Wednesday 26 February 2020

Review: Love Intrigues by Jane Barker

The next on my odyssey through the Oxford collection is Love Intrigues by Jane Barker. She was the first author in the book I hadn’t heard of, though I’ve later heard a lot more about here through the book The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters by Norma Clarke.

Jane Barker was always fond of learning and, with support from her brother, even taught herself anatomy and medicine. In her visits to the universities, she found herself in poetic circles where she shared in discussion of poetry as well as writing poetry and passing them on to each other. When William of Orange landed, Barker, a dedicated Jacobite moved to St Germain as a part of James II’s court in exile where she continued to write. 

Later, she’d create a series of books called The Patchwork Screen, which were (what seems like) fascinating mixtures of story, poetry, essay and anything else that would work. Love Intrigues, on the other hand, and the other two short books that made up the Galesia Trilogy were largely autobiographical, which may explain how un-novel-like some of the strangeness of this book.

It starts with a sprightly eleven your old girl called Galesia being pulled out of a school in Putney because the reversal in the King’s fortunes means that the family’s are a little more precarious then they had been. This is okay because her older brother’s friend has taken a shine to her, “though he were already a man, and I but a child.” (Ick). His name is Brafort.

Galesia also has her eyes fixed on another young man called Bosvil, he isn’t into her yet as she is a child (hooray) but happens to be her cousin (ick, again). 

When she reaches fifteen she lives with an aunt in London to learn the ways of a gentlewoman, where she spends more time with Bosvil and the two start to build a friendship. Brafort also comes over to woo her but she pretends all of his romantic talk is nothing more than playful banter.

Brafort, realising that his attempts aren’t really getting anywhere and that Bosvil is moving onto his patch, gets his creepy little self over the parents and promptly arranges a wedding. However, as the wedding approaches he gets sick and he dies on the day of the wedding, sleeping in his “grave, instead of his nuptial bed.”

This should be the moment for Bosvil to make his move but he doesn’t, indeed he goes all cold. Galesia decides to dedicate herself to learning, carving a poem into a tree and deciding to learn medicine (which Jane Barker also did). 

However, when Bosvil comes around again his, “eyes darted love, his lips smiled love, his heart sighed love, his tongue was the only part silent.” Again they kindle something of a relationship but when he goes away he is cold again. This is the rest of the story, Bosvil intermittently sending signals of love and then signals of indifference. I honestly thought the book was building into a reveal of two Bosvils, one who loves Galesia and one who doesn’t, and them having to keep it hidden for some elaborate reason. It’s not that though, it’s a simple case of misreading the signs. Bosvil did love Galesia but was under the impression that she didn’t love him and had been mourning for Brafort, so he ignored her (and even eventually married) - whereas she’d loved him best all along.

The most entertaining parts of the book are when Galesia is angry. When she hears that Bosvil is getting married, she sends him horns, a symbol of cuckoldry, as a bit of a joke, which doesn’t go down too well at the wedding. She also has an elaborate page imagining murdering Bosvil and the thanks she would get from womankind for ridding the world of an inconstant lover, declaring that, “I shall delight myself to see the blood pour out of his false heart.” It’s a brilliantly over-the-top and utterly realistic depiction of an angry person having the sort of revenge fantasy that might embarrass them in a more sober mood.

Despite the flimsiness of the story, it is packaged well and is wrapped up in consistent theming, particularly when it comes to metaphors of language and the language of love. The whole story relies on the misreading of love’s language, references to love and language learning are scattered throughout the text. Although ‘the merest freshman in love’s academy could not but read and understand that language,’ of her love, Bosvil must be somewhere in nursery level. During Bosvil’s first period of coldness, Galesia decides to learn Latin so she can learn anatomy and medicine but she struggles with conjugating ‘amo, amas, amat’ just as she and he fail to conjugate. 

The plot may be flimsy but the telling is involved, the depictions of inner thought and conflict point towards later novels and the tightness of its theming ties it in a nice bow.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Review: The Secret History of Queen Zarah

Oxford Compilation: Second Text

The second novel in the collection is Delarivier Manley’s The Secret History of Queen Zarah, written in 1705 but more interested by events twenty years previously. After the succession of shocks and surprises that was Aphra Behn’s ‘The Nun, this was a far more expected and (if I’m honest) flat experience.

It tells the story of Zarah, an initially naïve (if never exactly innocent) young woman who lives around the edges of the court. She falls in love with a man called Hippolito because he’s attractive, well-connected and rich but he’s also the love the King’s mistress. This is pretty simply solved when Zarah finds herself in a compromising position with him and is ‘caught’ by her mother, who nudges him into marriage. The two rise in power, playing different political groups off each other, swapping alliances at the smallest benefit, teasing with sex and power – the general set of activities for the rich and dodgy. 

Finally, after weaving through the reigns of three kings, Zarah finds herself the favourite of childhood friend Atalantia. In this position she can screen her friends, punish her enemies and generally rule. This is no problem for Atalantia, who gets all the cushiness of being Queen without the hard work. The piece ends rather abruptly here.

The main reason the book doesn’t have a proper ending is that the story of Sarah Churchill, the model of Zarah, didn’t have an ending yet. As seen in the recent film, The Favourite, she would find herself and exiled, but this happened in 1711 and the book came out in 1705. It’s interesting to compare the character of Zarah in this book to the depiction of Sarah in the film to see what her enemies were saying about Sarah Churchill at the time and the (also quite slanderous) things said about her now. Zarah is a schemer in the book, she uses politics more than she uses sex and when she does use sex as a weapon, it is against men. Most interestingly, beyond her natural political cunning, Zarah seems something of a dullard, not very interesting or interested beyond the acquisition of power. Sarah Churchill in The Favourite used the with-holding of sex and affection to manipulate Queen Anne and she gains power for its own sake but also because she is good with it. Sarah Churchill in the film is manipulative but she is extremely smart and a far more interesting character in general.

The most interesting thing about this book is not the story itself, it’s the controversy over authorship. Never was it attributed to Delrivier Manley in her lifetime. Apparently it doesn’t have the same flavour of Manley’s New Atalantis, which is far more sexually explicit (and imaginative). Nor was it published by the same bookseller, the racier work being published by our old friend Edmund Curll. The current probable author of the work was a man called Joseph Browne, a man who succeeded Manley in writing for The Examiner (who had in turn taken it over from Swift). This collection was put together in 1996 and the arguments against Manley being the author of this piece were in 2001 and 2004. 

The other most interesting part of the text is the extensive preface, which turns out to be a straight translation of a piece of French criticism. The piece questions why the English are turning away from the multi-volume French Romances and in favour of shorter, more grounded works. It suggests that the English being a mercantile nation are generally more grounded but also suggests being ‘brisk and impetuous’ do not require ‘long-winded performances’ and that ‘they have no sooner begun a book, that they desire to see the end of it’. This example of an author taking a French jibe against the English and re-contextualising it in their favour was probably the funniest part of the text.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Review: The Nun by Aphra Behn

Oxford Compilation: First text.

In an effort to clear my writing workload and free up time to work on my exciting new novel, I came upon the most cunning of plans. One of the books on my shelves is an intriguing anthology by Oxford University Press called Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730. It contains work by authors I’ve not heard much of such as Penelope Aubin and Jane Barker but also a few from favourites like Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn – they should give me something to talk about for a few weeks.

The first piece in the book is called The Nun; or, The Fair Vow-breaker and is by Aphra Behn. I know she is not an eighteenth century writer but I had enjoyed Oroonoko (and thought I had written a review of it) and was expecting something well written though, from the title, a little generic. What I quickly realised was that this was anything but generic, it’s a rollercoaster of reversals and surprises.

I’m not much one for spoiler warnings but I will issue them for this, the impact of the story is in all the sudden about-faces coming along suddenly.

We start with a man of wealth who feels so depressed with the world when his beautiful wife dies, that he decides to join a monastery and have his charming two year old daughter raised by nuns, the Abbess being her auntie. There’s a lovely couple of sentences about how two is a lovely age and detailing how the nuns fall in love with her 'forward prattling', the toddler being a breath of fresh air. The nuns love playing with her and teaching her everything they know. Which seems to me to be the perfect set up to a story where  the fair innocent is seduced, runs away from the convent and dies in shame and penury.

This is not what happens though. She is encouraged to have a jaunt in the world and to make a decision about whether she would like to be a woman of the world (and have half her father’s fortune) or to stay in the convent. Despite winning the hearts of innumerable men (despite being 13 - ick), she decides the nun’s life is for her.

Of course, as soon as she does this, she meets a man who gets her attention. The wooing is slow, over a number of years (and edging her into less ick age-territory) and she decides to run away with him. They run away together, but he is no rake, they actually genuinely marry and settle down. I was then expecting them to fall out of love because of their poverty but they grow closer together. The cosmic punishment for breaking her vow that I expect from this kind of book is limited to her husband’s poor luck with farming.

That husband goes to war where he dies - this is something I expected. One of her earlier wannabe lovers returns and marries her. He’s rich and showers her with gifts. Now I’m expecting luxury to sour their pure love and tear them apart but that doesn’t happen either, they build a reasonable life of it.

One day, a bearded man turns up who happens to be the first husband who has in fact not died. This twist was a genuine shock to me, expecting that part of the story to have been forgotten now. I was genuinely stumped over what solution our fair ex-nun while arrive at - she isn’t, she smothers him without compunction. Then, when her current husband returns, she spins a lie about how he died of shock when he found she’d married again.

Then came the strangest part of the story, she surreptitiously sews her second husband to her first so that when the second throws the body of the first into a river, he falls in as well. At this point, I am giving huge style points to our protagonist. 

At this point I was utterly shocked, not only at her actions but at the way they were positioned to the reader. At no point was she racked with shame but nor did Aphra Behn ever present her as evil or wicked, if anything we admire her ingenuity. It even looks like she’ll get away with the double murder right up until the last two paragraphs in which she is arrested and then executed.

 Even then she is never destitute, she is never shamed, she maintains her strength and even (oddly) her goodness. As a prisoner waiting for the axe, she is a model prisoner, using her story to remind others to keep their vows and going to the block as unstained as she entered the story as a spritely toddler.

It’s not a long piece but crammed with so many wonderful surprises and gloriously free of that form of grimy pleasure that ‘moral’ texts can derive from degradation.  An entertaining and shocking work and I recommend digging it up.