Posts tagged ‘Thomas Macaulay’

03/08/2014

If I might Meekely interject…

Sigh…

I wonder if you guys are as tired of me starting my blog posts with an apology for my absence and/or unanswered comments as I am of starting them that way? But here we are again… I have an ambition, which is rapidly escalating into the realm of delusion, that at some stage I will be able to settle into a posting routine and be updating here about once a fortnight; but every time it begins to look like I might approach that particular asymptote, ill health, work horrors and/or computer issues start to interfere. I don’t know why the blogging gods hate me so; I only know they do… [*sniff*]

Anyway—after a more than usually painful period of cosmic intervention (involving ill health, work horrors and computer issues), I set myself to the task of getting things rolling again by resurrecting one of the more neglected corners of this blog, Authors In Depth, and by returning to the first author to feature in that category, the Minerva Press mainstay, Mrs Meeke…only to discover that in the interim, something in the nature of a revolution had occurred.

Early in 2013, academic Simon Macdonald published an essay in which he challenged the longstanding identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke, the wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke, a minor poet. Macdonald contends that the Minerva Press novelist was in fact one Elizabeth Meeke, whose full name appears in a catalogue for the publisher from 1798.

The fact that there was an “Elizabeth Meeke” on the Minerva Press’s roster of novelists is not a new discovery. This point was raised in a 1946 issue of that wonderfully peculiar journal, Notes And Queries, with the contributor referencing that same piece of Minerva Press publicity. What Simon Macdonald has done is identify and trace the life of the woman who could be the elusive Mrs Meeke. If Macdonald’s scholarship concerned only the identity of a minor 18th century novelist, perhaps only people who share my arcane tastes would be interested; but the academic community sat up and paid attention when it was revealed that Elizabeth Meeke was the step-sister of Fanny Burney.

Briefly, according to Macdonald’s account, the woman in question was born Elizabeth Allen; she became a de facto member of the Burney family when her widowed mother married Dr Charles Burney. When she was only fifteen, Elizabeth ran away with the much-older Samuel Meeke and, after an awkward delay, finally acquired the right to call herself “Mrs Meeke”. The marriage was not happy, and after various episodes of separation and reconciliation (and hints of the wife’s involvement with another man), there was a permanent break. Burney family letters suggest ongoing misbehaviour on the part of Elizabeth, who for a time seems to have gone under the assumed name of “Mrs Bruce”. She later married again, to a man called Rawlings, but this marriage was no more successful than her first.

Between 1795 and 1823 there appeared a remarkable number of novels, translations and children’s books which have been attributed to “Mrs Meeke”. Most of the novels carried the name “Mrs Meeke” (no first name) on the title page; others appeared under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, still others were published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that “Gabrielli” was a reference to the Italian opera singer, Catarina Gabrielli, whose London Performance was attended by the Burney family, as their letters attest. He also points out that the first “Gabrielli” novel, The Mysterious Wife, is dedicated to Mrs Arthur Young (Arthur Young was an agricultural economist, active in the area of agricultural workers’ rights); Martha Young, e Allen, was Elizabeth Allen’s maternal aunt.

Now—if all of this is so, it begs the question of where the alternative identification of “Mrs Meeke” as Mary Meeke came from: a question not at all easy to answer. Those modern writers who have taken notice of Mrs Meeke (and they are not numerous) draw upon three sources:

Published in 1812, Robert Watt’s Bibliotheca Britannica; or, A General Index Of British And Foreign Literature has only this to say upon the subject:

MEEKE, Mrs, a prolific Writer of Novels…

Four years later, A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland offered a slightly more expansive (and rather tongue-in-cheek) listing:

MEEKE, Mrs, one of the numerous family of novelists whose prolific genius is always labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries. Her performances are— [list follows]

In 1885, the Dictionary Of National Biography (edited first by Sir Leslie Stephen, later by Sidney Lee) has rather more to say about Mrs Meeke, and is in fact the source of almost everything we thought we knew about her:

    MEEKE, Mrs MARY (d. 1816?), novelist, seems to have been the wife of the Rev. Francis Meeke (B. A. Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1773, and M. A., 1776), who published a volume of poems in 1782 (Notes And Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 229). She began her prolific career as a novelist in 1795, when she published ‘Count St. Blancard‘ in 3 vols., and continued her labours for more than twenty years. In October 1816 there died, at Johnson Hall, Staffordshire, Mary, the widow of the Rev. Francis Meeke, who may perhaps be identified with the novelist.
    Mrs Meeke naively recommends novelists, before planning a work, to consult their publisher as to how they may best satisfy the prevailing public taste
(Midnight Weddings, pref.). Personally, she apparently followed this plan with some success. Although her plots are commonplace, and her literary style poor, and her characters only faintly reflect contemporary manners, she had some distinguished readers. Macaulay ‘all but knew’, Lady Trevelyan writes, ‘Mrs Meeke’s romances by heart’, but, despite his liking for them, he relegated Mrs Meeke to the position of his favourite among the bad novel-writers, and agreed in his sister’s criticism that ‘that they were one just like another, turning on the fortunes of some young man in a very low rank in life who eventually proves to be the son of a duke.’ (TREVELYAN, Life Of Macaulay, vol. i.) Miss Mitford was also a reader of Mrs Meeke’s works in her youth, and in her old age re-read at least six of them (Notes And Queries, 7th ser. vii. 405).
    The titles of the novels published under her own name (all in 3 vols. unless otherwise stated) are— [list follows] Probably posthumously published were— [list follows]
    Mrs Meeke also translated from the French— [list follows] In 1811 she completed the translation by Mrs Collyer (q. v.) of Klopstock’s ‘Messiah‘ (another edition 1821).
    Mrs Meeke has been identified with the writer who assumed the pseudonym of Gabrielli (Notes And Queries, 2nd ser. i. 133) and published— [list follows] 

I’ve said this before, but it bears stressing— Pegging Mrs Meeke as a “bad novel-writer” on the strength of Lord Macaulay’s comments is misinterpreting what he meant. In the first place he was clearly sharing a joke with his sister, Lady Treveleyan, when he remarked that, “My tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.” When that remark is read in context, however, Macaulay is actually comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels to a satisfying, old-fashioned English dinner; he condemned his own tastes as “vulgar” because he was unable to enjoy the prevailing fashion for dinners comprised of elaborate but unsatisfying dishes. Furthermore, in another letter Macaulay comments that when he read a novel he didn’t enjoy, he would then re-read one of Mrs Meeke’s as a palette-cleanser. None of this proves she was a good writer, of course, but at least it indicates that she was entertaining.

But to return to the question of attribution— Note the hesitation in the Dictionary Of National Biography‘s identification of Mrs Meeke as Mary Meeke, wife of the Reverend Francis Meeke: she ‘seems to have been’ and ‘may perhaps be identified’ as such. Clearly, this was no more than someone’s best guess which, in the absence of any suggestion to the contrary, was allowed to pass unchallenged (that question in Notes And Queries excepted), and to become accepted as fact.

Simon Macdonald’s research does seem to establish that Elizabeth Meeke was at least the author of the “Gabrielli” novels. My remaining doubts focus on the question of why some of the novels attributed to Mrs Meeke were published under a pseudonym in the first place, and why others seem to have been published anonymously. Macdonald suggests that the “Gabrielli” pseudonym was adopted to avoid oversaturating the marketplace with novels by “Mrs Meeke”, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded by that argument. Consider the implications of that remark from A Biographical Dictionary Of The Living Authors Of Great Britain And Ireland, about novelists “labouring to increase the stock of the circulating libraries”: given the Minerva Press’s position as a leading supplier of such fodder, would the publisher really have been concerned about producing too many novels?

It was my hunt for a copy of 1797’s The Mysterious Wife, the first of the “Gabrielli” novels, that led me into these murky waters in the first place. This is the fourth of the novels attributed to “Mrs Meeke”, after Count St. Blancard (1795), The Abbey Of Clugny (1796) and Palmira And Ermance (1797); it doesn’t seem likely to me that after three novels in three years, William Lane would have started worrying about “saturation”. What’s more, having now read The Mysterious Wife, I have to say that I’m not convinced that it was written by the same person. In fact, I found myself wondering whether the root of the confusion could possibly be that the Minerva Press had ended up with two authors on its hands called “Mrs Meeke”, and had allowed one to keep her name while the other published anonymously or pseudonymously.

Now—I admit that I was very conscious of this controversy while I was reading, and that it is entirely possible I was consequently reading with a bias. And there are certain points of comparison between this work and the earlier ones, chiefly that it is set partly in France, and that it separates its hero and heroine for a very long stretch of the narrative. It does not feature a baby substitution per se, but it does have a young man raised under a false name (the better to facilitate a little trust-fund embezzlement) who later succeeds to a title. It also has a strong streak of anti-Catholicism, but that, in English novels of the late 18th century, is hardly diagnostic.

On the other hand, whereas the earlier novels doggedly refuse to acknowledge that the French Revolution ever happened, The Mysterious Wife opens with a statement placing its action “some years” before that epoch. Its action is divided between France and England, with both good people and bad people representing each nation. Most significantly, the novel focuses upon a marriage contracted for wholly “romantic” reasons, and – after, admittedly, looking for some time like it was going to do the opposite – it ultimately vindicates romantic love (in conjunction with “virtue”) as a basis for marriage over prudential motives; as opposed to the stance of Palmira And Ermance, which supported arranged marriages and severely punished a young woman led astray by romantic yearnings. The Mysterious Wife also features a French Marquis, the last of his name, who has never married because he has never fallen in love.

However, the main reason I feel that The Mysterious Wife may have been written by a different author from the earlier novels is its style—or lack thereof. Put simply, The Mysterious Wife is poorly written, being full of grammatical errors, whereas the earlier novels were not. It is also rather dull, with very little happening over the course of its four volumes. The previous three novels by “Mrs Meeke”, in contrast, though no-one would ever mistake them for great literature, are if anything absurdly over-plotted, with much of their entertainment value lying in their constant twists and turns and the various revelations of secret identity. I can imagine re-reading the first three novels and enjoying them again; once I’ve reviewed The Mysterious Wife, I’ll be putting it aside for good.

Of course, none of this proves anything. The Mysterious Wife may just be a bad novel because it’s a bad novel; perhaps because it was written in haste, not because it was written by a different person (although that argues against the “oversaturation” theory). And perhaps its different philosophy simply reflects the greater freedom of a pseudonym. Certainly I have no real evidence one way or the other—but I will be keeping all this in mind as I move forward through the novels of “Mrs Meeke”, “Gabrielli”, and that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”.

24/09/2011

For whom the book tolls…

Life being inconvenient, as it so often is, I’ve been trying not to dwell upon the fact that I’ve slipped behind in my review writing again. But no matter where I turn – or at least, no matter to which book I turn – I find an uncomfortable reminder of my unmet obligations. 

Outside the goalposts, I’ve been reading John Buchan’s Leithen Stories, a series of five novels connected by the presence of the character of Sir Edward Leithen. In the second volume, John Macnab, published in 1925, an aspiring politician is asked to make his first public appearance, and after freezing and forgetting every word of his conned speech, he blunders into an emotional and unrehearsed declaration of his feelings about things in general and England in particular:

It was a strange, inconsequent speech, but it had a curious appeal in it–the appeal of youth and candour and courage.  It was philosophy rather than politics, and ragged but arresting philosophy. He began by confessing that the war had left the world in a muddle, a muddle which affected his own mind.  The only cure was to be honest with oneself, and to refuse to accept specious nonsense and conventional jargon.  He told the story from Andersen of the Emperor’s New Suit.  “Our opponents call us Tories,” he said; “they can call us anything they jolly well please.  I am proud to be called a Tory.  I understand that the name was first given by Titus Oates to those who disbelieved in his Popish Plot. What we want to-day is Toryism–the courage to give the lie to impudent rogues.”

That was a bolt from the blue.

However, this passage was merely a teaser compared to the full-on assault on my guilt complex offered by Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris, the second volume in his “Herries Chronicles”, which is less like a hint that I should be catching up my blog reviews than it is a bizarre kind of family reunion.

Published in 1931 and set from 1774 – 1820, this novel is amazingly literary, if we use that word in its broadest sense. It teems with readers, and there are any number of references to hot-off-the-press works of non-fiction such as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Paine’s Age Of Reason, Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France and Rousseau’s Contrat Social. One character writes for the Gentleman’s Magazine; another has his life changed by the The Life Of John Wesley; while the appearance of a professional actress gives us a whirlwind tour of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But ultimately, novels and poetry predominate. A fit of righteous rage is described in the words of Ann Radcliffe: To speak in the terms of The Italian, he was ‘cold fury nobly seething’. Mrs Radcliffe wins a second mention when the heroine wakes from a strange dream with her mind in a bookish jumble: With confused notions of Mrs Radcliffe, a novel that the night before she had been reading, The Last Step; or The History Of Mrs Brudenal, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Isabella; or The Rewards Of Good Nature

We are introduced to the young John Herries, who at the age of fourteen…could read tales and poetry to himself by the hour. He would sit curled up in a corner somewhere and pray he would not be noticed. He had always detested Mangnall’s Questions, and Butler’s Guide To Useful Knowledge—for such things he had no use whatever, but Goldsmith’s History Of England he devoured in all its four volumes because of the thrilling detail in it. Then there was Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts In Prose And Verse, then Marmion, The Lay, the Waverleys, The Parents’ Assistant, The Fairchild Family and, secretly, obtained from some of the Forresters who lived in Bassenthwaite, many volumes of the Minerva Press, The Mysterious Hand, The Demon Of Society and the rest…

That’s my boy.

We also meet John’s mother, Jennifer, who keeps her children’s grotesquely unqualified tutor around because, among other reasons, he’s willing to entertain her by reading Minerva Press novels to her.

All sorts of literary figures flit across the pages of this novel. Robert Southey and Walter Scott appear in person, as do Sarah and Hartley Coleridge, although not their husband and father; while there are mentions of Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron. Francis Herries, while trying to support himself as a writer, becomes acquainted with Charles Lamb and Samuel Rogers; and it is the latter who introduces Francis to a young man destined to make his mark in the world:

    “This is Mr Macaulay, who is at Cambridge and will soon be having the world at his feet. Come, come, Macaulay. You know you will. You are as confident of it as I am.”
    The thick-set untidy youth raised a pair of very remarkable piercing eyes and began to talk with great eloquence and volubility. It was clear that he did not suffer from shyness… The loquacious youth had already forgotten him and was talking eagerly to Sumner about a book he held in his hand…

We are not made privy to the volume that has won the enthusiasm of the future Lord Macaulay, but I just know it was one of Mary Meeke’s novels…

But the crowning moment comes when Judith Paris calls upon some friends of hers, a tacitly lesbian middle-aged couple. She finds one of them sewing while the other reads a novel out loud:

    She knocked on the door, was admitted by their little maid Betty, and found them by the fire in the parlour, Miss West reading to Miss Pennyfeather from one of the novels of Mrs Cuthbertson.
    They were enchanted to see Judith.
    Miss West threw Mrs Cuthbertson on to the floor, crying in a deep bass voice: “This is Stuff!”

Oh, hey!!

So where did Hugh Walpole learn about the novels of Kitty Cuthbertson, which were long out of print by 1931? Possibly he found some old volumes in his family’s library—although all things considered, my best guess would be that he’d been reading The Life And Letters Of Macaulay, and thus learned about Cuthbertson – and Meeke – exactly the same way that we did.

Or, I suppose, he could have been reading Jane Austen’s letters

So there you have it: a sign from the ether that the universe is Not Best Pleased with my slackness, that I should be knuckling down to my exceedingly overdue review of Mary Meeke’s 1797 novel, Palmira And Ermance – and that it intends to keep pestering me until I do.

And furthermore that, having done so, I will be able to move on to the next novel in line for Authors In Depth—Kitty Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector.

Footnote:  The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterreanean Horrours!: A Romance by Augustus Jacob Crandolph and The Fairchild Family by Martha Sherwood were already on The List; but of The Demon Of Society, The Last Step and Isabella I can, alas, find no sign.

12/02/2011

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage

      “…And although in cruelty we are compelled to leave you, without explanations of the fatal cause that thus severs you from your great prospect of every mortal felicity, yet be assured it would be yet greater cruelty to reveal to you the source of separation, that blasts your lover’s hopes of happiness, I fear, for ever.”
      “Oh, Sir,” softly murmured out the tortured Rosabella, in a tone of pathos that thrilled through the seat of pity in his bosom, “answer me but one question;—yet answer it, I conjure you!—Is he—or is he not my brother?”

Published in five volumes in 1817, Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage was the fifth of Catherine Cuthbertson‘s seven novels. It opens in Ireland in 1814, where agents provocateurs are trying to rouse the local population to violent revolt against their landlords, the Earl of Montalbert and the Dowager Countess of Derville. Their plans to assassinate the nobles are thwarted, however, by the sudden appearance of Lord Montalbert himself, who daringly confronts the mob, demanding to know their grievances. Against himself the would-be assassins can say little; but their sufferings at the hands of Lady Derville’s agent are genuine enough. The gathering is finally broken up by the arrival of the startling news of the abdication of Napoleon, and the entry of the Allies into Paris.

Lady Derville has indeed left the management of the estate of Ravenswood to an unscrupulous agent, while the whole of her attention is focused upon her three orphaned grandchildren, Lord Derville, Charles Monson and the Lady Meliora Monson. The other members of the household are the Reverend Thourby Sternham, a middle-aged cleric who is Lady Derville’s advisor and her grandchildren’s tutor, and a girl called Rosabella Frederick, who has been raised with the others and acts as companion to Lady Derville and Lady Meliora.

Many years earlier, while visiting a small, seaside village on the west coast of Ireland for the benefit of the young Lord Derville’s health, the children formed a friendship with a lovely little girl who lived at the inn where they were staying, but who was clearly not the ladylady’s own child. The landlady, Mrs Cormack, was brought to reveal the strange history of Rosabella. Some time before, while in better circumstances and operating a far more successful inn, Mrs Cormack had received two visitors: a man, a wealthy foreigner of threatening aspect and a violent temper, and his unhappy wife, an Englishwoman. With them was a maidservant, who carried in her arms a beautiful baby, at the mere sight of which the husband became enraged.

From the servant, Antonia, Mrs Cormack learned that the baby was the child of the lady’s first marriage. Having been left destitute by the death of her soldier-husband in battle, and with two small children to care for, she had compelled herself to marry the Spanish nobleman who was passionately in love with her. She had not reckoned with the violent jealousy of her new husband, however, who upon catching her crying over a cameo of her lost love, tore her oldest child, a boy, from her and sent him away to be raised by paternal relatives. With respect to the baby, Rosabella, history was brutally repeated: after the couple had left the inn, Antonia abruptly reappeared, leaving there the baby, some money, and a few papers, including a letter addressed to someone called “Frederick”.

Fascinated by this story and charmed by the beautiful toddler, Lady Derville persuaded the landlady to give the child into her care, to be raised with her grandchildren. She had little cause to repent her impulse as Rosabella – dubbed “Miss Frederick” for want of a surname – grew to be sweet-tempered, hard-working and deeply attached to her benefactress.

Their father having gone to ruin and dissipation before his early death, Lady Derville has taken the extreme step of raising her grandchildren away from society and in almost total seclusion, thwarting equally their desire for amusement and Charles’s ambition for the army. However, as the children grew older, Lady Derville began to fear that Lord Derville or Charles might fall in love with Rosabella, an arrangement that did not in the least suit the Countess’s pride, in spite of her real affection for the girl. It became, therefore, Lady Derville’s constant occupation to instill in all four children a firm belief in Rosabella’s natural inferiority. Accepting this, and accepting also that she might one day need to earn her own living, Rosabella alone of the children studied diligently under Mr Sternham and acquired a thorough education.

Lady Derville need not have worried. Their isolation, and their grandmother’s mistaken efforts to inculcate them with the distance between themselves and Rosabella, has the effect of encouraging in each of the other three a dominant and negative passion. In Lord Derville, it is his avarice, which makes him dream of wealthy heiresses, and will not allow him to consider the penniless Rosabella as a wife. As for Charles, his all-consuming pride makes her lack of identity and uncertain status offensive. Nevertheless, both young men feel a genuine affection for the girl, as does Meliora, whose sisterly love for her companion remains steadfast as long as she is able to believe what she had always been told about her own incomparable beauty, and Rosabella’s complete inferiority…

However, to Lady Derville’s frightened eyes there are signs that the young Charles, in particular, is beginning to feel more than brotherly affection for his fair companion. Her response is to send Rosabella away for a period of residence in the household of Lady Anne Belmont, who lives with her brother, a bishop. Although this manoeuvre achieves Lady Derville’s purpose in the short-term, when Rosabella returns to Ravenswood upon the death of the bishop, the dismayed Countess finds that under the influence of Lady Anne, she has grown into a beautiful and accomplished young woman.

The siblings keep up a clamour to be allowed to go into society, but the most they succeed in wringing from their grandmother is a promise that they will make their debuts when there is peace in Europe; a promise she does not expect to have to keep. Consequently, the news of the Treaty of Fontainebleau and Napoleon’s exile to Elba leaves Lady Derville as appalled as it did the local rebels. Caught in her own trap, she agrees to a trip to London – although she has no intention of taking Rosabella along, and begins to look around for someone to leave her behind with.

As the preparations for their journey are being made, the young people are thrilled to learn that a grand celebration will be held locally to mark the declaration of peace, and that it will be attended by Lord Montalbert, who since his return home after being wounded in the war has lived in total isolation; a withdrawal ascribed by gossip not to a need to recover from his injuries, but to an unhappy love affair. To keep Rosabella from attending the fete, Lady Derville feigns an indisposition. Her grandchildren attend, however, and Meliora returns not only with news of Montalbert’s attendance, but a rapturous description of his charm and elegance, and of his obvious and instantaneous passion for herself – one which she has no doubt will result in a proposal of marriage at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile, Rosabella has been having a romantic adventure of her own. One of her duties is to dispense Lady Derville’s charity amongst her needier tenants. On her way to their poor cottages, she must climb over a rocky outcrop, an exercise that thanks to long years of practice holds no terrors for her. However, she finds herself under observation by a handsome stranger, who in his anxiety for her safety, slips and falls himself. Rosabella hurries to his aid, but her efforts to help are strangely interrupted by the abrupt intrusion of Mr Sternham, who in a fit of anger for which Rosabella cannot account, sends her home, threatening to tell Lady Derville that she has been making secret assignations if she argues with him.

It does not cross Rosabella’s mind that at the age of nearly sixty, the austere Sternham has fallen in love for the first time in his life – nor that this unexpected and unfamiliar passion will drive him to behaviour both frantic and dishonourable. Sternham’s impulse to intervene between Rosabella and the young stranger, who obviously admires her, leads him to tell Lady Derville that the stranger is a notorious fortune-hunter, and that he is probably looking for some means to make the acquaintance of Lady Meliora – and thus pretended a fall to scrape acquaintance with Rosabella.

Circumstances then conspire to increase Lady Derville’s fears that Charles is falling in love with Rosabella, and it is for more reason than one that she is thrilled when a letter unexpectedly arrives from Mrs Kilbride – the former Mrs Cormack – to tell Rosabella that the Spanish servant, Antonia, has reappeared; that she is desperately ill; and that she has begged for Rosabella to come to her, that she might clear her conscience by confession before dying. Rosabella sets out for the village of Myrtle’s Town, hoping to at last learn the truth of her identity. There she finds Antonia in a high fever and suffering fits, able to tell her only, and with difficulty, that her brother is alive and in the British army.

Rosabella undertakes the nursing of the dying woman, desperate to hear anything more that she might say. The local doctor, becoming worried about Rosabella’s own health, insists that she go for regular walks upon the beach. There, Rosabella is alarmed by the appearance of the stranger from Ravenswood – and confused to discover that he is in the company of the Reverend Mr Trench, a man of unimpeachable character whom she has long known by reputation. Vouching for his friend, Mr Trench introduces him to Rosabella as Mr Egremont.

Convinced that, for reasons she is unable to comprehend, Mr Sternham must have traduced the young man, Rosabella admits his acquaintance…and the two of them fall very deeply in love. Rosabella’s new happiness is, however, shattered by the death of Antonia, who reveals nothing more, and by the accidental loss of a small locked box which may have held the key to her identity. Regardless, Egremont declares his love for Rosabella and asks her to marry him. Overwhelmed by his generosity, Rosa holds him off, insisting that he must hear as much of the truth about her solitary and penniless state as she knows, before he commits himself.

And so she tells her story…and as she does so, Egremont becomes more and more overcome with emotion…until he flees from her in unconcealed horror…

Egremont’s reaction to her story implants an inescapable suspicion in Rosabella’s mind, and she steels herself to ask Mr Trench whether what she fears is true?—whether the man she loves is in fact her long-lost brother..? Mr Trench, almost as affected by her story as Egremont, tells her emphatically that this is not so; that Egremont is not her brother; but that who he is, may separate them forever no less surely…

And that’s not even a full summation of the FIRST VOLUME!!

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that could be more aptly described as a typical 19th-century sentimental novel as Rosabella. All the ingredients are there: the perfect heroine, the inordinate length, the convoluted plot, the array of characters who pop up volumes apart yet have to be remembered, the didacticism, the purple prose, the unreasonable behaviour, the weeping, fainting and collapsing at the slightest provocation, and perhaps above all the long arm of coincidence, which reaches into every single corner of this story and gives it a good hard shake.

How the individual reader will react to this novel will, I think, be determined by his or her levels of tolerance for these conventions; my own, I find, is quite high; your mileage may vary. Miss Cuthbertson also exhibits another stylistic quirk common to novelists of this era, an obsession with a particular word or phrase, which is used repeatedly throughout the text…and remember, we’re talking about something like 1800 pages here!

To be fair, this was a common phenomenon at the time. Readers of Frances Burney’s novels, for example, might recall how none of her characters ever just felt something: they were always penetrated; penetrated by sorrow, penetrated with gratitude… Similarly, one of Miss Cuthbertson’s particular words is “transcendent”: no-one is merely beautiful or handsome; they are always trancendently beautiful or handsome. This one isn’t so bad, although you do end up wishing she’d occasionally used a thesaurus. More problematic is “insulation”, which she uses to indicate Rosabella’s solitary condition. The usage is technically correct, but between the repetition and the other meaning of that term, all the sad references to “Rosabella’s state of insulation” do conjure up some amusing mental images; not quite what our author was striving for.

As for the weeping / fainting / collapsing, be warned, there is a LOT of it. Indeed, Miss Cuthbertson’s characters faint so often, she was forced to invent a scale of faints, to distinguish your ordinary, everyday faint from a really serious one—or as she calls it, a death-seeming swoon. There are at least three of those, while I lost count of the other kind.

And yes, it is Rosabella who does most of the weeping / fainting / collapsing, which if not unexpected is annoying, because there’s more to her than that: she’s also intelligent, has a sense of humour, and upon occasion can be sarcastic and satirical; we don’t see nearly enough of that side of her.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s no genuine entertainment value in Rosabella, along with the inadvertent stuff; I’m merely warning you about what you’ll have to wade through to get to it, if you dare venture in.

Although not particularly deep, Cuthbertson’s characterisations aren’t without merit, particularly in the delineation of the various idées fixes that drive the members of the Monson family, and lead then to acts of harshness, even cruelty, against the unfortunate Rosabella, who they should know, must know, would never do anything to hurt them, or even to thwart their most selfish desires. Of course, this being a didactic novel, each of the Monsons finally gets his or her comeuppance.

Thus, Lord Derville’s avarice lures him into the pursuit of a rather dodgy “heiress”; Charles’s unfounded confidence in his powers of judgement makes him the perfect target for a pair of con-artists; Meliora’s overweening vanity and ever-increasing hunger for flattery lead her into dubious and ultimately dangerous company; and Lady Derville finally discovers the truth about the penniless, possibly low-born girl she’s been moving heaven and earth to keep out of her family… Meanwhile, in the appalling Mr Sternham, the austere cleric suddenly and belatedly gripped by a passion for a lovely young girl, we have a character sketch that occasionally foreshadows Mr Casaubon…although without any of that gentleman’s complexity or pitiable self-delusion (or any of Eliot’s subtlety).

Also interesting is the story’s setting against a defined period in history: from the abdication of Napoleon in April, 1814,  to the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. The characters’ visit to London coincides with that of the Allied sovereigns, most notably King Frederick of Prussia, Czar Alexander and his sister, the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg, and Field Marshall Blucher; the Monsons’ mad dashing around trying to get a good look at these notables at their various public appearances (or, as it often turned out, rumoured public appearances) occupies much of the second volume. By the final volume, circumstances have moved the characters to Brussels. We are accustomed, I suppose, to thinking of Vanity Fair as “the” novelistic depiction of this time and place, and it is interesting to read a different account of the same events, from a very different perspective; one rendered quite poignant by the fact that Rosabella and the others have by now become closely associated with a number of soldiers who are engaged in the battle.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect of Cuthbertson’s novel is her exploitation of the disjunction between private knowledge and public perception. The Monsons, of course, know where they got Rosabella from; they don’t think twice about it. What they don’t realise is that it is generally assumed that Rosabella is the illegitimate daughter of the late Lord Derville, and thus the siblings’ half-sister. Of course, no-one talks about any of this, so the mistake is never corrected. The result, however, is that when Lady Derville begins manoeuvring to separate Charles and Rosabella, it is perceived as being for good and, indeed, necessary reasons – instead of being what it actually is, a case of pure snobbery. When Rosabella decides she must flee the Monsons and find a way to support herself, she turns for help to her friends, Lord and Lady Flowerdew, who assume her motive is her illicit passion for her half-brother – and help her to hide herself on that basis. When Charles, who is in trouble, tries to turn to Rosabella for help, he finds himself blocked at every turn by a conspiracy of silence, everyone believing they are doing the right thing by keeping “the lovers” apart…when in fact they are doing a great deal of harm…

Rosabella certainly isn’t a sensation novel in the later 19th century sense of the expression, but Cuthbertson manages any number of plot twists and revelations over the course of her story. While some of these are guessable, at other times she succeeds in cleverly leading the reader astray. From the summary above, you can see how it is hinted that Egremont is in fact Rosabella’s missing brother; but no sooner have we, like she, come to that conclusion than Cuthbertson has Mr Trench pull the rug out from under us by declaring, no, it isn’t that…it’s something even worse…a secret whose revelation doesn’t occur for another three-and-a-half volumes! (I’m pleased to be able to report that the explanation for Egremont’s appalled reaction to Rosabella’s story, when it eventually comes, is actually fairly reasonable.)

Simultaneously with this, another revelation is in the making, one where the reader is probably more likely to guess correctly: namely, that the elusive Lord Montalbert and the devoted Mr Egremont are one and the same person. (If you think I shouldn’t be giving away this particular surprise, don’t worry, there are plenty more where that came from!) As you might imagine, the discovery that Lady Meliora’s great conquest is in fact pursuing her humble, nameless companion goes over like a lead balloon with the Monsons, driving a wedge between Rosabella and her adoptive family and setting in train a sequence of events that will eventually reveal the true identity of many more characters than just Rosabella…

How can I best sum up Rosabella? Perhaps by saying that for all its faults, its extravagances, its coincidences and its absurdities, I devoured all five volumes of this novel in under four days. I had the Christmas / New Year week off work last year, and that’s how I spent it. I’m not going to insult Miss Cuthbertson by resorting to the “fast food” analogy here, but I will concede to the box of chocolates / bag of chips comparison: just one more chapter, just a few more pages…

This kind of novel is certainly not for every reader, but I imagine I’ve said enough – more than enough – to let you know whether it might be for you. As for myself, I find I am once again in complete sympathy with Thomas Macaulay and his degenerate literary taste, and deeply regretting that Catherine Cuthbertson only wrote seven novels (although the reflection that most of them are five volumes long does help). If the others are as ridiculously entertaining as this one, bring ’em on!

09/01/2011

But what sayeth Thomas Macaulay?

And so the Reading Gods and I kissed and made up. After taunting me with a book from 1899, they relented and offered me a novel so exactly what I’ve been hoping for, it was almost scary:

Rosabella; or, A Mother’s Marriage by Catherine Cuthbertson, a five-volume sentimental novel from 1817.

Of Miss Cuthbertson herself, I can learn nothing, beyond a few unsupported assertions that I don’t see any point in repeating. What we do know for sure is that between 1803 and 1830, she wrote seven novels, most of them five volumes (!), and that they were popular in their time – and possibly influential. More than one researcher has contended that Miss Cuthbertson’s early novels were an influence upon Walter Scott in the writing of Waverley and, in particular, Guy Mannering.

The other thing I’ve found out about Miss Cuthbertson, a detail that in my current state of mind is perhaps the most important thing I could have found out about her, is that she was another of Thomas Macaulay’s pet novelists. Our knowledge of Macaulay’s fondness for Miss Cuthbertson comes, as usual, via the text of a letter, in this case one written by his sister, Lady Trevelyan, who once recalled of her brother that:

…there was a set of books by a Mrs. Kitty Cuthbertson, most silly though readable productions, the nature of which may be guessed from their titles:—‘Santo Sebastiano, or the Young Protector,’ ‘The Forest of Montalbano,’ ‘The Romance of the Pyrenees,’ and ‘Adelaide, or the Countercharm.’ I remember how, when ‘Santo Sebastiano‘ was sold by auction in India, he and Miss Eden bid against each other till he secured it at a fabulous price; and I possess it still…”

In fact, in his subsequent perusal of Santo Sebastiano, Thomas Macaulay was moved to keep a record of just how many times over the course of the story somebody fainted, and wrote his tallies in the back of the book. (FYI: 27 times over five volumes, the heroine 11 times.)

That “Miss Eden”, by the way, is Emily Eden, who was in India visiting her brother George, the Earl of Auckland and Governor-General there between 1835 and 1842. Miss Eden herself, of course, subsequently became a successful novelist; her letters from India to her sister were also published. I’ve never read any of her works, but now, all of a sudden, I really, really want to. (She is on The List.)

And the upshot of all this is that Catherine Cuthbertson has won herself an instant promotion from “Reading Roulette” over to “Authors In Depth”, right alongside Mary Meeke. If it’s good enough for Thomas Macaulay, it’s good enough for me. And astonishingly enough, it appears that all seven of Miss Cuthbertson’s novels are available electronically, so we will be able to do her full justice…one way or the other.

27/12/2010

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 1)

“…for my tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.”
—Thomas Babington Macaulay (1832)

Which brings us to the first entry in our new series, Authors In Depth, in which (to start with) we will be examining the extant works of the once popular and now largely forgotten novelist, Mary Meeke.

Anyone who knows anything about the popular literature of the late 18th and early 19th century will be aware of the notorious Minerva Press, home of the “scribbling women”, mainstay of the circulating libraries, and favourite target for condescending critics and antinovelists alike. For some twenty years, William’s Lane’s mini-empire turned out three-, four- and even five-volume sentimental and gothic novels, crammed from cover to cover with instanteaneous passion, extravagant speeches, swooning women and improbable events. Mary Meeke is, in many respects, the perfect exemplar of the Minerva Press novelist: prolific, popular, and critically scorned.

Very little is known about Mrs Meeke herself. She seems to have been the wife of a minister, and was evidently well-educated. Between 1795 and the (disputed) time of her death, she wrote over thirty novels, as well as publishing several translations of European works. Though selling well in their time, her novels were not reissued and have since fallen into obscurity. Search for information on her, and for the most part you will find only that quote above, which has been used time and again to demonstrate conclusively that Mary Meeke was a bad writer – which is not at all what Thomas Macaulay intended when he penned those words. That damning quote has been taken quite out of context.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, later the 1st Lord Macaulay, was a poet, an historian, and a politician, serving at various times as Secretary of War and as Paymaster-General. He was also – and for our puposes, this is far more important – a lifelong, voracious devourer of novels, good, bad and indifferent. Even as today we adopt lines of dialogue from popular TV shows, Macaulay and his sister Hannah, later Lady Trevelyan, quoted novels at one another and compared people they knew to various fictional characters. Macaulay once contended that, between them, he and his sister could re-write Sir Charles Grandison from memory. His letters to Hannah contain any number of references to his reading, and there are at least three remarks in them about the novels of Mary Meeke. The tone of those remarks makes it clear that Macaulay’s fondness for her books was something of a running joke between his sister and himself.

And in truth, Macaulay may have been Mary Meeke’s Number One Fan. By his own assertion, he owned and repeatedly re-read her novels. He used catchphrases from her writing. When he went to India in 1834, he took a crate of her books with him.  Once, having read a novel he really didn’t enjoy, he declared his intention of cleansing his palette by re-reading Mrs Meeke’s Langhton Priory. In the letter containing the quote above, jokingly as it is phrased, Macaulay is in fact comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels favourably with a good old-fashioned English dinner. It is quite incorrect for that quote to be used as “evidence” that she was a bad novelist.

Mind you— None of this proves that Mary Meeke wasn’t a bad novelist, either. It simply proves that Thomas Macaulay wasn’t ashamed of his taste in light literature – and that he had a sense of humour. In the course of this series, we shall find out for ourselves exactly what kind of a novelist Mrs Meeke was.

(By a rather charming coincidence, sometime in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a bit more from Thomas Macaulay, Literary Critic.)