackamore being less sensible than the rest”. Later, it is she who pursues George for sex, and although she is referred to as one of his wives, he treats her as he would an animal, mere breeding stock. Always resorting to the cover of darkness to quell his disgust at sleeping with her – otherwise, “my stomach would not serve me” – George has sex with Phillippa less often than any of the others, since she invariably gets pregnant after one coupling, and he doesn’t touch her while she is. She suffers no pain at all during her labours. Over time she bears George twelve children, but as soon as she reaches menopause, “I never meddled with her more.” All of this is capped by Phillippa’s casually abrupt dismissal from the story: “After we had lived there twenty-two years, my negro died suddenly, but I could not perceive anything that ailed her.”

The most curious aspect of Phillippa’s story is that her children are white – at least on the outside: her first is “a fine white girl” who is “as comely as the rest”. But throughout the story, it is Phillippa’s overtly white, covertly black descendants who are responsible for the island’s violent and sexual upheaval – or who are blamed for being so. In the time of King Henry, the island is beset by “whoredoms, incests, and adultery”; and although the transgressions are widespread, the only guilty party named is, “John Phill, the second son of the Negro-woman”. Convicted of rape, he is executed. That being done, “the rest were pardoned for what passed”. A generation later, Prince William must beg for Dutch help to quell a rebellion led by, “Henry Phill, the chief ruler of the tribe or family of the Phills”, who has betrayed the authority granted him by his monarch, under which he is meant to be keeping order amongst his people and ensuring that they practise their religion, and has “ravished the wife of one of the principal of the family of the Trevors”.

There is something more here, I think, than just the usual racist slurs about sexually insatiable black men with a yen for white woman. The point is that you can’t tell the Phills from anyone else, except by their actions. This seems to be an expression of the dangers of colonisation, whereby “superior” English blood  might be diluted – polluted – resulting in a people that look English but whose “inferior” native blood will inevitably betray them. If colonisation is to succeed, then, the local population must be separated, contained and ruled; there cannot be integration.

There are many ambiguities in The Isle Of Pines, but the aspect of the story wherein there is no question whatsoever of Henry Neville’s intentions is the involvement of the Dutch. Written in the wake of the humiliating conclusion of the second Ango-Dutch war, the tale is a clear denunciation of the direction of England under the Stuart monarchy.

Such is the bounty of the island that George Pine and his descendants do nothing to cultivate it further. They never explore their surroundings, or domesticate the wildlife, or attempt to grow crops. They make use of the supplies tossed ashore by the shipwreck and when they are gone, simply do without. By the time the Dutch get there, the Pines have become a race of English-speaking savages, running naked on the shore and gaping in astonishment at the Dutch ship. “You would have blessed yourself to see how the naked islanders flocked unto us, so wondering at our ship as if it have been the greatest miracle of nature in the whole world,” comments Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten.

And it goes from bad to worse. The Dutch end up treating the Englishmen exactly as they did the native population of St Lawrence, making them gifts of implements such as knives, shovels and axes – “Of which we thought they had great need,” observes Van Sloetten. He’s right: the axe salvaged by George Pine has since been cast aside as useless, with no effort made to resharpen it. Burial on the island consists of covering the body with rocks, as no tool has been fashioned for digging the soil. Although living on an island, the descendants of George Pine have no idea what a ship is – they’ve never conceived of such a thing. (And George, we infer, content in his sexual paradise, didn’t bother to teach them.) The whole is a picture of sloth and degeneration.

In contrast, the technologically advanced and efficient Dutchmen spend their time on the island doing what civilised people are supposed to do. They communicate with the locals through a translator and learn the history of the island, obtaining George Pine’s account of its founding in the process. They think about how the land might be cultivated. They explore and map the island, taking inventory of its flora and fauna. In the process, they frighten the natives by shooting one of the small, goat-like beasts. “These poor naked unarmed people, hearing the noise of the piece and seeing the beast tumbling in his gore, without speaking any words betook them to their heels, running back again as fast as they could drive,” reports Van Sloetten. We have all of us, of course, read and seen in movies any number of scenes that played out just like this, the superior white people terrifying and bewildering the ignorant savages with their advanced technology and greater intelligence. Such scenes, we imagine, were nothing new even in Henry Neville’s day. What is new is that the “ignorant savages” are Englishmen.

The final humiliation comes with the rebellion of Henry Phill. Prince William is powerless to deal with the situation, finding “his authority too weak to repress such disorders”, and he must beg the Dutch for their help. The Dutch, ready to depart the island, duly arm themselves and go back ashore to intervene. The rebellion is quelled in a matter of moments – “For what could nakedness do to encounter with arms?” Van Sloetten shrugs. Henry Phill is captured, tried, and executed by being thrown off a cliff, this being “the only way they have of punishing any by death, except burning.” It seems that even when it comes to carrying out judicial sentence, the English are embarrassingly backwards.

No, there’s not much doubt about what Henry Neville intended by all of this. The Isle Of Pines is a dire warning about the fate of England should the country continue on its Stuart-(mis)guided path, and of the extent of the threat posed by the Dutch to English commerce and expansion. (Neville’s admiration for the Dutch is evident, even as he recognises the danger they represent.) The question is, rather, whether Neville’s intention was clear to the first readers of his pamphlets. I can find little evidence that it was so. Under the laws of the day there was a real danger to Neville in publishing at all, and it was to get around the laws and to protect himself that he disguised his cautionary tale as a sexually-charged travelogue. He may have disguised it too well: the first pamphlet caught public attention by its sexual situation, and the whole was recognised soon enough as a sham – but upon being so, it was apparently tossed aside in disappointment. As far as it was analysed by its readers, The Isle Of Pines seems to have been perceived only as a crude joke, one probably perpetrated by the Dutch themselves, insult added to injury in the wake of the Battle of Medway. As far as we can tell, Henry Neville’s warning missed its mark altogether.

Of course, the real joke here is the ultimate survival of The Isle Of Pines, which out-lived countless thousands of contemporary publications and finally reached an audience capable of reading the text as Neville intended – a few centuries late, granted, but better late than never. The irony is that what hid Neville’s purpose in the pamphlet’s own time, the daring central premise of George Pine and his “several wives”, is also what ensured that the story would still be finding readers more than three hundred years later.

It’s kind of sad, when you think about it.