Erskine. 1744. The travels and adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu : cousin to the present Duke ... who made the tour of Europe, dressed in men's cloaths ... Done into English from the lady's own manuscript, by the translator of the Memoirs and adventures of the Marques of Bretagne. Dublin, Oli. Nelson.
This is a light-hearted stream-of-consciousness summary of my read-through of this 18th century novel. Parts of it are extracted from Twitter conversations.
And here it is -- the last installment of my read-through of The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu. There were times (especially early on) where I thought I was going to be disappointed in my expectations, but perseverance (and a great deal of skimming through the boring parts) rewarded me in full. Only the most pedantic of denialists could claim that the relationship between Alithea and Arabella falls short of being both romantic and erotic. Despite their repeated framing of their relationship as being "friendship" and in contrast to the disprefered "love", the anecdotes we are treated to in their travels convey the message that friendship is the strongest and most reliable basis for heterosexual marriage. Moreover, in the final scenes, they explicitly use the word "love" for what they feel for each other, use the conventional language of marriage ("till death parts us"), and -- as they have been doing all along -- express their feelings for each other with physical expressions (embraces and kisses). This isn't sub-text; this is main-text. I have some creative ideas for how to transform this story into a more readable and more modern-reader-friendly one, which I shall probably allow to percolate in my subconscious for a while while I get started on Mother of Souls. But working up something from this book is definitely on my to-do list.
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In the last session, we ended with an encounter (in London) with a couple that Alithea had met previously in Paris. The man begins telling a long history of what he’s been up to since then, at which his wife retires saying it would embarrass him for her to remain. Well, yes, and it should. Without going into the whole story, he fell in love with her and behaved very badly and unfaithfully towards her while she remained steadfast and faithful until his passion entirely burned itself out (for any woman) and what remained was friendship with her. At which point she finally consented to marry him. I’d need to consult a timeline, but it does seem that the events of his story take up three or four times as much time as is allotted to them. But, as I say, I’d need to check back to the first encounter. At any rate, the moral of the story seems to be that women are not well served by men’s passion, but that pure friendship seems to be a good basis for a life-long relationship. (This seems to be the underlying moral of our protagonists’ lives as well.)
Having dispensed with this digression, our heroines and their hosts engage in a lively discussion of English theater, its virtues and vices, followed by a discussion of the physical attributes of English women and a brief history of recent changes in English fashion. (In a peculiar way, this fixation would tend to support the hypothesis that the author of the novel is actually English and using the motif of French visitors to satirize their own land.) They enjoy taking in a performance of Hamlet, and make a brief appearance in society, gathering only a single female admirer, who writes to Arabella in Very Bad French. Then they’re off to the coast to take ship for Holland.
We get several pages of Dutch travelogue but Alithea notes that the Dutch are so dull in matters of the heart that at least there’s no danger of romantic intrigues. In Brussels, the ladies respond more warmly and Arabella captures the heard of a rich Jewish merchant's daughter who then stalks them all the way to Paris, on which more later. Proceeding on through Flanders, they visit with the Count de Roussol, who recounts a decidedly unedifying tale of how he caused an English lady to do away with herself for the sake of unrequited love. Our heroines are unimpressed and have an in-depth conversation between themselves on the Nature of Love, sparked by his tale. (Indeed, the theme of the entire novel seems to revolve around identifying all the ways in which love and passion can go badly.)
More travel brings them to Paris, where Alithea makes her home. She has written ahead to her man of business, who knows about her gallivanting around in male guise and therefore is well-positioned to ease her transition back to life as a woman. He has hired a house and servants for her and the two women go there directly.
“When my friend and I were by ourselves, I took her in my arms. My dearest Arabella, said I, how pleased should I be to find myself at Paris, and at the end of a wandering life, with which I have some time since been wearied, tho’ I said nothing, could I have but the pleasure of your company. But the thoughts of your leaving me and going to the south of France is a terrible draw back, or rather sours all the pleasure I might otherwise propose to myself, in a calm and quiet life after so much rambling.
“My dearest Alithea, answered she, we perfectly sympathize in our thoughts about this terrible thing called separation, and as I advanced towards Paris, the idea of it made a terrible and melancholy impression upon my mind. But I have been thinking of an expedient which will keep us always together, if you approve of it.
“Speak, cried I with vivacity, I am sure you can propose nothing but what I will cheerfully comply with.”
Arabella proposes that they continue living together, spending winters at her place in Languedoc and summers in Paris. This will necessitate revealing their little adventure to Arabella’s neighbors, who have assumed that she eloped to Italy with Alithea’s male persona. But neither of the women feel any compunction about letting others in on the secret now. In fact, when the Jewish girl from Brussels shows up on their doorstep in search of Arabella’s male persona, they laughingly tell her the whole, to her great chagrin and embarrassment.
In discussing their future, the women pay lip service to the possibility that either of them might change their mind about marriage, but neither has any expectation of doing so. Having settled this question, Alithea says: “Let this kiss, said I, clasping her anew in my arms, be as a seal to our agreement.” And after spending a short time enjoying the sights of Paris (which were new to Arabella), and repelling all admirers (now male ones), they went off to spend the rest of the winter in Montpelier at Arabella’s home. The book concludes with this:
“We remained in Montpelier till towards the middle of March, at which time we returned to Paris, where we passed the summer season according to our agreement, which we have regularly observed for several years, and without the least thoughts of altering our scheme ‘till death parts us. The longer we are together, the more we love one another, and are happier in our friendship and freedom than we could possibly propose to be in any other condition of life. Arabella’s temper is sweet with a little mixture of reserve; mine is gay with a little of the ingredient called whim. My gaiety rouses her now and then out of a fit of thoughtfulness and her reserve bridles my vivacity, so that we play to one another’s hands. And if there be such a thing as happiness in life, we are the persons who enjoy it.”
Complete with a happily ever after ending. Published in 1744. Does that blow your mind or what?