Wednesday 9 March 2022

Review: The Secret History of Mama Oello


 My copy of Eliza Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaai contained a number of extra texts, including an anonymous novella from 1733 called The Secret History of Mama Oello. The titular Mama Oello is not a mama in any sense, she’s a Peruvian princess who is beset by a corrupt politician to marry an hideous man for political reasons rather than the one she’s given her heart to. The book finishes before the problem is resolved but promises more which never came.

Like The Adventures of Eovaai, The Secret History of Mama Oello is another disguised history, using a very thinly drawn veil of Peruvian-ness to hide itself from libel laws much as Samuel Johnson’s parliamentary reports were pitched as the reports of a Lilliputian parliament, rather than the British one. Published in a separate volume was Loque Yapanqui, which promised to be a key to unravelling this text.

The plot is simple, Mama Oella is a princess, the daughter of the chief Manco Capec who is in love with an unnamed Cacique, or Lord. However, his advisors (or Curacas), especially the sly and conniving Curaca Robilda force the chief to make her marry Atabalipa, the prince of Quito. This prince has a reputation for being a decent-enough person but he is deformed and ugly. What’s more, he doesn’t seem that into it, deigning to send a proxy to marry her and even being slow about that. This gives her the chance to snatch stolen moments with her favourite in a garden and to exchange love poems whilst pining for her fate.  At the end of the text, she hears that Atabalipa himself is on the way to marry her and should land within a month and she curses Curaca Robilda as the ‘Author of he Misfortunes’.

It’s not hard to guess who Curaca Robilda is, the corrupt advisor who twist the King and Queen to his will and lines his own pockets, he’s our old friend Robert Walpole. He’s not a wizard in this book and he turns no-one into a monkey, indeed he’s a character the reader barely meets but who has tendrils everywhere and power over everyone.

Mama Oella herself is Anne, the daughter of George I who was first proposed as wife to Louis XV of France but issues of religion complicated things and she was eventually married to William of Orange, who suffered from a spinal deformity. The suggestion in this book is that Anne was already in love with another (suggested in the key as Lord Carmichael, the first Earl of Hyndford) and that they continued a connection as the preparations for the wedding dragged on. It could be that is book is a hot piece of secret knowledge, or merely baseless court gossip. Certainly, the writer wasn’t attached enough to their convictions to carry on the work and portray the wedding. Nor is there any other source suggesting a relationship between Anne and Lord Carmichael. Indeed, Anne is reported to be very keen on getting married after her first near miss with Louis XV, declaring to her brother she’d be happy to marry a baboon than not marry at all. By most accounts the wedding was a success, with a Handel hymn using lyrics written by Anne herself. Though not liked by the Dutch, it seems Anne had a pretty good marriage as well, with warm letters existing between her and her husband. If there is a basis of truth in this story, it was a passing fancy rather than an eternal love.

This is a very badly written book, or at least a hastily written one. It falls easily into melodramatic cliché, full of ‘deluges’ of tears and cries of ‘oh ye Gods’. The book also features some torturous metaphors, particularly one about the Cacique and Mama Oello’s relationship being in calm still waters but now the ‘storm clouds rage’. At another point, Mama Oello declares she’d rather have been a shepherdess than princess. My personal favourite moment in the book is when the Cacique sees her after a while and declares his love by, “seizing her fair hand and throwing himself down at her feet”, which put me in mind of a judo move more than anything else. Also, the conceit that the book is taking place in Peru is only held up by the made-up names, job titles and references to God as Pacha Camac. It does lead to a very funny line referencing the navies of the English and the Dutch as those ‘terrible canoes’.

This book is ultimately a rushed job, hurried out anonymously to capitalise on a scandal that probably didn’t even take place - in other words, it’s a very typical Grub Street production and I’m under no delusion that I’d have been writing anything better were I writing at the time.

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