misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Smith's Montalbert: abductions, imprisonment,earthquakes despair/Maza, Private Lives, Public Affairs

Dear friends and readers,

I've written this blog on a powerful gothic novel, Charlotte Smith's Montalbert and Sarah Maza's Private Live and Public affairs:  The cause celebres of pre-revolutionary France.

I begin by retelling the story of Montalbert and then go on to talk about the powerful patterns and underlying paradigms here: live burial and destruction for the woman who are rendered powerless by law and custom.  We look at figures who enact arbitrary and violent authority, often through brutal underlings. In Smith as in most of these gothics the key action is sexual aggression and appropriation, and it's done by a corrupt grandee.

I then move on to Maza's book.  I suggest the useful explanation for the popularity of gothic novels does not not from psychoanalysis, but rather the real life court cases and causes celebres they are often fictionalizations/gothicizations of. These cases and stories made visible the horrific social/economic arrangements of the ancien regime, and it's these stories that helped pull down that brutal unjust social order.  Alas, our present one (in many places on the earth just as bad and worse too) seems far more iron-clad (ruthless militarism as its base) and impervious to the vast miseries and stories these throw up.


As I wrote when I described my experience of seeing Quills and reading Felicite de Genlis, this summer I'm reading lesser know gothic novels fueling Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey as well as the libertine, radical and women's subjective novesl the gothic genre can co-exist with.  One of the most powerful and intriguing is Montalbert (1795) by Charlotte Smith.  Here's my proposal.

This is how this Smith's Montalbert is described by Chatto and Pickering:

"A chronicle history of two generations of unconventional women victimised by marriage to proud, violent husbands, Montalbert is Smith’s darkest exploration of the institution of marriage and of the insidious gender politics constraining contemporary women.

Basically it has two heroines: both named Rosalie Montalbert, the first, the mother figure was called Rosalie Montalbert as her birth name; the second, is the first's illegitimate daughter, who gaines this name when she marries.  We first meet teh illegitimate daughter, Rosalie Lessington who seems not to fit in with her apparent biological family at all: she is unlike them in tastes, sensibility, attitudes, values.  We gradually learn this is not only the result of a chance throw of genes, but because she is really the daughter of Mrs Rosalie Vyvian (poor Miss Rosalie Montalbert that was), born to Mrs Vyvian when she was already forcibly married to cold tyrannical but rich man, but had gotten pregnant by another, a man she loved, beneath her in rank, a tutor, Mr Ormsby.  We also learn that when young she was cared for and educated by Mrs Vyvian. 

In an initial introductory sequence where our first heroine, the young Rosalie Lessington is harassed and harangued and bullied by her apparent father, Mr Lessington, to marry a coarse young man and feels herself alienated from the mercenary, shallow, to her boring lives of her (step) sisters. She then visits mrs Vyvian who is dying and reveals to Rosalie the true tale of her origins.  A goodly part of the first volume is a first person subjective narrative (history) by Mrs Vyvian to her illegitimate daughter.

We learn that Mrs Vyvian was the daughter of a proud aristocratic family whose head behaved in a completely autocratic ruthless way to all.  As Rosalie Montalbert, she became involved and fell in love with one Mr Ormsby, agreed to a clandestine engagement.  Transgressing most taboos in fiction at the time (especially English fiction), Smith allows this virtuous heroine to have full sexual intercourse with Ormesby, the young man, and gets pregnant outside marriage.  We are not privy to the scene, but its occurrence is felt. I stress how highly unusual for English novels.  Rosalie Montalbert is otherwise ideal -- and we are not to blame or berate her.  Nowhere is there blame for this sexual congress.

The young man is beneath her in class and so her father is so enraged to think they are even courting (he has no idea bout the sex or pregnancy).  A la ancien regime realities, Mr Montalbert seems to have either had the young man beaten, imprisoned (perhaps in a dungeon on the estate -- like the Genlis's Countess of C*********, or the wife in Radcilffe's  Sicilian Romance) or perhaps in some other way gotten rid of him (pressed?).

At the core of all this and so many gothic fictions is a women who is a mother parted from her child and punished; a transgressive mother often having the same name as her daugther, e.g., the two Rosalies in Smith's Montalbert and the two Elizas in Austen's S&S) whose fate is almost repeated in her daughters.  In some cases the daughter is totally rescued, in some partially from sexual rape, seduction, abandonment, abuse.  to break through repressive codes, but of course the heroine is being badly punished for her transgression -- as Mrs Vyvian in effect is; she has led a terribly unhappy life. Still we are to feel this is the result of who she was married to, not that she got pregnant by another man.

On this last, in a couple of French novels I've read (by Cottin) and others Joan Hinde Stewart describes in her Gynographs, the exemplary virtuous heroine is seduced, and gets pregnant sometimes - not always as Julie in La Nouvelle Heloise does not; she is married off and St Preux sent packing. But not to be absurd still it is true this was tolerated in French novels; they were more radical. Riccoboni has a heroine who kills herself -- this novel was castigated but it was put in print, bought or rented and read.  It's very rare for an English heroine whom we are to admire and is presented as a chaste person to have sex outside marriage and give birth to an illegitimate child and live on.  We have at least one such heroine here, and we are not sure about what happens between our second Rosalie and her Montalbert before they marry.

Our second heroine's enacts a parallel story:  Rosalie meets and falls in love with an Anglo-Italian young man, Montalbert, who turns out to be her real or biological mother's nephew.   Same tyrannical autocratic family heritage.  After some more discouraging interaction with her Lessington family, this second generation Rosalie Montalbert flees England with her clandestine (secret) husband, the aristocratic catholic Montalbert. They go into seclusion on the island of Sicily.  She gives birth. 

That marriages are about who is the partner's parents, who will be the respective mother- and father-in-law is part of what Smith is attacking. Our second Rosalie's husband must leave her to socialize, appear not attached to her, and cannot return.  Often.  His friend, the Count de Alozzi, takes care of her and then begins to want to seduce her. In despair and without any recourse against this Alozzi, she writes her mother-in-law assuming after all natural feelings must play a role: she has the mother-in-law's grandson. The result is an abduction and imprisonment on the mother-in-law's say-so.

Goya, "The Carried Her Off!" from Los Caprices, cover illustration for Sade's Crimes of Love in a recent Oxford Classics edition

The section is redolent and vivid with southern Italian and sea imagery,   There is an earthquake experienced, living near Etna is just powerful in the text.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97),  Sunset near Naples

While our heroine is at first abducted to a locked room or set of rooms (not a dungeon), gradually she is freed far and farther and can take walks to the shore and a village.

Gainsborough (1827-88), River Landscape, Sussex

I've noticed this about Smith's novels repeatedly; the motif of abduction and imprisonment is there, but not the castle. What she does is set her heroine wandering in rich sublime and picturesque landscapes -- from Scotland to the West Indies, from France to Italy and back to England (Sussex where she was brought up and loved all her life).

She is rescued from this imprisonment by a man she meets by chance, Francis Walsingham, one of Smith's characteristic  true heroes: a man of courage, strength, unqualifiedly ethical and compassionate, intelligent and of deep sensibility.  A Werther type (Desmond is another).  Gradually Walsingham falls in love with her but would not dream of hurting her by trying to seduce her (Mr Allworthy's speech to Jenny Jones on how a woman should regard a man who tries to seduce her operative here). Walsingham writes poetry and the following poem attributed to him conveys something of the poetic brilliance, the quality of the Montalbert.

By Francis Walsingham, the book's hero (melancholy, disllusioned.man, who has chosen to remain single and apart from the world):

On Passing Over a Dreary Tract of Country,
and near the Ruins of a Deserted Chapel, during a Tempest*

Swift fleet the billowy clouds along the sky,
Earth seems to shudder at the storm aghast;
While only beings as forlorn as I,
Court the chill horrors of the howling blast.
Even round yon crumbling walls, in search of food, 5
The ravenous Owl foregoes his evening flight,
And in his cave, within the deepest wood,
The Fox eludes the tempest of the night.
But to my heart congenial is the gloom
Which hides me from a World I wish to shun; 10
That scene where Ruin saps the mouldering tomb,
Suits with the sadness of a wretch undone.
Nor is the deepest shade, the keenest air,
Black as my fate, or cold as my despair.

What happens is her husband, Montalbert, when he hears of her at last, is easily led to suspect her and Walsingham of an illicit erotic liaison.  Shattered nervous distraught, Rosalie, when her husband suspecting her with Walsingham, gives her no opportunity to explain but snatches her child from her as his by right, loses it altogether.  We do not have her internal narrative then in the way Genlis provides us with the Duchess of C********..

Many of the males in this story enact parables of arbitrary and violent authority: they will not listen to their daughters and will not pay attention to what their inner lives or needs could be; they do not trust their wives, daughters, sisters.  We see corrupt men whose wishes are carried out by brutal underlings, who are easily swayed by envious treacherous friends.  There are two generations of this in Montalbert.  The good females are submissive figures, selfless women of sensibility.  There is a hero who makes Austen's Mr Knightley seem narrow-minded.  As with Smith's other books, sexual jealousy, possession, male ego and pride before other men is the cause of all this misery.

Like a few of Smith's later novels, this one is suddenly huddled up to a swift conclusion at the end.  Since there have been several twists and turns in the ending, and different groups of characters developed, much is lost in not developing the denouement slowly. 

The part of the conclusion that matters is too brief too:   Francis Walsingham, the good hero, a decent gentle kind, strong (all good things) man goes off by himself. The heroine, our second generation Rosalie, cannot even risk contacting him -- much less marry him as she is already married, and no matter how badly she is treated by her husband. She must be show as in love with her husband, loyal to him, in love with him still.  So the implied criticism we expect (of this man, of the marital arrangements, of social custom and law) is not made. 

In Smith's Desmond we also have an older woman who is helped and really loved and is loved by the same type, and again married, and again there can be no consummation, no relationship.   In "The Story of Henrietta" (one third of Letters of a Solitary Wanderer) theWalshingham  figure is Henrietta's uncle. Smith is also rehearsing her bitter frustration with her permanent marriage to a horror here (wastrel, bankrupt, gambler, abusive, and a philanderer) who would take huge amounts of money from her by right and through bullying.

The book is in long sequences enthralling.  We have two Rosalies (as Austen has 2 Elizas) and the two first-person subjective narratives, the one of the mother's falling love with an unacceptable man, pregnancy outside marriage, and her coerced marriage to a cold mean man marrying her for money; the other of the daughter's clandestine marriage, secret time in Sicily with him, abduction, imprisonment and breakdown These two constitute a powerful self-examination from a female consciousness, very immediate, in extremis.

On why was it written in haste:  Smith was desperate for money again, and part of the cause of the book's strong deep melancholy is her favorite daughter had just died -- after a long sickness.  She wrote this in the wake of that. Mothers and daughters.

I suggest that were Montalbert in print in a pretty Oxford Classics, it would outsell Radcliffe easily were these older books best sellers.  It's a relatively fast-moving dark book about "the wrongs of women," not just male tyranny but how women are complicit in the whole social order.  It's sort of astonishing in the same way as Duchess of C*********; one doesn't expect it. Not only the pregnancies -- where Smith's point is that sex is natural and were the first Rosalie Montalbert (our heroine's mother) to have been allowed to marry her clandestine lover-fiance, both of them would have lived decent lives. And why not?

In Smith's case this is also an argument against the rigid hierarchies and powerful aristocracy at the time.  So the moral of her story is far more apt (never hilarious and never off base in way of some of Genlis's for the modern reader). Instead Ormesby is forced to go to India and it seems that he obeyed his relatives who conspired or were complicit in keeping the two young people ignorant of one another ever after. This is Bingley's case in P&P; the fairy godmother Austen brings Bingley back, but there is no getting over that he has on some level acted irresponsibly or was willing to over Jane; or he's a weakling. In Montalbert our heroine does feel Ormesby has been a weakling.

The novel does feature another abdunction and imprisonment.  The fall of the Bastille resonated deep within hearts at risk from the powerful at any time with no one to turn to. that's what these stories are about.  The heroine is perhaps abducted not by a male but the powerful vicious mother-in-law.

Miolans, one of the less well-known prisons of the Ancien Regime

A sonnet by Smith which connects to this theme:

Sonnet LXIX

                  Written at the same place, on seeing a seaman
                  return who had been imprisoned at Rochfort

Clouds, gold and purple, o'er the westering ray
Threw a bright veil, and catching lights between,
Fell on the glancing sail, that we had seen
With soft, but adverse winds, throughout the day
Contending vainly: as the vessel nears,
Encreasing numbers hail it from the shore;
La! on the deck a pallid form appears,
Half wondering to behold himself once more
Approach his home[.]-And now he can discern
His cottage thatch amid surrounding trees;
Yet, trembling, dreads lest sorrow or disease
Await him there, embittering his return:
But all he loves are safe; with heart elate,
Tho' poor and plunder'd, he absolves his fate!

The book is crude. We have a  sudden movement into first person narration for a long stretch while Rosalie's mother tells her tale of pregnancy outside marriage, and such lurches in form are barely accounted for. Then when it suits the novelist to return to third person in the middle of a first person narrative, Smith does.  We are suddenly confronted with the daughter while she is experiencing abduction and imprisonment in Sicily because Smith wants a larger perspective. This is not unlike Scott in Redgauntlet (but he's allowed :).

Haste at the close is the fault of her masterpiece, Old Manor House, clearly originally intended to be 4 not 3 volumes.  We also have some ludicrous sentimental tropes:  specifically once again a long-lost father (Ormesby) who turns up all contrite, wanting reconciliation and the daughter rushing gushing falling over over him. (This may be familiar to those who have read Evelina). This absurdity is repeatedly found in novels of the era, testifying to a profound craving want not satisfied.  ON top of this the father had suspected her virtue at first and like the other males feels that she would have been better off dead had she been raped or seduced by another man.

So the novel is still inadequate.  While Smith impugns male uses of power, she does not free her heroine of it, nor show the heroine wanting that.  One cannot say this female self has found herself.  She does not assert a woman's right to her body and her right to her life first and above all.  Still, the novel is about the defenseless of women in the face of total male power and the complicity with it in many women (Rosalie 1's shallow mercenary daughters, Rosalie 2's bullying sisters). Genlis by contrast gives us extraordinary insight into the consciousness of a hostage, and the experience of terror and torture.  Like Radcliffe, Smith offers wanderings in landscape -- precisely the avoidance-evasion mechanism one finds in Radcliffe.

For more on Smith, see my review of Keane's Women Writers and the Nation in the 1790s.


I'd now like to recommend a study which may not seem to relate to them, but contains the kind of materials that can give rise to historical novels (or mysteries like Catherine's set in the 18th century):  Sarah Maza's Private Live and Public affairs:  The cause celebres of pre-revolutionary France.  In the 18th century enormously popular were vast compilations of trial cases turned either into memoirs or fictions.  The source of Sade's La Marquise de Ganges is just such a text; so too one familiar to us until today:  The Return of (or as it's called) the Second or False Martin Guerre.  I am interested in the gothic in a new way this time: I am investigating the real life cases behind them. I feel we get nowhere in understanding quite how these functions socially if we carry on with Freudian versus feminist psychoanalytical approaches. For Radcliffe, the texts call out for this; for Sade, his life does. But what I want to see and show is how these texts enabled people at the time to work out, release, experience, think about real life horrors that were every day realities.

In a sense that's what General Tilney in Austen stands for.

This is what I'm interested in, what I want to look out: the books where bad things really happen, for part of Austen's point of view in NA is that we need not make up or titillate ourselves with silly stories when before us there is real cruelty.

Maza's thesis is that while Darnton's idea that pornography is one arm of the subversive important literature of the 18th century that led to the revolution may be right, but another set of texts more central and more convincingly leading up to the revolution were these causes celebres stories. She fills out the other stories that Mary Trouille in her Wife Abuse in 18th century France omits.  Mary concentrates on female powerlessness; Maza on the whole gamut of the ancien regime.

Voltaire became involved with two of these: the horrifying things that happened to the Calas family: the son probably committed sucide, the family ashamed lied about it, and rumor circulated to the point that the father was blamed for killing his son for wanting to be protestant and so viciously tortured to death.  Nowadays less-well known but then big stuff, a swindle and fakery that resembles the Queen's Necklace where a bourgeois, really lower middle class family, Verons who worked as "money brokers" (bankers), claimed to have lent a nobleman, Jean-Francois de Molette, 300,000 lives and demanded payment of this debt. The case included inventing events that never occurred, phony documents.  The behavior of the count was ugly (authoritarian, sneering, condescending) throughout but it seems a fair assessment is like that of Antoinette: as Antoinette never bought or saw the necklace, so this count never borrowed this money. Public sympathy was strongly on the side of the Verons -- it was a case that ignited class and religious feelings as the bankers were protestants and the count Catholic.

In a second case, which she calls "The Rose Girl of Salency," Maza shows an obtuse nobleman refusing to go along with a "festival of the rose" as it had evolved in custom and been shaped by aristocratic tastes and outlooks. Charles-Laurent=Antoine Danre clashed with villagers: he insisted only he had the right to choose the girl who would be queen, she had to sit next to him not the middle of the church, and he tried to take costs out of the 25 livre dowry she was to get.  The lord sued for his right to do this and lost against local judicial authorities and against against the Parlement of Paris. Without going into how it played out, like the Calas and Veron affairs, other feelings went into the public's response ("lawyers who saw young men without talent or experience succeed their fathers to prestigious positions within parlements"), and what happened was the case was fitted into a paradigm of powerful aristocratic injustice.  Ironically meanwhile as these festivals actually were done, they were festivals set up by and enacting the values of the aristocrats. Madame de Genlis is cited as someone who took advantage of these to show off her talents.

In brief, for the rest of the book:  Maza's book goes over a slew of cases and shows how they functioned. Some were strongly behind many of these gothic novels -- not so much the mad fantasies of Lewis, but the female gothics.  Live burials, imprisonments, the castle/dungeon were important things fitted repeatedly into these paradigms.

The story of the Queen's Necklace case is included. Maza devotes a chapter length discussion to it, and shows how this case is an an instance of these kinds of stories which gripped the imagination and became part of the conflicting discourses which led to the revolution puts in an appropriate context. Like most of these others at the core of the case was a financial scam, someone trying illegitimately to grow rich off the delusions, folly, helplessness of someone else.

I can't recommend Maza too strongly or highly -- for all sorts of purposes and readers. I particularly call Catherine Delors's attention to it for the retelling of many of the important trials of the era, and the way Maza both frames what happened in and of themselves, the particular lawyers' who got involved and how their careers impinged on and grew out of what they did, the kinds of things the public latched onto.  Many of the stories are about women, but by no means all: three men about to be tortured and broken on the wheel take up 1/3 of Maza's chapter called "innocent blood avenged."  The angle at which Maza retells the Diamond Necklace affair (the poverty-stricken girl hired to play Antoinette was as important in the public discourse as the Jeanne de la Motte) and how the scene in the garden was so focused on brought home to me analogous irrationalities and inanities of public re-tellings of the doings say of Obama or Princess Diana. 

Not only were lettres de cachet abolished, but much of the original "judicial system" was laced with torture (punctuated as it were), all of this was also abolished and torture went underground (Wharton's ghost story, "Kerfol" set in the later 17th century brings all this and sexual and emotional abuse together), and thus was stymied and brought to a minimum.  She goes over important treatises too: like Beccaria on torture.

Not just gothics, but many of the sentimental and realistic novels of the era play off the same elements one finds in these court case memoirs. And she goes over the texts of the memoirs and how they imitated techniques of the novels. Austen could have read the Martin Guerre case as well as the Marquise de Ganges because it's one of those Charlotte Smith retold in Romance of Real life.

I recommend Maza to all; see my blogs on Plessix-Grey's At Home Sade's short non-pornographic fictions (e.g., Eugenie de Franval).

Tags: epistolary novels, french writers, gothic

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.