Posts tagged ‘translation’

07/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 3)

    How this man had come to be here and who he might be was a complete mystery to Wilhelm.— “If so many people have taken an interest in me, why did they not guide me more strictly and earnestly? Why did they favour my playing, instead of leading me away from it?”
    “Don’t remonstrate with us!” a voice called; “you have been saved, and are on your way to the goal. You will not regret any of your follies nor wish for any of them back; no happier fate can befall anyone.” The curtain separated, and the old King of Denmark in full armour was standing in the opening. “I am your father’s ghost,” the figure said, “and I go away comforted since my wishes for you have been fulfilled more completely than I conceived them even. Steep places can only be climbed by means of detours, in the plains straight paths lead from one place to another. Farewell and remember me when you are enjoying what I have prepared for you!”
    Wilhelm was extremely taken aback, he believed he was hearing his father’s voice, and yet again it was not his voice; he found himself in the most confused situation because of his present position and his memories.
    He did not have long to reflect before the Abbé appeared and placed himself behind the green table. “Come along here,” he called to his surprised friend. On the table-cloth was a little scroll. “Here is your certificate of apprenticeship,” the Abbé said, “consider it well, its contents are important…”

 

 
Book Six, Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, closes the second volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The third volume, though it does deal with the final phase of Wilhelm’s “education”, and explains at least some of what has puzzled him and us along the way, is oddly structured: what we might tend to consider the novel’s climax occurs quite early on; it is followed by a lengthy stretch of narrative occupied not only with the breaking of old relationships and the forging of new ones, but with various passages that argue with, and in some ways undermine, what we have been led to believe is “the point” of the novel.

(And if you think that sounds like another a priori apology, give yourself a gold star.)

Overall, however, this section of the novel clearly represents Wilhelm “putting away childish things”, albeit not all at once; and that the theatre is one of those childish things is interesting in light of the fact that Goethe himself never made such a separation: even as he was writing about Wilhelm’s severance from his childhood / childish ambition, Goethe became the artistic director of the court theatre at Weimar, a position he held until 1817. (He produced Hamlet in 1792.)

Presumably, therefore, we are to take Wilhelm’s turning away from the theatre in a symbolic rather than literal spirit: it has rescued him from the soul-starving mercantile life for which his birth intended him, but it is not his ultimate life-goal.

That severance takes some time, however, and happens in fits and starts throughout Volume II. One critical event occurs when the troupe hesitates over undertaking a particular journey, having heard that bandits are roaming the district in question. Wilhelm persuades them to go on, resulting in the troupe being attacked, plundered, and scattered; Wilhelm himself, who does his best to defend his companions, is seriously injured. His life is saved when he is discovered by a beautiful woman on horseback, who brings a doctor to him. In his confused state, Wilhelm takes the woman to be some quasi-supernatural being:

…the vivid impression of her presence had such a strange effect upon his already strained senses that all at once it appeared to him as if her head were encircled by rays and as if a gleaming light were gradually suffusing her whole person…

Furthermore, Wilhelm sees in her, or thinks he sees, a strong resemblance to the young Countess; but this woman’s more forceful personality leads him to think of her as “the Amazon”. Though uncertain of how accurate his memories are of this interlude, the woman continues to haunt his dreams…

Wilhelm’s connection with the theatre also develops an almost-relationship between himself and Aurelia, the actress-sister of the troupe’s professional manager. She has never gotten over a broken love affair, and her thwarted passions have undermined her health. As it fails, she is attended by a clergyman and his doctor-friend, the same who are caring for the old harpist; and it is the doctor who, in trying to address Aurelia’s stormy discontent, lends to her the manuscript written by a friend of his, which came into his hands after her death.

Wilhelm’s reading of this manuscript to Aurelia occupies the entirety of Book Six and divides completely the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. As with so much of this novel, this interlude is not always easy to interpret—either in itself, or with respect to its specific references.

The most important of the latter (because it also impinges the story of the Count and Countess) is to the Moravian Brotherhood, a Protestant sect which originated in what is now the Czech Republic. Among its beliefs are that Christ cannot be fully comprehended by any human mind, that the Scriptures do not contain any doctrinal system, and that the formation of congregations is not necessary to worship. In the early 18th century, a colony of Moravians, who had suffered persecution in Bohemia, were invited by the Count von Zinzendorf to settle upon his estate in Saxony. They remained something of a “secret society”, however, separate from and disapproved by the mainstream church.

(Pardon an interruption to this interruption: I had a, Hey, wait a minute -! moment while writing this; and yes, we have encountered the Moravian Brotherhood before. The Moravians were the first Protestants to begin missionary work; and in this guise we met them in our reading of The Holy Lover, where there is an important shipboard encounter between the young John Wesley and a representative of Moravians while they are both on their way to America. [Although I see now that I incorrectly used the word ‘congregation’ in this context.])

Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul recounts the anonymous author’s life, in particular describing her passionate religious faith and her exposure to the Moravians; but also the inner convictions that lead her, in effect, to separate herself from the tenets of society, the church and even the Moravians, in order to pursue her own way. In fact—she comes to believe that the early religious teaching which she received was mistaken, and interfered with development of true faith: another instance within the novel of faulty childhood education setting someone on the wrong path.

Throughout this intensely personal account of one woman’s inner life, there are also external references to her family situation and connections. Most importantly in the first instance, there is a wealthy, unattached uncle, who uses his position to influence (if not indeed dictate) family affairs. The uncle arranges an advantageous marriage to “a young man of rank and wealth” for one of the author’s sisters; the associated festivities take place at his estate, a castle in the countryside, where the author is exposed for the first time to the power of art. There are familiar arguments here, although meant more literally than hitherto:

He directed my attention to the various pictures which were on the wall; my eye was caught by those whose aspect was attractive or whose subject was significant; he let this happen for a time, and then he said: “Do now pay some attention also to the skilful spirit that brought forth these works. Good minds like so much to see the hand of God in nature; why should be not also give some consideration to the hand of His imitator?” He then drew my attention to pictures that were not of an arresting quality, and tried to explain to me that in fact only the history of art could give us understanding of the value and dignity of a work of art, and that in the first place we must know about the difficult stages of mechanism and craft, by means of which gifted men have been working themselves upwards over the centuries…

This visit is likewise the author’s first experience of the full capabilities of music and song:

I now heard music which had originated from the deepest imagination of the finest characters and which by means of particular and practised voices in harmonic unity again spoke to man’s most profound and outstanding faculty and caused him really to feel vividly at this moment his likeness to God…

The author suffers bereavements: one of her sisters, her father, her brother-in-law, and then her other sister, after having given birth to her fourth child. The author is by this time an invalid herself, at the outset of her slow slide to death, and she does not feel able to take upon herself the full care of her nieces and nephews. Instead the uncle takes them in and raises them.

We hear about the oldest boy, apparently made to be a soldier, though, “Anything but rough in his actions and his whole character, in fact rather gentle and cautious.”

The eldest girl is her aunt’s favourite: “It would not be easy to find a nobler figure nor a calmer disposition… From childhood onwards her behaviour towards those who were suffering and in need of help was matchless…” This paragon even has a name! – Natalie.

The younger girl is, “Very dainty and attractive…she is much concerned with her outward appearance…”

The youngest boy, at this time, is only a baby.

We then hear about the unusual way in which the children are being educated:

    The supervision of all the children, who are educated at different places and are lodged now here, now there, is in the hands of a strange man who is taken to be a French clergyman, but without there being any real information about his origins.
    At first I could see no plan in this education, until my doctor finally revealed to me that the Uncle had let himself be convinced by the Abbé that if one wished to do something about a person’s education, one would need to see in which directions his inclinations and wishes would move. Then one would have to put him in a position where he could satisfy his inclinations and fulfil his wishes as soon as possible, so that if he should have made a mistake, he should be aware of his error in good time, and if he had found what suited him, he should hold to it all the more keenly and continue his training it all the more industriously…

We do not learn how this “strange experiment” turns out, as the author died shortly afterwards.

Prior to all this, Aurelia told her story of her ill treatment by her lover to Wilhelm, exacting from him a promise that he would travel to the estate of the unfaithful Lothario (and yes, that really is his name!), inform him of her death, and deliver a letter full of angry reproaches. Now, softened by the author’s story, Aurelia instead sends to Lothario a message of forgiveness. Wilhelm promises to deliver it, albeit he still intends to give Lothario a piece of his own mind. He even – old habits die hard – composes and rehearses a speech…

Wilhelm’s departure for Lothario’s estate does in effect mark his break from the theatre, although not from all his acquaintances there. His journey and its immediate aftermath comprise one disconcerting event after another. First he falls in again with the apparent clergyman (he still looks like one, although, as Wilhelm comments, now a like Catholic rather than a Lutheran, as he did before); then, Lothario greets him with such hospitality and politeness, it throws him off his stride. The next thing, Lothario goes off to fight a duel and is wounded, and Wilhelm finds himself helping to ease his convalescence—in company with Lothario’s friend and “second”, and his old acquaintance, Jarno—who like most people Wilhelm meets seems to know as much or more about his doings as he does himself…

It is Jarno who begins to put some of the pieces together:

    “For heaven’s sake,” cried Wilhelm, when they were alone in the room, “what’s this about the Count? Which Count is it who is taking up with the Moravian community?”
    “Someone you know very well,” Jarno replied. “You are the ghost that is chasing him into the arms of piety, you are the villain who is putting his nice wife into a position where she finds it tolerable to follow her husband.”
    “And she is Lothario’s sister?” cried Wilhelm.
    “No other.”
    “And Lothario knows—?”
    “Everything.”
    “Oh, let me disappear!” Wilhelm exclaimed, “how can I appear before him? What can he say?”
    “That nobody should pick up a stone to cast at another, and that nobody should prepare long speeches in order to put other people to shame, unless he wants to deliver the speeches in front of a mirror.”
    “You know that too?”
    “Like many other things,” Jarno replied with a smile…

During his stay with Lothario, Wilhelm becomes aware that certain sections of his castle – including an ancient tower – are blocked off; that there are many locked doors, and hints of secret passages; and notices how many conversations between Lothario and Jarno break off upon his entrance.

Finally, Wilhelm is initiated into the associated secrets. One day, before dawn, Jarno leads him through the previously inaccessible section of the castle, into the tower, and into one particular room:

    The room where he now was appeared to have previously been a chapel; instead of an altar there was a large table covered with a green cloth at the top of some steps, and above this it seemed that a closed curtain was concealing a picture; at the sides there were beautifully fashioned bookcases which were sealed off by fine wire grating, as normally seen in libraries, only instead of books he saw many scrolls stacked up. There was nobody in the room; the rising sun shone through the stained glass windows just in Wilhelm’s direction and gave him a friendly greeting.
    “Do sit down!” a voice called which seemed to be sounding from the altar. Wilhelm sat in a small arm-chair which was placed against the entrance; there was no other seat in the whole room, and he had to be resigned to this one although the morning sunlight dazzled him; the seat was fixed, all he could do was to shade his eyes with his hand.
    In the meantime the curtain above the altar opened with a slight noise and revealed a dark, empty aperture within a frame…

Various people whom Wilhelm met during his journey – the stranger who spoke to him of his grandfather’s art collection; the apparent clergyman; a soldier whom he met with Jarno; the ghost of Hamlet’s father – step one after the other into the frame, making of themselves a picture for Wilhelm’s benefit, and speak to him of fate and self-determination and education…

At the conclusion of this ceremony, Wilhelm is given his “Certificate of Apprenticeship”:

“Art is long, life short, judgement difficult, opportunity fleeting. Acting is easy, thinking difficult, acting according to one’s thoughts uncomfortable. Every beginning is cheerful, the threshold is the place of expectation. The boy is astonished, impressions form him, he learns in play, he is surprised by seriousness. What is excellent is seldom found, more rarely esteemed. It is the height that stimulates us, not the steps; we gladly walk in the plain with our eyes on the peak. Only a part of art can be taught, the artist needs it complete. Whoever half-knows art is always in error and talks a lot; whoever possesses it fully likes only to act and talks rarely or at most late. The former have no secrets and no strength, their teaching is tasty like bread that has been baked, and is satiating for one day; but flour cannot be sown, and seed-corn should not be ground. Words are good, but they are not what is best. The best is not made clear through words. The spirit in which we act is the highest. Action is only understood and reproduced by the spirit…”

And so on.

Wilhelm’s main guide through all this is Lothario’s resident clergyman, the Abbé…who may or may not be the “apparent clergyman”…among other people:

    “And so you have seen me on the stage?”
    “Oh, certainly!”
    “And who took the part of the Ghost?”
    “I don’t know, either the Abbé or his twin-brother, but I think it was the latter, he’s just a little bit taller…”

In any event, it is definitely the Abbé who directs Wilhelm’s initiation, and grants him his Certificate; though he interrupts his reading of it:

    “Enough!” the Abbé cried, “the rest in due course. Now take a look at those cases.”
    Wilhelm went over and read the inscriptions on the scrolls. He was surprised to find Lothario’s, Jarno’s and his own ‘years of apprenticeship’ set up there, among many others whose names were unknown to him.
    “May I hope to be able to cast an eye upon the scrolls?”
    “Nothing in this room is now under lock and key as far as you are concerned…”

Though nothing supernatural occurs throughout this novel, including during these passages, there is often a deep sense of strangeness about its unfolding of events – unheimlich is, I suppose, the word I’m looking for – so that it is not hard to understand how it influenced later writers who did deal in the unnatural, including Franz Kafka.

However—

It is, I think, significant that when Thomas Carlyle published his two-volume translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (as he called it), he chose to end his first volume here, at the end of Book Seven, which concludes with the Abbé exclaiming:

“May you be blessed, young man! Your years of apprenticeship are over; nature has absolved you.”

A natural break-point, indeed, we might think; but it isn’t Goethe’s. Of all the strange things that happen here, among the strangest is that having set up this situation, the author devotes a fair chunk of Book Eight to—if not outright undermining it, at least presenting counter-arguments to this complicated plan of “education” for promising young men.

In fact, in conversation with Jarno, Wilhelm learns that this enterprise is now only a remnant of its former self. Wilhelm has by this point suffered some personal difficulties (to which we will return) and is, in effect, resentful that the Society of the Tower (as it is usually called; although H. M. Waidson does not use that exact phrase in his translation) has not smoothed his path in life for him, but seems, rather, to be just jerking him around:

    “…perhaps you will be more inclined to this if I tell you rightaway that everything you saw in the Tower consists in fact only of relics of a youthful venture which at first was a matter of great seriousness for most of the initiated and which now they all only smile at from time to time.”
    “So it’s only a game as far as these noble signs and words are concerned,” Wilhelm cried out, “we are led with solemnity to a place which induces reverence in us, we are shown the strangest phenomena, we are given scrolls of magnificent, secret words of wisdom, most of which, it is true, we don’t understand, it is revealed to us that up to now we have been apprentices, we are absolved, and we are no wiser than before…”

We learn – eventually – that this “Society” was a venture between Lothario’s uncle (who has just died, which seems to have triggered Wilhelm’s initiation) and the Abbé; and that even at the time of the founding of their venture, there was disagreement over the best way of conducting “education”, a disagreement which has carried to the next generation: whether it is more useful to allow errors to play out to their natural conclusion, so that their full force is felt (as was done with Wilhelm and the theatre), or whether time should be saved by turning those in error away from their mistakes and onto their true path, with the risk of the error retaining its attractiveness through not, perhaps, being seen to be an error.

There is much quoting from the scrolls and the certificates, through much of which we may well be as confused as Wilhelm; although Jarno persists in quoting those passages he believes most thoroughly reflect the personality and thinking of the Abbé, and of translating the text into terms that Wilhelm (and we) may better understand:

“You will hear the Abbé speaking about this text often enough still, so let us just see and grasp in a truly clear way what there is about ourselves and what we can develop concerning ourselves; let us be fair to others, for we only deserve respect inasmuch as we know how to esteem others… Man is not happy until his unrestricted striving determines for itself its own limits. Don’t hold onto me, but to the Abbé; don’t think of yourself, but of what is around you. For example, learn to appreciate Lothario’s excellence, how his general view and his activity are indissolubly linked together, how he is always moving onwards, and how he extends and expands, and carries everyone along with him. Wherever he may be, he takes a world along too, his presence is invigorating and inspiring. On the other hand consider the good medicus; his temperament seems to be exactly the opposite. If the former is effective only with regard to the whole and to what is distant, the latter directs his clear glance only to what is nearest, he produces the means to activity rather than bringing forth and giving life to activity itself; his behaviour fully resembles good housekeeping, his is a quiet effectiveness, as he assists everyone in his vicinity…”

(“The good medicus” is the doctor in possession of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, and who has partial care of the old harpist.)

For personal reasons Wilhelm is not in a mood to absorb any of this. He has, previously, reacted in much the same way to a reading of his own scroll, in which he finds not only much more of the Abbé’s philosophy, but a full account of his own unwitting interactions with the members of the Society, as well as numerous, rather unwelcome home-truths about himself. His circumstances must undergo a drastic change before he allows himself to be influenced by the teachings of those around him…

Book Eight of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is lengthy, blending these passages dealing with the purposes of the Society with others in which Wilhelm crosses something of a personal Rubicon: a great deal of the narrative here is concerned with severing Wilhelm from most of the connections of his “apprenticeship”, and his forging of new, more adult bonds. The severance is often as painful for us as for him—including, among other things, the revelation of the tragic personal histories of both Mignon and the harpist.

In this, we may see how Carlyle’s impulse to bring Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to a premature conclusion, while understandable, very much misrepresented Goethe’s intentions.

It is the forging of one particular bond by Wilhelm that ultimately dictates all the rest. As we may surmise from all the former, Wilhelm’s initial plan of taking Lothario to task for his treatment of Aurelia did not exactly pan out. He does, however, eventually discuss Aurelia with Lothario (gaining a less exaggerated idea of their failed relationship); and does indeed take him to task for his neglect of the young child, Felix, whom he assumed to be the result of the affair. That said, he knows that neglect is nothing new for Felix: Aurelia was a careless mother at best, with the boy being cared for chiefly by Mignon.

Wilhelm is surprised when Lothario not only denies having a child with Aurelia, but doubts whether she had a child at all: a suggestion which sets Wilhelm on the path of discovering that Felix is his own son by Marianne. His joyful astonishment is, however, offset by the misery and self-reproach of also learning that Marianne was, in fact, never unfaithful to him; that she was turned away from her acting troupe because of her condition; and that she died destitute only days after giving birth.

(Wilhelm is largely absolved here, both because of the circumstances of his initial suspicions, and because, while he was so ill, Werner ruthlessly ran interference between him and the desperate Marianne.)

Subsequently, Marianne’s old servant, Barbara, managed to impose the baby on Aurelia (and get herself hired) by telling her that he was Lothario’s child: the always-melodramatic Aurelia took Felix in as a “memento” of her own affair with Lothario.

Wilhelm is naturally suspicious of all this, and resists an impulse to take Felix to his heart. He is later given strong evidence of the truth of all this, however; while upon being invited, during his initiation into the Society, to ask any question he likes, in spite of everything only one comes to mind:

    “…and you can expect a decisive answer if it concerns a matter which is, and should be, close to your heart.”
    “Very well then! You strange, wise men whose glance penetrates into so many secrets, can you tell me whether Felix really is my son?”
    “Blessings upon you for this question!” the Abbé cried, clapping his hands for joy…

And it is Wilhelm’s acceptance of paternity, and his subsequent reordering of his life around the boy, which is considered the real end to his “apprenticeship”.

Wilhelm’s first action is to remove both Felix and Mignon from the theatre people (he was only supposed to be visiting Lothario briefly, remember!), and to place them in the care of a new acquaintance, Theresa, another friend of the Society (albeit not an approving one). Generous and honest, Theresa is a domestic goddess who trains young girls whose inclinations lie than way in housekeeping—and who, more unexpectedly, has a rare talent for estate management, in which capacity she is often consulted by her neighbours in the district.

And she was also once betrothed to Lothario, who broke their engagement for no reason Theresa understands. (The reader learns, as Theresa does not, that Lothario discovered to his horror and shame that the woman he had been dallying with in Paris, prior to meeting Theresa, was Theresa’s mother!)

Wilhelm’s first thought in his new role as father is to provide Felix with a mother. He and Theresa become friends at once: he soon hears her life history, and promises her his own (something he undertakes only after giving proper thought to the painful contents of his scroll). Though he knows that Theresa still loves Lothario, he accepts her insistence that all is at an end between them; and he decides to propose marriage to her, which he does via a lengthy letter.

However—

In the course of his conversation with Theresa, the latter makes reference to a close friend of hers who, like herself, teaches young girls—but in that case, those who show artistic inclinations. Theresa refers to her friend as “Lothario’s excellent sister”, and Wilhelm assumes she means the Countess…

…only to find, at long last, his Amazon, the woman (literally and figuratively) of his dreams; that Natalie of the manuscript, Lothario’s other sister, who takes charge of Mignon and her “artistic inclinations”, and who hails with delight Theresa’s acceptance of Wilhelm’s marriage proposal.

Oops.

And here at last the final pieces do fall into place: the author of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul was aunt to Lothario, Natalie, the Countess (who never gets a name) and a fourth sibling, Friedrich, who has been weaving himself into the narrative, appearing and disappearing, attaching himself to Wilhelm’s acting troupe (and one actress in particular), and generally making a nuisance of himself. The “uncle” of the manuscript is therefore the co-founder of the Society (and strictly speaking, great-uncle to the rest), who has just died.

Moreover—it is Natalie who has inherited the uncle’s estate and all the works of art we heard about in the manuscript…including the art collection purchased from Wilhelm’s grandfather…

There is enough romantic shuffling in this section of the novel to fill a contemporary four-volume effort, but Goethe rushes through it in a minimum of pages—and I’ll try to do even better:

Realising that he is in love with Natalie, Wilhelm hopes desperately that Theresa will reject his proposal, but she does not. However, Jarno then turns up to announce that Lothario has discovered that Theresa’s mother is actually her step-mother, and that he (Lothario) wants her back, now that the perceived barrier between them has been removed. And though he doesn’t actually want to marry Theresa, Wilhelm is deeply aggrieved at being brushed aside, particularly when he has, at this time, no hope of Natalie; and even more so at losing the mother he hoped to give Felix—which together account for his pissy mood and his resistance of the Society’s tenets. He becomes even more morose, even ill, when a plan is concerted to send him away altogether, in company with an Italian nobleman, an old friend of the uncle’s, who needs a translator on his travels.

All this makes it awkward and embarrassing when something does begin to develop between Wilhelm and Natalie; and it requires the shameless interference of Friedrich, who casts himself as Deus ex machina, before they can come to an understanding—interference via reference to that painting of “the sick prince”, which is of course in Natalie’s possession, and which finds Friedrich casting Wilhelm as Antiochus, Natalie as Stratonice, and “the good medicus” as Erasistratus:

    He did not seem to believe in his friend’s illness at all. Once, when they were all together, he called out: “Doctor, what do you call the affliction which has beset our friend? Does none of the three thousand names with which you deck out your ignorance apply here? At least there has not been a lack of similar examples. An example of this type,” he continued with an enigmatic smile, “can be found in Egyptian or Babylonian history.”
    The company looked at each other and smiled.
    “What was the king’s name?” he called out and paused for a moment. “If you don’t want to help me, I shall be able to help myself.” He pulled open the doors and pointed to the big picture in the entrance-hall. “What’s the name of the goatee-bearded one with the crown over there who is pining away at the foot of the bed because of his sick son? What’s the name of the beauty who is coming in and whose roguish eyes contain both poison and antidote? What’s the name of the clumsy doctor who only sees the point at this very moment and who for the first time in his life has the opportunity to make out a sensible prescription and to hand over a medicament which provides a complete cure and which is as palatable as it is salutary?”
    He went on showing off in this style. The company controlled themselves as well as possible and concealed their embarrassment with forced smiles. Natalie’s cheeks reddened a little and betrayed the sensibility of her heart…

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does not, however, end with wedding-bells and happy-ever-after, but finds Wilhelm agreeing to go as requested with the Marchese, on condition that he can take Felix along too.

Presumably these travels form the first part of Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years – “years” not sounding so good for Natalie – which begs the question of whether I will feel compelled to tackle the sequel to this novel or not.

In terms of the base reason for examining Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship at all, that is, its influence upon the progenitor works of the silver-fork genre, I consider myself (to use the novel’s own word) absolved. It was another twenty-five years before Goethe published his sequel to this novel; and while that first version was what Thomas Carlyle translated – and which, presumably, influenced the young Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton – in 1829 Goethe significantly revised his text; and it is this later version that is now considered the “standard” version of the book.

So while I may get around to tackling the sequel, I am not going to consider myself bound to hold off on beginning my examination of the silver-fork novel proper until I do.

(Preliminary investigation suggests that this sequel is shorter but weirder…)

And despite these three posts on the subject, rest assured that this remains a fairly superficial examination of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I could certainly have written more – a LOT more – to take only the most obvious point of omission, I could (as others have) write as much again just about Mignon and her significance as a character and a symbol – but I hope I’ve done enough to give a fair idea of the novel and what it is trying to achieve, and to let others decide whether they might want to investigate it on their own.

 

03/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 1)


    “So you don’t believe in any destiny? In any power that holds sway over us and guides everything for the best for us?
    “It is not a matter of my faith now, nor is this the place to analyse how I try to make the things which are incomprehensible to all of us appear to some extent capable of being conceived by myself; here the only question is which way of imagining is the most advantageous to us. The texture of this world is made up out of necessity and chance; man’s higher reason comes between the two and can dominate them; it can guide, lead and make use of chance factors, and only when it stands firm and unshakeable, does man deserve to be called a god of the earth. Unhappy is he who from early years becomes accustomed to trying to find something arbitrary in what is necessary, who would like to attribute to chance elements a kind of higher reason, the following of which would in fact be a matter of religion. Does that mean anything more than to renounce one’s inclinations? We delude ourselves that we are pious by sauntering along without reflection, letting ourselves be determined by pleasant chance factors, and finally giving the result of such a precarious life the name of divine guidance…”

 

 

 

Turns out that 18th century German philosophy is difficult to review; who knew?

Though it is one of the four novels written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the fourth being a belated sequel to this book), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre – usually translated as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship or Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Apprenticeship – is anything but a straightforward work of narrative and incident. It is, rather, an extended rumination upon the factors that shape the destiny of the individual man, set within a framework of reflections upon the German character and mindset.

I’ve spent some time pondering how best to approach a post on this book—and am rather inclined to admit defeat at the outset. While I’m fully aware of the importance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in the European literary canon, as well as its specific influence upon the development of the English novel, I don’t feel qualified to tackle its themes and arguments in any depth.

What I will try to do, however, is to place this novel in its historical context; and to give an idea of how Goethe goes about making his arguments—without going too deeply into what those arguments are. Hopefully in doing this, I will also convey at least some sense of this book as a whole.

Goethe’s first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows Of Young Werther), was published in 1774, when he was twenty-five; a revised edition appeared in 1787. This semi-autobiographical epistolary novel – “semi”, obviously, since it deals with a young man dying of hopeless love – was a critical work in Germany’s Sturm und Drang movement, the country’s push-back against the tenets of the Enlightenment: a rebellion in which emotions were privileged over the intellect. (We have already examined at some length the English equivalent, expressed via the sentimental, Deist and Gothic novels of the late 18th century.)

The first version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was written at around the same time of The Sorrows Of Young Werther, and was therefore like it the work of a young man in the first phase of his career. However, it was not until some twenty years later that, with the encouragement of his friend, the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller, Goethe resurrected, rewrote and published this novel—offering a far more maturely considered version of his themes.

(The manuscript of Goethe’s first draft, a fragment called Wilhelm Meisters theatralische SendungWilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Calling – was discovered and published about a hundred years later.)

The collaboration between Goethe and Schiller was an important one, part of the “Weimar Classicism” movement, generally considered at its outset a literary attempt to reconcile the thought / feeling dichotomy of the Enlightenment and the Sturm und Drang, and which eventually became an influential factor in 19th century German thinking about culture and politics (the latter in light of German unification, which likewise required the merging of seemingly irreconcilable elements).

Within the works of this period themselves, however, the dichotomy was approached, if not resolved, by allowing the full play of emotion associated with the Sturm und Drang—but simultaneously maintaining a detached, ironic view of both the emotion and its consequences. This split-vision approach, upon which Goethe insisted, represents one of the most significant alterations to the later version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which finds the author looking back at his own youthful effusions, rather than participating in them.

However, in broad literary terms, the overriding significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is that it represents a philosophical shift. In its outlines, the novel is that most familiar of literary forms, the picaresque tale: like so many novels in general, and English novels in particular, written during the 17th and 18th centuries, it centres upon a young man travelling, meeting a variety of people, and having adventures, pleasant and otherwise.

What differs here is the intention; the lessons to be learned. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is generally considered the first of a new genre, the Bildungsroman. The direct translation of this phrase is “novel of formation”, though “novel of education” is sometimes given. These terms carry a stricter meaning than the frequent English rendering of “coming-of-age story”, in their implication that the protagonist’s real journey of life is internal and not external; his (and until very recently, it was always “his”) conflicts are not so much with other individuals, as with society and its tenets as a whole. Usually, after much striving and many false starts, the protagonist reaches a new level of maturity that permits him to re-evaluate his theories of the world: he either reconciles with society and finds a place for himself within it, or he creates a place for himself that reconciles his individual needs with society’s demands. Occasionally, he may create an entirely new society, along with other like-minded individuals. Exile from society is rarely considered a viable choice.

The true Bildungsroman, then, is a work of ideas, of reflection, rather than of action, despite the constant movement within the narrative.

To understand this shift, it may be helpful to compare Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with one of the 18th century’s most popular and successful novels, Henry Fielding’s The Adventures Of Tom Jones, A Foundling. This picaresque novel begins with Tom being turned out of the only home he has known, due to conflicts of the most immediate and personal kind. The narrative then follows him through a wide variety of incidents, and his meetings with a wide variety of people, as he “sees the world” (or at least, parts of England). When Tom’s true history is discovered and he is able to return home at the end of the novel, he is older and – perhaps – a little wiser, but he is not fundamentally changed despite all of his adventures. Rather, the book suggests that Tom was right all along, rewarding his impulsive, generous approach to life (although it also brings him to grief at times), which throughout is presented in contradistinction to the self-interest and suspicion that drive most of the other characters.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, also does things on impulse; but these moments are chiefly just to move the plot along. Once in his new circumstances, Wilhelm devotes himself to analysing his decision and its consequences, his relations to the people around him, and whether or not he has yet found his place in the world. These ruminations generally expand to a comparison of views with other parties. At each stage of the novel, Wilhelm is found measuring his life and himself against his expectations and his desires. That he does not belong where his birth seems to have placed him is the only thing he is certain of; where he does belong is the book’s great question.

Self-consciousness, then, might be considered a hallmark of the Bildungsroman; not in an egotistical sense, but in the sense of striving for understanding of the self.

The literary and cultural significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does, however, go further even than the establishment of a new genre. This novel was a major influence upon the burgeoning Romantic movement not just for its validation of its protagonist’s emotions and his demands for self-actualisation, but for its larger themes addressing the place of art and the artist within society, and the moral component of art.

In both of these respects, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had a huge impact upon European literature, including in England. However, those there unable to read German were presented with a version of Goethe’s novel that was not quite what its author intended.

In 1824, under the simple title Wilhelm Meister, Thomas Carlyle published a translation of both Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and its sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years; or, The Renunciants, usually called Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Travel).

Carlyle’s intentions were admirable: he was prompted not merely by his sincere and profound admiration of the specific work, but as a corrective to the prevailing English idea that all German literature was of the Sturm und Drang variety (a misapprehension that might have been helped along the way by Jane Austen’s inclusion of Carl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries in her list of “Horrid Novels” in Northanger Abbey, which reached the English reading public in 1818).

However—it seems that Carlyle struggled with his translation, both in the immediate sense of conveying the nuance Goethe’s ideas, and in the more contentious sense of rendering parts of the novel “more appropriate” for an English audience.

How far Carlyle strayed from Goethe’s original text I am not in a position to say, although I do know that modern Goethe scholars tend to warn potential readers away from Carlyle…which is to say, from the translation of Wilhelm Meister that is most readily (indeed, freely) available.

Very recent years have seen the publication of a new translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Eric Blackall, released by the Princeton University Press, which is now considered the best English-language rendering of the novel. Unfortunately, this was not available here; and consequently I am working from the 1977 translation of the novel by H. M. Waidson, which is considered one of the better alternative attempts (and almost as importantly, the one most likely to be held by a library).

I may say that I did have some issues with Waidson’s text, which was on occasion frustratingly oblique—but I am not certain how far this reflects the original novel, or whether it represents translation artefacts. One difficult aspect of the novel that I am sure emanates from Goethe is his habit of giving his characters a descriptor rather than a name: a choice intended to reflect these characters’ roles as an influence upon, or an example to, Wilhelm, rather than as individuals in their own right. As you would appreciate, it is not always easy, some hundreds of pages on, to recall clearly who “the stranger” was, or what “the priest” might have said; and this aspect of the novel becomes even more difficult to deal with when it is eventually revealed that a number of these supporting characters were not, in any event, who they appeared to be at the time!

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship first appeared across 1795 – 1796, in three volumes divided into eight books. The first five books describe Wilhelm’s rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing and his attempts to follow his youthful passion for the theatre. The sixth book is that construct so beloved of the picaresque novel and its forerunner, the rogue’s biography, the interpolated narrative. Given its own title, The Confessions Of a Beautiful Soul, this interruption of the main plot is so complete, and seems at the time to have so little to do with it, that it has sometimes been considered and analysed as a standalone work. However, its significance is revealed over the seventh and eighth books, as Wilhelm embarks upon the next phase of his life.

[To be continued…]

27/05/2017

Les Mystères de Londres


 
    “The man has arrived thus far. To-morrow, by his secret labours, his ideas will be promulgated, and he will find a powerful auxiliary in European politics. The man will then transform himself; in order to obtain access to crowned personages, he will become a mighty lord. He will amass into one mountainous heap the bitter and legitimate hatreds; all the crying wrongs committed by the insatiable cupidity, by the perfidious ambition, by the cowardly tyranny of his enemy. His voice, which will be heard, will preach the establishment of an immense crusade. Then this great lord will for a time throw off his golden honours, and his velvet robes, and become the Irishman, Fergus, in order to gain the hearts of his countrymen. He will revisit his poor Ireland; his treasures will be employed in relieving her indescribable distress, and his hand always open to bestow, will one day stretch toward the east, and will point to London in the distance, whence descends upon Erin, the torrent of her sufferings.
    “And then he will repeat the death-cry of his father: Arise—and war to England.”

 

 

 

 

 

While the timing of the publication of G. W. M. Reynolds’ own sprawling penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London, was no doubt primarily responsible for the failure of Paul Féval’s Les Mystères de Londres to appear in English translation in 1844, it is not difficult to imagine that whatever enthusiasm there might have been for this French-penned crime drama in the wake of the enormous popularity of Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, it was quenched by the realisation that for all of its many and varied crime plots and French criminal characters, the real Bad Guy in Les Mystères de Londres was England. Sue’s stringent criticisms of his own country, his own society, were one thing; a Frenchman depicting England as a monster of tyranny, oppression and injustice, both at home and across the world—particularly in a work aimed (at least overtly) at the working-classes—was something else entirely. And to make things even worse, the main thread of the narrative concerns a plot against England that is explicitly Catholic in nature.

But even as English readers gobbled up the myriad exciting improbabilities of Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London and its follow-up, The Mysteries Of The Court Of London, a version of Les Mystères de Londres did finally creep out into the marketplace. Published in 1847, translated by one “R. Stephenson”, about whom I have been able to find no information, and bearing no hint of the identity of the work’s original author, The Mysteries Of London; or, Revelations Of The British Metropolis is a poor shadow of Paul Féval’s original work, a one-volume, 500-page rendering of his four volumes.

It is hardly to be wondered at that The Mysteries Of London is a difficult, unsatisfactory read. Like its model, Les Mystères de Paris, this is a rambling, undisciplined, multi-plotted story full of people with secret identities (sometimes several at once): one difficult enough to follow even without huge chunks of the narrative being excised. As it stands, it is frequently impossible to tell whether something is mysterious because Féval meant it to be mysterious, or because Stephenson hacked out the explanation—although it progressively becomes evident that the latter is responsible for a majority of the reader’s frustrations.

Allow me to offer a minor example of the editing style that plagues this work throughout: one of the novel’s heroines, a girl called Susannah, is steeling herself to tell her brief life-history to the man she loves, revealing that she is the daughter of Ishmael Spencer, “the forger”, “the robber” and (worst of all?) “the Jew”. She has just got through explaining that she was never allowed out of the house, and had no companions other than a maid, Temperance, and a disfigured manservant, Rehoboam:

“It was one evening. Ishmael had not for two days been in that part of the house in which I lived. I was in the parlour, where I had just fallen asleep with my head upon Cora’s shoulder. I raised my eyes; whether I was still sleeping or awake, I know not, but I saw a lady cautiously entering the parlour with Temperance. How beautiful that lady seemed to me, and how much goodness was there in her features!… Corah lay trembling under me, for Corah was timid also, and was alarmed at the appearance of a stranger…”

Thus, at a moment when we are no doubt supposed to be speculating about the identity of the “beautiful lady”, all I could think was, “Who the hell is Cora(h)!?” – to whom we will continue to get confusing references for quite a number of pages, until (more by accident than design, we suspect) Stephenson leaves in his text the key to the mystery, after Ishmael finds out about Susannah’s visitor:

“‘Do not sleep any more in the parlour, my child; and, when you have dreams as this, always come and tell me at once. Will you do so, Susannah?’ My father’s questions were always an order or a threat. I bowed my head and trembled. ‘Will you do what I tell you?’ repeated Ishmael, shaking me by the arm. ‘I will, sir.’ ‘Yes, Susannah? You are a good girl; and, besides, if you did not, I would kill your doe.'”

Ohhhhhhhhhh, she has a pet deer! In the middle of London. Which sleeps in the house with her. Of course she does.

This is, as I say, a very minor example of Stephenson’s editing style. More serious (and even more frustrating) is the eventual realisation that he also censored Féval’s text. What remain are mere allusions to shocking material that has been removed—enough to hint at what happened without us ever knowing the details. Two plot-threads in particular are affected by this. In one, we have an improbable love affair between Susannah, the daughter of Ishmael Spencer, and the aristocratic Brian de Lancaster, who is waging a personal and public war against his brother, the dissolute and criminal Earl of White Manor. It will, at great length, be revealed that (of course) Ishmael was not Susannah’s real father; that she is the daughter of Lord White Manor and his discarded wife (the mysterious, beautiful lady of Susannah’s vague childhood memories); and that Brian and Susannah are therefore uncle and niece. We are shown the aftermath of this devastating discovery—

Susannah has seen Brian de Lancaster but once since their fatal separation in Wimpole Street, and this was immediately after the decease of the Earl of White Manor, which took place during one of his terrible attacks at Denham Park. He came to inform her of the death of her father, and of his having succeeded to the peerage, and then set out again for London, without so much as sleeping one night under the same roof with Susannah.

—but not the moment of realisation.

Still more frustrating in its way is perhaps the most shocking of all this work’s shocking subplots, that involving the sisters, Clara and Anna Macfarlane, whose romantic affairs drive most of what we might call the “middle-layer” plots. One of the criminal gang, Bob Lantern, is offered money by two different people in return for the person of a beautiful young woman, and decides to cash in on both offers by abducting and selling the sisters. One of them, Anna as it turns out, is destined to be the unwilling plaything of the Earl of White Manor, although she is rescued before he gets around to having his way with her. Clara is not so fortunate, being sold to a certain Dr Moore to be the test subject in his experiments. Hints about this come and go, so that we are never sure of all she has been subjected to; but what remains is hair-raising enough:

For a time, the doctor ceased his experiments on Clara, who had become useless to him, and left her under the charge of Rowley, who divided his leisure moments between her and his Toxicological Amusements…

Rowley had been ordered to supply her with good food, that she might better be able to sustain the galvanic shock to which the doctor wished to expose her…

Clara Macfarlane was much changed. The traces of the long and cruel martyrdom she had been made to suffer, were clearly perceptible in her pallid and meagre face. Her form, so beautiful in its youthful proportions, had become debilitated and stooping… In the eyes of Clara, was some what of a wild expression. The horrible shock that had been given to her nervous system, had left behind it an affection [sic.?] which continually distorted her features by sudden and painful twitchings…

The final exasperation is that for some reason the text of The Mysteries Of London was rendered without any punctuation of the dialogue: I have inserted it in my quotes for ease of reading, but it isn’t present in the book itself. For example, the conversation quoted up above, between Ishmael and Susannah, is presented as follows:

Do not sleep any more in the parlour, my child; and, when you have dreams as this, always come and tell me at once. Will you do so, Susannah? My father’s questions were always an order or a threat. I bowed my head and trembled. Will you do what I tell you? repeated Ishmael, shaking me by the arm. I will, sir. Yes, Susannah? You are a good girl; and, besides, if you did not, I would kill your doe.

The cumulative result is a rather gruelling five hundred pages, in which we are never sure who anyone is, or who is speaking from moment to moment—or even if certain passages are meant to be dialogue at all. But if reading The Mysteries Of London was a chore rather than a pleasure, reviewing it is even more difficult: far more so than, say, dealing with the full six volumes of Les Mystères de Paris. In fact it can’t be done in any coherent way, except by, as it were, speaking backwards from the point at which the fragmented pieces fall into place.

Briefly, then, The Mysteries Of London has two main parallel plots, one dealing with machinations at the very highest levels of English society, the other with the activities of a brutal criminal gang; with most of the “nice” characters, like the Macfarlane sisters, caught between and swept up into danger because of one or the other (or both). The link between all the story’s threads is the Marquis de Rio Santo, aka “Mr Edward”, real name: Fergus O’Brian—the money and the genius behind a plot to lead the Irish in violent revolt against the English government, with his own part being to use his access to the highest levels of society to assassinate the British monarch (who at the time of the story’s setting was the relatively inoffensive William IV).

It is late in the narrative before we are finally let in on the life-history of this work’s anti-hero, but his story, when it finally emerges, is one of an amusing and spectacular climb up the social ladder; one which might reasonably open, “Once upon a time—x“. Some twenty years earlier, then, the lovely Mary Macfarlane fell in love with and became engaged to the poor Irishman Fergus O’Brian, rejecting the advances of Godfrey de Lancaster, afterwards the Earl of White Manor. A quarrel led to a duel in which de Lancaster was wounded; and Fergus, being a poor Irishman, was tried, convicted and transported to Australia. During his transportation, Fergus gained a friend and collaborator in the form of an angry Scot named Randal Graham; the two agree to (i) escape, (ii) turn pirate, and (iii) find some way to stick it to England:

    Fergus O’Brian had not become a pirate, merely to be a pirate. He had other views besides that of making booty more or less abundant; and every action of his during the four years in which he had traversed those seas, was a stone added to the gigantic edifice, of which he was the architect.
    It is not necessary to state, that his attacks were made on British ships, in preference to all others. They pillaged, sunk, or blew up, more ships belonging to the East India Company, than all the French privateers that ever swam…

Fergus also spends these years travelling the world, getting a good look at the brutality and exploitation that are the hallmarks of English colonisation and English trade, and gaining recruits to his cause:

Quitting the Indian seas, he only changed the scene, again to find, at intervals more distant from one another, the same hatred against England, still covered and restrained, but ready to burst forth. At the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch boors—in America, both the Canadas, from one extremity to the other, groaning under the most horrible oppression, and venting their cries of distress, which were soon to find an echo in a French heart…

An amusing interlude follows, in which it is solemnly explained to us that Napoleon – who had, The most noble, the most enlightened, and the boldest mind, which has perhaps ever dazzled the world – escaped from St Helena with the single goal of crushing English tyranny…

…but since he didn’t quite manage it, it was up to Fergus O’Brian to pick up his slack.

During his travels, Fergus managed to be of service of John VI of Portugal, whose reward paved the way for Fergus’s great plan against England:

    In 1822, one year after the restoration of the house of Braganza, Fergus O’Brian, the poor orphan from St Giles’s, was created a grandee of Portugal, of the first order, Grand Cross of the Order of Christ, and Marquis de Rio Santo in Paraiba. Fergus was also, by royal prescription, authorised to bear the name and title of a noble family which had become extinct, the Alacaons, of Coimbra.
    So that when we heard announced in the proud drawing rooms of the Westend, the sounding titles of Don Jose Maria Telles de Alacaon, Marquis de Rio Santo, it was not the name of a vulgar adventurer, ennobled by the grace of fraud, and strutting about under a false title, but it was really a great nobleman, of legitimate manufacture, a marquis by royal grant, an exalted personage, upon whose breast glitterd the insignia of several of the most distinguished and most rarely bestowed European orders, which he had acquired and merited…

Perhaps the single most interesting thing about The Mysteries Of London is that its anti-hero is both a genuine aristocrat (albeit a created one) and a poor, dispossessed Irish revolutionary. His toggling between the various levels of society is, therefore, rather more convincing than usual: he is able both to command a dangerous and extensive criminal gang, and enter unhindered into the very highest circles of society. The latter, indeed, is why he takes upon himself the task of regicide: as the noble Marquis de Rio Santo, he has no trouble getting access to the king.

Paul Féval does not pull any punches with respect to English tyranny, dwelling angrily upon abuses in India, the opium trade in China, the brutalities of Botany Bay—but it is with respect to the treatment of Irish Catholics by English Protestants that he really lets himself go. And this is, of course, Fergus’s background, the first of many injustices suffered, with his respectable Irish family gradually stripped of their possessions and their savings by the cruel manoeuvring of English landlords, his sister seduced and abandoned, and his parents dying of grief and starvation:

    He again threw himself upon his knees and endeavoured to pray. But a mysterious voice resounded in his ears, and repeated to him his father’s dying words:
    “Arise! and war to England!”
    He sprang to his feet; his brows were knit, and a purple tinge chased the paleness from his fine features, and flashed fire.
    This was not—and no one could have been deceived by it—the transient anger of a child; it was the deadly hatred of a man. And in that poor room, in the poorest district of all London, arose a cloud, the precursor of a tempest, which might shake the three kingdoms to their foundations.
    Fergus advanced with firm steps towards the bed, and then slowly drew from his forehead to his chest, and then from one shoulder to the other, the sacred sign of the Catholic religion.
    “My father!” he exclaimed, with head erect and outstretched hand, “I here swear to obey you.”

And indeed, Fergus’s planned revenge is nothing less than the violent overthrow of the English government, for which purpose he spends years building a revolutionary army, predominantly but not exclusively Irish, which he has ferried to England as his plans move towards fruition. Féval allows Fergus’s schemes to progress so far as his army being in place around London, only waiting for their commander’s signal to strike—

—but of course that signal does not, cannot, come.

There is a strange split-vision about the conclusion of The Mysteries Of London. On one hand Féval is clearly enjoying his violently anti-English fantasy; but at the same time he has to find a way for the hitherto invincible Fergus to stumble at the last. His compromise is to have, not Fergus’s revolution fail, but his private crimes rise up against him. It is not the government or the army who stops Fergus, but two personally outraged and determined young men, and a traitor from within his own ranks—one who until almost the last moment is his most trusted lieutenant…

Between its aristocrats and its criminals, The Mysteries Of London is populated by a handful of respectable, middle-class (and mostly Scottish) characters, whose paths are crossed by Fergus in one or other of his various guises. Early on we find him pursuing the lovely Miss Mary Trevor, apparently because she reminds him of his lost love, Mary Macfarlane, even aside from the coincidence of their names. Mary is in love with poor but honest Frank Percival (poverty-stricken younger sons abound in this narrative, presumably as a criticism of the English system of primogeniture); but he is away, travelling on the Continent for reasons never explicated, when the Marquis de Rio Santo first enters Mary’s orbit. Between the “hypnotic” power of the Marquis’s personality and pressure from her family, Mary finds herself engaged to the Marquis almost without her volition. She still nurses Frank in her heart, however, until she is given reason to believe that he has been dallying with another woman even while making her impassioned declarations.

(The woman in question, the Marquis’s first romantic “victim”, is introduced to us rather marvellously as “Ophelia, Countess of Derby, the widow of a knight of the garter”, in the first but by no means the last demonstrations of Paul Féval’s complete failure to grasp the English system of title usage.)

Frank gets back to England to find himself supplanted by the Marquis, upon whom he forces a quarrel and a duel. A crack shot (of course), the Marquis shoots but refrains from killing Frank, who is left to suffer through a slow recovery under the care of his best friend and physician, Stephen Macnab.

And this is where things get complicated. (Yes, this.)

Stephen (whose surname is variously spelled Macnab, McNab and M’Nab throughout the text) is the son of a widowed mother—widowed when her husband was brutally killed many years before:

The death of his father, of which he had been the accidental witness, had at first shaken his youthful faculties; but he had soon recovered from the shock, and the lapse of years had now removed all the effects of the calamity upon his intellect. But the remembrance of his murdered father, and the image of his murderer, were engraved upon his mind in ineffaceable characters of blood. The assassin, whom he had seen for an instant, in consequence of the fall of his mask, was not stamped upon his memory with very certain indications: one circumstance, however, was still luminous—it was the form of a tall, robust, and supple man, with black eyebrows, knit together with a long scar drawn distinctly on his heated forehead. He saw all this as in a dream, but a burning fever for vengeance was kindled in his mind…

Staying with Stephen and his mother are Clara and Anna Macfarlane, the daughters of Mrs Macnab’s brother, Angus: a Scottish landowner and magistrate known generally as just as “the laird”. Mrs Macnab did – and, perhaps, does – have a second sibling, a sister called “Mary”…

When we are first introduced to Stephen, smug male that he is, he is hesitating between Clara and Anna, never doubting that he can have either for the asking; but although Anna is in fact in love with him, he only needs to realise that Clara is attracted to another man to become unalterably fixated upon her. This discovery occurs during a complicated scene in church, which finds a certain handsome stranger gazing fixedly at the young woman carrying around the collection plate, Clara Macfarlane palpitating over the handsome stranger, and Stephen toggling between homicidal fury and suicidal despair. (From the way the narrative unfolds we initially assume it is Mary Trevor who is carrying the plate, but it will very belatedly be confirmed as Anna Macfarlane: one of many missing subplots.) Later we learn that in his “Mr Edward” guise, Fergus has a house very near that in which the Macnabs live, and that Clara has become infatuated with him while watching him from the window. He, in turn, has distantly flirted with her, kissing his fingers at her and such, but without serious intention.

(People falling in love while spying on someone through their windows is a disturbingly recurrent theme in The Mysteries Of London, but since this very situation later leads to the rescue of Anna Macfarlane from the Earl of White Manor, we can’t entirely condemn it.)

So without knowing it, Frank Percival and Stephen Macnab have been supplanted by the same man. Stephen’s romantic sufferings recede while he is fighting to save his friend’s life, however, and he is distracted from them further by Frank’s feverish muttering when, it appears, he is the grip of a nightmare:

    “The scar!” cried Percival suddenly; “did I not see the scar upon his forehead?”
    Stephen had started up. “The scar!” exclaimed he; “oh! I remember!”
    “Upon his red forehead!” rejoined Frank. “It appeared white and clearly defined.”
    “From his left eyebrow to the upper part of his forehead?” said Stephen, involuntarily.
    “From his left eyebrow to the upper part of his forehead!” repeated Percival.
    “Frank!” cried Stephen; “you too know him then, In the name of Heaven, who is it you are speaking of?”
    Frank did not reply; sleep had again overpowered him…

Stephen never gets to follow up the mystery of the man with the scar, because Frank’s life is still hanging in the balance when Clara and Anna Macfarlane disappear, which not unnaturally distracts him from all other considerations.

One of the numerous (not to say infinite) minor characters of The Mysteries Of London is a certain Mr Bishop, whose main profession is indicated by the usual rider which accompanies his name, “the burker”. Hilariously enough, in Paul Féval’s twisted vision of London, not only does Bishop deal openly in dead bodies, he keeps a showroom of his merchandise. Having failed to get any help from the police in the matter of his cousins’ disappearance, the desperate Stephen calls upon Bishop and asks to see what he has in stock:

    All around this place—which occupied the space generally employed as kitchens and coal cellars in ordinary houses—were ranges of marble tables sloping forward.
    It was a frightful spectacle, to see dead bodies lying there, stripped of their sere-clothes, symmetrically arranged with a view to being made an article of traffic…

The girls aren’t there, but as we know, Bishop is very well aware of the fate of one of them:

    “Now then,” continued Bishop—Bob having shut the door—“what I have to tell you is—the devil take me if I tell you or any other man”—and he seemed embarrassed in speaking of it even to Bob—“I have never undertaken a business of this kind; but you, Bob, have neither heart nor soul, and provided you are well paid—”
    “Shall I be well paid, Mr Bishop?”
    “The matter in hand is, that—they want to carry off some young girl alive for the doctor to make some surgical experiments upon…”

Bishop is right about Bob, who almost at the same moment is approached by Paterson, the Earl of White Manor’s steward, who also has a proposition for him:

    “You know that little girl in Cornhill?”
    “Anna Macfarlane? I know, your honour; I was speaking about her only a minute ago to that gentleman who has just left.”
    “She is a divinity, by Heaven!” exclaimed Paterson… “I am sure his lordship would be enraptured with the girl at first sight—we must have her.”

Thus Bob finds himself in something of a dilemma:

“What the devil shall I do?” said Bob, “it is dreadfully awkward: one hundred pounds from Bishop! two hundred from the steward! a very pretty sum. But the sweet girl cannot serve as a subject for Dr Moore, and a plaything for the earl at the same time—that’s very certain—that’s not possible. And yet I promised Bishop; I promised that leech, Paterson…”

…until it occurs to him that Anna has a sister, who will do quite as well for Dr Moore.

The sisters are lured away from home with a false message to meet their father at a certain public house, run by a couple who used to be in the Laird’s service, which lulls their suspicions. Unfortunately for the girls, the Gruffs are in league with Bishop, and they are not the first to disappear through a panel in the floor, to be lowered into a boat on the river below; although they are – perhaps – luckier in that they are only drugged, not dead.

To the mortification of the Gruffs, who should show up in the middle of these dark dealings but the Laird himself? – who catches a glimpse of his daughters being lowered through the floor. A desperate pursuit, an even more desperate battle with Bob Lantern, ends with the Laird being severely beaten and tossed into the river, while the stupefied girls are carried off to their separate fates…

While this (what we might call ‘Plot B’) is unfolding, over in Plot C we are hearing the history of Susannah and Ishmael Spencer. The significance of this is not revealed until much later in the story, when we get a flashback to Fergus’s return to Britain after his glorious career as a pirate, when he begins the construction of his revolutionary army. He and his angry Scottish offsider, Graham, call upon an even angrier Scot: Angus Macfarlane, who Fergus finds concocting plots to murder the Earl of White Manor, in vengeance for his (the earl’s) appalling treatment of his wife, the former Mary Macfarlane.

Fergus learns from Angus, among other things, that at the outset of the former’s piratical career, rumours abounded that he had returned to England, and that false sightings of him were frequently reported. Unfortunately for Mary, these happened to coincide with her pregnancy—leading White Manor (already regretting his marriage, and subject to fits of violent insanity at the best of times) to convince himself that her expected child was actually Fergus’s. When the girl was born he took her away from her mother and gave her up to the tender mercies of Ishmael Spencer; while as for Mary—oh, take THAT, Thomas Hardy!—

    “Two days afterward he dragged his wife to Smithfield. Godfrey made her go into one of the sheep pens, which happened to be empty, and cried out loudly three times: ‘This woman is to be sold—sold for three shillings.’
    “‘Let me pass,’ cried a man, ‘I wish to purchase, for three shillings, the Countess of White Manor.’
    “The man was dressed in the coarse costume of a cattle dealer. Upon seeing him, Godfrey’s courage forsook him, and he made a movement to escape. Mary has never mentioned, in her letters, the name of this man, but when I went to London, public rumour informed me of it. It was the young Brian de Lancaster, the brother of the earl…”

As Angus broods over his bloody plans for White Manor, Fergus manages to re-channel his anger into his own cause, and recruits Angus as one of his lieutenants…

…but it is, in the end, Angus Macfarlane who betrays Fergus—not that we ever really understand what is going on in the feverish last section of the story, where the editing makes bewildering nonsense out of the inevitable long and convoluted explanation, with which such fiction necessarily closes.

Angus is rescued from the river after his attempt to rescue his daughters, and ends up in Fergus’s care. He is raving, near total insanity, and makes a very nearly successful attempt to murder Fergus. We get confirmation during this section that it was Fergus who killed Stephen’s father, and that Angus knows it; and has only refrained from revenging himself upon Fergus for the death of his brother-in-law because (i) Fergus is sort of his brother-in-law too, sharing his grief over Mary; and (ii) his hatred of the Earl of White Manor is his prevailing passion—at least until his daughters are abducted.

It is this that pushes Angus over the edge, understandably, though both girls are eventually rescued. The problem is—as the narrative stands, we never know why Angus is so sure that Fergus was behind the girls’ abduction. It was, of course, in Clara’s case, one of his co-conspirators who was behind it; but Angus seems to have more direct guilt in mind (though, at the same time, he cannot possibly believe Fergus had anything to do with Anna falling into White Manor’s clutches). Perhaps a cosmic irony was intended, with Fergus being taken down by the one crime he didn’t commit? In any event, it is on this basis, and just before Fergus is to set his revolution in motion, that Angus turns on him…

It is, however, Frank Percival and Stephen Macnab who directly intervene, making a citizens’ arrest of sorts. Stephen has his father’s death to avenge, and on the testimony of Angus knows who his killer was; now he gets proof for himself:

At that moment Rio Santo, who had succeeded in withdrawing himself from the maddening grasp of the laird, raised his head—his brilliant eye flashed fire—a reddening tinge proceeding from the efforts of Angus, or from anger, suffused the features of the marquis, till then so pallid; his brows were knit, and on the purpled skin of the forehead a livid scar appeared, extending from the eyebrow to the hair…

So much for Stephen; as for Frank—

    “I have come to ask you, my lord,” replied Frank, hardly able to restrain his anger, “for an explanation of a cowardly and nameless crime.” He raised himself on the points of his toes, and whispered in the ear of the marquis, “I am the brother of Harriet Percival.”
    “And the disappointed lover of Mary Trevor!” sarcastically added the marquis. “I declare to you, sir, that I had not the honour of your sister’s acquaintance.”
    “That is true,” retorted Frank. “You killed her without knowing her.”

Him or anyone else! Of all the pieces of hack-handed editing in The Mysteries Of London, this one takes the cake. Some three hundred pages before this moment there is a single passing reference to “poor Harriet Percival”, and that is all we know about her. Fergus, meanwhile, is hardly more confused than we are: he tries to get an explanation out of Frank, but the situation takes an even more dramatic turn before he can give one, so this particular subplot is left hanging, a perpetual mystery.

Events then occur in a rush. Fergus is arrested, tried and convicted, not for his attempt to overthrow the government and assassinate the king, but for the murder of Mr Macnab (who had accidentally stumbled over an important secret, in the early days of Fergus’s plotting), and for being the mastermind behind a plot to rob the Bank of England—by tunnelling in from underneath!!

Good grief! – was this the earliest instance of that perpetually popular crime-plot??

Meanwhile, Clara, still in an extremely shaky condition of body and mind, finds out who it was she was infatuated with, the real identity of “Mr Edward”. In her unbalanced state, she makes her way to Newgate, and happens to be on the spot when Fergus is broken out by his still-loyal accomplices. She ends up being carried off by Fergus, who uses her presence to confuse the troops who are searching for a single man on a horse, and travels with him all the way to Scotland—to what should be her own home, Crewe Castle, Angus’s property (though bought for him by Fergus, to be used as a hideout if / when necessary).

And maybe I take it back about the Harriet Percival editing being the most confusing, because we are missing something important here, too—namely, the key to the working out of Fergus’s fate, wherein Clara becomes convinced that despite his engagement to Mary Trevor, her real rival for Fergus is Anna; and perhaps she’s right:

It was a singular journey. During the whole of it, he conducted himself toward Clara as a father would have done toward a beloved child. But, from the impression which had been produced upon him by the sight of Anna, when she presented to him the plate for his donation in Temple church, the marquis, in the strange and unconnected conversation which he had with Clara, several times inadvertently pronounced the name of her younger sister. Each time, that name fell as a heavy weight upon the heart of Clara…

From hints remaining in the text, we deduce that at some point Clara suffered a strange and tormenting dream, in which Anna came between her and Fergus, though we never know if this had any basis in reality. From Fergus’s reaction, almost certainly not:

    “She is not there today,” she said, with joyful anxiety. “Tell me, Edward, she is not come, is she?”
    Rio Santo saw at once that the poor girl was under the dominion of some strange hallucination; but he could not comprehend of whom she was speaking.

And poor Fergus is indeed fated to be taken down by the crimes he has not committed. Harriet Percival, nothing; it is the once-glimpsed Anna Macfarlane who dooms him:

    “My father!” exclaimed Clara. “Oh, yes, yes, Edward! the farm is just on the other side of the hill. O! how happy we shall be there!”
    She paused abruptly, but immediately afterward added: “That is to say, if my sister does not come, as she did the other time.”
    A flash of ungovernable fury darted from her eyes. She suddenly threw herself back upon the ground, and her hand, by chance, fell upon the cold barrel of one of the pistols. Her action was rapid as thought itself. An explosion broke the silence of that sequestered spot; Rio Santo fell to the ground—the ball from the pistol had struck him in the breast…

Some time later, Fergus is found by quite another woman—the lonely occupant of Crewe Castle:

    When the moon…rendered the spot visible by her silver light, a female form was seen kneeling by the unfortunate marquis. She was praying.
    This was Mary Macfarlane, the Countess of White Manor. She had just recognised, in the dead body stretched upon the grass, Fergus O’Brian, her first, her only love…

Having reached this melodramatic conclusion, The Mysteries Of Paris wraps itself up with a few hilariously abrupt paragraphs—which serve the secondary purpose of illustrating how much of the narrative I have been obliged to ignore in this review, even in this severely cut-down version of the text:

    Prince Demetrious Tolstoy was recalled to Russia in 1837.—He has in his old age become a hermit. The Viscount de Lantures Lucas was espoused to a Blue Stocking, and says—that he is now a most unhappy man. Bishop the Burker was hung for the murder of a child only six years old; Snail became a policeman; Rowley was sent to Botany Bay for experimenting upon an Irishman; Doctor Moore is now dead; Tyrrel the blind man is a banker, and chairman of a railway company, in Thames-street, and handles millions. The duchesse de Gevres, alias the Countess Cantaceuzini, has assumed the name of Randal, and has charge of Mr Tyrrel’s house; and Captain Paddy O’Chrane is now landlord of the King’s Arms.
    Gilbert Paterson, on the night of Rio Santo’s escape from Newgate, was knocked down by a person on horseback, and a waggon passing at the moment, crushed him beneath its wheels. Bob Lantern is confined to St Luke’s Hospital, his wife Temperance sharing his fate, gin and rum having deprived her of her reason…