Wednesday 11 March 2020

Review: The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family by Penelope Aubin

Today’s text from the Oxford Anthology of Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730 is a really juicy one, horribly ‘perfect’ characters, weird attitudes to women and lashings upon lashings of Islamophobia and racism, there’s something in here for everyone.

The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family. was written by Penelope Aubin, who wanted to redeem the novel’s bad reputation for saucy little love stories and use the format to show people of great virtue acting in admirable ways in difficult circumstances. She’s explicit about this in her preface. She’s also explicit about setting it in a foreign setting to capitalise on the success of Robinson Crusoe and the title pages tease something more of a shipwreck story than we get. The majority of the novel is set in Turkey, making use of the same ‘Eastern’ archetypes that are examined a little more subtly in Johnson’s play, Irene. It must be said that Aubin knew who to ride trends and tailor her work to taste and she knew it, saying;
“If this trifle sells, I conclude it takes, and you may be sure to hear from me again.” She was very popular, writing another four novels that year.

We are introduced to the Count of Vinevil and his family. He is of noble blood but having been an uncorrupt official, is now rather down on his funds and decides to trade with Muslims in Constantinople. He was a daughter called Ardelisa who is beautiful and looks after a young man, the Count of Longueville.  While Ardelisa (our main character) is barely described, Longueville gets attributed an entire page of perfections, so of course I hate him instantly. The young couple are in love by default and Longueville declares that he plans to be, ‘lover, husband and father’ to Ardelisa, a declaration that surprisingly doesn’t get him banned from going anywhere near her again.

Things are instantly alarming when they enter Turkish waters, catch sight of the Haigh Sofia and Longueville warns Ardelisa that they are not in Kansas anymore but in a place full of, “odious mosques, where the vile imposter’s name is echoed through the empty choirs and vaults where cursed Mahometans profane the sacred piles.” Ecumenism hasn’t reached him yet.

Pretty much as soon as they set up shop, they wish they hadn’t, particularly due to the oppressive fondness of an important Turkish Bassa called Mahomet for Ardelisa. Hearing of a plan to have their goods stolen and innocent woman stolen for a harem, they make a plan for the Count de Longueville to sneak out of the bay and Ardelisa to stay at a friends. Before they put this into effect though, the Count de Longueville begs for marriage to Ardelisa in case the plan goes wrong. This isn’t presented as a romantic act so much as a practical one, Longueville wants to marry her so they can have sex as it would “be so wretched to lose her unenjoyed.”(I’m not sure I’ve written the word ‘yeuch’ quite so many times in my notes with any book as this one).

He also gives her a motivational talk where he encourages her to kill herself if captured as although her virtue is strong, “force does oft prevail” and he would “be completely cursed to hear you live and are debauched”. It is here we see Penelope Aubin the canny worker of the book trade, for a book dedicated to ‘honour and piety’ and is obvious she is also trying to titillate her audience, teasing a dramatic rape or escape.

When the moment does happen, it happens in dramatic fashion. Mahomet is a brute who loves the notion of killing christians declaring he means to leave nothing in the household but “speechless ghosts and murdered carcasses” and that he will capture Ardelisa and “force her to give up her treasures to me.” When he finds Count Vinevil, her father, he orders his men to, “bring her naked from her bed that I may ravish her before the dotard’s face”. But the plan has worked, Ardelisa is at a friend’s house, so he stabs the Count de Vinevil and that’s the end of the title character of this text. To be fair, that’s the best scene, it may be hammy and revels in its rapey imagery but it has the more life than the rest of the novel.

The bulk of the novel consists of Ardelisa, her maid and their servant moving about and hiding in one of the many comfortable little Christian hermitages that seem to litter the countryside. As they do this, they gather quite the retinue. For a few tense paragraphs, they are are caught and the women are put in a harem, luckily for them, the person who has captured them falls from grace with the Sultan and is imprisoned and they escape in the confusion with yet more people.

Finally they put to sea. The ship is wrecked in a storm on a deserted island in the Mediterranean. Here they have more trouble finding food and the tension builds until another ship turns up. There’s some discussion about the relationship between Violetta, a woman picked up at the harem, and the ship’s captain. The issue is, that she has had sex when she was in the harem and as a wife (though against her will) considers herself still married to him. This is quickly solved with news that he has been executed and takes them all to France along with the many gems they seem to have gathered along the way.

The last part is completely baffling. The odious Count of Longueville, who we last saw having a quick wedding and sneaking goods out of Constantinople has reached France ahead of them and is in a Monastery and about to become a monk. Instead of going straight to him and declaring that she lives, Ardelisa decides to send a message that she has died. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly for giggles, to see what he has done, or because she has a similar opinion of the Count of Longueville as I do - not sure.

It makes sense this novel ends with an act bother pointless and cruel as it sums up the experience of the rest of it. I recommend this one only to enjoy hating it.

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