Posts tagged ‘Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’

22/02/2014

Everything’s relative

I said at the outset of my posts on Munster Abbey that I wasn’t able to find out much about the short life of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, and while that’s true, one or two factoids did emerge while I was digging into the background of his novel.

One point that came up in a number of contexts is that Sir Samuel was related by marriage to the famous actor-producer-playwright, David Garrick: his sister, Martha, became the wife of Garrick’s nephew, Nathan.

Another, which came up far less frequently – one might even say astonishingly less frequently – is that Sir Samuel was distantly related to Jane Austen through her mother, Cassandra Leigh.

I have been unable to determine the exact degree of connectedness between the two. The Leighs were one of those sprawling, multi-foci aristocratic families, wherein determining who belongs to which branch is next to impossible for anyone but a professional genealogist with a lot of time on their hands. It doesn’t help that the Leighs managed to acquire both a barony and two different baronetcies, including the one inherited by our friend, Sir Samuel, all under the name of “Leigh”; nor that the clan had a habit of reiterating family names, hyphenated or otherwise. Thus in addition to the Austen-Leighs and the Egerton Leighs, there were also the Egerton Brydges-es, who were connections of the Dukes of Chandros, the first holder of that title being Mrs Austen’s great-uncle, James Brydges.

(There is neither an Austen nor a Leigh on the list of subscribers attached to Munster Abbey, although curiously there are three Austin-s. We do, however, find on the list (separately) Egerton Brydges Esq. and Mrs Brydges, of Wootten-court, near Canterbury, Miss Brydges of Canterbury, Mrs Charles Egerton of Bath, and John Egerton Esq. of Wellbeck-street; while the ‘C’ list is topped by the Dowager Duchess of Chandros.)

Be all that as it may—I think it may be fairly observed that all the writing talent in this extended family concentrated itself in one area.

More immediately to the point, however, it is delicious to reflect that while Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was churning out the most deliriously over-the-top example of literary sentimentalism that I have yet come across, his distant cousin Jane was honing her own writing skills by mocking that very form of novel-writing. More than ever now do I want to believe that Sir Samuel was the anonymous author of Valentine: that novel was published in 1790, the same year that the fourteen-year-old Austen wrote Love And Freindship, her brilliantly funny deconstruction of the excesses of the genre. It amuses me no end to consider that one may even have provoked the other.

I’ve quoted from Love And Freindship before, when I was making the argument that in the final draft of Northanger Abbey, Austen was poking fun at fellow-novelist Catherine Cuthbertson. (And in fairness to Cuthbertson, gigglesome as her novels frequently are, she was a better writer than Sir Samuel, and never went quite so ludicrously far with her sentiment.) Here are a few more quotes from Austen’s burlesque: for extra enjoyment, put them side-by-side with the quotes from Munster Abbey:

    But lovely as I was the Graces of my Person were the least of my Perfections. Of every accomplishment accustomary to my sex, I was Mistress. When in the Convent, my progress had always exceeded my instructions, my Acquirements had been wonderfull for my age, and I had shortly surpassed my Masters.
    In my Mind, every Virtue that could adorn it was centered; it was the Rendez-vous of every good Quality and of every noble sentiment.
    A sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Freinds, my Acquaintance and particularly to every affliction of my own, was my only fault, if a fault it could be called…

    I soon perceived that tho’ Lovely and Elegant in her Person and tho’ Easy and Polite in her Address, she was of that inferior order of Beings with regard to Delicate Feeling, tender Sentiments, and refined Sensibility, of which Augusta was one.
    She staid but half an hour and neither in the Course of her Visit, confided to me any of her secret thoughts, nor requested me to confide in her, any of Mine. You will easily imagine therefore my Dear Marianne that I could not feel any ardent affection or very sincere Attachment for Lady Dorothea…

“Where am I to drive?” said the Postilion. “To Newgate Gentle Youth (replied I), to see Augustus.” “Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement—my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the RECITAL, of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.” As I perfectly agreed with her in the Justice of her Sentiments the Postilion was instantly directed to return into the Country…

I was determined to speak with Philander and Gustavus, and to that purpose as soon as I left the Carriage, I went to the Basket and tenderly enquired after their Health, expressing my fears of the uneasiness of their situation. At first they seemed rather confused at my appearance dreading no doubt that I might call them to account for the money which our Grandfather had left me and which they had unjustly deprived me of, but finding that I mentioned nothing of the Matter, they desired me to step into the Basket as we might there converse with greater ease. Accordingly I entered and whilst the rest of the party were devouring green tea and buttered toast, we feasted ourselves in a more refined and sentimental Manner by a confidential Conversation. I informed them of every thing which had befallen me during the course of my life, and at my request they related to me every incident of theirs…

Footnote: Now, here’s a curiously suggestive thing: as I say, there’s no “Austen” on that list of subscribers to Munster Abbey, but amongst the list of surnames, we do find people called Elliot, Ferrars, Dashwood and Bennet. Hmm…

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17/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 3)

leigh3O ye great ones of this world! how frivolous, how insignificant are all the combined joys and fleeting pleasures which are the offspring of never ceasing bustle and dissipation, compared with that solid satisfaction which flows in upon the soul from the consciousness of a regular discharge of the many relative duties of elevated station, or of superior affluence! The feeling experienced by this blessed family, when leaving Munster Abbey, must have exceeded all power of expression.Yet it is in the power of every family of distinction in the kingdom, (if dissipation and folly have not brought them into despised circumstances,) to experience the same pleasures, or at least some degrees of these pleasures, every day, which we have now seen Belford and his family reaping as the reward of their most exemplary virtue.

The departure of the Belfords brings about a crisis for Altamont, who wants nothing more than to keep tagging along with them; but unfortunately for him, he has:

…given his honour to his former guardians and professors at Oxford, that he would visit Switzerland… So sacred he had held, and he trusted he ever should hold, his honour, that he was resolved to spend a few weeks in visiting Geneva… While Altamont thus addressed himself to his ever revered friend, he could not conceal the internal emotions, which agitated his whole frame: For, in fact, he was now engaged in a very serious warfare; no less than whether love or honour should prevail. Heaven strengthened the native virtue of his soul: he was enabled to preserve his honour, without forsaking his love…

Welcome to the wonderfully batty world of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, where changing your travel plans while on holiday can bring on a major crisis of conscience, and not doing so is evidence of an “exalted” character.

However, before they separate, Altamont declares himself to Belford, and receives his permission to address Aurelia. He does so in entirely characteristic fashion:

But, recollecting himself for a short while, before he approached her sacred presence, delicacy, modesty, and every grace and virtue were the ornaments of her character,—he determined to collect all his force of mind, and from respect to his fair one’s dignity, as well as to his own, to address her in strains far different from the mad, intemperate jargon of modern lovers.

I find myself feeling sorry for Lady Leigh.

But of course, Aurelia’s response is every bit as characteristic:

Aurelia, animated by the noble principles of honour and truth, after a moment’s hesitation, began with a voice that would have allayed the most savage breast, and charmed the wildest discord, into calm attention;—every accent breathed the soft emotions of her spotless mind… Thus did the happy couple, with the full consent of Belford, bring to a happy issue the great object of both their wishes, without foolish precipitancy, or those tedious delays occasioned by sordid and interested views of settlements, jointures, pin-money, &c. No:—The parties placed confidence, and they had every reason to place unbounded confidence in each others integrity and worth:—hence it was resolved, on both sides, to reserve all that unpleasant, (though necessary) business, till they should meet at Munster Abbey.

Ah, yes…”sordid” and “unpleasant”…but necessary

Mind you—I imagine it’s a bit easier to have “unbounded confidence” when both parties to the transaction are STINKING RICH.

So they separate, Altamont to preen himself upon his exalted honour in Geneva, and to write Aurelia letters more redolent with politics than love; not that she sees anything wrong with them:

As Aurelia was educated with singular attention by the best of parents, she was of course acquainted intimately with the geography of Europe, and, indeed, of all the globe. She relished therefore a minute account of this celebrated city,—but could not help lamenting to her father, that spirit of folly and absurdity which Altamont took notice of in the close of his epistle, which marked the political sentiments of the Genovese,—democratic, to a degree inconsistent with that subordination which is the very bond and cement of society:—Hence, he observed, the insolence of mechanics and the rabble,—who all erected themselves judges in matters of state; while every man of wisdom and of modesty knows, that there is not one of a thousand in any, even the freest state in Europe, who is entitled to converse on the subject either of political or religious government. Altamont sagaciously remarked, that politics is a science, and a profound science,—which the ignorant of the half-learned should not presume to give their sentiments on,—much less dare to violate the public order by attempting to take a share in administration.

Hence those stirring words that open the glorious British constitution: Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.

The Belfords travel to Leghorn, where they go through the emotionally wracking business of reuniting with Charles. The three take a boat for England, the journey being enlivened by the life-history of a fellow-traveller, Mr Piercy, who of course reveals every intimate detail of his unhappy and difficult life to them upon first request. (The company, though much entertained by Piercy’s interesting story, were, at the same time, exhausted by the length of it… Given that Piercy’s monologue is by far the shortest we’ve encountered so far, that is both unfair and unkind!) After landing at Plymouth, the Belfords return to their “terrestrial paradise”:

A transaction was now to take place at Munster Abbey, which puts to shame a very large portion of the human race…

Oh, good! Thank you for that! The transaction turns out to be Belford marking his reconciliation with Charles by bestowing on him an estate and a fortune (which, as we know, can’t possibly bring him happiness): an occasion marked by perhaps Munster Abbey‘s most crunching bit of gear-shifting, from exalted sentiments to cold hard cash:

But as delicacy marked every part of his conduct when he conferred any favour, he was resolved to observe this nice virtue on the present occasion, with the most scrupulous attention. The idea of laying his brother under an obligation was too gross for his pure and generous soul. He determined that the annual sum which he should settle on Charles should be held by him as an evidence of brotherly love, by the acceptance of it… This good man had early this morning cast his eye on the state of his affairs, and found them in the most flourishing condition.—He saw himself possessed of a clear landed estate of twelve thousand pounds per an. and eighty thousand pounds in the funds… “Charles, (says he) my fortune is overgrown:—it is far more than I was born ever to expect. I have found this morning, by glancing over my books, that I have a vast estate in land, unencumbered by a single shilling of debt, and a very considerable sum in the funds…”

I’d have given anything if Charles had responded to this by robbing his brother for a third time, but instead he girds his loins and nobly steels himself to accept at his brother’s hands:

…one of the finest places in England, not above nine or ten miles from Munster Abbey… An estate of three thousand a-year, highly cultivated,—most enchantingly situated,—and adorned by a mansion-house built in the Gothic Stile.

Even more self-sacrificingly, Charles accedes to his brother’s hints about a suitable bride, his own inclinations tending in the same direction having nothing to do with it. The lady is a Miss Louisa Draper, the daughter of a neighbouring family to the Abbey. Here we get either a delicious continuity error, or unexpected proof that dissipation and criminal conduct slow the ageing process. Weighing up Charles as a potential bridegroom, the narrative remarks that, Charles was but a young man, not yet more than thirty-five years of age; it also explicitly declared that he was twenty-seven at the time of Belford’s marriage. (Belford himself, meanwhile, manages to be only a few years older than his brother and about thirty at the time of his marriage. So perhaps it’s a family peculiarity.)

Munster Abbey goes into filler-mode for a while here, with Belford doing yet another tour of his estates (in much the same language as the first), and with the life-histories of various minor characters rendered for our, uh, delectation. Belford and Aurelia then go for an extended stay with a new friend (who happens to be an earl, although of course that’s quite irrelevant), and find themselves agreeably surrounded by kindred spirits. They enjoy some private theatricals, before a memorable meal – during which, Belford has “an episode”:

Much conviviality, as naturally must be imagined, prevailed in the circle of gaiety, and Aurelia partook of every lively joke of innocence, with much spirit, until a dejection in the countenance of her father suddenly attracted her attention. It was enough that he looked grave, to cast every smile at once from her delicate cheek: She was on the verge of exclaiming, “Are you not well, sir,” when the attention of Lord Denfeir was likewise directed towards him, who perceiving his gravity, immediately addressed him, “Good sir, is anything the matter.” Belford could not utter a word in reply, he let fall a tear, descriptive of some tender emotion, and, rising from his seat, precipitately left the room.

The explanation?

“I have this day,” returned Belford, “reflected on the pleasure of your innocent pastime,—looked round me, and reflected likewise on the independence of your Lordship’s friends, who formed the agreeable party. When I had reason to believe, from various observations which  had made, that many of them could boast of independence, even to an excess of wealth,—I could not help conceiving, that some plan might be readily adopted, from the nature of your diversions, to relieve those who are sorely oppressed by misfortune, in the same moments that you were erasing from your own minds the recollection of troubles or disappointments. As I pondered on this newly imbibed fancy, a happy thought suddenly occurred, which induced me to believe, that I could offer a plan, which, if adopted, would, while it was producing the wished for effects I anticipated, tend likewise in a great degree to augment the conviviality of your own circle. From the tenor of the general conversation of the day, and the liberality of sentiment, which, from unobserved remarks, I had reason to believe each individual possessed. I felt confident, that to propose a benevolent scheme, would prove at once sufficient to favour its immediate adoption. Still a degree of diffidence hankered about my mind, and, from my recent introduction, I feared that even in a good cause, I might give offence by discovering too suddenly an unreserved degree of freedom: It was a desire to unload my bosom of what I doubted not would prove the effect of much cheerfulness, if distributed to the company at large, that cast on my countenance the look of dejection at the supper-table;—and I was seriously meditating on the great benefits that would arise from the private theatrical performances of the higher classes of society, if but the small sum of half a guinea was exacted from each individual who attended, to be applied to the relief of any class of persons whom penury had involved into that state of misery which never fails to excite the compassion of the merciful. When roused from my reverie from your Lordship’s kind address, in consequence of noticing my air of gravity,—I could not suppress a tear which fell in testimony of my emotion,—and anxious to conceal from observation my suffering, which I feared might throw a damp on the entertainment, I precipitately left the room, which I now have reason to suspect rendered my situation more conspicuous than it otherwise would have been, had I remained true to my seat,—and braved the inquiry.”

But then we would have missed that speech. And what a tragedy that would have been.

But enough! Benevolent though Belford’s intentions are, his scheme to raise money to help the poor unwitting unleashes THE MOST PROFOUNDLY SHOCKING MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL!!!!!!

    The lovely Aurelia, equally alive to the feelings of humanity with her father, and forgetting, for a moment, the diffidence a young lady should observe in every society, in which she was by no means deficient, but which a sudden thought of kindness had for the moment dispelled, hastily exclaimed,— “Oh I have it! pray let me point out a method to dispose of the money.”
    As she concluded the last word, a recollection of her misconduct occurred,—a deep blush betrayed her sufferings…

You dare speak unbidden!? GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN.

Once urged to speak, however, Aurelia proposes that they use the money raised to free deserving individuals from debtors’ prisons. This, naturally, leads to yet another of those peculiarly embarrassing 18th century scenes, in which other people’s private moments are turned into a form of entertainment: the “benevolent” friends gather near the gates of the prison to watch the objects of their charity achieve freedom. When the ex-debtors kneel to pray, Aurelia is yet again (unreproached this time) provoked to spontaneous speech:

    “There,” exclaimed Aurelia in a tone denoting extacy, when they were engaged in their devotions, “does that scene favour the account given us by the worthy Solicitor Sordidus? Does it not prove, that, within the remote walls of a jail, virtues lie concealed?—Oh! I’ve been justly informed,—else would religion never so deeply engage their attention. They are worthy of their release!—Oh! blessed be the moment for ever, that first favoured so happy a thought as directing this charity to a prison. I am enchanted beyond my power to support myself!”
    The lovely Aurelia exhausted, could not utter another word,—and, weakened with excessive delight, leaned upon her father’s arm for support…

But the lovely Aurelia has not yet begun to be exhausted by her emotion. A letter from Altamont lets her know that he has been indisposed, though he is careful not to tell her anything until he is fully recovered. This discomposes her to a degree that prompts Mr I-Could-Not-Suppress-A-Tear to lecture her about the distrust in heavenly dispensation shown by letting anything bother her, ever, under any circumstances:

    Though Aurelia was possessed of a degree of self-command, which is too rarely the gift of youth, though her prudence and reserve (still mingled with benignity and cheerfulness) were above the ordinary display of those qualities in the greater part of mankind;—yet it was visible to the eye of discernment, that, at times, she discovered a certain pensiveness which imported some hidden emotions which the most guarded cannot conceal… Her affectionate father also remarked this temporary gravity or absence. With his never-failing candour and good sense, and with all the endearing softness of parental partiality, he called his Aurelia aside one morning, and mentioned to her his suspicions, that she had permitted some anxieties to take hold of her spirits, which was unlike to her well-principled mind.— “My dearest child, (he pathetically said) distrust in that superintending power which governs all the concerns of man, I well know you consider as an offence against the duty which dependent mortals owe to him who acts by the laws of unerring wisdom and goodness. I know also the cause of your present internal agitations. But, rouse up your reason,—collect your mind,—cherish these principles concerning the divine benignity, which have hitherto been the solace of your soul…”
    Aurelia, with a benignant smile, received her parent’s affectionate and salutary counsel; expressed the highest reverence for his sentiments,—and bid him rest assured, she would exert the utmost of her power to shew forth every degree of cheerfulness…

Shortly afterwards, the Belfords set out for Dover, where Altamont is soon expected. Note how sedulously Aurelia works to display her faith in the divine benignity:

Every vessel which arrived from Calais was instantly announced; but their patience was now to be put to the severest test:—A second, a third, and a fourth day past, and no sight of their dear Altamont,—till at length the lovely delicate Aurelia began to feel those indescribable sensations, attendant only on a truly refined being, whose whole soul is wound up in the beloved object of its affection and regard. Belford saw, with the most bitter sorrow, the health and spirits of his incomparable child fast declining, at the same time endeavouring to assume a cheerfulness foreign to her heart, fearing to alarm the most indulgent of fathers:—But alas! all would not do;—grief had taken too full possession on her delicate frame:—She struggled, but struggled in vain, to conceal her distracting thoughts from the best of parents: he saw the agitation of her spotless mind, but hoped to be blessed every hour with the sight of the dear object of her sufferings; and flattered himself, that a very short period would restore her to her usual health and spirits: But judge, reader, what must have been the feelings of this fond parent, when, on entering her room, one morning, he found her, as he imagined, a cold, lifeless corps!

Ummm…he found it hilarious, like I did? No? Okay, I give up.

Alas, indeed, dear reader, we are not in fact able to add, Dying because 18th century transport is less than totally reliable to, Dying from sighing too much, but for quite a while it’s touch-and-go:

    She now began to breathe with difficulty, and to discover much inward pain; frequently a deep sigh would escape her, and her entire frame seemed agitated by strong convulsions… The physician was again arrived, and every means used within the power of human art to restore her to some recollection; but to no purpose:—she became considerably worse,—few hopes were entertained for her life.
    During this melancholy distressing transaction, arrived in perfect health the happy Altamont…

And where have YOU been, might we inquire? Stopped to inspect some fortifications, did we?? And in fact, we never do find out why he was late, chiefly I suppose because he finds himself with a bit of a crisis on his hands:

Altamont approached near his Aurelia;—pressed her burning hand a thousand times to his lips, and discovered every symptom of madness. Nothing could prevail on him to leave her, even for a moment. Belford likewise sat by the side of his darling amiable daughter, in the utmost anxiety and misery, for many days. She continued in a state of the most imminent danger;—no hope could be entertained for her recovery. Belford himself became ill. Nature seemed exhausted, and he was forced to leave his dear charge, and retire to his bed; and, in a few hours after, it seemed difficult to decide which was in the most danger, the incomparable Belford,—or his lovely daughter.

What, it’s a contest? If so, Altamont’s not one to reject a challenge!—

What an awful trying scene!—every moment expecting to be deprived of all his soul held dear on earth,—his divine Aurelia and worthy friend,—required more than manly fortitude to support; and he began to sink under his load of affliction…

…but then they all get better. Pity. Simultaneous dying of emotional collapse would have been even more impressive than the simultaneous swooning of Volume 1. The news that Altamont is not in fact dead has to be broken to Aurelia over the course of several days, in case joy should prove even more fatal than grief, but once that’s taken care of:

Suffice it to say, Altamont and Aurelia met with the mutual expression of celestial spirits…

And then they hit the road:

The happy party set off for Munster Abbey, and after a short and delightful journey, hailed this mansion of sublunary bliss.

However, certain grim duties lie before Belford and Altamont:

It is utterly impossible to convey the most distant idea to a vulgar soul, of any rank, of what is perfectly delicate and purely refined, either in sentiment or manners. Altamont’s feelings, in the prospect of the necessity of entering on the business of settlements, and of holding conversation with men, many of whom he had been taught to believe were not governed by the strictest regard for integrity,—experienced all that derangement which is natural to a mind of superior honour and sensibility.

And yet somehow he grits his teeth and goes through with it.

Sordid business out of the way, the marriage takes place. Lord and Lady Altamont, accompanied by Belford and the still-Miss Draper, set out for Altamont House, famous for its two-hundred-foot frontage, not even counting the colonades. As we know, money cannot bring happiness, possessions are no more than a vulgar necessity, and meals merely the means of sustaining existence; so it is quite beside the point that:

Altamont’s fortune was ample. It was superior to Belford’s. And his establishment was befitting his noble rank. His servants, his equipage, and his table, displayed elegance, without extravagance… The side-board presented a rich service of plate, a royal present to his father, when he was ambassador at the Imperial Court. The courses were served up in the first stile. The wines were the first Europe could produce.

Marriage, of course, compels Aurelia to self-exile herself from that “mansion of sublunary bliss” known as Munster Abbey; although the vulgar amongst us might be inclined to observe that she hasn’t done too badly for herself in securing Altamont House as a replacement. She need not suffer too much through her sacrifice, however:

Before leaving Munster Abbey, it had been agreed between Belford and Lord Altamont, (as they had resolved to live and die together) to spend their time alternately at Altamont’s house, and on the beautiful banks of the Ex.

Aurelia’s future secure, Belford turns his attention back to Charles, who is married off to Miss Draper. The newlyweds spend time at Munster Abbey. And then they spend time at Altamont House. And then everyone goes to Bennington Castle, the estate that Charles was forced – forced, I say! – to accept from his brother. We’re halfway through the third volume now, and struggling to the finish-line. Some time is wasted on a peculiar interlude, in which a young woman turns up on Belford’s doorstep claiming sanctuary (well, it is an Abbey), and protection from the wicked uncle who is persecuting her for her fortune. Her life history fills out another nine pages. Belford unofficially adopts her, and eventually marries her off to a brother of Miss Draper, in a sequence that fills out another fifteen pages. Aurelia gives birth to a baby boy (George Frederick Augustus, like a good little royalist). Various schemes of benevolence are executed, with or without unsuppressed tears and unbidden speech.

And then, on page 549 of this exactly 600-page novel, Sir Samuel remembers he forgot something:

We deem it proper to offer some apology to our readers, that good Mrs Melville, Belford’s mother-in-law, and the amiable Julia, Mrs Belford’s sister, have never again appeared in the course of the history of Mr Belford, since their first visit to Munster Abbey…

Another eleven pages are spent catching up (short version: they moved to Copenhagen, and died and married respectively), before we hop back to England for another thirty pages of Belford and his schemes of benevolence, with which he fills his “declining years” (so I guess he’s stopped getting younger):

Belford had now arrived at the zenith of sublunary honour and glory,—a species of adoration was paid to him by all orders of society. Of no man in the kingdom could it be said, with equal justice, that he had completely answered the end of his existence in this world. From his youth he had learned the invaluable lessons of piety and virtue, ever mingled with moderation and benevolence;—he never lost one moment of his life in dissipation;—he knew the incalculable value of time,—his fortune was chiefly devoted to acts of public or private beneficence; yet (such was his economy) Munster Abbey was, at this time, the mansion of all affluence…

The narrative then goes on to praise Belford’s mother for her role in turning out such a pattern of perfection (poor Charles mysteriously fails to rate a mention here), until, suddenly realising that its words might be misinterpreted, it hastens to clarify:

    It is a fact which every one the least versed in the history of mankind is perfectly acquainted, that the world has been indebted, in every age, for the far greater number of illustrious men, in every department and profession of life, to the early education they have received from mothers of superior worth and intelligence. Antiquity and modern times record the names of thousands of these angelic characters. But let it not be rashly and weakly imagined, that these distinguished women were celebrated chiefly for their learning, their eloquence, or their taste for the fine arts.—No: these are not the provinces in which the great superintending Power has called the fairer part of the creation to immortalise their names;—though a certain degree of knowledge and lesser literary accomplishments are in all ages necessary to women of genteel rank in life…
    What signify all the frivolous accomplishments and acquisitions of common education?—of what consequence is a little smattering in some species of polite literature, in comparison of those virtues which are the ornament of the soul, which alone enable a mother to rear up her offspring to immortal fame?

So put down that novel right now, ladies! Yes, THAT novel!!

Belford’s immortality looms up rather quicker than we might have expected. Without much warning, he feels that he will soon die; and, recognising that there’s not much he can say to either Altamont or Aurelia that they don’t already know, he contents himself with requesting that they carry on with various schemes of benevolence not yet completed, before blessing them and dying.

And then we pass onto the passages that made me almost certain that Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was the anonymous author of Valentine, which likewise builds to a dramatic climactic death (in that case tragic, rather than serene and pious), and also likewise, instead of leaving it at that, then goes on to examine the contents of the will in minute detail:

    It is almost superfluous to observe, that Belford’s will must necessarily be every thing that was natural, parental, wise, and good. Indeed it was perfectly entitled to all those epithets.
    The marriage-contract between Lord and Lady Altamont settled the estate of Munster Abbey, and his grandfather’s other estates, on their Lordship’s second son.—Handsome provisions were also made for his other children at the same time. Belford’s economy was such, amidst his many expensive schemes, and his uniform hospitality, that each of Lord Altamont’s younger children were possessed of handsome fortunes; and the lovely family were now four sons and two daughters.
    He bequeathed a thousand pounds to each of his hospitals, (for they may be said in some measure to be of his own creation) and fifty pounds to each of the poor curates whose salaries he had procured to be doubled, but who were still far from comfortable in their stations.
    To each domestic, an annuity in proportion to their services, to none less than ten pounds.—To his butler, who had lived with him forty years, fifty pounds a year,—and to his faithful steward, two hundred, for life. A great many mourning rings he had ordered, as testimonies of regard for those characters, of both sexes, whom he had approved and admired on account of their virtues and happiness in their several stations and professions in life.
    Lord Altamont, with the excellent men we have just mentioned, Mr Charles Belford, Draper and Hammond, were nominated guardians to the younger children. The heir of Munster Abbey was declared, by the will, not to be arrived at the age of majority until he completed his twenty-fourth year,—a wise and judicious destination! Happy had it been for millions over Europe in the past ages, and in the present, that the period of majority had been prolonged by will still farther,—many an estate might have been preserved,—many a constitution saved from disease and debility,—and many a character indefaced from infamy.

I must say, I admire his—well, what shall we call it? – egregious benevolence? – in appointing guardians for children that (1) aren’t his, and (2) have living parents.

But anyway, this about brings us to the end of things:

Lord and Lady Altamont were now at the head of a beautiful family, and two large estates…

Not that they think anything of THAT. Or expect their perfect happiness to go on being perfect:

Such is the fleeting pleasures of this life,—the moment we are, as we imagine, experiencing all the blessings of the world, our enjoyments are suddenly dashed from our fond embrace, and we are instantly plunged into an ocean of wretchedness…

Except when we aren’t:

Lord and Lady Altamont continued to enjoy years of uninterrupted felicity… They spent their time alternately at Munster Abbey and at Altamont’s house, in Kent; but the peaceful shades of Munster Abbey were their favourite place of residence. Indeed, this charming scene of innocent retirement was enough to incline the minds of its blessed inhabitants, to expect a life of serenity, peace, and happiness, which they continued to enjoy many, many years:—And in this endearing situation we leave them, to experience that uninterrupted felicity they are so justly entitled to.

.

Footnote: Here is an excerpt from the 33-page-long list of subscribers that opens Volume 1 of Munster Abbey. The fact that they all have titles has absolutely nothing to do with anything:

leigh4

16/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 2)

leigh2“To condemn him for his offences, would be at once declaring hostilities against those principles which my instructors ardently strove to imprint upon my heart. As they took pains to sow the seeds of charity within my bosom, it is undubitably my duty to be as ardent in my endeavours to cherish and bring them to perfection,—not from selfish desires alone to derive ensuing benefits, but that I may at a future period, should I be blessed with a family of my own, graft sprigs of the tree I have carefully nurtured upon the hearts of my offspring, who shall ever gratefully acknowledge the bounteous prize obtained through the piety of their ancestors, and who may as liberally tender branches of the invaluable plant to others, who, with equal caution and perseverance, may be the instruments of establishing groves of rectitude, from one pure seed of mercy and benevolence.”

Oh, undubitably.

Ah, dear. I had delusions of getting through Munster Abbey in two parts, but the more I flick through it and re-read the quotes I’ve marked, the more I feel that it would be an act of monstrous selfishness to deprive you of any of them, when to share with you more of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s deathless prose may plant in your hearts the seeds of desire for more terrible sentimental novels, and graft upon your consciousnesses that no matter how bad the last book you read was, it could hardly compete with this tangled weed-patch of a novel, in which tortuous metaphors encompass and asphyxiate all pretensions to quality writing like the treacherous strangler fig barbarously destroying the very host that has nurtured and sustained it, and the treacly exudate of maudlin and bathetic pseudo-emotion eats away at the tremulous buds of literary style like a boll-weevil with pretensions to a major award in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Damn. It’s catching.

Anyway— What I meant to say is, it’s all too good not to share, so I’m just going to let it be as long as it needs to be.

When we left the Belfords, she was having her soul harrowed up by the tale of her brother-in-law, Charles, not seen since he – for a second time – robbed his brother and ran away. This cloud passes over, however, and the Belfords spend their lives in benevolence (him) and domestic pursuits (her). In time, a daughter, Aurelia, is born to them; she will prove to be their only child. The Belfords devote all their energies to raising her as a true daughter of Munster Abbey. Do they succeed?

    Her mind was artless in the extreme:—She acknowledged the many blessings bestowed upon her by Providence, by a just sense of gratitude, connected with her continued exertions in the fair and unpolluted path of virtue. She never discovered anxiety or depression, but when the sufferings of others claimed her commiseration. The expression of her countenance described her internal emotions. When she smiled, there was some true cause for her apparent approbation; and, when an air of gravity gave a check to her vivacity, there were substantial reasons for her discomposure.
    In short, at a very early period of life, she promised fairly for approaching as near to perfection as human nature could aspire.

As a young lady, Aurelia is in the habit of walking by the river in the evenings. On one occasion, a galloping horse dramatically disturbs her solitude; it is evident that the rider is in trouble, and Aurelia shortly hears sounds indicating that he has been violently thrown. She follows his groans and discovers him unconscious and bloody. It is the first crisis of Aurelia’s serenely privileged life:

“Oh Heaven!” exclaimed Aurelia, as she fell on her knees, “I cannot support this scene of wretchedness,—despair will predominate over my exertions. Ha!” she exclaimed again, more wretched than before, “what have I rashly said? have I perfidiously flown into the face of Heaven, and for a moment encouraged a vice which has cost my parents years of labour to urge me to execrate!—Oh! what ingratitude have I discovered!—forbid it, that same heaven which I have so grossly offended, that I should ever again fall into an error so detrimental to the human mind,—and let my fortitude, in the present scene of misery, compensate for the guilt I have brought upon my head.”

Meanwhile, the injured man is STILL BLEEDING.

Aurelia finally brings the stranger around, but as he is too weak to walk immediately, she stays with him while he recovers. He wishes to offer her a reward for her assistance, but he knows not to whom he speaks:

    But the lovely Aurelia, who was purity itself,—exclaimed, with tears streaming from her eyes, expressive of her gratitude to heaven.— “Alas! good sir! I have been some time rewarded for the trifling attention I have shewn you on this occasion, rewarded beyond my most sanguine expectations.”
    “How?” replied the stranger, with an air of surprise, “how are you rewarded for all you have done for me; you have yet received no money.”
    “Money,” returned Aurelia, with a significant smile, and shaking her head, “Ha! that is but a paltry recompense to a compassionate mind, even when the possession of it is much needed; it is the secret gratification the heart experiences in performing an act of benevolence, that proves the grand reward, and the return of pleasure, for having alleviated another’s pain, never fails to more than compensate for any trouble that may be incurred in a case of distress.”
    “Indeed!” rejoined the astonished stranger, “I am a Frenchman, and have never yet made this discovery!”

Boom-tish.

Aurelia being five minutes late back from her walk for the first time ever has thrown the inhabitants of Munster Abbey into a total panic. Indeed, it is not too much to say that they are encouraging a vice that they spent the last eighteen years urging Aurelia to execrate. Belford goes out to search for her – leav[ing] his beloved wife in a state little short of insanity – but though he follows her favourite path and calls for her, there is no reply…

“Ah me!” he cried pathetically, as he cast his eyes towards the Heavens, “Alas! pale moon! I fear Aurelia’s loss will for the future place me under thy influence and direction, for lunacy must doubtless prove my wretched fate,—the loss of her is more than I can bear.”

Then he hears Aurelia nearby, speaking to someone she addresses as “sir”, urging that person to lean on her arm and consider her his servant, and without missing a beat, we get THIS:

    “Ha! what do I hear!” said Belford faultering,— “my senses surely are impaired! for I heard the voice of Aurelia breathe forth expressions in the strain of love!—and the sounds must certainly have been the effect of wild imagination!—yet they were very plain, and I feel that I yet know myself,—let me attend again.”
    “Indeed, Sir, ’twill be better for you,” she rejoined, “permit me to conduct you for the present to a more retired spot, where not even the chilling breeze of night can offend or discompose you.”
    “Oh! merciful Heaven,” sighed Belford in a languid tone, “it is indeed her voice. Her expressions have confounded me, and I am more wretched than ever. The anguish which her dissolution would have created within my bosom, would have proved sensations of delight in comparison to what I now experience. Alas! I never thought she could have thus deceived me;—but her tongue gives proof of her perfidiousness, and what clearer testimony need I look for.—Oh! it must be so,—Ah! my once loved daughter, who from the cradle I reared with the fondest affection, and in whom my every hope was centred; what have you brought upon yourself by this duplicity? and what misery have you in secret nurtured for your once joyous but now distracted parents. Farewell to happiness,—farewell to the long boasted respectability of Munster, whose sweet sequestered bounds, time immemorial, bore the enviable appellation of the seat of quiet.—Adieu to peace,—the Abbey is polluted from having fostered an unworthy being, and Munster can no longer boast of virtue. I now to my sorrow see the cause of your attachment to this your favourite walk. Artless as I thought you were, to find you involved in all the guilt of cunning, is too much,—too piercing to my afflicted heart.—I can no longer refrain from openly avowing my indignation,—patience is exhausted, and fortitude has forsaken me,—I am no longer armed against the frowns of fate.”—As he concluded this sentence, he exclaimed in a loud voice, indicating rage, “Aurelia, thy father approaches, prepare to meet him”—

Feh! – men.

Belford at least has the grace to be thoroughly ashamed of himself when the situation is explained – I should think so! – and Aurelia is too practically perfect in every way to resent his outrageous accusations. If I was her, I’d’ve told him to shove it and run off to live with my Uncle Charles. After robbing the house, of course.

(Mind you— “Expressions in the strain of love”? Really? All this gives me a very odd idea of the kind of love-making that goes on the Belford household. “So, big boy, wanna lean on my arm while we find a spot out of the wind?” “Oh-hh-hh, baby!”)

A weird interlude follows, in which the stranger, who turns out to be the Marquis de la Ville Neuve, is at first enchanted and moved by the Belfords and their philosophy of benevolence, but then (just like a foreigner!) it all wears off, he seems to forget he owes them anything, and finally takes himself off in a state of great indifference. This passage illustrates another of this novel’s strange, internal contradictions, along with, This world is a vale of tears, but the Belfords are blissfully happy and Money can’t bring happiness, but the wealthy Belfords are blissfully happy and much more comfortable than poor people and You should follow the example of superior people, but you’ll never be remotely as superior as Belford and there’s no point in you even trying and You should have total faith in the dispensations of Providence, but go into a complete emotional collapse at the first sign of trouble – namely, The gratitude and love of those who are the beneficiaries of your benevolence is its own reward, but people are nasty, selfish things so don’t expect them to thank you for it.

And having just shown that you won’t get thanked, it proceeds to prove you will get thanked by a lengthy passage showing Belford in benevolent landlord mode, touring his vast property (which doesn’t bring him happiness, except when it does), and relieving the wants of his tenants (who don’t thank him, except when they do). In preparation for this venture, Belford resolves:

…to leave at each house or cottage, a small treatise, of a few pages, composed with perfect simplicity, by himself, which should contain plain rules for sober and virtuous living,—for a sacred regard to rational piety,—for hating all strife and division about any subject relating to religion and government,—for peaceable and quiet dispositions,—and for faithful attachment to their King, Country, and Constitution.

Munster Abbey expiates at great length upon the superiority and perfection of the British constitution, and how much better off everyone would be if they would just accept that and stop pointing out things that might look like horrible flaws and profound injustices, but which aren’t, honestly! Meanwhile, that reference to “rational piety” prepares us for further expiation upon correct religious practice.

However—here I must stop and give this novel a surprised pat on the back. Though inevitably it expresses an anti-Catholic sentiment, it does so without virulence, taking an almost kindly “Oh, well, poor things, they can’t help it” attitude. What’s more, when Belford and Aurelia are later travelling on the Continent, they actually attend Catholic services in preference to not going to church at all:

Belford and his accomplished daughter carried their observations much farther than  our ordinary itinerants; and they displayed a spirit superior to those vulgar prejudices, which in every country flow from the sources of a weak understanding, or a narrow and bigoted education. They assembled every Sunday, and sometimes on other days, with their fellow-christians, to pay homage to their Creator: They perceived external forms and ceremonies to which they had not been accustomed in their own country, and they perceived these rites in a spirit of rational toleration. Perhaps they secretly lamented that so much superstition should be mingled with devotion: Yet both Belford and Aurelia have often declared, with visible emotions of joy, descriptive of the charity of their heart, that they have often, at Rome, and in other parts both of Italy and France, beheld, with the highest satisfaction, such symptoms of genuine manly devotion, as might put to shame many of high profession among those who call themselves the Reformed Church. They frequently saw priests of various ranks, from the highest of the Hierarchy to a humble curate, perform the sacred offices of religion with every degree of becoming gravity and apparent sincerity, and heard them pronounce discourses, as sound in doctrine, and as pure in morality, as ever were delivered by any priest or presbyter of Britain.

I can’t say I’ve ever come across such a radical thing before. It’s absurdly out of place in a novel that otherwise expends much energy sneering at things not English.

The trip to the Continent comes about when Mrs Belford’s health starts failing, and she is ordered to a gentler climate. Although consumed by concern for his wife, such that the entire expedition is accomplished by means of short journeys interspersed by long rests (so that it takes them quite some time to get out of England, which was actually the point of the venture), Belford never misses and opportunity for “improvement”:

Belford was not only a man of consummate moral excellence, but an accomplished gentleman, which no man can ever be, without having received a polished education, and been also careful, after the period appointed for education is over, studiously improve his mind. He was perfectly acquainted with the history of his country, both civil and ecclesiastic,—and he was equally able and disposed to mention with reverence, to the ladies, many of the names of those illustrious men who adorned the chapter of Canterbury. If there were, among those names, any who, by weakness or folly, had dishonoured their rank, or who, in rude ages, had been transported into acts of violence, by the influence of bigotry and superstition, the benignity of his soul either concealed their names, or he threw a charitable veil over their imperfections. Belford’s elegant, refined mind, however strong his internal disapprobation of characters living or departed, never permitted him to descend to the plebeian practice of abusive expression, coarse epithet, or malignant expression. Many departed heroes, in the cause of religion, he mentioned with rapture to his daughter, though his narrative, from the shortness of time, was necessarily very laconic.

Unlike some narratives I could mention.

(Yes, yes – and some blog posts…)

(He started it…)

While Belford and Aurelia are having a cheerful stroll through the cemetery, they come across a young man mourning by his sister’s grave. As people in the 18th century always did, it seems, they treat his manifestations of grief as a variety of performance art and move in close to hear what he is saying:

At this moment he perceived Belford and Aurelia slowly advancing:—He appeared in some degree of confusion:—The tone to which his soul had been wrought up by grief and solemn reflection, did not admit of a rapid transition to observe ordinary objects: But no ordinary object presented itself: The moment his eyes beheld Aurelia, he seemed enchanted,—his looks betrayed the emotions of his soul,—it had a mixture of the wild with the affectionate:—no wonder!—for all who ever beheld his lovely sister, and the daughter of Belford, agreed in observing the most striking similarity in form, in features, and in expression, between Louisa and Aurelia.

Ew.

We are not introduced for some time, but this is the first appearance of the Earl of Altamont, Aurelia’s soul-mate and future husband, who will presently sweep her off her feet with his boring perfections. (And because he reminds her of her father – ew.)

This brief encounter occurs early in the second volume of Munster Abbey, most of which is devoted to the travels of the Belfords across France and Italy, with much rumination upon history, art, forms of governance, comparative religion and the general inferiority of everything found in Europe to what might be found in Britain. Except for the fortifications. Belford, or at least Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, has an unhealthy fixation upon fortifications, and everywhere the Belfords go we have to stop to hear a description of the particular fortifications in question, and get a short résumé of their history. Otherwise— Credit is given where it’s due, of course, but that is rarely necessary:

    We are here, however, speaking only of those pleasures, or the sources of those pleasures, which are of a secondary nature, where only taste, elegance, fine-breeding, or splendour, present themselves. Of the fountains from whence more refined delights flow in upon the mind, few, alas! is the number to be discovered by the most inquisitive, or charitably minded traveller. The morality of France and Italy have been for centuries past regulated by a very low standard: Though, as has been mentioned above, many individuals in both kingdoms have shone conspicuous for every quality which adorns humanity; yet, from the nature of the religion and government of both countries, morals, in the higher and lower orders, have been relaxed to a most lamentable degree.
    The reader will forgive this apparent digression. The author humbly presumes it may be attended with some benefit to unexperienced and modest young men, who travel into foreign parts in quest of knowledge, and to make observations.

And who are keen to know where the most lamentably relaxed morals are to be found?

The narrative has at least admitted that there are “individuals” in each country who are up to Belford’s lofty personal standards, and in each city visited for any length of time he seeks out people distinguished by their high character, impeccable morals, deep piety, extensive learning and cultured mind. It’s pure coincidence that every single one of them also has a title, and an enormous fortune.

Meanwhile, Mrs Belford’s health has continued to deteriorate, and to the profound grief of her husband and daughter, she dies. They are, however, supported by their faith. And they need to be:

Heaven graciously conferred on Belford and Aurelia that composure of mind, and tranquillity of spirits, which enabled them to regulate, with propriety, every circumstance respecting the last honours to be paid to the memory of her who was no more. The generous and enlarged mind of the British Protestant, pitied the miserable and contracted spirit of ecclesiastical domination, which forbade christian burial to any Huguenot; or, at least, forbade that any Protestant should be buried in the same cemetery with a Roman Catholic.—This was a matter of no moment to Belford:—His principles were too exalted, and his understanding too enlarged, to regard in what spot of this globe the ashes of his beloved were deposited.

Belford and Aurelia continue their travels through Italy. In Milan, Belford must rescue from the consequences of his folly a young Englishman called Spencer, who “commits an outrage against religion and decency”. (It’s not that outrageous.) Asked to account for himself, as with the innkeeper in Volume 1, Spencer proves incapable of anything as briefly honest as, “I got drunk and did something stupid”, and instead responds with a 24-page-long recapitulation of his upbringing and education. This incident also brings to Belford’s attention a much more proper young man called Walpole, who becomes a part of his extended family of kindred spirits, and the elderly Father Contini, who despite being a Catholic priest proves “generous-minded”, with “liberality of sentiment”, probably because “he was not bred for the church”. The friends enjoy many pleasant hours. “of which a rude and illiterate mind can form no conception, and for which he has no more relish than a Hottentot”; but alas, it cannot go on forever:

The father of the convent and his beloved children must now part,—never more to meet in these realms of woe:—It was an interesting parting:—The venerable sage could not conceal his inward agitation:—He dropt the tear of philanthropy…

And so Belford and Aurelia press on again, passing through Mantua – The fortifications of Mantua are reckoned equal in strength, if not superior, to any in Europe – Parma, Modena and Lucca – I did tell you this doesn’t have a plot, didn’t I? – with a longer stop in Florence before they head to Rome. It is here that Belford gets wind of his brother, Charles, who turns out to have reformed all on his own (I was surprised at that) and gone into business in Leghorn. Belford is so overcome by this news:

…he could not resist the powerful propensity of his soul, but instantly…in a tone of voice more loud than delicacy and good-breeding would have warranted on any other occasion, he cries, “O my child, my Aurelia, rejoice with thy transported father!—My brother Charles lives!—he is in good health!—he is as happy as he can be on earth, removed far from Munster Abbey…”

Belford opens a correspondence with his brother and they agree to meet. Another meeting also awaits them: they encounter the love-sick Lord Altamont, who is travelling in order to try and restore his spirits, which have been overcome with “gloom and melancholy” since he glimpsed, but then lost sight of, Aurelia:

But, alas! travelling and variety cannot always banish that nameless something which agitates the soul that is pierced by the fatal dart. Altamont’s love was love at first sight,—an idea ridiculed by the soul of insensibility in all ages:—But an insensible soul is seldom blessed with a sound judgement:—Thousands, and tens of thousands, of the most wise, the most prudent, and the most worthy of men, have confessed the force and truth of this adage.

Oh, yeah? Name them.

It turns out that Altamont has been following Belford and Aurelia around, just missing them at practically every stage (if only he’d had the clue of the fortification fetish!) before tracking them to Rome:

To attempt to describe, or convey any adequate idea of the joy and happiness of Lord Altamont, and also of Aurelia (for Aurelia, too, acknowledged the truth and force of the adage just mentioned) would require a pencil which has not been hitherto formed by any mortal artist! The joys and raptures of the human soul never have been, nor never can be, described.—Here, as in numberless other instances, the Divine Fiat is pronounced, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther.”

“Also, I’m a lousy writer.”

Altamont becomes a frequent visitor to the Belfords’ lodgings, and is introduced into the usual cultured, elegant, high-minded, virtuous, distinguished crowd that naturally gravitates towards the father and daughter. The fact that they all have titles has nothing whatsoever to do with it, of course, but since they do, they are all aware of their duty to set a good example for their inferiors with respect to all the really vital aspects of life:

As every lady and gentleman present observed the laws of temperance and moderation in all their pleasures and scenes of festivity,—so, of course, very late hours were their utter aversion. By 11 o’clock they broke up, superiorly happy on reflecting on the rational joys of the day. As they were just about to depart, and the Countess of Castel Bianco observing it was not yet late, the Prince de Pignatelli gently addressed her, by remarking that 11 o’clock was a late hour at Rome;—and that no person in that city was more exemplary than the Countess, in order and regularity of every kind:—that he well knew, from his own present feelings, that it was an effort to leave such pleasant society; but as the example of persons of their order was of moral importance to society, he hoped and entreated that the liberty he had taken would be forgiven. The Countess bowed assent;—and, in a very polite return, thanked him for his observations and his candour.

A letter arrives from Charles, proposing that Belford and Aurelia head for Leghorn while he wraps up his business there before accompanying them back to England. They make their plans accordingly, and more heart-wrenching leave-takings occur; although to my profound regret, this time around no-one drops the tear of philanthropy:

Belford began now to prepare for his journey to Leghorn:—He and Aurelia employed some days in taking leave of the families who had paid them so many polite attentions, and even shewed them instances of the most genuine hospitality:—And in this business was not actuated by the vulgar and dishonourable idea of too many unfeeling strangers or travellers in every country, namely, even after receiving the highest favours, is a matter of mere good-breeding or ceremony, where the heart has no concern. No:—The sentiments of this amiable man were far more exalted. There was not a plebeian idea durst enter his honourable mind. He was fair, candid, and honest, in all his professions, and in all his actions.

Particularly when saying goodbye.

[To be continued…]

08/02/2014

Munster Abbey, A Romance (Part 1)

MunsterAbbey1    And now the day dawned when two hearts and minds were to be united in the bonds of the purest love. Nothing, in this world, has ever been known to surpass the refinement of principle, and the excellence of moral conduct, of Altamont and Aurelia,—and, by consequence, their characters and their feelings must have soared far above the generality of imperfect mortals.
    At length the long-wished event took place, not only to the transporting joy of the revered Belford, but to the universal delight of all the county for many miles around.
    The second day after the celebration of the marriage, Belford, Altamont, and Aurelia, (accompanied by her dear companion Miss Draper,) set out for Altamont’s house. A palace opened to their view at the distance of eight miles from the place. It was situated on a rising ground, and watered by a beautiful stream not half a mile distant. Cascades, and fine pieces of water, embellished the scene:—And the venerable oak, and other lofty trees, added to the magnificence of this charming seat. The approach was by a gentle winding avenue, nearly two miles in length;—and, at once, the front of the house presented an extent which, to the eye, could not be less than two hundred feet, without the colonades.

So! – we meet again, Munster Abbey!

And by “we” I mean not just myself, but anyone who might have been around in the early days of this blog. Way back when, I posted a short piece highlighting one of the more absurd examples of “sentimentalism” that existed in the novels of the late 18th century, which had been brought to my attention by a work on the development of the English novel (the title of which, alas, eluded me then and still does now; though I’m confident I’ll stumble across it again one day). The author of that work held up Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh’s 1797 novel, Munster Abbey, as a prime example of everything that was wrong with the English novel during that period, and provided evidence in the form of a deliriously hilarious passage from the novel in question. The author further growled that:

Thirty-three pages of ladies and gentlemen, twelve hundred and fifty or more of them, subscribed to this nonsense in 1797 because they thought it was written by a gentleman. They could tell he was a gentleman because he called a pond ‘a humid space’…

The full title of this novel is Munster Abbey, A Romance: Interspersed With Reflections On Virtue And Morality. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that a more honest description would have been Reflections On Virtue And Morality: Interspersed With Munster Abbey, A Romance. I’m not sure I can actually review this book, because frankly, not much happens over its 600-and-something pages. Rather, an occasional mild incident occurs, and provokes a dozen or so pages of moralising. Repeat ad infinitum.

As for the way in which those incidents are described, and the language in which the moralising couched— You might fairly describe this post by saying, A brief description of the action occurs, and provokes reams of quotation. Repeat ad infinitum.

Coming on the heels of The Court Secret Part II, here we have another work in which what comes before the text proves intriguing in its own right, not to mention lengthy: it takes the reader quite some time to actually get to the novel. It transpires that this was a posthumously published work. Sadly, Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh died at the age of only 26, leaving behind a widow and a month-old son. Evidently Lady Leigh was responsible for getting her young husband’s work published; she may, indeed, have completed it herself; though who wrote what remains tantalisingly uncertain. Volume 1 opens with the usual female deprecation of critical wrath, although this time not wholly on the lady’s own behalf:

Immerged in the afflictions attendant on her unfortunate situation, every step she took in collecting and connecting the late Sir Samuel’s scattered papers, was traversed by sorrow, and impeded by inexperience;—and, in consequence, produced more delay than she had foreseen.—To embrace and accomplish every idea of her departed Husband, was difficult, and nearly impossible to her:—Pains, however, and anxiety have not been spared:—and, though Lady Leigh is conscious, that accurracy in execution, and brilliancy in composition, may not at all times have been attendant on her wishes, yet, she trusts that the refined and sympathetic Reader will find some touches of feeling in the Work, which may induce him to repel the shaft of censure from the unprotected Female, who has the honour to address him these lines.

(And yes, she does spell it “accurracy”.)

This passage is followed by two inserts by Sir Samuel himself, the first a dedication to the Duchess of Marlborough, which, though brief, gives a good indication of the baronet’s literary style:

Permit me, Madam, to express my warmest gratitude for a countenance which honours this production with an encouragement, greatly above what I can persuade myself it merits:—I can but hope, with sincerity, my REAL INTENTIONS MAY BE DISCOVERED:—Under such circumstances only, can I expect forgiveness, for intruding on Your Grace, and a liberal Public, by ushering a Work into the world, which, from its conscious burden of innumerable faults, trembles like a criminal on trial, who doubts the possibility of an acquittal…

This, in turn, is followed by a lengthy preface, in which Sir Samuel excuses his presumption in putting forth his ideas about virtue and morality—sorry, I mean Virtue and Morality—in the first place, let alone in the despised and dubious form of a romance:

I have offered this book under the title of a Romance, and such I have made it, by forming a story entirely from imagination, which constitutes it a work of that nature:—My contract is subsequently fulfilled.—I have, however, endeavoured to avoid what is but too often a fault in this species of writing, all extravagant descriptions of supernatural scenes and events…

Indeed. Trust me, nothing so interesting as a ghost will happen along in this novel; although there will be “extravagant descriptions” of numerous other things.

A painstaking explanation of how a romance can be a vehicle of instruction if properly conceived and executed follows, along with many apologies for his audacity in forcing his ideas upon the reading public; wrapping up as follows:

Should it be condemned, I shall rest content that, from the judgement of so many persons of superior talents and understanding, it merits condemnation:—should it be approved,—I shall feel highly flattered and gratified; not from simply gaining public applause,—but that I shall have the satisfaction and peculiar happiness in reflecting some trifling compensation is made, as an humble return for the very liberal and unexampled countenance bestowed on this undertaking;—for a proof of which, a reference is offered to the List of Subscribers.

It was not an uncommon practice at this time for novels to be published by subscription; less so for the list of financial backers to be included in the book itself, but it did happen. Having discovered this novel’s sad back-story, my first thought was that this particular “subscription” was a covert charity to support the widowed Lady Leigh, but clearly Sir Samuel was still with us while that list of subscribers was being compiled – and if he knew he was dying, there’s no sign of it either in the novel itself, or in the way he anticipates its public reception in his preface. It’s all very mysterious.

Be that as it may, as the author of the work mentioned above points out, the subscription list runs for no less than 33 pages, and consists of some 1250 people. It is astonishing to reflect that so many people could have wanted to read Munster Abbey badly enough to pay for it.

Ah, dear. After discovering the story of Sir Samuel, I confess there’s a part of me that feels bad about ragging on his novel. Yet it is impossible to get away from the fact that Munster Abbey is complete and unadulterated tosh.

What’s more—as I worked my way through it, it seemed to me strangely familiar unadulterated tosh. Munster Abbey is the only novel of which Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh is the declared author, but to my judgement there is a striking similarity between the style of this work and that of Valentine, an equally hilarious sentimental novel published in 1790, which I reviewed some time ago. The two share the same exaggerated style, the same tendency to moralise about everything and everything, the same equating of fragile nerves and health with moral superiority, and the same inability to say anything straightforwardly. The example above, in which a pond is called a humid space, is a very minor instance of this tendency indeed. Try this description of an evening scene; one of dozens such:

The evening was serene,—the whistling breeze of Boreas was no longer heard,—and the cheering beams of Sol cast but another glow of warmth upon the earth, when the stupendous western mountain obscured it from farther observation, and detained, for a while, only those golden streaks in the Heavens, which inform mankind of the sun’s recent departure. The birds had ceased to sing, and rustling their little bodies in the trees, were hopping to the rural abodes, allotted by Nature to favour their repose.

Above all, however, Munster Abbbey and Valentine share the most endearingly contradictory set of values—loudly extolling the “simple life” and insisting that money doesn’t bring happiness, while at the same time endowing every single character with fabulous wealth and a spectacular estate. See the quote at the beginning of this post for a typical example: note the abrupt lurch from “the refinement of principle, and the excellence of moral conduct” of Altamont and Aurelia, to the description of Altamont’s two-hundred-foot frontage (even without the colonades!). It’s exactly that sort of thing that makes these novels so absurdly entertaining.

Well— That, and Sir Samuel’s very real gift for the startlingly infelicitous phrase. There are any number of them scatted throughout pages of this novel, but this one, I think, would have to be my favourite:

Our ejaculations concluded, he raised me from the ground…

[*snicker*]

Munster Abbey wastes absolutely no time in setting the tone for the entire novel (and observe the very first thing we learn about Mr Belford):

    Mr Belford was a man happily possessed of a fortune, ample as his wishes, and independent as his spirit. Munster Abbey fell to him by inheritance, and was delightfully situated on the romantic banks of the river Ex in the county of Devon. He inherited, too, the virtues of his Ancestors: in him they were all combined; and that they might be perpetuated by an honourable connection, was the unceasing wish of his true friends.
    Munster Abbey and its environs abounded in beauties: on one hand, an expansive and richly cultivated country, raised the admiration of every beholder; and the flourishing state of its commercial territories was an unfailing object of pleasure. On the other hand,—the distant hamlet,—the village spire,—the rustic minstrels,—and rural gambols, all united their advantages to embellish the scene, while its majestic head aspired to the skies, and seemed to hailed a kindred Paradise! It had borne the appellation Munster, time out of mind; and from tradition was so called, in honour of some part of Belford’s family who were its founders: Much taste was displayed in the structure, and judgement in its site. The charms by “Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on,” left scarcely an improvement to bestow,—yet all was tried to make it peerless, and tried with so much skill, that a judicious observer might have been deceived, and have given Nature credit for the offspring of Art, in points that were no inconsiderable steps towards perfection. The winding river,—the variegated foliage,—the scattered cottages,—and their unruffled tenants, were grateful objects to the mind of the Philosopher and Moralist:—the Poet too, might have there fixed his temple, a retreat the muses must have gloried in:—there might every rapturous flight have been indulged, extended, and improved.

(Apparently this particular Abbey is called “Abbey” just to be romantic; not because, you know—it used to be an Abbey.)

Anyway—as we all know, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife; and sure enough, during his yearly trip to Exeter to visit friends Belford meets a certain Miss Melville, who is of course the embodiment of every possible perfection. The two paragons fall in love with each other at once, though for a time Miss Melville strives to hide her feelings, and indeed rejects Belford’s proposal the first time of asking: because, alas! – she has no fortune. However, Belford isn’t the kind of man to let a detail like that sway him – besides, of course, being stinking rich himself – and he overcomes Miss Melville’s generous scruples.

Overcomes them to a surprising degree: she being of age, he persuades her into an immediate marriage, before she has told her mother of her situation, and without Belford asking Mrs Melville’s consent. This is the most unexpected thing about Munster Abbey and, it being the kind of novel it is, led me to expect a 600-page diatribe on the inevitably disastrous and fatal consequences of this sort of filial disregard. Imagine my astonishment when the most serious side-effect turns out to be that Mrs Melville is miffed for a time. Granted, when her daughter (who never gets a first name; nor does Belford) writes to her, Mrs Melville goes into a panic and assumes that she has made a dreadful mistake, or been taken advantage of; but as she and her other daughter, Julia, draw near Munster Abbey, they are deluged with tales of Belford’s generosity and benevolence (and money). In particular, they encounter the owner of an inn who, when asked what he knows of Belford, instead of responding simply, “He helped me when I was in financial difficulties”, insists upon telling his entire life story in excruciating and irrelevant detail – 21 pages of it, people!

Meanwhile, the newlyweds have arrived at the Abbey, to be greeted by Belford’s tenants:

    As soon as they reached the majestic gate, they discovered the poor assembled from many miles around, prepared to congratulate them in their stile of uncultivated sincerity:—there wanted not the blandishments of words to evince their raptures:—the language of the heart is simple,—and flattery, which too universally pervades the bosom of the wordling, is a stranger to the honest bosom of the unlettered peasant.—Belford was the first that alighted from the carriage.—It was in vain that he attempted to enter the gate;—for the multitude that encompassed him would not suffer him to pass, until each of them, upon their knees, had kissed the hand that had so frequently been extended to their succour. Who, in so exulting a moment, could deny that virtue and benevolence are their own reward?
    All Nature bore the face of triumph.—The very infant offspring of the grateful throng, struggled with officiousness to quit their leading strings, that they might bend to their benefactor, as if by intuition taught that each had individually experienced their bounty. Mrs Belford’s eyes were riveted on the scene with rapture and admiration: As an indifferent spectator she must have been charmed,—then, what must have been her sensations to behold the man, on whom her fate depended, so idolized! Nor were their endearments confined to him,—for, independent of her own merits, which were easily discovered, she was entitled to their love, they warmly protested, as the wife of their adored patron;—nor would they allow her progress through the hall, without entreating to impress on her hand the same tribute of respect they had shewn her husband. The request was too flattering to be denied:—She granted it with and air of affability and condescension, which at once evinced the exalted character of her spotless mind…

600 pages of it, people!—and yes, I’d really better get on with it, because if I stop to quote everything I could quote, we’ll be here for, well, 600 pages.

BUT—of course, before I do speed it up, it is necessary that we all stop to admire Possibly The Greatest Piece Of Writing In The History Of The English Novel.

Mrs Melville and Julia finally make it to the Abbey (“Bless me!” exclaimed Mrs Melville with an air of astonishment, “with what injustice did I stile this noble mansion an inconsiderable cottage!”), where they find Mr and Mrs Belford out in the grounds, sitting together on the far side of a pond humid space. And, well—

    At length arriving at the garden-gate, which, with equal precipitation, they entered, Mrs Belford, who was seated on a bench by her husband, at the foot of a sheet of water which parted them from the house, suddenly beheld her mother.
    Elated with joy at the unexpected visit, which hurried innumerable hopes and reflections over her tender mind in an instant, and forgetting all thought but that of flying swiftly to the embraces of a beloved parent, she rushed directly forward, pursuing as she fancied at the time, from the straightness of her course, the readiest road; and with her eyes fixed on Mrs Melville, whose appearance had thrown aside the usual caution of her footsteps, she plunged into the centre of the pond. Oh, Heavens!—what a moment!—Belford attempted to fly to her assistance; but he had not proceeded many steps before horror overwhelmed him, and he fell senseless to the ground: Mrs Melville and Julia, swooned in the same state of insensibility.
    The servant, unacquainted with the art of swimming, and apprehensive of his own fate, should he venture into water of such considerable depth, hurried with all imaginable swiftness to the house for assistance. What an awful moment was this!—what was to be hoped!—all aid for a time suspended, and yet not an instant to be lost!—The mind prone to vice would have despaired: but the soul endowed with morality and confidence in the mercy of Him whom we are justified in believing is all merciful, can never cherish hopeless reflections. All help was still suspended—the struggling fair, unable any longer to contend for life, yielded to her fate with that composure, which the virtuous only can experience in the moments of departing life.—She cast her eyes towards Heaven, where her mind and soul surely were directed. In this moment of serious meditation, she was perfectly sensible of her danger, but the blessings of a pure conscience constituted her a stranger to every fear; and, when she had reason to believe her dissolution was near at hand, it was with pleasure she reflected that soon she would be relieved of her dying agonies.
    At length, when on the verge of closing her eyes from the dim light of this world, to open them in a pure and perfect atmosphere, the kind and liberal hand of Providence waved its influence o’er the dismal scene, and cast away the gloom.
How was it contrived?—Next to a miracle were the means by which the amiable Mrs Belford was restored to her distracted and disconsolate friends.
    Faithful Munster, an old favourite Newfoundland dog of Belford’s, named after the place, was the welcome instrument of deliverance.
    Approaching the pond in the critical moment, and viewing his mistress helpless in the humid space, he sagaciously plunged into the pool, and, seizing the end of her sash which floated, drew her cautiously to the side of the bank, where he contrived to raise her head above the surface of the water, by quitting the sash, and with anxious care holding her hat in his teeth, until more assistance could be procured.
..

[*snicker*]

Munster Abbey is, as I say, a hard novel to review because it has no discernible plot. Mrs Belford’s filial disrespect having been punished with a quick, refreshing plunge, that part of the story is disposed of. So, too, are Mrs Melville and Julia, who are subsequently banished from the story with surprising thoroughness: clearly as an afterthought, some 300 pages and a number of years on we are informed that, oh, ah, yeah, right, Mrs Melville died and Julia got married. I for one was terribly sorry to see the back of Julia, given the way she is described during her few early appearances:

The lovely Julia was not exempt from reflecting with pleasure on the beauties of this scene:—The trembling tear of tenderness,—which in its usual form tottered down her cheek, evinced the soft emotion of her spotless mind…

A trembling tear of tenderness that tottered!? Oh, we DEFINITELY needed to see more of Julia!

But alas, it is not to be. She and her mother depart our pages, and the Belfords settle down to a life of uninterrupted happiness, despite this being a vale of tears where all pleasures are short-lived and misery is certain. Except when it isn’t. The only cloud on their horizon is the shocking revelation that Belford has an estranged brother. This being the kind of book it is, Belford can’t just tell his wife, “I’ve got a black-sheep younger brother”; he has to spell out in minute detail every single associated action, thought and emotion.

Likewise, Mrs Belford can’t just be told that she has a black-sheep brother-in-law: she has to be prepared over a period of days for the overpowering revelation that there’s a Belford in the world who is less than completely perfect:

    In order to prepare her mind to receive a shock, which the feeling and benevolent heart only can experience, he frequently, in a delicate and distant manner, threw out hints, insinuating his wishes to unfold a moving narrative.—He continued this judicious plan for a number of days, to habituate her to expect a doleful account, that the unwelcomed intelligence might be received with more composure than a precipitate and abrupt recital would naturally occasion.
    At length she expressed so much uneasiness at being so long kept in suspence, and entreated he would not further hesitate, but at once describe the particulars of all that pressed so heavily on his mind.—“Perhaps,” said she with a bewitching softness of expression, enticing him to begin the narrative, “your trouble may, in some degree, abate, when I am constituted a partaker of the pain: and should my becoming a sharer of your affliction, assist in the smallest degree to dissipate your dejection, I will cheerfully submit to any suffering, that may be the cause of producing effects so salutary and congenial to my desires; and the fortitude with which I will conduct myself through the trial, shall prove an additional effort to dispel the gloom which hangs on your oppressed bosom.”

After several pages of this guff, Belford finally tells steels himself to tell The Awful Truth.

It’s awful, all right:

    “Born!” exclaimed Mrs Belford, in great agitation, “where was he born, my love, not at Munster!”
    “No, my life, he was not born at Munster,” returned Belford. “Ah, no, I am sure he was not,” rejoined the incomparable Mrs Belford exultingly: “for Munster ne’er gave birth to any one to pine in wretchedness: the offspring of this peaceful place were reared for better fate.”
    “Your observation,” said Belford, as he heaved a sigh, “forcibly strikes me with a superstitious kind of idea, that my unhappy brother, Charles, was doomed to misery from his birth: for my mother being on a journey at the time she discovered symptoms threatening his appearance into the world, used every exertion to expedite her arrival at Munster,—from a conviction that home was the place best adapted to afford necessary comforts for the invalid,—but her indisposition increased with such rapidity, when she approached within twenty miles of this our happy seat of retirement, that it was deemed dangerous for her to proceed further; and, after the delay of another day, she was delivered of this unfortunate votary of prodigality. Thus was he excluded from the pleasing reflection of looking on Munster as his native place…”
    When he recovered from his pensiveness, he exclaimed, in a voice truly pathetic and affecting,— “Ah! cruel remembrance.—how oft I’ve heard my tender mother say, that at the time unhappy Charles was born, the sullen gloom of lowering clouds darkened the country for many miles around; and, very strange to tell, that in the moment when the boy first wafted his first breath u[on the atmosphere, from the high vaulted heavens issued, in awful peals claps of tremendous thunder, such as the oldest shepherd in the county, who with his flock had often been exposed to tempests, ne’er before had heard;—and the lightnings which ensued, flashed so vehemently from the skies, that many hapless beings were deprived of sight:—the rain in torrents poured upon the earth, and, joined by powerful northern blasts of Boreas, laid waste innumerable fields and mounds, whence the industrious farmers had hoped to reap a liberal harvest, as a reward and tribute for their labours. Thus seemed the elements combined, as if in anger roused to execrate the birth of one, whose foreseen vices and pursuits would kindle the just resentment of the Deity. The scene, I’ve frequently been told,—was marked with every cast and sign of horror.—It is reported, e’en to the present day, that not a bosomed heart was known throughout the land that still could exercise its throb, but worked a double tide of pulse,—and every hand shook like trembling aspin leaf:—not even those escaped, whose owners long had boasted of strong nerves.”

And I bet hearing THAT story every five minutes while he was growing up was an enormous help in moulding Charles into an emotionally well-adjusted individual.

Now—after a spectacular introduction like that, you’re probably expecting to find in Charles some supreme villain, raping and pillaging and plundering as he twirls his moustache and laughs maniacally. Perhaps you’re even hoping that his spectacular career features prominently in this novel? Alas, it pains me to have to report that Charles is never anything more than a petty crim; and while we do eventually meet him, it isn’t until his inevitable repentance and reconciliation with his brother, after which he becomes every bit as boringly perfect as any other Belford.

(Meaning that you aren’t cursed for life if you’re not born at Munster Abbey? Good to know.)

As for Charles’ actual crimes, they’re nothing more than the usual reckless round of drinking, gambling and debts; except that he caps it by robbing his sibling on two different occasions. The high point of his career is when he steals a small portrait of his own mother for the jewels set into the frame; allowing his brother to go into a spiel about how foolish it was to create such a temptation when the real jewel was the portrait itself, blah-blah.

The loss of the portrait, however, is a bitter blow to Belford, because his mother, as is only fitting considering her incredible selfishness in going into labour away from home, has been driven by her guilt and remorse into an early grave.

And here I have to stop and give Munster Abbey all the credit that is its due. I’ve read a lot of ridiculous sentimental novels in my time, and a lot of ridiculous things have happened in them; but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever before come across an instance of a character dying of SIGHING TOO MUCH:

“Ah, my love, my poor mother often heaved a sigh, when she reflected on that awful day:— ‘twas an event which doubtless expedited her dissolution; for though she lasted many years after, and made her family happy in her endearing society, yet she at best but lingered:—Her frequent sighs failed not to impair her constitution, which led her into a gradual decline of health, when at length, exhausted nature, too feeble any longer to keep in play the organs, which when motionless, deprive the body of life, sunk into a sleep, when, fearless embracing death, with a serene smile on her countenance, descriptive of her composure, she yielded every earthly claim, to seek in purer climes an happier fare…”

You will, I’m sure, be disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, to hear that Munster Abbey does not manage to maintain over its full length the standard of sublime idiocy established in these first 100 pages. I’m not saying the rest of it isn’t funny; just that it never again reaches quite the same heights of staggering absurdity.

Then again— After suggesting that the arrival in the world of a painfully ordinary sinner is enough to provoke a cataclysmic storm (a system that seems rather hard on the farmers and sighted people, I must say), and killing off a character with a fatal dose of hyperventilation, where could there be for this novel to go but downhill?

[To be continued…]