Thursday, 3 November 2011

Eliza Parsons, The Mysterious Warning (1796)


My second Parsons, and this is a little better than the later Peasant of the Ardenne Forest (1801)—still rubbish, basically, but with more going on. And actually there are enough similarities between the two novels to suggest that Parsons writes variations upon basically the same yarn: a virtuous hero traversing Europe and encountering various people made miserable by vice, with a particular emphasis upon a sexually depraved femme fatale who ends up stabbing herself. We might want to peg The Mysterious Warning as more actually Gothic, in the sense that it opens with an actual supernatural element. But it is otherwise the same mess of lubricious cod-morality and saggy, overheated goings-on.

The novel starts, strikingly, with old Count Renaud’s death. Here’s the first, characteristically ill-disciplined, sentence:
No sooner had the struggling soul escaped from the clay-cold body of Count Renaud, than his eldest son, Count Rhodophil, hastened to the library, and opened the secret cabinet, where his late father usually deposited his papers of consequence, after a strict examination of the contents, returned to the anti-chamber, on the floor of which lay extending his brother, the deeply-afflicted Ferdinand, just recovering from a fainting fit, and overwhelmed with inexpressible anguish.
In the spirit of W C Fields’ claim that nobody who hates children and animals can be all bad, I'm tempted to suggest that nobody capable of writing such a bad sentence can be beyond the pale, critically speaking. The people who compete to win the Bulwer Lytton prize by specifically inventing terrible opening sentences can hardly do better than this genuine example of 18th-century prose. Indeed, Parsons’ pile-em-on attitude to clauses in her sentence construction is revealing, I think, of a larger aesthetic flabbiness and, indeed, flappiness. Here’s the novel’s second sentence:
“Brother!” said Rhodophil, in an accent of grief and tenderness, “Brother! here is my father’s will, and I have little doubt but that you will find he was your father also, and that, however severely his resentment was expressed in his life-time, he has not extended it beyond the grave, nor forgotten, in the disposal of his effects, that he had a younger son, and a grandchild.”
That approach to prose, heaping clause on clause in an agglomerative fashion punctuated occasionally by the insertion of ‘oh, I forgot to mention...’ elements, is also Parsons’ approach to plot. So Count Renaud disinherited his son Ferdinand because he married without his permission. Rhodophil inherits all, and promises to look after his younger brother. Ferdinand accepts this promise gratefully, and launches himself into a brilliant military career, leaving his wife Claudina and kids in Rhodophil’s care. But returning on leave and eager to embrace Claudina, he hears a mysterious voice warning him “Fly, fly from her arms, as you would avoid sin and death!” [51]. In the event it is Claudina herself who runs away, absolving Ferdinand of his marriage vows on account of her ‘shame’ (though without going into specifics) and insisting ‘no clue will be found ... to trace me; I have taken measures too securely for any possibility of discovery.’ Ferdinand greets this news with: ‘I intend to ramble, I neither know nor care where, chance shall be my guide’ [60]. And ramble he does, as does the novel as a whole. Whichever army it was in which Ferdinand served evidently takes a pleasantly lackadaisical view of discipline, for nobody makes any fuss when he simply walks off.

Thereafter he visits a nunnery near the family castle in which Claudina, having taken measures too securely for any possibility of discovery, is immediately discovered, but from which she refuses to emerge (it later turns out that this is a case of mistaken identity). He also visits a ruined castle in which lives a gloomy aristocratic hermit, Baron S***, a name I found impossible not to read as ‘Baron Shit’. The Baron conveniently dies whilst Ferdinand is staying with him, and our young hero discovers the Baron’s wife Eugenia and her lover Count M*** locked in his dungeons. Eugenia had been forced into marriage with the Baron by her father, Count Zimchaw, but finding life with him intolerable had run off with her true love. But Baron Shit caught up with them, locked them away and murdered their servants to keep the secret safe. Eugenia is worn out by her long imprisonment—‘she appeared,’ Parsons prolixly says, ‘like a fine statue that had long been exposed to the injuries of time, and lost the beautiful polish that first adorned it; a most elegant form reduced to that delicate thinness which the slightest blast of air might dissolve;—a face, the contour of which was inexpressibly beautiful; but the roses and the lilies that once adorned it were all fled; the eyes hollow and sunk in the head, a sickly hue over the countenance, and a solemnity in every feature’ [144]. Off she goes, to a convent. The novel then lumps in a couple of other back-stories, separated by, as it were, narrative commas; after which Ferdinand accompanies the disappointed Count M*** (Ming? Mojo? Mongo?) to his castle in Suabia.

There's a great deal of rather clogging sub-plotting here, characters tangling emotionally with other characters, backstories, moralising and the like. Things pick up when Ferdinand and Count M*** are captured by Turks, imprisoned, freed, betrayed, ransomed, freed again and befriended by a chap named Heli. Heli's wife (I think she is) is called Fatima, and she turns out to be Ferdinand's half-sister, the product of an illicit relationship his father had undertaken a few years before Ferdinand's birth.  Fatima runs off with a group of bandits and takes Heli's jewels with her. Ferninand later catches up with her, but she brazens it out and escapes, leaving her half-brother gobsmacked. '"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, "is it possible that woman, so soft, so lovely, so interesting in her gentleness, can, by vice and profligacy of manners, attain to such a degree of boldness and impudent bravery, as would shame the most hardened of mankind!' [316-17]. Apparently so. Vol 4 is a rather confusing tangle of plotlines, to be honest; although a burst of action near the end picks the pace up. Ferdinand gets a letter from his brother ('Life is ebbing fast; all hopes are over; if you ever wish to see me more, lose no time; set off directly; I have things of consequence to impart' 327). He sets off, gets shot on the way, yes, I said shot, is nursed to health by a hermit, and finally arrives back home. Then, with massive bathos, we discover that the mysterious warning was uttered not from beyond the grave, but by Ernest, Ferdinand's servant, who had eavesdropped on Rhodophil and Claudia's quasi-incestuous adultery and chose this way, rather than just, oh-I-don't-know telling Ferdinand directly about it, to communicate his misgivings. Rhodophil then dies, with some splendidly inadvertent comedy:
"Heaven have mercy on me!!!" Those were the last words he spoke. -- Violent convulsive hiccups soon came on, which drove the Countess and Ferdinand to their respective apartments, and in less than a quarter of an hour, the latter was informed the dreadful scene had closed!!! [364]
No such thing as too many exclamation marks in my book. Anyway, after Rhodophil has hiccoughed himself to death the shameless Fatima pops up again, insists her mother was legally married to Count Renaud, making her the rightful heir; but when this is disproved she 'snatched a dagger from her side' and 'plunged it into her own bosom' [386]. With the haste of a writer tired of her over complicated plotting, Parsons then ties-up all remaining loose ends in a handful of pages, marrying Ferdinand to Theresa (Claudia meanwhile having conveniently died in her nunnery) and various other characters to various others. Then, only too evidently heading out the door on her way somewhere more interesting, Parsons closes the novel with 'from the characters of Rhodophil and Fatima, we may trace the progression of vice, and its fatal termination! "Vice to be hated needs but to be seen." FINIS' The last bit, there, is a truncated couplet from Pope's Essay on Man ('Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,/As, to be hated, needs but to be seen'). Well, indeed.

***

Here's the page from Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817) in which Isabella Thorpe tells Catherine Morland that she absolutely must read 'horrid' Gothic novels:


Check the paragraph beginning 'I will read you their names...' You can see Mysterious Warning (incorrectly titled) nestling in the middle of that list, there; just after another Parsons title, Castle of Wolfenbach (1793). This throwaway mention ('but are they all horrid? are you sure they are all horrid?' 'Yes, quite sure') has rather overdetermined the reception of this novel, I fear. That's a pity, in a way, because horridness, even in the grander sense of 'liable to evoke a quasi-sublime emotion of horror' really isn't what makes Mysterious Warning interesting. The only supernatural element, the voice that appears at first to be Ferdinand's father speaking beyond the grave, turns out to have been Scooby Doo's janitor after all, who would have gotten away with too if it hadn't been for you meddling etc etc. More, Parsons goes out of her way to stress that Ferdinand has no truck with the occult ('Ferdinand ... had no fears of supernatural beings', 346). This is not a novel interested in ghosts and ghouls; but it is obsessive-compulsively fascinated by questions of parental authority and the right way for offspring to balance their personal desires and their familial duty.

The chief problematic (if it doesn’t overly dignify novel putting in those terms) that the text works through is sexual. More specifically, The Mysterious Warning is a novel absolutely crammed with bigamy and the threat of bigamy. The novel’s primal scene, as it were, is the love of two brothers for the same woman: Claudina marries Ferdinand, but when he is away in the army she has an affair with Ferninand’s brother Rhodophil. This dynamic is then repeated in the various interpolated tales: Eugenia married wicked Baron S***, but is also married to her true love, Count M***. Another nobleman Count Wolfram is engaged to Theresa, but has already secretly married Theresa’s schoolfriend Louisa, and thereafter marries a lady of means called Theodosia; this same Theodosia leaves Wolfram and, after sojourning in a convent for a while, goes off to marry a gentleman called Reiberg. Ferdinand himself is married to Claudina, is ‘released’ from his marriage vows by his wife on account of her own shame, and later marries Theresa. It’s all a bit hard to follow, but more than that, its bramble-tangle formally embodies the blockage as a nexus of illicit desire and intra-familial obsession that is the novel's real theme.

What's really going on here, I suspect, is Parsons working through, in more or less coherent ideological fashion, the anxieties of Revolution. The novel opens (or so it seems) with a conscious imitation of Hamlet, the father's ghost booming from beyond the grave ('swear!') and warning of the ruin necessarily attendant on the illicit passion of one brother for another brother's wife. This in turn revolves (of course) on the very grounds of the English Reformation itself, Henry VIII's decision to marry his brother's wife, and his subsequent desire to undo that, as he later saw it, sinful action. This led to the establishment of the Church of England, the ground of Parson's egregiously preachy moral code -- in this novel, as in Peasant there's a deal of stuff about wicked nuns and abbots -- and also one of the discursive vectors along which contemporary English reactions to the French Revolution were oriented. In its clumsy way, Mysterious Warning is asking far-reaching questions about the nature of social and political authority, and how far the power of parents should determine the life-choices of their offspring. Revolution is one way in which a society can break away from the (bad) authority of parents; but Parsons can't endorse anything so radical. Here, on the novel's penultimate page, is a rather hurried attempt at moral summing-up, with Parson's characteristic herky-jerky punctuation:
Generally speaking, those marriages, contracted contrary to the wishes of parents, influenced chiefly by transient personal charms, and hurried on by rash tumultuous passions, seldom fail to be productive of sorrow, regret and reproach -- perhaps of punishment and shame. -- We have only to add, that in less than three years after the marriage of Ferdinand, the once unfortunate, but then happy Eugenia, was translated from a state of resignation and piety, to a life of blessed immortality: -- From her melancholy story may be deduced two observations of equal importance to society: when a parent exercises an undue authority over his child, and compels her to give a reluctant hand without a heart; by giving his sanction in the outset to deception and perjury; he has little to expect but that the consequences will be fatal to her honour and happiness. [392]
It's stating the obvious to say that this is flatly contradictory (and that Parsons seems to forget the second of the 'two observations' she promises); more interesting is the way that this confusion is exactly the current of the novel as a whole. Thwarting to the authority of the (bad) older generation leads to sorrow, regret and reproach -- perhaps to punishment and shame. But so does submitting to that (bad) authority. Parsons' novel can't think itself out of this ideological double-bind. That's what's so fascinating about it.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow we unlock 1807's The Convict.

7 comments:

DC said...

A merely technical question if you don't object. Why do Barons Shit and Ming have their names redacted, but Count Wolfram is left with his hanging out for all to see? Is there a guiding principle?

Adam Roberts said...

Interesting question! I've honestly no idea. Parsons is inconsistent in various ways, and I really don't see a guiding principle -- but maybe I'm missing something.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I had very similar reactions when I read The Mysteries of Udolpho a few weeks ago. As with you and Parsons, I thought Northanger Abbey gave the novel an inaccurate reputation, and that it was hard to tell whether this was simply a bad book or one that is bad and weird in equal measure. Though from the (hilarious) quotes you bring here it seems that Radcliffe is a much better writer than Parsons (though there's still a labored quality to her prose and a flabbiness to her plotting), they also seem to share preoccupations - with the superiority of "natural" living over the corrupting influence of society, and (to a lesser extent, in Udolpho) with the sexual misconduct of women.

Adam Roberts said...

Abigail: it's been years since I read Udolpho, though your excellent piece on the novel (since you're too modest to include a link, here) reminds me how like Parsons it is, though, yes, better written.

There are two kinds of Gothic novel (which is to say: there are many kinds, but I’m interested for the moment in two broad types): one is where various supernatural goings-on turn out actually to be ghosts, monsters, The Devil and so on’ and another in which these supernatural goings-on are revealed as having perfectly normal explanations. Udolpho and Mysterious Warning are both the latter kind. But this makes them weirder, rather than more rational, than a straightforward supernatural tale; because the appearance of magic has to coincide with the absence of magic in the world. In your piece, for instance, you mention the mystery of the veil, the lifting of which causes Emily to faint away. What’s behind the veil? A human cadaver! Except, that no; although that’s what Emily thinks it is, it turns out to be a perfect wax reproduction of a withered human corpse that a previous occupant of the castle had been ordered to make by the church for reasons I can no longer recall, and even if I could recall them would surely make NO SENSE AT ALL. The point here is that the ‘rational’ explanation of the key ‘mystery of Udolpho’ is much more muddled and bewildering than any ‘magical’ explanation.

Mike Taylor said...

Perhaps his name really WAS Baron Shit, and Parsons redacted the name for fear of giving offence?

Mike Taylor said...

A side-question on writing.

In the last quoted passage of the novel, Parsons writes that unsanctioned marriages "seldom fail to be productive of" sorrow etc., where we would probably just write "produce".

Granted that Parsons was A Bad Writer, is there ever any legitimate reason for such circumlocution?

PeteY said...

Count Muff, obv. Mike Taylor is right.