Posts tagged ‘sex’

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, and 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 stratagems” 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 is simply 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 her husband’s successful business can barely support her. He, 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…

Significantly, 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 focuses 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 leave 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 feature 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 it in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition of The London Jilt 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 predecessor; 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 Sylvia’s mother has begun to entertain suspicions, on account of her daughter’s behaviour. Nevertheless, another letter arrives for Philander: a letter of surrender—

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

[To be continued…]

 

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.

07/10/2010

The Isle Of Pines (Part 2)

“…for having nothing else to do, I had made me several arbors to sleep in with my women in the heat of the day. In these I and my women passed the time away, they never being willing to be out of my company. And having now no thought of ever returning home as having resolved and sworn never to part or leave one another, or the place; having by my several wives forthy-seven children, boys and girls, but most girls, and growing up apace; we were all of us very fleshy…”
— George Pine

To be fair to Henry Neville, it is quite clear upon examining The Isle Of Pines that he did mean more by it than merely to titillate the reader – or at least, it is when you read the final, cut-together version. Those people who only received the first pamphlet, George Pine’s account of life on his island, might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. No doubt they were eager to obtain the second instalment, when it was released – and no doubt they were very disappointed it in. (The disparate survival histories of the two pamphlets speak for themselves.) However, the framing of the first part of the story by the Dutch travellers’ own view of the island two generations later takes much of the ribald enjoyment out of the tale of George Pine and his “wives”.

As discussed by Kate Loveman, this was a time of literary hoaxes, and of wary, close reading of any text – particularly when the text in question contained some fabulous story. As we’ve seen, Neville’s hoax was recognised as such only weeks after the interpolated version was released. It is hardly surprising: there are a number of clues scattered throughout the story that indicate that it was indeed a sham – and that its author wanted it recognised as such. For one thing, the dates included don’t add up, and the geographical references are wrong. For another (as you may have noticed already from my own responses to it) the surname of the characters keeps switching from “Pine” to “Pines” and back again. This is a story told by a Dutch sailor, yet all of a sudden we hear that George Pine’s narrative was brought back to Europe by the French. There’s even a clue to the story’s authorship: hardly anyone in it is given a first name, but among those who are we find no less than three Henrys. In short, Neville went out of his way to make sure that his readers understood that there was a deeper purpose to his writing. The question is, what? This is the frustrating and tantalising thing about The Isle Of Pines. Various commentators have found a found a surprising number of hidden meanings in this short narrative, but how closely their interpretations meet Henry Neville’s purpose we have no way of knowing.

Briefly, The Isle Of Pines is an account of the life of George Pine, who is shipwrecked on an uncharted island to the north-east of “St Lawrence” (Madagascar) in the late 16th century. The only other survivors are four women: the daughter of Pine’s master, two maidservants, and a black slave. The wreck also casts up on shore enough essential items to tide the castaways over until they can examine their environment, upon which they find themselves in an earthly Eden. Food and water are abundant, the climate is perfect, the terrain is gentle, and there are no dangerous animals, only birds and small, goat-like beasts tame enough to be caught and eaten. There is, in short, no need for the castaways to exert themselves to survive – and so they don’t. Instead, Pine institutes a system of “rotation”, wherein he impregnates each woman in turn, over and over again. The babies are brought forth without difficulty and, when they stop breastfeeding, are abandoned to the elements; but so kind is this island that they all survive, growing up on their own while their parents busy themselves producing more. In time, the children are old enough to join the family business, and George Pine pairs off the half-siblings and sets them to work. By the time he was spent forty years on the island, he has five hundred and sixty descendants; another twenty, and the population of the island has reached one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-nine.

The most obvious reading of The Isle Of Pines is as a satire of Charles II, so busy filling his island with illegitimate children that he forgets to actually govern it, leaving it to degenerate into a land of sloth and helplessness. Hand-in-hand with this, we find a subject familiar from our earlier reading. As Mary Fissell pointed out in Vernacular Bodies, the mid-to-late 17th century was a time of “paternity anxiety”, stemming from uncertainty over the inheritance of the English crown, and reflected in the flood of lewdly-toned popular writings about deceitful women and cuckolded men. There are two echoes of this in The Isle Of Pines. Towards the end of the story, there is an odd digression when the Dutch sailors, having left the island, reach India. For no readily apparent reason, the captain then tells us about the local tradition of royal inheritance, wherein the king is succeeded not by his own children, but by his sisters’ – who he can be certain have at least some royal blood, as he cannot be certain of his own. In George Pine, however, we have a man, and an Englishman, who is in the apparently rare position of being quite certain that all of his children are his: he makes a point of telling us that it is four months before he begins to contemplate sex with his companions, and six before he acts on his urges; quite long enough for any pre-existing pregnancy to show itself.

Life on The Isle Of Pines soon becomes a rather one-sided wish-fulfilment fantasy, complete with classist and racist overtones. Alone of all the many shipwreck survivors of 17th and 18th century literature, George Pine never once thinks of trying to escape his island – for obvious reasons. George first initiates sex with the two maidservants, who are willing enough to accommodate him. They start out sneaking around, but soon, “our lusts gave us liberty”, and they start doing it in the open in broad daylight. In contrast, his “master’s daughter”, being better born, is not eager but submissive, “content to do also as we did”. Meanwhile, “my negro, who seeing what we did, longed also for her share”. George is not initially keen to gratify himself in that direction, but with the permission of the others the woman slips into his bed one night, hoping that he will not notice the substitution. He does, but proceeds anyway, being “willing to try the difference. [I] satisfied myself with her, as well as with one of the rest.” And George continues to sleep with “my Negro”, but, as he hastens to assure us, only at night, so that he won’t have to look at her. All four women fall pregnant; they deliver without complications or difficulty, and “were soon well again”. As so George institutes his rotation system, getting each woman pregnant in turns, so that in the end he has forty-seven children.

The lives of the five castaways are spent all together within a single shelter – “They never being willing to be out of my company,” George comments complacently. For all we know, it may be true: we hear not one word from any of them at any point in the narrative. We don’t even know their names until after they are dead, and then only because George has begun to worry about the social arrangements on the island. He divvies his descendants up into “tribes” and names each according to its mother: the “English”, the “Sparks”, the “Trevors” and the “Phills”, after Sarah English (“my master’s daughter”, natch), Mary Sparks, Elizabeth Trevor, and Phillippa, the negro – “She having no surname”.

There have been various attempts to interpret the way the story dwells upon its polygamous foundation and the necessarily incestuous arrangements of the subsequent generations. Some have read it as a belated slap at the Protectorate – to go along with the current slap at Charles – given that during Cromwell’s time there were at least two attempts to make polygamy legal in England, and several serious analyses of the subject, pro and con, published. (I hasten to stress, polygamy – never polyandry. George is careful to tell us that, conveniently enough, girls always outnumber boys on the island: crisis averted.)

Other analysts, much more versed in such matters than I, I’m afraid, have found a myriad of biblical references in the text, both overt and covert. We hear in time about “the 6 commandments”, instituted by George’s eldest son, Henry Sparks Pine, who has taken over as leader of the island. As Susan Bruce, the editor of one of the recent editions of The Isle Of Pines, points out, two out of the six are against blasphemy and sedition, both of which Henry Neville himself was arrested and/or jailed for. The tale has been read as a re-working of the story of Noah, with the children of Phillippa standing in for Ham’s son, Cush, who was “black and loathsome”. Among the items safely cast up upon the shore after the shipwreck is a Bible – of which we hear nothing for the next sixty years. However, as George Pine feels the end of his life approaching, he institutes a law forbidding marriage within the same tribe – “not letting any to marry their sisters, as we did formally out of necessity” – and also instigates regular Bible readings, thus introducing his descendants to the concept of “sin”. He informs his people of “the manners of Europe”, and in place of his own exceedingly laissez-faire system of rule, appoints his son Henry “King and Governor of all the rest”.

In short, George Pine introduces his people to Christianity, monarchy and European mores – and his island proceeds to go to hell in a handbasket.

[To be continued…]

05/10/2010

The Isle Of Pines (Part 1)

Let’s see, what’s next on the list…

Seventeenth-century pornography? Lucky me!

It’s all Kate Loveman‘s fault. She’s the one who brought The Isle Of Pines to my attention, and made it sound so interesting that I put it on The List, even though it violated my self-imposed cut-off by being published in 1668.

It think I’ve discovered a corollary to “may you live in interesting times”: “may you read an interesting book”.

As discussed in Reading Fictions, Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines was one of the numerous “shams” perpetrated during the time of the Restoration. It was one of the more successful ones, if not in terms of how long people were fooled, then for how widely it was read: in addition to a huge print run in England, The Isle Of Pines was published in translation in at least four other countries. It would be nice to be able to report that it was the literary merit of the work that made it so successful, but it seems that its main attractions lay rather in its premise – that of an Englishman cast away on an uncharted island in company with four young woman, who with great enthusiasm set about populating their new home.

Neville’s tale was published as a series of pamphlets in the middle of 1668. The first part, issued in June, was the self-narrative of George Pines, written shortly before his death seventy-four years after he and his companions were cast away. The second part, which followed in July, is another first-person narrative, this time of a Dutch sea captain, Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten, who with his crew were driven upon the same island some eighty years later, and found it populated by a contradiction, apparent savages of European descent who “speak English and yet to go naked”. Van Sloetten receives from the current leader of these people, George Pines’ grandson William, George’s written history, which he carries back to Europe. The third pamphlet, released in early August, interpolated Pines’ narrative into Van Sloetten’s, and also appended two letters from a merchant in Amsterdam to a “credible person in Covent Garden”, in which it is agreed that the tale is “a fabulous story”, but one that should be believed, as issuing from reliable sources.

Documents from the time make it clear that people did believe the story, although not for very long: the sham appears to have been exposed as early as the end of August. Many people suspected it to be a hoax perpetrated upon the English by the Dutch, and it was much resented upon that account. No-one seems to have seen The Isle Of Pines as more than, on one hand, a silly joke, or on the other, a bit of smut. This attitude persisted, for the most part, well into the 20th century. In 1920, the American historian and bibliophile Worthington Chauncey Ford reprinted Neville’s work in its entirety, accompanying it with an essay that was predominantly an account of the tale’s confusing publishing history, but also contained some ruminations on its possible influences and meanings – as well as an embarrassed apology for its salacious nature.

As time passed, however, the sexual content of The Isle Of Pines became nothing to get worked up about, and critics were finally able to look past its prurient surface to see what else was going on. At this point, an amusing truth about previous attempts to analyse The Isle Of Pines became evident: that most of them were skewed because they only considered the first part of the story, George Pines’ narrative – because after the initial time of publication it was only that section of the story that was reprinted and reissued, while the framing devices were allowed to fall into obscurity. The Isle Of Pines may not be pornographic in the contemporary sense – it’s more intent upon who did what to whom, and how often, than what they did it with and how – but its sexual frankness, and the nature of its sexual content, still serve to distract the modern reader from what might have been Henry Neville’s deeper intention.

However – in order to understand that intention, we first have to understand its author, and the events of his lifetime. This is one story that needs to be read in its context.

Henry Neville was one of a long line of Henry Nevilles, most of them politicians, as well as travellers and scholars; he is often distinguished from the other members of his family by being called “the satirist”. (His grandfather, who was Elizabeth I’s ambassador to France, is, I see, the latest person to be credited with “writing Shakespeare”.) Neville entered Parliament in the wake of the English Civil War. He was a staunch republican who quickly began to look upon Cromwell with suspicion, and broke with him altogether after Cromwell used armed forces to “dissolve” the Parliament in 1653. Neville had already by this time published various satirical pamphlets, as well as some more serious efforts, and now he began to use his pen again, publishing Shuffling, Cutting and Dealing, in a Game at Piquet, Being Acted From the Year 1653 to 1658, by Oliver, Protector, and Others. Much too blunt about Cromwell’s manoeuvring, this effort saw Neville exiled from England until after Cromwell’s succession by his son, Richard, in 1658. Neville then not only returned to England, but was re-elected to Parliament. Accusations of atheism and blasphemy were brought against him in an effort to exclude him, but the tactic failed.

In any event, Richard Cromwell soon had more important things to worry about than Henry Neville’s pen. He was forced to abdicate in May of 1659, and England began a slow but inexorable journey back to monarchy. This put Neville in a bind: much as he had battled the Cromwells, he most assuredly did not want the Stuarts back, and he fought against the Restoration up until the last moment. Neville was subsequently involved in various subversive, anti-monarchic activities, and accused of others. In 1663, he was arrested and held in the Tower of London on suspicion of having been involved in the Farneley Wood Plot, an anti-Royalist rebellion by the members of a former parliamentary community in Yorkshire. (Supposedly. No-one seems to know what really did happen with respect to this failed revolt, but twenty-six people were executed in its aftermath.) Neville was eventually released due to lack of evidence, and this time he didn’t wait to be asked, but spent the next four years in self-imposed exile in Italy.

During the 17th century, the English were spasmodically at war with the Dutch, who at that time posed a genuine threat to England’s colnies and trade. The first round of the Anglo-Dutch wars was fought during the Interregnum and was largely inconclusive. Both sides eventually ran out of steam, and a peace treaty was signed in 1654. The Dutch had hung on to their position as the world’s preeminent trading nation, however, and antagonism between the two nations remained close to the surface.

At this time, the Dutch, learning from past mistakes, set about building up its navy; while in England, the monarchy was restored, releasing a surge of patriotic feeling that (as patriotic feeling often will) led to war. The second Anglo-Dutch war started well for the English with victory in the first battle, but after that the tide turned towards the Dutch. England was already in financial difficulties, and in the wake of the twin blows of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, Charles II began a series of attempts to negotiate peace.

However, the continuing hostilities culminated in “the English Pearl Harbour”, the Battle of Medway. Due to their financial inability to maintain their fleet, the English had withdrawn their heavier vessels to dock at Chatham. In June 1667, the Dutch broke through the fortifications at the mouth of the Thames and attacked the immobile fleet. Fifteen ships were destroyed and the navy’s flagship, HMS Royal Charles, was captured and towed back to the Netherlands. Charles II again sued for peace, and a treaty was ratified at the end of July 1667.

And in 1668, Henry Neville returned to England, and published The Isle Of Pines.

[To be continued…]

19/09/2010

Bodies of evidence

“From the wombe comes convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseyes, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evill quality of it.”
—John Sadler (1636)

Women’s bodies are the stuff of history, declares Mary Elizabeth Fissell at the outset of Vernacular Bodies: The Politics Of Reproduction In Early Modern England, her study of the way in which English popular culture, or rather, the vernacular (Fissell prefers the somewhat different connotations of this term), imagined and reimagined the female body, female sexuality, pregancy and childbirth during the political, religious and social upheaval of the Reformation, the Civil War and the Interregnum, the Restoration and the Exclusion Crisis. Fissell sees the female body being used throughout these troubled times as a metaphor for the reshaping of society and its norms, as with increased access to cheap printing came an increased tendency – mostly, though not exclusively, male – to dissect, re-evaluate and reassemble the female form and function via the written word.

Fissell’s work covers a lot of fascinating ground. Her take on the Reformation is particularly interesting, for doing what too many such studies fail to do, namely, to consider the sweeping actions of the monarchy from the point of view of those on the receiving end. For centuries, pregnant women had been encouraged to identify with the Virgin Mary, to view the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth as a recapitulation in miniature of the miracle of the birth of Christ, to understand their labour pains as linking them directly to Mary’s sufferings, not during the birth, but during the crucifixion.

With the Reformation, all that stopped. Identification, the use of holy relics as supports and even prayer was outlawed; and instead of choosing to identify with Mary, women were ordered to identify with Eve – and to view childbirth not as something sanctified by God, but as a personal punishment from God. The single prayer issued by the new church to be used by women in labour amounted to “I’m a sinner and I deserve this”. Welcome to Protestantism, ladies. The enforcement of these dictums was taken very seriously indeed, with church representatives even  interrogating midwives to discover who women prayed to while giving birth. (Fancy being held accountable for anything you said during labour! I bet the mortality rate went up during this time, too…)

English society prior to the mid-17th century was based upon a series of strict recapitulations – the king as father of the nation, representing God; the husband/father as head of the family, representing the king – but with the execution of Charles I, everything changed. In the face of such an unprecedented act of revolt, it is little wonder that women began to rebel against their “kings”, and the assumption of submission and obedience. During this period, women became visible in English society as never before, preaching, protesting and publishing. The men who had committed the ultimate act of social rebellion had, however, no intention of putting up with being rebelled against. Something resembling a gender war broke out, one inevitably couched in terms of sexual abuse and accusation, where civil disobedience on the part of a woman was declared a clear sign of sexual licentiousness. This was the era, too, of the Adultery Act, wherein adultery ceased to be “a sin” and became instead “a crime” – and a capital crime, at that. Reading the Act, we find adultery defined as, Sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man not her husband. Conversely, a married man who had intercourse with a woman not his wife was guilty only of “fornication” – three months in jail, rather than death.

By examining the medical texts of the time, Fissell is able to demonstrate just how bizarre and extreme the need to control women, and women’s sexuality, became. Although the processes of conception and pregnancy were not understood, earlier texts envisaged the womb as the site of miracles, a warm, gentle environment that first gladly welcomed the man’s seed and then used it to shape and nurture new life. Across the 17th century this view changed, with the womb recast as the site of evil and sickness; something with a mind of its own, quite capable of attacking and even killing the body that contained it if it so desired.

Then we have the midwifery texts, from which we discover that the male impulse to remove women from the process of childbearing as much as possible, as discussed in Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals, was alive and well during this much earlier period. Nicholas Culpeper’s hugely influential A Directory For Midwives began the trend. In spite of its title, the book was all about denigrating midwives, privileging the male written word over the female spoken word. It begins by describing the reproductive physiology of both sexes, but in male terms: the male is declared “the norm”; the female is described only as far as it is different (i.e. inferior). Culpeper insists that women cannot really know or understand their own bodies: if childbirth is to be successful, it must therefore have male guidance. However, Culpeper’s condescending attitude to women pales besides that found in the extraordinary The Compleat Midwifes Practice, written by a team of four doctors, which reconfigures pregnancy and childbirth as a partnership between the father and the foetus, and barely mentions the mother at all – and then in no positive terms. The womb is here nothing more than a passive receptacle for the active male seed; while childbirth is envisaged as a process determined entirely by the foetus, which itself tears open the membranes and fights desperately to free itself from the female “container” that can no longer sustain it.

Over a century later, England was in the grip of another reproductive crisis. We are so accustomed these days to the cultural construct of the sexless Victorian woman that it always comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that in earlier times, women were held to be the lusty ones, their desires so strong as to be essentially uncontrollable. The second half of the 17th century was awash with dirty jokes and dirtier ballads about insatiable women and pathetic, cuckolded men – men who could never be sure that “their” children were really theirs. In the final section of her book, Mary Fissell ties this obsession with sexual incontinence and paternity to England’s own paternity crisis. The Restoration had not brought to the country the hoped-for stability. While littering England with his bastards, Charles II failed to produced a legitimate heir. Next in line was his brother, James, a situation that carried the threat of a Catholic monarchy. Having just recovered from one civil war, England shuddered at the prospect of another. Agitation began for the exclusion of James from the succession, possibly in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, whom some believed (or chose to believe) to be Charles’s legitimate son. However, James did succeed his brother; but when, after many years of reproductive failure, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, a Catholic heir, England exploded in conspiracy theories.

This was, as we touched upon with respect to Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, the time of the “sham prince”. Three theories were prevalent:

  1. That Mary had never been pregnant, and that another woman’s baby had been smuggled into the fake birthing-chamber in a warming-pan, and was being passed off as the Prince of Wales
  2. That Mary had given birth, but the child was stillborn; then as above
  3. That Mary had given birth, but James wasn’t the father – the most popular suspect being the papal nuncio, the unfortunately named Father d’Adda (and you’d better believe the wags had a field-day with that one)

How far anyone actually believed the rumours is moot, but in any event, they served their purpose of undermining the already shaky monarchy: James and Mary were eventually forced into exile, with the throne of England offered to the safely Protestant William of Orange and his wife, James’s daughter, Mary.

The sexually uncontrollable and deceitful woman had, by this time, become a standard metaphor for social upheaval, as Fissell shows; but surely no one woman was ever so branded in this respect as Mary of Modena, nor suffered so much personal humiliation. Every detail of the pregnancy and the birth became fodder for the pamphlet-writers and the balladeers; bloody bedsheets and lactation were topics of coffee-house gossip. In the pursuit of political and religious ends, what had once been a private act of mystery and wonder, a miracle even, had been transformed into something crude, ugly, and very, very public.