Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 2: The confession

Volume 2: The confession

When we last left Harriet and Sir Charles, she was beginning to acknowledge her esteem for him, and he had been challenged to a duel by Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, whom he had injured when he prevented Sir Hargrave's attempt to abduct, forcibly marry and rape Harriet (see Volume 1: The abduction).

The duel. Sir Charles goes to Sir Hargrave's house by himself, and in the presence of two of Sir Hargrave's friends reasons with him with such manly honor about their dispute that the two friends wind up taking Sir Charles' side. An exasperated Sir Hargrave invites Sir Charles into the garden and draws his sword, but Sir Charles is able to prevent the duel from proceeding further by stepping inside his guard and firmly grasping his arms.

"Sir Charles, who was on his guard, immediately laid hold of it, and seemed to say something mildly to him."
Illustration engraved by Heath from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

Defeated, Sir Hargrave returns to the house with Sir Charles, but insists on visiting Harriet.
Sir Har. . . .I will see if she has no pardon, no pity for me. She knows, she very well knows, that I was the most honorable of men to her, when she was in my power. By all that's sacred, I only intended to make her Lady Pollexfen. . .

Sir Ch. . . .I think she ought not to be yours; nor ought you, either for your own sake or hers, to desire it. . .

Sir Har. And you have no view to yourself in the advice you give?—Tell me that—I insist upon your telling me that.

Sir Ch. Whenever I pretend to give advice, I should abhor myself, if I did not wholly consider the good of the person who consulted me; and if I had any retrospection to myself, which might in the least affect that person.
Sir Har. . . .By G—, Sir, you have carried the matter very triumphantly. . .Curse me, if I can bear my own littleness! [1]
This kind of scene recurs throughout the novel. Sir Charles will meet with someone who is furiously opposed to him and win them over thanks to his calm reasoning and generosity of spirit and purse. Almost invariably he and his opponent wind up embracing in friendship (although Sir Hargrave doesn't quite go that far). This, of course, is exactly how things always work out in real life, where everywhere one sees the triumph of good sense, fairness and generosity.

"Extravagant to profusion": Sir Thomas Grandison. As a sign of their growing intimacy, Sir Charles' sisters Lady L. and Charlotte tell Harriet the story of their family. The Grandisons' father, Sir Thomas, was handsome and charming, but had "a great notion of magnificence in living" and was "extravagant to profusion." Their mother was "the most excellent of women. . .Her eye and ear had certainly misled her" in her choice of husband. [2] The children are raised by the wise and discreet Lady Grandison to honor their father, but they rarely see him. Sir Thomas spends half his time sampling the pleasures of the town without his wife and children, and the other half making the rounds of the hunts near his country seat.

After the death of Lady Grandison, the 17-year-old Sir Charles is sent abroad, and Sir Thomas brings the widow of an old companion of his revels to act as the governess of his 19- and 16-year-old daughters. In a short time Mrs. Oldham becomes Sir Thomas's mistress, and winds up bearing him two children. Sir Thomas has another mistress in town, Mrs. Farnborough. As Lady L. says to Harriet, "The Love of pleasure, as it is called, was wrought in to his habit. He was a slave to it, and to what he called freedom." [3]

Ashamed of how his conduct is likely to be regarded by his children, Sir Thomas forbids the sisters and Sir Charles to write one another. He also insists that Sir Charles remain abroad, because "his son's morals and his own were so different, that he should not be able to bear his own consciousness, if he consented to his return to England." [4]

The marriage of Lady L. Lord L., who met Sir Charles while travelling abroad, pays a lengthy visit to Grandison Hall. He soon falls in love with Caroline, Sir Thomas's eldest daughter, and she with him. Sir Thomas is unalterably opposed to this match. He tells Lord L., "I have not quitted the world so entirely, nor think I ought, as to look upon myself as the necessary tool of my children, to promote their happiness at the expense of my own." [5]

The marriage of a daughter involved her family paying a dowry to her husband, supposedly to compensate him for the expense of supporting her throughout her life, and to provide her with a small income (pin money) for personal items. Sir Thomas is reluctant to cut into his own income to provide dowries for his daughters. He demands that they marry only the men he approves, namely men who will feel socially elevated by the match and are so rich that they will accept a small or nonexistent dowry.  [6]

Lord L. has told Sir Thomas that he will rely on his "generosity" in the matter of a dowry, but Sir Thomas is not mollified. He dismisses Lord L. and forbids Caroline to see or correspond with him. In a confrontation with his tearful daughters he demands their obedience in the matter of their marriage partners, or he will disown them. Caroline goes so far as to say "I will never be Lord L.'s, without your consent. I only beg of you, Sir, not to propose to me any other man." [7]

"'Am I forgiven, sir?' said I. 'Dear sir, forgive your Charlotte.'"
Illustration engraved by Hubert from a drawing by Marillier. Image: Internet Archive

Shortly afterwards Sir Thomas is stricken by a fever and dies "in dreadful agonies." Sir Charles, who has been abroad for eight or nine years, had been sent for but cannot arrive in time. When he does come he settles his father's outstanding obligations (both licit and illicit) with generosity, approves the union between Lord L. and his sister, and provides both of the sisters with dowries of £10,000.

The suitors of Charlotte Grandison. But Sir Thomas's tyrannizing of his daughters has had unintended consequences. Charlotte has two suitors, the foppish Sir Walter Watkyns and the unexceptionable but rather insipid Lord G. But, spurning both, she confesses to Sir Charles that she has become involved with a handsome adventurer named Captain Anderson, who is twice her age.
Sir Charles rose from his seat; and taking one of his sister's hands between his, Worthy sister! Amiable Charlotte!. . .If you think Captain Anderson is worthy of your heart, he shall have a place in mine; and I will use my interest with Lord and Lady L. to allow of his relation to them. . .

Miss. Gr. O Sir, what shall I say? You add to my difficulties by your goodness. I have told you how I entangled myself. Captain Anderson's address began with hopes of a great fortune, which he imagined a daughter of Sir Thomas Grandison could not fail, first or last, to have. That this was his principle motive, has been, on many occasions (too many for his advantage) visible to me.  My allowance of his address, as I have hinted, was owing to my apprehensions, that I should not be a fortune worthy of a more generous man. At that time, our life was a confined one; and I girlishly wished for Liberty—MATRIMONY and LIBERTY—Girlish connexion! as I have since thought. [8]
Charlotte is the most subversive character in Sir Charles Grandison. Serving a function a bit like Lovelace in Clarissa, she uses her wit to call the values of the social system upheld by the "good" characters into question—such as the way a woman literally embodies her dowry ("I should not be a fortune worthy of a more generous man"), or how for women, marriage is simply exchanging the tyranny of a father for that of a husband ("MATRIMONY and LIBERTY—Girlish connexion!").

But Charlotte has unwisely promised Captain Anderson in writing that while he remains single she will not marry without his consent. Captain Anderson now insists that Charlotte must either marry him, or at the least keep her promise. Sir Charles must once again pay a visit to a man predisposed to take offense, and in the presence of his friends, dissuade him from a course of action to which he feels entitled. And once again the affair is settled amicably.

All's well that ends well? Given that we still have five and half volumes to go, the answer is obvious.

Miss Emily Jervois.  In Volume 2 we are introduced to Emily Jervois, Sir Charles' ward. Her Italian father on his deathbed bequeathed Emily to the care of his friend. (That it seems appropriate to everyone that a 14-year-old girl is the ward of a single 26-year-old man is remarkable, although Emily did not travel with Sir Charles and lives with a respectable widow and her daughters.) Charlotte describes Emily's English mother as being "one of the most abandoned of women." She is "a termagant, a swearer, a drinker, unchaste" who wants to insinuate herself back into her daughter's life in order to extort a share of her daughter's "great fortune." [9]

Emily is "amiable" and "lovely," and—no surprise—has a huge crush on Sir Charles. As Harriet writes Lucy:
My godfather [Dr. Bartlett] will have it, that he sees a young passion in Miss Jervois for her guardian!—God forbid!—A young Love may be conquered, I believe; but who shall caution the innocent girl? She must have a sweet pleasure in it, creeping, stealing, upon her. How can so unexperienced an heart, the object so meritorious, resist or reject the indulgence? But, O my Emily! sweet girl! do not let your Love get the better of your gratitude, lest it make you unhappy! [10]
But as Harriet quickly recognizes, Emily's case is her own.

"Entangled in a hopeless passion." Over the course of Volume 2, Harriet is slowly (very slowly) brought to hint to Lucy Selby something that has been apparent to everyone (including the reader) for several hundred pages: she has fallen in love with her handsome, manly, wealthy, and virtuous rescuer.

Lucy reads the letters she receives from Harriet to her parents, and the perceptive Mrs. Selby becomes alarmed at what she detects of Harriet's feelings. Not only does she fear that Harriet's first experience of love will be heartbreaking, but as long as Harriet lives in hope of Sir Charles returning her love she will refuse offers from other worthy men. As Mrs. Selby writes Harriet,
You have laid me under a difficulty with respect to Lady D. . . .I have not written to her [refusing her son's suit], tho' you desired I would; since, in truth, we all think, that her proposals deserve consideration; and because we are afraid, that a greater happiness will never be yours and ours. It is impossible, my dear, to imagine, that such a man as Sir Charles Grandison should not have seen the woman whom he could love, before he saw you. . . [11]
Mrs. Selby is very wise.

The confession. Harriet still doesn't know know if Sir Charles returns her romantic feelings, but the signs are not good. The families of two noblewomen, the Lady N. and Lady Anne S., have approached Sir Charles with the object of matrimony. Both women are vastly wealthy and both of them have a much higher social position than Harriet.

But there may be another rival as well. Lady L. and Charlotte report to Harriet a conversation they had with Sir Charles in which he said that "If [Lady Anne] honours me with a preferable esteem, it is not in my power to return it." Harriet at first thinks that this may be a hopeful sign; perhaps he cannot return Lady Anne's esteem because he is in love with Harriet? But Charlotte suggests another possibility: "We are afraid, that some foreign lady—"

"I threw one of my arms, as I sat between them, round Lady L's neck, the other round Miss Grandison's."
Illustration engraved by Heath from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

Under the sisters' gentle but insistent probing, Harriet is brought to confess her feelings.
I desired their pity. They assured me of their love; and called upon me as I valued their friendship, to open my whole heart to them.

I paused. I hesitated. For words did not immediately offer themselves. But at last, I said, ". . .I will own, that the man, who by so signal an instance of his bravery and goodness engaged my gratitude, has possession of my whole heart."
And then, almost unknowing what I did, I threw one of my arms, as I sat between them, round Lady L's neck, the other round Miss Grandison's; my glowing face seeking to hide itself in Lady L's bosom.
. . .I was very earnest to know, since my eyes had been such tell tales, if their brother had any suspicion of my regard for him. They could not, they said, either from his words or behaviour, gather that he had. [12]
Both sisters assure her that they want to see her married to their brother, but the obstacles—including what may be an involvement with "some foreign lady"—seem formidable.

Next time: Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 3: The mystery revealed

Last time: Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 1: The abduction

  1. Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, S. Richardson, 1753. Vol. II, Letter IV. Miss HARRIET BYRON to Miss LUCY SELBY. 
  2. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XI. Miss HARRIET BYRON to Miss LUCY SELBY.
  3. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XIII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  4. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XIII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  5. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter IX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  6. See Maria Grace's "Show Me the Money: Marriage Settlements in the Regency Era"
  7. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XVII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  8. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XXIX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation. 
  9. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter I and Letter XXV. Miss HARRIET BYRON, to Miss LUCY SELBY.
  10. Sir Charles Grandison, Letter XXXIII. Miss HARRIET BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  11. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter VIII. Mrs. SELBY, to Miss BYRON.
  12. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XXX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 1: The abduction

The History of Sir Charles Grandison volume 1 title page
'Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? —I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.'
'It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.'
'Do you indeed! —you surprize me; I thought it had not been readable.'
—Isabella Thorpe speaking to Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey [1]
Isabella Thorpe was not the only one who thought Samuel Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) unreadable. Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Richardson's, said that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." [2] Sir Charles Grandison is one of the longest novels in English (although it is exceeded by Richardson's own Clarissa), but its length is not the result of its grand historical or temporal sweep. Instead, it is largely the minute relation of the daily thoughts and feelings of Harriet Byron—a young woman who comes to know Sir Charles and his family intimately through circumstances that will soon be made clear—over the period of a few months.

In its epic length and slow pace Sir Charles Grandison seems very unlike the works of Jane Austen, and yet it was one of her favorite novels. Fifty years after Austen's death, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh remembered that "Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends." [3] Austen may have even written a play based on the novel for family performance. [4]

Title page of A Memoir of Jane Austen. Image: Internet Archive

In the "Biographical Notice of the Author" that appeared with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), her brother Henry wrote, "Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in 'Sir Charles Grandison,' gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative." [5]

Frontispiece portraying "Mr. S. Richardson" from the 1770 edition of Sir Charles Grandison. Image: The Frame Blog

Many writers have looked for traces of Sir Charles in Austen's heroes. Fortunately those traces are few. Sir Charles is a paragon of manly virtue, and although he self-deprecatingly invokes his many failings, we rarely see any of them. Sir Charles' major self-confessed flaw, as it is for Austen's Mr. Darcy, is pride. The situation of Sense and Sensibility's Edward Ferrars parallels that of Sir Charles in a significant way, for reasons that will later be revealed. And like Sir Charles, Emma's Mr. Knightley is seemingly always right.

But generally Austen's heroes (Mr. Darcy and Edward Ferrars included) are much more fallible than Sir Charles, and as a result, much more believable. As Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen's characters in his review of Emma, they "conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. . .All [of her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations. . .in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life." [6]

Sir Walter Scott's review of Emma in the Quarterly Review. Image: British Library

What Jane Austen took from Richardson was his ability to involve the reader deeply in the emotional lives of his heroines. Like Harriet Byron, Sense and Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood and Persuasion's Anne Elliot exercise their calm good judgment on behalf of everyone around them. Like Harriet as well, they and Mansfield Park's Fanny Price find themselves unable to express the true depth of their feelings to the man they love. They are all also exquisitely sensitive to other people's feelings, Fanny so much so that she is almost paralyzed with indecision when she must choose between gifts from two different people when selecting a necklace to wear to a party at which they will both be present. Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet in her confrontations with Mr. Darcy and with Lady Catherine de Bourgh has Harriet's admirable frankness and firmness of purpose, and, in her intimate discussions with her sister Jane, some of Harriet's self-described "sauciness" as well. [7]

I began reading Sir Charles Grandison shortly after finishing Clarissa a few years ago (see Clarissa on a smartphone), but paused after the first volume. I've recently taken it up again, and thought I would use this blog as something of a reading diary as I continue with the book. I will be writing about each volume as I finish it, although this idea didn't occur to me until I was midway through the fourth volume. But my intention is to share my thoughts about the book more-or-less as they occur. We'll see if I can make it to the end without either this writer or his readers wanting to hang themselves.

Volume 1: The abduction

Harriet Byron. When we are introduced to Harriet Byron through a letter from her constant correspondent, her cousin Lucy Selby, we learn that she has just recently come to London with her older cousins Mr. and Mrs. Reeves. Harriet is beautiful, youthful (she has just turned 20), orphaned and will be rich: she is the heiress of £15,000, good for an annual income of about £750.

The inducements of Harriet's person and fortune have attracted several would-be lovers: the vain and combative rivals Mr. Fenwick and Mr. Greville, the unassuming Mr. Orme, the "unexceptionable" Mr. Fowler. None of them have made any impression on Harriet's heart.

Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. At a dinner party she meets the self-regarding, affected, blustering Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, who immediately fixes his matrimonial ambitions on her.

"Sir Hargrave Pollexfen took an empty glass, and with it humorously rapped his knuckles and was silent."
Illustration engraved by Angus from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

A few days later he pays a call on her to make her an offer of marriage, but the interview does not go well:
Pray, Sir Hargrave—
And pray, Miss Byron—
I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband.
By G— said the wretch, fiercely (almost in the language of Mr. Greville on the like occasion) but you have—And if you are not engaged in your affections, the man is before you.
. . .I would fain have parted civilly. He would not permit me to do so. Though he was on his knees, he mingled passion, and even indirect menaces, with his supplications. I was forced to declare, that I never more would receive his visits.
This declaration he vowed would make him desperate, and he cared not what became of him.
. . .And you forbid my future visits, madam, said he, with a face of malice.
I do, Sir; and that for both our sakes. You have greatly discomposed me.
Next time, madam, I have the honour of attending you, it will be, I hope—[He stopt for a moment, but still looking fiercely] to an happier purpose. And away he went.
. . .You will now, therefore, hear very little farther in my letters of this Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. [8]
A prediction that, alas for Harriet, does not come true.

The next night, in the company of the Reeves, she attends a masquerade ball dressed as an Arcadian princess. (Her "sparkling" costume "falls not in with any of my notions of the Pastoral dress of Arcadia"; nonetheless, she can't help wondering "how many Pretty-fellows. . .will be slain." [9]) On leaving the ball, Harriet is directed to a strange chair by a new servant in the household, one Wilson. When the Reeves arrive home, having taken a later chair, Harriet is nowhere to be found.

The abduction. Wilson and the chairmen, it turns out, have been bribed by Sir Hargrave. He has had Harriet carried to a house in the wilds of Paddington (then a village amid fields on the western outskirts of London). There he intends to force her to undergo a marriage ceremony performed by a corrupt priest, and then rape her.

"Sir Hargrave took my struggling hand; and then I saw another ill-looking man enter the room." 
Illustration engraved by Walker from a drawing by Stothard, 1783. Image: Internet Archive

However, when Harriet's frantic resistance prevents this from happening, the next morning Sir Hargrave takes her blindfolded and gagged in his carriage, accompanied by armed servants on horseback, galloping down the road to his estate in Windsor. There on his isolated estate, surrounded by his own servants, he will see his plan through. These, no doubt, are the scenes that Isabella Thorpe considers "amazing horrid."

But on the narrow road crossing Hounslow Heath outside Windsor Sir Hargrave's carriage meets another one going the opposite direction, towards London. Both coaches are forced to stop, and as they are maneuvering around each other a resourceful Harriet is able to free herself from her gag and scream for help.

Sir Charles Grandison. The man in the other carriage is Sir Charles Grandison. On hearing Harriet's screams he orders his servants to block Sir Hargrave's way, and insists on speaking to the woman who has cried out. As Sir Charles approaches, Sir Hargrave, enraged by his interference, lunges at him with his sword. As Sir Charles later recounts it:
'I opened the chariot-door. Sir Hargrave made a pass at me. Take that, and be damn'd to you, for your insolence, scoundrel! said he.

'I was aware of his thrust, and put it by; but his sword a little raked my shoulder. . .I seized him by the collar before he could recover himself from the pass he had made at me, and with a jerk, and a kind of twist, laid him under the hind-wheel of his chariot.

'I wrench'd his sword from him, and snapp'd it, and flung the two pieces over my head. . .Your lovely cousin, the moment I returned to the chariot-door, instead of accepting of my offered hand, threw herself into my arms.—O save me! save me!—she was ready to faint. She could not, I believe, have stood. [10]

"Your lovely cousin. . .instead of taking my offered hand, threw herself into my arms." 
Illustration by R. Vinkeles, 1797. Image: Internet Archive

The rescue. Sir Hargrave laid low, Sir Charles carries the agitated Harriet to his carriage and takes her to the nearby house of his brother-in-law Lord L. in Colnebrooke, where Sir Charles and his sister Charlotte are staying. After Harriet has recovered she is reunited with the Reeves, and forms fast friendships with Charlotte, as well as with Sir Charles' other sister, Lady L., and her husband. Sir Charles tells Harriet that he looks on her as a third sister, which Harriet finds both delightful (to be admitted so quickly to such intimacy) and distressing (only a sister?). Charlotte drops hints to Harriet that Sir Charles is harboring a secret; is she warning Harriet not to fall in love with him?

If so, her warning may be too late. Harriet's aunt Mrs. Selby, reading between the lines of her letters to Lucy, tells her that she fears she is "entangled in a hopeless passion" for Sir Charles. She urges Harriet instead to consider a proposal made on behalf of Lord D. by his mother, the Countess Dowager of D. Harriet responds to her aunt, "since I have seen and known Sir Charles Grandison, I have not only (as before) an indifference, but a dislike, to all other men." [11]

The challenge. Meanwhile, Sir Hargrave refuses to be foiled in his marriage machinations. He issues a challenge to Sir Charles. Harriet receives a letter from Sir Hargrave's second implying that if she agrees to become Sir Hargrave's wife, he will urge Sir Hargrave to call off the duel. Harriet is torn; the prospect of marrying Sir Hargrave is abhorrent, but if she does not, Sir Charles' life may be in danger, and she will be the cause.

However, Sir Charles refuses the duel: "I have ever refused. . .to draw my sword upon a set and formal challenge. Yet I have reason to think, from the skill I pretend to have in the weapons, that in declining to do so, I consult my conscience rather than my safety. . .My sword is a sword of defence, not of offence." [12] Sir Hargrave is not appeased by this letter, and demands satisfaction; Sir Charles not only refuses again, but tells Sir Hargrave that he should be begging the pardon of Harriet on his knees. This will not sit well with Sir Hargrave, who will certainly want to take revenge. . .

Next time: Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 2: The confession

  1. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, John Murray, 1818 [published December 1817], Vol. I, Ch. VI.
  2. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480. 
  3. J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, Second edition, Bentley & Son, 1871, Ch. V: Description of Jane Austen's Person, Character, and Tastes.
  4. The play was published as Jane Austen's "Sir Charles Grandison," transcribed and edited by Brian Southam, Oxford University Press, 1981. The extent of Austen's contribution to the play, which family tradition ascribed to her niece Anna, has been questioned by Marilyn Butler in the London Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 9, 21 May 1981: (subscription required).
  5. Henry Austen, "A Biographical Notice of the Author," Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818.
  6. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201.
  7. In writing the first version of this post I flattered myself that this was my insight, but later discovered that in his study The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson, University of Minnesota Press, 1982, Terry Eagleton observed, "Jane Austen. . .put Harriet Byrons rather than Sir Charles Grandisons at the centre of her works" (p. 99).
  8. Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, S. Richardson, 1753. Vol. I, Letter XXII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation. 
  9. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Vol. I, Letter XXII. Miss BYRON. In Continuation. 
  10. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Quoted in Vol. I, Letter XXVII. From Mr. REEVES, To George SELBY, Esq In Continuation.
  11. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Vol. I, Letter XLIV. Miss BYRON to Mrs. SELBY.
  12. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Quoted in Vol. I, Letter XXXIX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Three books on music, part 3: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Anna Beer, Oneworld Publications, 2016, 370 pp.

On the cover: Portrait of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy, 1704 or earlier. Image: Readings

In Sounds and Sweet Airs British writer Anna Beer highlights eight women composers, from Francesca Caccini in the early 17th century through Elizabeth Maconchy in the 20th. If you're thinking "Who?" that's precisely Beer's point. Although not all of the composers featured in the book are forgotten women, as the subtitle has it—there are dozens of recordings of works by Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann currently available, to name just three of Beer's subjects—they are all under-performed and under-recorded with respect to their male contemporaries.

They also faced far greater barriers to success. Marriage and motherhood meant that women were expected to place needs of spouses and children ahead of their own. Alma Schindler had composed more than a hundred lieder before becoming the wife of Gustav Mahler; a few months before their marriage he wrote to her a notorious letter that is worth quoting at greater length than does Beer:
[H]ow do you picture the married life of a husband and wife who are both composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and, in time, how degrading for both of us such a peculiarly competitive relationship would become?. . .You have only one profession from now on: to make me happy!. . .The role of "composer," the "worker's" role falls to me, yours is that of loving companion and understanding partner. . .You must give yourself to me unconditionally, shape your future life, in every detail, entirely in accordance with my needs, and desire nothing in return save my love! [1]
Fortunately some husbands, such as those of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, actively supported their wives' musical activities. Still, the burdens of raising children and managing the household fell disproportionately on women. The marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann was an artistic companionship in theory; in practice Robert monopolized the piano, while Clara was frequently pregnant and regularly needed to embark on gruelling concert tours to bring in money.

Remaining unmarried might provide women with the freedom to compose, but it had its own dangers: it could expose them to salacious gossip and social rejection. Marianna Martines (born in Vienna in 1744) never married and for respectability's sake lived with two of her brothers and the elderly librettist Pietro Metastasio, for whom she was a caregiver.

Portrait of Marianna Martines by Anton von Maron, ca. 1773. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As a young woman Martines received music lessons from a teenaged Joseph Haydn, who at the time was living in the attic of her family home, and from Nicola Porpora, who may also have been living with the family. She held musical salons at which she played keyboard duets with one Wolfgang Mozart (she was doing him the favor; he was trying to gain entry into Viennese society). She received invitations to visit Naples and Bologna, other important centers of musical activity, but declined them and remained in the city of her birth.

Because it would not have been seemly for a woman of her social position, she never wrote an opera. We have some idea of what a Martines opera might have sounded like, though, from her cantatas with orchestral accompaniment. Anna Bonitatibus singing Martines' setting of Metastasio's "Orgoglioso fiumicello" with La Floridiana led by Nicoleta Paraschivescu:

Martines hosted private musical evenings because it was not befitting for a woman of her social station to give public concerts. This was also true of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (born 1805), the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

Fanny Mendelssohn by William Hensel, 1829. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although Fanny received the same musical training as Felix, she was not granted the same opportunities. Fanny's father Abraham wrote her, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and action. . .You must. . .prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife." When their mother urged Felix to help Fanny publish her music, he wrote her that to do this "is contrary to my views and to my convictions." [2]

Felix was generally supportive of Fanny's composing, but he did not think it fitting for his sister to place herself in the public eye by publishing her works under her own name. Instead he published six of her songs under his name in his Opus 8 and Opus 9. Here is one of those songs, "Sehnsucht" (Longing, based on a poem by Johann Gustav Droysen), performed by Barbara Bonney with accompanist Geoffrey Parsons:


Fern und ferner schallt der Reigen.
Wohl mir! um mich her ist Schweigen
Auf der Flur.
Zu dem vollen Herzen nur
Will nicht Ruh' sich neigen.


Fainter and fainter is the sound of the dancing.
I'm thankful that silence surrounds me
In the halls.
To my full heart
peace will not descend.

Horch! die Nacht schwebt durch die Räume.
Ihr Gewand durchrauscht die Bäume
Lispelnd leis'.
Ach, so schweifen liebeheiß
Meine Wünsch' und Träume.
Listen! The night wafts through the rooms.
Its robes rustle through the trees,
Softly whispering.
Just as, burning with love, wander
My wishes and dreams.

For women composers the difficulty of getting work published meant that it could be misattributed (as in the case of "Sehnsucht"), neglected for decades, or lost entirely. The music Francesca Caccini (born 1587) wrote for the stage, for example, has largely vanished. Only one opera has survived in a performable state: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (Ruggiero's Liberation from Alcina's Island, 1625). She also wrote hundreds of secular and sacred songs, only a few of which have been preserved.

Caccini's "Dolce Maria," performed by Shannon Mercer with Luc Beauséjour (organ and harpischord), Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Sylvain Bergeron (theorbo):

Until relatively recently women were largely excluded from professional positions at court, in cathedrals and at conservatories, which meant that they often could not support themselves through nor find ready outlets for their art. They were passed over for prizes and fellowships, and their work was infrequently programmed in the concert hall or on the radio.

This was the case for Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy (born 1907), the subject of one of the most interesting chapters of Sounds and Sweet Airs. Her father, a solictor, died of tuberculosis when she was 15, and her mother moved the family from Ireland to London after Elizabeth won admission to the Royal College of Music the next year. She became a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and in 1928 applied for the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship. She did not receive it, however, being told by the head of the RCM that "if we'd given it to you, you'd only have gotten married and never written another note!" [3]

"Ophelia's Song," composed by 19-year-old Maconchy while at the RCM in 1926, performed by Caroline MacPhie with accompanist Joseph Middleton; the words are from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5:


How should I your true love know
  From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
  And his sandal shoon.

He is dead and gone, lady,
  He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
  At his heels a stone.

White his shroud as the mountain snow
  Larded with sweet flowers,
Which bewept to the grave did go
  With true-love showers.

Maconchy did get married in 1930, and kept right on composing (when she wasn't debilitated by bouts of tuberculosis). Fortunately in the 1930s three women in the London music scene—the conductor Iris Lemare, the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens—established a concert series to present music by composers whose work wasn't being performed elsewhere. Maconchy wound up being the most-performed composer in the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, ahead of another young unknown named Benjamin Britten.

After World War II Maconchy received a bit more recognition. Hers was the winning entry in the London Council's competition for a Coronation Overture for Elizabeth II (Proud Thames, 1952), and in 1959 she became the first woman to chair the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. She received a CBE appointment in 1977, the year of Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and a decade later was made Dame Commander. But despite these honors, she remains relatively little known and rarely performed. I did not know her name and had never heard her music before I read Beer's book.

From Maconchy's Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-53), the second movement (Lento) performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Odaline de la Martinez:

In Sounds and Sweet Airs Beer necessarily focusses on a few composers and tries to generalize from their experiences to the difficulties faced by many other musical women. Every composer she profiles deserves more attention, so it feels a bit churlish to complain about those who are not represented. There are no composers from the medieval period, so abbess Hildegard of Bingen and the trobairitz Countess of Dia are absent (although the latter provides the book's epigram). And Beer neglects to include any composer from the church. That's odd because not only is sacred music a huge part of the classical tradition, the church often offered greater opportunities for women to compose than did the stage or the concert hall (the 17th-century nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani might have made a good subject).

When in her chronological survey Beer reaches the late 19th century, she does not mention Ethel Smyth; in the 20th, Americans Ruth Crawford Seeger, Florence Price and Mary Lou Williams are absent. In the chapter on Maconchy, Beer tantalizingly quotes from the delightfully entertaining writings of fellow composer Elisabeth Lutyens, the daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens (designer of much of New Dehli), who seems like a highly engaging subject in her own right. We can only hope that Beer is planning a second volume.

Update 18 October 2023: Erica Siegel has written The Life and Music of Elizabeth Maconchy (Boydell & Brewer, 2023), the first full-length biography of the composer. For MusicWeb International, Stephen Greenbank has praised the biography as "splendid. . .authoritative. . .well-researched and generously illustrated. Erica Siegel writes with passion in an engaging, fluent and readable style." Greenbank also notes Boydell & Brewer's "flawless production standards in terms of printing, superb photographic reproductions and the inclusion of pertinent musical examples."

Other books in this series:

  1. Letter from Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler, 19 December 1901. Quoted in Julia Moore, "Alma Mahler, or The Art of Being Loved" [review]. Notes, Second Series, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Mar., 1993), pp. 972-977.
  2. Quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 144-148. 
  3. Quoted in Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Oneworld Publications, 2016, p. 294.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Three books on music, part 2: Handel in London

Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. Jane Glover, Pegasus Books, 2018. 430 pp.

Image: MSE Books

George Frideric Handel, composer of Messiah, was born as Georg Friederich Händel in 1685 in the Electorate of Saxony in eastern Germany. As a young man he received musical instruction in his birthplace of Halle an der Saale and then in the more cosmopolitan Hamburg before travelling to northern and central Italy. There he spent the formative years of his early and mid-20s, absorbing musical influences and creating his first masterpieces. But most of the works by which he is known today were written in London. He first visited the city in late 1710 on extended leave from his duties as director of music for the Elector of Hanover, and then moved there more-or-less permanently two years later. The English capital was, as Jane Glover's subtitle has it, the making of a genius.

An invitation from the British envoy to Venice after he witnessed the triumph of Handel's opera Agrippina (1709) first brought Handel to England. What kept him there was a proposal from Queen's Theatre impresario Aaron Hill, who wanted to produce a visually spectacular Italian opera. Hill chose a subject which, "by different Incidents and Passions, might afford the Musick scope to vary and display its Excellence, and fill the Eye with more delightful Prospects, so at once to give two senses equal Pleasure." [1]

Hill wrote a scenario that featured the clash between the Christian champion Rinaldo and the Saracen sorceress Armida, a story taken from Italian poet Torquato Tasso's First Crusade epic Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). Hill probably knew the poem in Edward Fairfax's early 17th-century English translation Godfrey of Boulogne, or the Recoverie of Ierusalem.

Rinaldo, as the opera was titled, was indeed spectacular. For Armida's Act I entrance aria "Furie terribili" she appears "in the air, in a Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose mouths issue Fire and Smoke." Later in the act Armida kidnaps the virtuous Christian maiden Almirena in front of a helpless Rinaldo: "a black Cloud descends, all fill'd with dreadful Monsters spitting Fire and Smoke on every side. The Cloud covers Almirena and Armida, and carries 'em up swiftly into the Air, leaving in their Place, two frightful Furies, who having grinn'd and mock'd Rinaldo, sink down, and disappear." [2] While Hill "filled the eye," Handel delighted the ear, accompanying these astonishing scenes with superb music, some of it borrowed from works he had composed in Italy.

Sarah Wegener performs "Furie terribili," Armida's summoning of her demons, with Ensemble Il Capriccio (but, alas, no dragons):

In Act II there is the vista of "a Calm and Sunshiny Sea" with mermaids and Sirens, who lure Rinaldo to Armida's enchanted palace in a futile attempt to rescue Almirena (Rinaldo is captured himself). In Act III "a dreadful Prospect of a Mountain, horribly steep, and rising from the Front of the Stage, to the utmost Height of the most backward Part of the Theatre; Rocks, and Caves, and Waterfalls, are seen upon the Ascent, and on the Top appear the blazing Battlements of the Enchanted Palace, Guarded by a great number of Spirits, of various Forms and Aspects." [3] The mountain splits apart and vanishes when struck by the magic wands of two Christian knights, and Almirena and Rinaldo are freed. The Saracen armies are vanquished, Jerusalem is conquered by the Crusaders, and Armida breaks her magic wand and converts to Christianity (!).

London had never seen or heard anything like it. Rinaldo ran for 15 performances in the winter and spring of 1711, and was revived four times over the next six years. Unfortunately, in a pattern that was to repeat itself, despite the success of the opera Hill lost money on the production and ultimately lost his job as well.

Handel, though, had found a welcoming new city, and a new focus: writing Italian opera for the English stage. Over the next three decades he would compose nearly three dozen operas that would showcase some of the greatest singers in the world. [4]

Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner, ca. 1727. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Glover situates Handel's musical activities within the context of the political upheaval in Britain during the first half of the 18th century. Riots accompanied the accession of Handel's patron Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, to the British throne as George I on the death of the Stuart Queen Anne in 1714. The right of the House of Hanover to rule Britain was contested on the battlefield during rebellions on behalf of the self-styled James III (the son of the deposed James II and the nephew of Queen Anne) against George I in 1715, and of James's son Charles against George II in 1745.

But there was conflict within the House of Hanover as well. There were bitter divisions between George I and his son George Augustus, the Prince of Wales. And after George Augustus ascended the throne as George II on his father's death in 1727, he in turn was at odds with his eldest son Frederick, the new Prince of Wales. Although Handel had strong connections to the throne, he could not afford to alienate the princes (who, after all, were in line to become the future king).

The quarrel between George II and Frederick had professional consequences for Handel, as Frederick was a major sponsor of an opera company founded in 1733 to rival Handel's. Although Frederick was clearly acting mainly to spite his father—he also supported Handel's company—in the end two Italian opera companies were two too many. When it became clear by the end of that decade that producing opera was no longer (if it had ever been) financially viable, Handel—then in his mid-50s—made a remarkable transition: he turned to the composition of the English-language oratorios (including Messiah) that became some of his most beloved works.

Mark Padmore performing "Waft her, angels, through the skies" from the oratorio Jephtha (1751), with The English Concert conducted by Andrew Manze:

Handel in London is Glover's third book, after her study of Monteverdi's student Francesco Cavalli (1978) and the excellent Mozart's Women (2005). [5] She writes about 18th-century music with a well-earned authority: she is a conductor of distinction who specializes in the period, and her discussions of Handel's operas and oratorios offer insights on every page. Handel has been well served by biographers, and if you are interested in fuller treatments of his early years in Germany and Italy you may wish to turn to the books by conductor Christopher Hogwood or musicologist Donald Burrows. But Glover has written the most sheerly readable biography of Handel I've encountered. She makes the offstage drama affecting Handel's opera companies and the sometimes knotty politics of Hanoverian Britain admirably clear, but always keeps the focus on Handel's magnificent music. Highly recommended.

Last time: Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque masterpiece
Next time: Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

  1. Quoted in Jane Glover, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. Pegasus Books, 2018, p. 24.
  2. Quoted in Glover, pp. 30-31. 
  3. Quoted in Glover, pp. 31-33. 
  4. For more on Handel's works for the stage, please see my posts on Acis and Galatea (1718), Floridante (1721), Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724), Tamerlano (Tamerlane, 1724), Orlando (Roland, 1733), Ariodante (1735), Alcina (1735), and Serse (Xerxes, 1738) 
  5. In the first version of this post I had forgotten her book on Cavalli, although I've read it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Three books on music, part 1: The Cello Suites

As Maconchy said, to write about a piece of music is as if one sought to paint a smell.
—Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs [1]
It's hard to write well about classical music. Books intended for an academic audience presuppose a grounding in music theory and an ability to sightread; readers lacking either may quickly become lost. Books intended for a non-professional audience often assume too little knowledge, belabor the obvious and repeat the well-worn. In books aimed at either audience, the use of audio and video to illustrate musical points is still strangely uncommon (even today most music books lack a companion website or an online playlist).

This and my next two posts will review three recent(ish) books on music: Eric Siblin's The Cello Suites (2009), Jane Glover's Handel in London (2018), and Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs (2016). All are intended for a general rather than a specialist audience, and each succeeds in finding that engaging middle ground between the esoteric and the over-familiar. Each would have been enhanced, though, by a judicious choice of musical clips; I've supplied a few to make up for their absence.

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque masterpiece. Eric Siblin, Anansi Press, 2009. 320 pp.

Pop music journalist Eric Siblin discovered Johann Sebastian Bach's Suites for Solo Violoncello by hearing them performed by Laurence Lesser at a recital he attended out of "idle curiosity." But as he also writes, "I might have been searching for something without knowing it." That was also my feeling when I first heard the suites three decades ago, in the recordings made in the 1930s by Pablo (Pau) Casals.

It is to Casals that we owe the rediscovery of this magnificent music. As Casals described his own first encounter with the suites at age 13 in a second-hand sheet music shop in Barcelona,
I did not know of their existence, and no-one had ever mentioned them to me. It was the great revelation of my life. I immediately felt that this was something of exceptional importance, and hugged my treasures all the way home. I started playing them in a state of indescribable excitement. For twelve years I studied and worked on them every day, and I was nearly 25 before I had the courage to play one of them in public. Before I did, no violinist or cellist had ever played a suite in its entirety. [2]

Portrait of Pau Casals by Ramon Casas, ca. 1902-1904. Image: Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Siblin quotes the program notes from Lesser's recital describing how the cello suites were seen for 150 years after Bach's death as merely exercises for practice. Casals' first public performance of a full cello suite took place in 1901, but it wasn't until 1936, when he was approaching 60, that he went into Abbey Road Studios in London and recorded two of the suites (Nos. 2 and 3). He recorded the remaining four suites in Paris in 1938 (Nos. 1 and 6) and 1939 (Nos. 4 and 5). These recordings and Casals' concert performances revolutionized how the suites were heard. They are now established at the heart of the cello repertory and are considered among Bach's greatest works. Today there are dozens of available recordings (with more added to the catalog every year) and the suites can be frequently heard in concert halls, cafes, and even busked in the subway. Still, Casals' performances of 80 years ago set a standard that has rarely been equalled and, in my view, never surpassed.

Here is Casals' performance of the Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G major, recorded in Paris on 2 June 1938:

It is not known precisely when Bach wrote the cello suites. The most complete and authoritative manuscript is in the hand of his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, and dates from Bach's time in Leipzig around 1730. But the pieces were probably written a decade or more previously, during the period in which Bach was Kapellmeister (music director) at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. There he had two virtuoso cellists in the court orchestra, Christian Ferdinand Abel and Christian Bernhard Lingke, and the suites may have been written for performance by either or both of them.

Title page of Suites for Violoncello Solo, manuscript ca. 1730. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Siblin's book aptly describes the "aching soulfulness" of the suites. The book is structured in three parallel stories: the first is that of Bach and the creation of the suites, the second that of Casals and their rediscovery, and the third that of Siblin's encounter with and investigations into the music.

The book is very readable, although the rigid structure sometimes seems constraining and Siblin's tendency to employ journalistic shorthand or hyperbole can be misleading. An example: on page 41 we learn that in 1895, after Casals was pressured by the Spanish court to compose a Spanish national opera instead of focussing on playing the cello, "the family left Madrid, never to return." But on page 43 we read of Casals' "trips to Madrid and an emotional reunion with the Count de Morphy" just a few months later. So apparently we are to understand that Casals never again visited Madrid with the rest of his family. But since Casals was by this time approaching adulthood and becoming independent, and since his family was in any case native to Barcelona, this doesn't end up seeming especially remarkable.

Another example: on page 226 we read of Bach's trip to the Prussian court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, "Six months earlier. . .Prussian troops ended their occupation of Leipzig." But Siblin never informs us when the Prussian troops began their occupation of Leipzig, so the significance of this information isn't clear. In fact, Prussian troops occupied Leipzig in late December 1745, and departed in the first days of January 1746. Bach visited the Prussian court (where his son C. P. E. Bach was employed) in May 1747, a year and a half—not six months—after the Prussians took, then quickly abandoned, Leipzig. The key point isn't made until two pages later: Bach was in the employ of the Leipzig City Council; for him to visit the court of the city's recent conqueror may suggest that he was on a semi-official visit of reconciliation. Or it may suggest that Bach's frequently antagonistic relationship with the Council was continuing, and the trip was an act of defiance. What is known is that after the trip Bach dedicated another of his masterpieces, The Musical Offering, to the Prussian ruler (and flautist) Frederick the Great, who had provided its theme.

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1746. Image: Wikimedia Commons

But all of this is somewhat peripheral to the Cello Suites, which which were likely composed decades earlier. Although the documentary record is sparse, more about Anna Magdalena Bach and her role as Bach's copyist and fellow musician (she was a singer and, some speculate, may have written music in her own right) would have been welcome.

There are other strange omissions as well. For example, although Siblin quotes the great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma in his text and lists his book on the Cello Suites (Bach, The Fencing Master (2001)) in his bibliography, Bylsma's profound second recording of the suites from 1993—second only, in my view, to Casals' interpretation—is not mentioned in Siblin's "Suggested Listening."

Anner Bylsma's performance of  the Courante from Suite No. 1, played on the Servais cello built by Antonio Stradivarius in 1701:

Occasional awkwardnesses and elisions aside, Siblin has three compelling stories to tell, and he generally tells them engagingly. Particularly if you either have not yet or have just recently discovered Bach's Cello Suites, Siblin's book is an appealing and accessible introduction to these inexhaustible works.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Oneworld Publications, 2016, p. 330.
  2. Quoted in Lionel Salter, liner notes for J. S. Bach: Suites for Cello vols. 1-2, performed by Pablo Casals, EMI CDH-7 61028 2 and CDH-7 61029 2